(written May 2005)
My head was pounding, my eyes ached and yearned to be shut. My tummy, normally very receptive to food, was quietly rebelling at the latest offerings made. It was time to stop and rest.
But this was our one day in Diyarbakir, in the east of Turkey. This was the one opportunity to collect some stock video footage of this very ancient and fascinating city.
The previous day we had driven from Nevşehir, over the mountains, past spectacular snow-capped peaks, through green valleys, down narrow gorges and along the rim of a great canyon.
The plan for the next day would take us down to the shores of the Tigris River, to a city built into the stone of a massive cliff. We would leave that and travel to Midyat and then on to a small village – the last all-Assyrian Orthodox village left in Turkey. There we would be hosted by a believer and his extended family for the night. This would very an extremely rare opportunity for them, isolated as they are, to have Christian fellowship with more than their family; a time to receive some teaching and a time to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
Today was our one opportunity to video Diyarbakir and, feeling well or not, it had to be done. So, we loaded up the light video camera, tripod, still digital camera and two Turkish believers to be our guides and protectors from the sea of street children with which the old city is teeming.
Throbbing head, camera over my shoulder and eyes squinting in the sunlight we headed off to the first site of the day, an old church called Surp Sarkis. The abandoned church was surrounded by a three metre high cement block wall with a steel bar gate. The gate was locked, but through the bars we could see a large concreted courtyard and the massive stone church anchored on one side.
We knocked on the gate of the watchman but received no response. The spectacle of two foreigners drew the eyes of the inhabitants of the area and one neighbour informed our Turkish guides that the watchman was away and she had no idea when he would return….
So we resolved to video through the gate and be content with that. Back we trudged to the gate, lugging our gear with us, head pounding, tummy complaining. I aimed the camera through the bars and then someone suggested I mount the gate and shoot over the top. Okay, a good idea, I would get a much better shot.
Throbbing head notwithstanding, I scrambled up the steel facade of the gate. When I attained the summit I called for my camera. As I was framing the Church through the eye piece of the camera we were told it was okay to climb over the gate if we wished. So down came the camera and I hoisted myself over the top the gate.
Now I’m a short boy. I couldn’t actually reach the cross bar from my perch on the top of the wobbly steel gate so, by faith I released my tenuous hold on something remotely firm, swung my body over the top of the gate and searched frantically for the crossbar as my weight crossed the apex of the gate.
After attaining the crossbar I continued my descent, received the camera and tripod through the bars of the gate and headed
off towards the Church.
Strangely, my headache was gone. This would not be an easy cure to bottle.
I started my collection of stock footage of the church. I entered the structure – most of the roof had collapsed and I was walking on the remains of the logs that had stretched from stone wall to stone wall and the layer of dirt that had formed the flat earthen roof. Now there were humps of dirt forming an uneven surface which masked the original floor and floor covering.
As I set up for a series of shots inside the building, I heard a noise behind me. I turned to see T. with the still camera taking shots of the building. Now I knew she did not have a headache (which would need a cure) and, in any event, I could not imagine her climbing over the gate in her long skirt, so I was somewhat mystified as how she too, was on the inside and fully engrossed in recording the building with her still camera.
It seems that in the interval, the watchman had returned and opened up a more prosaic entrance for my companions to use.
The church boasted a structure of finely fitted stones forming walls, rounded arches and decorative arches and plain but impressive stone pillars with simple capitals all supporting the grand arches creating a large open space for the people to gather. Stone carvings were of simple designs, and were to be found infrequently dotted within the structure.
The steel rings which would have supported the lighting system remained at the apex of the arches seemingly ready to once again, to take up their task of supporting the candle chandeliers.
As the roof had collapsed the elements have free access to the structure; one is overwhelmed by the realisation that soon this stark ruin will complete its passage from a building in full use to a meaningless jumble of fallen and broken stones fit only for fill or recycling. Its’ life as a building had come to an end, and soon nothing recognisable would remain.
It was only a few days later, but many, many kilometres had been travelled, that we gathered with a small group of believers and trusters in the Lord Jesus Christ, in Antakya. This city is known in the Bible as Antioch on the Orontes, where believers were first called Christians and the gathering of believers there under the leading of the Holy Spirit commissioned Barnabas and Saul to the first Missionary Journey.
This Sunday morning we approached the building via a narrow, almost medieval street to a blank wall with a steel door.
Passing through the door to this old rented stone house we come first to a stone courtyard separating the room for the meeting on the left from an office-cum-Sunday School room, a sitting room, kitchen and toilet on the right. Although the courtyard is long and narrow, there is a lemon, an orange, a pomegranate and a medlar tree providing shade, sweet aroma and fruit in season.
The saints were few in number, fewer than normal it transpired, as many of the women had travelled to Adana for an annual Southeast Region ladies’ conference, but here was a small group of believers, with local leadership, in a self-sustaining situation, lifting their voices in songs of worship, praising and praying to the Lord and spending time together in the Word of God.
Here was the real church, not a collection of stones but a simple gathering of saints, praising the Lord, loving Him, loving one another and learning together. The time with these saints was very precious indeed.
The leader of the work, working at his job and doing the work of an elder, is alone in leadership and he challenged me to consider relocating to this city to assist him.
In this land, dotted with the ruins of ancient churches, this was a breath of fresh air, reminding me of what it is all about. The focus is not the opposition, not the flash-bang grenade attacks, not the bad press, not the character assignations nor the misrepresentation of our calling. It is about the Sovereign Lord building His Church and the fact that the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.
In this land liberally dotted with the ruins of former church buildings, silent testimony that once the Living Church was abundant across this land, there are new fellowships being created; the New Living Church is rising. The buildings they use are simple, plain, unimpressive. The life they live is breath-taking in its simple faith and trust in the God of the universe.