By Yusuf Beğtaş
Some cities are cornerstone cities of cultures. Pivots in the rise and decline of humans and their civilizations. Mardin is such a city. It is a city much spoken of, but less researched and explored. But Mardin is not only a city. It is the name of a region, a geography and a social laboratory that opens a door to renewed hope for Syriacs. When I speak of Mardin I mean the latter. The Mardin that was a land of wisdom that breathed life into the culture and literature of Syriacs. It is not only a historical place where Syriacs were born and grew up. It is still a living space where they try to maintain their religious, linguistic and cultural existence despite past migration and big challenges in an upturn region.
In the Syriac language “Merdo” means “Castle” and “Merdin” means “Castles” – all existing Syriac encyclopedic dictionaries interpret the word “Merdo” as a fortified place or castle. Castle, because historically Mardin derives its name from the fortified place it was between the Syriac schools of Nisibis (Nusaybin) and Edessa (Syriac: Urhoy i.e. current day Urfa), cities which accommodated the oldest universities in the world.
Mardin is a long historical heritage. It bears the traces of ancient Mesopotamia. Throughout history Mardin has always had a heterogeneous social structure with diversified ethnic origins, different languages, diversified cultures and spiritual customs. All its contributing cultures and its carriers of cultures, past to present, on their own or intertwined, have their own perspectives and passions for Mardin. From the perspective of the Syriac heritage, however, this passion is more intrinsic. And it has very different historical nuances.
Mardin’s up and down history strikes at the heart of Syriacs scattered around the world. Because Mardin is the name of a region that carries in it the gravity of Syriac culture and literature. It is a historical basin of literary and intellectual studies in the Syriac language. Literary studies that have been done in this basin spread a universal meaning. From this savory basin Mardin continues to water the world of meaning and spirit for Syriacs, irrespective of where in the world Syriacs now may reside.
“Light and time have passed slowly over these cities”
In the spiritual Syriac world, thought has the role of legislation and the heart has the role of executor. Because the heart is the organ of mercy and compassion. With a conscience that it has developed, it offers man the ladders of escalation by keeping him in the course of the “Love of God and Human”. Therefore, when a Syriac saint or thinker raised in the region of Mardin says, “Tkhus huşobayk lvoth lebokh” or “Send your thoughts to your heart”, he refers exactly to this necessity of union of the heart with the mind in order to breath soul into life.
The Spirit of Mardin reaches out to the ancient ages of Bethnahrin (Mesopotamia). Archbishop of Mardin Hanna Dolabani, who in the last century as no other has represented this Spirit of Mardin with his intellectual-cultural equipment and writings, explains the rich, divers and colorful history and meaning of Mardin in this way:
“If there is one pleasure about history, then the spirit of that pleasure is the pleasure of the light that man sees when he opens his eyes for the first time in his native land. This pleasure appears in some people in the way of telling about things belonging to their native land and appears in others in the way of writing.”
Syriac writer Afrem İsa Yusuf, in his journey to the roots of the Syriac culture, calls Mardin “The City of Sun”, when he writes the story of eight stars – Edessa, Nisibis, Diyarbakir, Mardin, Erbil, Kirkuk, Sulaymaniyah (Slemani), Duhok – that have fallen from the sky to the region of Upper Bethnahrin (Mesopotamia). He writes,
“Light and time have passed slowly over these cities, and they continue to shine in full brightness, by enrichening the land of humanity.”
They built bridges instead of walls
Along with these historical characteristics, Mardin takes a leading part in literature with its philosophical and scientific studies done at the School of Nisibis. The School of Nisibis is considered as one of the oldest universities in the world. There were universities in many cities of Upper Mesopotamia in the years B.C and A.D. The most famous were the academies of Antioch, Urhoy, Qennesrin and Nisibis. Many wise men from many nations have graduated from these universities which had various disciplines of education. Education was mainly in the Syriac language and also Greek and Hebrew were taught.
