Let’s hear it for the old time religion! (2) by Barbara Nadel

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So there I was, in Mardin – a veritable Verona of the east, my dears – my head full of Aramaic chants, my over-wrought mind tortured by nocturnal clicking noises in my hotel room. In fact the clicking wasn’t the only problem I was having after dark. Other noises had joined the clicking; scratching, scrabbling and snuffling. Over-tired, my first fear was that I had somehow been invaded by rats. My second idea was even stranger.

Ever since I had seen the cloth painting of the deity known as the Sharmeran in the Syrian church of Mar Benham, I had been anxious to find out more about it. The image was everywhere; in shops, museums, restaurants, at the entrances to people’s houses. My friends and I wandered down to the bazaar where, yet again, we met the Sharmeran in pictures, on glass and on many and various copper artefacts. I bought my Sharmeran on a beaten copper plate from a smith with the blackest teeth I have ever seen. Like a lot of Mardin folk, the smith was a devotee of the local mirra coffee – a dark roasted, slowly brewed beverage which has the consistency of tar. It’s a heady old drink is mirra and one which I suspect may have an alternative use as a heart defibrillator. But I took a cup when the smith offered me one and then sat down to look at the sheet of paper he had give me with the plate. It was the story of the Sharmeran.

In the dark time before Islam, there was a gentle young man who lived in the mountains. Bullied by the more macho boys in his village, he ran away to hide in the caves that dot the mountains enclosing the Mesopotamian Plain. After a while however the boy became lost. Then, to make matters worse he found that he was surrounded by thousands of snakes. Convinced he was about to die, he had given up hope when suddenly a very strange figure appeared. With the head of a woman, the body of a snake and feet fashioned from the heads of vipers, the Sharmeran told the boy that she would lead him safely out of the cave provided he didn’t tell anyone about her. The boy agreed. But he was only human and when he heard that the Sultan of the Plain was offering half his kingdom and the hand of his beautiful daughter in exchange for knowledge about the Sharmeran’s whereabouts, he jumped at the chance. The Sultan was sick and, according to his Vizir, eating the meat of the Sharmeran would cure him. So the Sultan’s men went into the mountains and, although they did not kill the Sharmeran, they managed to take enough of her flesh to carry back to their master. After eating the Sharmeran’s flesh the Sultan did indeed recover and the young boy married his daughter and took over half of his kingdom. But the Sharmeran had been betrayed. Faithless humanity had betrayed her kindness and abused her magical properties. And yet in concert with Mother Goddesses the world over, her mercy and her kindness are without limit. To this day she protects humanity against the bite of snakes and her image is reproduced and honoured everywhere.

I thought about the Sharmeran a lot over the next few days. She was after all spoken of with reverence by everyone – Muslim, Christian and Jew. I detected an affection that seemed to be very similar to the kind of esteem in which Christians hold the Virgin Mary. A suffering female who protects mankind, be it from a wrathful God or the bite of a snake. I looked at my copper plate and began to wonder how the Sharmeran might have moved. I will ponder such imponderables at times. Further I wondered what kind of sound the viper heads made as they moved along the ground. Did they shuffle along like over-stuffed slippers? Did they slip and slide like wet fish? More to the point from my perspective, did they snuffle, scratch and scrabble? Did they click!?

With so much talk about the Sharmeran, with her image in my face 24/7, was I in fact starting to hear her outside my room? Clicking, shuffling and scrabbling along? Well, of course I wasn’t (or was I?) but my mind was clearly turning in that direction and I must admit that the idea of being ‘haunted’ by the Sharmeran did give me a sense of security. Mardin is after all a city that, in the summer months, is plagued by snakes. It is easy to see how the necessity for the Sharmeran evolved and why. It also made me think about ancient religion and how pervasive aspects of those old beliefs are. Sadly a few days later I discovered also how fragile such remnants of the past can be.

A fellow traveller, a Canadian guy, had just arrived in Turkey from northern Iraq. While in that troubled country he had made friends with a group of Yezidi people, Kurds who revere a deity called the Peacock Angel. Many other groups across the middle east falsely accuse these people of being devil worshippers. Their world view, as far as I can tell, seems to be somewhat Gnostic in nature. God soars far and away above earth which would seem to be controlled by beings that are sometimes benign and sometimes quite hostile and in need of propitiation. My new friend hadn’t been in Turkey for more than a day when we heard that a group of Yezidis had been massacred over in Iraq. Who had killed them, was not known, but why they had died was sadly apparent. Being different, old time believers had sealed their fate. What’s the saying now? ‘The kind is dead, long live the king!’ Maybe we need to make sure that we have at least a few photographs of the old king before we burn his body and murder his servants. Something like a copper plate carrying the image of a being with the head of a woman and the body of a snake will do. Put it by your front door and you’ll never be bothered by vipers again. Let’s hear it once again for the old time religion!

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