My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Monday, 30 December 2013

Holy Land Pilgrimage: In what language does a child cry?

In what language does a child cry? Isn’t a smile the same in any language?

wall painting at Jeel al-Amal
We are visiting the Jeel al- Amal (Generation of Hope) School and Boys Home in the village of Bethany, once home to Mary, Martha and Lazarus, but now in economic collapse, hidden from view in Palestinian territory behind the new Separation Security Wall. This is our second full day of our Holy Land pilgrimage and we have made a very early start again, something we will get used to by the end of the week!
At the school we hear a ten minute talk from Najwa, the daughter of Alice and Basil Sahhar, Christian Palestinians who founded the school and home in 1972. And she asks those questions: In what language does a child cry? Isn’t a smile the same in any language?
This home and school was originally for boys, but now there are girls as well. After the talk we have a tour of the building. We see the colorful dormitories and school rooms, the playground and even the laundry! We watch some children painting in the playground and hear a group singing to us with such joy and energy. Many of the children seem very happy; others are quiet and withdrawn. The pain I could see in the eyes of one of the little girls was to haunt me for days afterwards, and I don’t think any of us leave with dry eyes. I have to walk away, quite overcome by it all.
The running costs of this beacon of light in an otherwise troubled land are found by the Educational Trust formed by McCabe, our pilgrimage tour operators. The school is affiliated to the Palestinian Education Authority which pays the teachers’ salaries. One hundred boys live in the Home and three hundred children are educated in the school, coming from Jerusalem and from towns and villages in the Palestinian territories. We learn that many of these children are orphans or have endured terrible domestic problems. Several of us have brought gifts with us, which are hugely appreciated. This explains why one person in our group struggled with a guitar in their luggage all the way over here! I had wondered. Now I know. What a wonderfully inspirational place to support; what a splendid way to demonstrate the love and compassion of Christ.

painting in the Chapel of the Angels
From the school we are taken to the Field of the Shepherds, in Beit Sahour, where we are to celebrate the Eucharist with the other groups in the open air looking over towards the fields where the shepherds would have seen that angel of the Lord come down to them in Glory as they watched over their flocks on that cold Christmas night. This looks like big business! There are coaches galore, and we can see many different settings across the large site prepared for the purpose of holding services, with stone altars, various seating arrangements, and canopies to protect from sun and rain. We can see a demarcation fence boundary in the distance across the valley and beyond that an illegal Jewish settlement which is being developed, with many cranes and much building activity clearly visible. It all sounds a bit grim and touristy doesn’t it? But I will not forget the open air Eucharist in a hurry. It is an intensely moving experience, made more so by the bird song all around us, and the Muezzin calling the faithful Muslims to prayer as we recite our own Eucharistic prayer. After such an action packed morning we are all ready for lunch, which is an experience in itself…

Monday, 23 December 2013

Pilgrimage to the Holy Land: Jerusalem and the Healing of Wounds

Lunch on that first day for the Hope pilgrims is by courtesy of the Sisters of Sion in the village of Ein Karem, the home of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, the elderly parents of John the Baptist. The Faith and Love coaches go to two other lunch venues. It is a bit much to expect any one place to feed 128 people for lunch although there are large restaurants on the Holy Land pilgrimage/tourist trail which are geared to cope with coach loads. As my readers will understand, they do tend to lack atmosphere, with some notable exceptions.
Our hosts for lunch today have a peaceful retreat guest house set among beautiful tranquil gardens and the lunch break is not only welcome but a good opportunity for the pilgrims to get to know each other better. Here my fellow pilgrims with large appetites discover that it is a good idea to sit next to me at mealtimes; my appetite is quite tiny and as a veggie I am not always able to eat what has been put in front of me.

