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Mardin Travel Guide: 113 reviews and 515 photos

Mardin in 2000

"Due to political instability, we advise against all travel to Diyarbakir, Mardin and Van, and all points south and east of these towns"...that was a comforting read in my Turkey Lonely Planet guide, I must say!

After spending a week hitchhiking around south eastern Turkey with a Turkish girl who was studying with me in Damascus, we needed to return back to Syria for school, and ended up in Mardin. It was a town my friend had read about in Turkish newspapers, but I hadn't heard of it before, so was not really sure what to expect. On that cold March afternoon, we found our way to the main street and were soon noticed by a local photographer who took it upon himself to take us on a tour whether we wanted to or not.

Not really knowing what there was to see in Mardin, this turned out to be quite useful as he took us first to the Sultan Ise Medresesi, a beautiful old mosque and former religious school. No longer in use as a mosque, it was then used as a private home and the family led us up some steps to a terrace with stunning views from the roof over the town and towards Syria.

The sun went down, and we mentioned we needed to find a place to stay, so out guide took us to the top place in town, the decrepit Hotel Bayraktar. in the hotel's dingy reception area, our guide rigged up a projector and screen, and proceeded to show us every single photo he'd ever taken in Mardin. In the beginning it was quite interesting, and my friend did her best to translate...but as the hours ticked by, her translations became less and less enthusiastic as yet another slide of a Mardin doorway appeared on the screen, to the point where she stopped translating completely...she didn't need to translate really, as I'd soon learnt "çok güzel, çok güzel" ("very beautiful, very beautiful") and had got into the same habit of repeating that at every picture. The receptionist had had enough too, turning out the lights and sitting in darkness, but that didn't put the photographer off, as he had another 100 slides of a mosque to show us.

Eventually, we made our excuses and retreated to one of the worst hotel rooms we had stayed in. A cold wind blew in through the holes in the window, and only freezing cold water dripped half-heartedly from the tap in the corner. The electricity didn't work on the upper floors, so luckily we couldn't actually see the true horror of the room until morning, by which point we didn't care. A braying donkey had kept us awake most of the night, so it was actually a relief when the sun came up and we could leave.

That morning was Nevruz, the Kurdish new year, and this being 2000 in a somewhat risky part of the country, our movements were limited. We couldn't go near the celebrations, which involved jumping over fires and setting off lots of firecrackers, and instead we were taken to a local home for some mirra, the local thick and strong coffee. We also made a trip over to the Deyrul Zaferan monastery just outside Mardin, and had a quick walk through a deserted bazar, but time was pressing on and we needed to get to Nusaybin and cross into Syria that evening.

Mardin did leave an impression. I remembered it as a town in a stunning location on a steep hillside, with noisy donkeys, overenthusiastic photographers, and a weird sense of unease.

(To read more about my first trip to Mardin as well as old scanned-in photos, please see the travelogue)

Mardin in 2010

Mardin ten years later couldn't have been more different. My bus from Diyarbakir to Silopi passes unexpectedly through the centre of Mardin just before sunset, so I got to see the whole town spread out on the hillside in all its glory. I'd forgotten (or hadn't quite realised) how beautiful it was, ornate domes and minarets poking out between honey coloured houses set on the mountain on top of each other, all underneath a castle. I looked for the Hotel Bayraktar, which from memory was a five story concrete pile right in the middle of town, so it should have stood out like a sore thumb, but it didn't seem to be there as we sped through. I decided at that point that I'd stop off in Mardin on my way back to Istanbul later in the trip.

Three weeks later, the bus pulled up at the bottom of the hill in complete darkness, leaving me to trudge uphill to search for somewhere to stay. Approaching the centre of town, the darkness was replaced by bright lights and loud music. I passed a trio of boutique hotels in renovated mansions, each with various European flags fluttering over the doorways. I passed an ice cream parlour, a lively teahouse, signs for restaurants. I found the source of the loud music too, a restored kervansaray with a party atmosphere inside, people drinking, dancing, clapping, singing. in my absence, Mardin had been discovered!

