It was a Sunday when I met the bearded stranger, my holy day. He had walked to the Monastery from Mardin early in the morning hoping to join in our service. Its less than an hour through the countryside, a walk of red earth, blossoming fruit trees and olives.
I had just finished dealing with my 20 Sunday school pupils when he arrived and I agreed to walk him around Deir ul-Zafran. We aren’t the oldest Syriac Orthodox monastery in the area (Mar Gabriel claims to be 1st century AD) but we were founded in the 3rd century. I took him into the underground church, the old one built of dry-stone walls, and then out into the lovely garden fed by a bubbling spring. The monastery has thick defensive walls, more accommodation than we now need, the tombs of some early Patriarchs, and a church surmounted by small domes and a square tower. Among the many pictures and gaudily painted sheets hanging in the church he found, next to the Patriarch’s chair, a postcard of St Pauls Cathedral (from his hometown of London). This was sellotaped to the wall between the current Patriarch’s photograph and the list of all our Church’s Patriarchs (the first one was appointed in 41AD), which are carved into the wall in Syriac.
Syriac is my first language. In this southern part of Turkey, near the Syrian border, we Christians use Syriac at home, Arabic in school and Turkish in public life. The stranger told me he had come to the monastery hoping to hear a service in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. Alas, we don’t do our services in Aramaic, someone had misinformed him. And actually, because there are so few priests in the monastery now, we all (except me, doing the Sunday school) go in to Mardin for the Sunday service, which is held in Syriac. He’d have been interested in that, he said, but he'd missed it too: it would have started at exactly the time when he arrived here.
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