Mardin, with its elegant limestone buildings overlooking the Mesopotamian plains, is arguably Turkey’s most beautiful city. It’s also one of the country’s most historically rich and culturally interesting, with the region being home to a mix of Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians. In this Mardin guide, we’ll cover the top sights to see in town, along with how to get to the scenic Deyrulzafaran Monastery nearby.
Understand that Mardin consists of an Old City and a New City, but this guide solely focuses on the historical district. While you can see all of historical sites over the course of a few days, allow yourself even more time to visit the nearby towns of Midyat and Dara.
Mardin: A Brief History
Mardin, situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, is a part of Upper Mesopotamia. As such, it was also home to many of the earliest human civilizations which flourished in these fertile plains.
In its early history, Mardin was controlled by legendary civilizations like the Hurrians (c. 3000-2850 BC), the Sumerians (c. 2850-2820), the Akkadians (c. 2820-2500) and the Assyrians (c. 2500-1367).
Later, after Anatolia was conquered by Alexander the Great, Mardin was part of the Seleucid Kingdom (311-237 BC).
It then joined the Edessa Kingdom, based out of nearby Urfa. Next came empires like the Romans, Persian Sassanids and the Byzantines.
Mardin was conquered by Arab invaders as early at the 7th century AD, and has remained majority Muslim ever since.
It was subsequently ruled by various Islamic caliphs and kingdoms like the Umayyads, Abassids, Hamdanids and in the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks.
Mardin long prospered due to its position on the Silk Road, especially during Abassid rule from the 9th-11th centuries.
Later, like much of southeast Anatolia, Mardin was passed back and forth between various Turcoman tribes.
It was the Artukids in particular who left their mark on Mardin, shaping the city’s architectural style and overall atmosphere for centuries to come.
The Artukids, a Turcoman dynasty that ruled eastern Anatolia and parts of Syria and Iraq from the 11th-13th centuries, took control of Mardin in 1101.
They built most of the city’s prominent mosques and madrasas. And they also constructed palaces, hammams, schools, hospitals and many other secular buildings.
The Artukids also built numerous structures in neighboring Diyarbakır. But there they used locally sourced black basalt as opposed to Mardin’s white limestone, resulting in a glaring contrast between the two cities.
After the fall of the Artukids, the Karakonyular (Black Sheep Turcomans) and the Akkoyunlular (White Sheep Turcomans) controlled Mardin for the next few centuries.
The Persian Safavids then briefly occupied the city in the 16th century. The entire region was later taken by the Ottomans, and remained under their rule until the 1900s.
Exploring the City Streets
While this Mardin guide contains a list of specific landmarks you should seek out during your visit, we’ll start off with the number one activity to do in Mardin: aimlessly wandering the city streets.
Mardin has a single central street, Cumhuriyet Caddesi, which cuts through the entire Old City. As you’d probably guess, this is where you’re going to find numerous landmarks in addition to restaurants and local shops.
It’s also along this street that you can find the popular Emir Hammam (bathhouse) and the entrance to the covered bazaar. For those doing souvenir shopping, one of the main things to buy here is handmade Mardin soap, and there are no shortage of soap shops on the main road.
But there’s plenty that can only be discovered by veering off the main road and wandering through the narrow, steeply inclined backstreets. Be forewarned: wandering hilly Mardin will often test your cardio.
Fortunately, given the blistering heat of this region in summer, much of the town was planned to give residents optimal shade in the hotter months.
Mardin gets its distinctive appearance thanks to the limestone used in most of its buildings. Originally, the stone was quarried from a nearby area called Belsik until the supply was exhausted in 1925. But fortunately, a similar beige limestone quarry was discovered in neighboring Midyat.
The softness of the stone has allowed local artists and craftsmen to leave their mark on Mardin’s buildings. As you wander the streets, you’ll find numerous facades and entrance gates adorned with carvings of tulips, grapes, and detailed geometric patterns.
And if you get the chance to stay in a traditional building, you’ll notice that the limestone helps keeps Mardin houses surprisingly cool, even in the midst of summer.
Exploring the city, you’ll also encounter various passageways called ‘Abbaras,’ meant to provide shortcuts for those navigating the complicated maze of streets.
