Sunday Service, Syriac Orthodox Church of the Forty Martyrs, Mardin, Turkey.

It was Sunday and I wanted to observe a church service. I walked to a Chaldean church on Cumhuriyet Caddesi, Mardin, but it was locked. I entered the narrow side streets to the north of Cumhuriyet Caddesi and arrived at the entrance to the Syriac Orthodox Church of the Forty Martyrs. The door into the compound was open and I could hear chanting from the church below (the slope of the mountain on which Mardin’s old town is built is so steep at the point where the church is located that the buildings within the compound have ground floors at three different levels). A man smiled and urged me to come inside. He pointed down a flight of stone steps to the door of the church itself.

The service had begun about half an hour before my arrival. Altogether, the service lasted about two hours. At first, only twenty or so people were present. Most of the people were elderly and female. Females inclined toward the left side of the nave and males to the right, but no one was worried if females or males strayed into the “wrong” half of the church. However, more people arrived as the service continued and, by its conclusion, males were as numerous as females. About thirty children were present, and about a quarter of the congregation comprised of young adults aged twenty to thirty. In all, about a hundred and fifty people were present when the service concluded.

The priest, whose bright and elaborately embroidered vestments suggested that he was a senior Syriac Orthodox cleric, was assisted by about six or seven males aged from about fifteen to thirty, themselves dressed in albeit more modest vestments. About half way through the service, a group of women assembled at the front of the nave just to the left of the main sanctuary and joined in the singing and the chanting initiated by the male clerics. The women wore white embroidered headscarves and loose-fitting white surplices not dissimilar to those favoured by choristers in the Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches. Lay members of the congregation had very little to do because, due to their training, skills, knowledge and understanding, the priests in Syriac Orthodox churches monopolise all aspects of the service. However, lay members of the congregation regularly got up and down from their seats. They rose from their seats at key moments during the service, those associated with the preparation, the presentation and the sharing of the eucharist being supremely important, of course, but they also rose to engage in prayer, singing or chanting. Once the service had concluded, everyone quietly lined up to receive the body of Jesus in the form of bread and to kiss a copy of the Bible resting on a lectern in front of the main sanctuary (many adults also kissed the hand of the priest leading the service), then women in particular went to light candles (anyone who was ill, frail or had a special need such as impaired sight or mobility problems also lit a candle, usually helped by a relative or friend). Men did not cover their heads, and nor did boys or girls aged up to about fifteen. Roughly a third of young women aged about sixteen to thirty wore a headscarf, as did all women aged fifty or more. However, the headscarves were quite small, and a majority were so veil-like that every woman’s hair could easily be seen. Most women wore clothes such as trousers, long skirts and tops with long sleeves so that most of their body was covered, but some women aged about eighteen to thirty wore tight-fitting clothes that would have been totally unacceptable to their pious Muslim neighbours. Young women applied make-up and made sure that their hair looked attractive. It occurred to me that some young women saw Sunday’s church service as an opportunity to look their best, perhaps with one eye on securing a suitable husband. In fairness, some of the young men presented themselves with equal care, no doubt also in the hope of attracting a partner.

Toward the end of the service the priest wearing the most elaborate vestments delivered a sermon lasting about fifteen minutes. Adults listened intently, but young children talked quietly among themselves or walked around the nave. Although services in Syriac Orthodox churches appear to be highly structured events that adhere rigidly to well-established practices and procedures, some no doubt dating from the early centuries of the Church itself, there is something delightfully informal about the way that members of the congregation conduct themselves. People come and go during the service, they walk around the nave and quietly greet relations and friends, children engage in exploration of the compound and the buildings within it, and adults chat about their day-to-day successes, trials and tribulations. In this respect I am reminded of worship in Orthodox Jewish synagogues. But to suggest a link between Syriac Orthodox Christianity and at least one manifestation of contemporary Judaism is not as silly as some people might think, because the Syriac Orthodox Church is one of the Christian denominations that has changed least since its inception and therefore has more in common with Judaism, the faith from which is sprung, than the majority of Christian denominations. The fact that the liturgy is conducted in Aramaic, and that the Syriac Orthodox Bible is written in the same language, only reinforce the Syriac Orthodox Church’s Judaic roots (small parts of the Jewish Bible are written in Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew).

