As we make our way there in the coach now we are reminded that we are in a feudal area, ruled by overlords, Agha or Kurdish chieftains. In the worst of the troubles, the safety of the monastery and Christians in the area was threatened and 90% of the Christians emigrated, many to Sweden or Germany. The 20,000 Christian population dropped to nearer 2000. We also learn that there has been a bad relationship between the villagers and the monastery over land ownership.
Recently though the Agha system has been collapsing and there has been a massive improvement over the last 2-3 years in the local situation. Just from our coach we can see a building boom all around, the checkpoints have gone, where they used to be every 4-5 km, and villagers are coming back to their villages. There may now be five to ten Christian families again in each village. The plain is so fertile for arable crops that the farmers can work very hard for a few months of the year and then afford to go away for long holidays somewhere warm during Turkey’s harsh winter.
|the entrance to Mor Gabriel|
Then our accommodation is sorted out. There is a new wing and an old wing. I’m in one of the old rooms, which seems good enough, although with 4 single beds very close together albeit with our own modern bathroom this would have been quite uncomfortable with 4 females. Fortunately there are only two of us!
|guidance for visitors|
But when one reflects on the plight of so many refugees not so very far from here in refugee camps how can we complain?
Once the greeting and accommodation is all sorted out we have a tour of the monastery. Established in 397, this is the oldest Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world, and the most vital, with some 15 nuns, two monks, several lay workers and always providing hospitality to visitors from overseas. It is very much a working community, with productive gardens and orchards, and
its primary purpose “is to keep Syriac Orthodox Christianity alive in the land of its birth by providing schooling, and ordination of native-born monks."
On occasions it has provided physical protection to the Christian population during the civil strifes.
This is such a fascinating area of Turkey, and the tenacity and perseverance shown by monasteries such as Mor Gabriel through the difficult times they have suffered is surely an inspiration to us all...
For those interested in looking at the situation of the Christians in Tur Abdin in more detail, I can recommend the following links:
For a very succinct explanation of the political situation as it has affected Syrian Christianity in the Tur Abdin region of South East Turkey there are the reports from 1997 onwards from the Revd. Stephen Griffiths on the Tur Abdin Focus Group website – for example see http://www.focusmorgabriel.com/articles/article0002.php for his first visit in 1997, with much detail of the history of the Syriac Christian Church up to that time: http://www.focusmorgabriel.com/articles/article0012.php for more on the political background. Also http://www.focusmorgabriel.com/articles/article0011.php Will the Christians be driven out? for even greater detail and analysis…
Also http://theorthodoxchurch.info/blog/news/2013/10/turkey-religious-freedom-and-the-current-state-of-christian-muslim-dialogue/ for more background to the current status of the church in Turkey
and for the land dispute see http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/gem-of-christian-history-at-risk-in-turkey for the detail on the land dispute and the latest somewhat more positive update at http://theorthodoxchurch.info/blog/news/2013/10/return-of-mor-gabriel-monastery-land-approved/
|the deer that lives at the monastery cared for by one of the nuns|