Clinging On

A journey among the Christians of the Middle East at the time of the Arab Spring

In 2o11, at the height of the Arab Spring, two young scholars of the Middle East, George Richards and Nathaniel Daudrich, set out from Istanbul to explore how the unrest spreading through the region would affect its Christian minorities.

In the lands where Christianity was born, but now faced with renewed political upheaval, economic decline and the grave threat of Islamic extremism, could the dwindling numbers of Christians in the Middle East cling on?

Part I: Istanbul

Sunset in Istanbul

I was to begin that journey — as I had said I would — in quiet Turkey, far away from the uprisings to the South. My first glimpse of Istanbul came at the end of my flight from London. I had been sleeping in my seat when a stewardess shook me awake. We were coming in to land, she told me, and if I kept my eyes peeled, I might see the city. I looked out of my window. It was sunny, and we were over the sea, and I spotted Istanbul spreading out over the hills along the shore. At once, I felt my heart quicken. My eyes raced around the city, picking out a mosque here, an old palace there. I could see the closely-packed houses on the hills of Old Stamboul and, across the narrow inlet of the Golden Horn, the busy markets of Beyoğlu. Below me, on the blue waters of the Bosphorus, glistening ships sailed beneath the bridges towards the Sea of Marmara.

Below me, on the blue waters of the Bosphorus, glistening ships sailed beneath the bridges towards the Sea of Marmara.

Just then, the aeroplane turned slightly and the sun flashed across my window. I squinted in the light. Istanbul is a mighty Turkish city, but it had once been the capital of Christendom. Before Istanbul fell to the Turks in 1453, she had been called Constantinople, the Second Rome. Through narrowed eyes, I wondered what she would have looked like then. Istanbul began to blur into its older self. Gone were the motorcars and the spindly bridges, the tall office-buildings and the blocks of flats. Now the ships in the Bosphorus seemed to fly great sails. The city walls stood tall and strong, and, where there had been motorways, now there were aqueducts. The domes I saw belonged to cathedrals, instead of mosques, and I half-thought that I could hear the bells ringing out at the crowning of a new Emperor.

The aeroplane banked again, and Istanbul slipped out of sight until we landed. I hurried through customs and caught a tram towards the city. After a while, when I had caught my breath, I saw that the tram was rattling through the Islamic quarter of Istanbul. This was a far cry from the Constantinople of my day-dream. In the street, there were little mosques and run-down shops, women in headscarves and men with beards. Standing awkwardly by the carriage doors, I saw that I was drawing odd looks. I was travelling light — just a canvas hold-all for my kit — but the presence of a foreigner — and that first day, untouched by sun and still clean-shaven, I could have been nothing else — had put the other passengers ill at ease. Perhaps they thought that I was a reporter, or maybe it was just strange for foreigners to come this way. I could feel the weight of their eyes on me: women peering out through the slits in their veils; men watching me from beneath bushy eyebrows. I slipped my bag behind my legs and kept my head down.

Taxi stand near
Sirkeci Terminal

I was staying in a small hotel in Old Stamboul that was one of the last wooden houses still standing there.

My room was on the top floor, up in the eaves. The wooden house had a wooden roof, and above my bed were great logs of Mediterranean pine, with branches and twigs spreading across the ceiling. From a balcony, I could look down the hill of Old Stamboul to the sea.

The boy, standing at the door and still carrying my bag, seemed put out by the sea traffic.

“Sorry, sir, sorry,” he kept saying. “Tonight is better. Quiet. Better at night.”

I smiled in acknowledgement, but I for one was glad for the bustle. We were high up on a hill and I could barely hear a thing, except, perhaps, the blast of a foghorn now and then. Perhaps other guests, more romantic, preferred to hear nothing but the waves lapping softly on Europe’s eastern shore, or, at most, the squawking of a gull high above a trawler to lend a certain quaintness to it all. Not I. To me, there was something wonderful about watching these ships make ready to cross the Black Sea, heading for the casinos and the palm-trees of Odessa, or the oil-rich Caucasus, or else southward, to the Mediterranean Sea, to Piraeus or Venice or Marseilles.

