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Tagarchief: Syrian Orthodox Church


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.

 

 


Yesterday I wrote about the Pope’s visit to Palestine and the strange moments Mahmoud Abbas shared with the Pontiff. Monday evening, it was Benjamin Netanyahu’s turn in trying to show some love towards the Christians of Israel. Maybe his mistake of claiming that Jesus spoke Hebrew is a bit less scary than Abass’ antics, but it is exemplary for the tough relationship between Israel and the Church, and between Jews and Christians. The Pope corrected Netanyahu and said that Jesus spoke Aramaic, which Netanyahu quickly confirmed and added “but he did know Hebrew”. As a native Aramaic speaker (more specifically Syriac, the Western Aramaic dialect of Edessa) I was thrilled to see Netanyahu getting his facts served right, but at the same time I realized that we as Christians have a very long way to go in safeguarding our culture and heritage when even the PM of Israel struggles with our history, although Arameans have always lived in Israel.

The struggle is deep, just moments after the Pope’s visit to the Church of the Dormition a fire was discovered in one of the rooms. A couple of wooden crosses and a book in which pilgrims inscribe prayers was lost. No persons were arrested but suspicions point to radical Jews who want to see Mount Zion ‘cleaned’ of non Hebrew influences. Another act radical Jews and Palestinians alike take part in is throwing rocks at people who ‘don’t belong’ in Jerusalem. I had to run for my life after an encounter with Palestinian kids on the Mountain of the Olives last year. These conservative orthodox Jews pose a big challenge for the Israeli government. Some of them don’t recognize the government and refuse to serve in the Israeli Defence Forces, although a lot of military personnel protect the settlements they live in. Read some of stories of ex-IDF soldiers on http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/

Recent changes in applying for military service made it possible for ‘Christian Arabs’ to join the ranks voluntarily. Some christian groups, mainly based in the West Bank, see this as a deliberate attempt by the government to split Christians. Others, like some Aramaic Christians I know personally, welcome this step and even petitioned the governemt a year ago to allow them to enlist. ‘It’s our country too and we need to make clear to everyone that we are not Arabs. This will help us’. It’s a small step in the emancipation of this small group but it’s an important one. Abraham said; ‘my father was a wandering Aramean’ and in the years after, the Syrian Orthodox especially, have always wandered and lived under various rulers. After the fall of city states such as Damascus the people learned how to survive and pass on their culture and identity to this very day. When I introduced myself as ‘Aramit’ to IDF staff at the airports and various checkpoints, their eyes widened and I was treated with admiration even.

The Pope maybe has opened the eyes of Israelis a little bit, but there are still a lot of fires raging threatening the presence of Christians and their culture and traditions. Much more work is needed, but with this Pope, I think we have an excellent advocate.

 

 

 


I could have written this post about what we did on the Day of Rest (monday after Easter when the dead are commemorated and their graves are visited), how church was and what we did later that afternoon in Mor Hananyo (also known as Deyrulzafaran, lit. ‘The saffron monastery’) and the church of the Forty Martyrs in Mardin. But I am not going to, I hope that you, as a reader, enjoyed reading the posts and maybe even through imagination participated in our journey, be it as a Pilgrim or a Tourist. But I can understand that it also was a bit tough without much background information or photos. One of the virtues of a pilgrim is patience, so please bear with me for a couple of days and please subscribe to the posts about the journey. You’ll get a notification when the accompanying photos are published, some of them exclusively on this blog.

Now let me share some final thoughts with you from my house in The Netherlands, where it has not stopped raining since we arrived. But somehow the rain does not feel the same as it did on Turo d-Izlo when we visited Mor Augin, it just feels like rain here. But there on the top of the ridge it felt different. I tried to frame that feeling a couple of times in a phrase but I just can’t. So please dear reader, don’t be mad as this is the only thing I can say: you had to be there with us. As endearing and inspiring books and prose may be, only if one experiences something himself, he or she can truly understand the meaning and purpose of such a journey where we truly walked in the footsteps of our ancestors, who for generations walked the same roads, ate the same foods, spoke the same words, prayed the same prayers and sang the same hymns as we did last week.

