Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xxix

After two days the Patriarch arrived from Gahgoran with nearly forty persons. To realise what this house is like, one must go back four centuries, to the mode of living of the medieval barons of England. Mar Shimun is not only a spiritual prince, but the temporal ruler of the Syrians of the plains and valleys, and of the Ashirets or tribal Syrians of the mountains of Central Kurdistan, as well as a judge and a salaried official of the Turkish Government. He appoints the maleks or lay rulers of each district, where the office is not hereditary, and possesses ecclesiastical patronage. For over four centuries the Patriarch has been of the family of Shimun, which is regarded as the royal family; and he is assisted in managing affairs by a “family council.” Kochanes is thus the ecclesiastical and political metropolis of the Syrian nation, and the innumerable disputes which arise among the people of this region are brought here for judgment and arbitration.

It is a crowded life. From sunrise to sunset the pavement outside the rude hall of entrance, the great room, like that at Marbishu, where Sulti presides, and the guest-chambers, are always thronged with men waiting to be received by the Patriarch, sleeping on the big settle in the hall, or cleaning swords and guns, or wrestling, performing feats of horsemanship, playing chess, and eating. Sixty persons more or less are guests here. Every one coming into the valley is received, and horses are stabled while men are fed. Outside, sheep and fowls are being continually killed, two or three sheep being required daily; mules are departing for Diza for stores, or are returning with flour and sugar; oxen are bringing in hay, and perpetual measuring and weighing are going on. The cost of provisioning such an army of guests is enormous, and presses heavily on the Patriarch’s slender resources. Intrigues are rife. In some ways every man’s hand is against his fellow, and the succession to the Patriarchate, although nominally settled, is a subject of scheming, plotting, rivalries, and jealousies. Then there are various appointments, secular and spiritual, to be wrangled for, the difficult relations with Turkey to be managed, and such a wavering policy to be shaped towards Rome and American Presbyterianism as shall absolutely break with neither.

Among the guests who come and go as they please, unquestioned, are refugees from the barbarities of the Kurds, among the most pitiable of whom is Mar — — Bishop of — — bereft under threat of death of his Episcopal seal, and a fugitive from his diocese, which is almost destroyed by violence and exactions. Few hours pass in which some fresh tale of bloodshed, or the driving off of flocks, or the attacking of travellers, or the digging into houses, is not brought up here. A piteous state of alarm prevails. Mar Shimun, naturally feeble and irresolute, and his family council are helpless. His dual position aggravates his perplexities. Counsels are divided and paralysed. No one knows where to turn for help on earth, and “the Lord is deaf,” some of the people say.

On entering the house by an archway, where the heavily-bossed door stands always open, a busy scene is to be witnessed in the hall, which is roughly paved with irregular slabs of stone. On the rude stone settle men are sitting or sleeping, or a carpenter is using it as his bench, or a sheep is being cut up on it. At the end of a passage is the “house,” a high, big, blackened room, with shelving floors of earth and rock, ovens in the floors, great quaraghs holding grain, piles of wood, men sawing logs, huge pots, goat-skins of butter hanging from the rafters, spinning-wheels, a loom, great roughly-cut joints of meat, piles of potatoes, women ceaselessly making blankets of bread, to be used as tablecloths before being eaten, preparations for the ceaseless meals involved by the unbounded hospitality of the house, and numbers of daggered serving-men, old women, and hangers-on. This room is only lighted from the doors and from a hole in the roof. Nearly opposite is a low dark lobby, from which opens my room, sixteen feet square, with walls three feet thick, and Mar Shimun’s room, about the same size, which serves him for sleeping, eating, reception-room, and office.

On the same side of the hall are two guest-rooms, now packed to their utmost capacity, and a large room in which Ishai, the Patriarch’s half-brother, a young man of exceeding beauty, lives, with his lovely wife, Asiat, and their four children. In a ruinous-looking tower attached to the main building Mr. Browne has his abode, up a steep ladder. Below there are houses inhabited by the Patriarch’s relations, one of whom, Marta, is a dignified and charming woman, and the mother of Mar Auraham, the Patriarch-designate, whose prospective dignity is the subject of much intrigue.

The presiding genius of the Patriarch’s household is his sister Sulti, a capable woman of forty, who has remained unmarried in order to guide his house, and who rules as well as guides. When she sleeps I know not. She is astir early and late, measuring, weighing, directing, the embodiment of Proverbs chap. xxxi. No little brain-power must be required for the ordering of such a household and the meeting of such emergencies as that of today, when twenty Jelu men arrived unexpectedly.

The serving-men all look like bandits. The medieval Jester is in existence here, Shlimon, a privileged person, who may say and do anything, and take all manner of liberties, and who, by his unlimited buffooneries, helps the Patriarch and his family through the dulness of the winter days. He and another faithful fellow, said to be equally quick with his tongue and his dagger, are Mar Shimun’s personal servants. At fixed hours the latter carries food to his lord in tinned copper bowls on a large round tray, knives and forks not having penetrated to Kochanes.

