Southeastern Anatolia, minute by minute

The upper reaches of Euphrates. In the foreground, the Armenian Plateau, in the background, the Mt. Nemrut 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.

A label in the Archaeological Museum of Gaziantep presenting the purchase value of the tetradrachma

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 sacristy 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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At the other end of the Izla mountain range, just a few kilometers from the Syrian borders, rises Mor Augin, the monastery of St. Eugen. Abbot Augin of Egypt and his seventy companions arrived here, at the border region of the then Persian empire, in the early 4th century. This was the very first Syriac monastery: before that, Syriac monks and nuns lived alone as hermits. True, it closed in 1970, when the last monk died, but in 2011 Father Raban Yakim Unfal moved here from Midyat, and it has since been open (on workdays, 9 am to 3 pm, on Saturday and Sunday closed). However, the lands of the monastery have been occupied by Kurdish tribes, and they refuse to return them. This problem is widespread throughout the Syriac region, even though Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish independence movement, called on the Kurds to stop tormenting the Syriacs and Yezidis who had suffered enough in the previous hundred years.

The monastery clings to the side of the steep cliff, with its intricate wall system towering above the Mesopotamian plain. Beyond the Syrian border, black clouds of smoke that promise nothing good rise to the sky.

Nusaybin, in ancient times known as Nisibis, lies directly on the Syrian border. Or it is more accurate to say that the Syrian border runs through it, with a double wall and a death zone between them, just like the Wall that ran through Berlin. The city reach right to the wall, and on the other side of the wall it starts again, under the name of Qamishli. Its atmosphere also resembles the former West Berlin, say Neukölln: a rich, lively provincial life at the edge of the civilized world, in the shadow of the wall.

Ancient Nisibis also laid on a border between the Roman and Persian empires. In 363, after the Mesopotamian defeat of Emperor Julian – reported in detail by Ammianus Marcellinus –, the city was handed over to the Persians, and its population moved to Amida, today’s Diyarbakır. It was then that the famous theology of the city, the spiritual center of Syriac Christianity, moved to Edessa, today’s Urfa. Here taught the greatest Syriac theologian and poet, Saint Ephrem (306-373), and here learned Nestorius, after whose condemnation in 431 Emperor Zeno closed the Edessa school. In 489, the theology moved back to Nisibis, which had become largely Christian, and flourished there until the establishment of the Baghdad school (832).

St. Ephrem in an icon of the Syriac Orthodox church of Diyarbakır.

Today Nusaybin has one single Christian church, almost directly on the Syrian border, in the excavation area of the ancient city center. The church was dedicated to St. Jacob of Nisibis, master of Saint Ephrem, who was the bishop of the city around 300, and the builder of the city’s first cathedral. The cathedral was destroyed, but its baptistery survived: according to the inscription, this was the still standing church, built in 571. The church belongs to the city museum, and is being restored, so it cannot be visited. It is not known whether it is used as a church at all.

Heading from Nusaybin to the north, towards the monastery of Mor Gabriel, we see a valley to the right with ruined houses. Another Syriac ghost village? We deviate. Massive, fortified houses on either side of the road, most of them decaying. But at the head of the valley, there is one still nicely maintained, with metal water heaters on the roof, which would be removed right away from an abandoned house. A Kurdish inscription on the gate: „Kasra Huseyne Silo”, with the familiar Yezidi motif of a peacock from the left and the right.

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Our suspsicion is confirmed by the cemetery. It fits neatly in the landscape, its two parts, separated by the road, are encircled by two walls. Individual tombs on sarcophagus-like high pedestals, and mausoleums with pointed domes, carved beautifully from limestone. Most of them have the symbols of peacocks and spinning sun disks, those of Yezidi Kurds.

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The smaller part of the cemetery is a veritable Yezidi shrine complex. Next to its entrance, decorated with a sun disk, is a large black snake carved, as on the shrine of Sheikh ʿAdi, the founder of the Yezidi religion in Lalesh, Northern Iraq. The black snake is the sacred animal of the Yezidis. They have various myths about it – e.g. that a black snake plugged a leak Noah’s ark –, but the real reasons for its reverence are rooted in the ancient Iranian religions, from which the Yezidi religion has grown. Above of the entrance, a mixed Kurdish-Turkish sign says that this is Sheikh ʿAdi’s shrine in Kiwex. So, this was the name of this village.

Entering the cemetery, a carved well stands to the left, with gables imitating mosques and a peacock on the top, and a Kurdish inscription: “Ya Xwede û Tawisî Melek”, “Oh God and the Peacock Angel”.

Opposite, a shrine, the Kurdish inscription reads „Quba Xatuna Fexra”, that is, “Ms. Fekhra’s shrine”, with seven small peaks, each with a crescent moon. Under each peak, a plaque with the name of a great religious founder or early leader, corresponding to the seven archangels: Şêx Adi (Sheikh ʿAdi, the earthly incarnation of the Peacock Angel), Şêxsin, Şemsêdin, Fexrêdin, Sicadin, Nasirdin, Şexubekir. Behind them, on the summit of the shrine’s main dome, a six-pointed star with a sun symbol in its center, which was a widespread Kurdish symbol in the Middle Ages. The church at Gandzasar (now the cathedral of Karabakh), erected in 1238 by Christian Kurdish princes, is also full of them.

“Amîn, amîn, amîn
Himeta Semsedîn
Fexredîn, Sicadîn, Nasirdîn
Şeşîmse qeweta dîn
Qedî Bilban qedîm
Siltan Şîxadî tanc ji ewilîn û axirîn
Heq hemdulah ya Reb il-ʿalemîn
Ya Şîxadî, ʿelêk il-selam.”
Amen, amen, amen
by the greatness of Shemsedin,
Fekhredin, Sejadin, Nasirdin
Sheikh Shems is the strength of the religion
Qadi il-Ban is the ancient
Sultan Sheikh ʿAdi has the first and last crown
Praise be to God, Lord of both worlds
Sheikh ʿAdi, peace upon you!

Diroze, Yezidi hymn from Lalish, collected by Philip Kreyenbroek, 1996

The pinacle star of the Kiwex shrine

A six-pointed star with sun symbol in the centre, next to a full sun symbol, on the central Yezidi shrine of Lalish (from Pinterest)

The two halves of a Christian Kurdish gravestone with Armenian script in the Gandzasar cathedral, Karabakh (from our Karabakh tour in 2018)

Next to it, some lonely shrines (in Kurdish, ziyarat), with the name of a religious leader/archangel above their arched doors. Some of the doors have been walled up, but others are open. Inside, on the two sides, colored silk fabrics, recently hung. On the opposite wall, a metal or clay peacock, with stains of candle smoke above it.

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The Yezidis – considered sometimes as Kurds, sometimes as the ancient natives of Northern Mesopotamia, who took over the Kurdish tongue – are a people numbering several hundred thousand in Northern Iraq and in the neighboring mountains of Southeastern Anatolia, Syria and Iran; and, due to centuries-old persecution, also in the Caucasus and Europe, mainly in Germany. They follow a monotheistic religion that grew out of the religions of the ancient Iran and Mesopotamia, with Christian, Jewish and Muslim loan elements, organized into one system by Sheikh ʿAdi, who died around 1160. His tomb in Lalish, northern Iraq, is still one of the most important Yezidi shrines and pilgrimage sites. According Yezidi belief – which is oral only, so it has many possible variations – God only created the world, then retired, and since then, the seven archangels – meleks, angels/kings, using a term borrowed from Aramaic – rule, led by Melek Tawus, the Peacock Angel (whose earthly incarnation was Sheikh ʿAdi). The surrounding Muslims, including the Kurds, take the Peacock Angel as an equivalent of Lucifer, and thus see the Yezidis as devil worshippers, and so have been massacring and/or forcibly converting them for centuries. The latest blow was the conquest of Sinjar, inhabited mainly by Yezidis, in the summer of 2014, when the occupying ISIS fanatics killed thousands of Yezidis, and forced seven thousand Yezidi women into sex slavery (which, in their view, meant saving their souls by converting them into Muslims).

