Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Travels with St. Ephraim

I am a firm believer in traveling light. On my recent journey, I lived for 30 days out of a medium-sized backpack, mastering the fine art of washing and drying clothes in a shower stall. By the time I returned home, I had transited through 8 different airports a total of 14 times, so this philosophy served me well. I found it hard to avoid being a little smug watching tourists struggle with way, way too much luggage. (I was noticeably less smug on the return--trying to keep up with 3 bottles of wine, a bottle of homemade Georgian cognac and a 4x6 Turkish rug I had accumulated along the way). I extended this rule to my reading material, refusing to take any books, not even travel guides. I simply copied what information I needed from them and pasted it in my pocket journal. I made one exception: The Spiritual Psalter of St. Ephraim the Syrian.

I find myself returning again and again to this small treasure of a book. Over the course of the month, I intended to read through all 150 prayers, maintain my regular prayer discipline and spend considerable time in contemplation. Well, truth be told, I failed miserably! My reading from the psalter was sporadic. Worse yet, so were my regular prayers. I do not discount that I encountered much that affected me deeply, that caused me to contemplate spiritual matters. Yet, I realize that I neglected my prayer life. I had, shall we say, a large time, allowing the excitement of new places and adventures to push my intentions into the background. I realized that I spent more time in prayer and spiritual reading in my busy, work-a-day schedule than I did when I had 30 days without restrictions. So maybe there is a good lesson learned there.

Five days after leaving the Republic of Georgia, I found myself in the old city of Diyarbakir, in east-central Turkey. Let's just say that Diyarbakir does not see much in the way of tourists. Home to 1.5 million, the city is beset with problems. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the Kurdish insurgency rocked eastern Turkey. Whole villages were abandoned as people sought refuge in the cities. Diyarbakir's population mushroomed with the Kurdish immigration. Despite impressive development in the city (and the old city is ringed by a quite modern new city), poverty is still acute and there are still far too few jobs to go around. Additionally, Kurdish nationalism still hangs on in Diyarbakir, and as a consequence, the Turkish military maintains a heavy presence there. A small riot occured, I believe, just the month before I arrived. The Turkish government and military are quite serious about stamping out remaining rebel activity, so the official response to any trouble is swift and heavy-handed. One hundred years ago, Diyarbakir was an ethnic melting pot with Turks, Kurds, Armenians and Syrian Orthodox. In fact, the city was fully 1/4 Armenian Christian. Not so today. The Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915-1918 took care of that element, and the Syrian Orthodox have been squeezed out in recent years. Today, the city is overwhelmingly Kurdish. Diyabakir boasts the longest continuous city walls in the world, but that is about all they can put on the tourist brochure. And to top it all off, Diyarbakir has an unsavory (but not undeserved) reputation. Unlike anywhere else in Turkey, gangs of young pickpockets prey on any unwary tourists.

So why would anyone even want to go to Diyarbakir? For me, I went for 1 reason--to see the Meryamana Kilisesi, the Church of the Virgin Mary. This Syrian Orthodox Church dates back to the late 300s, making it perhaps the oldest continuously operating church in the world. I had already visited a number of Suriani churches in Mardin and Midyat. They differ somewhat from the Orthodox churches I am used to, or have seen elsewhere in my travels. I realize, of course, that they are monophysite, like the Copts and Armenians. Beyond that, the altars are different, often more like elaborate niches, actually, with no iconostasis. (Altars in mosques are much the same, though Turks would never, ever admit that they copied this design from the early Christians!) The most noticeable difference, however, is in the iconography. Suriani churches are not covered in icons and frescoes. There may be a large icon or two, and perhaps some tapestries. Finally, the iconographic style is much simpler, almost child-like in some cases.

My guide, Turan, and I passed through the Byzantine walls into the old city. At first glance, it was no different from any number of Turkish streetscapes. We stopped at the Ulla Mosque, built with stones from the ancient cathedral at Diyarbakir. This is one of the oldest remaining Turkish mosques, perhaps 12th-century or so. I hate to be dismissive, but if you've seen one mosque, you've just about seen them all. There was a pleasant courtyard, however, and I took a few pictures so as to not offend my guide, who indeed by this time had become a good friend. From the courtyard, we prepared to venture out into the narrow labyrinth of alleyways leading to the Meryamana Kilisesi. We hid our cameras, and moved our backpacks to the front. The gangs here have the reputation of being able to strip a backpack before you know it. As we made our way towards the church, groups of these children seemed to take an inordinate interest in our progress, though Turan was able to keep them shoed away, for the most part. At one point, a man came out of a doorway and started walking with us. He gave Turan some warnings about what to watch out for, and then walked along with us, just to make sure we made it to the church without any trouble.

We reached the gate to the church compound, and rang the bell. In the East, you don't see much if you don't gain access to the courtyards. The beauty of their homes and lives is always hidden from public view. The caretaker admitted us and escorted us to the 4th-century church. The simple domed sanctuary was exquisite, though other than the altar, somewhat sparsely adorned. One large, bright reddish icon hung on the right wall. The caretaker explained that once the building could not hold all the worshippers. The Kurdish troubles, and the Turkish government's ambivalence to the plight of the Christians (sound familiar?) had forced most of the Suriani to flee in the 1980s. The church was now home to 3 Christian families. The priest ministered to these believers, as well as 2 families of Assyrian Catholics and and one Armenian remaining in the city.

Shortly thereafter, the priest came in and began the vespers service. At first, the caretaker and I and my guide were the only ones there. One by one, 4 handsome young men, ranging in age from about 17 down to 10, came in and took their places around the priest, and assisted him in the chanting. The service was in Aramaic, but I was able to follow the caretaker's lead in prostrations and crossing myself. In a previous conversation with Turan, he was surprised to learn that we prostrated ourselves in worship. So now he had a demonstration of that truth. And I wondered if he realized that the Muslim practice of prostration, like so much of their religion, was not new to them, but borrowed from the early Christians. We eased out after about 15 minutes and worked our way back into the noisy city.

And one more thing. Before the service, I had Turan ask the caretaker who the icon portrayed. Mar Efram, he replied. St. Ephraim, of course.


Jared Cramer said...

John, this isn't related to your post, but I found it interesting. I didn't know that Roman Catholics and Orthodox sometimes use the Anglican Rite.

John said...

Jared, yes there are some western rite Orthodox congregations, but only within the Antiochian jurisdiction. They can use the Liturgy of St. Tikhon--which indeed is very similar to the Anglican Rite--or the Liturgy of St. Gregory. I'm not the best one to ask about this. Check below for further information on western right:

John said...

oops, make that western "rite."

s-p said...

Cool post John. I'm loving the travelogue!