The routine of the day is as follows. The Patriarch rises very early, and says prayers at dawn, after which those who have the entrée are served with pipes and coffee in his room, and talk ad libitum. Business of all sorts follows; a siesta is taken at mid-day, then there is business again, and unlimited talk with unlimited smoking till five, when the Patriarch goes to prayers at church, after which everybody is at liberty to attend his levée, and talking and smoking go on till 9 or 10 P.M. It is a life without privacy or quiet. The affairs of the mountains, litigation, tribal feuds, the difficulty of raising the tribute, the gossip of the village, and just now, above all else, the excesses of the Kurds, form the staple of conversation, as I understand from Qasha — — who, as a personal friend, spends much of the day in the Patriarch’s room. In winter, when Kochanes is snowed up, chess and the pranks and witticisms of the Jester fill up the time.

The curious little court, the rigid etiquette, the clank of arms, the unbounded hospitality, and the political and judicial functions exercised by the Patriarch, with the rude dwelling and furnishings, combine to recreate the baronial life as it might have been lived in Roslin or Warkworth Castles.

Though I had half-seen Mar Shimun at Gahgoran, I was only formally presented after his arrival here. It is proper for a woman to cover her head before him, and I put on my hat and took off my shoes. His room is well paved, the plaster is newly coloured, and there is a glazed window with a magnificent prospect. There were rugs at one end, on which the Patriarch was seated, with two chairs at his left hand. He rose to receive me, and, according to custom, I kissed his hand. He took my letter of introduction, and put it under a cushion, as etiquette demanded, and asked me to be seated. On the floor along the walls were bishops, priests, deacons, Jelu and Tyari mountaineers, lowlanders from Urmi, and men of the Shimun family, all most picturesquely dressed and smoking long wooden pipes. On each subsequent occasion, when I paid my respects to him, he was similarly surrounded. Mr. Browne acted as interpreter, but nothing but very superficial conversation was possible when there was the risk that anything said might be twisted into dangerous use. Mar Shimun is a man about the middle height, with large dark eyes, a sallow complexion, a grizzled iron-gray beard, and an expression of profound melancholy, mingled with a most painful look of perplexity and irresolution. He cannot be over fifty, but the miseries and intrigues around him make him appear prematurely old. When I approached the subject of the anarchy of the country he glared timidly and fearfully round, and changed the subject, sending me a message afterwards that Qasha —— and Kwaja Shlimon, a Chaldæan educated in Paris, are in possession of all that he could tell me, and would speak for him.

He and his family are very proud both of ancestry and position. Within limits his word is law; a letter from him is better than any Government passport or escort through the nearly inaccessible fastnesses of the Ashirets; “By the Head of Mar Shimun,” and “By the House of Mar Shimun” are common asseverations, but he and his are exposed constantly to indignities and insults from minor Turkish officials and from Kurdish chiefs, and the continual disrespect to his person and office is said to be eating into his soul.

He wears a crimson fez with a black pagri, a short blue cloth jacket with sleeves wide at the bottom and open for a few inches at the inner seam, blue cloth trousers of a sailor cut, a red and white striped satin shirt, the front and sleeves of which are very much en évidence, and a crimson girdle, but without the universal khanjar.

This is the man who is the head at once of a church and nation, the temporal and spiritual ruler of the Syrian people, the hereditary Patriarch, the Catholicos of the East, whose dynastic ancestors ranked as sixth in dignity in the Catholic Church in its early ages. It was not, however, till the early part of the fifth century, when the Church of the East threw in her lot with Nestorius, after his condemnation in 431 by the Council of Ephesus for “heretical” views on the nature of our Lord, that the Catholicos of the East assumed the farther title of Patriarch. As I look on Mar Shimun’s irresolute face, and see the homage which his people pay to him, I recall the history of a day when this church, which only survives as an obscure and hunted remnant, planted churches and bishoprics in Persia, Central Asia, Tartary, and China; its missionaries, full of zeal and self-sacrifice, brought such legions into its fold that in the sixth century the ecclesiastical ancestor of this Patriarch, then resident at Baghdad, ruled over twenty-five metropolitical provinces extending from Jerusalem to China; and when in the fourteenth century it was not only the largest communion in Christendom, but outnumbered the whole of the rest of Christendom, east and west, Roman, Greek, and other churches put together. It is truly a marvel not only that Baghdad, Edessa, and Nisibis possessed Nestorian schools of divinity and philosophy, but that Christian colleges, seminaries, and theological schools flourished in Samarcand, Bokhara, and Khiva! How this huge church melted away like snow, and how the tide of Christianity ebbed, leaving as a relic on its high-water mark within the Chinese frontier a stone tablet inscribed with the Nestorian creed, and how Taimurlane pursued the unfortunate Christian remnant with such fury that the Catholicos himself with a fugitive band was forced to fly into these mountains, are matters of most singular historic interest. Most fascinating indeed is it to be here. Each day seems but an hour, so absorbing are the interests, so deep the pathos, so vivid the tableaux, so unique the life in this hamlet of Kochanes, on its fair green alp at a height of 6000 feet among these wild mountains of Kurdistan, musical with the sound of torrents fed by fifty snow-drifts, dashing down to join “the Pison, the river of Eden” (as the Patriarch calls the Zab), on its way to the classic Tigris.

