Southeastern Turkey’s old towns of Mardin and Midyat

After crossing the border from Iraqi Kurdistan, I arrived in Mardin, an incredibly picture perfect town overlooking Mesopotamia. I really hadn’t known much about Mardin before arriving there, other than Lonely Planet declaring it was worth a stop, but it simply took my 20 minute hike up through the town from where the bus had dropped me for me to decide that I was really going to like it.

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Mardin

I stumbled upon the boutique hotel that I’d booked by chance after wandering aimlessly through the rabbit-warren of cobble stone streets. It was housed inside an old stone building and the views facing the plains of Syria were incredible. It wasn’t necessarily cheap, but Mardin has become a sort of popular holiday spot for Turkish tourists from Istanbul and Ankara and so prices are relatively high.

I didn’t know exactly how much of a popular holiday spot it was until I went exploring the following day. The main street that runs through old Mardin, known as 1 Cadde, is quite commercialised and touristy. Most shops are oriented towards tourists filled with olive oil soaps, dried fruit and nuts, coffee and random souvenirs. There are many cafes and restaurants, most of which are quite expensive, and the street is busy. When I was there, I was battling crowds walking on the skinny sidewalk as buses and cars passed on the old stone road.

Of course, there are ways to escape the masses and enjoy some of the old architecture in near silence. I discovered that most of the Turkish tourists just wander that main road, visit a couple of the old mosques and sit in a cafe before leaving. So don’t brush the town off as too touristy because it’s still not too difficult to get away from it all.

Mardin Turkey

main attractions in Mardin

You could realistically tick off these main attractions in a day by just walking around on foot. It’s not a large town and the main attractions are all close by. These places should all be easily found on Maps.Me.

Ulu Cami

Built in the 11th century, this mosque is now tucked inside the bazaar area. Its minaret is its main feature and it stands out from many places in the city.

Tellallar Carsisi

This shopping street has a number of beautiful handicraft shops, housed in a traditional style bazaar. It runs parallel to the main street, just on the next level down.

Zinciriye Medresesi

Dating back to the 14th century, it’s main attraction is its beautiful doorway, otherwise on the inside is pretty courtyards and a mosque.

Mardin Muzesi

It’s housed in an old, restored mansion and has a nice archaeological collection and history of the area. The ticket price is 7TL (AUD$2).

Sakıp Sabancı City Museum

It’s housed in former army barracks which traces the history of the town and the ethnic mix of people who call it home. There’s also an art gallery there showcasing a rotation of Turkish artists work.

Forty Martyrs Church

This incredibly old church dates back to the 4th century and still holds mass on weekends.

Mardin mosque
Ulu Cami

Bazaar

My favourite part. The old bazaar area is down from the main street and you can reach it by following any of the small staircases or alleyways that lead down from the street. It’s very easy to get lost in the labyrinth of skinny alleys selling everything from clothing to fresh produce and souvenirs. If you take some of the even quieter streets you can also find workshops and butchers where men are working to produce what you see in the shops.

The best way to start exploring it is by going to where the Mardin Muzesi is located and taking the road that leads down but still parallel to the main road on the opposite side of the road to the museum complex. You’ll see lots of food stalls and shops selling olives, cheeses and fresh produce, and if you keep following it straight you’ll come into the covered bazaar and eventually end up at Ulu Cami.

People were very friendly though, and taking photos was relatively well accepted, just always ask beforehand if you’re taking a photo of someone or their products.

Escaping the crowds

So how can you escape the masses and explore old Mardin? When I was there in September, the bazaar area was relatively quiet as most tour groups and weekenders just wandered the main street. I found that it was one of my favourite parts of the town and if you search the alleyways enough you’ll find yourself being the only tourist there.

Other ways of seeing local shops and homes, is to take the 1 Cadde (main street) back down towards the new town area and the transport hub (east of the old town). It gets progressively less touristy. It’s also a good idea to climb through the streets above 1 Cadde in old Mardin, towards the old fort and head eastwards. There are some hotels and guest-houses there but not many souvenir shops or restaurants and some of the old architecture is beautiful and almost completely crowd-free.

Day trip from Mardin to Midyat

If the picturesque, sandy coloured buildings of Mardin have you drooling (they certainly did me!), then I suggest you also take a day trip to Midyat, another of Southeastern Turkey’s ancient towns. It was once home to a large Syrian Orthodox Christian community, who have mostly now migrated away after suffering heavy persecution in the 20th century. However, their old churches with towering, skinny bell towers dot the old town and make for interesting photographs.

