(written August 2015)

Mardin, a town in the east of Turkey, is situated some 60 kilometres or so from the Syrian border. It is located on the south-facing side of a high hill which is on the edge of the hilly, highland region called by the Assyrian Christians who have called this region ‘home’ for thousands of years, Turabdin. It is from this dominant position, looking down on the broad, flat expanse of the Mesopotamian plain, a uniform expanse flowing to the horizon, that this city stands, proud as a sentinel, ever watching for approaching threats. This is made ever-more prevalent and poignant as the threat of IS or ISIL or whatever name the Islamic State is currently using, has risen and now reigns just over the border. It is difficult to imagine a greater threat to humanity, to civilisation, to existence, than this group.

The protective castle dominates the pinnacle of the hill and the town, which in times past stood on the land opposite the north side of the hill, was removed and rebuilt on the very steep, south facing side of the hill.

The road network in the city, divides the hill into a terrace-like pattern with roads above roads (or roads below roads, depending on your viewpoint). This means the lateral roads, those travelling from side to side, are narrow but passable, however the interconnecting streets that join the upper with the lower streets are often composed of stairs, sometimes arched passageways under the buildings accommodating the stairs.

To cater for the realities of old Mardin, the local Council has a, er, fleet-flock of donkeys or mules (I can’t readily tell them apart) to collect the rubbish and otherwise service the homes on the hillside.

The buildings are predominately made of ‘Mardin Stone’, a local and unique rock, a sweet yellow-cream, which when weathered and unwashed takes on hints of a orange-ish tint. The crown of the hill is adorned by a large castle, built originally to protect the area and project power and today is still a military installation. The ‘new city’ is spreading on the hills to the north, on the opposite side of the hill of old or upper Mardin. You cannot see the new city from the old, nor vice versa.

The Protestant church in Mardin – in the old, upper city – is about 160 years old. It was the fruit of the labours of the American Board missionaries who laboured in the 1800s. After the establishment of the Turkish Republic and the declining of the American Board, the church carried on and was functioning until about 1960. Since that time, with no congregation, the building has sat derelict.

You enter the building by a set of double steel doors at street level, that is backstreet level, or lower street level. The front street, a main thoroughfare, is up the hillside and hence a story and a half above the lower street. At the upper street level there is an entrance to the flat which occupies the the floor above the main church building. Technically this flat is part of the church property, but as there is a sitting occupant, it is not included in the renovation project nor is it available to be used for church activities.

And so, from the lower street level you enter into the courtyard with the church built in the form of an L shape. To the left is the long side of the L which is the main meeting room. The short side of the L shape, opposite the entrance will be a library and fellowship space (it could also be used as an overflow space in the event the main meeting room is full).

The current work is focused on removing the plaster and exposing the stone walls and structure beneath. I say ‘structure’ because although the building is made out of stone it is not made solely of dressed stone or cut stone. Many walls and the arched ceilings above are made of undressed field stone or rough cut field stone.

Personally I’m not that impressed with field stone but do I enjoy the fine workmanship of finely fitted dressed stone; this structure has all three types, but, predominately either field stone or rough cut field stone. It does, however, boast some fine dressed stone walls.

Originally this building would have been all plastered, especially the ceiling with its arches created out of rough cut field stone but including most interior surfaces, even finely fitted dressed stone columns.

In the time when this church was originally built, everything was made out of stone – there was nothing particularly attractive nor special about stone work. But plaster, covering a multitude of imperfections and blemishes, rending a smooth, uniform finish in dazzling white, imparts a feeling of cleanliness, purity and modernity. From the beginning, this was the chosen finish.

I feel the original building work was done on the cheap. It seems evident that there were different phases of building, different degrees of finishing, different styles of walls and different levels of quality.

In any event, once the stone, of whatever description, is exposed, the structure, whether walls or arched roof or columns need to be stabilised, fixed, re-pointed and sometimes rebuilt.

Some of the original workmanship was, shall I say, less than the standard you would expect. Often the interior structures, behind a façade of dressed stone, appear to be a rough fill of field stone held together with a strange mix of dirt, ash and possibly some other components. All I know is that when you open the wall it falls out like soil from between and around the stones; when you pull down a wall, it acts just like common dirt; when you load up wheel barrow after wheel barrow of this stuff and pile in the street, it strongly resembles ordinary soil.

Having said all that, the building has stood for about a 160 years and with precious little maintenance, so, regardless of what I say, it has stood the test of time.

As I mentioned, when we have been forced by what we have discovered, to remove the facing stone, it often exposes this soil held rubble core. In order to rebuild it properly, with interlinked stones and tied into the rear wall, there is a time when we have created great gaping holes between the lower courses and the upper structure. In spite of this, sometime rather drastic surgery, the upper reaches held and did not collapse. So, I may not understand how it has worked – defying the basic rules of construction as it does, but it has withstood the vagaries of time, life and neglect.

When the church was built so was a well. For the first month of the renovations water was drawn from the well for the various renovation tasks. The pump would be activated and the walls would be washed. The mortar mixed, the dust in the street damped down, the tools washed. Water was used liberally and after a month, as the cold water continued to flow, we speculated that the well had a mountain spring source.

