Part III – Monasteries Dayr al-Zafaran and Mor Gabriel, a stroll through Mardin and Hasankeyf with its cliff caves - Van Lake - Tatvan and the Crater Lakes
By Heidi Trautmann
In the district around Mardin and Midyat we find many Christian churches
and monasteries; Syriac orthodox and also Armenian churches all over the East,
up to the Armenian border. On the picture of the map you can see the number of
churches all above the Syrian border. The history of the Christians in the
Eastern region is a very sad one with massacres during the first world war of
about 500.000 Assyrian/Syriac people in the Tur Abdin. Many Christians have fled
their homeland to countries like Germany, Sweden, UK and USA but also to Syria
and Lebanon. Lately some families have returned to live in Tur Abdin. The
religious institutions are being supported by their people abroad. We have visited the two most important ones among
them Dayro d-Mor Hananyo or Dayr al-Zafaran and Mor Gabriel.
We first drove up to Safron Monastery (Deyrülzafaran in Turkish),
a beautiful place with a governing view, well maintained. It is the most
important Syriac Orthodox Centre and was the residence of their Patriarch from
1160 to 1932. The actual one lives in Damascus but in this same monastery seven
patriarchs are buried. Today it is a school and is led by a bishop, there are
some monks and nuns, some assistants and students living there. It is part of
the Unesco world cultural heritage. We enjoyed the serene atmosphere and had
the chance to talk to the head monk, I think he was. He approached us because
he had overheard our talks and at the mention of Jacobin monks he got up from
his desk and protested, he said the Jacobine monks were not much liked. Our
Fatih discussed in some length some of the religious points with him, for
example the Holy Trinity and how to make the cross from left to right or from
right to left etc.. To my question if the place is being used for concerts he
said No, their duty is to uphold the Syriac Orthodox Church and its traditions.
Their liturgical language is Aramaic.
On our way to Mardin we came through a rather poor area with
plastic blown over the bare fields, a familiar view. Mardin is one of the
oldest settlement in Upper Mesopotamia going back to 4000 BC. Again it is known that all
kind of tribes went through, erased the place and rebuilt it, left their marks
in architecture and culture. Mardin has often been considered an open air
museum due to its historical architecture. Most buildings use the beige coloured
limestone rock which has been mined for centuries in quarries around the area.
It is built on a hill at a height of 1000 m above sea level and the view from
one of the lovely terrace cafés is spectacular. Our stroll took us through
narrow lanes with cobble stones and beautiful architecture, in some areas they
have started repainting the old wooden doors in blue. A young man invited us to
the home of his mother who is doing wine for the church and they gave us to
taste, very nice. The people are very friendly, a mixture of Turks, Kurds and Arabs and some
Christian families. In Cyprus I have often heard people mention Mardin in
connection with International art events, also the last International Film
Festival was held here. One would like to spend some days here, there is so
much to see.
It had been a stressful day with so much information that we
were happy and glad to find another luxury hotel close to Midyat and have a
buffet dinner in the company of Turkish travel groups, again women, this time
teachers from a university.
Midyat also had a very colourful and sad history and suffered
from the many empires that ruled here.
The next morning we visited the beautifully maintained Monastery
Mor Gabriel which was founded in 3997 by Mor Shmuel (Samuel) and his student
Shem’un (Simon) on the ruins of an ancient Zoroastrian temple. It became a very
important institution and in the 6th century there were over 1000
local and Coptic monks here. In the 7th century it became known as
the monastery of St. Gabriel, famous for his ascetic life. Hundreds of monks
were massacred over the centuries. A dark history. Today its aim is to serve as
a centre for Syrian Christians locally and for visitors from abroad.
Another rich chapter of history we found in Hasankeyf which got
its name by the Arabs that once conquered the place in 640, but it is more
ancient than that going as far back as to 1800 BC and many witnesses are to be
seen of Roman, Arab, Kurdish - the Artukid and Ayyubid dynasties – and the
Ottoman empire; the infrastructure, location – on the Tigris - and significance of the city made it a staging
post on the Silk Road. Today’s population is mainly Kurdish, Assyrians, Syriacs
and Arabs. In the cliffs surrounding the place along the river are thousands of
caves until recently still inhabited. We were taken to one of the cave
apartments which are cut out of sandstone and remind us of the amazing caves in
Cappadocia. Also here churches and mosques were carved into the cliffs,
actually a whole functioning society living like birds high above the river,
with natural air condition; and no worry, was there a family growth expected,
another room was added into the stone. Steps are cut into the cliffs, easy to
defend, which seemed to be necessary for survival over the centuries of
marauding and conquering. However, the population faces another threat that is
the construction of the Ilisu Dam GAP project by which all the historical
treasures and the city itself will be inundated. We were told that this will
happen in two years; a substitute city is started on the other side of the
river Tigris high up the hills. The place is listed on the Watch List of the
100 Most Endangered Sites in the world to create more awareness but the
Consortium is going ahead with it.
