Travelling the Ancient Villages and Churches of Tur Abdin

/ By Josh

Read Part One

When I first visited Mardin and the scattered Syriac Churches of Tur Abdin, I really had no idea how much was there waiting for me. There were far more churches, monasteries, and villages than I could have ever imagined, and while seeing these places and people was fascinating in and of itself, the way the locals opened their homes to us, shared their struggles and hopes, and fed us, captivated us so that I promised myself  I’d be back soon.

While I would have never guessed it would take five years to return, I was finally back.

Last I visited Mardin it was summer and HOT. I left a bottle of sunscreen in the car and burnt my hand on it bad enough to leave a mark for a couple days, this time we drove through the city as snow fwell heavy and as cars slid sideways down the steep icy streets.

Skipping a few of our planned stops due to the heavy snow, we finally left the main road at the edge of the Town of Midyat and drove north to the village of Habsus to see if we could find the ancient churches that were supposed to be there.

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The bell tower of Mor Shemun covered in snow.

Arriving in the village the snow seemed to have driven everyone indoors. Looking around for someone to help us, we spotted a man decked out in army green with an AK-47 at his side, taking shelter across the square. Walking over to him I asked if he knew any way for us to get access to the church. He made a phone call, spoke briefly in Kurdish, and proceeded to get into our car saying we’d have to pick up the man with the keys as he was quite elderly and the road was slippery.

As he got in I hoped he was actually authorized to have that weapon.

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With a massive iron key in hand Abdullah was easy to spot as the man who would show us the church.

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Entering the church Abdullah flicked on the lights, the fluorescent tubes looking remarkably out of place on the ancient masonry. Our host showed us the sanctuary, and answered our questions regarding the religious art, the history of the church, and the Syriac community in his town, and even rang the church bell when his Turkish fell short for explanation.

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On the north wall of the church was a large portrait of a clergyman. Our host told us it was the portrait of a priest who had gone to Europe and when he died, they were unable to send his remains to be buried in his home village as many Syriacs in Europe do. Instead, his portrait hangs in the church.

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The church altar.

The church of Mor Shemun D’Zeyte, named after a priest famous for planting some 12,000 olive trees, is about 1,200 years old and big enough to fit a large congregation. While there is plenty of space and the church is in good repair, our host worships alone and is the last of his people in the village. While it’s always exciting to get to see and experience places of deep living history, the fact that we were witnessing its final years was incredibly moving and sobering.

Despite Abdullah’s turkish being even more broken than my own, I clumsily attempted to express my gratitude for his hospitality and our sadness at his situation. Unsure how much he understood, we said our farewells to Abdullah and made our way back into the snow to look for the remains of an abandoned monastery on the edge of the village.

Unlike the Church of Mor Shemun within the village, the Monastery of Mor Lo’ozor (St Lazarus) was in a state of abandonment, the signs of looters were evident and some of the enclosing walls had collapsed in heaps.

This monastery was also established by Mor Shemun, sometime around the 8th century, though it was likely built on the site of an earlier structure. In the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by the remaining vaults and tumbled walls is the monastery’s most unique feature: the remains of a thick column of a stylite monk. The stylite monks were monks who practiced an extreme form of asceticism by living on the tops of pillars, which began in the region of northern Syria. Little seems to be known about the monk who lived on this pillar even though it’s the only confirmed pillar of its type in the whole Tur Abdin region.

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The courtyard of Mor Loozor Monastery with the remains of the Stylites pillar in the middle.

As the day was coming to an end and we still weren’t sure where we’d spend the night, we made our way into the town of Midyat.

The next morning we woke early to fresh snow on the ground and a bright sun in the sky. After attending the Sunday service at Mor Ahisnoyo in the old quarter, we drove east to visit some of the village churches of Tur Abdin.

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Kfarze in the snow.
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The curtain that separates the altar from the nave of the church covered with scenes and symbols of the Gospels.

Following short stops at the church of Mor Kuryakos in the village of Urdnus and the chief church in the village of Kfarze we eventually made it to Hah to see one of the region’s most beautiful churches: the church of Yoldath Aloho.

When we arrived at the monastery, the doors were open but no one was inside. We wandered the courtyard, feeling a bit like we were walking through a stranger’s house uninvited. Feeling rather awkward I began taking pictures, keeping my ears open for the sound of anyone coming around. While I was brave enough to go to the rooftop to take pictures of the stunning dome, I couldn’t bring myself to enter the church without talking to someone first.

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The square outer structure of the dome is ornate and completely unique in the region.
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Detail in the domes outer structure.

Eventually we had to look outside the monastery to find someone to let us into the church itself. He explained the building’s history, and the significance behind the many intricate details of the art and architecture.