SuryoyoSat is famous for its ‘final words’, here are mine to my fellow travellers, my new friends. The rain and lack of sleep did not dampen our moods and our trip ended as it started, together. The biggest difference is that we started as fellow Aramean Syriacs, still somehow strangers to eachother, but we ended all as friends. The Tourist may get to know some people at his destination, but because he (or she) is so preoccupied by reaching it and only searches for a physical proofs of his journey, his encounters with others are superficial. Only The Pilgrim can bond and forge friendships with people he meets on his way because the spiritual and transcending meaning of their journey gives them so much more than just a picture or souvenir, it enriches them as a person. He knows that the fact that his fellow travellers live in places such as Australia, Sweden, Switzerland, Palestinian Authority, The Netherlands, Belgium or Germany doesn’t mean a thing. Of course modern technologies changed how we interact with eachother and it was fun to take pictures as our journey progressed, but we know we share so much more than just the fact of being on the same road for a week. Something FaceBook cannot share with us. I pray that all went well with all of you and you reached your other homes safe and sound. Aloho d-sobe, we will meet again, be it on the Mountain of God’s servants or in any other place, may He be with us on every journey we make as He was with us the past week. This pilgrim is ready to crawl into his bed, and dream about one of his biggest experiences in his life. Shlome.

Of course I cannot leave the side note out of this post, so here is the final one:

  • I started the day of rest after only three hours of sleep. As I am writing this, I have only slept for an odd ten hours the past three days
  • After a quick survey the tlauhé of Adiyaman have been declared the best of the week, tlauhé will be again on the menu after six weeks
  • It appeared that our friend from Bethlehem Aleen is a distant relative of Adam and Christina Cello, Aleen’s great grandfather was the uncle of the Cello’s grandmother (if memory serves me right, otherwise please do correct me), another example of the things that can happen on such a journey
  • Who had a hamburger at a famous place starting with the letter M as he or she reached the final airport? I did!

Read previous: Day 5: A Tur Abdin Easter


On the road from Urhoy (Sanliurfa) to Omid (Diyarbakir) this Pilgrim had the luxury of a sufficient supply of water and a wifi connection in the touringcar. I used some of the time writing the previous blog post but I certainly enjoyed the time with my fellow travellers singing hymns and songs and got to know them better. Seeing the vast plains as we made our way on a fairly modern and pleasant highway, a feeling recurred for the third day in a row: “why is it that there is so much land and space in this country, but there is so little room for the indigenous inhabitants to live freely?” This question is not answered quickly and it sums up much of the struggels the Syrian Orthodox Church leadership has: they work tirelessly to maintain what is left and try hard to build something that can be perceived as a future for the people.

One of these truly immovable men is the priest of the Monastery of the Virgin Mary in Omid. I have met him on my previous journey and he symbolizes the situation the people of Tur Abdin are in. From all directions in Omid’s Ancient City he and the church are surrounded by more than a million kurds. It is hard for him and his family to leave the courtyard surrounded by walls reaching three meters high. The priest tends to the monastery which is a designated tourist site and serves the few christian families left in Omid. He also takes care of people coming from Tur Abdin if they are in need of health care and need to make use of the hospitals in the city. Today we ascended the street leading to the monastary which is now named after Mor Bar Salibi, one of the most venerated patriarchs and saint in the Syrian Orthodox tradition. Due to the efforts of Syriac scholar Shabo Hanna from Germany the street also has a sign in Syriac, this is the first time a turkish governing bidy has allowed such a thing. This could be a sign of hope one may think. I can’t see the hope. The police escorting us guarded us from traffic and physical threats, but not from the wicked stares and curse words hurled at our heads.

The intimidation did not put our spirits down, not even slightly. When we entered the courtyard we again were sucked up in history and tradition. The streets did not matter and we celebrated mass and commemorated the Crucifixion of our Lord in peace and harmony. Even the distant call to prayer by an imam did not disturb us, although it seemed he turned up the volume and took more time than usual. We just finished mass when tourists poured into the church. I hope that they and the local government value a living church and community more than an empty building with just plaques describing the pictures and artifacts. When we returned to our buses there riot trucks of the police closed off street so we could cross. This tells us there is a long way to go before we can really feel at ease in what is also our home country. A way that cannot be paved with words and good intentions alone.

On a side note:

  • ‘Ahna kulan Suryoye’ has become the official anthem of our fellowship
  • Having ancestral traces that run through Kferze, Anhil, Kritho di-Ito (Gunduksukru) and Boté makes easy conversations, but takes some time to explain as it is the first thing people ask
  • Older people like the weather because ‘the sun warms our bones’ as they say. A couple of the younger travellers suffer from heavy hayfever
  • A lot of women were disappointed when the shopping spree was cancelled. The men raised their heads to the heavens and thanked God

Read previous: Day 2: The Tourist, Economist and The Dentist        Read next: Day 4: Silence


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


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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