All too soon it is time for us to move on, suitably refreshed, our destination the Church of the Nativity of St John the Baptist in the same village. The blue tiles within this church are stunning, and seem Dutch to me, but in fact they have been brought over from Valencia in Spain. This site dates from the fifth century and marks the traditional place of the birth of St John the Baptist. Also in the village we see the Church of the Visitation, where tradition says the Virgin Mary greeted her cousin Elizabeth. There are ceramic plaques which reproduce Mary's canticle of praise, the Magnificat, (Luke 1: 46-55) in some 50 languages.

entrance to the Church of the Nativity
of John the Baptist
The afternoon is drawing to a close and now we are off to the Anglican Cathedral of St George the Martyr in the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, one of four Dioceses in the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East. Here the three groups, Faith, Hope and Love, are to celebrate the Eucharist together.

It was a beautiful end to our day's travels, bringing us all together in this way around the Lord's Table to take bread and wine together, the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
a gathering at one of the Magnificat plaques

The information leaflet which I find at the back of the cathedral after the service tells us that the Cathedral is home to two different congregations, one Arabic-speaking and the other English- speaking. Services are also held in Hebrew, we are told. There is an adult education center in the grounds of the cathedral, which combines academic study, spirituality and travel in its range of courses. The present Bishop, Suheil Dawani, believes very strongly, as I do, that education is the key for our futures.
another Magnificat plaque!
In addition to the adult education center there are about 7000 young students in the schools across the Diocese. I quote from the leaflet:
“Our schools are educating the next generation of peace makers even as our hospitals are healing the wounds of the present generation.” 
Essential Healing
Here I crave your indulgence while I digress just a little into this whole idea of healing. I think we need to be aware that such wounds are mental and spiritual as well as physical: as such they can seep into the next generation without being obvious. This we have to guard against, not only in Jerusalem and the Holy Land but across the world.

Do we have time? The unhealed wounds of mankind inflicted through millennia of evolution by strife and violence and disaster mean that hundreds of millions of people are psychologically, emotionally and physically scarred and wounded and in need of healing.

It has even been suggested by some psychologists that ‘human culture as a whole has been saturated by unhealed wounding, which, if unchecked, will continue on a downward spiral toward inevitable disintegration.’ (see Judith Thompson and James O’Dea, 2005 Shift Issue 7, May 2005, ‘Social Healing for a Fractured World; a Summary Report to the Fetzer Institute.’

So how very important this healing is. And at the very core of any healing are the spiritual gifts of faith, love and forgiveness.
Anthony de Mello in his Contact with God: Retreat Conferences counseled  the offering of prayer and meditation with Christ as Healer, to mend our inner conflicts and our past wounds.
Alastair Campbell in his book Rediscovering Pastoral Care (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1986) p. 38. explains how ‘the wounded love of Jesus Christ has a healing power because it is enfleshed love, entering into human weakness, feeling our pain, standing beside us in our dereliction.’ This is apt for the places we have visited today and is very much the idea at the heart of the true Wounded Healer, a concept which interests me a great deal in the context of social healing, healing this wounded earth.
The Cathedral of St George the Martyr Jerusalem
And this is something which is very much in the forefront of my mind throughout this pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a place which has seen so much conflict and war, where there should be peace and understanding and respect between the different Abrahamic faiths.

Tomorrow we are off to Bethlehem ... another busy day promised...

Saturday, 21 December 2013

A Bus called Hope: Introduction to Jerusalem contd.

Church of the Agony
We soon have to move on from the Dominus Flevit, regretting that there is no time to see inside. That is such a great shame. This happens a few times during our pilgrimage, where in the interests of seeing as much as possible we have no time to linger. At least it gives us all a very good reason and motivation to return to this most Holy of Lands. And we can appreciate the splendid view across the Kidron Valley from the terrace below the church. Some say the view is even better from inside framed by the altar window.
Church of the Agony
We now make our way to the Church of All Nations, or the Church of the Agony, in the Garden of Gethsemane. Someone says that the former name refers to the fact that many different nations contributed to its building costs – this is in fact so – donations came from many different countries for the building of the chapel between 1919 and 1934. But the name is also a reference to the fact that it is here where all the nations of the world shall be judged, according to the prophecy in the Book of Joel ch. 3 v. 2. Within the church is a bare rock upon which, according to tradition, Jesus prayed before he was arrested on the night of what we now call Maundy Thursday. The church was designed by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi, who also designed the little Dominus Flevit church which we have just seen, and I think we shall see more of his work later into the pilgrimage. I am sorry to say I am first of all struck by the scaffolding and the noise of the repairs going on within, which somewhat spoil the experience for me. The extremely busy main road doesn’t help. In this general chaos I also regret that I miss the “stone of agony” itself. I’m not sure how I manage to do that! I’m afraid that I really do not like loud noise of any sort and I have to escape fairly quickly to the peace of the small garden just outside the church.

