Return to Tur Abdin – His Grace Metropolitan Seraphim
In 2001 Abba Seraphim visited the Syriac Orthodox churches and monasteries of Tur Abdin in south-eastern Turkey , about which he wrote extensively in issue 105 (December 2001) of the Glastonbury Review. Accompanied by other pilgrims travelling together under the auspices of “Eastern-Christian Links”, he returned to see if their situation had improved.
Lady Coke and I decided to travel to Istanbul a day earlier than the scheduled start of our pilgrimage. We left the United Kingdom in the long shadow of a third Blair administration, glumly watching the results appearing on TV monitors in one of the airport lounges. At Istanbul we were met by the welcome face of Father John Whooley, now in his second sabbatical year working with the Armenian Patriarchate. Patriarch Mesrob had kindly sent his driver, Mergerditch, to convey us to the Patriarchate in Kumkapi. As always, we were warmly welcomed by the Patriarch and spent a pleasant time discussing current affairs and the plans for our pilgrimage, before joining him for dinner. Also staying at the Patriarchate was Academician Araik P. Sargsyan, President of the Armenian Branch of the Association of International Cooperation. He had come from Yerevan to study some ancient stone engravings which might throw some new light on St. Mesrob Meshtoot’s development of the Armenian alphabet. Although I was staying at the Patriarchate, Lady Coke was booked into the And Hotel in Yerebatan Cadessi, so – at the end of the evening – I accompanied her to her destination. Walking back to Kumkapi in the warm evening air, the streets bustling with activity, it was difficult not to be exhilarated at returning to this wonderful city. I was also delighted to discover that my old friend, Archbishop Nerses Bozabalian, was visiting the city and a fellow guest at the Patriarchate. The next morning (7 May) I walked to the And Hotel to collect Lady Coke and we took a cab to Taxim to collect our internal flight tickets from VIP Turizm before lunching at the restaurant on the Galata Tower and visiting other sites in the city. We returned to the Armenian Cathedral in Kumkapi in time for Vespers, with Fr. Dtat officiating, where we had agreed to meet up with our leader, Nicholas Crampton, and Father Peter Paine, Vicar of Repton in Derbyshire. That night our party came together (except Fr. John Whooley, who had accompanied Patriarch Mesrob and the Ecumenical Patriarch to Pergamon) in the roof restaurant of the And Hotel, which must be the most impressive way to view the principal landmarks of the old city. From our dome-level vantage point we could admire both St. Irene and Hagia Sophia, gaze at the Topkapi Palace nestling among the trees or view the Blue Mosque against the shimmering backdrop of the Sea of Marmora . A storm was gathering and the sky quickly darkened, but the resourceful hotel staff rapidly unwound a huge awning so that no retreat inside was required. We were now joined by the irrespressible Archimandrite Deiniol from Blanae Ffestiniog and a retired ophalmic surgeon and his wife, Andrew & Pamela McAdam from King’s Lynn .
On Sunday morning (8 May) we met again at the Patriarchate where we were driven in convoy to the Soorp Pirgic (Holy Saviour) Armenian Hospital at Yedikule, it being both Turkish Mother’s day and the nearest Sunday to the Feast of the Ascension. The chapel in the hospital grounds had been constructed originally of wood in 1832 but had been replaced by a traditional stone design in 1898 and undergone several restorations, the latest having been only a few months earlier. A large robed choir with its enthusiastic director, sang lustily throughout and, not content to be sidelined to one of the transepts, preferred instead to constitute a solid phalanx packing the area in front of the sanctuary. Archbishop Nerses presided with his usual dignity and although his sermon was entirely in Armenian he left a deep and positive impression on my companions. The Armenian Hospital is impressively modern with all the latest technology but one was charmingly reminded that this was the Middle-East by the uncertainty of the proceedings following the Liturgy, where clergy and dignitaries were shunted around amidst a crowd which ebbed and flowed, equally unsure of the programme. A distinguished benefactor in a wheel-chair was steered towards a remote corner where he joined others in cutting a ribbon to a new wing for the disabled and a modest lift carried off a variety of notables, four at a time, to view the new facilities. At last everyone sat down to a welcome alfresco lunch under a giant canopy slung between buildings although by the time the benefactor and his family arrived the ‘top table’ seats were already occupied and polite diplomacy was required to accommodate them together. As with all banquets, the inevitable speeches by pillars of the Armenian community were de rigueur. A potted biography of the hospital’s nineteenth-century founder, Kazaz Artin (Arthur Amira Bezjian) listed his impressive positions within the Ottoman Empire , culminating in the lucrative office of Master of the Imperial Mint ! A report of the hospital’s activities in the past year included a list of large donations in ‘Amerikalı dolar’, each followed by spirited applause.
