The Nestorians and their Rituals/Volume 1/Chapter 5




Departure from Diarbekir.—Coordish complaints of Turkish oppression.—Approach to Mardeen.—Horrible spectacle in the market-place.—Massacre of the Coords.—Town and population of Mardeen.—Description of Deir Zaaferân, the residence of the Syrian Jacobite Patriarch.—Library.—Origin of the convent.—Tradition of the "Woman's Castle."—Instance of Mohammedan bigotry.—Journey through Jebel Toor in 1850.—Killeth.—Midyât.—Ignorance of the Jacobites.—State of the Jacobite Church at Azekh.—Arrival at Jezeerah.—Harsh conduct of the Syrian Patriarch.


Oct. 26th.—The pasha having ordered the gates to be opened to us at an early hour, we left Diarbekir at 2 a.m., accompanied by ten horsemen, and after twice crossing the Tigris over two good stone bridges, we pursued our journey through the plain beyond till we reached the Geok Soo. Here the country begins to be hilly, and continues so as far as Mardeen. We rested an hour on the road, and finally put up at the Coordish village of Khaniki Djori at 3 p.m.

We had now fairly entered upon the Coordish district, as nearly all the villages from Diarbekir to Mosul are inhabited by this race. So many and grievous were the complaints of these peasants against the cruelty and oppression of their Turkish rulers, that the stand which they made a few years after under Bedr Khan Beg, the Emeer of Jezeerah, is not a matter of surprise. I frequently inquired why so many of their countrymen became rebels, and they uniformly replied in language to this effect: "What can we do? If we descend into the plains, build us villages, plant vineyards, grow corn and barley, and till the barren soil, we are so overwhelmed with taxation and impositions of every kind, that our labour, though blessed of God, is of no profit to ourselves. We continue poor and wretched, and are subjected to the most unheard of tyranny. Our inability to satisfy the demands of our rapacious masters is looked upon as a crime, and in revenge our villages are razed, our very beds and implements of husbandry are taken fromus, some of our people are murdered, and others are carried away captive. What, then, remains to us? We leave our homes, and seek refuge among our brethren in the mountains who are more out of the way of oppression; but even there we are liable every year to be hunted like partridges. Such is our lot; but Allah kereem! God is merciful." The village where we stayed the night is an instance of this tyrannical system: the Turks had already exacted from its forty houses no less than £120, and still demanded £6 more as the amount of their annual taxation. The inhabitants declared that they had not wherewith to pay the additional sum, and on this account many had already left, and others were preparing to leave for the mountains. I am persuaded, that under a righteous government, the Coords might be made an obedient and useful class of subjects, for even at present, were it not for them, this whole district would be a barren waste.

Oct. 27th.—Seven hours' ride through a rough and barren country, brought us to the foot of Mardeen, situated on one of the boldest summits of Mount Masius, the ascent to which, though rugged and difficult, is covered with vineyards and fruit-trees. On approaching the town from this side, nothing is seen but the citadel perched upon the top of the hill, and a part of the wall, the town itself being built upon a slope facing the south, and commands a view of the seemingly boundless plains of Mesopotamia. Ainsworth well describes it in these words: "The prospect from Mardeen is one of the most striking that can be well conceived, not only from the almost infinite extent of cultivated land that lies stretched out at its feet as on a map, from the numerous villages and hillocks with which they are studded, and which dwindle away in the distance to a mere mole-hill, but also from the vast and almost boundless expanse of nearly level ground, unbroken by trees or rivers, and for the most part sinking gradually from sight to the utmost verge of the horizon, where every thing is indistinct, and here, from the great height at which the spectator is placed, so extremely remote."

Mardeen (The Nestorians and their Rituals p48).jpg


On entering the city walls, we found ourselves amidst a heap of ruins, and it was some time before we could persuade ourselves that the place was not deserted. Preferring to walk through the streets to the house of Agha Moorad, the Armenian banker, who hearing of our arrival had kindly invited us to be his guests, we passed the market-place, where to our horror we saw no less than seven heads, covered with dust, lying upon the ground. On inquiry, I learned that these had been brought in as trophies by Mohammed Pasha's Albanians, from the Omeryân Coords inhabiting Jebel Toor; and the day after I saw a large number of horses, asses, mules, and even cows, laden with all manner of booty taken from the same people, being driven into the town, and amongst these were several loads of human heads, and a number of prisoners, of whom some were to be impaled on the morrow. It is natural for us to suppose that the crime which called for such cruel vengeance must have been great indeed. It was this: One Rammo, the Kiahya, or head of one of the central villages, had received a large sum of money as Salyân tax from the district of which he was the collector. Of this Rammo had embezzled more than half, and the pasha, instead of punishing the defaulter, ordered the Coords to make good the balance due. And, because they either could not or would not, a troop of Albanians was sent against them, who plundered all the refractory villages, massacred about 150 persons, and committed other excesses too horrible to be related. The heart sickens as it contemplates such atrocities; but such is the temper and spirit of the Ottoman government.

