Southeastern Anatolia, minute by minute

The upper reaches of Euphrates. In the foreground, the Armenian Plateau, in the background, the Mt. Nimrud and the Southeastern Taurus range

The adventures begin in Budapest. I arrive late at the airport, the Turkish check-in closed an hour before departure. I go up to the office of Turkish Airlines to buy a new ticket to Istanbul in the afternoon. “What is your final destination?” “Diyarbakır.” “What, Iraq?” the Hungarian clerk asks with some trepidation. “No, Diyarbakır. Kurdistan.” The Turkish office manager, with a head like an egg, who nests in the depths of the office like a sleepy owl, thrusts his face forward. From the front, it is also regular like an egg. “Diyarbakır is in Turkey, not in Kurdistan”, he says. And I had been gentle on him, since I could also have called it West Armenia.

It is due to this messy terminology that this post gets such a complicated title, and not a short fitting one like our previous minute-by-minutes, Ethiopia, Armenia, Iran, Odessa or the Berlin Wall.


Diyarbakır’s old town is encircled by a wall erected of huge basalt blocks, with four gates and several bastions, which here proved very necessary. The city was known by the Assyrians as Amida, as does its shrinking modern Christian Assyrian population. This name was first read on the blade of an Assyrian sword, which the city, in spite of its walls, has come to know thoroughly. Its most famous siege is reported in detail by Ammianus Marcellinus, who himself was among the Roman defenders when, in 395 AD, the Persians occupied the city. Then, in 1895 and 1915, the state put the sword to its own citizens. The 70,000 Armenians living in and around Diyarbakır were completely massacred, and a few of the Christian Syriacs survived only because they rose up in armed confrontation with the Turkish army and Kurdish marauders. A hundred years later, Kurdish rebels were bombed by the Turkish army here.

In the 1930s, the city began to demolish the old walls and open the narrow streets of Diyarbakır to the world. However, after blasting and clearing some six hundred meters of the tough basalt blocks, fatigue set in, and they simply left it in that state. The area between the zigzag line of the bastions and the straight highway is today a park, where a large number of the inhabitants picnic throughout the day. To the south, around Mardin Gate, there is even a liquor store – a rarity here, in the conservative East –, where we buy some bottled beer and join them.

(When we go back for two more beers, the salesman quietly remarks: “There’s a room here in the back, you can drink it there.” He is visibly embarrassed at our drinking in the public space.)


Kurdish boys and girls play together, the girls usually without headscarves

The center of the old town’s north-south main street is Hasan Paşa Hanı, the large caravanserai built in 1572. Everyone who runs around the city on errands pops in here eventually, rather than spending all day sitting in front of his usual local café. The lower level has an excellent Kurdish restaurant; the courtyard and the galleries have cafés, as well as pastry, antique and jewelry shops. In front of one, we are greeted by a young salesman, Hüseyn. His shop has been in the same family for one and half centuries. They sell both antique pieces and works by modern silversmiths. Diyarbakır has been the center of Armenian and Syriac silver work for centuries, and today’s Kurdish masters carry on their traditions. Hüseyn scatters a few antique coins from a silver box onto the display case. These have been found out in the land by peasants and nomads. Others will also report about such findings later. Their number indicates how lively the trade could have been on the frontier of the empire.

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Hüseyn’s silver coin container is of Yezidi origin: a peacock angel is engraved on the bottom. The Yezidi Kurds – who have recently become widely known as one of the main targets of ISIS – live in and around North Iraq, including Southeastern Anatolia, and follow a late version of the Zoroastrian religion of Iran. They believe that God entrusted Melek Tawus, the Peacock Angel, the leader of the seven archangels, with the rule of the world. His figure is the supreme symbol of the Yezidi Kurds, and they carve it on their houses and graves, as we will see later.


Another bird from Hüseyn’s collection is the owl of Athens. Minerva’s sacred animal adorned the silver tetradrachma during the greatness of Athens for almost a hundred years, from the victory over the Persians at Plataia (479 BC) to the defeat by the Spartans (406 BC). The coin was a symbol of Athens’ wealth and influence, and the popular proverb γλαῦκ' εἰς Ἀθήνας, “to bring owls to Athens”, which has an English equivalent in “carrying coals to Newcastle”, suggesting that the bringer has brought something unneeded to a place where it is abundant. Because of its constant silver content and its long period of circulation, the tetradrachma became the most important international currency of antiquity, the ancient dollar. Whether this owl came here, to Amida, the heart of the then Persian empire, in the clothing of a merchant, mercenary or spy, we will never know.


