Controversy over a Mardin monestary

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Vercihan ZiflioÄŸlu
ISTANBUL – Turkish Daily News
The Deyrülzafaran Monestary, located eight kilometers away from Mardin, is thought to have served for 640 years as one of the most important religious centers for Syriacs. The structure was built on a richly historical site, serving as a Roman citadel and prison at one point and as a sanctuary for sun worshippers before the birth of Christ. The monastery was given the name of Deyrülzafaran in the 15th century; throughout history, it was also named “Mor Şleymun Monastery” and “Mor Hananyo Monastery.” Today Deyrülzafaran serves as the primary place of worship for the Assyrian Church, as well as the residence for Mardin Metropolitan Bishop Salina Özmen and other priests.

The current monastery was built on the site in the fourth century A.D. Its original construction was finished in 497, and its final shape was completed in 1876 by Sarkis Elyas Lole (Levan). Many sections were added between the fourth and nineteenth centuries, but the monastery still gives the impression that it was designed by one architect alone. While this much is known about the monastery, one historian today disputes its allegedly Assyrian roots.

Assyrian or Armenian?

Tomas Çerme, a student of famous Armenian historian Kevork Pamukciyan, is the last generation representative of the Armenian Çerme family from Mardin. In light of his recent research, Çerme claimed the Deyrülzafaran Monastery was built by sun worshipper Armenians, “Arev Vortig,” before Christ. He said Armenian churches were without exception the only presence of the Church of the East in the Christian world for centuries.

Gabriel Akkurt, a priest at Deyrülzafaran, told the Turkish Daily News that Çerme’s claims are unrealistic because there were no Armenians in Mardin during the monastery’s construction period, and the building was built only on the 2000-year-old sanctuary area of the sun worshipper Assyrians. Professor Zeynep Ahunbay of the Istanbul University Restoration Department confirmed that the Deyrülzafaran Monestary served as a sanctuary to the sun worshippers before Christianity and was built in the direction of the East. The gigantic stone blocks used indicate construction techniques from the ancient period, added Ahunbay.

Çerme continues to doubt the monastery’s Assyrian roots. “It is said that the monastery belongs to Assyrians, but there are no photographs or engravings to prove this. With no exception in the Christian World, the Armenian Churches are the only churches looking to the East,” he claimed. The second unit of the monastery was built by Sarkis Elyas Lole (Levon) in 1876, Çerme said.

Çerme continues that he consulted with one of Lole’s workers, who is 97 years old today. Lole built many structures in Mardin, Diyarbakır, Hasankeyf, Siirt, Bitlis, Van and DoÄŸu Beyazıt, he said. The structures built by Lole in Mardin reflect the architect’s style in porticos, arches, inscriptions, exterior sidings and stone decorations.

A change in ownership

The Çerme family, as property owners and tradesmen in Mardin, kept the books of Zülkadiriye after the city joined in the Ottoman Empire. The books include various official information about commerce, politics, statistics and general views on Mardin. Çerme added that they contained information about the Çerme Family too.

He said the family owned many properties in Mardin. Some of these properties are mansions carrying the emblem of the Çerme family. The famous Çerme Mansion was built by Lole in 1906 as a replica of the Florence State Museum Loffia Dei Lanzi. It was later sold, and the new owners changed its name to the “Şahkulubey Mansion.” Çerme cannot discover the reason for the name change immediately after the restoration funded by the European Union. “In all official records about Mardin, the name of the building is Çerme Mansion,” he continued. The controversial palace is situated on 1. Cadde (Avenue) in the direction of Savurkapu at Cumhuriyet Square.

Çerme has been invited to a symposium on “Mardin and Armenian Affairs” organized by the Eurasia Strategical Researches Center. Many international scientists will attend the meeting to be held in October. Çerme said all cultural heritages in Mardin are ascribed to Assyrians, yet scientific data proves that this is far from accurate. Çerme moved with his family members to Istanbul in 1957. There are only two Armenian families living in Mardin, he said.