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

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Monastery of Mor Awgen, Tur Abdin

We have covered so many miles and so many sights, it seems hard to realize that this is only the sixth full day of our pilgrimage to the Armenian and Syriac Orthodox churches of Eastern Turkey.
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 drive along the main road across the Great Mesopotamian Plain. We can see it is very fertile and also very flat, with not so many stones. We hear that there is enough grain harvested in two months of the year to fund holidays away for the rest of the year. Don’t the farms need any care during the long absences? I suspect they need at least some caretaking. I wonder? The road is running parallel and not far away from the Syrian border to our left, and the sentry lookout posts all along the route are clearly visible. We see tank activity and vehicles stopped but we carry on without interruption. Before reaching Nusaybin the coach turns right off the main road to Girmeli.
There are plenty of helpful villagers who look askance at this big luxurious coach heading into their village, all anxious to tell us that we cannot make it to the monastery in such a big vehicle. We know. Under the watchful and curious gaze of villagers, children and a flock of geese, we offload in the centre of Girmeli into two pre arranged minibuses for the drive up the narrower lane towards the monastery. 

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
When Gertrude Bell visited here in 1909 she reported that there were ten monks, mostly living in the caves. It was very dangerous to visit here until about ten years ago but now it is perfectly safe. It is clear from photos found on the internet of the monastery in ruins that the latest renovations are an incredible feat, due in no small part to the hard work and vision of Father Yoachim.
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. 

After greetings and a warm welcome from Father Yoachim, who has been waiting for us as we complete our climb, we begin our visit by going into a large bare space or grotto, approached through the lowest of doors. We gather silently and have some group prayers and singing. There is a 1466 chapel above the church reached by a narrow and steep set of steps. An inscription around the roof offers prayer for those who built it and says that it is offered to the Glory of God. Every week the monks pray for the saints and the builders of the monastery.

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.

After this tour around the monastery and when we have received the customary hospitality of water, cay and biscuits, we clamber up the steep rocky path above the courtyard. There is a very sure footed horse grazing high above us, and we pass small entrances into caves that were used in the past as hermit cells by monks. From high above the monastery we can see far away into the distance towards Syria, cloaked in the heat haze of the late morning sun. The animals on the plain below are healthy, the grazing good. But the monastery’s own garden is sparse and looking very sorry for itself. The winds buffeting the plot have burnt the crops. Higher up the slopes we can see early attempts at restoring the terracing for further cultivation, but it is obviously a labor of love: the terraces are hard to reach, the cultivation there is challenging, so it is hardly surprising that little progress has been made. Back in the courtyard we see the remains of monk cells exposed when the rubble was cleared away after a massive landslide. We can clearly see niches where the monks would have kept their bibles and lamps.

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.

Our visit ends beautifully with prayers in the church of St Mary where we are joined by some people from the village below and by a few tourists who have made it up the steep path. As we leave and look back, the buildings gradually melt into the surrounding cliffs, the camouflage complete.

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

1 comment:

  1. The photo of the caves is fascinating! They have an appeal that must be a hold-over from our ancient ancestors' way of life.