Witness to an Intense Spirituality

Author: Egidio Picucci


Egidio Picucci


A few years ago mass tourism made an unexpected discovery in Turkey: among the minarets rising all along the frontiers with Iran, Iraq and Syria, some 1,000-year-old Christian bell-towers were discovered. This caused great astonishment but it proved impossible to conduct a proper survey because the guerrilla warfare that broke out between the Turkish government and Kurd separatists made a quick retreat towards other goals advisable.

The question remains: what is the explanation for these bell-towers?

The answer may be found in the tradition which claims that immediately after Pentecost the Disciple Addai (Thaddeus) arrived in Nisibis and Edessa, where later universities were founded in which St Ephrem also taught and where 800 students transcribed Sacred Scripture into Aramaic, the language still spoken today in the form of the Turoyo dialect in the area of Tur Abdin (Mountain of Adoration), a windy plateau in Upper Mesopotamia, situated between the cities of Diarbakir (Amida), Urfa (Edessa) and Nusaybin (Nisibis), cut off in the north and east by the turbulent waters of the Tigris.

Enclosed in its green geographical isolation, which was also respected even by the great trade routes, the plateau was not even marginally influenced by the Hellenistic culture. This made possible the survival of the communities and the large number of monasteries that had sprung up in the shadow of the universities, as well as a flourishing monasticism in the different forms of eremitic life (stylite, cloistered or cenobitic) which are still characteristic of the Syrian Orthodox Church - remember the stylite saints! - and attracts the attention of all the other Churches.

Today Turkey's population of 60 million, 99 per cent of which is Muslim, includes some minorities whose numbers, for various reasons, are constantly diminishing. The most numerous group consists of Armenians (40,000-50,000), followed by Syrians (15,000-20,000), Chaldeans (15,000) and Greeks (2,000-3,000) all culturally and linguistically different from the Turks. To these four communities should be added the 15,000-20,000 Catholics of six denominations (Latin, Armenian, Chaldean, Syrian, Byzantine and Maronite), about 20,000 Jews and several thousand Protestants.

While the Armenians and Greeks, almost all concentrated in Istanbul since 1923, enjoy benefits provided by the Treaty of Lausanne (which, moreover, sanctioned respect for all minorities), as well as aid from a foreign country and the presence of a prestigious Patriarchate, the Syrian Orthodox have no support. Not having been recognized as a nation under the Ottoman Empire, and not having had a representative in the Great National Assembly in the early years of the republic, they now find themselves in a particular situation that is very serious for those who live on the Turkish-Iranian border, where guerrilla warfare is worst.

This has forced on them a slow but continuous emigration. Begun in 1915, it has gradually increased with time and still continues, especially to Istanbul. From here, once a visa has been obtained, it continues to Scandinavia, Germany, France, the Netherlands and America.

Of the 20,000 Syrian Orthodox still remaining in Turkey (where they are better known as Syro-Kadim, that is, old or ancient, compared to a later separation), some still live in the east of the country, especially in the triangle formed by the three cities mentioned above; another far smaller group dwells in the environs of Tur Abdin, and the last, the most numerous group, lives in Istanbul and consists of educated and determined young people. Many in fact have become authoritatively involved in the commerce of the Grand Bazaar, and have created enviable positions for themselves.

The spiritual centre of the Syro-Kadim is Tur Abdin, an area set in a panorama conducive to contemplation and full of legend. In fact it is said that Noah's ark ran aground on the rocky peaks of this land; that they witnessed Elijah being taken up into heaven; and even that they provided shade for the tents of the Magi on their way to Bethlehem.

But Tur Abdin, also called "the Mountain of the Servants of God" or "Mount Athos of the Syrian Orthodox", is above all famous for the presence of monasteries which could be mistaken for rocky spurs were they not distinguished by an architectural style that is closer to Assyrian Babylonian temples than Christian basilicas. This fact confirms how the Christianity of this region, even in its architecture, has preserved its link with the most ancient local traditions. Until 1970, the monasteries numbered 40; today they can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Unable to thrive in such a dangerous situation, the Christians chose to emigrate. The exodus has almost reached biblical proportions, so much so that only 40 families have remained in Mardin, no more than 10 to 15 in Diarbakir and Midyat. Overall, the number of Christians who have stayed cannot be more than about 2,500. Some monks have also fled and have settled in the Netherlands where they have founded a monastery. They leave behind them the image of a monasticism that differs from other such experiences as it is typified by peculiar and extremely severe forms. It seems in fact that the encratism of the second century, with its demands of perfect continence and abstinence from wine and meat, was enforced here more than elsewhere, to the point that Baptism was combined with the commitment to a life of absolute poverty and chastity. This exceptional severity nonetheless testified to a radically evangelical life, and resulted in great prestige for the monks so that the Christian communities chose their Bishops from amongst them, certain that they would be worthy of their mission.

