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, 25 November 2013

Mardin and the Saffron Monastery - our pilgrimage continues...

at the Saffron Monastery
Unofficially closed to tourism throughout the 1990s due to the long lasting Turkey-PKK conflict in the surrounding countryside (and that possibly explains why it is omitted from most of the guidebooks to the area), Mardin has recently started to catch up with tourism (still don't expect hordes of package tourists though) and will reward the adventurous traveler with some colorful culture, plenty of historical interest, beautiful architecture and some fabulous vistas. Mardin is one of the oldest settled areas in upper Mesopotamia, lying at the heart of the homeland of the Syriacs, whose ancestors established here around 2200 BC. The Syriac language is directly related to Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ. The many madrasas and mosques in the city owe their presence to the fact that Mardin was the capital of the Turkic Artukid dynasty between the 12th and 15th centuries.
the self supporting roof at the Saffron Monastery
in the courtyard at the monastery
Approaching by coach from the south the old houses seem to tumble down the hillside in glorious disarray, topped by the citadel at the very top, and all in the attractive beige colored limestone rock of the region. We had passed several of these quarries on our travels. For those who love trivia, Mardin is apparently twinned with Llubljana in Slovenia. But much more important is its historical significance. With remains dating back to 4000 BC the town has in its time been controlled by many different tribes, from the Subarians, to the Hurrians, the Elamites, Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, Romans and Byzantines, to name a few. The town has been fought over many times in its turbulent history.

After we have been welcomed to the Saffron Monastery, finished our glasses of refreshing cay and found our rooms, (not so good, it has to be said, as those at Mor Gabriel) we have a tour of the monastery before evening prayer.
the sutoro across the front of the sanctuary
This monastery is well and truly on the tourist route, a well known attraction, with more than 10,000 visitors a year from within Turkey and from abroad, 70% of whom are Muslim. Living in the monastery with Bishop Philoxenus are a nun, a monk and a few boys, and they can take 20 guests, but whilst the liturgy of morning and evening prayer is maintained, it is not a fully functioning monastery as at Mor Gabriel and Mor Augin.

First we go to a very old room with a self supporting roof – there is absolutely no mortar, the roof held up simply by the pressure of the huge rocks against themselves. The room dates back at least to Roman times, but we cannot be sure what it may have been. Some date it back 4500 years to a pagan temple site, a Zoroastrian temple possibly? But there is no definitive evidence of this.
at the Saffron Monastery

Morning prayer starts not quite so early at the Saffron Monastery. Here the females among us sit as we sat in Mor Gabriel, on the right hand side of the church, our heads covered in headscarves or shawls as required in orthodox churches. The men enter a few minutes later. It seems they are not so good at getting up early?! Following our lead, they take their places on the simple benches to the left. We think it slightly strange that in one part of the liturgy the monk comes and sits with us, looking slightly awkward. We discover the next morning that we should be sitting on the left, leaving the right side for the men. Oh dear! Faux pas! But who is correct? Mor Gabriel or the Saffron Monastery? There seems to be some confusion over the protocol.

sunset at the Saffron Monastery
Time for breakfast; it is Friday so no meat or eggs. I miss the hard boiled egg. But the fig preserve to spread on the fresh bread is simply superb, even if I still find it difficult to eat piles of olives with slices of cucumber for breakfast. And there is plentiful cay on offer. In the same way that many westerners seem to find it impossible to start the day without a shot of caffeine, a need that only strong black coffee can satisfy, I find it hard to function without copious cups of tea first thing. I have come to love the cay, even without milk. 

Evening meals for my veggie taste prove difficult here in the Saffron Monastery. We walk in to take our places each evening to plates already set in front of us with the evening fare. It is always meat, (except Friday) with a side salad. So I have to satisfy myself with the latter with plenty of bread, making up for my hunger at our lunchtime stops where I have enjoyed the many different variants of menemen, supplemented with the fantastic array of salad side dishes available.

a sutoro (painted cloth hanging)

So into the coach for our last full day of pilgrimage, and in to Mardin where we will explore just a few of its many churches and enjoy its shops, cafes and local culture, time even for some souvenir shopping before we finally head for home tomorrow...

a view from the roof of the Saffron Monastery


  1. Hi Eleanor, I have just signed up to follow your blog. I see your posts often get 'no comments' but there are lots of page views! Have enjoyed your trip to Eastern Turkey hugely so far, and imagine it must be nearing its end perhaps? The photos are fantastic and all the accounts so interesting. I love it that you have tried to fill us in on the history. I've also looked at some other posts and am very interested in your 'take' on the importance of religion in our world, and the lack of that nasty and untrue popularised pitting of science and religion against one another.Maybe you wd be interested in my struggle to bring these together too, thoughI write fiction (& like you belong to ACW). My blog (which doesn't go into faith much I admit!) is at my novel tries to explore the relationship 'without being preachy' as the saying goes... but this comment is really to thank you for the lovely sharing of your Turkish trip...

    1. Dear Mari - thanks so much for that - yes there are 4 more posts to come every other day now to finish on 3rd December when I wrap it up and wonder what to write about next! I am about to go over to your blog - I do envy those of you who can write fiction - I just don't have that sort of mind I fear. Best wishes