The victims of Sinjar are remembered by the Yezidi Kurdish laments recently published on the site of the OSA Archive of Budapest.

Yezidi Kurds on the Sinjar mountain. A postcard by the Sarrafi brothers of Beirut, ca. 1890. The Yezidis fled from the persecution of the Arab governor of Mosul, and then of the Ottoman government to the mountainous region of Sinjar, which had been the refuge of the Assyrian Christians. In the early 20th century, they were already the majority here, and refused to give refuge to the Assyrian Christians persecuted by the Ottoman government.

14-year-old Yezidi Runak Bapir Gherib accompanying her family back to Sinjar, liberated by the Kurdish Peshmerga. (From the Iraqi Metrography photo agency)

Although ISIS did not cross into Turkey, the inhabitants of the village Kiwex we visited, also fled from the persecution by the surrounding Kurdish and Turkish Muslim militias in 1993 to Germany, mainly to Bremen. They have since been fighting for their village and for their return, which has since failed due to passive resistance by the Turkish government. The Kurdish name of the village was officially changed to the Turkish Mağara Köyü, that is, Cave Town, from a limestone cave situated above the village. On the hill above the village, the Turkish army has installed a locator station, and the village can be only entered with their permission. I find this out only well after our visit, but while we are taking pictures, we continuously hear the loud conversation of the guards on the hill. However, the Yezidis from Germany still bring their dead back to be buried here, and that’s why the cemetery is in such a cared-for condition.

Midyat, the center of the Syriac Christianity of Tur Abdin, was pure Assyrian Christian until the 18th century. It was then that the first Kurdish family moved in at the invitation of the Assyrian elders. By this time, the surrounding Kurdish tribes had distressed and plundered the Christians so much, that the Assyrians thought it wise to invite the head of the renowned Nehroz family from the Şemmakan tribe to settle in the city and protect them from the rest of their tribe. To this end, they offered him one of Midyat’s many beautiful palaces, the 5th-century Mor Şemun d’stune monastery, henceforth known as Kash-i Nehroz, the Nehroz Manor. Family members recently converted the manor into a beautiful little boutique hotel, so anyone can admire it from the inside when staying in Midyat. The furnishings of the former monastic cells are now far from ascetic, and a fine restaurant operates in the monastery courtyard. In the evening, they play live music on lute and drum: Turkish folk music, which historically was never played in this region. In fact, as the language of the guests shows, it is obvious that the hotel is an outpost for internal colonization that is there for the convenience of the Turkish citizens visiting the remote countryside. But the most striking feature among the cultural idiosyncrasies of the Assyrian-Kurdish-Turkish monastery-manor-hotel is that there is a small mausoleum somewhere in the basement, with a sacred tomb. Midyat Muslims consider it to be a Muslim saint, and they light candles here every Thursday night, while Midyat Assyrians hold him as a Christian saint, and light candles every Saturday night. Their singing infiltrates the vaulted hotel rooms.

Today, only five hundred of Midyat’s 60 thousand inhabitants are Syriac Christians. The others perished or escaped partly during the 1915 Genocide, and partly after 1979, when the surrounding Kurdish and Arab tribes symbolically declared war on the Syriac Christians, and assassinated the Syriac Christian mayor of the nearby town of Kerboran (now Dargeçit). In recent years, hundreds of Syriac Christians have fled here from war-torn Syria, and are being cared for by the local community, but even so, they continue to emigrate to Sweden or Germany. Four of the city’s eight churches are still active, their distinctive, tall, slender towers define the silhouette of the Old Town. This late afternoon, we find only the Mor Şarbel church open, with kids playing soccer in its yard, happily shouting in the mother-tongue of Jesus. Some of the surrounding, stunningly carved palaces are still partly in the hands of Syriac merchants. Among the palaces, Kurdish shepherds herd their flocks.

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The Mor Hobil and Mor Abrohom monastery emerges magnificently on the eastern border of Midyat. The monastery was named after two fifth-century monks, of whom only Mor Abrohom lived here. However, both were buried in the monastery, which made it a place of pilgrimage. When Gertrude Bell visited it in 1909 and in 1911, it was still active, but already in very bad shape. Soon after it became depopulated, probably due to the Genocide. In the early 1990s, the church and the cemetery were vandalized. In the late 90s, the Syriac community began to restore it, and in 2003 the former abbot of the Saffron Monastery moved here. Since then, monastic life has continued.

The monastery and its surroundings are a good example of the few positive changes in the destiny of the Syriac Christians of Tur Abdin. In 2001, the Turkish government, in cooperation with the Syriac Patriarchate, called on the European Syriac diaspora to return. Several Christians have resettled, bringing also some capital to the region, and they have worked in the interest of keeping a Syriac Christians presence here. The monastery was restored with their support, and they built the modern Tur Abdin Hotel along the road leading to the monastery.

We arrive at the monastery on Sunday morning. The guard only gives us access to the courtyard, the church is still closed. Around it, tombstones with Syriac inscriptions, the obligatory Turkish names followed in parenthesis by the original Syriac surname. On the porch of the lateral wing, converted into a guest house, the day starts with coffee. Under the monastery arcades, a small museum, a kind of a local retro collection with all kinds of utensils from the last hundred years, from the coffee grinder to the kerosene lamp and the iron stove decorated with a crescent moon and a cherub. Where they want to erase the past this much, every trivia is a treasure. The gate of the monastery offers a panoramic view of Midyat. The rising sun paints the churches towering above the city in gold.

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Alongside the monastery starts the road to the Tur Abdin mountains, east of Midyat. We pass by the Syrian refugee camp built on the fields of the monastery, and after a short while, the road loses its pavement, it continues as a dirt road. So surprising. In Anatolia, the roads between settlements are always paved. It looks as if they left this one a dirt road as punishment. And indeed. This road leads to the town of Inwardo / Ein Wardo, by its official (and completely rootless) Turkish name Gülgöze, the Syriac Musa Dagh, and stops there. This was the town where, in 1915, under the protection of the Mor Hadbshabo fortress monastery, twenty thousand Syriac Christians successfully defended themselves against the Ottoman army and the Kurdish marauders, before the killers retreated. This is why there are still any Christians at all in Tur Abdin. The ancestors of most Syriac Christians in Tur Abdin were there in Inwardo. After the genocides perpetrated by the Young Turks and Atatürk, there were no other Christian regions left in Turkey – the former Byzantine Empire, Western Armenia, the Cappadocian monastery region, the Pontic Greek lands, the homeland of Aramaic-speaking Christianity – except this one and Istanbul.

Genocides rarely have chroniclers. We must appreciate the rare ones. William Dalrymple, in his shocking From the Holy Mountain: A journey in the shadow of Byzantium, opens up the memory of an old priest from Midyat about the siege of Ein Wardo. It is worth quoting in full. The story begins where Dalrymple, in the monastery of Mor Gabriel, listens to Father Tomas, a former Syriac parish priest, who tells about how, in the 1990s, the Turkish army destroyed twenty-five Assyrian Christian villages, including his one, in the region of Hakkari, near the Iranian border, with the excuse that they supported the Kurdish rebels.

Not since Ein Wardo has the situation been so desperate for us here.’

I had had my head down, taking notes as Fr. Tomas talked. It was only when I looked up that I saw his shoulders were heaving slightly and tears were streaming down his face. I put my hand gently on his shoulder.

