The day begins as usual with the very early morning service followed by the customary breakfast of cucumber and tomato slices, black olives, a hard boiled egg and plenty of white flat bread and cay. Sadly we have to pack today and leave the monastery to journey onwards. I have really enjoyed my stay here – the atmosphere has been amazing, the hospitality wonderful. But we have an exciting two days ahead of us before we head for home again, and journey on we must. Mor Timotheus Samuel is there by the coach. We all thank him for his hospitality and he waves us goodbye.
We leave Mor Gabriel eastwards towards Cizre, then cut through to the main Cizre to Nusaybin road via Oyali and Ozbec and so westwards towards Nusaybin. All around us from the coach we see signs that Christian villagers returning from Switzerland and Germany are putting their money into grand new housing; but new priests are also bringing western ideas of worship into the region. Is this a good thing? I wonder.
We are making our way to Mor Awgen or Mor Augin (Eugene) monastery. This is an important place of worship, nestled up in the steep cliffs of Mount Islo with its wonderful views across the Plain of Nusaybin. It was newly inhabited in 2011 by three monks after being abandoned for almost 40 years. Until about ten years ago this monastery was a dangerous place to visit. It is so encouraging to see the sheer tenacity and perseverance of the monks in this part of the world as they labor tirelessly to restore the traditions of the monasteries again; traditions of hospitality, education and worship.
But worship is the wrong word to use here. Eastern religions are not touched by the western renaissance and followers live to be in touch with God – they don’t have to understand, they just “do.” Our western faith is far more intellectual.
Legend has it that this monastery was founded in 340 by Saint Eugenius or Eugene (Augen), an Egyptian pearl diver from the Red Sea. One of the oldest monasteries in the region, Mor Augen is known locally as ‘Deyr-Marog’. It stands 500 meters above the plain on the slopes of Tur Abdin, and consists of both caves and buildings. It was originally a Nestorian monastery, but sometime before 1838 ownership was transferred to the Chaldean (East Syriac) Christians, and by 1842 it was in Syriac Orthodox ownership.
|view across the plain towards Syria|
Father Yoachim likes the visitors to his monastery to walk up the long, steep and dusty path as pilgrims. He sees this as an important part of our act of worship, akin to the hardships of fasting and ascetism. Of course some of us are physically unable to make such a journey on foot and the minibus can carry us to the entrance. Others of us are dropped off early and make the last kilometer or so on foot. It is hot and dusty and the climb steep. But
as the path ahead zigzags upwards, we hear the clear sweet song of a nightingale accompanying us. I start singing “we are pilgrims on a journey…” but no one else seems inclined to join in so I hum it quietly to myself as we continue our walk.
Outside again on a terrace and looking above us we can see a cell high up in the cliff face, seemingly impossible to get to. There a hermit monk lived, in silence, until he died, eating only once a day on a limited diet sent up to him in a basket pulled up by rope. The last monk died here in the early 1970s, since when the monastery was deserted for 40 years before reopening in 2011. Now there are 2 monks again with Father Joachim, with 3 students, from Istanbul, Italy and Germany. Prayers are said four times a day, at 6, 11, 5 and 9, and some attend from the village below, with more on Sundays.
A trip to the toilet blocks is quite a surprise. They are luxurious, with the latest modern fittings. The money comes plentifully from the diaspora we are told.
Father Yoachim had a deer here that gave birth to twin fawns so he gave one to Mar Gabriel. There it has been adopted by one of the nuns who cares for it and we saw it ourselves during our stay there. It had not been too well but was clearly getting better, as it trotted faithfully after the nun across the courtyard. It has developed a curious crab-like sideways manner way of going up and down the monastery steps.
We have to hurry back to our minibuses – they are needed to pick up school children. So we arrive back in the village, and once back in our own coach we make our way to the bustling town of Nusaybin (the ancient Nisibis), right on the border with Syria, to visit the exciting Mar Jacob excavations there...
|caves where the monks once lived|