Anatolian Express XI: Amazing Mardin

Friday, May 30, 2014

Yesterday was one of the best days so far on this trip. I traveled the furthest east and south that I'll go during these travels, and also felt like I'd come the closest to accomplishing what I'd set out to do in embarking on this trip--putting the past couple of years behind me and beginning the process of thinking about what I'd like to do next with my life. I also saw some beautiful sites and met nice people. What more could you ask for in a daylong excursion to Mardin? 

The day didn't start off well. I got to the bus station at around nine. The guy in the little information booth at the Urfa bus station pointed me in the direction of two booths manned by rival companies, with each booth staffed by two employees. I asked them what time they were leaving, and the men on both sides--all four of whom were yelling at me at once--assured me they were leaving on the hour at ten. The prices were the same, and the buses for both companies were big and modern looking (they had pictures posted). Yet there was clear antagonism between the rival teams, and when I resolved to go to the company on the left, I thought I'd smooth things over with the guys on my right by telling me I'd come back to Urfa with them. They were not assuages, with the guy on the left muttering to himself darkly that I 'hadn't believed him.' 
When the folks on my right handed over the ticket, I saw that it was for a bus leaving at 11. What happened to 10? 'We don't have one,' the guy said. Maybe I'd misunderstood them in the cacophony that had accompanied our five-way conversation a few minutes before, but I'd been pretty sure he'd said the bus was leaving at 10. I said I was sorry, but in that case I'd go with the other guys. The fellow took the news with equanimity, but the dude to my right--from whom I ended up buying the ticket--was still snarling at me as he collected my money. I told him he had an interesting way of treating his customers, and he said 'What kind of customer are you, you didn't believe me when I said he was lying about the time!' I asked him how he expected me to understand him when four people were shouting at me simultaneously. His co-worker mediated between the two of us, but it was still an unpleasant experience, if only due to the fact that almost every interaction I'd had in Urfa up to that moment had been so friendly. 

If the mountains could talk... 

The ride to Mardin was okay--it lasted two and a half hours. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the villages outside Mardin had been the scene of some pretty ugly undertakings during the struggle between the Turkish Army and the PKK. I wondered what kind of stories the hills we passed could tell. On one hillside, I saw the following words written: "Ne mutlu Türküm Dineye" (happy is s/he who calls her/himself a Turk), a common site in parts of the country where Turks are a minority. I wondered if the relative peace that this part of Turkey has known for the past decade or so would last, and if so what changes it could bring to the country as a whole.
"Ne mutlu Türküm Dineye" always seems to be displayed most in the parts of the country where many non-Turks live.
Walking around town, I was duly impressed by Mardin. The town has become a rather 'in' travel destination for folks from Istanbul, Ankara and other western cities, who come to see Mardin's beautiful stone houses. There are also a number of old Muslim schools (medreses), mosques, churches, and a large monastery on the outskirts of town. The churches and monasteries have traditionally serve the region's Syriac Orthodox Christian community, which still has a presence in the area. Most Syriac Christians live in Syria and Lebanon, but a small community still resides in Turkey, and the monastery outside of Mardin was once the site of their patriarchate, which since the 1930s has been located in Damascus, Syria. 

The mosque inside the Sultan İsa medrese complex

As I sat in the Sultan İsa medrese, my quiet contemplation was interrupted by a boisterous group of 30-something Turkish tourists, apparently from Istanbul, who ignored the numerous signs pleading with visitors to be quiet and respectful. The men and women looked like they were dressed for a safari on their eastern Turkey adventure, yelling at the top of their lungs as if they were at a theme park of some sort.

