At the edge of Southeastern Turkey lies an oasis of diversity and culture, smack-dab in the middle of where many of the oldest cities and civilizations first began. Hardly anyone outside of Turkey seems to know that this gem even exists – and even those who do are wary of visiting because it is only about 20 miles from the Syrian border. Let me assure you – Mardin is perfectly safe, full of some of the kindest people I have ever encountered, and stunningly beautiful.
The architecture of Mardin is very unique. There is a mix of several Middle Eastern influences as well as a local flair for building everything out of sandstone, which is abundant in the area. The yellowish-brown structures look all the more stunning contrasted against the bright blue skies.
Every part of the city offers a different perspective of its own beauty, like a strange sort of kaleidoscope. The locals know how to take advantage of this with its many rooftop cafes and restaurants and shops in the old tunnels below.
On the subject of food and coffee, Mardin has both in spades. Mardin is a true melting pot for all kinds of cultures and ethnic groups, with particularly large groups of Kurdish and Assyrian people. The people of Mardin are truly proud of their diversity and love to share their local specialties that have been preserved over thousands of years. There are several Assyrian restaurants which serve delicious mezzes and wine (some of the finest I have ever tasted in Turkey), cafes serving Arabic-style mırra coffee, and all kinds of regional dishes that have developed through the cultural exchange that has taken place in Mardin over the centuries.
Mardin proper has much to offer any traveler, but there are also many fascinating smaller towns and villages nearby worth a day trip. Because Mardin is a little off the beaten path, it can be difficult to find an organized tour. Since I am able to speak Turkish fairly well these days, I managed to negotiate a private tour with a cab driver for a good price. He took us to Midyat and Hasankeyf, both well worth the visit.
Hasankeyf, right on the banks of the Tigris River, is considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world; it is over 10,000 years old. Due to its vulnerable position near many borders and along the Silk Road, Hasankeyf has changed hands among many different civilizations throughout history. Sadly, due to the development of a hydroelectric dam, it may not be around much longer.
Historically, the area of Hasankeyf has been valued for its caves, where people have been living for several millennia. People still live in the caves of Hasankeyf today, with a few modern amenities (note the windows and the power lines).
Efforts to remove some of the historic architecture to preserve it are under way.
Midyat looks much like Mardin, but with one key difference: the population is mostly Christian rather than Muslim (unusual for Turkey) and is home to many ancient and beautiful monasteries that are still active today.
I was truly blown away by Mardin. I have no idea how it took me four years to get there. Very few tourists from outside of Turkey even know about it – but they should! The architecture is stunning and one-of-a-kind, the people are some of the friendliest I have ever encountered, the food and wine are amazing, and there is just so much history and culture here to discover. I hope to see more people adding Mardin (and Turkey!) to their bucket lists in 2019.