We slipped away from the banquet during a pause in the speeches and walked to the Zoodochos Pege (“Life-giving Spring”), known to the Turks as Bal ı k ı Kilise, where we were warmly welcomed and able to enjoy the peaceful tranquillity of the shrine. We were about to re-enter the old city through the Silivri Kapisi (known in Byzantine times as the Gate of the Pege) when we noticed an iron gate on the north side leading to theperibolos or inner walk (the area between the inner and outer walls) which was unlocked. On venturing through, we discovered an ancient tomb currently serving as the domestic residence of a family of Anatolian Turks and other miscellaneous nomads. They welcomed us warmly and took us into the dark interior where, on either side of the doorway, we discerned in the dim light, beautifully carved stone panels portraying Moses receiving the tablets of the Law and other less obvious Biblical scenes, which clearly served as sarcophagus panels fronting Byzantine loculi. Mattresses and other domestic paraphernalia were draped on each cover, the current inhabitants wisely preferring to sleep on top rather than entombed! Another, shattered panel lay among a pile of weeds and adjacent to a mound of discarded cans and bottles. Father Deiniol rewarded their hospitality by purchasing at a nearby shop an armful of ice-cream cones, which he hurriedly delivered before they were completely reduced to liquid by the fierce afternoon sun.
The next morning (9 May), Patriarch Mesrob, having returned from Pergamon the previous night night, received us all at the Armenian Patriarchate for morning tea together at one end of a long table in a formal committee room off the Patriarchal Throne Room. Nicholas explained the aims of Eastern Christian Links and the Patriarch answered questions concerning issues confronting the Christian communities in Turkey today with refreshing frankness and good humour.
Our next appointment was at the Phanar, where Patriarch Mesrob was himself lunching with Patriarch Bartholomaeus. Arriving by taxi, the main courtyard was full of excited visitors from Greece , but security seemed extraordinary lax and we just ambled in to the main building without anyone challenging us. There was a lot of bustling activity as Patriarch Theodoros of Alexandria was also arrived at the Phanar last night. We were conducted into a large reception hall and after a short wait, Patriarch Bartholomaeus joined us, offering his usual warm welcome and thanking me for “not forgetting” him whenever I visit Istanbul. During our conversations, Nicholas asked the Patriarch about his important witness in the field of ecology and within minutes the Patriarch had sent for a book and DVD outlining some of the work already done, which he presented him with. The rest of us were presented with small gold crosses and red Easter eggs wrapped in muslin, which turned out not to travel well !
Leaving the Patriarchate we explored the rather squalid stepped streets behind, once the quarter of the wealthy Greek aristocracy or Phanariots, where a plaque commemorated Dimitri Cantemir, who served as Prince of Moldavia at the end of the seventeenth century as well as being a distinguished composer. A little higher up we entered the Church of the Theotokos Panaghiotissa, generally called the Mouchliotissaor St. Mary of the Mongols. Named after the Despoina of the Mongols, Princess Maria Palaeologina, it has remained an Orthodox Church since it was consecrated at the end of the 13 th century and a copy of the firman of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror granting it immunity from conversion into a mosque, is still displayed at the back of the church.
The Churches of Diyarbakr
Our flight to Diyarbakr later in the day would have been uneventful had it not been for the first two of a series of mishaps which plagued us all week. A cash machine had devoured Father Deiniol’s plastic card just as he was planning to replenish his cash supply, leaving him dependant on the charity of the rest of his travelling companions for the remainder of our trip. Hustled through the barrier onto the waiting plane, Father John found that his return ticket had somehow been collected up when boarding passes were surrendered and passports shown for the umpteenth time. The Turkish Airlines staff at Istanbul told us not to worry as they would sort it out at their end and telephone ahead to our destination. At Diyarbakr, however, they knew nothing of the problem and announced that without his ticket Fr. John would not be allowed to board the plane. Although they were able to confirm that they had a record of his booking and of his having paid for a return ticket because a place was reserved for him by name, they were nevertheless unable to issue a replacement ticket. His only solution was to buy a new ticket and, after three months, he would be able to apply for a refund, which would be entirely at the airline’s discretion. Faced with the intransigence of bureaucracy and arcane rules which seem to favour the airlines over their passengers at every stage, we deferred any decision until a later stage.
At Diyarbakr we were booked into the finely restored Büyük Kervansaray Hotel just within the ancient city walls by the Mardin Kap ı (gate), the inauguration of which had been attended by Lady Coke during her previous visit, some five years earlier. Built in 1527 in the same black basalt as the city walls, two-storeys high with rooms off a wide gallery surrounding a delightful inner courtyard, it had the charm of an historic building with all the conveniences of the twenty-first century in plentiful supply. One extra large doorway recalled the fact that trains of laden camels would have been a familiar sight in past years, as this was on one of several well-trodden routes comprising the ancient Silk Road . A fountain bubbled away in the centre whilst what Nicholas identified as Laughing Doves (Streptopelia senegalensis) nested in the trees, spied on grudgingly by a couple of feral cats who lurked in the shadows. It was a pleasant place to relax over dinner and Moussa, the head waiter, a loquacious Kurdish Uriah Heep, made himself indispensable.
