My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Friday, 29 November 2013

Farewell to the Saffron Monastery

in the courtyard of the monastery
I feel very sad to be going to our last early morning liturgy at the Saffron Monastery. I shall miss these Orthodox services. This time the female members of the party make sure we sit on the left side of the church as we enter, our heads suitably covered. Actually wearing a shawl around the head and shoulders so early in the morning is a comfort. Even though the day is likely to be hot, at 6 or 7 in the morning it is still chilly before the full force of the sun is felt.
I am now letting the liturgy get under my skin.
We are getting used to the format of the service, knowing to always stand when the thurifer is engaged with his thurible of incense around the church, or when the prayers are marked by the prostrations of the monks and boys. Otherwise we sit whilst psalms are intoned antiphonally from side to side by the two groups of boys and monks gathered around their respective lecterns. When one no longer has to worry about standing or sitting at the wrong times
the Saffron Monastery entrance
it is possible to allow the mysteries of the sounds and smells of the service surround you in a far more deep and spiritual way. And I feel sure that any one is capable of feeling this spiritual connection, whatever their religious convictions.
the Saffron Monastery
So for the last time, we climb the steps to kiss the bible on the lectionary in front of the sanctuary, take our last blessing from the hand of the monk as we come down the steps the other side, make our last reverential bow towards the sanctuary, light our last candle at the back of the church and emerge blinking into the bright sunshine; and so to our last breakfast in the monastery.

the Saffron Monastery
There is an optional visit this morning to the ancient Mesopotamian city of Dara, near the village of Oguz, about 30 kms east from Mardin. This was originally on the itinerary for yesterday but time overtook us so it was rescheduled.

on the road to Dara
There are some in the group who prefer to take time out, staying behind in the Saffron Monastery this morning to assimilate the events of the last few days, to simply “be”, to reflect and contemplate, perhaps to meditate, on all that we have experienced this trip, and who can blame them? It being Saturday, and an important Muslim festival as well, large numbers of visitors are expected to the monastery, as it is clearly on the tourist trail. Indeed as our coach heading for Dara turns onto the main road we see two coaches heading up the hill to the monastery. Those of the group staying behind had hoped to gain access to the quiet and private gardens set aside at the Saffron Monastery known as “Paradise”. But it wasn’t to be. I hope they found peace and quiet anyway.

In my next post I shall describe the wonders of the Necropolis and other ruins of the ancient city of Dara...
on the road to Dara - notice the bed on the roof to the left - in
the summer when it is very hot people sleep on their roofs

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Church of the Forty Martyrs and other Churches of Mardin - our pilgrimage draws to a close

Mardin from the approach road
The last full day of our pilgrimage is spent in Mardin with its many churches and much history:
First we visit the museum in Mardin, housed in what used to be the Syrian Catholic Patriarchate. The building was purchased by the Ministry of Culture who restored it and opened it as a museum in 2000. It reflects a typical Mardin house, on three floors with a U-shaped floor plan and facing South to the Mesopotamian Plain, It is small but has some fascinating artifacts, ranging from Assyrian to Ottoman times, reflecting some of the extraordinary history of this part of the world.
I feel we have too little time here, although not everyone agrees!
There are children playing in the ArkeoPark, an enclosure within the museum grounds, where they are being taught the principles of archaeology and the archaeological importance of the area in which they live through the power of play. They seem to be having a great deal of fun.
symbols of nature on a tomb stone

There is then just a short walk to the Kirklar Kilisesi, the Syrian Orthodox Church of the Forty Martyrs, originally dedicated in 569 to Mor Behnam and Saro, which is found up a side street behind the museum. After silence and prayer Father Gabriyel (Gabriel) is delighted to tell us about this lovely church and some of its history. He asks that we take no photos within the church, which is a shame as there are also no postcards to bring home to remind us of its beauty. I wonder why he takes this stance – perhaps it is for reasons of security?
Church of the forty martyrs

