Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Iran | Julfa | Church and Monastery of St. Stephanos

At ten I met Hamid and Masud in the lobby for our trip to the Church St. Stephanos. Although of course mainly concerned with the history of the Ilkhanate in Iran, I am also interested in monuments which pre-date the Mongol occupation and have managed to survive down to the present day. There are wildly differing opinions about how old St. Stephanos Church is, but it is possible that at least some parts of it were built before the Ilkhanate period. 

An inch of fresh snow has fallen overnight, but the roads are bare by the time we start out. Just beyond our hotel we pass by a large parking lot where an Ashura ceremony is taking place. In front of a flat-bed truck with loudspeakers a group of actors in notionally seventh century costumes play out the deaths of Muhammad’s grandson Husain and his family and supporters at the hands of the Umayyads. The Umayyad villains are dressed in red. In a ring around the actors are several hundred spectators, almost all the women dressed in black chadors. Hamid does not offer to stop, and I do not ask to. I get the feeling this ceremony is not intended as a spectator event for non-Muslim foreigners. I read to him Evliya’s account of Ashura from 1640s, and he points outs the ritual blood-letting described by Evliya was outlawed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, the president of Iran from 1981 to 1989, although it is still practiced in some other countries. 

The city of Tabriz sits in a bowl surrounded by rust-covered hills, now lightly dusted with snow. North of the city we emerge out onto rolling steppe broken up by outcroppings and ridges of red rock. When the Mongols first arrived in this region in 1220 the expansive steppe had immediately caught their attention, since it provided adequate grazing for their horses, something not always available in other parts of Persia. Also, the terrain was very similar to some areas of Mongolia, which may have helped assuage any homesickness they were experiencing on a long campaign far from their homeland. 

After passing through several small towns we arrive at the small city of Julfa, on south bank of the Aras River, about seventy miles northwest of Tabriz. The river here is the border between Iran and Azerbaijan, or, more precisely, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, an exclave separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by a southern extension of Armenia, which joins with the Iranian border about twenty-seven miles east of here. Although considered a part of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan, covering 2120 square miles—almost twice the size of Rhode Island—and with a population of 410,000, has been an autonomous region since 1990 and is governed by its own elected legislature. On the north side of the Aras River is the Azerbaijan (Nakhchivan) city of Julfa. This Julfa made international headlines back in the 1990s when the nearby Armenian Christian cemetery containing thousands of elaborately carved tombstones, many considered historical monuments, were reportedly destroyed by Azerbaijanis, despite the protests of UNESCO and other international bodies. 

According to legend, the Julfa on the north side of the Aras was found by Tigranes I, King of Armenia from 115 b.c. to 95 b.c. It would have been part of the Kingdom of Greater Armenia, which lasted from  321 b.c to 428 a.d., and at its height stretched from the the Caspian Sea in the east to the Black Sea in the west and from Georgia in the north to the Mesopotamian plain in the south. By the time the Mongols arrived in the thirteenth century it was a sizable city populated almost entirely by Armenians. In the following centuries it became a major trade entrepôt linking the Iranian Plateau, Inner Asia, and India with Russia, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean Basin. In the late sixteenth century is was captured by the expansionist Ottoman Turks. In 1603 the Safavid ruler Abbas Shah retook the city, but he soon realized he could not hold it against the continuing onslaughts of the Ottomans. In 1605 he deported the citizens of the city—over three thousand families —deep into Safavid territory, most of them eventually taking up resident near Esfahan, and burned the city to the ground rather than let it slip into Ottoman hands. Later a village grew up amidst the ruins and a larger settlement was established adjacent to it. The Persians eventually retook the area, and this new settlement became part of the Nakhchivan Khanate, a Persian vassal state. Following the Russo-Persian War of 1826–1828 the Khanate was ceded to Russia, and Sulfa became an official border crossing point between Persia and the Russian Empire. In time the Iranian city of Sulja grew up on the south side the Aras River. The two Julfas are currently linked by a road bridge and a railway bridge. 

