The 1600-Year History of the Monastery of Qartmin (Mor Gabriyel) — Andrew Palmer

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

The conversion of Tur ‘Abdin to faith in Christ

Tur ‘Abdin was still pagan, when each of the surrounding cities already had its bishop. Nisibis (Nsivin, Nusaybin) certainly had a Christian community from an early date, since the Aberkios Inscription mentions it, and bishops of Amida (Omidh, Diyarbakir) and Bezabdé (Beth Zabday, Cizre), two cities on the Tigris, are attested by Ammianus Marcellius in the mid-fourth century. (Meshiha-zekha mentions a bishop of Beth Zabday in AD 120!) The Monastery of Mor Malké, near Kharabali (Arkah) possesses a little altar which may be the relic of a Persian fire-temple, since we read in the Life of Mor Malké that the saint found Zoroastrians in Arkah. (fig. 4) Tradition relates that the Monastery of Mor Ya’kub, near Salah, was founded in the fourth century on the site of another Zoroastrian temple named after the God Herakles (!). The Monastery of Qartmin possesses three carved stones which could be statue-bases from a pagan temple. (fig. 5) Not far away is a ruin called “the Arches of Mor Gabriyel”, where monoliths were erected in what looks like a cultic precinct. (Fig. 10)

Christianity was a largely urban phenomenon to begin with. But the Lives of Jacob of Nisibis, of Awgin of Clysma, and of other fourth-century ascetics claim that they worked hard to convert and baptize the villagers around Nisibis and the hill-people to the north. To quote a Syrian Orthodox historian:

“They founded and erected churches and monasteries on the sites of idols and the pleasant odour of Christianity wafted through that people.”

The first bishop of Tur ‘Abdin, it seems, resided in the north-east of Tur ‘Abdin. One wonders why the bishop resided so far from the centre of his diocese. Hah certainly used to be much bigger that it is: it is surrounded by ruins and possesses a very ancient basilica, which is big by modest standards of Tur ‘Abdin. Perhaps its prosperity derived from trade across the Tigris in the period when Rome had provinces east of that river? If so, its decline may have already begun in 363, when Nisibis, too, was ceded to the Persians.

Fig. 4: Pagan altar in Mor Malké
Fig. 5: Base of statue (?) in Mor Gabriyel Monastery
Fig. 10: Ruins known as “The Arches of Mor Gabriyel”.

The establishment of dissident Christians as the rulers of Tur ‘Abdin

In 613 Daniel ‘Uzzoyo became bishop of the united dioceses of Dara and Tur ‘Abdin, to which, for a while, were added those of Tella and Rish ‘Ayno. This must have been a direct consequence of the Persian conquest (or reconquest, for those with long memories) of Syria and Egypt. Thirty-five years after burning the Monastery of Qartmin in 570, the Persians took the Castle of Tur ‘Abdin in 605. They went on to capture Edessa in 609 and Jerusalem in 614. As the Conquest proceeded, they deposed the incumbent bishops. The first idea of the conquerors seems to have been to bring in bishops from the Persian Church of the East, but the bishop they replaced in Edessa was rejected as a ‘Nestorian’ heretic; so they gave power instead to the Jacobites, a sect persecuted by the Roman Emperors in the sixth century, who could be relied on not to help Byzantium. As far as the Christian population was concerned, the situation remained unchanged under the Arabs and subsequent Muslim rulers. The Syrian Orthodox Church, which possesses the majority of churches and all the monasteries in Tur ‘Abdin today, is the continuation of the Jacobites.

Daniel was given four dioceses, which probably means that the sect he belonged to was much depleted by persecution at the time, especially in the cities, where imperial policing had been easier. He was abbot of Qartmin and that monastery now became the centre of the diocese Tur ‘Abdin. Monasteries had been the centres of resistance to the sixth-century persecution and the leaders of the dissidents anxiously resided with their watch-towers and their priest-holes, far from the cities. The earliest inscription at Qartmin speaks of the ‘escape’ of a number of clergymen in 534; it is likely that it was from persecution that they escaped and that they took refuge at Qartmin:

On the fourth day [of (month unknown] of the year 845, in the days of M[or Seve]r[us (name and sobriquet uncertain), the a]bbot, […]the priest [Is]aiah, […] and Mor Maron […] and […], priest and visitor, escaped [and took refuge]e [in] our m[onastery from the party of the evildoers] (This last phrase is conjecturally reconstructed).