Here there are eight eight extremely old olive trees. There is some dispute as to their ages, although since these trees have the capacity to regenerate from very small stumps it is quite possible that some part at least of them may have been around in Jesus’ time. I like to think so. Carbon dating by the University of California suggests that some wood may be 2300 years old. The girth of the largest tree is more than 18 feet!

In the Garden of Gethsemane
We are all beginning to wilt and flag a little, but there is one more church to see before lunch, and this is probably for me the favorite of the morning, because I really love sculptures. Outside the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu (cock crow in Latin) our next destination, there is a beautiful sculpture commemorating this site where St Peter is said to have denied Jesus after his master’s arrest in the garden of Gethsemane. The sculpture shows Peter by the fire where he is keeping warm, and nearby is a flight of ancient stone steps which Jesus would surely have trod in his time.

Peter denying he knows Jesus
There are brief moments like this where I can find a place for quiet reflection and stand in awe and wonder – to think we are standing where so much of the gospel story was played out all those many years ago. Of course many of the commemorative sites are modern, but we can still feel the sense of sacredness in the atmospheric surroundings and the ground upon which we walk, in spite of the crowds which sometimes get in the way. And who are we to talk with 128 of us!!

Church of St Peter on its steep hillside

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Our Holy Land Pilgrimage: an Introduction to Jerusalem

Today, the first full day of our pilgrimage, is described as “an introduction to Jerusalem.” And what an introduction it is! To some it seems like a whistle stop tour. But there really is so much to see and a balance has to be struck somehow between the number of days in hotels which of course ramps up the costs considerably, and making sure that we visit the most important sights on our pilgrimage. One thing is certain; every morning we have to make an early start, partly I think to avoid so far as possible the crowds who flock to this hugely popular pilgrimage city in their bus loads.

across the Kidron Valley
First we drive to the Mount of Olives, or Mount Olivet, from where we have a panoramic view of the walled city across the Kidron Valley. From our vantage point looking across the Jewish Cemetery we can see the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Golden Gate, in the wall of the old city, sealed, it is said, until the Day of Judgement when the righteous will be accepted into the Holy City.  All the Jewish tombs in the cemetery are covered to some extent by stones. This all looks very untidy, but we are told that the stones are put there as marks of respect. I do wonder. The tombs definitely do suffer from vandalism which is very sad indeed.
This is Jerusalem’s most important and most ancient cemetery, with around 70,000 or 150,000 tombs (depending on which source of information you use!) dating from some 3000 years ago to more recent times. Jews like to be buried here as in Jewish tradition the resurrection of the dead will start here when the Messiah comes. Here also is the place where Jesus ascended into heaven according to tradition. 

The man with the donkey is annoyed I think that I did not give him any money, but others from our party did, so I thought another photo was not too much to ask of him! He didn’t agree!

Our first church to visit is the Paternoster Church, so called because by tradition this is where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. The environs are already bustling with other coach parties and it is almost impossible to find any quiet space where we can say the Lord’s Prayer as a group.

The prayer is inscribed on tablets on the walls of the cloisters and the church in over 60 different languages and of course it is fun to find the one in your own language!

I should mention here, in case anyone is wondering how our leaders keep tabs on us all, especially in such crowded places, that we each have a very nifty bit of technology – an ear piece through which we can hear our guide talking to us over a reasonable range, at a wavelength unique to each group. Wonderful! It means we can stroll around while listening to his talk and be called to regroup at any time when we are due to move on.

