Tur ‘Abdin – a Homeland of Ancient Syro-Aramean Culture

By Sebastian Brock in TURABDIN: Living Cultural Heritage (1999) by Rev. Em. Prof. Hans Hollerweger

Tur ‘Abdin features in written sources as early as the thirteenth century BC. To the kings of Assyria, it was a region to be conquered and despoiled: thus, in 879 BC Ashurnasipal II proudly proclaimed;

“I have subdued Matiate (=Midyat) and its villages; I took much spoil from there and laid upon them tribute and heavy taxes.”

A fate Tur ‘Abdin has suffered all too many times and many times in its subsequent history. The Assyrian and Babylonian kings also single out for specific mention “the wine of Izalla”, that is of Izlo, as the southern edge of the mountainous plateau of Tur ‘Abdin., overlooking the Mesopotamian plain, is often known in old sources. The fame of this wine, clearly regarded as being of very high quality, also seems to have been known to the prophet Ezekiel who, in his prophecy against Tyre, speaks of “casks of wine from Izlo” (Ezekiel 27:19; the Hebrew text has the otherwise unknown “Uzal”, in all likelihood a corruption of “Izal”).

It is these same slopes of Izlo that, in the fourth century A.D., St Jacob, bishop of nearby Nisibis, and his deacon St Ephrem, must have trodden on many an occasion. It was here too, that there sprung up in the course of the fifth and sixth centuries many famous monasteries, many of whose buildings still stand, and some of which continued to serve as monasteries well into the present century: this was the case with the monastery of Mor Awgin who, according to tradition, was the founder of monasticism in Mesopotamia, and with the Monastery of Mor Abraham, originally established by the East Syriac monastic reformer of the sixth century, Mor Abraham of Kashkar.

Image: Facebook page Mor Awgin Monastery Mount Izlo

It was thanks to the blossoming of monasteries all over the plateau in the ensuing centuries that Tur ‘Abdin has sometimes been accorded the title “the Mount Athos of the East” by European writers. Accordingly today, for many people Tur ‘Abdin is renowned primarily for its numerous ancient churches and monasteries, some of which still function, despite the vicissitudes and ravages of time (not least in the present century). For the Syrian Orthodox Church, however, it is much more than this, for Tur ‘Abdin is above all the heartland of Syriac tradition which reaches back to the early centuries of the Christian Church. Whatever the correct original etymology of its name, Tur ‘Abdin is quintessential “the mountain of the servants of God”, the home of numerous local saints, after whom many of the monasteries and churches that have sprung up and flourished at one period or another over the course of sixteen centuries have been named. These saints of Tur ‘Abdin include colourful figures: several were stylites, and the column of one of these can still be seen in the village of Habsus (Habsenas), while others were distinctly practical people, like the entrepreneur bishop of Simeon of the Olives (Shem’un d-Zayte) who died in 734: thanks to its large-scale olive cultivation the numerous churches in the entire region of Tur ‘Abdin were provided with oil for their lamps; it was he, too, who provided an endowment for the Monastery of Mor Gabriel from the proceeds of some hidden treasure that his nephew David had discovered in a remote cave. Others are remembered for their miraculous healings: thus the ruined monastery of St Theodotos (who died in 698), situated above the village of Qelleth, is still visited by sufferers from migraine.

