Mardin Province’s Midyat is a historic city situated on the plateau of Tur Abdin, or the ‘Mountain of the Servants of God.’ The region is the historic heartland of the Syriac Orthodox Church, and its largest and oldest monastery, Mor Gabriel, attracts scores of visitors to this day. In this Midyat guide, we’ll be covering the attractions of the old district along with how to reach Mor Gabriel Monastery, about 20 km out of town.
While some travelers base themselves in Midyat, the town can also be visited as a day trip from Mardin. Your first goal will be getting to Midyat (learn how below). Next, you may want to go ahead and visit Mor Gabriel first to get it out of the way. Or, provided you’ve started early enough, save it till the end.
Midyat Guide: The Old Town Attractions
Midyat, a city of 60,000, is very similar to Mardin in its look and feel. But it’s noticeably flatter, more condensed and more Christian. Like Mardin, the city is also divided into two distinct districts: old and new.
But in contrast to Mardin, where the two halves of the city are separated by elevation, the shift from the urban sprawl of modern Midyat to Eski Midyat, the historical district, is quick and abrupt. Just cross the road and you’ve practically stepped back in time.
Aside from an excursion to Mor Gabriel Monastery, which we’ll cover down below, Midyat’s appeal lies less in its attractions and more in its overall atmosphere. With that being said, there are several landmarks around town that are worth seeking out during your visit.
Unlike Mardin, which has always been mixed, Eski Midyat was once a purely Christian district. The number of Christians still living in Midyat, however, is probably only somewhere in the hundreds. Today, the city as a whole is largely inhabited by Muslim Kurds.
Sadly, many Christians had to flee the region during the ‘Assyrian Genocide.’ This took place in the early 20th century, concurrently with the better-known Armenian Genocide. Thankfully, at least many of the historic structures have survived.
There are around a dozen or so historic churches in Eski Midyat. But due to the small surviving community, the priest and worshippers hop from church to church during Sunday services.
While I did indeed visit Midyat on a Sunday, I found every church in town to be locked, though this was possibly due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Even if you can’t make it in, it’s still fun to walk around town just to see the churches from the outside.
I started off at Mor Barsavmo Church which is just north of the otogar (bus terminal). Having been constructed in 1910, it’s one of Eski Midyat’s ‘newer’ churches.
From the otogar, I decided to go and visit Mor Gabriel Monastery (more below), and I then explored more churches upon my return to the city.
East of the otogar, I walked past Mor Ahisnoya – said to house the skull of an ancient saint – before heading east to Mor Hobil-Mor Abraham Monastery. By far Midyat’s largest church, it’s situated about 1 km out of town.
Walking down a long path through the vineyards on the outskirts of town, I approached the front gate of the monastery. Judging from the outside, its size may even give Mor Gabriel a run for its money.
Established in the year 481, it was named after Abraham of the High Mountain, a 4th-century saint and miracle worker. And previously at this spot lived an ascetic Stylite named Abel (Hobil).
There’s a large garden just outside the monastery walls that was packed with locals, many of them enjoying picnics.
Heading back to the town center, stop for a glimpse at the Tur Abdin Hotel. The elegant structure was built fairly recently but in the traditional style of the area.
It was established by Syriac Christians living in Europe who regularly come here to visit their ancestral and spiritual homeland. If you’re staying in Midyat and can afford it, this seems like a great place to stay.
As mentioned, I had no luck getting inside any of Midyat’s churches. I did, however, make it as far as the courtyard of a church called Mor Sharbel. As I walked around, a local woman spotted me, an obvious tourist, and kindly caught the attention of a man who was just heading in. He then invited me to join him.
Mor Sharbel was established in 1955, though it’s named after an ancient priest from the 5th century who was martyred for his Christian beliefs. Its exterior has been beautifully adorned with carved ornamentations, and it’s easily one of Midyat’s most stylish buildings.
There were some chairs set up outside, and the man and I had a nice chat (largely with the aid of translation apps) about various topics. But after awhile, it was clear he wasn’t planning on opening up the main church, so I excused myself and left.
