Imagine golden-stoned houses blending softly into the scenery. The cotswolds in the UK? No, believe it or not this is a description of the Tur Abdin, the strangely named area immediately around Midyat in Turkey that was, until recently, off-limits to visitors because of the troubles in the Southeast.
Tur Abdin sounds as if it should be the name of a tour company bringing visitors to the area, but actually it just means “Mountain of the Servants,” a name that extends way back to the pre-Roman era. The name is actually a bit of an oddity since although the land is undoubtedly high in relationship to its surroundings most visitors will think it hilly rather than mountainous. Mostly you will find yourself roaming around a lofty plateau that was once the local heart of Syriac (Suryani) Orthodoxy, a form of Christianity believed to have evolved from that taught by St. Peter in Antioch (Antakya) in the first century.
In the fourth century monasticism was introduced to the area, and at one time there were so many monasteries here that some writers called it “the Mount Athos of the East.” Today, however, a mere 5,000 Syriac Orthodox Christians are thought to live in Turkey compared with, say, 80,000 in Sweden. Most of them speak Turoyo, a variation of the Aramaic believed to have been spoken by Jesus.
If you’d like to explore the Tur Abdin, the following are some suggested starting points although they’re far from forming an exhaustive list. For more information look for Hans Hollerweger’s invaluable book, “Tur Abdin: Living Cultural Heritage,” which is on sale at Mor Gabriel and Deyrulzafaran. Since none of the villages has facilities for visitors, the most obvious base from which to explore the area is Midyat, which has hotels to suit all budgets. Note that most of the villages have several names: the original Syriac one, the official Turkish one and, sometimes, a third colloquial name as well.
Of all the churches of the Tur Abdin the most remarkable has to be the one at Hah, today a remote village in the middle of nowhere but until 613 the seat of the region’s first bishop, as it was again between the 11th and 13th centuries. Here the Church of the Virgin Mary (Meryemana) probably dates back to the sixth century and comes crowned with an extraordinary two-storey square structure covered in blind arcading. Interestingly, the upper storey was only built in the 20th century, which is when the bell tower was also added.
The church is surrounded by a wall that encloses a courtyard known as a beth slutho (house of prayer) where services are held in high summer to avoid the sweltering heat of the relatively small and windowless interior. There, a small apse opens onto a nave designed to let two choirs sing in harmony. The nave itself is elongated from north to south rather than from east to west as in a more familiar Catholic or Protestant church. The elaborate carvings on the arches supporting the dome are a reminder of the church’s past importance.
If you’re wondering why the bishopric might have been based in a such a remote location, local legend has it that 12 kings originally set off to follow the star said to indicate the birthplace of a newborn king (Jesus). They arrived first at Hah whence only three of them continued to Jerusalem. There they were given one of Jesus’ swaddling bands in return for their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Back in Hah, this was burnt so that the ashes could be divided between the 12 kings. Instead, the fire converted the swaddling band into 12 gold medallions whereupon in memory of this miracle the kings laid the foundations for the church.
Although the main reason to come to Anıtlı has to be a visit to St. Mary’s, there are other ruins scattered around the village, including those of the church of Mor Sobo, which used to house an illuminated manuscript painted in 1227 during a local artistic renaissance; it’s now in Mor Gabriel.
Newly restored, the Church of Mor Yakub (St. Jacob) at Salah may have been built in the sixth century, although its archaic appearance may just be a result of its having been built so far off the beaten track in the eighth century. Whatever its date, it was constructed on the site of the martyrdom of Mor Hadbashabo, possibly over the remains of a Zoroastrian temple. From 1364 to 1839 the church became the seat of the bishop of the Tur Abdin following a schism with Deyrulzafaran, hence its current grandeur.
The church has an imposing entrance surrounded by fine carvings of vine leaves and doves, and the nave’s soaring herringbone-patterned vault is very impressive. Hanging on the wall are some of the fine, if somewhat crude, hand-painted clothes that have been made for generations in Mardin by the now very elderly Nasra Şimes Hindi and her family.
Inwardo (Aynwardo, Gülgöze)
From a distance the Church of Mor Hadbashabo, with its four circular towers, looks more like a fortress than a house of worship, and will remind some visitors of the fortified churches around Albi in the south of France. It was here that many people holed up in 1914 during fighting that left many locals dead; bullet holes visible in the walls survive as a poignant reminder of the tragedy. It’s a story described in William Dalrymple’s wonderful travelogue, “From the Holy Mountain.”
The church’s delicate 20th-century bell tower looks effete in comparison with the rest of the building, but it’s well worth climbing up onto the roof to appreciate the magnificent view and to gaze down on ruined houses that look just like those of better-known Cappadocia.
Habsus (Habsnas, Mercimekli)
The Church of Mor Shemun in the village dates back to the mid-seventh century when it was founded by a monk who went on to introduce 12,000 olive trees to the surrounding area, thereby bringing it considerable wealth. More interesting, though, is the Monastery of Mor Lozoor (St. Lazarus), which stands in splendid isolation some way away from the village. Founded by the same monk on the site of an earlier church, this monastery is one of only two sites in Turkey where you can still see the base of a stone column on top of which a stylite saint chose to live his life (the other is at Karaçay near Antakya). It stands forgotten in the center of a courtyard where once church festivals were celebrated with much communal feasting.
Mor Gabriel (Deyrulumur, Kartmin)
Founded in 397, the monastery of Mor Gabriel is the present-day administrative center of the Tur Abdin and the heart of modern Syriac Orthodoxy in the region. Alone amid fields of peaches, pomegranates and vines, it’s open to visitors who will be shown the mosaic-decorated church dating back to 512 and the reign of the Emperor Anastasius, as well as the soaring, brick-built Dome of Theodora that may once have covered a baptistry. The two pretty bell towers were added in the 1970s. Mor Gabriel is a two-kilometer walk off the main road from Midyat to Cizre which makes it easy to visit even without a car.
Technically outside the boundaries of the Tur Abdin, Deyrulzafaran (the Saffran Monastery) is still essential to its story because it was, from 1160 to 1932, the seat of the Syriac Orthodox patriarch, now removed to Damascus. It was originally built in 495 over the site of a temple used by sun worshippers that can still be seen today. The church is surprisingly small but very atmospheric. Here, too, can be seen the tombs of many past patriarchs and bishops. The monastery is six kilometers out of Mardin and is accessed via a large visitor center that was partly funded by the European Union.
HOW TO GET THERE
There are no bus services timed to get visitors to and from the Tur Abdin villages; you will need to hire a taxi in Midyat.