A Glimpse from the Days of Yore: Christmas in the Süryani Church of Mardin

by Ali DN

Christmas in Mardin, Courtesy of Ali DN.

Christmas in Mardin, Courtesy of Ali DN.

Due to rigid social walls in Turkey, learning the basics of religions other than your family's is extremely difficult. There are about 15,000 Süryanis currently living in Turkey, which has a population close to 80 million. The Süryani community is exceptionally cautious and remains secluded. It is an ancient and fragile tradition, about which we can only whisper.  

Süryanis, as a distinct community, emerged in the 5th century in Antioch. Persecution from the Byzantines and then Arabs led the Patriarchy to settle in the Mor Hananyo monastery in the Tur Abdin region of Mardin. The monastery is open today but is now known by its nickname, Deyrü’z-zaferân--meaning Saffron Monastery, referring to its yellowish stones. In 1933, persecution this time came from the laicism of the Turkish Republic, and the seat of Syriacs moved to Homs and then in 1959 to Damascus. The current Patriarch is in exile in Beirut, due to the Syrian War. 

Mardin Süryanis and Kırklar Church

Out of the 15,000 Süryanis in Turkey, about 5,000 live in Mardin. There, almost all Süryanis can speak Turkish, most can speak Arabic, and some can speak Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish). Colloquial Syriac is spoken almost exclusively within the community. Written Syriac, or as Süryanis call it “The Syriac of Books,” is known by very few. Education of Syriac is limited but, fortunately, schools are slowly opening. The Artuklu University now offers a program in Syriac Language and Literature. 

The “book-Syriac” as a language is of great significance for the religion of Mardin Süryanis. I was graciously permitted to attend a prayer on the Sunday before the Christmas service. Everything in both ceremonies was in Syriac, except the end of the Christmas service, which was given by Mor Filüksinos Saliba Özmen, the patriarchate vicar of Mardin in Syriac, Arabic, and Turkish. I attended Kırklar Kilisesi (Church of the Forties), the central church of the “old town” of Mardin. Its priest, Gabriel Akyüz, was kind enough to allow us in the Sunday prayer. 

During the hour, he was singing the liturgical hymns almost by heart and simultaneously supervising the children and one young pupil, who were all singing along. He would intervene and take over the song when one of them made a mistake by standing closer to them, singing more loudly, or gently touching their shoulder. After the prayers, Father Akyüz told us that the children attend a sort of a summer school in the Deyrü’z-Zaferân monastery, where they learn and practice in prayer hours where not many faithful are present. 

Fuad İspir (1942-2012) was very involved in preserving Syriac music. Here’s a link to a compilation of his recordings, published in Turkey in 2002. An honorable mention is Mihael Cerci Kırılmaz, who was known for his songs of revelry and festive Süryani music. 

The Tur Abdin region, Turkey. Wikicommons.

The Tur Abdin region, Turkey. Wikicommons.

Worldly and Spiritual Affairs

Although in the Tur Abdin region, where Deyrü’z-Zaferân and other old monasteries are located, Kırklar Kilisesi is the central church of the Süryanis of Mardin. Here, a divide between the asceticism and everyday religion is reflected in the church hierarchy. After being educated, a Süryani can choose to become a monk or a priest. A monk cannot marry, whereas a priest must be married. A monk must undertake spiritual endeavors and cannot return to worldly affairs, while the priest is very much involved in the latter and not at all in the former. 

Father Akyüz, as a priest, was a perfect example. He was very talkative and communicative, offering a representation of his community and its identity eloquently. He told jokes; he was well-versed in politics and social dynamics among different ethnicities of Mardin. On the other hand, the only monk I saw was at the Christmas service, who was distinguished by a black headgear. We presumed he was a representative of Patriarchate Vicariate of Turabdin.

The Christmas Service

The Christmas service in the Orthodox Church celebrates the birth of Jesus by re-enacting its Biblical story, which involves the adoration of the Shepherds and the arrival of the Magi with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The arrival is represented by walking around the church and announcing the birth of Jesus, spreading incense, showcasing the Bible and the golden cross, and a whole lot of exultations. The final act is the lighting of a fire in the middle of the church, which symbolizes the birth of Jesus as the coming of light to end darkness. 

The church was very crowded on the ceremony. Women and men were seated on different sides. Everyone was dressed up for the occasion and in a celebratory mood. Still, there was a security guard to make sure the non-Süryani visitors don’t exceed their boundaries. He was frustrated to see me and other cameramen shooting from the end of the middle aisle since that was the women’s area and the community was uncomfortable. I was able to convince him not to kick me out only by showing him the piece of paper that Father Akyüz had left on a table at the entrance. After seeing my name on the paper and my ID card, he told me that I was standing in the women’s section, of which I was not aware. After seeing my genuine panic of ignorance, he laughed and told me that I was welcome to sit or stand anywhere I wished. 

Süryani Politics for the Present and the Future

Much like their language and traditions, the Süryani community in Turkey itself is in dire need of a revival. The head families of the community seem to be the sole deciders of the social policies of Süryanis. The monasteries’ upkeep is financed by the wine and olive oil productions. Süryani wine is very unique and incredibly tasty. The priest class and more upper-class Süryanis are mostly jewelers. 

Having faced nothing but persecution in the past, the political stance adopted by the Süryanis is one that sides with the government. Father Akyüz’s family owns a jewelry store just across the street of Kırklar Church called Akyüz Gümüşçülük (Silver-shop). President Erdoğan is shown on TV. There are very few cross-necklaces, but plenty of jewelry designed in neo-Ottoman styles, such as the Islamic crescent, signatures of Sultans, or Arabic letters. Some Süryanis disagree with this seemingly contradictory political stance, who criticize the upper-class Süryanis with preserving the status-quo for their own benefit. 

On the other hand, some argue that adopting these policies was not even a choice for the ruling Süryani families. The Turkish government is secular only in name. In practice, Süryanis need government permission to keep practicing their religion and culture, and therefore cannot risk not getting along with the state. 

What’s important for citizens of Turkey, or anyone who is not affiliated with either the Turkish state or the Süryani community, is to disregard the cold and hardened walls surrounding ethnic and religious minorities in Turkey. I approached the Süryani community without having met any Süryanis in my life before this Christmas. The Süryanis refer to their own church as “Süryani Kadim Kilisesi,” or the Ancient Syriac Church. The first word one encounters on any signs about Süryanis, is “Kadim,” in Turkish, which derives from “ܩܰܕܡܳܐ” in Syriac and “قديم” in Arabic, and its meaning is a combination of ancient and precious. The help of friends and respect for their tradition makes it possible to help this old and precious heritage survive. 

Ali DN is a writer and an editor. His research interest is mainly the history of religions and politics in the early modern Ottoman Empire. He is a graduate of Reed College, and holds an M.A. degree from SOAS. Born, bred and based in Istanbul.