Iranian Julfa is now the center of the Aras Free Trade Zone (AFTZ), established by the Iranian government in 2003. The thirty-seven square-mile free trade zone, which borders on the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, Armenia, and the Republic of Azerbaijan, serves as a conduit for goods to and from Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the UAE, and Taiwan. Machinery parts, electrical   appliances, helicopters, glassware, glue, tea, turmeric, various types of dried nuts, clothes, tires, and much else pass through the free trade zone, but perhaps the most important trade items, and certainly the most visible, are cars. The approaches to Julfa are lined with car dealers with hundred of cars lined up on their lots. Hamid, it turns out, is a car buff. His dream, he says, is to own the latest model BMW. He ogles the cars on the lots and at one point shouts, “Look at that! An American muscle-car!” (I didn’t catch the make, and I forgot to ask what a “muscle car” actually is). He asks if on our return from Church of St. Stephanos he can make a couple of quick stops at car dealers to check prices. Expensive cars, like Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs, he claims, are five to ten thousand dollars cheaper here than in Tehran, where he lives. 

In Julfa itself we drive by another Ashura ceremony much like the one we saw in Tabriz. In front of a flatbed truck with loudspeakers a group of costumed actors, the Umayyad villains in red, play out the solemn drama of the deaths of Muhammad’s grandson Husain and his family and supporters. Several hundred spectators surround the actors. Just past the Ashura ceremony our driver spots a crowd of men in front of a one-story shopping center. Many are holding plastic clamshell containers in their hands and shoveling what looks like rice into their mouths with their fingers. Apparently part of the Ashura ceremony involves dispensing free food to the public. Evliya Celebi commented on this practice in Tabriz in the 1640s:
Another marvelous and noteworthy spectacle is the Ashura ceremony held every year on the tenth day of Muharram. All the notables and citizens, young and old, come out to [the] polo grounds where they pitch their tents and stay for three days and three nights. They boil innumerable cauldrons of Ashura pudding, in remembrance of the martyrs in the plain of Karbala, and distribute it among rich and poor alike, devoting the religious merit accrued thereby to those martyrs’ spirits.
 “You should try the Ashura meal. It’s free!” says Hamid. In the vestibule of the shopping center four men are ladling a simple rice and mutton plov out of an enormous basin. The leader spots me, an obvious foreigner, and asks Hamid where I am from. Hamid says I am an American. “From America!” shouts the man, “Tell him if he accepts this food he must convert to Islam!” This was apparently meant as a jest, since many of the bystanders burst out laughing. He handed me my clamshell portion with a big smile on his face. Several men came forward to shake my hand. A couple guys insist I pose with them while their friends take photos with their cell phones. Another guy hurries up with spoons for the city guys and their foreign guest who of course cannot be expected to eat with their fingers. Masud has instant coffee, tea bags, a thermos of hot water, and a big box of Persian pastries in the trunk of our car. We stand around the open trunk and enjoy our impromptu lunch of rice and mutton. I am reminded of the rice with raisins often handed out during ceremonies at Buddhist temples in Mongolia. 

