The city of Mardin perches on a hill between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Southeastern Turkey, approximately 190 kilometres east of Şanliurfa. The headwaters of these two rivers define ancient Mesopotamia, considered the “Cradle of Civilization.” The province of Mardin shares its southern border with Syria and sits north of the border covering almost 9,000 kilometres square.
The city was part of Assyria, on and off, beginning in 1365 and was a regional power during the Artıklılar dynasty, which was established in 1107 and lasted until 1409. It broke away from the Assyrian church and in the late 17th century became part of the Catholic Church. Today, Mardin is a mix of Syrian, Kurdish, Christian and Islamic cultures and beliefs, with both monasteries and mosques dotting the city and beyond.
The sand-coloured city is terraced down a large hill in a jungle of buildings seemingly built one on top of the other: each terrace is the roof for the house below it.
Remains of Mardin castle from the late 900s crowns the top of the hill at over 1,000 metres above sea level. The road winds its way up, giving glimpses of the exquisitely carved yellow limestone buildings that have animals, nature, human figures and many other motifs expertly chiselled into the doors, windows, columns and arches.
Upon arrival, I neared the top and turned around to face south into Syria – the border is only 30 kilometres away. I was treated to an unobstructed view of the empty Mardin Plains that were once a bustling part of Upper Mesopotamia.
I was staying in what is thought to be an ancient mansion, although no one is sure from when the building actually dates. (The nearby school complex, which has similar architecture, dates to 1385, but many of the remaining mansions in Mardin were actually built in the 19th century.) It was once a large house, typical in architecture of the mansions throughout the city.
My cavernous room had a vaulted ceiling with exposed stone walls and warm lighting, but no windows. The rest of the mansion was made from the same light-coloured stone seen throughout the city, with similar carvings throughout.
Mardin is a candidate for UNESCO’s World Heritage List, although the instability of nearby Syria has likely put the designation on hold. Ethnic Turks are a minority here, with the population being mainly Kurdish – a Middle Eastern ethnic group without their own officially-recognized state – who live in southeast Turkey, northern Syria, western Iran and northern Iraq.
While there are residential neighbourhoods with houses made of plain concrete (like the family homes I visited during eid) there are traditional houses all throughout the city, many now used as museums, boutique hotels, restaurants and municipal buildings.
Mardin is a walking city, a wander-through-the-narrow-streets-that-turn-into-undercover-passageways-and-then-bazaars-to-get-lost-in-and-be-spit-out-on-a-road-which-gives-you-your-bearings-back. I became distracted by the traditional houses hidden among newer concrete-slab homes, their dusty stones coming alive in the intricate masonry. Stories seemed to be held in each carved shape, holding modern day dust as it settled onto the ancient foundations.
The streets run east-west along the hill the city is terraced down, with sharp turns in unexpected places that would take me in an unknown direction. Covered passageways, called abbara (from Arabic), cut into the terraces running north-south in order to allow pedestrians to bypass more circuitous routes.
While the streets weren’t chaotic like the medina in Marrakech, for example, they were non-linear enough to get lost in, upset my sense of direction and yet, I could always look up to know the city terraced down from the north, or look south to the Mesopotamian Plains, which could be seen from every street and south-facing window in the city.
I found myself intrigued with each surprising turn, not knowing if I would encounter another street, a restored mansion, a concrete block house with exposed barbed wire and satellite dishes protruding from the wall, steep stairs or mysterious abbara connecting streets up or down the hill, a man on a donkey, children playing with toy guns, or just emptiness.
Every turned corner was a discovery, the street before giving no indication of what lay ahead. Does a destination even exist? Or do the streets just turn and continue on in a different direction?
I learned much from those labyrinthian streets. This city that could so easily flaunt its beauty, chooses instead to reveal its treasures only to those who commit to wandering its streets in a sort of poetic waltz, who make an effort to understand what is behind the next bend, and who spend time in contemplation to truly benefit from what it has to teach.
The streets bent my linear mind into never-ending swirls of filigree patterns, tugging at the orderliness of the gridded city streets that I grew up in in Canada, and entwined them into a network of connecting paths that travel deeper into the unknown. Gone was the in-your-face ease of North American obvious, replaced by indirect corridors to be navigated with a more subtle alertness to the changes of direction.
I realized that I no longer wanted the direct plan, seeing what’s before me and choosing the most appealing route. Instead, by allowing the ancient streets to guide me, my quest was then to become aware of what they presented me with. As I travelled deeper into their web, I had to go deeper into myself; the more I sought out intrigue from the streets, the more I had to search within for guidance, creating an inner world as complex as the outer world I was exploring.
No longer content with inner journeys filled with generalities, I pushed myself to delve deeper. Past the acceptance of things as they appeared, I moved into the richer crevices that I hadn’t noticed before. I sought the next corner, and the next, beguiled as much by the intricate carvings on the doors as by the filagree paths within myself.