The Tur Abdin Monasteris

Recently the Skylife team followed the sacred way that runs through Mardin and Midyat to the Syrian border. They discovered the homes of Anatolia’s oldest religions on the mountains that look out over the Mesopotamian plain with silent, sun-yellow wisdom.

The weeks of preparation had finally come to an end. Easter was the ideal time for our team to set out. It was important for us how these days, celebrated as a holy season in the Christian world, look from the Southeast. We were full of excitement as we landed at our first stop, Mardin. Resting in the bosom of the Tur Abdin Mountains, the saffron-yellow monasteries, steeped in history and civilization, were awaiting us in all their mystery.

Millennia-old architecture
When it comes to the Mardin region, the temples of this city that has opened its arms to countless religions and cultures are plentiful and varied.  Side by side and back to back with the beautiful mosques and madrasas - the centers of learning of their day - that constitute the identity and skyline of this city, there are also hundreds of churches and monasteries large and small, all successfully resisting time’s depredations. Stone-carved witnesses of tolerance and mutual acceptance through love. We should point out immediately that the Tur Abdin monasteries have also been centers of learning down the ages, where numerous historians, men of medicine, philologists and philosophers have been trained. But don’t expect to see here in the Tur Abdin landscape gothic structures with tall, pointed towers soaring into the sky as in the West. The churches here are not that tall, the monasteries not that sprawling, because the wise men who built these temples believed that true exaltation lies in humility. Rather than raising their buildings to the sky they preferred to elevate mankind instead. Although the architecture is modest, it is eagles and clouds that will be your companions here much of the time. For the Assyrian sages wanted their temples to be far from the crowd, on intimate terms with God in the midst of silence and isolation. And that is why they took up residence on the ridges and peaks of high mountains.

Gate of serenity
The wisdom of the East is a frequent phrase in discussions of history and philosophy. And it is that wisdom that permeates a person in these temples made of stones that literally exude history. A strange calm, an uncanny serenity, difficult to put into words, invades one here. On one visit I could not resist asking a priest the reason for this. We say in Arabic that these stones are ‘hanûn’ he said, which means warmhearted, congenial, sympathetic.  And indeed the local stone, which is the basic component of Mardin architecture, must be the primary reason for the peaceful atmosphere. The Assyrian Orthodox Church possesses one of the oldest patriarchates in the world.  With roots going back to St. Paul, the Assyrian church is believed to have been founded in Antioch (Antakya) in 37 A.D. The Assyrians at the same time were the first people to adopt Christianity en masse, and their roots go back to Asshur and Aram, the sons of Shem, youngest son of the Prophet Noah. This ancient eastern community uses Assyrian, a Semitic language, is still living today. Like all the Semitic languages, Assyrian is written from right to left. Appearing at first glance to resemble the early Arabic script, the Assyrian alphabet is actually the source from which the Arabic alphabet evolved.

Deyr uz Zaferan Monastery
The word ‘deyr’ in Arabic means monastery, while ‘zaferan’ means saffron. This is the monastery closest to Mardin city center, the Saffron Monastery, whose bright yellow stones warm the human heart. But the name has nothing to do with the color of the stones. It’s a different story. Built in 394 A.D., Deyr uz Zaferan became the leading center of the Assyrian Orthodox Church, in other words the seat of the Patriarchate, in the year 1160, a privilege it preserved without interruption up to 1932. In that year the Patriarchate was moved to Antakya and later from there to Damascus in Syria. But don’t think that I have forgotten the story of its name: In the old days, the Assyrian men of religion who withdrew into seclusion from human society grew saffron around the monastery and sold it to the local people in order to meet their need for food without being a burden on anyone and to buy olive oil for the lamps by whose light they read books in the night.

Deyr ul Umur
Sixty kilometers east of Mardin, Midyat is an open-air art center where the finest examples of silver filigree are produced. Although the area has of late become popular as a place where TV series are shot one after the other, you can be sure that Midyat remains far removed from the brouhaha! One of the most important of the Tur Abdin monasteries, Deyr ul Umur is also known as the Mor Gabriel Monastery. Located on the Midyat-Cizre road, it stands smack dab between Midyat and Şırnak in the middle of the town of İdil, surrounded by spotlessly clean and well-maintained high walls. With the various additions to the old monastery, built in 397 A.D., it forms a sizable complex today. Deyr ul Umur has functioned continuously as a monastery since the day it was built, which earns it the distinction of being the oldest Assyrian monastery.

Ahura Mazda and the Cross at Barıştepe
We now visit the cave churches in the countryside around the village of Barıştepe attached to Midyat, which date to the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., in other words, the early Christian era. Spreading through the region starting from the third century A.D., Christianity encountered the presence of the Sasanids here, where Christian culture then intermingled with Sasanid Zoroastrian culture. Inevitably the two religions interacted, one of the most concrete examples of this being the way the Ahura Mazda relief, a cult symbol of Zoroastrianism, stands side by side here with the Christian symbol of the cross. The Barıştepe caves face west, reflecting one of the most important Zoroastrian rituals which involved the rising and setting sun.

City of learning: Nusaybin
We proceed now to the other end of Mardin province, to the heart of Tur Abdin and the millennia-old city of Nusaybin, or,
as it was known in antiquity, Nisibis. As we approach, we ask ourselves: How many cities are there on the earth that are as old, as well-established and as learned as Nusaybin? Tarsus, you say? Perhaps. Harran? Yes, could be. Mardin, Şanlıurfa and, loveliest of them all, Diyarbakır? Possibly. We could also include cities in other countries, like Jerusalem, Damascus, Petra… But that’s it. So remarkable is Anatolia, so unique this landscape… Had the world been a ring, Anatolia would surely have been the jewel set in it. Nusaybin is a border town. On the other side lies the Syrian town of Kamışlı.

The call to prayer, church bells and roosters crowing on one side can be heard easily on the other. Sinan Çetin’s film, Propaganda, comes to mind here. But let us not stray from our subject. What makes Nusaybin important historically is a small but famous building, the Mor Yakup Church. The distinguishing characteristic of this church, commissioned by the Assyrian Saint Mor Yakup in 313 A.D., is that it harbors inside it the historic Nusaybin school. The structure’s main entrance lies in mined territory on the Syrian border. So who is its neighbor? Naturally it’s the Zeynel Abidin Mosque, which dates back to the period of the Akkoyunlu, or White Sheep Turcomans, who ruled the area in the 15th century. Clearly Mardin has extended its broad tolerance here as well for centuries.

Eagle’s eyrie: Mor Evgen Monastery
Leaving Nusaybin some 30 kilometers behind, we come to the turn-off for the village of Girmeli. This road will bring you to the ruins of the Mor Evgen Monastery, a virtual eagle’s eyrie looking out over Mesopotamia’s vast and mysterious plain from Tur Abdin’s lower elevations.
Such is Tur Abdin. A route of learning that, once seen, you will never want to leave. Sacred mountain of the Assyrian sages who spoke the languages of the holy era, who founded the world’s first universities and who trained great scholars in almost all the basic fields of knowledge such as philology, medicine, chemistry, mathematics, history, philosophy and logic. Scholars who forged a cultural bridge between Greek philosophy and the Muslim Arabs and produced their works in these historic structures. And now the east is waiting for you to come and see the temples that preserve the memory of those wise men.