The cities of Mardin and Midyat near the Syrian border in Southeast Turkey are the major urban centres in the Syriac Christian heartland, known as Tur Abdin (‘mountain of the servants of God’). Syriacs speak Syriac language, a dialect of Aramaic language closely related to the Jewish Palestinian Aramaic spoken by Jesus Christ. Syriac Christianity is generally defined by the use of Syriac language in its formative theological writings and liturgy.
The amount of Syriacs living in Tur Abdin decreased significantly in the 20th century, first during the Assyrian Genocide after 1914, and then, in the later decades, as a consequence of the waves of emigration to countries such as the United States, Germany and Sweden. The number of Syriacs living in Turkey today is estimated to be between 25,000 and 50,000, most of whom reside in Istanbul. In Tur Abdin, there are just a few thousand of them left.
In November 2018, when I visited Tur Abdin, I met several Assyrians who have moved back from the West, citing a bigger religious tolerance in Turkey in the recent years (something that one is not inclined to believe when one reads the mainstream media) as well as a sense of obligation to better learn and preserve their own culture. This seems to be in correlation with the relatively good condition of the many churches in the region, at least in the bigger cities.
In Tur Abdin, we can find a large number of Syriac churches and monasteries, several dating to as early as the 4th and 5th centuries, and many operating until this day. Most of them are Syriac Orthodox, but a smaller amount of Syriac Catholic, Chaldean Catholic and even Assyrian Protestant churches can be found as well.
My portfolio begins with the most important of Syriac Orthodox monasteries in the world: Mor Hananyo and Mor Gabriel. The rest of the list consists of the churches and monasteries in the cities of Mardin and Midyat. Notable omissions include the 9th-century Mort Shmuni Church in Midyat, of which I have no photos, and the 1914 Church of Mor Petrus and Mor Pavlus in Mardin, which I was not able to find. The important early-4th-century Church of Saint Jacob in Nisibis (Mor Yakup Church in Nusaybin) and the numerous churches and monasteries in the old Syriac villages, the most outstanding of them being the Church of Virgin Mary in Hah (Anıtlı), are also missing.
There is very little information available about the buildings below, and very often the found information is contradictory. The visible remains of this unique and fragile culture need to be scientifically researched as soon as possible.
You will find the locations of the mentioned churches and monasteries on the map below:
1. Mor Hananyo Monastery / Deyrulzafaran Monastery
5 km southeast of Mardin
This is one of the two most important Syriac monasteries in Tur Abdin. It has been one of the most active religious education centres of the Syriac Orthodox Church throughout its long history. Its special significance comes from the fact that it served as the see of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch for many centuries. Exact dates are difficult to identify, as different sources mention different years, starting from 1160, 1166 or 1293, when the Patriarchate was moved here from Antioch, and ending with 1923/1924 or 1932/1933, when it was relocated to Homs, Syria. Since 1959, the Patriarch resides in Damascus.
The monastery was built above a temple dedicated to Shamash, the Mesopotamian god of the sun, whose cult is known to have been active here in around 2000 B.C. The remains of that temple may be found in a basement of the monastery, but as the structure has not been scientifically researched, this identification has to be taken with a grain of salt. That underground space is, nonetheless, the oldest part of the monastery. It consists of two rooms: the smaller one is covered with stone vaults, while the bigger one has a ceiling made of blocks of stone bound without mortar. The first rays of the sun entered the temple through a small hole in its eastern wall every morning.
The Assyrian temple was converted into a citadel by the Romans. That citadel was turned into a monastery in 493, when a monk named Shleymun (Solomon) brought the bones of some saints here. The original monastery was named after him (Mor Shleymun). It was renovated in 792-793 by Ananias, Bishop of Mardin and Kfar Tuta, who gave its current name (Mor Hananyo).
Multiple folk tales explain why the monastery is called the Saffron Monastery (Deyrulzafaran in Turkish). According to some, when the building was constructed, saffron was added to the mortar, to give the monastery a translucent yellow colour and to make it smell good. My guide mentioned that the name comes from the saffron plants that grew around in abundance. On the website of the monastery it is mentioned that the association with saffron is later, from the 15th century.
The most important buildings in the monastery are the Church of Virgin Mary, the Church of Saint Ananias, and the House of the Saints. The early 6th-century buildings were designed by architects Theodorus and Theodosius.
