Originally built at the border between the Roman and Persian empires, Dara now lies just beside the modern-day border between Turkey and Syria. Located 30 km southeast of Mardin, Dara Ancient City is an overlooked archaeological site from the Byzantine era that shouldn’t be missed by those touring the region.
In this guide, we’ll be covering the history of Dara, tips on visiting the site and Dara Ancient City’s main highlights.
Dara: A Brief History
Dara was established by Emperor Anastasius (r. 491-518) in 507 AD, though a small border town had previously existed at the spot.
By then, the Romans and Persians had already been arch rivals for centuries, and the animosity persisted between the Byzantines and the Sassanids.
The Persian Sassanids already possessed a fortress in the nearby town of Nusaybin, and the Byzantines decided to build one at Dara in response.
Being so close to water sources, it made for a strategic location. And Dara would soon become the military and administrative center for Roman Mesopotamia.
The initial construction, however, was rushed and shoddy, prompting the next emperor, Justinian I (r. 527-565), to make lots of repairs.
And this was a smart move, as in 530, the town was host to a famous historical battle, appropriately known as the Battle of Dara. It was part of the larger Iberian War (526-532), in which Eastern Rome and Persia fought over Georgia.
Despite being outnumbered, the Byzantines saw victory at Dara. They were led by General Belisarius, who’d famously go on to suppress the Nika riots in Constantinople two years later.
But Dara would be the site of many more battles, and the Sassanids managed to occupy it in 574, holding it for a couple of decades. News of the loss even caused Emperor Justinian II to lose his mind.
Eventually, following a peace treaty, the Persians returned Dara to the Byzantines in 590. But when fighting resumed in 605, the Persians occupied Dara again and completely destroyed it.
Despite being retaken and rebuilt by the Byzantines in 628, it was soon captured by the Arabs, who also managed to conquer much of Upper Mesopotamia.
Dara would remain a functioning city for the next several hundred years, but it would never live up to its former glory. After a few centuries of Artukid control, the city was eventually abandoned in the 13th century.
And Dara remained empty for a long time. It wasn’t until the late 1700s, in fact, that a village was established at the spot again.
Currently, the small village is comprised of ethnic Kurds who go about their daily lives amidst what survives of the ancient ruins.
Visiting Dara Ancient City
EXPLORING THE SITE: Access to the entire site is free, and it’s open to visitors every day except Monday.
Unlike most archaeological sites in Turkey, the ruins of Dara Ancient City are scattered amongst a modern village. Navigating is tricky for a number of reasons. The locals have usurped the ancient stone to use in new buildings or walls, so it’s often unclear if what you see in the distance are ruins or someone’s backyard!
While there’s good informational signage at the landmarks themselves, it’s not easy to figure out where to go next. Therefore, it would be wise to start off by studying the only complete map of the site which is posted by the entrance to the tombs, across from the cafe.
While the locals are very friendly, be mindful of young children who may try to follow you around. Some are selling trinkets while others are simply begging. Stay alert, as they may try to reach their hands in your pockets!
GETTING THERE: Dara Ancient City is situated about 30 km southeast of Mardin and about 6 km from the border with Syria. While you can hire a taxi, expect to pay at least a few hundred lira including wait time.
Fortunately, there is a public bus available, which only costs 7.5 lira each way.
The bus does not leave on Sundays, and since the site is also closed Mondays, plan your trip accordingly. And if you intend to take the bus, be sure to ask a local for the specific details, as there’s no reliable online source of information.
In my case, one of the managers of my rental apartment knew the bus driver personally and called him for me. I made sure to wait on the road by the Mardin Minibus Terminal (see map here) and got on a grayish, greenish bus that had Dara written on it. This was around 1 pm, and we arrived at Dara 30 minutes later.
The final return bus to Mardin would then come back to pick everyone up at 15:00. This only gave me 1.5 hours to explore the site.
While this was enough time to see most of the highlights, I missed the impressive ‘Water Collection and Distribution Center’ in the northern part of Dara. If possible, try to leave earlier in the morning, though I can’t confirm if morning buses even exist.
Those renting a car will have the easiest time. According to a local I met, seeing everything in Dara would require at least 6 hours!
Many visitors start their tour around Dara Ancient City with the main cistern. Dara’s cisterns provided the Byzantines with prolonged access to water, even when the Sassanids cut off the flow from the outside.
Massive amounts of water were stored in these underground engineering marvels, from where they were then distributed throughout the rest of the city.
Stepping inside the relatively unassuming stone structure on the surface, you’ll find a staircase taking you deeper underground. Before long, you’ll find yourself in the massive subterranean chamber – now completely dry.
If you’ve been to Istanbul, you’ll see that it’s quite similar to the famous Basilica Cistern. That cistern, in fact, was constructed right around the same time. The one in Dara Ancient City is not quite as expansive, but it’s quite impressive nonetheless.
Around the Agora
After visiting the cistern, head southeast to see the Agora. You’ll first arrive at the main stone-paved street, stretching out to around 50 meters wide.
Though largely in ruin, on either side of the street were spaces for shopping and markets. Caravans traveling along the Silk Road would stop in Dara to sell their wares, and you can picture the lively atmosphere with a bit of imagination.
