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Tur Abdin
A Report of a Visit to S.E. Turkey in May 2001
The Reverend Stephen Griffith

Rev. Griffith's Reports

Jun 2003
Jun 2002
Nov 2001
May 2001
Nov 2000
May 2000
Oct 1999


Rev. Griffith is the Anglican Chaplain in Syria, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Apocrisiarius to the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch.


This is the latest report1 on a series of visits over the last four years to the Syrian Orthodox area in South East Turkey. It attempts to give a brief account to the salient problems and changes in conditions among the small community: last November's report can be found on the Internet on the Syriac Orthodox Resources website2. The visit was made over a week in mid May 2001, taking the five monasteries, as well as visiting a number of villages. I stayed at the Monasteries of Deir Zafaran and Deir Mor Gabriel.

The Present Situation

The Monasteries

For the first time I managed to visit five working monasteries: last time I did the round of them the Monastery of the Virgin at Hah3 (Aniti) was not functioning. This latter now has a resident monk, and a family sharing in the work of the monastery. It has seen a considerable restoration over the last few years. The Church has had the ground around cleared, but more importantly there has been the removal of nineteenth and twentieth century additions from the interior. It is now a stunning jewel belonging to the great days of the sixth century: the plaster removed from the ceiling of the dome to reveal the fine brick-work which is a speciality of the roofs of the region's churches, but most importantly the nineteenth century screen has been removed so that this church's interior returns to something of its original style of three lobes with a long side to the West. The Metropolitan of Tur Abdin should be congratulated on supporting a magnificent renovation which makes the lovely village of Hah well worth the journey.

However, not all restoration and building work is as well done. Building work at the Monastery of St. Yacoub the Reckless at Saleh has been stopped, but the digging of a preparatory trench to the west of the Monastery has done damage which archaeologists will regret. The narthex of the main church there has been well cleared, and work is going on to try to clear a smaller adjoining church.

The work at Deir Mor Gabriel is almost complete: exquisite stone carving in the area near the newly furnished guest house is integral to the tradition of the region. It has also meant the employment of many local mhalmoye4 during years of economic decline.

New wooden doors have been fitted to the upper guest rooms in Deir Zafaran, replacing inferior metal ones, adding to the beauty of the already special building.

There has been building work at the Monastery of Mor Malke; this building was badly destroyed in 1915, and afterwards in the difficult post-war period, and has been rebuilt room-by-room over the years, and rebuilding continues.

It should not be thought that these are simply ancient monuments. All, except Hah, house students for whom transport to local schools is provided, along with regular worship and lessons in Syriac and the liturgy. This can be very demanding. At Mor Gabriel, for example, Morning Prayer may begin as early as 5 a.m., and last as long as an hour and a half, although this is unusual. There is Evening Prayer at 5 p.m. which may last up to an hour, and homework is supervised.

Numbers of Students 11/1998 11/1999 5/2000 11/2000 5/2001
Deir Mor Gabriel5 39 39 34 35 43
Deir Mor Yacoub 8 8 8 13 13
Deir Mor Malke 4 4 4 4 4
Deir Zafaran 4 5 5 8 7
The Virgin, Hah - - - - -
Table: Student numbers at the monasteries

Both Deir Zafaran and Deir Mor Gabriel attract large numbers of visitors. These are mainly Turkish tourists who come in parties of up to one hundred at weekends; families from the area now in western Turkey also come, as do a small number of foreign tourists. Deir Zafaran is very close to Mardin and offers the tourism authorities there an excellent opportunity for attracting visitors: Mor Gabriel is more remote, and yet received over the weekend I was there over one thousand visitors. This is becoming something of a quandary for the monasteries: it is not easy to be places of prayer, homes for considerable numbers of young people and also to be hospitable to both pilgrims and uninformed tourists. I would encourage a close co-operation between the monasteries and the Tourism Office which could prevent clashes of interests.

Towns and Villages

Mardin stands separate from Tur Abdin: in many ways it is the gateway to the Plateau, hanging magnificently above the Mesopotamian plain. A UNESCO listed World Heritage Site it receives many tourists and is flourishing with its new airport and Free Zone. It has been featured twice in recent issues of the Turkish Airline's in-flight magazine. There are plans for more hotels, and the Parish Priest spoke confidently of it as a promising home for the Christian minority: his own son looks forward to returning from Istanbul where he has been studying. Compared to Tur Abdin proper it has good facilities, and in general a much better standard of education.

Compared to Mardin, Midyat, the second town of the area, presents a sorry picture. The departure of a skilled Christian population and its replacement by peasant Kurds has resulted in a rapid decline structurally and socially. The schooling is of a low standard, and it is clear that help is needed to develop culturally. There is new money, much from smuggling, but in terms of political, social and cultural progress, and the development of civil society Midyat is the aspect of Turkey which needs to be looked at carefully when talking in terms of any growth of the state's relationship with Europe. Streets run with mud and water in which children play, men hang around doing nothing and fine old buildings continue to deteriorate.

Nuseibin, the ancient Nisibis, stands right on the Syrian border and leads immediately into Qamishly. All the Christians had left, but the ancient church of Mor Yakub (St. Jacob) there, including a part built as a baptistery in 389 is now in the care of a Christian family from Hah, and restoration work is under way, supported by a Waqf6.

I visited a number of villages: Saleh, the village near the Monastery of Mor Yaqoub; Kfarze7 (Altintas), Hah (Anitli), Harabaleh (Üçköy), Anhel (Yemisli), Mzizah (Dogançay), Ayn Wardo (Gülgöze), Bsorino (Haberli) and Midun (Ögündük).

