Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Suriani

This is a very sad story that I came across in William Dalrymle's From the Holy Mountain. It's the story of a Christian denomination I had never heard of, but which goes back to the church of Antioch, said to be the second Christian congregation after Jerusalem. Now, in the land of their founding, they are on the verge of extinction.

The story of the Suriani, or the Syriac Orthodox Church in Turkey, can be told in their demographics. At the end of the 19th Century, there were 200,000 of them. By 1920, the number had dropped to 70,000. When Dalrymple visited them in 1994, in the area of South-Eastern Turkey called Tur Abdin, there remained 900. They had founded and maintained 300 monasteries in that desolate country, including Mor Gabriel, which, dating from AD 397, is the world's oldest. Dalrymple recalls one village with 17 churches, and one inhabitant, an old priest.

The language of their liturgy is Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic spoken by Christ and the Apostles. They had their own translation of the Bible in the second century, and very studiously collected and translated Ancient Greek texts, as well. Indeed, it was through the Suriani that the Arabs, who conquered the area in the late 7th Century, acquired the knowledge that they then passed on to the West through Spain.

They survived relatively well under the Ottomans, as second-class citizens, it is true, but able to maintain their religion, customs and language. The Ottoman state was a plunder machine for its officer class. They had no economic nous and needed their various minorities to squeeze, especially after the 17th Century when they could no longer expand militarily. The bad times arrived with the coming of the Young Turks, who wanted an homogeneous Turkey, ethnically-cleansed. “The nations that remain from the old times in our empire are akin to foreign and harmful weeds that must be uprooted," according to Dr. Behaeddin Shakir, idealogue of Ataturk's movement. They began weeding their garden in 1914. The Armenians were first. Then it was the turn of the Suriani.

The year 1915 is known in Syriac as Sayfo, or ‘(the year of the) sword’. It is not known exactly how many died. Some were just gathered up and shot; others were sent on forced marches to concentration camps in which they suffered the same fate, only more slowly. Tens of thousands of people were killed. 156 churches and monasteries were destroyed.

They did fight back. When the soldiers came for the Armenians, the Suriani knew they would be next, and made their preparations. Of all the Syriac villages in Tur Abdin, Ein Wardo was the most defensible, and so they provisioned it, and collected what arms they could find and hid them there and melted their pots to make bullets. So by the time the killings started, there was a bolt-hole ready, and they fled there and waited for the attack. Which came, in the form of 12,000 Turkish soldiers and 13,000 Kurds, who besieged the village for 3 years. The Suriani withstood the attack and slowly starved. Salvation came in the guise of Cholera, which decimated the besiegers but spared the besieged until an Imam brokered peace. Almost all the Suriani alive today are descendants of those who survived that siege of Ein Wardo, which means the 'eye of the rose' in Aramaic (and is called Gülgöze in Turkish).

According to this report, the situation of the Suriani in Turkey remained desperate until the turn of the millenium. Evidently, some of the émigré families have started to return and the children are once again able to learn their venerable liturgical tongue.

There's info about the Syriac Orthodox Church here, and about the massacres of 1915 here.

3 comments:

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Anonymous said...

I am a remnant literate Syriac Christian, now living in Australia. I have read this post and I have wept internally. My heart melts like candlewax with the knowledge that my history will be forgotten in time.
The Sayfo, I'll let it be known there was more than one, not only decimated my people, it crippled a beautifully rich culture and language that has flourished for millennia and is now breathing it's last...
It is true, we were the first Christian gentiles; It was in our language that our Lord taught us His prayer... The Earth is indebted to us...
Please, anyone reading this... I appeal to your core humanity, pass on the knowledge of my culture...

Anonymous said...

Well its sad to hear about the Syriac Christians. I come for a small community whose church is called the Syrian Orthodox Church and is based in Kerala India. The disciple St. Thomas came down to the Malabar region and converted Brahmins to Christianity. They still have the Syriac language in the liturgy. One knows the importance of keeping our history.