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

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Our Turkish pilgrimage continues - the churches of Midyat

We make our way into the church; the silence is total as we are all awed by the sacred space around us.

In the hushed atmosphere our bishop leads us in prayers and we all say the Grace together: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore.”

We are in one of the three churches at the restored Mor Abraham Syriac Orthodox Monastery in Midyat. The oldest church, dedicated to Mor Hobel (Saint Abel) and probably built in the late 5th century, is now the Beth Qadishe or House of Saints, where relics of saints are housed. A larger and later church is dedicated to Mor Abrohom (Saint Abraham) and then there is the Mother of God (Yoldath Aloho) church.

The land behind the monastery has been given by the church to serve as a camp for Syrian refugees and we see the newly built shelters. This was originally intended for 10,000 Christians but it is now to provide shelter equally for Christians and Muslims.

Mor Basomo

Leaving the monastery we make our way to the Syriac Orthodox church of Mor Basomo (Saint Barsumas in the West) in the old town centre of Midyat. Mor Basomo was an influential Syrian monk who attended the Second Council of Ephesus in 449 AD, and died in 457 AD.

The courtyard is full of children playing. Apparently these are local Assyrian children who come here every afternoon to learn how to read in Aramaic. We are shown into the 1500 years old church by an elderly gentleman who may be the caretaker. In fact much of the church is a 1943 reconstruction, faithfully preserving the Tur Abdin church style. Its minaret-like bell tower and its entrance are beautifully decorated with intricately carved stones.

After these visits some of the group have to make an urgent shopping trip into the town for essential sunhats – and one has to get a sandal resoled. They take the local minibus service into the shopping area while the few of us remaining have some appetite for seeing yet another church! So we make our way through the old town to the Protestant church. This is very large, and occupies a high and prominent position in the town. Our guide is able to obtain the keys to let us through the locked gate leading into the church grounds, and then into the church itself. This is a sad moment. Protestantism was introduced to the area by Western missionaries in the 19th century, but it would seem there is little demand for the church now as it appears to be little used at the moment, if at all. We are moved to impromptu prayers led by one of our priests.

Walking through the town afterwards as a small group is a fascinating experience, giving us a chance to observe some of the local color and customs. 
There are women in a sewing machine room, the door open to the street to try to keep cool while they are busy making dresses – for what market I wonder? A tethered cow stands by the side of the pavement. It has water and food but is very nervous and would surely have preferred to be grazing in an open field. We see the local lads playing what looks like a variant of hopscotch – in a wider area of the main road – dodging mopeds as necessary; I recalled how I amused myself as a child with similar simple games in the streets of Manchester all those years ago. A Kurdish woman is carrying a bunch of faggots on her shoulder and there are more women making flat bread in an outhouse – they wave happily to us as we go by and do not seem to mind having their photos taken. More women are walking down the narrow street leading a goat on a rope – I feared it is going to be sacrificed for the Islamic feast of sacrifice, and my heart goes out to it. I hope its end is swift and as pain free as possible. Does no one else care about the cruelty we inflict on our animals?

Midyat used to have a large pond; it is still mentioned in many guidebooks to the consternation of travelers who look all over for it and cannot find it! It became so full of litter in the “troubles” that it was filled in and replaced with a new public park and car park. We all meet up on the coach and go back to the monastery for evening prayer at 5pm.

The concept of generous hospitality is an important part of our pilgrimage,
for us to take away with us and hopefully learn from. It has largely been lost in our own busy urban societies. The word “pilgrimage” is derived from the Latin peregrinus or “foreign”, from peregre meaning “going” abroad, originally derived from “per ager” or “through the fields” – that was largely what we did today. In the larger picture, we are all abroad on a journey.

prayer shawls ready for use 
It is hard to describe the quality of the light here in the very south of Turkey.

The depth of the blue sky must be due to the clean pure air. The sun glinting on the vines as we drive along makes the green colors of the leaves take on an almost fluorescent quality. The stars at night under a clear sky are as clear as I’ve ever seen them; there is absolutely no light pollution here. Then I realize that what I thought were trees distressed by the summer drought may perhaps have been the small oaks cultivated for the acorns used for animal feed, and they are simply displaying their autumnal deciduous colors!

Tomorrow we will sadly say goodbye to Mor Gabriel monastery and make our way towards Mardin and the Saffron Monastery, where we will stay for two nights while we explore the western Tur Abdin region.

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