But Although it is the architecture of churches like Mor Yakub the Recluse at Salah, and that of the virgin at Hah that perhaps catch the eye of the visitor most today, it is also important to remember that the history of Tur ‘Abdin is rich in many other aspects of culture. The survival of a magnificent illuminated Gospel lectionary manuscript, written for the church of Hah in 1227, is an indication of the high level of scribal activity in the region during this century which witnessed what one author has termed a ‘renaissance’ for the Syrian Orthodox Church. Likewise, Tur ‘Abdin can boast a large number of authors writing in classical Syriac, though regrettably their works remain largely unpublished and so can only be read in manuscripts. Among the few authors whose writing have been printed are Mash’ud and Addai, both belonging to the fifteenth century; Mash’ud was the author of a long theological poem entitled “The Spiritual Ship”, and he may be the same person as the Mash’ud who was one of the independent patriarchs of Tur ‘Abdin, during the period of schism with the canonical patriarchal line, centred on Deir ez Za’faran. The priest Addai, who was just one of several notable authors from Bsorino (Basabrina), is remembered with gratitude by historians today for his continuation of Bar Hebreaus’ ecclesiastical history up to his own day, some two centuries later. As a representative of the many other authors whose writings remain virtually unknown one might take Basilius Shem’un maphrian of Tur ‘Abdin, who died a martyr’s death in 1740: of his extensive writings, in both prose and poetry, only a few samples have so far been made available (in an anthology published from the monastery of St Ephrem, in Holland by Mor Julius Çiçek (ed. d. 2005)); amongst these is a poem in the Kurdish language but written in Syriac script.

Deyrulzaferan Monastry, Mardin Turkey. Image: Nevit Dilmen

Another little-known aspect of the cultural role of Tur ‘Abdin lies in the transmission of texts: over the course of centuries and continuing right up to the present day, innumerable scribes have been at work in the churches and monasteries of Tur ‘Abdin, copying out Syriac liturgical and literary texts. It was perhaps through some of these monastic scribes that many works of the spiritual life by some of the great East Syriac monastic writers, such as Isaac of Nineveh and John the Elder (Yuhanon Sobo), came to be read and appreciated in Syriac Orthodox circles as well; here one might speculate that this happened at the time when some of the monasteries on Izlo, which had originally been East Syriac foundations, eventually passed into Syrian Orthodox hands.

Many scribes of manuscripts have recorded their names and date of writing at the end of the manuscripts they were copying. Sometimes a scribe would also add some verses to celebrate the completion of his task; on of these couplets reads a follows”:

Just as the sailor rejoices

Now that his ship has reached harbour,

So does the scribe rejoice

At the very last line that he writes

This couplet happens to have a long and intriguing history, for similar couplets are attested in both Greek and Latin: in Greek the earliest example dates from 898, and in Latin from 669, but it is a Syriac manuscript that provides the earliest example, dated December 543. It is a pleasing example of continuity that the couplet can still be found at the end of several of the publications by Mor Julius Çicek, formerly abbot of Mor Gabriel Monastery in Tur ‘Abdin, but now metropolitan of central Europe.

Though sadly depleted by large-scale emigration, Tur ‘Abdin nevertheless remains very much a spiritual focal-point, not only for Syrian Orthodox Tradition, but also for the whole of Christian Tradition, not least since it is here, in the Monastery of Mor Gabriel, that a liturgical language, very close to the dialect of Aramaic that Christ will have spoken, is most lovingly and successfully nurtured – definitely not as a museum piece, but very much as part of a venerable and living Tradition which has enriched, and continuous to enrich, the entire Christian tradition.

Sebastian Paul Brock (born 1938, London) is generally acknowledged as the foremost and most influential academic in the field of Syriac language today. He is a former Reader in Syriac Studies at the University of Oxford’s Oriental Institute and currently a Professorial Fellow at Wolfson College. He is a Fellow of the British Academy. He is the recipient of a number of honorary doctorates and has been awarded the Medal of Saint Ephrem the Syrian by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch. He is a widely published author on Syriac topics.

Originally published as an introduction to TURABDIN: Living Cultural Heritage (1999) by Rev. Em. Prof. Hans Hollerweger.

Rev. Prof. Hans Hollerweger studied theology in Linz and was ordained a priest in 1954. Rev. Hans Hollerweger taught liturgical science at the Linz University of Philosophy and Theology (now Catholic University Linz [KU]) since 1967, and in 1972 he was appointed full professor and head of the institute. He retired in 1996.