The next morning some of our party mounted the ancient city walls to view the timeless beauty of the valley of the Tigris , whose name derives from the Old Persian meaning “the fast one”. Its drab, modern Turkish name, Dicle, sadly lacks historic resonance. To avoid us getting lost in the town’s sinuous alleyways Moussa offered to take us to the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Meryem Ana Kilise, where we were blessed to find my old friend, Father Yusuf Akbulut, with his wife, children and a number of church workers, who greeted us warmly. Although there had been some thefts from the church since my last visit, the work of restoration throughout was impressive. After inspecting the fine architectural features of the interior (greatly enhanced by the removal of a rather ugly gallery over the west door) and its chapels, we took tea in the great courtyard outside which had once been covered by the nave of this great church. Opposite the main door of the Syrian Church was a stone house, again recently restored, which now served as the Evangelical Church in Diyarbakr with a membership of some forty families. It was under the pastorate of Abuna Mohammed who, far from being seen as a threat to the city’s ancient Christian communities was regarded charitably. His frequent television appearances and his unconventional stance was in fact a source of considerable amusement whenever his name was mentioned. It was only last October that the Turkish Ministry of Culture approved legal zoning of the Diyarbakr Evangelical Church , granting formal approval for the first new Protestant church to be built in south-eastern Turkey since the founding of the Turkish republic.
We bade farewell to Fr. Yusuf and, after weaving our way through the labyrinthine streets, each suspiciously looking identical to the ones we had just navigated, we encountered a group of Kurdish women gossiping on a corner, who proved especially helpful. Two of the younger ones offered to serve as guides and before long we had reached a series of semi-ruinous walls, which were the outside of the former Armenian Church. The original date of the Armenian Church of Saint Giragos is uncertain but appears to have been erected after the Church of St. Theodore was converted into a mosque in 1515 or 1518. Although boasting seven apses it was known as the ‘Little Church’ and was rebuilt in 1729. It burned down completely in 1881 but was rebuilt in 1883. During the First World War it served as a headquarters for German officers and in 1915 its elegant four-tiered stone bell-tower, complete with clock and spire, was demolished and replaced by a simpler, wooden structure. After being used for many purposes other than that for which it had been constructed, it was restored to the Armenian community in 1960, undergoing repairs in 1965 and 1986. However, in 1988-1989 the earth and wood roof of the church collapsed and the dwindling congregation resorted to a tiny abandoned chapel in the churchyard. When Lady Coke visited in 2001 there was one elderly deacon acting as sacristan, who has now moved to Istanbul , leaving a sad scene of desolation behind. However, the essential edifice and even the structures of the elaborate altars, was intact and restoration, if not delayed for too long, may still prove realistic.
Our helpful Kurdish girls then led us to the nearby Chaldean Catholic Church, which was still in use and in a fair state of repair. As is the custom in the Middle-East when a group of interested persons are standing outside a locked and shuttered church wondering how on earth entrance is to be achieved, a grumpy sacristan appeared from no-where and began unlooking the gates. We were ushered into the courtyard and led towards the church itself, but the Kurdish girls were abruptly dismissed and told in no uncertain terms that they were not welcome. Our British sensibilities were justly affronted by this treatment meted out to our very efficient and friendly guides and we indicated as much to the sacristan, who remained entirely indifferent to their plight. However, our guides were more resilient than we had expected and stubbornly waited for us outside, refusing to budge from the courtyard. The Church was dirty and cluttered whilst each sanctuary was decorated with an excess of multi-coloured light bulbs which hung in erratic swags, festooning elaborate but neglected plaster altars. In broken English, the sacristan drew our attention to most of the more obvious features whilst also stressing the need for the Church’s maintenance, noting that he sacrificially, but gladly, laboured without desiring any reward. However, when our contribution was placed firmly in the large padlocked offertory box he vigorously protested that he served as sacristan without receiving a salary ! Having clearly outstayed our welcome, we took our leave and were more than happy to donate some small amounts to our female guides, whose behaviour convinced us that whilst they were perfectly happy to receive it, befriending strangers had been uppermost in their consideration rather than financial gain. We waved them goodbye and headed off in search of lunch.
This proved an interesting experience as we savoured a variety of tasty local dishes, though Lady Coke’s choice of half a sheep’s head was one which the rest of us declined. Despite enthusiastically assuring us that this was a great delicacy I found the grinning dentures, which occasionally appeared to flash an inscrutable smile from her plate, just a little unsettling!