The next day, the very next day, the well ran dry. It turns out that the ‘well’ is just a huge cistern that has been carved out of the living stone beneath the church. It happened at the most inconvenient time – as these things do. The labourer was reduced to dropping a pail down the five metres into the well/cistern and retrieving partial bucket loads of water to mix the mortar (the pump having burned out). That evening and the next day we had seven tractor-drawn water bowser loads of water poured into the cistern. We hope that will be sufficient to complete the renovations. Once emptied, after all the work is done, the well/cistern will need to be cleaned, probably for the first time in at least fifty years – then it will be used as a cistern for the church water.

To accomplish the renovation work, a team of workmen, made up of five individuals has been engaged. They come in at the start of the day, between 7:30 and 8:00. They change from their street clothes into their work clothes. They change their street footwear for a variety of slip-on sandals, open-toed, no support and absolutely no protection for work in a building site. Often the sandals have seen better days and are missing straps or other accoutrements that help bind the footwear to the foot – the slip-ons also function as slip-offs…

During my two week time of assisting the oversight, there were two things I observed. The first being, sometimes I would be there for hours on end understanding virtually nothing as they converse, chat and joke in their mother tongue, Kurdish. Yes they speak Turkish and fully fluently – but Kurdish is their ‘mother’ tongue. The other thing I noticed was the fact that I haven’t smoked so much in a decade or more – the second hand smoke seemingly filling the air in this rather large space.

The head of this team of workmen, is the boss. It is his crew, he is the one who has taken on the task, and it is his responsibility to get the work done. He works at various tasks in the course of the day, but is also prone to resting, having a cigarette and I presume, thinking about the project.

Next there is the master stonemason. He is the one in charge of rebuilding the walls, replacing bad stones, cutting stone, fitting stone, selecting stone and any other technical work regarding the stone finishing.

Following on are two younger men (let the reader understand, that at 63 years of age, many people ’appear’ younger to me) who, I have observed, are in charge of the fine finishing work of the grouting and the finishing of the mortar between the stones. These are two diligent workers, labouring all day long with few breaks (not having to stop work to have the obligatory cigarette), laying mortar in the gaps and then going over every gap again and again with various tools to finish it properly.

That leaves the final man of the team.

He is the low man on the totem pole. It is his task to move the sand, tote the 50 kg bags of cement, mix the mortar, turn the water pump on and off. It is he who cleans up the building site and who loads the detritus of the building work, or more accurately, the detritus of the demolition work, into the wheelbarrow and then out on to the street.

When the sand is delivered, and we consume a copious amount of sand, the nearest the tractor and trailer can come is the narrow lane by the lower street door. This is really quite close – there are other areas of upper Mardin where the building materials are deposited a distance away and brought the final leg by donkey – so we are blessed. However the sand still must migrate from the lane to the inner courtyard. To do this our labourer, the low man in the food chain loads the wheelbarrow and wheels in load after load of sand. His ‘safety’ sandals, being what they are, both allow the free ingress of sand and have a tendency to become caught in the sand – a tripping hazard. Solution? Leave the sandals in the sand and wheel the barrow, barefoot, into the building site and dump the sand – until the all the sand is shifted.

He assists everyone in their tasks, doing the grunt work, the hard work, the dirty work.

He is the one who washes the tea glasses, and then makes the tea for the tea breaks and at lunch.

He is the one who, when the boss brings some bags of tomatoes and hot peppers to be prepared for lunch, cleans the pan, washes the vegetables, cuts and prepares the tomatoes and hot peppers, liberally sprinkles with salt and adds a splash of vegetable oil. He then takes the pan to the local bread factory to be cooked.

He returns to the bread factory an hour or so later to bring the piping hot pan back together with many flat ‘pide’ style bread. After all have dug in, broke bread and consumed the meal, he cleans the pan and, once again, makes the tea. If, in the course of eating the meal, the bread is insufficient, he will return to the bread shop and get some more.

After making a wheel barrow full of mortar (a special mix with sifted, fine sand and a splash of latex) for the two men doing the fine pointing, and another wheel barrow of a different, coarser mix has been prepared for the stone mason, he then turns and mixes a large batch of mortar on the floor – essentially bringing multiple wheelbarrow loads of sand, a 50 kg bag of concrete (on his shoulder or back), which he then mixes together by hand, turning the pile over with a shovel. After adding water, the mix is, well, mixed again, turning it over but now, heavily laden with water. Then it is carried wherever the need is – in the case today, filling a large pail with the mortar, carrying to the stone mason and then filling in the cavity in the wall behind the newly assembled stone wall (a space once occupied by soil and field stone).

If he is all caught up on these various tasks, rather than take a moment to rest and catch his breath, he grabs a tool and joins the workmen in finishing the mortar.

No thanks, no appreciation.

Every day is much like the previous. The one certainty is, if a dirty, hot, difficult job arises, it will be his.

The stone mason earns more because of the skills he brings to the job.

The men applying and finishing the mortar garner more than the labourer for their skills.

These three also receive a degree of respect and honour.

But our man, the one I would describe as a ‘key’ man, the man that actually facilitates everyone else, well, he gets the least reward and no recognition.

Yet, in the economy of God, it is in this manner that we are all called – to be like this simple labouring man. We are labouring in Christ to do what needs to be done, to do the difficult and unpleasant tasks, to facilitate others, to provide for other’s needs, to quietly serve others. Also, like this simple labourer, we expect neither thanks, honour, praise nor reward for our activities.

This is the calling for each of us in Christ.

Thank you yet again for praying for us,


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