The afternoon I arrived, Sulti, Marta, Asiat, and several other women courteously visited me, and the next day I returned their visits in their simple pleasant houses. These formalities over, I have enjoyed complete liberty, and have acquainted myself with the whole of Kochanes, and with many of the people and their interests, and have had small gatherings of men in my room each evening, Qasha —— or Mr. Browne interpreting their tales of strife or wrong.

“Fear is on every side,” the fear of a people practically unarmed, for their long guns, some of them matchlocks, are of no use against the rifles of the Kurds, nor dare they fire in self-defence. Travelling is nearly suspended. A company of people whose needs call them to Urmi dare not run the risk of the journey till they can go down with Mar Gauriel and his large escort. It is evident that the Patriarch and his people hoped for a British protectorate as one result of “the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Mission,” and that they are bitterly disappointed that their condition is growing worse.

“How can we listen to teaching,” say some of them, “when we have no rest? How can we believe in God when He lets these things happen to us? The Almighty is deaf, and we cease to pray. Can we hear teaching when the wolf is on us by night and day? If we let go the Cross we might be rich and safe. Night by night we ask, ‘Shall we see the morning?’ for our oppressors wax fiercer daily.”

Mar — — Bishop of — — mentioned previously as a fugitive from his diocese, is a fine, pleasant-looking middle-aged man, more like a sailor than an ecclesiastic. Late one night, in a whisper, with a trusty watch at the door, he told his story, through Qasha — — in the following words:

“I fled, fearing for my life, because many times I had spoken against the oppressions. The Kurds have carried away most of the sheep and goats, besides taking all they wished to have, and they entered through the houses, plundering everything, and burning two in ——. Their words are ‘give or die.’ I petitioned Government regarding the oppressions, and Mohammed Bey came, and by threat of death he got my seal, and wrote in my name a letter, saying it was all false, there were no oppressions, and he was a very good man, and he signed it with my seal, and it went to Stamboul. My seal has now been for one year in the hands of Mohammed Bey, who has killed about thirty Christians in Berwar. Three months ago I fled to save my life.

“Seventeen years the oppressions have begun; but it was ten years ago when we could easily keep ourselves and raise our bread — now we cannot. In — — five years ago, all had plenty of dress and bread, and every family kept two cows and two hundred or more of sheep. But now, when I visited them, I would shame to look at the female persons, so naked were they, and so did they hide themselves for shame in the dark parts of their houses, for their dress was all in pieces, so that their flesh was seen. I was thirsty and asked for milk, and they made reply, ‘Oh, we have not a cow, or a sheep, or a goat: we forget the taste of milk!’ And most of their fine fields were gone out of their hands by oppressions, for they could no longer find money wherewith to pay taxes, and they sold them for a vile price.

“K—— was the best village in Sopana, and more wealthy than any village of Kurds or Christians. There I went and asked for some milk. They said, ‘Never a goat, or a sheep, or a cow have we.’ I ask of all the families their condition, and they make reply, with many tears, ‘All that we have has left our hands, and we fear for our lives now. We were rich, now we have not bread to eat from day to day.’ Seventeen years ago the village of B—— had fifty families of wealthy villagers, but now I only find twelve, and those twelve could scarcely find bread. I had asked bread, but I could not find it. By day their things were taken by force out of their houses: at night their sheep and cattle were driven off. They could keep nothing. Our wheat, our sheep, our butter is not our own. The chief, Mohammed Bey, and his servants ask of us, saying, ‘Give, or we will kill you.’”

This is a sample of innumerable tales to which I listen daily. Some are probably grossly exaggerated, others, and this among them, are probably true in all essential particulars. Daily, from all quarters, men arrive with their complaints of robbery and violence, and ask the Patriarch to obtain redress for them, but he is powerless.


Designs on Tombs at Kochanes.

