Back in the mid-1990s I was raving to a friend about the beauty of Mardin in Southeast Turkey.
If ever the troubles end, I said, that’s where tourism will pick up. The friend nodded sagely, but he had done his military service in the east. Midyat, he told me. It’s even more beautiful. Of course that was enough to make me prick up my ears, and not long afterwards I had the chance to make a snatched visit to Midyat, an hour or so by road east of Mardin. I say snatched because at the time all the roads in the vicinity were subject to a four o’clock curfew, and the one small hotel in Midyat was not one where a lone female traveler could have stayed without attracting attention. That snatched visit was enough to convince me that my friend had a point about Midyat’s beauty. Then last year I was able to spend a whole week there, and what a revelation that was. Now I’m at one with my friend. Mardin may be beautiful but Midyat is a more than worthy competitor to win the crown in the local tourism beauty pageant.
Neighbors they may be, with a shared history and architecture, but the two towns could hardly feel more different. Where Mardin wraps itself tightly around a hillside, its streets narrow and congested, Midyat lies flat on the plain, its streets wide and inviting. And where Mardin’s churches play second fiddle to its gorgeous old mosques and medreses, in Midyat it’s the Syrian Orthodox (Suryani) churches whose towers dominate the skyline. Both towns have large Arab populations who live alongside the Turks and Kurds. On their clocktower the Midyat authorities use images of a minaret (Muslim), church tower (Christian) and peacock (Yezidi) to play up the idea of local multiculturalism, but in reality while there’s still a fairly sizeable Suryani community here all the Yezidis, followers of the Peacock Angel, left a long time ago.
Modern Midyat is divided into two distinct parts: Old Midyat, the part of town where most of the Suryanis live, and Estel, the modern, Turkish part of town. Estel itself turns out to have a lovely old quarter with many imposing stone mansions but for most visitors the heart of the action is definitely Old Midyat where glorious golden houses with densely carved window and doorframes peek out from behind lofty walls. This is also the part of town with most of the jewelers’ shops selling the fine filigree necklaces and bracelets (telkari) for which the Suryanis were traditionally famous. It’s here, too, that you’ll be offered bottles of the red Suryani wine that is still made in some private houses.
In Midyat, even more than in Mardin, you don’t come to visit specific attractions so much as to wander the streets marveling at the beauty of the architecture. Finest of all the grand stone houses is the Konukevi, the Governor’s Guesthouse, which hogs the highest point in the old town and thus the best views. The Konukevi played a starring role in the popular television series “Sila,” which put it out of bounds to visitors for years. Now it’s open again as a guesthouse albeit a rather uncertain one that doubles as a tourist attraction, which means visitors pulling your curtains aside and yelling into your bedroom from eight in the morning until eight at night. There’s no breakfast or Internet access, but you probably won’t care about that much once you see the rooms.
Estel boasts one specific attraction which is a Cultural Center housing typical local artifacts including some of the massive wooden “tahts (thrones)” which people used to use to sleep on their roofs in the height of summer. Otherwise the most obvious places to visit should be the four Syrian Orthodox (Suryani) and one Protestant church that hunker down in the back streets of Old Midyat, invisible but for their delicately tiered towers. Unfortunately, it’s rare to find their doors unlocked even on Sundays since most of their congregations moved to Europe in the 1980s and ‘90s. If you’re lucky enough to get inside any of the Suryani churches you’ll find them newly restored and decorated with the same brightly painted wall hangings as can be seen in Mardin, an art form that is now on its very last legs. In one an informal school teaches children Turoyo, a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Jesus that is still used in Suryani church services.
You’ll probably have better luck walking the kilometer out of town to visit the monastery of Mor Hobel and Mor Abrohom. This dates back to the sixth century although the current building in its walled enclosure is newer, the guest rooms attached to it is a very recent addition. Just by the gate an enormous newly constructed mansion is a reminder that the huge families of the past are still very much a reality in modern Midyat.
Where Midyat definitely wins out over Mardin is as a base for touring. There is, for example, one bus a day northwest to Savur, a mini-Mardin that boasts one of the finest home-stays in the country, and regular buses south to Nusaybin with its fine old monastery and plentiful fish restaurants en route at Beyazsu. Heading north you can easily make a day trip to Hasankeyf, the lovely town on the Tigris that is slated to disappear beneath the waters of the Ilısu Dam. With your own car you can also drive out to explore the surrounding villages of the Tur Abdin, most boasting delightful Suryani churches, at least one with a Yezidi shrine still intact. But if you want to really understand this part of the world the one truly unmissable side trip is east to Mor Gabriel (Deyrulumur), the huge monastic complex off the road to Cizre, which is the seat of the Suryani patriachate.
The monastery at Mor Gabriel (St. Gabriel) was founded in 397 by a man named Simeon who moved here from Mardin and founded a community that, at its peak, numbered around 400 members. Today that number is down to around 20 monks and nuns who live a somewhat beleaguered life, forever fending off court cases over the surrounding land. Although much of the existing monastery is relatively new you can still visit the sixth-century church of St. Mary where mosaics sparkle high up in the dome behind the altar.
If you don’t want to stay at the Konukevi, Old Midyat offers two other inviting, if pricy, hotels: the semi-fortified Kasr-ı Nehroz and the glitzy Shmayaa Hotel. Both have their own restaurants, but while here it’s well worth exploring the local eateries in search of unexpected regional tidbits. At lunch-time, for example, you’ll be able to eat perde pilav (stuffed rice in a crisp pastry case) and juicy kaburga dolması (stuffed ribs) at the popular Cihan Lokantası. Later in the day the place to be is the lovely courtyard of the Gelüşke Hanı. As the sun starts to sink pigeons flock to roost on the roof and the dying light colors the walls an impossibly beautiful shade of honey. The han is stuffed full of ethnic bits and bobs, and its waiters are skilled at getting guests up to dance. If would be hard to imagine a more romantic place than this in which to end a visit to Midyat.