This fourth and fifth century building is the central church for Christian worship in Mardin. There are something like 80 Christian families across four (or was it five) different Christian churches in the town, representing Syrian Protestant, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox and Chaldean Catholic (Mardin was a diocese of the Chaldean Church from the sixteenth century to 1941 at which time the diocese ceased to exist). Father Gabriyel celebrates the Syrian Orthodox liturgy in them all in turn.
Picture of the 40 martyrs in the Chaldean Church
We hear from Father Gabriyel that the government is beginning to allow the teaching of Aramaic again, and that this church is also visited by many interested Muslims, which gives Father Gabriyel the chance to explain the full history and the importance of Christianity to this area. There are some lovely and interesting features in the church. Unusually for churches in this area, there are doors that open and close across the sanctuary, in addition to the usual painted cloth or sutoro that can be pulled across during the liturgy. There are also five ancient wooden altars in the church, although the high altar itself seems to be made of what look to me like concrete breeze blocks and I mean no offence by saying this. It simply reflects what I saw. Over the sanctuary in front of the altar hangs the traditional dove, pointing to heaven.
the Chaldean Catholic Church
As we are told the stories of the forty martyrs, to whom the church is dedicated, and the seven sleepers of Ephesus, we can hear clearly the mid morning muezzin call to prayer from the surrounding minarets, a reminder if one was needed that Christians are in a very small minority here in this secular state but very Muslim country. We admire the very old printing press. We had seen something similar at a previous monastery, where the monk dreams one day of building it together again into full working order.

Afterwards cay is served to us all in the former Patriarchal Residence in Mardin. I ask about postcards. Many of us, I say, would love to buy some. Instead we are given a plentiful supply of glossy illustrated leaflets, sadly not in English, but they are useful souvenirs for all that.
view over the Mesopotamian Plain from the restaurant 

Then it is just a short walk east along the main street to the Chaldean Catholic Church of Mor Hűrműzd – brilliant colors and certainly very different from the Orthodox style we have become accustomed to.

Lunch is in a great restaurant, Cercis Murat Konagi on the main street. The setting is authentic, a true mansion owned by an old Mardin family, the food excellent and the views over the Mesopotamian plain stunning. Then it is time to explore a little up into the old part of town. The narrow streets seem like a maze and it would be futile to try to follow any map. However any route upwards or downwards as appropriate will bring one back before too long to the main road running east/west through the middle of the town.

Donkeys are a common site, used to transport goods along these narrow streets.

a soap shop in Mardin

We have time for some gift shopping in the bazaar and along the main street,

sunset at the monastery
and finish with cay and baklavas in a pastry shop and café near the museum, 

and finally it’s back to the monastery to admire a fabulous sunset before going inside for evening prayer.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Mardin and the Saffron Monastery - our pilgrimage continues...

at the Saffron Monastery
Unofficially closed to tourism throughout the 1990s due to the long lasting Turkey-PKK conflict in the surrounding countryside (and that possibly explains why it is omitted from most of the guidebooks to the area), Mardin has recently started to catch up with tourism (still don't expect hordes of package tourists though) and will reward the adventurous traveler with some colorful culture, plenty of historical interest, beautiful architecture and some fabulous vistas. Mardin is one of the oldest settled areas in upper Mesopotamia, lying at the heart of the homeland of the Syriacs, whose ancestors established here around 2200 BC. The Syriac language is directly related to Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ. The many madrasas and mosques in the city owe their presence to the fact that Mardin was the capital of the Turkic Artukid dynasty between the 12th and 15th centuries.
the self supporting roof at the Saffron Monastery
in the courtyard at the monastery
Approaching by coach from the south the old houses seem to tumble down the hillside in glorious disarray, topped by the citadel at the very top, and all in the attractive beige colored limestone rock of the region. We had passed several of these quarries on our travels. For those who love trivia, Mardin is apparently twinned with Llubljana in Slovenia. But much more important is its historical significance. With remains dating back to 4000 BC the town has in its time been controlled by many different tribes, from the Subarians, to the Hurrians, the Elamites, Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, Romans and Byzantines, to name a few. The town has been fought over many times in its turbulent history.

