Friday, November 8, 2013

Fifth Day of land tour, part 1: Saffron Monastery

Above the monastery.  Looks like old rock dwellings
This particular blog posting must be prefaced by acknowledging that I am not a particularly religious evidenced by my profile basic information on Facebook which states that I am Christian with Buddhist leanings.  Personally, I think historically more people have been killed in the name of religion than for any other reason.  Does not matter which religion; all have been responsible for killing people because of religion.   Anything taken to extreme can be bad. All that said, this posting will likely upset some of my Baptist relatives who believe that their interpretation of their St. James version Bible is the only true Christian religion.  Because this posting is about the original and still active Christians -- the Syriac Christians.

I venture to guess that most people have never even heard of the Syriac Christians.   We had not heard of them until we arrived in Turkey.  Like others who first learn of the Syriacs, our first response was, "Syriac?  What is that?  Is it the same as Syrian?"

And the answer to that is a resounding, NO.

Over the entryway into the monastery.
Aramaic language. No idea what it says.
There is a difference between Assyrians and Syrians and Syriacs.  The Assyrians were an ancient people who dominated a large region of this part of the world a very long time ago.  The original country of Assyria was in what is now northern Iraq, but spread to include a much larger region.  Syrians are simply people who live or have lived in the country currently known as Syria.  Syriacs trace their lineage back to the Assyrians, but this has nothing to do with the country currently known as Syria.  Syriacs might or might not have been born or lived in that country.

According to Wikipedia:
"The use of the word Syriac (which originally referred to the Syrian language, a dialect of Middle Aramaic which arose in Assyria) instead of Syrian became common after the establishment of the modern nation of Syria after World War I. The word 'Syrian' has become ambiguous in English since it can refer now to a citizen of Syria regardless of ethnicity. In Arabic, however, the word for a 'citizen of Syria' has a different form (سوري sūrī) from the traditional word for an ethnic Syrian (سُرياني suryānī)."

Confused yet?  I know my head was spinning when trying to discern who was what.  I gave up; anyone who wants more information can do their own research.  I did learn that there is such a thing as Assyrian Continuity and that the Syriac Christians can make the claim that they descend from the Assyrians and this has been supported by genetic testing today. 

Our first stop this day was the Saffron Monastery just outside the old city of Mardin.  This is called the Deyrulzafaran Monastery by the Turks.  Here is a link to one of the websites providing information about this monastery:    Link:  Saffron Monastery

Exterior; entrance to first level.
The monastery assigned us a guide.  The Syriac Christians speak a dialect of ancient Aramaic, the same language supposedly spoken by Jesus Christ.  This young man had such a smooth and soothing voice.  Several of us noted that we could have listened to him speak all day.  He spoke with our guide, Taş; and Taş translated to English for us.  Taş said that the young man spoke Turkish with a very strange accent.  Guess so, if his normal language is Aramaic.  The young man provided us with the information cited below.

Walking up to interior entrance at higher level

The monks still speak among themselves only in Aramaic, which they call the Syriac language.  This language is far older than Arabic or any other language known today.  If Jesus were alive today, any of the monks could converse with Him easily.  There were 3 ancient languages: Georgian, Armenian and Syriac (Aramaic).  These pre-date Greek or Arabic or any other known language.

Aramaic translation for Water Closet

Today they are allowed only to study the language here.  They are not allowed to teach theology.  There are a number of small children who are sent to the monastery to study the language.  The details of their religion must be learned at home or they must be sent to the Syriac Orthodox schools in Damascus, Syria.

(Taş interrupted at this point to explain to our group about the law in Turkey concerning this.  It seems that back while Ataturk was governing the new country of Turkey in 1924 that he became very concerned with the radical Islamic medreses, or schools, some of which were teaching radical Islamic ideas.  He could not ban just those radical Islamic schools so he banned ALL religious schools.  It is illegal to teach any form of religion anywhere in Turkey.  Religion can be taught by parents within their own homes but the mosques and churches cannot teach any form of religion.  This law remains in effect today.  That is very different from other Islamic countries.  Remember, the population of Turkey is 98% to 99% Muslim but Turkey is officially a secular country, meaning separation of religion from government.)

Main chapel
The Saffron Monastery had been constantly in operation from 1130 A.D. to 1932 A.D. as the Seat of the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox church.    In 1932 the Seat of the Patriarch was moved to Damascus.  The church was officially founded in 93 A.D., making them the oldest Christians in the world.  St. Peter's Church in Hatay, Turkey (ancient Antioch) is the first Christian church and was established in 32 A.D.  There is a structural division between the Western Syriac Orthodox and the Eastern Syriac Orthodox.  The church in Antioch belongs to the Western Syriacs; this Saffron Monastery belongs to the Eastern Syriacs.

There are 365 rooms in the monastery, one for each day of the year; and the first room was built in 400 A.D.  This was the first room we visited.