Besides the prospect, there is nothing worthy of note in the town of Mardeen. The houses are of stone, and rise one above another towards the summit on which the ruined citadel stands. The streets are narrow and filthy in the extreme, and the inhabitants look woe-begone and wretched. Coordish is the common language spoken by all classes, though Arabic is better known here than at Diarbekir. The principal trade of the place is in gall-nuts, which are collected in the mountains around, and sent to Aleppo for shipment to Europe.

The population of Mardeen is computed at 2,780 families, of which 1,500 are Moslem, 600 Jacobite, 120 Papal Syrian, 500 Papal Armenian, and 60 Chaldean. The Jacobites have two churches and four priests in the town, besides three monasteries in the vicinity. The Syrian Romanists worship in a private house, and have a Bishop and four priests here. The Papal Armenians have one church, a Bishop, and six priests, besides a convent not far from the town. The Chaldeans also have a church, a Bishop, and four priests. In addition to the above, there are a few families of resident Jews.

Having received a letter of introduction to the Syrian Jacobite Patriarch from Mutran Behnâm, we set off to visit the patriarchal residence at Deir (convent) Zaaferân, which is situated in the hills, about four miles north of the town. Mar Elias was absent, but we were greeted by Mutran Yaacoob, the Jacobite Bishop of Jerusalem,[1] who ranks as the first prelate after the Patriarch, and by Rabban (Monk) Behnâm, the Patriarch's nephew, who acts as his agent during his absence. The conversation naturally turned upon Church matters, and I soon discovered the cause of a certain coldness which we observed in the demeanour of some present. They took us to be Ingleez, a term which is often applied in the east in the same vague way as that of Protestante in Italy, i.e. infidel, heretic, schismatic, rationalist, &c. They had never before heard of our Church, and seemed pleased when I promised to send them a stock of books and several copies of our ritual.

Deir Zaaferân is a plain square substantial building, outwardly devoid of any architectural ornament. The interior we judged to be even meaner than the exterior; which is not to be wondered at, seeing that it has been ransacked so often by the different revolutionary parties, who for the last fifty years, have struggled to obtain possession of Mardeen. The church within the convent is small and dirty, and very poorly fitted up. It contains three stone altars, separated by two wooden partitions, a few miserable paintings, and a string of small glass lamps. In the chancel which is before the screen, but not separated from the nave, are two lecterns, where the prayers are recited, and in the body of the church are three similar stands, from which the homilies and lives of the saints are read.

The font is placed in an adjoining room or cemetery,—the burial-place of Syrian Patriarchs and Bishops for many ages. Two sides of the apartment, which is of an oblong form, are indented with eight deep recesses, seven of which contain the tombs, and the eighth the baptismal font. In the recess opposite the entrance, are deposited the remains of Mar Eughène, to whom the Church just described is dedicated, and who long after his death, as the Jacobites say, requested his nephew to transport his corpse from Jebel Toor, where it was first buried, to its present grave.

We were then shown into a small square chapel, called the Koorsi, or throne, containing a stone altar, behind which is an ornamental marble altar-piece surmounted by a cross, believed to have been consecrated by S. Peter, at Antioch, and to have continued in the possession of his successors the Syrian Patriarchs, until the present day. The altar-piece consists of three niches, one within the other, on the borders of which the Scripture taken from S. Mark xvi. 13—18, is engraved in bold Estrangheli characters.

We next visited the library, if a dirty cupboard containing about one hundred manuscripts may be so called. Among these I found a portion of the writings of S. Chrysostom, most of the writings of Gregory Bar Hebræus, and the entire works of S. Ephrem in Syriac, besides a compendium of the ante-Nicene Fathers, written in Estrangheli characters, about a. d. 1000. It is clear that the residents of the convent make very little use of the library, as most of the books were covered with dust, and scarcely any further care seemed to be taken of them than that of keeping them secure from being read or stolen.

