A walk through Mardin, the ancient city in southeastern Turkey

Sarah Begum walks through the ancient city of Mardin in southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border, to learn how locals deal with climate change, inflation and the effects of war

The Fertile Crescent is, as the name suggests, a crescent moon shaped area of ​​the Middle East stretching from the Nile River on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula to southeastern Turkey near the Karacadag Mountains. . It is a place where some of the first human civilizations introduced agriculture around 12,000 years ago. In the past, the region contained exceptionally fertile soil, productive freshwater, and brackish wetlands that produced an abundance of edible wild plant species.

Overlooking the rooftops of the city of Mardin, at the top of Sheikh Sheran hill, I could see all the way to the Tigris River, with a view of the great Mesopotamian plains, dotted with patches of vegetation. This land was once home to hunter-gatherers who wandered for centuries before transforming into permanent agricultural societies around 10,000 BC. AD, when they began to cultivate cereals. Today Turkey is the seventh largest agricultural producer in the world with 20 percent of its population employed in the sector. Wheat, barley, lentils, pomegranate, grapes and chickpeas are among the crops grown in the country. This area, known as the “Cradle of Civilization”, is also the cradle of many technological innovations including writing, the wheel and irrigation.

Stone houses slide down the slopes of Mardin

The ancient Mesopotamian city of Mardin lies 35 km 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 occupation and is home to a multitude of nationalities including Turks, Kurds, Armenians and Syrians who live in peace despite their religious differences – a society divided between Christianity and Islam . Under UNESCO protection, new construction is now prohibited in the old town to preserve its facade, although buildings from the 1980s and 1990s scatter the city.

I walked through narrow alleys and cobbled streets, scrutinizing the beige houses built of limestone, a rock mined for centuries from nearby quarries. People flocked to work in the markets, groups of men gathered in cafes and I was greeted by women; a sweet scent of musk filled the air as they passed whispering “Merhaba.”

    DSC2244 1An artist works with his son in the market by sculpting the mythological creature ‘Shehmeran’ on a metal plate [Sarah Begum]

As evidenced by the sights and smells of the markets, many merchants derive their daily bread from the riches of the region: coffee, grapes, food and antiques from the Ottoman and Byzantine periods. Grapes are grown for making wine, molasses, juice, and pudding, while coffee is drunk in the many cafes. I visited Sehmous, a 66-year-old coffee merchant famous for seducing 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 really expect.

    DSC2150Famous for making ‘Mardin moka’ Sehmous greets guests at the entrance to his cafe

Elsewhere, sausage with nuts or ‘ikude’ is another unique Mardin snack, most often eaten in winter. Tuba, a teacher from Mardin explains how it is made: “The fresh juice is obtained from the grapes and then boiled in pots. The nuts are stacked on a string like a necklace measuring about a meter long. Then we soak it in boiled grape juice and dry it for a week or two before it’s ready to eat.

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

However, despite these delicacies, the famous fertile croissant is no longer so fertile. Large-scale irrigation projects diverted water from the Mesopotamian swamps to the Tigris-Euphrates rivers in the 1950s, causing them to dry up. In 1992, thousands of square kilometers of swamp turned into desert and more than 200,000 people lost their homes. In recent years, climate change and Turkey’s rapid industrialization have prompted farmers to migrate from their homes in search of greener pastures elsewhere. For many, the agricultural sector is simply no longer profitable.

Nalin Akturk, agricultural engineer from Mardin, explains the current state of agriculture in the region: “Maize and cotton are avoided in parts of the Mardin region due to reduced rainfall and depleted crops. groundwater resources. Along with these developments, the use of pesticides and disease drugs is increasing due to the byproducts of changes caused by climate change. ‘

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

Farmers are picking up this year’s low cotton yield from the fields to the sound of bullets and bombs exploding a few miles away. The unrest caused by the war in neighboring countries has resulted in an influx of refugees; over 3.5 million people have migrated from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq to live in Turkey. The refugee population is dispersed in cities like Istanbul or Izmir, some hoping to reach Europe.

About 100,000 refugees live in Mardin, but the lack of opportunities spread among 835,173 residents has resulted in growing opposition to immigration. The cost of rent rose from 400 to 600 TL (Turkish Lira) in 2013 at the height of the refugee crisis and, while the average salary is 2,000 TL, refugees are often willing to work in low-paying jobs. such as building, washing up or cultivating for 1000 TL every month without health insurance. In the fields, Syrian refugees are hired as farmers and work for landowners who have become city dwellers.

    DSC2177 1A shoemaker takes a break under his display of soles [Sarah Begum]

Turkey’s economic crisis has hit the market as well, with inflation reducing the disposable income and spending budgets of the average family. Tomatoes and peppers are the most popular and widely used vegetables in traditional cooking, but their price has doubled in the space of a year from 3TL to 6TL (£ 0.77).

Then there is the war. When Turkey launched its cross-border offensive in Syria on October 9, aimed at clearing the area of ​​Kurdish Protection Units (YPG), Serkan, a youth leader was in the middle of it all: “The bullets were coming in from everywhere and bouncing out. from the city center walls. People fled their homes without taking anything, and some residents shared their own rooms and food for those who had nothing.

Serkan volunteered for the Mardin Youth and Culture Association as a field coordinator, creating a safe place for Syrian border refugees, before the area was expropriated by the government in recent attacks. There were around 12 refugee camps in southeastern Turkey, the largest of which was located in San L’urfa. Today there are only two refugee camps open, including one in Izip which accommodates around 800 people. The others closed on government orders. In one camp, Serkan met a 13-year-old boy who had suffered severe burns all over his body where oil may have spilled on him. The boy had lost half of his family in the war, and his father’s leg was cut off due to diabetes. Serkan helped rehabilitate the boy through a mentoring program.

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

Unemployed and short of money, Serkan returned to his family home to live with his mother. He is now seeking sponsorship for a Masters in Migration at an international university. “Education in Turkey is really bad. Nobody respects him, ”he said. “The teachers don’t even care about your exams. After his studies, he wants to train young people so that they have better chances of being employed in the construction or automotive industries in Turkey.

These two industries are now the pillars of the Turkish economy, in particular because agriculture is an increasingly expensive activity due to the rising cost of electricity and water. The government still buys electricity from Iran to support its people, but that could change with the construction of a new hydropower plant in the nearby town of Batman.

It was time for me to leave Mardin. I took a last sip of Sehmous’ Mardin mocha and kissed it goodbye. As I entered the Mardin Youth Association with pieces of lahmacun on his mouth, I wished Serkan good luck for his future, hoping that one day he could save more people than he ever had. already done.

When it comes to agriculture, researchers in Turkey are promoting a new future, which encompasses automation and AI. Government funding for such ideas could fill a gap in the agricultural strategies needed to stimulate the economy and promote education for sustainability. Nonetheless, with new conflicts and chaos stifling southeastern Turkey, a dark cloud of instability hangs over this vibrant culture. It is not clear what the future of agriculture will look like in the fertile crescent. Residents hope for a growth in sustainable methods – whether these hopes can be realized in the face of so many challenges is not yet clear.

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