News in Bet-Nahren, Assyria

The Tribe That Came Back Home
by Serdar Güven -
Posted: Monday, August 28, 2000 10:33 am CST


Translated from Turkish: published in "Yeni Gundem" daily newspaper on 27 August 2000:

The Deyr-ul Zaferan, Kirklar, and Mor Gabriel Churches at Mardin are hosting their old owners, who have come back from various European countries...

"It's as if I'm unwanted in this world; Maybe I'm an Assyrian..." (Poet A. Hicri Izgoren)

I've often noted this characteristic of writers and poets who write in Kurdish. These poets and writers, even when writing about the sufferings of their own nation, don't shrink from coming to terms with historical crimes committed by their own people as well. This can clearly be seen in the works of the leading figures of modern Kurdish literature such as Mehmed Uzun, Arjen Ari, and Helim Yusiv.

For the Kurds have played a substantial role in the emigration of peoples such as the Armenians and Assyrians, who had earlier added such color to Kurdistan. And now, years later, all those events of the past have in today 's Kurdish literature turned into a request to those peoples for forgiveness. Figures such as Mehmed Uzun's Ape Verdo, and Arjen Ari's Kirive Kevo, figure not only as characters in novels and poems, but also stand as symbols of the stories that our elders have told us regarding the tragic events of past history.

Those few who survived the massacres our elders described generally live in the Mardin area: 80 to 90 Assyrian families, and an Armenian family who stayed in the city in order to protect their church...

The Assyrians made their mark on Mardin through their skill as jewellers and stonecarvers. The Assyrians' Deyr-ul Zaferan Monastery, the K?rklar Church and the Mor Gabriel (Deyr-ul Umur) Church, which remained standing through all the massacres visited upon the Assyrians, today receive a great many visitors, particularly on weekends. The church staffs are notable for their courtesy and hospitality. These officials, who stress the historical element in all their explanations of the churches and the other historical relics, take pains to point out the deep historical roots of the Assyrian community, which at one time made up half of Mardin's population, and note that they are one of the oldest groups to live on these lands.

During my trip to Mardin, there weren't that many people in the churches, but it was clear that important visitors were being hosted. Assyrians who had emigrated to various European cities had come back years later, in a 60-person group led by Central European Metropolitan Isa Cicek, to visit Mardin and its churches and other holy places. A great many of these people were originally from Mardin itself. Priest Gabriel Akyuz, who took both the children studying in the Kirklar Church and those of the European visitors to visit the Mardin Museum, which had opened only the day before, treated me with great respect, just as he does every other visitor. Akyuz, who has written dozens of books on Assyrian history and literature, says that the level of attention given to him by officials has been very good, but that he sometimes encounters problems in giving children the education that he wants to. Father Akyuz says that "If our children don't learn the language, then they can't pray," then points to the high school in the courtyard of the Kirklar Church and expresses the hope that the difficulties in trying to open this school for the classes will soon be overcome.

And in fact, the policies of the state here are exceedingly interesting. Although the Assyrians get high-level attention from state officials such as Culture Minister Istemihan Talay, who visited them two days ago, they also encounter continual difficulties in their own activities. And from the very same organs of the state.

The most recent example is the incident related by Seymus Diken, a former district supervisor who now serves as a consultant to the Metropolitan Municipality of Diyarbakir. In parallel with the policies to convert Assyrians and Armenians to Islam, mosques are being built in various Assyrian villages in Mardin province. Just as so many other places in Turkey, the mosque, just a few staps from the church, is completely empty. For, other than the imam, there is not a single Muslim in the village. In fact, the Assyrians, thinking that God is the same in any event, and in order that the imam not be embarrassed, visit the mosque and pray there. Thus the state, which builds mosques in Assyrian villages without a single resident Muslim, gives no assistance whatsoever to preserve the churches that have been standing for a thousand years.

Despite the negative approach of the Turkish state and all the forcibly evacuated villages, the Assyrians never took sides in the 15-year-long war. But new problems have come up along the lines of a very old controversy.

While a portion of the Assyrians claim that their real origins were with the ancient Assyrians, another portion insist that the Arameans were their actual ancestors. This controversy, which does not get much outside attention and which people try to keep within the community, has also entered into the churches themselves. In this dispute, which is also related to the problems experienced in the region over the past 15 years, those Assyrians (Suryani) who define themselves as Assyrian (Asuri) have moved close to the Kurdish movement and engaged in joint activities with Kurdish television broadcast from Europe; these developments are pointed to as being among the main reasons for the controversy, because those Assyrians who define themselves as Arameans (Arami) are few in number and do not want to suffer a reaction >from the state.

The roads, which were earlier in a very poor state, were patched two days ago because "the Minister is coming." While walking about at the Deyr-ul Zaferan Church, I forgot the above controversies within my general fascination with the site, and fell in behind a young guide at the church. To the guide, who was clearly uncomfortable in the extreme in the heat, which was over 40 degrees Centigrade, the tour of the church was routine, but the church was like a dream to me. He pointed out the keystones, inserted without mortar, in the ceiling of the small room that "our ancestors", who worshipped fire, had built so long ago. He also told the stories of the martyrs buried within the walls, and showed us the Bibles and other sacred relics over a thousand years old, and then departed.

While slowly preparing to leave Deyr-ul Zaferan, Ibrahim Akyuz, the pastor of Kirklar Church, approached. He was touring the church together with the Assyrians from Europe. Mostly above sixty years in age, these European Assyrians looked around with regret at the lands they had left so long ago. It was clear that this visit, a tourist journey for me, had an entirely different significance for them. They would stay for but a few days and then depart. While they were traveling back to Europe from the land that they had earlier left -- or rather, from which they had been driven out -- they would take with them the fragrance of their sacred land in the vegetables that they would carry home with them.

As for me, I would depart from Mardin - a city of stones that resemble jewels in the night and gravestones during the day -- some time later along a road that has five security checkpoints but where few checks are now made - with a lump in my throat for the sufferings of the Assyrians over two thousand years.

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