Not only had it been discovered, Mardin had gone upmarket. Gone was the Hotel Bayraktar which cost us the equivalent of $4, the building standing empty, the entrance fenced off and covered with carpets for sale. In its place, a whole host of boutique hotels catering for the trendy adventurous Istanbul set and foreigners with larger wallets than me. One budget place remained, the Başak, a motheaten place where overpriced rooms are shared, bathrooms are cold and filthy, and the welcome not exactly as warm as it could be. One night was enough, and I moved round the corner to the Zinciriye Butik Otel for a splurge.

This time I managed to explore more of Mardin's cobbled backstreets, full of twists and turns, stairways and tunnels. I retraced my steps to the Sultan Ise Medresesi. The local family had long since been rehoused, and this was now a museum-like building attracting coach loads of visitors, mainly Turkish though I certainly wasn't the only foreigner in town this time. Two other museums had also opened since 2000, an archeology one in a historic building, and a brand new Sakip Sabanci one about the history and traditions of old Mardin with the Dilek Sabanci art gallery in the basement.

The bazar was also a lot more atmospheric this time, as everything was open and busy. Mardin is famous for its soap, with one shop in particular supplying half of Turkey with upmarket soap in all sorts of "flavours"...almond, apricot, nettle, melengiç (a local variation of coffee, made with something related to pistachio). As Iraqi Kurdistan was not exactly awash with souvenirs, I decided to buy a few of these famous soaps for friends back home, but my visit coincided with a big busty blonde tv personality doing a piece on Mardin...she was getting a lot of attention, mainly because of how she was dressed. I was in the soap shop being told all about the different soaps, when in she came like a blonde whirlwind, cameras rolling and a gaggle of bored local youths crowding round the doorway to get a good look at her. I trıed to slip out quietly but she was having none of it and called after me..."yabancı ile konuşmak istiyorum," she wailed, "I want to talk with the foreigner". Being interviewed in Turkish about soap was well beyond my language capabilities, so I forced my way past the cameras and retreated to a cafe.

One of the great surprises for me about Mardin, something I hadn't picked up on before, was that so many people are bilingual and even trilingual. Turkish is the official language on signs and in museums, but sit in a cafe and you'll hear Arabic, Kurdish and even a bit of Assyrian or Armenian if you're lucky. Most people can happily speak two languages, so for me this was great...Arabic had got me round Iraq although many people there were reluctant to speak it, and unfortunately there wasn't time to go to Syria on this trip, so being able to chat in Arabic alongside Turkish was a highlight for me, and it was interesting to see how people would slip between the two languages mid sentence. I even got chance to try out some of the Kurdish I'd picked up, something that would have been very difficult back in 2000.

This mix of cultures also spills over into the kitchen, and restaurants offer a mix of Turkish and Syrian dishes, and exotic drinks like Suriani coffee. And this time there were so many more restaurants and cafes to choose from, many of them in prime locations, in restored old buildings or on terraces with stunning views over town.

Mardin has changed quite a lot, but I think mostly for the better. It was a far cry from the uneasy dusty town it was in 2000, where people looked at you with suspicion. Restoration work is well underway on many of the neglected older houses, culture has been given a boost by the new museums, and nobody need stay in that terrible Hotel Bayraktar with the draughty windows and braying donkeys anymore.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Beautiful historic town on hillside overlooking Syria
  • Cons:Not a town for budget travellers :(
  • Last visit to Mardin: Apr 2000
  • Intro Updated Nov 6, 2010
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Reviews (14)

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Comments (4)

  • MM212's Profile Photo
    Jul 17, 2012 at 4:49 AM

    I'm planning a trip to southeastern Turkey later this year. Thanks for a great page!

  • DPando's Profile Photo
    Jun 10, 2005 at 3:33 AM

    amazing page..great remarks as you usually do!!

  • cbeaujean's Profile Photo
    Jun 17, 2004 at 9:07 AM

    sharing with you same love and pages about this city...in spite of the LP warnings,we'll be there soon for a second time!

  • david_g's Profile Photo
    Apr 10, 2004 at 6:03 AM

    Very interesting. Pictures are beautiful as well. Thank you for this page. I think i'll try to go there, then !



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