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Tagarchief: Tur Abdin


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.

 

 


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


Sunday we celebrated Easter in the church of Mort Shmuni in Midyat. Service started at six o’clock in the morning. It was almost eight when we entered the church that was too small for all to be in so we stayed just in front of the doors. We just missed the first fifteen minutes of Holy Mass. It was almost as traditional as it is in the Netherlands, and that’s why today’s blog will not be that exciting as the previous days. I hope that this does not set you off. the biggest differences were ofcourse the place and the children from ages five and above who were in front of the procession singing the hymns in their clearest and loudest of voices. I can only hope we will see this energy back home. The people were dressed up nicely and the temperature added to a laid back atmosphere.

After mass I walked in to receive the Body of Christ, but just before reaching the front of the altar I saw my late grandfather’s cousin who with his wife still lives in Midyat. He invited me to have breakfast in his house and thus I broke away from the group. We did not even rested ourselves on the chairs in the frontyard or the first visitors already knocked on the door. The local Kurdish population has made the tradition of visiting each other their own and collect candy and eggs from the Syriac community. Later I heard that some of the houses ordered 500 eggs or more just to give away to their neighbours (my mother only buys 30 to 50, eventhough there are about 1000 syriac families in Enschede).

After church and breakfast one could either visit villages and family or take the bus to the monastery of Mor Melke. Together with about fifty others I decided to go to Mor Melke. It’s first edifices date back to the first half of the fourth century. Compared to Mor Gabriel, Mor Hananyo and a couple of other monasteries Mor Melke is relatively small. Two monks and two nuns take care of the buildings, the grounds and the four students who also help out. I like its history, its modesty and especially the balcony that provides a spectacular view over the surrounding fields, hills and mountains.

We had dinner together with the whole group in the hotel followed by a live broadcast on SuryoyoSat. The governor of the Mardin region joined the show and discussed the situation of our church and people with Johny Messo, head of WCA. He surprised me with his supportive attitude and even made some positive remarks regarding the cases concerning Mor Gabriel. The show was less festive than the previous ones due to a murder in one of the syriac villages and the situation of our people in Syria where two bishops are held captive.

After the television broadcast most of the youth stayed in the hotel restaurant. We spend a very good time with our new friends and forgot about time. There were only 3 hours left for sleep, but in return I gained a memory that will stay with me forever.

On a side note:

  • I called home and talked with my little sister, I asked her to give my greetings to all only to hear my mother rushing to the phone. After saying hello and wishing each other a blessed Easter she asked me if I had bought himsitho, black sesame and some spices for cookies for her
  • Mor Melke cured the king’s daughter and could have asked for anything, even for half the kingdom. Mor Melke asked for two large stones which he brought to the monastery. “If only he would’ve asked for half the kingdom, that would’ve solved a lot of our problems” one of our aussie friends sighed in the back
  • rumour had it in the church square that due to a sudden spike in demand the prices of pistachio nuts have gone up in Tur Abdin

Read previous: day 4: Silence                          Read next: day 6: The last steps


qum Moran men auw qabro, eido brikho al kulkhun, Our Lord has risen from the grave, a blessed Easter to all of you. Here is yesterday’s story.

This shabto d-shulyo (lit. ‘Saturday of Silence’, Holy Saterday in the RC tradition) was a remarkable day. For the first time in more than 30 years a large group of Aramaic christians visited the Mor Augin monastery on Mount Izlo. The monastery was founded by Mor Augin, the saint that came to Tur Abdin from Egypt and with his followers established monasticism in the region. The monastery is one of the many places of worship they build in Tur Abdin. Two years ago raban (monk) Yoken and raban Aho got the keys and started renovating and rehabilitating yet another pearl on the neklace of this ancient treasure chamber. With them the christian villagers of nearby villages of Marbobo, Gremira and Kritho d-Ito joined hands and formed a new comittee to support their efforts. The buses barely could maneuver the steep road that winds up the ridge. We had to walk the last 500 meters. With each step I took, more of my breath was taken away by the splendid edifices hewn and build on the mountain. The Pilgrim has again reached a destination.

We were received by the two monks and people from the villages previously mentioned. A storm changed the plan slightly so we got a tour of the place first and seated for lunch later. Raban Yoken gave us a brief history of the monastery, its churches and the tombs holding the graves of Mor Augin and various saints and patriarchs. The construction of the altar is unique and it is believed that the wooden beams supporting the roof of the altar were once part of Noah’s Ark. Various universities already offered assistance in researching this claim. After this introduction and some words of gratitude 150 voices sang Abun d-beshmayo (Our Father) in aramaic. Upon leaving the church I could still hear the prayer echoed by the thirteen meters high vaulted ceiling.

Outside I tried to take a moment of silence to really breath in the place. What struck me was how many noises were around me. It took some concentration to filter out the talk of men and hear the songs of birds and the rustling of the wind as it graced over the mountain. I closed my eyes for a moment and when I opened them again I noticed the warde d-nison, (lit. ‘flowers of April’, poppies in English). I already saw a lot of them growing in the fields around Midyat but here they seem to defy nature and grow out of cracks in the rocks. Many books have been written with the ink made from this flower. When I thought I could feel the mountain itself breathing I was called to lunch. Was it my imagination or the feeling of the want of food that was made known to my brain by my growling stomach? We enjoyed an excellent lunch prepared by the good people of the villages, I can even say the love that was put in making it fed our souls. It was rumoured that it took them a week to prepare. We had to walk the whole way down but I dare to say that not a single person did not turn his or her head around to have one, two or more final looks at Mor Augin. A view words cannot describe.

In the evening we visited the center of Syrian Orthodoxy, the Mor Gabriel monastery. Founded in 397 it stands on a hilltop overlooking hundreds of olive trees. Although it housed saints, bishops, monks and thousands of student ever since, it is now struggeling for its survival. It is sued to the courts by the treasury department and nearby villages claiming its lands and the destruction of the surrounding walls. Again the tourists were preoccupied with taking pictures and chatter as I was looking for a place to clear my mind and just not think of anything. It was not easy because the path of the Pilgrim crossed that of the tourists in the church of the Virgin Mary, the Dome of Theodora, the Church of Mor Gabriel, the beth qadishe (burial tomb of the saints). Finally I found a place away from it all and realised how much of our time is taken by activities that do not feed our souls and do not provide peace of mind.

When we returned to our hotel with a small group later that night in Midyat I said to my small fellowship, just be silent and look to the stars. And so it happened that we saw a shooting star for the first time in our lives.

On a side note:

  • We celebrated the birthday of Adam Cello, who turned 26 ( just before seeing the shooting star)
  • When I asked during dinner and later at the small birthday party if anyone noticed that we did not get tlauhé at lunch in Mor Augin everyone replied they did not, and smiled
  • Some people are blaming the rain on the travellers from the Netherlands, Johny Messo turned it around and called it a blessing for the grounds
  • We received training in bargaining from a pro when a traveller from Kerboran gave the store owner a dismal look, turned around, waved the last offer of with his hand and gave a ‘tsssssk’. The sunglasses 10 meters further down the road dropped in price by 50%

Read previous: day 3: The Church in distress                Read next: 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


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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