Izbirak/Zaz, near Midyat, Mardin, Turkey.

To find Izbirak/Zaz, access Google Maps and in the search engine type “Midyat, Turkey”. From the centre of Midyat, follow the road north for about 6 kms to the junction for Dargecit on the right. Take the road to the right for about 15 kms. Izbirak/Zaz is about 500 metres to the north of the Dargecit road. Public transport exists between Midyat and Dargecit and the minibus driver will know where to drop you for Izbirak/Zaz. However, hitching from Midyat to within sight of Izbirak/Zaz is relatively easy. It takes only ten minutes to walk from the Dargecit road to the village itself.

Izbirak is the Turkish name for a village that Syriac Christians have always called Zaz. I had seen Zaz from a distance four years earlier just as the light was failing at about 4.00pm on an overcast afternoon in early November. Even in such conditions Zaz looked somewhere very special. Most of its houses clustered compactly on and around a low hill, and on top of the low hill was a Syriac Orthodox church. From where I stood, it appeared as if the church was in the centre of the village.

The lorry driver dropped me at the point where a dirt road leaves the asphalt road heading north in the general direction of Zaz. However, you must take a right turn to enter Zaz itself because you otherwise arrive, after a walk or a drive of about 6 kms, in the village of Nurlu, itself a settlement not without its attractions.

Up close, Zaz is every bit as beautiful as it looks from a distance, but, with over half its houses abandoned, there is a sad air to the place. Almost every house in the village is old and made with stone, but very little of the stone is dressed or carved (I saw only one house with a carved stone facade, but the facade and the quality of its carved stone reminded me of far grander houses in Midyat and Mardin), which suggests that the families who built the houses were quite poor or had priorities in life other than flaunting their economic well-being. This said, some of the houses are substantial structures which spread over at least two storeys. Some of the larger houses have, or used to have, courtyards. A few houses have no windows at the ground floor level, and some two-storey walls are devoid of doors and windows. In fact, some houses resemble fortified houses. It is safe to conclude that, in the past, people living in Zaz felt that their location on such a low hill close to a relatively important road in gently undulating countryside made them vulnerable to attack by hostile neighbours.

The church, with its characteristically attractive slim bell tower, is situated at the highest point in the village. Up close you realize that the church is not in the centre of the village at all, but at its easternmost extremity. Although I could not access the interior, it is obvious that the church is in excellent condition. This is confirmed by the wall enclosing the compound, the large gateway leading into the courtyard and the bell tower above the nave, all of which are in remarkably good shape. T. A. Sinclair writes that Zaz’s church is named after Mor Dimet and that:

“The grim exterior is a product of more recent additions. A tower was added to the sw. corner (s. face) probably in the early 20th century, though any date from the 17th century on is possible.”

The houses that cluster around the church immediately to the west are in better condition than many in Zaz. A lot of the oldest and least sophisticated houses have external flights of steps leading to the second storey or the roof. I ascended to the roofs of some of the buildings from where excellent views of the village exist. At the lowest point in the village is a shallow pond almost oval in shape. Quite a lot of buildings encircle the pond, but most are abandoned and in very poor shape. In August the pond has only a little water, but it must fill for most of autumn, winter and spring. A few donkeys and horses were tethered close to the stagnant water.

Other than a car with a driver and two passengers making their way slowly up the dirt road to Nurlu, the only people I saw in or around Zaz were a nun who must have been living in the church compound (the nun’s presence made me think that the church might be part of a small monastery) and a young woman inside her walled garden. Despite the heat, the nun worked among the crops growing on a small patch of fenced-off land just to the north of the church compound. When a dog within the fenced-off land sensed my presence, it began to bark and continued to do so until I had walked about 200 metres away. The young woman saw me walking among the houses around her garden, but was too shy or too scared to acknowledge my existence.

I walked to the main road from where I was soon offered a lift all the way to Estel (a town which is now an extension of Midyat where a lot of hotels exist) by a family of Syriac Christians living in Sweden. The family own a house in Tur Abdin and live in it for a month every summer. When mum and dad retire from work in Sweden they will live in Tur Abdin permanently. Their sons and two daughters intend to remain in Sweden, but they would consider retiring to Tur Abdin if peace and security can be guaranteed.

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

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.

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