Saturday, 5 June 2010

Touching Saint Gabriel

The nuns and monks at this monastery, Mor Gabriel, still chant in Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke. These days, there are just over a dozen of them left; they inhabit the fortress-like monastery together with 25 students, 15 employees, and 12,000 bodies in the crypt.

Our guide was a young Syriac Christian who spoke Aramaic, Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic), Arabic and Turkish. The mix of languages neatly sums up the history of this place: the monastery was built 1,600 years ago and has been at the centre of clashes between Syriac Christians, Arabs and Kurds ever since. According to legend, the Christian community has been protected by the spirit and relics of Mor Gabriel (Saint Gabriel), a 7th century abbot buried here.

In recent decades, thousands of Christians have fled their hostile neighbours and emigrated to Europe, which means that the dispute over this remote plateau on the Turkish-Syrian border is, well, no longer all that remote. A current row over land between Mor Gabriel and the Turkish government has sparked demonstrations in Germany. There are also financial ties - our guide at the monastery proudly pointed to recent restoration work and said it was financed by "Spenden" (German for donations).

The whole dispute is rather messy, but when we walked through the empty, cool corridors of the monastery, admiring ancient Aramaic carvings and vaulted chapels, it all seemed very simple.

As for touching the Saint: our guide showed us a little hole in the stone floor of the crypt and said "Gabriel". Then he encouraged me to scoop up a fistful of, hm, Gabriel and let it trickle back into the hole, as visitors have done for centuries and will continue to do for centuries to come. Insh'allah.

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