With a name like Batman, you would expect this city to be nothing but action-packed excitement. But its actually quite a prosaic modern town, and makes a reasonable rest stop. I have ended up here after three days of hopping from mini-bus to mini-bus and hitchhiking through the heart of Turkish Kurdistan. Sadly, I haven’t found any trace of the Caped Crusader.
After leaving Sanliurfa, I made me way to Mardin which would surely be a major tourist point under different circumstances. Mardin has been a not-so-harmonious mixture of Kurds, Turks, Arabs, and Christians for many years. Set on a mountaintop at 1,200 meters, the 1,000 year old yellow stone mosques and churches look down on 50 miles of the Mesopotamian plain below. The bazaar snakes its way through crooked narrow streets which spill down the mountainside. With the lanes too small and steep for cars, mules with strikingly decorated red saddles ply back and forth, braying reluctantly. There is an unusual sense of calm about Mardin’s bazaar and certainly none of the hassles of Istanbul or other large Turkish cities. It’s still organized in medieval fashion, with all of the different kinds of stalls grouped together: the saddle repairmen on one street, the shoe sellers on another, with all of the ironmongers on the bottom. If only I had thought of this last year: I could have taken a four day weekend in Mardin to create Islington’s first Ottoman style apartment, at a fraction of the cost of Ikea.
But Mardin suffers from the filthiest, grottiest hotels, and what looks like a ratio of 1 soldier for every 3 civilians. But a few see an increase in the tourist traffic. Walking down the street, I saw a group of well-dressed waiters standing outside a restaurant with a fancy looking sign. Desperate for something other than a kebab, I walked in, stirring up much excitement among the apparently very bored staff, who had no other patrons. None spoke a word of English but after a few minutes a woman emerged and addressed me in excellent English. It turns out that she’s the proprietor, Ebru Dokmen, born in Mardin but recently returned from Istanbul in hopes that she can be the first to capitalize on her forecasted increase tourism. Things haven’t exactly been going according to plan, since she told me that I was the first tourist she’d seen in 5 months, and I have never been in a restaurant which felt so empty. A shame, because she serves excellent local cuisine and decorates with magnificent and authentic flair, highly unusual for the southeast of Turkey. After she retreated into the kitchen I spent the rest of the meal scrutinized by the seven waiters, who gawked in silent astonishment at my every sip of soup. I really felt absurd.
When Ebru resurfaced after my meal, she sat down at my table and spoke of Mardin. As a woman she is both scorned and envied by the rest of the town. “People can’t understand and they make things very difficult for me,” she said. “But in the summertime, I run the only bar in town and all of the men come here and get really drunk, so they have accepted me. They still think I’m strange but they all fall in love with me,” she said very matter-of-factly.
Ebru arranged for Frat, one of her kitchen staff, to take me through the town the next morning. Frat spoke hardly any english but we still made it out to an 800 year old Islamic school, about 6 kilometers outside of town and long abadoned. As we approached, the enormous building looked eerily empty, especially as a thick fog began to set in. Frat ran off to a shepherd’s hut just down the path and returned with an enormous old metal key which he inserted into the lock and slowly swung open the gigantic wooden door with a creak. The halls inside were dark, cold, and drab, but with a little imagination you could see it bustling with medieval life. Still, the place had a very strange emptiness about it. By now the courtyard with its reflecting pool and surrounding terraces was covered in the ghostly white fog. But suddenly, while walking across the courtyard we heard footsteps descending the stairway in front of us and my heart skipped a beat. I looked at Frat, who had turned nearly as pale as the fog, and the footsteps suddenly stopped. We walked a couple of more steps, finally seeing that it was the irregular dripping of the rain into a tin bucket. I looked at Frat once again, trying my hardest to transcend the language barrier and make him feel ridiculous.
From Mardin, it was another short mini-bus ride to Midyat. Like Mardin, Midyat is a mixture of peoples and has a spectacular old city, though it lies down on the plain. Using Midyat as a base, I made my way hopping on a couple of more mini-buses and an oil truck to a 1,600 year old Christian monastery, spectacularly situated in the rolling hills of the desert. The monastery opened its doors to me and I was given a tour by one of its a inhabitants, a teenager who spoke excellent english. This didn’t surprise me, since the entire monastery compound had an air of unusual prosperity — these people seemed to have money. I soon learned why, since many of the Christians in the surrounding area have fled from what locals call “The Terror,” receiving asylum in Europe, since these communities had become particular targets. They send money back to the monastery which acts as the community center for the surrounding Christian villages. With the European funds, the monasteries 1,500 year old mosaics have been well preserved and they still manage 3 services a day, all conducted in the language of the surrounding villages — and the language of Jesus — Aramaic.