Father Gabriyel Akyûz pulls up the sleeve of his hassock to reveal a scrawny, white forearm and a tattoo of a crucifix surrounded by a script I don’t recognise. Although it is early morning and only May, the sun is already blasting and the courtyard of the Forty Martyrs church is uncomfortably hot, so the 57-year-old priest and I retreat into the shade of its high walls. At the very edge of Anatolia, where southern Turkey meets Syria, the city of Mardin sits at the foot of a sheer cliff that stands watch over the flat Mesopotamian plain. This rock has offered men sanctuary for some 7,000 years but the site’s domination of the Silk Road brought wealth as well as security. The Arab Abbasid caliphs in the 11th century and later the Ottomans fortified the summit and built a city at its base. Today a new town sprawls to the north-west of the rock while the old town, famed for its array of both steeples and minarets, has become the focus of a remarkable initiative with no lesser goal than to reverse the passage of time.
A collaboration between the local authority, government and private investors, it aims to strip away the accrued jumble of the past century, demolishing 700 buildings to leave a pristine cityscape of sandblasted Ottoman mansions, mosques, churches and twisting arcaded alleys known as abbara. The project is ambitious and well funded: since its beginnings in 2006, 33m lira (£11.3m) has been spent and 130 concrete buildings torn down. It is a gradual process – rather than relying on compulsory purchase orders, the properties’ owners are offered a package of cash and rehousing, leading to potentially lengthy negotiations.
The aim is to increase annual tourist numbers from the present 1m to at least 5m by 2017. Many of these visitors are middle-class Istanbulis, who make the nearly two-hour flight to Mardin airport for a taste of an authentically Middle Eastern atmosphere that comes without the occasional madness of the real thing. But the world is expected to follow and already there is a new Hilton at the head of one of the many valleys that bring scree and boulders to the edge of the city.
Inside Father Gabriyel’s walls there is no need for renovation as the church and its precincts are pristine. They are kept so by the donations and piety of Mardin’s diaspora Orthodox Assyrian Christian community, adherents of what they claim to be the oldest Christian church in existence, founded by St Peter when he gathered the disciples in Antioch after the death of Christ. Fleeing persecution by the Romans, the early Christians came here, to the empire’s very eastern edge, where the faith was adopted by the local Assyrian population.
Father Gabriyel explains that his tattoo signifies he has made pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Then he translates the unfamiliar script: “Jesus is raised from the dead.” The language is a dialect of Aramaic, the lingua franca of the near east 2,000 years ago. “Christ could understand our language and when he comes back,” Father Gabriyel laughs, “we are ready to translate for you.”
There are few Aramaic speakers now. As well as the terrible suffering of the Armenians during the first world war, from 1890 to the mid-1920s the region witnessed the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Assyrians at the hands of Kurdish bands following Ottoman orders. In the 1980s the vicious guerrilla war between the Kurdish PKK and the Turkish army caused further exodus and the sandbagged military strong points that still stud the valleys testify to the intensity of that conflict.
But things are changing. In the past decade there has been a trickle of older returnees from the Assyrian communities in Germany and Sweden, coming to bury their retirement euro pots in the ancestral soil. And despite, or perhaps because of, that bloody local history, nearly everyone you meet in Mardin – museum guides, local officials, shopkeepers, restaurateurs – will tell you how well the Kurds, Turks, Arabs and Assyrians who live here get on. The alternatives to getting on can be seen from the rooftop terraces of the old town’s main artery, Hükümet Caddesi, which look down to the Syrian border, closed now as Mardin’s neighbours go through their own torment.
Hükümet Caddesi is at the heart of the area that has already been restored, a street of coffee shops and soap sellers – green pistachio soap for dandruff, white pistachio for rough skin – that leads to the renovation project’s centrepiece, the Mardin City Museum. The slice of glittering glass attached to the front of the town’s old Ottoman barracks cost 7m lira, paid for by the Sabanci family, heads of Turkey’s famed industrial group. The inside is as cool and pleasing as the exterior and handily – as my Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic or Aramaic is not what it should be – also explains the region’s past in English. The storytelling is partial perhaps; light on the massacres and the mass emigrations, but sometimes peace is best served by forgetting.
When I ask Father Gabriyel, who I suspect is as much a diplomat as he is a pilgrim, whether the Syrian conflict is affecting Mardin, he assures me it isn’t. The Turkish government takes the same line, declaring the absolute safety of the region. Mardin sits on the edge of a long massif known as Tur Abdin – the mountain of the servants of God. It is an area of astonishing beauty but also sanctity. Dotted with hundreds of ruined monasteries and places of worship, for Assyrians Tur Abdin is second only to Jerusalem in its holiness.
