The monastery of Mar Gabriel (Deyrulumur). Photography on this page is by courtesy of the Rev. Dale Johnson and the Syrian Orthodox Church.
In the heat of the summer of 1990 I visited the monastery of Mar Gabriel in the Tur Abdin in the southern extremities of Turkey on its border with Syria. This is, as the Rev Dale Johnson describes below, one of the oldest and most important of the surviving Syrian Orthodox monasteries, and during my stay I was taken on a tour of the monastery by one of the young monks.
The sepulchre of St Gabriel, the founder of the monastery, turned out to be a somewhat nondescript affair, a low, mounded construction in a sparsely-furnished lower room, with an opening in one of its sides.
I was invited by my guide to put my hand through this opening and touch the thigh-bone of the saint. It was, he said, good for 'women who want babies'.
The saint's special efficacy apart, I was struck by the similarity of this arrangement with Bede's description, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English, of St Chad's shrine at Lichfield. Visitors to this page are invited to read the passage and make their own comparisons.
Southeast of Midyat, the monastery of Mar Gabriel is the geographical and spiritual centre of the plateau, and - if darkness is approaching - also the safest place of refuge in the area. To get there, leave Midyat on the half-paved, half-gravel Cizre-bound road; after 20 km, just before an unmarked village, turn northeast onto a similarly unsign-posted dirt driveway, which leads to the monastery gate in just over 2 km.
Founded in 397, Mar Gabriel is not only the oldest surviving Syrian Orthodox monastery, but the most vital in Turkey, with seven nuns and four monks occupying separate wings, as well as a fluctuating number of local lay workers and guests from overseas. It is also the seat of the metropolitan bishop of Turabdin, who speaks good English, and with whom you may be granted an audience.
Compared with the showcase of Deyr-az-Zaferan, Mar Gabriel is a working community set amongst gardens and orchards, and somewhat disfigured by a 1960s-vintage hostelry. The monastery's primary purpose is to keep Syrian Orthodox Christianity alive in the land of its birth by providing schooling, ordination of native-born monks, and - if necessary - physical protection to the faithful. You visit for the opportunity to gain some insight into the church - provided by an informative pamphlet in English - and secondarily to stay at night, for which you need to ask permission. This will be readily granted late in the day, since the heavy steel gates of what in effect is a fortress are locked tightly at sunset, not opening until dawn except for life-or-death emergencies. The high walls of the compound have retained their medieval function as barriers to marauders, since the Syrian Orthodox communities of the Turabdin live in fear of attacks from both the PKK and Islamic fanatics; the bishop receives regular phone calls from villagers requesting guidance as to how to respond to the latest provocation.
On summer nights, accomodation may be a simple cot in the terrace roof, with an equally basic evening meal provided. At dawn you are welcome to attend the liturgy conducted in the subterranean church underneath the belfry.
A service in progress in the nave of the monastery church.
Reference material and further reading
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