The old priest was crying like an abandoned child.

Later, I asked Afrem what Fr. Tomas had meant when he referred to Ein Wardo.

According to Afrem, at the beginning of the First World War the Suriani saw the Armenians being led away by the Ottoman troops and heard the rumours of what was happening to them. They feared that they would be next, so they made preparations. They bought guns and stored wheat. They chose the most inaccessible of their mountain villages, Ein Wardo, and began to fortify it. They strengthened the walls of the church and secretly prepared barricades to fill the gaps between the houses.

When the Ottomans, backed by Kurd irregulars, began their attacks on the Suriani villages, the then Patriarch gave orders for all the villagers to retreat with their food and weapons to Ein Wardo. For three years the Suriani defended themselves there. Anyone outside the barricades was killed. Nearly every Suriani alive in eastern Turkey today is there because his parents or grandparents took shelter within those walls.

Afrem said that the village still stands, and that one of the defenders is still alive: a priest, ninety-four years old, who had been a child during the siege. He now lives with his son near Midyat. Tomorrow I hope to talk to him.

[The next day Dalrymple and his helpers go to see Abuna Shabo in the recently visited Mor Habil and Mor Abrohom monasteries.]

‘It was Mar Hadbashabo who saved us!’ shouted the old priest. ‘The saint was wearing white clothes and attacking at the front of the Christians, throwing the Muslims back from the barricades of Ein Wardo. At evening time he stood on the church tower. We all saw him, even the Muslims, those sons of unmarried mothers! At first they tried to shoot him, thinking he was a priest, but the bullets went straight through him. Then they thought he was a djinn. Only towards the end of the siege, only after three years, did they realise he was a saint.’

‘Let’s go back to the beginning,’ I said. ‘What were relations with the Muslims like before the war?’

‘They were not good,’ said the old man. ‘But before the war nobody was ever killed. In those days the Kurds were in the hills and the Christians were near the towns. We lived separately. But we were always fearful of what might happen, so as the war approached we began to sell our animals and buy guns. We had more than three thousand. They were old-fashioned matchlocks, ones that you had to light with a fuse, but they did the job. We melted down all our copper pots to make shot; the monks melted down their plate. We collected together a good stock of wheat. When the war broke out, and the Turks told the Kurds to go and massacre all the Christians, we were ready. By night all the Christian villagers came to Ein Wardo. They came from Midyat, Kefr Salah, Arnas, Bote, Kefr Zeh, Zaz Mzizah, Basa Brin. In the village there were about 160 houses. By the time everyone had gathered there were at least twenty families in every house.’

‘We built walls between the houses so that the village looked like a fort,’ he continued. ‘Then we dug tunnels so that we could go from house to house without getting shot by the Muslims. The strongpoint was the church, and on the roof we had a cannon that we had captured from the Turks in Midyat.

‘They came after fourteen days: around twelve thousand Ottoman troops and perhaps thirteen thousand Kurds – irregulars who just wanted to join in the plunder. Any Christian left outside Ein Wardo was killed. Many were too slow and did not make it. In Arnas the Kurds captured thirty-five pretty girls. They locked them into the church, hoping to take them out and rape them one by one. But there was a deep well in the courtyard. All the girls chose to jump in rather than lose their virginity to the Muslims.’

‘Did your supplies last for the whole siege?’

‘The first summer we were not hungry. But by the middle of the winter things began to be difficult. We ran out of salt and people became ill for the lack of it. One group of about a hundred people tried to escape at night to get some salt from Midyat and Enhil. They were ambushed. Most of them got back, but fifteen people, including one of my brothers, never came back. That winter I lost my sister too. She went outside the barricades to fetch wood. The Muslims were hiding behind rocks. They captured her and cut her throat. That night I found her. Her head was separated from her body. I was twelve years old then.’

The old man’s head dropped, and I thought for a minute that he, like Fr. Tomas the previous evening, was going to burst into tears. But after a minute’s silence he recovered himself, and I asked if he had fought in the defence of Ein Wardo himself.

‘They thought I was too young to hold a gun, but they let me collect stones to drop down the mountain slopes. I did my bit. There was plenty of opportunity. The first year the attack was very strong. That winter was very hard. One loaf of bread would go to each family per day, which meant that there was only one piece for each person. Many were wounded, but there was only one doctor; he did what he could, but most of the wounded had to rely on the old men who knew about roots and herbal remedies. But we never gave up. We had heard that the British had landed in Iraq, and we all believed they would come to rescue us. Of course nothing happened, but the hope of relief kept us from despair.’

‘The Christians of the West have never done anything for us,’ said Bedros, rolling a cigarette with his right hand, and spitting out the spare tobacco with a loud gob into the corner. ‘The Turks help other Muslims if they are in trouble in Azerbaijan or in Bosnia, but the Christians of Europe have never shown any feelings for their brothers in the Tur Abdin.’

‘The worst hunger was the following year,’ continued the old priest, ignoring his son’s interruption. ‘During the siege no one could grow anything, so supplies were almost exhausted. I remember that second winter we were permanently hungry, and would eat anything: lizards, beetles, even the worms in the ground.

‘But the Muslims were also growing hungry, and in 1917 disease – cholera I think – struck their camp. God willed it that we did not get the disease in Ein Wardo; somehow we were spared. The attacks grew less and less and gradually we became brave. At night we began to break out and attack their camp. Once we attacked the Ottoman barracks in Midyat.’

‘You can still see the bulletholes,’ said Yacoub.

‘After three years,’ continued Abouna Shabo, swiping at the bluebottles which were trying to settle on his face, ‘they despaired of ever conquering us and said that we were being protected by our saints, Mar Gabriel, John the Arab and especially Mar Hadbashabo. Eventually a famous imam, Sheikh Fatullah of Ein Kaf, came to the Muslim army and said he would try to make peace between the two sides. The Muslims asked the Sheikh to say “Give up your guns,” but the Sheikh, who was an honourable man, advised us not to surrender all our weapons.

‘In the end we handed over three hundred of our guns. The Sheikh gave us his son as a hostage and said we should kill him if the Muslims broke their word. He then went on his donkey to Diyarbakir and took a written order from the Pasha-Commander that the soldiers and the Kurds should leave. I will never forget the sight of the Ottoman army taking down their tents and marching away down the valley towards Midyat.

‘We gave the Sheikh back his son, saying we could not bear to kill the son of such a man, even if the Ottomans did break their word.”

In the mid-90s, Dalrymple had much difficulty accessing the village, which was controlled by the Turkish army at the time of the Kurdish uprising. On the way back, he was even arrested. Meanwhile, we are rolling unhidered on the dusty dirt road. First we photograph the imposing fortress monastery from the edge of the village, from where the Kurds and the Turks might have fired at it. Then we go inside. We stop the car at the entrance of the monastery. Farther along, on the porch of a house, five or six men sit talking, all watching us. By the time we get out, one of them, perhaps between 20 and 25, comes to us, bringing the key without asking. The interior of the monastery is as rustic as it can be, designed for survival. Rustic, too, is the church, the porch, the inner garden with its many tombs, the upstairs chapter hall, and the roof terrace. We try to find out from where the Suriani may have shot the besiegers with the confiscated Turkish cannon. Three years? Three months are too much!

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We head north, in a large arc through the monastery region of Tur Abdin. Along the road, on a hilltop, another ghost village: Narlıköy, originally called Helex. I am searching the internet, but it is not even clear whether it is a Syriac or a Kurdish village. I can see no church tower, only the minaret of a modern mosque on the other side of the road. In the foreground, at the bottom of the hill, Muslim gravestones. Time is tight now, but next time we should stop and check this town.

