Abba Seraphim joined other members of the Tur Abdin Focus group and a number of other pilgrims on a pilgrimage to Eastern Turkey. Led by the Anglican Bishop of Southwark (The Right Rev’d Christopher Chessun), the Group’s convenor and Father Stephen Griffiths, its secretary, they visited historic sites of the Armenian Church, once part of their heartland but abandoned since the Genocide, and areas where the Syriac Orthodox Church maintains an ancient but dwindling presence.
We flew into Erzurum on 4 October and were accommodated overnight at the Polat Renaissance Hotel. As Erzerum is 1757 meters (5766 feet) above sea level, it has become a popular centre for winter sports on the nearby Palandöken Mountain. Our hotel, described as “original architecture” was modern and vast and very comfortable, though whether its monumental scale was appropriate to its environment was, I suppose, a matter of taste. Here we were joined by Archimandrite Deiniol, who had travelled overnight in old-style luxury on a sleeper from Ankara. As usual, when travelling in Turkey, I brought my two volumes of Lynch’s Travels in Armenia, which described things as they were in the 1890s. During the reigns of the Artaxiad and Arsacid kings of Armenia, the city was known as Karin, but following the partition of Armenia between the Eastern Roman Empire and Sassanid Persia in 387, it passed into the hands of the Romans. They fortified the city and renamed it Theodosiopolis, after Emperor Theodosius I. As the chief military stronghold along the eastern border of the empire, Theodosiopolis held a highly important strategic location and was fiercely contested in wars between the Byzantines and Persians. Both Emperors Anastasius I and Justinian I both refortified the city. In modern times it was briefly captured and held by the Russian army in 1829, during the Russo-Turkish War 1877-78 and finally in 1916-1918. The flourishing Armenian population of some 20,000 was reduced during the Genocide, so that when the Russians entered the city in 1916 only 100 Armenians remained.
The next morning we drove into the city centre, full of tall, ugly concrete apartment blocks and made our way to the old city, located around the Citadel. Here there were many ramshackle houses and open spaces where whole streets had been cleared. In the midst of this stood the Ciftre Minareli Medrasa, a thirteenth century Seljuk building, notable for its twin minarets, in fluted bricks and decorated with blue tiles and with a fine carved stone portal. It was covered in scaffolding but the distinctive minarets shared a stylistic similarity with Tudor decorative chimney stacks. Behind the Medrasa were three 13th/14th century mausolea or türbe (Uc Kumbetlar) with distinctive conical shaped roofs. One (Emir Sultan Türbesi) was finely decorated with stalactite mouldings and carved reliefs of animals. Close beside was a large stone house, originally the home of an Armenian merchant family, but now lived in by a Turkish one. The owner was very friendly and welcoming and invited us all inside. We were amazed and delighted by the fact that the original interior was very much intact. He encouraged us to wander throughout the house, where carved woodwork, inlaid floors and a plentiful supply of colourful killims and carpets made everything very cosy. We reflected on the changing fortunes of the house and the possible gruesome fate of the Armenian family who had originally lived there; but it was quite clear that our Turkish host loved the house as much as its original owners and was in no way personally culpable for their displacement. It was a chilling reminder of the tragedy of a conflict which this part of Turkey had suffered so brutally less than a century ago. Some of our party then visited the Ulu Camii, or Great Mosque, built in 1179 as a seven-aisled structure with a pillared hall and covered courtyard. It had been damaged in an earthquake in 1939, but was now restored and the mullah was an hospitable guide to its plain but dignified interior.
We now drove on to Kars, which had briefly been the capital of the Armenian Bagratid dynasty (928-961) but then became the capital of another petty Armenian kingdom of the Vanand, until its conquest by Georgians and later, the Seljuk Turks. During the nineteenth century its history was similar to that of Erzerum, except that it was formally annexed to the Russian Empire in 1878 and for the next three decades was part of a Russian governorate or oblast. The tenth century Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Apostles, built by King Abas reflected these changes, having been converted to a mosque, restored to Christian use and in the 19th century converted into a Russian Orthodox Church, when a stone ikonastasis was constructed. It is now, once again, a mosque but the external carvings of images of the apostles and finely incised crosses are still very evident. Sadly the crosses on the ikonostasis inside have all been vandalised. We also visited another, purpose-built Russian church in the city, which is also a mosque. It’s once impressive tower and dome have been removed but it’s distinctive architecture, along with many of the Russian-style houses and street plan in this part of Kars are poignant reminders of a happier age. Most of us also climbed up to the great citadel of Kars, from which the town and surrounding countryside can be surveyed. We know that in 1387, when the city surrendered to Timur, its fortifications were damaged, but these were rebuilt by Sultan Murad III and withstood a siege by the Persians in 1731. However, despite its impressive situation, the fortress was not impregnable and fell to both Russians and Ottoman forces. In 1919-1920 Kars was briefly controlled by the short-lived first Armenian Republic.
