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Prices of property and commodities have gone up in Sanliurfa in recent years. The city that once reigned over the region with it’s military and political might now is booming because a new canal brings water to the city and its surroundings. Big dams are constructed in the region in order to give the economy in southeast Anatolia a boost. “You have to see the Ataturk Dam project”, bishop Gregorius Melke Ürek of Adiyaman said to our guides in the morning and saying such he put us on the path of the Tourist. So after breakfast we left Urfa to see the Ataturk dam in the Euphrates river. The huge dam created a lake that has submerged the upstream countryside. Although a lot of jobs are created and prices of energy have gone down, the project has a coat. For starters, the fate of Hesno d-kifo or better known as Hasankeyf is still not decided on. This ancient city (one of the oldest in the world) lies on the banks of the Tigris river. If the current plans are implemented, this city will be devoured by a lake. Many archeologists and historians believe that the huge lake formed by the Ataturk dam already has covered up important historical sites and fear the same will happen to Hasankeyf. Also, and we should consider this when debating on the future of Tur Abdin, life in small traditional villages can change. Developments are concentrated near the urban centers such as Sanliurfa, Mardin and Diyarbakir. More water, food and building supplies are needed to sustain growth in the cities. The dams also affect areas in Syria and Iraq. Fellow travellers from Syria told that each and every year the water level dropped and the amount of fish decreased. One can’t easily point a finger to the government as the lives of millions are improved. Hopefully the historical and broader value of the Beth Nahrin (aramaic for Mesopotamia) area is taken into consideration. Economics are more than creating jobs and financial wealth, it’s about the choices one makes, either a Tourist or government with its army of economists and policy makers.

After lunch we continued on the route of the Tourist on a famous pilgrim path to once again walk in the foot steps of our ancestors. With an odd 15 small dolmüs vans we were taken to Mount Nemrut. On its peak at 2100 meters above sea level the ancient Hellenestic Seleucian rulers (from king Antiochus and onwards) build a burial mound, huge statues depicting the rulers and their gods and an altar for offerings. All peoples and rulers that lived and passed through the region recognized the importance of this impressive sight, as do the tourists now. One of the oldest travellers with us, a man from Australia well in his 70s or 80s maybe, did not want to stay in the tourist center and climbed the 800 meter stone path with us, his vigorous movement was paralelled by few. We enjoyed the historical remains, the spectacular sight and especially each others company. Talking with a new friend we were wondering if the people of present day Tur Abdin visit the place, most probably not, but it will be nice to find out how they perceive the region and culture.

Our pilgrimage continued in the evening. Together with the bishop and syrian orthodox faithfull of Adiyaman we commemorated the washing of the feet by our Lord Jesus Christ. We barely fitted in the small church but it was amazing to witness this event in a place that feels just as much as home as our places of birth in the diaspora. The bishop and Dr. Tanoglu wholeheartedly welcomed us. Later after supper I talked with the doctor who is a dentist in Kharput. He told us about their endevours in Kharput where they are restoring the church of the Virgin Mary to once again, like 1000 years ago, celebrate Holy Mass there. The doctor like many others in this region never learned the Syriac Aramaic language, but together with his daughter they are trying to revive the church and language. But also in this region just like in The Netherlands and many other countries, people are preoccupied with bringing food on the table and managing the home and family first, church, language and cultural tradition are under pressure. It seemed to me the Dentist is swimming against the current, but by putting faith first and serving his church and people also in this region our people will feel save inside and outside the walls of the church. The bishop and Johny Messo, head of WCA, underlined that these can only be safeguarded if church and lay organizations work together, be it in Turkey or in any other country. At the end of the evening I greeted the old man who climbed the mountain with us and also had his feet washed during the ceremony. He left Tur Abdin 50 years ago and when I asked what was his single strongest feeling returning after so many years he said: “I am happy, because I see you all together with me”.

Both the path of The Tourist and Pilgrim can be tiring and endearing at the same time, but as Economists we have to make choices and like the Dentist we can serve our church and people no matter what our occupation or profession is.

