Mardin: Silk Road city welcomes diverse religions in Turkish dust bowl


Mardin, an ancient city in southeastern Turkey, is just an hour from a Middle Eastern war zone. And yet tourists pour into the area, which is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.

Even Prince Charles visited the oldest orthodox Syriac monastery in the world, which is still a working Syriac monastery. Mor (Saint) Gabriel Monastery closes after dark, but you can see monks tending the garden during daylight hours. Located in the Tur Abdin plateau, a few kilometers from old Mardin, the Assyrian monastery is also called Deyrulzafaran. It is massive, with 365 rooms for each day of the year, and services are held daily.

Mardin is known for telkari, an ancient jewelry technique using pure silver.


Jewish, Syrian, Yezidi, Kurdish, Arab and Chechen civilizations have left their marks on Mardin, which is nevertheless on the State Department’s list of risky areas. Turkish soldiers wrestled with PKK Kurdish fighters last year, making the region off-limits for foreign service employees.

But I’m glad we were able to make the trip from Istanbul to Mardin in August, 2019, despite the extreme heat.

Telkari is an type of ancient jewelry making using pure silver. Mardin is known for the craft.

If only you could walk through the narrow, stepping streets of the old town, to experience for yourself the walk of ages. I felt like I was in upper Mesopotamia,


The jewelry stores sell silver bracelets in a special design that is characteristic of the region. When we returned to Istanbul, for example, my sister-in-law immediately knew the style of her sultana bracelet, wrapped up one finger then down to her wrist. I bought myself a stone and silver beaded necklace for $13 and offered to pay in American dollars. The owner was quite pleased, but I made sure that he would be able to exchange the dollars. He nodded his head, of course, because the lira was down.

I witnessed the honesty and generosity that Muslims in my country exhibit on a daily basis. Everyday, people helped me lift my travel scooter over curbs and steps that were inches tall. As a limited walker, the terrain proved arduous for me. Men appeared to carry my little travel scooter or to inquire if I needed help.

Christian Syrian refugees determine about 40% of the population, with Kurds coming in next place. Turks only make up 5%.

The rocky terrain merits the Syriac name Mardin, which means fortress. Since life is so hard here with narrow steep roads, taxi drivers gave me their cards and told me to call them if I couldn’t make it up a hill. They were willing to track back to get me so that I didn’t suffer walking straight up in the sun, a hot ball of fire in the afternoon. Another driver gave us his card and insisted we call him if we couldn’t walk anywhere.

From the air, Mardin looks like a kaleidoscope of colorful wedges. But this area is no Trivial Pursuit. The capital of Mardin Province, it’s deep in what was once Upper Mesopotamia. We arrived on a full plane on the Pegasus Airlines discount brand, leaving from the domestic Istanbul Airport (SAW), named Sabiha Gokcen, Ataturk’s adopted daughter. Ironically, according to Suzy Hansen, in Notes on a Foreign Country, Gokcen flew many air force missions against the Kurds.

Since this week of Kurban Bayrami, calls for people to eat leg of lambs like Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Remember the Old Testament story of the sacrifice of Isaac, who gives his son’s life to show his devotion? God was so impressed, he decreed that in the future, believers could sacrifice lambs instead.

In the Muslim faith, one must also practice Zakat, or donating two percent of your income to the needy. So that people can buy lamb for the homeless, there were pop-up butchers everywhere.

Just a few years ago, tourism faltered, with only 2000 beds and not many comers. Now, there are thousands more hotels and the tourism has tripled, partly due to a phenomenon of a woman, Chef Ebru Baybara Demir. Although born in her father’s country of Mardin, her family moved to Istanbul so she could have the best education and opportunities. Now, she’s paying it forward.

Mardin’s a city under an ancient citadel about 3,000 feet tall that protected empires: Byzantine, Selcuks, Ottoman, Syriac, Duer, the best and the brightest of the world. As a Sunni Muslim (on my birth certificate), I never really knew what it meant to live according to Islam. My parents, freed of any extended family pressures when we moved to the States, taught me that religion was the opioid of the masses. We subscribed to secular humanism magazines, and while I knew a few Islamic prayers, they were mostly learned when my Grandmother visited and recited them whenever my father drove in New York City traffic. “Bismillah, lahmahni rahim” is one you might recognize from Freddie Mercury’s song, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Friends of theirs prayed three times a day and asked for a private space when they came over for dinner, but my psychiatrist dad told me religion was just a crutch.

Mardin Airport from Istanbul’s Sabihah Gokcen

Around us, men with hair spilling out of their shirt sleeves looked out the tiny windows to get a glimpse of the agrarian region they may have left years ago to make life in the big city. That’s how Istanbul became the sprawling megapolis with a population of 15.7 million people. Mardin has only

The unbearable heat hit us hard on debarking. Porters threw luggage and strollers in plastic bags on the sizzling pavement while I tried to sit on a shady part of the plane. I could feel the sticky weight of every piece of clothing I had on. We finally got our baggage and made our way through the building to the parking lot.

Ata, a man who works with Chef Ebru Baybara Demir, picked us up at the airport. He loaded our luggage and my travel scoot in the back of his truck with the sunflower oil he had just picked up at Migros (Turkish Safeway) and offered to take us to her office in the center of the old city. My daughter Leyna was there to do some grain business with Ebru, a celebrity chef. I remembered my Turkish and said “kiyafetimizi degsterelim once.” He understood that we needed some down time, but he seemed indefatigable himself.

Ebru, as she is known, donates food and clothing to the Syrian regugees, especially during Kurban Bayrami.  Since moving back to her father’s homeland in 2000, ago, Demir has helped increase tourism while giving women refugees jobs and training at Cercis Murat Konagi restaurant. Ebru and her husband restored the mansion, turning it into a highly rated restaurant.

If you go, order the appetizer plate.  It comes with several health takes on Turkish dishes and the presentation with decorative spoons on a tray. Chef Ebru says she has a copyright on the dish.

Under the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, the governor of Diyarbakir Haci Hasan Pasa commissioned the building which now houses The Sakip Sabanci Mardin City Museum and Dilek Sabanci Art Gallery. The Armenian architect Sarkis Lole designed it as a calvary barracks in 1889. In the photo above, one can see what used to be a stable. The museum displays Ottoman artifacts, jewelry, busts of gods and goddesses.

There’s an eery silence in the air here. I felt this also in Ephesus, near the Virgin Mary’s house. It reminds you of the history of the place, past civilizations that offer a gravitas to Mardin.