It is known that by virtue of the creative character of Syriac thinkers, as preserved in letters written in the Syriac language, that the School of Nisibis has made intellectual contributions in history which are intrinsic to today’s socio-cultural life of the region of Bethnahrin: contributions to the Arabic language, to Islamic philosophy and to East-West culture. In the history of thought, the importance of Syriac thought has played a role in the transmission of antiquity to the Islamic world. Renan Ernest (1823-1892), a French historian and thinker writes,
“Syriacs have realized aforetime that the goal of the universe is to develop the thought.”
In terms of these distinctive contributions, Mardin is a region that has enriched humanity with its characteristic features and where valuable figures have been born and raised who have made history. These saintly figures who have attained the secret of humanity, who have reached the depth of the spirit of geography, who have strengthened meaning, who have brightened up socio-cultural life, are envoys and builders of peace.
They have built “bridges instead of walls” between different cultures and religions with the sincerity of divine and human love in the loops of history. History speaks highly of them. They have succeeded by overcoming all kinds of challenges through spiritual breakthrough. They have succeeded not by the love of power, but by the power of love.
Walking with the saints through past centuries of Mardin
Although the centers of light and knowledge have disappeared in the crowded corridors of history, a journey to the past centuries of Mardin will help us meet some of the most important and brilliant figures that lived in these centers in the old ages: Mar (St.) Jacob of Nisibis, Mar Ephrem, Mar Narsai, Mar Gabriel, Mar Simeon d’Zayte and archbishop of Dara Mar Ioannis Yuhanon, are the main saintly figures who have shaped the course of history of their age and have lived in memories until today. I commemorate them here with appropriate respect because of the bright light they have spread. I mention here only some notable and well-known envoys of culture but of course many other Syriacs have contributed greatly to the life of the Mardin region.
Mar Jacob (308-338), the first archbishop of Nisibis, has pioneered initiatives and roles that have provided the spread of the teaching of Christianity in the region and the development of the Syriac language. He was an academic and thinker who, along with 318 Church Fathers, attended the Council of Nicaea in 325. He also bears the titles “father” and “viticulturist” of Nisibis. He was the teacher of Mar Ephrem (306-373), the Sun of the Syriacs.
Because of his tremendous generativity and great monumental contributions of knowledge to the Syriac culture, literature and social thought, Mar Ephrem was given the title of “The Sun of Syriacs”. It is no exaggeration if we characterize him as the real father of Syriac literature. With his profound knowledge he fertilized literature in his era.
Mar Philoxenus of Mabbug (Manbec; +523) who has boasted the use of literary Syriac and Greek in the Mar Gabriel Monastery. With him start the historical roots of Addai who in turn is the grandfather of Mar Nestorius. Mar Nestorius was appointed archbishop of Constantinople (380-451) in 428.
Mar Narsai (399-503) managed the School of Nisibis for 40 years and taught the Syriac language there. In that school Mar Narsai has written 360 poetic discourses. He has also composed riffs, chorales and dodecasyllable lines of poetry.
The School of Nisibis, which according to historical records was also called “The Language of the East”, would keep its reputation until the 12th Century. It has brought forth many doctors, philosophers, sociologists-writers for the region and specifically for the caliphates of Baghdad. It has contributed to the spread of Syriac and Hellenistic cultures in the East.
In every period of history there have been examples of figures who built “bridges instead of walls” for the benefit of peace and common life. One of those figures is Mar Gabriel who is known by the good relations he established with Muslim-Arabic leaders. It is assumed that because of those relations, Syriacs, who had lived in the region, have got through that period without much harm. Mar Gabriel, one of the greatest saints of the region of Turabdin, was born in the village of Beth Kustan (Alagoz), district of Midyat, in 594. He was the archbishop of Turabdin between the years 634-668.
Another example is Mar Simeon d’Zayte. He was born in the village of Habsus (Mercimekli), Midyat in 657. This important figure was raised in the Mar Gabriel Monastery and became archbishop of Urfa-Harran in 700. With his colorful personality, he had a great role in the history of the Mar Gabriel Monastery and was one of the brilliant personas of his own time. He was an esteemed figure who did not discriminating between people and established warm relationships with the social walks of life. He was an epitomic figure who had strong and frequent dialogues with the Muslim authorities of his own time. He built churches for Christians and mosques for Muslims. Specifically, he has built a beautiful and well-designed mosque and a madrassah in Nisibis at his own expense and was paying salary out of his own money to muezzins and Muslim preachers who were serving there.
