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

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Hasankeyf on the road to the Tur Abdin

The River Tigris
We are journeying, we are told, to the Syrian Orthodox area of Turkey, across the Tigris into Tur Abdin, and the traditional homeland of the Syrian Orthodox Church. The monasteries we will be visiting are supporting refugees of the current civil war, with their traditional monastic hospitality. We are warned by the bishop to display the very best of our natures to our hosts for this next stage of our pilgrimage, in view of our hotel experiences last night. Monasteries are not hotels! This is a timely reminder to us all.

As our journey takes us further south and we lose altitude, we can feel the climate getting ever warmer. We drive through a dramatic gorge following the course of the Bitlis river that will eventually find its way into the Tigris. I see small oil pumps in the distant fields. On the road through Kurtalan towards Batman we see a small convoy of tank transporters to remind us that all is not totally peaceful and well here. Earlier we passed an army checkpoint, but are waved through with no problem. Kurtalan and the surrounding area is colored orange on the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office map for travel advice through Turkey; warning us that all but essential travel is not advised through this area. Looking at a map it seems it would have been hard to avoid this area and we came through unscathed.
We are crossing a high plateau amongst the mountains. The vegetation is noticeably increasing and we are driving into much larger scale arable farming than we have seen thus far. There are large scorched fields where the farmers have burnt off the stubble. At Ikikopru we drive over another small tributary of the Tigris, the Yanarsu Cayi. Here we are crossing the line between Eastern and Western Syriac Christianity. Army camps seem more frequent here. The large scale farms are using very old John Deere farm implements.
So we drive down off the plain towards Batman, which we see sprawling below us as the road hairpins down. Once a small village, this exploded in size following the discovery of oil in the 1940’s and it is now a vibrant town with the largest oilfield in Turkey located just outside the city.

It seems quite unbelievable that the Turkish government would want to flood and destroy a significant and beautiful part of their ancient heritage, which is such a tourist attraction as well. But this is what they intend for the Kurdish city of Hasankeyf, or Hasankale, on the River Tigris, when in 2015 they begin construction of the planned Ilisu hydro-electric dam. Local people face eviction; in fact over 37 communities will be displaced and in 2013 there are signs of the new city already being built to re-house the population. This is in spite of huge opposition to the plan, locally and internationally. We stop for a photo opportunity but sadly have no time to linger. Here we have one of the most important cities of the Middle Ages, with castle, mosque (once a byzantine church), palaces, thousands of cave houses, and the enormous ruined arches of the old bridge across the Tigris; and all in the beautiful honey colored rock of the region.
This is a simply heartbreaking place.
There are plenty of websites that can be visited and supported to try to stop this sacrilege. See for example the opposition from the Nature Foundation who have a petition online, and an excellent blog dedicated to Hasankeyf  which is a very good source of information on the site and a discussion of all relevant issues. Here also can be found a petition to make the site a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We are now into the Tur Abdin region,
The River Tigris
the South East region of Turkey flanked by the Tigris to the East, the Euphrates to the West, and stretching down to the Syrian border in the South. In Syriac the words translate as Mountains of the Slaves, although current romantic interpretations like to think of slaves as servants, and guide books often refer to the Mountains of the Servants of God. The area is significant for the number of monasteries and churches, and the majority of the inhabitants of the region live in small villages. Syriac Christians may be variously known as Syriac Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Assyrians, Arameans, Syriani; whatever we call them they are custodians of some of the earliest surviving churches in the world, and we are in their homeland, in what was once East Syria. On the coach we hear about the “sons and daughters of the covenant” committed to celibacy and ascetic lives but dedicated to church life within the community. They were an important part of early Syriac Christianity, forming the basis of the monastic system in the area, before the advent of the monasticism which developed in the deserts of Egypt. There is an invaluable spiritual tradition embodied in the Tur Abdin community and its spiritual and cultural value to the wider community is important and increasing, as we will see and hear for ourselves over the next few days.

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