On a side note:

  • The presentation and lecture we got about the dam was more tiring than climbing Mount Nemrut
  • My gamble not to iron my clothes at home payed off: the hotel service took care of everything
  • There was snow on Mount Nemrut, one demonstrated how they skied ‘back in the days’ without skies or boards. “Back then we only had thin shoes made of plastic, our feet became icy lumps and our moms got angry because we clappered with our teeth for hours”
  • The discussion on the best tlauhé (lentil soup) continous, Adiyaman ranks first with most travellers. There are still a couple of days left before Easter, then we will know where they taste best (yours are great too mum)

Read previous: Day 1: The Blessed City             Read Next: Day 3: The Church in distress

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One of the greatest legends in the Aramaic cultural tradition must be the story of King Abgar the Black of the kingdom Oshroene. It came to pass that he feel ill to a grave sickness. He heard of a Man of medicine, a Man of wonders as the people called him, who lived in the land of Israel where He cured the ill, raised the dead but was not accepted as the leader of His people. He send forth his servants to ask this Miracle Man to come and cure him. In the accompanying letter he asked for the King of the Jews to come to the kingdom of Oshroene “for it is big enough for the both of us to reign”. When his servants met Jesus and asked him to come and cure their master He refused. “Allow us then to draw Your image to take home with us.” Jesus praised the king for his faith. He asked for a bowl of water and a towel. after he washed his face he dried it and left an imprint on the piece of cloth. He sent it with them and had them write a letter with the words: “blessed is your city, no harm will fall on your city and no army shall bring it down.”

Today we woke up in this blessed city that was formerly called Urhoy and from where the Oshroene region was governed. Currently it is called Sanliurfa and is a growing city full of economic developments. The last christians left a long time ago, actually, that was what I thought when we arrived. After visiting the ancient village of Harran in the morning we walked about in the new tourist district near a small, somewhat dismal, version of Istanbul’s Kapali Carsi underneath the impressive ancient citadel of Urhoy. The taxi driver’s name was a hebrew/ christian one and hinted towards an aramaic origin. He took us to the city’s museum (apparantly there’s only one as it is called ‘museum’) where we found old syriac inscriptions bearing witness to the christian presence in this former metropole. The taxi driver then took us to the church of St John which was turned into a mosque in 1993. He didn’t say anything about his current religious views, unlike a common stranger whom we met in the shopping district an hour later. He heard us talking in aramaic and approached us. He presented himself as one of the christians still living in the city, but in hiding when it comes to expressing their religious rites and traditions. There are maybe six to ten thousand like him!

Although we were only looking around and trying to find silent witnesses and artifacts belonging to our cultural heritage, we found that the blessing of king Abgar has not worn off. We left the hotel just like any other tourist, but somewhere along the day we were learned our people, faith and culture are still to be found in loving form in this vast region. Eventhough their situation is difficult and very unstable (the reason why I do not mention their names), there is still hope as there are still people left here. This theme was also presented to us in the documentary by Matteo Spicuglia, who travels with us. ‘Shlomo. La terra perduta’: there is still hope while there are still people living in and asking about their home land. It will only be forgotten when we forget it.

On a side note:

  • a fellow traveller from Bethlehem has dedicated herself to learning two aramaic words each day, she already nows ‘brikh safro’ and ‘lilyo tobo’, meaning good morning and good night.
  • there are two with the name ‘Robil’, what are the odds of that? (Still there is only one named Erwin but fortunately he can use his baptismal name which is John)
  • someone spoke to me in Swedish, after I answered in Swedish that I do not speak Swedish, we found out that he was from Australia and I from The Netherlands, these conversations can only happen in Tur Abdin
  • already groups are forming based on village of origin. This can be seen in seating arrangements during meals and bus trips

Read previous: Introduction: The Pilgrim                Read next: Day 2: The Tourist, Economist and The Dentist

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I feel like the Pilgrim who very well could have had his eyes on Mount Izla when he asked: “I look to the hills: Where will I find help?” Sounds are not carried far in the dust that covers those mountains of old. My mind drifts away and I see the wind drawing images with the sand of monks, traders, pilgrims, shepherds and armies making their way across the plain from the Euphrates to the Tigris. The dry red earth has been scorched by the sun for centuries, I feel a cool breeze as the heavy red sun is descending towards the horizon. It is setting the stage for the treacherous nights when wild animals and highwayman roam free. Over the ridge lies the Mountain of God’s Servants whom for centuries have met the Pilgrim and answered him: “It will come from the Lord, who created the heavens and the earth.”