Something needs to be said about this persecution.Why were Christians persecuted Christians? It hardly needs saying that you hear one story from one side and a different story from the other side. From the point of view of the Byzantine Empire, it was necessary that every clergyman in that Empire be subject to the Emperor and to the rulings of the Ecumenical Councils. From the point of view of the dissidents, it was necessary to remain faithful to the original faith of the Christians and not to accept any innovations, even if this meant opposing the will of the Emperor and undergoing persecution. They said that the definition of Christ as one Person in two Natures, one divine, one human, which was proclaimed by the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451, was an inadmissible innovation, which threatened the very integrity of Christ, and an intrusion of human analysis into the impenetrable mystery of the Incarnate Son of God. Their opponents misrepresented them as Monophysites, heretics who do not believe in the two Natures of Christ, and therefore believe in only one of the two, denying the other. As a matter of fact, the Syrian Orthodox, whom their enemies called ‘Jacobites’, do believe in Christ as God and Man and so cannot properly be called Monophysites, although most history-books call them so.

Parts of chains for hanging lamps
Cross from the mosaic in the main church in Mor Gabriyel
Mosaic floor in front of the altar in the main church in Mor Gabriyel

The foundation of Qartmin

The monastery at Qartmin began to exist long before its official foundation-date, AD 397. The founders were Shmuyel (Samuel) of Esthin and his disciple Shem’un (Simeon) of Qartmin. In the village of Qartmin (now inhabited by Arabic-speaking Muslims) there is a church of the martyr-bishop Karpos, Shmuyel’s spiritual father. Karpos was killed, according to the Life of Shmuyel, by a Persian raiding-party on Mount Izlo (Beth Gawgal, Bagokké), the southern escarpment of Tur ‘Abdin, which rises from the Plain of Nusaybin. The most likely context is AD 350, when Nisibis, then a Roman city, was besieged. The following lines from Saint Ephrem’s sixth verse-homily on faith written after that siege, show that cattle and other animals were captured from the hills above Nusaybin by the besieging army:

Because we had not thirsted after love, the first of siege avenged it on us then.
Because we’d roamed in search of thing to hoard, our roaming herds were rustled from the hills.
Because we were no grains of wheat, but chaff, the East, that wind, has winnowed us away.
Because each one had gone where whim decreed, we’re blown by all four winds around the world.
In flight we had recourse ro more than one, so we were hunted done in fortresses.

This last line contains the words mardin mardin (literally: ‘fortresses, fortresses’), which is probably an indirect reference to the otherwise undocumented capture of the small hill-top fortress of Mardin, north-west of Nusaybin, where some of the population of the area (Ephrem counts himself poetically as one of them) must have taken refuge. Shmuyel fled north from the raiders, into the hills, and so came to the village of Qartmin, fig. 8) where he acquired a disciple, Shem’un. Together they lived in the ruined temple (“the Arches of Mor Gabriyel”) of which I have spoken. Then the boy Shem’un had a dream in which he was commanded by an angel to build a Beth Slutho further to the west. (A Beth Slutho is an open-air enclosure, or “House of Prayer”, with an apse at one end, such as is found in several villages of Tur ‘Abdin.) In the dream, the angel placed three stones around the enclosure; waking, Shemún took his aged master tot he place and found stones where he had seen them being placed. He then measured out the Beth Slutho accordingly. (These three stones may be the statue-bases of which I have spoken.)

Fig. 8: view of Qartmin from the pond

Perhaps that is why the monastery came to be called the Abbey of Mor Shem’un of Qartmin, or perhaps only Shem’un, of the two men, was alive then, more than forty years later, the Roman Emperor established the institution officially by his benefaction in 397. The year of Shmuyel’s death is not recorded, though the day, 15th May, was preserved in the calendar of Church-commemorations. (The Calendar of Tur ‘Abdin – otherwise known as the Martyrologium of Raban Saliba – and the Qartmin Trilogy, containing the Lives of the founding Fathers, together with a few notices in the Chronicle of 819, which was written at Qartmin, are the only books which tell us about the monastery in this period.) The Life of Shem’un is probably wrong in dating the first Beth Slutho to 397 and it may well be wrong in postponing Shmuyel’s death until the beginning of the reign of Theodosius II.