After we have been welcomed to the Saffron Monastery, finished our glasses of refreshing cay and found our rooms, (not so good, it has to be said, as those at Mor Gabriel) we have a tour of the monastery before evening prayer.
the sutoro across the front of the sanctuary
This monastery is well and truly on the tourist route, a well known attraction, with more than 10,000 visitors a year from within Turkey and from abroad, 70% of whom are Muslim. Living in the monastery with Bishop Philoxenus are a nun, a monk and a few boys, and they can take 20 guests, but whilst the liturgy of morning and evening prayer is maintained, it is not a fully functioning monastery as at Mor Gabriel and Mor Augin.

First we go to a very old room with a self supporting roof – there is absolutely no mortar, the roof held up simply by the pressure of the huge rocks against themselves. The room dates back at least to Roman times, but we cannot be sure what it may have been. Some date it back 4500 years to a pagan temple site, a Zoroastrian temple possibly? But there is no definitive evidence of this.
at the Saffron Monastery

Morning prayer starts not quite so early at the Saffron Monastery. Here the females among us sit as we sat in Mor Gabriel, on the right hand side of the church, our heads covered in headscarves or shawls as required in orthodox churches. The men enter a few minutes later. It seems they are not so good at getting up early?! Following our lead, they take their places on the simple benches to the left. We think it slightly strange that in one part of the liturgy the monk comes and sits with us, looking slightly awkward. We discover the next morning that we should be sitting on the left, leaving the right side for the men. Oh dear! Faux pas! But who is correct? Mor Gabriel or the Saffron Monastery? There seems to be some confusion over the protocol.

sunset at the Saffron Monastery
Time for breakfast; it is Friday so no meat or eggs. I miss the hard boiled egg. But the fig preserve to spread on the fresh bread is simply superb, even if I still find it difficult to eat piles of olives with slices of cucumber for breakfast. And there is plentiful cay on offer. In the same way that many westerners seem to find it impossible to start the day without a shot of caffeine, a need that only strong black coffee can satisfy, I find it hard to function without copious cups of tea first thing. I have come to love the cay, even without milk. 

Evening meals for my veggie taste prove difficult here in the Saffron Monastery. We walk in to take our places each evening to plates already set in front of us with the evening fare. It is always meat, (except Friday) with a side salad. So I have to satisfy myself with the latter with plenty of bread, making up for my hunger at our lunchtime stops where I have enjoyed the many different variants of menemen, supplemented with the fantastic array of salad side dishes available.

a sutoro (painted cloth hanging)

So into the coach for our last full day of pilgrimage, and in to Mardin where we will explore just a few of its many churches and enjoy its shops, cafes and local culture, time even for some souvenir shopping before we finally head for home tomorrow...

a view from the roof of the Saffron Monastery

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Our Pilgrimage to South East Turkey: Nusaybin and Mor Yakup

street cleaning in Nusaybin
Those who know me well will realize how much I campaign against litter! The very first thing that struck me about the town of Nusaybin was how clean it was. Here I had my first sight on this trip to Turkey of a street cleaner complete with wheelbarrow, brush and shovel, and he was doing a very good job. For the first time everywhere looked so well maintained and cared for, including some public gardens that looked very neat and tidy. . I wonder what makes the difference? Why does this town care so much more than others we have been through?

The border post here with Syria is now closed and has been for quite some time because of the civil war in Syria. There is a Byzantine ruin near the border which we cannot visit. 

Instead we are here to see the recently excavated 4th century church of St Jacob - Mar Yakub - which is now re-established. A number of ancient buildings have been revealed by the excavations, in addition to the Mar Yakub church, which was the center of the famous Syrian Theological School, founded by St James of Nisibis in 350. His sarcophagus is still in the crypt. We are told that the town mayor has encouraged the excavations, which he hopes to use as an educational opportunity; to show people the variety of religions and cultures of the area over time. The more we can educate everyone, from all cultures and faiths, about our differences and indeed our common ground, the more hope there is for interfaith harmony and understanding.

But first we have lunch. It’s an excellent local restaurant – really busy at lunchtime with locals, which is always a good sign. My salad is superb, with pomegranate juice and dressing, and again the wonderful fresh flat bread which always seems to be readily available at meal times. And they made a menemen again for me – this time it’s spread thinly over a large concave metal skillet, and is simply delicious. In this warmer southern part of Turkey we have been drinking plenty of ayran – a salted yoghourt drink – I love it and it’s wonderful when the weather is hot. And I love it when they serve it in cool pewter mugs!

