Midyat Local Customs

  • Syriac cross & script, Mor Gabriel, Dec 2012
    Syriac cross & script, Mor Gabriel, Dec...
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  • Suriani Children go to school, Midyat, Dec 2012
    Suriani Children go to school, Midyat,...
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  • Proudly restored in 2006, Dec 2012
    Proudly restored in 2006, Dec 2012
    by MM212

Most Recent Local Customs in Midyat

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    The Suriani People

    by MM212 Updated Feb 25, 2013

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    Suriani Children go to school, Midyat, Dec 2012

    Suriani Christians consider the Tur Abdin region their homeland, and Midyat their capital. It is in fact the last stretch of land they claim from vast domains that were once dominated by adherents of the Syriac Orthodox (or Suriani) Church, namely all of Greater Syria, extending from Gaza to Diyarbakir, and from Antioch to Damascus. Byzantine rule was terrible for all Eastern churches, which were considered heretical, so the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate was forced to hide in the monasteries Tur Abdin region, even though most of the local population in Greater Syria at the time, whether Aramaean or Arab, was Syriac Orthodox Christian. The arrival of Islam, and its tolerance towards the "People of the Book," afforded the Suriani a golden age during which they excelled in science and philosophy and held high government jobs, all under the banner of Islam. That their native language is Syriac, a direct descendant of Aramaic, the language of Christ, and one that is closely related to Arabic, made it easier to assimilate with the Arab rulers. However, this assimilation between Arabs of Arabia and the Aramaeans of Syria had begun centuries prior to the arrival of Islam, not only through trade, but also through the continuous migration from the Arabian Peninsula to the Fertile Crescent. The Arab Ghassanids who ruled parts of Greater Syria between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD, for example, were followers of the Syriac Orthodox Church. The synthesis between Aramaeans and Arabs made it easier for Aramaic speakers to ultimately become Arabised, and over time many of them converted to Islam. Their language remained preserved in the liturgy of the church, though it continued to be of limited use in a few scattered villages, including those in the Tur Abdin. In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to modernise and revive the Syriac language, particularly by the diaspora now living in Germany and Sweden.

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    The Aramaean Question...

    by MM212 Updated Feb 25, 2013

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    Arabic & Syriac scripts, Mort Shmuni, Dec 2012

    For the past several centuries, the Suriani were generally accepted by the greater powers as Christian Arabs, one of many Arab-speaking Christian communities that continue to exist in the Middle East today. Because of where borders were drawn (erroneously many claim), the Syriacs in the Tur Abdin accidentally ended up as Turkish citizens after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, and were subsequently forced, like other minorities in Ataturk's Turkey, to adopt Turkish and give up their native tongue. The "Turkification" process made the Suriani of Turkey sever the centuries-old link with Arabs and Arabic, and as they struggled for recognition and protection, they began asserting a different identity enshrining their Aramaean descent. If they no longer speak Arabic, can they be Arab? They claim they were never Arab in the first place, but rather Aramaean, descendants of some of earliest inhabitants of Greater Syria and Northern Mesopotamia. While I support their claims that they are the modern carriers of the ancient Aramaean culture and fully applaud their efforts in crafting an identity to keep alive the Syriac heritage and language, I have to disagree with their claims on race. The fact is a large proportion of the Moslem population native to Greater Syria and Northern Mesopotamia is of Aramaean descent and whose ancestors were Syriac Orthodox Christian before converting to Islam. Furthermore, before the arrival of Islam, the large number of Christian Arabs present in Greater Syria were also Syriac Orthodox; one such example is the Arab Ghassanid dynasty that ruled parts of Syria from the 3rd to the 6th centuries AD. Therefore, from the onset, the followers of the Syriac Orthodox Church were a mix of Arabs and Aramaeans, as are today's Moslems in Syria and northern Mesopotamia who are largely indistinguishable from the Suriani by race.