The benefaction of Arcadius and Honorius

It is not only the chronology of the Roman-Persian wars which puts the actual beginnings back at least forty years before 397; we reach the same conclusion if we ask how it came about that the Emperor in Constantinople came to hear of this remote monastery and to consider it worth of attention. The answer to this question must be connected with the Roman frontier-garrison in the Castle of Tur ‘Abdin (Qal’at Hatem tayy, on Mount Izlo south of Bsorino), which was built in 351, after the Persian raid of 350 described by Ephrem. The Christian soldiers in the castle honoured the holy men of Qartmin and attributed the security of the frontier party to prayers. It may well be that the Emperor also believed in the efficacity of the prayers of men who were close to God and intended not only to raise morale, but also to please God, upon whom the fortunes of war were thought to depend. We have to allow a considerable number of years (forty is surely not to much) for the process by which the reputation of the men of Qartmin grew to such a stature and spread so far abroad that the Emperor selected it, among all the other monasteries which existed, for his favour. The Emperors Arcadius and Honorius began to reign, in the East and in the West, respectively, in 395. Their father, Theodosius I, had resided mainly in Milan, but Arcadius resided in Constantinople. It makes sense that Arcadius should have marked the beginning of his reign with some benefactions to a monastery, in the east.

What, exactly, did the Emperor give to Qartmin? Rumelis, “the chief of the imperial eunuchs”, was sent with gold to build buildings and dig cisterns for the monks: a long vault to the south of the Prayer-hall of Mor Shmuyel, two large and deep pits, one to the north and one to the east of that hall, and a large domed building to the south of the hall and the long vault. It should not be surprising if these buildings had taken nearly two years to be built, which would explain the delay between Arcadius’ accession in 395 and the official foundation of Qartmin in 396/7. The cisterns and the vault have been identified. They also gave valuable Communion-vessels and vestments for the Liturgy. Thereafter money was granted every year which was used for food and oil and candles and so forth.

Old oil press in Mor Gabriyel Monastery

The second imperial benefaction, by Theodosius II

When Theodosius II, Arcadius’ successor, began his reign at Constantinople in the year 410, he was just a boy. It must have been on the advice his regents that he marked his accession with a number of generous gifts to monasteries favoured by Arcadius, including Qartmin. The second imperial benefaction is recorded as follows (I divide up the text to comment on each section in order):

They built a round House of Eternity, that is a House of Saints

“House of Eternity” is a pre-Christian Aramaic name for a sepulchre, whereas “House of Saints” is specifically Christian and is used for a sepulchre of monks, “saintly” being synonymous with “celibate” in Syriac. This is probably the octagonal building called “the Dome of the Egyptians”, near the north-west corner of the monastery.

A church of the Mother of God

This should be identified with that recently restored under the old part of the nuns’ enclosure.

Beside the church to the north a double House of Martyrs, and two vaults constructed of hewn stones: and they erected in it fifteen beds.

This corresponds exactly to what is now called the House of Saints, a crypt with a double vault, supported on arches which contains tombs (“the fifteen beds”), in the north-west corner of the present monastery. A “House of martyrs” is a martyrium, a place where martyrs’  remains are venerated. Apart from Karpos, there may well have been other martyrs whose relics were kept there; and we have to remember that the monastic vocation is a kind of martyrdom.

And, outside it, another house which is called the House of the Apostles and, above these buildings, a prayer-hall of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste.

