The four of us sat in the dolmus, eating Yusuf's almonds and debating the best way for me to visit Deyrulzafaran Monastery. The Syrian orthodox monastery and former seat of the church's patriarch is 10 kilometers from Mardin and our dolmus. Chomping away we all disagreed on the best way to go. According to the Suryani (Syriac/Assyrian) man I had tea with in the market, a reliable source if there was one, I could get to the monastery using only dolmuses and it would take no time or money at all. When I told the dolmus driver my plan he laughed and told me to sit down. We would figure out how to get me there, but it wouldn't be in his minibus, he only drove to the Yenisehir neighborhood of town. He suggested a cab; it would be the easiest and the most convenient way.
But when a taxi driver quoted me TL 60 liras to go there and back we all decided the cab was not an option. The second man offered up a mix of cab and dolmuses, an idea I quickly nixed. What about the man in the market? Luckily, Yusuf was on my side. “Why would you tell her to take a cab?” he cried. “For TL 60? Come on!” He said this all while pouring more almonds into my hands. The driver chuckled through his response, “Yusuf, you're generous today, she can't take a cab and you give away all your food. Masallah.” Yusuf smiled, “Let me receive the same from Allah.”
I couldn't help but smile at his response. I left Istanbul to take a break from the city and its grime, but most of all, from the carelessness that comes with living in a place with 13 million people. It was only my second day in Mardin and in this city that stretches all the way back to 4500 B.C. I had already found someone willing to take a ribbing from his friends for a stranger. His good-natured attitude was infectious, turning his friends into willing aides. They talked to other dolmus drivers, bargained and gave me tips on hitchhiking. For my part I wanted to be more like Yusuf. I should be happy just to help others and drop my normal attitude of ambivalence riddled with expectations.
It lasted 15 minutes. A herd of goats blocked my new minibus. The driver was slowly nudging them out of the road. I had forgotten my newfound outlook on life and grumbled about goats.
The Deyrulzafaran Monastery, commonly referred to as Safran Tapinagi (Saffron Monastery) was atop a large hill, far from the entrance-cum-gift shop. I milled around the sparkling glass and faux-marble shop waiting to be let into the monastery. The monastery's policy was to let in a small group of visitors at a time and take them around on a guided tour. As I killed time looking at the portraits of Jesus and kitschy souvenirs I felt my stomach tighten with apprehension. This overly stylized, slick building wasn't the experience I was looking for from a 5th century religious site. Sure the view was nice, but was all the haggling bordering on arguing worth it for a “Starbucksified” monastery?
However when the guards let us in and after a short hike to the main structure my stomach unclenched and I let out a sigh of relief. The warm-colored limestone walls pierced the sky and took me into a world apart from the bustling charm of Mardin and the idyllic greens of the drive through the Tur Abdin plateau. Lost in the magnitude of the monastery walls most of the visitors didn't know where to start and congregated in the courtyard. The official tour guide started to gather us for the tour and I slipped away to explore on my own.
Built in A.D. 495 atop a large hill the thick walls enclosed the sanctuary in a still quietness that could seem cold, but instead the stones seemed to absorb the sunlight and spread its warmth throughout the whole courtyard. The top floor and part of the main chambers are still in use by Syriac parishioners and occasionally a young boy would scurry by with a broom or incense in hand.
Leaving Deyrulzafaran I remembered the men's advice from the morning to hitchhike back to Mardin. I spent the walk from the monastery to a large road trying to retain some of the peace I felt inside the building, turning around to gape, and worrying about safely hitching a ride into town. Despite my lingering hesitation I stuck out my hand. An older man in the first car that passed by picked me up and dropped me off on the main road. In Istanbul I'm always ready to assume the worst in people because that's city life, but Mardin had already charmed me.
Mardin's Artuqid architecture
Back in Mardin I crisscrossed along the main thoroughfare, 1. Cadde, and the narrow, corkscrewing side streets. At every intersection there was the meeting of Artuqid architecture, Syriac churches, and homes that appeared to emerge organically from the hill. Thick walls, similar to the ones at the monastery, ensconced the homes in privacy and evoked the settlements of decades gone by.
The Mardin Archeology Museum (Mardin Muzesi), found between a towering statue of Ataturk and the Meryemana (Virgin Mary) Church displayed ethnographic and archeological finds from the area. A former house of the Syriac Catholic Patriarchate, the Mardin Ministry of Culture bought, restored, and transformed the church into a museum. Many of the artifacts on display were discovered in the Surekli Hoard. The archeological site contained artifacts from the 9th to 14th centuries and the Ayyubid, Byzantine and the Ilkhanid empires. The Surekli discoveries included jewelry, coins, tools, and carvings from the Assyrian period to the Ottoman, and everything in between. Despite the amazing finds inside the building, due to the former church's history and characteristic “Mardin-style architecture” I found myself sitting in the courtyard looking out over the southern plain long after visiting all the rooms.
After visiting a few more churches and some medreses in Mardin I hopped on a dolmus to Midyat. The ride, which only took about an hour and a half, was a nice break from my version of exploring, getting lost and asking person after person for directions. Once we arrived I hoped to get another minibus to the oldest existing Syriac Monastery, Mor Gabriel. But this time, without a new Yusuf to help me I wasn't able to convince the Midyat Tourism Bureau worker that there should be dolmuses going to and from the monastery. He called me a cab and we negotiated a gidis-donus price to take me, wait as I visited, and bring me back to Midyat for TL 60. Again, the TL 60. But the price didn't seem like too much to pay as Mor Gabriel was about 20 kilometers outside of the city.
As with Deyrulzafaran, Mor Gabriel is still a functioning church and residence. Despite the ongoing dispute between the Turkish government and Syriac community over ownership of monastery land, visitors are still welcome to visit the site. Their visiting hours are more restricted than other monasteries in the area so I was glad I check the schedule online. The now familiar sensation of wonder swept over me as I walked through the entry gates. The morning visiting hours were over and a young man nicely, but firmly ushered me out.
I dropped my pack, heavy with newly bought Syriac-made wine and olive oil soaps, on the floor of the Mardin airport and flopped into a seat. The weekend trip had been so non-stop I was happy for the chance to survey my first trip to eastern Turkey. I thought about telling my Istanbullu friends about the characters populating my little adventure to Mardin and its tourist sites. The historically and culturally important places I visited were awe-inspiring, but the moments that stood out in my mind were laughing at bus stops, sharing stories, even a few arguments and bargaining with the locals.