He told us that, while the stunning dome was built in the 6th century, the story of the church’s founding went back much further, back to the birth of Christ. According to the story, there were twelve kings who came from the east, following the star to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. The 12 travelled together to Hah, which in ancient times was a fair-sized city. When they arrived nine of the wisemen stayed behind while three continued the journey. In return for the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, Mary, mother of Jesus, gave them a piece of the child’s swaddling cloth. When the three wise men had returned to the others at Hah, they were unwilling to tear the cloth, and instead decided to burn it and share the ashes. But when they had put the cloth into the fire it turned into twelve gold medallions. Seeing the miracle, the twelve wise men built a monument to the Mother Mary, each man laying one of the twelve layers of stone in the outer wall. Centuries later, with the arrival of Christianity in the area, the building was converted into a church.

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The ornate apse of the monastery.

He also told that only a hundred years ago the village was a large town, home to numerous churches and thousands of inhabitants. At its height there were 24 churches in the town including a basilica style church much larger than seen elsewhere in Tur Abdin.

Heading up the short hill from the monastery into the village we came across a group of locals gathered in the narrow street. Even though I only asked for directions we ended up getting an invaluable guide for the rest of the day. As it turned out he had lived in Sweden for some time and spoke excellent English and was able to explain the history of these sights without me needing to translate.

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Our guide took us to the ruins of the basilica, a large three-aisled church of stone and brick, with some of the finely carved screen still in place in the apse. The narthex, central aisle, and south aisle had all collapsed, though the south aisle was still standing. A large crack running down the length of the vault made the future of this aisle seem doubtful unless some repair work is done soon. This church, known as the church of Mor Sobo, was one of the largest churches in all of Tur Abdin until it was destroyed in the late 14th or early 15th century by Tamerlane, the stories of his particularly brutal devastation against religious minorities had come up in the history of Van and Georgia before.

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once a bell tower now used as a minaret, though there are no Muslim inhabitants in the village today.
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The interior of the monastery of Mor Serkis and Mor Bakus.

While I insisted that we didn’t want to inconvenience our host there was always more that he wanted to show us. He took us to the restored chapel of Mor Shmuel, then on to the edge of the village to the monastery of Mor Serkis and Mor Bakus where his great uncle had been the last monk. His great uncle was from a family of masons and had worked to restore the monastery. In its courtyard is an odd stump of a pillar, possibly the pillar of another stylite monk.

Heading back into the village he led us through a small arched gateway that opened into a confused courtyard full of animals, children playing in the remaining snow, and drying laundry flapping in the cool breeze. Going up on to the rooftops he told us how the houses at this highpoint in the village were all built tall and tight together to form a castle. In 1915 this castle was used to defend some 1500 people fleeing the systematic slaughter of the Syriac people in what the locals would call the “Sayfo”, the Syriac word for sword. An old woman we met in the gateway of the “Castle” was about 100 years old, born only a few years after the killings.

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The gateways into the courtyard of the “castle”.

From the vantage point of the rooftop where the owner of the house treated us to nuts and coffee our guide pointed out other ruined churches as well as his recently cleared fields where he planned to plant almond and pistachio trees. He had left city life in Sweden to farm in his remote ancestral village.

In comparison to the situation of Abdullah in Habsus where the Syriac population was coming to an end, there was hope in Hah. Here young people were having families, restoring ancient churches, and homes that were long empty were again inhabited. Beneath the hope there were incredibly sad stories; the modern, castle-like military outpost on the edge of town bears witness to more recent troubles.

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Another bell tower in the midst of the village.

While I was listening to the story of our guide, I couldn’t help but compare how different we were. He, and may of the other Syriacs I’ve met have a deep connection to their land. The importance of being buried in their homeland even if they haven’t lived there for years or generations had come up again and again. I’m the child of immigrants but have never thought of moving back to the Netherlands whereas this man and many like him choose to move back to breathe life into their villages despite the challenges.

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Back in Midyat we went out to visit the famed silversmiths who have been making filigree art and jewelry for centuries. While the filigree, known locally as telkari, was traditionally practiced by the Syriac population, others, having studied under Syriac masters, have learned the craft, and continue the tradition. Walking through the silversmith’s district some of the artists recognized us from the church service we had attended and welcomed us in. They gave us tea, talked religion, and told us of the history and present state of their craft and its connection to their people.

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Telkari necklaces and earrings.
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Melek, a master craftsman with many years of experience making jewelry and new craftsman alike.

While Turkey is full of elderly craftsmen, many lack willing students to keep the tradition and art alive. The fact that workshops had young and old alike in them bode well for the future of this tradition. However, telkari has become expensive for the Turkish market. While the silver itself is expensive, the incredible hours and expertise required to make the intricate pieces warrants a much higher price than the shopkeepers can afford to ask making sales a challenge.

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With an evening of tasting the famed Syriac wines in a converted 1200-year-old church complete with towers and monks’ graves, our time in Midyat was coming to a close. And, just as I did five years ago, I told myself I had to come back again soon.

But first, to visit the city of Mardin…

Read Part 3