“Mountain of the Servants”


Imagine a landscape of narrow country roads hemmed in by drystone walls.  Imagine village after honey-coloured village, each with its church tower punctuating the skyline.  Imagine golden-stoned houses blending softly into the scenery.

Believe it or not this is a description of the Tur Abdin, the strangely named area immediately around Midyat in southeastern Turkey that was, for much of the 1990s, off-limits to visitors because of the Kurdish troubles.

Tur Abdin just means “Mountain of the Servants,” a name that extends way back to the pre-Roman era. It’s actually a bit of an oddity since although the land is undoubtedly high in relationship to its surroundings, most visitors will think it hilly rather than mountainous. Mostly you will find yourself roaming around a lofty plateau that was once the heart of Syriac (Suryani) Orthodoxy, a form of Christianity believed to have evolved from that taught by St. Peter in Antioch (Antakya) in the first century.

In the fourth century monasticism was introduced to the area, and at one time there were so many monasteries here that some writers called it “the Mount Athos of the East.” Today, however, a mere 5,000 Syriac Orthodox Christians are thought to live in Turkey compared with, say, 80,000 in Sweden. Most of them speak Turoyo, a variation of the Aramaic believed to have been spoken by Jesus.

In the turmoil of the early 20th century, many Syrian Orthodox people shared the fate of the Armenians and were either killed or driven out of their homes. Consequently most of the villages now have majority Turkish or Kurdish populations with just a handful of Suryanis living alongside them.

Technically outside the boundaries of the Tur Abdin, Deyrulzafaran (the Saffron Monastery) near Mardin is still essential to its story because it was, from 1160 to 1932, the seat of the Syriac Orthodox patriarchate, now removed to Damascus. It was originally built in 495 over the site of a temple used by sun worshippers that can still be seen today. The church is surprisingly small but very atmospheric. Here, too, can be seen the tombs of many past patriarchs and bishops.

Aside from the village churches and the two famous monasteries – Deyrulzafaran and Mor Gabriel – that are formally open to visitors with opening hours and ticketing arrangements (in the case of Deyrulzafaran) there are also a few other monasteries still occupied by a handful of monks and nuns. They are usually welcoming to visitors but should be treated with respect as places of religious retreat.

For more information look for Hans Hollerweger’s invaluable book, Tur Abdin: Living Cultural Heritage, which is on sale at Mor Gabriel and Deyrulzafaran.

Note that most of the villages have several names: the original Syriac one, the official Turkish one and, sometimes, a third colloquial name as well.

One unexpected result of the Syrian conflict has been the return to the area as refugees of some Syrian Christians; whether this will be a short or long-term situation remains to be seen. Some Suryanis who had been living in Europe have also returned to build fine stone houses here in recent years, for example in the small settlement of Kafro (Elbeğendi). Mostly they just visit over the summer months so if you want to visit the churches this is when you have the best chance of finding the keyholders.

What is Monophysitism? In the 6th century AD Jacobus Baradeus, Bishop of Edessa (Urfa), had a difference of opinion with the patriarch in Constantinople over the divine nature of Christ. The official church line was that Christ had two natures, being both fully divine and fully human. Instead the bishop argued that he had just one (mono) fully divine nature (physis). Excommunicated as a heretic, the bishop immediately founded a church of his own which came to be called the Jacobite church. Control from Constantinople soon ceased to be a problem anyway as the Arabs swept in and took control, permitting the Monophysites to practise their religion as they chose. Today’s Tur Abdin Syrian Orthodox Christians are the Monophysite descendants of Jacobus Baradeus.


There is no accommodation in the Tur Abdin villages. Midyat, which has hotels to suit all budgets, makes the best base for exploring them.

Transport info

There are no bus services timed to get visitors to and from the Tur Abdin villages; you will need to hire a taxi in Midyat.

Day trip destinations


Anıtlı (Hah)

Bacın (Güven)







İzbirak (Zaz)

Mercimekli (Habsus, Habsnas)

Mor Gabriel

Mor Malke

Mor Yakup

Salah (Bariştepe)






Pat Yale has not set their biography yet

Write A Comment

Pin It