There’s a Rumi quote that, ever since first reading it, has floated around in the confines of my mind – “Not eastern, not western – human.” The beauty and simple elegance of this verse affected me so much, I almost decided to get it as a tattoo in it’s original Farsi. Fortunately, I did some research first and discovered that this is actually a doctored phrase in English, and to Iranians it would be much more recognizable in it’s modernly used – and highly un-Rumi like – form of “Not eastern, not western – the Islamic Republic.”
About an hour and a half north of Midyat, and just outside of Mardin Province, lies the small village of Hasankeyf. A small and rustic village nestled on the shores of the Euphrates River, Hasankeyf is about as picturesque a place as anyone could possibly imagine. Although the modern city is not much to look at – as is generally the case with modern Turkish cities – historic Hasankeyf lines the banks of the river. Also noted for it’s hiking and interesting geography, Hasankeyf has at times been called the Capadoccia of the East.
About one and a half hours east of Mardin, easily connected by a direct dolmuş, lies the equally historical city of Midyat. Midyat, much like Mardin, is also a culturally heterogeneous city with a strong Syriac Christian history and presence. Lining the streets of the new city are boutique shops selling locally grown Syriac wine or newly made silver jewelry
Whereas the old city of Mardin though is entirely located on a hill, giving it an amazing feeling of looking down upon or up at the city wherever you are, Midyat is unfortunately located on a flat plain. Robbed of this matter of elevation – with also a much smaller old city to speak of – Midyat is less a main attraction and more a sideshow between seeing Mardin and the rest of the area.
If you do find yourself in Midyat, make sure to see the historical guest house (konuk evi) located in the heart of the old city. With a total of three floors and an upper observatory deck on the roof, the guest house provides an unparalleled view of the rest of the city. The building itself is also beautiful, constructed in an older Middle Eastern style from the same sandstone bricks as the rest of old Mardin and old Midyat.
The insides of the guest house are also perfectly preserved, and offer a slice of life of the Ottoman period close to the borders of Syria. If you find yourself in Mardin, do not pass up the guest house. It may just be the best thing you see there – as well as one of the most beautiful buildings you’ll see in this part of Turkey.
Unfortunately I don’t have many pictures to share; Midyat was in a state of constant downpour during our visit.
Mardin’s environs are full of priceless, and not quite so priceless, treasures. One of the must sees though is the old Syriac Monastary – Deyrulzafaran. Originally built as a chamber on a hill overlooking Mesopotamia for the purposes of worshiping a sun god, this place of worship was later adopted by Christianity. On top of what was once a small chamber a great monastery was then built.
Rising out of the dusty arid hills stands the monastery. Long baked dry by the sun from scorching summers, the building stands constructed from yellowy orange, almost saffron, colored stones. Turkey is full of old churches from it’s days of being one of the gateways of Christianity’s spread. Today, most of these churches have now been converted into mosques or have fallen into disrepair. The Deyrulzafaran Monastery is unique in it’s uninterrupted use as a living place of worship until today. Read more
Due to the protracted military conflict between the Turkish military and Kurdish rebels – which luckily seem has come to an end, finally – South Eastern Turkey has long been a no-go zone for tourists. With the easing of tensions in recent years the wonders of Turkey’s south is becoming a more and more enticing option. At the top of the list for any would be traveler in this area should be Mardin, a truly cosmopolitan city overlooking the fertile plains of Mesopotamia.
The wealth of Mardin is hard to put into words. An old city built on top of a mountain, crowned with a castle, Mardin is much more Arabic than Turkish. Mardin is actually unique in Turkey in that the general spoken language in the city is Arabic, the language in the province is Kurdish, but the national language is still Turkish. If you’re lucky, you can also hear and see scatterings of Syriac – one of the few living dialects of Aramaic – still spoken by the Syriac Christian community of the city. Mardin is also apparently home to members of the elusive and secretive Yazidi Community – a faith that seemingly blends together elements from Gnostic Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, among other faiths.
