Mardin’s Assyrians: The epitome of multicultural society

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Having grown up in Mardin, I’m used to different languages and cultural practices. I even got used to hearing three languages spoken at home at the same time; so much so that I did not consider my situation as “different.” However, I witnessed one thing when I was very young that continues to perplex me to this day.

It was Ramadan, and my grandma was fasting. We had a lovely neighbor, an Assyrian woman, who used to come to our home to drink tea and converse with my mother and grandmother. One day, she knocked on our door, and my grandma went to the kitchen to prepare tea as usual. Suddenly, she rushed into the kitchen and told my grandma: “How come I get to drink tea or coffee, while you are fasting? Please do not offer me anything, otherwise I will feel very uncomfortable.” Following her reaction, I realized that she did not eat or drink anything if someone was fasting at home. Moreover, she was not the only one who reflected this kind of respect. There is a mutual respect and tolerance between Muslims and Assyrians in Mardin. In fact, when a relative of a Muslim jeweler dies, for instance, all of his Assyrian colleagues attend the funeral in which Muslim funeral rites are performed, and many Muslims say “Happy Easter” to their Assyrian friends. Indeed, colorful Easter eggs still decorate our kitchen every Easter, regardless of the fact that we don’t actually celebrate the religious aspect of the holiday.

Mostly living in Mesopotamia, including Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Iran, Assyrians adopted Orthodox Christianity, and still attract great attention with their unique identities, their art and many other unique features. As we explored the history of Mardin’s Assyrian community, Father Gabriel Akyüz, the priest of K?rklar Kilisesi, a famous church in Mardin, accompanied us and provided crucial information.

Highlighting that the history of the Assyrians in Mesopotamia dates back around 5,000-6,000 years ago, Father Akyüz emphasized that Assyrian history should be examined in two different parts: Before Christ and after Christ. This Semitic people used to worship the Sun, Moon and stars, but then adopted Christianity, as this religion began to grow in popularity. Passing into history as the first people in the world to adopt Christianity, the Assyrians are said to have come from Arameans, Syriacs and Chaldeans; however, the Church prohibited the use of these words and decided to call themselves “Assyrians.” In fact, Father Akyüz said that the civilizations that lived in Mesopotamia, such as the Phoenicians, Akkadians, Chaldeans, Babylonians, Syriacs and Arameans, all refer to the same people: the Assyrians. Father Akyüz said the Assyrian language is also older than Hebrew, Abyssinian or Arabic, which are all Semitic languages as well, and have been shown to have 70 to 80 percent in common with the Assyrian language.

The majority of Assyrians in Mardin speak Arabic. According to the findings of Father Akyüz, only about 10 families speak the Assyrian language. Almost all of the churches in Mardin are active, meaning they celebrate Mass, rituals, festivals and various other religious activities. Besides 11 active churches, Mardin also has eight active monasteries. The most important of them is the Deyrulzafaran Monastery, which was crucially important for the region for 639 years as the center of all the patriarchates between 1293 and 1932. Today, the monastery still carries the marks of history and also hosts 36 tombs of Syriac metropolitan bishops and patriarchs. The center was moved to Damascus in 1957, but due to internal conflict in Syria, there is another center in Lebanon, as well. Father Akyüz said that there are still people living and being educated at the monastery, and with its magnificent appearance, hosts thousands of people from Turkey and around the world, with past guests including Prince Charles of the U.K.

The Assyrian’s contribution of art to Mardin is also remarkable. It is undeniable that they left a trace almost everywhere they went by placing their signature on many pieces of art in Mesopotamia. The Assyrians were especially prominent with silver embroidery, goldwork, filigree, stone carving and textiles. Children learned the craft from their fathers, and some of them still perform these jobs today. Presenting gorgeous cities such as Mardin and Midyat to the world, the Assyrians crafted stone with their elaborate, elegant pieces. They did the same thing to wire as well, creating art from silver and gold. Considering their craftsmanship, it is easy to understand why the majority of jewelers in Mardin are Assyrian. Father Akyüz also said that it is impossible to find the elaborate stone carving motifs of Mardin’s historical buildings in any other part of the world.

Mardin does not have any settlement plan in which a certain community should live, such as “Chinatown” or a “Muslim district,” as seen in other parts of the world. Instead of being divided by ethnicity or culture into neighborhoods, Mardin is a harmonious melting pot of cultures where the Assyrians have completely integrated with other communities, and cross-cultural socializing is a routine part of life. When we asked Father Akyüz how this peaceful, tolerant environment has been maintained for years, he answered: “Our belief and culture is based on love of God and humanity. Imagine, if someone loves God, how can he harm or hate a person created by Him? Besides, Muslims show the same tolerance and respect toward us, as well. It is love for God and humanity that lies behind this wonderful relationship, which has been ongoing for years. We celebrate our weddings and festivals together and mourn at funerals together.”

After saying goodbye to Father Akyüz, we visited Hanna Çilli, the son of Nasra Çilli who attracted the media’s attention with the textile printing technique she inherited from her family and who had received the Woman of the Year Award from then prime minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an in 2012. Hanna Çilli is a gregarious and positive man who played for the Mardinspor Football Team for many years and became a bodybuilding champion as well. Leaving his table, which is full of silverworks, he began showing us his old photos with great enthusiasm. What he told us about the Assyrians also reveals how important they were for Mesopotamia and still are for Mardin. “I do not remember the exact year, but it was in the 1930s or 1940s when there was an American hospital and American college in Mardin,” he said. “We were taught about seven or eight foreign languages back then. Now, there is a gendarmerie in its place. Can you imagine? Mardin witnessed such developments as advanced schools and hospitals amid all of the chaos. I visited almost all of the cities of Turkey when I was a football player, and I can assure you that there was not a more wonderful city than Mardin.”

Mr. Çilli also discussed the Assyrians’ contribution to art. “My mother is about 90, and she still does her job. She loves it,” he added. “We try to prevent her from doing it because of her health problems, but she does not listen to anyone. All of these crafts like silverwork, filigree, goldwork, stone carving, tailoring or textiles are ancestral. We learn them from our fathers, and some of us acquire them as profession.”

The humorous nature of Assyrians in Mardin is worth experiencing, as well as their delicious food. In fact, almost all domestic and foreign tourists go back home after their visit to Mardin full of memories about Assyrians and their friendliness.