Kalecik, near Nusaybin, Mardin, Turkey.

To find Kalecik, access Google Maps and in the search engine type “Nusaybin, Turkey”. From the centre of Nusaybin find the main west to east road just north of the town centre (the road goes from Mardin in the west to Cizre in the east). Once on the main west to east road, note that a smaller road goes north to Midyat via Beyazsu. Follow the Midyat road for about 5 kms and you will see Kalecik less than a kilometre to the west (Kalecik overlooks the road from its hilltop location). From the Midyat road it takes about twelve minutes to walk to Kalecik along a meandering asphalt road. Public transport between Nusaybin and Midyat is frequent. Minibuses will drop you where the asphalt road begins its ascent to Kalecik.

From the road below, the hilltop village of Kalecik appears to be strung along the highest point of a ridge (for most of the village this is, indeed, the case, which significantly enhances its appeal). A narrow asphalt road zig-zags toward the village from beside a small, concrete and breeze block cube-shaped mescit (small mosque) sheltered by a few trees. A boy aged about fourteen appeared from behind the mescit and walked with me most of the way along the road before taking a path to the right to some old stone houses just below the ridge. The boy’s house, in common with all of Kalecik’s houses that are not strung along the ridge, has a small garden enclosed within a dry stone wall.

As you ascend the road, the houses along the ridge, which form the oldest part of the village, appear to have been built so that they join together (this is actually the case with many of the houses). Moreover, because the ridge drops steeply toward the east, the walls of the houses on the east side are much taller than those on the west. As a general rule, windows appear in the east-facing walls only toward the top. The absence of windows lower down, and the fact that the walls of individual houses join together, ensure that Kalecik resembles a castle (hence the name of the village, which means “Little Castle”). However, on the west side of the ridge Kalecik looks very different because the cube- and cuboid-shaped blocks that confront the eye cannot be other than whole houses or individual rooms. This said, because the houses stand on rocks above the road, only the narrowest of paths or flights of stone steps lead toward them. Once among the houses themselves the narrow paths persist. Kalecik looks and feels like a castle, but a castle that began life as a collection of village houses.

The ridge itself is the most obvious place to build a settlement for defensive purposes, but, because the ridge is narrow and not very long, it has been completely colonised by houses to provide shelter for what must once have been a substantial population (today, sadly, many of the houses have been abandoned). As soon as no space remained along the ridge, additional houses were built on the east-facing slope overlooking the beautiful valley below. But even the additional houses are quite old, although a few have had concrete and breeze block extensions added in recent decades.

From the ridge, villagers can see long distances in every direction. Moreover, Kalecik is directly above the valley and the valley has a river that never dries. The valley has a gently undulating floor which is, and always has been, easy to cultivate. Even today the village looks down on admirably productive fields, orchards, gardens and wild trees, all of which benefit from the river. Needless, to say, villagers use the valley to produce food for themselves and others, just as they did in the past. Because a few sheep and goats wandered among the houses themselves, it was obvious that some families raise livestock on the nearby pasture. The summits of the hills enclosing the village are dry and barren, but pasture can be accessed quite easily, both along the valley itself and in the hills to the east and the west.

Almost every house in the village has been built with a honey-coloured stone, and the stone must look its very best early morning and late afternoon (the day of my visit it looked very pretty because a light wind enhanced the visibility). Rubble walls proliferate because families in Kalecik rarely had the financial resources to invest in dressed or carved stone. Some of the walls, especially those at the narrow north end of the village (here the walls possess a graceful curve) and those overlooking the valley below (here the walls are flat but angled slightly from the perpendicular), might easily be part of a castle, but the flat, square and rectangular walls facing west and south are obviously those of houses built compactly together. Almost every roof is flat. Some of the houses in the centre of the village are large and were built by families wealthier than was locally the norm. The largest houses have small courtyards around which the rooms have been arranged on two or three sides. The largest houses appear to spread over three floors, but most Kalecik houses have only two storeys. Some of the houses are very small. Even today, a few ground floor rooms are used to shelter livestock overnight or to store food for human or animal consumption. The lack of space on the ridge has led to the construction of a few rooms above the narrow paths which meander back and forth, and, to access some houses, short flights of steps lead to rickety wooden footbridges that also cross the paths. More than one old mud-encrusted tandir (a wood-burning oven used primarily to bake bread) exists along a path a little wider than the majority, but such communal facilities are no longer utilized. Many houses, even those built originally by families of limited financial means, use flat spaces such as roofs as patios, workspaces or places to sleep during the hottest time of the year. The views north, west and south are good, but patios, workspaces or courtyards with a view to the east must be envied by families who live in houses facing the other directions. In truth, however, all the houses along the ridge have enviable views because they are so high up and overlook a village of stunning beauty. But the east-facing houses also overlook the valley floor below, a valley floor cultivated in an intensive but environmentally sound manner. The beauty of the fertile valley floor is enhanced by the otherwise dry and barren surroundings. Somewhat unexpectedly, Kalecik proved one of the trip’s highlights.

In the village itself I saw only a handful of people, two boys, a man responsible for some sheep and goats, and a woman in her garden. There were more sheep, goats, hens and cockerels than humans. The lack of people was due partly to the number of houses that lie abandoned. However, there was another reason for the lack of people. It was nearly midday and the temperature was about 38 degrees centigrade and rising. Most sensible people were indoors.

I had already seen some remarkable villages on the trip, but Kalecik was, perhaps, the best. Although small compared to many villages encountered in the mountains south of Lake Van, Kalecik’s location along the narrow ridge high above the fertile valley, its linear arrangement, its castle-like appearance and character, and its remarkable stock of houses, almost all of which are built from the same delightful stone in a style that establishes an overall unity despite individual buildings varying considerably in size and layout, made for something very special indeed. While some of the villages earlier in the trip were themselves outstanding, many were similar in appearance and character (this is only to be expected because the villages are located in a relatively small region dominated by mountains and deep valleys, and because those responsible for building the houses had to utilize almost exactly the same raw materials). Kalecik may not be unique (I suspect that a few similar settlements exist in the hills to the north-east and the north-west of Nusaybin), but it was the most distinctive village I encountered in 2013.

There is very little information about Kalecik anywhere, but two articles accessible on the internet suggest that Christians once lived in the village (I suspect that no Christians live there now) and that the population had declined from 416 in 1997 to 187 in 2010. The most remarkable views of the village are obtained about half a kilometre south of Kalecik on the road to Nusaybin (here the road ascends so you view the village from a slightly elevated position) and from the same road directly below the village.

N.B. Nusaybin is on the border with Syria, and the border fence runs along the south edge of the town (in parts of Nusaybin, buildings, including houses and apartment blocks, are no more than 10 metres from the fence). Despite the tragic war still unfolding, on the day of my visit to Nusaybin and Kalecik I could walk to the fence and peer into Syria, until recently one of the Middle East’s most beautiful nation states. Oddly, there was no indication of the war. In fact, all the buildings across the border looked intact. True, the land was devoid of human or animal life, but everything appeared very peaceful, albeit in a distinctly eerie way (not even a single motor vehicle ran along the roads). This said, do not undertake a visit to the Nusaybin area without first ensuring that conflict does not rage on nearby Syrian territory. Stray bombs have found their way from Syrian to Turkish soil and claimed the lives of innocent Turkish citizens.

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