Seen from the south, MARDİN looks spectacular, its tiered layers of vernacular houses, mansions, mosques and churches clinging to a huge citadel-topped rock that rises out of the north Mesopotamian plain. Sunset 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, the latter of whom are known in Turkey as Süriyani. Since the conflict between the state and the PKK wound down in these parts, Mardin has boomed. Thanks largely to domestic visitors, it has become the centre of the region’s tourism industry, a popular (and overpriced) spot for well-off İstanbul Turks in search of the “quaint east”. Many boutique hotels, fashioned from the charming old buildings, have opened in recent years, along with a few upmarket standard hotels. Handmade soaps are big business, as are silver jewellery and, more prosaically, dried fruits and nuts. Mardin also boasts the small Sinemardin film festival (wsinemardin.com.tr), held towards the end of June, with the accent on Middle Eastern cinema.
The old town lies on the steep southern slopes below the citadel. The principal street, Birinci Caddesi, branches off the main road at the western end of town, and rejoins it at the eastern end.
Mardin’s probable Roman origins are lost in a welter of war and conquest, while its 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. Having survived the period of Arab occupation from 640 to 1104, the Christians were left alone by the Selçuk and Turcoman rulers. Today, eleven churches remain hidden away in the backstreets.
From the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, the citadel was the capital of the Artukid Turcoman tribe. They beat off Arab attacks and endured an eight-month siege during the first Mongol onslaught, before falling 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. It became an Ottoman possession in 1517.
Before and during Turkey’s War of Independence, Mardin’s Christian population was drastically reduced by massacre and emigration. Following renewed emigrations in the early 1990s, only a few hundred practising Syrian Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian Christians remain. Fortunately, local émigrés who made good in Europe and the USA are now pouring money into the Syrian Orthodox communities in Mardin and the Tür Abdin.