Friday, March 03, 2006

The Return of the Suriani

One of the best books I've read in recent years has been William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East. The author journeys among the diminishing and beleagured Christian remnant--largely Orthodox--in the Middle East. From Mount Athos to Constantinople to southeastern Turkey to Syria to Lebanon to Palestine to Egypt; none of the situations was as dire as that of the Syriac Orthodox Christians in southeastern Turkey. Some 200,000 lived in the area in the late 1800s, but their number had been reduced to about 900 by the time of Dalrymple's visit in 1994. A few tenacious monks hung on for the remaining families, but the author predicted that these would be gone in a generation. The Syriac Christians received no help from the Turkish goverment, as Kurdish guerilla groups saw the Christian minority as easy pickings. The Syriac Christians abandoned whole villages in the face of the Kurdish attacks. The Christian goldsmiths and silversmiths--who had been renowned for hundreds of years in Mardin and Midyat--closed their shops and abandoned their ancient and exquisite homes to new owners.

With this in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to read the lead article in the March issue of Touchstone. Joel Carillet writes of his visit there in December 2004 in The Return of the Suriani: A Visit to a Christian Minority in Turkey that Refuses to Die. Carillet found, to his surprise, not a dying community, but one that showed signs of rebounding, with people returning from Germany and Sweden, new construction at the monasteries and renewed hope for the future. He visited the Mar Yacub, Mar Gabriel and Deir Zafaran Monasteries, as well as the Church of the Holy Martyrs. The oldest monastery dates to AD 397. Some estimates now place the Syriac Christian population there at 5,000.

Part of the change is, of course, Turkey's push to join the EU. Europe is closely watching how the Turks treat their minority groups. In same cases, the government has even moved Kurdish families out of Syriac villages they had occupied. Tourism is increasing, and the monks are pleased and hopeful that many of the visitors are Turks who are learning (finally) of the Syriac Christian culture.

I like the following passage from the article:

Evening vespers were held in a room built in AD 512, making it one of the world's oldest functioning churches. Inside the stone walls darkness was broken, just barely, by two candles. The congregation of monks, nuns, and students--about 25 people--chanted together in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The archbishop stood before the congregation wearing a robe that has changed little in over a thousand years. The entire setting was like having stepped out of a time machine, a lesson in the history of the church well before Christians ever made it to America and thought up things like seeker-friendly services.

But what struck me most was how they prayed: on their knees, face to the floor. It was a form of prayer that demanded something of the body and not just the mind. And it was also a reminder that when Islam was starting out, it borrowed much from Christianity. Except for the sign of the cross, which the congregants made between prostrations, and the presence of women in the same rows as men, this prayer could have been in a mosque.

If all goes well, I will visit this area myself in June. For more pictures from the Tur Abdin, go here.


Hilarius said...

John - thank you for sharing this information about these quiet heroes of the faith. I'll have to hunt down Darymple's book.

Mimi said...

I've never heard of either of those books, but they sound lovely. I'm putting them on my "to read" list.

John said...

I consider Dalrymple's book a "must read." I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Anonymous said...

Hi, BBC radio had an episode over a year ago dealing with Syriac speakers: 'Voices from the Past". It should be in the archive bu if not, let me know.
Michaelk (Borussia)

John said...

Thanks, Michaelk. I found it on the BBC archives from August 2004. Fascinating story!