Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter in Mardin

For Spring Break this year, I crossed miles of Anatolia to visit an old friend, the city of Mardin, which I visited three years ago this spring on a long road trip through eastern Turkey.  In 2010, it was a whirlwind 36 hour-tour of Mardin, and I vowed then to return to this city for a longer wander, its having left a strong impression on me as serene, old, mystical, cosmopolitan, kissed by Arabia.

I booked a room in the same hotel as last time, the Antik Tatlidede, with terrace overlooking the 270 kilometer-long green plain of the Upper Mesopotamian Valley.
The hotel:
The view:

My time here overlaps with others' from Ankara and Izmir, but also affords me a few days alone to take in the city at a more leisurely pace.

A pre-breakfast sketching session.  This mosque from the 1300s is right around the corner from my hotel.

Most interesting to me is the city's cosmopolitan feel which comes from its history (since 8000 BC) as a cosmopolitan center of many ethnicities and religions.  It's perched atop a steep hillside along the Silk Road, at a spot where travelers had to stop.  Between the 9th and 11th centuries travel was at its peak.  Today the population is still cosmopolitan, a mix of Kurds, Syrian Christians, Turks, and Arabs.  You'll hear any of these languages spoken on the street.

The city is one of the unique models in the "Middle East" of Muslims and Christians living peacefully side by side.  They celebrate each other's holidays together, including Islam's Sacrifice and Sugar Holidays and Christians' Easter, Christmas and New Years.

The earliest Christians to arrive in the area were the Syrian Orthodox Christians. The Syrian Church was established in the area in the lifetime of Jesus.  He was invited by King Abgar I of Edessa (now the city of Sanliurfa) to move his ministry to Mardin; the rumor is he politely declined and sent a handkerchief bearing his face as a gift.  The handkerchief was lost to Arab conquerors.

But the Syrian Christians' religion was not.  It survived the Arab occupation of Mardin from 640 to 1104 because of then Caliph Umar's decree: "These are my fatherless children.  Take them under your protection and do not dare to touch them!" The Christians were also left alone by the Selcuk and Turcoman rulers.  At one point, there were Armenian Christians, Catholics, and Jews living here as well.  Today the majority of the Christian population remaining is of the Monophystic (Jacobite) belief and belong to the Syrian Orthodox Church. Monophysticism claims that Jesus only had a divine nature, not both a human and a divine nature.  

This city is so used to living peacefully as a cultural mix. Though the border of Syria is only 25 kilometers away, the city feels just as serene as when I visited it in 2010.  The current conflict at the border is centered more in the Hatay region of Turkey.

Today, eleven churches remain in the small old city center, though the community is dwindling and the priests rotate between the churches offering services. I was happy to see my Spring Break fell on Easter weekend; I've wanted for a long time to come back and see how Mardin celebrates this religious holiday.  Muslims call Easter "Hassitmarane" and celebrate it alongside the Christians by boiling eggs and coloring them red, and drinking the bitter coffee, mirra.  "His It Mereni" is also what they call a celebration of the awakening of Spring.

Unfortunately, as I learned today, the Syrian Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter some 30 days later. So we weren't able to see an Easter service, but we did watch a regular Sunday service at the Mort Simuni Church.  The women and men sat on separate sides of the church, the smell of incense emanated the small plainly decorated chapel, and the women and men took turns sing-chanting hymns in Aramaic, Jesus' language and the official language of the Syrian Orthodox Church.
 I was fascinated by the graveyard abound with spring flowers.

After the service at Mort Simuni Church, we hired a taxi to take us eight kilometers outside of the city, to Deyr-az-Zaferan or "the Saffron Monastery," founded in 493 AD by the Syrian Orthodox Christians.
  Tablet with Aramaic inscription:
The monastery was built atop a pagan sun-worshipping center, said to be used as long ago as 2000 BC.  The vault is topped by a stone ceiling constructed without mortar, and the hole at the end of the room is for worshipping the sunrise.  

 After my first round of friends left Mardin to return to Ankara, I spent the afternoon wandering the narrow streets of Mardin with my camera.  



The architecture is unique to battle the extreme climate.  No shadow of one house falls on another so that the roof of one house serves as the terrace for another. 

The sun's rays do not penetrate into the window of any house and the narrow streets run opposite to the sun's rays to remain in shade in the summer's extreme temperatures. The limestone walls serve to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter.  "Abbaras" or archway passages serve as playgrounds for children, though urban legend forbids play in certain ones said to be occupied by fairies at night.

The primary motifs in the masonry are spirals, tulips, grapes, and carnations. A mannequin mason hard at work:

I also happened upon the Church of the Forty Martyrs which was built in 539AD. There, I ran into a Syrian Orthodox man whom we met at Mort Simuni Church. He remembered my name and invited me to have tea with him in the courtyard.  Serviousu is a middle-aged Syrian man who teaches Syrian and Bible Studies in Istanbul and Mardin.  He studied as a child at the Deyr-az-Zaferan or "the Saffron Monastery" outside of Mardin. He taught me that the Church of Forty Martyrs gets its name from the forty men who protested the Roman massacre of Christians during the rule of the Roman emperor Licinius (308-324 AD), and were then drowned in the lake in the city of Sivas.
I ended the day with a visit to the Sakip Sabanci Mardin City Museum where I learned a lot of this information, and saw a temporary exhibit on Turkey's most famous photojournalist, Ara Guler.  His work entails black and white photographs of faces from all over Turkey in the 1950s.  In the 60s, he was named one of the world's top seven photographers.  Check out his stuff!  It's very poignant.  

I have three more days to explore Mardin, so check back for more...

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