The wealth of Mardin is not just measured in people. The city is known throughout Turkey as being the home of the best handcrafted silver goods available. The silversmith trade was a noted profession of Syriacs, and would often be passed down through a family line in older days. Syriac wine is also famous, and the main street of old Mardin is full of authentic wine stores selling their goods to Turkish tourists and city locals alike. The main street of the city functions as a checkerboard of dried fruits from the Mesopotamian plain, Syriac wine, and silver stores.
The wealth of Mardin also manifests itself in the buildings of the city. Similar to the old city of Urfa, old Mardin is a maze of narrow streets and older honey colored stone houses, with the addition of immense madrassas interspersed with ancient churches. Rooftop cafes rise throughout the city, competing for views of the plains below while the Leylan Cafe and Kitab bookstore in the center of the city sells wine, as well as books in Turkish, Kurdish, and Farsi.
The wealth of Mardin is something that must be experienced rather than read about, seen not heard about. Although a long way from the normal tourist destinations of Istanbul and Turkey’s western coast, Mardin is a must see. The warmth of the people alone – a mixture of the general Turkish/Kurdish/Arabic love of guests, coupled with a small town feel – makes Mardin a city I will never forget.
“I have a lot of problems with the Turkish Republic,” he said with a big smile on his face. “I do not like the Turkish Republic. I like Ottoman. I am an Ottoman warrior,” he continued as he munched on an egg and sipped some tea.
“Why is that?” I asked inquisitively. Usually, the answer has to do with politics and how ethnic minorities feel as if they are being assimilated into the overall Turkish sphere.
“Religion!” he put in triumphantly. “Turkey ignores religion. It says Islam is not important, but we are Muslim. We are a Muslim country. It is important that we follow our religion. For this reason, I like Iran. I want Turkey to be like Iran.”
I was amazed. This was the first I had ever heard of anyone in Turkey, no matter how religious they were, openly saying that they wanted a system in Turkey like that of Iran – people always insisted on the opposite.
“You like Iran then,” I said cautiously, unsure of how to proceed.
“Yes, definitely,” he continued as he poured us more tea. “Iran is very good, except for violence towards women. They throw stones at women, kill women. This is bad. You know, I read the Qur’an and it does not say these things. So that violence is very bad.”
“Right, it says be merciful to people, right?”
“Yes, yes, exactly.”
We sat in a short lived silence, as we continued working on our breakfast. “But I do like Iran, you know. I think all women should be covered. You see some women and you think what are they doing. It’s very bad.”
“Yeah… What about alcohol, though? Should that be banned?”
“Absolutely. I never drank alcohol, it is forbidden.”
“Right, but what about for Christian or Jewish people? They need alcohol for their religion. Can they drink it?”
For a second here my friend, the Ottoman warrior, faltered. Although he continued to have his big welcoming smile, you can tell he was trying to work out a conundrum in his head. Within a second though he had recovered.
“Yes, yes, of course they can. You know, I read a lot of Nietzsche. You know Nietzsche? My family always asks me why I have these books. ‘God is dead!’ But for me, no problem. I like reading, I like new ideas. People are people, you know. So for Christians if you need to drink, you can drink. No problem.”
“The Ottomans were like that, right? Every group had their own laws, it was very tolerant.”
“Yes, yes. You know, I am a soft Islamist. Every person is special, so you should not hurt or kill anyone. If I cut you or I cut myself, it is the same blood, yes? We hurt the same.”
“People are people,” I murmured in agreement.
We sipped our tea and sat for a few moments, admiring the beauty of the traditional Mardin courtyard we found ourselves in.
“So tell me, friend” he said slapping me on the back. “What do you do?”
“I am a teacher,” I replied smiling, expecting the normal positive response that I get from Turks.
“Teachers? I hate teachers,” he said with a big smile. “You know, I was a teacher for a while. Then they arrested me. I was in prison for two months.”
“Why, what happened?”
“In class I told them all how I hated the Turkish Republic, and I was an Ottoman warrior,” he said laughing. “They were not happy.”
Whenever I travel, I generally come across the extreme friendliness of the Turkish people, although up until now this has been most pronounced in Malatya and Urfa. I say up until now because the kindness of strangers Kars version is by far the best I’ve ever been treated; I have never been made to feel more welcomed in my life.
