The undulating plateau of the Tür Abdin, traditional heartland of the Syrian Orthodox Church, starts just east of Mardin. It’s still home to a few Christians, who co-exist uneasily with the local Muslim Kurds. The rocky plateau is more fertile than you might think if you only see it in the parched days of summer, dotted with what appear to be little more than masses of hardy scrub oak. Grape cultivation is a mainstay, as is lentil production, and walnut, almond, cherry, fig and pomegranate all flourish. Olives are few and far between, however, as the winters here are cold.
Midyat is the western gateway to the Tür Abdin proper, where several villages are still either wholly, or partially, inhabited by Syrian Orthodox Christians, and there are 46 monasteries and churches, some recently restored. Most are tricky to reach by public transport, so arrange either a taxi or rental car.
While they lack a country of their own, Turkey’s Süriyani or Assyrian population have found an unlikely rallying point – a football club in Sweden. Assyriska, a second-division team based near Stockholm, is made up entirely of immigrants, two-thirds of whom are Syrian Orthodox Christians who have emigrated from Turkey.
In 2006, Midyat-born journalist Nuri Kino brought their story to life in an award-winning documentary, Assyriska, charting the side’s progress to a brief spell at the top of the Swedish premiership. The team are a symbol of pride for the Assyrian diaspora throughout the world, who have often been persecuted in their traditional heartlands (modern Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria). The documentary is controversial in Turkey, as it alleges that the massacres suffered by Assyrians at the hands of the Ottomans in World War I amount to genocide. See wnurikino.com for more information.
Founded in 397 AD, the monastery of Mar Gabriel (Deyrulumur) is the geographical and spiritual centre of the Tür Abdin plateau. The oldest and most vital surviving Syrian Orthodox monastery in Turkey, it’s the seat of the metropolitan bishop of Tür Abdin. A working community, set among gardens and orchards, its primary purpose is to keep Syrian Orthodox Christianity alive in the land of its birth by providing schooling and ordination of native-born monks. There are thirteen resident nuns and three monks, as well as a fluctuating number of local lay workers, guests and students.
A lay person gives visitors guided tours of the monastery. The glittering, mosaic-covered ceiling of the apse of the main Anastasius (512 AD) church is particularly memorable, though Tamerlane stripped the gold ceiling of the nave. The tour also takes in the circular dining room, surmounted by a dome donated by the Byzantine empress Theodora early in the sixth century AD, and the Church of the Mother of God, dating back some fourteen hundred years.
The town of MİDYAT, an hour east of Mardin by road, consists of two distinct districts. The westerly portion is the modern business district of Estel, while the originally Christian portion of half-abandoned medieval mansions, known as Eski (Old) Midyat, lies 2km east. Inevitably, given Mardin’s boom, tourism is growing in Midyat. A couple of posh new boutique hotels have opened their doors, and the multitude of silver (particularly telkari or filigree) shops for which the town is famous are bustling with domestic visitors in search of bargains.
Although nearly five thousand Syrian Orthodox Christians still lived here in 1974, the men mostly engaged in gold- or silversmithing, the population shrank to just eighty families and one priest after the conflict in the 1980s and 1990s between the PKK and Turkish security forces. However, thanks to the changed political climate as well as economic growth, some Syrian Orthodox families are starting to return.
The town’s churches, dotted among the imposing mansions built in tiers along a low ridge, are easily spotted by virtue of their graceful belfries. Mor Barsaumo, close to the main road and reached by an alleyway opposite the Cihan restaurant, was built as early as the fifth century, destroyed in 1793 and rebuilt in 1910. As the most active of the churches, this is the best to visit. It holds a small schoolroom where the kids of the remaining Syrian Orthodox families come to learn Syriac, a language closely related to the Aramaic spoken by Christ.