About two miles west of Julfa, hard by the banks of the Aras River, we stop at the Khajeh Nasar Caravanserai. Usually, Hamid claims, it is possible to enter the interior of the caravanserai, but today the big entrance door is closed and locked, perhaps because of Ashura, and we must be content with viewing the outside of the structure. The caravanserai had been built by the Armenian trader Khajeh Nazar Armani. He was one of the Armenians deported, as mentioned earlier, to the Esfahan area by Shah Abbas back at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In Esfahan Khajeh Nazar Armani flourished as a trader, amassing a sizable fortune, and soon caught the attention of Shah Abbas himself. With Shah Abbas’s approval he returned to his homeland and built two caravanserais, the one here and another directly across the river. The caravanserai on the north side of the river apparently no longer exists. The remaining caravanserai, measuring about 130 feet by 200 feet, consists a courtyard lined on three sides by quarters for traveling merchants and storage rooms. A handsome structure of brick and cut stone, it no doubt rated the seventeenth century equivalent of five stars. In the seventeenth century the next stop south of the caravanserai was reportedly the town of Shoja, about six and half miles away. This may indicate the the Iranian town of Julfa, now three miles from the caravanserai, may not have existed at this time. 
Khajeh Nasar Caravanserai (click on photos for enlargements)
Unable to enter the building I stroll to the bank of the Aras to take photos. About two hundred yards away two soldiers step out of a checkpoint guardhouse and stare in my direction. “We better go,” says Hamid, “Taking photos of the caravanserai is OK, but they may wonder why you are taking photos of Azerbaijan, across the river.” 
Aras River, with the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic on the other side
We drive on to checkpoint, where we are stopped, but Masud banters with the two young conscripts, who look to be teenagers, and they wave us on without asking to see our papers. Not far past the checkpoint, at the base of the cliffs on the left, a stone tower with a cone-shaped roof looms above high stone walls. This is the Nakheirchi Church. Hamid explains that in Azeri, the language of Azerbaijan which is spoken by most people in this area, nakheir means “herd of cattle”. A nakheirchi is a cattle herder. According to local legend a cattle herder built this church so that his fellow herders would have a place to pray while they were out tending their cattle. The gate to the high-walled compound is locked, whether for Ashura or not Hamid does not know, so we drive on. 
Nakheirchi Church
The Aras River valley narrows here, flanked on either side by barren rust and mustard-tinted cliffs and ramparts. I would like to take photos, but Hamid points to the  manned guard towers on the Azerbaijani side of the river and suggests that this is not a good idea. Another six miles west up the Aras valley a defile lined with trees leads into the soaring ramparts to our left. We turn off on a narrow lane and half a mile later come to the Church of St. Stephanos parking lot. It is deserted except for a guy with a broom sitting on a bench. He informs us that church grounds are open, but the church itself is closed for Ashura. 
Lane leading to the church 
A short walk up a tree-lined lane brings us to the substantial walls of of the church compound. Off to the right is a prodigious spring which debouches into pond where a small flock of ducks gambol. This spring is no doubt why the church was originally established on this site. Scattered among the trees are benches and picnic areas. Hamid, who had been here before, says that the lush oasis-like surroundings tucked in here amidst the otherwise sere and barren terrain  attract day-trippers from as far away as Tabriz and beyond. On other holidays the place can get quite crowded. This is first time he has ever seen the place deserted. We check the large gates leading into the church compound, but they are indeed locked. I will have to be content with viewing the church from outside the compound.
 Spring with wonderful water; no doubt why the church was found here.
Pond fed by the spring
 Fortress-like walls of the Church compound
 Church behind the fortress walls
 Entrance to the church compound
 Front of the church
Greater Armenia, which included the valley of the Aras River, became Christian in a.d. 301, making it the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion. (The little known statelet of Osrhoene, in what is now southeastern Turkey, with its capital in Edessa (modern-day Sanliurfa), may have actually been the first officially Christian state, but it proved so ephemeral that most historians ignore it and credit Armenia). In the centuries following its adoption of Christianity Armenia would have been in the heartland of the Faith, not an outlier as it is today. The name of the church here in the Aras valley links it to the very earliest days of Christianity. Stephen (Greek = Stephanos), was one of the seven deacons appointed by the Twelve Apostles to distribute food to the poor and needy. According to the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, he was stoned to death after he made a speech which was deemed blasphemous by the local Jewish authorities. This won him the title of Protomartyr, the very first martyr of Christianity. Saul of Tarsus, later the Apostle Paul, witnessed the execution, and Stephen’s steadfast devotion to Christianity may have had something to do with his own eventual conversion to the faith. 

According to legend, a church was founded on this spot in the first century a.d. by Saint Bartholomew, one of the original Twelve Apostles. This tale is no doubt apocryphal; in any case, no one is claiming that any of the current structures date from this era. According to a sign post on the grounds at least one part of the church does date back to at the seventh century. Other sources, most of them admittedly ephemeral (scholarly literature on the subject is scarce), make no mention of this seventh century edifice but instead claim that the complex was built sometime in the ninth, tenth, eleventh, or twelfth centuries. 

