Christians and Monks in South-Eastern Turkey
Reflections on a Recent Journey to Tur Abdin
Fr Sabino Chiala, Monastery of Bose (Italy)
Tur Abdin, the ‘mountain of worshippers’, a high plateau in the south-east of Turkey, is the historic core of Syriac Christianity.(1) It is a sort of enclave, sandwiched between two towns which were the centres from which this ancient tradition radiated. Not far away towards the west is Edessa (now Sanliurfa), the centre which launched this Christianity, from which it took the language (a dialect of Aramean under the name of ‘Syriac’) which gave life to a new and fruitful expression of Semitic Christianity. This city harboured the famous theological school of Ephraem, a town which was a centre of religious thought and culture for centuries. Not far to the south lies Nisibis (now Nusaybin), the original seat of the theological school of Ephraem, which subsequently became the primary academic centre of that group of Christians which became the Eastern Syriac Church, the Church of the Persians.
Immediately behind these two great fruitful towns of the plain lies a mountainous and unexpected background, studded with little cities, villages and numerous monastic foundations. These gave the place its name. Still today Tur Abdin (and Mount Izla or Izlo, the southernmost part) is linked to the memory of innumerable ascetics, Eastern or Western Syriac, who peopled it and prayed and struggled there. It is often called a sort of Syriac Mount Athos, and, given the high number of monasteries known there, the comparison is not inept.
How much of all this remains? Many traces remain, especially churches and caves inhabited by hermits and communities. There remain also the reflections of the spiritual experiences lived by these hermits in the many jewels of Syriac literature which escaped destruction and loss and have come down to us (Afraat, Ephrem, James of Sarug, Filoxenus, Isaac of Nineveh, John of Dalyata and many others). The witness of the past remains visible and living in the many villages still inhabited by Christians, and in certain monasteries which, amid a thousand difficulties, have persevered from time immemorial in their search for God, or have brought such abandoned places back to life. What remains is, therefore, abundant, varied and precious.
All this, and perhaps still more, has repeatedly attracted me to the area, in the attempt to form an integral ‘reading’ of this tradition, a reading completed by what it is possible to see and experience, by whatever remains alive, however poor that may seem. The opportunity presented itself a decade ago with a group of young religious, five years ago with various friends who also wanted to hear and see this distinct kind of Christianity, and lastly almost in the form of a pilgrimage, for two weeks on my own in June of last year. The aim was to see these places again, with an eye less hurried and more meditative, and above all to share, even for a few days, the life of those four monasteries which remain active. The result was an experience of communion difficult to describe but impossible to pass over in silence. It was an experience which inescapably demands of me an act of witness which I would like to present in these few lines.
Towns and Villages
Well then, what remains? Above all, the Christian communities which, in towns and villages, continue to exist on the soil which they feel to be profoundly linked to their history, different though it often is from their own memories. Past Diyarbakir, the ancient town of Amida, flow the waters of the Tigris. The town is enclosed within massive ramparts of basalt, still an important settlement a little north of the plateau of Tur Abdin. It is well known particularly for its great mosque (Ulu Camii), among whose architectural decorations stand out clearly columns and fittings from older buildings, especially Byzantine. The town still contains a Christian community, not numerous but lively, consisting of several Syrian Orthodox and Armenian families. They gather in the Church of Yaldot Aloho (Mother of God), built originally in the seventh century and recently restored, thanks to the efforts of the priest Petros and his family. There is also a recently renovated Chaldean church of Mar Petyon, and an Armenian church, abandoned and ruinous but still showing its former splendour. I was also told of a group of new Christians, led by a fervent Muslim who had an encounter with the gospel and asked for baptism.
At Mardin, a sort of citadel attached to the last mountains which go down to Mesopotamia, a huge balcony above the fertile plain, is a sort of vertical town, a mosaic of richly decorated houses, furrowed by alleys and stairways which squeeze between the rocks. Right till the end of the last century the town had a Christian majority. Today only some eighty Christian families live there, almost all Syrian Orthodox, with their priest, the enterprising Fr Gabriel and his numerous and lively family, composed of his wife and thirteen children. He celebrates the liturgy in the sixth-century church of the Forty Martyrs (Kiklar Kilisesi). Of the other communities (Syrian Catholic, Armenian, Chaldean) only a few families remain, as well as their respective churches, no longer used for the liturgy, but jealously guarded. These are Christian communities which still carry the scars of violence and of departures for a more hopeful alternative. Equally they are communities scarred by internal divisions; the great Syrian Catholic church and its onetime patriarchate, now a museum, remain as a reminder of the scandal of our divisions.