On 6 October we spent most of the day visiting the ancient Armenian royal capital of Ani, which sits on the Armenian-Turkish border. The magnificent ruins, stretching over more than a square mile on the edge of a deep ravine of great natural beauty (the Arpa/Akhurian river), witness to this once beautiful city and include the great cathedral of Ani with several churches in various stages of decay. They are a poignant reminder of the great Christian civilisation that once flourished in this area. Sadly, although a world-class monument it is neglected by the Turks and restoration has not always been sensitive. Its last serious excavation was by the distinguished Russian archaeologist, Nikolai Marr in 1909. Dominating the whole city is the ancient Citadel of Ani, dating from the seventh century but now in a pretty ruinous state. Some of us clambered up to the top from where it is possible to get a good impression of the strategic layout of the city. Among the many gems still surviving are the remains of an ancient Zoroastrian fire temple, which was particularly interesting to Serena Fass, one of our party, who is currently writing a book on the Magi. It would appear to predate the Christian city by several centuries. The most beautiful of the remains is the church of Tigran Honents, built in 1215 and dedicated to St Gregory the Illuminator, which can be reached by a winding flight of steps cut into the side of the ravine, with the river flowing far beneath it. Although part of the conical roof has been sliced off, the interior retains the most remarkable iconographic murals of saints and biblical scenes (thought to be of Georgian Orthodox origin) and the whole building exudes a beautiful calmness amidst the decay. It was here that Deacon Dr John Silk, from the Syriac Orthodox Church, movingly sang for us the Lord’s prayer in Aramaic and for a brief moment the structure was transformed from a ruin to a living place of worship.
We stayed overnight in a faded hotel at Dogubeyazit, where a party of Catholic pilgrims from Singapore were also guests. They had been to visit the alleged remains of Noah’s Ark at the Durupinar site near to Dogubayazit. This is a symmetrical streamlined stone structure which appears to have the right dimensions, and interior structure as well as symmetrically arranged traces of metal consistent with the ark. It is also claimed that anchor stones have been located nearby. Critics of its identification with the Ark point out that the metal traces are actually goethite, a hydrated iron oxide with properties which would not occur in smelted iron whilst the purported “walls” of the ark are limonite concentrations. Their boatlike shape is consistent with an eroded doubly plunging syncline. No fossilized wood or traces of wood, reed, or elemental carbon were found associated with the structure. Fortunately this was not on our itinerary but the lively debate within our group about the relative merits of rival mountains among “the mountains of Ararat” proved interesting. At this point we were only 5 kilometres southwest of Mount Ararat and 35 km from the Iranian border.
The next morning our drive took us through rugged foothills and a heavy dusting of snow, which periodically swirled round our coach as it climbed up the sinuous roads until we began to descend to Lake Van, situated at an altitude of 5,380 feet above sea level. We drove around the extensive eastern perimeter of Lake Van, to its south eastern shore. Here we took a boat to the island of Aghtamar, once the capital of the Armenian kingdom of Vaspurakan under the Artsruni dynasty, as well as the seat of an independent Armenian Catholicosate, which existed for over a thousand years until 1915. This part of the lake is also the ancestral home to my three Van cats. We did not see any in the vicinity but the restaurant and gift shop contained some fridge magnets and other cheap memorabilia with pictures of the cats. I ate a couple of the local fish, a sort of small herring, which is said to be popular with Van cats, but I decided that taking this delicacy back with me to London might be a messy business! The beautiful palatine church built by King Gagik Artruni has recently been restored, and the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople is now permitted to celebrate the Divine Liturgy each year on the Feast of the Holy Cross. There were a number of workmen industriously digging on the site of the old monastic building, some of which had been partially reconstructed. Sadly, these cells bore no resemblance to the photographs of how the building had been in the nineteenth century,as it had in fact been a two-storey structure with an outside gallery on the upper floor. I showed my photographs to several of the workers, who seemed only vaguely interested. The problem appeared to be no supervisor and the workmen were left very much to their own devices, presumably once they had been told what tasks needed doing. Elsewhere they were busy clearing among the broken katchkars and other inscribed stones with little delicacy or care and one feared that whatever they were doing was more likely to destroy than to preserve. A couple of guided tours arrived about the same time as us and I overheard the guides speaking to them in English. Nothing was said about the unique ecclesiastical history of Aghtamar but they were served up a romantic mishmash of legend, with a basic architectural commentary and explanation of some of the external carvings.
Having long been familiar with photographs of these carvings it was a great joy to actually see them for the first time and they are quite incredibly stunning and remarkably preserved. We know from ancient writings that the cathedral was just one of many buildings, including a fortress and a palace which adorned this island city, but it is very difficult to see any remains in the rocky terrain stretching either towards the water’s edge or up to the crest of the island. Aghtamar is clearly a perfect candidate for a thorough archaeological excavation but one fears that the Turkish authorities do not have the will to undertake this seriously.