The Mar Jakub site is quite extraordinary. There is still plenty of excavation going on and we are not allowed to take photos of the work in progress – within the church itself we have a guide, and our own tour guide Gilgud translates for us. Through her he tells us that his is the only Christian Syriac family in the town. And he gives us a brochure on The Nusaybin school and Mor Yakop Church. It's a very informative booklet and I hope to be able write a little more about this impressive project at a later date.

Mar Yakub church
On the excavation site we had spoken to an extremely well dressed and well spoken lady who was there with her daughter. She explained in perfect English that she was a Kurdish Syrian from Damascus and that her daughter could not go to school here as this was not allowed by the Turkish government. I'm not sure that the daughter was as concerned as her mother! We wished them our blessings and hope for peace and a better future, said how sorry we were for the situation they found themselves in, promised to pray for them both and waved goodbye. As we walked away from the site a refugee family on the roof of the building above us waved.

inside Mar Yakub church
So we set off again, westwards towards Mardin, and our accommodation for the last two nights of our tour - this time at Mor Hananyo monastery, otherwise known as Deir Zafaran, Deyrelzafaran or the Saffron Monastery. The monastery was once the seat of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchs of Antioch from 1293-1932 when the patriarchate was moved to Syria because of limitations imposed by the Republic of Turkey on religious activities. I am led to understand that the Turkish government would like the Patriarch to leave Damascus and relocate back in Turkey. Is that right?

view from the Saffron Monastery
Anyway, the monastery really is quite simply magnificent, 
nestling as it does under the cliffs amid lovely gardens looking down across the great plain of Mesopotamia towards the Syrian border, some 5km east of Mardin. The beautiful honey-colored stone glows in the special light in this part of Turkey, particularly at sunrise and sunset. Later we are allowed up onto the top roof, with suitable care required, to look over this scene. The view in all directions is awesome.

the saffron monastery 
We are now in the middle of the Tur Abdin region, the middle of Mesopotamia, 80 kms from the Tigris to our East and the Euphrates to the West. We arrive at the monastery hot and tired and in need of our rooms and a freshen up, but before the accommodation is sorted out, we have the usual small glass cups of cay handed round and a chance for our host to exchange pleasantries and latest news with us. We all introduce ourselves briefly. The welcome seems more relaxed, warmer, than at Mor Gabriel. Perhaps we were less shy this time around, more used to the procedures on arrival at a monastery. Bishop Philoxenus had left that morning for a meeting abroad, but we were made very welcome on his behalf by Chorepiscopus Gabriyel Akyűz, (Father Gabriel - not many of us realized at the time that he is a distinguished Syriac historian, author and poet.) from the Church of the 40 Holy Martyrs in Mardin, where we shall visit tomorrow.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Monastery of Mor Awgen, Tur Abdin

We have covered so many miles and so many sights, it seems hard to realize that this is only the sixth full day of our pilgrimage to the Armenian and Syriac Orthodox churches of Eastern Turkey.
The day begins as usual with the very early morning service followed by the customary breakfast of cucumber and tomato slices, black olives, a hard boiled egg and plenty of white flat bread and cay. Sadly we have to pack today and leave the monastery to journey onwards. I have really enjoyed my stay here – the atmosphere has been amazing, the hospitality wonderful. But we have an exciting two days ahead of us before we head for home again, and journey on we must. Mor Timotheus Samuel is there by the coach. We all thank him for his hospitality and he waves us goodbye.

