Syriac Christians Between Syria and Turkey

Yesterday the BBC Magazine ran an interesting article on Abuna Yuqin (“Fr. Joachim”) Unval’s effort to restore the monastery of Mor Awgin above the city of Nusaybin on the Turkish border with Syria, and his response to Syriac Christian refugees escaping into Turkey from the Syrian Civil War.

As usual when popular news media speaks on something that I know something about, I liked it, but I kept saying, “But there’s also…” and “But what about…”  (No doubt the reason I do academic writing rather than journalistic writing is that I cannot get to the point fast enough for a wide readership.)  So I thought here I would give a little wider context to this story, from my perspective as an outside expert.

It is probably worth mentioning that Abuna Yuqin’s denomination is the same as Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim, one of the two abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo.

We perhaps think of monasteries as communities of monks, but the reason Abuna Yuqin is the only monk mentioned in the article is that he is the only monk at this monastery.  Restoring a monastery is not easy work, and he needs to prove that it is viable to support a monastery in this environment by attracting both additional monks and sufficient donations.

The “distinctive black cap of his Syriac Orthodox habit” has two panels on the top of the head, with between them thirteen ornate crosses (which from some angles look almost like stars).  I have been told by several monks that these crosses represent Christ and the twelve apostles.  It turns out that it is hard to find a picture of it online or in my own photos (I usually photograph the front of monks rather than their backs), but it is similar to the “koulla” of Coptic monks (depicted here).

The village he refers to is not Nusaybin, the nearest large city, but probably Eskihisar.  Eskihisar formerly had a large Syriac Christian population before 1951, and the ancient village is known in Syriac texts as M’arre or M’arrin (“caves”).  It is frequently linked to the monastery of Mor Awgin in historical texts.  As of a few years ago, the village was entirely Kurdish, so if Syriac Christians are moving back into the village, that is a very significant development.

It is not actually too surprising for Syriac monks to be grateful to Yezidis.  It is true that Yezidis are widely labeled “devil-worshippers” by Muslims and Christians alike, due to their high veneration of Mal’ak Ta’us (“the peacock angel”); the stories they tell of Mal’ak Ta’us closely resemble tales told of Iblis/Shaytan (Satan) in Islam.  On the other hand, Yezidis do not accept converts, and are therefore not a religious threat to other groups, and since at least the nineteenth century Christians and Yezidis have sometimes helped each other in the face of antagonism from the larger populations of Sunni Arabs or Sunni Kurds.  When I visited Dayr al-Za’faran in April 2012, a Yezidi dressed all in white was sitting and chatting beside a Syriac monk dressed all in black, and the two made a wonderful image.  I wish I had a photo of it.

As to “Syriac Christianity dates back to the third century,” we don’t really know its origins.  In fact a Christian community is probably earliest attested in the city of Nusaybin (ancient Nisibis), on the plain below Mor Awgin monastery, in the Aberkios inscription (in Greek) in the mid-second century, although it is only implicit.  The oldest Syriac Christian texts may be the Odes of Solomon, which are variously dated to the first – third centuries (and are rather strange).  Syriac Christians themselves tell the story of how King Abgar of the city of Edessa (modern Urfa in Turkey) corresponded with Jesus, who after his resurrection sent Addai/Thaddeus to miraculously heal the king and convert his city already in the first century.  This legend was already rejected in the west by Pope Gelasius in 495.

On the subject of Syriac Christian foundation legends, the story of Mor Awgin as narrated by Abuna Yuqin, that he was a pearl diver who brought the Egyptian monasticism to Syria, is probably a fifth-century fabrication.  It is true that Mor Awgin monastery is really old, but we do not know when it was founded, and it probably is not the oldest.  Syriac Christianity had earlier non-cenobitic forms of asceticism which congealed into cenobitic monasteries in the early fifth century.

