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TURABDIN:

LIVING CULTURAL HERITAGE

By: professor Hans Hollerweger

(The Preface of the book) 

Towards the middle of the 1980s friends showed me Turabdin. I visited it again and again in the company of others until, gradually, I bacame familiar with this world, so foreign to a European. Understanding opened the hearts of the inhabitants too – andthose hearts were full of worries and fears.

They felt themselves to be forgotten and abandoned. Many had left their native area and had emigrated to the West in hope of finding a secure future. Those who remained were in need of a feeling solidarity, which I tried to give to them through the organization "Friends od Turabdin". So, little by little, a strong link eas forget between the inhabitants od this region on the Tigris and us. The name Turabdin ("The Mountain of the Servants") was taken over by the Romans from older peoples in the MiddleEast Later on, it reffered to the monks in the many monasteries which had been founded there from the fourth century onwards and which, from a Christian viewpoint, converted Turabdin into "The Mountain of the Servants of God". Today this high limestone plateau in southeast Turkey, between the Tigris and the Syrian border, with its hills and valleys, seems remote. But, once upon a time, Romans and Byzantine emperors, reigning in Rome or Constantinople, ruled not only over regions and countries in the West, but also over Turabdin in the East. This far-off region has long captured public attention, at one time as a stronghold on the border of the Empire, later on as the centre of the Syriac Church and nowadays as a cornerstone of Christianity in the middle East

The inhabitants of Turabdin impress me most of all by their originality and simplicity, by their attachment to their native soil, by their fortitude in difficult times, by their self-confidence and lack of pretentiousness. In daily life they use the language spoken by Jesus, an Aramaic dialect which is now known as Turyoyo. This makes them the bearers of an uninterrupted tradition from the beginnings of Christianity until the present day. Here, on the plateau of Turabdin, formerly isolated and cut off from the world, they have been able to preserve their culture, a culture which cannot be transferred to any other region. In very early times Christianity was preached in Turabdin. We know of a bishop in Beth Zabday (Azakh) in 120 A.D. (Often erroneously Gziro [Cizre] was given the name Beth Zabaday). The monks, however, who finally converted the inhabitants of Turabdin to Christianity in the fourth century taught them to live ascetic lives. In return, almost every town and village built its own monastery, which they visited in search of advice and strenght in difficulties, and to honour the saints buried there. As a result, a religious people developed, deeply influenced by Christianity, that supported their monasteries and in return were spiritually enriched by them. So up to the present day, the monasteries are of central importance – also for the survival of the Christians in Turabdin in our times.

The present heart of Turabdin is Mor Gabriel Monastery, which in former times was called the Monastery  of Kartmin after the nearby village. From this monastery Archbishop Timotheos Samuel Aktas administers the diminished diocese Church and carries out many episcopal duties in the patriarchal dependency of Mardin; the present vicar of Mardin is Ibramhim Türker, abbot of the Monastery of Deyrulzafaran.[1] Although monastic life is verry varied, it is centred on the celebration of the Liturgy. As a professor of liturgy, I have had the opportunity of experiencing the precious legacy of the West Syriac Liturgy, both in Mor Gabriel Monastery and at the liturgical services in the bishop’s church, Mort Shmuni in Midyat. When the clear voices of the boy choristers join in the powerful chanting of the male choir in this monastery chuch  dating from 512 A.D., unifying the liturgical room with the celebration itself, we really become aware of the soil in which this liturgy has its roots and of the strength in imparts. In addition to the monasteries, the numerous ancient village churches are unique cultural treasures. Many are already in ruins, many others of great value are empty, but others are visited for prayers in common, three times a day, morning, noon and evening. This rich inheritance from former times is also a treasure for Christians of other denominations which they should seek out, rediscover and keep.

Most of the Christians of Turabdin and its surroundings are members of the Syric Orthodox Church, but there are also Christians of other denominations there. All these Christians have a deep feeling of affinity and celabrate the Liturgy together. Their numbers have shrunk. Gain and again, in the course of history, they have been endangered and their very existence has been threatened. As a result of involvement in the conflicts of the twentieth century many have left the region in which their ancestors had lived since pre- Christian times. Those who remain need the solidarity of the whole Christian world. This would give them in their belief that the Christian faith is stronger than all opposing forces.

It is important to point out that Diyarbakir, Mardin and its surroundings, the villages in the Mesopotamian plain, Cizre and Hasana, do not really belong to Turabdin. It seemed to make sense, however, to include these towns and villages in this work and to refer in the text to their independence in church matters.

