By Denho Bar Mourad-Özmen journalist and TV moderator Suroyo TV
Early years – Mor Shamoun Zayte or St Simon of the Olives was born in 657 A.D. in the village of Hapses, Tur Abdin. His father Mandar was one of the village’s notables and the Mandar family house is still preserved in Hapses, some 300 meters southeast of the current Mor Shamoun Church.
Mor Shamoun learned to read and write Syriac in the local village school where he was ordained a deacon. In the year 667, at the age of ten, his father sent him to the seminary at the Mor Gabriel Monastery which at the time was the main religious education center of the Syriac Orthodox Church. In his third year at Mor Gabriel, Mor Shamoun became the deacons’ choirmaster (Rish Qnin).
After his calling to monkhood, Mor Shamoun moved to the smaller monastery south of Mor Gabriel called Dayro d-Stune / The Pillar Monastery. He lived there secluded and, according to Syriac tradition, St Simon was a pious man of many virtues who accomplished great deeds during his life.
Tur Abdin in upper Mesopotamia, today’s southeastern Turkey, was divided into the regions of Beth Risho and the Mhalmayto Region (Ahlamu). Tur Abdin was a constant war front between the warring Persians and Byzantines.
In the time of Mor Shamoun, the arrival of Persian forces in Tur Abdin brought ravage and carnage. The Persian forces burned down villages, cities, churches, and monasteries in Beth Risho and the Mhalmayto – including the famous Mor Gabriel Monastery. The Persians took the Tur Abdin residents hostage, and drove them into exile.
Among those taken hostage by the Persian forces was Mor Shamoun’s sister’s son Eyyub (Job). The Persians deported the Tur Abdin residents up north to Hisno d-Kifo (Turkish: Hasankeyf). According to Syriac sources and tradition, on their deportation march, Eyyub found a big treasure of gold and silver. He marked the place of the treasure and followed the other hostages to Hisno d-Kifo without telling them of the treasure.
During these raids on the regions of Mhalmayto and Beth Risho, the Persian commanding general fell seriously ill. Mor Shamoun was called to the Persian army’s camp north of Hisno d-Kifo and ordered to cure the general. Mor Shamoun’s prayers healed the general. The general asked Mor Shamoun Zayte what he wanted from him and it would be awarded to him. Mor Shamoun asked for the release of all the Mhalmoye and Turoye hostages and their safe return to their villages. The general complied with Mor Shamoun’s request and released the hostages, including his cousin Eyyub.
Mor Shamoun’s work in Mor Gabriel Monastery
Eyyub was educated by famous Syriac writer Daniel Qenderiboyo (from Qendrib or Qeno Darbo), and had become a skilled writer in Syriac. Eyyub told his uncle Mor Shamoun about the treasure he had found during their deportation march and went to get the treasure. He gave most of it to his uncle Mor Shamoun.
Mor Shamoun immediately began with the reconstruction of the Mor Gabriel Monastery and started buying estates, vineyards, and farmland as well as acquiring villages to the Monastery. He bought Dayro d-Stune which was near the Mor Gabriel Monastery. He also bought arable lands and six mills for the monastery, and planted 12.000 olive trees.
Thanks to its olive groves, all the Mhalmoye and Turoye churches could be illuminated. The population’s needs for oil were met at the lowest possible price. Olive oil also supplied the churches’ need for other purposes e.g. for the production of Murun (baptism oil) and for the anointing of the sick. That is why he was called Mor Shamoun Zayte, i.e. St. Simon of the Olives.
According to Syriac tradition, he was one of the first in Tur Abdin to introduce St Simeon the Stylites’ tradition of secluded living as a hermit or on a pillar in order to attain the highest degree of virtue, piety, and wisdom in order to serve God and understand His wisdom.
