Mardin Old City – An Open Air Museum

A city located within ancient Mesopotamia, it’s of no surprise that this place is notably known as an open-air museum. The entire city is filled with sites dating back to the 12-15th century. Due to the civilised societies beginning to take shape here in the distant past, Mardin became known to be part of the ‘Cradle of Civilisation’.

As we wondered through the cobblestoned streets and narrow alleyways of this Turkish city, we could not help but notice the historic houses built from beige coloured limestone rock. A type of brick that has been mined for hundreds of years.  I did wonder how the Old City was preserved very well in terms of its ancient buildings constructed many centuries ago and was told that this is because the Old City of Mardin is now a UNESCO site. This means that it is forbidden to construct new buildings within the Old City in order to keep intact and preserve its façade.

Lots of Walking in Mardin

Strategically located 35km from the Syrian border, the city is known to home a vast number of Syrian refugees. Though the exact number is unknown, a pretty good guess would place the number somewhere around 100,000.

Since the 2011 Syrian War, many Syrians fled to nearby Turkey to find peace and a second home from all the terror they endured. With the third longest wall built in 2016/2017 splitting Turkey and Syria, Qamishli was the city from which many Syrians made their way into Turkey, eventually heading towards Mardin.

Whilst Mardin may have accepted many refugees from Syria, it was once-upon- a-time a place many had to flee from. Though the city was home to thousands of Assyrians and Armenians Pre-World War 1, it was during the Armenian Genocide that many had to flee, and worse, many lost their lives. With the Assyrians that did remain, many of them fled to the nearby Syrian city of Qamishli across the border from Turkey in 1940, to avoid the compulsory military programme.

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Then there’s the matter of Kurdistan. Geographically, the entire region including Mardin is referred to as Kurdistan. This region which included the city of Mardin was once home to the Kurdish people. It is for this reason that we found many Arabs, Turkish and Kurdish people residing in this very place. Despite the differences of backgrounds, religions and history, everyone in this city seemed to get on with one another in a peaceful and cooperative manner.

Travelling around Turkey, I learnt of the mood of the Turkish people when it came to the matter of the influx of Syrian refugees. Many accepted the idea and had only good things to say, whilst others disliked the idea of the refugees coming in great numbers. However, after asking the Imam of Seyh Cabuk Mosque in Mardin, I found the best answer. Referring back to the Qur’an, he read the following verse, “The believers are nothing else than brothers” [49:10]. After hearing different opinions, this by far was the most peaceful thing I heard. Of course, it comes as no surprise. Mardin has been home to harmonious living between Christians, Muslims & Jews for centuries.

This is another thing that makes the city great. Whilst there are synagogues in the Southeast Turkey region, I did not come across one in Mardin. But I did notice both Mosques and churches within the same Old City. Church bells ring whilst the Muezzin calls out the Adhan with such enthusiasm, that it brings the city to a religious and spiritual climax.

Old City Mardin

The highlights of our journey include visiting the Ulu Camii (Grand Mosque), the Zincirye Medrese and the Kasimiye Medrese. Whilst both Ulu Camii and Zinciriye Medrese are located within the Old City of Mardin, Kasimiye Medrese is a few minutes’ drive out of the Old City. They are all are must-see sites when visiting this city. There is a castle in the city, however it is now being used by the military and is no longer open for visitors.

The Ulu Camii was probably founded in the 11th or 12th century as there are plaques dating back to the Seljuk, Artuqid and Ottoman period. As you enter through the gates, you’ll be welcome by an expansive but rather plain courtyard. The minaret is unique in its design unlike many other minarets throughout the country. It has a cylinder shape and a base that is square and can be seen quite visibly from many parts of the city. Like many mosques around the world, visitors do not need to get near the mosque to appreciate the fine ornaments of the minaret.

Zinciriye Medrese

Both the Zinciriye Medrese and Kasimiye Medrese are well worth the visit. Both were constructed to accomodate students and teachers teaching complex topics to students from nearby and further regions. The Zinciriye Medrese dates back to the 14th century. The highlight of this complex is most definitely its grandiose doorway exhibiting nothing but valour. Though it was closed when we visited due to it being hired for wedding photography, we peeked through the gates and got a partial vide of the courtyard, mosque and tomb. On the other hand, we did get the opportunity to visit the Kasimiye Madrasa. Smooth cut stone was used when constructing the courtyard of this place, as well it’s dome and floors and the doorways have been intentionally built shorter than normal, to promote humility when students entered their classrooms for lessons.

Classroom doors are kept deliberately low to ensure students would bow out of respect before their teachers as they entered

Driving around the entire region of Southeast Turkey was an experience that will be cherished. The hospitality, the misplaced Syrians, the ancient buildings, the people, the food, the landscapes, and the stories have all come together to make this one of the most eye-opening trips so far! Although we’re home, a part of us remains in that region. It was a difficult return journey and we desperately wanted to stay back for some more time. Cities such as Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, Harran, Mardin & Nusaybin is where one is truly transported back in time to a world that is living in the present whilst keeping alive the past. I had my reservations about going very close to Syria, but I have not had a better experience! A lot of stuff was offered to us for free, village residents would assist without holding back and we were offered Turkish tea so much that we ended up drinking more than we would water. I urge more people to visit the city of Mardin and the entire Southeast region of Turkey to experience a part of Turkey that is seldom visited.


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