Midyat, another city at the heart of Tur Abdin, was once almost entirely inhabited by Christians. Its profile is marked by the bell-towers of the seven churches, of which only one is used for the liturgy. A pillar set at the entry to the old city proudly proclaims that here Muslims, Christians and Yezidis live together in harmony. Then there are also many entirely Christian villages, or villages in which Christians live peacefully with their Turkish or Kurdish neighbours. I am thinking of Bsorino, a village consisting of 250 inhabitants and 23 churches (!), or Midun and Arkah, entirely Christian and of similar size to Bsorino, or the lively hill-village of Bekusyone and its laughing children, proud to be learning the language of their ancestors. But I am thinking also of Idil, the ancient and flourishing Bet Zabday, at the eastern end of Tur Abdin, where there remain only a church and a few Christians to guard it. I think of Nusaybin, the ancient Nisibis, in the south, with its church which contains the tomb of the fourth-century bishop Mar Yaqub, the master of Ephrem. There recent excavations have revealed possible parts of the ancient academy of theology. It now has only one Christian family, come from Midyat, and placed there as a sentinel to prevent the loss of these places otherwise lacking in Christian sites. I am thinking also of what may be considered a sign of a hope against hope: two houses recently built in the abandoned village of Derkube, with its ancient chapel in course of reconstruction, and those who have opted to live just there, at the limit of the possible, or of the village of Kafro. This has been entirely rebuilt by a group of families who, after years of exile in Germany, chose to return and attempt to live again in their village of origin, determined to hold together a past and a present which can hardly recognize each other. Finally I think also of these villages which have none of these signs of hope, but still retain a church or a monastery, restored and jealously guarded. Sometimes these are entrusted to those who live there instead of the Christians, as in the case of Kfarbe; there the ‘guardian’ of the most beautiful and ancient sixth-century church, the icon of the village, is a Kurdish family, who guide the visitor in a building which they also consider their own.
Who are these Christians? I asked myself this question during my wanderings, seeking an answer in their looks and their words. Above all, they consider themselves the rightful children of this land. It is the land of their fathers and they feel the responsibility to preserve the memory of what it was and what it still is. Some of them are passionate about history and archaeology, but all want nothing so much as life: they want to live in a present which has meaning! From this flows the determination to save everything possible. Thanks, notably, to their compatriots in the diaspora and to Western associations, they multiply projects for restoration of churches and any trace of their past, without asking themselves what the final result of all this can be. Apart from the buildings there are their children, to whom falls the duty of passing on the language and literary patrimony of their fathers. Since the public schools have no teaching of the Syriac language and culture, and private faith-schools are forbidden, the young people are sent to the four still inhabited monasteries. In the morning they attend the state schools of the neighbouring towns, and in the afternoon they complete their formation by courses in Syriac language under the guidance of masters in the monasteries, fitting themselves into the rhythm of the prayer and work of the community. They learn self-knowledge, to appreciate their differences and to hold their ground. They belong to this land, but they feel the full weight of their difference. Not only do they feel it, they cultivate it. I have often been struck with admiration and emotion when I see them and reflect on their life, present and future.
Who, then, are these Christians? Above all they are normal men and women who try to live their faith, just as it was given to them, without heroism. No one can foresee the future, but everyone bears the responsibility of the present. This seems to me to be the feeling which animates each one of them. Equally I have seen eyes full of sadness and distress because of the clouds which obscure the horizon, especially the eyes of those who are responsible for this people. But I have never seen any wavering in the responsibility of hope. Here above all have I felt I saw what it means to bear ‘the weight of hope’.
The ‘Mountain of Worshippers’ is known above all for its monasteries. The claim is still made, despite occasional disagreement, that before the arrival of Tamburlaine and his devastating hordes in the fourteenth century almost a hundred monasteries were active, totalling thousands of monks. Whether this is the case or not, still today traces of numerous monastic centres are visible. Some are reduced to a few ruins, others are well preserved but lifeless, some are enlivened by rather strange communities (I am thinking of the splendid Monastery of the Cross, Deir da-Slibo, where a few families and one nun have chosen to live as best they can in this still perfectly monastic building, to enliven it with a sort of life shared between laypeople and religious), and finally still others are livened by alert but restricted communities. These are the monasteries which I sought above all to get to know by sharing their daily life for a few days. This involved four monasteries where a few monks, a few nuns and several students with their teachers witness to their faith.
