(CNN) — Donkeys meander through the narrow streets past the gates and through the low arches, suddenly bawling around the corners of startled tourists as the residents continue on their way, unfazed.
The old stone walls echo with the soft murmur of conversations in Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, Kurdish, Torani, Turkish and Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language said to have once been used by Jesus.
This is Mardin, a city in southeastern Turkey where thousands of years of history can be seen around every corner.
Seen from above, the shimmering white-gold buildings of Mardin form a line of terraces built on a hill overlooking the plains to present-day Syria, but once upon a time the city was part of Mesopotamia, a region bounded by the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
Located where great civilizations like the Sumerians and Babylonians rose to power, Mardin has a complex history.
There is history and culture around every corner in Mardin.
At one point or another, almost everyone had a piece of Mardin. The Nabataean Arabs called it home from 150 BCE to 250 CE, but by the 4th century it was an important Syriac Christian settlement, established by the Assyrians. Then came the Romans and the Byzantines.
In the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks undertook to appropriate it but were thwarted by the arrival of the Artukian Turkmen in the 12th century.
This dynasty, originating in northern Iraq (Diyarbakır in modern Turkey), managed to maintain control for three hundred years, until the Mongols took over. They in turn were replaced by a Persian Turkmen monarchy.
Amazingly, when the Ottoman Sultan Selim le Grim took power in 1517, there was still a Christian population living in the city. Today Mardin has a unique atmosphere and flavor due to this ethnic and religious diversity.
Despite its ancient references, Mardin is a lively and vibrant city where the past lives on in the present.
Take Kırklar Kilisesi, also known as Mor Behnam, one of the seven Syriac Orthodox churches. Originally built in 569 CE, the Church of the Forty Martyrs, as it is known in English, took its name when the relics of 40 martyrs were brought here in 1170.
Architecturally, the church is simplicity itself. Outside, an elegant domed bell tower surmounted by a cross sits in a rectangular courtyard bounded by golden stone walls. Inside, regular services are held, part of an unbroken tradition carried out by Aramaic Christians for over 700 years.
A few blocks away, the Protestant Church of Mardin built by American believers more than 150 years ago now hosts an active congregation after being closed for nearly 60 years, while shop windows are adorned with paintings of the Shahmaran.
The mythical half-serpent half-woman Shahmaran takes its name from Persian. Shah means king (or in this case queen) and mar is serpent so the Shahmaran was the queen of serpents. According to Anatolian folklore, she lived in Mardin.
The decorations of the Abdullatif Mosque of 1371 contrast strongly with the austerity of the churches.
Its two large portals are so delicately carved that it is hard to believe they are made of solid stone. A recessed stalactite sculpture forms the focal point, with vertical and horizontal patterned stone outlines.
Deyrulzafaran Monastery (House of Saffron) is the original seat of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate.
The mosque is a sublime architectural example of the Artuqid period, while Zinciriye Medresesi, a religious school dating from 1385, is another. The seminary, also known as İsa Bey Medresesi after the last Sultan Artuqid, has an imposing gate that contains exquisite masonry technique. The ribs on the stone roof domes make them appear lighter than air. Pretty gardens lead to a small mosque containing an ornately carved mihrab niche that points in the direction of Mecca.
The post office is also worth a visit, for good reason. Converted for public use in the 1950s, it caught the attention of domestic tourists in the early 2000s when it was used as the setting for the hugely popular Turkish mini-series “Sıla”.
The building was originally designed as a private house by Armenian architect Sarkis Elyas Lole in 1890. Steps lead through a small archway onto a large terrace overlooking the Şehidiye Mosque to the empty plains beyond.
Lole also built the 1889 Cavalry Barracks which now houses the Sakıp Sabancı Mardin City Museum. Exhibits include realistic paintings and contemporary exhibits giving a clear idea of everyday life in Mardin, past and present.
At the Mardin Museum, located in the former Assyrian Catholic Patriarchate from 1895, ancient history is represented through objects from Mesopotamia and Assyria, Roman mosaics and Ottoman objects.
It is said that Mardin got its name from its hilltop fortifications.
Hüseyin Aldırmaz/Adobe Stock
Walk in any direction and the streets of Mardin offer stunning visuals, including Ulu Camii, the Great Mosque. Although founded by the Seljuq Turks, its current form is largely due to the Artouqid ruler Beg II Ghazi II.
He commissioned new works in 1176, and more were completed by the Ottomans in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The surface of the only remaining minaret of the mosque is decorated with Seljuk, Artouqid and Ottoman inscriptions. This obsession with detail is reflected in the tel kare, the filigree silver jewelry sold in many shops, although most pieces are produced in family workshops in nearby Midyat.
A few kilometers from the city, the dark but majestic monastery of Deyrulzafaran (House of Saffron) and original seat of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate is a must. This large fortified complex was built on a site dedicated to the worship of the sun.
Although destroyed by the Persians and later plundered by the 14th century Mongol-Turkish conqueror Tamerlane, the original underground sanctuary still exists.
Guided tours take visitors through beautifully carved 300-year-old wooden doors, past Syriac inscriptions, centuries-old wooden litters and thrones, hand-embroidered biblical scenes and other religious paraphernalia . Simple rooms accommodate devotees attending services held in Aramaic.
Meanwhile, excavations at Dara, an important military town east of Rome about 30 km from Mardin, have been going on since 1986.
The finds were plentiful, to say the least. The most recent was an olive workshop dating from the 6th century. This confirms that the city was an important center of olive oil production and trade, as well as the site of many military conflicts.
Many underground cisterns left over from Mesopotamia’s original irrigation system are open to the public. One is so huge that locals call it zindan, a dungeon, and tell stories of its use as a prison. It descends 25 meters underground with access through the basement of a village house, provided the man with the key is found.
Back in Mardin, another ancient attraction is the castle – during Roman times the town was called Marida, an ancient Neo-Aramaic word meaning fortress.
The fortress is very high above the city and although a path leads almost to the gates, it is not open to the public. Some might think the effort (and risk of heatstroke in the summer) is worth it for the stellar views.
Others may prefer to stay in town and enjoy a glass of wine. Most of the local winemakers are Assyrians. They follow ancient traditions and use regional grapes to produce wines that are completely different from those found elsewhere in the country. Definitely a fitting way to salute Mardin’s multicultural mix.