And this letter was sent by Laci Holler after the publication of the above mosaic:

Dear Tamás, there, in the faraway Anatolia!

Greetings to you.

Once you return to the shop of the young Hüseyn, and Lloyd will bargain for his favorite silver tetradrachm, please ask him, how much he asks for the golden histamenon of IV Romanus Diogenes (1068-1071), on whose recto, photographed by you, Christ crowns Romanus and Eudochia, both wearing loros and holding a royal globe.

In my humble opinion, it may have been dropped (or hidden) by a Byzantine army commander exactly 948 years ago, in August 1071, next to the battlefield of Manzikert, just 244 kilometers from Hüseyn’s shop, as the crow flies.



I have already written about the aşıks, Anatolian wandering singers who were regular guests of the turn-of-the-century cafés in Istanbul. They’ve long since disappeared from Istanbul, but I have read that they can still be found in Eastern Anatolian cities. I ask Hüseyn about them, who directs us to the house of the dengbêjes. The dengbêjes are the Kurdish equivalent of aşıks, wandering singers performing long epics, folk songs and their own compositions. They have regular performing evenings and competitions. In 2007, the Dengbêj House was established in Diyarbakır with EU support, where some well-known dengbêjes perform every afternoon, where people listen, record video, and interview them by a knowledgeable audience, including several women and children. This scene in a traditional merchant’s house in the old town resembles a cellar club, with masters and spectators coming and going, chatting between songs, sipping tea. As we enter, guests from the far West, the masters wave us over to sit by their side. Lloyd takes a place up close to record better, but I stay near the door so I can make a video of them from the front.








The masters also practice in the courtyard. The old gentleman in the first video is also having tea here, he calls us, chats with us. Four days later we meet him in front of his main street clothing store. He warmly greets us and invites us for a tea.


The labyrinth of the Sur, Diyarbakır’s walled old town, with its bustling streets, bazaars, caravanserais, shops, hammams, mosques, and Armenian, Syriac and Greek churches, has evolved over three thousand years. This archaic urban structure suffered three disasters during the past “long century”. The first one came in 1895, when the Ottoman government set fire to the large covered bazaar, where most shops and workshops belonged to the Armenian and Syriac Christian merchants and masters. The second was in 1915, when the Armenians were deported, and their churches set on fire. And the third took place in 2015-2016, when the Turkish army ousted the guerrillas of the rising Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in house-to-house combat. By the end of the fighting, the eastern and southern parts of the old town were in ruins. Subsequently, the Turkish state expropriated more than 6,000 properties – including many Christian church properties – in the devastated area, which they officially claimed for a plan to bring about “the reconstruction of the old town”. The building area is enclosed by high barriers, but it is already apparent that modern residential buildings are being erected within it, which have nothing to do with the historic urban structure and buildings. Critics say the purpose of the operation is to displace the ethnic minorities from the old town, by transferring the new flats to a wealthy Turkish middle class. Erdoğan had announced this plan as early as 2011, but at that time it was still possible to stop him with widespread protest. Today, the process has become irreversible.

The following two maps illustrate the change well. The first one is OpenStreetMap, which is updated with community contributions, and is therefore up to date. Here, the eastern and southern parts of the Sur are covered in a uniform shade, with the label İnşaat Alanı – “Construction site”. There is no trace of any streets, and probably even the mosques and churches still marked on the map – the badly damaged Armenian Catholic church, the Chaldean (Syriac Catholic) church, and the Kurşunlu Mosque, converted from an Armenian church –, no longer exist, either. The second map, from Google Maps, still shows the situation before the destruction, with a multitude of crowled streets, mosques, and public buildings (it is worthwhile to zoom in on the map).