My favourite walk is down the fair green lawn outside the village, on which is a copse of poplars, with foliage of reddening gold. Beside it, on the verge of the precipitous heights above the Terpai, is a bold group of rocks, on which the church dedicated to Mar Shalita is built. The ruins of a former church, dedicated to Mart Mariam, are higher up the alp. Below the rocks are a great number of tombstones, with incised ornaments upon them bearing the general name of crosses. The church has nothing specially ecclesiastical in its appearance. It has some resemblance to a keep with out-buildings, and its irregular form seems to have been dictated by the configuration of the rock. It has no windows, and the cruciform slits at a great height look like loopholes. It is indeed the ultimate refuge of the Patriarch and the villagers in case of a descent of the Kurds. I walked all round it, through the poplar grove, with its mirthful waters, among the tombs, and back by the edge of the ravine to the west side without finding a door. In truth the only entrance is up a rude and very steep ladder, about ten feet high, with a rude door at the top six inches thick, but only three feet high. How old and infirm people get up and down I cannot tell. So difficult is the access that I was glad to avail myself of the vigorous aid of Mar Gauriel, who, having visited England, is ready on all occasions with courteous attentions to a lady. The reason of the low doors is said to be that all may bow their heads on entering the house of God, and that the Moslems may not stable their cattle in the church. The entrance harmonises with the obvious pervading motive of the design, which is inaccessibility.


Syrian Cross.

The door opens into a small courtyard, partly protected by a wooden roof. At its farther end, in a recess in its massive wall, is a small altar. Its west wall is pierced so that the approach can be commanded. In this courtyard the daily prayers are frequently said during the warm weather. A few steps lead from this into a building of two stories, a rude little house in fact, once occupied by one of the Patriarchs, and latterly by the late Rabban Yonan, a holy man, almost a hermit, whose reputation for sanctity has extended far beyond the limits of Kurdistan.

Removing our shoes, we entered the church through a sort of porch, the lintel of which is ornamented with bas-reliefs consisting of a cross in knot-work and side ornaments of the same, very rudely executed. The threshold is elevated, and the lintel of the door only three feet four inches high, so that the worshipper must bend again before entering. It was a gloomy transition from the bright October sunshine to the dark twilight within, and even with the aid of candles the interior was only dimly seen. It consists of a nave, about thirty-four feet long, with a sanctuary, and a sacristy which also serves as the baptistery, at the east end. The nave is lofty and without seats. The worshippers stand during divine service, even the aged and infirm only rest by leaning on their cross-handled staffs. In the nave, below the screen of the sanctuary, are three altars. On one, the “altar of prayers,” the anthem books are laid; on another, the “altar of the Gospels,” is a copy of the Gospels wrapped in a cloth, on which is a cross, which it is customary to kiss; on the third there is also a cross. A very thick wall separates the nave from the eastern chamber, which in its turn is divided unequally into two parts. This wall is pierced by a narrow chancel arch, and there is a narrow platform behind the altars of prayer, etc., ascended by three steps, at which the people receive the Eucharistic elements. Through the arch is dimly seen the altar, over which is a stone canopy, or baldachino, supported on four pillars. In the sacristy is a narrow but deep font, in which the infant is baptized by being dipped in the water up to the knees at the name of the Father, up to the waist at the name of the Son, and wholly immersed at the name of the Holy Ghost, the priest repeating, “Thou art baptized in the name of the Father, Amen, and of the Son, Amen, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.” Before the rite the infant’s forehead is anointed with oil in the church, and it is completely anointed in the baptistery before being plunged into the font. Every infant has two god-parents, who act as sponsors at its subsequent marriage. These persons by undertaking this office are placed in a relationship of affinity close enough to be a bar to marriage. After the baptism the child is confirmed in the nave with oil and the imposition of the priest’s hands, and after being very tightly bound up in its swaddling clothes is handed to the god-parents. Infant communion is the rule of the Church, but the elements are rarely received at the time of baptism.

Baptism is only valid when celebrated by a priest and in a consecrated church. Private baptisms are unlawful, but there is a form of prayer appointed for use if a child is dangerously ill, during which the priest signs a basin of water with the sign of the Cross, saying, “In the strength of our Lord may this water be of blessing in the name,” etc. The mother afterwards bathes the child in the water, and if it dies they “trust it to the mercy of God.” If it recovers it must be taken to church to be baptized in the usual manner. The Holy Communion, the Kourbana, ought by rule to precede baptism in the very early morning, and the baptismal rite ought to be administered on the eighth day, but it is often postponed till the annual village festival, at which the Kourbana is always celebrated.96

The whole interior of the church of Kochanes is covered by a plain vaulted stone roof. At the west end of the nave is a row of oblong stone tombs, four feet high, in which several of the patriarchs are buried; and a steep narrow stone stair leads from these to a small door high up in the north wall, which gives access to a small chamber in which the priest prepares and bakes the bread for the Holy Communion. The flour for this purpose is preferably of wheat which has been gleaned by girls. It is ground in a hand-mill and is mixed with “holy leaven,” handed on from sacrament to sacrament. The bread is made into round cakes, a quarter of an inch thick and two and a half inches in diameter, which are stamped with a cross. Great importance is attached to the elements, and the water used for mixing with the sacramental wine is always brought from the purest spring within reach.97

On one side of this upper chamber, at a height of four feet, there is the mouth of a sort of tunnel which runs between the flat exterior roof and the vaulted ceiling of the nave. This is used for concealing the Liturgies and the other poor valuables of the church in times of peril. Secret as this hiding-place is, the Kurds discovered it some years ago, and carried off and destroyed whatever of value had been hidden, including a firman and a knife which (it is said) were given by Mohammed to a former Catholicos, and which are now in Stamboul.