Not far from the main street is the bridge – the best-preserved of four built in Dara Ancient City. Its three arches have survived intact over the centuries, though the Cordes River below has long since dried up.
Impressively, Dara’s walls once stood as high as 20 meters. They also featured four main gates, one for each cardinal direction. Little remains today, however, except for a few small sections.
Near the end of the main street, you can find the surviving portion of the southern gate. Note the arched openings through which the flowing river water would leave the city.
Not far from the southern wall is a surviving bastion which was also used as a mill. But it probably wasn’t established until Dara’s resurgence in the late 18th century following centuries of abandonment.
Residents in these times used the power of the flowing water to help push the grinding stone. But unsurprisingly, the mill was deserted once the river dried up.
There are numerous other interesting stone structures to check out in the Agora area, many of them unlabelled. It’s a fun area to explore, but be sure to keep your eye on the time if you have a return bus to catch.
Near the southernmost limits of Dara Ancient City, you can witness an interesting sight. In the foreground are the remains of Dara’s original walls that marked the boundary between the Byzantine and Persian empires.
And in the distance behind them is the modern border between Turkey and Syria. Despite the turmoil that’s been taking place on that side over the years, Dara felt surprisingly calm and relaxed.
The West Cistern
Back over on the other side of the first cistern, there’s another one to the southwest. But unlike the more popular one, which sees a constant stream of visitors, you’ll likely find yourself alone here.
This cistern was built with the capacity to hold over 1500 m3 of water, and it most likely served the nearby necropolis area. Archaeologists discovered it full of landfill and had to painstakingly clear it out before opening it up for tourists.
Back outside, near the cistern’s entrance, you’ll be able to spot some interesting rock formations and tombs. While not yet the main necropolis area, there are multiple such areas all throughout Dara Ancient City.
If time is on your side, it would now be a good idea to head northeast to see the Water Collection and Distribution Center that was carved out of the bedrock. Sadly, in my case, I had to miss it due to time constraints.
Carved directly out of the limestone bedrock, the rock-cut tombs of the necropolis are Dara Ancient City’s most striking feature.
Interestingly, when the Byzantines were first building Dara from scratch, this area was used as a limestone quarry. But as time passed and Dara’s residents started to age, the town needed a necropolis. And the flat walls of the quarried bedrocks served as the perfect host for sets of tombs.
The tombs here date from the 6th century all the way to the 14th. The most impressive rock-cut tombs are among the oldest, while the stone sarcophagi and small pits in the ground are from long after Dara’s glory days.
There are many rock tomb sites all throughout Turkey, such as the various Lycian tombs along the Mediterranean coast. And of course, there’s also Cappadocia, home to countless rock-cut dwellings and churches.
But thanks to its history as a quarry, Dara’s necropolis has a unique look and feel to it, with many sections of the rock appearing like sets of stairs.
Interestingly, many of the tombs were carved in accordance with the Mithraic tradition. Mithra was the Persian solar deity who was also worshipped throughout the pre-Christian Roman Empire.
According to many historians, Mithraism died out in Anatolia once the Romans formally adopted Christianity. But Dara shows us that this was not quite the case.
With that being said, Christian tombs were carved at Dara as well.
Reaching the end of the main necropolis area, you’ll see a series of sarcophagi lying on the ground. And across from them is a large tomb opening, above which is a carved pediment.
Though hard to make out, these scenes here show the Biblical prophet Ezekiel reanimating the dead. It’s thought to have been carved sometime after the Byzantines retook Dara following the first Persian occupation. And it was likely made in honor of those who died defending the city.
Stepping inside, you’ll find yourself in what’s called the Gallery. This huge rock-cut chamber consists of three stories, and visitors can walk around a glass viewing platform to take it in from all angles.
During excavations, a large amount of bones were discovered in the lower levels, possibly belonging to those who perished during prior battles.
Archaeologists suspect that the tomb builders believed their dead could one day be resurrected as described in the Book of Ezekiel. Thankfully, I witnessed no such a miracle during my time in the cave!
For those coming from Diyarbakır, you can simply hop on one of the frequent minibuses from the minibus terminal there (see this article for more info.) The drive from Diyarbakır takes just two hours.
Once in Mardin, however, you likely won’t get dropped off at any sort of bus terminal. In my case, the driver stopped at a bus stop by a shopping mall and told me the route was finished!
Mardin is connected with much of southeastern Turkey by coach bus as well. For some reason, though, there are many more buses connecting it with Gaziantep than there are with the much closer Şanlıurfa (Urfa).
While by looking at a map, you’d think that all the westward buses would just stop at the major city of Urfa, many of them don’t. And even if you buy a ticket directly to Urfa, it may not really be direct! (Whatever you do, when visiting or leaving Mardin, avoid using the Dilmenler Mardin bus company.)
The old section of Mardin is not a huge place so location is not particularly important. Just make sure you’re staying in the old part of town and not ‘New Mardin,’ an unremarkable modern city at the bottom of the hill.
I stayed at a place called El Cezeri Cafe where the owners of the wine shop are renting out a couple of rooms. It was located right by the main Cumhuriyet Cd. and the owners were great guys.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.