There’s a curious little church in the Syrian city of Derik. The Church of Our Lady (kanisat al-adhra in Arabic) is modern, built in 1958 atop the remains of a much older, undated church. The original church was long buried when a local parishioner, so the story goes, dreamt one night in 1940 that the Virgin Mary wanted him to dig at a particular spot, and a picture of Our Lady and a picture of Jesus would appear there. (I’ve heard a few variations on the story, but they all have the same gist.)
After one failed excavation, Our Lady again appeared in the man’s dreams and told him to dig deeper. He and other parishioners uncovered the pictures, contained within a ruined church, the base of which now forms the foundation of the new church. The church sat on the planned route for a new road through the neighborhood. The church’s informal historian told me that as the municipality prepared to bulldoze the site, the bulldozer kept breaking down, or its driver falling sick, until the municipality president—himself a Syriac Christian—rerouted the street to preserve the church’s location. Whether the story is true or not, the street does indeed change course to wind around the church today.
Every Saturday evening, Syriac Orthodox faithful from the city of Derik gather to pray at the church and commune over tea and coffee. I have visited a few times, including once last November. As expected, the church’s garden was bustling with pilgrims, Muslim and Christian alike. In the 1960s, Our Lady would appear here to the faithful just behind the altar, and holy oil—still seen behind a glass cabinet—seeped inexplicably from the church’s floor. This oil is believed to be the source of many miraculous healings.
The church is informally dedicated to Our Lady of Azakh, whose icon is prominent inside. Most Syriac Christians in Derik came from the town of Azakh and a handful of surrounding villages after the Armenian Genocide during World War I, which also targeted non-Armenian Christians such as the Syriac Christians of Azakh in modern Turkey, just twenty miles from Derik. Locals say that the people of Azakh repelled the campaign led by the Ottoman army and Kurdish tribes through the help of Our Lady of Azakh, who was seen in battle alongside the Christians defending their village. (The passive voice is required here, because it is unclear who actually saw her.) After the genocide, the Christians of Azakh relocated primarily to Derik, across the border in the newly created country of Syria, which remained under French control from the end of World War I until 1946. But Azakh ended up in Turkey after the conclusion of border negotiations between France and Syria, and for decades Syriac Christians continued to flee Azakh for Syria as harassment by Kurdish tribes persisted on the Turkish side of the border.
Most of the Syriac Orthodox Christians of Derik speak Arabic in a unique dialect they brought with them from Azakh. A small minority speak Syriac. After leaving the church on a chilly Saturday evening in November, I made my way to a small shop to return a book lent to me by the shopkeeper, a man whose family speaks Syriac. He said that his classmates—the Arabic-speaking Syriac Orthodox Christians of Derik—used to make fun of him and his brother for speaking Syriac to each other. Now that the Syrian government’s Baathist Arab nationalism is no longer imposed on the population, many of his neighbors are asking him to help them learn Syriac. While I sat in his shop, an older man—one of his informal pupils—appeared, and they spoke a few words of Syriac.
The shop was a microcosm of the linguistic profile of the city. Arabic was the norm, but one child who came in spoke with the shopkeeper in a mix of Arabic and Kurdish, and the shopkeeper replied in Arabic and Kurdish. A woman entered, and the shopkeeper told her that I speak Chaldean (what scholars call Northeastern Neo-Aramaic). This was an exaggeration, but I spoke a few words to the woman. She expressed delight but said that I was speaking Assyrian, not Chaldean—no doubt accurate, given that I’ve picked up most of what I know in villages near the city of Hassakeh, where I run a humanitarian organization that works with Assyrian Christians. The Chaldean woman bought items on credit totaling about $10, with the reluctant acquiescence of the shopkeeper. When she left, he shook his head and told me that her son had recently bought a new motorcycle—worth about $800—but that she was somehow always out of money when she came into his shop.
After leaving the shop with some arak (aniseed liquor) in hand as a gift for a Syrian friend, I returned to my hotel, where I had standard Syrian fare for dinner and made my way to bed, not realizing that geopolitics would wake me from my sleep. One week earlier, an explosion had gone off on Istanbul’s iconic Istiklal Street, a world away from tiny Derik. Turkey blamed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The latter now controls these parts of Syria, with Western backing. The Turkish government arrested a suspected perpetrator and some forty collaborators, but few in Syria believed the official story. For one thing, the woman said to have set off the explosion simply did not look Kurdish. Perhaps she nonetheless is Kurdish, and no doubt she could have been recruited by the PKK either way. But the story raised red flags.
The U.S. Consulate in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, warned of possible Turkish military action in Syria or northern Iraq as retaliation. A friend who works for an organization that advises international NGOs on security in Syria and Iraq called me, and we parsed the careful wording of the warning to discern what the consulate had meant, which probably wasn’t exactly what it had said. With all this in the back of my mind, I went to sleep, and woke at about 3 a.m. to a bang and the sound of my balcony door shaking. I first thought that someone was trying to enter my room, but another explosion made it clear that an airstrike had hit somewhere nearby. The next day I learned that the strikes had been fifteen miles away or more. The Turks were keeping their promise to retaliate against Kurdish groups in Syria.
The next morning, I made my way up the hill to the church of Mar Dodo, one of four Syriac Orthodox churches in the town. (The Church of Our Lady, being a shrine, does not have regular Sunday Masses.) The priest switched between Syriac and Arabic prayers throughout the mass, but he preached in Arabic. He said that Sodom and Gomorrah had been necessary to show God’s power to those who didn’t believe, and that God’s power to destroy was more powerful than that of any air force. Aside from this reference, the previous night’s events went unacknowledged. Later, in the garden of the Church of Our Lady, I sat down to breakfast with the men of Mar Dodo, and everyone shared his story about whether he had woken up or not. (I was not the only one who had expected to encounter an intruder, but there were a few who hadn’t heard anything.)
After breakfast, I was invited by a parishioner, an old friend named Samer, to visit a Syriac Orthodox church in a village not far from town. On the way, we stopped at his friend’s farm for coffee. At every stop, the main topic was the emigration that has depleted the Christian community in northeast Syria since the war began more than a decade ago. Samer said that he had no interest in going to Europe like his peers. He said that breakfast with his friends in the garden of the Church of Our Lady was more valuable than all of Europe to him, and that those who left always regretted it.
We made a small pilgrimage to the Syriac Orthodox church in the village of Barabeita, near the Turkish border. Like the Church of Our Lady in Derik, it is a twentieth-century reconstruction on the foundation of an older church, but unlike the former, Barabeita’s church has a long written history. Manuscripts commissioned for the church—also named for Our Lady—survive from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, according to Syriac scholar David Wilmshurst. After tea on the church’s grounds, Samer and I drove back to Derik and parted ways. The next morning I returned to Iraq. A few weeks later, I saw on Twitter a reference to Barabeita, discussing those manuscripts.
The story of the Syriac Christians of Derik reflects the turmoil lived by Syria’s Christian community over the past century. It would be hard to find a more faithful community, and their faith survives in the face of war, persecution, and the emigration of their brothers, sisters, children, and friends. The Syriac Christians of Derik firmly believe that Our Lady of Azakh has not forgotten them. Equally clear, on any Saturday night at the church bearing her icon, is that they have not forgotten her.
Samuel Sweeney is president of the Mesopotamia Relief Foundation.
Image by Iyad Al Ghafari licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.