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Walking a Tightrope in Turkey

Southeastern Turkey’s Syrian Orthodox minority strive to maintain their ancient heritage.

text and photos by Karen Lagerquist

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My journey to the region began in Diyarbakir, the provincial capital of southeast Turkey. With only a vague, outdated map I drove toward Mardin, once the focal point of the area’s Syrian Orthodox community. I had made arrangements with Father Gabriel Akkurt to stay for several days at the Deyrulzafaran Monastery, one of only two monasteries still functioning.

Darkness had fallen by 5:30 P.M., and as I approached the town I quickly realized I would not be able to find my destination without some assistance. As I pulled into a service station, I spotted a group of young men speaking with the attendant. I approached them with my pile of maps. Since my Turkish was almost nonexistent, I attempted communication in Arabic, which I had learned while living in Jerusalem and had found useful in Diyarbakir. The young men were only too happy to help and within moments they had decided to drive with me to Deyrulzafaran.

The road to the monastery was narrow, winding and unpaved at points; when at last we reached its gates Father Gabriel was waiting outside for me. After a brief conversation he and the young men climbed into my car and we all drove back to the service station. After dropping off my guides he took me to a small restaurant and instructed the cook to prepare a plate for me. To maintain propriety I dined alone in the aile salonu, or family dining room, where women can feel comfortable dining alone or with other female companions. When I tried to pay for my meal I discovered that Father Gabriel had already taken care of the bill. This marked the beginning of the generous hospitality I would receive at the monastery and throughout my entire visit to southeast Turkey.

Deyrulzafaran lies approximately six miles from Mardin on a small plateau amid a stark landscape. Deyrulzafaran means “the Saffron Monastery”; according to tradition, saffron crocuses were used in the mortar during the construction of the monastic structures. Once the seat of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate, now located in Damascus, the first monastery was built in 495 and destroyed by the Persians in 607. It was then rebuilt, only to be looted six centuries later. The present structure dates to 792 and contains icons dating as far back as 900. The chapel also houses a 300-year-old Bible inscribed in Aramaic and Arabic.

Upon our return to Deyrulzafaran I was treated to cups of traditional tea, or chai, and introduced to Father Ibrahim Turker, abbot of the monastery. Father Turker was born in nearby Midyat and has lived in the monastery for the past 46 years. There is one other monk in the monastery, Father Raban Melki Urek, as well as two nuns. And, like every monastery visited in my travels, Deyrulzafaran is also home to several families of cats.

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Tags: Turkey Syriac Orthodox Church