Navigating Mardin can be tough, and relying on GPS apps is largely futile here. As you attempt to make your way to a landmark you spotted in the distance, you’ll sometimes inadvertently end up in someone’s backyard or reach a dead end.
But of course, getting lost is a big part of the fun. No two visitors to Mardin will end up traversing the exact same streets.
Mardin’s most prominent landmark is Mardin Castle, the ancient fortress at the very top of the hill on which the city was built. It’s completely off-limits for civilians, however, as it’s currently being used as a military base. Be that as it may, be sure to walk up as high as you’re legally allowed.
The castle dates back to the 4th century BC when Mardin was ruled by a Babylonian fire worshipper named Shad Buhari. According to legend, he recovered from a serious illness while staying up on the hill, and so he decided to erect a palace there. He even had many of his people emigrate from Babylon to join him.
People then continued living in the castle for hundreds of years. But in the 5th century AD, the entire population was wiped out by a plague and the castle remained empty for a full century.
It was then later controlled by the various Islamic kingdoms and dynasties mentioned above. And in the 10th century, a dynasty called the Hamdanids (one of seemingly countless to have controlled the region) expanded the fortress.
The ruins which survive today, meanwhile, were mostly built by the White Sheep Turcomans in the 15th century.
While forbidden for the past few decades, a local man I met reminisced about playing football up there with his friends in his youth.
In addition to getting a clear view of the castle and the landscape below, the upper level of the city is where you can find one of Mardin’s main landmarks, Zinciriye Madrasa.
In the Islamic world, madrasas refer to schools, mainly of a theological nature, but also where students can study things like science. Mardin has a few historical madrasas that you shouldn’t miss, both for their architecture and their views.
One of the highest accessible points in Mardin is the Zinciriye Madrasa, built by the Artukids in 1385. Recognizable for its ribbed domes, the theological school doubled as an astronomical observatory. And it also contains the tomb of Sultan Isha, among others.
The bottom floor features a wide-open courtyard and fountain where you can relax or sip some tea. The madrasa still functions as a religious school to this day, and accordingly features an active mosque.
During your visit, don’t miss the chance to go up to the roof. The view from here is arguably Mardin’s best. You can not only get a clear view of the entire Mardin cityscape, but also northern Syria in the distance.
Zinciriye Madrasa is open daily from morning until evening. It requires a ticket to enter, costing just a few lira.
Another famous madrasa in Mardin is called Kasımiye. But in contrast to Zinciriye Madrasa, this building is located all the way at the bottom of the hill.
It’s a rather long walk, and following the route recommended by Google takes you through a slum. Don’t worry if you don’t see any landmarks for awhile, as the madrasa doesn’t appear until you’re right in front of it.
The first thing you’ll notice is that Kasımiye looks strikingly similar to Zinciriye. That’s because this was also an Artukid construction, originally started in the 13th century.
But it wasn’t finished until the 15th century during White Sheep Turcoman rule, under the reign of Sultan Kasim Bey.
Like Zinciriye, Kasımiye also has two stories built around a central courtyard with a fountain. And it also contains a mosque and tombs. Though there are 23 rooms in total, most were off-limits during my visit, seemingly because of restoration.
The fountain and pool aren’t merely decorative, but also symbolic. According to Sufi teachings, the flow of the water at various points represent birth, childhood and maturity. Finally, the water in the central pool represents the Last Judgement.
And speaking of death, a son of the a White Sheep sultan was said to have been murdered in this very building!
Over to the side of the courtyard, various astronomical instruments and celestial globes are on display for visitors to interact with.
Muslims in the Middles Ages used these tools to aid in maritime navigation, determining the direction of Mecca and the correct prayer times, and of course, for astrology.
Nearby the main madrasa is a separate structure which visitors can also step inside. This was a Dervish lodge built by the White Sheep Turcomans in the 15th century.
The Whirling Dervishes were a Sufi order founded by the mystic poet Rumi in the 13th century. Sufism remained quite popular in Anatolia up through Ottoman times, though Mustafa Kemal Atatürk would eventually ban all such orders in the 1900s.
Mosques & Churches
Central Mardin is teeming with religious architecture – both Muslim and Christian. While it’s impossible to name every single one in this Mardin guide, we’ll go over some of the highlights.
Of special note is Ulu Cami, or the Grand Mosque, the oldest in the city. Built by the Seljuks in the 11th century, it was later expanded and refurbished by the Artukids in the 12th century. It’s recognizable for its beautifully carved minaret.