And move on we do; to Dominus Flevit, the Lord Wept, the church which commemorates the occasion when Jesus wept and foretold the destruction of the city below him…

Dominus Flevit

The Dominus Flevit is tear-drop shaped and has a “tear cup” at each of its four corners. This place speaks powerfully to me of the vulnerability of Jesus, the Wounded Healer. 

At the same time I am disturbed by the litter, the peddlers or hawkers, and the crowds, all of which we must somehow get used to as the week progresses...

This is only just the first morning of our pilgrimage so for some the transition has not yet been made from tourist to pilgrim - a process that will be different for each and every one of us. Who knows at this stage which experiences will move us most, which memories will be most important to each of us ...

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

A Bus called Hope: Our Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Some people call the Gospel of Thomas the Fifth Gospel. For others the Fifth Gospel is the Holy Land. Father Bargil Pixner (1921-2002), who was a Benedictine monk in Jerusalem’s Dormition Abbey, wrote in his book With Jesus Through Galilee According to the Fifth Gospel (Corazin Publishing 1992): “Five gospels record the life of Jesus. Four you will find in books and one you will find in the land they call holy. Read the fifth gospel and the world of the four will open to you.”

The River Jordan
As we gathered together at Heathrow Airport in the early afternoon at the start of our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, we had very little idea of what to expect. We were to return home just over a week later with our spiritual lives changed for ever. Pixner was right. Our exploration of Jerusalem and Galilee was inspirational and transformative in so many ways. From now on the Holy Bible would come to life for us as never before. We could now read and listen to the scriptures with new insight. We had been there. We had walked the very shores that Jesus had known, dipped our toes in the river in which he was baptised and touched the very ground upon which he had walked all those many years ago. The experience was going to be thrilling and life changing.

The Damascus Gate Jerusalem

We had already met many of our fellow pilgrims at a briefing a few weeks earlier, when we had been told what to expect in terms of climate, food, accommodation and so on; the practical stuff. But the spiritual stuff would come later from our own personal experiences. The security at the airport was second to none – we were warned to allow plenty of time for this, as we would be quizzed as to why we were going, who we were going with and so on. As we were going to Israel we had to pass through two levels of security, one more than normal. The flight was a good one and we met our guide at Tel Aviv Airport from where a coach took us to Jerusalem where we were to stay for four nights.

The floodlit Damascus Gate was our first sighting of the Old Jerusalem and the sight was truly awesome. But we were all very tired, we had lost two hours on the flight across and we were glad that we would simply have supper and an early night before starting the pilgrimage in earnest in the morning. Tomorrow was going to be an extremely busy day with many sights on the agenda…

A Bus called Hope
I didn’t mention that there were nearly 128 of us on the pilgrimage. That sounds far too many! But it all worked very well because we were split between three coaches, each with our own local guide. In addition each group had its own priest who led that coach throughout the tour, and other ministers “floated” between the coaches, so to speak. And in keeping with the recent new mission introduced by Southwark Bishop Christopher the groups were called Faith, Hope and Love.
I was on the bus called Hope!

To be continued...

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

When pilgrims become tourists - before travelling home from Eastern Turkey

 After the astonishing sights of Dara, we have to return to the monastery to pick up our bags before setting off for lunch in Mardin, to the same restaurant as yesterday; it was so good.

Then we’re all off for some final shopping in Mardin's colorful markets, this time exploring those down the hill below the main street, especially busy today because this is the second day of the four day Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha.

Finally we make our way back to the cay and baklavas café for another sweet indulgence. The lads there are so pleased to see us back. We have a wonderful welcome and sad good bye as we must not be late for the coach taking us to catch our flight at Mardin airport to Istanbul and thence to Heathrow and home.

One day I will go back to this region to further explore the many treasures it has to offer. There was so much we could not see or do in the time available to us, whether as pilgrims or as tourists. I pray that the Christian communities in this beautiful part of Turkey will continue to flourish. There are mixed signs, but overall I believe there is hope.