The Church of Saint Mary is considered to be the first church of the monastery. Remains of the original 6th-century church include some mosaics and bricks. It was rebuilt in 1699. From this time come the wooden doors, adorned with Syriac verses. The church also has an octagonal baptismal font for adults.
Note the curtain in the below photo. Hetmo is a Syriac word for a technique of cloth printing that has a long history in Mardin. A block of wood (usually linden, pine or hornbeam) is immersed in dyes on one side and then pressed on the fabric. The last notable representative of this art was Nasra Şimmes Hindi, whose curtains have decorated the Syriac churches and monasteries in Mesopotamia for years.
The Church of Saint Ananias, the main church of the monastery, was built during the reign of Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus (491-518), though the main apse is from the 793 renovation. The church has a pyramidal roof and, on the inside, remarkable stonework of classical inspiration. The walls were adorned with frescoes depicting biblical stories. Only one of these frescoes survives, depicting Saint Ananias. The church houses the patriarchal throne, in which the names of the patriarchs are carved.
The House of the Saints (Beth Qadishe) is a mausoleum of Syriac Orthodox patriarchs and metropolitan bishops, whose remains are stored in seven niches. Some ornaments can be found in the stone, apart from the thick framing of the arches. The wooden doors are inlaid with lions and serpents.
The monastery is supplied with water via old channels from Mount Izla. The mountain is full of caves and niches in which hermits lived. Some are said to have been walled in for years or even lifetime, fed and provided with water by the novices of the monasteries through a small opening. There were around 40,000 monks on Mount Izla at its peak. It was hermits like these that gave Tur Abdin its name.
The monastery acquired a printing press in 1881, and the first book was printed here in 1888. It operated as an important printing centre until 1917. As it was the only press in the region, it was also used for printing the official documents in the early days of the Republic of Turkey.
2. Mor Gabriel Monastery
23 km southeast of Midyat
This monastery was founded in 397 by ascetic Mor Shmuel (Samuel) and his student Mor Shemun (Simon). According to tradition, an angel appeared to Shemun in a dream and commanded him to build a house of prayer on a site marked with three large stone blocks. When Shemun woke up, he took his teacher to the designated place and found the stones that the angel had placed. The monastery that they established on that spot came to be named after them. (Legends aside, the stones that could have been found here in the late 4th century may have actually been the ruins of an older Zoroastrian temple, as suggested by some.)
It is the oldest functioning Syriac Orthodox monastery and one of the oldest monasteries in the world. It is older than the Monastery of Mar Saba in Palestine (483) and the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai (548-565).
The monastery received contributions from various Roman Emperors from early on, such as Arcadius (395-408), Honorius (395-423), Theodosius II (408-450), and Anastasius I Dicorus (491-518). Its importance grew fast, and by the 6th century it housed more than a thousand Syriac and Coptic monks. In the 7th century the monastery was renamed after Saint Gabriel of Beth Qustan, Bishop of Tur Abdin. Its other name, Deyrulumur in Turkish, comes from the Syriac Dayro d’Umro, meaning ‘the dwelling of monks’.
The Mor Gabriel Monastery is the most important monastery of the Syriac Orthodox Church, together with the Mor Hananyo Monastery. Its school played an important role in the region and for the church in general, as it provided good theological, philosophical and medical education, especially in the early centuries of its operation. It had a big library, containing handwritten books with calligraphic miniatures, of which almost nothing remains (except for some books at the British Library and some other European libraries). The monastery has produced many high-ranking clerics and scholars, including four patriarchs.
Today the monastery is the seat of the Metropolitan Bishop of Tur Abdin. It hosts a small community of monks and nuns occupying separate wings.
The most important structures of the monastery include the Church of Virgin Mary, the Church of Saint Gabriel, the Dome of Theodora, and the House of the Saints.
The Church of Virgin Mary was constructed under Theodosius II (408-450), which makes it the oldest building in the monastery.
The Church of Saint Gabriel is the main church of the monastery. It was founded by Mor Shmuel and Mor Shemun in 397, but it got a completed form in 512, thanks to the donation by Emperor Anastasius I. It was designed by architects Theodorus and Theodosius, who must have been in good terms with the emperor and famous for their work, as made by them are other important buildings, such as the Mor Hananyo Monastery (after 493) and several structures in the nearby border city of Dara, or Anastasiopolis (after 505).
