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Mountain Mystics and Desert Monasteries PDF Print E-mail

From Deir Kamul on Mount Cudi to Deir al Surian in Egypt

Ruins of Nestorian monastery Deir Kemol - Kamul on Mount Cudi, SE Turkey

One picture tells more than a thousand words. Is that really so? Please, look again at the picture above. What does it reveal besides high grasses, low trees and old weed-grown stones? Predominant green, lonesome grey and a touch of blue – colour spotted blindness, a fragment of an arbitrary mountainous landscape. The picture gets its real content from the few words of the caption underneath and its true story from the thousand words that are needed to clarify it.
The British female explorer Gertrude Bell travelled through the Middle East at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. She was in search of what was left of the age-old Christian architecture in Mesopotamia. She took pictures of ruined churches and monasteries and commented on her travel experiences in her diaries and letters. In the spring of 1909 she reached Mount Cudi, nowadays a mountain range in the southeastern border region of Turkey. She was cordially welcomed by Qasha Mattai, the priest of the Christian village of Hassana in the southern foothills of Mount Cudi, on whose top according to local Christian and Islamic tradition Noah’s Ark had landed after the Flood. It was a holy place for the oriental Christians in that region and in the early ages of Christianity pious hermits had settled on the upper slopes of Mount Cudi. What was left of the hermitages and monasteries they had built there? Very early in the morning of May 12, 1909, Gertrude Bell with priest Mattai and his brother Shimun started from the village of Hassana and went up the mountain. Afterwards she noted down a detailed description of the trip in her diary: 
Assyrian mountain gnomes (G Bell)
‘We climbed to the west and walked through oak woods for about an hour to another monastery with vaulted parallel chambers. A large garden of fruit trees round about it and a great grove of blue flags probably the remains of its cemetery. On our way back we stopped and some shepherds gave us milk. The pointed white felt caps of the boys make them look like mountain gnomes. We got back to camp about 11. I lunched and slept and wrote a letter to the Times. Awfully hot and flies.’
What is clearly visible on the first picture that illustrates this text, is precisely what Gertrude Bell must have seen, though the colour picture is taken almost a century later. This happened during a sneaky climb up the mountain in June 2004. By then the Assyrian Christian villagers, descendants of priest Mattai, had already left Hassana. They were evicted from their native village by the Turkish army in 1993 and since then the place has been off limits, with Turkish military controlling the whole Cudi area in order to prevent infiltrations of Kurdish PKK-fighters. The site of the ruined monastery with the vaulted chambers as described by Gertrude Bell, was called Ukmel in Sureth, the Neo Aramaic idiom of the people of Hassana. According to them there were natural water basins nearby and the villagers used to dig for gold on the site, because they thought that great treasures were hidden there. It was wishful thinking. The only treasure on the site is the historical value of that ruined monastery. 
The old name of the monastery is Deir Kemol or Kamul. It is mentioned in the hours of daily prayers, the Daily Offices, of the East Syriac rite, which is used by the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Church. In a hymn – motwa in Syriac – for Wednesdays at the Night Service we find the following passage:  
Raban Joseph the Seer,
Whose monastery is in the Kurdish mountain,
Saw exalted revelations
Above the nature of man
And the great habitation near thereby 
Called Kmul, the fountain of love,
Hath the fame of the Paradise of Eden.
Metropolitan Aprem - Trichur, India
Kmul, the fountain of love, clearly refers to Deir Kemol, the monastery on the higher slopes of Mount Cudi. In old times it was the dwelling place of the pious mystic Mar Beh Isho. This Beh Isho Kamulaya or Behisho of Kamul was a late 8th century East Syrian monk. His book on monastic life is mentioned in the Syriac catalog of the library of Abdisho bar Berikha, Nestorian Metropolitan of Nisibis in the 13th century and one of the last Syriac writers. The works of Beh Isho have survived in two Syriac manuscripts. One of them is a modern codex, copied in 1900 and preserved in the library of Metropolitan Aprem of the Church of the East in Trichur, Kerala, India. Metropolitan Aprem is a man for all seasons. He has travelled all over the world, he plays the sitar, he knows how to entertain his guests. When I visited him some years  ago in his episcopal residence in Trichur, he showed me the codex. It includes six discourses, entitled A history of important rules for the dutiful and perfect anchorite, by Mar Behisho of Kmol. The Trichur Codex also contains a Beh Isho biography, which appears to be a reworking of the Syriac Vita of Saint Bishoi, one of the legendary 4th century founders of the monasteries at Wadi Natrun in northern Egypt. In this way the biography of Beh Isho describes events at Deir Kemol in 8th century Mesopotamia and also events in 4th century northern Egypt, in the Saint Bishoi Monastery of the Syrians. Such a time span is too much for one person, even for a mystic like Mar Beh Isho. What follows is an attempt to narrow the gap. It is not a jump into miraculous faith, it is the reconstruction of a religious and historical link between early Christian monastic life in Mesopotamia and in Egypt.          
Saint Bishoi - Egyptian hermit
Mar Beh Isho from Kemol or Kamul was a Nestorian mystic. Nestorianism was embraced by the Persian (later Assyrian) Church of the East in the 5th century, after the excommunication of Nestorius, the former patriarch of Constantinople, who preached that Christotokos, Mother of Christ, was more suitable for the Virgin Mary than Theotokos, Mother of God. In the next century, monophysitism – one nature – spread among oriental Christians. This doctrine, developed in the patriarchate of Alexandria in Egypt, preached the divine nature of Christ; it was accepted by the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt and the Syriac Orthodox Church in Mesopotamia. So it can be called an ironic twist in ecclesiastical history that precisely the life of the 8th century Nestorian mystic Mar Beh Isho was mixed with that of the Egyptian hermit Bishoi or Pshoi, who was believed to have lived in the 4th century in the Egyptian desert south of Alexandria and was later on honoured as a great saint by the clearly anti-Nestorian Coptic and Syriac Orthodox Christians. That desert area, known as Wadi Natrun, was called Scetis in Greek. Scetis refers to a place dotted with hermitages, where ascetic hermits prayed and fasted and tried to unite their soul with the Divine Light. According to Coptic tradition Bishoi’s original hermitage was next to the church of the monastery Deir al-Surian. 
Mor Ephrem the Syrian
There were Syrian monks at Wadi Natrun from the end of the 4th century onwards. Living among the Egyptian monks, they wanted to create their own monastic community, since they had their own liturgical language – Aramaic Syriac – and their specific cultural background. This historical tendency is linked with the miracle of the Saint Ephrem’s Tree. Legend has it that Mor Ephrem, the famous 4th century Syriac theologian from Nisibis (now Nusaybin, SE Turkey) in northern Mesopotamia, came to visit Saint Bishoi in his hermitage at  Wadi Natrun. As Mor Ephrem spoke only Syriac, they had a problem of communication. It was solved when Saint Bishoi suddenly in a miraculous way started to speak Syriac himself. During their conversation Mor Ephrem put his staff against the door of Saint Bishoi’s hermitage. Ephrem's staff miraculously rooted and blossomed there and grew into the tamarind tree that is still standing on that spot, till this very day. This legend deeply roots the presence of Syrian monks in early monastic life in the Egyptian desert.  
In the 6th century the doctrine of bishop Julian of Halicarnassos (Bodrum) spread throughout Egypt, when Julian was exiled and came to Alexandria. He preached that the body of Christ was not a normal human body of flesh and blood – it was inseparably united with God and therefore not susceptible to decay or corruption. This extreme monophisitism, focusing on the divine nature of Christ, was rejected as heresy by the Orthodox Church in Egypt, since bishop Julian’s doctrine denied the orthodox belief that the Holy Virgin Maria was the Mother of God or Theotokos, who gave birth to Christ. In the monastic communities at Wadi Natrun many monks accepted the doctrine of bishop Julian. Those who rejected this doctrine and remained within the mainstream Coptic and Syriac Orthodox Church founded new monasteries in the neighbourhood of the original ones. Close to Saint Bishoi Monastery a twin monastery was thus established. It took the name Monastery of the Holy Virgin Theotokos. In the 8th century Syrian merchants from Mesopotamia settled down in Old Cairo. They bought the Monastery of the Holy Virgin Theotokos close to the old Saint Bishoi Monastery and gave it to Syrian monks. Those Syrian monks renamed it the Monastery of the Mother of God of the Syrians and so it became known as Deir al-Surian: the Monastery of the Syrians.

