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Cradle of Civilization

A story from the Tigris River in Diyarbakir to Mardin overlooking the Fertile Crescent - and the people who call this place home.

On the Banks of the Tigris

Our arrival in Diyarbakir marked quite the contrast. The 8-hour bus ride stopped abruptly on the side of the road around 11 pm, with the attendant shooing us off. Most of the passengers, natives of Diyarbakir, vanished into the night. Across the street lay the only nearby hotel, a 5-star Raddison Hotel, standing out in an otherwise unremarkable area. We walked to the main bus station a couple blocks past the fancy hotel to find other options. My pre-downloaded maps showed a district near the old town with a line of accommodations, so I found a taxi driver and attempted to explain where to go. I ended up giving him directions myself, guessing at best where we were headed. The  taxi driver dropped us off right outside some crumbling remains of a city wall and a street of accommodations and restaurants. It definitely felt more lively than where we came from, and also somewhat different than accustomed to, at this point. Maybe this is a good time to remind ourselves that Diyarbakir is squarely in the region the United States and most other western countries advised and caution travel against. Were we about to find out if those advisories should have been heeded? 

My first inclination is that we are about to find out. But then again, it gives us more reason to trust in Him who protects us.

The Heavenly Way Map_edited_edited.jpg

We paid the taxi driver and made our way across the street, randomly choosing a hotel to inquire. With fair prices, we settled in the first building we walked in. Upon seeing my American passport, a group of three guests exclaimed "we love Trump!” as the majority of Diyarbakir and this region is Kurdish, they show support to America not because they like America per se, but rather Turkey is at odds with America. In some of their minds, common foes are enough reason to laud support for Trump.

They immediately welcomed me Diyarbakir and their homeland - the land of Kurds.

Diyarbakir lies as the “capital” of a culturally diverse region quite unlike the  majority of Turkish Anatolia. In fact, the city got its name  ‘Diyarbakir’ in the 7th century meaning "land of the Arabs." Don’t let the name fool you though, as the majority of people in Diyarbakir are not Arab, but rather Kurds. The Kurds are an Iranian ethnic group that has lived in the mountainous regions of southeast Turkey, northwest  Iran, Iraq and Syria since the second millennium B.C., still speaking the Kurdish language and adhering to their ancient customs. The city has  witnessed countless stories, whether from the banks of the Tigris River that flows through, to the intact Roman walls that line its perimeter, to the Silk Road inn that still welcomes travelers to the Kurdish people  that live here.

Here is a city of many layers. The Fertile Crescent.

The  next morning we had our sights set across the old town heading east - to the Tigris River. 

The Tigris River (and the nearby Euphrates) is synonymous with the cradle of civilization, the Fertile Crescent and Mesopotamia. It was mentioned in the first page of the Bible and has been at the confluence of the first civilizations. From mountains up north, the Tigris runs past Diyarbakir and travels through the heart of Iraq until emptying into the Persian Gulf. This legendary river always seemed so foreign and unreachable, yet here we were about to set our eyes on the ancient waterway. We crossed through a gate of the Roman walls that line the perimeter of old Diyarbakir with Arabic inscriptions beautifully carved in its stones, no less a later addition. A well-groomed park greeted us on the other side, with the large city walls making a dramatic turn east and a series ofhaphazard steps that led to the top of the walls - with a view of the Tigris River. 

Diyarbakir also stood has a favorable resting stop for Silk Road merchants back in the medieval ages. 

One of the original caravansaries – old Silk Road inns – still stands in the center of the old town. We found a couple of chairs in the center of the courtyard and ordered some Turkish coffee. A first sip of this drink delighted us with its intense flavor, but the last sips really surprised us with the thick sediment of the coffee at the base. Watching the locals, talking with Turkish tourists, and observing life made this such a beautiful moment in the caravansarie. The day unfolded with us leaving tDiyarbakir, a quick but well-worth visit, to a town not far south from here, even deeper into the Fertile Crescent.

