Syrian monks at the Saffron monastery

 Syrian monks at the Saffron monastery

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I was getting to see all the places I wanted and they pretty much let me decide, and I kept saying, east. We drove to Mardin, a city of 60,000 settled at the top part of a hill with a great view of the Syrian plain. It ’s always been very politicized, with lots of riots, separatist movements, Islamic fundamentalism, etc., but things have “died down” (thanks, Sikorsky!). The new part of town is very ugly (the usual: nouveau concrete), but the old city had lovely Arab-style houses.

From Mardin we went 6km southeast to Deyr-Az-Zaferan (Deyrulzafran), the “Saffron Monastery,” named after the color of its rock. It was founded 493AD and was the Vatican of the Syrian Orthodox church from 1160 through the 1920’s, when it relocated to Damascus. Now only two monks remain, and they run a school for about 25 orphans. An orphan boy finally let us inside after making us wait about a half hour. Inside they had an underground vault, used as a temple by sun worshippers four thousand years ago. We saw chapel, whose services are in Aramaic. A bearded monk named Cabriel took an immediate liking to Elif and I and followed us around. He was maybe 40 years old and had a naughty gleam in his eye that winked at you as if he knew everything about you and was about to tell you a joke making fun of every other visitor in the complex. Which he proceeded to do. He spoke very fast Turkish, Elif translated, and he corrected Elif’s English as if Elif were taking minutes for the Congressional Record. He explained the wooden doors from David:24. He made an example out of a poor guy from Diyarbakir who asked if “Catholoc” was the same thing as Orthodox – first, he corrected it to “Catholic,” winking at me. The guy then asked if Syrian was Arabic, which was a big mistake. Cebrail the monk answered, “It’s a race, just like you’re not really a full Turk, it’s obvious you’re a mix.” This is the wrong thing to say to a Turk, and the guy turned red and answered, “In Diyarbakir, if we have 10 wives, we intermarry to keep pure.” Cebrail immediately retorted: “So you’re up to 10 wives now? It used to be 4…”

The guy was hopping mad, and Cebrail was thrilled. I thought it extremely wrong policy to publicly make fun of an eastern Islamic moderate enough to come to a monastery and curious enough to ask questions, but I wasn’t about to lecture Cebrail about this, and he wasn’t about to listen anyway, because the Diyarbakir man was from Diyarbakir, and his wife had a headscarf, and he was dirt. Eylul asked Cebrail, were there once mosaics on the walls? Cebrail answered, they’re now kaput. I said, it’s amazing that after Islam and after Napoleons and after the ravages of history that any interior decorations survive anywhere, and he answered, in his ratatat accented Turkish which Elif had to translate, “Back in those days, you and Elif couldn’t have gotten together, but now, if you two can get together, anything’s possible,” winking at me and letting me on that he knew the whole time I was a Yid. We parted, drank some water with the orphan boys from their well, and left. We were surprised to see him emerge from the door and we posed with him for pictures, and he stood in his black robe under the shade of the doorway arch, looking proud as a monk. Then he turned to me and said, for the first time in English, “Good luck, Brian!”

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