After a night spent in a chaotic hotel near Bitlis, we journeyed on southwards. Having travelled from the cold mountainous regions of north-eastern Turkey we now entered the warm southern lowlands leading to the plain of Mesopotamia. Stopping briefly at the Kurdish city of Hasankeyf, on the Tigris, we spoke with local people who face eviction from their ancient and historic city when the hydro-electric Ilisu Dam is constructed. This controversial project has met much opposition, both locally and internationally, but the Turkish government has pushed ahead relentlessly and is already building a new city, to rehouse the population, on the opposite shore. The local people who came to greet us when we stopped were all desperately unhappy about their future.
From here we travelled to the bustling and thriving Kurdish city of Midyat, where we had a simple but wholesome lunch in a large, clean restaurant before arriving at the ancient Syriac Monastery of Mor Gabriel Monastery in time for tea. The entire party was warmly greeted by Mor Timotheos Samuel, the Archbishop of Tur Abdin since 1985. This was a return visit for several of the pilgrims but especially for Father Stephen Griffiths, who has been coming regularly over the past sixteen years and now regards himself more as a member of the local community than a visitor. As members of the Tur Abdin Focus Group, Bishop Christopher of Southwark, Father Stephen and I were able to discuss with Mor Timotheos the resolution of most of the claims on the monastery’s lands and the general state of the churches and monasteries around Tur Abdin. News that land belonging to the monastery, is to be “returned” as part of Turkey’s “democratisation package” came in an announcement by the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on 30 September, after five stressful years of litigation, following claims by the Forestry Ministry and local villages that the monastery had been occupying their fields. In solidarity with the monastery, the Tur Abdin Focus Group had been formed in Britain in 2008 under the chairmanship of Bishop Christopher Chessum, then Bishop of Woolwich and now Bishop of Southwark. Father Stephen Griffiths became the Secretary. Having previously visited Tur Abdin in 2001 and 2005, I served on the group as the representative of the Council of Oriental Orthodox Churches. The Anglican dioceses of Southwark and Chichester have both proved very staunch supporters and in 2010 the then Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr. Rowan Williams) opened a special exhibition of photographs of the monastery by Guilio Paletta at Southwark Cathedral, which toured a number of other churches.
Over the next two days we visited the early fifth century Monastery of Mor Yakub at Saleh; the 6th century Yoldath Aloho (Mother of God) Church at Hah, the recently excavated sixth century Mor Sobo Basilica and the little churches of Mor Shmuel and the former monastery of SS. Sergius & Bacchus (789). We were welcomed to Hah by its mukhtar, my old friend Habib Doghan, who remembered us all very well. On returning to Midyat we also visited the restored Mor Abraham Monastery, where land behind it has been given by the church to serve as a camp for Syrian refugees. However, there didn’t appear to be many people inhabiting it yet and I gathered that up to now the church authorities had found them accommodation in the town, rather than the camp. Whilst staying at Mor Gabriel, we all attended the morning and evening offices in the main church as well as the celebration of the Divine Liturgy by Bishop Christopher on 9 October.
Leaving the monastery on the morning of 10 October we drove to the ancient monastery of Mor Augin, high up in the steep cliffs of Mount Islo, with its wonderful views across the Plain of Nusaybin. This had previously been deserted, but was re-opened in 2011 and now has three monks living there. It was wonderful to see this revival of the monastic life after an interruption of almost forty years. Descending to the plain we drove to the bustling town of Nuseybin (the ancient Nisibis), some 10 km from the Syrian border where I received an unexpected text message from the Ministry of Tourism welcoming me to Syria ! Recent archaeological excavations in the city centre have revealed a number of ancient buildings, including the Mar Yakub Church, the centre of the famous Syrian Theological School, founded by St. James of Nisibis in 350, whose sarcophagus still stands today in the crypt.
Our party arrived at Deyrelzafaran (the Saffron) monastery, outside Mardin, on 10 October. Bishop Philoxenus had left that morning for a meeting abroad, but we were well received by Chorepiscopus Gabriyel Akyűz, the distinguished Syriac historian, author and poet. The historic monastery was the seat of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchs of Antioch from 1293-1932 and it is no secret that the Turkish government would like the Patriarch to leave Damascus and relocate back in Turkey. Although there are one monk and a nun living with Bishop Philoxenus at the monastery and daily morning and evening prayers are maintained, it is not a fully functioning monastery as at Mor Gabriel and Mor Augin. It is a well-known tourist attraction and there are always many visitors from both Turkey and abroad. The following morning, Bishop Christopher celebrated an Anglican Eucharist in the main chapel at the monastery.
After that Father Gabriyel warmly received us in the Forty Martyrs Church in Mardin (originally dedicated to Mor Behnam and Saro) in 569 and entertained us to tea in the former Patriarchal Residence in Mardin. From there we toured the rambling Bazaar, the Museum (formerly the Syrian Catholic Patriarchate) and the Chaldean Catholic Church of Mor Hűrműzd. There was a festive spirit in the air as Kurban Bayram, or the Islamic Feast of Sacrifice, would begin next week. We returned to London on 12 October so were spared the bloodletting which always accompanies the celebrations.