Most people head straight for Hasankeyf, understandably intent on seeing the beautiful town on the Tigris before it disappears beneath the waters of the Ilısu Dam. But for those of a more adventurous disposition, there are several other possibilities, none of them difficult to get to.
Some years ago I decided to travel from Mardin to Nusaybin on the Syrian border with a friend who was returning to work in Damascus. Unfortunately, we had made the mistake of assuming the border would be open all day and arrived to find it closed. Both the small hotels in Nusaybin were full and it was too late to get a dolmuş back to Mardin. As we sat disconsolately on the steps of one of the hotels, a taxi driver approached and offered to drive us five kilometers out of town to the Nezirhan Hotel. The price he quoted was exorbitant, but we had little choice but to accept.
From the outside, the Nezirhan didn’t look at all promising, standing, as it did, just off the main highway beside a gas station and a pair of telephone posts. “It looks like a Motel 6,” my American friend sighed, which was not, apparently, a compliment. Inside, however, we were in for a surprise since the Nezirhan had been given a boutique makeover that included the installation of what looked like a Japanese garden in the lobby. Sadly, the improvement was only skin deep: When my friend leaned against her headboard, my reading light went out; our balcony was inches deep in stagnant water with dead leaves floating in it.
My friend dispatched me in search of a better room whereupon I embarked on a voyage of discovery. Behind the hotel’s dull exterior lurked a lovely old motel circa the Bates Motel era -- one that deserved to have a preservation order slapped on it immediately. Then the receptionist started to mutter about a köşk (pavilion); we turned a corner, and I found myself standing in front of a glorious two-storey stone house in its own garden. “Sezen Aksu is staying there,” the receptionist said. “She’s friends with the director of ‘Sıla’.”
For those who don’t remember it, “Sıla” was a hugely popular television series that was filmed around Mardin in Southeast Turkey. We’d shared our cab to the hotel with members of the cast, and now it turned out that we were occupying the Nezirhan with the stars of a series that all my neighbors watched and with one of Turkey’s best-known and best-loved pop singers.
All this came flooding back to me last summer when I returned to Nusaybin to visit the Syrian Orthodox monastery of Mor Yacoub (St. Jacob), which stands on the site of the Roman settlement of Nisibis. A solid block of a building on the outside, darkly atmospheric Mor Yacoub dates back to A.D. 359 although it was extended in the eighth century and then extensively restored in the 19th century. Excavations beside the monastery are uncovering the remains of what may have been the first university on Turkish soil, preceding the better-known one at Harran, south of Şanlıurfa.
Nusaybin itself is hardly a beautiful town, although it does boast an extraordinary new Mesopotamian Cultural Center adorned with magnificent carvings that evoke Assyrian sculptures in the British Museum. However, there are a couple of other places worth exploring on the road down from Midyat, which means that you can easily spin your visit out into a day. Your first stop should be Beyazsu, where a succession of cute little restaurants has been built on and around a river. Eating at any of them is a delight, with the sound of the fast-flowing water providing a pleasing backdrop; if you’re lucky, you’ll find freshwater crabs lining up to watch you eat as well. The one drawback is that routine bane of modern Turkish life: the trails of discarded litter everywhere.
Near Beyazsu, it’s also worth pausing to inspect the curious, semi-deserted village of Kalecik (Little Castle), constructed around the summit of a steep hill in such a way that the walls of the houses make it look as if it’s fortified. This is not the village’s only curiosity. In the past, apparently, access to the houses was via their roofs just as it was in distant Çatal Höyük, the famous prehistoric settlement in Central Anatolia.
One last excursion from Nusaybin should be undertaken with particular care, and that is to the ruins of the remote fourth-century monastery of Mor Awgin, backed into İzla Dağı (Mount İzla) near the village of Girmeli, off the Cizre road, and photographed by Gertrude Bell in 1909. The monastery is said to have been founded by Awgin, who arrived here from Egypt with 70 disciples, but from A.D. 363 onwards, it fell on the Persian side of a newly-drawn border and so followed Nestorian rites, which were eventually ruled heretical. Unfortunately, old land mines buried in nearby fields claimed a new victim as recently as last year.
One of the most magnificent exhibits in İstanbul’s Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts is a densely carved pair of wooden doors taken from the Ulu Camii in Cizre, a pointer to the fact that this neglected town might actually be worth visiting. The troubles in the southeast mean that few outsiders make it to Cizre. Those who do stand out like sore thumbs, certain to attract attention, mostly of the very welcoming kind.
The Ulu Camii dates back to 1155. In design, it recalls the great mosques of Diyarbakır, Kilis and Siirt with their large courtyards, but what distinguishes this mosque from others in Turkey is its curious stepped minaret that will remind many visitors of a ziggurat. Ancient tombstones are embedded in the walls of the mosque, which is kept locked outside prayer times.
Cizre has one other major claim to fame, which is that it is said to be the last resting place of the Prophet Nuh (Noah), whose body lies inside an impressively elongated tomb in a tile-bedecked shrine in the town center. In Kurdish tradition, Noah’s Ark came to rest not on distant Ağrı Dağı (Mount Ararat), near Doğubayazıt, but on Mount Cudi, near Şırnak, which would explain his unexpected presence in this part of the world.
Everyone will have heard of Noah, but not everyone will know about the two other famous individuals supposedly buried beside the town’s lovely, hollyhock-filled cemetery. Mem and Zin, the Romeo and Juliet of Kurdish literature whose story was recorded by Ahmed Hani in 1695, were star-crossed lovers from different tribes who were kept apart by the evil Bekir. After Mem’s death, the heartbroken Zin faded away beside his tomb. Bekir was eventually killed while taking sanctuary between the two tombs; his blood soaked into the earth, thus keeping the lovers apart even in death. Recently restored, their joint tomb lies beneath the mosque in the Abdaliye complex, a combined mosque and medrese dating back to 1437, when this part of the world was ruled by the powerful emirs of Botan.
Aside from its three main sights, Cizre turns out to be home to the attractive brick-built Kırmızı Medresesi (Red Seminary), where the poet Ahmed Cezeri (1570-1640) is buried inside a tomb whose concave dome makes it hard to stand upright. The newly restored medrese dates back to 1508 and is surrounded by eyvans (big salons opening up onto a courtyard) whose shallow arches have a rather Persian feel to them. The town also boasts a small museum (closed Mondays) in a two-storey mansion whose design evokes the architecture of old Diyarbakır, a far cry from the mundane concrete structures all around it.
HOW TO GET THERE
Hourly buses from the Old Midyat bus station to Nusaybin pass through Beyazsu. There are also hourly buses to Cizre. You’ll need a taxi to get to Kalecik and Mor Augen.
WHERE TO STAY
Most people will want to stay in Midyat, which has accommodations
to suit all budgets.