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EXHIBITIONS
BREATH OF AN ANCIENT PEOPLE: THE VIRGIN MARY CHURCH
There exist, on these lands, Assyrian temples from the 3rd and 4th century, like the Virgin Mary Church, yet unfortunately, a large enough population to keep Assyrian culture alive no longer lives here. (Photograph: Dilan Bozyel, 2010)

Assyrians are among the earliest communities to adopt Christianity, and their presence in Mesopotamia goes back five millennia. After Urfa, today’s Diyarbakır is also among the first regions where Christianity spread. This means that the history of Assyrian temples in these lands extends back two millennia. Churches and monasteries, if not from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, then from the 3rd and 4th centuries still stand today. However, it is unfortunately not possible to say the same for Assyrian culture and life, an essential part of these lands. In fact, the Assyrian population in Turkey, which has almost completely disappeared, has to struggle against certain forms of political and social repression even today.

This section features the story of the Virgin Mary Syriac Church, a highly valuable site in Diyarbakır’s cultural life. Pharmacist Truman Şakarer, a member of the Diyarbakır Assyrian community wrote about the meaning of this building for Assyrians. Şakarer’s piece titled “The Assyrians of Diyarbakır” records a valuable component which has now gone missing from the city, and an ancient faith and tradition in the light of his personal experiences.

The roots of the Assyrians, one of the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia who established states, kingdoms and empires under different names throughout history, goes back five millennia. It is impossible to discuss this land’s history of civilisation, from writing to education and from science to art, without referring to the Assyrians. In addition to culture and literature, Assyrian tradition always occupied a distinguished place in all types of handcrafts and artisanship.

Assyrians are among the earliest communities to adopt Christianity, and their first church was established in 38 AD in Antioch, or present day Antakya, under Roman rule at the time. Along with other regions of Mesopotamia, the conversion to Christianity of the region we today know as Diyarbakır took place between the 1st and 4th centuries; and this was also the time when the first churches were established. Other than the Virgin Mary Church in Anıtlı, Midyat, there is no other extant Syriac church from the 1st and 2nd centuries. Examples of churches and monasteries built in the 3rd, 4th and later centuries include, in addition to the Virgin Mary Church in Diyarbakır, the Mor Yakup Church in Nusaybin, the Monastery of Mor Augin, Mor İliyo Church in the Alagöz (Bakışyan) village of Midyat province, the Mor Hananyo (Deyrulzafaran) Monastery and the Mor Gabriel Monastery.

The Assyrian inscription at the sole of the first foot on the southern side of On Gözlü Köprü [Ten Arches Bridge] which accompanies the lion figure and was translated into Turkish in 1949 by the Metropolitan of the Diocese of Mardin Hanna [Yuhanon] Dolabani, states that the bridge was repaired during the reign of “Mano the second, successor to Buhro”, or in other words, around 90 BC. This not only shows that the bridge was built at a much earlier date, but also indicates that Assyrian existence in Diyarbakır goes back further. The bridge was damaged in later periods, and underwent comprehensive repairs during the Marwanid period.

Akyüz, G. (2000) Diyarbakır’daki Meryem Ana Kilisesi’nin Tarihçesi.

 

This photograph of the Virgin Mary Church dated 1909, was taken by Gertrude Bell, who went down in history as an archaeologist, mountaineer, geographer, spy, writer, traveller and photographer. (Newcastle University Gertrude Bell Archive)
A further significance of the Virgin Mary Church for the Church of Antioch is that it has served, during different periods, as seat of the Patriarchate. The photograph is from 2010. (Photograph: Merthan Anık)

There is various architectural and religious data supporting the view that the Virgin Mary Church was first built in the 3rd century on the foundations of a pagan temple, that a certain part of it was demolished as a result of fire and earthquake, and that it was then transformed into a domed structure. The importance of the church for the Antioch Syriac Church rests, beyond its historical value, in that it has served as the seat of the Patriarchate during different periods, and that it also hosts the graves of renowned theologians, poets, saints and patriarchs.

There are various inscriptions inside and outside the church, marking the repairs carried out over the centuries. The adventure of the structure can be followed via these inscriptions.

The woodwork of the domed apse (kduşkudşin) is one of the unique features of the church. The Mor Hananyo (Deyrulzafaran) Monastery had similar ornamentation and columns inscribed with religious texts; however, the woodwork there unfortunately has not survived. The wood kduşkudşin, walnut doors, paintings of the saints, handcrafted silver oil-lamps and many other objects belonging to the church further increase the historical value of the Virgin Mary Church.

Akyüz, G. (2000) Diyarbakır’daki Meryem Ana Kilisesi’nin Tarihçesi.

