(written April 2006)
Heading south from Diyabakir the land spread out in a rolling plain on all sides, the Tigris river valley slipping from sight as we proceeded, the surrounding landscape was dyed with deep shades of green testifying to the rich fertility of the region. I knew where we were going, the destination, but not the route we would be taking. It was exciting to be travelling across Mesopotamia – the ancient fertile crescent; the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Traffic was light and we were making good time – but not knowing the distances I didn’t know if we were an hour from our destination or three. It was closer to three.
After a while the fertile plain gave way to stony hills. When I say “stony” what I really mean is “stone”. There seemed to be little soil and the bedrock was exposed on all sides. The hills grew in height as we wound our way through narrowing valleys and up and over ridges of hills. This was the antithesis of the previous vista – dressed in green with the promise of crops to come, this was dressed in stony gray with no promise that I could see.
Sitting, as I was, behind the driver and his passenger in the front seats, T. and a young lady behind them, my view was limited to what passed by the side windows. Not much warning of what was coming – and if it was something near, it would be visible for the briefest of moments. I gathered we would be passing by Mardin on our way to Midyat and from thence on our way to our destination.
We skirted Mardin, perched as it is on a high, steep hill. However as we approached from the back side, the opposite side of the old city, we were not in a position to see the old city and how the hill sharply drops off to a vast plain and that the plain then disappears over the horizon. Our brief encounter with Mardin was in such a manner that there was little to see.
We had only briefly touched the new part of Mardin when were off, heading east, down another valley, then a steep climb out of the valley to a region of gently rolling rocky hills interspersed with small green valleys invariably given over to agriculture.
On a newly travelled road, even a short distance can seem to take a long time, so it is difficult to appreciate the length of the journey, but in the fullness of time we reached the city of Midyat.
Midyat is a town that has a special place in my heart and mind for it featured in a filmstrip of the events that took place in this town many years ago that was used by OM in sharing about the need of and opportunities in Turkey. What struck me on this trip through the town was the number of workshops preparing white stone blocks. I love stone buildings, and I had arrived at the centre of stone buildings and stone work.
The local stone is a off-white stone that when freshly cut is fairly soft and hence workable. However, once exposed to the air, it begins to harden and over time becomes quite a long-lasting stone.
We parked up to get some things to take to our destination. In the city centre they were building a new mosque out of the local stone, richly worked. There was a Memorial, again built of the local stone and heavily worked. There was the local tourism office, built of the local stone. It was all rather impressive.
When I returned to the car, T. and the young lady commented that there was not a single woman on the streets – none, not by themselves, not accompanied by a male family member or husband, not even the heavily covered ladies in the full black tent-like covering. A glance at my watch told me that at 6:30 in the evening it wasn’t time for ladies to be out and about. hmmm, I was glad T. had opted to stay in the van when I went to do some business.
After the rest of the party returned, we returned to our quest, it was past dusk now, we would be arriving in the dark. We departed Midyat heading an east, south easterly direction.
Another half hour down the two lane road and we reach the turn-off. Our driver swung the van across the road and we began going up the hill on the side of the low valley. The road was narrower than the one we had been using, but if there was on-coming traffic we could have passed without difficulty.
In any event, on this road there was no on-coming traffic – there was, in fact, no other traffic at all.
The distance was about 5 kilometers… at about 4 kilometres we could see the shape of our destination – a large black lump on top of a hill, still discernable in the gathering darkness.
Finally, we pulled up to a four meter high stone wall that encircled the complex. To the left was a wide, massive, almost classic gate with a rounded arch, decorated white stone and a massive, securely fastened, solid steel door. We had stopped in front of another, smaller gate, set in a finely stone carved arch, which was also tightly secured for the night. It was made of wrought iron, with decorative leaves interweved with the bars providing an extremely pleasing and secure barrier to our forward progress.
The sign beside the sealed gate declared the visiting hours – and we were well outside them. The chap who had arranged the visit leaped out of the vehicle and went in search of a bell. I don’t know if he found a bell or not, but he came back looking for his phone.
A quick call and someone was dispatched, at this late hour, in the dark, to come down and open the gate.
It was a long way.
Finally someone could be seen walking down the drive. The gate opened we breezed through, up the drive, across a massive parking lot to the main gate in the wall of the complex.
Like the outer wall, the gate was set in a stone wall towering some four plus meters above us. The chap who had opened the gate had left this door open for us and we grabbed our luggage and began the lug.
Through the gate, across a stone clad courtyard, up a double set of stairs, across another expanse of stone clading, up a set of stairs, across a shorter stone clad surface, left turn and up some more stairs across the stone clad terrace and we arrived at the door to the Metropolitian’s reception room. Welcome to Mor Gabriel – a Suriyani (Assyrian Orthodox) Monastery founded in 397. Yes, that is the correct date – 1,618 years ago – this is one old, very old, place.
I had no idea what the accommodation would be like in such an ancient Monastary. I guess I was expecting a small rather primitive monks cell, with a hard bed and being cold and damp. I was surprised that my wife and our other female travelling companion were allow the monestary at all. In the end we were shown to some very nice, very modern, ensuite rooms. These accommodations were fairly recently renovated and made to accommodate the Assyrian orthodox diaspora who both support the Monastary and visit.
In the morning we looked out from the fortress like complex on the vista which will has remained generally unchanged through the millennia. Here believers had settled, studied, prayed, lived and died for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years.
Once this complex was in the border region between the Roman and the Persian empires. Armies from one side or the other would ravage the land taking what they wanted and destroying what was left. It is no wonder the buildings are build like the massive defensive structures they are.
For the past thousand years or more they have found themselves in a Muslim sea, surrounded on all sides. Today, many have emigrated to Europe and the few who remain feel like the endangered community they are.
In spite of the hostility and pressures on all sides, high above the central church in the complex, adorning the bell tower is a large orthodox cross – constructed in such a way that it is clearly a cross from whatever angle you look at it. At night this is lit, a beacon shining in the night.
So it is for us, regardless of those around us, whether they approve or disapprove of us or our message, whether they like or even hate us, whether they are friendly or fearful of us, whether they threaten and from time to time, enact their threats, we are to shine like a beacon in the night – not us, but the cross of Christ shining forth in the darkness.