While this was definitely a trip I had been excited to go on for quite some time there was a great deal of melancholy involved as well. We were hoping to put off visiting Mardin and Batman (yes, Batman) until the weather was a bit more favorable to our unfortunately pasty skin types but there was a sense of urgency in our plan making as there was fear that a number of these places could be gone if we waited any longer.
Our destination in the province of Batman was Hasankeyf, one of civilization’s oldest settlements and potentially one of the longest continuously settled sites in the world. Unfortunately Hasankeyf is slated to be flooded in the near future with the completion of a massive dam on the Tigris River.
We spent the better part of our day in Hasankeyf exploring the hundreds of scattered caves, ruined homes, and a couple of churches and historic mosques. While a number of Hasankeyf’s monuments were open to visitors, one of its most spectacular—the ruined fortress on the cliffs above the current town—was closed. The best we could do was get a glimpse from an opposing hill.
One of the surprising things about Hasankeyf was just how genuine the place felt despite all the tourist attention. Set amid the endless ruins, the part of the town that was still inhabited felt normal with people cooking, feeding livestock, and just going about their lives in the midst of a stunning ancient city.
Being forced to finish our tour of Hasankeyf a little prematurely we set out to find the Mausoleum of Zeynel Bey. In preparing to visit Hasankeyf I came across pictures of the 100,000 ton 500 year old mausoleum being moved from its original site on the river bank to a safe place above the flood waters.
As it turns out you don’t need to be an expert tracker to follow the path of a 100,000 ton building so all we did was follow the purpose-built road for a couple kilometres to a site where workers were busy building mock ruins that matched those at the original site. Entry was prohibited but, this being Turkey, we talked to some of the workers and the next thing we knew we were having tea with them and got a couple pictures as well as another look into how locals felt about losing their city.
The impression that we got from these guys as well as those we spoke to earlier was that they were resigned to their fate. Most, if not all, the people we spoke to were born under this impending threat that has been fifty years in the making, and are now simply trying to make the best out of the situation in whatever way they can. The waters will be a boon to farmers and herdsmen in this dry area but all these benefits come at the cost of part of their culture and identity. The new town will be more comfortable but completely without character and certainly not one that tourists will spend money to see. The situation was summed up in a Turkish play on words when we asked one man what his name was. “Hasankeyfsiz” he said, which means both “to be without Hasankeyf” and “Hasan without pleasure or joy.”
Taking our bittersweet leave of Hasankeyf and Batman we headed south to Midyat, a picturesque town where the children are insane and the adults weird. Let me quickly explain myself. We got mobbed by kids trying to help us as tour guides before we had even gotten out of the car, they threw stones from rooftops at people, and some even tried to wrestle my camera from me while I was getting food. The adults rarely returned our greetings and in the evenings the old town was 90% women making me feel a like a total creep walking around with my camera.
That being said, visit Midyat! It’s absolutely gorgeous and there were still plenty of friendly people to help you. The kids will help you get places for the price of a ball, though I doubt that every single kid giving the same speech is genuinely using the money for a ball. And why does the price of a ball change from kid to kid?
The old town of Midyat is truly beautiful and, much like Hasankeyf, seems to be relatively unchanged by tourism. In the early morning, herds of goats and sheep are driven through the streets and the occasional mule-drawn cart of manure winds its way through the narrow streets.
Midyat is the center of the Suryani, or Syriac Orthodox, one of Christianity’s oldest sects where their language, architecture, and traditions live on today. When we decided to visit this place it was largely because news had come out that certain branches of the government were making a move to take over some of these Syriac sites, apparently due to issues with the deeds. The fact that many of these were in regular use for 1600 years made all this seem rather absurd. By the time we got there the threat had passed and the properties were to remain in the possession of the Syriac community. The details of all this are rather confusing so I won’t get into that here.
Before breakfast on our first day in Midyat we went to wander the quiet streets, trying not to make too much noise as many people sleep in the open on their rooftops in the hot summers. While we were out we stumbled across a church holding a service and joined as best we could for the remainder. As usual the service was in Aramaic, which is the same language spoken by Jesus and others in first century Judea and we didn’t understand a word.
One interesting story that we heard while we were there was about the lions of Mor Gabriel, a large monastery in the region and, founded in 397, the oldest of all the Syriac Monasteries. The story goes that at some point in its long history the monastery had to be abandoned by the monks and as it sat empty there was the risk that it would be seized by others, looted, or otherwise damaged. However, two lions took up residence in the monastery and chased away any who tried to enter until the bishop was able to return. Upon the return of the bishop the lions disappeared, leading many to believe the lions were actually angels sent to protect the monastery and so the motif of two lions is very popular in the art and architecture of Syriac Orthodox buildings in the area.
Later that day we headed out to Mor Gabriel Monastery only to be waylaid by a sign for a museum. We never saw any museum but we did get to meet Daniel who had the keys for the church in the village of Doğançay. Daniel, a 16 year old Syriac, was more than happy to speak to us about his village, the church, and especially about the people and their desire to preserve their traditions by making plans to remain in Tur Abdin and have large families to repopulate their homelands. He showed us some of their massive church books, and explained how the little notations and colours indicated musical directions for the services.