Another beautiful site of historical interest is the Zeynel Bey
Mausoleum opposite Hasankeyf on the Tigris River, built in the 15th
century; the circular building is all covered with blue and turquoise tiles.
We were now on our way to Lake Van on new roads again going up
to over 1000 m via Bitlis, a modern city with lots of activity and traffic. Tunnels,
roads under construction, all to establish connection of the Eastern regions to
the main body of Turkey. I must confess that I had a completely different
picture of Van Lake and its surrounding area, more wild, more isolated, but no,
it is all modern, awake, trusting to have tourism increasing in the area; the
hotels are good, and there is lots of boat traffic on the lake. The lake itself is on a height of 1640 m,
measures 119 km across at its widest point with a total area of 3,755 km2, is171 m deep and the water is alkaline and
rich in sodium carbonate and other salts. The sea is surrounded by volcanos Nemrut
Daği and Süphan Daği. The lake has no outlet, it was once blocked by volcanic
actıvities and accumulates great amounts of sediments the layers of which are
suspected to be up to 400 m which is of great interest to researchers with
respect to climate history.
In the early morning we left Tatvan behind us and climbed up to
the crater lakes, there are three of them. They are working on the accessibility
of the touristic great attraction and the whole area is under road
construction; we mostly travelled on untarred new roads, not easy for our bus.
But what a beautiful scenery unfolded to the eye, the untouched world of high
mountain areas, some snow still in the folds, very green pastures with birch
trees, poplars and mountain flowers; it was rather cool as we walked from one lake
to the next, encountering birds and one turtle. We had offered a lift to a young man who owned
a picnic place at one of the lakes, very simple, a hut and some chairs and he
thanked us with glasses of tea for the group. The climate around the Van Lake is
rather rough and breathing for us flatlanders became very hard.
Descending again we admired the glittering world of the Van Lake
from high above, there is only one kind of fish surviving in the alkaline
waters, the Inci Kefali, or Pearl Mullet. We got it served at a small
restaurant at the lake opposite the quai where many boats are moored, one of
them took us to the island Aght’amar or Aktamar in the middle of Van Lake. Heavy
rain clouds were building up over the lake and while we travelled we listened
to the history of the area and some legends about a sea monster of 15 m length.
The lake was once the centre of the Armenian kingdom of Ararat about 1000 BC and
became equally conquered and reconquered by the same hordes as mentioned before.
A number of Armenian churches and monasteries are left to admire. We were to
see the Church of the Holy Cross with its famous relief works on the outside
walls. The church was built 915-920 by King Gagik Artzruni and the reliefs are beautifully
preserved; they represent the history of the royal family and have scenes of
the old and new testament. There is a wide selection of literature on this
church as an example of Armenian architecture.
I felt like being transported to another time level, it was all a
little mystic, especially when the rain clouds emptied themselves upon our
heads. The evening spent in Van itself was just as far from reality with
finding us in a roof restaurant overlooking the city and here we were given the
very rare opportunity to have beer and raki with our meal.
Looking back, it was a special experience to be at Van Lake, in
the pure air of spring, surrounded by the mighty volcanoes, not from this
world, although its population is doing everything to be connected to the
outside world. And, by the way, we never encountered the famous white Van cats
with blue eyes, or rather with one golden and one blue eye.
End of Part III
In Part IV we will even climb higher to over 2600 m with snow
fall on the way to the Palace of the Ishak Pasha with the mountain Ararat
always in view. Our most northern point of travel is Kars, a sad city, at least
for me, and main character in Pamuk’s
book ‘Kar – Snow’. Our last main attraction will be Ani, the legendary Armenian
capital with 1001 churches, very close to the Armenian border and from there to
Erzurum, another interesting legendary city.