In A.D. 451, a period when the Byzantine Christian world was racked by theological dispute, the church's followers were declared heretics at the Council of Chalcedon. Their crime? To believe that Christ had a single, divine nature rather than accept the Byzantine orthodoxy that Jesus was human and divine in equal measure. Persecuted by the Byzantine authorities, many fled their original centers in Edessa (Urfa) and Nisbis (Nusaybin) and retreated into the highlands of the Tur Abdin. Monasteries sprang up everywhere on the plateau, over 300 in total, self-sufficient communities which nurtured the rich earth of the Tur Abdin and the spiritual well-being of monks and nearby villagers alike -- hence the term "Mountain of the Servants of God." They also managed to keep alive their language -- Aramaic, a Semitic language spoken by Jesus himself.
Remarkably, although drastically reduced in numbers by the vicissitudes of history, with both the Crusaders and the Mongols taking their toll in the Middle Ages, there were still over 600,000 Suriyani, as followers of this faith are know in Turkey today, left in the region at the onset of the 20th century. Unfortunately, during the ethno-religious conflicts which tore apart the ailing Ottoman Empire in World War I, the community was decimated. Matters worsened for the survivors in the 1980s and 1990s, when they were caught in the crossfire between Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), who were infiltrating over the nearby Syrian border. Fortunately order has now been restored to this fascinating corner of Turkey and at least some Suriyani, many of whom fled to Europe in the troubles, are beginning to return to their ancestral villages in the Tur Abdin. The remnants of this once vibrant community are justly proud of their unique heritage, and money is beginning to pour in to help restore some of the surviving monasteries and churches, many of whose origins can be traced back to the fifth century.
In comparison to the millions of tourists who visit Turkey each year, only a handful makes it to the Tur Abdin. Of those who do, the vast majority make a bee-line for the showpiece of the Syrian Orthodox Church, the so-called Saffron Monastery (Deir-az-Zaferan), once the seat of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch -- and geographically speaking not actually part of the Tur Abdin proper. Fewer make it out to another famous monastery, St. Gabriel (Mor Gabriel), an important spiritual center, which retains (as does Deir-az-Zaferan) a bishop. But the real jewel in the crown of the Tur Abdin's monastery churches is the Church of the Virgin Mary (Yoldath Aloho in Suriyani, El Hadra in Arabic, Meryem Ana Kilisesi in Turkish) in the village of Hah (Anıtlı in Turkish). This exquisite structure, dating back to the seventh century, is the most aesthetically pleasing of all the churches in the region, but sees far less visitors than it deserves because of its relatively remote location some 35 kilometers southeast of the town of Midyat -- itself a stronghold of the surviving Suriyani community on the plateau.
So what makes the Church of the Virgin Mary so special? First of all is its design, with a transverse nave enclosed at either end by apse-like recesses roofed by half-domes. The true or sanctuary apse, set as always in the eastern wall of the church, boasts a half-dome graced with a raised relief Maltese-style cross. Above the center of the nave your eyes are drawn up to a graceful dome, rising from an octagonal base on hidden squinches, and at either side of the apse are two side altars. The most impressive single feature of this beautifully restored church, though, is the band of relief carving which runs horizontally around the interior and across the various arches -- plus the wonderfully worked capitals. The style of the carving is late Roman, with lively garlands of acanthus leaf and twisted-braid enlivening the plain, honey-colored stone walls. From the outside, what stands out is the turret encasing the dome, a double tier (one of them not added until the 20th century) of blind arches surmounted by a pyramidal roof. The graceful bell tower, with its ribbed-dome cap, is a 19th century addition.
