Imagine, snow capped mountains in the distance, a small village on a hill in front of you, surrounded by ploughed fields and rocky hills. On the right hand side of the road is a church, on the left hand side some sand coloured houses and dirt roads. You can hear a rooster cuck-a-la-cooing in the distance, you see a shepherd with goats, sheep and a dog strolling in the road towards you. Welcome in Hah, one of the oldest villages in Tur Abdin in Southeast Turkey, where time passes slowly and the Arameans almost still live the same way as their ancestors did more than 2000 years ago.
The romantic view is contradictory to the situation the odd 140 villagers find themselves in. Thousands of acres have been confiscated by the government. Fields that are not used, or lands with rocks and trees can be confiscated just for those reasons only. Even a cemetery with two trees and the ruins of a church from the 5th century are state owned. On top of that, the village is deemed a cultural historic site. Houses and churches may not be renovated, and young married couples find themselves almost literally between the rock and a hard place: they cannot build a house of their own and continue the way of living of their fathers and fathers before them. Together with a Dutch film crew I travelled the lands of my forefathers. We collected stories about the present day life of the 5000 Arameans still living in Tur Abdin. One villager told us: “we are shouting from inside the well, here, nobody hears us. It is through you we can make our voices and plights heard”
This year we commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Seyfo, the genocide the Aramean (Syriac) people endured together with their Greek and Armenian Christian brethren during World War I. The denial by the Turkish Republic of this dark episode still has its mark on the souls of the Aramean people living in the world wide diaspora. With lands, houses and lands confiscated a return to the homeland is not easy. Judicial trials are bureaucratic and expensive at best. Add to this the on going war in neighbouring Syria and it is not hard to imagine that the perspective of a Christian presence in the middle east is very grim.
But there is more than the beautiful sights and dark stories. The people are used to survival. And their faith is a source of hope. It is the hope of monks who re-opened the monastery of Mor Augin on Mount Izlo. One monk and one deacon are still a lot less than the 350 monks who once occupied the place, “but we continue to pray in the same language as Jesus Christ did, and we try to continue the tradition”. It is the hope of children who want to be part of a better world. “I want to be an architect” one boy said, and his sister startled us with her answer to our question about their future: “I want to be a Turkish language teacher.” “Turkish?” She was adamant: “yes, Turkish” One can study now, be a lawyer and open up shop in the old city quarter in Midyat. People from Europe build second homes in their villages, and hold on to the believe that it can be their first and only home some day. When the people started to leave their homes en masse in the late seventies and early eighties, one man asked Mor Dolabani, then bishop of Tur Abdin: ‘will this be the end of our people?’ he answered him: ‘As the sun sets here on our people, it will rise again in some other place. The tree may be cut down, but the root is strong, and it will grow again.’ The lands of Tur Abdin may be rocky, but they are fertile. The Aramaic language and Syrian Orthodox liturgical tradition are still being taught in monasteries and village schools. The seeds our forefathers sowed can still grow, but we need the Turkish government to hold the earth firm so we can reap again.
The ancient Arameans were nomads, always traveling, herding and trading with the people they met. Some founded city states like Damascus, Palmyra, Edesa (now Sanliurfa) and built empires. Their cultural and linguistic influence spread throughout the region. Wars and conquests of others made an end to their national power, but as a people, they adapted. They always maintained their way of live, and after converting to Christianity, lived under Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Ottoman and Turkish rule. They are the indigenous people of the lands and part of a country. But they are not always viewed as such, yes, the Turkish government uses its power to confiscate lands throughout the whole country. But by denying the Arameans to renovate or build new churches and taking their lands which they need to feed themselves it almost feels like being choked. It is odd that villages and churches are deemed as cultural and historic important objects, but that the immaterial cultural worth is neglected. If Turkey really wants to uphold the old cultural traditions within its border, it also needs the Aramean people. In an ever changing world, a small people forgotten by almost all just has one plight: “God is great, the only thing we want is to just live”.
The documentary is a joint project of WCA and EO (evangelical broadcasting) and will be shown first on Dutch TV April this year.