The Sea of Marmara is a busy stretch of water, packed with tankers and ferries, yachts, fishing-boats and tugs, and little dinghies that buzzed between the bigger ships like gadflies.

Then I spotted a freighter. Her deck was loaded with containers, stacked three or four high. Although she was too far away for me to make out the letters painted on her side, I could tell that they were written in Arabic. I wondered whether she, like me, was heading South, bound for Alexandria. Might she be taking the same course as me, only by sea instead of by land? Would she too hug the Turkish seaboard, and put in at Beirut, or Jaffa, before reaching Egypt?

“Ahem,” coughed the boy at the door.

Ships on the Bosphorus

George Richards is stopped, at first, from meeting the Patriarch of Constantinople in Phanar, the Greek quarter of Istanbul. He leaves the patriarchal residence downcast and makes for a nearby coffee-shop to call the Archbishop in London who had sent a letter of introduction.

I leaned back on my stool and loosened my tie. You can tell a lot from the way a man loosens his tie. There is the thirsty tearing at the neck of a man on a hot day; and there is the awkward shuffling at the tie-knot of a man over-dressed at a party; and then there is the slow, unhappy loosening of a man who feels beaten, casting aside the tie that had served him no purpose, as office-men do on Fridays, relieved to have put another week under their belt but downtrodden by their hum-drum life. That last was me; I had been beaten that day.

To my right, on another pair of stools, two old women chatted in Greek. Now that I had rung off with the Archbishop’s office in London, they started to watch me closely.

Yasas,” I said in Greek, smiling meekly.

Yasas,” the women answered. They smiled back. Fears allayed, they turned back to their nattering.

Just then, a waiter in a once-white shirt scurried across to me. He held a cigarette and a pen in one hand, like chopsticks.

“A glass of water, please,” I said, “and a Tur—, I mean, a Greek coffee, medium sweet.”

Sipping a coffee in Phanar

It felt Greek here. Even the empty packet of cigarettes on my table had a label written in Greek. There were a few shops on the street with signs in Greek, and I saw none of the beards and headscarves that many Turks, that is, Muslims, seemed to wear. A handful of tourists walked down the slope from the Patriarchate. They had been shown out of a side-door in the walls — they must have gone into St George’s Chapel and no further — and they were chattering loudly among themselves. As they walked, boys from the two or three souvenir-shops swarmed around them, hawking their wares in Greek and prodding them with icons and crucifixes.

I looked a little deeper. Now I saw that the boys in one of the gift-shops were Turks, not Greeks. I spotted their father sitting in the shadows at the back of the shop, reading a Koran. On second thoughts, some of the Greek shops in the street looked to have fallen on hard times. A rug shop, belonging to the Brothers Constantidis since 1911, was boarded up. “Closing down” was written in big Greek letters on the window of another. There were hints that even Phanar was slipping from Greek hands.

The Patriarchate, though, still stood strong. If the Patriarchate were a bulwark of Hellenism in a Turkish sea, the shops and coffee-houses of Phanar were like barnacles stuck to its side. Even if the Greek quarter was not in as good health as it once had been, I was glad to have stopped there a while and to have seen for myself that it is, after all, still here. Buoyed by this thought, I understood for the first time that my trip — by going overland and spending time in these pockets of Christendom — would shine a light onto a side of the Near East that I would otherwise have missed. Sitting on a stool and sipping a Greek coffee in Phanar could tell me as much, if not more, about the lives of Christians in the Near East as anything else.

Nathaniel Daudrich has joined George Richards in Istanbul where they are trying to book berths on a train to the Christian heartlands in the South of Turkey.