From the several remains of Grecian and Roman architecture which are scattered about the premises, as well as from the unecclesiastical disposition of the interior, I am induced to believe the tradition which ascribes its foundation to one Mar Hananya, of Caphr Tootha, a village in the plain, who is said to have purchased the building fifteen centuries ago while it was yet a castle, and to have converted it into a monastery. As we returned from the convent, we noticed to our left an immense mound, on the summit of which are the remains of an ancient fortress, called Kalaat-ool-Mara, or the woman's castle, which tradition says, was held by a female against Tamerlane, who planted fig trees at its base, and ate of their fruit during his vain attempts to reduce it. It was finally delivered by the following stratagem: during winter, when no leben is made, because the cattle give no milk, the lady had a dish of this sour curd prepared from the milk of a bitch, which she sent to the king. Judging from this that the resources of the castle were inexhaustible, he raised the siege and returned to his own country.

On reaching the city gate, an incident occurred which strikingly illustrates the extent of Mohammedan bigotry. A boy had fallen from a horse and cut a deep gash in his check; whereupon I advised his brother who was standing by, to take him to a fountain and give him some water. "What do you mean?" said the fellow, "do you not know that it is Ramadhân?" "What of that?" I answered. "Will you let your brother faint from loss of blood rather than give him the water which Allah has provided for you close by? Take him at least to the fountain, and bathe his wound." In a most surly tone he rejoined: "That you may do; but I would rather see him die in agony than suffer him to break the fast by moistening his lips with water."

During our stay at Mardeen, I had several long interviews with Mutran Matta, a Jacobite Bishop with whom I afterwards became well acquainted at Mosul, and who now resides in the convent of Mar Mattai not far from that town. From him, as well as from many of the Syrians, I learned much of the state of their Church, and of the Jacobite population of Jebel Toor, which is inhabited chiefly by this people. "There our strength lies," said the Bishop; "there the Romanists have not dared to show their faces." So much did they boast of the numbers and flourishing condition of their co-religionists in that hitherto unknown district, that I determined, if possible, to visit it. I had not an opportunity of doing so till 1850, and as I intend in the succeeding chapter to give a general sketch of the present condition of the Jacobites, I shall first lay before the reader the following

Notes of a journey through Jebel Toor.

Nov. 27th, 1850.—Having been provided with a Kawass, or mounted orderly, through the kindness of Asaad Pasha, of Diarbekir, Mrs. Badger and I left that city at 1 p.m. on our way to Jebel Toor. The orchards under the walls displayed all the rich tints of autumn, the grass was just peeping above the ground, and the air was cool and refreshing. After fording the Tigris, some miles above the bridge, we commenced traversing the plains, and in three hours put up for the night at the pretty Armenian village of Saté, where the inhabitants received us kindly, and busied themselves in supplying our wants. The villagers here seemed contented and happy, and extolled the mild rule of the pasha of Diarbekir.

Nov. 28th.—At 7 A. M. when we started from Saté, the air was quite cold, and a light frost lay upon the ground. In two hours we left the great Bitlis road, and three miles onward reached the Coordish village of Kara Ahmet, where we halted to wait for our baggage mules. Here we saw two Coords washing a still-born child; after washing it they laid the corpse on a large copper dish, and then sprinkled its knees and other parts of the body with fine tobacco, the object of which I could not learn. Soon after leaving Kara Ahmet, we again forded the Tigris, which is here very sluggish in its course, and continued our route over the plains, passing several villages and rivulets, which I have noted in the map, and at 4 p.m., put up at the large village of Coordirek, situated near a pleasant stream bordered with poplars, willows, and mulberry trees. The country through which we passed is inhabited almost exclusively by Coords, who cultivate the entire district south of the Tigris as far as the borders of the Arabian desert. On the whole they treated us with much civility, for a due share of which we were doubtless indebted to the presence of the Pasha's Kawass. There are ten Armenian families in this village.

Nov. 29th.—Started from Coordirek at 7 a.m., and continued our journey over the offshoots of a high range of hills which the Syrians told us is called Koròs in their books. In two hours we reached Dereesh, another Coordish village, most of the houses of which are built over subterranean caves, some of natural and others of artificial formation. I examined several of these which were unoccupied, and found them to contain a few niches, a rude fire place, and a hole in the roof for a chimney, but not a vestige of any inscription. Before 1 p.m. we had crossed the lower chain of hills and began descending into a deep valley, which separates it from the high Koròs range, and through which a pretty stream flows towards the Tigris. The valley smiled with cultivation, pretty orchards surrounded the villages, and numerous rivulets ran through the gardens in every direction. Leaving the Coordish town of Saoor, which is situated on an isolated rock in a gap of the mountains and defended by a ruined castle, to our right, we entered a deep and fertile ravine, which leads through the Koròs, and reached Killeth at 4 p.m., where the inhabitants gladly welcomed us, and where we were comfortably lodged in the house of the Kiahya. Killeth contains 120 Jacobite families, most of whom speak Arabic as well as Coordish and the vulgar Syriac. There is an old church in the village divided into two aisles, one of which is in ruins, and notwithstanding all their applications to the Mutsellim at Saoor, and to the pasha of Diarbekir, they have not yet received permission to rebuild it. The interior was dismal and dirty, and my expostulations with them on this head were met with replies such as these: "What can we do? If our patriarch, or if such as you, will not assist us, we must remain as we are."

