Susan Korah on I Took a Journey to the Bleeding Heartland of the Middle East

Cross at Syriac Catholic Seminary destroyed by ISIS, Baghdida, Iraq. | (Photo: Bill Devlin)

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It was the trip of a lifetime in a lifetime of crisscrossing the globe.

Part pilgrimage to explore my spiritual and cultural roots as a Syriac Orthodox Christian (Suriani), and partly a journalistic quest to deepen my understanding of human lives devastated by war and terrorism, my latest international odyssey turned out to be a dizzying whirl of experiences that at once warmed and melted my heart, refreshed me spiritually, and shook me to the core of my being.

It took me on an incredible roller coaster ride from the highest peaks of joy and excitement at walking in the footsteps of my spiritual ancestors—and the deepest valleys of sorrows as I witnessed the plight of refugees fleeing yet another reign of terror under a newly resurgent terrorist group known to the world as ISIS.

The nearly 2000-year old Syriac Orthodox Church of India, in which I was raised, is an integral part of the ancient Syriac Christian denomination despite the geographic distance from its centres in the Middle East to Kerala, a province on the southwestern coast of India. It had long been my heart’s desire to explore the roots of my cultural and religious heritage in the Mardin province of southeastern Turkey.

Now, finally, it seemed as though all the stars were in perfect alignment to make that dream come true. An invitation to an international conference in nearby Beirut planted the seed of a plan in my head. The assurance of close Turkish friends (particularly one who was born in Mardin and has deep roots there) that all was quiet on Turkey’s southeastern front prompted me to take the step. It was a step I took, despite the dire warnings of government travel advisories explicitly telling travellers to go to Mardin at their own peril, because of its close proximity to the Iraqi and Syrian borders and the unpredictable security situation.

The flight from Istanbul to Mardin, capital of the province by the same name, took only a couple of hours. But it transported me to a world so poignantly evocative of the early days of my denomination that traces its origins to Antioch (now Antakya in Turkey), the city where the Apostles Peter and Paul introduced the Gospel to the citizenry, and followers of Jesus were first called Christians.

Mardin, named after the Syriac word for “fortress,” was an important point on the ancient silk route that led all the way from Mediterranean ports to Xian in China. This is where caravans laden with silks and spices traversed the Mesopotamian plain and reached the highland plateau of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey).

Syriac Christians formed about half its population until 1915 when most were forced to flee the genocide unleashed against them (as well as Armenians and Greeks) by Ottoman troops. Today, the relatively few remaining Christians live in harmony with Kurds, Arabs and other Muslims, despite the strangely anomalous attitude of the current Turkish government towards Christians, which alternates between suspicious and hostile to conciliatory on an ad hoc basis.

As my sister and I drive from the airport to the old part of the city, the blazing October sun throws the outlines of some of the world’s most ancient churches, monasteries and magnificent, ornately carved and decorated mansions (some now turned into hotels or museums) into sharp relief.

Strolling down the main caddesi (street), we check out the shops piled high with heaps of colourful spices, local handmade soaps, almonds, dates Suriani wine (produced by Syriac wine producers,) and exquisite filigree silver work. We feel safe and secure, surrounded by curious but friendly faces.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Susan Korah