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

Monday, 18 November 2013

The Road to Mor Yacoub and Yoldath Aloho, in Tur Abdin

Mor Gabriel at break of day
Today we have a treat to start the day at Mor Gabriel. After the usual morning liturgy we celebrate our Anglican Eucharist in the church before heading for breakfast. That is such a great experience - and a privilege for our priests to be allowed to use the sanctuary, with incense as well!
I have to confess that I am finding it hard to get into the liturgy of Mor Gabriel. I discuss this with our bishop, and realize that I need to feel the mystery of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. East and West need to meet on this, the western tradition being rather more ritualistic, lacking in some of this mystery that is second nature here. It is hard for me to find that here just yet. There have been so many experiences to assimilate. Perhaps I just need a little more time and space. This is almost certainly why I enjoy the use of incense in church back home, although it is not generally popular with our congregation – that’s such a shame!
the church sanctuary at Mor Yacoub

With ablutions and breakfast over, we are ready to go, and are joined for the day by one of the teaching monks (malfonos) from the monastery and his brother from the village. So we set off on the road again, this time to visit the early sixth century monastery of Mor Yacoub (Yakub), at Saleh. Fr Daniel here was kidnapped for two days a couple of years ago but was released unharmed. He is not here when we arrive; he is probably out on the fields farming and will not hear his phone, we are told. We explore the site, making our way first to the church. It is very wide, with a transverse nave, which allows maximum room for the congregation to prostrate themselves in prayer. The church was built in 512. Its roof is very similar to that seen in the church at Mor Gabriel, except that here the stone arches in the roof are painted to look like bricks! This was all in ruins not so long ago and has been rebuilt. Five years ago the rubble of the ruins was still being cleared out – so we see that astonishing progress has been made; yet another example of the incredible resilience of the Christian communities in this part of Turkey. But there has been a problem with the renovations; the acids in the concrete used on the roof have damaged the original roof coloring.
We saw two churches at this monastery, the second older than the first. In the grounds we also saw the ruins of what may originally have been an old pagan temple, although this is not certain.
Mor Yacoub
So we retrace our steps and turn back onto the road towards Dargecit. This is a new road, being redone. We pass a village on the left as we turn off to the right onto a very poor dust road. As we drive up to Anitli or Hah, a remote village seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we are met by excited children waving to us. I wonder how often they see large coaches coming through their narrow roads? Not that often I think. It is here that Gertrude Bell was robbed some 102 years ago while visiting the area. The soil here is very rich but stony. Bulldozers have transformed the agriculture here by cleaning up the fields and enabling walls to be built with the stones. Grapes, pistachio, olives, figs, several types of berry and fabulous pomegranates are all being grown. The farmers also grow and harvest acorns for animal feed. This explains what I had thought were fields of miniature oak trees seen from the coach. Perhaps they really were! I discover later that many animals feed on unripe acorns on the tree or ripe ones that fall on the ground. These animals include pigs, squirrels, bears, and deer as well as birds such as pigeons, jays and ducks. They are rich in carbohydrates and proteins as well as many minerals and vitamins, although the tannin in them can be toxic. I’m sure the locals will know this.
But litter is still a problem, as I have mentioned elsewhere... it is such a shame to see countryside polluted and despoiled in this way.
possible pagan ruins at Mor Yacoub?
Dating back to the 6th century, the beautiful Yoldath Aloho (Mother of God) Church or Church of the Virgin Mary in Hah (now Anitli) was until 613 AD the seat of the region’s first bishop, and was again so between the 11th and 13th centuries. There is a bell tower and a striking two story square structure above the church, both of which were built in the 20th century. The church sits within a courtyard, known as abeth slutho, or house of prayer. I believe that this is used in the excessive summer heat when the inside of the church is too uncomfortable to use for prayer. The church has the transverse nave structure as seen at Mor Yacoub earlier in the day.
the beautiful Yoldath Aloho at Hah
I wonder why the bishopric was once located in such a remote place, why this is such an important church. In an extension of the Christmas story as recorded in the Holy Bible, of the Three Kings who followed the star to Bethlehem to find the infant Christ, legend says that there were actually twelve Kings. At Hah, only three out of the group proceeded to Bethlehem, and on finding the baby and handing over their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they were given a band from the swaddling clothes in which Jesus was wrapped. Bringing this back to Hah, they burnt it so that the ash could be divided between the twelve kings, but there were no ashes, only twelve gold medallions remained. The Kings put these into the foundations of the church built to commemorate this miracle. The church within the monastery has conserved some of its original details, which are thought to date back to the 3rd century AD. This makes it one of the oldest churches in the world, and perhaps the oldest of all if the Syriac legend surrounding its original founding is true.
Ancient lectionaries in the courtyard? 
The Mother of God church is a very beautiful church and I wanted to linger here, soaking up the spiritual atmosphere. We were once again treated to our Deacon singing the Lord’s Prayer in Syriac, (a dialect of Aramaic, which is a group of many related languages: the diversification is complex due to its long history, its extensive literature and its development in different religions through that time – much more detail can be accessed on the internet).
But we have to move on. So we climb up to the terrace above the church where under the shelter of a very modern gazebo to protect us from the harsh midday sun, we are treated to the traditional cay before being led to lunch in a room below, hosted by the mukhtar or mayor of Salah, Habib Doghan.
The lunch was superb, but we must soon be on the move again. There are other remains of churches and monasteries to see around the village and the mayor comes with us to proudly show them to us:

ruins of Mor Sobo
First there are the ruins of Mor Sobo Basilica. We are told these date back to the sixth century, but some sources date them as from a century or two later than that. These have been the subject of excavations by archaeologists from Mardin over the last 3 years. Part of a cross on one of the walls is pointed out to us. This was once one of the largest churches in Tur Abdin and used to house an ancient illuminated gospel manuscript, pained in 1227, which is now kept at Mor Gabriel. It seems that the church may at one time have been used as a mosque, the square bell tower as the minaret.
Then we walk through dusty pathways through the village, flanked on each side by stone walls topped often with prickly branches; I suspect these are constructed to keep livestock in their enclosures. Similar branches also seem to be stored and used as fuel. Here we find the little church of Mor Shmuel and the ruins of a former monastery dedicated to Sts Sergius & Bacchus (789 AD).

at the monastery dedicated to Sts Sergius and Bacchus
a path in Anitli

We were given a grand farewell by the mayor and some villagers who showered us with pomegranates and grapes before we climbed into the coach and set off again. Back onto the main Dargecit road we made our way towards Midyat; to see more churches and more of the important Syriac architecture of the region...the day still had plenty to offer be contd...

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