Abuna Yuqin also mis-speaks when he says, “We want our brothers to come back from Syria. Most of them fled there during the First World War.”  It is true that large numbers of Christians fled Tur Abdin during World War I as a result of the massacres.  The same massacres which targeted Armenians in eastern Turkey and are therefore known in the West as the Armenian Genocide also targeted Syriac Christians and some Kurds.  Syrian Orthodox Christians refer to those massacres as Sayfo (“the sword”), while the Church of the East calls it the “Assyrian Genocide.”  The survivors of the Syrian Orthodox community of Edessa (modern Urfa) made their way to Aleppo in northern Syria, and are regarded as a distinct community within their own denomination there, with their own traditions of church music and their own carefully guarded manuscript collection.  On the other hand, most of the Syriac Christians within Syria have been there for generations before World War I.  It is very true that the border between Turkey and Syria is artificial, created by European powers to reflect colonial interests (France wanted Syria), and it is equally true that throughout their long history, Syriac Christians have often moved from one region to another if they suspected a different government would be more favorable to them.  They escaped to French Syria from the Sayfo, and now some are escaping back to Turkey from the Syrian Civil War, just as in the Middle Ages they escaped into or out of Byzantine territory depending on the attitude of the Emperor in Constantinople.

My biggest criticism of the BBC article is how it smooths out conflicts with the Turkish government.  On the one hand, when I was in Mardin for a Syriac conference in 2012, I myself heard the governor of Mardin province and the president of the new Mardin Artuklu University (named after a 14th C dynasty which ruled Mardin) publicly call for Syriac Christians to return to the Tur Abdin region.  And since the governor was part of the ruling AKP party, he probably could not have said those things without the permission of Prime Minister Erdoğan.  This call for Syriac Christian immigration surprised me at the time, as it surprises the author of this BBC article.

But this call has a context.  The theme of the conference was Syriac Christianity and cultural diversity, and among the groups acknowledged in the opening remarks to have lived in that region were Turks, Arabs, Kurds, and Syriac Christians.  There was conspicuously no mention of Armenians, who also lived in Mardin and nearby Diyarbakır until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The BBC article mentions heavy government investment in dams in the region, but does not mention the forced resettling of the Kurdish population whose villages will now be underwater.  I visited Hasankeyf, an ancient city on the Tigris, and Kurdish children came up to me and said in English, “Please tell the government not to destroy our homes.”  They were handing out pamphlets to tourists trying to prevent the government from destroying Hasankeyf in the project to build the Ilısu Dam.  The Syrian Orthodox have had their share of harassment: one of the two most important Syrian Orthodox monasteries in Tur Abdin is Mor Gabriel outside Midyat, which has lost property to government expropriation.

(A funny linguistic aside: the road signs to Mor Gabriel do not refer to it by that name, but by the name Deyr-Ül Umur Manastırı.  When I visited, I asked why this was called “Umar’s Monastery,” and I was informed that the “Umur” represents the Syriac ‘umro (“monastery, habitation”), which has been prefixed with the Arabic dayr al- (“monastery of the”), to which has been added the Turkish word manastırı (“monastery”) borrowed from a European language.  So the Turkish name for the place translates from three languages into “The monastery of the monastery of the monastery.”  I think that’s just awesome.)

So what is the government in Ankara doing supporting the opening of Mor Awgin monastery above Nusaybin and calling on Syriac Christians to come “back” to Tur Abdin?  As it was explained to me in Mardin by another foreigner visiting the city, the government knows that even if all the Syriac Christians come back to Tur Abdin, they will still be only a small minority, and therefore not a challenge.  In contrast, the larger Armenian diaspora is making political trouble for Turkey by calling Western governments to recognize the Armenian genocide.  The Kurdish majority of this region is also making international headlines complaining of Turkish nationalist discrimination, for example in the choice of dam locations, to say nothing of Ankara’s fears that the autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq (and the de facto almost autonomous Kurdish region in Syria due to the civil war) might fuel demands for Kurdish autonomy within Turkey.  In other words, what the Turkish government wants is a “model minority” to which it can point to say that they treat minorities well, which would support the Turkish government’s bid to enter the EU.  In the meantime, politics in southeastern Turkey remains a strange game in which ethnic and religious diversity sometimes leads to surprising winners, such as Abuna Yuqin.

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