Ten minutes by taxi outside of Mardin is the Syrian Orthodox Monastery of Deyrül Zaferan, the ‘Saffron Monastery’ which is widely cited as ‘the largest active monastery in Turkey today’. The buildings are certainly impressive.
The monastery’s oldest church dates back to the sixth century, and this place was the home of the Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church, who bears the title Patriarch of Antioch, until he left for Damascus in 1932.
Now wouldn’t you think that Turkey’s ‘largest active monastery’ would be full of monks busy with the daily round? We did.
At the entrance to the monastery there is a large gift shop and a cafe with several workers – none of them monks. When we got there quite early in the day, a crew from TRT were lugging equipment up the steps to the main monastery buildings where they were to film segments for a documentary.
There were builders, not monks, creating a new terrace next door to the cafe.
At crucial points within the complex there were security men (no chance of popping the odd icon into your handbag) and, after half an hour of wandering around the buildings this writer admitted defeat in the search for a monk, and asked a convenient security man if there were any monks at all in the monastery.
His reply? There are two. One of whom is actually the Archbishop of Mardin so hardly qualifies as a common or garden monk. We did not see the one real monk.
So that is Turkey’s ‘largest, active monastery’ which a mere 15 years ago when this whole region was the battle ground of the PKK, was on the verge of being closed down completely.
I did ask the security man where the ‘largest, active’ title came from and he said “Forty people are employed here”.
There are other Syrian Orthodox monasteries in the region, many of them being refurbished but, after not seeing a single monk at the ‘largest active’ one, we didn’t bother visiting any of the others.
We leave you with this beautiful painting on wood from one of Deyrül Zaferan’s chapels.