With its last stone mansions standing up to time, Savur is a ‘miniature Mardin within Mardin'.

His cane in his other hand, he takes my arm and walks with me. “Don’t be upset,” he tells me. “But Savur isn’t going to be as green this spring. It never snowed once all winter. There’s going to be a drought this summer.” It hasn’t been five minutes since I met this old gentleman, the first person I saw on the street at this early morning hour. Following a greeting, he consoles me after I lament, “I seem to have come a little early. Nothing is green yet. I’m not going to be able to get any green photographs of Savur.” 

Our conversation actually begins when I ask him to recommend a barber. Not content with merely pointing one out, he is so gracious as to actually take me there, as if I am his house guest. And naturally he asks me more questions than I can answer on such a short walk. If you’re a newcomer, of course they’re going to have questions. “Who is he? What’s he doing here? Where’s he staying? When’s he going back?”

But I don’t mind. After all, the first thing I noticed when I arrived here is that a new face immediately attracts attention. Before I even sit down to breakfast I’m treated to a pre-conversation at the restaurant: “Are you a teacher? A government official? Newly appointed?” What else could it be if a new face has arrived in the township? Especially in this season when the first tourist isn’t expected for at least another month.

Our plan was actually to photograph Savur in the snow and write a travel article about a Mardin we aren’t accustomed to seeing. But the news of snowfall we were waiting for never came. It was a mild winter, and this town built of stone, situated at a warm spot in the southeast, got almost no snow this year. Surrounded by poplars and dotted with fields, Mardin’s Savur township is fed by the Savur River, a small stream that runs as far as the north end of the Tigris. Touring Savur therefore means walking knee deep in roses, violets and carnations in all seasons. The stone-paved streets are named for these flowers in an acknowledgment of the city’s deep-rooted and refined culture.

The story of my coming here goes back at least six months. To my encounter with a photograph I saw in the hotel where I stayed on one of my early visits. In that first moment when I saw Savur  I thought it was a photograph of Mardin taken from an angle I’d been unaware of until then, and I was very peeved at myself for not having got that shot myself. When I looked more closely I realized that although it looked a lot like a view of Mardin it was actually quite different; not long afterwards I learned that it was the township of Savur, which looks like a miniature Mardin with its stone buildings, its minarets and its muted red and yellow hues. And now, at this very instant of what could be regarded as the early morning hours, here I am looking for a barber in the company of an ageing gentleman. Like him, you too may be taken aback by my quest, but it is imperative that I find a barber before I visit the stately mansions of Savur.

Because, following some brief conversations I had at the House of Teachers, I learned that the first person whose name pops up at the mention of stone mansions here is a certain Mehmet Tahir Ökmen, who is known to be a somewhat persnickety gentleman. Before meeting him I want to shed my wanderer’s appearance, which would not contribute much to making a good first impression.

Standing behind the shop window of a woodframe storefront painted blue, Ekrem Ağabey runs a charming little barbershop with two chairs lined up side by side surrounded by stone-carved walls with mirrors and shaving equipment. Obviously there is nothing unusual about the first customer of the day arriving with another in tow.  When I tell him I’m going to go to the mansion, he takes special care with me. “He is persnickety,” he tells me. “That’s true”. Brandishing the razor with dexterity, he shaves me without mishap.

Two mansions, both visible from different points in Savur, are virtual museums of inestimable value for the town. These are the mansions of Hacı Baba Abdullah Bey and Hacı Oğul Hamdullah Bey. ‘Hacı’ is a term of respect used for Muslims who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

When I enter Kadife (Velvet) Street through a stone passageway, or ‘abbara', below one of Savur’s houses,  a magnificent mansion suddenly appears before me, one well worth all my elaborate preparations. Waiting for me in front of a gate as tall as two men which separates the large, enclosed courtyard from the street is Mehmet Tahir Öktem Bey, owner of the Hacı Hamdullah Bey Mansion. The ceilings are, in a word, high. There are Paşa Dede’s sword and tasseled uniform, a hundred-year-old German stove, and walnut doors carved like lace.

Mehmet Bey introduces me to the family elders whose black-and-white photographs line the walls. It’s like being in a gathering of friends. Photographs of family members hang prominently on the walls of every room here: Seyfullah Bey, who served the state for 37 years, in a photograph dating to 1926, Tahir Bey, a permanent member of the cabinet in the same year and, taking pride of place, Hacı Abdullah Bey himself with his hoary white beard and black fur collar.

We talk of the days when a great empire was spoken of. Abdullah Bey it seems was  in the poplar trade when the Germans were building the railroad to Aleppo and used to transport the poplars down the Tigris to the rail line. Known as a great philanthropist, he regularly dispersed Mecidiye coins on the town square on Fridays. It is said that when the Ottoman Empire was mobilizing for the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 he opened his home to refugees from Kars and Erzurum for months.

Wherever there is a stone house in Savur, Mehmet Bey has got something to do with it. “Savur is all built up now,” he says. “Where has all the beauty gone?”

There are even people who see Savur on their way to Mardin from the southeast and stay the night here thinking it actually is Mardin. Whole convoys sometimes that take the town for Mardin the minute they set eyes on it. No longer able to find the Savur of his childhood, Mehmet Bey has undertaken to create an official conservation area for close to twenty houses in an effort to preserve at least those that are still standing. “The outstanding feature of this mansion,” he says, “is that it’s easy to get around in. In other words, you can get to anywhere in the house by using the corridors, stairs and tunnels without ever setting foot outdoors - whether it’s the stable, the courtyards or the rooms. Three storeys high, it has eleven bedrooms, two living rooms, three balconies, a stable and a cellar. Each bedroom has a bathroom with hot running water. Another feature of the architecture is that the drain pipes on the roof channel water into a storage tank under the house all winter long. When you consider the period in which it was built, this house is a virtual monument to civilization.” It needs a lot of daughters-in-law, a lot of children, I comment as I’m leaving. Otherwise how to fill all these rooms? “Well, it’s just us,” he replies with a smile.

After leaving Savur’s carefully preserved traditional stone houses, I survey the landscape stretching in both directions north and south from the castle ruins. And I add a stroll among the poplars along the stream to the things I do here before departing.

The next day I set out for my last stop ten kilometers outside Savur. The Syrian Orthodox village of  Dereiçi (Kıllıt), famous for its Protestant and Catholic churches and monasteries, its Mor Yuhannon Orthodox Church dating back almost 1700 years and its traditional homemade products. I am in one of the hundreds of rooms of the Mor Abay monastery, in a visiting area quiet now in the absence of the residents who have migrated to the four corners of the earth. I decide to continue on my way in pursuit of things I can’t do by reading, listening or looking at photographs.

We are grateful to Mr. Mehmet Kılıçlar, the governor of Mardin province, for his contributions.