The Churches of Mardin, Turkey: it's what's inside that counts
Updated: Jun 14, 2022
After exploring early Biblical sites in and around Urfa (Sanliurfa) and hunter-gatherer wonders at Gobekle Tepe, we headed to Mardin, Turkey. The two and a half hour drive east took us to an area similar to Urfa in many ways: situated on the plains of northern Mesopotamia; and ethnically diverse, with Turks, Kurds, Armenians, and Syrians. While Urfa is on a plain about 50 miles east of the Euphrates River, Mardin sits atop a rocky hill near the Tigris. From those two historical—almost mythical—rivers come the term “Mesopotamia,” literally “between two rivers.”
There has been a settlement at the site of present day Mardin since the Neolithic Age. The area lies at the heart of the homeland of Syriacs, an ancient people who trace their origin to the Akkadian Empire, established in Mesopotamia around 2200 BC. Syriac is a language directly related to Aramaic, the native tongue of Jesus. Syriac Orthodoxy was established after the first division in Christianity in 431, much earlier than the Great Schism of 11th century between the churches of Rome and Constantinople. (Mardin was also the capital of the Turkic Artuqid dynasty between the 12th and 15th centuries, hence much of the Islamic influence in buildings such as schools and mosques that you can see today.)
My husband wanted to go to Mardin to see the diversity in people, food, and culture in his native Turkey. I wanted to go to Mardin to see the old Syriac Orthodox churches. Unfortunately, our guide did not know much about churches (his focus was ancient archeology), so after a few stops to look at old mosques, we struck out on our own.
As we walked the main street of a tourist section, we would ask shopkeepers, “Do you know where the churches are?” The response was always down the street and/or around the corner.
You’ll find a variety of churches in Mardin: Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Apostolic are just a few. But few Christian denominations have the history and connection to the early church that the Syriac Orthodox church has. Its foundation goes back to the very beginning of Christianity. It was one of the earliest churches established by the Apostles (in this case, Peter), and traces its roots back to the Church of Antioch, the second established church in all of Christendom, only behind Jerusalem. It was in Antioch that Christians were first called Christians. Antioch today is the Turkish city of Antakya, near the Turkish/Syrian border. The Syriac Orthodox Church stayed in Antioch until war and violence drove it out in the 6th century, and it eventually settled in Mardin, where it stayed until after World War I. Today the church is “headquartered” in Damascus.
Finally, one “down the street/around the corner” led us to a sign and then behind the main street to an alleyway. There we found the church of the sign, the Protestant Church of Mardin!
This definitely was not what we expected to find. A Protestant church made up of Turkish Christians teaching other Turks about Christianity. Turkey has freedom of religion in its Constitution, though 99 percent of its population is listed as Muslim (how many are actually practicing is another question, though the same could be said about Christians in America and Europe) and some of the actions of its leadership make one question the commitment to freedom of religion. But converting to Christianity from Islam has got to be a dicey proposition in Turkey. Southeastern Turkey, with its native ethnic and religious mix, is probably one of the few areas where it is possible.
We went inside to look around. There was a small sanctuary with bench seating and a small library that Turks. We looked around, my husband asked a few questions, we made a donation and left. It was interesting, but not, I thought, what I had been looking for.
Somewhat disappointed because I was not seeing what I expected to see here, we started to find our way back to where the car was parked. But my husband wanted to explore the long, narrow stone alleyways and check out what was going on. So we wandered through the winding and often climbing back alleyways of Mardin for 15-20 minutes when we came upon a door that we went through. On the other side was a courtyard, which led to a very large structure. That structure was the Syriac Orthodox Church of the Forty Martyrs, built in 569 AD.
We looked around the courtyard and then went inside and asked a gentleman if we could go into the church itself. He said that was fine; the priest was not there, but there were other staff members who could show us around. As we went on inside, another person came up and asked for permission to fly a drone over the church. No, he could not give permission, but the priest would be back soon.
Once inside, we were told by the staff—busy with other guests--that we were welcome to look around, but no photos please. So we walked around this ancient church, looking at tapestries and paintings, thousand-plus year-old walls, a sanctuary unlike any I had ever seen.
Once the staff were free—two young men, one a Syriac and one Armenian---they came over the help us. They told us the story of the church’s namesake, the 40 martyrs, Roman soldiers who converted to Christianity and, for their efforts, were put in a frozen lake to die. While they were still alive, though, they were taken out and put into a fire to burn to death. Fire and ice. Above the portal was a rendering of the 40 martyrs in a frozen lake.
They showed us the crypt within the church where the bishop is buried when he dies. It holds the bodies of dozens of bishops by now, the skeletal remains of previous bishops moved aside to make room for the next one.
I saw a beautiful scarf or printed piece and asked about it. It was a baptismal cloth, made in the tradition of the Syriac block printing. Later, I would learn that it was made by the acclaimed Nasra Simmeshindi, who passed away in 2016. All of her works that are not in the church are in museums or in the hands of extremely wealthy collectors. I would not be getting one at the local souvenir shop, that was for sure!
After they learned that I belonged to a Christian church in America (they weren’t too sure what a Methodist was, but they gave me the benefit of the doubt), they invited us to take as many photos as we wanted. Never had I wished that I were a better photographer!
It was an inspiring visit. Sometimes it is hard to fully comprehend the magnitude and historical and cultural significance of some of these sites. Later, as you are remembering and reading about it, it hits you. I had wanted to see one of these churches, but I wasn’t really prepared for the reality of it. For more than 1500 years, people had been coming to this building to pray and worship in a language almost that same as the one that Jesus and the Apostles spoke. Through lives that were often tumultuous, through wars and genocides, these people came for hope and faith.
I thought of the song “Tell Me the Story of Jesus,” which was written for children in Sunday School class hungering for the stories, and how the worshippers at the Church of the Forty Martyrs were really asking for the same thing. Hope for today and faith for what was to come. And, actually, that’s what the people at the Protestant Church of Mardin were wanting also: tell me the story of Jesus.
Finally, I thought of how insulated we Americans are in some ways. Comfortable in our well-off, modern day Christianity (or Judaism or Hinduism, your choice), we collectively sit back sometimes and say, OK, we will take the Christian Syrian refugees, but not the Muslim ones. Or, whatever kind of church is that Egyptian Coptic Church? (One of the earliest, folks.) If our children sing “Tell Me the Story of Jesus,” how can we sit back and let so many children die in that war-weary part of the world. The stories that Jesus told us were about Samaritans and welcoming children, not about death and destruction.
This article isn’t about Christianity, or Islam or Judaism or any other particular religion. It’s about the hope and belief that they can give us, about a meaning for life that everyone seeks, and always has.
As we left the Church of the Forty Martyrs, I saw a drone hovering overhead, permission-less but still rapidly snapping photos for an article or spot somewhere about this ancient building. The story isn’t really about the building, though. It’s about what is inside.