Let’s hear it for the old time religion! (1) by Barbara Nadel

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I set my latest İkmen book in the south eastern Turkish city of Mardin for reasons that go beyond the picturesque. Not that just the look of the place isn’t enough. A city of vast honey coloured mansions, of churches and mosques of breathtaking beauty, Mardin dominates the flat Mesopotamian Plain from the vast rock of Mazi Mountain upon which it stands. Even on a dull day you can see the Syrian border. It’s fabulous. It’s also multicultural. Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Syrian Christians as well as small Jewish and Armenian minorities all rub along and communicate in a variety of languages and dialects. I actually went to the city with the intention of attending Easter service at the Syrian Orthodox church of Mar Behnam, one of the oldest and most active churches in the city. Syrian Orthodoxy is amongst the most ancient of Christian denominations and their services are conducted almost entirely in the language of the archaic middle east, Aramaic. It was quite an experience. It also, if indirectly, led to my coming into contact with some religious groups I had not taken into account.

Like a lot of eastern Orthodox services, the Syrian Easter liturgy started early. Barely conscious after not much sleep in a hotel room seemingly plagued by unintelligible clicking sounds, I stood with the Syrian women while the priest intoned prayers in Aramaic. This went on for a very long time and was only finally broken by a sudden diversion into Turkish when the priest blessed the republic, its government and president. This roused me somewhat and was also a precursor to a lot of activity. Two choirs, one male, one female, chanted unaccompanied by any instruments while the priest processed the church carrying a golden cross which was wrapped in a long, thin piece of red material. As it passed, worshippers reached out to touch it or in some cases kiss the cross. The red cloth I surmised represented Christ’s blood. What however made the most impact upon me was the emotion that was displayed by the worshippers. As the sound of women ululating echoed around the ancient building like a message from a past hardly discernible in the west, people cried, clung to each other for support and fell to their knees. Now I have seen film of people speaking in tongues and fainting to the floor in the vast evangelical churches in the United States. I’ve always, maybe because I am a wishy-washy agnostic liberal, been faintly horrified by such displays. In Mar Behnam in Mardin at Easter I was not. Maybe because I knew the ceremony I was witnessing was so old, or perhaps it was that the strength of the emotions I saw seemed to me so visceral, I felt my own eyes sting with tears. All I can say is that I don’t know how long the ceremony went on for after that because by that time I was completely caught up in it. How one can be totally absorbed into a rite one does not truly understand in a language one doesn’t know at all, I do not know. But that was what happened. At the end of the service I exchanged handshakes and Easter greetings with complete strangers who treated me like one of their own. Then when everyone else went outside to partake of the Easter buffet the church had laid on out in the garden, I stayed in the church taking in what remained of that amazingly emotional resonance I had experienced earlier.

I walked around. I saw the skull of the saint after whom the church is named, Mar Behnam in a niche to the right of the altar. I examined the many cloth pictures, the Syrian Orthodox equivalent of the Russian or Greek ikon, that adorned both the altar itself and much of the wall space. Painted using natural dyes and adorned with sequins, glitter and sometimes small fragments of other fabrics too, these things illustrate the life of Christ and of the many Syrian saints. Some were alarming, depicting the righteous in the throes of their often ghastly martyrdoms. The one that impressed me the most however wasn’t of a person, holy or otherwise. It was a creature. With the head of a woman and the body of a snake, the being I later learned was called the Sharmeran was a somewhat left field image, I felt, for a Christian place of worship. In that I was both right and wrong. Over the course of the next week I was to come into contact with beliefs far older than the Church or Mar Behnam or its ancient rites. I was also possibly on the verge of some sort of breakthrough with regard to that irritating clicking sound in my hotel room too. But more of that, next week…

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