We leave Mor Gabriel eastwards towards Cizre, then cut through to the main Cizre to Nusaybin road via Oyali and Ozbec and so westwards towards Nusaybin. All around us from the coach we see signs that Christian villagers returning from Switzerland and Germany are putting their money into grand new housing; but new priests are also bringing western ideas of worship into the region. Is this a good thing? I wonder.
We drive along the main road across the Great Mesopotamian Plain. We can see it is very fertile and also very flat, with not so many stones. We hear that there is enough grain harvested in two months of the year to fund holidays away for the rest of the year. Don’t the farms need any care during the long absences? I suspect they need at least some caretaking. I wonder? The road is running parallel and not far away from the Syrian border to our left, and the sentry lookout posts all along the route are clearly visible. We see tank activity and vehicles stopped but we carry on without interruption. Before reaching Nusaybin the coach turns right off the main road to Girmeli.
There are plenty of helpful villagers who look askance at this big luxurious coach heading into their village, all anxious to tell us that we cannot make it to the monastery in such a big vehicle. We know. Under the watchful and curious gaze of villagers, children and a flock of geese, we offload in the centre of Girmeli into two pre arranged minibuses for the drive up the narrower lane towards the monastery. 

We are making our way to Mor Awgen or Mor Augin (Eugene) monastery. This is an important place of worship, nestled up in the steep cliffs of Mount Islo with its wonderful views across the Plain of Nusaybin. It was newly inhabited in 2011 by three monks after being abandoned for almost 40 years. Until about ten years ago this monastery was a dangerous place to visit. It is so encouraging to see the sheer tenacity and perseverance of the monks in this part of the world as they labor tirelessly to restore the traditions of the monasteries again; traditions of hospitality, education and worship.

But worship is the wrong word to use here. Eastern religions are not touched by the western renaissance and followers live to be in touch with God – they don’t have to understand, they just “do.” Our western faith is far more intellectual.
Legend has it that this monastery was founded in 340 by Saint Eugenius or Eugene (Augen), an Egyptian pearl diver from the Red Sea. One of the oldest monasteries in the region, Mor Augen is known locally as ‘Deyr-Marog’. It stands 500 meters above the plain on the slopes of Tur Abdin, and consists of both caves and buildings. It was originally a Nestorian monastery, but sometime before 1838 ownership was transferred to the Chaldean (East Syriac) Christians, and by 1842 it was in Syriac Orthodox ownership.

view across the plain towards Syria
When Gertrude Bell visited here in 1909 she reported that there were ten monks, mostly living in the caves. It was very dangerous to visit here until about ten years ago but now it is perfectly safe. It is clear from photos found on the internet of the monastery in ruins that the latest renovations are an incredible feat, due in no small part to the hard work and vision of Father Yoachim.
Father Yoachim likes the visitors to his monastery to walk up the long, steep and dusty path as pilgrims. He sees this as an important part of our act of worship, akin to the hardships of fasting and ascetism. Of course some of us are physically unable to make such a journey on foot and the minibus can carry us to the entrance. Others of us are dropped off early and make the last kilometer or so on foot. It is hot and dusty and the climb steep. But

as the path ahead zigzags upwards, we hear the clear sweet song of a nightingale accompanying us. I start singing “we are pilgrims on a journey…” but no one else seems inclined to join in so I hum it quietly to myself as we continue our walk. 

After greetings and a warm welcome from Father Yoachim, who has been waiting for us as we complete our climb, we begin our visit by going into a large bare space or grotto, approached through the lowest of doors. We gather silently and have some group prayers and singing. There is a 1466 chapel above the church reached by a narrow and steep set of steps. An inscription around the roof offers prayer for those who built it and says that it is offered to the Glory of God. Every week the monks pray for the saints and the builders of the monastery.

Outside again on a terrace and looking above us we can see a cell high up in the cliff face, seemingly impossible to get to. There a hermit monk lived, in silence, until he died, eating only once a day on a limited diet sent up to him in a basket pulled up by rope. The last monk died here in the early 1970s, since when the monastery was deserted for 40 years before reopening in 2011. Now there are 2 monks again with Father Joachim, with 3 students, from Istanbul, Italy and Germany. Prayers are said four times a day, at 6, 11, 5 and 9, and some attend from the village below, with more on Sundays.

After this tour around the monastery and when we have received the customary hospitality of water, cay and biscuits, we clamber up the steep rocky path above the courtyard. There is a very sure footed horse grazing high above us, and we pass small entrances into caves that were used in the past as hermit cells by monks. From high above the monastery we can see far away into the distance towards Syria, cloaked in the heat haze of the late morning sun. The animals on the plain below are healthy, the grazing good. But the monastery’s own garden is sparse and looking very sorry for itself. The winds buffeting the plot have burnt the crops. Higher up the slopes we can see early attempts at restoring the terracing for further cultivation, but it is obviously a labor of love: the terraces are hard to reach, the cultivation there is challenging, so it is hardly surprising that little progress has been made. Back in the courtyard we see the remains of monk cells exposed when the rubble was cleared away after a massive landslide. We can clearly see niches where the monks would have kept their bibles and lamps.

