Kirmizikopru, Elmayaka and the Monastery of the Holy Cross, near Bahcesaray, Turkey.

From Bahcesaray I walked toward the village of Kirmizikopru with the river to my right (briefly, the river widens to conform with the flattening of the valley itself), orchards to my left and high peaks in all directions. The driver of a lorry with cattle in the back gave me a lift into Kirmizikopru itself, where I turned right as if ascending the asphalt road to Hizan in the west. About half a kilometre from Kirmizikopru I made another right turn onto a dirt road leading to the village of Elmayaka. Because Elmayaka is some way up the mountain slope, the road begins to ascend immediately, but I was very lucky. About a kilometre from the asphalt road the driver of a van stopped and offered me a lift to the village.

Arriving at my destination I found that part of the village occupies the top of a rocky outcrop with outstanding views to the west, the south and the east. The rocky outcrop has steep walls to the west and the north, but to the east and the south the land slopes gently away. Here, more houses have been built, and beyond the houses are fields and orchards. Below the village, beehives had been arranged near a hairpin bend. Most of Elmayaka’s houses have been constructed with rubble stone and many spread over two storeys. Flat roofs are the norm. A few houses have balconies and small patios, and the houses in the oldest part of the village, the part on the rocky outcrop, huddle together as if for reasons of security or to off-set the worst effects of the winter. To the north of the oldest village houses, a dirt track enters a pretty valley where a stream, pasture, small fields, a few orchards and cypress trees lead the eye toward the most distant mountain slope, the slope marking the end of the valley. Positioned higher than the track on what looks like a platform that may have been artificially levelled stand the ruins of the Monastery of the Holy Cross. In typical fashion, Armenians a long time ago had built a monastery in a very remote but beautiful location.

The track for most of the way to the monastery is quite level and easy to negotiate, and a source of water about half way to the ruins kept me refreshed. Because the track then ascends by a series of hairpin bends, I decided to risk a short cut along a rarely used path leading though undergrowth and rock to just below the platform on which the monastery stands. Small fields and fruit and nut trees are immediately below the platform, in just the same way that similar fields and trees had been when the monastery functioned in the distant past, and the monks used the surrounding land to produce food for human and animal consumption. One more effort and I was on the platform itself. Inevitably, from such an elevated position at the end of the valley, the views from the monastery toward Elmayaka are outstanding.

It is reassuring to report that the monastery remains more or less as T. A. Sinclair (a renowned scholar specialising in eastern Turkey) found it when he visited the site in 1970, so I will let him describe what I saw:

“The church… may date from 1408 and the zhamatun (the hall in front of the church) was probably rebuilt in the late 17th century. The date of the monastery’s foundation is 10th century or even earlier. An arm of John the Baptist was reverenced here, being kept, for the last century of the monastery’s history, in a bronze arm, which has been preserved in Persia.

“A large zhamatun, both broader and longer than the church, extends from its w. face. The church is larger than is usual for the district, but is still a nave without cupola. The apse is flanked by two rooms each on two storeys: the height of the lower rooms is much less than that of the upper rooms, so that steps can be contrived between the upper rooms and the main apse (drop of 3 feet from bottom of steps). The masonry on the exterior is excellent. Khatchkars (Armenian for ‘stone crosses’) high on s. face, round central window. The zhamatun is longer e. – w. than n. – s. The three spaces on the central e. – w. axis are more than twice as wide as the other six. The central square is cross-vaulted, and the corner vaults run e. – w.”

The church has a rectangular ground plan and the ceiling of the nave is higher than you think it will be from the the exterior. The ceiling is barrel-shaped, but I am confident that the roof, when complete, would have been pitched. Columns to the west of the church clearly indicate where the zhamatun would have been. I briefly searched the land immediately around the ruins to see if any khatchkars have survived, but the area has been so extensively trashed by vandals that I was unsuccessful in my quest. As is always the case with Armenian ruins, local people have engaged in digs hoping to find gold, silver or other valuables buried by Armenians just before being murdered or forced to flee from April 1915 onwards. Needless to say, such “treasure” is rarely found because Armenians rarely had the time or the opportunity to bury their most valuable possessions.

It was a delight to find the monastery in such reasonable condition, and to be in such a remote spot where lots of wild flowers, butterflies and lizards added to the visual interest. Not far from the ruins two Kurdish boys aged twelve and fifteen were asleep, but they roused themselves when I walked past. The boys were responsible for a large flock of sheep and goats that had found shelter from the sun among trees and rocks about 100 metres from the ruins.

It was now about 1.30pm and the hottest time of the day. I decided to walk along the track to Elmayaka rather than rely on the short cut. I stopped to consume a litre of water from the source beside the track, filled an empty bottle and soaked my handkerchief before putting it around my neck. It was now an easy walk to the village, which I wanted to examine more closely because of its outstanding location and interesting vernacular architecture.