I stood at the back of the church for most of the service, but walked around to take photos throughout. At one point incense in considerable quantity burnt for about fifteen minutes and filled most of the nave with its smoke and its pungent smell. On arrival, because all the lights in the nave were out, I had assumed that services unfolded during the day with whatever natural light penetrated through the doors and the small windows. But I was wrong in my assumption: the church and the surrounding houses were suffering a power cut. About half an hour after I had arrived the electricity returned and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling bathed parts of the nave in bright light, especially in the area closest to the main sanctuary.

Some very interesting paintings hang from the walls, but I doubt that they are very old. There are also some attractive sutore d’madbho (sanctuary veils), but their bright colours suggest that, in common with the paintings, they are not very old. This said, the bulky piers that support the roof of the church, the many shadowy corners in the nave, the arrangement of artefacts in the deep main sanctuary, the paintings, the sutore d’madbho and the order of the service create an aura of great age. The clerical vestments, the incense, the candles and the respect directed toward the Bible and the clerics enhance the sense that you have somehow time travelled to a much earlier age, the contemporary dress of the laity notwithstanding.

I found it uplifting and encouraging that a church in Mardin is in such buoyant health given the hostile environment which has existed for Christians in Turkish Kurdistan for so long. This said, it would be incorrect to get too excited just yet. As far as I could tell, this was the only church in Mardin holding a service the Sunday of my visit (although I knew that at least one service would be conducted at nearby Dar Zafaran Syriac Orthodox Monastery). Moreover, in the Middle East things have a nasty habit of changing for the worse very quickly.

The church compound now has two entrances, one along the west wall and one along the north wall. The entrance from the north wall opens onto the flight of stone steps leading to the church. A house, which has a south-facing wall with carved stone characteristic of many old houses in Mardin, lies to the right of the steps. To the south of the church, at the lowest point of the compound, is a volleyball court complete with a net. I suspect that the volleyball court used to be a landscaped garden or somewhere to grow fruit and vegetables. A few flowers, bushes and trees hint at more glamorous or useful exploitation in the past.

I sat in the sunshine overlooking the volleyball court and chatted with a Syriac Christian woman aged about fifty. She was a teacher who lived and worked in Mardin. She was up-beat about the region’s future prospects. She believed that peaceful co-existence would prevail among the region’s ethnic and confessional groups, despite Kurdish demographic dominance and overt expressions of Kurdish nationalism. For this happy state of affairs she felt that the European Union (EU) deserved the greatest thanks. She believed that it was EU pressure on the Turkish government which was largely responsible for improvements for all the ethnic and confessional minorities living in the Turkish Republic. I suspect she may be correct.

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

The church featured in the photos below belongs to the Syriac Orthodox 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).

One last point: along with the Coptic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church played a key role in the early development of Christian monasticism. The Syriac Orthodox Monastery of Mor Gabriel near Midyat, Turkey, can claim to be one of the oldest still functioning Christian monasteries in the world, roughly contemporary with the four ancient Coptic monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun, Egypt, whose origins also lie in the late 4th century. Mor Gabriel’s foundation precedes Mar Saba Monastery in Palestine by about 80 years, St. Catherine’s Monastery immediately below Mount Sinai by about 150 years, and the earliest monastery on Mount Athos by at least 400 years. Thus, Mor Gabriel is one of a handful of monasteries carrying on a tradition that has continued, apart from periods of desertion, for over 1,600 years.

It is very sad that the importance of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the history of early Christianity generally, and Christian monasticism in particular, is so poorly appreciated in most of the West. It is also sad that the distinction between “dyophysite/diaphysite” and “miaphysite” Christianity is so rarely acknowledged in classrooms, whether in schools or universities.

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