Midyat Eski Tarihi Evleri
Even if all the local churches happen to be closed during your visit, be sure to seek out the ‘Eski Tarihi Evleri,’ a well-preserved historic house.
There are a few different listings for this place on Google Maps, but it’s in the center of Eski Midyat and not that hard to find by just walking around.
During my visit, there were actually two adjacent structures that visitors could enter. One house was free, while the other required a small entry fee. And both structures offer excellent views of Eski Midyat from their terraces.
As in Mardin, traditional Midyat houses were constructed with soft limestone. Not only does it allow master craftsmen to carve unique designs, but the stone also keeps the houses cool in the summer heat.
The houses of wealthy families were typically built around spacious but shaded courtyards, as can be seen here.
Unfortunately, there’s no information on-site, and seemingly nothing in English online regarding who this historical house belonged to. Be that as it may, this is arguably the top attraction in Midyat, especially considering the great views you can get from the roof.
When finished, you can also enjoy a walk around the area, soaking up the atmosphere of the historical district. There are also plenty of restaurants and cafes around this area to choose from.
Before moving on, either to Mor Gabriel or back to Mardin, there’s one more traditional ‘house’ you shouldn’t miss. But uniquely, this one is entirely underground.
Known as the ‘Midyat Caves,’ or ‘Midyat Mağaralari,’ the entrance can be found in the courtyard of an otherwise unassuming open-air restaurant.
Be sure to look for the sign, as otherwise it’s easy to miss. It’s located at the end of the main shopping street, and you’ll need to pay 3 TL for entry, whether or not you order food.
Again, detailed information about the attraction, either on-site or online, is nonexistent. Presumably, these caves were originally dug out in ancient times, much like those of Cappadocia. After all, Midyat is located in Upper Mesopotamia, a region that’s been inhabited for millennia.
Judging by the furniture on display, it’s likely that more recent Midyat residents, hoping to escape the summer heat, decided to put the caves to good use.
It’s unclear, however, if the furniture here is original, or if it was all arranged by the organizers. In any case, seeing this luxurious furniture set up in a cave is a strange sight. It appears like some kind of elite underground bunker from the Cold War era.
Mor Gabriel Monastery
As beautiful as Eski Midyat is, the main highlight of the area is Mor Gabriel Monastery, about 23 km south of town. But getting there by taxi can be expensive, and you’ll likely have to pay at least a few hundred lira ($20-30) for the roundtrip journey.
But if you’re on a budget, there’s a much cheaper option, though it requires some walking. First head to the Midyat Otogar (bus terminal) and find a dolmuş (minibus) headed to either Cizre or İlçe. Tell the driver (or type in a translation app) that you want to go to Mor Gabriel Monastery.
The monastery is 2 km off the main highway. Originally, the driver offered me a price of 40 TL to take me all the way there. But this would only be one way. I said I’d be fine walking, and just paid the standard price of 10 TL for him to drop me off along the highway.
It took me about 30 minutes in the grueling summer heat to make it up to the monastery. But, as a budget traveler, it was well worth it to save as much as I did.
Entry to the monastery costs a very reasonable 10 TL. Visitors aren’t given free rein to wander around but must join a tour with others. Upon buying a ticket, you’ll have to wait outside for awhile before enough other people show up. Luckily, in my case, I only had to wait ten minutes before the tour began.
I was in a group with a dozen or so other people – all of them Turkish. As such, I had no idea what our young tour guide was saying. But walking around the beautiful monastery was enjoyable nonetheless.
Mor Gabriel Monastery is the oldest and largest of all the monasteries on the Tur Abdin plateau. It was founded in 397 by two monks from Mardin named Samuel and Simeon. According to legend, Simon was instructed by an angel to establish a monastery here in a dream.
And thanks to his vision, the Tur Abdin became the hotspot for monastic life that it did – even up until present times. The plateau, in fact, now contains around ten active monasteries. (While many of them are hard to reach, be sure to also visit Deyrulzafaran near Mardin.)
For a long time now, the monastery has been named after Saint Gabriel, a bishop of Tur Abdin during the 7th century. Mor Gabriel’s current bishop, meanwhile, is currently the head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Turkey.
