Remembering Archbishop Mor Philoxenos Yuhanon Dolabani

By Denho Bar Mourad-Özmen journalist and TV moderator Suroyo TV 

Speech delivered on November 2, 2019 at the International Hanna Dolabani Seminar, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the death of Archbishop Yuhanon Dolabani (27 September 1885 – 2 November 1969). Faculty of Literature, Syriac language and literature department, Artuklu T.C. Mardin Artuklu Üniversitesi.

I would like to thank Artuklu University and the Foundation for Syriac Monasteries and Churches of Mardin, Diyarbakır, and the Dayro d-Zafaran Monastery (Mor Hananyo Monastery) for giving me the opportunity to participate and speak at this seminar. I would also like to express my gratitude to all participants for your contributions in memory of Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Mor Yuhanon Dolabani, and for all your efforts in developing Syriac language, literature, and culture in scientific environments such as here at the Artuklu University of Mardin.

I would like to share with you some of my personal encounters and dealings with Mor Philoxenos Yuhanon Dolabani and the impressions he left on me as a youngster of 14 years-old in the last year of his life. He taught me the love for the Syriac language and was of much guidance for me in my later personal and professional life.

My first encounters with Mor Yuhanon

I want to start with an event which had great impact for me in my personal life, and to which I was able to contribute – albeit a little. I left second grade high school to learn my Syriac mother tongue in the Dayro d-Zafaran Monastery. When I enrolled to the Dayro d-Zafaran Monastery seminary school, Mor Yuhanon Dolabani was finishing his book “Hakka doğru öz fikirler” (Essential reflections on truth) for printing. Because I knew Turkish, I was asked to hand write the text in Turkish in order for the book to be sent to the printing house. Thanks to his book, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Mor Yuhanon Dolabani and to get to know him.

The event concerned the visit of the Governor of Mardin Celal Kayacan (1968-1971) to Mor Yuhanon Dolabani and the Dayro d-Zafaran Monastery. Mor Yuhanon summoned me and pointed out some Bible verses which I would have to read aloud when the governor would visit the Monastery. Shortly after the governor and his wife arrived, I was called to the guest room and asked to read the verses he had shown me.

Luke 20:20-26: 20 Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. 21 So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. 22 Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” 23 He saw through their duplicity and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. 25 He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” 26 They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.

Matthew 7:12 in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Matthew 22: 36-40 36Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

After I read the Bible verses aloud, Mor Yuhanon Dolabani made the following statement to Governor Celal Kayacan and his wife;

“Dear Governor, these verses you have just heard in fact say that in Christianity there is no human judgement (ed. Turkish: din), judgement is with God. Jesus said religion is the acquis and that the governance of the state belongs to a civil authority. The word Christian is a Greek word. It means those who follow Jesus.”

“In Syriac, the word for religion dino / ܖܝܢܐ means judgment, dayono / ܖܝܢܐ means judge, beth dino / ܒܝܬ ܖܝܢܐ means court, and mqim dino / ܡܩܝܡ ܖܝܢܐ, means prosecutor. As there is no human judgement in Christianity, Jesus Christ left the legislative and social order to the authority of the state on earth. With ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’, Jesus Christ defined Christianity as faith and love. To be Christian is to believe in God, it is the indiscriminatory and unlimited love and respect for the fellow human. Anyone who follows the teachings of Jesus Christ can be considered a Christian because the Christian keeps the same distance to all people.”

“Christian human superiority to others can only be achieved through piety. Jesus Christ taught to leave rule, law, war, and tax affairs to the state, and to love, help, and protect all people and creatures. To be a Christian therefore means to follow the teachings of Jesus. Regardless which religion, sect, belief, or nationality you adhere, anyone who internally and in practice adopts these teachings can be considered a Christian.”