And I do mean hope, which we must not confuse with optimism. Optimism is passive. We believe that something better will happen.
Hope is far more than that. It is a firmly held conviction that it is worth taking action to improve something; and it is grounded in spirituality and faith.
 Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said: ‘I've never been an optimist. I've always been a man of hope - I am a prisoner of hope…hope holds on even when things are seemingly doomed and dark.’ ‘We must,’ said Martin Luther King, ‘accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.’

A rare photograph of the photographer - at Dara
Thank you for reading my blog of our wonderful pilgrimage to East Turkey. I trust you have enjoyed it. Next year I shall report back on another pilgrimage experience, this time planned for Georgia in the Caucasus region of Eurasia where Western Asia and Eastern Europe meet. It promises to be another inspiring and fascinating trip.

Finally I would like to thank both McCabe Pilgrimages and Southwark Diocese who made this possible for me.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Dara in Mesopotamia - on our pilgrimage to Eastern Turkey

entrance to "the Dungeon"
Dara was hot! Exposed as it is on the plain of Mesopotamia it affords little shelter from the sun. Earlier in the year at the height of summer I suspect the heat was gruesome. But I would not have missed this for the world.
Not least of our experiences were our visits to two cafes near the ruins, very different from each other but both offering traditional and authentic Turkish hospitality, at which these friendly people are so good. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Down in "the Dungeon"
We had come to learn more about the culture and history of this fascinating region so the ruins had to come first. The dearth of information available on the internet about Dara does little justice to the importance of this East Roman strong fortress city in northern Mesopotamia on the border with the Sassanid Empire. True it is quite close to the Syrian border and the present conflict will surely put off potential visitors to this area. But we experienced nothing but friendliness as we strolled through the village and around the ruins themselves.
This is the site of a significant Roman fortress used in the conflicts with the Persians in the 6th century. There has been a large amount of archaeological excavation work at the site since 1986, which now seems to be shelved perhaps just for the time being.
another water cistern
ruins of Dara - bridge can be seen in background
The first place we went was “the dungeon”, deep below ground level, entered through a small and insignificant looking doorway. This was an incredible feat of the engineers of Justinian: they diverted the river Cordes and constructed this underground water cistern of huge proportions. The brave among us climbed down the very steep and uneven stone steps to the very bottom of this cavernous place, only to be suddenly plunged into utter and total darkness as the lights failed! Fortunately someone had a torch but the lights soon came on again. This was one of three water systems which we saw, the one nearest to the necropolis probably constructed to supply the city with its water. It has also been suggested that this area was first a stone quarry in the Roman era.
our tour guides at Dara!
There are detailed information boards at the entrance to the necropolis site (from the Ancient Greek meaning “city of the dead”), which give quite a bit of background detail, although the translation to English from the Turkish sometimes requires a little guesswork in its interpretation. But broadly here is pretty much what they tell us: Dara was founded during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius 491-518 (deduced it seems by the existence of an inscription in the “building with the mosaic floor”, sadly missed by our group, that proclaims Anastasiapolis to be the original name of the city, thus establishing its founder - others say the city was built by the Persian King Darius - it seems that even historians cannot agree on this.). One of the largest citadels on the borders with Persia, the board tells us it was founded by the Byzantine empire although later altered during the Justinian reign. Excavations have unearthed ruins of the Roman period, which show that Dara was the scene of many wars in the late Roman- early Byzantine period. There is much excavating still to do. The city wall, the information board continues, is 4 km long, and 3 m thick, supported by bastions, and much of this wall is still standing and clearly visible. Further away from the city, we are told there are some deep ditches, thought to be dug as defence against more sophisticated wheeled vehicle attack.
We are able to see the ruins of the great city entrance, with the now dried up bed of the Dara stream, and the main street with the agora or meeting place (this would have been the center of the athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life of the city).