The church of Keferze/Kfarze emerges as a lonely structure on the top of a golden cliff, which gives you the idea why the town was given the official Turkish name of Altıntaş, “Golden Stone”. The town is hidden behind a the ridge of a hill. The 7th to 8th-century church of Mor Izozoel is a squat, fortified cube, with small carved arch gates and a triple porthole window decorated with stone faces. This was indeed necessary, because the neighboring Kurds attacked the village again and again. The first recorded case was in 1413, when the Yezidi and Muslim Kurds jointly pillaged Keferze. In the Kudish attack of 1885, several Christians died. But most perished in the 1915 genocide. Before that, the town was inhabited by 160 Syriac Christian and 70 Muslim families. In 2005, there were 12 Syriac Christian and 40 Kurdish families.

Around the church lie beautifully carved, now decaying, stone palaces. Directly next to it, one has been converted into a Kurdish farmhouse, with an outside oven and wool drying in the garden. Around another, Kurdish boys are playing, looking at us darkly, not returning a greeting. Within sight are two other churches: a tidy chapel dedicated to Mor Abrohom along the road, and another with snow-white tower between desolate palaces and Kurdish houses. According to the German Wikipedia, there are still a total of eight churches in the town. We will have to come back for them.

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The fortress church of Hah (Anıtlı) is perhaps the most impressive among the churches in Tur Abdin. With its huge block and tall tower, it makes you stop at the edge of the village. The church, dedicated to the Mother of God, was probably built in the 5th entury, and took its present form in the 6th century. Its special feature is the blocky roof tower, decorated with a double arcade row enclosing the dome, which was erected only in the early 20th century. In the courtyard, built within the walls, old gravestones with Syriac inscriptions.

According to local tradition, the church was built shortly after the birth of Jesus by the twelve kings who followed the Star of Bethlehem. Nine of them stayed here in Hah under the protection of the local king Hanna, and three were sent to explore the terrain. They did find Jesus in the manger, and returned with a strip of cloth from his swaddling clothes. It should have been divided among them, but they did not want to cut it. Finally they burned it to divide up its ashes. But the strip turned into twelve golden medals in the fire. At the sight of the wonder, King Hanna built a church to proclaim the glory of the Mother of God unto the ends of the earth.

The dome tower of the Church of the Mother of God, 1907, with only one arcade. Photo by Gertrude Bell

The Syriac priest of the Church of the Mother of God and his wife, with the gospel book written in 1227. Photo by Gertrude Bell

The gospel book on the church’s reading stand. Photo by Gertrude Bell

The Hah gospel book, today in the library of Mor Gabriel monastery

The scene of Jesus’ birth in the Hah gospel book

To Tur Abdin, the ends of the earth came in 1915, the year of the sword. The Kurds also laid siege upon Hah. Local Christians and the refugees from neighboring towns fortified themselves in the remains of a medieval building known as King Yuhannon’s Palace, as in Inwardo, and defended themselves for forty-five days. Finally, the Kurds offered peace and retreated. This is why the town has preserved its Syriac Christian majority. Before the genocide, 100 Christian families lived here, but with the emigrations of the 80s and 90s, their number had fallen to 13 families. After 2000, with the Turkish state’s invitation to return, their number began to increase again. Today, 23 Syriac Christian families live here, and many others return home for a few months each year.

In the early Middle Ages, Hah was the seat of the Syrian Orthodox bishoprics of Tur Abdin. Only in 1089 was the monastery region divided into two bishoprics: the southern one was given the monastery of Mor Gabriel as its seat, while Hah remained that of the northern one. Its former cathedral, Mor Sabo today stands in ruins in the middle of the town. We would like to visit it, as well as the twenty-one (!) other churches in the town which are said to have survived, of the formerly forty, but the road leading into the town is blocked ominously by barracks erected in the 1980s to discipline the Kurdish insurgents. We don’t feel like spending our valuable time with explanations. We’ll try another time.

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Zaz (İzbırak) was not as lucky as Hah. The Kurds invaded in the first days of the genocide, and although the 200 Christian families who locked themselves in the fortress church defended themselves for twenty days, in the end most of them were massacred. The few survivors were able to settle back only after the war. From the 1980s, even their descendanst began to emigrate. The last Christian left Zaz in 1993. However, since the early 2000s, more and more resettle here temporarily or permanently.

Father Yakup, who now takes care of the Mor Dimet fortress church, also returned from Sweden. His black figure appears from time to time in the window of the plastic porch above the gate of the church, as we are going around taking photos. Above the gate and in the lower part of the tower, Syriac-language renovation inscriptions from 1936 and 1959. At the base of the neighboring, decaying palace, a large pile of old carved stones. According to a description, they were collected by Father Yakup from the ruined churches of other towns.

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The Mor Yakup fortress church of Kafro Elayto, that is, the Upper Village, which in Turkish is Arica, rises on a hilltop, surrounded by the village houses like a fortress wall. In 1915, it could have been defensible like Inwardo or Hah, but the Christians were late to realize the danger, and did not collect enough weapon and food. They defended the village for five days against the Kurds, and then accepted their peace offer that promised them humane treatment. The Kurds marched in and slaughtered all the adults, taking their children to slavery.

Today, however, there live Christians in the village. Two children play by the church wall, they break out into hysterical laughter at the sight of foreign visitors. They retrieve the key from the neighboring house and guide us through the church, from the courtyards lined with graves to the rooftop. They won’t stop laughing until our farewell.

Next to the village are the remains of two monasteries, Mor Barsaumo and Mor Aho. They were depopulated only in 1915. On the day of their saints, Christians in the area still come here to feast.

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The monastery of Mor Yakub in Salah is one of the six largest active monasteries in Tur Abdin. Its namesake and founder, St. James the Hermit, came here from Egypt in the 4th century, just like many other monastery founders in Tur Abdin, showing how easily the provinces of the empire were permeable at that time.

The monastery stands at the foot of the hill of Salah/Saleh (in Turkish Barıştepe, “Peace Hill”), at the edge of the fields, with the ruins of a pagan temple behind it. Its large church nave does not lead to the sanctuary in the longitudinal direction, but stretches out before it, as if it were built as a transept, with one of its outer ends provided with a church façade. The monastery and the guesthouse are the largest ones we have seen in Tur Abdin.

As we are entering the courtyard, a Syriac monk in black cape greets us. He is Father Doniyel, who, assisted by two nuns, tries to fill the monastery with new life. He calls out a young boy from upstairs, who guides us in perfect German through the church and its surroundings. He was born in Essen, but his family sends him home every year to the summer Syriac language camp organized by Father Doniyel. There are children from other emigré families, from Paris and elsewhere, Istanbul and other large Turkish cities. Their language teacher is a kind forty-year-old man with four brothers living in Berlin. While drinking tea on the monastery porch, two young Kurdish men arrive, friends of the monastery from Belgium. The conversation goes on in mixed Syriac, Kurdish, German, French. A group of thirty to forty people arrives in the courtyard, members of the town’s Muslim-Christian association, who regularly discuss the affairs of the town in the monastery. In the back garden, the two elderly nuns are having tea with the Turkish and French ladies staying in the guest house. The monastery really deserves its Turkish name.

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Leaving Tur Abdin, we head northwards, towards Lake Van, and the former Armenian towns. Our first stop is Hasankeyf, in Arabic-Syrian “the rock of the fortress”, where “rock” is the Aramaic word (keyf/kefa), which Jesus gave Simon, the apostle, who from then on was called Peter (Kefa, in Greek and Latin Petros and Petrus). And the fortress is an ancient Roman garrison rising on the cliff above the Tigris, on the former Roman-Persian border.