I have been, and even lived, in cities that had been leveled to the ground by an army. This then became part of the city’s topography and collective memory. But a long time then passes, the city is rebuilt, and new structures cover the memories of the old. However, to come into a city right after its destruction is nonetheless a shocking experience. Something that was there for centuries or millennia, still in existence only a few years ago, and has even been seen by some of the readers of this blog, I can no longer see. And no new structures have yet been built, to make us forget the previous ones. It may have been like this in post-war Berlin. Or, more fittingly here, in the Hungarian cities after the Turkish conquest.



The most tragic fate has befallen the Armenian church of St. Giragos (Cyriacus) in the south of the Sur (marked with a cross in OpenStreetMap, at the border of the southern construction site), which was destroyed twice within a century. The church was closed after the Genocide of 1915, and used as a textile warehouse, where it was allowed to completely run down. In 2009, some Armenians of Diyarbakıri descent created a foundation in Istanbul for its renovation. It reopened in 2011, along with a small Armenian museum, the first among the churches abandoned after the Genocide. In 2015, on the 100th anniversary of the Genocide, it was again the victim of the urban fighting, and its location was later expropriated by the Turkish state. Today it stands in ruins, with bomb craters inside. Immediately at the entrance, like a cheap metaphor, the corpse of a lamb lies rotting in a depression.

St Giragos, after the reconstruction of 2011. From the Wikipedia article about the church

Priests preparing for Mass in St. Giragos, 2015. Bryan Denton’s photo for the New York Times

St. Giragos today. In the back to the right, the same sachristy door as in the previous picture.

But in the remainder of the Sur, nothing reminds of the former fighting, except for a few ruins and empty plots. Kids – lots of kids – are playing on the streets, mobile fruit and vegetable vendors make good deals (a few lira difference in price matters a lot), Kurdish women are chatting, sitting on the pavement in front of the houses, men are having coffee in front of the several small shops, old houses are being renovated into boutique hotels, hoping for the tourism that will soon start up, inshallah.

Diyarbakır, the southwestern, partly Christian quarter of the old town. Click on the red dots, and enlarge the small pictures

The Syriac church rises in the middle of the Christian quarter like a fortress. It indeed had to serve this function. During the bloody three-day pogrom of November 1895, thousands of Syriac and Armenian Christians fled here for refuge from the Muslim crowd. It’s not easy to gain entry even today. Although the sign on the gate says it is open until 6 p.m., we are not lucky at 4. A salesgirl in the opposite Syriac wine and jewelry store also has a try at the gate for us, but no one answers.


Upon our return to the town, we find the church open. It is fortified inside as well, with separate courtyards for easier defence. It may have been built in its current state a thousand years ago, from the same black basalt stones as the city walls, but some architectural remains inside suggest that it was converted from a much older pagan temple. Its front porch is that of the early Christian churches, but inside it has a circular plan and skylights, such as those in hammams and bazaars, and the stalactite vault of its altar also imitates a mosque. On the other hand, the icons around the walls show the influence of European Baroque painting, with a strong folk taste.

Before Islam, the whole city was Christian, Syriac Orthodox and Armenian. Conversions began with the 7th-century Arab conquest, and then continued with the 16th-century Ottoman conquest. In 1915, most Christians were massacred, and Kurds moved in to take their place. Many of the remaining Christians have emigrated to Europe in recent decades: 80% of Syriac Christians currently live in Sweden. Only a few thousand Syriac Christians remained in Southeastern Anatolia. In Diyarbakır, only four Syriac Orthodox families, totaling ca. 20 persons. They include our guide in the church, a boy still in high school. His elder brothers and sisters have already moved to Germany with their families. He wants to study economics. “Do you also want to leave?” He hesitates. “No, I’ll stay here.” He still has time to decide.

On the two sides of the sanctuary there are two stone plaques, with the old Syriac Estrangelo script. “Can you read it?” “No, not that one”, he hesitates again, “but this one, yes.” He opens a missal printed in the modern West Syriac Serto script, and starts reading aloud. By the end of the first line, his voice moves over into singing, the usual form of reading aloud. Lloyd begins to silently record it. Unfortunately, the beginning is already lost, but we can still hear the end of the Alleluia introducing the Gospel, and then the Gospel, the word of the Lord, in one of the dialects of the Lord’s mother tongue.



