Traveller in time

Peter Phillips goes to Turkish Kurdistan and finds a land full of early Christian history

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It’s hard to suppress a feeling of schadenfreude when reading accounts of the crusaders going to the Holy Land in support of Christianity and finding that the indigenous Christians were often the lowest of the low, whereas the infidel leaders, rich and educated, were much more like those whom the Western leaders instinctively admired and wanted to meet. And these Christians were technically heretics, their religious observances thick with dodgy practices, their allegiances fixed on Patriarchs nobody had heard of or respected. It must have seemed a bit like not finding weapons of mass destruction — which didn’t stop our boys from invading again and again.

The descendants of those Christians are still there, still poor and still persecuted (so that was a success, then). In recent years several writers have shown interest in their plight, specifically in their dwindling numbers and the consequent abandonment of some of their churches, many of which are of the earliest foundation and housed venerable artefacts. Some of this literature adopts an almost hysterical tone, which can leave the outsider a little dazed. Obviously there has been, since the first world war, a very significant decline in numbers as the faithful have emigrated to the West; yet because the communities are still there, even if only embryonically, the people who emigrated still have the opportunity to go back. On a recent visit to the Turabdin, in Turkish Kurdistan, I found not only old people and children in good numbers living in the Christian villages and city compounds, but also people of all ages who were visiting from richer countries. They were just waiting for the better times which are showing signs of being around the corner for Christians, at least in Turkey.

These better times are being sponsored by the great desire of the Turks to join the EU. Suddenly being unpleasant to minorities is no longer the politically correct way to think in Ankara, which has had a double impact on the Turabdin, home not only to the country’s indigenous Christian communities, but also to the much more numerous Kurds. The capital of the region, Diyarbakir, was until recently effectively under police siege with a very bad atmosphere indeed: now it seems like any other modestly flourishing city in Turkey. Money is miraculously on offer, so that even some of the abandoned churches, like the one in Urdnus, are being repaired. And although few foreign tourists have yet plucked up the courage to visit, Turkish Muslim tourists are arriving there in numberless coach-loads from all parts of the country. The monastery of Zafaran, near Mardin, a flourishing centre for the study of Syrian Orthodoxy, which is the majority sect in Turkey and Syria, was so overrun by these tourists on the three separate trips I made there that I gave it up as too noisy. I hadn’t gone all that way to be jostled. I can have that in Rome. But I noted that a lot of people suddenly seemed to be attracted to 6th-century mosaic floors, 1,600-year-old Patriarchal thrones, 13th-century manuscript illuminations, at least as cultural artefacts if not quite objects worthy of worship, though that could surely follow.

Zafaran apart, I found the Turabdin a perfect place to visit. With just a little effort one can find the kind of beauty which we in the West tend to put into glass cases or lock up for safety, so valuable have these things become to us in money terms. Yet there one is not talking about churches whose earliest stones or oldest possessions come from, if one is lucky, the 15th century; one may be referring to things made soon after Constantine caused the Roman empire to become Christian in the 4th century. Time and again I was looking at parts of buildings which were put up 1,600 years ago when the Syriac tradition was founded — or possibly even earlier, since there is evidence of Christian preaching in the area less than 100 years after the death of Christ. In addition I was hearing Aramaic spoken as the everyday language, which produced a rather pleasing detail. The people I met spoke with the greatest admiration of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Apparently the Aramaic which Christ is made to speak in this film, although a dialect of the language spoken by these people, is perfectly correct and essentially comprehensible to them.

The headquarters of the Syrian Orthodox Church in the area is an ancient monastery called Mor Gabriel. Here young priests are trained, and emigrés come back to test the waters. Here also old works of art traditionally come for safekeeping in times of trouble. When I was there in mid-May, the Patriarch (who claims descent from St Peter as surely as the Pope) had just paid his first visit in 22 years to the Turabdin, coming there from Damascus where he lives out of the way of the Turkish/Kurdish conflict. His appearance was being celebrated as a most positive sign of the times, no less than the completion of all the new building projects about the place, which had at last been properly financed. Mor Gabriel is less visited than Zafaran, despite having a mosaic floor in opus sectile — six different colours of marble — dated 512 (which one may walk on), beneath a ravishing gold-based mosaic ceiling of the same period.

The genuinely ruined buildings in the area do let down this picture of new growth and confidence I am painting; yet many of them are no more sinister than the result of time passing (one thinks of some rather bigger ruins nearer home, whose active life, incidentally, did not compass 1,500 years). The most inspirational of these, available to the mildly agile enthusiast, is a collection of religious buildings up a small mountain near Nusaybin, called Mor Augin. Founded in the early 4th century, the last monk died in residence in 1974. Consisting of two churches, a cloister, a refectory and many outbuildings, 30 years is just recent enough for the buildings to be in relatively good repair. This place really is remote — not just up a mountain, but unsignposted for several miles across mud tracks and fields. It’s astonishing it lasted as long as it did; but then the hermitic instinct has always been stronger in Eastern Christianity than in Western, and so it seems to have remained.

Such an inspiring place wouldn’t last a single day in our culture without being promoted to bits. Yet the official neglect — or worse — in Turkey of these ancient places has come close to crushing the resilient people who have served them for so long. Would it be best to restore these buildings and construct a road to them so that tourists can pay to swarm about and so preserve them, after a fashion; or leave them to cave in? Let me declare myself to be a selfish aesthete, one who would quite like to have lived in the 18th century, when Europe furnished just this kind of dreamy, Elysian, rustic hanging around Christian ruins in rich abundance. But they survive in the Middle East, and long may they do so, unspoilt.