After the Roman and Byzantine eras, the town became the northern capital of the Artukid Seljuk kingdom, already mentioned in connection with Mardin. The Artukids built a lot here, a legendary bridge, a palace, mosques and turbes. Between 1232 and 1416 it was the capital of the Ayyubid kingdom, founded by Sultan Saladin, then an important city of the Akkoyunlu tribal alliance, and finally an Ottoman provincial center. Over the centuries, it was continuously enriched with Muslim and Christian works of art.

We slowly proceed down the main street parallel to the Tigris, looking for a restaurant. But most stores have closed, it seems, permanently. At the main intersection we find a fish restaurant open. A young Kurdish man beckons us in to have some local, extremely bony fish. He also works as a local guide, he offers his services. First he takes us to the cave dwellings on the mountainside. “Fifty years ago, everyone lived here. My grandparents, my parents. It was only in the 1960s that they moved down to the bank of the river, into ordinary homes. Now the whole city is being demolished, and a New Hasankeyf is being built on the other side. Here, the Tigris will flood everything, up to seventy meters.”

The Ilısu Dam, whose foundation stone was laid in 2006 and which started to fill up with water just this July, will soon inundate the Hasankeyf valley, with all its monuments and houses. From the outset, the plan was the subject of massive national and international protests, which led to the withdrawal of foreign investors in 2008. However, the Turkish state has completed the dam on its own. As Erdoğan put it, to bring prosperity to the neglected Southeast, and, as the opposition says, to force the minority population into cities, and deprive them of their ethnic identity. It is a fact that the reservoir will also flood, in addition to the unique heritage of Hasankeyf, several hundred villages, mostly inhabited by Kurds and Syriacs, just as did the Euphrates reservoir, completed a few year ago.

Ahmed guides us through cave dwellings, with medieval Syriac and Armenian carvings inside, that will soon be flooded. Most of the Muslim monuments were put on wheels and taken to the barren concrete of New Hasankeyf. Others were covered in a huge concrete sarcophagus, so that if the reservoir ever ceases to exist – those opposing the dam claim that ten thousand years of history will have been sacrificed for a power station that will run only fifty years –, they can be accessed again. The non-Turkish monuments – the decaying Armenian church and cemetery, the Syriac cave dwellings, the Kurdish Ayyubid palace, and the Artukid bridge – are all being left to their fate. I have most likely just now seen them for the last time.

It is Sunday afternoon, a host of small restaurants, umbrellas, chairs and people cheerfully picnicking along the riverside. The final hour. I will keep this picture in my mind.

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Bitlis, by its Armenian name Baghesh, was an important border town of the Armenian Kingdom until the Arab conquest. Its fortress, deep down the canyon, protected the Bitlis Strait, crossed over by the road from Mezopotamia to the Armenian Plateau. Between the 12th and 18th centuries, the town was the center of an autonomous Kurdish principality, but even in the early 20th century, the Armenians made up one third of the population, about fifteen thousand people. In 1915, they all were slaughtered. Their monasteries and churches were demolished, with only one remaining, now used as a department store. Along the road to Van, we by chance discover a ruin overgrown by trees, which looks like a former Armenian church.

A river runs through the bazaar, with medieval mosques on its banks. Here are waiting the vans that bring sheep to the city for the upcoming Kurban Bayram, the great feast of the sacrifice. The first Kurban was when Abraham was about to sacrifice his first-born son out of obedience to God, but God at the last moment substituted a sheep for the sacrifice. According to the Qurʿan, the boy was not Isaac, but Ishmael, and thus God made a covenant not with the Jews, but with the Muslims. This has since been celebrated by every Muslim with a sheep sacrifice. The mosques along the street know their people, because a printed sign on the gate proclaims: “Sacrifice is forbidden here.” But even this inscription is splashed with what looks like blood.

Akhtamar Island lies three kilometers from the shores of Lake Van. The ferry departs every fifteen minutes. We get in and start to enjoy how uncrowded the ferry is, when a large group appears on the dock. A typical post-Soviet company in terms of behavior, clothing, body language. They come aboard, lean over the railing, take photos of each other with the island in the background. I listen to their conversation, the sizzling c’s, s’s, r’s. As we approach the island, one of the women stands up to the rail as if she were a siren carved on the prow of the ship, and starts to sing a long song of many verses, each of which ends with a mention of Akhtamar. I don’t know whether I am listening to the Armenian original of Hovhannes Tumanyan’s famous 1891 poem. The others are reverently filming her. I turn to someone from the group. She has been living in the US for thirty years, returned to Yerevan for this journey. All of them are descendants of genocide survivors, they come home to West Armenia. “Because here everything is Armenian, you know?” she gestures all around. “Have you heard about the genocide?” she asks, timidly. “Sure”, I say. She calms down.

When we arrive at the island, the group immediately rushes to the church. Soon we hear Armenian church song from inside. I hurry with Lloyd to try to record some of it, but by the time we get in, it’s over. The guard in uniform is looking the other way. Before this, Armenian groups singing or praying in the church had been kicked out several times. But this time, his hearing was probably impaired by the application of a few banknotes. The groups departs contentedly, nodding at us with smiles. Mission accomplished.

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The church of Akhtamar was founded by King Gagik I of Vaspurakan as his palace chapel. It was built by the monk-architect Manuel between 915 and 921. There is nothing left of the palace beside the church. From 1116, it was the center of the Armenian Church until the first genocide of 1895, when the seat of the Catholicos was moved to the Russo-Armenian Echmiadzin. In the spring of 1915, there were only a few monks left to watch as Kurdish marauders boarded boats on the other shore, and were approaching with drawn swords toward the monastery. It must have been terrible to wait.

The monks were slaughtered, the monastery looted and set on fire, and the tombstones destroyed. The island was declared a closed military area. In the 1950s, it was transformed into a shooting range, just like their comrades did with the Armenian cemetery of Julfa – their thinking follows the same pattern. Modern restorers complain in interviews that the exterior reliefs have so many bullet marks that they cannot be restored. In 1951, they began to demolish it, but were prevented from doing so by the Kurdish-Turkish author Yaşar Kemal via his contacts.

In 2005 and 2006, the Turkish state restored the church and its surroundings. The restoration was criticized by many: for restoring the church as a museum, and not allowing worship and prayer for the Armenians; for not having restored the cross on top; for having renamed the island from the Armenian Akhtamar to the Turkish Akdamar, meaning “white vein”, and not mentioning either the church’s original name Surp Hach (Holy Cross), or its Armenian origin; for trying to present the carved motifs as of Turkish and Arab origin; for having set the opening ceremony on 24 April, the day of mourning for the Armenian genocide. Hürriyet, the largest Turkish daily, called the restoration “a continuation of the Armenian genocide”, which aims to “Turkify” the church and the island.

We reach the monastery courtyard between the knee-high remains of the wall of the former monastery. It offers a good view of the southern façade. A special feature of the four façades are the rich reliefs, not found in other Armenian churches. Such Armenian reliefs can be seen only at the Noravank monastery, but it is some four hundred years later, and was born from the ingenious inspiration of a single monk-artist, Momik. The scenes are very mixed: Old and New Testament stories, the church founders, secular scenes (hunting, agriculture, fighting), real and wondrous animals. The whole ensemble has several iconographic decipherings: maybe I will come back to it once in a separate post. However, the exposed Turkish and English language signboards interpret all the scenes on the basis of the Qurʿan.

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The church also had frescoes – another peculiarity in an Armenian church, where, in terms of their Gregorian/Monophysitic belief, it is not the visible, human essence of Christ that is important, but rather His invisible, divine essence, and thus they don’t represent Him in images, but instead with quotes from the Scriptures carved onto the walls. After the restoration, the frescoes are extremely fragmentary. Although this was not among the criticisms, it also may have been repellent to Armenian visitors.