Did not take photos of the tombs. Seemed sacreligious.
 Here are some old grinding wheels instead.
Inside were 7 tombs, each facing East.   Christ's Ascension was to the East, so all burials are faced East.  A religious ceremony is held in this room each Sunday. These 7 tombs contain the remains of 52 people who lived and died at different times.  The final person placed in one of these tombs was a priest named Filaksinos who lived 1885 to 1969.  The remains of each person are placed into urns and the urns are placed into the tombs. No soil is used during burial; only natural deterioration is allowed, no embalming.  The word sarcophagus in ancient Greek meant flesh eating tomb.  After Fr. Filaksinos was interred the tombs were sealed.  

At this point I got a bit confused as the young man talked about the very ancient God of the Sun called Shems.  Shems also came to be known as the God of Fire.  Persians worshipped Fire and Sun (both apparently called Shems) long, long before the ancient Greeks began worshipping Fire.  This has been verified by findings around Mardin dating to at least 12,000 B.C.

Wedged stone construction of low ceiling
Next we visited an old room that was used for animal sacrifices back in the day when such things were done.  It was at a lower level and the ceiling was quite low.  It was a bit of a contortionist act getting down the steps to gain access to this room.  The stone construction of the ceiling was unusual.  
Hole in stone to tie animals
to be sacrificed
The big stones were shaped and wedged into place and were self-supporting.  But along each long side of the rectangular shaped room was placed a thin long piece of flat stone.  If either of those long pieces were removed, then the ceiling would collapse. We noted a couple of places where a small hole had been chipped through the stones on corners.  This was where they would tie an animal that was to be sacrificed.

1600-yr-old mural.
Flash not allowed so not a good photo.

The third room we visited was a chapel or church.  Services are held in this chapel on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  Mormar is the title for a saint, abbreviated to Mor.  The oldest mural at the monastery is located in this chapel and is 1600 years old.  Wow! Photography flash was not allowed for this old mural, so our photo is not that great.

Bible in the church.  But not the 1600-yr-old Bible.
The monks chant hymns and read from the Bible on Wednesday services.  On Fridays they unroll a special carpet and then kneel and rise 40 times, signifying the 40 lashes to Christ at crucifixion.  The young man demonstrated the movements of their way of kneeling and rising and crossing themselves as is done for this weekly service.  All I can say is I hope none of them develop arthritis.  I certainly could not mimic his movements.

The prize of this monastery is a 1600 year old Bible.  It is written on a parchment made from gazelles and is ornamented with gold and silver on the cover.  As visitors, we, of course, were not allowed to view this prized and very valuable Bible.

The buildings in the monastery have very little, if any, ornamentation.  The buildings are very plain, like Islamic buildings.

The next building we visited was the Virgin Mary Church.  This chapel or church is used only on August 15 each year to celebrate the Ascension of the Virgin Mary.

The prized old printing press

In 1874 the first printing press was brought to the monastery.  Before that, the Ottoman Empire was afraid of the masses learning.  They did not want an educated populace, either Islamic or Christian.  This printing press is today housed in a corner of the Virgin Mary Church.

Bill asked a religious technical question of this young man.  In the Roman Catholic religion confession is considered a sacrament.  Bill asked if confession is considered a sacrament by the Syriacs.  The answer is no.  In the Syriac Orthodox religion, confession is considered between the penitent and God.  The penitent confesses face-to-face with a priest and this confession is not a sacrament.  The priest is there only to advise and counsel the penitent, but the confession is directly between the person and his God.

Tiny cup of Syriac coffee & delicious purple almonds
That was the end of our short tour.  The guide took us only to 3 of the 365 rooms of this huge monastery.  Then he left to do his regular jobs and our group retired to the coffee shop and souvenir shop.  I tried Syriac coffee, which I liked much better than the traditional Turkish coffee.  It was slightly sweetened and very thick but not nearly as powdery mud as the Turkish coffee.  Much less grounds residue in the cup after drinking the liquid part of the coffee.  It was served with some bluish/purplish coated almonds.  These were fabulous!  I am still kicking myself for not buying several bags of those almonds.  Cannot find them around Fethiye, but will continue to search.  I did sample something called Gorek which were like soft folded cookies filled with dates, and bought a small bag to bring home.  Even Bill likes the Gorek and he hates dates.

Windblown!!! Taken at monastery overlooking Tur Abdin
By the way, the Saffon Monastery is half-way up a high hill (mountain?) overlooking the Tur-abdin (pronounced Tour ahb DEEN).  Tur-abdin means the 'Land of the Servants of God' and is the fertile plains below the old city of Mardin.  Mardin was our next destination for this day.  

More information about Tur-abdin can be found here:

I thought this link was worth reading as I had never heard of this place.

And here is a YouTube video about the Saffron Monastery; the last bit of which shows parts of Mardin.   I did not make this video; just found it online.

 YouTube Video of Saffron Monastery & Mardin

Lighting another candle for brother John

Final photo is Bill lighting yet another candle for his brother, Fr. John.  Bill does this at every old Orthodox or Roman Catholic church we visit as we travel around the world.

John should be getting some good karma by now. 

 (Don't yell at me....told you I was not very religious.  Plus, being raised Protestant, I really don't get the candle lighting thing.)

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