In addition to a small group of priests and nuns, the monastery also contains a school where the local community can come and study the Syriac language. Interestingly, Syriac, a Semitic language, is a dialect of Aramaic – the language spoken by Jesus himself.
Walking around the first courtyard, I was admiring the various geometric and floral patterns before our guide signaled that it was time to head inside.
Next, our guide took us to an old stone structure known as the Dome of Theodora. While much smaller, the dome was modeled after that of the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople. And originally, the space was used as a baptistry.
Moving on, we saw things like the old kitchen area and other rooms used for monastic life. Currently, there’s an entire area off to the side of the monastery where Mor Gabriel’s residents now reside.
That land happened to be the center of a long and heated dispute between the local Assyrian community and the Turkish government. But the Syriac Christians were finally recognized as the rightful owners of the land several years back.
We were then taken to the main church, where congregations still gather for services. It was constructed in 512 with support from the Byzantine emperor.
In comparison with other Orthodox churches I’d visited, the decorations here were quite minimal. There were no frescoes painted on the walls and only a handful of icons. But the well-preserved stone walls gave the room a special atmosphere nonetheless.
Speaking of decoration, the church is said to contain some ornate mosaic art, but at no point on our tour were we taken to see it.
Next, we headed underground. This subterranean church is known as the Church of the 40 Martyrs. Supposedly, legendary figures such as St. Simon and St. Gabriel are buried here.
Elsewhere in the monastery, meanwhile, are the tombs of monks who were killed in the early 15th century during the invasion of Tamerlane.
After about half an hour in total, we were back where we started. Despite the language barrier, the trip out to Mor Gabriel Monastery was well worth it.
I made the half-hour walk back to the highway and waited in the sweltering midday heat for the minibus to arrive. A long fifteen minutes passed, but still no bus. But suddenly, across the road, I spotted a figure walking towards me. He seemingly appeared out of nowhere.
It turned out to be a young teen from the local area, and he handed me a gift. It was a yellow push pop, miraculously still ice cold. It was just what I needed. I thanked him for his kindness, and just after opening it, the Midyat-bound minibus appeared on the horizon.
Numerous coach bus companies make stops in Midyat. If you’re coming from far away and also plan to stay in Midyat, you may be able to travel there directly. Be sure to check on sites like Obilet.com or Biletall to confirm the route.
Most people, however, visit Midyat as a day trip from Mardin.
Getting to Midyat from Mardin is pretty simple. First, go to the main Mardin Otogar (bus terminal) by local bus or on foot. The large station is divided into two sections – one for coach buses and the other for minibuses.
Go to the minibus area, and in the parking lot, you should find one with a sign for Midyat on the window. There’s no timetable for this route, and the bus will depart whenever full. You can just pay the driver directly.
Strangely, in many places throughout Turkey, minibus drivers will not end the route at the bus terminal of the destination city. If the driver asks you where you want to go, tell him ‘Eski Midyat’ (eski means old).
He’ll probably drop you off at the edge of the district, from which you can easily walk to the sites mentioned in the above Midyat guide.
Midyat seems to have two small terminals – one in the old city and one in the new city. But you can just use the Eski Midyat terminal to get to Mor Gabriel and also back to Mardin.
As mentioned above, to get to Mor Gabriel cheaply, find a minibus bound for Cizre/İlçe and tell the driver you want to go to Mor Gabriel. Either he can drop you off on the main highway for the standard fare, or drive all the way to the monastery for an extra fee (likely more than double).
In my case, I walked the 2 km each way and only paid 15 TL in total for both rides. That sure beats the price most taxi drivers are asking!
When finished with your day, stay alert as your bus approaches Mardin. In my case, the driver did not stop at the Mardin Otogar on the way back, but went straight ahead to the ‘New Mardin’ district. By the time I realized, it was too late. I then had to get off and flag down a local city bus headed back toward the otogar.
There are numerous places to stay within the Eski Midyat. As the area is so small, anywhere in the historic district should be fine.
But as mentioned, Midyat can be visited as a day trip from Mardin, which is where I stayed. 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, telling me he wasn’t going to the bus station.
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.
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!
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.