The church is notable for its mosaics covering the vault and lunettes of the apse. These are one of the very few Byzantine wall mosaics that have survived east of Constantinople. Their depictions of paradise and fertility may have had an influence on the mosaic panels of the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus (715), made by Byzantine artisans in late Roman style. The floor is covered with an opus sectile pavement made of Proconnesian marble.
The Dome of Theodora was built with the financial support of Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian I (527-565), though some date it to the rule of Anastasius I. It may have been built as a baptistery, as indicated by its central plan and octagonal shape. The dome is made of bricks, while the underlying structure with arches is predominantly made of stones. The diameter of the dome is 11.5 m. The space may have been later used as a refectory, as it stands next to the kitchen.
The House of the Saints (Beth Qadishe) dates from 449. It is one of the biggest mausolea in the region, consisting of multiple spaces. The saints that are buried in the niches lived in different periods.
Tragic stories from the history of the monastery include the killing of 440 monks by the invading Mongols in the 14th century and the massacre of the monks by the Kurds during the Assyrian Genocide (1914-1924). In recent years, the monastery was involved in a bitter legal battle with the Kurdish villagers and the Turkish state about the ownership rights of the land.
3. Mor Mikhayel Monastery
740. Sokak, south of Mardin
This small Syriac Orthodox monastery is my favourite in the list, because of its evocative location on an isolated slope on the outskirts of the city, overlooking the plains of Mesopotamia. Its church has a basement that is thought to have been a temple dedicated to Shamash (c.f., Mor Hananyo Monastery). Tombs dating back to 189 AD have been found from it.
The monastery itself is from 495, according to Syriac records. I don’t know which Saint Michael it is dedicated to. It is also called the Zodiac Monastery, probably because of a legend featuring a constellation that is thought to explain its foundation.
The complex contained a school which functioned until the 1910s or 1920s.
4. Mor Benham and Mort Saro Church / Church of the Forty Martyrs / Kırklar Church
Between 1. Cadde, 239. Sokak, Karadana (216.) Sokak, and Durum (218.) Sokak
Saints Benham and Sarah were the children of Sinharib, an Assyrian king in the 4th century. The story of their death includes forty slaves (kırk şehit, ’40 martyrs’ in Turkish), who are different from the better-known Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. The 6th-century church was named after the royal siblings, but the name was changed in 1170, with the arrival of the bones of the martyrs. It may have functioned as a mosque later on.
The church has a rectangular plan typical of the Syriac Orthodox architecture of the period. The space is divided in the east-west direction by massive columns. Beautiful motifs and inscriptions can be found in the stone on the external walls and around the entrances.
The church is located in a big courtyard which housed other structures such as a school. A separate building was constructed for the Patriarchs and Metropolitans of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the 19th century.
It is the most central, and thus the most visitable, of the Syriac churches in Mardin.
5. Mort Shmuni Church
Gazali (54.) Sokak 8, Mardin
This Syriac Orthodox church is thought to have been constructed in the 6th century, on the basis of its similarity in architectural terms to the Church of Mor Benham and Mort Saro. It is dedicated to Mort Shmuni, who, according to 2 Maccabees, was killed with her seven sons because she refused to give up her Christian faith.
The church was renovated in 1125. It is surrounded by additional buildings and porticoes. The school is from 1796, the council room from 1883, and the bell tower from 1910.
6. Mar Hormizd Church
1. Cadde, west of Kaya Pasaji, Mardin
397 or the 6th century
A plaque on the wall of this church informs that its history goes back to 397, while other sources mention the 6th century as its beginning. It is dedicated to Rabban Hormizd, a monk who founded an important monastery in around 640 in today’s Northern Iraq.
The church served as the seat of the metropolitan bishop of the Church of the East until the schism of 1552, after which it was given to the Chaldean Catholics. It was an important church, as indicated by the fact that since the middle of the 18th century most of the Chaldean bishops of Mardin were buried here. Today there is only one Chaldean Catholic family left in Mardin, and in absence of their priest, the services are led by a Syriac Orthodox priest.
