News in Bet-Nahren, Assyria

Visit to the ancient monastery of Mar Gabriel
by Froukje Santing
Posted: Wednesday, December 27, 2000 11:38 pm CST


Whoever asks for directions to the 15-century-old monastery of Mar Gabriel, located in Midyat in the mainly Kurdish and Muslim south-eastern part of Turkey, is likely to face incomprehension: for the historical heart of the Syrian-Orthodox community situated only 20 kilometres away is known locally as Deyrulumur, or the Church of Umur.

Once it becomes clear that Deyrulumur and Mar Gabriel are the same place the traveller is given friendly advice and simple directions: follow the road for a short distance until you reach the first village. From there, you will see the monastery, perched on a mountain slope and dominating the valley.

In recent years visitors have also had to pass through a military post where the red crescent of the Turkish flag proclaims the implacable message in this predominantly Kurdish region - Turkey lays down the law.

Archbishop Timoteus Samuel Aktas wears a bright red cloak over his robe. His head in encased in a black hood covered with white embroideries, also worn by the two monks by his side. A heavy silver cross, inlaid with stones, rests on his chest. His attitude is friendly, although he remains a little aloof. During the conversation, Aktas crosses his legs under him on the prie-dieu chair. At night, in the oppressive heat, he likes to drink tea with the workers who are restoring the monastery.

The Archbishop is obviously pleased with the visit of two foreign guests. Before the Gulf War in 1991, Mar Gabriel was a favourite stop for European and American tourists who visited the region. But since the conflict between the Turkish army and the militants of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) has inflamed the region, most foreigners stay away.

The primary concern of Aktas is not, however, linked to the isolation of the monastery, but to the fact that the once flourishing Syrian-Orthodox community nowadays has shrunk to no more than 3000 souls. "About 98 % of the Christians in Midyat and in the 40 or 50 surrounding villages have emigrated to Europe and Australia in the last few decades," says the Archbishop gloomily. This is due more to hopes of achieving economic prosperity in the West - especially when it became clear that a Christian identity would facilitate emigration - than to quarrels between Christians and Muslims.

The situation Aktas describes is painfully obvious: it is the end of a glorious era, which is largely to blame on the Syrian-Orthodox's attitude. Daily scores of people - often with illegal passports and visas - join their relatives in the West. "They think of themselves first, and not of the Syrian-Orthodox church's future," bemoans Aktas. "Because of this, our language, our traditions and our faith are disappearing". The Archbishop raises his voice: "45,000 to 50,000 Christians lived in this region according to our traditions. For instance, divorce was prohibited. But when you look at how Syrian-Orthodox Christians behave in countries such as the Netherlands and Germany, it is clear they have not succeeded in preserving their own identity, nor in becoming Europeans."

The Mar Gabriel monastery, established by St. Samuel and St. Simon dates back to 397 AD and was until the 12th century a flourishing centre of the Syrian-Orthodox community which kept up the Aramaic language in which Jesus preached. Christian families would send their first-born son to the monastery at the age of 12 in order to get an education, after which he would choose whether to become a priest, a monk or a teacher. The monastery held schools for secondary and higher education, as well as a theological seminary.

The community lived through tempestuous times until the First World War. Islam conquered Anatolia, the monastery was frequently raided and monks were sometimes murdered. "There was even a period," Aktas says, "when Mar Gabriel was used as stables for the cows by the Kurds."

After the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the monastery, located in the Turabdin region, was given back to the Syrian-Orthodox community. However the secular Turkish state attached strict conditions to this return: the teaching of religion and of the Aramaic language were out of the question.

As a result, it took until the 1960s before the Syrian-Orthodox community really started to pay attention to the monastery. A few monks and nuns took up residence again, and in 1971 a boarding school was opened. Boys from surrounding villages, as well as children from Syrian-Orthodox families who had gone to Europe or Australia, get their secondary education at the monastery. Every day, a group of 40 pupils are taken to Midyat by bus to attend the local state school. At the weekend, their own language is being taught to them in secret at the monastery.

"I don't have time to play football", says Simon, aged 22, who comes from a nearby village. He spent five years at the monastery, then finished his journalistic training at University of the Aegean in Izmir. He is spending several days as a guest at the monastery, with an Australian friend. Like most of the other pupils, he never seriously considered becoming a monk. But he lived like one for years: getting up at 5 a.m. for morning prayers, then study time until breakfast, and a day at school. In the evening, they followed a similar ritual, with 6 p.m. evening prayers followed by more studying.

The church in the monastery was built in 397. Twelve nuns, clad in black, are hidden in the shadows of the thick, weather-beaten brick walls. The old Bible, used for readings three times a day, is printed partly in Aramaic, partly in Arabic. Kissing this relic, and the hand of Archbishop Aktas, is part of the rituals during prayer. A young man, dressed in a white monk's robe, swings around an incense burners, accompanied by an older monk with a long, grey beard, who only speaks a few words every day. One of the nuns taps me firmly on the shoulder when I seat myself in a pew to attend the service: here the Lord is praised standing up.

The altar of the church is almost intact. The domes are decorated with mosaics dating back to the Byzantine period, while on a mural painting, the Virgin Mary is being informed by the Angel Gabriel, the messenger of God, that she will give birth to the child Jesus. After half an hour of loud singing, the procession adjourns to a cellar. Again, the walls are being kissed, as well as the tombs of Syrian-Orthodox martyrs. Candles are burning all around. The twelve nuns steal back discreetly to their quarters. They keep the monastery clean, cook for the pupils, the Archbishop and the monks, and look after the guestrooms.

One of these rooms is occupied by Refat, an 18 year-old Chaldean from Baghdad who fled to Istanbul via Amman after the Gulf War. "I feel at home at any place where I can pray to God", says the young man. He wants to become a monk and has let his family know by letter, but whether he can stay at Mar Gabriel is still uncertain. According to Turkish law, only Turkish nationals can stay at the monastery. And breaking the law is the last thing the Archbishop wants to do.

"We already have enough problems in this region," he says, looking resigned. "Our freedom is limited not only by the conflict between the Turkish army and the PKK guerrillas, but also by Hezbollah groups and village militiamen. This is why I only travel once a month to my residence in Midyat and why I have not preached for two months at one of the village churches. I just no longer know where the danger might be coming from."

Even though he will never give up the battle to maintain the Syrian-Orthodox church in South-eastern Turkey, Aktas at times appears to understand why so many in his community have chosen to move to Western countries rather than living in a hostile region plagued by political disputes.

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