The Mongolians failed to destroy it 700 years ago despite the massacre of 40 friars and 400 Christians. Yet the existence of the oldest functioning Christian monastery in the world, the fifth century Mor Gabriel Monastery in the Tur Abdin plane (the mountain of God’s servants) near the Turkish-Syrian border, is at risk after a ruling by Turkey’s highest appeals court in Ankara.
Founded in 397 by the monks Samuel and Simon, Mor Gabriel in eastern Anatolia has been the heart of the Orthodox Syrian community for centuries. Syriacs hail from a branch of Middle Eastern Christianity and are one of the oldest communities in Turkey.
Today the monastery is inhabited by Mor Timotheus Samuel Aktash, 3 monks, 11 nuns and 35 boys who are learning the monastery’s teachings, the ancient Aramaic language spoken by Jesus and the Orthodox Syriac tradition.
Turkey’s highest court agreed with Muslim villagers who accused the monastery of practicing “anti-Turkish activities” by educating young people (including non-Christians). The court just happened to lose documents the monastery provided to back up its 1,600 year old claim to the land. Ergo, the appeals court:
… said the land which has been part of the monastery for 1,600 years is not its property, Turkish newspaper Zaman reported.
The lawsuit also claimed that the sanctuary was built over the ruins of a mosque, forgetting that Mohammed was born 170 years after its foundation.
If you haven’t read William Dalrymple’s incredible 1990s travel book, “From the Holy Mountain,” I can’t recommend it highly enough. Dalrymple took a long journey among communities in the Christian East, and stopped for a few days at Mor Gabriel monastery. In the book, he tells an amazing story about how an ancient book from that monastery’s library likely provided the model for the first figurative art ever done in the British Isles. Our debt to those monks and their tradition is massive.
And we will watch our beloved NATO allies the Turks extinguish a living tradition almost as old as Christianity itself.