Also worth a visit is Latifiye Mosque. Constructed in 1371, also during Artukid rule, its most notable feature is its entrance gate. It’s been entirely carved in floral motifs and geometric patterns with almost machine-like precision.
Also of interest is Şehidiye Mosque, recognizable for its fluted minaret – even more beautiful than the more famous one in Antalya. Though I tried to find the entrance on a few different occasions, I was never able to figure it out. I could, at least, get a clear view from the large tea garden on the main road.
Generally speaking, for non-Muslims, you won’t be missing much by skipping out on the main prayer halls. Unlike the richly decorated domed mosques of Istanbul, the prayer rooms here are only minimally embellished.
As mentioned, Mardin is also home to numerous churches, as Christianity has been prevalent in Mardin since the 3rd century. Even earlier, however, Saint Thaddeus, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, is said to have come to this region to spread his beliefs.
Despite many struggles, Mardin remains home to a sizable Christian community, most of which belong to the Syriac Orthodox Church. Some other churches like the ‘Red Church,’ meanwhile, are Armenian.
Unfortunately, I had no luck entering a single church in the city center during my visit. Even after traversing the labyrinthine alleyways to seek them out, I’d only encounter locked gates.
This was supposedly for reasons related to the coronavirus pandemic. However, even in normal times, churches here and in neighboring Midyat seemingly prefer to keep to themselves. Some did have hours posted outside, however.
Anyway, if you happen to be there at a more opportune time, the main churches to look out for are Kırklar Kilesesi (Forty Martyrs Church), Virgin Mary Church and Mor Şmuni Kilisesi.
For those with a special interest in Christian architecture, Mardin is at the western edge of the Tur Abdin plateau. This region also encompasses places like Midyat, Dara, Cizre and Hasankeyf and is said to be the heartland of the Syriac Orthodox Church.
Only one of the Tur Abdin’s monasteries, Deyrulzafaran Monastery, can be visited from central Mardin on foot. It’s located about 6 km southeast of town, and you can learn more about getting there below.
Mardin has two museums that are well worth checking out. They both provide comprehensive info on Mardin’s history and culture, though each has a slightly different focus. Even if you’re not much of a museum person, they’re both located within beautiful historic limestone buildings.
Both museums are open every day but Monday and require small entry fees.
Mardin City Museum
The Mardin City Museum, officially knows as Mardin Kent Muzesi, is a good place to get a historical overview of Mardin along with modern aspects of the culture. The focus here is on information rather than objects, though there are a few limestone carvings on display.
The museum itself, meanwhile, is situated in a former army barracks. You can find it near the official tourism office.
The Mardin Museum
In contrast to the City Museum, the Mardin Museum is more focused on ancient archaeological findings. It’s housed in an elegant building from 1895 that used to be the Virgin Mary Church, which has since moved next door.
Arguably the most remarkable pieces on display at the Mardin Museum are the ‘Death Cult Statues,’ dated sometime between 1600-900 BC. Belonging to the Assyrian-Aramaic culture, these statues were placed at the entrance of tombs, probably as a means of protection.
Three are on display here, while similar statues have been discovered in various parts of southeast Turkey.
Another interesting item is a cult vessel discovered in the nearby city of Nusaybin. It’s dated to the 8th-7th century BC, and was likely used as a ritual libation cup at ancient Assyrian temples. It’s adorned with multiple faces and eyes.
Also on display are various small figurines that were used in Mesopotamian religious rituals, though some, like the miniature cars, may have simply been children’s toys.
The Mardin Museum even has a fine piece of Urartian jewelery on display from the 1st millennium BC. (Learn more about Urartu here.)
Skipping ahead in time, don’t miss the collection of nomadic gravestones that date from the 11th-20th centuries AD. While southeastern Anatolia has always been home to thriving cities, it was also a region where huge numbers of nomadic tribes roamed for centuries.
Once a nomad died, of course, they required a permanent resting place. The tribes would generally bury their dead somewhere along the usual migratory route, ensuring they’d be able to return at some point to pay respects.
The stones are decorated with nature and animal motifs and sometimes even funerary scenes.
The museum also covers the Greco-Roman era in addition to the numerous Islamic kingdoms that have controlled the region. The curators really put in a great effort to explain various cultural and religious traditions of Mardin’s historical inhabitants.