With them a culture dating to the dawn of Christianity is also disappearing. We can still admire a few glimpses of it in some of the works jealously preserved in individual monasteries and especially in the Kirklar Kilisesi (Church of the Forty Martyrs) in Mardin. Until a few years ago, this was the patriarchal seat and today it is held by an abuna, who teaches Aramaic to a few young people, who are reluctant to see their ancestors' culture disappear. Among the various valuable volumes the abuna preserves the famous Bible of Mardin. This is a 12th-century work, bound in fine gazelle hide and illuminated with miniatures by Dioscorus Theodorus of Amman.

At one time, that is, from the end of the fourth century to the arrival of the Arabs, when there were thousands of monasteries all of which were crowded, the monks were involved in works of education and charitable assistance, thanks to donations from the emperors who exercised a certain authority over them. On overcoming an initial difficulty, due to the preaching of a monk sent by the Empress Theodora to preach Monophysism (which became firmly rooted and is still professed today), a certain Jakub, from whose name it seems the Christians of Tur Abdin borrowed the the name of Jacobites, the monasteries flourished anew for a period that lasted until the time of the Crusades. Then the soldiers' forays, civil strife, the spread of heresies, the wave of the Mongolian hordes, heralded today's sad and perhaps irreversible decline; indeed, the historian Jean Pierre Valogne wrote: "Turkey, which at the end of the last century had the highest percentage of Catholics among the nations that made up the Ottoman Empire, will probably be the first country of the Middle East to witness their disappearance".

Today there are five monasteries open in Tur Abdin, to be precise: Mar Gabriel, El Zafran, Mar Mekel, Meryemana, Mar Yakup. In the first, there is a community of three monks who live with about 30 young aspirants who attend secondary schools and high school. Thirteen nuns who are responsible for the cooking and cleaning live in a different part of the building.

The only monastery accessible to tourists is El Zafran, the saffron, so-called because of the yellowish colour of its stone, a peculiarity which some find environmentally jarring, but which on the contrary rejuvenates an area tarnished by the centuries. Three important sixth-century rooms can be seen inside the monastery: these are St Mary's Church with lovely mosaic floors; St Ananias' Church, which the Emperor Anastasius had built over the tomb of 12,000 martyrs, and the funeral chapel.

Other monasteries are also interesting; for example that of Mar Yakup, near the village of Salah, which has a fourth-century church (with some rebuilding that dates from the 1300's), of particular importance for its architectural and sculptural decoration.   Two adjacent monasteries, Mar Augen and Mar Yohanna, which once housed over 100 monks, are in ruins. Nearby, the tomb of Noah is venerated, respected by both Christians and Muslims. It is extremely large (about eight metres long) "because", people say, "the prophet was great" too.

However, the most important monastery is that of Mar Gabriel, situated 120 km, from Mardin, beyond Midyat.  Founded in the 15th century by the monk Samuel with the help of workmen sent by the Emperor Anastasius I, it housed up to 500 religious and was always respected even by the Muslims, who attributed to it a sort of immunity.

Today three monks live there, the resigned custodians of Bishop Gabriel's tomb and of a still very solid building that contains the special so-called "Egyptian monks"' chapel that the Empress Theodora had built. The chapel is rich in beautiful Byzantine mosaics, very important because, according to experts, they represent an intermediate phase between the Byzantine and the first period of Islamic mosaics.

Today Tur Abdin lives on its memories, but these cannot guarantee its survival. Safeguarding beautiful churches and very precious illuminated parchments may be an enviable wealth, but the danger that it might all end in an undesirable manner at an unforeseen time gives rise to understandable anxiety. Moreover, while the small communities are free to practise their faith, they are forced to make considerable sacrifices, such as not teaching Syriac and its uses outside liturgical celebrations. Even catechesis must be carried out in the national tongue. Whoever has transgressed this rule has either been forbidden to continue teaching or, in some cases, forced to transfer elsewhere, thus seriously threatening the survival of the monastery and the assisted communities.

And yet the Syriac language has played a fundamental role in passing on the Greek and Arab cultures: the Greek scientific corpus was translated (from the seventh to the 10th centuries) into Arabic through intermediate translations in Syriac. The translators, like the famous Isa Ibn Ishaq, were Syrians who were perfectly fluent in Greek and Arabic, and who worked not only in the monastic environment, but also in the service of the Abbasid Caliphs. Furthermore, it has handed down many eastern sources such as the Kalilah wa Dismnah, Indian fables known as the Panchatantra.

This is why the monks of Tur Abdin and the Syro-Kadim who have emigrated from their own region are determined not to let it die out. In fact while they do their best to ensure that the few young people who have stayed with them learn it, others teach it every Sunday after Mass, taking pains to see that it is spoken correctly and with propriety. Two newspapers are printed in Syriac for adult emigrants abroad, one in the Netherlands and the other in Sweden.

In order to save this great patrimony on the brink of disappearing, the "Friends of Tur Abdin" Association has been founded in Milan and in Linz, Austria. With exhibitions, brochures and various other material it is seeking to awaken public opinion to these treasures which are at risk, and on the precarious situation of the half-empty monasteries.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
13/20 August 1997, page 9

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