A trip to the toilet blocks is quite a surprise. They are luxurious, with the latest modern fittings. The money comes plentifully from the diaspora we are told.

Our visit ends beautifully with prayers in the church of St Mary where we are joined by some people from the village below and by a few tourists who have made it up the steep path. As we leave and look back, the buildings gradually melt into the surrounding cliffs, the camouflage complete.

Father Yoachim had a deer here that gave birth to twin fawns so he gave one to Mar Gabriel. There it has been adopted by one of the nuns who cares for it and we saw it ourselves during our stay there. It had not been too well but was clearly getting better, as it trotted faithfully after the nun across the courtyard. It has developed a curious crab-like sideways manner way of going up and down the monastery steps.

We have to hurry back to our minibuses – they are needed to pick up school children. So we arrive back in the village, and once back in our own coach we make our way to the bustling town of Nusaybin (the ancient Nisibis), right on the border with Syria, to visit the exciting Mar Jacob excavations there...
caves where the monks once lived

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Our Turkish pilgrimage continues - the churches of Midyat

We make our way into the church; the silence is total as we are all awed by the sacred space around us.

In the hushed atmosphere our bishop leads us in prayers and we all say the Grace together: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore.”

We are in one of the three churches at the restored Mor Abraham Syriac Orthodox Monastery in Midyat. The oldest church, dedicated to Mor Hobel (Saint Abel) and probably built in the late 5th century, is now the Beth Qadishe or House of Saints, where relics of saints are housed. A larger and later church is dedicated to Mor Abrohom (Saint Abraham) and then there is the Mother of God (Yoldath Aloho) church.

The land behind the monastery has been given by the church to serve as a camp for Syrian refugees and we see the newly built shelters. This was originally intended for 10,000 Christians but it is now to provide shelter equally for Christians and Muslims.

Mor Basomo

Leaving the monastery we make our way to the Syriac Orthodox church of Mor Basomo (Saint Barsumas in the West) in the old town centre of Midyat. Mor Basomo was an influential Syrian monk who attended the Second Council of Ephesus in 449 AD, and died in 457 AD.

The courtyard is full of children playing. Apparently these are local Assyrian children who come here every afternoon to learn how to read in Aramaic. We are shown into the 1500 years old church by an elderly gentleman who may be the caretaker. In fact much of the church is a 1943 reconstruction, faithfully preserving the Tur Abdin church style. Its minaret-like bell tower and its entrance are beautifully decorated with intricately carved stones.

After these visits some of the group have to make an urgent shopping trip into the town for essential sunhats – and one has to get a sandal resoled. They take the local minibus service into the shopping area while the few of us remaining have some appetite for seeing yet another church! So we make our way through the old town to the Protestant church. This is very large, and occupies a high and prominent position in the town. Our guide is able to obtain the keys to let us through the locked gate leading into the church grounds, and then into the church itself. This is a sad moment. Protestantism was introduced to the area by Western missionaries in the 19th century, but it would seem there is little demand for the church now as it appears to be little used at the moment, if at all. We are moved to impromptu prayers led by one of our priests.

Walking through the town afterwards as a small group is a fascinating experience, giving us a chance to observe some of the local color and customs. 
There are women in a sewing machine room, the door open to the street to try to keep cool while they are busy making dresses – for what market I wonder? A tethered cow stands by the side of the pavement. It has water and food but is very nervous and would surely have preferred to be grazing in an open field. We see the local lads playing what looks like a variant of hopscotch – in a wider area of the main road – dodging mopeds as necessary; I recalled how I amused myself as a child with similar simple games in the streets of Manchester all those years ago. A Kurdish woman is carrying a bunch of faggots on her shoulder and there are more women making flat bread in an outhouse – they wave happily to us as we go by and do not seem to mind having their photos taken. More women are walking down the narrow street leading a goat on a rope – I feared it is going to be sacrificed for the Islamic feast of sacrifice, and my heart goes out to it. I hope its end is swift and as pain free as possible. Does no one else care about the cruelty we inflict on our animals?

