Just imagine that your family had lived in the same modest house for generations. One day your father starts some renovation work – when he starts digging he finds what appears to be the remains of a staircase.
Soon it is apparent that there is something significant down there and he digs down further. Archeologists became involved and it is discovered that there is a 6th century Roman water cistern underneath what used to be your barn!
This is what happened to Mehmet- our guide at Dara, an important Roman fortress city in what was once northern Mesopotamia and which now sits close to Turkey’s border with Syria.
The remains of Dara lie close to Mardin where we stayed for two nights on the start of our tour of the culturally rich and fascinating South-East Turkey.
Mehmet led us through a small gateway, right next to his house and led us down deep underground into the cistern. Apparently the 18 metres deep and fifteen metres wide cistern was used to supply water to travellers such as merchants who during the turbulent 6th Century wouldn’t have been allowed inside the fortress.
It was fascinating to hear Mehmet talk about the discovery and the family’s amazement and excitement when it happened.
Close by to Memhet’s home is a massive gallery grave where hundreds of people were buried together. The massive burial site in which the gallery sits dates back more than 1,500 years and was only unearthed in 2010.
Mehmet told us that he used to play soccer here blissfully unaware of what lay below.
From Dara we drove to Dayro d-Mor Hananyo – an important Syriac Orthodox Monastery usually better known by its nickname, the “Saffron Monastery” because of the beautiful honeyed stone from which it is constructed.
It is said to have been built on the site of the temple to the Mesopotamian sun god Shamash, and we were able to go down to the basement room to view what is believed to be the site of the temple.
Dayro d-Mor Hananyo became a monastery in 493 AD and was the residence of the Syriac Orthodox patriarch of Antioch from 1166 to 1923.
We were very fortunate to be invited to observe the monks at midday prayer which was quite different from any Church service we had ever been part of.
The service was conducted in a form of Aramaic – close to the language that Jesus would have spoken.
It was quite an experience to listen to the ethereal sound of the sung prayers and to observe the ritualistic movements of the bearded monks in their black habits and their unique embroidered hoods.
After the service we wandered around the courtyards and tried to identify the many species of trees that had been planted there.
A friendly volunteer helped us and I took a photo of him – he had such a gentle demeanour and had striking Syriac features. Later that day, I was intrigued to see an image of Christ in the Mardin Museum with the same strong features – so reminiscent of the monks we had met at the “Saffron Monastery “.
Our next stop was the 15th Century Kasımiye Medresesi, originally an Islamic university until 1924 when Medresesis throughout Turkey were closed down in an attempt to secularise the country.
Our tour guide Baran explained the significance of the conduit and pool in the courtyard.
The source of the water is a funnel in the wall that represents birth. The water from the pool drains along a channel (representing different stages of life) and ultimately travels through a narrow slit that represents death and sirat (the narrow bridge which leads to paradise).
Back in Mardin some of us had a wander round the small but well curated museum located in what used to be the grand headquarters of the Syriac Catholic Patriarchate, before gathering for a glass of wine before dinner.
It had been a wonderfully varied and fascinating day, full of interesting experiences that left us looking forward to the rest of our tour of South-East Turkey over the coming days.