We met, as luck would have it, at the landing-station on the European side of the Bosphorus, and together took the ferry across the sea to Asia. The ferry was almost empty, and a little gloomy, so we stood out on deck, where the spray prickled our cheeks. There was a sea-mist hanging over the water in patches. We skirted the Maiden’s Tower — an ancient watchtower built by the Persians in the middle of the Bosphorus to watch over Greek shipping. Then, as the ferry chugged onwards, we began to make out towers and spires poking through the mist like a fairy-tale castle. Haydarpaşa train station was coming into sight. As we pulled into the harbour on the Asian shore, we could see the station building more clearly. It loomed over us, a bulky block of stone, with narrow windows, turrets jutting from its walls and cone-shaped roofs. Here was a castle plucked from the green hills of Bavaria and dropped onto a spit of land in the Bosphorus. Nathaniel and I hurried inside.

Then, as the ferry chugged onwards, we began to make out towers and spires poking through the mist like a fairy-tale castle. Haydarpasa train station was coming into sight.

Inside, we found a great hall with vaulted ceilings, the kind of hall that ought to have been lined with tapestries, and candle-sticks on long tables and, in the middle, a boar, hunted, spitted and turning slowly over a fire. Where was the serving-wench, with her flagon of ale, at hand to fill my goblet to the brim?

I found her sitting behind a ticket-desk, only she was buttoned-up and veiled, and there was no swine-flesh and no beer in sight.

“Two tickets to Mardin, please,” I said.

“Mardin…” she muttered to herself grumpily. “The next train is in two days’ time.”

“In two day’s time!” I cried. “How long does the train take?”

“Two days and two nights,” answered the ticket-girl, tucking hairs that only she could see under her headscarf.

“So, the earliest we could arrive in Mardin is four days’ time?” I asked in disbelief. This was a spanner in the works. Nathaniel needed to fly back to Switzerland before too long, and we could hardly cool our heels in Istanbul for days on end.

“Hopefully,” she said, sulkily.

“What do you mean, ‘hopefully’?”

“I mean that you would arrive in Mardin in four days’ time, absent any security concerns. That’s why there are no trains for two days — security concerns.”

“What ‘security concerns’?” I asked without thinking.

The ticket-woman leaned forwards. “I can’t tell you that,” she said, and snapped shut her kiosk window. It was time for her lunch. Before even leaving Istanbul, I had just had my first brush with the Kurds.

I turned on my heel and found that the first sheen of Haydarpaşa station had gone. Now I was met by the hiss of dirty trains idling at their platforms, the calls of the hawkers and the beggars, and the stench of the bathrooms and the smoky waiting-rooms.

The Germans had built Haydarpaşa before the Great War, a triumph of modern engineering in its time, but they had not left behind their fabled German efficiency. Anyway, what were the Germans doing, building train stations down here on the shores of Asia? Why bring their locomotives, draisines and jack-hammers here? Why send gangs of workers from the mines of the Ruhr, the ship-yards of Kiel and the Zeppelin assembly-plant floating on Lake Constance?

The answer lies in the Kaiser’s dream, that if he could lay a railroad from Berlin to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, if he could spin a web of iron linking Germany to Damascus, Baghdad and Mecca, then he might drive a wedge between Britain and her Indian Empire and open up the East to Germany. In the end, the Great War shook the Kaiser awake; the rail-workers hurried back to Germany and to the trenches, and anyway, the Taurus Mountains in southern Turkey could not be passed. The Kaiser was never to take the train from Istanbul beyond those mountains and into the plains of Mesopotamia to the South. Nor, it seemed, would I.

Thwarted in their attempt to travel South by train, Richards and Daudrich fly that night to Diyarbakir in the Kurdish south-east of Turkey, from where they push on into the mountains, towards the monastery of Deyrulzafaran.