Starting at the east, the first monastery still inhabited is Deir Zafaran (Monastery of Safaran). The Bishop of the town of Mardin, Mor Filoxenos Saliba Özmen, lives there with one other monk, a dozen students, their teacher (malfono Yakub) and a few lay fellow-workers. This is an ancient monastery, famous above all for having harboured for many centuries the patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church. It is characterized by the intense yellow of the stone with which it is built – whence the name. It lies in a natural amphitheatre studded on its heights by other monasteries and caves once inhabited by ascetics. At the monastery of the Mother of God (Yaldot Aloho) the rock sweats precious drops of water which the canny monks used to gather in stone basins; the stone basins are still there to continue their work, reminding me of the grotto of St Elias the Stylite in Calabria. Otherwise everything has been left in a state of abandonment, though less than a century ago the Bishop of Mardin, Mor Filoxenos Yuhanna Dolabani spent several years there. Then there is the still more spectacular monastery of Mor Yaqub, whose cells look down like balconies on a panorama unique in the world, and still further off, the monastery of Mor Azazoyel. Among them all one feels most at Deir Zafaran the lack of a more numerous monastic community. Nevertheless, all round the walls restoration work is in progress, the ground is well maintained, olives and fruit-trees have been planted – and one expects that this life should be accompanied by life led by men and women.
In the centre of Tur Abdin, some twenty kilometres east of Midyat, Mor Gabriel is the other great monastery of the region, also the residence of a bishop, Mor Samuel Aktas. With him live four monks, a dozen nuns and about thirty students with their teachers (the two Isa, Gülten and Dogdu, and others). Here one can only be amazed at the extreme care with which the buildings and the surrounding gardens are maintained. The monastery is undergoing a moment of serious difficulty and tension with some of the villages which surround it, who contest the ownership and the activity of the monks. The archbishop is visibly disturbed by this, showing once more the fragility of their position in a place which they have nevertheless occupied without interruption since the fourth century, and which now seems to be imperilled. The importance of the place is not only historical, although one cannot forget that the church, where the community still today gathers for prayer, goes back to the sixth century. Mor Gabriel is also the sign of a presence and in a certain way serves the function of a protection – more symbolic than real – for the Christians of the region. For this reason also Archbishop Mor Samuel seeks support for his cause everywhere, especially abroad, often failing to find the understanding and help he had hoped for.
Not far from Midyat, towards the north, a third still inhabited monastery is Mor Yaqub of Salah. It rises beside a pagan temple, of which the monks are at the moment finding important traces. It still keeps intact its fifth-century church, round which a vast monastery is built, which holds two monks (Frs Daniel and Saliba), four very lively nuns and a dozen young people (again, with their teachers). Mixed monasteries of monks and nuns are not, especially in the east, part of the tradition. Nevertheless this form is considered quite natural there. The origin of the custom is no doubt to be found in the impossibility of nuns living on their own in a context often threatened with intrusion. The result is a very interesting co-operation between the two communities living side by side, though at the same time retaining their independence and their own character. For their livelihood the monks devote themselves especially to agriculture. Around the monastery a garden (of Cartesian order and strictness!) has been developed, where also a few Kurdish inhabitants of the neighbouring village are employed. It is one of the places where I was able to put my finger on that monastic proximity, that brotherhood among monks which, without any artificiality, crosses all boundaries, linguistic, cultural and even theological. It was a matter of a shared feeling which seemed to be the fruit of an already ancient knowledge and companionship, although it flowed simply from a shared search. In my travels among the ‘Syriacs’ one question kept coming back to me: how much conscious heritage remains among them of that rich patristic heritage of theirs? What place among them have the Fathers and the rich spirituality which we in the west are rediscovering? Perhaps their presence is not always obvious, but incontrovertible fragments of it remain at the level of concrete and visible existence, typified by a certain ecumenical openness which exists nowhere else in the world. Of this I had various proofs, especially in being received simply as ‘a monk’. There is a certain vision of monasticism which reminds me of the ancient Syriac tradition. I think of a synthesis of the essence of monasticism offered me by one of the two monks as we were walking in the gardens: ‘Monastic life,’ said he, ‘rests on three pillars, prayer, lectio and work.’ In this mention of lectio, distinct from prayer yet linked to it, I heard the sure and typical echo of the ancient Syriac monks.