The minaret from the Şehidiye medrese and mosque

The previous day at my hotel in Urfa I'd had breakfast with a young American woman who started making categorical statements about Islam that I thought were uninformed, and I told her as such. She responded by telling me that real Turkish Muslims had said these very things to her, implying that the words of her native informants naturally trumped mine, as I'm neither Turkish nor Muslim. Sitting in the medrese waiting for these shouting and disrespectful idiots to get the hell out so I could listen again to the sound of the fountain in the stillness of the courtyard, I thought again about my conversation with this girl and wondered if these were the types of people that she had been talking to.
After walking around a bit more, I sat down in a tea garden to relax and figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of the afternoon. I was a bit bummed, to tell you the truth, because I'd just read in my guidebook that the monastery I wanted to visit--known as the Deyrul Zafaran--closed at three o'clock, which meant it was too late to go check it out properly now. I was a bit annoyed with myself, and wished I'd looked at the guidebook properly before setting off to see the rest of the sites in the city. The monastery had sounded really interesting, and had been specifically recommended by an acquaintance of mine in Istanbul--a jeweler in Tesvikiye that I used to buy gold from in the 1990s, whom I'd had tea and a nice chat with when I was re-visiting my beloved old neighborhood at the outset of this trip.
I was feeling a bit at loose ends--I'd already seen most of the sites and had lunch and tea. I figures I'd just walk around the town some more until my bus left at 5.30 that evening. Suddenly, I saw Veysil, a guy from the bus that I'd been chatting with, pass by the tea garden. I flagged him down, apologizing for the fact that I'd had to cut off our previous conversation suddenly as I'd gotten off at a stop ahead of his. He sat down and we talked for a while over tea, and had a lot of thoughtful things to say about growing up in a place like Mardin in the 1980s and 90s.
Veysil told me that the monastery didn't close at 3 anymore, but rather was open until 6, and encouraged me to go. I wasn't sure whether to believe him--I often find that the locals I meet know less about the local attractions than the people writing the guidebooks--but figured it was worth a trip out there. Thinking it would be rude to just go and leave him so soon after inviting him to sit down to tea, I asked him if he felt like going out to the monastery with me. He took me up on the offer.
Across the street from the tea garden was a taxi stand, and Veysil insisted on bargaining with the guy in Arabic while I waited. I then talked to the driver in Turkish, and we agreed on a price for him to drive us out there, wait until the tour ended, then take us back. The driver, whose name was Kemal, was a friendly enough dude, and I amused both him and Veysil with my terrible Arabic--I studied classical Arabic for a few years in graduate school, but never learned to speak it very well. Usually I'm pretty shy about speaking Arabic, but in this context--where I could insert Turkish words and phrases when needed--encouraged me to try. Amid the stunning scenery of the mountains around us and the sight of the monastery in the distance, it felt like a special moment.
At the monastery, I practically had to wrestle Veysil to the ground to prevent him from buying my ticket. It turns out, he'd taken the tour several times before, and knew stuff about the monastery that he'd point out to me before our guide started speaking. The guide--touring in a group with a guide is mandatory--was really informative, and apparently was a student at the monastery. I left feeling really impressed, and very glad to have bumped into Veysil at the tea garden. 
Kemal and Veysil

We left the monastery fifteen minutes before my bus was due to depart. Kemal stepped on the gas, and with a touch of dramatic flair skidded to a halt in front of the bus as it was parked in front of the ticket office.

The ride back to Urfa was beautiful, with the sun setting on the mountains to my left. Watching the news on my personal video player (Turkish buses are better outfitted than many American planes), I saw that the road between Diyarbakir and Lice had been closed due to conflicts between Turkish forces and an organization affiliated with the PKK. Halfway through our trip, our bus was stopped at a checkpoint manned by the gendarmes, who boarded the bus to search for weapons and look at our ID cards. It was a reminder of the bad old days of the 1990s, when I experienced such episodes relatively frequently, and of the perseverance of certain problems, no matter how much the situation has improved in recent years.

Nevertheless, many people are of the opinion that--the continued existence of real problems in the region notwithstanding--much has improved in the southeast since the 1990s. While many people understandably lament the direction that the government has taken in the country as a whole, the southeast provides a sign that some situations--even those which may appear hopeless at times--really can improve. Hopefully things continue to change for the better.

I got back to Urfa at 9:30 at night, just in time to buy a beer from the liquor merchant--the only one I've been able to find in town--before sales stop at 10 pm. After showering and relaxing a bit in my hotel room, I stepped out to savor Urfa's relatively quiet but sweet nightlife--people (mostly men, but also some families) enjoying the cool weather after a 90-degree dusty day, walking around on the main drag, eating ice cream and other sweets. I stepped into a kebab place and had some spicy chicken (all the meat is spicy here, unlike the food in Turkey generally). They served me Ayran in the local-style, with a spoon in a pot-like container with lots of bubbles. After eating, I literally staggered home in my exhaustion, feeling seriously fatigued by yet another day of endless walking, hot weather, and hours of conversation in a foreign tongue. I took yet another shower--my third of the day--and fell unconscious almost as soon as my head hit the pillow, enjoying a deep dream-laden sleep of contentment. 

If you're interested in seeing more shots from Mardin, I've put up my other photos from Mardin in the Borderlands Lounge.

Like the Borderlands? You'll love the book! Order your copy now at the OUP website

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