After lunch a group of us ventured in the direction of the ancient Citadel, which dominates the north-eastern corner of the city, commanding splendid views of the Tigris . A young armed soldier stood guard at the gateway so we assumed that, like most military sites, it was off bounds to visitors. However, as we were admiring the gateposts, a young NCO greeted us in passable English and invited us to enter. As we ascended the path to the principal buildings soldiers were everywhere tidying up the surrounds which appeared to be a series of demolition sites. Our charming NCO explained that all except the ancient buildings had been demolished recently and they were tidying up the site preparatory to moving out and handing over to the archaeologists and conservationists. Here we discovered the impressive ruins of the Armenian Saint George Church, said to date from the fourth century. Gertrude Bell had photographed it in 1911, describing two domed buildings one of which she thought to be a domed basilica but the other she thought to be Islamic in origin. At the time of her visit it was used as a dep ô t for military stores but Mango notes that since 1911 dilapidation had been marked, the metal sheathing of the eastern dome having been removed and the west dome having been damaged. Although we were unable to gain entry to the interior, from our vantage point on the parapet below, we could only observe one dome. The NCO and the workmen clearing the site were all equally fascinated by the old photographs and the changes wrought by the ravages of time. Nearby we found a small shrine with tiny connecting rooms housing two Muslim tombs, the signs being that these were still visited by devotees. Having been made so welcome we were escorted back to the entrance, where an officer came to greet us and we left impressed with the charm and intelligence of the soldiers we had encountered at the Citadel.
Walking back within the city walls towards the Mardin Gate we were greeted enthusiastically by crowds of friendly children who indicated the main content of their English lessons with phrases such as, “What is your name ?” There was regular paving now rather than compressed earth and stone and my recollection of there having been numerous shanty houses built against the ancient walls, but now no longer visible, indicated that there had been some marked ‘refurbishment’ of the area.
The next morning (11 May) we were up early as our hire cars were expected to arrive at the hotel for 7 o’clock but in the event, this being Turkey, they finally arrived at 9.15. Having divided ourselves into two groups, we set off briskly in the direction of Mardin and seemed to be making good progress when Nicholas suddenly realised that our companion car was not in pursuit. Having pulled in and waited without any sign of them appearing, we drove back a few miles and found them parked-up seriously haemorrhaging petrol some 20 km out of Diyarbakir .
From the outset our group was largely characterised by either a resistance or indifference to cell-phones. I had urged my companions to bring theirs along but only Lady Coke had responded positively and she had undergone a crash course in message texting from her son only the day before departure. When later I was flippantly asked by an Orthodox friend whether any of our ecumenical group had been ‘converted’ as a result of the pilgrimage, they looked a little surprised by my reply in the affirmative. However, the ‘conversion’ I had in mind was to the absolute necessity of having a cell-phone when travelling (we had already used it to contact Father Deiniol’s bank about his ‘consumed’ card) and the fact that we only waited by the roadside for forty minutes before a replacement vehicle could be sent from Diyarbakr, which was entirely the fruit of this instance means of communication.
The Saffron Monastery and Mardin
Although we arrived at Deyrelzafaran Monastery quite a bit later than scheduled, we were warmly greeted by Archbishop Philoxenos Saliba Ö zmen, who had been consecrated to the episcopate in February 2003 (see Glastonbury Review No. 108, July 2003, p. 275), the see of Mardin having been vacant since the death of the distinguished scholar Bishop Philoxenus Yohanna Dolabani in 1969. The energetic 41 year-old M ô r Philoxenos had already made a notable impact on the monastery which was now the bustling heart of the diocese. A native of Tur Abdin, he had been educated at both Deyrelzafaran and M ô r Gabriel monasteries but also had very happy memories of his student days in Oxford . After lunch and a tour of the monastery, there was time to sit and talk with the bishop about the work of his diocese, which was clearly benefitting from his dynamic and forward-looking leadership. Before leaving, we climbed onto the monastery’s terraced roof to enjoy what, in my experience, must be one of the most memorable and potent views. Nestling among the warm saffron coloured peaks from which the monastery is constructed, the ground slopes away precipitously on the other side, revealing the boundless Mesopotamian plain extending in the misty horizon to the vast and troubled land of Iraq.
The Archbishop had arranged for us to accompany Father Gabriel Akyüz, the priest of the Church of the Forty Martyrs in the ancient town of Mardin . Built in tiers precipitously clinging to a vast volcanic outcrop only 9 km. from the monastery and surmounted by its citadel, Mardin dominates the surrounding countryside like some Middle-Eastern Gormenghast. The Church, which was well cared for and full of ancient treasures, ministers to some 750 Syriac families whilst its school has some 18 students. In reality, just as in Diyarbakr, the Syrian Orthodox priest ministers to all Syriac Christians, whether Orthodox, Catholic or Chaldean and occasionally prays in their churches because they have no other priest to care for them. Like all Syrian priests we met, he meticulously preserves and passes on to the youth, the rich liturgical and hymnic traditions of the Church and to demonstrate this Fr. Gabriel sang the same text in all the different tones.
The delay at the beginning of the day had grown rather than diminished with each stage of our journey, so that we arrived at the gates of Mor Gabriel just as the last rays of the sun were setting and to find them shut and fastened against us. Nicholas, being the most nimble of our company, managed to scale the large iron gates and disappeared in the direction of the monastery where even more impregnable walls and gates confront the stranger. However, mission accomplished, he returned in the company of a smilingMalfona İ sa Dogdo who opened the gates and led us to Bishop Samuel, where we were greeted warmly and a simple but refreshing supper had been prepared for us.