The general arrangement of the church is a pathetic protest against chronic insecurity and persecution. The interior, and especially the sanctuary, are as black as smoke can make them, although very few candles are ordinarily used, the clergy holding rolls of thin wax taper in their hands when they require light on the Liturgies and Gospel. There is little architectural ornament except some sculptured stones, and two recesses with scallop-shell roofs at the sides of the chancel arch. The church is in good repair, for if any rain gets into a sacred building it has to be reconsecrated.

Towards five o’clock the sounding-board is beaten, and the Patriarch, the two bishops, and some other men, all in secular dress, saunter down to evening prayers, which are usually said by the Patriarch himself, and consist of a few prayers, a short lesson, and some psalms. The custom is for the people on entering to kiss the Cross, the Gospels, and the Patriarch’s hand, and to lay their daggers in the church porch. Clerical vestments are not worn at these services. The Liturgies and Gospels are magnificent specimens of caligraphy, and the Syriac characters are in themselves beautiful.

It is appointed that the whole Psalter be recited in three days, and though I imagine that some abridgment is made, the priests and people, contrary to rule, are apt to sit on the floor during the antiphonal singing of the psalms, owing to their extreme length. The chanting is very discordant, as each man adopts the key which suits himself.

The “kiss of peace” is an interesting and decorous feature of the daily worship, and is always given at the beginning, even if it should be omitted at the close. On entering the church the priest crosses himself and kisses the Cross, which always lies on the altar on the north side, saying, “Glory be to God in the highest.” After this the people come forward and kiss first the Cross and then the priest’s hand, and each passing on touches the hands of those who before him have kissed the sacred emblem and raises his own hand to his lips. It is the custom always to kiss the hand of a bishop or priest on meeting him in the road or elsewhere and the salutation is performed in a reverential manner.

The church furniture and vestments show the great poverty of the people. The altar cloth is figured white cotton. Two tarnished and battered candlesticks stand on the altar, and a very sordid cross in the recess behind it. The chalice is a silver bowl, tarnished, almost blackened, by neglect, and the paten is a silver tray in the same state. There are a bronze censer, an antique, with embossed scripture figures upon it, and a branched lamp-stand surmounted by a bird, both of the rudest construction, and greatly neglected. Dust and cobwebs of ancient date, droppings from candles and bits of candle wicks offend Western eyes in the sacristy and elsewhere.

The clerical dress is very simple and of the poorest materials. The priest wears an alb, a girdle, and a stole crossed over the breast, and at the Kourbana a calico square with crosses in coloured cotton sewn upon it, thrown over the shoulders, and raised at times to cover the head, or to form a screen between him and the congregation. The deacon wears an alb or “church shirt” with coloured cotton crosses on the breast and back, a blue and white girdle, and a stole which is crossed over the right shoulder and has its ends tucked into the girdle. The only difference in the dress of a bishop is that he wears a stole reaching to the ankles and not crossed upon the breast. The ordinary attire of the clergy and laity is the same, and the same similarity pervades their occupations. Even bishops may be seen hard at work in the fields. The sanctuary is held in great reverence, and Mar Gauriel, who is more like a jolly sailor than a priest, put on a girdle and stole before entering it when he showed it to me. Strange to say, the priests and deacons officiating at the Holy Communion retain their shoes and remove their turbans. The graves round the church are very numerous, and are neatly kept. One burial has taken place since I came. The corpse, that of a stranger, was enclosed in a rough wooden coffin, and the blowing of horns, beating of drums, carrying of branches decorated with handkerchiefs and apples, and the wailing of the women and other demonstrations of grief, such as men jumping into the grave, beating their breasts and uttering cries of anguish, distressing scenes which are usual at Syrian funerals, were consequently absent. The burial service is very striking and dramatic, and there are different “orders” for bishops, priests, deacons, laymen, women, and children. The whole, if recited at full length, takes fully five hours! Besides prayers innumerable both for the departed and the survivors, there are various dialogues between the mourners and the departed, and between the departed and the souls of those already in Hades.98

In spite of the perils around, “marrying and giving in marriage” go on much as usual. Mar Gauriel, Bishop of Urmi, has come up on nothing less important than a matrimonial errand, to ask for the hand of the Patriarch’s niece, a small child of eight years old, the daughter of Ishai and Asiat, for his nephew, a boy of fourteen. Girls may marry at twelve, and the beautiful Asiat, the child’s mother, is only twenty. I was invited to tea when the proposals were made in a neutral house, where Mr. Browne interpreted the proceedings for me. Mar Gauriel, handsomely dressed in red, with a khelat or “coat of honour” given him by the Shah over his usual clothes, looked as blithe and handsome as a suitor should. He sat on one side of the floor with a friend to help his suit, and on the other were seated Sulti, Asiat, and the child.

