Elif Keser Kayaalp
Turkish Cultural Foundation Fellow
Ph.D. in Archaeology, University of Oxford (Exeter College), UK (2009) 
Current Position: Senior Fellow at Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations, Koç University, Turkey
The Tur Abdin is a limestone plateau to the east of Mardin in south-eastern Turkey. Its landscape is dotted with numerous villages and monasteries dating to various time periods. According to some Syriac texts, church and monastery building activity started in the region as early as the 4th century. However, the earliest-securely dated archaeological evidence for churches can be traced to the early 6th century. Some churches from that period, especially the main churches of Deir Zafaran and Mor Gabriel monasteries, the two best-known and most-visited monasteries in the region, have remarkable architectural decoration which make them very important examples of Early Christian architecture. The architectural sculpture of the church of Deir Zafaran is highly classical in character reflecting the tradition that can be seen in the wider region of Northern Mesopotamia, especially in Amida and Rusafa. The conservatism in the sculpture of the region is remarkable given that by the mid 6th century there was already a break with the classical tradition even in Constantinople.
The main church of Mor Gabriel, on the other hand, has wall mosaics in the vault and lunettes of its apse, which is one of the very few wall mosaics that have survived to the east of Constantinople. The floor of the same space is covered with an opus sectile marble pavement, which incorporates marble from Proconnesus (Marmara Island), indicating an imperial involvement in its construction. In fact, a later Syriac text mentions the patronage of the Emperor Anastasius for the construction and decoration of this church.
Not all Byzantine emperors were sympathetic to the Syrian Orthodox. In fact, most of the time Syrian Orthodox suffered from persecution as a result of their Christological positions. They did not agree with the Council of Chalcedon (451) which accepted that Christ had two natures inseparably united. The Syrian Orthodox eventually established their own church hierarchy and their population concentrated in certain areas, the Tur Abdin being one of them. Starting from the 6th century, they also created different architectural forms that can be associated solely with them, such as the transverse-hall type church, which was almost exclusively used in the monastic churches of the Tur Abdin. In no other place in the Byzantine Empire could, a certain type of plan be associated with monastic church architecture.
The region was conquered by the Muslim Arabs in 640. Besides its impressive early Christian remains, what makes Tur Abdin an interesting area for research is the abundance of Christian church construction in the region in the first century of the Arab rule. Gertrude Bell, who first studied the church architecture of the region, dated only four churches to the 8th century. However, recent studies suggest an Early Islamic date for at least twenty-eight structures. Coupled with remarkable 6th century architecture from the same area, these structures present important evidence for the study of the architecture and topography of a transitional period from Byzantium to Islam in the region.
The main evidence dating the structures to the 8th century is the architectural sculpture, the peculiar ways of using brick, and some epigraphic material. The architectural sculpture of these churches presents a stylized version of the earlier classical decoration in the region. The majority of the churches with these features are hall-type churches located in the villages. This may indicate that by the 8th century, villages flourished as the situation of the region improved due to the more secure conditions under the Arabs as a result of the shifting of the frontier, as during the Byzantine rule, the region was a battle zone between the Byzantines and the Sasanians and suffered from destruction.
Churches from the 8th century contain some features that have been faithfully repeated. The appearance of new forms and the attachment to them seems to be a search for an architectural vocabulary that would distinctively be associated with the Syrian Orthodox. Information related to construction between 9th and 12th centuries is considerably rare. There are also no architecturally distinct features in the churches of the region that would suggest such a dating. The 12th century saw a revival in the Syriac culture. Syriac texts mention considerable building and rebuilding in that period and a few inscriptions record rebuilding of monasteries. However, to securely date the medieval churches in the region is a very difficult endeavor. Up until the middle of the last century, there was still a considerable number of Syrian Orthodox living in the Tur Abdin. Thus, these buildings have been in continuous use and have undergone considerable repairs over the centuries. Some of which have damaged the archaeological evidence that would have made their dating possible.
Although there is a very small permanent community in the region today, the well-being of these monuments has great importance for both the local community and the diaspora as the region today is considered to be the homeland of the Syrian Orthodox community, making its buildings into modern pilgrimage centres, attracting many visitors. Especially in recent years, there is a considerable increase in the quantity and the sensibility of restoration projects undertaken. Some of these restorations have revealed crucial material for understanding some important architectural features. For example, in the church of el ‘Adhra at Hah (modern Anitli), the removal of the plaster uncovered an octagonal dome with a peculiar brick construction. This dome is rare amongst its contemporaries but it is a predecessor of many brick domical vaults in the Artukid architecture of the region. Similarly, the arcade on the west facade of this church is the only example of a decorated facade amongst the 8th century churches of the region.
In addition to the restoration of the existing buildings, new structures were added to the churches and monasteries. Village churches were converted into multi-purpose building complexes. Similarly, monasteries received additional buildings built with ashlar stone facings adorned with architectural sculpture. The most remarkable examples can be seen in the monasteries of Mor Gabriel, Deir Zafaran and Mor Yakup at Salah. In Mardin and its environs, there is still an active masonry workshop that continues the local traditions of wall building and decoration. The continuity of this practice is essential for repair and restoration, as well as for the local economy.
This is a very brief introduction to the churches and monasteries of the Syrian Orthodox in the Tur Abdin which are part of a large and vulnerable architectural heritage. This heritage, which is very important on many different levels, is evolving through appropriation of spaces for new functions, rebuilding and restoration, the addition of new structures and sometimes destruction. All these make this heritage even more interesting and in need of more attention and correct cultural heritage policies.
Some selected examples (please click on pictures to enlarge):