Mar Ivannis Yuhanon (+ 860), also known as a Daraitan, was a good theologian who was raised and educated in the Deyrulzafaran Monastery. He was an honorable writer and an important person with great literary works brought into Syriac literature. Famous Syriac state chronicler Mar Eliyo (975-1046), who became archbishop of Nisibis in 1008, also has an important place after the aforementioned figures in the world of the Syriac literature.
Archbishop of Mardin Mar Yuhanon (1087-1165) was originally from Urfa but, during his 40-year service marathon, he left behind a very pleasant voice in Mardin. He was an eminent personage, a brilliant theologian and a torch of light who has been honored by all authorities of his own time. His endeavors to keep the Syriac language and literature alive are spoken of highly by history. His endeavors set a good example to endeavors that are made in this area today. Because of his services, he stands in great honor in the memory of Syriacs who live in the center of Mardin. He is still commemorated in daily speeches.
And it would be unfair not to commemorate Mar Abd Yeshu (+1318) of Nisibis, who was a philosopher and jurist from the rural region around Mardin city. He is a brilliant personage in Syriac literature.
Mardin: a grammar of cultures
Syriac writers and thinkers have left a rich literary legacy. According to their world of thought, humanity is not situated in cold and dark emptiness, but in the light, profound and pure path in humans. Syriac writers and thinkers based their writings upon the Truth that says, “Human is a human only when he treats the Truth with righteousness and Creation with morality”. There is a dematerializing and civilizing inherent in the basic rules of this grammar of cultures. There is a balance between the soul and the body and between individuality and freedom. Because if materiality precludes spirituality, the spiritual way and course will begin to corrupt.
With their spiritual intelligence and literary works that prefer pureness of the inner world over the pureness of the outer world, they have initiated the development of social thought and have contributed to common life.
When viewed from the window of all these narratives, then Mardin is a book that needs to be read. Mardin is a story that needs to be interpreted. Mardin is poetry that needs to be recited. Mardin is a lyric that needs to be composed. And Mardin is a composition that needs to be sung pleasantly.
In a nutshell, Mardin is a grammar of cultures.
Sincerity is a behavior that prioritizes the moral coherence. Mardin inspires from its ancient soul those who approach themselves with sincerity. And it makes them experience the spiritual transformations that are not found in other spiritual searches. Mardin’s soul and its historical places whisper differently to everyone. The spirit that has pervaded those historical places gives good clues to those who want to understand human nature.
For me, the historical stones of the Mar Gabriel and Deyrulzafaran Monasteries are like two windows of Mardin. They open up the world, they remind me and say a lot to me. But most of all, they shout out the sanctity of human honor that struggles with unjust treatment… and the dispersion of the Syriac culture that has enriched the multi-dimensional soul of Mardin…!
Unproductiveness within the Syriac culture and literature is not independent from the general condition of Syriacs. In fact, this present time is a continuation at different degrees of productivity in the old ages and events.
Therefore, if Mardin can be a place of thought again, as it was in the past, it will make stronger its regional mission. It can contribute again to the parameters of democratic intellect and social progress with its distinctive values. And the way of thought should be through sincere awareness, through a moral compass of collective conscience and collective intelligence.
The expression, “Love and sincerity are the most difficult aspects of thought.” is effectual in all areas of life. However, this expression should illuminate and enlighten Mardin more with new methods applicable to the conditions of the road. It should find more meaning in the reality of Mardin.
Synthesizing the thoughts of the saints, who have engraved in the past of the region of Mardin, who have ensouled (invigorated) Syriac culture and literature, with today’s thoughts will enrich life. Because the thoughts of those wise men strengthen meaning and open the lid of our hidden treasure.
As Mahatma Gandhi says, “the voice of conscience is above all laws.”
Yusuf Beğtaş is the president of the Syriac Language, Culture and Literature Association – Mardin, Turkey
See his website for more articles and notes to this article www.karyohliso.com