The ” House of the Apostles” (or possibly, ” House of the Stripped [Corpses”) seems to be the chamber of from which the steps lead down to the crypt; the prayer-hall was above this and the crypt. Should we understand that the monastery possessed relics of the Forty Martyrs, for which the crypt was built? St Ephrem finds deep meaning in the fact that “stripped” and ” apostle” are the same in Syriac: people strip for baptism, as they also strip for action; the apostles were the first to be baptised and they are known for their ” acts”. The apostles were also the first to grasp the faith, as a diver, also naked, grasps a pearl. There is an analogy, in St Paul’s letter to the Romans, between baptism and death. A domed octagon was the architectural form used by the Romans for a bathhouse and for a mausoleum; the Christians combined the two to make a baptistery. An octagon like the Dome of the Egyptians was for them both a burial place and a sign of resurrection.

The building of a church at Qartmin by the Emperor Anastasius

Theodosius’ death nearly coincided with the Council of Chalcedon (451), for which the new emperor, Marcian, was personally responsible. Considering the later reputation of Qartmin as a focus of opposition to Chalcedon, it seems likely that, by disagreeing with that council, the monks forfeited a benefaction of this emperor. For the rest of the century confusion reigned. Some emperors, like Zeno and Anastasius, tried to compromise on the apparently insoluble issue of Chalcedon. But in 512, Anastasius sided definitely with the opponents of Chalcedon. He replaced the patriarch of Constantinople with an anti-Chalcedonian and appointed Severus, the most redoubtable theologian of that side, as Patriarch of Antioch.

In the same year, according to the record preserved at Qartmin, he caused a church to be built there which can be identified, after a numeral has been slightly emended, as the main church of the monastery… […record…] Recently work has begun on the restoration of this church. A new roof has been built (not, however, like the first one, which must have stopped above the western windows); openings long blocked with masonry have been reopened; and the plaster is being removed from the stonework of the walls and the brick-work of the vault, which are being repointed (though the places where the 8 metre-high bronze trees were fixed to the wall have been preserved intact). Efforts are being made to obtain a grant in order to employ expert conservators to rescue the mosaics of the sanctuary.

The Emperor Anastasius was forced to give an answer to the question why God had allowed the Persians to sack Amida in 503. The bishop of the city at that time, John Sa”oro, had previously been the abbot of Qartmin. There must be some reason why a notice about him was later inserted at the beginning of the record of the benefaction. Perhaps he had suggested to the Emperor that his failure (and that of his predecessors) to make a generous benefaction to Qartmin, between Amida and the Persian frontier, had weakened the effect of the holy men’s prayers for the security of the Empire. He may also have argued, as we know from a contemporary Syriac chronicle that many of the monastic leaders in Amida were doing in 506, that the fall of that city was due to the Emperor’s policy of compromise, trying to please both the supporters and the opponents of the Council of Chalcedon. Philoxenos of Mabbug argued that only out-and-out support for the supporters of the Council would win back God’s favour; so Anatasius made Severus patriarch of Antioch. A similar argument, presented by Jogn Sa”oro, may explain the benefaction to Qartmin, which must have been strongly anti-Chalcedonian from the beginning.

First and foremost, though, the Emperor was concerned with taking military measures. He built a new fortress-city at Dara, only a few miles from the Persian border, and he did so in record time, which meant employing a vast number of masons and craftsmen from all over Syria. The main work of the city was finished in 507; but, instead of sending all the men home, the Emperor must have ordered some of them to go on and build the “great prayer-hall” at Qartmin (some may have built other churches in the area, such as that of the Saffron Monastery, near Mardin).

The so-called “Dome of Theodora” identified as a baptistery

After Anastasius, no emperor declared himself an opponent of Chalcedon and no emperor made a benefaction to Qartmin. There is a record that the Empress Theodora, consort of Justinian I, who was undoubtedly a great friend of monks and especially of those opposed to the Council of Chalcedon, although Justinian’s policy was in favour of Chalcedon, visited Qartmin and gave it the money with which to build “Theodora’s Dome”, a stone octagon partly built in brick with an open oculus in its brick dome. This building stands near the north-west corner of the main church. The only text says which says that this dome was built by someone called Theodora is late and unreliable; in any case, it refers to a different Theodora.

