Dara

Harboring a hitherto little known Mardin, the Dara ruins 30 km from Nusaybin continue to preserve their age-old secrets.

It’s impossible to stroll through the streets of Mardin and not be struck by the architecture and stone workmanship and the stories they tell. Yet after taking my fill of photographs of Mardin children, I decided to hit the road again. Thirty kilometers along the highway to Nusaybin I came upon the village of Oğuz. Putting aside my astonishment at how I’d missed Dara before as I drove on to more remote destinations, I have to admit I realized instantly that I was surrounded by an ancient Mardin inextricably intertwined with the village.
It was about to rain. The environs were quite dry and the pervasive tone was yellow. Children, village life, precisely cut stones and a Roman city all melded seamlessly into one another.
As I strolled among the domes, aqueducts and cisterns, an array of rock-cut tombs like those at Cappadocia, cave dwellings 8-10 meters in depth like those at Hasankeyf, and stone-carved figures and inscriptions in the walls appeared before me, whetting my curiosity and inspiring joy. Joy because it was at precisely that moment that I began to make the acquaintance of a different Mardin, in the Roman city of Dara - Anastasiopolis, dating back to the 6th century and so powerful that it was able to fend off invading armies.

MESOPOTAMIA’S FIRST DAM
The children of Dara had already fallen in in front of me to be my guides. This ancient city is known as the second most important border city, after the Southeastern metropolis of Nisibis (modern Nusaybin), of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. According to the sources, the Silk Road, that artery of international trade, ran through it. This capital of the transit trade was at one time even the seat of a bishopric until its importance waned following a period of incessant raids.
The ruins that rose before me as I strolled through the city bore evidence to corroborate these things. The informative signs say that Dara is the city where Mesopotamia’s first dam and irrigation canals were built. Traces of those canals, whose astonishing orderliness strikes one even today, are still in place, and the many cisterns and water storage depots point to a water-based civilization. A trench and a large room with a pool are what is left of a system that could control the rate of flow of the water or interrupt it completely.
The rock-cut dwellings and churches with their ceiling decorations and walls carved with figures of Mary, Jesus and the cross tell the story of the city’s encounter with Christianity. But Dara played host to a number of religions in its various periods, and religious diversity also brought conflict in its wake - a situation in evidence even today and the reason why you can see elements of so many different religions all in one place here.
Fragments of the city of Dara, which has been dubbed the Ephesus of Mesopotamia, have been used in the construction of the present-day village, which makes it difficult to arrive at clearcut data regarding the city.

THE EXCAVATIONS CONTINUE
In the book, ‘Mardin, Memory of Stone’, Prof. Metin Ahunbay, director of the Dara excavations, writes of the city: “The second largest ancient city in the province of ancient Mardin is Dara-Anastasiopolis, founded by the Roman emperor Anastasius and bearing his name. (Construction begun in 505 A.D.) The terrain is especially suitable for settlement: A large stream flows between the slopes of the valley in a north-south direction. A hill in the city’s northern sector is the spot most conducive to settlement; encircled by defense walls, Anastasiopolis - Dara is in the position of a ‘citadel’, and even today is known as the ‘Fortress Quarter’ of the village of Oğuz.”
In the sources Dara is mentioned as a garrison town. Ahunbay says that the design of the city’s defense walls exhibits a similarity with the military architecture of Northern Syria in Late Antiquity and speaks of majestic three-storey towers where soldiers could be deployed to defend the city. Nonetheless little survives today of the city’s defense walls, which were the scene of great battles between the Romans and the Sasanians of Iran. The city has two gates, one opening in the direction of Nusaybin, which was an important commercial center in the period. Prof. Ahunbay gives information about the dam system and the trench that lay in front of this gate: “Special installations were built at the spots where the stream that ran through the city entered and exited. The arched openings in the walls allowed for the flow of water in both directions. Before it entered the city, the water at the river’s entrance was collected in a large pool. Through special sluices, it was then emptied into the trench from which it entered the city via canals.”

WHERE THE SOIL IS GOLD
As I continue to stroll through the city with the children of Dara, they show me some coins they’ve found left from the Roman period.
Soon an elderly granny who lives in the village of Oğuz is trying to sell us a clay pot together with the soil in it, because she believes, or so she says, that this soil is gold. And perhaps she is not entirely unjustified. After all, we are in the middle of a magnificent Roman city that has been forgotten in time, on soil that is the color of pure gold.