It was during my first visit to Tur Abdin five years ago when I was looking at the ridge forming Mount Izla from the rooftop of a house in Kritho d-Ito (Gunduksukru). It was our second day in our home land after spending the first night in the monastery of the Virgin Mary in Diyarbakir. I remember that I could almost feel the stories I read and heard about: The stories of my grandparents about working hard from dawn to dusk and the stories of my parents about growing up with little opportunities but always valuing what they had. Also I was anxious to visit the monasteries where our languague, culture and heritage have been taught for ages and are still very much alive there. Eventhough most of our people have left after numerous hardships and troubeling times I could still feel a presence that must have been a part of the very lands. It did not show itself but made itself heard to the soul: “He will not let you stumble. He who protects you doesn’t doze or ever get drowsy. He is the protector of Israel, and your protector.” And I knew that we did not have to feel afraid during the following days when we would venture into the lands that even for my parents were feeling awkward to tread on: “Maybe it was better that the village would only be preserved in the memories of my childhood”, said my father as he was standing on the plot of land where once my grandfather’s house stood. I could understand his feelings, as the whole place was kind of desolate, save for a stray chicken, and felt eerie in the orange glow of the setting sun. “The Lord shall shade you with His right hand, the sun will not strike you by day, nor the moon at night.” Was it my father saying that, my imagination or that ever present feeling that the lands were more than just rocks, dust, the occasional tree or shrub and the little springs that are still permitted to flow and support life?

As I am preparing for my second visit to Tur Abdin, there are a lot of questions crossing my mind: “what will it be like to celebrate Easter over there? How will the people receive us? How can we celebrate when hundreds of our people have been killed and thousands displaced during the current war in Syria? How will the refugees perceive us? What will the weather be like and what clothes should I take with me? Already the temperature is nearing 30 degrees celsius in Mardin. The monasteries are filled with refugees and our Patriarch has cancelled all Easter celebrations because of the situation in Syria and the abduction of two bishops. Still I can’t supress feelings of joy as I look forward to this trip a long time now. I hope that our spiritual journey will also give the refugees peace and hope for the future. That they, just like the people of Tur Abdin who have stayed and maintained what little was left, won’t feel abandoned in this world. That we, together with them, can find comfort in the song of the pilgrim: “The Lord will save your soul, he preserves your going out and coming in from this time and for all ages.”

If time and internet connections permit I will post from Tur Abdin to this weblog, we should be aware that we live in a time that again could shift the course of the future of our people and church. I wish all of you a joyous Easter with your family and friends.

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The QuillNoot: dit verhaal is in verkorte vorm ingediend voor de schrijfwedstrijd van Mijn Wereldverhaal surf na het lezen hierheen om het daar te ‘liken’ svp (als je het ook echt leuk vindt)

Het was zes en een half jaar geleden op St. Eustatius, een eilandje in de Caribische Zee, en onderdeel van de Nederlandse Antillen. Na gesettled te zijn wilde ik ook wel eens sporten en ik hoorde dat er gevoetbald werd. Door een vergissing in het uur kwam ik op het enige op een voetbalveld lijkende speelveld niet de oudere jeugd tegen maar lokale tieners. Ik keek vanaf de verweerde tribune toe hoe ze in een kluitje achter de bal holden. Een oudere man die de trainer leek kwam op mij afgelopen net toen ik aanstalte maakte om weg te gaan. ‘kun jij voetballen?’ vroeg de coach mij. ‘Redelijk’ was mij  antwoord. We maakten kennis en raakten aan de praat over het Mooie Spel. De uitkomst was dat ik de volgende trainingen mee zou helpen.

 De eerste weken van mijn drie maanden durende stage zaten er op en ik merkte dat ik genoeg tijd had om mee te helpen. Een aantal dagen later was ik ongeveer op tijd en hoorde de jongens er in spoken words op los rijmen in het Nederlands. Eén van hen deed wel heel stoer richting een meisje. Toen ik zijn laatste zin afmaakte en de grap  terugkaatste  keek  hij  me  verbouwereerd aan, zijn vrienden lachten. ‘Waar kom jij vandaan?’  Het klonk meer dwingend dan vragend. ‘Uit Nederland, hoezo?’ ‘Je ziet er niet uit als een Nederlander’ was het simpele antwoord. En inderdaad, een waarheid als een koe. Na het fluitje van de coach  gingen we voetballen, maar het bleef hangen, ‘wat ben ik? Wie ben ik en waar kom ik vandaan?’