It is tempting to think that the St. Stephanos complex was built during the rule of the Bagratuni Dynastry (884–1045) when Armenia freed itself from Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphate and went on to enjoy more than a century and a half of independence. During this period Armenia experienced a cultural renaissance, especially in the field of architecture. The capital city of Ani (now in Turkey) became known as the city of “40 gates and 1001 churches.” Among the churches was a magnificent cathedral built in 998-1000 under the direction of the renowned architect Tiridates. There is, however, no direct evidence linking the Church of St. Stephanos to the Bagratid era. 

In 1236 Armenia, then ruled by the Zakarian Dynasty, became a vassal state of the Mongols, who had arrived in the area as early as 1220. At first Christianity flourished under the Mongols. Sorqaqtani, the mother of the first Ilkhan, Khülegü, was a staunch Nestorian Christian, as was Khülegü’s wife, Dokuz Khatun, who like a true nomad maintained a movable church in her camp. Khülegü’s son, the second Ilkhan Abaqa, likewise encouraged Christianity, although he himself apparently leaned toward Buddhism. He did marry a Christian, the Byzantine princess Mary Palaiologina, the illegitimate daughter of Byzantine emperor Michael VIII. Christianity’s favored status in the Ilkhanate ended with the accession of the Ilkhan Ghazan in 1295. He converted to Islam the same year and almost immediately launched a campaign against other religions. Buddhists, not being “People of the Book”— followers of the Abrahamic religions who have a revealed scripture and recognize one and only one God—were ordered to convert to Islam or leave the territory of the Ilkhanate and their temples were destroyed. Christians and Jews lost the privileges they had enjoyed earlier and were forced to pay a special poll-tax. In effect, they  became second class citizens. Apparently they were allowed to keep their churches and synagogues, so it is possible that the Church and Monastery of Stephanos survived the Mongol era intact. 

One Armenian scholar goes on to claim, however, that over the centuries many of the original buildings in the complex, including those which survived the Ilkhanate, were destroyed by earthquakes and that most of the now remaining structures were built or rebuilt during the reign of the Safavid Shah Abbas the Second (1642–1666). Thus the history of this notable landmark—it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site—remains surprisingly speculative. 

According to one modern source:
The beautiful murals on the dome and the relief works above and below it are crafted with a precision that must place this work among the few artistic marvels of the world. Not limited to the domes, the murals, and the ornamentation of the vaults and arches at the entry, this beautiful artistry extends to all the arches and vaults of the western walls, to the pillars, columns and capitals, and to the decorative work both in the interior and exterior of the building.
Unfortunately, none of this is visible from outside the compound walls. I climb the hill behind the complex in hopes of getting a view of the interior of the compound. I am rewarded with panoramic view of the church set against the background of the colorful cliffs on the other side of the Aras River, but few of the details of the church itself or the monastery buildings can be seen. I tell Hamid to go back to the car and wait for me while I sent an hour mediating on the thousand years or more of history encapsulated here. A kaleidoscopic array of images flit through my mind, but when I try to envision what will be here one thousand years hence my mind comes up blank.
 View of church from above
 Detail of church 
 Detail of church. Notice how the stones of the steeple seem to mimic the colors in the cliffs beyond. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Iran | Tabriz

Caught the Midnight Special from Istanbul to Tabriz, Iran. The flight is scheduled to leave Istanbul at 12:20 a.m. and arrive in Tabriz at 4:25 a.m, with a one and a half hour time change, for a flight of about two hours and thirty-five minutes. I am flying to Tabriz instead of Tehran, the usual gateway for tourists to Iran, because I am interesting in visiting various nearby sites connected with the Ilkhanate period of Persian history—the years 1256–1335—when the descendants of Chingis Khan ruled much of the Mid East, including current-day Iran. For the last four or five years I have been tracking the westward movement of the Mongols, starting with Chingis Khan’s invasion of Mawarannahr, or Transoxiania, (current day Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan) in 1219. In connection with this I visited Bukhara, Samarkand, Termez, and other cities attacked by the armies of Chingis Khan in Uzbekistan (see my book Chingis Khan Rides West: The Mongol Invasion Of Bukhara, Samarkand, And Other Great Cities Of The Silk Road), and also Merv and several other cities sacked by the Mongols in what is now Turkmenistan. 

