I was leafing through a book on the lectern in the Assyrian Christian church of Meryem Ana, in what I assumed to be Syriac script, written from right to left, when a man came up to me and asked me if I knew what it was. I said “Biblos?”, taking a wild stab at both what it was and how to say Bible in Turkish. (I was wrong on both counts). Just then a young woman walked up and asked if I spoke English. She was from Goteborg in Sweden, she said, and she was here with her parents and husband and other family members. Her voice had that wonderfully musical rising and falling tone that the Swedes use when they speak English, which sounded so much more interesting to the ear than flat North American English. The older man was her father. She explained that the book in front of us was a prayer book, but she barely knew how to read a few words of it, though her father could read it easily. She spoke a few words with her father and mother and I asked what language they were speaking. It was Aramaic, the language of Jesus, and I was hearing it for the first time.
In the village where we were, there were very few Christians left, which is the case for Assyrian Christians throughout the Middle East. As wars have raged, Islamic fundamentalism has risen and the economy in this region has stagnated, the majority of this Christian sect have emigrated from south-eastern Turkey as well as from Syria and Iraq — to Sweden, the US, Germany and elsewhere in the West. It is bringing nearly 2000 years of history for their sect in this region to an end. For her parents, the lure was still so strong that they had bought land nearby in Midyat and now came back for six months every year, and so did many of others of their generation, old people who lived all over the globe, but came together to be with family, former neighbors, and friends. “This is the place where the old people are happy together”, she said.
Sweden was the country where she had lived for 35 years, but she had spent the first three years of her life in an Assyrian Christian town in southern Turkey. Her husband was also from this area, but had left when he was seven and this was the first time he had been back in 33 years. He asked what I thought of the church, and I said it was beautiful. “But do you believe”, he said, “Can you feel God in this place?” This was definitely upping the stakes. I paused and then said no, I did not believe, that I thought that there might be a God, but I certainly was not sure of that. He persisted, “But how can you not believe?” His face was very alive and his eyes seemed fired with intensity. “Don’t you believe that it was the faith of the people that let them build this place and allowed it to survive?” I looked around at the sanctuary where we stood, with its ancient stone carvings, and said, “Yes, it was clearly built by people of faith, and it is a miracle it has survived all these centuries.” I think that coming back to this place for the first time since he had left it all those years before had deeply affected him.
A few minutes later, as I was leaving, I asked his wife how it felt to be here in this place. She said that she had barely any memories of her early childhood, but her husband who had left when he was a bit older, had a lot of bitter-sweet feelings aroused by being back here. And back in Sweden, I pried, do you go to the Assyrian Christian church? “The old people like my parents go every week, but as for my husband and me, we go at Christmas and Easter, and that’s about it”, she replied a little bit ruefully.