Friday, November 5, 2010

Iraq, Part II: Mardin, Turkey

The Players
Meet Bobby (in the blue) and Steve (in the grey). Their friendship began many moons ago while working for the ECB. The story goes that on Bobby’s first day, Steve waltzed into his office and boldly jabbed, “Where are you from so I know how to make fun of you?” Bobby was speechless. It was at that moment when Bobby, who prided himself on his cleverness in poking fun at other cultures & ethnicities, knew that he had found a lifelong friend.

Originally from New Zealand, Steve has been working and living in Germany for several years now. Bobby, an…uh…um…The shortened and less invasive version of Bobby’s story is that he grew up in Malawi and went to college in England and in the States. 

Bobby and Steve are currently in a duel. Steve, with a current country count of 75, is attempting to surpass Bobby’s count of 87. It is because of these two men that I remain unimpressed whenever someone tells me about their travels.

I met Steve this summer while living in Köln for work, and I met Bobby in Mardin. I’m pretty lucky to accompany two avid travelers and great people.

Thursday, October 21. Off to Mardin.
Mardin, from a distance
I flew into Istanbul on Wednesday at 11 p.m., slept laid on an airport bench for the night, and groggily boarded the plane for Mardin at 6:30 a.m. the following morning. Upon arrival at Mardin airport on the outskirts of the city, Steve and I found each other quickly. He was the only tall, white guy at an airport the size of a U-bahn stop. As we were awaiting Bobby’s arrival, we had the first of many chai teas. 

The southernmost region of Turkey was closed to tourists until 1999 as a result of PKK threats. Although Mardin is located within this region, it is a rather quaint town where peacefulness seems to be the status quo. Bobby, Steve, and I stayed in Old Mardin, which is located on the side of a plateau overlooking the "sun-baked Mesopotamian plain." Small shops selling fruits and nuts lined main street, and kids often practiced the extent of their English language skills by yelling to us, “Hello! What’s your name?! Where are you from?!” Instead of biking being a popular means of transportation, donkeys were primarily used to transfer goods from one part of town to the other. Notably, the area was incredibly clean from trash or donkey excrement.

In order to see “Mesopotamia,” i.e. to see the plain between the Tigris & Euphrates rivers, we climbed toward the top of the town. When we looked to the left, we faced Iraq, but if we looked to straight, we were facing Syria. Purely based upon aesthetic value, the Mesopotamian plain looked like a typical plain (minus the corn). However, when you think that it was within this area where the first humans roamed the Earth, from where “cradle of civilization” derived its name, the arid flatland took on a much more profound meaning.
<=Iraq; ^=Syria
Atop the hill, the only other people nearby were some Kurdish men sitting on their rooftop having chai tea, grapes, and walnuts. Several minutes after noticing us, the men invited us onto their rooftop to share the local cuisine. The men were incredibly welcoming, as they offered us their grapes, kept the chai flowin’, and cracked open the walnuts (using rocks) for us. While the local women did not venture to the rooftop, my presence was a non-issue.

Our next mission after descending the hill was to grab a glass of wine… Then we realized that Mardin was, more or less, a dry town. Luckily, one small kiosk/shed was selling wine. Crisis averted. 

Friday, October 22. Ancient Monastery & a Madrasah. 

Friday was excursion day. First stop: Saffron Monastery. Isolated amongst hills outside Mardin , the Saffron Monastery (aka Deyrul Zafaran) is a Syrian Orthodox church founded in 492 AD during the Assyrian period and home of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchs until 1932. It is one of the most ancient structures in Upper Mesopotamia, one of the earliest Christian churches, and one of the few places in the world that continues to hold church services in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

The historical significance of the site predates the monastery’s establishment. The church was built atop the Temple of the Sun, a place of worship dating back to 1000 BC.
In keeping with my honesty policy: Aside from the pagan temple and the church services in Aramaic, the church was akin to looking at a picture of a male model. It was incredible to see some of the “features,” but in the grand scheme of things, it lacked in the depth department for me. Thus, sight-seeing – rather than learning – was the primary objective. If you are interested in the Syriac Orthodox Church or want more information, links are located at the bottom of the post. Sight-seeing:

Following the Saffron Monastery and ancient sun temple, we visited one of the many madrasahs in the area. A madrasah is a school for children to memorize the Qur’an as well as study Islamic law and Muslim history. From reading about madrasahs and talking with Steve and Bobby, the quality and diversity of education that students receive is quite dependent on region. That being said, the madrasah is usually “not the place you’d send your kid if you wanted him or her to have a liberal education.” The madrasah we visited was…big…and empty. And it was the only place I was required to wear a head scarf.
Final thoughts on Mardin: 
Mardin is a small, quiet community with a hospitable nature and an exceptionally limited amount of alcohol. The locals, including the hotel staff and taxi drivers, were more than accommodating. For example, when our hotel on the first night had no rooms available for the second night, he automatically called the other hotels in the area. Old Mardin, as opposed to the southern New Mardin, retains the traditional feel. Nevertheless, signs of Western influence pop up here and there, the most notable of which was-
We bumped into one tourist group in the town, which primarily consisted of old people that probably paid some exorbitant fee to ride a tour bus or hire a private guide.

Steve mentioned that promoting tourism in Mardin is high on the Turkish government’s priority list. I’m inventing my own reasoning for this, but it seems logical enough. Regardless of whether Turkish government wants to formally recognize the Kurds as an ethnic group, the Kurdish predominately populate southern Turkey. The standard of living in these areas is also disproportionately low. Skipping a few steps in the typical law school analysis: Government promotion = More tourism = More money = Better standard of living than they would have without Turkey = Disincentive for establishing their own country.  Mardin is a picturesque, charming community, but it's not likely to make Turkey's Top-3 list anytime soon.  Tourism might increase more rapidly if tourism increases in Iraqi Kurdistan, as the city is ideally located for some brief sight-seeing prior to entering Iraq.

Next post: "Saturday, October 23. Operation: Cross the Border."

EOBA: When planning your next voyage, research whether a town has alcohol.

Saffron monastery links:


  1. Thanks for this Jennifer. I am an author and Mardin features in the novel I am finishing. Some of your insights were quite helpful. Best regards, Jim

  2. Very very interesting Jennifer, thanks for taking the time to write this.

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  5. The Turkish Supreme Court has just rendered a judgment against the monastery which will lose half its land to local Muslim Turkish farmers. The plight of the small Christian community in Turkey is akin to the difficulties that Muslim and Christian Israel citizens experience in Jewish Israel. Why is it that these desert monotheistic religions show such intolerance?

  6. Turkey is really a great travel destination, famous for its culture, arts, foods and its unique architecture. On my last vacation I was there and really enjoyed a lot.


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