7. Church of the Assumption of Virgin Mary
Cumhuriyet Meydanı, entrance from 239. Sokak, Mardin
This is the most important church of the Syriac Catholics in Turkey. It was built in 1860, six years after bringing the see of the Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch from Aleppo to Mardin.
8. Former Syriac Catholic Patriarchate
Cumhuriyet Meydanı, Mardin Museum
The building of the Mardin Museum was constructed in 1895 to house the Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch. It remained the patriarchal see until the Assyrian Genocide, as a consequence of which the Patriarch moved to Beirut. Later the building functioned as a military garrison, headquarters of a political party, a cooperative building, a health centre, and a police station. It is an impressive three-storey structure with terraces, colonnades and balustrades, with beautiful stonework in the arches and on the roofline.
In the collection of the Mardin Museum there are some Syriac Christian exhibits, such a relief and a tomb from the Church of Saint Jacob of Nisibis.
Lion relief from Mor Yakup Church, Nusaybin (12th-14th century; Mardin Museum)
Tomb inscription from Mor Yakup Church, Nusaybin (1246; Mardin Museum)
9. Mor Ephrem Monastery
At the junction of Çağatay Caddesi & Erdes (241.) Sokak, Mardin
In this area near the Diyarbakır Gate stood an Armenian monastery since the Middle Ages. In the 18th or 19th century the structure was given to the Armenian Catholics. In 1884, a new, Syriac Catholic monastery was built on this spot. That monastery was dedicated to Saint Ephrem the Syrian, an influential 4th-century Syriac-language theologian and hymnographer. It operated until 1933, after which it housed a military hospital for a while. It seems to not have had a permanent function after, but this may change soon, as I remember extensive repair works in process in November 2018.
10. Mardin Protestant Church
152. Sokak 16, Mardin
This L-shaped church was built only 11 years later than the Christ Church in Jerusalem, making it one of the oldest Protestant churches in the Middle East. It had no congregation for 60 years, but it was restored recently and reopened in 2015. Members of the congregation are mostly Assyrians.
11. Mor Aksnoyo Church
222. Sokak 1-5, Midyat
This church was built in the 4th century on the site of an older temple. It is one of the oldest churches in the Mardin Province. It is dedicated to Philoxenos, Bishop of Mabbug (Manbij), a notable Syriac prose writer and a vehement supporter of Miaphysitism in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. The saint’s skull is venerated as a relic in this church.
12. Mor Barsaumo Church
Şen Caddesi 21, Midyat
This Syriac Orthodox church is the most central of the active churches of Midyat. With its school and courtyard it acts as the community centre of the city’s Christians. It is dedicated to Saint Barsaumo/Barsauma, called ‘Chief among the Mourners’. It was rebuilt on the 5th-century foundations in 1943.
In 2010, during a service, a Kurdish man entered the church, walked to the altar, and kissed the Turkish flag three times, while holding a large hammer in his other hand, to the fear of the congregation.
13. Mor Hobil and Mor Abrohom Monastery
Manastır Caddesi, about a kilometer east of the old town of Midyat
This monastery, established in the late 5th century, is related to two saints. Built on the site of the pillar of the stylite Hobil (Abel), it was later named after Abraham of the High Mountain, a monk and miracle-worker whose relics had been bought here.
The monastery has a large farmland, some of which was, in recent years, donated to the Christian refugees from Syria. Close to the monastery lies the Turabdin Hotel and a winery which uses the monastery’s vineyards to produce unique Syriac wines.
14. Mor Sharbel Church
115. Sokak, Midyat
This beautiful Syriac Orthodox church was built in 1955 on the site of an older church. It is dedicated to Saint Sharbel, a pagan priest from Edessa (Urfa) who was martyred for his conversion to Christianity, together with his sister Babai. This took place during the reign Trajan (98-117), according to the Acts of Sharbel from the 5th century.
15. Bethel Church
100 m east of the Midyat Guest House
This Assyrian Protestant church was built in 1912. Bethel means the ‘House of God’.
16. Unidentified church
100 m southeast of the Mor Aksnoyo Church, Midyat
This church is located behind the Mor Aksnoyo Church. It may be the Chaldean Catholic Church of Virgin Mary – the only church in Midyat listed in online sources that I haven’t been able to locate –, or it may be related to the Mor Hobil and Mor Abrohom Monastery, standing not far away across the wasteland.