Mardin, Turkey -- The Syriacs [Assyrians] are the heirs of ancient Mesopotamian communities dating back 5,000 years. After converting to Christianity, they maintained their lives in a slightly introverted way in different parts of the world, protecting their own religious and cultural values. The most important sanctuary representing the Syriacs in Mardin is 'Deyrulzafaran Monastery' (Saffron Monastery)
The most important sanctuary representing the Syriacs in Mardin is Deyrulzafaran Monastery. Situated on a small hill 4-5 kilometers from the city, it takes its name from the saffron flowers and most certainly deserves to be called "the pearl of Mardin" with its magnificent and fascinating appearance.
The Syriacs are the heirs of ancient Mesopotamian communities dating back 5,000 years. After converting to Christianity, they maintained their lives in a slightly introverted way in different parts of the world, protecting their own religious and cultural values.
The monastery is still used today as a temple and school by the Syriacs. Syriac Orthodox writer and scientist Bar Ebraya (1225-1286), in his poem "Soul," expressed his perception of his own society, which tells of the philosophical and theological depth coming from Syriac history, thus:
"O, small pigeon! / If thou art proud of dignities/ and try to collect them / it will shine like a gleaming sun / and will complete thee with spirit's light like angels / if thou adorn thyself with theory and practice / and fix thyself on the peak of glory / and make thyself free from concrete matter slaveness / thou will accompany free heavenly beings quickly"
Following the path of Ebraya, the Syriacs, whose population is around 350 today, live in the poetic city of Mardin in southeastern Anatolia.Protecting "peace" and "ease," the Syriacs live in a Muslim society consisting of Arabs, Kurds and Turks with a serene spirit, adopting Ebraya's words: "Fury blocks the inner light of a man in the same way as the clouds blocking the sunlight!" This philosophy explains how the sounds of the ezan, the Muslim call to prayer, and church bells coming from Deyrulzafaran are able to mingle harmonically, and presents an opportunity for Syriacs and Muslims to live happily side by side.
The changing face of the monastery over time
The monastery, built by "sun worshippers" in the fifth century A.D., was first built as a small underground temple. Later, the monotheists finalized the monastery. Mar Sleymun, a priest, was mentioned as the founder of the monastery in the historical process.
Following the transition to monotheistic religion, Deyrulzafaran became one of the first churches of the Christian world in Anatolia. The church in Antakya, the first center of Christianity, was carried to Mardin due to Byzantium raids, and the 8th Patriarch, Mor Diyonosiyos, also came to Deyrulzafaran during that period. This led to the creation of a patriarchate there, and Deyrulzafaran was accepted as the center of all the patriarchates from 1116-32. Today, the monastery still carries the marks of history and hosts 36 tombs belonging to Syriac metropolitan bishops and patriarchs. Until the mid-1960s, soldiers and metropolitans were buried one above the other in the area divided into seven separate grave rooms. Today, Filüksinos Saliba Özmen serves as Mardin Metropolitan.
The scorpions living in the monastery are one of the elements contributing to its fame. While one myth says that these scorpions have never hurt the priests since the day the monastery was established, another myth puts forward that the monastery was used as a place where experiments on the development of medicine were carried out. In addition to all these myths, what is true even today is that the monastery still hosts wedding ceremonies and funeral rites of the Syriacs.
From Mor Sleymun to Deyrulzafaran
The Deyrulzafaran Monastery, located 4 kilometers east of Mardin on the slope of a hill, faces a grassy plain. Some additions were made to the three-story monastery over time, and it reached its current appearance in the 18th century. Previously known as Mor Sleymun Monastery, the monastery began to be called under metropolitan bishopSaint Hananyo's name since 793, after great refurbishments were made under his leadership. After the 15th century, saffron flowers spread around the monastery have caused a new change in the name of the sanctuary and it was renamed Deyrulzafaran (Saffron Monastery). Today, the monastery includes the "Sun Temple," the "Virgin Mary Church," the "Saints' House" (Beth Kadishe) and the "Domed Church."
The throne from which the priests conduct the rituals has been located for more than 100 years at this monastery, which is famous for its domes, vaulted columns and wooden handmade decorations. A cross surrounded by dolphin figures welcomes you at the entrance door.
The first person to introduce the printing press to the region in 1874 was Petrus the Fourth, who was a patriarch at the monastery and passed away in 1895. Many books in Syriac, Arabic, Ottoman Turkish and Turkish languages were printed there, and the printing house remained in use until 1969. The remnants of the printing house are still exhibited at the monastery.
Virgin Mary Church, located in the northeast of the backyard, was the first church of the monastery. The church was restored during Patriarch Cercis the Second's term (1686-1708) and houses impressive Byzantine mosaics. Part of the ceilings and walls was made from baked bricks and there are three wooden handmade doors dating from 1699 in the church. These doors are crowned with David's verses written in Syriac language. The church situated at the monastery also opens its doors for baptism ceremonies aside from Sunday rites.
Visitors from all around the world
Prince Charles visited the monastery in 2004, becoming one of the important figures to visit the monastery, which has hosted many guests from Turkey and the world. Transportation to the monastery can be made by "dolmus" small bus or taxi rented in the city center. Syriac tourist guides to accompany you in the monastery and some informative documents on Deyrulzafaran and the Syriacs are available at the main entrance. The monastery is open for visitors between 09:00 - 11:30 a.m. and 14:00 - 17:30 p.m. during the summer term. Since the monastery is still in use, speaking in a loud voice, smoking, cell phones, eating and visiting the monastery without a guide are not allowed.
By Göksel Bozkurt
Turkish Daily News