Now I am jumping ahead three decades to the Mongol invasion of what is now Iran and Iraq by Chingis Khan’s grandson Khülegü. In 1256 Khülegü wiped out the strongholds of the Nisari Ismailis, better known to the world as the Assassins, in Iran and cemented the Mongol occupation of the Iranian Plateau. Two years later, in 1258 Khülegü sacked Baghdad and brought to an end the 508 year old Abbasid Caliphate, thus bringing most of what is now Iraq into the Mongol orbit. A new Caliphate would be initiated by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered Constantinople in 1453, and solidified under the rule of his grandson Selim I, who brought the Holy Cites of Mecca and Medina under Ottoman control. This Turkish-led Caliphate lasted until 1924, when it was finally abolished by the new secular state of Turkey. As I write this, the group known as ISIS is attempting to create a new Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, thus resurrecting the Arab-based Caliphate destroyed by Khülegü Khan back in 1258. 

Khülegü Khan was the first Ilkhan, or ruler, of the Mongol state known as the  Ilkhanate. The term Ilkhan is usually defined as “Deputy Khan”, meaning that the holder of the title was subordinate to the Great Mongol Khan in Beijing and that the Ilkhanate was a part of the greater Mongol Empire. During the lifetime of Khülegü the Great Khan was his brother, Khubilai Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China. The influence of the Yuan Dynasty on the rest of the Mongol Empire gradually lessened, however,  and the concept that the Ilkhanate was in fact subordinate to the Great Khan in Beijing became little more than a convenient fiction. Eventually the Ilkhanate became for all practical purposes an independent state. 

Most sources date the founding of the Ilkhanate to 1256, the year Khülegü seized the Assassin headquarters at Alamut. The Ilkhanate ended in 1335, when the last Ilkhan, Abu Sa’id died without issue, after which it disintegrated into several small successor-states. Thus for seventy-nine years the Mongols controlled much of  the current day countries of  Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and sizable portions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.There were nine Ilkhans:

Khülegü (1256–1265)
Abaqa (1265–1282)
Ahmad Tegüder (1282–1284)
Arghun (1284–1291)
Gaykhatu (1291–1295)
Baidu (1295)
Mahmud Ghazan (1295–1304)
Oljeitu (Olziit), Muhammad Khodabandeh (1304–1316)
Abu Sa'id Bahadur (1316–1335)

During the reign of Khülegü the capital of the Ilkhanate was in Maragheh, about fifty miles south of Tabriz. His son Abaqa moved the capital to Tabriz, where it remained until the reign of Oljeitu Khan (henceforth Olziit, the Mongol spelling of his name), who moved it to Soltaniyeh, about 185 miles southeast of Tabriz. 

Thus my plan is to visit the old Mongol capitals of Tabriz, Maragheh, Soltaniyeh, and other nearby cities and find whatever traces of Mongol influence may remain. I also plan to visit Alamut, the Assassin stronghold conquered by Khülegü in 1256. While my main interest is in places connected with the the Ilkhanate era I have also tacked onto my itinerary some of the more popular destinations in Iran, including Tehran, Esfahan, Yazd, Shiraz, and various towns and cities in between. I have only been able to wrangle a sixteen-day visa and so have no time to waste. I intend to hit the ground running in Tabriz.

