The Mountain of the Servants of God
text and photos by Chris Hellier
On an isolated plateau in southeastern Turkey, bordered by the Tigris River and the Syrian frontier, a small community of Syrian Orthodox Christians lives in fear. They fear losing their homes and land. Men fear for the safety of their wives and daughters. All fear for their lives.
Theres nothing left for the young here, nowadays, says a Syrian Christian who now lives in Switzerland.
His father, a former jeweller, shrugs his shoulders and replies: Theres never been much peace in this part of the world.
The Tur Abdin (Syriac for the Mountains of the Servants of God) is a barren plateau of sandy soil and scrub oak forest. Situated at the crossroads of the Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic frontier, this Christian communitys mountainous homeland has provided refuge for centuries. Presently many are fleeing their homes they are caught in the crossfire of a vicious guerrilla war fought by the Turkish government and the Kurdish tribes. The future of the Tur Abdin Syrian Christian community looks increasingly bleak.
The Christians of the Tur Abdin are a remnant of the Aramaic-speaking world that once included much of the ancient Near East. Their convents and monasteries played a significant role in the early history of the Eastern church. Isolated by geography, race and religion, these Christians have preserved the Syriac tongue, an Aramaic dialect similar to the language spoken by Jesus; it endures in the churchs liturgical ceremonies.
Worldwide there are an estimated 250,000 Syrian Christians, divided principally into two patriarchal hierarchies, Orthodox (sometimes known as Jacobite) and Catholic. After World War I, the Catholic patriarch established his seat in Beirut, where the current patriarch, Ignatius Anthony II Hayek, resides. The larger Syrian Orthodox Church is based in Damascus. Its patriarch, Moran Mar Ignatius Zaka I Iwas, governs a scattered community that stretches as far as India.
More than 50,000 Syrian Christians lived in the Tur Abdin less than 50 years ago. Only a few thousand remain.
In the provincial capital of Midyat (population 20,000), which until the 1950s had the distinction of being the only Turkish town that was almost exclusively Christian, just 100 Syrian families remain. Midyat once served as the residence of a governor. Reflecting the long history of antagonism between the Muslim Kurds and the Syrian Christians, the town is today divided into two distinct parts: one is Muslim and largely Kurdish, the other, Syrian Christian.
While Midyat is the current center of Turkeys Syrian Christian community, the larger town of Mardin, west of the plateau, was the focal point of the community until the beginning of the 19th century. As early as the seventh century, Mardin had a Syrian Orthodox bishop based at the nearby Derzafaren Monastery, one of only two monasteries still operating.
According to tradition the monastery is built on the site of a Roman fortification. The oldest part of the complex, the Church of Mar Hanania, [probably founded by the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I (491-518)], lies within the sanctuarys sand-colored walls. Most of the monastic buildings are of more recent date and include striking features such as an orange squeezer roof an architectural characteristic of the region.
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Tags: Christianity Turkey Monastery Syriac Orthodox Church Syriac Christians