Conversation was general for a time; then the Bishop, with a change of face which meant business, produced a small parcel, and laid on the floor, with a deliberate pause between the articles, carbuncle and diamond rings, gold-headed pins, gold bracelets, a very fine pink coral necklace, with a gold and turquoise pendant, and finally a long chain of hollow balls of massive filigree silver, beautiful enough to “fetch” any woman. The mother and aunt sat rigidly, assumed stony faces, and would not admire. But Mar Gauriel had other weapons in his armoury, and produced from a large bundle articles of dress of full size, among which were Constantinople gauze gowns sprigged with gold, a green silk gown covered with embroidery, and lastly a sort of coat of very rich cloth of gold, a costly thing. The child’s eyes sparkled at this. The Bishop looked up from it at the two women, but a look of contempt alone flitted across their stony faces.

Then he began his plea, which was loud and eloquent. He said he could get a hundred brides for his nephew, who would be good workers, but the daughter of Asiat should be a princess, and have servants to wait upon her, and have nothing to do. He said he would wait four years for her, he only wanted a promise. He was not tactful. He set forth the advantages of an alliance with himself too strongly for a suitor. The house of Mar Shimun is very proud and its connection is courted by all, and the ladies were obdurate and literally frowned on his plea, looking with well-acted contempt upon the glittering display on the floor. Two days later the Patriarch himself rejected Mar Gauriel’s suit, saying, “It would be a shame for the House of Mar Shimun — it would be a shameful example to betroth so young a girl.” There the matter must rest, for a time at least.

An actual marriage is arranged, and this time the bride, Sanjani, is a handsome and very attractive girl of fourteen years old, with a strong will and individuality. She has been several times to see me, and I have become quite interested in her. Yesterday a number of men were seen descending the dizzy zigzags which lead from Jelu down the mountain on the other side of the Terpai ravine, and later, after a few shots had been fired, a party of Jelu mountaineers superbly dressed came up into Kochanes, also on a matrimonial errand. Some of these men are quite blond. They came on behalf of a youth of high position in Jelu, and the bargaining was keen, for the girl is of the House of Mar Shimun. Eventually they gave twenty liras, a mule, a gun, thirty sheep, and a revolver for her, as well as presents to the negotiators. She wept most bitterly at the prospect of leaving Kochanes. The money is spent on the trousseau, and the bride’s parents give a present to the bridegroom.

Shortly after the betrothal, Mar Sergis, Bishop of Jelu, arrived, with fifty Jelu men, the young bridegroom, and some matrons. The Bishop, who is a grand-looking man, was dressed in a robe, red shulwars, and a turban; the other men were in silks and gold embroideries, and carried jewelled khanjars, revolvers, and long guns with the stocks curiously inlaid with ivory and silver. As they climbed up through the bushes of the ravine they simulated an attack by skirmishers, firing guns and revolvers. A few Kochanes men fired as if in defence, but most of the people decided not to show this “sign of joy,” because news had come that the Kurds had driven off the sheep of the father of Asiat. So with this feint of attack and capture the brilliant throng reached the top of the ascent, Mar Sergis and others riding mules, musicians playing a drum and flageolets, and five or six men with drawn swords in their right hands and leather shields on their left arms escorting the bridegroom to the hospitalities of the Patriarch’s house. The roofs were crowded with villagers, but the bride was hidden in her father’s house. The father had beaten her on her head with a long wooden spoon, and she was lying down!

On that and the two following evenings there was dancing in the house late into the night, and the days were spent in feasting, sword-dances, and masquerading. It is regarded as a very “good” marriage for Sanjani. The marriage ceremony, which is private, was performed in the church at sunrise on the fourth day. There were present Mar Sergis the bridegroom’s uncle, the bridegroom, “the bridegroom’s friend,” and Sanjani and her mother, who were preceded to the church by a fifer. The marriage service, which took half an hour, was performed at the west end of the nave. At the conclusion wine and water (but not as a Eucharistic symbol), mixed with a little earth from the church precincts, were administered to the married couple. The ring is used as with us. The most curious part of the ceremony is that while the service or “Blessing,” as it is called, is proceeding, the groomsman holds up a light wooden frame, to which fruits are attached. This is also hung over the bridegroom’s head at the father-in-law’s house, and is carried with him when he goes out to dance. It is broken on the last day of the feasting, and the pair and their friends eat the fruit. The festivities were prolonged for three days more, after which the bride, with music and firing of guns, was taken away in charge of the matrons to her husband’s house in Jelu, where there were to be rejoicings and feastings for other seven days. As the bride’s procession passes, the bridegroom, attended by his young men-friends, takes his place on a roof, with a store of apples beside him, which, after signing himself with the Cross, he throws among the crowd, the hitting of the bride being regarded as a sign of good luck.