The next morning at 5.30 we attended Morning Prayer in the monastery Church . Everything was conducted with almost military precision but completely devoid of fuss. As each of the students arrived he positioned himself on one of the horizontal lines decorating the marble floor in front of the sanctuary to quietly recite his private prayers with folded arms. This accomplished, he would slip into position around one of the two great lecterns and drop effortlessly into the syncopated rhythms of antiphonal chant which bounced back and forth between the two groups. Those standing in front of the lecterns appeared perfectly capable of reading the huge Syriac volumes even when upside down ! The sanctuary veil, printed with biblical scenes and cheerful wide-eyed angels and saints, had numerous small bells attached, so that whenever it was drawn back, a silvery tintinnabulation echoed round the church. In the absence of M ôr Samuel, I was required to bless the incense and whichever boy acted as thurifer moved purposefully about the spacious ‘nave’ in a complex geometrical formation without ceasing the fascinating vibrato censing which is a speciality of the Syrian liturgical tradition.
After prayers and before breakfast, Malfona İ sa took us on a tour of some of the monastery’s shrines and pointed out various architectural features before we set off to visit the magnificent church of the Virgin Mary (Yoldath Aloho) at Hah. As we drew near we encountered several military vehicles and lively preparations for the reception of the local military commander who was re-opening a nearby village school. At Hah we were greeted by my old friend, Habib Doghan, the only Christian mukhtar in Turkey , who stayed with us throughout and conducted us around the Church and later, to the monastery of St. Sergius and Bacchus, the underground chapel of M ô r Shmuel and the ruins of the Cathedral of M ô r Sobo (Saba). We also took tea with Habib and his wife in a traditional Eastern divan at their home in the ‘citadel.’ He told us that his eldest son is a student at Deyrelzafaran whilst an infant son tottered around handing us each wild roses he had picked nearby.
Our arrival at Hah coincided with a coachload of German tourists led by an Evangelical Pastor who has lived in Turkey for many years. They bustled in with noisy enthusiasm and we showed them some of Gertrude Bell’s old photos of Hah enabling a comparison with its present appearance and after they had gone we settled down to a calmer contemplation of its amazing architectural features, not least the dome in 1903 with the dome as it appears now.
On leaving Hah we encountered vast flocks of sheep and goats being unloaded from lorries to start their long walk to the summer grazing near Lake Van . Every road ahead seemed blocked by bleating livestock tumbling over each other in their desire to avoid our cars as we edged gingerly through the seething mass of wool. We eventually arrived at Saleh to visit the beautiful eighth century church of M ô r Jacob the Recluse, where we were greeted by Father Salib and Father Daniel. At my last visit Fr. Daniel had been busily engaged in construction work so I was never able to satisfy myself about whether or not he spoke with a Birmingham accent (having attended a language school there) and now, as he spoke so quietly and was clearly a doer rather than a talker, I was still unsure. What had been a chaotic building site in 2001 was now an impressive new wing, faced in stone and inside floored with marble, whilst the surrounding land revealed the first stages of a well-planned kitchen garden. We sat in the shade and were plied with tea by a student, one of ten being trained by Fr. Daniel in the church hymns and traditions. These ubiquitous youths from whose number have come the likes of M ô r Philoxenos, the two Malfona İ sas at M ô r Gabriel and the mukhtar Habib Doghan, are undoubtedly the future of the Syrian Orthodox Church and, judging by their obvious intelligence and aptitude, they indicate a promising time ahead.
On Friday morning were drove into Midyat and walked around looking at churches. We discovered a very neglected Protestant church, surprisingly built in an identical style to the Syrian Orthodox ones except for its dusty rows of benches and spartan interior glimpsed through dirty windows.
I had been very keen for us to visit Hasankeyf, described on one internet site as “a City Doomed to Disappear” because of Turkey ’s plan to build the Ilusu Dam. I had supported the anti-dam campaign in its later stages in 2000 and was delighted when Balfour Beatty’s involvement and Britain ’s offer of £200 million in aid for this project seemed to be thwarted. Apart from the loss of ancient archaeological sites, it meant the submerging of some 57 Kurdish villages and more than 25,000 people displaced. However, there was a strong feeling that the threat had only been postponed, not completely averted.
