Ancient wall fortress of faith. (photo: Nadine Posner)
The bishop of Mar Gabriel. (photo: Nadine Posner)
Nuns baking their famous bread. (photo: Nadine Posner)
The monastery bells of Mar Gabriel ring resolutely and evenly, as though they were being tolled by hands long used to measuring out a centuries-old cadence. As they peal, the hills of Tur Abdin in eastern Turkey emerge from the dusty blue of early dawn.
The bells are not the first sounds of the days activity in the monastery. In the nuns quarters and in the yard where the cows, sheep and goats have huddled all night, the morning routine has been under way for an hour or more. As the bells ring, the pace of work slackens and sleepy heads are raised among visiting men, women and children. They have slept on mats and bedding, clustered in small groups throughout the buildings and courtyards and on the rooftops of the monastery.
With the fading tones of the bells, workers and sleepers gather silently in the Church of St. Samuel for morning prayers. Today is the feast of St. Gabriel, the holy monk for whom the Syrian Orthodox monastery is named, and devout villagers have come from all over Tur Abdin to honor him. (The very name Tur Abdin means the mountain of the worshippers of God.)
By mid-morning, all the visitors will be settled in small groups of family and friends. They will rest in the cool shade inside the church, beneath its portico, and under its colonnades and stairways. Children will gather eagerly around families who are distributing candies, following a custom among those who have brought their babies to be baptized on this holy day.
The pilgrims have come with a variety of foods, including tomatoes, eggplant, green peppers, onions, melons, grapes, cheese and yogurt. Some have brought a goat or a sheep to be slaughtered and shared with the residents and other visitors at Mar Gabriel. Bread is the only food brought by almost no one. The thick, savory loaves baked by the nuns at Mar Gabriel are famous throughout the Christian communities of Tur Abdin, and the nuns have spent the entire day before the feast preparing several hundred loaves for the guests.
Established by St. Samuel in 397 A.D., Mar Gabriel is situated on a rocky plateau at the summit of a hill. Its location is an important point of passage on the east-west route across Tur Abdin. To the north lies Wadi Khaltan, while the mountainous bulge of southern Tur Abdin overlooks the Mesopotamian plain that is now in eastern Syria. The site was a strategic part of the Byzantine system of defense in the Middle East, but the place was destined for spiritual rather than military greatness.
The founding of the monastery by St. Samuel and his disciple, St. Simeon, is said to have been inspired by the appearance of the Angel Gabriel, who directed them to walk a little to the northeast of the village of Qartamin. The spot they found was near a spring, and close to the site on which a pagan temple had stood. Under Samuels direction, five buildings were completed, including a house of prayer. When Simeon succeeded Samuel as abbot, the expansion of the Christian community continued.
During the fifth and sixth centuries, several Byzantine emperors and noblemen contributed lavishly to the grandly designed and decorated buildings, some of which are still standing. The most famous of them is the large Church of St. Samuel. Sections of mosaic tile on the floor and vault of the main apse suggest the magnificence of the original decoration. Royal and noble largesse also helped the community to increase its holdings in gardens, fields and even villages. Monks and visitors were attracted to the monastery from many regions and countries; in particular, the pious and devout came to be blessed before their death and to be buried in this holy center of Mesopotamian Christianity.
The wars between the Byzantine and Sassanian empires inflicted great suffering upon the monastic community. Persecuted and forced to flee several times in the sixth century, the monks ultimately faced the task of rebuilding their monastery after it had been burned twice during the Persian campaigns in northern Mesopotamia around 576-580.
According to a history of the community, its patron, St. Gabriel, was born in 593 in the village of Qosta, near Hah in the region north of the monastery. He left his parents home as a youth to live with an old hermit. After seven years, Gabriel entered the monastery of Qartamin, as it was then called. In 629 he was ordained a bishop by Athanasius I, the Patriarch of Antioch.
Gabriels reputation for honesty and his love for the Christian community were magnified by numerous stories of his wondrous and even miraculous works of devotion and piety. Once during a severe famine, when an unruly crowd of starving strangers raved at the doors of the monasterys refectory, the monks closed the doors upon them and remained inside, helpless and woeful, because there was not enough food to go around. But Gabriel bid the doors be opened so that all could partake of whatever food there was. Miraculously, enough bread appeared on the table to feed everyone.
Similar tales abounded of Gabriels extraordinary deeds. People reported that he cured the sick and the lame, and brought the dead back to life. Many miracles were attributed to him after his death in 667, and the monastery of Qartamin received its present name of Mar Gabriel in his honor.
During the raids of Tamerlane in the fourteenth century, the monastery was ravaged again. The monks fled in terror and the buildings were plundered. It is said that the invaders carried away seventy mule loads of gold and one hundred loads of silver, lead, embroidery and other ornaments. But the monastery recovered its spiritual heritage, as it had in the past, when its inhabitants returned to resume their work and service to the Christians of Tur Abdin.
The more recent devastation and persecution precipitated by World War I and the subsequent emigration of large numbers of Christian families from Tur Abdin have also failed to daunt the resolve of the community at Mar Gabriel. Actively engaged in services for surrounding towns and villages, the monasterys inhabitants continue to provide religious schooling and guidance for the region. But the most striking proof that Mar Gabriel is the beloved spiritual center of the Christians of Tur Abdin is visible on feast days, especially that of St. Gabriel at the end of the summer. On this day the monastery is thronged with adults and children who come as pilgrims to honor the ancient memory of a holy man. Their deep devotion bears witness to the long tradition of piety and service at Mar Gabriel.
Nadine Posner, a graduate assistant at New York University, is writing her dissertation on Islamic history.