A Time of Change in Tur Abdin
A Report of a Visit to S.E. Turkey in May 2000
Rev. Griffith is the Anglican Chaplain in Syria, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Apocrisiarius to the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch.
Tur Abdin in Southeast Turkey is the ancient heart of Syriac Christianity and for most of Christian history was the home of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch. The Monastery of Deir Zafaran was his seat until the terrible upheavals of the twentieth century. From 1915 onwards there has been a steady migration of Christians as well as others, and this increased dramatically in the period from the 1970s when the struggle for self rule by the Kurds became so violent. I have been visiting Tur Abdin regularly since late 1997 to report on the situation of the Syriac Orthodox Christians there, with the view to keeping interested parties informed about the current situation. This fifth report is intended to give a brief summary of conditions in the area.
The Present Situation
Towns and Villages
Since the ending of the Kurdish rising there has been a marked improvement in the economic situation in the villages and towns of the area. Mardin now has an airport with two flights each week to Ankara, as well as new factories. It has been the focus of a successful tourism campaign. Midyat, although it continues to be depressed and run down in the old quarter, is showing signs of considerable development: many new buildings including a factory and a shopping centres have been erected. I do not know where the financial backing for all this is coming from, but there is new street lighting and traffic signals, as well as two Internet Cafes, a sure sign of the changing times.
Tur Abdin is, however, a medieval and tribal world, and the economic and social structures are backward. It is still ‘Bandit territory’, with smuggling of Iraqi oil bringing significant wealth into the hands of Kurdish smugglers who are converting their wealth into property. This means that Kurds are buying village houses from Suriani who wish to leave. Some Suriani villages suffer from occasional Kurdish raids on their farms. Although many Kurds say that they welcome the presence of the Suriani, I have come across few Suriani who believe them.
The fields in the countryside are being utilised with trees producing fruit and fields yielding significant crops of staples. Bekusyoné, for instance, produces grapes, wheat, lentils, figs and pistachios as well as herding goats, cattle and sheep. The better precipitation of the 1999-2000 winter, with two significant snowfalls, has meant that there is a better water supply, but some villages are in need of improved water provision.
I was able to visit more villages, and while some are doing very well, there are those which will soon be empty. Dayro d’Salibo has only 13 old people who are waiting to die. Their stories of the massacres of 1915 and 1924 are still vivid, but it is the migration of their children which will end the 1400 year old Christian history of the village. Bekusyoné on the other hand has a population of about 250, with 15 births and 10 deaths in 1999 and no emigration in the last five years. Indeed two people went to Germany and returned. They have had no problems with Kurdish poaching, and the year will produce an abundance of crops. Midun is a village of about 320 people, where there have been 6 births in 1999 and no migration in the last five years. The farms do well, but the village is sufficiently secure for there to be a deep internal feud between the old and new mukhtars (village headmen).
I only visited the two main monasteries of Deir Zafaran and Mor Gabriel. There is significant change going on here, the chief one being the dramatic rise of tourism. Deir Zafaran, only a five-minute drive from Mardin, has been a major magnet for visitors for a long time. Now, however, Mor Gabriel is also receiving a large number of visitors throughout the year. On a normal weekend, over 600 visitors are welcomed: about two-thirds are from Turkey, with the rest coming from other countries. Some are from the diaspora, near and far (Qamishly, a major Syriac Orthodox centre in Syria, is only 50 minutes drive away), others are interested and adventurous tourists. This attraction has meant that the Tourism and Archaeological Ministries are showing interest in the Syriac Orthodox as a significant attraction for money into the region. The monasteries are enjoying the support and encouragement of government officials as never before, and the arrival in early 2000 of a new Governor for Mardin, Mr. Mehmet Tamel Koçaklar, has been accompanied by warm relations.
Previously I have expressed concern in three areas: the receiving of guests in the monasteries, the education of students in the Syriac language and the Syriac Orthodox religion, and the legality of building. These continue to be difficult matters.
Building and Visitors
The new situation means that there have been changes in all these areas. At Deir Zafaran the guest rooms are being renovated, replacing concrete with fine local stone, and metal doors and windows with high quality wooden ones. At Mor Gabriel new guest rooms are being built and a huge wall around the monastic fields is near completion. The monastic authorities are doing these with a certain amount of official support, but in the case of the renovations in Deir Zafaran there is no written permission, and both the board of trustees and also the monks could be imprisoned. The local Antiquities department and the Tourism authorities are aware of the work, and encourage it. There has been important work at the Church of the Virgin in Hah, which may become a monastery again in the near future. Work also continues at Deir Mor Yacoub. The building at Mor Gabriel has written permission, but such is the confused position of the Syriac Orthodox community that other departments or ministries could take legal action against the monasteries, and this is the fear. Nevertheless, the local official awareness is a good sign that both the problems of building permission and the receiving of guests are seen as for the general good.
Syriac is being taught at both monasteries, and the numbers at the monasteries remains high. The language is also being taught by local teachers being funded by outside grants and by the Bishop.
The legality of this continues to be a serious problem. This has to be set within Turkey’s own complex position on minority culture and languages. I was told that recently the government needed to appoint a Kurdish translator, and had to bring one from Sweden, as the prohibition on the teaching of the Kurdish languages in schools has meant that no Turk was able to fill the post. Government officials know that Syriac is being taught, and members of the archaeological services have asked Suriani to translate inscriptions, to which the reply has been that they would if they were allowed to learn their own language.
The Syriac Orthodox community was not referred to in the Lausanne Treaty, nor in the Act of 1932 which defined the non-Muslim minorities. This makes it virtually impossible for the Syriac Orthodox to set up their own schools because in legal terms the community does not appear to exist.
All of this is in the context of very poor education. It is widely felt that the Turkish government discourages the development of education among the Kurds. The children who attend school in Mardin receive a reasonable standard of teaching, but the secondary school in Midyat is in a physically poor condition, and teachers are frequently absent. Many local Kurdish children receive little education, and the boys living at the monasteries have far better facilities: they have classroom space in the monastery and supervised time for homework. Nevertheless, if the school cannot provide adequate teaching and facilities, then the pupils suffer. Bright students cannot get university places because the teaching has been dire. English is on the curriculum, yet most pupils cannot speak any at all unless they have not been taught at the monastery.
The monasteries are therefore offering the children a very important opportunity, but this is illegal and the monastic authorities could be imprisoned for the work they are doing of teaching Syriac, Christianity and English and offering supervision for homework.
The Turkish authorities need to legalise the status of the Syriac Orthodox and enable the existence of the monasteries as centres for teaching alongside the state system.
The Military Presence
With the easing of the security situation Tur Abdin is in a different condition. There are fewer military checkpoints, and the numbers of soldiers is lower. I visited two small bases and was impressed that the army shows a relaxed confidence which is very different from the tension in 1997. Syriac Orthodox men are required to do their national service, and I spoke to one who was on leave after his preliminary three months. He was enjoying his work, and had been made a platoon leader. In former days Christians were humiliated, and sometimes forcibly circumcised, but when he joined the army his commander had asked the group of new recruits if any were Christians. He had said that he was. The commander was concerned to know if all was well, and he was able to reply that everything was fine. Whatever lay behind this dialogue, the young conscript felt confident that he was not the subject of any discrimination. It may be worth noting that he did not feel so sure about an Armenian conscript in the same platoon.
A Wider View
Today Tur Abdin contains a mere remnant of the Syriac peoples. The largest Syriac Orthodox community is to be found in South India. The recent diaspora from Tur Abdin is centred mainly in Europe, with significant numbers also in North America and Australia. It has taken with it many skilled people, and has developed its own ecclesiastical infrastructure. There are many abroad who seek to support the Suriani of Tur Abdin, including a small number of the diaspora. Overseas groups have tried to give financial and moral help, but this has sometimes exacerbated the problems. A combine harvester was given to Midun, and this caused such envy and resentment and was finally given up. Another project funded form abroad to set up a trout farm was a rather visible failure. However, other gifts have been very effective: the gift of a tractor to the Monastery of Mor Gabriel has resulted in a dramatic rise in productivity, and help with water projects has also been very successful. The community in Istanbul has done much to support the work of the monasteries, and at present an engineer from there is supervising the renovation work in Deir Zafaran.
The existence of a slowly integrating diaspora with an ecclesiastical hierarchy has meant that the diaspora encourages migration. The hierarchy loses large numbers of the faithful in the pluralist and secular west and can only envisage growth by bringing new migrants out of Turkey. Stories of wealth and prosperity have encouraged the fathers in some villages to seek to marry their daughters only to emigrants. Yet some, like the two in Bekusyoné, were happier back in the village. Life is not easy, however, and improved communications and education will insensibly draw people away from the backward villages.
Tur Abdin is both a living community and a significant archaeological and touristic resource. It is good that the educated leaders of the archaeological world see the area as valuable, and wish to use the talents of the people. Over recent years several late medieval rooms have been discovered in Mor Gabriel, and the other monasteries, churches and villages have a rich history which may disappear. Within a few years Dayro d’Salibo will be abandoned, and the ancient tomb of St. Aho will be unvisited, the old church will collapse and a significant site of Eastern Christian history will fall into ruin. Other places like the Monastery of Mor Awgen have been out of bounds for several years, and there is a fear that the army or the PKK may have done huge damage to unique places.
I am delighted to be able to say that things are improving in the region. The economy is improving. The security situation is stable. There is a clear need for improvement in the public services, and especially in education. The Syriac Orthodox community is engaged in building work, in teaching Syriac and the Christian faith as well as the receiving of visitors.
However, it is possible that all of this is illegal. Certainly the teaching is, and I would hope that the different departments of the Turkish Government could work out a scheme for enabling what is happening to be made clearly legal.
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|Last Update: June 9, 2000|