Early twentieth-century traveler Gertrude Bell begins her monumental work on the churches and monasteries of Tur Abdin by mentioning that “It was almost by chance that I took my way from Mosul to Diyarbekr through the Djebel Tur Abdin.” Though her work may not have been the result of prolonged planning, it documents the architecture of a region satiated in religious history.
Named for the words in the Syriac language for “the mountain of the servants of God,” Tur Abdin is a limestone plateau located east of Mardin; at its height, it is believed to have held more than 80 monasteries, stunning reminders of an era in which the region was home to some of the most significant Christian communities in the world.
The Syrian Orthodox Church, which until today practices its liturgy in the Syriac dialect of Aramaic, faced persecution during the Byzantine Empire when it disagreed with the Council of Chalcedon in 451. No longer welcome in many of the main centers of Eastern Christianity, they sought refuge in the remote, hilly areas around Tur Abdin, where they gradually built the region into a center of monasticism and for over 1500 years have preserved their ancient traditions, speaking Turoyo, a dialect of Aramaic unique to that region. Today, their dwindling community has been reinvigorated by Christians fleeing nearby conflict areas; and their liturgical tradition remains vibrant, still influenced by the work of St. Ephrem the Syrian, known as the “Harp of the Spirit,” who lived in nearby Nisibis in the early 4th century and wrote nearly 400 hymns, many still existing today.