Visitors are always treated to a story connected with the church by the caretaker, Aziz, or one of his associates. Twelve kings from the East were following the star to Bethlehem where, they had been foretold, a new king was to be born. When they arrived in Hah, its own king (Hah was then a rich and powerful place) said it was unnecessary for all 12 of them to go to Bethlehem. So nine stayed in Hah, three continued. They presented their gifts to the Virgin Mary who, embarrassed she had nothing to reciprocate their kindness, tore off a piece of the infant Jesus' swaddling clothes and gave them that. On their return to Hah the three kings decided to share their holy gift with their companions, but despite their best efforts they could not rip the piece of cloth into pieces. Instead, they hit on the idea of burning the cloth and dividing the ashes between themselves. Incredibly, the burned remains turned into 12 golden coins, each with Mary and Jesus on one side and the name of the respective king on the other. Awed by this miracle, the kings decided to build a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Hah.
If you can the spare the time it's worth exploring the village, set on a low eminence to the north of the church. It's hard to imagine now, but in the Middle Ages there were some 12,000 houses and 44 churches here. At the far side of the hill, little remains of the second century church of Mor Bacchus bar a crypt entered by a one-meter-high door. More rewarding is Mor Sovo, a sixth century church sacked by Tamerlane. But to really see what life is like for the remaining 16 Suriyani families in the village, head up to the crest of the hill. Here the well-built stone houses form a kind of fortification, each joined to the other and looking in onto a courtyard area. In 1915, according to local lore, 5,000 Suriyani villagers held out against a besieging Ottoman force for many months.
The scenery en route back to Midyat is biblical, with swathes of limestone outcrop and scrub oak battling it out with carefully tilled olive groves, vineyards and, more prosaically, one of the chief cash crops of the Tur Abdin -- lentils. It's worth making a very short detour to the fortified hilltop village of İzbırak (Zaz). Virtually empty, this once-wealthy village is now home to a venerable monk called Jacob. Sixty-six years old, he sports the black cap embroidered with 13 crosses (12 of them to signify the apostles, one for Christ himself) typical of Syrian Orthodox monks. He is usually (if he's not too busy in the fields) pleased to show visitors the basilica-style church of Mor Dimet and an underground chamber he claims was a sun-worshippers' temple in the years before the Suriyani converted to Christianity (starting, according to them, with St. Peter in the first century). He doesn't speak English, but having spent four years in exile in Scandinavia in the 1990s, his Swedish is pretty good!
Midyat, the town at the heart of the Tur Abdin (and almost certainly the place you'll hire a taxi to take you to Hah) has a church which provides a marked contrast to Hah's. A nave-style structure, architecturally undistinguished and much rebuilt over the centuries, it nonetheless gives visitors a great insight into how the faith continues into the 21st century. A visitors' room, reached from a courtyard dominated by a spreading walnut tree, has portraits of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch, now resident in Damascus, and a framed print of strange characters purporting to show how Aramaic derived from Assyrian cuneiform script. Suriyani kids play in the courtyard, speaking Aramaic/Syriac amongst themselves as well as Turkish, and well-attended services are held most Sundays here in Mor (St.) Barsaumo (there are six other working Syrian Orthodox churches in the town). The altar curtain, with its wonderfully naive scenes of the crucifixion, was made by an elderly Suriyani woman in Mardin, the cartoon-like angels on the plaster walls were drawn by the caretaker, Ayhan. Blue robes hang on racks on either side of the altar, all ready for the boys' and girls' choirs to wear when the next service comes around. The Suriyani community in this beautiful but seldom visited region may be down but they're not yet out. It is, though, ironic that in their Tur Abdin heartland only hundreds survive whilst in distant India more than 3 million profess a faith born here, on the northern borders of Mesopotamia, in the early centuries of Christianity.
How to get here
Regular flights link Mardin with İstanbul and Ankara, as do intercity buses. From Mardin it's an hour's drive across the Tur Abdin to Midyat and another half-hour's drive onto Hah. Hiring a taxi and driver for the day is the best option -- either from Mardin or Midyat.
Where to stay
Mardin: Erdoba Konakları; Tel.: (482) 212 7677, www.erdoba.com.tr
Midyat: Konuk Evi; Tel.: (482) 462 1354