 

In Syriac Orthodox belief, churches and monasteries are not only worship spaces but also places where education takes place, the congregation meets and administrative functions are centred. Therefore, components like the library, madrasa and misafirhane [guest hall] are natural parts of the structure. So the Virgin Mary Ancient Syriac Church forms, along with the Mor Yakup Church, the divanhane [great hall] and the patriarchate, a complex of buildings. The Virgin Mary and Mor Yakup churches are adjacent, and the patriarchate is separated from them with a courtyard. There are a total of three courtyards in the complex.

Today, the main entrance to the church is on Puşucu Street. The small first courtyard at the entrance is surrounded with the Mor Yakup Church to its east, the main church building to its south and the façades of the lodging wall to its west. From here, one passes onto the main courtyard where the main entrance to the Virgin Mary Church is, or the central courtyard featuring an octagonal pool in the centre. The Patriarchate is built along the east-west axis.

The dome of the church, entered through its authentic wooden door, is brick-laid and rises on eight feet. The walls are basalt, and the flooring is stone. There is a mirrored star motif in the centre of the dome. The wooden door in the north-east corner of the church opens onto the Mor Yakup Church. The bell-tower is adjacent to the southern façade.

Eyüpgiller, K. K., Kahya, Y. and others (2014) Meryem Ana Süryani Kadim Ortodoks Kilisesi Raporu, İstanbul Teknik Üniversitesi Fen Bilimleri Enstitüsü Restorasyon Programı, Istanbul.

 

In addition to sections such as the divanhane [great hall], madrasa and misafirhane [guest hall] there is also an octagonal pool in the main church courtyard.
A fire in the 9th century led to the destruction of many sections of the Virgin Mary Church. The photograph shows a detail of the hand-painted wooden kduşkudşin (apse) made after the fire.
(Photograph: Merthan Anık, 2005)

In the mid-9th century, a fire lit by the keeper and bell-ringer of the church got out of control, spread to the ornamented wooden ceiling via the women’s section, reducing the work of fine artisanship to ashes. So the help of Fokrat, son of Aşut, who lived in the province of Muş, was requested. With the money and timber that came from there, the damaged wooden altars and door wings of the Virgin Mary and Mor Yakup churches were renewed.

Günel, A. (1970) Türk Süryaniler Tarihi, Istanbul.

 

The use of concrete and cement in construction increased after the 1950s, and these materials were also used in repairs carried out at the Virgin Mary Church. For instance, it is known that the interior walls of the church were plastered in 1954. A repair inscription dated 1965 was added onto the column in the western corner, in the portico in the western façade of the church. Unfortunately, mostly concrete and cement was used during this repair. In 1970, the flooring stones in the courtyard were replaced.

During the repairs which commenced in 2004 upon the initiative of the Virgin Mary Syriac Ancient Orthodox Church Foundation, a number of incongruent additions made over the years were removed.

Eyüpgiller, K. K., Kahya, Y. and others (2014) Meryem Ana Süryani Kadim Ortodoks Kilisesi Raporu, İstanbul Teknik Üniversitesi Fen Bilimleri Enstitüsü Restorasyon Programı, Istanbul.

 

With the restoration that began in 2004, certain interventions carried out after the 1950s which were incongruent with the church’s architecture were removed. The image of the Virgin Mary and Child Jesus above the entrance was painted by a Syrian painter who forcibly migrated from Iraqi Kurdistan to Diyarbakır in 1990 following the Halabja massacre. (Photograph: Dilan Bozyel)
The neighbourhood where the Virgin Mary Church is located was the area where most Assyrians in Diyarbakır lived. Another group lived around Hançepek. This photograph of the church that brought them all together, taken in 1964, shows Patriarch Mor Ignatius Ya’qub III. (The archive of Can Şakarer)

The Assyrians of Diyarbakır

1.

In Diyarbakır, the vast majority of Assyrians lived in the Lalebey Neighbourhood where the Virgin Mary Church is located, and some around Hançepek, which was a predominantly Armenian neighbourhood. We also lived in Hançepek.

As the day dawned, we would sense that the time was nearing for our grandfather to take us to church. My grandfather was a very pious Christian, and in order not to be embarrassed in the presence of the Almighty Lord later, he would pick up each and every one of his grandchildren from their homes in the early hours of the morning, and slowly walk them through the side streets to the Virgin Mary Church. And he would seat us in a place where he could observe us during prayer. This continued in the same manner until our adolescence. A while later, the Assyrian community would slowly begin to appear at the church, dressed in their smartest new clothes, as if they were attending a wedding ceremony. Ladies and gentlemen would sit separately and pray.

After mass, in that magnificent courtyard of the church, everyone would greet each other, and fulfill their longing for people visiting from out of town. The church courtyard was also frequented by those who were looking for suitable brides for their sons; and thus the church also served a sacred duty in the foundation of new homes. Meanwhile, the elderly and mature members of the community would move onto the divanhane section and discuss the significant social, political and economic events of the week.

