Mor Yakup: Visiting south-east Turkey

The Regional Airport at Mardin is modern, small, and easy to negotiate. A delightful port of entry to this part of Turkey.

Having left the airport, we drove along the Syrian border to Nusaybin. This is an area of Turkey to which the FCO discourages travel. However, it has been peaceful for the last two or three years, though conflict continues in less accessible areas nearby. For many kilometres along the border there stretches a high wall topped by a roll of barbed wire. Every few hundred metres there are military watchtowers. I refrained from photographing them.

Arriving in Nusaybin, one could not fail to be struck by the amount of investment. We passed many beautiful new apartment blocks, built to a standard that seemed to me would have not been out of place on the French Riviera.

Our host, Bishop Saliba (left) took us to the first stop on our tour: the ancient church of Mor Yakup. Daniel (right) is the warden of this monastery and the guest house attached to it. His son, off school for some reason, stands between me and Bishop Saliba.

The picture shows the baptistry of what was once a vast Cathedral. The cathedral and university, which are now either ruins or built over, were the heart of what was once Nisibis, now Nusaybin, one of the great centres of the early Christian Near East.

With Bishop Saliba and the Revd James Buxton, Izmir chaplain

The (4th century) tomb of St. Yakup, with distinctively horned corners, lies underneath the baptistry. It was quite a steep climb down into this crypt. Bishop Saliba led us in prayer, in his native Aramaic language. We were pleased to hear that this ancient church is soon to be restored.

I suppose we would describe this as a Romanesque arch on top of Corinthian capitals. Other parts of this once vast building were destroyed by an earthquake, but the archway with its very fine engraving remains.

Mor Yakup is an ancient monument and is at the centre of an area which the Turkish authorities are keen to restore. Behind the ancient site are some buildings more typical of the modern city, and just behind them the Syrian border fence.

This hostel, just across the road from Mor Yakup, was most impressive. We were visiting in winter, but I could imagine how pleasant it would be to drink tea in the shelter of one of the gazebos or sitting on the grass under the olive trees. The building itself is entirely stone with marble floors and solid wood doors – really built to a specification one would be unlikely to see in a Western European retreat centre – albeit that stone is plentiful, marble cheaper and building labour abundant in this part of Turkey.

The hostel is intended for diaspora members of the Syriac church, many of whom now live in countries such as Germany and Sweden, to enable them to visit their homeland here in ancient Mesopotamia.

Mor Yakup embodies so many of the strange paradoxes and contradictions of this part of Turkey. It is the site of one of the great centres of ancient learning, but is now in ruins. It is part of a city which has been very extensively damaged and flattened in armed conflict, but where beautiful new apartments are being built at a furious pace. It is safe, for the moment, but separated by a border wall from Syria where security remains elusive. As a centre of Christianity, it appears crushed, yet still it lives.

One can only have the most profound respect for the Orthodox Syriac community who have faithfully clung to their identity and faith over the centuries in these most demanding of circumstances.

A Celebratory Weekend at St. Paul’s Athens

St. Paul’s is a small church in the centre of Athens whose reputation and effectiveness ranges far beyond its own congregation. Over the last several years, USPG has channelled over €400,000 of assistance through St. Paul’s to people in Greece experiencing the double whammy of austerity and the refugee crisis. I travelled to Athens both to conduct a joyful baptism and confirmation service and to celebrate the fruitful partnerships which St. Paul’s has fostered.

On the Saturday evening, some 25 of us gathered at the headquarters of Apostoli, the social mission arm of the Greek Orthodox church, to celebrate all that had been achieved and to mark our fellowship and togetherness. Pictured above are: Chaplain Leonard Doolan, Metropolitan Gabriel, British Ambassador Kate Smith, Duncan Dormor CEO of USPG and Deacon Christine Saccali.

In discussion, the British Ambassador explained how important the Orthodox church had been in the development of a proper ‘civil society’ in a country where previously the family had been the main or only source of social support. The networking and fellowship between the Greek Evangelical Church, Salvation Army and international aid organisations with the Orthodox has been important in helping Greece to cope with the traumas of the last decade, and it has been a privilege for the Anglican church to play its own part in fostering these warm relationships.

Sunday was the celebration of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This was marked by a New Year cake. Pieces of cake are cut for God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, Mary the Mother of God, the Bishop, the Chaplain… and for the whole congregation. One of the pieces conceals a coin, which is supposed to bring the person who discovers it good luck for the coming year. It was in fact discovered by Lynne Doolan, wife of the chaplain…!

For someone coming from snowy Belgium, it was a treat to be able to have the after-church lunch outside in the church garden under the palm trees.

I was thrilled to see that Fr. Leonard and Lynne have restarted Sunday School.

Fr. James has come to us from Bristol Diocese with his wife May and their two children, Rosa and Grace on a one-year self-funded placement between finishing a curacy and starting an incumbency. Their presence is a huge encouragement to St. Paul’s, and gives James a great experience of Greek church life at an early stage of his ordained ministry. I would love more UK clergy to find ways of gaining this kind of experience of a continental church.

Pictured here are our splendid confirmation candidates: Luke, Sarah (who was also baptized), Diannah, Cecilia, Olivia and Nelly.