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Fortunately, a number of more or less intact khachkars, Armenian tombstones, have been found, so that they could also restore a part of the cemetery behind the church. Of course, entry is forbidden. The carvings are very archaic, with crosses and floral ornaments just embossed in the stone, like in some distant Viking stones.

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As we head back with the ferry, the inscription of VATAN BÖLÜNMEZ – “The homeland is indivisible”, written with white stones on the barren hillside on the other shore, becomes more and more visible. Below this, a crescent with star, so we have no doubt which homeland is indivisible. After all, in Armenia, at the monastery of Khor Virap along the Turkish border under Ararat, you can also read a similar inscription on the hillside: “Eastern Turkey=Western Armenia”. The Turks leave nothing to chance.

As we drive west, on the southwestern corner of the lake we want to turn to Deveboynu Peninsula, where, according to literature, there are still a few Armenian churches. At the turn, however, there are soldiers with machine-guns leaning into every car. Erdoğan announced the previous day that the Turkish army would march in the Kurdish-inhabited northern territories of Syria, so they reinforced the military presence in the Kurdish territories of Turkey. What will we say them? “We would like to take photos of the few Armenian churches which have not yet been destroyed after the genocide not recognized by your government”? We shrug, we drive on. Maybe the time will come when you can turn here.

We drive along the Karacadağ Plateau, from Diyarbakır to Urfa. A lunar landscape, densely covered with lava stone. No trace of life. At one point, a green road sign points to “Mîr Badin Türbesi” – “Sheikh Badin’s turbeh”, his funeral monument. We curiously turn off. The dusty dirt road runs for four kilometers. It is lined with nomadic Kurdish camps, sheep and goat herds. There is nobody out there in the heat, but there is talk and the sound of children crying in the tents. The volcanic desert is full of life.

Where the road ends, there is a pillar of stones stacked on top of each other, with a jute bag on top. Perhaps it is meant to indicate the turbeh, but there are only tents around. Later, as we pass through the region, our eyes become gradually sharpened: wherever a dirt road or barely visible paths depart from the motor road towards nomadic camps, it is always indicated by such stacks of stone. What seemed at first to be an uninhabited lava stone desert, two hours later turns out to be an inhabited world, interwoven with marked roads. Here and there, a decaying caravanseray, an old castle, testimonies of a former world.

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Harran, by its biblical name Haran, is best known for Abraham’s having lived there, after he and his brothers and his father left Ur of the Chaldeans. To here he will send back his son Isaac, and Isaac his son Jacob, to choose a wife from the family of Abraham’s brother Laban, who remains here. In the village, they still point at a “Jacob’s Well”, where Rebecca received Isaac’s envoy, Elieser, and where Jacob first met Rachel.

Rebecca gives water to Isaac’s camels. From the Vienna Genesis, the earliest surviving illustrated Bible (early 6th century). The spring goddess feeding the well from her jar has remained here from classical representations.

But Harran was an important city of Northwest Mesopotamia for many other reasons as well. Since the 3rd milliennium BC, it was part of the Mesopotamian city-state network, its leaders married Sumerian and Akkadian princesses. It was the most important trading station of Assyria to the west, and in 612 BC, the last Assyrian king sought refuge here from the conquering Medes. At the time of the Roman-Persian conflict, it was the second city after Edessa/Urfa in the Aramaic kingdom of Oshroene, created as a buffer/battleground state between the two superpowers, so Christianity here soon took root. It was here that Crassus fell in battle against the Persians in 53 BC, that Emperor Caracalla was killed by his bodyguards, and Emperor Galerius lost a battle in 296 AD. Under Caliph Marwan II, it was the capital of the Arab Caliphate stretching from Spain to Central Asia. It was here that in the 8th century, Syriac scholars began translating Greek works of science into Syriac, and then into Syriac-related Arabic – so that four hundred years later in Andalusia, Catholic monks could translate them from Arabic to Latin, thus bringing classical education back to Europe. This vast, rich, and sophisticated city was eventually destroyed by the Mongols. What were they thinking as they cleaned the blood from their sabres over the smoky ruins? A job well done? Perhaps they did not know that they had just destroyed a city already four thousand years old; perhaps their narrow minds were not even able to accommodate such a historical perspective. And the saddest thing is, that, apart from the looted items, they gained nothing; they did not build on the conquest, as the Latins did. After the grain and beef ran out, and what little gold they found was spent, they remained the same miserable sour milk drinking nomads that they had always been.

The excavated ruins of Harran city today span many square kilometers. Next to them lie the present-day Harran, whose beehive-like clay houses also date back thousands of years. The center of the settlement is the fortress, built around 1060 from the former Sabian moon temple. In fact, Harran preserved its Mesopotamian moon cult until the 11th century. When Caliph al-Maʿmun in 830 led an army to the city and commanded them to convert to one of the “religions of the book” or be destroyed, they replied that from the “religions of the book” listed in Qurʿan 2:62, 5:69 and 22:17 – Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and Sabians – they are the Sabians. This was probably not true – Mohammed, I mean the Archangel Gabriel who dictated it to him, meant by “the Sabians” the Mandaeans of Southern Iraq, the Gnostic Christian believers in St. John the Baptist –, but the Caliph, untrained in religious history, accepted the answer, and the pagans of Harran were allowed to continue worshiping the moon until 1033, when the local Muslims, more aware of the nature of their cult, unleashed a pogrom against them.

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As we stop to look at the beehive houses, local kids rush over. They want to serve as guides, and also name the price: “sheker bonbon”, sugar candy, or “bir lira”, one lira. They do not really speak Turkish, since Harran’s population is largely Arabic or to some extent Aramaic-speaking. In spite of all our protests, they tag along with us like shadows. and in a few moments this develops into an “I poke you in the back – can you catch me?” game with us.

The hive part of the beehive houses is a courtyard that proclaims itself to be “the oldest house in Harran”. It consists of several domes, and is furnished as an open air museum. At first glance, it looks like a tourist trap, but it really is authentic, even if the old stuff amassed there is a bit too much. What’s more, the visit is free: they expect to profit from the coffee and refreshments served in the yard. A Harran ruin pub (like in Budapest).

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But the real symbol of Harran is water. The Euphrates Dams brought back to the region the wealth once enjoyed during the fertile crescent period. Everywhere canals, vast irrigated lands, rich crops. The water tower of the settlement stands next to the fortress. A concrete structure from the 1980s, the same space-station style as in the socialist countries of that era. And it leaks the same way. Through the cracks in the tank at the top, the water rains profusely beneath the tower, forming a small stream. Like a modern spring goddess. Small trees sprout from its cracks. This structure, with its function, appearance and defect, serves as the perfect emblem of Harran.

If Harran boasts of Abraham, neighboring Urfa can also compete. While Harran leans on the Torah, Urfa the Qurʿan. There (21,68-69) we read that Abraham, after he found the true faith of the one God and burned the idol statues, was summoned before the pagan king Nimrod, who sentenced him to death by fire. He commanded that a huge fire be lit and Abraham thrown into it with a catapult. But God did not forsake his chosen one, and created a lake in place of the fire, so Abraham landed in water. And how do we know that this happened in Urfa? All you have to do is to look at the two ancient pillars still standing in the old castle, from which Abraham, as from the two arms of a slingshot, was ejected; and, below the castle lies the Balıklıgöl, the Lake of Sacred Fish, into which he fell. The lake, today surrounded by the Halil-ul-Rahman Mosque, has been considered holy ever since, and they give you a dirty look if you ask for fish in the surrounding eateries.

