The Regional Airport at Mardin is modern, small, and easy to negotiate. A delightful port of entry to this part of Turkey.
Having left the airport, we drove along the Syrian border to Nusaybin. This is an area of Turkey to which the FCO discourages travel. However, it has been peaceful for the last two or three years, though conflict continues in less accessible areas nearby. For many kilometres along the border there stretches a high wall topped by a roll of barbed wire. Every few hundred metres there are military watchtowers. I refrained from photographing them.
Arriving in Nusaybin, one could not fail to be struck by the amount of investment. We passed many beautiful new apartment blocks, built to a standard that seemed to me would have not been out of place on the French Riviera.
Our host, Bishop Saliba (left) took us to the first stop on our tour: the ancient church of Mor Yakup. Daniel (right) is the warden of this monastery and the guest house attached to it. His son, off school for some reason, stands between me and Bishop Saliba.
The picture shows the baptistry of what was once a vast Cathedral. The cathedral and university, which are now either ruins or built over, were the heart of what was once Nisibis, now Nusaybin, one of the great centres of the early Christian Near East.
The (4th century) tomb of St. Yakup, with distinctively horned corners, lies underneath the baptistry. It was quite a steep climb down into this crypt. Bishop Saliba led us in prayer, in his native Aramaic language. We were pleased to hear that this ancient church is soon to be restored.
I suppose we would describe this as a Romanesque arch on top of Corinthian capitals. Other parts of this once vast building were destroyed by an earthquake, but the archway with its very fine engraving remains.
Mor Yakup is an ancient monument and is at the centre of an area which the Turkish authorities are keen to restore. Behind the ancient site are some buildings more typical of the modern city, and just behind them the Syrian border fence.
This hostel, just across the road from Mor Yakup, was most impressive. We were visiting in winter, but I could imagine how pleasant it would be to drink tea in the shelter of one of the gazebos or sitting on the grass under the olive trees. The building itself is entirely stone with marble floors and solid wood doors – really built to a specification one would be unlikely to see in a Western European retreat centre – albeit that stone is plentiful, marble cheaper and building labour abundant in this part of Turkey.
The hostel is intended for diaspora members of the Syriac church, many of whom now live in countries such as Germany and Sweden, to enable them to visit their homeland here in ancient Mesopotamia.
Mor Yakup embodies so many of the strange paradoxes and contradictions of this part of Turkey. It is the site of one of the great centres of ancient learning, but is now in ruins. It is part of a city which has been very extensively damaged and flattened in armed conflict, but where beautiful new apartments are being built at a furious pace. It is safe, for the moment, but separated by a border wall from Syria where security remains elusive. As a centre of Christianity, it appears crushed, yet still it lives.
One can only have the most profound respect for the Orthodox Syriac community who have faithfully clung to their identity and faith over the centuries in these most demanding of circumstances.