Midyat: Cradle of religions, languages, and cultures

By Kemal Yalcin journalist and writer

Midyat, 29-31 July 2015 – Syriacs call the geographical region that includes Mardin, Midyat, Nusaybin, Gercüş, Hasankeyf, Kerburan, İdil and Batman Tur Abdin. Tur Abdin, which means “Land of the servants of God”, is the homeland of the Syriacs. I went there for the first time in April 2009 and visited Tur Abdin for the fourth time on 29 July 2015 to research the life of one of the Syriacs’ heroes, Şhemun Hanne Haydo.

The city of Midyat has grown a lot in those six years. I caught up with my Syriac friends before going to the hotel. We hugged after our long reunion.

Jeweler Gebro Tokgöz summarized their situation as follows: “The atmosphere of conflict has returned. Anything can happen at any moment! We voted for peace but are now being punished for voting for peace. Security has disappeared and economic life has stalled. I haven’t had a single customer this morning. Everyone is anxious and afraid. ”

The father of Februniye Akyol, former deputy mayor of Mardin, jeweler Melek Akyol expressed the same concerns, “President Erdogan wants to punish citizens who did not vote for him,” he said.

Hope is dwindling!

We set off for the village of Sare in Jakob Gabriel’s car. I asked him about the changes in the last six years: “The HDP [Ed. Peoples’ Democratic Party] has become the hope of our region. Peace, tranquility, and security of life have increased. The HDP won most of the municipalities here. There was a certain degree of relief in the lives of Syriacs. However, some Kurds who are not HDP members, especially the village guards, continue to maintain hostile attitudes towards Syriacs. Syriac property is confiscated and Syriacs living in Europe have to (re-)buy their own villages with large sums of money from the village guards who confiscated their property. The AKP government told us that, “the properties of the Mor Gabriel Monastery will be returned.” But the AKP government only returned 12 of the 30 registered titles. It holds the other lands as leverage.”

“They were not suppling water to the winery called “Barış” or ” Peace” that you established five years ago! Are they now supplying water?”

“No! The Midyat Municipality does not give water to our wine factory. They are not very accommodating. Except that they do raise municipal taxes every year,” Jakob Gabriel replied.

There is a village there!

We arrived in the village of Sare. The village is very clean, and the roads are paved with cobblestone. There is no smell of animal droppings like in other villages! We stopped in front of Şhemun Hanne Haydo’s house. Şhemun’s grandson İsmet Turan and the villagers welcomed us.

“Your village is very different from other villages; it is so clean! How can this be?” I asked.

“That is a very long story!” he began to explain. “Before 1915, 200 Syriac families lived in this village. In 1995, Kurdish village guards occupied the village and Syriacs had to leave the village and go abroad. Our homes, our church, turned into ruins. In 2005, we took action to reclaim our village. We filed complaints with the state. We gave state officials 150.000 euros to expel the five village guard families who had occupied my village, fields, and garden for the last ten years. The former Syriac residents of Sare, who live in Europe, together collected money and we had our church repaired. We renewed our homes and village. We have completed and renewed the sewerage system. We solved our water problem. Four or five Syriac families have now started to live permanently in Sare. ”

Syriac villages without Syriacs

I arrived in Kerburan on July 30, 2015 with my translator and guide Afrem. “A hundred years ago, some 500 Syriac families lived here. On October 29, 1978, the Syriac mayor Andrewos Demir was killed by the Kurdish Kılıç family who wanted to own the lands belonging to the church. The last 30 Syriac families left Kerburan in one single day. They could not even bury Andrewos Demir in his hometown. The funeral was held in Midyat!” he said.

Kerburan has grown and has even become an official district! The village name was translated into Turkish and officially changed to Dargeçit! The Syriacs of Kerburan now live in Sweden, Australia, and Germany. They had one of the village churches repaired with the money they collected. Another church became a mosque with a minaret. The state built large mosques in every village where there was no longer a Syriac presence, right next to the repaired churches.

We arrived at the Kerburan church. The entrance door was secured with barbed wire on the roof. Afrem knocked on the door. A Syriac man came out. He and his family had fled Syria. They always kept the door locked out of fear.

It hurt me a lot to see a church guarded by barbed wire! Is this tolerance? Is this respect for other religions?

In the village of the Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek

In the village of Upper Kafro (Arica), the village of Turkish Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek, Kurds and Syriacs lived together before 1915. At that time there were 30 Syriac families in the village. After 100 years, not a single Syriac remained in Kafro.

The road between Midyat and Kerburan is very well built. Watchtowers have been erected on the roadside. The guards inside are on alert! The tip of their gun barrel is pointed at the road. Traveling under the shadow of gun barrels makes people nervous but the people of that area seem to be used to it.

The Lower Kafro road is also very smooth. The villagers thank Mehmet Şimşek. Kafro residents living in the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden had their two churches and cemeteries repaired with own funds. They handed over the keys of their church to a Muslim.

The situation is the same in many other Syriac villages. Churches have been repaired with large sums of money; their keys are entrusted to a Muslim.

* There is not much change in minds and mentality!

* When a Syriac reaches out his hand, a Muslim says, “I have ablution!”, and he does not give his hand! I mean, if a Syriac would touch him, he would break the Muslim’s law of ablution!

* Abducting a Syriac girl and converting her to Islam is still considered a heroic deed in Tur Abdin!

* The meat of an animal slaughtered by a Syriac is not eaten by Muslims because it is “mundadir” or “unclean”.

* In Tur Abdin, all sorts of tricks and betrayals are still tried in order to seize the properties and lands of Syriacs.

Since the HDP took care of the Syriacs, there were visible improvements in the lives of Syriacs! Conscientious, virtuous Muslims, Kurds take care of their Syriac neighbors and villagers. Let us hope this good behavior will spread and expand.

On the evening of July 30, 2015, we held a conversation meeting at the Tur Abdin Hotel in Midyat. It was attended by Syriacs and Kurds. The only subject of the evening was peace. The takeaway common views were that the “AKP and Erdogan deceived the Kurds! He was stalling. He did not make true on his promises! He played with the honor of the Kurds. He wants to punish Kurds and every citizen who does not vote for him. He does not respect election results. If there would be elections today, the Kurds and the people of the region will teach Erdogan and the AKP a lesson.”

With the words of the Midyat Education Inspector, we closed the pleasant evening: “To live is like being a tree, one and free. And like a tree in a forest of brotherhood, this longing is ours. ”

Midyat, 29-31 July 2015

Kemal Yalcin is a writer and journalist living in Germany. Visit him on kemalyalcin.com

Disclaimer: Translated form the original Turkish. Originally published on November 15, 2020, by Gazete Sabro.