Father Gabriyel must take mass so, pledging to make my own Assyrian pilgrimage the next day, I leave him to his ministrations and wander through the abbara and down the hill to Mardin’s souk. This has yet to be cleaned and reordered and, wandering through its pungent chaos, I wonder if it ever could or should be. The dust in my eyes and the call to prayer from the 14th-century Abdul Latif mosque remind me that I am nearer the Tigris than the Bosphorus. Consequently attitudes to alcohol are less relaxed here and I have to look hard to find an option other than tea. Eventually I find a cold beer in a down-at-heel bar where a man keens to a keyboard accompaniment. The synthesiser sounds as if its controls are set to generic Middle Eastern but the man sings in Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic and the small dark bar is gradually transformed by his laments. When I wake the next morning the melodies are with me as strongly as the smell of cigarettes on my clothes.
Mor Hananyo is three miles east of Mardin, a taxi drive through a collapsing escarpment of shattered tors and bluffs pocked with hermits’ retreats. I start my own pilgrimage not in the darkness of a monk’s cell but sitting in a meadow outside the monastery, watching post-box red poppies bend with the wind. Overhead swallows ride the gusts that will bring a sandstorm from the Syrian Desert and coat the buildings above me, also known as the Saffron monastery, in orange dust.
To reach the monastery of Father Gabriyel’s namesake, Mor Gabriel, requires another hour’s drive east across the plateau through barley fields and vineyards, a sure sign of an Assyrian presence; they need wine for their communion. A mirror of Mardin on the high plateau, Midyat lacks the dramatic rock but has the minarets and steeples that speak of a similarly shared past. Children fly kites on the edge of town and inside the old town has been renovated over the past decade. However, the new cobbles and restored arcades are still a passageway for biblical-era beasts of burden and remain a hazard for sandal wearers.
I take shelter from the dung and the wind behind more walls at the Kasr-I-Nehroz, a private hotel inside an Ottoman town house. This collection of interlinking courtyards, vaulted cellars and breezy ramparts once offered shelter to Assyrians fleeing violence, but today all is calm and in the shady courtyard the landscape comes to my table in the shape of Assyrian wine and lamb encased in bulgur wheat. The wine is good, naturally organic as no one needs fertiliser here, the whites dark, almost orange, with a hint of botrytis; the reds soft and comforting.
Moving on to Mor Gabriel I pass through rock-littered hillsides and past fields where Kurdish girls in bright floral headscarves sit under olive trees and men walk behind ploughs pulled by horses. It is an ancient scene but the interior of Mor Gabriel offers an even older one. The monastery’s main church was built in AD512 and, although Tamerlane’s Mongols took the gold and silver from the ceiling, the apse retains mosaics of the saints that shimmer with gold leaf. It is said that a woman who sleeps here will conceive – and women come from across the Assyrian diaspora to do just that.
Further devotion is marked by the slogan masallah – “if God wills it” – emblazoned on the trucks we pass on the precipitous road that falls back down to the plain. But not all Kurds here follow the call of Islam. The Tur Abdin is also home to some 500 of the world’s 1m Yazidi, whose syncretic faith includes elements of shamanism and Zoroastrianism. The men grow large moustaches and can be recognised in restaurants because they will not eat lettuce, which, delightfully, is holy to them.
Such faiths thrive in the margins between more orthodox powers and 1,400 years ago this region was contested by the Christian Byzantine empire and the Zoroastrian Sassanid Persians. On the edge of the plain Justinian, the great Byzantine emperor, ordered the fortification of the city of Dara, nine miles of walls and 28 towers, to stake the Byzantine claim to the rich soil of Mesopotamia. The Sassanids in turn attacked and in AD530 were smashed by the Byzantine general Belisarius outside the city walls. Much of those walls survive today as, within 100 years of the battle, the coming of Islam ended the confrontation between Byzantines and Sassanids and Dara slipped into obscurity.
Now Kurdish villagers live among the ruins, clinging to their homes despite rehousing offers from a government keen to develop the site as a historical attraction. I wander between the houses, then descend into a cavernous stone cistern that appears unchanged since Justinian’s men dug it out. Emerging into the light, my eyes have only a moment to adjust before a young girl appears and offers me a garland of wild flowers. She runs away, laughing, over the paving slabs of an agora that once rang to the calls of Byzantine street traders.
On the other side of the village archeologists have uncovered a stunning necropolis in a hidden valley. The exposed cliffs are honeycombed with tombs dug into the soft limestone. Under the floor of a church that dates back to the fourth century is a burial site containing 100 male bodies, many of them armed with swords and some accompanied by their horses. Like Father Gabriyel, they are waiting for the call.
Michael Hodges was a guest of the Turkish Culture and Tourism Office (www.gototurkey.co.uk). He stayed at the Erdoba Elegance Hotel (www.erdobaelegance.com; doubles from £62) and flew with Turkish Airlines(www.thy.com; daily flights from London to Mardin, via Istanbul, from £315)