A Cross at the Necropolis 
an authentic Turkish Hubble Bubble cafe at Dara
The necropolis is to the west of the city and dates back to 600 AD. It is astonishing. Carved out of the bedrock, it has engraved galleries and tombs, some multi-storeyed, along with sarcophogai, with and without lids. These are said to have been used at different times by different cultures, including the Syriacs and the Sassanids.

Part of this complex is thought to be the site where the dry bones came to life in the story from Ezekial ch. 37 vv 1-14 (also mentioned in one of the Qu’ran Surahs). There is evidence of the ruins of churches within the necropolis, perhaps carved from the larger tombs when Christianity came to Dara. (These I believe were pointed out to us by the children, but we could understand little from their minimal grasp of English, although they were very keen to show us everything they could about the site).

anyone for Ayran?

Refreshing Ayron with mint
some opted for coffee!
As we strolled around the extensive ruins of the city, up the main street, onto the dried up river bed where the remains of a bridge was clearly visible, and along parts of the old wall, we were accompanied by the most beguiling children, eager to make friends with us and to act as our guides. In particular the necropolis seemed to capture their imagination and they tried hard to communicate to us the most important features that we clearly should not miss.

Sadly I had no small change to reward them for their efforts, not even any sweets. They had honestly earned some reward. I only hope that they fared better from the coach load of tourists who were arriving as we left. At least we helped the local economy by buying many drinks for our thirsty group in the two cafes that we found close to the sites. Perhaps the proprietors were in some way related to our child guides. I suspect so, even if only indirectly. I like to think so.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Farewell to the Saffron Monastery

in the courtyard of the monastery
I feel very sad to be going to our last early morning liturgy at the Saffron Monastery. I shall miss these Orthodox services. This time the female members of the party make sure we sit on the left side of the church as we enter, our heads suitably covered. Actually wearing a shawl around the head and shoulders so early in the morning is a comfort. Even though the day is likely to be hot, at 6 or 7 in the morning it is still chilly before the full force of the sun is felt.
I am now letting the liturgy get under my skin.
We are getting used to the format of the service, knowing to always stand when the thurifer is engaged with his thurible of incense around the church, or when the prayers are marked by the prostrations of the monks and boys. Otherwise we sit whilst psalms are intoned antiphonally from side to side by the two groups of boys and monks gathered around their respective lecterns. When one no longer has to worry about standing or sitting at the wrong times
the Saffron Monastery entrance
it is possible to allow the mysteries of the sounds and smells of the service surround you in a far more deep and spiritual way. And I feel sure that any one is capable of feeling this spiritual connection, whatever their religious convictions.
the Saffron Monastery
So for the last time, we climb the steps to kiss the bible on the lectionary in front of the sanctuary, take our last blessing from the hand of the monk as we come down the steps the other side, make our last reverential bow towards the sanctuary, light our last candle at the back of the church and emerge blinking into the bright sunshine; and so to our last breakfast in the monastery.

the Saffron Monastery
There is an optional visit this morning to the ancient Mesopotamian city of Dara, near the village of Oguz, about 30 kms east from Mardin. This was originally on the itinerary for yesterday but time overtook us so it was rescheduled.

on the road to Dara
There are some in the group who prefer to take time out, staying behind in the Saffron Monastery this morning to assimilate the events of the last few days, to simply “be”, to reflect and contemplate, perhaps to meditate, on all that we have experienced this trip, and who can blame them? It being Saturday, and an important Muslim festival as well, large numbers of visitors are expected to the monastery, as it is clearly on the tourist trail. Indeed as our coach heading for Dara turns onto the main road we see two coaches heading up the hill to the monastery. Those of the group staying behind had hoped to gain access to the quiet and private gardens set aside at the Saffron Monastery known as “Paradise”. But it wasn’t to be. I hope they found peace and quiet anyway.