The Qurʿan was dictated to Mohammed by the Archangel Gabriel himself, and its text existed in Allah’s mind before the creation of the world, so its authenticity is beyond doubt. What is more interesting is that this story, apocryphal from the Bible’s viewpoint, appears in the rabbinic literature a few centuries before Mohammed. The Jews in captivity in Babylon, who spoke only Aramaic, did not know any more the place name אור כשדים Ur Kashdim in “The Lord brought Abraham out from Chaldaean Ur”, and interpreted אור Ur as “fire”. And the new meaning “The Lord brought Abraham out of the fire of the Chaldaeans” was later supported by a nice hohmetz story, which was included in the book Genesis Rabbah of the Mishnah, an interpretation of the Book of Creation in the rabbinic spirit, in Aramaic. It is not inconceivable that this far-flung story was known to Mohammed already before Archangel Gabriel made him its unambiguously authentic source.

In the same garden of the Halil-ul-Rahman Mosque there can also be seen the cave where Abraham was born. In a cave, like Jesus? Yes. And the similarity does not stop there. King Nimrod, who was sick with jealousy over his power, concluded from the new appearance of a shining star, that the one who would deprive him and his gods of their power was about to born. So he gathered all the pregnant women in his courtyard, and only let go those who gave birth to girls, while killing the newborn boys. His chief minister Terah also had a newborn son at this time, but his wife had left their house before all this, and gave birth to their son Abraham in a cave. The young Abraham was then looked after by the angels until he grew up. This story, possibly inspired by the Gospel of Luke, is also read in the rabbinical literature, and is still propagated by pious Jews as pure truth. Just as in the Qurʿan, of course, again irrespective of the rabbinical and Christian antecedents.

The best thing about the rabbinical story is that it inspired one of the most beautiful Sephardic folk songs:

Ensemble Lyrique Ibérique: When King Nimrod. From the CD Romances judéo-espagnoles (1992)

Kuando el rey Nimrod al kampo saliya
Mirava en el syelo i en la’streyeriya
Vido lus santa en la djuderiya
K’aviya de naser Avraam avinu.

Avram avinu, padre kerido
padre benditcho, lus de Israel!

La mujer de Terah se kedo prenyada
De diya en diya, el le preguntava.
De ké tenech la kara tan demudada?
Eya saviya el byen ke teniya.

En fin de mueve mezes parir keriya
Iva kaminando por kampos i vinyas,
A su marido, tal, no lo deskuvriya.
Topo una meara, ayi lo paririya.

En akéya ora el nasido avlava:
Andadvos mi madre, de la meara.
Yo ya topo kyen m’aletchara,
Malah del yelo me akompanyara,
Porke so kriyado del Dyo benditcho.
When King Nimrod went out to the fields
He looked upon the sky and the stars
He saw holy light above the Jewish quarter
Because at that time father Abraham was born.

Father Abraham, our beloved father,
our blessed father, the light of Israel!

The wife of Terah became pregnant
Her husband asked her day by day:
Why has your face changed so much?
She knew well the treasure she was carrying.

After nine months she felt need to give birth
She roamed about the fields and the vineyards
She did not give up her secret to her husband
She found a cave and there she gave birth.

In that hour the newborn spoke:
Go away, my mother, from the cave.
There will be someone to feed me,
An angel of heaven will accompany me
For I am the servant of the blessed God.

Urfa, the mosque above Abraham’s cave

The sons of Abraham, however, fit together much less well than their traditions. Jews moved from Urfa to Aleppo, Tiberias and Jerusalem in 1896, after the first genocide. In the previous year, the Kurdish marauders hired by the Turkish government massacred 8000 Armenians. In 1915, they also killed the rest. The Syriac Christians who survived the genocide moved to Aleppo in 1924. Their cathedral and bishop’s palace is still marked on the map as St. Peter and Paul’s Church, but already in 1924 it was converted into a tobacco factory. Today it is the seat of the Urfa Monument Protection Office.

“The whole world worships You and kneels before You, and every tongue says thanks to You. This church of St. Peter and Paul, where the faithful enter, was built in the time of Patriarch Jacob II and Metropolit St. Gregorius David, from the contributions of the Syriac-Jacobite believing people, in the 2112. year of the Seleucid era [1861]. May God reward all its supporters.”

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We do not often consider that the Roman Empire used to include all of today’s Turkey. A multitude of impressive Roman monuments still stand throughout Anatolia. And the standards of living in the provinces did not significantly differ from those in Italy. Just as fresh oysters were sold at the market of Aquincum, today’s modern Budapest – brought from the Adriatic Sea, wrapped in ice and straw –, so, too, did the furthest Anatolian garrisons have mosaic pavements of which no Roman patrician house would be ashamed.

The city of Zeugma was founded in the 3rd century BC by Seleucus I Nicanor, general of Alexander the Great, at a crossing of the Euphrates, at the confluence of trade routes. The city developed rapidly, and continued to do so after the Roman conquest (64 BC). It was the easternmost great city of the Roman Empire. Two Roman legions were stationed here, and the luxury of the Roman villas built for the elite did not lag behind the villas that have survived in Italy or in the European provinces.

After five hundred years of prosperity, Zeugma began to decline following the Persian invasion of 253. Its ruins remained undisturbed for 1700 years, until, around 2000, it became the focus of international attention. It was then that the Birecik Dam was built, and the Euphrates soon flooded the city’s elite quarter. A great deal of international support poured into Turkey in the form of money and professionals, and they managed to save the most beautiful mosaics. They are now on exhibit in the hypermodern Zeugma Museum of Gaziantep, built in 2011, which, with its 1,700 square meters of ancient mosaics, is today the largest museum of mosaics in the world.

Interestingly, most of the large mosaics were designed to be under water. They decorated the floors of the open atria of the villas, where rainwater was collected in a shallow pool, refreshing the air that entered the villa. And so, their visual themes are often related to water. Neptune and other water deities, fish, water scenes, or simply wave-like geometric shapes would be made dynamic by the subtle ripple of the water surface.

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Of course, a Roman city does not mean that its inhabitants, or even its elite, were Romans. Even the legions were multi-ethnic, from Britain to North Africa and Scythia. And the economic elites, of course, were largely local. The Roman-style mosaics mainly have Greek and Syriac inscriptions.

The emblematic piece of the collection is a female head fragment. She could have been a goddess, a mythological woman, a simple girl. We will never know, because very little of the surrounding scene has survived. Archaeologists have given her the name “the Gypsy girl”. In the museum, she has a separate room that can be accessed only through a dark maze, and in this dark room a single spotlight falls on this picture. Her face has by now become the tourist logo of the city of Gaziantep.

Some of the mosaics – like many other surviving mosaics of the former empire, the most famous of which are in the Sicilian Piazza Armerina – depict hunting scenes, with exotic animals that were never locally seen, but only known from literature. This also reinforced the cohesion of the empire, since they were also brought from the remote areas of the empire to the amphiteaters. Below is a detail showing a male and a female tiger. Tiger collector Zsófia Frazon has asked us, why the two sexes of the tigers are distinguished. Fortunately, I can give you an precise answer, based on a papyrus from the Zeugma Archives, written in provincial Latin, which records the following commission:

“Then we’ll have four peacocks in the four corners, one panther, one lion, one giraffe, one elephant and one rhionceros”, said the Syriac stonecutter and mosaic master Aman Aman Kefa, licking his stylus.

“An elephant with a rhinoceros”, corrected centurio Fungus Maximus Tertius. “My former commander and master, Admiral Gaius Plinius Secundus wrote in chapter 8.29 of Naturalis Historia, that the rhinoceros is the sworn enemy of the elephant, so wherever they meet, they fight. I want to see this on my floor, just as it will be described two thousand years later in Lawrence Norfolk’s The Pope’s Rhinoceros.”