Wadi Natrun 1809 - twin monasteries Deir Anba Bishoi and Deir al-Surian

In the year 927 Moses of Nisibis, abbot at Deir al-Surian, travelled to Mesopotamia in search of manuscripts. Three years later he returned to Egypt with 250 precious Syriac manuscripts, thus laying the foundations of the famous Deir al-Surian library. For centuries that library was situated on the second floor of the monastery tower. At the beginning of the 18th century the Lebanese orientalists Elias and Joseph Simon Assemani were sent to Egypt as papal envoys. They visited Deir al-Surian and got hold of 40 Syriac manuscripts, which till today are preserved in the Vatican Library in Rome. Lord Curzon came to the monastery in 1837. In his work Monasteries of the Levant he describes how he plied the old and blind abbot with Italian liquor and got access to an oil-cellar where unique Syriac manuscripts were wasting away. He bought them -very British - at a ridiculous price. Lord Curzon was not the only treasure hunter in those days. In the 19th century Western visitors to the monastery obtained 500 manuscripts for the British Museum in London. In many cases these Syriac manuscripts are the oldest copies of Greek classical texts from Aristoteles, Archimedes, Hippocrates and others, which were until that time only known to European scholars in corrupt medieval Latin translations. 
Deir Kemol - June 2004
In the course of the ages the number of Syrian monks decreased at Deir al-Surian and they were replaced by Egyptian ones. In 1413 a monk named Moses went on a journey from the Mor Gabriel Monastery in Tur Abdin, till today a Christian enclave in southeastern Turkey. He travelled to Deir al-Surian and found out that just one Syrian monk remained there. When Joseph Assemani visited the monastery in the 18th century, there was not a single Syrian monk left. Today Deir al-Surian is one of the most important monasteries of the Coptic Church in Egypt. A large community of Coptic monks is living there and the place gets many visitors, Coptic Christians as well as foreign tourists. Saint Bishoi’s or Deir Anba Bishoi, the older twin monastery nearby, is equally flourishing as one of the four remaining monasteries in the Wadi Natrun area. Unfortunately, the situation in another age-old site of Syriac monastic life is quite different. The Egyptian hermit Bishoi has grown into a great saint; the East Syrian or Nestorian mystic Beh Isho is almost completely forgotten. Deir Kemol, his monastery on Mount Cudi in SE Turkey, is now completely deserted. Today it is nothing more than a remote and almost inaccessible heap of stones on a forbidden mountain slope. Predominant green, lonesome grey and a touch of blue –  colours on a picture that even ten thousand words cannot restore in its ancient glory.                           

Text & (Deir Kemol - Metropolitan Aprem) illustrations - A Thiry