We drove at night-time South to Mardin from Diyarbakir in the back of a farmer’s car. Our driver, Hassan, took payment in dollars before we left, which worried me. The roads were lit badly but still well enough for us to see that the hard shoulder was littered with dead cows. The owner of our hotel in Istanbul had warned us against going to Mardin by telling us that his uncle, who lived nearby, had had his donkey stolen by a band of Kurdish fighters fleeing into the hills. The Turkish army has been known to burn Kurdish farms and slaughter their livestock; I wondered whether we were witnessing the aftermath of one such spree. Or perhaps the cows had just wandered onto the dark roads and met their end between a pair of headlights. From the way Hassan drove, I thought the latter was more likely.

Before long, the citadel of Mardin came into sight. It was brightly lit, glowing on the top of a tall crag, not unlike Edinburgh Castle at night. The road wound steeply up a hill to Mardin, and Hassan’s car began to slip and slide. There was a lot of whirring of wheels, and the scrape of gravel, but at last Hassan yielded to the road, put the car into first gear, and we started to climb more steadily.

“The road is very steep,” said Hassan, smiling awkwardly.

“Yes,” I said through clenched teeth. “It must be awful in winter.”

“You know,” said Hassan, sadly, “Mardin has been protected by its steep sides, but it has suffered too. Traders have stayed away. The road is so steep that camels cannot reach the city gates. And when the Germans and the Turks built their railway to Baghdad, they laid a branch to Mardin; but even a steam-engine would have struggled up our hill, so they put the train station five miles away, on lower ground.”

We pushed on upwards, and Hassan happily dropped us off in the middle of town, in a square just below the Citadel. It felt eerie as the car pulled away; there was hardly anyone to be seen and many of the coffee-houses were boarded up. It was only about ten o’clock.

Nathaniel and I walked without talking until we found a car-park and a taxi rank, and there asked to be taken to the Monastery, to Deyrulzafaran. A young lad sitting in an old Sahin with the door open said that he would take us, so we threw our bags into the back of the car and clambered in after them. At once, two men in leather jackets and moustaches walked over. They asked the lad to step out, spoke to him for a while, and then waved us on.

Sitting in the back seat, hugging my hold-all, I guessed that they were secret policemen, Turks, and it only made me feel all the more as though Mardin was under close watch. I peered up through the grimy windscreen to the Citadel, and I could just make out soldiers on patrol around the walls. Behind them, watching over us and with spotlights trained on him, was a bust of Atatürk in bas-relief, side-on as always. There were also radar domes, like giant golf-balls, nestled among the ruins of the Citadel. It all told of Mardin’s war-torn past. Even the name Mardin comes from the Aramaic word for “fortress”.

Mardin sits between the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates and looks down on the road that passes North-South through the eastern Taurus Mountains. It has been held by the Romans, the Persians, the Arabs, and by Turks of many tribes. The Mongols swept through, as did the Egyptians of the nineteenth century. Through it all, the Assyrians have kept the flame of Christianity burning, even if the last churches in Mardin have to take turns to hold Mass, so few are their parishioners.

In a way, though, as old and important a town as Mardin might be, it left a sour taste in our mouths that night. The fighting had set everyone on edge, and two Westerners wandering around were putting the wind up. The hardy Kurds are known for the warmth they show guests; but then Mardin is not any old Kurdish town. A Venetian who came to Mardin in 15o7 found more Armenians and Jews than Kurds living there. It might not be like that now, but Mardin still felt like a crossroads, a border-town, and I have always found border-towns rough.

Part II: Deyrulzafaran

Deyrulzafaran has been a holy place since long before Christianity came here. In pagan times, there was a Temple of the Sun (the building has been turned into one of the Monastery’s chapels) and, on our first morning, it was easy to see why. The Monastery sits in a hollow in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains that run behind Mardin. Like Mardin, the Monastery looks out on the plains of Mesopotamia to the South, reaching into Syria for as far as the eye can see. Behind and on both flanks is a wall of cliffs, too high to climb up or down; the only way to reach the gates of the Monastery is by the road up from the plains. This all means that Deyrulzafaran is a stronghold, that it is kept cool by the winds swirling around between the hills, and that, once the Sun crests the mountains to the East, it is bathed in a warm light, together with the cliffs around it, like a nugget of gold in a copper pan. It is from this yellow glow that the Monastery took its name: Deyrulzafaran. The Saffron Monastery.