The fourth still inhabited monastery is Mor Malke, at the heart of Mount Izla (or Izlo) in the southern part of Tur Abdin, not far from what is traditionally considered the most ancient monastery of the region, Mor Awgin. There also burnt a little flame which irradiated an intense and unforgettable light! The monastery, which goes back to the fourth century, is inhabited by two monks (Fathers Isho’ and Aziz), one nun and some students. There too the order and the care exceed anything one could imagine. All round the monastery are ranged fruit-trees of every kind, and vines impinging on the surrounding woods which extend as far as the eye can see. I was welcomed as a member of the family: here too, a monk and nothing else. Everything else was irrelevant. The relationship was so natural that it could not have been an improvisation justified as the welcome due to a western visitor. This link seemed to have matured and be built on clear and lucid idea of our histories as divided Christians, but still brothers despite everything. The monastery is perhaps the most threatened of all by the political instability which makes itself felt from time to time in this region, and the monks could not hide a certain apprehension, without ceasing to look to the future and plant trees in the surrounding land – as much as was possible. The future is the future; their responsibility is for the present, as we saw above. Here also, in the course of the two days of my stay, I breathed something of my beloved Syriac Fathers: a phrase came from the mouth of Father Isho’ after a splendid Sunday Divine Liturgy which began at 4.30 in the morning, and was progressively more inundated with the light of the sun through the east-facing window. Inviting me to table he said, ‘Now, after the prayer of the soul, that of the body: food. This prayer is important too. God wished body and soul as two brothers; it was Evil that set them at loggerheads.’
Finally a sign of hope against hope, equally among the monks. When I was at Mor Gabriel the archbishop told me of a project whose realization is imminent, an attempt to give life again to the ancient monastery of Mor Awgin, disused for more than a century. A young monk, Fr Yoyakim, had declared himself ready for this undertaking. I told myself that to want to live there all alone was sheer folly, but still… It was a sign of hope which, more than any other, everyone would need to support and accompany in every possible way and with all possible strength. For this too I felt the inner need of witness.
Conclusion: Between Dream and Reality
In the course of one of those typically oriental evenings when one meets to talk of one thing and another, each person waiting for the inspiration of a wise word to share with the others, one of the teachers of Mor Gabriel suddenly turned to me and said, ‘Why do not you, monks and nuns of the west, lift a finger to preserve this huge patrimony?’ We had just spoken yet again of dreams and projects, always coming to the same conclusion, ‘We are too few for all that!’ My first reaction was one of those smiles which are at the same time a sign of good manners and an invitation to change the subject, a polite disengagement. But I then decided simply to launch my counter-attack, ‘You mean that you would be willing to hand over to the Catholic Church some of your monasteries? Don’t you think that we have made too enough mistakes in the past in this very region without thinking of taking such a course of action?’ I could not have been more pointed or more clear, but as I was finishing my sentence I saw in the light of his eyes the perception – or was it a dream? – of another possibility in the Church, a third way. My opposite number tried to put this light into words: ‘No! It is no longer a question of yielding or acquiring monasteries or land, but rather of living together the one monastic vocation which links us in a way both unique and indissoluble.’ True, to live together, each remaining ourselves.
I cannot deny that still today, after long meditation on these words, I cannot see my way right to the end of the implications of these words, with a possible way of putting them into practice; but I am convinced that they contain some truth, which goes beyond a utopian dream. I am convinced that these words express an appeal, articulating, perhaps imperfectly, a moment of deep intuition. This and other things have convinced me that the monks and nuns of the west could surely do something for their brothers and sisters, children of the east, from where they draw their monastic inspiration. Again and again I perceived in these monks the desire, discrete but strong, to feel accompanied rather than forgotten. They would no doubt need many things, notably material help, and here I think of the monk who is going to live at Mor Awgin, a monastery which needs total restoration, for which material help could be provided. Nevertheless, it struck me that they feel their greatest need to be that they should be remembered and visited, to let them know that they are part of a world greater than this oasis of beauty and tragedy in which they live.
The hope-dream which has inspired me to express this witness in writing finally becomes clearer: it is the proposal which I make in these pages, especially to monks and nuns, but not exclusively to them, to respond to this appeal. The possibilities are many: a fraternal group visit, material help, the stay of an individual for a few days to share their life. For the moment I would like merely to tell the story and leave room for the initiative of anyone who is touched by it. The appeal of our friend at Mor Gabriel was addressed not to me personally but to ‘the monks and nuns of the west’, and it is to them that I pass it on. Personally I take on the task of receiving any suggestions and circulating them in order to work out a common plan. One thing is clear to me: it is a question not merely of helping those who need assistance, but rather of forging an alliance.
(1) An illustrated presentation of Tur Abdin may be found in the work (published in three languages, German, English and Turkish) of H. Hollerweger, Lebendiges Kulturerbe. Tur Abdin. Wo die Sprache Jesu gesprochen wird (Linz, 1989). See also S. De Courtois, Les derniers Araméens. Le people oublié de Jésus (Tours, 2004).