The southern Turkish town of Mardin clings to a rocky outcrop rising perfunctorily from the Mesopotamian plain, one of the oldest and hottest places on earth. It is also one of the most beautiful cities in the Middle East.
Mardin's dreamlike quality only becomes more apparent the closer you get. Established in the 3rd century by [Assyrian] Syriac Christians (although the region has probably been inhabited for 10,000 years), the town seems to grow out of the rock. The houses have been built and re-built from stone the colour and texture of honeycomb, their doors and colonnades carved in a riot of animal and vegetable life. As the sun sets over nearby Syria and Iraq, the mountain seems to evaporate in a golden haze.
Although Mardin is a place of such beauty, it is still relatively undiscovered. There are only three hotels and most tourists are domestic; wandering the quiet stepped streets of the bazaar, you can find antique Christian bronze work, felt-makers and the coloured soaps, blended with pistachio and almond, for which the town is famous. Strings of walnuts dipped in grape-syrup toffee hang like fragrant stalactites from shopfronts.
The charms of Mardin are seemingly endless (you can even get a beer during Ramadan), but of the unique features of the city, one of its least known is the cuisine. Syriac Christian food has a culinary identity completely distinct from that of Turkish cuisine and is found not only in the Syrian Christian communities of the Middle East but as far afield as the southern Indian state of Kerala.
Characterised by unfamiliar blendings of sweet and sour, typical Syriac Christian dishes mix meat with desert fruits: plums, apricots and dates. One speciality features chicken mashed with plums and stewed with chilli and oregano. Then there's incasiyye, a kebab in which lamb is mixed with chilli and tomato and enlivened with the unexpected flavours of plums and grape syrup.
A savoury lamb and yoghurt soup features more plums and a side dish of okra comes sauteed with prunes and apricots. This blending of sweet and sour is typical of Middle Eastern and North African cooking, though it can be alien to a Western palate. But its unfamiliarity seems to perfectly complement the strange landscape that stretches to the horizon and the sound of donkeys braying in the dark.
There are limited places at which to sample Syriac cookery in Mardin, but the most famous is Cercis Murat Konagi, regularly listed as one of the best restaurants in Turkey. Set in a stunning 19th-century Syriac dwelling high above the plain, the menu features a daily mezze buffet laid out for lunch and dinner, consisting of Syriac and Turkish appetisers. There are delicacies such as olives, carrot salad, kofte (spicy balls of minced lamb) and expertly rolled sigara borek (delicate pastry tubes filled with feta).
Mains are exclusively Syriacan, such as incasiyye, the lamb kebab that surprises the tastebuds with its unusual mix of flavours. Lamb mince is also stewed with pomegranate juice to fill little meat pies.
In the warmer months meals are enjoyed on the multi-tiered terrace; in winter, when snow dusts the yellow stone houses and wind blasts across the plain, in an elegant dining room, its lintels and archways beautifully carved with intricate Byzantine patterns.
Beyond Cercis Murat Konagi, there are only a handful of tiny eateries or, for the lucky few, an invitation to a home-cooked meal.
Mardin, despite growing in popularity during the past five years, remains a relatively hidden gem, unspoiled and free of the concrete tower blocks that mar so many Turkish cities. As the political unrest in the southeast settles and more tourists visit this distant corner of the country, that may change. But one suspects the timelessness of Mardin will defeat all attempts at ruination.
By Brendan Shanahan