More Monastic Origins: The Syrian Orthodox Tradition in Turkey Today / Michael Kelly OSB

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A recompense for the disadvantage of distance in travelling from Australia to Europe is the ability to stop en route in any number of fascinating places. I thus took the opportunity in September, 1998, while going to Italy for a meeting of the formators of our Congregation, to fulfil an ambition to visit Turkey with its rich early Christian associations. A further incentive was my learning the previous year of extant Syrian Orthodox monasteries in the country dating back to the fourth century (1).
Turkey today, with a population of around sixty million, is 99% muslim. Syrians account for around one fifth of the 100,000 or so Christians in the country, but only about 2,000 remain in the south-east. It is within this area, on the plateau of Tur Abdin, that an ancient bastion of Chritian monasticism survives in a handful of monasteries. The Tur Abdin lies in the Taurus Mountains, between the Tigris and Euphrates, in what was Upper Mesopotamia. As once it was the site of the boundary between the Roman and Persian empires, so today it is only a little above the Syrian border, not far from the border with Iraq. The two best known monasteries are Dayr el Zafaran (the saffron monastery), seven kilometres south-east of Mardin and Mor Gabriel, 120 kilometres north-east of Mardin. It was to the latter that I paid a brief visit.
Owing to its position near the border, in an area of Kurdish insurgency, Tur Abdin is to be approached with appropriate caution and a number of military check points will be encountered when travelling by bus. On the journey across I took the two hour flight from Istanbul to Diyarbakir, returning in stages by road. From Diyarbakir it is possible to travel by dolmus, a popular form of Turkish transport for small numbers – in this case a mini-bus – to Midyat, via Mardin, a distance of 150 kilometres. On this occasion the two and a half hour journey took six hours as the dolmus broke down near Mardin. From Midyat a taxi is the only public transport for the final thirty odd kilometres.

The entrance to the Monastery of Mor Gabriel
The foundation of the monastery of Mor Gabriel is attributed to Mor Samuel and his disciple, Mor Simeon in 397. It has been known as Deyrulumur, “The Monastery of the Abode” (of Mor Simeon) and also as Qartmin, from the nearby village. The present name comes from the seventh century abbot, Bishop Gabriel. It received imperial benefactions from the emperors Honorius and Arcadius, Theodosius and Anastasius and these are reflected in some of the existing buildings.
The main church of Mor Gabriel was built in 512. It is representative of the monastic style of church of the area (broad from north to south), as distinct from the parochial style (long from east to west)(2). It was beautifully restored on the occasion of the commemoration of the sixteenth centenary of foundation in 1997. The massive walls are of stone and the barrel vault of brick. On the east is the sanctuary with an apse, flanked by two small rectangular rooms. Access to the three of these is by doorways which pierce the thick east wall of the nave. The nave is entered from an arcaded narthex on the west side. The sanctuary is decorated with the remains of mosaics unique because of their antiquity and of interst owing to the lack of any animate figures. In the vault are three crosses surrounded by vines. The upper walls are are adorned with representations of domed ciboria over altars bearing the eucharistic cup and bread. At the entrance to the sanctuary the Scriptures are enthroned in an elaborate metal binding.

The nave of the church

The Narthex                                                        The sanctuary door                                    The sanctuary

The exterior of the narthex
To the left, facing the church, a covered passage leads to an unusual structure known as the Dome of Theodora. This domed octagon, 10.5 m in diameter, open at the apex and with eight niches around the walls, is dated to the same period as the church and is thought to have been a baptistery(3). Further along the passage is a courtyard and on the left side of this is the entrance to the Church of the Mother of God, believed to be from the reign of Theodosius II (408-450). This is no longer used and plaster disguises its great antiquity. The chamber to the right of the sanctuary gives access to what appears to have been a hermit�s cell. On the opposite side of the courtyard is the House of Martyrs, another part of the early complex and seemingly used as burial place also for abbots and dignitaries.
Outside the present complex are two structures known as the Dome of the Egyptians and the Dome of the Departed built, like the Dome of Theodora, on eight arches. However, a square surround and flat roof over the dome disguises the true shape of each building. Early sources refer to one such building, presumably the Dome of the Egyptians. The legend behind this is that eight hundred Egyptian monks came to the monastery and were buried in this sepulchre. The foundations and ruins of other buildings, some even earlier, are to be found surrounding the present monastery.

The “Dome of the Egyptians”
The present community consists of two monks, the abbot and bishop of Tur Abdin, Archbishop Timotheos Aktas, and Raban Tuma Aksoy; fourteen nuns; a teaching staff of five and around thirty students. These are trained to take leadership in local churches, their secular education being completed at public schools in Midyat. The liturgy, in which all participate, begins around 5.30am. Those present gather again at midday, and finally around 5.30pm. The Liturgy of the Hours consists of the seven traditional hours celebrated at the three times mentioned above and is comprised mainly of texts from the Fathers of the early Church. The liturgical language is ancient Syriac while the spoken language is a local dialect of Syriac. Eucharist is celebrated on Sunday, Wednesday, Friday and feasts and communion is taken about once a month. Meals follow the prayer times with monks, teachers and students eating together. There seemed to be a healthy diet of meat, vegetables, salad and fruit. The monastery has cattle, goats, poultry and a vegetable garden. There is artesian water and the electricity supply is supplemented by a generator. The property seemed to extend in each direction around the monastery for about 500 m. The guest area contained several rooms with multiple beds and a well appointed common bathroom.
Little remains by way of manuscripts, owing to the numerous raids over the centuries and again today there are difficulties(4). There are restrictions on the use of Syriac and the work of renovation has been stopped. The Tablet, on the 19 September, 1998 quoted a report in the Los Angeles Times that there was police pressure on Mor Gabriel to prevent children being taught the faith and traditional language. An appropriate celebration of the sixteenth centenary was not possible. Many Syrian Orthodox Christians have emigrated, including monks who have founded communities in The Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland. An association, the “Friends of Tur Abdin” is based in Linz and issues a quarterly periodical(5). Number 9, June 1997, contained historical articles in English, German, Turkish and Syriac on the occasion of the sixteenth centenary.
Mor Gabriel represents not only a rich cultural patrimony but is a unique witness to Syriac monasticism which, with the Egyptian and Palestinian traditions, has passed on the ideals of the earliest Christian monks and nuns. It would be a loss – and a reproof – to contemporary Christianity should this tradition not be allowed to flourish in the place where its history is so long.
1. E. Picucci, “Witness to an Intense Spirituality”, L�Osservatore Romano (Weekly Edition in English), n.33/34 – 13/20 August 1997, p.9.
2. Gertrude Bell, The Churches and Monasteries of the Tur Abdin, (London: Pindar Press, 1982) p. viii.
3. Andrew Palmer, Monk and Mason on the Tigris frontier, (Cambridge: University Press, 1990) p. 147.
4. cf. William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain, (London: Harper Collins, 1997) pp. 88-129.
5. Freunde des Tur Abdin, Bethlehemstrasse 20, A-4020 Linz. Tel/Fax: 0043 732 773578;
(Since this was written a further monograph on the Turabdin has been published:   Hans Hollerweger, Turabdin: Living Cultural Heritage, (Linz: Freunde des Tur Abdin, 1999)
(This article appeared in Tjurunga n.56, May 1999, pp.83-88, and in Inter Fratres 49(1999) pp.1-8: English & Italian)                            __________________________________