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A walk through Mardin, southeastern Turkey’s ancient town

A walk through Mardin, southeastern Turkey’s ancient town
25 Feb
Sarah Begum takes a walk through the ancient city of Mardin in southeastern Turkey, which lies close to the Syrian border, to find out how locals are dealing with climate change, inflation and the effects of war 

The Fertile Crescent is, as its name suggests, a crescent moon-shaped area of the Middle East extending from the River Nile on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula to southeast Turkey, near the Karacadag mountains. It’s a place where some of the earliest human civilisations introduced agriculture around 12,000 years ago. In the past, the region contained unusually fertile soil, productive freshwater and brackish wetlands which produced an abundance of wild edible-plant species.

Overlooking the city skyline of Mardin, on the peak of Sheikh Sheran Hill, I could see as far as the Tigris River, with a view of the great Mesopotamian plains, punctuated by patches of vegetation. This land was once home to hunter-gatherers who roamed for centuries before transitioning to permanent, agricultural societies around 10,000 BC, when they began to cultivate grains and cereals. Today, Turkey is the seventh largest agricultural producer in the world with 20 per cent of its population employed in the sector. Wheat, barley, lentils, pomegranate, grapes and chickpeas are among the crops cultivated in the country. This area, known as the ‘Cradle of Civilisation’, is also the birthplace of many technological innovations including writing, the wheel and irrigation.

shutterstock 1479369848Stone houses cascade down Mardin’s slopes

The ancient Mesopotamian city of Mardin rests 35km from the borders of Syria and Iraq and is geographically referred to as Kurdistan. According to the Syriac language ‘Mardin’ means ‘Fortress’. This historic gem has seen 5,000 years of constant habitation and is home to a multitude of nationalities including Turks, Kurds, Armenians and Syrians who live peacefully despite their religious differences – a society split between Christianity and Islam. Under the protection of UNESCO, new constructions are now forbidden in the old town to preserve its façade, although buildings from the 1980s and 1990s scatter the city.

I traversed through narrow alleyways and cobblestoned streets, scanning the beige houses built from limestone, a rock mined for centuries from nearby quarries. People flocked to work in the markets, groups of men gathered in coffee shops and I was greeted by women; a sweet scent of musk filled the air as they passed by whispering, ‘Merhaba’.

 DSC2244 1An artist works with his son in the marketplace carving the mythological creature 'Shehmeran' on a metal plate [Sarah Begum]

As evidenced by the sights and smells of the markets, many merchants earn their daily bread from the riches of the region: coffee, grapes, food and antiques from the Ottoman and Byzantine periods. Grapes are cultivated to make wine, molasses, juice and pudding, while coffee is drunk in the many cafes. I visited Sehmous, a 66-year-old coffee merchant famous for besotting every photographer he sees with the best ‘Mardin Mocha’ in town. Made from three different types of plants, the light and fragrant Mardin coffee was a Turkish delight that I didn’t quite expect.

 DSC2150Famous for making ‘Mardin mocha’ Sehmous greets guests at the entrance to his coffee shop

Elsewhere, Walnut sausage or ‘ikude’ is another snack unique to Mardin, one most often consumed in winter. Tuba, a school teacher from Mardin explains how it is made: ‘Fresh juice is obtained from the grapes then boiled in pots. Walnuts are stacked together on a rope just like a necklace measuring to about one metre in length. Then we soak it in the boiled grape juice and dry it for a week or two before it is ready to eat.’

PHOTO 2020 01 07 10 14 51 1Women boil grape juice in preparation for the walnut sausage, prepare it on a thin rope and use hangers to dry it [Sarah Begum]

However, despite these delicacies, the famous fertile crescent is no longer so fertile. Large-scale irrigation projects diverted water away from the Mesopotamian marshes of the Tigris-Euphrates rivers in the 1950s, causing them to dry up. In 1992, a thousand square miles of marshland turned to desert and more than 200,000 people lost their homes. In recent years, Turkey’s climate change and rapid industrialisation has spurred farmers to migrate from their homes in search of greener pastures elsewhere. For many, the agricultural sector is simply no longer profitable.