Wandering around the impressive building, you’ll also encounter ancient mosaic art in the open hallways.
One of Mardin’s (and the entire Tur Abdin plateau’s) top highlights is undoubtedly Deyrulzafaran Monastery. Located around 6 km from the city center, it takes about 90 minutes on foot to get there. Normally, the monastery is open from 8:30-17:00 daily and costs 5 TL to enter.
But, at the time of my visit, according to recent reviews, the monastery had been closed for months due to the pandemic.
Nevertheless, I decided to walk there anyway. At the very least, I’d enjoy the scenery along the way and get some pictures of the monastery from the outside. And who knows, I thought, I might just get lucky.
The route to the monastery is fairly easy to figure out by following a GPS app. Walking downhill from the town center, you’ll walk along the main road of a town called Eskikale. From here you’ll get to enjoy excellent views of Old Mardin in the distance.
You’ll pass a small church and a mosque at the edge of the town, after you which want to keep walking along the highway through the empty countryside.
After I’d been walking for about an hour or so, the monastery finally came into view in the distance. But I still had another thirty minutes to reach it.
Despite trying to remain optimistic, a car coming from the opposite direction passed me and stopped. It was a family of four who’d just been rejected. They told me not to waste my time, as the monastery was closed.
I was disappointed, but I’d already come this far, and decided to finish my walk anyway. Before long, another car, this time heading in the direction of the church, pulled over next to me.
Again, the driver told me the deal, but I said I’m just walking for fun. Surprisingly, he motioned for me to get in his car, and then he called up his friend.
The driver was a local Assyrian Christian who regularly visits the monastery. He told his friend inside that a foreign visitor had come all the way to see Deyrulzafaran, and asked if it would be OK to let me in. And the next thing I knew, I was inside the gates! I could hardly believe it.
Considering the remoteness and inaccessibility of the monastery, I had this image in my mind of old men with long beards and robes wandering around the compound. But all the people I saw were younger men dressed in t-shirts and jeans.
Deyrulzafaran, it turns out, also functions as a school and a general community center for the region’s Syriac Orthodox inhabitants.
I was warmly welcomed in, and one of the men who spoke some English kindly gave me a short guided tour.
The monastery was first established in 493 AD and is now known by two names. Deyrulzafaran means saffron, a spice which grows in abundance in this area. The monastery is also nicknamed Mor Hananyo after an 8th-century governor who extensively repaired it.
For 640 years until 1932, Deyrulzafaran Monastery was the seat of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate. Since then, the patriarch has resided in Damascus.
After admiring the staircases and ornamentation of the outer courtyard, I was led to the main church, dating back to the 18th century. It’s here that regular ceremonies still take place.
On either side of the altar are two wooden chairs, the left of which was the throne of the patriarch. According to my guide, it was over 400 years old. The chair on the right, meanwhile, is for the mutran, or bishop.
A fresco painting in the room depicts St. Anthony, a monk who gave away parts of his estate to serve the poor.
The Syriac Orthodox Church adheres to a slightly different doctrine to that of other Orthodox churches, not to mention the Catholic Church. It’s a Monophysite church, meaning members believe that Christ, while on earth, was of a completely divine nature.
Other churches, in contrast, believe that while Christ was indeed the Lord in human form, he maintained two distinct natures at the same time: human and divine.
While it seems like a small issue to get upset about, this slight difference of opinion has divided Orthodox churches for centuries. Other examples of Monophysite churches include the Coptic, Ethiopian and Armenian churches.
Next, I was taken to a much older stone chapel with a domed roof. It dates back to the 5th century AD and is said to contain the bones of countless martyrs that were brought here over the years.
Before Deyrulzafaran was a monastery, the site had long been used as a ‘pagan’ Sun Temple. And the center of worship was an underground room that visitors can go down and see.
The underground crypt is void of decoration. But remarkably, its ceiling, made up entirely of heavy stone blocks, has managed to stay in place like this for centuries without the use of mortar.
No sources seem to provide much detail about this room. But given the geography and the shrine’s subterranean location, there’s a good chance this was home to some kind of Mithraic cult.
Having seen everything, I thanked the kind staff and began the long walk back to central Mardin. But I didn’t get very far before yet another car stopped beside me, motioning for me to get inside.