The domed octagon is perhaps more likely to belong to the well-attested benefaction of Anastasius; the dome is exactly the same height as the vault of the main church, which is also roofed with brick. It is likely to have been a baptistery. Several monasteries which were centres of pilgrimage in Syria acquired separate baptisteries in the fifth century and at the beginning of the sixth; that at Qal’at Sem’an is also an octagonal building, as indeed are many baptismal fonts all over the Christian world. In the majority of cases, though not, because of the lack of space on the hill, Qal’at Sem’an, the baptistery is on the north side of the main church. That Qartmin was a centre of pilgrimage is attested by an extract of a letter of Philoxneos of Mabbug (died 523) to a certain Eustochios, quoted in the Qartmin Trilogy, the compilation of Lives of Shmuyel, Shem’un and Gabriel, which includes the accounts of the imperial benefactions:

To go there seven times in faith is like going to Jerusalem, for it is built in the likeness and after the pattern of that city and it is laid out according to the same design.

What exactly the great opponent of Chalcedon meant by this is unknown; I think it refers to the elaborate symbolism of the sanctuary, the two bronze trees on either side of the entrance being like the “trees of life” on either side of the stream of life-giving water which flows out from under the “throne of the lamb” in the “Jerusalem on high” (Ezekiel 47; Revelation 22).

Gabriyel of Beth Qustan and the Arab Conquest

The monastery became the residence of a bishop, as I have argued, when the Persian Conquest created vacancies of four sees in the area and the abbot of Qartmin was asked to fill them all, until suitable men could be found for those outside Tur ‘Abdin. By the time of the Arab Conquest, in 639/40, the abbot of Qartmin, now Gabriyel of Beth Qustan (Bequsyoné), was managing two dioceses from his monastery, that of Tur ‘Abdin and that of Dara. No doubt the success with which he negotiated a treaty with the Arab conquerors, protecting the rights of the Christians in the region, made him great in the eyes of later generations. Surely, also, he was remembered as a holy man, like the prophet Elijah, for we read in the Qartmin Chronicle of 819: ‘He it was during his lifetime who revived a dead man and performed other wonderful miracles.’ There is confusion in his largely fictional Life concerning the date of his death (almost certainly 1 May 648).

When his Life came to be written, little was remembered about him, which shows that his reputation took some time to grow to that of a saint. This point had certainly been reached by the year 774, in which the plague raged in Tur ‘Abdin, killing 94 monks at Qartmin and all the prominent people at the Monastery of the Cross (Dayro da-Slibo, Der as-Salib). In the previous year, as a result of overtaxation, there had been a spate of grave-robbing; now after 30 monks had died in a single night, the corpse of Mor Gabriyel was exhumed and fixed upright in the church to pray for an end to the plague. After this, the right arm was detached and taken to Hah to bring an end to the plague there also.

On the names of the Monastery of Qartmin

The loss of 94 monks did not bring to an end the prosperity of Qartmin, which was now sometimes called Dayro d-‘Umro (Arabic: Dayr ul- ‘Umr, this being the shortened version of Dayro d-‘Umro d-Mor Shem’un Qartminoyo, “the Monastery of the Abode of Mor Shem’un of Qartmin), though it did perhaps make people begin to call it “the Monastery of Mor Gabriyel”. The miracle by which Mor Gabriyel brought an end to the plague 126 years after his death may have created a need for a written history of the monastery including the Lives of Shmuyel and Shem’un and a Life of Gabriyel (the Qartmin Trilogy). Most of the Life of Gabriyel is borrowed from books about older saints, such as that of John of Ephesus and the Life of a certain Bishop Habib. Later medieval manuscripts call Qartmin: “the Monastery of Mor Shmuyel, Mor Shem’un and Mor Gabriyel”, which shows the influence of the Qartmin Trilogy.

The inscription on the stone table

The history of the stone table

Shortly before 774, in 768/9, a large stone table for preparing the bread of the monastery had been commissioned by Zechariah of ‘Ainwardo, who went to Beth Debbe to make it. The well-documented troubles of Tur ‘Abdin during the early 770s presumably delayed the transportation of the great block; and the plague caused a further delay. When the monastery decided at length to have it collected, Zechariah was too old for the job (perhaps he had been weakened by the plague). A Syriac inscription on the stone, which now stands in the prayer-hall of the main church (before it stood in “Theodora’s Dome”, which must have been used as a kitchen at one time – the neighbouring vault is black with smoke), tells the story: (Fig. 20)

Zechariah of ‘Aynwardo made this in the year 1080 of the Greeks in Beth Debbe; but, having aged, he entreated Isaiah of Fofyath (Kafarbé), his shawsbino (his spiritual kinsman), to transport it; and Isaiah took great pains and so did all the members of the monastic community; and they brought it and polished it and set it in its place in the year 1088 (776/7), in the days of George, our bishop, who helped with the cost of it according to his means. Cyril of ‘Aynwardo engraved the inscription.