I arrived just below the first old stone house in the village, a house which had been built on a rocky outcrop about 20 metres above the track. A young woman aged about sixteen waved and asked if I was thirsty. I was thirsty, despite the water recently consumed, so she invited me into the house. I walked around the rocky outcrop, ascended some steps and a sloping path, and arrived at the front door of the house. The house was spread over two storeys. When the door opened I peered into a large rectangular room to find my host, her mother, a female friend of the mother who had called for a chat, and my host’s younger brother and sister. Dad was working in Bahcesaray. I slipped off my boots and sat on a sofa, where I consumed two glasses of chilled water.

I could not believe my luck: I was in one of the old stone houses. The room in which we sat was in effect the best room because it possessed the TV, a sofa, easy chairs and some heavy pieces of furniture storing some of the family’s most treasured possessions. Bedrooms led off to one side of the room, and the kitchen, the toilet and the bathroom led off from another. The storey below had only one large room because of the sloping land on which the house had been built. The ground floor room was used to store food for human and animal consumption. Through the kitchen, where there were a few electrical gadgets, a washing machine and a very large fridge freezer, a door led onto a small patio, this being from where my host first made her presence known. The patio was not very large, but it was where the women of the house could sit and chat, engage in household chores (the day of my visit the fleeces of two sheep were being cleaned), enjoy some glasses of tea or, perhaps best of all, marvel at the outstanding views, views either up the valley to the ruined monastery or west along the valley leading eventually to Hizan.

I was encouraged to freshen up at a sink beside the bathroom before being offered some food. Some bread and cheese would have been more than enough, especially because it was daytime during Ramadan, but I was in for a surprise. The young woman disappeared into the kitchen while I chatted with the other people in the room (opportunities such as these rarely present themselves in Turkey. Because segregation of the sexes is still routine in most of the country, especially in the east, to be, as an unknown male, in the company of so many women at once is most unusual, especially when no adult male known to the women is also present. I was in a very privileged position). A table was pulled up in front of me and, fifteen minutes after she had begun preparing the food, the young woman returned with a tray almost a metre in circumference. I could not believe what I saw. There was bread and cheese alright, and both were home-made. In fact, two loaves of bread arrived and the white cheese was flavoured with herbs and chives. There were tomatoes, spring onions, olives, helva, watermelon, and a wonderful dish of spinach and cress cooked with egg. But what I liked the best, so much so that I had a second bowl, was the soup, a soup which contained tomatoes, macaroni and goodness knows what else to enhance the flavour. I tried a little of everything, the bread included, and the meal ended with four glasses of tea.

The young woman who fed me so well was obviously very intelligent. However, her parents had refused permission for her to attend high school (quietly, she made it clear to me that she was unhappy to be denied an education beyond the age of fourteen). Her sister, aged twelve, was in middle school, but her chances of benefiting from education beyond fourteen were also very slim. The son was only nine, but I was confident that he would complete his school education. Poverty might be the main reason why both female off-spring are likely to miss out on educational opportunities, but out-dated ideas about gender also play their part, especially if the son is allowed to attend high school. No doubt mum and dad feel that a secondary education is wasted on girls who will, in all likelihood, be married by the time they are sixteen or seventeen. What a depressing state of affairs.

I made to go, but could not do so until taking two loaves of bread shaped like very large Polo mints and a bag of the herb and chive cheese. What could I do other than take the address of the family and send them something from England. The kindness of total strangers had reached a new level, but similar kindness would persist until I left Turkish Kurdistan in a fortnight’s time.

I had a walk around the village with its houses stacked one above the other so every family has an uninterrupted view to the south. As I looked around, women urged me to walk a little further to see something worthwhile: an interesting house, a view over the valley far below, or a view toward the mountains enclosing Kirmizikopru. Next, I started to descend to the asphalt road. A few modern concrete and breeze block houses exist at the eastern extremity of the village, but they do little to dent the magnificent views.

Not long after returning to the asphalt road, the driver of a vehicle stopped and drove me into Kirmizikopru. In Kirmizikopru I took photos of a restored bridge and elderly men playing chess in the shade cast by some buildings lying between the river and the road. On my way to the monastery the very same men had been sitting in the shade on the other side of the road. When the sun moved to the west and flooded the morning’s shady spot with sunlight, the men had carried their chairs across the road to where a sunny spot was now in the shade. I suspect that moving their chairs had been the day’s most exacting task.

N.B. Here is some useful background information for teachers (and, indeed, others) who may wish to use the post for educational purposes.

The monastery featured in the photos below belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church, a church which in the old days used to be misleadingly called “monophysite”. The churches most often deemed “monophysite” (Christ has one nature, the divine) are the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches. These churches are distinct from the “dyophysite/diaphysite” churches (the Protestant, the Roman Catholic and the “mainstream” Orthodox churches such as the Greek, the Russian and the Serbian Orthodox churches) which subscribe to the idea that Christ has two natures, the divine and the human.

However, the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches are better described as “miaphysite”. The “miaphysite” doctrine derives from Cyril of Alexandria who described Christ as being of one incarnate nature in whom both the divine and the human are united. While the prefix “mono” refers to a singular one, the prefix “mia” refers to a compound one.

The “dyophysite/diaphysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing oil and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, are present in Jesus, but do not mix), while the “miaphysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing wine and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, mix).


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