They were simply offering me a lift because they were headed in the same direction. One of the men in the car even generously gave me a bunch of grapes!
We stopped at a fountain at the base of Eskikale where they recommended I try the delicious spring water. I thanked them and finally returned to town on foot.
As beautiful as Mardin is, it has another special quality that can’t be captured in photographs: the kindness and hospitality of its people.
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.
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.
In my case, after most people got off at random places in ‘New Mardin,’ the driver stopped outside a shopping mall and asked where I was going.
‘The bus station,’ I told him. But he acted as if I’d just suggested something ridiculous, and told me he wasn’t going. Silly me for thinking a bus would end up at a bus terminal!
Thankfully, a taxi from the mall to the old part of town was just about 20 TL, more or less what I would’ve paid from the otogar (bus terminal).
I actually found this weird phenomenon to be fairly common throughout Turkey when it comes to minibuses. You often have no idea where the ride is going to end, which can really throw a wrench in your plans.
If it matters, the minibus terminal is on a road southeast of the town center (see map). The main otogar (bus terminal), meanwhile, is to the northeast of town, about a half an hour on foot. Local buses in the city which run down Cumhuriyet Cd. can also take you there.
Note that if you’re going to Midyat, you actually want the main otogar and not the minibus terminal.
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! (Read my horror story below.)
I rode on countless coach buses throughout Turkey over the course of three months. I had many normal experiences, some good ones and some bad ones. But there’s only one company that I’ll go out of my way to warn others to avoid at all costs.
It’s called Dilmenler Mardin.
I chose them because it was the only company with a direct bus from Mardin to Urfa leaving relatively early in the morning. All the others were departing sometime in the afternoon.
My Airbnb host had warned me about them, citing the 1.5-star rating it has on Google. But the ride was just going to be a few hours, so how bad could it be? (Looking them up again, they appear to have changed their name to YENİ MARDİN.)
I’d reserved a solo ticket on a bus that was supposed to have the 2 + 1 seat layout. But without telling anyone, they changed it on the day to a 2 + 2 bus. That was the first red flag.
I always travel with a backpack containing my camera gear, laptop and hard drives that I insist on taking up on the bus with me for every ride. While my bag appears large, it’s never a problem because it always fits snugly in front of my seat on normal coach buses.
Nevertheless, the grumpy bus conductor was telling me I couldn’t take it on. I told him it’d be no problem because it always fits, and we got into a back and forth for awhile. At one point he even ripped up my luggage tag and walked away!
After trying to ensure me repeatedly that my luggage would be safe under the bus, I finally gave in. He then proceeded to place my bag down in an awkward, unstable position and was about to put another big bag right on top of it!
Before he could, I grabbed my bag and walked onto the bus with it. If something had broke, I could be certain the company wouldn’t be offering me a single lira.
He was fuming, and proceeded to talk crap about me in Turkish for much of the ride. But that wasn’t the worst part.
I was supposed to be going to Urfa directly, and had never been told about any kind of transfer. Well into the journey, we were stopped at Viranşehir, the nearest city before Urfa. And we were waiting there for about 20 minutes as the new passengers got on. A typical situation.
But just when we were about to depart, the conductor asked if anyone was going to Urfa. I presumed that we all were, but it was only me and a few others. He told us to get off the bus, and I had no idea why. Nor why he waited 20 minutes to say anything.
It turned out that those going to Urfa had to transfer to a separate minibus, though nobody had mentioned this at any point prior. I had an additional suitcase under the bus which I grabbed. Confused, I asked where I was supposed to go.
He pointed in the distance to a minibus that was already leaving! And he told me I’d have to run to catch it. Another guy from the company was helping me, and we were both running with all my luggage toward this van.
The thing was, it was on a road that was up on a hill and BEHIND A FENCE! No, the driver would not come around to where I was, but I had to climb over this fence and haul my suitcase and backpack over it as well.
I finally got on this minivan which was in such a rush for some reason. We ended up not in Urfa, but some smaller bus station about 10 minutes away. I was then made to wait an additional half an hour before the minivan departed again, after which I finally made it to Urfa.
Over the course of three months of traveling in Turkey, this was the angriest I ever got.
Whatever you do, do not use the Dilmenler Mardin (or Yeni Mardin) company under any circumstances.
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.