The sky in Mardin is a stark, bright turquoise, and completely devoid of clouds. Unfettered by floating water crystals, amplified by the ancient yellow limestone of the city, the sun makes a walk down the street feel like 5 minutes in the microwave. It may be climate change, but it feels like the sun has been here forever. And if this was what the weather was like when the “cradle of civilization” was first crafted, I cannot believe that humanity got off the ground.
Still, the beautiful Syrian brides lining up for photos on the walls around 3,000-year-old Mardin Castle are unbothered by the heat, even in their bead-encrusted white dresses and full makeup. They pose with the countryside in the background, overlooking the border with Syria 30 km away. It seems like an illustration of the cycle of life: against the background of a region where millions of people have lived and died since the paleolithic era, now we document the stirrings of new families, moved to come together even in this deeply shitty age.
It was a rocky start for me, personally, in Mardin. After a 10-hour drive from Cappadocia, where gusty winds grounded our hot air balloon plans but aided our purchase of about 500 carpets, Mardin initially felt like a serotonin-free morning after a bachelor night bender. My husband refused to follow Google Maps’ directions, insisting on driving directly to the hotel “parking lot”, which ended up being whatever free space was available on a windy mountain road on which cars had to take turns to move forward. Once we park, there comes the issue of finding a way into the hotel, but all doors marked with the hotel’s name appear to be locked. My husband tells us to split up, heading down the mountain towards the lobby, while we search for an entrance uphill.
Rounding around the corner of the hotel (door-free), we bump into three young men heading up from a coffee shop. “Where are you going?” they ask in English that is far better than our Turkish. When we say we are trying to find an open door into our hotel, they offer their services. “We are Mardin,” they say. “You are NOT Mardin.”
They take us back up the path, and then when it splits, tell us to turn right into the unknown instead of left, where we would be heading back to our starting point. “This is hotel,” they say, and I think it’s clear that our objectives are diverging: us, to get into the hotel; them, to isolate and rob us.
“No,” I say, pointing at the structure that definitely has our hotel somewhere inside. Even though there are people around us, I no longer feel that safe. Unsure what to do, I walk back towards our car, where my husband’s septuagenarian parents and my 12-year-old son are waiting — to help in case there is a fight? To also get robbed? I’m not sure. “We are fucked,” I say to a horse, dressed up in finery and tied to a stone wall in the sweltering heat.
Like a deus ex machina in a movie, my husband pokes his head out of one of the previously closed doors. My mother-in-law had somehow gained entry earlier, seeking a bathroom. Bless this woman’s bladder! The youths disperse, us saying “thank you” as they depart. Later, my daughter tells me they simply wanted to show us some of the town’s famous sights, seeking a tip for their guide services. I’m not sure if I am being a shriveled up husk of a human being for casting aspersions on their intentions, or if I was actually right.
Later that night, we get lost on the way to our restaurant. The glowing limestone, which gradually changes color as the sun sets, emits a luminescent moonstone sheen in the moonlight, and everything ends up looking the same. So when we finally stumble to the entrance of Leyli Muse Mutfak (https://www.facebook.com/LeyliMuseMutfak/), bordered with greenery and fronted by a tree-filled garden, it feels literally like Paradise.
Because everything in town is made of the same limestone, eating inside is cooler than outside. The interiors are outfitted with vintage radios, record players and clocks, exhibiting a design sensibility similar to Fred Sanford (no one will get this joke). The food, for its part, is excellent, even though it’s so hot I’m not even that hungry. We order a bottle of the local Shiraz and flatbread stuffed with minced meat, as well as minced meat shaped like flatbread, the Mardin version of meatloaf.
The next day, it’s also hot. We go to every museum in town, where we learn that Mardin is smack dab in the northern region of what used to be Mesopotamia, home of the birth of human civilization. At the better of the two museums (helpfully called “Mardin Museum”), we get the approximation of an ancient beef stew recipe from the Assyrian period:
“Chop/slice/dice (many) onions, shallots, garlic, chives, leeks, and scallions. Fry in oil until soft. Remove to bowl. In remaining oil, brown all sides of an eye round pot roast. Add reserved vegetables and season with salt. Turn down heat and simmer in small amount of water to which a half bottle of Guinness out has been added, turning once or twice during cooking. Remove meat. Reduce onion-beer mixture until it is a thick vegetable-rich gravy. Pour over meat, carve and serve.”
We manage to reward ourselves with a late lunch at swanky El Bagdadi, where, inspired by the museums, we get the sprawling “Mesopotamia platter”, comprising every single cold starter on the menu. It is beautiful and we ask for doubles of the artichoke bottoms, even though I have doubts that Mesopotamians actually ate any of this.
As night falls, we sit on the hotel terrace, where we have great views of the sundown over the minarets of the mosque. This is the one great thing about our hotel and something that makes a stay here almost worth it…even in spite of the difficult doors and the poky bidet thing that stabs my butt when I am just minding my own business on the toilet. I will come back to Mardin, maybe. When they install escalators.