For Mor Yuhanon money had no value

One day, while I was copying by hand into Turkish his book “Hakka doğru öz fikirler”, he handed me 50 cents and sent me to Mardin; “Go buy a kilo of peaches because tomorrow I will receive visitors.” I looked at him in a childlike manner, a little confused. “Mor, one cannot buy a kilo of peaches for this little money,” I said.

When the late monk Gabriel Allaf heard what I said, he immediately came up to me, took my hand, and brought me to his room. A little bit embarrassed, I went with him; “My son, don’t you know that Mor Yuhanon doesn’t know the value of money. He never carried money on him in his life. Probably a faithful parishioner gave him money and he gave it to you not knowing its value. From now on, when he sends you out to buy something, do not ask him for money or anything, you come to me.”

When I got out, I asked myself; “This man has written so many books. The Syriac nation looks to him for piety and respects him. Syriacs know him as a scholar and teacher. Even I know the value of money better than he does. How can this be?” Later I realized what it meant; those who devote themselves to God, have no business with money.

My third impression and the impact on my professional life

It is about Mor Yuhanon Dolabani and his love for the Syriac language, the Adana Assyrian Orphan School, the Dayro d-Zafaran Monastery educational model, and the development of the Syriac language.

In 1919, Mor Yuhanon Dolabani was appointed as priest-principal for Adana and the first Syriac school. Most of the students studying at the school were orphans and forlorn children of the Sayfo Genocide of 1915 and World War I. In this school, he educated and raised many students, among them many who became important for the Assyrian nation, persons we as Syriacs are proud of, e.g. composer and musician Gabriel Assad, writers and poets Abrohom Gabriel Sawme, Fawlus Gabriel, Yuhanon Salman, Danho Maqdesi-Elyas, and Filippos Tannurçi.

The students at the Adana Orphanage were street children, many of them suffered trauma as a result of the Sayfo Genocide. Most of them did not speak Syriac at all, only Turkish, Arabic or Kurdish. At the Adana school, Mor Yuhanon Dolabani had the opportunity to introduce into practice his own thoughts and theories on education.

In the Dayro d-Zafaran Monastery it was tradition for all students to gather for evenings hymns. On one of those evenings, he joined us and talked about the need of speaking, writing, and thinking in one’s own mother tongue and its importance in the development of personality. He started to explain the teaching method he applied in Adana and elaborated an incident in the schoolyard.

“Two students were fighting each other and heavily swearing and cursing. When I saw them, I felt sad,” he said. “Because they were breaking the rules and values ​​of our school; they were swearing and cursing in a foreign language.” So, I called the students’ language teacher and told him to take the children into a separate room. “Approach them with a sense of security and objectivity. Do not yell at them, do not make accusations, and discuss the matter with them in guidance. First, ask them whether they know the abusive words in the Syriac language. Tell them what the words are in Syriac if they do not know them. Teach them to pronounce the abusive words and put them in sentences. Then ask them to write alternative understandings and positive and encouraging sentences.”

After a brief moment, Mor Yuhanon said, “I entered the teachers’ and students’ room and got into the subject. I sat down with them, chatted with the students, and asked various questions about the words they use, their good and bad meanings.” I said; Children, if a person cannot communicate through language and words run out, he chooses to swear and fight because he cannot find other methods to handle the situation. So, you have to understand that a foreign language ​​might help people to have a job and a career, but it is the mother tongue that defines and makes human beings what they are. Children, when you are angry with each other, try to solve your problems by talking. Solving problems is done through dialogue. And in order to communicate and engage in dialogue with each other, you must have a developed and common language.”

These students later became teachers, poets, writers, and professors. Thanks to them, the Syriac language experienced a renaissance among the Syriacs.

Years later, when I was studying at Stockholm University to become a teacher myself, I read the works of many well-known researchers and educators. I came to realize that Mor Yuhanon Dolabani’s practical teaching method was now in fact a widely accepted and scientifically established method of education. In the works of modern educators, pedagogues, and researchers, his practical teaching model is being taught today as theories of education in universities all over the world. I want to exemplify this through two well-known theorists of pedagogy, Paulo Freire and Aaron Antonovsky. Paolo Freire did much research on Brazil’s working class, Antonovsky on Holocaust survivors.