Deyrulzafaran at dawn

It had been hard to make head or tail of the Monastery at night. By the light of the Moon, the domes and steeples and cloisters, and the mountains behind, had looked like chalk drawings on a blackboard, ready to be wiped away in the morning. Perhaps, I wondered as I looked around, we were already dreaming by then. Nathaniel and I were worn out, and thrilled to have made it here, so as soon as Martin bade us goodnight, we had flopped onto our beds and slept.

I was woken the next morning by sunlight flooding through our door, and by the screeching of beds being dragged by the monks into their cells. Already, the Monastery was bustling: sheets being stripped, water being splashed on the floors, the first clangs from the kitchen and a bell tolling from a little tower by our room.

Nathaniel and I thought that we ought to start as we meant to go on — best foot forward and all that — so we walked sleepily down to where we heard the tinkling of hand-bells. As we stepped into the chapel, it felt as though we had been dunked into a thick soup. Perhaps we were a little groggy, still half-asleep, and we had still not eaten anything since leaving Istanbul. Then again, perhaps that is how we were meant to feel in the chapel: senses heightened, and in a dream-like state. At once, clouds of incense filled my lungs and tickled my eyes. Sunlight was pouring in through two windows behind us, making me squint. I could see a monk in full garb and with a thick black beard standing in a niche to the right. He was standing at a lectern, letting out a deep hum that rumbled through the chapel.

As Nathaniel and I slipped into a pew, two boys, brothers from the look of them, hurried in and took up places in a niche to the left, across the chapel from the monk. Then a farmer lurched in and joined the monk on the right. With four readers, two in each niche, we were ready to begin.

Vespers in the Monastery of Deyrulzafaran

I came to know the hymns of Deyrulzafaran very well during my stay there; and, in the end, we recorded them. That morning, though, I heard them for the first time. The monk stopped his humming to draw breath, and the two brothers let out a rolling chant, quite slowly at first, as they warmed up. They would stop at the end of each verse but, just before they did so, the monk and the farmer would pick up from them. Boys handed over to men, and back again; higher to lower, and deeper to lighter. Back and forth they went, rhythmically, growing louder as they went along.

At first, the younger of the two brothers, perhaps only ten years’ old, had been wiping sleep from his eyes, but soon he was giving it his all, belting out his lines to the rafters. All the while, other men were drifting in, some to the niche on the left, with the brothers, some to the right, with the monk and the farmer. They would stand, whisper a prayer, wait to pick up the beat, and then join in. Now the singing was picking up steam, growing stronger and even louder. When they were in full swing, there must have been a dozen or so men and boys, six in each niche, huddled round the two lecterns (although many of them seemed to know the words by heart). The chapel was ringing with song; it was almost deafening. Only Nathaniel and I, and a teenage boy with long hair, stood quietly in the pews; everyone else was singing.

At length, the hymn came to an end and the singing died away slowly. One by one, led by the monk, the congregation proceeded along the middle of the chancel to kiss a golden Bible, standing on a lectern. The service was over. Nathaniel and I left the chapel stunned and with our ears still ringing. We were wide awake now.

From left: the Monastery from its olive groves; a monk at Deyrulzafaran; Uncle Bahe

So we lived at Deyrulzafaran and, afterwards, at the Monastery of Mor Gabriel nearby. It was a simple life, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul. The empty hours between prayers and meals left time for thinking. I learnt a lot too. Finding myself at a loose end, I would wander through the cloisters, where it was shaded and cool. The courtyard in the middle of the Monastery seared under the midday sun and was hardly ever crossed in day-time. Now and then, one of the young boys in the Monastery would run to the well in the courtyard, fill a pitcher with water and scurry back, already damp with sweat. In the cloisters, though, a welcome breeze whistled between the arches. I would take a seat on a bench there, and one of the boys would spring up from nowhere with a freshly-brewed glass of tea.

