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Seen from the south, MARDIN looks spectacular, its tiered layers of vernacular houses, mansions, mosques and churches clinging to a huge citadel-topped rock rising out of the north Mesopotamian plain. Sunset here is particularly striking, with locals flying kites, a deep-blue sky filled with wheeling swifts, and shadows swallowing up the patchwork of fields on the endless plain.
Mardin’s position has always made it a strategic military outpost – the higher of the two castellated bluffs today sports golf-ball radar domes. The population is a mix of Kurds, Arabs, Turks and Syrian Orthodox Christians (known in Turkey as Süriyani). Like Diyarbakır, the city has had to cope with an influx of people from surrounding villages forced from their homes by the state/PKK conflict. Now the political situation is reasonably stable, Mardin has become the centre of the region’s tourism industry. Several boutique hotels, fashioned from the charming old buildings, have opened in recent years, and it has become a popular (and thus overpriced) spot for well-off İstanbul Turks in search of the “quaint east”. Handmade soaps are big business here, as is silver jewellery and, more prosaically, dried fruits and nuts. Mardin also boasts a small film festival, Sinemardin, held towards the end of June, with the accent on Middle Eastern cinema.
Mardin boasts some superb Islamic buildings. Several hundred metres east of the Meydan, the easterly of two sets of stone steps lead up from Birinici Caddesi to the Sultan İsa Medresesi built in 1385, a striking, structure with a magnificent doorway and fluted domes; the semi-translucent volcanic stones used in the mihrab glow when illuminated with a torch. Above the Sultan İsa Medresesi is the kale, or citadel, originally built by the Romans and extended by the Byzantines. It’s possible to climb part wayup the kale hill to a cemetery and get views down over the town and plain beyond, though the castle itself is a forbidden military zone. The Ulu Cami is an eleventh-century Selçuk mosque with a striking minaret, below Birinci Caddesi. Further east on Birinci Caddesi is the prominent Şehidiye Camii, also with a very ornate minaret. Also worth a look, above the Selçuklu Kervansay Hotel, is the Sıttı Radviye Medresesi, a newly restored theological school containing a footprint in stone believed to be of the Prophet Mohammed.
To the south of Cumhuriyet Meydanı is the Latifiye Camii, dating from the fourteenth century. It has a carved Selçuk-style portal, and a courtyard with a shady garden. Around here lies a maze of streets, forming part of the bazaar. At the western end of town, south of the main road, is the fifteenth-century Kasım Paşa Medresesi, similar in design to the Sultan İsa Medresesi.
Mardin has a vibrant Christian heritage, and adherents of the two faiths have always intermingled rather than living in separate quarters. The Syrian Orthodox Kirklar Kilise (Arbin Söhad in Syriac) or Church of the Forty Martyrs, is the most welcoming to visitors and dates back, in part, to the sixth century. Best time to attend is Sunday morning (around 9am) when the local Süriyani population comes to pray, though you must dress respectfully and photography is forbidden. Next door Mar Yusuf (St Joseph’s), serves the town’s tiny Armenian Catholic population. Lacking a priest, it’s usually locked, and the congregation attends services at the Kirklar Kilise. Adjoining the museum (see Eating and drinking), is the town’s largest church, the Süriyani Katolik Kilisesi (Church of the Virgin Mary), used by five families of Syrian Catholics. At the bottom of the hill in the southeastern part of the old town, with a typical Syrian Orthodox walled courtyard, is the Mar İşmuni Kilisesi.
Mardin is famed for its domestic architecture too – its soft, pale honey-coloured stone is easy to work, allowing for the intricate relief-carvings which embellish most old houses here. Look out for the wonderfully ornate post office building on Birinici Caddesi (designed in the nineteenth century by the Armenian architect, Lole). Also of note are the abarra, arched passageways covering the street, formed from the two houses either side. They give much-neacled shade and act as cooling wind tunnels.
Mardin’s probable Roman origins are lost in the welter of war and conquest that forms this region’s historical backdrop, while the town’s later history is tied up with the development of early Christianity. The first Christians to settle here were Syrian Orthodox, who arrived during the third century AD. The Christians survived the period of Arab occupation from 640 to 1104, and were left alone by the Selçuk and Turcoman rulers. Today, eleven churches are hidden away in the backstreets.
From the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, the citadel was the capital of the Artukid Turcoman tribe. They were able to beat off Arab attacks and endure an eight-month siege during the first Mongol onslaught, falling only to the second Mongol wave under Tamerlane in 1394. The Mongols doled out death and misery in equal measures to Christian and Muslim alike, before, in 1408, handing Mardin over to the Karakoyun Turcoman tribe, who built the (now ruined) palace and mosque inside the citadel walls. In 1517 it became an Ottoman possession.
Before and during Turkey’s War of Independence, Mardin’s Christian population was drastically reduced by massacre and emigration. There were renewed emigrations in the early 1990s and today only a few hundred practising Syrian Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian Christians remain. Local émigrés made good in Europe and the USA are now pouring money into the local Syrian Orthodox communities in Mardin and the Tür Abdin.Read More
The Syrian Orthodox Church
The Syrian Orthodox Church
The Mardin region has been a stronghold of the Syrian Orthodox or Jacobite Church since 543 AD, when Jacobus Baradaeus was appointed bishop of Edessa. A native of Mesopotamia, Baradaeus was – like most of the Christians in the eastern and southern reaches of the Byzantine Empire – a Monophysite, and was locked in a century-old theological dispute with the patriarchate in Constantinople about the divine nature of Christ. The ecclesiastical Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) ruled that Christ had both a human and a divine nature, but dissenting bishops throughout the Middle East held that Christ had only a divine nature – a creed known as Monophysitism, whose adherents risked condemnation as heretics and excommunication.
Baradaeus was an energetic proselytizer throughout what is now the Hatay and Syria, helping to revive his Church as it suffered determined attack by the agents of Constantinopolitan orthodoxy. Under Arab dominion in the seventh century, Syrian Orthodox Christians enjoyed considerable religious freedom. By the time of the First Crusade at the end of the eleventh century, the Tür Abdin in particular encompassed four bishoprics and eighty monasteries, the ruins of which are dotted across the plateau. Ironically, the Christian Crusaders persecuted the “heretical” Syrian Orthodox church, the Mongols later massacred its adherents and pillaged its properties.
The Syrian Orthodox community enjoyed a long period of tolerance and stability under Ottoman rule. During World War I, though, they were tainted by association with Allied plans to dismember the Ottoman Empire and suffered widespread persecution and massacre, a fate they shared with the Armenian and Greek minorities. Of today’s global population of seven million Syrian Christians there are now just a few thousand left in Turkey served by the bishoprics of Tür Abdin (Midyat/Mor Gabriel), Mardin (Deyr-az-Zaferan), Adiyaman and İstanbul. Many have emigrated to Europe (notably Sweden) and North America, but the seat of the patriarchy is in Damascus.