- xXx Mor Gabriel Monastery
* by Servet Dilber
In the half-light of dawn we were driving along a straight road
straining our eyes to catch sight of the turning. Twenty minutes after
leaving the town of Midyat we came to it; an unmade road which would
take us the last 2 kilometres to our destination. It was still not
fully light when the dark walls of a huge building loomed ahead of us,
silhouetted against the sky. As we got out of the car in the lonely
treeless landscape, the sound of bells chiming told us that we were
just in time. We passed through the carved gate of the monastery and
mingled with the crowd descending the steps.
Far from the bustle of daily life which was beginning in the outside
world where the sun had just risen, we listened to prayers read by
Metropolitan Timotheos Samuel Akta, and hymns sung by the childrens
choir. These were rituals which had not changed for centuries. In the
dim light from a 4th century window a man walked up and down the rows
of the small congregation swinging a censer containing a burning
incense tree back and forth, and the choir singers struck their finger
cymbals to the rhythm of the hymn. We forgot which time we belonged
When the service was over we had breakfast with the secretary to the
Metropolitan, Yusuf Beda, who then took us around monastery. As well as
the church in which the service had been held, there was a second, now
unused, dedicated to the Virgin Mary containing biblical scenes.
This latter church is one of the oldest parts of the monastery, which
has been extensively altered and repaired over the centuries.
We walked past high stone walls and beneath arched gateways to reach a
narrow flight of steps leading to the upper courtyard. From here there
was a view over every part of the monastery, and the fine carving
around the doors and windows attracted our attention. The famous Midyat
stone is transformed into works of art by Syrian Orthodox stonemasons.
As we re-traced our steps down to the lower courtyard and headed for
the garden, we asked Yusuf Bey about the column capitals at the head of
the steps. He could not put a date to them, but told us they had been
brought here from a ruined monastery in the Bagok Mountains.
We passed through the large garden containing pistachio, apple, walnut,
apricot and plum trees, and came to the vineyards. As we ate grapes
which Yusuf Bey picked for us, he told us about the history of the
monastery. Syrian Orthodox communities had long been concentrated in
this part of southern Anatolia around Mardin, Hasankeyf, Cizre and
Nusaybin, and caves in the region had been used as places of worship.
Eventually the region came to be known as Turabdin, meaning mountain of
those who worship. This monastery had been founded in the year 397 by
St. Mor Samuel and Mor Semun, who called it Mor Semun Kartminyo.
Its Syriac name is Dayro dUmro (Deyrulumur), meaning Shelter of Monks,
although from the 7th century when it became the centre of the Turabdin
Metropolitanate, it became better known as St. Mor Gabriel.
There are two theories about the origin of the Syrian Orthodox people
themselves. One is that they are the descendants of the Assyrians,
Babylonians and other various races who inhabited Upper Mesopotamia,
and that Christianity bound them together as a single people. The term
Sryani derives, according to this theory, from the Assyrians. The
alternative view is that the Syrian Orthodox people are of Aramaean
origin, and that after part of the latter adopted Christianity, they
began calling themselves Snryani to distinguish them from pagan
Today the monastery continues to run a school, where five teachers
teach the Syriac language and liturgy to between 25 and 40 pupils from
surrounding villages. The pupils also attend ordinary schools in
One of the worlds oldest Christian monasteries, Mor Gabriel has been a
home to monks and nuns who dedicate their lives to the worship of God
through the medium of prayers and hymns, for the past sixteen
* Servet Dilber is a photographer.