Hasenkeyf showed signs of human occupation for some five thousand years; had been a Byzantine border fortress against the Persians, a Syrian Orthodox diocese (one theory about the origin of its name was that it derives from the Syriac word for cliff, kayfa) and boasted a mediaeval citadel from the time of the Kurdish Ayyubid dynasty. There was no denying its spectacular situation with its Mesopotamian troglodytic village carved into the huge cliffs below which the Tigris slowly and sinuously flowed in a ravine, lapping round the piers of a ruined bridge dating from 1116. We clambered up the stone steps cut in the rock face, crossed rather shaky wooden bridges and soon found ourselves on a terraced restaurant, complete with carpets and cushions, some of it dug deep into the cliff, affording a precipitous panorama of the valley below, where cool drinks and ice-cream were most welcome. Entering through the remains of an ancient gateway, some of us ventured to the summit where, in the huge area covered by the citadel, the ruined but fairly intact Mosque of Ulu stood on the foundations of an ancient church. We met several parties of Kurdish school children with their teachers, who spoke good English. Apart from bemoaning the loss of their Kurdish heritage they welcomed us warmly and all requested to be photographed with us. On our descent I ventured into a cave, serving as an amply supplied carpet shop and, against my better judgement, purchased yet another killim, mainly because of its distinctive pattern containing an unusually profuse number of crosses. Before leaving we crossed the modern bridge to view the 15th century Zeynel Bey turbeh or mausoleum, with its attractively decorated turquoise tiles, revealing Persian influences, whilst the pockmarked cliffs surmounted by their ruins in splendid decay, loomed over us casting their shadow on the watermeadows below.
Returning to Tur Abdin we stopped at Urdnus, once a PKK stronghold. During my visit in 2001 the church was not only locked but there was recent evidence of the conflict in stonework pitted by bullets. Now the Church of St. Kyriakos was not only open but restored and we were able to ascend to the roof by its outside stairs. A Syrian Christian, visiting from Germany , and two Muslim Kurdish brothers made us very welcome and conducted us around. That there were good relations now was an undoubted fact but when the brothers proudly pointed to their house, the best maintained in the village, one wondered about the delicate balance of power and the process by which land and houses once almost exclusively possessed by Syrians had now passed to the local Kurds. At heart one felt the conflicts had not been about religion but about land and the economic dominance of one community over the other.
From the roof of the church of St. Kyriakos we could see the village of Aynwardo (Gülgöze in Turkish) which we had been anxious to visit because of Dalrymple’s impressive account of the 1915 siege of the fortress church of M ô r Had Bshabo . We had attempted to reach it from Midyat earlier that day but the absence of road signs and the paucity of our maps had only led us up dead ends. Now, late in the afternoon, we failed yet again in our quest, until a passing Kurd on a motorbike offered to take us there directly. Parking his machine at a nearby garage he joined us as a passenger and proved, once again, the extraordinary kindness of strangers one encounters when travelling.
Faced with some 12,000 Ottoman soldiers and 13,000 Turkish irregulars, the Syrian Christians from the neighbouring villages had withstood a three-year siege from within this fortress church which dominated the hill-top village of Aynwardo . At each corner of the outer wall, a substantial stone bastion with small windows, protected the enclosure. Through the Beth Slutho, or open air church, a tiny doorway admitted us into the cavernous church with its stone archways leading into further semi-derelict chapels and sanctuaries. A long passage ended at a spacious divan behind the church whilst a narrow stairwell wound past tiny storage rooms onto the roof, once an emplacement for an ancient canon. here we could view the network of stone walls and ancient passages – some collapsed – complementing the natural escarpment, which transformed the church into the keep of an entirely fortified village. The picture in Dalrymple’s book shows a pile of rubble from the collapse of the large divan behind the church but, like the Church itself, this has now been fully restored. At least two other churches at the other end of the village reminded us that this had once been an entirely Christian village although now the Kurdish population is marginally greater.
This had been a most difficult village to locate. Nevertheless our perseverance had been amply rewarded, as Aynwardo was as impressive a a monument as any one could find to the resilience and faith of that beleaguered community and as we drove out of the village chased by a fiercely barking dog, we were all rather awed by its history.
To Gazientep and Urfa
We left the monastery after breakfast, bidding a warm farewell to Bishop Samuel and two Malfono Isas and headed back via Mardin, where we dipped down onto the great Mesopotamian plain, which borders Syria . Nicholas managed to leave his Credit card at a garage near Mardin, adding another mishap to our growing catalogue although later, in sorting out passports we discovered Father John’s return ticket slipped inside Lady Coke’s ! Our next destination was Urfa , known in ancient times as Edessa . Originally a Hellenistic city state sandwiched between the Roman and Parthian Empires, it had its own Aramaic kings from 132 B.C. until its absorption in the Roman Empire in 242. Christianity was introduced at a very early stage, possibly in the reign of King Abgar V Ukkama bar Manu (4 B.C.-7 A.D. and 13-50 A.D.) whose correspondence with our Lord is recorded in the Syriac document The Teaching of Addai although other scholars believe it was introduced in the reign of King AbgarVIII ‘The Great’ bar Manu (177-212 A.D.).
On our way we stopped briefly to view the alleged tomb of the Prophet Job and his wife, Rahime, at Eyuppnebi near the town of Veranşehir . Islamic tombs of Job are fairly common, minor ones being found in Iraq , Syria and India , with more celebrated ones in Bokhara in Central Asia and Dalalah (Nabi Ayoub) in South Oman . It was a simple, fairly modern turbe surrounded by a clump of trees set in a rather dusty, treeless park with a rapacious car-park attendant exploiting its tourist potential. Unimpressed, we decided not to go in search of Prophet Elisha’s tomb in the same village or the tombs of various sons of Job in the same locality !