It rained each day of my visit, and crops were doing very well. Wheat was high, pistachios plump, chickpea and lentils growing, olives starting. After several poor years due to insufficient rains the farmers should do well. My last visit in late November 2000 coincided with the first real rain of the winter, and I was pleased to see substantial precipitation daily in May. In general the roads are in fair condition, the local ones being better than some of the main inter-town ones.

The large migration of the last decades meant that land was given to family members, and this has had different effects: one has meant that there is a lower ratio of person per hectare; land could be leased out (bringing some problems over claims by Kurds to ownership); remittances has made the owning of tractors possible, so that much more land can be farmed by a household. Some villages are very poor: it seems that formerly Christian ones which are now mixed Christian-Kurdish show significant deterioration in fabric. This is a very backward rural area, and attitudes are hardly removed from the medieval. Aghas and Mukhtars have their traditional roles, sometimes using their power corruptly, but they are also capable of bringing unity to a village and interceding with the local military authorities. Whatever problems there have been, they are not those of modernity. The worries of western society, substance abuse, the collapse of the family or sexual promiscuity are obviated by the urgent need to scrape a living in a land which has been under the curse of years of insurrection and oppression.

There has been a noticeable change in the region since I began my visits. More land is being planted, and crops are doing well: the economy is being helped by remittances from migrants, and a mild and wet winter will ease the problems of poverty.

Within the Syriac community there have been a number of marriages, and the birth rate is increasing.

There are still military road-blocks throughout the region: not many, and certainly several are no loner manned. Some villages still have a significant military presence: a tank or at least an APC: notable in Midun, Hah, Bsorino and Harabaleh. I noted that the military post on the top of the well-positioned Church tower at Bsorino has been removed. It seems that military posts are positioned in the centre of Christian villages but not so in Kurdish ones: this was interpreted to me as being a sign of either oppression or relief, according to my different informants. In general there is a state of tranquillity with none of the violence and destruction of recent years.

The villages become prohibited areas

However, there is a new and very difficult problem. The Interior Ministry in Ankara is reported by the Governor of Mardin to have issued an order banning foreigners from visiting the villages of Tur Abdin. A party from Mor Gabriel visited the Governor while I was in the area, and no explanation was forthcoming from him. A party from Belgium working with migrants from the area in Belgium, was expressly forbidden from entering Hassana (Kösrali) near Silopi. In fact one of them who is from Hassana managed to get permission: it took him four days to do so, and only managed to see the destroyed village accompanied by two tanks and fifty soldiers. A party from the Friends of Tur Abdin was also refused permission to visit, and it is reported that Swedish diplomats and a party of German parliamentarians were also refused. I seem to have escaped the ban: I was with a Syrian Orthodox monk on all my travels, and many of the villages did not have army posts. At Harabaleh, we were met by the village mukhtar, who had been contacted by the Bishop and who escorted us from the army checkpoint. However, at Midun, we spent an hour in the army post while we were asked who we wished to visit; when neither my companion's cousin nor the parish priest were found, we were politely told to return. We were not given the choice of looking at the village, or even the church. It is reported that others were not treated with such respect.

No one, from the governor's office downward, can explain why this is so. There is no guerrilla or terrorist action, and Turks (even those living abroad) are permitted to visit. The conspiracy theorists have a wide number of explanations, and the only one which comes near the mark is sinister. It is suggested that preventing visits to the villages will cut the financial support for the villages by foreign donors (such as the Friends of Tur Abdin who have made significant grants to villages, but are not involved in any political action). This is being done in order to encourage further emigration. If this is true, then it needs to be ended. It was noticed that this ban came into effect shortly after the court decision in Diarbakr on 5th February which declared Fr. Yusuf Bulut the parish priest of Diarbakir innocent of charges concerning comments about the massacres of 1915.


When I first visited the region in November 1997 it was still in a state of crisis: the Kurdish uprising continued and there were still unexplained murders of Christians. Building work, the receiving of visitors at the monasteries and the programme of education were under a ban, and relations between the Christian population and the Turkish authorities were tense. With the ending of the Kurdish rising and the arrival of a new governor at the beginning of 2000 things improved significantly: warm relations with the Tourism and Archaeological officials as well as the governor in Mardin became healthy and creative. The economic climate is significantly better.

The previous problems of permission for building, and the legality of educating the young in Syriac and not a problem at the moment, but a change in governor or attitude in Ankara could cause a crisis8. It is still a backward area, and much external support in all areas, cultural, social, political and economic is needed. The unexplained and almost inexplicable closure of the villages is the only negative action of the Turkish authorities which now needs to be dealt with.


1 I was asked by the Church Mission Society to undertake this work on behalf of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland for whom these reports are primarily intended.
2 at
3 Hah was visited twice by Gertrude Bell, and there is considerable discussion in Bell, The Churches and Monasteries of the Tur 'Abdin with an introduction and notes by Marlia Mango, London 1982. For her visit in 1909 see There is a good description, and photographs of the plastered dome in Hollerweger, Lebendiges Kulturerbe - Turabdin, Linz 1999.
4 The mhalmoye are the Arabic-speaking descendants of converts from Christianity to Islam who have kept many Christian traditions without being aware of their origins: the Cross frequently finds itself in their work, but is thought of as a decoration based on a flower.
5 The number for Mor Gabriel also includes children of resident families.
6 (Muslim) Charitable foundation.
7 Most places have several names: where I Have used the Syriac version in these villages, I also give the modern Turkish ones in brackets.
8 See my report

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Last Update: November 27, 2001