Serving God For Centuries: The Monastery of Mar Gabriel

text and photos by Nadine Posner

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The monastery bells of Mar Gabriel ring resolutely and evenly, as though they were being tolled by hands long used to measuring out a centuries-old cadence. As they peal, the hills of Tur Abdin in eastern Turkey emerge from the dusty blue of early dawn.

The bells are not the first sounds of the day’s activity in the monastery. In the nuns’ quarters and in the yard where the cows, sheep and goats have huddled all night, the morning routine has been under way for an hour or more. As the bells ring, the pace of work slackens and sleepy heads are raised among visiting men, women and children. They have slept on mats and bedding, clustered in small groups throughout the buildings and courtyards and on the rooftops of the monastery.

With the fading tones of the bells, workers and sleepers gather silently in the Church of St. Samuel for morning prayers. Today is the feast of St. Gabriel, the holy monk for whom the Syrian Orthodox monastery is named, and devout villagers have come from all over Tur Abdin to honor him. (The very name “Tur Abdin” means “the mountain of the worshippers of God.”)

By mid-morning, all the visitors will be settled in small groups of family and friends. They will rest in the cool shade inside the church, beneath its portico, and under its colonnades and stairways. Children will gather eagerly around families who are distributing candies, following a custom among those who have brought their babies to be baptized on this holy day.

The pilgrims have come with a variety of foods, including tomatoes, eggplant, green peppers, onions, melons, grapes, cheese and yogurt. Some have brought a goat or a sheep to be slaughtered and shared with the residents and other visitors at Mar Gabriel. Bread is the only food brought by almost no one. The thick, savory loaves baked by the nuns at Mar Gabriel are famous throughout the Christian communities of Tur Abdin, and the nuns have spent the entire day before the feast preparing several hundred loaves for the guests.

Established by St. Samuel in 397 A.D., Mar Gabriel is situated on a rocky plateau at the summit of a hill. Its location is an important point of passage on the east-west route across Tur Abdin. To the north lies Wadi Khaltan, while the mountainous bulge of southern Tur Abdin overlooks the Mesopotamian plain that is now in eastern Syria. The site was a strategic part of the Byzantine system of defense in the Middle East, but the place was destined for spiritual rather than military greatness.

The founding of the monastery by St. Samuel and his disciple, St. Simeon, is said to have been inspired by the appearance of the Angel Gabriel, who directed them to walk a little to the northeast of the village of Qartamin. The spot they found was near a spring, and close to the site on which a pagan temple had stood. Under Samuel’s direction, five buildings were completed, including a house of prayer. When Simeon succeeded Samuel as abbot, the expansion of the Christian community continued.

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Tags: Turkey Pilgrimage/pilgrims Monastery Prayers/Hymns/Saints