Bishops are not allowed to marry, but to priests after their ordination both first and second marriages are permitted. The law of divorce is very lax, even according to the Church canons, and Canon Maclean says that the practice is very bad, and that it is a great temptation to the bishops, several of whom are very poor, to grant divorces for the sake of the fees.

Friday was a severe fast in the Patriarch’s household, as in all others. The fasts of the Syrian Church, it has been said, “can only be described as prodigious.” A Syrian fast means serious self-denial, for it involves not only abstinence from meat, but from fish, honey, eggs, milk, butter, cheese, and all animal products, and the Syrian eats nothing but rice cooked in walnut oil, raisins, walnuts, treacle, beans, plain potatoes, and bread. All Wednesdays and Fridays in the year this strict regimen is adhered to, and the members of the Old Church also fast for fifty days in Lent, and twenty-five in Advent, and keep the very severe three days’ fast of the Ninevites. Most adults keep also the fast of St. Mary, the first fourteen days of August. No religious observance is more rigidly adhered to by the nation than these severe and prolonged abstinences, and it is difficult for the Syrians to believe in the piety of any who do not, by the same methods, mortify the body and bring it into subjection.

Mar Auraham, son of Marta, a man of twenty-six, Patriarch-designate, and a bishop without a diocese, has returned, and spent part of yesterday evening in my room. He looks delicate, but has a bright, intelligent, charming face, and his conversation was thoughtful and interesting. He really cares about his church and its discipline, is regarded as honourable and straightforward in a marked degree, and as preferring the spiritual to the temporal interests of his nation. He is apparently a warm friend of the English Mission, and if he should succeed to the chair of Mar Shimun great progress might be expected; but intrigues are surging round him, and the patriarchal family is not without its ambitions, to which he may possibly be sacrificed.

The succession to the Patriarchate and Episcopate is the subject of a peculiar arrangement, which makes these offices practically hereditary. In the Mar Shimun family there has been provided for more than three centuries a regular succession of youths called Nazarites, who have never eaten meat or married, and whose mothers ate no meat for many months before they were born. One of these is chosen by the Patriarch as his successor, and then some of the disappointed youths take to eating meat like other men. At the present time, though Mar Auraham has been designated, there are one or two boy-relatives of the Patriarch who are being brought up not to eat meat. The same prohibition applies to a bishop. He also usually has one or more Nazarites, frequently nephews or cousins, who have been brought up by him not to eat meat, one of whom, if there be more than one, he chooses as his successor. If he neglects to make a choice, the Bishopric at his death falls like a fief to the Patriarch, who has an enormous diocese, while three of the Bishops have only a few villages to look after.

Bishops, priests, and deacons are very poor. Occasionally a church has a field or two as an endowment, or the villagers contribute a small sum annually, or plough the priest’s fields, or shear his sheep, but the fees given for baptisms, marriages, and other occasional offices would be his sole dependence unless he followed some secular calling. In some places there is a plethora of supernumerary priests, and it is shrewdly said that these obtain holy orders from the Bishops for the sake of the loaves of sugar paid as fees. There are great abuses connected with ordination. One of the present bishops was consecrated when quite a young boy, and deacons are often ordained at sixteen, and even much earlier. Mar Auraham must have been consecrated before he was twenty. The only qualification for ordination is the ability to read old Syriac. The gaily-dressed and fully-armed young mountaineers whom I have seen as representing the diaconate look far more like bandits than deacons. In one large village there are at present fifty deacons and fifteen priests attached to one church!!


Syrian Priest and Wife.

The Kourbana cannot be celebrated without the assistance of a deacon. It is almost entirely confined to the great festivals and the feast of the patron saint of each village. After the making of the bread with the “holy leaven,” and certain preliminaries by the clergy, the congregation comes into church, summoned by blows on the wooden sounding-board. The men stand in front, the women behind, all taking off their shoes and kissing the Cross. When the elements are to be received the priest advances to the door of the sanctuary, and a deacon, completely enveloped by the curtain before the entrance, holds the paten while the priest gives the bread to the men first, then to the women and to the little children, held up either by father or mother. The adults receive the cup in order from the deacon, who passes it through a hole in a wall about six feet high, which runs parallel with the wall of the sanctuary, but at a little distance from it. On leaving the church after communion each person takes a piece of ordinary bread from a tray near the door. The priests and deacons communicate after the people when the sanctuary veil has again been drawn. The Eucharist is always celebrated at or before daybreak, except in the case of certain fast days and at funerals, when it is considered a devotional act to fast till mid-day. During parts of the communion service one deacon swings a censer and another “clangs” a cymbal.