Nalin Akturk, an agricultural engineer from Mardin, explains the current state of farming in the region: ‘Corn and cotton are being avoided in some parts of the Mardin region due to reduced rain-fall and depletion of groundwater resources. In parallel to these developments, the use of pesticides and medicine against diseases are increasing due to byproducts of the changes caused by climate change.’

 DSC2097 1A typical convenience store in Mardin sells an assortment of nuts, dried fruits, coffee and fresh spices

Farmers pick this year’s low yield of cotton in the fields to the sound of bullets and bombs blasting a few kilometers away. Unrest from war in neighbouring countries has resulted in an influx of refugees; more than 3.5 million people have migrated from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq to live in Turkey. The refugee population is dispersed amongst cities such as Istanbul or Izmir with some hoping to reach Europe.

About 100,000 refugees live in Mardin but a lack of opportunities divided amongst 835,173 inhabitants has seen rising opposition to immigration. The cost of rent increased from 400 to 600 TL (Turkish lira) in 2013 during the height of the refugee crisis and, while the average salary is 2,000 TL, refugees are often willing to work in low paid jobs such as a construction, dish washing or farming for 1,000 TL every month without health insurance. In the fields, Syrian refugees are hired as farmers and work for landowners who are now city-dwellers.

 DSC2177 1A cobbler takes a break underneath his display of soles [Sarah Begum]

Turkey’s economic crisis has also hit the marketplace, with inflation shrinking the average family’s disposable income and spending budgets. Tomatoes and peppers are the most popular vegetables widely used in traditional cuisine but they have doubled in price in the space of a year from 3TL to 6TL (£0.77p).

Then there’s the war. When Turkey launched its cross-border offensive in Syria on 9 October, aiming to clear the region of the Kurdish Protection Units (YPG), Serkan, a youth worker was in the midst of it all: ‘Bullets were coming in from everywhere and bouncing off the walls of the city centre. People fled their houses without taking any belongings and some residents were sharing their own rooms and food supplies for those who had nothing.’

Serkan volunteered for Mardin Youth and Culture Association as a field coordinator, creating a safe place for Syrian refugees from the borders, before the area was expropriated by the government during recent attacks. There were about 12 refugee camps in Southeast Turkey with the largest situated in San L’urfa. Now, there are only two refugee camps open with one in Izip hosting about 800 people. The rest have closed down on government orders. At one camp, Serkan met a 13-year-old boy who had suffered severe burns all over his body where a petroleum can spilled on him. The boy had lost half his family in the war and his father’s leg had been cut off due to diabetes. Serkan helped rehabilitate the boy through a mentoring programme. 

 DSC2043Serkan [left] worked as a coordinator, helping to house Syrian refugees from across the border

Unemployed and running out of money, Serkan moved back to his family house to live with his mother. He is now seeking sponsorship for an MA in Migration at an international university. ‘The education in Turkey is really bad. Nobody respects it,’ he says. ‘The teachers don’t even care when you do your exams.’ After studying, he wants to train young people so they have a better chance of being employed by the construction or automotive industries in Turkey.

These two industries are now the stalwarts of the Turkish economy, particularly because farming is an increasingly expensive pursuit due to the rising cost of electricity and water. The government still buys electricity from Iran to provide for its people, however this might change with the construction of a new hydroelectric power station in the nearby city of Batman. 

It was time for me to leave Mardin.  I took a final sip of Sehmous’s Mardin mocha and hugged him goodbye. Walking into the Mardin Youth Association with bits of lahmacun on my mouth, I wished Serkan luck with his future, hoping that one day he’ll be able to save even more people than he already has.

When it comes to farming, there are researchers within Turkey promoting a new future, one that embraces automation and AI. Government funding for such ideas could fill a gap in farming strategies needed to boost the economy and promote education in sustainability. Nevertheless, with fresh conflict and chaos suffocating southeast Turkey, a dark cloud of instability hovers over this vibrant culture. It's not clear what the future of farming in the fertile crescent will look like. Residents hope for a growth in sustainable methods – whether these hopes can be realised in the face of so many challenges is not yet clear. 

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