Filled with honey-colored stone homes with exquisite relief carvings, Midyat, located in southeast Turkey, is one of the country's most beautiful ancient towns. It is also one of its most haunted.
Once almost exclusively populated by Assyrian Christians -- an ancient sect that traces its roots back to the earliest days of Christianity and that still uses Aramaic, the language spoken during the time of Jesus, for its liturgy -- the town is now almost completely devoid of its original inhabitants.
Caught up in the violence that resulted from the separatist war that was fought in the area in the 1980's and 90's between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and Turkish security forces, Assyrians from Midyat and several other towns and villages in the area fled to Europe, particularly Germany and Sweden, leaving their ancestral homeland behind.
Some 30-40,000 Assyrians lived in the area around Midyat, known as the Tur Abdin Plateau, 40 years ago. Nobody is sure what the population is today, although in Midyat only 100 Christian families remain.
Still, there are signs of Assyrian life throughout the region. In Midyat, where the community no longer has a priest and must rotate its Sunday services throughout the town's churches in order to keep them alive, the Mor Barsaumo church holds regular afternoon classes for local Assyrian children, who learn how to read in Aramaic. On a recent afternoon, about 20 kids of varying ages were in the 1,500-year-old church's courtyard horsing around during breaks from their lessons.
Down the road from the church, behind a high wall, a local Assyrian contractor named Hanna Goze is busy putting the finishing touches on the renovation of a massive stone house, owned by a Christian who now lives in Switzerland. The house is to be used as a summer vacation home, according to Goze.
In fact, Goze said he's been quite busy doing similar kinds of renovation work, not only for individual Assyrians looking to return for short spells, but also for local churches and monasteries. A few years ago he helped restore a monastery at the edge of Midyat, which had been shut for years, but that now has a monk and two nuns living there.
"How do we survive? Well, by the grace of God," says Timotheos Samuel Aktas, the metropolitan (or archbishop) of the Tur Abdin area, who lives in another monastery near Midyat. The monastery the metropolitan lives in, Mor Gabriel, had been shut for decades before reopening in 1952.
"Life is better than before," Aktas said, comparing today to the 1980's and 90's. "But life in the area is like a ship at sea," he continued, making a waving motion with his hands. "We don't know what will happen."
Aktas, a somewhat taciturn man, first came to the monastery in 1961 as a monk. He has served as metropolitan since 1985, and says he's not sure how the Assyrians returning from Europe for short-term stays will impact the local community. "They want to keep two watermelons in one hand," he said. "It's hard."
Still, compared to only a few years ago, there is a sense of slow renewal in several of the traditionally Assyrian villages in the area around Midyat. In the village of Kalit, a collection of old stone houses surrounded by green vineyards, Diaspora funds sent from Germany and Sweden has helped restore the historic church, which dates back to the 4th century.
Felixinos Saliba Ozmen, the metropolitan of Mardin, a town near Midyat that also once had a large Assyrian population, said he believes that a creeping return to the region by Assyrians is underway. "We would like to keep this hope alive. It has something to do with homesickness, homeland sickness," Ozmen said during a visit to the Kalit church with a group of former villagers who now live in Sweden.
"It's very important that we live here," he added. "We have been here for 4,000 years in Mesopotamia, since before Christianity, and it's very important for our culture, for our church, that we continue to live here."
By Yigal Schleifer