Şanliurfa, renamed ‘Glorious’ Urfa in 1924 to commemorate the defeat of the French colonialists by the Kurds, whom Atatürk had promised independence if they helped him defeat the European armies that were attempting to seize parts of the dead Ottoman Empire. Despir their efforts they were refused statehood in southeast Anatolia so that the Tigris and Euphrates headwaters and the fertile plains of Sanliurfa could be kept within the new Turkish Republic. Disappointingly it was a rather drab, bustling modern city. On arrival at the Koran Hotel, where Nicholas had reserved our rooms by ‘phone and fax well in advance, the management vigorously denied any knowledge of our booking, although someone caught a glimpse of an entry “8 x 2” (presumably eight people for two nights) crossed through in the hotel diary. It transpired that Turkey’s Prime Minister was visiting Urfa that day and that all the best hotels were fully booked by either his entourage or merbers of the press corps ! However, for an hotel which claimed to have no obligation to accommodate us, they proved amazingly anxious to find us rooms elsewhere ! Having been driven to a couple of run-down establishments offering dormitory-like facilities we decided to drive 145 km to Gazientep, where the Yesemek Otel could provide us with rooms and agreed to return to Urfa the following night.
Gazientep (formerly Aintab) was another very busy city with a complex one-way system. Eventually a young man waiting for a bus offered to guide us to our hotel and, with his support, we penetrated the maze of inner city streets. Having spent most of the day travelling, we were glad to relax over dinner and have an early night !
Next morning, Reçep, our young guide from last night, returned to show us around the city centre. He was half Kurdish and had been undergoing lengthy chemotherapy for cancer, which had prevented him from going to university as well as depriving him of many friends, so he was happy to share our company. We visited a large Catholic Church, formerly belonging to the Franciscans, whilst the attached building now housed a catering school. Bullet marks on the outside of the building reminded us of the 1924 Battle of Aintab, when the Turkish army had besieged the town. Reçep led us to the impressive Armenian Cathedral in the centre of what had once been the Armenian quarter but now semi-derelict. Erected in 1892, it had been used as a prison complex after 1915 and in 1985 was converted into a mosque.
A short walk from our hotel we discovered the newly refurbished Gazientep Museum, housing the magnificent Roman mosaics saved from the ancient city of Zeugma (Balkis), built as a bridgehead on the Euphrates by Seleucus I Nicator, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Two villas alone had yielded 17 floor mosaics vibrantly depicting a wide range of mythological scenes. However, the construction of the Birecik Dam, covering an area of 100 km between 1999-2000 resulted in a desperate salvage operation to rescue some of the finest Roman mosaics ever discovered. In the very last week, as the waters began to enter the structures, two more floor mosaics were discovered. As one Turkish poet observed,
“Time came to harness the Euphrates.
Time came to change nature.
And nature’s anger buried Zeugma forever.”
Taking our leave of Reçep, we then drove about 45 km westwards in the direction of Urfa, and drove to the landscaped area overlooking the Birecik Dam where a poor remnant of archaeologial remains survives at the water’s edge and is still undergoing excavation. Although the best had been salvaged, the site as a whole had been only partially excavated and was now forever buried under the waters. Of the 5,000 acre site of the city one-third is now under water of which only 4-5 thousand square metres was excavated for salvage.
Soon after crossing the Euphrates (Turkish: Firat) at Birecik we set off along a torturous road which traced the contours of the river northwards. We were in search of the ancient fortress of Rumkale, built on a cliff overlooking the junction of the Merzimen river with the Euphrates. However, since the construction of the dam, the fortress now looked even more impregnable as it dominated one end of the great lake under which numerous villages had already disappeared. Exhausted by driving on badly rutted roads, it offered a refreshing break to hire a boat and view the fortress from the water. Thought to have been the site of Shitamrat founded by King Salmanassar III of Assyria in 855 B.C. and the legendary site where the Apostle John copied and hid the manuscript of the Gospels until they were discovered and carried to Beirut; in the 11 th Century it was part of the Crusader County of Edessa; served as the fortress-city of Hromgla and seat of the Armenian Catholicos from 1149 as well as having sheltered for a time the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchs by whom it was known as KalaRhomate. In 1292 the Mamlukes carried Catholicos Stepannos IV into exile in Egypt and the see was removed to Sis.