Sitting in the cloisters one day, I met Uncle Bahe. Now in his eighties (or perhaps he was older still — no-one knew), he had lived in the Monastery for all his life. Uncle Bahe wore a cloth cap, a long-sleeved shirt, and baggy trousers held up with string tied around his waist. Behind the spectacles that sat on the end of his long, thin nose, he looked very Assyrian indeed.

Uncle Bahe loved to tease the younger students. He was always coughing — short yaps that heralded him as he wandered around the Monastery. Sometimes, he seemed to be speaking in coughs; once, I heard him tell a joke to some of the students where the punch-line was a bark; and another time, he rebuked a young boy for running with a flurry of coughs.

Uncle Bahe had been brought to the Monastery as an orphan. His parents, I was told, had most likely been killed in the Assyrian genocide after the Great War, when many of the churches and the Assyrian towns in Anatolia had been sacked. Before then, the hills around Deyrulzafaran had been sprinkled so heavily with monasteries and churches that they were known as Tur Abdin — the Mountains of the Servants of God. Today, only a handful of monasteries remain.

When Uncle Bahe was growing up, Deyrulzafaran had been the seat of the Patriarch of Antioch. That was the Monastery’s heyday; now its neighbour, Mor Gabriel, has more clout within the Church. Even so, Uncle Bahe had high hopes for Deyrulzafaran. Looking around him with bleary eyes, he said that the Monastery had never looked as fine as it did now.

As he spoke, a middle-aged man scoffed. “Surely our holy Monastery was grander when the Patriarch was here, when this was the heart of the Church?”

“You might think so,” said Uncle Bahe, wisely. “But those were dark days. When the Patriarch died, we could not mourn him as we ought to have done. The walls were crumbling and we could do no repairs. So they moved the Patriarchate to Syria, away from Deyrulzafaran. Our holy Monastery was dying.”

Uncle Bahe sat nodding sadly, deep in thought. Then he coughed sharply, stood up and started banging on a table for tea. One of the young boys hurried to the kitchen to put the kettle on, and everyone else laughed. It was better not to dwell on the sad story of their Church.

Part III: Mor Gabriel

After a week in Deyrulzafaran, Richards and Daudrich travel through the mountains to another Syriac monastery, Mor Gabriel, on the Turkish border with Syria.

Leaving for Mor Gabriel was like being woken from a dream. I had lost myself in the life at Deyrulzafaran, forgetful of the world beyond the yellow walls. The last morning, Nathaniel and I rose at dawn and drove down the hill from Deyrulzafaran in the grocer’s van from Mardin.

At the bottom of the hill, we left the van and flagged down a truck that was carrying goats. An old Kurd, with a flat cap pushed up onto the back of his head, leaned across his son to open the door and waved us into the cab. There was a short bench at the back, where Nathaniel and I crouched, tucking our feet beneath us. With a nod, the old Kurd set off.

Leaving Deyrulzafaran

He drove wildly, flying down hills and around bends, all of which made the cab creak and moan, and the beads that dangled from the windscreen rattle against the glass. Looking over his shoulder at us, the old Kurd nodded towards a field of burning wheat. Flames were running low across the ground and throwing up a cloud of smoke. The Kurd said nothing, but a dark look crossed his face. I thought perhaps that the field had been set alight on purpose by a farmer; such burning can clear the ground of weeds and stubble. So I smiled at the Kurd and his young son. The boy, who had been watching us since we climbed aboard, blinked; the old Kurd did not smile back.

As we drove alongside the field, smoke drifted across the road and poured into the cab. The bitter taste it left in my mouth, and the prickling in my nostrils, made me sit up straight and set my eyes to work. Through a window in the back of the cab, I could see the goats in the truck trampling their bed of hay. The crackle of the fire and the smell of smoke had set them on edge too.