In 693 Mor Shamoun returned from Baghdad after a visit to the Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun. Because the East Syriac ‘Nestorian’ bishop of Nsibin did not allow the building and renovation of the West Syriac ‘Jacobite’ churches and monasteries, Mor Shamoun called in the help of the Caliph. He was given a military escort headed by Amir Hassan Ibn Hussain al-Iraqi to protect Nsibin against the Persians and Syriac Melkites. The military protection allowed for the rebuilding of destroyed Syriac ‘Jacobite’ churches in Nsibin.
The Persians and the Abbasids preferred the East Syriac or ‘Nestorian’ Church to the West Syriac ‘Jacobite’ Church. Nsibin was a frontier city and majority ‘Nestorian’. The Persians and Arabs worked with the Syriac ‘Nestorians’ and the church. Constantinople worked with the West Syriac ‘Jacobites’.
Mor Shamoun started rebuilding and renovation works in the city of Nsibin. Outside the eastern entrance of the city on the ruins of the old monastery, he built a pillar monastery for the monks to live. On the east side of the monastery, he built a large hostel for guests and visiting bishops. He also bought five mills and three large arable lands for the new monastery. For the Dayro d-Mort Fabruniya / Monastery of St. Febronia in Nsibin, today’s Zayn al-Abdin mosque, he bought agricultural land so that the nuns would be able to support themselves. He also built a church on the property and called it Yoldath Aloho / Church of the Mother of God.
At the eastern entrance of Nsibin, inside the city walls, he built a large church named after the martyr Mor Teodoros and another church named Mor Dimet. He also built a mosque for the small Muslim community and bought six shops which he donated to the mosque. For all the monasteries and churches to support themselves, he bought shops, houses, and buildings. He built famous bathhouses to generate income for the churches and monasteries and he donated these baths to the Mor Joshua Monastery.
The will to all these estates stated that all that was left of the income from these estates would go to the area’s main monastery, the Mor Gabriel Monastery.
In the area around the Hermes River, he built watermills and homes for the workers. In the city of Sarwan, he built a large church on the site of an underwater spring. He planted large olive trees. From there he went to the Sinjar Mountains, where he built several more churches.
At the instigation of the incumbent Patriarch Mor Julian III, Mor Shamoun d-Zayte was persuaded to be ordained Archbishop of Harran, a large city south of Edessa (Urfa). In the year 700, Mor Shamoun became archbishop of Harran. During his 35 years in Harran, he ruled the diocese knowledgeably and sensibly, as a true disciple of Jesus Christ. In Harran, Mor Shamoun built several churches and mosques and he donated property to cover expenses. He also built one of the largest bridges in Harran. The bridge was named after him much later.
Mor Shamoun’s work in his hometown Hapses
In his hometown of Hapses, Mor Shamoun rebuilt the St Lazarus or Mor Loozor Monastery. It had been leveled to the ground by the Persians. He rebuilt the new monastery northwest of the original building. During excavations outside the walls of the monastery, many fine crucifixes as well as bishop’s and monks’ tombs have been discovered. Mor Shamoun built a pillar (a Qaim) in the courtyard of the monastery for the monks who wanted to live there. This tradition of pillars originally came from St. Simeon the Stylite in northern Syria. Mor Shamoun Zayte was one of his followers, which is why he built similar pillars at many of the monasteries he built or renovated.
Besides the pillar in Hapses, it is said that he was also the one who built the Qaim’s (the pillars) outside the Mor Jacob d-Saleh Monastery in the village of Saleh (Barisköy), in the destroyed Mort Shmuni in Estel of the Mhalmoye, and in Dairo-Zbino (Acirli). The Mor Zbino monastery was built by St Augins pupil Mor Zbino. The village of Dayro Zbino is built on the destroyed village of Elath.
In Hapses he built a new and large church compared to the other churches in Tur Abdin. It was named after himself. It is said that it was built on an ancient Assyrian temple, which was sacred even to non-Christian residents of Hapses. The Hapses graveyard is located north of the church in a place called Nezzar d-Zayto. The large Church of Mor Shamoun can be seen in a radius of 10 kilometers because of its height. It is still the largest building in the area and has a unique architecture compared to the surrounding churches.