Truman Şakarer, Member of the Diyarbakır Assyrian community, Pharmacist

 

2.

For the Assyrian community, the church was both a place of worship, a home and also the most secure place where the younger members of the community could play and have fun on Sundays and holidays.

On Saturday afternoons, Tuma Başaranlar, the son of the late Priest Hori Bişara Başaranlar, would strive to teach Syriac hymns and the Syriac and Turkish languages to Assyrian youth who were raised under serious discipline, and revel in the happiness of having fulfilled this sacred duty.

The important Assyrian thinker, teacher, philologist and journalist Naum Faik Palak, too, was raised at the church, as a student of the school established in the 19th century by the Ancient Assyrian Brotherhood, under the direction of Hanna Sırrı Çıkkı Efendi.

Truman Şakarer

 

In the Syriac faith, churches are also an educational centre for the youth, and a social gathering place for believers. In this photograph taken in the late 1800s, the impatient youngsters are blurred because they moved as the photograph was being taken.
(The archive of Adnan Palakoğlu)
Only a few Assyrian families live in Diyarbakır today. Yet the doors of this holy structure that continues to resist millennia are open. (Photograph: Merthan Anık)

3.

My grandmother’s home was on the street of the Virgin Mary Church. On those Sundays when she wasn’t able to make it to church, she would sit in the cumba [bow window] as the congregation dispersed out of the church after prayers, and watch the parade of families that had come that week. She would reprove those who made a habit of not attending church.

Until we left Diyarbakır in 1980, our church would appear to us as a colossal structure. However, when we visited Diyarbakır after having lived in Istanbul for a few years, we would now see what a miniature building the Virgin Mary Church was when compared to the churches and mosques in Istanbul, and feel slightly sad. Now, my only consolation is that our church, which has served as a place of worship for the Assyrian community for centuries, continues to stand in perfect condition, and carries our memories into the future.

Truman Şakarer

 

4.

It was as if the famous words of German thinker Goethe, “Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean” had been said for the Assyrian neighbourhood home to the Virgin Mary Church. Families would virtually compete with each other to have cleaner front-doors; and the cleanliness of the streets would exude a distinct air of freshness when one entered the neighbourhood. Now we are saddened, and our hearts are burdened when we enter the same streets and see their slovenly, dirty and derelict state. We grieve the days now gone by.

The gentlemen, ladies and younger members of Assyrian families led a conservative life. Families would take turns in visiting each other on winter nights, and spend time telling stories and jokes, and chatting about the events of the day. Sometimes four or five families would live together around the same courtyard, share the kitchen, bath and toilets, and everyone would respect each other. I never recall a single disagreement or argument taking place among these families, except for a few small incidents. Muslim families were the same. Compared to today, it is difficult not to appreciate how tolerant people were back in the day.

Truman Şakarer

 

At times, four or five Assyrian families shared the same courtyard, and even if they had neighbourly relations, they often led secluded lives. The photograph is from the 1940s.
(The archive of Adnan Palakoğlu)
Important events in the social life of Assyrians include weddings, engagement and henna ceremonies and of course, funerals. This photograph was taken in 2010. (Photograph: Merthan Anık)

5.

Almost all Assyrian men practiced professions such as artisan, tailor, jeweller, mechanic, coppersmith, tinsmith, linen draper, silk dealer, puşu [headscarf] maker or cloth merchant. They had respectful relationships with their Muslim neighbours, however, because of their conservative outlook on life, their friendships were limited. They would start work early in the morning, and work without interruption until the evening. In the evening, they would all meet up at the coffee house as if they had arranged it, play a few rounds of cards or backgammon, and then return home.

Exceptions to this monotonous life were the passing of a loved one, or the engagement, henna ceremony or wedding of a close relative. Almost all Assyrian henna and wedding ceremonies were held within the house. A sumptuous feast would be held in accordance with the financial means of the wedding host, with men and women together. The indispensable ingredients of wedding ceremonies were rakı and Assyrian wine. Throughout my life, I have never come across the slightest unpleasant incident at weddings of the Assyrian community, whether in Diyarbakır or Istanbul; and I have never heard of such a thing either.

There are no longer any Assyrians in Diyarbakır. Not a single family is left from the Assyrian community, who for millennia lived on these lands, and at one point, formed a significant part of its population. Today, it is only the families of the priest and the sexton that make up the Assyrian population of this ancient city.

Truman Şakarer

 

Text: Truman Şakarer (The piece titled “The Assyrians of Diyarbakır” was written for this exhibition.)
Translation: Nazım Dikbaş

A MONUMENT THAT STANDS ALONE: ULU CAMİ
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