The brothers Zechariah and Cyril of ‘Aynwardo were disciples of a great man of Qartmin, Mor Shem’un Zayte, St Simeon of the Olive-Trees, who died in 734. Simeon became bishop of Harran and used his influence to build in and around the largely Nestorian and Zoroastrian city of Nisibis profit-making institutions, such as olive-presses, water-mills, bath-houses and inns, which would add to the income of the Monastery of Qartmin. His investments made Qartmin, and consequently the rest of Tur ‘Abdin, buoyant enough to continue building and restoring churches into the late eighth century. New churches were forbidden by Islamic Law, which may explain why the complete rebuilding of the church of the Monastery of Mor Ya’kub, near Salah, at this time was described in an inscription as its “renovation”.

The Kurdish uprising in 830 and the sack of Qartmin

The following is an extract of the Syriac Chronicle of 1234, written at Edessa, as quoted by the Patriarch Afrem Barsawm in his History of Tur ‘Abdin:

On the ‘Mahdi’ who became the leader of the Kurds. At this time (in the days of Caliph Ma’mun) after the year (AH) 216 (AD 830), a ‘Mahdi’ appeared to lead the Kurds, who had taken the Castle (Hesno d-Kifo?) and had entered into the religion of the Muslims. A large number of tribes of all nations, Persian, Arab and pagan gathered around him in the name of plunder and destruction and enslavement. He established himself in the well-defended mountains of the country of Corduene (on the far side of the Tigris from Tur ‘Abdin) and made war on Beth Zabday and Tur ‘Abdin; and their sword was inebriated with blood; and they had no pity on young or old.

Even King Ma’mun was shaken by them. But when they invaded Tur ‘Abdin and the Abbey of Qartmin and the surrounding villages, Hasan, the governor of that region, opposed them courageously, especially when he saw the tortures to which the subjected the monks, because this Hasan was a religious man with regard to the Christians. So he fell upon them suddenly… and the Kurds turned tail; and the ‘Mahdi’ fled to the country of Ishak b. Ashud, who cut off that evil man’s head.

Decline and tenth-century calligraphic renaissance

After about eight hundred a decline set in. The ninth century seems to have been a period of low ebb. Inscriptions on stone, quite numerous until then, are hardly found again until the tenth century; even then, they are always memorials to the dead, not records of the completion of new buildings or of the renovation of the old. “Mor Gabriyel’s Monastery” settled down into a cosy relationship with neighbouring villages, particularly Beth Sbirino (Bsorino), to the east.

It was a man from that village, Bishop John, who revived, in the eleventh century (after it had been extinct for a century), the ancient Edessan script for use in making new parchment copies of the Gospels. He called it “the Gospel Script” (Sret Ewangelion > Estrangelo). (Fig 24-26) One manuscript written out and illustrated by his nephews, Emmanuel and Niho, monks of Qartmin, is extant in Berlin. It seems to have survived a fire; but Bar Heabraeus speaks of a total of seventy such volumes by these calligraphists in the library of Qartmin. This “renaissance” was ultimately the consequence of the Byzantine reconquest of Melitene in 934. The settlers of the deserted city and of the surrounding monasteries were all Armenian or Syrian Orthodox; and, as they prospered from the excellent trade on that international frontier, the Syrians also came to be know the Armenians better, and learned from them, it seems, the art of illuminating books. This art is continued to be practiced in Tur ‘Abdin for several centuries. There are famous illuminated Gospel-Books of the thirteenth century extant today.

