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Habsus - Nissani's Home in Tur Abdin PDF Print E-mail

Last Christian woman in Habsus
Saddest of all months in Tur abdin is September, when the late summer heat still scorches that rocky Mesopotamian plateau with its undulating hills and when Christian emigrants from all over Europe revisit the homeland they left a long time ago. They follow the paths of the past, but there are just a few old relatives left in the villages that were once inhabited by Syriac Orthodox families. In the village of Habsus one old woman takes care of the age-old Christian heritage.

Habsus or Habsnas is situated to the west of the main road from the town of Midyat to the historic site of Hasankeyf on the river Tigris. A narrow side-road, unpaved and hardly more than a sandy track, winds through the hills towards the village. The Mor Shemun church of Habsus is visible from afar, as soon as one reaches the top of the last hill overlooking the village. The church stands on the far edge of the village, it  looks like an isolated fortress and there is nobody around to welcome the unexpected visitor. Habsus has been taken over by Kurdish families, who occupy the grey houses with their flat roofs. They have erected their own landmark – a large and recently built mosque that dominates the village centre with its massive walls and its high minaret. 
Habsus village with mosque and Mor Shemun church in the background

The church of Mor Shemun honours the memory of an eighth century saint. Mor Shemun or Saint Simon was born in Habsus and he became one of the most renowned abbots of the Mor Gabriel monastery, nowadays the most important centre of Syriac Orthodox Christianity in Tur Abdin. He got known as Shemun d-Zayte, Simon of the Olive Trees, because he arranged for the planting of thousands of olive trees on the plain close to Tur Abdin. Thanks to this project and other activities of Shemun the whole region enjoyed a last period of prosperity in the late eighth century.          
Habsus graveyard
It is high noon, the sun is burning and the villagers hide from the heat inside their houses. At one edge of the village Kurdish children are running around and chasing each other. They hardly take notice of the stranger on their playground. It appears to be a graveyard. One of the tombstones most probably refers to the Christian past of the place. The name of the deceased on the tombstone is Ozdemir, a common name in Tur Abdin. Perhaps this Ozdemir was a relative of the notorious Samuel Ozdemir, born in the village of Arnas to the east of the main road from Midyat to Hasankeyf, and after his emigration to Belgium better known as Père Samuel, the ultra rightist Syrian Catholic priest who nowadays preaches in the French speaking part of Belgium his personal crusade against Islam. But that is another story.
The Kurdish mukhtar or mayor of Habsus has finally noticed the visitor. He offers me water – lukewarm and dubious – and tea – hot and harmless – and sends his youngest daughter to look for the only person who is familiar with what the foreigner wants to see. There she comes at last, the last Syriac Orthodox Christian of Habsus, an old woman in Kurdish clothing. She wears a long blue dress and a white headscarf and her name is Nissani Abdullah. She only speaks Kurdish and her native Turoyo, the Neo-Aramaic idiom of Tur Abdin, but her smile means most welcome and together we follow the cobbled path in the shadow of the houses at the edge of the village. It is a steep climb over rocks and stones towards the site on a ridge above Habsus. 

Column in courtyard of Mor Lozoor
On the hill top stands the ruined and deserted Mor Lozoor or Saint Lazarus monastery, its ancient stones glowing in broad sunlight. It was founded by Mor Shemun of the Olive Trees. Old Nissani keeps the key to the site and unlocks the small wooden gate. We enter the inner courtyard. Heaps of rubble in the corners and black eyes that stare back – the entrance holes in the crumbling walls of the annexes and the empty church. Right in the middle of the courtyard stands the column that once upon a time made the monastery famous and attracted pilgrims from the far ends of Tur Abdin. The column is hollow inside and according to an inscription it dates back to the end of the eighth century. Christian tradition in Tur Abdin assumes that in those distant times a pious monk called Daniel became a stylite and spent many years on top of the column. It was an extreme form of early Christian monastic life and the monastery of Mor Lozoor in Habsus preserves the only remnant of it in Tur Abdin.

Nissani in courtyard Mor Lozoor
No money, she gestures. For the church, I try to make clear, for the church and the monastery. At last she accepts the ten euro note I want to slide into the palm of her wrinkled hand. Nissani Abdullah leads the way back to the village. She is older than the visitor who walks in her footsteps and tries to keep up with her when she blindly takes the path through the rocks. Women of her age are cleaning laundry in the milky water of stone basins among the boulders. Nissani pauses a moment. They greet each other. They exchange a few words in Kurdish, probably about the crazy visitor from abroad who wanted to climb all the way to that unholy dump on the hill and who must have given her a huge tip for her guiding. In a way, the way of the village, she is one of them. This is Nissani’s native soil and the place where she wants to be buried.

Solitude is a state of mind for travellers. Nissani doesn’t travel around, she has a whole world to preserve in her own village, she is indeed the last Syriac Orthodox Christian of Habsus.

Text & illustrations - ATH