Mardin is the perfect city to avoid crowds of tourists while still being able to appreciate a unique culture, architecture, and delectable food. The city's fortress sits on top of a hill along the banks of the Tigris River overlooking the Syrian border as well as remnants of Turkey's ancient, Christian, and Islamic history. Other than Mardin's location, it is also one of Turkey's most diverse cities with many people hailing from Arab and Kurdish origins. Most notable are the Syriacs whose language is tied to Aramaic (what Jesus spoke) and started the first schism in Christianity in the 5th century. When tourists visit Turkey, most people turn around after Cappadocia because they think Southeast Turkey is a desert and given the social unrest in the region they believe it's unsafe. Though the government closed the city to foreign tourists in the '90s due to the PKK conflict, the city hasn't seen an attack in years, and ones nearby have been directed at military and police. So, you don't have to worry about being targeted as a tourist.
Get Your Bearings
Mardin is a small city of about 80,000 people, and the main street is Cumhuriyet Caddesi, which circles the hill where the fortress rests. There are labyrinthine alleys weaving the city's streets, but given the small size, you will end up walking out of this maze no matter how bad your internal compass.
Take it All in
Mardin is an amalgamation of various Islamic and Syriac Orthodox sites with diverse architectural styles accenting the locations like the perfect spices added to your favorite mezes.
Built in 1385, Mardin's most iconic complex greets you with intricate Seljuq designs in its grand doorway. Inside there are a couple serene courtyards that are flanked with a mosque and mausoleum. Hike up to the roof to find the real gem, which is the view over the city and the plains of Southeastern Anatolia and Syria.
Fort Martyr's Church
This 4th century Syriac Orthodox church still houses weekly worship on Sundays, and you can stop in and admire the interior on any day of the week. Watch for detailed stone carvings that commemorate the Martyrs of Cappadocia.
Its name means Great Mosque in Turkish, and it certainly lives up to its namesake. The mosque serves as an example of when the city was the capital of the Artuqid Empire, and it was built in the 11th century. The most worthwhile walk is around the bazaar that neighbors the mosque, which provides an authentic Anatolian shopping experience if there ever was one.
Another madrassa or Islamic college, Kasimiye also has quiet courtyards, beautiful carvings, and impressive vistas, but what sets Kasimiye apart from Zinciriye is access to the old student quarters and a tour that gives an accurate impression of what it was like to study here.
You see it everywhere in the city, so you have to navigate the town's old alleyways to get next to it and see the marvelous lion reliefs. Warning: don't try and enter the fortress as it's a military base currently and intruders will be shot on sight because of the city's complicated political past.
Sakip Sabanci City Museum
A beautiful museum to get an understanding of Mardin's extensive history and multiethnic heritage. Check out the museum's rotating art gallery and cultural center for events.
Eat & Drink
Traditional Mardin cuisine in a building erected in the late 1800s. It's a must for all visitors of Mardin. Don't let the wall art of the restaurant's famous clientele distract you, the best view is from the terrace sunset over the plains with delicious local food and wine.
Cafeteria style eatery. This is your best budget option, and there's plenty of choices. Come here in the afternoon when it's empty and drink some tea to avoid the midday heat. The owner is jovial and will let you hang out if you're feeling up to a little conversation.
Rest Your Head
~$50. Standard Hilton - wifi, TV, hot water, parking lot. Comfortable, reliable, friendly staff, central location, and no surprises. It's not luxurious, but you if you've been backpacking the region, it'll feel like the Shangri-La.
~$30. More like your typical BnB, but in an 800-year-old stone building. It's notable for its old Arabic architecture and excellent views from the terrace. The rooms are a little small, unfortunately, but that's really the only downside. The hotel has an inviting atmosphere with pretty traditional pieces in the suites.
Regardless of where you stay don't shell out more than $50 for a place. Even with the "yabanci tax" this should get you by anywhere in the city, and usually, less will do.
On the Horizon
One of the most important pieces of ancient history in Turkey; unfortunately, it's also one of the most endangered. Built along the banks of the Tigris River, about two hours upstream from Mardin, this city has been inhabited since at least 1800 BC. Famous for the ruins of its old bridge and citadel, the 2,000-year-old cave houses are the most engaging part of the city. Now, they are primarily uninhabitated, but the remnants are there, as well as medieval churches and mosques that were carved into the same limestone cliffs that line the riverbanks and surrounding valley.
The opportunity to come here is rare, but it would put you in the company of famous empires such as the Byzantines, Persian, Abbuyids, and even the Mongols. Unfortunately, joining those ranks will soon be impossible as the Ilisu Dam is slated to flood the valley, destroying the cave houses and displacing many of the city's citizens. The Turkish/Kurdish conflict envelopes the town and the dam construction projects. PKK and Kurdish rebels seek to prevent its completion, while the Government allegedly pushes it to force the heavily Kurdish population to move and therefore assimilate into the more "Turkish" cities nearby.
If Hasankeyf is out of the question, come here to feed your ancient history appetite. Built by Pagans 4,500 years ago to worship the sun, this was the seat of the Patriarchate of Syrian Orthodoxy from the 5th century until 1932 when religious persecution forced many to leave. There are still monks here and precisely 365 rooms (one for each day of the year) in the complex. So, there's quite a lot to see.
Want to escape politics? History? The heat? Dip your feet or grab a meal at this oasis fed by waterfalls just outside lovely Midyat. There is no better feeling than escaping the politics, people, noise, and just sitting there being able to hear nothing but water flow and contemplate how such a beautiful land can stay out of the news - and hope it stays that way.