Midyat has now grown into a large sprawl with many new developments and modern apartment buildings and shops. However, the small old town remains well intact and is great for exploring it’s back streets.

How to get there

There are regular minibuses leaving Mardin for Midyat when full and the trip takes 1 hour. A seat costs 15TL (AUD$4) one way. They leave from Mardin’s main otogar (bus station) which is 3km away from the centre. It’s possible to walk or you can take one of the small public buses that regularly travels through old Mardin, just make sure it says otogar on the windscreen otherwise it may not go there.

Midyat is quite spread out and the minibus first dropped people in the Estel Otogar, which is for the newer part of the town. He then continued on to the main roundabout, another five minutes down the road, which is where the old town lies beyond. The drivers are generally pretty helpful and assume that you would want to see the old town.

Exploring Midyat

Once you cross over the roundabout and head into the old town there’s not as many sights as Mardin and the appeal simply lies in gawking at the old churches and large stone houses with huge courtyards and intricately carved details.

The churches are not always open and you’ll have to try your luck to see if the caretaker is around. I was lucky enough to get into one, Mor Barsarmo Kiliesi, just before I was set to return to Mardin. If visiting on weekends, I would assume you’ll have more luck.

A must see, is Devlet Konuk Evi, an old house, which also opens its doors for anyone who wants to have a look inside the traditional building and climb its incredible rooftop terrace which has the best view over the old town. They charge 5TL (AUD$1.50) for this privilege and it’s incredibly worth it.

The streets are pretty quiet and you’ll mostly find locals and children going about their day. Some of the kids will offer their ‘guide service’ to show you inside their home or a nearby church and of course, they’ll expect a tip.

There are a couple of tea shops scattered around the outside of the old town, towards the bazaar area near the roundabout. I stopped in one to have a cold drink, as it was a hot day. The owner was so nice, despite no English, he gave me a lemon soda, followed with chai and a plate of grapes and then proceeded to not charge me for it. Through Google Translate he simply said, “It’s my gift to you. Thank you for stopping here.” What a guy!

Midyat old church
Midyat
View from Devlet Konuk Evi

Getting back to Mardin

The Midyat otogar is not far from the old town and south of the main roundabout. It’s marked on Maps.Me. Minibuses go back to Mardin when full and it’s best to head there before 6pm or otherwise you may be stuck in Midyat for the night.

Other day trips from mardin

Deyrulzafaran is a Syrian Orthodox Christian monastery that dates as far back as the 5th century. It’s around 7km east of Mardin and is best visited with a local taxi.

Dara is a Roman ruins complex 40km southeast of Mardin and receives much less tourists than many of Turkey’s other archaeological sites. Hiring a taxi would be your best bet to get there.

Tür Abdin is a region just 10km east of Mardin where you can find scattered Syrian Orthodox churches. It’s still home to a small community of Christians, although most migrated away during the 20th century when Turkey expelled many of them.

Mardin view
View from Merdin Boutique Hotel

How I got to Mardin

I came from Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan on a bus that took me across the border. You can read about my border crossing report here.

I paid USD$25 for a ticket from Duhok to Mardin (it’s the same price if you want to get dropped in Diyarbakir as well). The company I used was Cizre Nur and the whole journey took 8 hours.

Where I stayed

I stayed at Merdin Boutique Hotel, which is housed in a traditional style, stone building and has incredible views over the Syrian plains. The staff were also very kind and helpful and the breakfast was one of the best I’ve had, with an incredible spread for each person. I paid 25 euros for a single room per night with breakfast included, which is expensive for me but very reasonable for Mardin.

Where I ate

Seyr-i-Merdin is a famous restaurant in Mardin and has a rooftop seating area with unbeatable views of the town and Mesopotamia. It’s incredibly popular though and you have to get there early to get a top table. They have traditional food and the prices are a bit on the steeper side but worth it for the experience.

A local favourite meal is lahmacun or Turkish pizza, which is dough topped with mince meat and herbs. I was told that the best place to go was Oz Yasemin Pide Lahmacun on the Main Street where it’s cheap and delicious.

How I got out

From Mardin, I took a bus to Diyarbakir from the main otogar (read above on how to get there from the old town). There are many companies stopping in Mardin who continue on to pass through Diyarbakir and will happily drop you. There was a bus that had just arrived and was leaving within 5 minutes, I paid 30TL (AUD$8) for the 1.5 hour trip. It was a very good company, you could ask around for cheaper ones if you don’t mind waiting.

Mardin bazaar

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