I then urged upon them and upon their three priests how much they might do themselves; they might at least clean their church, take better care of their rituals, and engage one of the priests to instruct their children. This was bringing strange things to their ears, for they evidently had not the mind to appreciate the value of such advice, as they certainly lacked the energy to follow it. The priests were very illiterate men, and the villagers of course more so; the former could indeed read the Syriac, but did not understand it, and of the latter not more than four could read at all. The worst feature in them was that they appeared quite satisfied with their religious attainments; they recited the prayers in the church, kept the fasts, maintained the heresy of the One Nature, and paid the patriarch his dues; they had not been invaded by Romish missionaries, and their security in this latter respect seemed to them a great source of exultation.

There are here a number of subterranean caves like those noticed at Dereesh, and a large grotto in a cliff opposite the village containing several apartments, said to have been used by hermits for many ages. In the courtyard of the church we observed some remains of Grecian architecture, such as fragments of chapiters and friezes, and the people told me that old silver coins were occasionally picked up in the neighbourhood.

Nov. 30th.—On leaving Killeth at half-past 6 a.m. our road lay for some time through deep valleys of the same chain of mountains, which were covered with wood, especially the stunted oak, and here and there well cultivated. We passed several Coordish villages on our road, and at 5 p.m. reached the large village of Midyât, inhabited exclusively by 450 Jacobite families. Here we found five priests, six churches (four of which are in


The Nestorians and their rituals, volume 1.djvu

(Upload an image to replace this placeholder.)





ruins), and a monastery, situated about three miles to the north of the town. The villagers here seemed in good temporal circumstances, and talked mightily of their successes against the Coords; one, pointing to his dagger, said that he had killed twenty Mussulmans with that weapon. Like those at Killeth, the Syrians at Midyât prided themselves in being Jacobites, whilst very few of them can read, and not a single school exists among them. A bishop, who is said to be ninety years of age, and who had once taken to himself the patriarchate, had left an adjoining village some weeks before for Diarbekir, whither he had gone in his old age to join the Papal Syrian community under Mutran Antoon. This secession did not seem to affect them in the least. "We can get another," said they with the greatest indifference, "or, what will be better, you yourself can come and reside amongst us." This was added more out of compliment than from any apparent desire for a better state of things. "With regard to religion they seemed to believe that they were "full and in need of nothing," whilst their gross ignorance of the general doctrines of Christianity, rather declared them to be "poor" indeed.

The dress of the Christians in these districts is like that of the Coords, consisting of wide woollen shalwar, or trowsers, a coloured vest of the same material, bound round the waist with a girdle in which the dagger is worn, a long black and white jacket, a pointed felt cap, and a large dark muslin turban covered with spots of red. The female attire comprises a pair of shalwar, and a red robe somewhat resembling a surplice, the long sleeves of which are generally tied together and thrown behind the shoulders. This is secured to the waist by a narrow girdle with two large ornamental silver clasps. The head-dress is peculiar to these parts, and in form is not unlike an archer's helmet, made of a pointed cap, and covered with large pieces of silver money, laid on like scales, over which, when the wearer leaves the house, a light veil is thrown.

There is a small castle at Midyât, in the ruins of which the Mutsellim and a few irregular troops find shelter; the houses of the town, though built of stone, are little better than hovels, and extremely dirty. There is no spring near, but water is collected in cisterns during the winter, which sometimes falls short, and the people are obliged to bring it from a distance. This is the case in many parts of the Toor mountains, and I have heard numbers say that they have been refused a draught of water whilst travelling this route in summer. Grapes are very abundant in the vicinity, and we bought a large basket of them here for about twopence. There was a great ferment while we were at Midyât, on account of the alleged discovery by a shepherd boy, of a vase of gold coins in one of the numerous natural caves with which this district abounds. The ignorant villagers ascribed the impress on the money to the empress Helena, with whose name they are traditionally familiar. In all probability they were ancient coins, but the lucky finder and his associates having decamped, a strict search was maintained by order of the pasha for their apprehension.

