Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Aug 24 13:21:29 UTC 2006

Yigal Schleifer 8/18/06

Filled with honey-colored stone homes with exquisite relief carvings,
Midyat, located in southeast Turkey, is one of the countrys most beautiful
ancient towns. It is also one of its most haunted. Once almost exclusively
populated by Assyrian Christians an ancient sect that traces its roots
back to the earliest days of Christianity and that still uses Aramaic, the
language spoken during the time of Jesus, for its liturgy the town is now
almost completely devoid of its original inhabitants.

Caught up in the violence that resulted from the separatist war that was
fought in the area in the 1980s and 90s between the Kurdistan Workers
Party (PKK) and Turkish security forces, Assyrians from Midyat and several
other towns and villages in the area fled to Europe, particularly Germany
and Sweden, leaving their ancestral homeland behind. Some 30-40,000
Assyrians lived in the area around Midyat, known as the Tur Abdin Plateau,
40 years ago. Nobody is sure what the population is today, although in
Midyat only 100 Christian families remain.

Still, there are signs of Assyrian life throughout the region. In Midyat,
where the community no longer has a priest and must rotate its Sunday
services throughout the towns churches in order to keep them alive, the
Mor Barsaumo church holds regular afternoon classes for local Assyrian
children, who learn how to read in Aramaic. On a recent afternoon, about
20 kids of varying ages were in the 1,500-year-old church's courtyard
horsing around during breaks from their lessons.

Down the road from the church, behind a high wall, a local Assyrian
contractor named Hanna Goze is busy putting the finishing touches on the
renovation of a massive stone house, owned by a Christian who now lives in
Switzerland. The house is to be used as a summer vacation home, according
to Goze. In fact, Goze said hes been quite busy doing similar kinds of
renovation work, not only for individual Assyrians looking to return for
short spells, but also for local churches and monasteries. A few years ago
he helped restore a monastery at the edge of Midyat, which had been shut
for years, but that now has a monk and two nuns living there.

"How do we survive? Well, by the grace of God," says Timotheos Samuel
Aktas, the metropolitan (or archbishop) of the Tur Abdin area, who lives
in another monastery near Midyat. The monastery the metropolitan lives in,
Mor Gabriel, had been shut for decades before reopening in 1952. "Life is
better than before," Aktas said, comparing today to the 1980s and 90s.
"But life in the area is like a ship at sea," he continued, making a
waving motion with his hands. "We don't know what will happen." Aktas, a
somewhat taciturn man, first came to the monastery in 1961 as a monk. He
has served as metropolitan since 1985, and says hes not sure how the
Assyrians returning from Europe for short-term stays will impact the local
community. "They want to keep two watermelons in one hand," he said.
"Its hard."

Still, compared to only a few years ago, there is a sense of slow renewal
in several of the traditionally Assyrian villages in the area around
Midyat. In the village of Kalit, a collection of old stone houses
surrounded by green vineyards, Diaspora funds sent from Germany and Sweden
has helped restore the historic church, which dates back to the 4th
century. Felixinos Saliba Ozmen, the metropolitan of Mardin, a town near
Midyat that also once had a large Assyrian population, said he believes
that a creeping return to the region by Assyrians is underway. "We would
like to keep this hope alive. It has something to do with homesickness,
homeland sickness," Ozmen said during a visit to the Kalit church with a
group of former villagers who now live in Sweden.

"Its very important that we live here," he added. "We have been here for
4,000 years in Mesopotamia, since before Christianity, and its very
important for our culture, for our church, that we continue to live here."


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