3 November 2016

Monasteries in Mardin

My Travel at Home piece for this week is a retrospective, dating back to our time in Turkey.  For various reasons we were not always able to drive far from Diyarbakir but when we did manage to do some exploration it was always a memorableexperience.  In August 1995, to take my mind away from my impending A Level results and whether they would be enough to allow me to start university that October (they were fine) some family friends, one of whom, a lawyer, I did work experience with during my holidays, joined us on a drive down to the town of Mardin on the Turkish/Syrian border.
View across the border into Syria beyond.
Mardin is an old town, there has been a settlement there since the Bronze Age.  It is also very beautiful, watch the  spectacularly enjoyable film Ek Tha Tiger (a Bollywood James Bond type film but so much better than the Hollywood versions) and you will see the town featured in the opening sequence.  It has a commanding presence on the hillside and the plains of Syria stretch out below.  Back in 1995 Syria was peaceful, 20 years on things are very different.  Mardin became Christian during the Roman period and was a seat of a Bishopric (it is still a titular Catholic See).  Following the Ottoman conquest the region became Muslim but given the tolerance of the Ottomans for ‘people of the book’, Christians were allowed to continue to practice their religion.  Mardin became a centre for various Christian sects including Armenian Catholics, Syriacs and Chaldeans, the churches nestled in amongst the mosques of the town.

The Saffron Monastery on the outskirts of town.

There was still a small but devout Catholic community at the time of our visit and the churches were open to visit.  We stopped at the Catholic Church of Meryemana (Mary), similar to most Catholic churches it fascinated our Turkish friends who wanted to know about the forms of worship and meanings behind the decorations and took the opportunity to quiz a member of our party who had grown up Catholic.

The monastery gets its colloquial name from the yellow colour of the walls.
From there we went on to the real object of our visit, the Syriac Monastery of Daryo d-Mor Hananyo also known as the Monastery of St. Ananias or the Saffron Monastery. Like the town it lies near, the Saffron Monastery has had a long history.  The site was originally home to a Temple dedicated to a Sun God (the remains of which can still be seen in an underground vault).  The Romans turned it into a citadel and when they left in the 490s this citadel became a monastery. The monastery has been rebuilt several times and even abandoned for periods in the intervening centuries but the dedication to Mor Hananyo is in memory of a Bishop who carried out renovations in the 8th Century.  In the 12th Century the Monastery became the seat of the Syriac Orthodox Church.  The seat moved to Damascus in the 30s but much of the official regalia is still held by the Monastery and several Patriarchs are buried there.

The Syriac Orthodox Church claims descent from some of the earliest Christian communities.  It has a large presence in countries such as India and Sweden but very few still in Mardin.  Some are still in residence, however, and it remains a working monastery.  One of the residents was happy to take us round and talk to us about the history of the Monastery which amongst other things had housed the first printing press in Turkey. The monastery was clearly in need of some renovation which, I understand, has now taken place.  It was, nevertheless beautiful and impressive, the Church of the Monastery in particular which at the time of our visit was dark, atmospheric and impossible to photograph.   After our tour we were invited to enjoy the grounds and picnic in the groves of Apricot Trees, a peaceful and beautiful place.

Looking back at the photographs I realise that we only have 11 or 12 to mark our day there and very few are good quality.  We did not get any pictures of the spectacular interiors of the Churches we visited, film was expensive to buy and even more to develop.  How different to today when we would have 30 or 40 each on our telephones, taking a chance on whether or not they would come out.  The place is, however, deeply ingrained in my memory, perhaps more so than if I had been able to photograph everything we saw.

Jimmy, our Nigerian rescue dog came everywhere with us and
enjoyed his picnic.
Posted as part of the Travel At Home Blog Link Up, click on the link to see posts from other bloggers.

Ersatz Expat

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