The Kourbana as celebrated in the Syrian villages reminds me both of the great communion gatherings of the Scottish Highlands and the Church service which, in my childhood, ushered in the revelry of the village wake or feast. The festivals which, as in England, fall on the feast of the patron saint of the village are the great gaieties of Syrian life, and even the Kurd cannot altogether overshadow them. After the celebration of the Kourbana at dawn, when the crowds are frequently so great that the church is filled by several successive congregations of communicants, the day is spent in visiting, and in every house fruit, sweetmeats, and tea are provided for all comers, and arak, if it be obtainable, forms a part of the entertainment. Dances and games are kept up all day, and at its close many are drunk and disorderly. These are the occasions when fighting with the Moslems is apt to take place.

Men and women, of course, dance separately, and the women much in the background. The dancing, as I have seen it, is slow and stately. A number of either sex join hands in a ring, and move round to slow music, at times letting go each other’s hands for the purpose of gesticulation and waving of handkerchiefs. It is not unlike the national dance of the Bakhtiaris. The women not only keep in retirement on this but on all occasions. They never sit at meat with the men, but take their food afterwards in private — indeed, I strongly suspect that they eat the leavings of their superiors. It is not, however, only the women who occupy a subordinate position. Young men treat not only their fathers but their elder brothers with extreme respect; and when there are guests at table the sons do not sit down with the fathers, but wait on the guests, and take their own meals, like the women, afterwards.

The Syrians call Easter “The Great Feast” and Christmas “The Little Feast.” At the former, eggs coloured red are lavishly bestowed. The festival of the Epiphany also receives great honour, but it is curious that a people who believe that they owe their Christianity to the Wise Men should not keep this feast so much in commemoration of them as of our Lord’s baptism. So much does the latter view preponderate, that the Urmi Christians call it by a name which means “The New Waters.” Here in the mountains, however, it is called “The Brightness.” During the night before the celebration of the Kourbana on the Feast of the Epiphany it is customary to plunge into frozen pools! “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” they hold with us, and it is of great interest to recognise this fact in the midst of many superstitions and even puerilities.

It is impossible by any language to convey an idea of the poverty and meanness, the blackness and accumulations of dust, the darkness and the gloom of the Syrian churches, of which this one is a favourable specimen, typifying, I fear, too truly the gross ignorance, indifference, and superstition in which bishops, priests, and people are buried. And yet they are “faithful unto death.” My daily wonder is that people who know so little will for that little suffer the loss of all things. Apostasy would be immediate emancipation from terror and ruin, but it is nearly unknown. Their churches are like the catacombs. Few things can be more pathetic than a congregation standing in the dark and dismal nave, kissing the common wooden cross, and passing from hand to hand the kiss of peace, while the priest, in dress like their own, with girdle and stole of the poorest material, moves among the ancient Liturgies in front of the dusty sanctuary, leading the worshippers in prayers and chants which have come down from the earliest ages of Christianity; from the triumphant Church of the East to the persecuted remnant of today.

I. L. B.

96 For the correction of my very imperfect investigations into the religious customs of the Syrians, I am indebted to a very careful and learned paper by Canon Maclean, Some Account of the Customs of the Eastern Syrian Churches, originally published in the Guardian, and now to be obtained at the office of “The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Mission to the Assyrian Christians, 2 Deans Yard, Westminster.”

97 A singular legend is told regarding the origin of the sacred leaven and the sacred oil.

The Syrians say that as our Lord went up out of the Jordan after His baptism John the Baptist collected in a phial the baptismal water as it dropped from His sacred person, giving it before his death to St. John the Evangelist. At the Last Supper (the legend runs) our Lord gave to John two loaves, putting it into his heart to preserve one. At the Cross, when this same apostle saw the “blood and water,” he took the phial from his bosom and added the water from the pierced side to the water of baptism, dipping the loaf at the same time in the blood. After the Day of Pentecost the disciples, before going forth to “disciple” the nations, ground John’s blood-dyed loaf to powder, mixed it with flour and salt, divided it among themselves, and carried it forth to serve as leaven for ever for the bread of remembrance. In like manner they took of the mingled water of the phial, and mixing it with oil of unction, divided it, and preserved it for the perpetual sanctification of the waters of baptism.

98 A portion of one of the latter follows:—

The newly dead.—“Hail, my brethren and friends who sleep. Open the door that I may enter in and see your ranks.”

Those in Hades.—“Come, enter and see how many giants are sleeping here, and have been made dust and rust and worms in the bosom of Sheol. Come, enter and see, O child of death, the race of Adam: see and gaze where thy kind dwells. Come, enter and see the abundance of the bones and their commingling. The bone of the king and the bone of the servant are not separated. Come, enter and see the great corruption we are dwelling in.”

The mourners.—“Wait for the Lord, who will come and raise you by His right hand.”

Translations of the Liturgies are to be found in Dr. Badger’s valuable book, The Nestorians and their Rituals.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bird/isabella/persia_and_kurdistan/chapter35.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31