Freire criticizes the notion that learning is the transfer of knowledge because for him the teacher’s primary task is to create and provide teaching lessons. He advocated the idea of providing students only the necessary conditions to teach themselves. Freire sees the teacher in a directive and informative role. The teacher should not exercise authority. According to Freire, the three main steps in the teacher’s role are as follows; as a first step, the teacher needs to understand his student’s capabilities. The teacher’s role is not there only to advance the student’s knowledge through teaching but also to introduce the student’s culture in the classroom; The second step is to investigate the questions related to the issue under discussion; in this way the student creates a critical view of reality and allows him to choose his own common-sense path; The third step involves narrowing down problems from abstract to concrete: information is “dissected” and actions to solve problems are proposed.

According to Paulo Freire, these three steps are essential in the ultimate goal of learning, i.e. supporting student awareness.

American-born sociologist Aaron Antonovsky for most of his professional career researched the health status of women who survived the Holocaust. He found that many of them were in surprisingly good mental health. According to his Sense of Coherence theory, existence is meaningful, understandable, and manageable. According to Antonovsky, no one is 100% mentally healthy or 100% unhealthy but all people are constantly somewhere in between healthy and unhealthy. Below prerequisites are essential to reinforce a student’s desire to be healthy and learn.

Comprehensibility: This means that there is a predictability in your existence, you understand what you feel and what it is;

Manageability: relates to the feeling of having resources available to manage life. Can my existence be managed? My answer is yes. I am currently working undisturbed in my own school. I have good relations with my friends.

Meaningfulness: relates to motivation. I feel that the problems and demands that arise are worth investing my energy in. “I feel committed”. Meaningfulness is needed to search for resources.

According to Antonovsky, a school environment that meets these three conditions is a suitable environment for all students to learn. It reinforces their desire to be a part of peers at school and encourages the desire to learn.

It is these three conditions which Mor Yuhanon Dolabani applied not only in theory but in practice at the Syriac school in Adana. In the early 1900s, Dolabani trained scientists, writers, and educators who contributed greatly to the Syriac language and culture. Thanks to his invaluable efforts, the Syriac language lived through a renaissance. The impact he left on me and the experiences I have had with the late archbishop are etched in my mind. I cannot forget them; they have always impressed me and will influence me my whole life.

Denho Bar Mourad (L) at Artuklu University seminar.

Thank you for listening, thanks to Artuklu University for organizing this seminar, thanks to the Syriac diocese of Mardin and the Syriac community who gave me the opportunity to share these experiences with you.

My wish is that universal and inclusive scholars and educators like Mor Yuhanon Dolabani of Mardin will be educated at Artuklu University.

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, and has written on the Syriac people for Hujada Magazine and the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchal Magazine. He is a long-time journalist and TV moderator at Suroyo TV.


1 Hakka dogru öz fikirler. Resim matbaasi. Istanbul. 1968.(14 pp)

2 Bengt-Olof Petersson (2001), Denetimdeki özgürleştirici pedagoji. Freire ve özgürleştirici pedagoji. Sağlık Bilimleri, Växjö University 2001-12-21

3 Health, Stress, and Coping: New Perspectives on Mental and Physical Well-Being, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1979.

4 Unraveling the Mystery of Health: How People Manage Stress and Stay Well, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1987. Isvecede cevirisi: Hälsans mysterium.


Dolabani ݂Metropolit Mor Filiksinos Hanna Dolapönü’nun Özgeçmişi /ܕܘܠܒܐܢܝ: ܩܦܝܣܐ ܕܡܘܥܝܬܗ ܘܬܪܒܝܬܗ by Chor-Episkopos Cebrail Aydın