That evening we returned to the Koran Hotel in Urfa, where we were now expected and welcomed by the management. The next morning we visited the celebrated Pool of Abraham about whom the Koran has a number of colourful accounts which contradict the Bible. The cave in Urfa where Abraham was born is a place of pilgrimage, althoughGenesis places it in Ur of the Chaldees. Well meaning attempts to reconcile these discrepancies have led to fanciful theories about alternative Urs. Equally implausible accounts of Abraham being catapulted by King Nimrod from the citadel into a pile of burning faggots, which were miraculously transformed into the celebrated pool of carp, seem to originate in exotic rabbinical traditions, which obviously predate the Koran. However, the Biblical Nimrod, who is named as a very remote ancestor of Abraham, is unlikely to have been his contemporary. Tradition also warns that those who steal the carp and eat them are immediately struck blind, though I am told that if one ventures down to the Pool early it is not uncommon to
encounter locals carrying wet bags strangely inclined to flail and twitch. Remarkably I saw no-one wearing dark glasses or carrying a white stick ! The Pool winds dreamily through a shady park with elegant arcades where we watched the overcrowded carp as we drank our tea.
Our last significant stop before our final night in Turkey, was at the biblical Har(r)an (named after the Akkadian Harrânu), on a dusty road some 50 km south of Urfa, where Abraham’s father, Terah, settled and died after his migration from Ur and from which Abraham set out when he was 75 years old. Nothing from that time remains above ground but the ancient walls (once boasting 187 towers and 6 gates) and remains of the Aleppo Gate with a collapsed fortress, built upon the foundations of the temple of the moon goddess, Sin, cover a huge area. Here also are the ruins of the first University of Islam, with the remains of a 40 metre tower for astronomical observations. Known to the Romans as Carrhae, it was the place of defeat of General Crassus and 30,000 Roman legionaries at the hands of the victorious Parthians. The whole desolate scene reminds one of the extraordinary scope and success of ‘Mongol Demolition’, which – in its day – was even greater than John Prescott’s current ambitions for the north of England . Harran village – a jumbled settlement within the walls – has a number of beehive-shaped med dwellings which are cool in summer and warm in winter. A ‘show-hut’, elegantly furnished with rugs and killims, made a convincing case for such affordable housing, at least in countries with low rainfall !
CHANGES TO SYRIAC CHURCHES & VILLAGES
In December 2002 (Glastonbury Review No. 107, pp. 205-207) we published a list of Syriac villages and churches in Turkey which had been closed or destroyed. Since thenthere have been a number of changes, which are as follows:
LOCALITY NAME OF CHURCH AND YEAR BUILT MEASURE
Eskakile (Kilitmara) Mor Ozozel Monastery (400) Once a year
Dereici (Kilit) Mor Abay Monastery (370) Destroyed
Gungoren (Keferbi) Mor Stephanos Church (600) Once a year
Midyat, central Meryem Ana Church (1800) Once a year
Anitli (Hah) Mor Sabo Church (700) Tower a mosque
Izbirak (Zaz) Mor Dimet Church (700) Open
Bardakci (Bote) Mor Aphrem Church (400) Restored
Bardakci (Bote) Meryem Ana Church Now a mosque
Mercimekli (Habsos) Mor Loozos Monastery (800) Half ruin
Karagol (Derkup) Mor Jacob Church (500) Open
Nusaybin, central Mor Jacob Church (300) Open
Gunyurdu (Marbobo) Mor Bobi Church (400) Open
Gunyurdu (Marbobo) Mor Aho Church Open
Guzelsu (Ihvo) Mor Sarkis-Bakis Ch. (600) Open
Guzelsu (Ihvo) Meryem Ana Church (500) Open
Guzelsu (Ihvo) Mor Ellyo Monastery (700) Open
Dagici (Harabemiska) Mor Yoreth Monastery (400) Open
Dagici (Harabemiska) Mor Aho Church Open
Ucyol (Sederi) Meryem Ana Church Open
Sarikoy (Sare) Mor Malke Church (1800) Open
Diyarbakir , central Mor Petyun Chaldean Church (500) Open
Diyarbakir , central Meryem Ana Church (300) Open
Diyarbakir , central Abuna Mohammed New
Yamaniar (Yardo) Mor Aho Church Open
Biseri Zercel(Dera Kira) Mor Kuruyakos Mon.(500) Ruins open
Ain Kasre Mor Aho Monastery (700) Destroyed
Elbegendi (Kafro tahtito) – 16 families to return in September 2005
Izbirak (Zaz) – land registry started but stopped registration.
Baglarbasi (Urdnus) – restored church, houses destroyed
Narli (Ahlah) – church converted to mosque
Bardakci (Bote) – church converted to mosque
Baritone (Saleh) – monastery open.
Karagol (Derkup) – deserted but open.
Birgoriya – open village
Gunyurdy (Marbobo) – open village
Taskoy (Arbo) – shortly to open
Guzelsu (Ihvo) – open village
Dagici (Harabemiska) – open village
Ucyol (Sederi) – open village
Dargecit (Kerboran) and Arbaye – open villages but no Christians
Sari (Sare) and Yarbasi (Esfes) – open village
Yamaniar (Yardo) and Arica (Kafro elayto) – open but only one Christian family
Gertrude Bell, The Churches and Monasteries of the Tur ‘Abdin, with notes by Marlia Mundell Mango, ( London , 1982).
William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain : A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (1997), pp. 119-120 & 124-6. Dalrymple calls it Ein Wardo but it is also referred to as Inwardo.