Our bus, departing the streets of Diyarbakir, and also the banks of the Tigris River, sped southeast into the broad and dry plains of the northern region of Mesopotamia. The two hour journey commenced in a town called Mardin, 13 miles from the border of Syria. A rocky hill dominates the center of Mardin, with crumbling ruins of a castle perched atop. Unbelievable views are said to be afforded at the top of this 10th century fortress, but it can only be imagined as it is occupied as a Turkish military base. We trudge our bags uphill until reaching the historic center, an open air museum of mosques, churches and historical landmarks. All the buildings are crafted in the tan limestone found in nearby quarries, some of them with intricate carvings and sculptures. The diversity of architectural styles, uses and faiths made it evident this is a city with a rich history.

A history seeped with different faiths, power struggles, and conquests.

Mardin’s earliest foundations laid in the 11 century B.C. where the rocky hill served as a strategic advantage with its expansive views of the Mesopotamian. This outcrop in the plains led it to be called by the Romans as Marida, Assyrian for fortress. Mardin also served as one of the most important centers for Syriac Christianity, the people known as Assyrians where some of the first monasteries in the world were built in areas surrounding town, housing upwards of 70 monks. From the 7th century onwards, it’s history became divisive and confusing. In 640 Mardin was captured by a Muslim commander, followed by it being jockeyed by numerous dynasties. Most of the historical buildings seen today are testament the Artuqid dynasty of the 12th century with its stunning Islamic architecture. Through the years, though, Mardin as always served as a cultural crossroads where large populations of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Jew and Armenians lived side by side.

And most recently, a new group have found their home here - Syrian refugees.

A  peaceful stroll along the ancient alleyways of golden limestone led us past an unassuming bakery. Freshly baked treats were organized neatly on a tray, its aroma permeating the air.

“Come try some!” a young man waved us over. “Here, take a couple, no charge.”

At that the kind man, Farzad, handed us a couple freshly baked, golden brown cookies. Irresistible and delicious they were, which kicked off a conversation with the young man. He recently found this modest job as a bakers assistant after fleeing his homeland - a refugee of the Syrian civil war that plagued the country beginning in 2011. Of the nearly seven million Syrian refugees worldwide, three million found new homes in Turkey, including over 10% of Mardin’s population. He was contagiously optimistic and outgoing in the brief moment we talked.

“Can I meet you two in a tea shop this evening to talk more?” Farzad unexpectedly invited us. 

He wrote down the name of the shop and gave us a  time - 8:00 pm.

We were about to dive a little deeper into a world we knew very little.

The remainder of our exploration of Mardin’s historic quarter consisted of stopping by a charming museum, gazing at the architecture, visiting a monastery, and, of course, finding a place to rest our heads. The main concourse through town is decked with numerous boutique hotels, soap shops and kaboberies. Following a stop at the latter, a hotel caught our attention at the southern edge, with intricately carved pillars leading to spacious rooms and a balcony overlooking the endless plains of Mesopotamia. Add in a buffet breakfast, we lived like kings - and for only $40. A sunset on the balcony is seared in our minds as one of the most memorable ever. We watched the sun wane over the horizon, darkening the ancient lands to the south.

How many stories unfolded in these very lands? How many civilizations have come and gone? And a fitting reminder as the hour is nearing ‘tea’ time with a Syrian we just met - just one person in this town at this point in history.

Surely he must have a story too.

The tea shop was found with ease - a beautiful and historic building of multiple levels. We walked in, climbed up the stairs to the balcony and found Farzad along with one of his friends - another Syrian refugee recently displaced by the war. Farzad was outgoing and talkative, not shy in any sense. His friend was reserved and quiet. Farzad quickly brought the conversation to the hardships they both endured recently. His parents thankfully escaped Syria and live with him in Mardin. His friend, however, lost all contact with his family and even unsure of their safety. His somber tone and story broke our hearts. 

Farzad then told us the real meaning why he invited us for tea.

“When you go back home to America, please share the real story of Syrians. We are people too, just like you guys. We are friendly, we have families... we are human."

At this time, in 2018, Syria was all over the news, and often not in a good light. Refugees are often a topic of conversation, and almost always with a negative tone. This small meeting has impacted me, especially when considering it is these people who Jesus cared about - the broken hearted, the displaced, the outcast. Jesus was even a refugee himself. It took some time to let that, and this simple conversation over tea, sink in.

Thank you, my Syrian friend. I will tell others the real story of your people - one of unexpected kindness and sympathy.

Thank you for reading the story.

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