Midyat used to have a large pond; it is still mentioned in many guidebooks to the consternation of travelers who look all over for it and cannot find it! It became so full of litter in the “troubles” that it was filled in and replaced with a new public park and car park. We all meet up on the coach and go back to the monastery for evening prayer at 5pm.

The concept of generous hospitality is an important part of our pilgrimage,
for us to take away with us and hopefully learn from. It has largely been lost in our own busy urban societies. The word “pilgrimage” is derived from the Latin peregrinus or “foreign”, from peregre meaning “going” abroad, originally derived from “per ager” or “through the fields” – that was largely what we did today. In the larger picture, we are all abroad on a journey.

prayer shawls ready for use 
It is hard to describe the quality of the light here in the very south of Turkey.

The depth of the blue sky must be due to the clean pure air. The sun glinting on the vines as we drive along makes the green colors of the leaves take on an almost fluorescent quality. The stars at night under a clear sky are as clear as I’ve ever seen them; there is absolutely no light pollution here. Then I realize that what I thought were trees distressed by the summer drought may perhaps have been the small oaks cultivated for the acorns used for animal feed, and they are simply displaying their autumnal deciduous colors!

Tomorrow we will sadly say goodbye to Mor Gabriel monastery and make our way towards Mardin and the Saffron Monastery, where we will stay for two nights while we explore the western Tur Abdin region.

Monday, 18 November 2013

The Road to Mor Yacoub and Yoldath Aloho, in Tur Abdin

Mor Gabriel at break of day
Today we have a treat to start the day at Mor Gabriel. After the usual morning liturgy we celebrate our Anglican Eucharist in the church before heading for breakfast. That is such a great experience - and a privilege for our priests to be allowed to use the sanctuary, with incense as well!
I have to confess that I am finding it hard to get into the liturgy of Mor Gabriel. I discuss this with our bishop, and realize that I need to feel the mystery of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. East and West need to meet on this, the western tradition being rather more ritualistic, lacking in some of this mystery that is second nature here. It is hard for me to find that here just yet. There have been so many experiences to assimilate. Perhaps I just need a little more time and space. This is almost certainly why I enjoy the use of incense in church back home, although it is not generally popular with our congregation – that’s such a shame!
the church sanctuary at Mor Yacoub

