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

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Our Pilgrimage to South East Turkey: Nusaybin and Mor Yakup

street cleaning in Nusaybin
Those who know me well will realize how much I campaign against litter! The very first thing that struck me about the town of Nusaybin was how clean it was. Here I had my first sight on this trip to Turkey of a street cleaner complete with wheelbarrow, brush and shovel, and he was doing a very good job. For the first time everywhere looked so well maintained and cared for, including some public gardens that looked very neat and tidy. . I wonder what makes the difference? Why does this town care so much more than others we have been through?

The border post here with Syria is now closed and has been for quite some time because of the civil war in Syria. There is a Byzantine ruin near the border which we cannot visit. 

Instead we are here to see the recently excavated 4th century church of St Jacob - Mar Yakub - which is now re-established. A number of ancient buildings have been revealed by the excavations, in addition to the Mar Yakub church, which was the center of the famous Syrian Theological School, founded by St James of Nisibis in 350. His sarcophagus is still in the crypt. We are told that the town mayor has encouraged the excavations, which he hopes to use as an educational opportunity; to show people the variety of religions and cultures of the area over time. The more we can educate everyone, from all cultures and faiths, about our differences and indeed our common ground, the more hope there is for interfaith harmony and understanding.

But first we have lunch. It’s an excellent local restaurant – really busy at lunchtime with locals, which is always a good sign. My salad is superb, with pomegranate juice and dressing, and again the wonderful fresh flat bread which always seems to be readily available at meal times. And they made a menemen again for me – this time it’s spread thinly over a large concave metal skillet, and is simply delicious. In this warmer southern part of Turkey we have been drinking plenty of ayran – a salted yoghourt drink – I love it and it’s wonderful when the weather is hot. And I love it when they serve it in cool pewter mugs!

The Mar Jakub site is quite extraordinary. There is still plenty of excavation going on and we are not allowed to take photos of the work in progress – within the church itself we have a guide, and our own tour guide Gilgud translates for us. Through her he tells us that his is the only Christian Syriac family in the town. And he gives us a brochure on The Nusaybin school and Mor Yakop Church. It's a very informative booklet and I hope to be able write a little more about this impressive project at a later date.

Mar Yakub church
On the excavation site we had spoken to an extremely well dressed and well spoken lady who was there with her daughter. She explained in perfect English that she was a Kurdish Syrian from Damascus and that her daughter could not go to school here as this was not allowed by the Turkish government. I'm not sure that the daughter was as concerned as her mother! We wished them our blessings and hope for peace and a better future, said how sorry we were for the situation they found themselves in, promised to pray for them both and waved goodbye. As we walked away from the site a refugee family on the roof of the building above us waved.

inside Mar Yakub church
So we set off again, westwards towards Mardin, and our accommodation for the last two nights of our tour - this time at Mor Hananyo monastery, otherwise known as Deir Zafaran, Deyrelzafaran or the Saffron Monastery. The monastery was once the seat of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchs of Antioch from 1293-1932 when the patriarchate was moved to Syria because of limitations imposed by the Republic of Turkey on religious activities. I am led to understand that the Turkish government would like the Patriarch to leave Damascus and relocate back in Turkey. Is that right?

view from the Saffron Monastery
Anyway, the monastery really is quite simply magnificent, 
nestling as it does under the cliffs amid lovely gardens looking down across the great plain of Mesopotamia towards the Syrian border, some 5km east of Mardin. The beautiful honey-colored stone glows in the special light in this part of Turkey, particularly at sunrise and sunset. Later we are allowed up onto the top roof, with suitable care required, to look over this scene. The view in all directions is awesome.

the saffron monastery 
We are now in the middle of the Tur Abdin region, the middle of Mesopotamia, 80 kms from the Tigris to our East and the Euphrates to the West. We arrive at the monastery hot and tired and in need of our rooms and a freshen up, but before the accommodation is sorted out, we have the usual small glass cups of cay handed round and a chance for our host to exchange pleasantries and latest news with us. We all introduce ourselves briefly. The welcome seems more relaxed, warmer, than at Mor Gabriel. Perhaps we were less shy this time around, more used to the procedures on arrival at a monastery. Bishop Philoxenus had left that morning for a meeting abroad, but we were made very welcome on his behalf by Chorepiscopus Gabriyel Akyűz, (Father Gabriel - not many of us realized at the time that he is a distinguished Syriac historian, author and poet.) from the Church of the 40 Holy Martyrs in Mardin, where we shall visit tomorrow.

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