Divisions of the diocese between Qartmin and Hah

In 1088/9 the diocese of Tur ‘Abdin was divided. After 450 years in abeyance, Hah became again the episcopal see; but the bishops of Tur ‘Abdin now resided at the Monastery of the Cross (Dayro d-Slibo). A memorial inscribed shortly after this date at Qartmin has been read as an attempt to prevent the new bishop of the region as his predecessors. If that is right, then the Monastery of Qartmin must have felt the division as a heavy blow to its prestige. As if that were not enough, the monastery was sacked at exactly this time by the Seljuks, an unknown new enemy from Iran, whom the inscriptions called “Persians”. Here is a translation of the inscription, one which, unusually, neither commemorates a death, not records the construction of a building: (Fig 29)

The names of the bishops of this abbey from the year 1160 of the Greeks (848/9): Nuno of Harran, Ezechiel of Hah, Samuel of Beth Man’em, Ezekiel, John, Iwannis, Ignatius, Severus, Habib of Beth Man’em, Hoshua of Qartmin, Joseph of Beth Sbirino, John of Beth Sbirino, Zakay, who made a stand as a dissident, Lazarus of Beth Sbirino, Shamly, the sinner, of Beth Man’em, who acceded in the year 1400 (1088/9) and wrote this memorial; and in his hard and trouble-filled time, this abbey was sacked in cruel raid by the Persians and it lay in ruins and deserted for five years with all of Tur ‘Abdin; and the raiders camped in the great hall (of prayers) for fourteen days.

This requires a few words of explanation. The era of the Greeks is that of the Seleucid Kingdom, beginning on 1st October. 312 BC, to which Mesopotamia belonged at the time when records began to be made in Syriac at Edessa. All Syriac records in this era until recently. Beth Man’em is a deserted village with a fortress-like monastery not far from Beth Sbirino to the south. Beth Sbirino is Bsorino, to the east of Qartmin. The prominence of this cluster of villages in the memorial may give us a clue to the question why the diocese was divided: perhaps the bishopric, with all its rights, had come to be the effective possession of of one region in Tur ‘Abdin, to the detriment of the rest? The great hall of prayer is the nave of the main church in the monastery.

After the monks recovered possession they blocked up all groundfloor openings in this church, except for one, with masonry and set the inscription in one of the peep-holes on the west side of the hall. In 1996/7 all the windows and the door on the south side were opened and the inscription was moved closer to the main west door. Between 1089 and 1996, for more than than 900 years, the monastery was too insecure to open up its church. It came to depend a great deal on the village of Bsorino. Nevertheless, Tur ‘Abdin, and particularly the Monastery of Qartmin, continued to produce their fair share of leaders for the Syrian Orthodox Church, whose names are too numerous to be listed here.

The schism of Tur ‘Abdin, 1364-1839

On 6th August, 1364, with the support of Bishops of Qartmin, of Hah (resident in Dayro da-Slibo), of Beth Rishé (resident in Mor Malké), of Zarjel, or Bshiriyyé (resident in Mor Kyriakos, north of the Tigris) and of Midyat, the Bishop of Salah (resident in Mor Ya’kub) received a diploma from the Ayyubid ruler of Hesn Keyf, recognising him as ‘Patriarch of Tur ‘Abdin’. This meant that Tur ‘Abdin broke away from the Patriarch of Antioch (resident at Deyr ez-Za’faran, near Mardin). The schism occurred because the Patriarch of Antioch, Isma’il, refused to admit all the leaders of Tur ‘Abdin, who journeyed to Deyrez-Zafaran to petition him to lift a hasty excommunication order against the Bishop of Salah. It is not true, as persistent rumour claims, that this Isma’il is responsible for the conversion to Islam of numerous and populous villages of the Mehallemoye, west of Midyat and East of Mardin; the villages of Beth Mahlam had already converted in 1209, according to Barsawm’s History of Tur ‘Abdin, in order to escape the then Turkish rulers. During the 475 years which followed 1364 there were five reconciliations between the two patriarchates, ending with that of 1839. In this time the custom arose of appointing a Maphrian (Catholicos) for the Eastern part of Tur ‘Abdin, the most famous of whom was Shem’un II of Beth Man’em, a prolific writer in Syriac and Kurdish, whose works are still copied in Tur ‘Abdin. He was killed by a Kurdish agha. At least two of the patriarchs of Tur ‘Abdin had previously been Bishop of Qartmin.

