The Children of Mardin

The splendor of old times is preserved in Mardin, whose streets wind around the high walls of chateau-like houses. And the owners of those streets are the children. Listen closely as they whisper a fairy tale of the East.

Children are the lead actors in the narrow streets lined with centuries-old Mardin houses and their intricate stone masonry. Dozens of pairs of dark eyes wait on every corner, watching intently, listening, talking. The eyes not only of Mardin but of Mesopotamia, crossroads of cultures, which has nurtured the oldest civilizations in human history in its bosom. An enthusiastic chorus greets every foreigner it meets with a friendly 'hello' in the stone-paved streets that have borne witness to countless cultures. Faces of undisguised innocence, faces of children who string together the few English words they know to greet every foreigner - whoever he is, wherever he comes from - that they see in the streets of Mardin, their playground. Don't be content merely to pat them on the head, chuck them under the chin or palm them off with a piece of candy. Join in their games. Listen to them. Let them tell you the secrets of Mardin...

Faysal, Gabriel and Bejan... Theirs is a friendship like the fate of Mardin itself, which has sustained the brotherhood of Turk, Kurd, Arab and Assyrian for centuries. As heirs to the ancient civilizations, many of them speak three languages at home: Kurdish because of their mothers, Arabic because of their fathers, and the Turkish they learn in school.  You can observe this all over the city. The more we make friends with the children of Mardin, the more we realize that being in Mardin means being in a multilingual, multilingual, multi-religious city. They describe the ageing story-tellers who provide lively entertainment on Mardin nights that scintillate like a necklace worthy of a princess. The folk poets, that is, who gather the children around them in a different house each night and never tire of regaling their listeners for hours with tales of the old days. Following in the footsteps of the children, you must delve again into Mardin's labyrinthine streets, eager to learn the language of the stones. As you trudge up and down the main thoroughfare, the only thing that doesn’t match the city's otherwise homogeneous texture is  damp, narrow streets. Ducking under the wind-swept terraces, you are safe now in the shortcut tunnels known as 'abbara' that run beneath them, connecting the streets one to the other. You become a child yourself as you skip up and down the stone staircases. And when you are a guest on one of the terraces, you feel free and unconstrained, like the children of Mardin...

Mardin stands at the edge of Diyarbakır plain like a dazzling ring fashioned by a master jeweler around the castle which is its precious stone. Again, children's faces everywhere you look. Children - gazing on the endless Plain of Mardin through the windows of stone mansions, selling tissues, belt buckles, evil eye beads and necklaces in front of madrasas, churches and dervish lodges, awaiting their masters in front of the silversmiths' shops. In the daytime their favorite pastime is showing tourists around. Amateur cicerones, they will buzz around you like flies, never leaving you alone for a minute. Even if you have already have a guidebook, they will show you around Mardin for an entire day for just a lira or two. Show a little interest and immediately they will begin telling you about the city: here the Church of the
Forty Martyrs, there the Deyrulzafaran Monastery and directly opposite it the Kasımiye Madrasa; what you see over there is the Great Mosque, on one side the Vaulted Market, on the other the Coppersmiths' Bazaar. And here Mardin Castle...  This is the landscape all the Mardin houses face at more or less the same angle: the vast grey expanse of the Upper Mesopotamia Plain.

As you scurry along in the wake of your indefatigable 'little friends', you will come to the bazaar district spread over a rather large area to the south of the main road. Here you will have no trouble finding not only lovely velvets but an endless variety of fabrics both plain and embroidered, as well as shawls and headscarves from the Near East, Indian batiks, and red and black keffiyehs from Syria. Like a giant fairground in the eyes of
the children, the bazaar area still bears traces of Mardin's commercial vitality of old. As you stroll through its streets, each one reserved for a different craft, you will hear a soft yet distinctive accent at every turn. You might actually imagine yourself in some old North African or Near Eastern medina. Even the city's main drag has been transformed into a bazaar of sorts today with shops both modern and traditional.

Poetry in stone
In defiance of the multistory concrete buildings that blight the outskirts of the New City, Mardin's traditional houses continue to preserve all the refinement of the past. Mardin, which perpetuates Near Eastern elegance in our day, owes the outline of its stone houses to the Assyrians and their stone workmanship to the Armenian masters. If you have visited the mansion of Cercis Murat, the Erdoba Houses and the Cebburiler's House, used today as the Gazipaşa Primary School, then be sure to make your way as well to the gracious homes of Mardin's established families such as the Mungan's, the Ensari's and the Tatlıdede's. Indeed, ring their doorbells and enter a Mardin house as an unannounced guest. Don't be surprised either if you are served a lavish feast in one of these Mardin houses with their heavy ornate furniture, their built-in cupboards with glass doors, and their chandeliers, braziers and giant mirrors. A typical Mardin repast with 'sembusek' (a variety of  lahmacun), nut and spice-filled meatballs, stuffed rack of lamb, walnut 'sausage', sumac syrup, saffron-tinted 'zerde' pudding, and the bitter post-prandial coffee known as 'mırra' is a virtual parade of the mystical flavors of the East.  And what better to do after such an unforgettable meal than to fall in behind your little friends once again?

As we stroll down the damp, narrow, winding streets through the bazaars that merge one into the other, at every corner we make a closer acquaintance with the tightly woven historic texture of this city of gates, door knockers and elaborately carved window frames, virtual poetry in stone. Until, that is, a sudden shower catches us unawares. As we wait under the eaves of a stone mansion for the rain to let up, our guide Faysal takes us by the hand and drags us through one of the ancient gates. Hidden among the workshops of the Carpenters' Bazaar there is an artisans' coffeehouse here, its door barely discernible. Our traditional bitter 'mırra', a local specialty, is poured into tiny cups from the long-handled metal coffeepot known as a 'gum gum'.  A little later some Mardin tumbling pigeons swoop into view. As these symbols of peace dive swiftly to earth before rising again in somersaults to the height of a minaret to merge with the sky's azure, the evening sun stains the vast Mardin Plain slowly purple...