Dec. 1st.—We left Midyât at 7 a.m., and travelled over a rocky country, passing several Coordish and Yezeedee villages on our road, till we reached Deir-ool-Amar at half an hour after noon. This is a large Jacobite convent, where two monks and a few peasants who till the convent lands reside. Externally the building looks like a fortress, the interior we found to be in a very ruinous state. It contains a large church dedicated to Mar Gawrièl, the reputed founder, and one of the monks pointed out to me with evident pride a pavement of Dutch tiles before the principal altar. There was certainly nothing else to distinguish it from all other Syrian churches; it was dark and dirty, and in strict keeping with the general appearance of the place and its tenants.

The convent contains a Beit Kaddeeshé, or cemetery, consisting of two subterranean galleries, in which Mar Gawrièl and many Jacobite bishops are buried. The monks were very illiterate men, and seemed ignorant of every thing beyond the precincts of their present abode. They spend their time chiefly in looking after the revenue of the convent lands, which is claimed by the patriarch, in reciting the prayers, and in waiting upon the visitors who occasionally frequent the monastery from the neighbouring villages.

After resting for an hour, we pursued our journey over the same hilly district and rugged road, passed a Syrian village with a neat looking church on our left, saw the remains of extensive terracing in the hills beyond, and at 3 p.m. reached Ba-Sebreena, a small town inhabited exclusively by 250 Jacobite families. Here we found a large monastery, the residence of Mutran Patr Meerza and three monks, who seemed to lead as indolent a life as the tenants of Deir-ool-Amar. There are also several churches in the place, more than half of which are in ruins. The people, who are principally agriculturists, seemed in good temporal circumstances, but ignorant in the extreme. Some insolence on their part to a government official had brought a company of irregular troops among them, who were still quartered in their houses during our visit. They complained sadly of this, but their deportment at once convinced me that they would have ejected them had they dared.

Dec. 2nd.—In two hours after leaving Ba-Sebreena, we stopped at the large Jacobite village of Middo, where many of the inhabitants came out to meet us, and with whom we had a long interview. They have a church and two priests, but no school. Three hours beyond we put up at Azekh, another Syrian village, containing about 160 families, surrounded by extensive vineyards. This place suffered severely in 1832 from the Coordish Pasha of Rawandooz, who took many of them away captive; and also from Bedr Khan Beg of Jezeerah, who used the most harsh measures to induce them to embrace Islamism, and was the cause of the murder of their Bishop Abd-oon-Noor. This event took place about six years ago, yet no successor has been appointed to this See. Like the rest of the Syrians whom we passed on the road, the people of Azekh evinced the greatest apathy on the subject of religion. The priests complained that they were obliged to work in the fields for a livelihood, and the church was in such a filthy state that I offered to assist in having it whitewashed, if the villagers would join in the expense. Not one answered the appeal; and I found afterwards that violent dissensions existed among them. The small baptistery in the church had been converted into a depository of wheat and barley, and upon expostulating with them upon this desecration of the Lord's house, they excused themselves on the ground that the grain alluded to formed a part of the patriarch's tithe, who they said was very exacting in his demands. A calico handkerchief, bearing the portraits of the kings and queens of Europe was hung upon the walls, and the ignorant people thinking that they were pictures of saints, paid them no little reverence. Some deplored their abject condition, and the supineness and avarice of their patriarch and bishops, and urged me to remain among them. Poor people! They are in urgent need of some one to teach them the way of life.

Dec. 3rd.—Seven hours' ride brought us to Jezeerah, where we were received into the house of Moorad, one of the few Armenian residents. In a short time we had a visit from the only priest of the twenty Jacobite families here, who deeply lamented the present state of his community. He informed me that a few months ago the patriarch had ordered the church to be shut, and had excommunicated all his flock, because they were unable to remit to him the whole amount of his tithe. He expressed his anxiety to have a school established at Jezeerah, and hoped that the English Church would help them in this, and in the general reformation of his people. As I was not authorized to hold out any prospects of this kind to him, he has since received assistance from the American Independents in the shape of a monthly salary and books, and is now teaching a school under their auspices.

I shall reserve any further notice of Jezeerah till after the following chapter, when the former narrative will be continued.

  1. The Jacobite Bishop of Jerusalem seldom resides in the Holy City, some other being sent thither as his delegate.