“An elephant with a rhinoceros, with your permission”, noted Aman Aman. “And a tiger.”

“Yes, a tiger”, said Fungus Maximus. “A leaping tiger, as Admiral Pliny described in chapter 8.25 of his Naturalis Historia. Because when she is deprived of her cubs, and consequentially attacks the hunter, he throws a mirror down before her, and the tiger stops for a while, thinking she sees her cub in it.”

British Library, Royal MS 12 C. xix, Folio 28r

“Of course”, Aman Aman agreed. “So, a male tiger leaping upon the hunter.”

“But it is the female tiger who is deprived of her cub”, Fungus Maximus objected. “It is she who attacks the hunter.”

“No”, Aman Aman said softly, but peremptorily. “The female was deprived, but the male attacks. Not the female! Her place is the harem. If the family is insulted, it is the male who must take revenge.”

“All right”, said Fungus Maximus, thinking of how the mosaics of the atrium basin will be interpreted by the Syriac elite, when he, the centurio from a poor family of nine brothers in Savaria who climbed the ranks of the legion, will invite them for dinner. “So let’s have an attacking male and a female in wait.”

There is also a small stele in the Zeugma exhibition. In its niche, a little boy in a simple shirt holds a headless bird and a big bunch of pistachios, with a Greek inscription on the pedestal: “Brutus Koskonios, ahead of time! Farewell!” The bunch of pistachios foreshadows the vast pistachio plantations that we will traverse. We are meandering in the hills along the Euphrates, on small roads up and down river valleys. From the villages, endless herds of sheep and cattle are driven to the rivers, which are sometimes overspanned by surprisingly intact Roman bridges. Actually, we are not heading to Zeugma, where we do not expect to see much more, but some twenty kilometers upriver, to the castle of Rumkale, which in Turkish means Roman castle. Here, a Roman, and after that, a Byzantine garrison stood on a riverside cliff, which became an imposing peninsula with the rise of the Euphrates. The site was originally a Hittite, and later an Assyrian fortress. In the 11th century, it belonged to the Cilician Armenian kingdom, an ally of the Crusaders, and it was an important center of Armenian Catholicism. The 12th-century Bar Nerses church and the 13th-century Bar Şavma monastery next to the castle were built by Syriac Christians. A small boat takes you over here, so you can go around the peninsula, and up to the castle and the churches. In a future visit, when I bring a group, we will do that. The small boat also takes you to Halfeti on the other side, whose old town, like Zeugma, was swallowed by the Birecik Dam. The towers and minarets still protrude from the water. From the boat, you can see the town beneath the water.

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From Rumkale we continue north, towards Mount Nemrut. As we reach the fork from which we can see Atatürk Dam, the largest reservoir of the Euphrates, we run into military control. Passports. Lloyd’s passport reveals a visa from Armenian Karabakh. In Turkey, this is not forbidden, but it is a grossly negative gesture towards the Azeri brothers, and is potentially Armenian-friendly, and thus anti-Turkish. The three soldiers are looking at it, and discussing, what to do. They ask Lloyd about his job. They are obviously expecting “journalist” or the like, for which they alreay have a routine. “I’m an artist”, Lloyd says. They look at each other, smiling, nodding. A harmless, bohemian figure. They return the passports. From here, there is a straight road to our last station, Nemrud Dağı, Mount Nemrut.

The ancient Commagene was a small buffer state between the Roman and Persian empires. In 163 BC it broke away from the disintegrating Seleucid Empire, and in 72 BC it was definitively annexed by the Roman Empire. During these two centuries, it was ruled by a royal dynasty of Armenian origin, with an essentially Persian, but increasingly more Hellenistic culture. This mixed culture is also reflected in the gigantic monuments surviving here. In Arsameia, the royal seat of the small state, Antiochus I – Ἀντίοχος ὁ Θεὸς Δίκαιος Ἐπιφανὴς Φιλορωμαῖος Φιλέλλην, Antiochus, the just and eminent god, friend of the Romans and the Greeks, as he calls himself in his inscriptions, which tells everything both about his megalomaniacal self-image, and the geopolitical reality – built a funeral complex for his father Mithridates I, and also one on nearby Mount Nemrut for himself. The appearance of the stone idols and their descriptions in the surviving inscriptions simultaneously characterize them as both Greek and Persian gods.

Commagene, wedged between the Roman and Persian empires. The other buffer state is the Aramaic kingdom of Osrhoene, with Edessa (Urfa) as its capital, and including Harran, called Carrhae in Latin, described above.

The center of Commagene, Arsameia and Mount Nemrut, suddenly rise above the plain. A steep road leads up here, along deep river valleys, with stunning views. At every turn we must stop for a photo.

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The mountain of Arsameia, or, by its present Turkish name, Eski Kale, “Old Castle”, is but a funeral complex built by Antiochus I to honor his father Mithridates I. The true royal seat was Yeni Kale, the “New Castle”, rising up on the other side of Kahtaçay River. From the highway, a serpentine path leads up to the top of the mountain, passing by the four parts of the complex. The first one is a stele depicting the Iranian god Mithras shaking hands with King Antiochus or Mithridates, thereby indicating that the latter is on a level with the gods. However, the gods have tidied up their ranks over time, and nothing of the king’s figure has survived.

The second stele at the turn of the road shows a similar divine handshake, with a Greek text in excellent condition on its back. The two figures would enjoy a wonderful view of the Commagene Empire from here, if they still had heads. Behind the stele, a cave opens in the hillside, with steps leading down to a deep hall, perhaps a former shrine to Mithras.

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The third stele, resembling somewhat Mayan reliefs, and its environs are the best preserved, as they were buried under earth until the archaeological excavation. Here, King Antiochus shakes hands with Hercules. Next to it is a cave with a lengthy Greek text above its entrance. In this, Antiochus tells how he established the complex and what ceremonies he ordered for it.

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Finally, at the top of the mountain, the ruins of a building complex. The fragments suggest that here stood a mausoleum of Mithridates, decorated with statues. From here you also have a beautiful view of the Kahtaçay river valley, and the hill of Yeni Kale on the other side. There stood the palace of the rulers of Commagene, which was later rebuilt several times. In its most recent state, it is a Mameluk fortress.

We continue up the canyon, to the ridge of Mount Nemrut. The reception building is a nice modern structure. It can be accessed along a gradually narrowing and deepening walkway underpass, like the Jewish Museum in Berlin, or the interior of the monument in Belżec, referring to the tomb chamber on the hilltop. From the cash desk, we walk up one kilometer along the mountain road.

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The monumental tomb complex rises on both sides of the 2150-meter-high peak. Two groups of statues, one mirroring the other. On both sides, the same giant stone figures sit on thrones atop high pedestals: on either side, an eagle and a lion, in the middle Zeus-Aramazd (the gods are Persian-Armenian and Greek at once), with King Antiochus and Good Fortune on his right, and Apollo-Mithras and Hercules on his left. The heads of the figures have fallen long ago, and each has been placed before its corresponding pedestal. The headless torsos sitting on the thrones resemble Mayan or Inca statues. This considerable monumental complex is not at all commensurate with the geographical and political insignificance of Commagene. It is far beyond the megalomania of a ruler who imagined himself to be a god, and wanted to remain as such in the memory of posterity.

Shostakovich: Waltz No. 2. – Stjepan Hauser

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The landscape is barren all around, only beyond the lower mountain ranges appears the swollen Euphrates, where Antiochus had seen only one blue ribbon. We saw this chain of reservoirs and this mountain from above, in the first image of this post. I look up at the sky, from where I had once looked down. Soon I will be up there again, on the way from the easternmost province of the former Ottoman empire to the westernmost one.