The old Kurd did not smile back.

It was our turn to be worried, however, as soon as we came around a bend and onto a long road. Now it seemed that we were running along the front line between the Kurds and the Turkish army. On one side of the road, boulders had been painted with slogans cheering on the Kurdish fighters; on the other side, wherever a smaller track joined the road, we would whistle past a Turkish road­block. Happily, it was still early in the morning. The road was empty and most of the Turkish guards at the road-blocks were fighting sleep with mugs of coffee and cigarettes. More threatening were the helicopters of the Turkish air force that chugged in pairs over the plains to our right: while we stayed at Mor Gabriel, we were to see them almost daily.

One evening in the Monastery at Mor Gabriel, at about dusk, there was a great roar and three black Range Rovers sped up the drive in a cloud of dust.

They came to a halt at the Monastery gates. The windows were darkened and fear took grip as everyone hurried out to see who it was. Then the doors opened, and three priests climbed out, followed by two families, the children half-asleep on their mothers’ shoulders. Our Bishop was the first through the gates, throwing his arms around the priests and welcoming them all to Mor Gabriel. There was cheering from people gathered on the walls, and all at once the Monastery was aflutter: nuns dashed off to make up beds, students brought more sacks of food to the refectory, and water was boiled for tea.

There was an odd mood in the Monastery that evening.

The priests had come from Syria. They were dressed in black tunics, with little skull-caps and neatly-trimmed beards, quite unlike the rough monks in their cassocks and wild hair. First, they thanked the Bishop for letting them stay, but the talk quickly turned darker as we listened to stories about the threat to Christians in Syria. Before we heard any more, the bells rang — it was time for Vespers.

It so happened that Nathaniel and I were recording the prayers that night. When the Syrian priests sang, standing side-by-side with the monks of Mor Gabriel, they were almost choked with sobs. There was an odd mood in the Monastery that evening: happiness, that these priests and the two families had made it to the safety of Mor Gabriel, but sadness too at what they had left behind in Syria.

Vespers in the Monastery of Mor Gabriel

From left: the belfries of the monastery; a monk at Mor Gabriel

In the refectory, after prayers, I heard that the border-crossing to Syria at Nusaybin was now very hard to pass through. Then after dinner, as we made our way up to the terrace by the Bishop’s rooms for tea, I nabbed one of the priests and talked to him about my trip. The priest was full of good tips, about a shrine of the Prophet Elijah in Seidnayya, near Damascus, and he even wrote on a scrap of paper the name of one “Father Elias” who could help me there. Then I asked whether he thought that I could make it across the border the next day.

“We will help you, my son,” said the priest smiling. “There is no way you can cross alone now. The Turks are stopping Westerners on sight. They’re scared of tourists getting hurt; and of journalists. We can take you as far as the Syrian checkpoint. At least you’ll be past the Turks. Make your own way to the border tomorrow, and meet us at the last coffee-shop there.” Then he smiled, seeing the worry in my eyes. “Fear nothing, my son. To the Assyrians, there are no borders.”

That last night in Turkey, I slept fitfully, thinking about the day to come. I thought about what the priest had said. He was right — I had been shown the strength of the Assyrian bonds of kinship, bringing together Assyrians scattered far and wide in America or Holland or Australia, or cut off from one another by the border between Turkey and Syria. Tomorrow, I would find out just how strong those bonds were.

Clinging On is a record of the first stage of an expedition undertaken by George Richards and Nathaniel Daudrich in 2o11. At the height of the Arab Spring, they travelled through Turkey to assess the impact of the turmoil on minority Christian communities. This site is a collection of photographs, film and audio recordings made on their journey, accompanied by excerpts from George Richards’ writings about the trip.

George Richards would continue the expedition alone from Turkey through Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel and Egypt.

Follow George Richards on Twitter: @gergis.