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    The Kurdish Quandary

    by MM212 Updated Feb 25, 2013

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    A Kurdish farmer, Midyat, Dec 2012

    Much like the Armenians of Turkey, the Suriani suffered terribly in WWI (whether one calls it genocide or not) when most of the Syriac Orthodox Christian population of the Tur Abdin and surrounding towns either perished or was forced out. Many of the descendants of the survivors of that period are now in modern Syria, where they were welcomed and protected. The small proportion that remained in the Tur Abdin area was once again forced to leave en masse when violence flared up between extremist separatist Kurds (PKK) and the Turkish army in the late 20th century, but this time the Suriani went mostly to Sweden and Germany. Only a tiny community remained in the larger towns, but most of the countless small villages of the Tur Abdin were depopulated. The Kurds, who have been slowly settling in this area since the early Middle Ages, were the biggest beneficiaries of the depopulated landscape, where they took over the homes and trades of the Suriani. They too were victims of the violence in this part of Turkey. However, the dramatic shift in the demographics meant that the Tur Abdin became part of "Greater Kurdistan," claimed by hardline Kurds with complete disregard not only for the Moslem Arabs of the area, but also the original Suriani Christian inhabitants and their claims over the Tur Abdin.

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    The Suriani Church

    by MM212 Updated Feb 24, 2013

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    Syriac cross & script, Mor Gabriel, Dec 2012

    The Suriani Church, which is known in English as the Syriac Orthodox Church, is one of the oldest in Christianity, and was the dominant religion of the native population of Greater Syria and northern Mesopotamia upon the arrival of Islam in the 7th century AD. It split from the Greek Orthodox Church (known locally as the Roum Orthodox) after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. It is often referred to in the West as the Jacobite Church, after Jacob Baradaeus the 6th century Bishop of Edessa (modern Urfa), though this name is rejected by the Suriani Church itself as he was not its founder. Until very recently, the church was also known as the Syrian Orthodox Church, but this name was altered to "Syriac" to distance it from modern day Syria (the reality is that the original name referred to Greater Syria which historically extended from Gaza to Antioch and Antep, and culturally would have included parts of Northern Mesopotamia). It uses the Syriac language in its liturgy, a Semitic language very close to Arabic and a direct descendant of Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ and by a large proportion of the natives of Greater Syria until it was replaced by Arabic. Thus, the relationship of the Syriac Orthodox Church to Greater Syria is almost identical to that of the Coptic Church to Egypt. Considered heretical by the Byzantine Empire, the Syriac Orthodox Church was persecuted, which led its Patriarchate to leave Antioch and eventually hide in the monasteries of the remote region of the Tur Abdin, its holiest land after Jerusalem. Conflict and politics in the first half of the 20th century forced the Patriarchate to transfer yet again, from what by chance became part of modern Turkey, to modern Syria, at first to Homs, then to Damascus. The same events and politics led most of its adherents to leave the Tur Abdin, not only for Syria, but also Germany and Sweden.

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    Restoring Old Houses

    by MM212 Updated Jan 18, 2013

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    Old mansion shell awaiting restoration, Dec 2012
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    There has been a noticeable effort to restore the centuries old elegant houses of Midyat. Some have been converted into hotels, but many seem to continue to be used as residences. Many of these houses are still owned by Suriani families who left Midyat for Europe and other places during violent clashes between the Turkish Army and Kurdish separatists some 3 or 4 decades ago. Having done well in their adoptive countries, some have poured money back into Midyat, renovating properties not only for use as holiday houses, but also in order to maintain a link with their ancestral homeland and to keep their culture and religion alive. Although one or two of the restored houses I have encountered may have been overdone, most restorations seemed faithful to the style and traditions of the region.

    For examples of some of the restored houses, take a look at the travelogue: "Stone Mansions of Midyat."

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    Midyat's Art of Stone Carving

    by MM212 Updated Jan 18, 2013

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    Mastery of stonework at Midyat, Dec 2012
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    As in other parts of the Tur Abdin region, the houses and churches of Midyat are elaborately decorated with elegant lace-like stone carvings, worked on by local masons who have inherited centuries-old traditions. In fact, this region has been known for mastering this art since the earliest of times and it is said that when Tamerlane invaded Greater Syria/Northern Mesopotamia, he took back many of its craftsmen to Samarkand. Walking around the alleys of Old Midyat, one cannot help but admire the craftsmanship.

    For more photos, go to the travelogue: "Stonework of Midyat."

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    Livestock in the Alleys of Midyat

    by MM212 Updated Jan 17, 2013

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    Early morning stroll, Dec 2012
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    With farms surrounding Old Midyat on three sides, livestock has an easy access into the alleys of the town. Sheep, especially, seem to be deliberately herded into town by shepherds early morning - perhaps a shortcut to the fields on the other side of town? Other than sheep, we also encountered free roaming chickens, a handful of cows, plus cats - though these wouldn't qualify as livestock! The presence of these animals reminded me of my trip to India in 2009...

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Midyat Local Customs

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