The Gospel in Syriac, 9 August 2019. Recording by Lloyd Dunn


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Syriacs, Aramaeans, Syrians. Christian Syriacs, whose traces we now follow in Southeastern Anatolia, are not identical with the Syrians, about whom we hear in the news as Muslim immigrants. The latter are citizens of a country created in 1920 from the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, and named Syria after the ancient Roman province of the same name. In terms of language and identity, they are predominantly Arab, and they are called Syrians only because of their citizenship.

Christian Syriacs, however, are not Arabs, but the descendants of a variety of ancient Mesopotamian peoples, who spoke one of the dialects of the Aramean immigrants arriving since the 10th c. BC from the Levant to Mesopotamia. Due to their multitude, this language became official in the New Assyrian Empire, and in its successors, the Babylonian and Persian empires. Since the Jews, during the Babylonian captivity, exchanged their original Hebrew language for the related Aramaic, it was easy for the first Christian apostles to proselytize in the areas where their language was spoken: in Mesopotamia and its neighbors, Anatolia and Persia. Therefore, the local Aramaic-speaking population was among the first to adopt Christianity, and this common religion and liturgical language also forged their common ethnic identity. They are therefore called Syriacs on ethnic and religious grounds.

The two kinds of Syrian, by citizenship and by ethnic identity, are distinguished by the terms Syrian and Syriac. The Syriacs themselves, however, recently started to call themselves Assyrians, partly for the sake of a clearer distinction, and partly for a more coveted pedigree. Not all are descendants of the Assyrian warriors, but they live in roughly the territory of the former Assyrian empire, their language is a close relative of the Assyrian, their name comes, with Greek transmission, from that of the Assyrians, and from the 6th century BC their Aramaic language was the administrative language of the Assyrian and all the subsequent empires.

Jewish and Christian Aramaic. Whilst the Syriacs boast an Assyrian pedigree, they also emphasize that they speak in the mother tongue of Jesus. That is, Jesus spoke Assyrian? Well, the equation is right only with some benevolence. During the Babylonian captivity, the Jews adopted the local Aramaic dialect of the 7th century BC. In this they wrote the Targum, the Torah paraphrased in their Aramaic mother tongue, and Christ also spoke its Nazarene dialect of seven centuries later. (This accent may have been quite strong, for his apostle, Peter in Jerusalem is “betrayed by his speech”, Mt 26:73). The language of the Syriac Christians, however, is based on the 1st c. AD Aramaic dialect of Edessa (today Urfa), which differs in many respects from “Jewish Aramaic”. Christ, however, would have probably understood it, just as the Arameans of Edessa understood the apostles of Jerusalem.

“True believers” and “heretics”. Syriac Christianity is divided into several denominations. Their two largest branches were divorced from the Orthodox-Catholic mainstream in 431 and 451, respectively. In 431, the Council of Ephesus condemned the Constantinople theologian Nestorios, who proclaimed that divine and human nature were not united in Christ. Nestorios’s followers fled to the Persian Empire, where they helped the Persian Shah in resolving a serious political dilemma. In fact, the shah had until then provided a refuge for the Christians persecuted in the hostile Roman Empire. However, after Christianity became the state religion of Rome in 390, the enemy’s enemies became, in one fell swoop, a fifth column of war. Nestorios’s followers offered that the Syriac Christians in Persia would adopt the formula condemned in Ephesus, and thus remain separate from the Roman Empire’s Christianity. This they did, and the Nestorian Church – or as they call themselves, the Church of the East, or, since 1976, the Assyrian Church of the East –, became enormous, spreading throughout the Persian empire and beyond, to India and China. They had monasteries on the Silk Road, Marco Polo met an Ossetian Nestorian community in Beijing, the wives of the first great khans were usually Syriac Christians, and in Southern India they still have some ten million followers, called the St. Thomas Christians after their first missionary, St. Thomas the Apostle.