He founded a new school in Hapses and bought several vineyards and farmland as well as wells for the church and monastery to secure their finances.
By the beginning of the seventeenth century, most of the villages in the Mhalmayto had been Islamized. Hapses, Bnebil, and Qelith were Christian islands in the Mhalmayto.
His ecumenical work
Mor Shamoun Zayte is perhaps the most known person in the Syriac Church after Gregorios Bar Hebraeus (1226-1286). He had excellent relations with Muslims at a time when Islam was a new and expanding religion in the Middle East. According to many Syriac sources, Islam was initially a sect of Christianity against Emperor Julian of Constantinople and the Patriarchate of Constantinople. A majority of Syriacs welcomed the Prophet Muhammad as a liberator from Roman rule. Islam was later proclaimed an independent religion by the Caliphs.
As mentioned above, Mor Shamoun visited the Caliph in Baghdad to get his support in rebuilding ‘Jacobite’ churches and monasteries that had been destroyed by the Persians and Byzantines. The Byzantines were Christians but fiercely persecuted the original Syriac Church, forcing a majority of the church’s faithful to follow the dogmas of the Church in Constantinople and the Emperor. Those who did were called in Syriac malkoye (Melkites) from the Syriac word for king malko. They can be found in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq. Culturally and linguistically, they are Syriacs.
Throughout his life, Mor Shamoun worked for the unity of the peoples of Beth Nahrin (Mesopotamia), transcending denomination or religion, in order to maintain their common Syriac (Aramaic) language and culture. With the churches he established, he also built a mosque in the (few) places where there was a Muslim community. He made no distinction between Muslims, Christians or tçalkoye (Yazidis). For him they were all Syriacs and Mesopotamians with the same cultural background – as opposed to the Byzantines and Persians who were oppressors.
It is a pity that the religious authorities after him, both Muslims and Christians, did not follow in his footsteps but deepened religious divisions and hatred between ethnic brothers and sisters. Over time, they separated and so weakened their cultural and ethnic ties. It paved the way for the Mongols, Persians, Romans, Greeks, and Turks to invade and rule in their land. The situation in the region is still the same today. Religious fanaticism is destroying the region and making brothers fight against each other.
Mor Shamoun led the Syriac Church delegation to the Malazgirt Conference which adopted a unified stance against Constantinople – adopted by both the Armenian and the Syriac Church. He had very good relations with the Mandeans (Sabeans) in Harran who still adhered to old Assyrian-Babylonian religions. He struggled incessantly to open doors for coexistence between the ethnic Syriac people divided into different denominations and religions caused mainly by the constantly warring Byzantines and Persians.
During his time as Archbishop of Harran, he baptized many people who belonged to the Jewish religion, ‘Hanfee’ people who were neither Jews nor Christians (e.g. Maninoye / followers of Mani). Mor Shamoun wrote many treatises and books defending ethnic unity, and against the Byzantine Emperors who forced a large number of members of the Syriac Church to join the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In his written works you can read about the divide-and-conquer strategy of foreign powers.
Mor Shamoun Zayte died in July 734 in Harran. He was canonized by the Syriac Church and he is commemorated annually in July. He was buried in the Mor Gabriel Monastery in the presence of many bishops and people of all faiths.
His church in Hapses, and the well Gubo du-Qdolo are visited by the faithful to be cured from diseases and ailments. Women who did not conceive, could have children after a prayers in his church. This tradition is still very widespread among the Mhalmoye, especially from the villages of Dayro Zbino (Acirli), Tafo (Eristi), and Estel. The Muslim villagers come to his church and attend Mass during his saints day or Easter.
Denho Bar Mourad-Özmen is a former special educator and advisor at Sweden’s National Agency for Special Education. He was born in the village of Hapses, Tur Abdin. He is a long-time journalist and TV moderator at Suroyo TV.