Our next stop was Mor Gabriel monastery, one of the oldest active Christian monasteries in the world, and the largest active monastery in Turkey. Lucky for us, Daniel had an older brother who worked at the monastery as a tour guide and we were able to get a vastly extended tour and see a few extras that others wouldn’t normally get to see. Later he brought us to the Bishop to ask a few questions and we left with a much fuller understanding of the people and place as well as a couple massive books on the history of the region (all I had asked for was a brochure!). As soon as we opened them we realized we were definitely going to leave Mardin having only scratched the surface. The amount of amazing places connected to the Syriac people alone is staggering!
Hoping to at least scratch the surface we decided to visit the church of Hadbshado in Gülgöze and did one of my favorite things to do in Turkey: took a little-used back road. All over Turkey these little gravel roads pass through tiny villages left behind by the opportunities brought by expanded highways and bus routes. This was no exception.
Arriving in Gülgöze (or Inwardo or Aynverd in Aramaic—I’ve seen its name written many different ways) we could easily see Mor Hadbshabo from a distance and quickly found the groundskeeper. He was an exceptional host and spent the afternoon with us, showing off this amazing castle-like church before taking us back to his house for food. In the church he showed us the tiny, easily defended entrance, the towers, the WWI era bullets still stuck in the walls, and explained a great deal about the history and his thoughts on the future of the place.
Mor Hadbshado would have looked exactly like a castle just over a hundred years ago before the relatively new bell tower was added. Due to its location in the Roman-Sassanid frontier and the persecutions of the era, the church was built to serve as an easily defensible watchtower and was used through the centuries by various peoples as a fortress.
After spending the night in the city of Mardin I woke up the next morning with a pack of fighting dogs serving as an alarm clock and was out by 5 am to catch the sunrise over the magical domes of Zinciriye Madrasah and the North Syria plain below.
Later we took the short drive to Deyrul Zafaran (House of Saffron) Monastery where we took the group tour with a bunch of Turks visiting from different parts of the country. As the monastery is quite active the tour doesn’t allow you to see a great deal beyond the main rooms off the central courtyard. The ceiling in one of the large basement rooms, actually built as a pre-Christian temple to the sun, was a massive suspended slab of angled stones with a row of ‘V’ shaped keystones in the middle. When the guide explained this amazing feat of ancient engineering a number of people dashed out from under it to safety!
Later, in the crypt, we got to witness a bit more fleeing. Granted, Islamic burial looks quite different and important people tend to have large mausoleums, very different from the bone piling of the monastics so you can forgive the misunderstanding that happened. The group sauntered into the room with most looking up into the dimly lit ceiling. One guy was leaning against what he probably just assumed to be a part of the architecture of the room but when the guide began to explain that these were the lids to deep caskets that would now have hundreds of bodies laid in them he actually jumped up off the ground and retreated into the middle of the crowd while another guy quickly turned to the casket and started praying in the Islamic fashion!
After the tour we spoke with the guide for a bit before he brought us to the bishop who was incredibly friendly and welcoming. We even got permission to come back and stay the night at the monastery!
That afternoon we toured the mountaintop city of Mardin. While there are plenty of beautiful and fascinating things to see, my favorite sites would have to be Kasimiye and Zinciriye Madrasahs, a pair of beautiful religious schools-turned museums that attest to the distinct architectural history of the place that seems to have gone relatively untouched by the Ottoman fashions that you otherwise see around the country.
Returning to the monastery just before the gates closed, we went to our room (we may have referred to it as our cell) then went down for dinner where we met a number of European Syriacs who had come from all over for a wedding. Those who were able spoke Turkish with us and it was an unexpected opportunity to get yet another angle on what Syriac life was like.
When the church-bells rang Sean and I went straight to the sanctuary to find it empty—apparently bells are more of a 5-minute warning than starting bells. That evening there were lots of people attending, which was great for us as we didn’t understand a thing and basically just needed to copy what other people were doing. The voices that night as they echoed round the thousand-year-old domes were incredibly beautiful and despite the grandeur and pomp of these ancient churches, the robes, and the incense, there was a surprising amount of casualness. We were feeling quite comfortable and relaxed, thinking we had figured out how to at least take part in our limited way when we and some of the other men got beckoned through a side door and down into the crypt. All our comfort went right out the window at that point. My new-world Protestant background didn’t prepare me for incense-burning processions and chanting in Aramaic in a thousand year old crypt type stuff!
After our comfort-zone-expanding service we spent a few hours between the now quiet sanctuary and the cool roof-tops taking in the view of the night sky that we miss so much in the city lights of Istanbul before retiring to our room which was about 1000 degrees. Honestly I could have baked a pizza on the bed beside me!
Our final day in Mardin was spent in a last church service, and a failed attempt to get to Mardin Castle. Between being baked alive the night before and some horrible Google Maps directions we eventually just gave up trying to get in. While giving up isn’t exactly the high note we were hoping to end our Mardin adventures on, we were far from disappointed. We honestly couldn’t have hoped for a better reception by the locals, nor could we have expected to see so much in such a meaningful way as we did in the three and a half very full days that we got to spend in the region seeing some very special things, some of which won’t be around for much longer. With so much left to see there’s no way we won’t be going back!
Want to know more about these and other places mentioned here? The check them out in our DESTINATIONS+ page!
Other than the names of the people I travel with there is a good chance that the names have been changed for the sake of people’s privacy.