A catalogue of suffering and survival

The later history of Qartmin Abbey and of the rest of Tur ‘Abdin is one long list of raids, wars, droughts, famines, plagues and persecutions. It is a miracle that the Syrian Orthodox Christians have survived all of these; but that survival, under conditions as bad as any that have been seen in recent years, gives hope for the future. Here, then is a small part of all that the people of Tur ‘Abdin have suffered and survived:

1140s – Qartmin Abbey sacked by the Turks; four monks killed.

1176 – Many villages deserted as a result of drought

1193 – 30,000 Kurds from Tur ‘Abdin lose their eight-year war against the Ottomans

1200s – The Bishop of Qartmin is suffocated by Mongol Hunnish raiders, together with 32 monks and 330 ordinary people.

1395 – The Bishop of Qartmin is suffocated by Timor Khan, together with 40 monks and 500 ordinary people, in the cave of Barsiqay, just south of the monastery. His name is John of Bsorino.

The Cave of Barsiqay on the slope below Mor Gabriyel Monastery

1405 – Massive epidemic in Tur ‘Abdin.

1413 – Another massive epidemic in Tur ‘Abdin.

1416 – The door of the church in Qartmin Abbey is burned and everything inside, including the reliquary containing the right hand of Mor Gabriyel, is stolen by Chalkoyé Kurds.

1441 – Bishop Barsawmo Koshu’o of Qartmin Abbey is killed by Chalkoyé.

1490s – All the monasteries in the area are laid in the area waste by a confederation of Kurdish tribes, including the Chalkoyé.

Most of the above events were recorded by scribes in Bsorino and compiled by the priest Addai, of that village, who added a section to the Ecclesiastical Chronicles of Gregorius Bar Hebraeus (died 1286). In addition, we know from Zeytun of Anhel, the scribe of the Fenqitho of the Saints, a liturgical book at Qartmin, that the Catholicos ‘Ablahad of Anhel obtained authority to eject some ‘pagans’ who were living in the monastery and resettled it with seven monks, one priest, several deacons and two nuns in the early nineteenth century.

In 1895, when the Ottoman Sultan ordered an attack on many of the Christians in Eastern Anatolia, Tur ‘Abdin was spared; the region was not so fortunate in 1915, when it suffered a similar blow, from which the Christian villages never recovered. They suffered again for their their involuntary implication in the Kurdish uprising of 1926. On the latter occasion, the Kurdish leaders seized the southern monasteries, Mor Malké, Mor Awgin and Mor Abraham. When they were defeated, Mor Malké was demolished, together with the whole of Beth Rishné, and the Bishop of that region, Severus Shmuyel, died on the run from spending a night out in the cold at the age of 78 years.

Barsawm’s History of Tur ‘Abdin, from which all of this section is derived, ends on a positive note:

In the year 1955 the Monastery of Mor Malké was renovated.

Since then, of course, Qartmin Abbey, the Monastery of Mor Gabriyel, has been renovated as well; and great efforts have been made to maintain the ancient cradle of civilisation which is Tur ‘Abdin.

Literature on the history of Tur ‘Abdin:

Bell Gertrude, The Churches and Monasteries of the Tur ‘Abdin. With an introduction and notes by Marlia Mundell Mango, London 1982.

Anschütz Helga, Die Syrischen Christen vom Tur ‘Abdin. Eine alt-christliche Bevölkerungsgruppe zwisschen Beharrung, Stagnation und Auflösung (Das östliche Christentum NF 34), Würzburg 1984.

Sinclair T.A., Eastern Turkey: An Architectural and Archeological Survey, Vol. III, London 1989.

Palmer Andrew, Monk and Mason on the Tigris Frontier. The Early History of Tur ‘Abdin (University of Cambridge Oriental Publications 39), Cambridge 1990.

Wieβner Gernot, Christliche Kultbauten im Tur ‘Abdin (Göttinger Orientforschungen Reihe II: Studien zur spätantiken und frühchristlichen Kunst Bd. 4) 4 Teile, Wiesbaden 1981-1993.