The publication of this illustrated volume is principally the result of my endeavours to introduce Turabdin and, above all, the Christians living there to a wider public. It is astounding how little is known in the western world about the Syriac Christian tradition in the Middle East. To a still greater extent, this applies to this out-of-the-way plateau which had been the formative spiritual power in the region for centuries. How often did I hear on the occasion of my earlier visits the questioning and reproachful worlds, “Why have we been forgotten?” Therfore, may this book be laid in the hands of Christians of all denominations with request, “Do not forget our brothers and sisters in distress who still speak the language of Jesus!” In order to reach as many readers as possible it seemed best to provide the text in three languages.

Turabdin possesses inestimableand incomparable cultural treasures which of right should be regarded as part of the world culural heritage. As a result it ought to be a task to make them available to others and a duty to preserve these treasures. This is the task and duty of leading persons in political and cultural life in Turkey, but also in the whole world. The old monastery buildings, the distinctive style of the churches and the Aramaic language, which is still spoken there, belong to the cultural inheritance of humankind, which should be protected and preserved. With the publication of this book I call on the readers to make this come true.

This illustrated volume is meant to form a bridge to the homeland for the many natives who have left as well as for their sons and daughters. For this reason I have tried to include as many places as possible and to describe many typical details which call the past to mind. As a bridge, the book also invites them, if circumstances and possibilities permit, to seek the way home to see “how fare the brethren”. (Gen. 37,14) and to encourage the latter to remain in their homeland.

Orginally it was not my intention to produce an illustrated volume. It was my attachment ti his country, to its people and its sights, as well as the pleasure of photography which led me to do so. There were often serious difficulties. The curtailed to one village or another. In dark interiors it was necessary to use flashlights. Several Christian village, now abandoned, and a number of historic sites were out of bounds to me. How gladly would I have climbed to the ruins of Mor Abraham Monastery of Kashkar, or to the villages in the Izlo Mountains! I regret that some readers will search in vain for a mention of their native village and I do request their understanding.

The book is meant as a contribution to the anniversary celebrations of the foundation of Mor Gabriel Monastery in 397 A.D.- 1600 years ago. This intention becomes clear, especially in the historical account of Mor Gabriel Monastery by Andrew Palmer and in the frequency with which it appears in the pictorial section of the book.

Those responsible for Mor Gabriel Monastery have assisted in the compilation of the book by worl and deed. I therefore thank Archbishop Timotheos Samuel Aktas for his encouragement from the very beginning and Archdeacon Malfono Isa Gülten and the other collaborators for their advice and help.

His Holiness Ignatius Zakkai I Iwas, Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church and all the East, has followed with great interest and ahs encouraged the efforts to preserve

Turabdin. This encouragement can be clearly felt in hos message of greeting, for which I am especially thankful.

In the compilation of the book and especially for the trilingual texts I depended on the assistance of others. I owe the following a debt of gratitude for their trouble: Dr. Andrew Palmer (London) for the translations and for checking the English texts, Docent Dr. Sevil Gülcur (Istanbul) for translations into Turkish. Dr. Helga Ebner (Linz) read the German text very thoroughly and gave much good advice.

 Two scientists for Oriental Studies enriched the book with introductory contributions: Professor Dr. Sebastian Brock (Oxford) described the cultural importance of Turabdin and Dr. Andrew Palmer its historical development. The latter also enlarged on some of the texts in the pictural section. Christine Punz (Pregarten) was responsible for the careful layout and graphics. I wish to thank her for this and also Herbert Friedl (pregarten) for his expert advice: I thank the Repro-Atelier Hofmüller (Linz) and the Printing Office Trauner (Linz) for the good collaboration in the production of the book.

Finnally, the “Friend of Turabdin” have assisted in the preparation and have taken over the responsibility for the printing. This chance of assisting the Christians in Turabdin should be a source of joy to them all and their reward.

It is my sincere wish that this book should not only be a documentation of the past and the present, but should also be a signpost to a better future!

Professor Hans Hollerweger

Turabdin: Living Cultural heritage, the preface pp. 14-16.


[1] In 203 Saliba Özman was consecrated bishop to the Saffran monastery and the city of Mardin which an own diocese. The former abbot of Saffran monastery Abrohom Turkar is now the abbot of Mor Abrohom monastery in Midyat. (Aramaic Democratic Organization)