In 451, the Council of Chalcedon condemned another doctrine, the so-called “Monophysitism”, that is, the “belief in the one essence”, whose followers taught that in Christ the divine essence is so much greater than the human one, that this latter is, so to speak, insignificant and uninteresting, in that it “dissolves in the former, like a drop of fresh water in the ocean”. The condemnation was not accepted by many local churches, including the Coptic, Ethiopian and Armenian churches, as well as the Syriacs still living in the Roman empire. The latter established the Syriac Orthodox Church, in whose name the “orthodox” is just as ambiguous as “Syriac”. The term, indeed, means “true faith” in Greek. As such, they justifiably use it if they believe their own faith is true, as they obviously do. However, in terms of religious history, “orthodox” refers to those churches – or rather in the singular, to a multi-centered single church –, which adopted the resolutions of all seven major universal councils, and did not fall out at the fourth, and then only later, in 1054, fell into schism with the Catholic church. In this sense, the Syriac Orthodox Church is not orthodox.

In spite of the separation, the Orthodox church has always been in contact with the “Monophysites” (in their own term, “Myaphisites”, that is, “emphasizing one of the two essences”), and today they consider the schism an unfortunate overreaction. Similary, since the age of discoveries, the Catholic church has sought to re-unite with the “Nestorian” church, and they have now adopted a common Christological statement. The part of the Assyrian Church of the East which reunited with the Catholics in several waves from 1522 on, is called, with the recycling of the name of a long gone Aramaic people, the Chaldean Church. It is today headquartered in Baghdad. They have about eight Syriac followers in Diyarbakir, one single family. Their local church was destroyed in 2016.


National pride: Syriac wine from Midyat, hallmarked with the Assyrian guardian deity

South of Diyarbakır, from the Tigris down to the Syrian border rises the plateau of Tur Abdin, the almost two-thousand-year-old center of Syriac monasticism, as the Aramaic name suggests: “the Mount of Servants”, that is, servants of God. The area has been inhabited for almost three thousand years by Syriacs, who converted to Christianity two thousand years ago, and who speak, not only in the church services, but also in everyday life, Turoyo, the local version of Aramaic. This is one of the most interesting areas of Anatolia, one of the main destinations of our trip. It is a moving experience to get so close to the ancient, yet still living witnesses of the roots of our own European culture.

Syriac Christians have survived in this region through hard perseverance. The Muslim sea surrounding Tur Abdin, the Arabs, the butchers of Timur Lenk, the Ottoman conquerors and the constantly resurging raids of the Kurds repeatedly tried to exterminate them. During the Armenian genocide of 1915, which the Assyrians call Sayfo, “the year of the sword”, the Turkish army and the Kurdish marauders slaughtered three hundred thousand Syriac Christians. The “Nestorian” Assyrians living around Hakkari broke their way through the mountains with weapons to the Persian border and the Caucasus, and today live in Iran, around Lake Urumia and in Tehran, as well as in Tbilisi. In Tur Abdin, tens of thousands of Syriacs fled to the fortified monastery village of Inwardo (now officially called Gülgöze), where they put up armed resistance to the Kurdish siege for two months, until the killers retreated. This is how Tur Abdin has remained the only significant Christian region in Turkey.

Syriac Christians have not been able to enjoy peace ever since. The Turkish state and the Kurdish settlers have sought to expropriate their individual and church lands under various titles, and to expel them from their villages. They are not spared during the clashes between the Kurdish PKK insurgents and the Turkish army. The militias backed by the Turkish state are free to raid their villages: between 1987 and 1998, forty-five people were killed in Tur Abdin, and many Christian girls kidnapped as concubines of Muslim warriors. They have no minority rights, their village and family names have been changed to Turkish ones. Today, most of them – almost a quarter million – have emigrated: 80% of Syriac Christians live in Sweden, and a significant proportion in Germany. In the villages of Tur Abdin, there are left but a few thousand who speak the Aramaic language of their ancestors, and visit their churches. Some monasteries still have dedicated monks, and some of the village churches are still opened by one last family. A few entrepereneurial emigrants still return from the West to bring capital and life to the Syriac countryside.

