Before we could take the road east to Mardin there was one little stop I wanted to make. In the south of Mardin province, about ten kilometers from the Syrian border is the tiny hilltop village of Kalecik, meaning “Little Castle” in Turkish, though known as Kelehe to the Kurdish locals. The village was built on a high ridge between two deep valleys with the obvious intention of being a difficult-to-reach haven against attackers coming from below.
The road south towards Kalecik wound its way through steep barren hills till it reached the narrow valley floor of fertile fields and tightly packed poplar trees planted for lumber in an otherwise treeless land. The road followed the valley floor, hemmed in by almost sheer slopes on either side till suddenly the valley widened and high on our right we could see the ancient stone houses of the village.
While I didn’t know it at the time, the village had apparently been a Syriac Christian village until the locals fled to escape the regional troubles. It was only in the 1970’s that Kurds began to move into the abandoned homes. While the village hasn’t yet been excavated, it’s thought that its history goes back thousands of years.
While I was completely ignorant of the village’s history at the time, its strange design and picturesque location was enough to bring me to see it. Driving up the switchback road we passed the scattered houses built on the eastern slope and arrived at the base of the heart of the village. At the peak of the narrow ridge there is a single narrow alley with houses built on either side. Access to this street is via a ladder on one end and a steep rocky path on the other. The homes are complete with address plaques and the street lit by a normal streetlight strapped to a wooden post, looking oversized compared to the tiny space it lights.
Climbing the ladder and walking down the alley it was difficult to tell where public street ended and home began. Even in these tiny yards the locals managed to find room to house their animals. Far from schools and job opportunities the population has dwindled and we only saw a few people. Walking through the microcosm of that little street you could almost imagine you had gone back centuries. The sight of the occasional satellite dish and AC unit mounted on the ancient stone breaking the illusion.
The roads now clear of snow, we made good time driving towards Mardin, passing through barren hills and a patchwork of ancient vineyards planted wherever enough soil could be found. While I had seen the sights of Mardin before, I had a very clear goal in my head: get some good pictures this time. Last I visited I had the amazing opportunity to spend a night in the monastery of Deyr-ul Zafaran and being a rather nervous guest, I barely touched my camera. That combined with the fact that I was still very new to photography meant I came away with excellent memories and poor pictures.
Arriving at the monastery this time we joined the tour group and were led through the complex’s churches, crypt, and the basement which was built as a temple to the Sumerian god Shamash centuries before the birth of Christ.
I couldn’t help but think how strange it would be to live as a monk here. The usual quiet and tranquility irregularly broken by the sudden arrival of selfie happy Turks and red-faced, khaki clad westerners, then just as abruptly, a return to quiet, incense, and Aramaic.
After our short visit to the monastery we ventured into historic Mardin itself. The cold weather scaring away enough visitors so that we found parking in the narrow streets with only minimal difficulty. We made the hike through the warren of narrow winding streets and tunnels to our hotel, dropped off our baggage, and set out to see this truly exceptional city.
While part of Turkey today, old Mardin still reflects its Arab and Kurdish roots in its art, architecture, and culture. The city sits at the top of a high mountain at the head of the Syrian Plain, looking out over lush fields from an easily defended position. Rather than the lead-clad Romanesque domes of western Turkey, the dry climate allows for bare stone domes, carved into beautiful forms, peaked, smooth, or ribbed. The most beautiful in Mardin can be found at the city’s two large Madrasahs: Kasimiye and Zinciriye.
Both of these madrasahs have stunning views over the city and plain below. Their picturesque architecture and setting attracting a steady flow of bridal parties and wedding photographers. While the setting may seem perfect for wedding photos, the sight of a bride in an ornate billowing gown getting stuck in a narrow stairwell made me think otherwise.
While you can’t visit an ancient city like Mardin without seeing the main attractions, the charm of such cities runs deeper than any particular building or sight. The beauty of Mardin is in its streets and the hidden shops, and bustling markets you find along the way.
Wandering through the city, following whatever route looked most interesting, stopping to shop, taste local flavours, and drink copious cups of tea, we eventually found ourselves in the coppersmith’s district. We stepped into a little shop, and when I responded in Turkish to the shopkeeper, his face lit up. People will sometimes be surprised that I speak Turkish, sometimes they’ll be relieved (especially if they have to explain something), but this man was happy to the point of gleeful! He was instantly chatty, happy to tell us about his wares and his work. It turned out that he was actually a coppersmith himself, having spent his life in the heavy wooden bench beating sheets of copper into plates, pots, and mugs with etched patterns and figures of flowers and mythical creatures.
He told us about his trade and how it’s changed over the years. Thanks to automation and changing tastes the work has become less and less profitable. The designs that were once done by hand are sometimes done with a machine press, working quick but without the artistry of the unique handmade ones. Outside of restaurants, few people still use copper cups and pans, and where there was once thousands of craftsman there are only a handful left in the city. While the market has shrunk, there is still a demand for the product and the art is not at risk of disappearing quite yet.
The best part about our time with the coppersmith may have actually come from the master’s grandson who spent most of the time laughing to the point of tears. While he was already amused by the sight of his grandfather being the center of so much attention, watching his grandfather struggle with his phone put him over the edge. To be fair though, our host the coppersmith was attempting to show me a clip of him making the news in China, which required him to navigate a news app all in Chinese.
In the midst of the coppersmith’s market was a small arch-roofed shop black with soot, the tell-tale signs of a kalaycı, the necessary partner to any coppersmith. The Kalaycı takes the copper vessels and lines them with a layer of tin by heating them over a coal fire and brushing the inside with a large wad of cotton. Some cups and bowls are only lined with tin on the inside while others are lined inside and out.
While we got to watch the kalaycı work, he wasn’t particularly friendly and didn’t let us take pictures. Talking with the coppersmith again later he told me he’s generally unfriendly unless you give him money. Had I known I would have gladly paid him to take a picture but, his work being slow I missed the chance. While I’ve met a few kalaycı, usually in a smoke and flame filled shop of stone, they all seem to be rather camera shy. It struck me as sad that while the coppersmiths can be celebrated, the kalaycı, who make these vessels usable seem to be hidden and poorly paid.
Somehow a week of traveling was coming to a close and we were on the road again, this time to Diyarbakır to catch a flight home. Only a few kilometers out of Mardin the atmosphere began to change. While the road was wide and new, there were regular watchtowers and military outposts keeping watch over the road. While the powers and politics have changed, the need for castles and arms haven’t left us yet.
On the border of Diyarbakır and Mardin provinces we stopped at a site called Zerzevan Castle, a rare surviving example of the Roman and Byzantine presence in the area, built along the ancient frontier. While the Roman Empire built major projects in the area, few survived the building projects of subsequent peoples and cultures. Following the conquest of the region by Arabs in the 7th century the city was abandoned for over a thousand years until a small village grew up inside the ruins until the 1960’s.
Leaving behind the honey-coloured stone hills of Mardin we had arrived in Diyarbakır, a striking city of black basalt walls, towers, churches, and bridges. We stopped at the 1000-year-old Ongözlü Bridge, “The Bridge of Ten Eyes” to see the Tigris River, one of the three great rivers that water the fertile crescent: the birthplace of civilizations.
A short walk in the heart of old Diyarbakır to find food plus a climb up onto the massive walls made me realize just how badly I needed to visit this incredible city. The incredible bustle of the streets, the charcoal coloured stone buildings, and the clang of blacksmiths were tantalizing. For now, after a week on the road, some charcoal-roasted wings and a trip to the airport would have to be enough.