After exploring Kars and Ani for a day with my friend Ben, who you may remember from Antakya, we each went our separate ways for my second day in the city. Having seen everything worthy of note in the city during my first day, I planned to resummit the castle and read a book in a cafe overlooking the city. Halfway up the summit, daydreaming as usual, I was interrupted by an urgent:
“Excuse me! Excuse me!”
Turning around, an eager woman started walking quickly towards me. “Where are you from?” she asked with a huge smile.
“I’m from America.”
Instantly she switched into broken English. “America?! Oh, that’s wonderful! Why are you in Kars? Did you read Kar, Orhan Pamuk’s novel? All the foreigners come here because of that book. I don’t understand.”
“No,” I smiled, “I came here to see Ani. I’m an English teacher in Malatya.”
“You? You are teacher? But you’re very young! I have a teacher now, from England. But she is very bad. I don’t like her at all.”
This chit-chat continued until we found ourselves at the top of the castle, where two of her friends were waiting. “Do you know Kurdish?”
“No, sorry,” I said, with a lame smile.
“All of us Kurds, from Batman,” she proclaimed. “This is my friend Mesut, and Şirin. I forgot, my name is Hazal.” This set off a rapid exchange in Kurdish between all three of them. “You like join us?”
“Good. You should learn some Kurdish.”
“Actually, I know a little,” I said. “Maybe like five or six words…” And here I quickly exhausted all my Kurdish knowledge, like: hello, how are you, and my name is. It was all I needed. Before I could wrap my head around it, Mesut and Şirin both had their arms around me and were speaking about everything and anything in Turkish to me, even faster to each other in Kurdish, all the while throwing out whatever random English words they knew.
After a quick exploration of the city and some photo shoots (completely prompted by them), I was being guided towards an old Russian church turned mosque on the other side of the city. Not wanting to disappoint them, I didn’t let them know I had already seen it.
“My family is very poor,” Hazal continued as we made our way through the city. “I am the oldest with five brothers and sisters. I could not go to school, I had to work to help my family. But I had a dream of being an English teacher. My father said you’re crazy, my mother said you’re breaking my heart, my brother said you can do it. So I bought all the books and I studied alone for the exams. I passed them, and now I am studying to be teacher at Kars.”
“That’s amazing. You must be very hard working, but I’m sorry your parents were so hard.”
“No problem, no problem. My parents are funny. My dad is a leftist, my mom is very religious and hates him. But my father loves her and always says ‘We are married for thirty years. I don’t need you to love me.’”
“Okay, come on, come on,” Mesut interjected as we had reached the mosque. “Come on, let’s go inside.”
Once inside, Mesut and Şirin insisted on us taking pictures together on the condition that I would share them on Facebook. Şirin even had me partially climb the spiral staircase to the upper floor of the mosque for a good photo-op.
Then, before I knew it, somehow we had ended up at Mesut’s student house and I was partaking in a Kurdish version of menemen - Kurdish only because it had an inclusion of hot peppers – eaten with hands and chunks of bread and tea spread out on a tablecloth on the floor. Despite there being at least ten other guests for lunch, I was the guest. As such, I was made to eat thirds and fourths way past everyone else had managed to stop eating… Not that I was complaining.
Rising from the high steppe that leads into the Caucasus is the jumble of small alleys and narrow boulevards that make up the provincial city of Kars. Most foreigners who come to Kars are drawn by one of two reasons: either they are inspired to see the city because of Orhan Pamuk’s fabulous novel Snow, or they are using the city as a base camp to see the ruins of the old Armenian city of Ani. Either way, visitors on the whole are rare.
Forty kilometers east of the Turkish city of Kars, high on the windswept steppe, is piece of land jutting into Armenia like a dagger. Surrounded on three sides by deep, nearly impassable chasms and the barbed wire fence denoting the still closed border between Turkey and Armenia, lies the ruins on the ancient city of Ani – the one time capital of the greater Armenian Kingdom of the Middle Ages.
Anyway, the entire song is high energy and seemingly silly. I.E. great music for all occasions. The lyrics mean, roughly: