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The Situation in Tur Abdin
A Report on a Visit to S.E. Turkey in November 2001
The Reverend Stephen Griffith

Rev. Griffith's Reports

Jun 2003
Jun 2002
Nov 2001
May 2001
Nov 2000
May 2000
Oct 1999


Rev. Griffith is the Anglican Chaplain in Syria, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Apocrisiarius to the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch.


This report is based on the last of a series on visits beginning in 1997 to the Syriac Orthodox homeland in South East Turkey. These visits were made at the request of the Middle East Forum, part of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. The last report from May 2001 can be found on the Internet on the Syriac Orthodox Resources website.1

This visit was made over a week in late November 2001, taking in the five active monasteries, as well as visiting a number of villages. I stayed at the Monastery of Mor Gabriel and visited the Monasteries of the Virgin at Hah, Mor Yacoub at Saleh, Deir Zafaran, Mor Malke and Mor Abraham and Mor Hobel. As well as the towns of Mardin, Midyat, Nuseibin, and Hasankeyf, I went to a number of villages: Anhel (Yemisli)2, Ayn Wardo (Gülgöze), Bekusyone (Alagöz), Bnebil (Bülbül), Bsorino (Haberli), Dayro Daslibo (Çatalçam), Hah (Anitli), Harabaleh (Üçköy), Kfarze (Altintas), Kfarbe (Güngören) and Urdnus (Baglarbs1).

The Present Situation

The Monasteries

At all of the active monasteries there was considerable building work going on; during the economic depression in the area many otherwise unemployed local men have been employed in building by the Syriac Orthodox church.

The guest house and other works are mainly finished at Deir Mor Gabriel. High quality work has been done by local stone masons, and further work is being done to provide better agricultural storage.

Most of the work on the beautiful Monastery of the Mother of God at Hah is complete, and as well as a monk and a teacher there is a family living there and three workers are employed. The village of Hah continues to prosper.

At Mor Yacoub there is a large amount of building going on. Since my last visit the major part of a large guest house has been added to the wast side of the monastery, and it seems that digging to the north side found archaeological remains. Happily any unsupervised excavation has been stopped and the University of Diarbakr will be supervising work there in the near future. I am concerned that the passion for building may have destroyed unique examples of early Christian art and architecture. Ironically critics of Turkey have accused the state of destroying historical Christian sites3. I fear that it may be that Christian communities have also done much damage.

Deir Zafaran is seeing new work beginning to replace ugly concrete steps at the entrance. Much more needs to be done to continue removing some very poor work of the last fifty years; as the most commonly visited monastery it holds a significant position within the Syriac community. It now has two monks and two nuns, a teacher and three full-time workers. Last summer it was visited by the President of the Republic. It has a small student community and needs to develop as the public face of Syriac Orthodoxy.

In what was a very dangerous part of the region during the Kurdish uprising, Deir Mor Malke has done well. It has two monks and two nuns, and four students, faithfully continuing as a place of prayer. Recently a new wall has been built in front of the entrance, and the building is well kept, even though its turbulent history has meant that it has little of architectural merit, other than a simple church and burial crypt.4

The Monastery of Mor Abraham and Mor Hobel on the edge of Midyat is currently empty, and over the last years has been the subject of grave-robbing and vandalism. Now with high walls and considerable building going on the church is secure and there is an opportunity to develop its work. The church had a substantial barrel roof which was destroyed by military action in the mid 1920s, but is now in excellent condition.

The best news is that the General responsible for the area has spoken to the Archbishop encouraging him to visit Deir Mor Awgin, the monastery of St. Eugenius5. Situated on the edge of the mountains halfway between Nuseibin and Midyat, Mor Awgin has been abandoned for many years, the last monk having died in 1974; it has been out of bounds throughout the troubles. This official encouragement is not simply that the Syriac Orthodox authorities visit this extremely important monastery but that they arrange for it to be surveyed and restored for use again. Such encouragement does show how far attitudes have change in the space of a few years: and this can only be for the good of both the Suriani and Turkey itself. The Surianis, who have frequently said that they wish nothing else than to be Turkish citizens with normal religious and cultural rights, are delighted with this attitude: at recent meetings the local General several times referred to the Syriac Orthodox as "Our brother Surianis."

Numbers of Students 11/1998 11/1999 5/2000 11/2000 5/2001 11/2001
Deir Mor Gabriel6 39 39 34 35 43 40
Deir Mor Yacoub 8 8 8 13 13 12
Deir Mor Malke 4 4 4 4 4 4
Deir Zafaran 4 5 5 8 7 4
The Virgin, Hah - - - - - -
Table: Student numbers at the monasteries

Towns and villages

The towns are suffering from the general economic problems of the country. News that a major British contractor had withdrawn from the Ilisu Dam project may be greeted by many, but it does pose a problem about alternative ways of bringing large scale development to the region. Agriculture is the basis of daily life and society in SE Turkey and it may be that interested parties should work on smaller scale projects than that of the Ilisu Dam. The town of Hasankeyf with its magnificent castle and splendid location on the Tigris needs to know its future: if the Dam project is to be abandoned, the town would not be flooded and then it could plan for its future.

The towns have a significant Christian population, and many people attend the churches daily: at a normal evening prayer at Mor Barsaumo's church in Midyat there were about sixty people present, of all ages, but mainly teenagers and the elderly.

The villages are dependant on good weather and 2001 has had reasonable rainfall so that farmers are continuing to work. But the huge emigration of the last decades means that older inhabitants can no longer continue to care for their land. Dayro Daslibo has only one young man, recently returned after his military service and all cultivation except of vines has stopped: only sheep and cattle are now kept there. Despite this the community at Dayro Daslibo has done much to restore and improve the old church which has had no monk since the massacres of 1915. Furthermore, the local authorities have very recently sunk a new well for the village, making life significantly easier. One cannot help feeling sorrow that the end is obviously so close. Bnebil is similarly a village of old people only, led by a faithful priest, all of whose children are now living in Europe.

Other villages flourish, and there are more reports of families preparing to return: two are ready to return to the totally abandoned and partly ruined and pillaged village of Kafro near Harabale. There is some emigration: at Ayn Wardo, where three babies were born in 2001, the old priest is about to join his wife in the USA, and one or two old people in other villages are going to their families in the diaspora, but in general few young people have left, and the number of births is higher than deaths and emigration. I noticed at Bekusyone a newly built house of considerable size. As with the monasteries, villages are once again building. The President of Turkey has been clear in expressing his concern and encouragement that Suriani should return to their homeland.

Over the last decade it has been dangerous and then illegal to travel after dark between the villages. Such restrictions have now been lifted, which both eases the lives of the local people and is also a sign of official recognition that the situation is so much better. There are still army checkpoints, but the unexpected closure of villages to outsiders mentioned in my last report has stopped. The number of checkpoints is smaller, although there are still places with a significant army presence, such as Harabale where there are at least four tanks and an armoured personnel carrier.

The land of the area is now being farmed, and the Syriac Orthodox diaspora should encourage people to return to their lands.

The General Situation

Over the five years in which I have been visiting Tur Abdin, the political situation has changed considerably. The ending of the Kurdish uprising has led to an improvement in the mood of the area. The visit by the President of Turkey to Deir Zafaran was very important as he made a clear appeal for a return of the Suriani people to Tur Abdin. Both the current military commander and the Governor of the area are supportive of the Suriani, and seem to have gained their trust and respect. This cannot be underestimated, but has another side: if the open and supportive character of a few government appointees can change the situation for the better, so could poor appointments change the situation for the worse, and the well being of the Christian minority needs to have better protection in law.

Happily Turkey has recently passed a whole set of Constitutional Amendments7 which are specifically intended to bring Turkey in line with the EU. Article 10 has repealed the law which prevented publications "in any language prohibited by law" and should make clear that the Syriac language may be used legally. There are new laws permitting Freedom of Association, and the right to peaceful demonstration. It is yet to be seen how these constitutional amendments will affect the lives of the Syriac Orthodox community.

In the past I have commented on the problems which the Monasteries have had with the bureaucracy of the Turkish State in the areas of building, teaching and receiving guests. There is also a concern about damage to ancient buildings. The Church of St. Jacob at Nuseibin is receiving a careful archaeological examination, and building work by the same archaeologists from Diarbakr University should prevent further damage at Mor Yacoub's Monastery. I am concerned that there needs to be a clear basis in law for the teaching of Syriac in church and monastery, but the Constitutional Amendments should help in this area.

The future of the Syriac Orthodox community in Tur Abdin depends on several factors. Security has been a main one over the last decades, and this seems to be no longer an issue. Freedom in religion is a more difficult area, but this does not seem to be a problem at present. The slowness of the economy of the area, as well as the whole of the country, is probably as great an incentive to leave, or not to return, and the government needs to decide how to cope with the GAP, the programme to develop the backward parts of Anatolia, now that Balfour Beatty has withdrawn from the Ilisu Dam.

Tur Abdin is part of a backward area. It is not helped by obstructive and incompetent bureaucrats. Arriving at the Nuseibin border gate from the Syrian town of Qamishly we were told that we could not enter Turkey because there was a power cut. Despite having an UPS electricity regulator, the passport office remained closed for two hours. Returning through the same crossing, we were told that the computer connection with Diarbakr was not working, and no one crossed that day, although the soldier at the gate suggested it might open very soon. This is a common occurrence, and the explanation that the computer line is not working was used when I made the same journey three years ago. I do not believe the explanation, and share a commonly held feeling that the regular closing of this border by the Turkish authorities (and never by Syria) is simply because this is the crossing used by most Kurds, and, as it happens most Christians. If a computer line is still not working regularly after three years, and if an UPS is also not working, this shows gross incompetence or neglect. Comments made by other travellers, that this is a country seeking to amend its constitution to join the EU and yet cannot get a computer working at a border crossing are entirely valid.


Over the years I have heard many times from different Syriac Orthodox people that they want to be Turkish citizens who are able to continue their religious and social traditions within the framework of the Turkish state. The representatives of the Turkish state who have authority in the region are working hard to make this happen and should be congratulated. I am not convinced that the rights of the Christians in the area to teach their language and faith, to build responsibly and to receive guests at the monasteries are yet secure in law, although present practice seems acceptable.

The greatest threat to the continuing presence of the Syriac Orthodox is the economy, and I would encourage serious consideration of small scale development projects in the region in the light of the probable collapse of the Ilisu Dam project.

I hope that this report will encourage supporters of the Syriac Orthodox community in Tur Abdin to commend the real improvements instituted by Turkey, and to encourage the Suriani diaspora to return to the villages and the land.


I will be leaving my present post as Chaplain in Syria and as the Archbishop of Canterbury's Apocrisiarius in January, 2002 and wish to thank all those who have supported my work in Tur Abdin, especially the Church Mission Society and the Middle East Forum in London. I have reason to be particularly grateful to the Monasteries which have shown such hospitality, Deir Zafaran and Deir Mor Gabriel, and the Archbishop in particular.


1 Earlier reports are also at

2 Most places have several names: where I have used the Syriac version in these villages, I also give the modern Turkish ones in brackets.

3 for which see, for example Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain.

4 The crypt holds the remains of St Malke, whose legend tells that he captured a devil when in Constantinople healing the King’s daughter, and that he brought the devil back collared by a mill stone which now tops the wellhead at the monastery.

5 Gertrude Bell described Mor Awgin as “By far the most striking monastery which I visited in the Tur ‘Abdin.” Bell, The Churches and Monasteries of the Tur ‘Abdin with an introduction and notes by Marlia Mango, London 1982, p. 3. For her visit in 1909 see

6 The number for Mor Gabriel also includes children of resident families.

7 A commentary is available from the Secretariat General for European Union Affairs of the Turkish Prime Ministry.

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Last Update: December 5, 2000