 Aan het strand, uitkijkend over de Caribische Zee, dacht ik na over die vraag. Ik heb de Nederlandse nationaliteit, ben in Nederland geboren en opgegroeid. maar maakt mij dat dan een Nederlander? Is dat wie ik ben? Bepaald mijn nederlandse voornaam mijn identiteit soms? Ik ging verder graven, Mijn voorouders zijn Aramees, ik spreek de Aramese taal en voelde me tegelijk ook Aramees. Het is dan ook mijn aramese doopnaam die ook van een kerkelijke identiteit getuigd. En verder is mijn achternaam turks, afkomstig uit het land van mijn ouders. Ik heb weinig tit niets met turkije, maar kan mensen het ook niet kwalijk nemen als ze mij turks noemen. de zon ging al bijna onder, ik moest nog brood halen bij ‘Fat’ de enige bakker op het eiland met een steenoven, en daarna bij de barbecue man langs gaan, die de heerlijkste ribbetjes op de planeet vanuit zijn voortuin verkocht.

 Op een dag, weet niet eens meer welke, speelden we een wedstrijd tussen de ‘internationals’ die er stage liepen, werkten of studeerden en de locals, inwoners van het eiland. Velen van hen kwamen voor de vakantie terug vanuit sint maarten, aruba of nederland, waar ze naar school gingen. Het was de inleiding van vele feestelijke dagen. Eigenlijk zouden we tegen een team uit st kitts, een nabijgelegen eiland, spelen. Maar door de hoge golven konden ze niet komen. Nadat we de koeien en geitem van het veld verjaagd hadden en een kleine honderd toeschouwers zich in de brandende zon verzameld hadden ging de wedstrijd van start. Doordat ik in de laatste minuten een penalty tegen hield wonnen we de wedstrijd. maar dat deed  er  niet toe. Want al tijdens de wedstrijd werd duidelijk waar het werkelijk om ging: barbecue, drinken, samen komen en gezelligheid. Je kleur maakte op dat moment niemand wat uit.

 Tijdens mijn studie wilde ik graag naar het buitenland, nadat mogelijke opdrachten in budapest en istanbul niet doorgingen leek mijn moeder er gerust op dat ik in nederland zou blijven. Toen ik na een gesprek met mijn begeleider thuis kwam en mijn moeder vroeg hoe het gegaan was antwoorde ik heel droog, ‘ik ga naar de antillen’. Toen dit bezonken was zag ik de twijfels op haar gezicht, ‘moet je dat wel doen.?’ de thee was al op en we zaten nog aan de keukentafel te praten toen mijn vader thuis kwam van werk. ‘hoe ging het?’ vroeg hij. ‘ik ga naar de antillen’ zei ik weer. ‘aloho a’moch’ (God zij met je) was zijn antwoord. En dat gaf voor mijn moeder ook de laatte berusting. En ik ben blij dat ik dat heb mogen ervaren, drie maanden lang, 7000 Km van je veilige huis en sporadisch hulp van je begeleiders en verder niemand om op terug te vallen.

Op St. Eustatius heb ik dan ook veel over mijzelf geleerd. Ik weet hoe het is om je aan te passen zonder je eigen identiteit te hoeven verliezen. Dit lukte me alleen omdat ik reflecteerde op mijn eigen identiteit en me leerde te verplaatsen in die van een ander. Het maakt dan niet uit dat je net als een oud testamentische zwervende arameeër jezelf over de aardbol begeeft, het gaat er om dat we elkaar niet beoordelen of zelfs veroordelen omwille van een paspoort, taal of huidskleur. Wat nog belangrijker is dan wie of wat je bent, is het belangrijker om te weten hoe je bent en waar je naar toe wil. Hoe klein St Eustatius mag zijn, de mensen hebben een groots hart en deden mij beseffen dat er altijd tijd is om voor een ander vrij te maken, om te helpen maar ook puur voor de gezelligheid. In het afrondende gesprek met mijn begeleidster daar kreeg ik een groots compliment dat mijn stelling onderstreept: ‘jij bent Antilliaan!’ De stageopdracht deed er even niet meer toe voor mij, ik was trots op een stukje nieuwe identiteit die ik deelde met anderen op dat kleine eilandje in de Cariben.

Ga naar de wedstrijdpagina op Mijn Wereldverhaal om het daar te liken.