Most travel guides of Turkey avoid mentioning Tur Abdin. The only one writing about it is Bradt Publisher’s Eastern Turkey (Diana Darke, 2014). Informative travelogues are found in Gergely Nacsinák’s A Tigris tíz szeme. A szír kereszténység szent helyei (The ten eyes of the Tigris. The holy places of Syriac Christians, 2016, in Hungarian), and the related parts of William Dalrymple’s very exciting From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (1998). The monasteries of Tur Abdin are individually presented in the trilingual (German, English, Turkish) album of Hans Hollerweger and Andrew Palmer, Turabdin, where Jesus’ language is spoken (1999). Among the many volumes published on Sayfo, one stand-out is Berghahn Publisher’s multi-author publication Let them not return – Sayfo: The genocide against the Assyrian, Syriac and Chaldean Christians in the Ottoman Empire (2017).

Tur Abdin and surroundings. The Syriac churches and monasteries now visited by us

The Assyrian Christians living in Tbilisi greet Pope Francis with the Aramaic original of Our Father, on his Georgian visit on 1 October 2016


Starting at Diyarbakır, we cross the Tigris at Bismil. Then the road rises rapidly up to the Tur Abdin plateau. We pass through burnt hillsides, the dried-out canyons of what were once wide rivers. The traces of intermittent streams are marked by series of Mediterranean oaks. This is how we areach the town of Savur, climbing up a hillside, where there is a bustling social life taking place on the main street, surprisingly like a ziggurat rising in the midst of this semi-desert landscape.

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From Savur, a fertile green river valley leads to the mountains. The fields are covered with the yellow straw left behind from the harvest. This valley was called “the Paradise of Tur Abdin”, since it provided the area with plenty of vegetables and fruits. In the first village, Qalok, only a few walls can be seen. It was the local dean who first contacted Rome in the 16h century, to establish the Syriac Catholic Church. The village was destroyed during the Sayfo. At the entrance of the second village, a double place name: Dereiçi / Kellith. The first one is the newly created Turkish name; the second, in lower case and parentheses, the original Syriac name. The village on the hillside is now but a ghost town. Its inhabitants made haste to move to Germany after 1998, when the Muslim fundamentalists terrorized the village and killed its mayor.

Two neat, renovated houses face the highway. We do not know whether they are still inhabited by Syriacs. Behind them, the once beautiful, two-story, large-courtyard stone houses are more or less ruined. Some of them are used by Kurdish nomads. Under their arches, goats seek shade from the 42°C heat. Their courtyards are covered by a pointillist pattern of dense goat excrement. Elsewhere, plastic curtains or plastic chairs in front of the ruins indicate new settlers. Many gates have locks, multiple, sophisticated locks, protected with nylon bags, which will still await the owner’s key even when the house behind them has fallen to ruins.

The three churches – Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant – of the village are still intact and repaired, but no longer in use. In the courtyard of the Orthodox church dedicated to St. James, you can see the ornate tomb of the murdered mayor. In the surrounding mountains there are also ruins of three monasteries: Mor Abay – the Persian prince-monk, killed here by his own father –, Mor Dimet – the holy Persian doctor –, and Deyr Wajaʿ Raʿs, the Monastery of the Headache, founded in the 7th century by the traveling monk Mor Thedoute, where people tormented by migraine still spend a night in hope of a cure. After what we have just seen, it almost seems strange that local people are still bothered by such commonplace troubles.

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The white city of Mardin, like a mighty ship, floats over Al-Jazeera, “the Island”, the plains enclosed by the Tigris and Euphrates. Its masts are the unbelievably high minarets of the medieval mosques, and its poop deck the last, salient promontory of the Izla mountain range. Between 1100 and 1400, the city was the center of the Turkic Artuqid principality, which extended from Diyarbakır to what is now northern Iraq. The Artuqids, descendants of Artuq, grand vizier of Damascus and governor of Jerusalem, were great builders. They erected the city’s beautiful white limestone palaces, for which Arnold Toynbee, who had seen many cities, called Mardin the most beautiful city of the world. The Turkish government is also trying to exploit this heritage, and to make the city a major tourist center. Our hotel is located in a former palace beneath Zinciriye Medrese, the labyrinth of its stairs spans three street levels from the upper to the lower gate. From our patio, we can see the day and night hustle of the rooftop restaurants above the main street, the sunlit minarets and domes, and beyond them, the road across the plains to the nearby Syrian border.