In my next post I shall describe the wonders of the Necropolis and other ruins of the ancient city of Dara...
on the road to Dara - notice the bed on the roof to the left - in
the summer when it is very hot people sleep on their roofs

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Church of the Forty Martyrs and other Churches of Mardin - our pilgrimage draws to a close

Mardin from the approach road
The last full day of our pilgrimage is spent in Mardin with its many churches and much history:
First we visit the museum in Mardin, housed in what used to be the Syrian Catholic Patriarchate. The building was purchased by the Ministry of Culture who restored it and opened it as a museum in 2000. It reflects a typical Mardin house, on three floors with a U-shaped floor plan and facing South to the Mesopotamian Plain, It is small but has some fascinating artifacts, ranging from Assyrian to Ottoman times, reflecting some of the extraordinary history of this part of the world.
I feel we have too little time here, although not everyone agrees!
There are children playing in the ArkeoPark, an enclosure within the museum grounds, where they are being taught the principles of archaeology and the archaeological importance of the area in which they live through the power of play. They seem to be having a great deal of fun.
symbols of nature on a tomb stone

There is then just a short walk to the Kirklar Kilisesi, the Syrian Orthodox Church of the Forty Martyrs, originally dedicated in 569 to Mor Behnam and Saro, which is found up a side street behind the museum. After silence and prayer Father Gabriyel (Gabriel) is delighted to tell us about this lovely church and some of its history. He asks that we take no photos within the church, which is a shame as there are also no postcards to bring home to remind us of its beauty. I wonder why he takes this stance – perhaps it is for reasons of security?
Church of the forty martyrs

This fourth and fifth century building is the central church for Christian worship in Mardin. There are something like 80 Christian families across four (or was it five) different Christian churches in the town, representing Syrian Protestant, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox and Chaldean Catholic (Mardin was a diocese of the Chaldean Church from the sixteenth century to 1941 at which time the diocese ceased to exist). Father Gabriyel celebrates the Syrian Orthodox liturgy in them all in turn.
Picture of the 40 martyrs in the Chaldean Church
We hear from Father Gabriyel that the government is beginning to allow the teaching of Aramaic again, and that this church is also visited by many interested Muslims, which gives Father Gabriyel the chance to explain the full history and the importance of Christianity to this area. There are some lovely and interesting features in the church. Unusually for churches in this area, there are doors that open and close across the sanctuary, in addition to the usual painted cloth or sutoro that can be pulled across during the liturgy. There are also five ancient wooden altars in the church, although the high altar itself seems to be made of what look to me like concrete breeze blocks and I mean no offence by saying this. It simply reflects what I saw. Over the sanctuary in front of the altar hangs the traditional dove, pointing to heaven.
the Chaldean Catholic Church
As we are told the stories of the forty martyrs, to whom the church is dedicated, and the seven sleepers of Ephesus, we can hear clearly the mid morning muezzin call to prayer from the surrounding minarets, a reminder if one was needed that Christians are in a very small minority here in this secular state but very Muslim country. We admire the very old printing press. We had seen something similar at a previous monastery, where the monk dreams one day of building it together again into full working order.

Afterwards cay is served to us all in the former Patriarchal Residence in Mardin. I ask about postcards. Many of us, I say, would love to buy some. Instead we are given a plentiful supply of glossy illustrated leaflets, sadly not in English, but they are useful souvenirs for all that.
view over the Mesopotamian Plain from the restaurant 

Then it is just a short walk east along the main street to the Chaldean Catholic Church of Mor Hűrműzd – brilliant colors and certainly very different from the Orthodox style we have become accustomed to.

Lunch is in a great restaurant, Cercis Murat Konagi on the main street. The setting is authentic, a true mansion owned by an old Mardin family, the food excellent and the views over the Mesopotamian plain stunning. Then it is time to explore a little up into the old part of town. The narrow streets seem like a maze and it would be futile to try to follow any map. However any route upwards or downwards as appropriate will bring one back before too long to the main road running east/west through the middle of the town.

Donkeys are a common site, used to transport goods along these narrow streets.

a soap shop in Mardin

We have time for some gift shopping in the bazaar and along the main street,

sunset at the monastery
and finish with cay and baklavas in a pastry shop and café near the museum, 

and finally it’s back to the monastery to admire a fabulous sunset before going inside for evening prayer.