With ablutions and breakfast over, we are ready to go, and are joined for the day by one of the teaching monks (malfonos) from the monastery and his brother from the village. So we set off on the road again, this time to visit the early sixth century monastery of Mor Yacoub (Yakub), at Saleh. Fr Daniel here was kidnapped for two days a couple of years ago but was released unharmed. He is not here when we arrive; he is probably out on the fields farming and will not hear his phone, we are told. We explore the site, making our way first to the church. It is very wide, with a transverse nave, which allows maximum room for the congregation to prostrate themselves in prayer. The church was built in 512. Its roof is very similar to that seen in the church at Mor Gabriel, except that here the stone arches in the roof are painted to look like bricks! This was all in ruins not so long ago and has been rebuilt. Five years ago the rubble of the ruins was still being cleared out – so we see that astonishing progress has been made; yet another example of the incredible resilience of the Christian communities in this part of Turkey. But there has been a problem with the renovations; the acids in the concrete used on the roof have damaged the original roof coloring.
We saw two churches at this monastery, the second older than the first. In the grounds we also saw the ruins of what may originally have been an old pagan temple, although this is not certain.
Mor Yacoub
So we retrace our steps and turn back onto the road towards Dargecit. This is a new road, being redone. We pass a village on the left as we turn off to the right onto a very poor dust road. As we drive up to Anitli or Hah, a remote village seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we are met by excited children waving to us. I wonder how often they see large coaches coming through their narrow roads? Not that often I think. It is here that Gertrude Bell was robbed some 102 years ago while visiting the area. The soil here is very rich but stony. Bulldozers have transformed the agriculture here by cleaning up the fields and enabling walls to be built with the stones. Grapes, pistachio, olives, figs, several types of berry and fabulous pomegranates are all being grown. The farmers also grow and harvest acorns for animal feed. This explains what I had thought were fields of miniature oak trees seen from the coach. Perhaps they really were! I discover later that many animals feed on unripe acorns on the tree or ripe ones that fall on the ground. These animals include pigs, squirrels, bears, and deer as well as birds such as pigeons, jays and ducks. They are rich in carbohydrates and proteins as well as many minerals and vitamins, although the tannin in them can be toxic. I’m sure the locals will know this.
But litter is still a problem, as I have mentioned elsewhere... it is such a shame to see countryside polluted and despoiled in this way.
possible pagan ruins at Mor Yacoub?
Dating back to the 6th century, the beautiful Yoldath Aloho (Mother of God) Church or Church of the Virgin Mary in Hah (now Anitli) was until 613 AD the seat of the region’s first bishop, and was again so between the 11th and 13th centuries. There is a bell tower and a striking two story square structure above the church, both of which were built in the 20th century. The church sits within a courtyard, known as abeth slutho, or house of prayer. I believe that this is used in the excessive summer heat when the inside of the church is too uncomfortable to use for prayer. The church has the transverse nave structure as seen at Mor Yacoub earlier in the day.
the beautiful Yoldath Aloho at Hah
I wonder why the bishopric was once located in such a remote place, why this is such an important church. In an extension of the Christmas story as recorded in the Holy Bible, of the Three Kings who followed the star to Bethlehem to find the infant Christ, legend says that there were actually twelve Kings. At Hah, only three out of the group proceeded to Bethlehem, and on finding the baby and handing over their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they were given a band from the swaddling clothes in which Jesus was wrapped. Bringing this back to Hah, they burnt it so that the ash could be divided between the twelve kings, but there were no ashes, only twelve gold medallions remained. The Kings put these into the foundations of the church built to commemorate this miracle. The church within the monastery has conserved some of its original details, which are thought to date back to the 3rd century AD. This makes it one of the oldest churches in the world, and perhaps the oldest of all if the Syriac legend surrounding its original founding is true.
Ancient lectionaries in the courtyard? 
The Mother of God church is a very beautiful church and I wanted to linger here, soaking up the spiritual atmosphere. We were once again treated to our Deacon singing the Lord’s Prayer in Syriac, (a dialect of Aramaic, which is a group of many related languages: the diversification is complex due to its long history, its extensive literature and its development in different religions through that time – much more detail can be accessed on the internet).
But we have to move on. So we climb up to the terrace above the church where under the shelter of a very modern gazebo to protect us from the harsh midday sun, we are treated to the traditional cay before being led to lunch in a room below, hosted by the mukhtar or mayor of Salah, Habib Doghan.
The lunch was superb, but we must soon be on the move again. There are other remains of churches and monasteries to see around the village and the mayor comes with us to proudly show them to us:

ruins of Mor Sobo
First there are the ruins of Mor Sobo Basilica. We are told these date back to the sixth century, but some sources date them as from a century or two later than that. These have been the subject of excavations by archaeologists from Mardin over the last 3 years. Part of a cross on one of the walls is pointed out to us. This was once one of the largest churches in Tur Abdin and used to house an ancient illuminated gospel manuscript, pained in 1227, which is now kept at Mor Gabriel. It seems that the church may at one time have been used as a mosque, the square bell tower as the minaret.
Then we walk through dusty pathways through the village, flanked on each side by stone walls topped often with prickly branches; I suspect these are constructed to keep livestock in their enclosures. Similar branches also seem to be stored and used as fuel. Here we find the little church of Mor Shmuel and the ruins of a former monastery dedicated to Sts Sergius & Bacchus (789 AD).

at the monastery dedicated to Sts Sergius and Bacchus
a path in Anitli

We were given a grand farewell by the mayor and some villagers who showered us with pomegranates and grapes before we climbed into the coach and set off again. Back onto the main Dargecit road we made our way towards Midyat; to see more churches and more of the important Syriac architecture of the region...the day still had plenty to offer be contd...