The Artuqids, if not by name, are already known to those of our readers who were with us in Georgia. They belonged to those Seljuk Turks who were caught in the crossfire between the Georgian King David the Builder, crowned in 1089; and the Frankish crusaders arriving to the Holy Land in 1096. Their impressive army was defeated in 1121 by King David and his Frankish crusader allies at Didgori near Tbilisi, which opened the way for David to capture the Muslim emirate of Tbilisi and make the city the capital of Georgia. King David’s bronze equestrian statue on the outskirts of Tbilisi, at the site of the former village of Didgori, still points at the Artuqid army with his raised arm, commanding the Georgian troops to start the battle.

Until the Genocide, the old town was the Christian quarter of Mardin. Several Christian denominations – Syrian Catholics, Chaldeans, Armenian Catholics – had here their episcopal seats. In the summer of 1915, the seven thousand Armenians and six thousand Syriac Christians living here were slaughtered. Some Syriac Orthodox survived the genocide by fleeing to the nearby Deyrulzafarân monastery, the then Syriac Orthodox episcopal seat. The episcopal palaces still stand, having either been given other functions, or empty.

The Chaldean church and episcopal palace on the main street is closed. Syriac gravestones and carvings in its courtyard, homeless people at its fence. We go behind the palace, looking for a back door. An old Kurdish couple passes by in traditional attire. The old man leans kindly in our direction and says in Turkish: “This is closed. Go that way, there’s another one open.” The other one is the Syriac Orthodox church of Mor Behnam, in a spacious courtyard opening from a narrow little street. Around it, small auxiliary courtyards, and old Syriac and Arabic stone inscriptions. The church itself is closed, no key-keeper can be found. Next time, inshallah.

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Saint Behnam was the son of Sennaherib, the Assyrian king of the neighboring Adenabene in the 4th century. With his forty servants, he went hunting on Mount Alfaf, and spent the night there. In his dream, an angel appeared to him, calling on him to visit the hermit Mor Mattai living nearby, who could heal his sister Sarah from leprosy. They found him, and he went with them to the city, where the health of the princess was restored by the hermit’s prayer. Seeing this, Behnam, Sarah and the forty servants were baptized, and they accompanied Mor Mattai back to Mount Alfaf. King Sennaherib angered at the news, sent soldiers after the group, who slaugthered all forty-two. Then the king went mad, and the angel revealed to his wife that only Mattai could heal him. This happened, and the king, repentente and having been baptized, built a monastery on the site of the murder. The monastery of St. Behnam and Sarah still stands in northern Iraq, and although it has been damaged by ISIS, it has already been restored. These martyrs are among the most important saints of Syriac Christianty.

St. Behnam, Sarah and the forty martyrs with Mor Mattai, on an icon of the Syriac Orthodox church of Diyarbakır.

Mardin is all music. Not just the frozen music of the white palaces, not just the songs of muezzins and the quiet evening bell. They play music in the streets, in the restaurants, the shops, in the courtyard of mosques. As we turn from the main street to the “Adult Education Institute”, where they teach traditional crafts – weaving, carving, basket weaving, ceramics – as a profession in an impressive palace of the Christian quarter that probably served as a church center before that, we see young Turkish musicians playing in the little square. The ad hoc audience is happy to video them and themselves.


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In the evening, as I write this diary in the patio of our hotel, some dynamic, tight, loud Kurdish music comes up from the main street, sometimes mixed with singing, and sometimes with the stamping of feet. It’s around midnight when I’m done and go down to find its source. They are playing in the Karvanseray Restaurant on the main street, which is a beautiful 16th-century carvanserai, with a large arcade courtyard. By the time I get there, the dance is over. I sit down at an empty table. The waiters look at me in the affirmative, but they don’t come to take an order. The band is playing the final piece, and their singer invites one of the guests, a popular chanson singer from Ankara, to sing a Turkish song. The singer, a little bit drunk, performs himself, with proper theatricality, addressing the love song to his girlfriend sitting next to him. The End, celebration. I thank the chief waiter for the opportunity, I promise that next time I will come earlier.


In Mardin, you can see this figure everywhere: on stone carvings, on the wall of restaurants, in gift shops. A woman with beautiful face and with a scaly body, her many legs and tail ending in snake heads. This is one of the popular Kurdish folk heroes, Shahmaran. Her name means in Kurdish – and in the related Persian – “the Queen of Snakes”.


According to the common thread of the many versions of this tale of Sumerian origin, some shepherds found honey at the bottom of a well. They lowered one of them down, Tahmasp, to scoop out the honey, bucket by bucket. After they pulled up the last bucket of honey, they cheerfully walked away, not even thinking about Tahmasp who remained in the well. He tried to climb the wall of the well, but failed. Then at night he saw light through the gaps between the stones. He widened the opening, and entered a wonderful underground world, the kingdom of snakes. The beautiful snake queen welcomed him. They fell in love, and lived together for a long time. But Tahmasp wanted to go home. The snake queen let him go, but made him vow that he would not tell anyone about the underground kingdom. Then, up above, it so happened that the Sultan, the Shah, the Governor of Mardin or some other great man fell ill, and the doctors found that only the flesh of the Queen of the Snakes would cure him. They somehow find out that Tahmasp knows her whereabouts, and force him to lead them to her. Here the story has several tails. According to the chief version, the snake queen says that whoever eats of her head, will die; of her body, will recover; and of her tail, will become master of the empire. So the wicked vizier forces Tahmasp to eat her head, gives her body to the Sultan, and he himself eats her tail. He immediately dies, because the snake queen deliberately said the opposite of the truth. Tahmasp becomes the master of the empire, but will remain eternally sad.

As shown in the above picture, in this region the Shahmaran is usually depicted with peacocks, for the Yezidi Kurdish audience of the story and iconography. Here, the Yezidi Kurds are among the persecuted, just like the Christians. Out of solidarity, I buy a bag with the Shahmaran and the Peacock Angel, and carry it with me for the rest of the way.


In the doorway of the small café behind Mardin Museum, a small exhibition of ideological symbols also includes the Shahmaran. My photographing them is seen as a sign of interest by the young Kurdish waiter, and he immediately calls us in for a coffee. Kurdish coffee is brewed three times, each time with a little ground pistachio. Meanwhile, the young man tells us what to see in Mardin and the surroundings. He warmly recommends Deyrulzafarân, the saffron monastery. The shop offers Turkish-language Mardin guides and Kurdish-language ethnographic publications and illustrated magazines. On the wall, there are Russian-language anatomical figures.

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The saffron monastery stands five kilometers from Mardin, deep in a winding valley. The Izla mountain range stretches from Mardin to Nisibis at the Syrian border for eighty kilometers. Once upon a time, there lived forty thousand monks among thousands of monasteries here. The ruins of the monasteries are still visible in many places, including on the crest of the mountain above Deyrulzafarân. Until the 1920s, this monastery was the center of the Syriac Orthodox Church. Today, only two monks live here.

The monastery is still an important place of pilgrimage, it always has a few guests. A labyrinth was cut into the floor of the renovated foyer, similar to the ones seen in many medieval cathedrals, such as Chartres, which were the symbolic substitutes for a great pilgrimage. In Deyrulzafarân, however, it is not the pilgrims, but the water that passes through the curving channels of the maze.

According to legend, a Persian merchant sent a large load of saffron to the West with his Syriac Christian caravan leader. He tried for a long time, but could not find a buyer for the valuable goods. He stayed a night in Deyrulzafarân, which was just being restored by Bishop Ananias (793-816). (Later, the monastery was dedicated to him under the name of Mor Hananyo, although it was founded in the 6th century by a monk named Sleimun, that is, Solomon, in a Roman fortress built on the site of an Assyrian sun-shrine.) The merciful bishop purchased the whole load of saffron, and, as a sign of his contempt of worldly riches, poured it all into the freshly mixed mortar. Since then, the façade of the monastery shines with a saffron color at every sunset.

We also go out at sunset to see the miracle. Well, let it be saffron. We go around and take photos of the Izla hills. An off-road vehicle stops next to our car parked at the edge of the road. “Gendarmerie. Where are you from?” “Madjaristan. We are taking pictures of the monastery.” He casts a sharp glance at my Kurdish trousers before leaving us.


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To be continued