Despite the fact that it was eleven o’clock at night the huge Turkish Airlines business lounge In Istanbul (it supposedly seats 1038) was jammed with people and I had trouble finding a place to sit down. Finally I squeezed into a chair next to some huge guys speaking Russian. The elegantly appointed (at least by airport standards) lounge had an array of buffet dishes and fresh fruit, special tables featuring only baklava and olives, and numerous coffee and wine bars. Since baklava in Istanbul is now running about a dollar a pop I decided to fill up here, washing down a dozen or so pieces with a three double expressos. At 11:40 the Now Boarding sign became flashing for Flight 0880 to Tabriz. 

The Istanbul-Tabriz flight is a milk run. The departure lounge in a far-flung area of the terminal without walk-on ramps. A shuttle bus takes passengers to the plane parked in the nether regions of the airport. There were sixty or seventy people in the departure lounge. I far as I could tell I as the only non-Iranian. About half of the Iranians were women and oddly enough only three of them were wearing head scarves (rusari). None were wearing chadors, the long black robes so often associated with Iran. At the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul where I had applied for my visa, woman, including non-Iranians, are not allowed inside unless they are wearing a head scarf. A guy at the door hands out scarves to those who come unequipped. 

We left right on time at 12:20 a.m. As soon was we reached cruising altitude breakfast was offered, but I waved it off—I was still reeling from the baklava high—and settled back with my Kindle. In Istanbul I had been reading The Book of Travels (Seyahatname) by the legendary Turkish traveler Evliya Çelebi (1611–1682?) and I now concentrated on his account of Tabriz, which he visited in the 1640s. 

Evliya Çelebi (his given name is Evliya. Çelebi, pronounced Chelebi, is a title meaning, roughly, gentleman or esquire) came from a prominent Istanbul family. He claimed to be a descendant of Khoja Ahmat Yassavi (1093–1166), the earliest known Turkic poet to compose poetry in a Turkic dialect and the eponym of the Yassaviyya sect of Sufis. Yassavi was one of the four main disciples of Yusuf Hamadani (d.1140), one of the so-called Khwajagan, or Masters of Wisdom, whose Mausoleum At Merv, in Turkmenistan I had visited earlier. His father was the chief goldsmith of several of the Ottoman sultans. He himself was tutored by the imam of Sultan Murad IV. A precocious student, he soon memorized the entire Quran and was able to recite it without a single error in eight hours. Sultan Murad IV was so impressed by the young man’s skills as a conversationist and singer that he introduced him into his Court as a boon companion. Given his varied talents, he might well have made a career as a reciter, scholar, entertainer, or full-time courtier, but he soon discovered that he possessed by insatiable wanderlust:
I beseeched the Creator at every moment to grant me health of body . . . asking myself, “How can I get free of the pressures of father and mother, teacher and brother, and become a world traveller?” I was always on good terms with heart-wounded dervishes and glad to converse with them. And when I heard a description of the seven climes and the four corners of the earth, I longed to travel with all my heart and soul. So I became utterly wretched, a vagabond crying out, ‘Might I roam the world? Might it be vouchsafed to me to reach the Holy Land, Cairo and Damascus, Mecca and Medina, and to rub my face at the Sacred Garden, the tomb of the Prophet, glory of the universe?
According to Evliya, he had “always desired God’s guidance in dreams,” and “So I lay down on the pillow of lamentation, in the corner of my hovel, in my birthplace Istanbul, to a sleep of wish fulfillment. It was the night of Ashura in the month of Muharram, the year 1040 (10 August 1630), in a state twixt sleep and wake, that I had a dream.”

Ashura is a day commemorated by both Sunni and Shiite Muslims, although they have radical different views of its significance. For Sunnis it is the Day of Atonement on which the Israelites, led by Moses, recognized as a prophet in Islam, were freed from the Pharaohs of Egypt. For Shiites it is a day of great mourning marking the death of Muhammad’s grandson Husain and his family and supporters at the hands of the Umayyad caliph Yazid I at Karbala, in what is now Iraq, in October 10, 680.

In this dream Evliya found himself in the Ahi Çelebi mosque, on the shores of the Golden Horn in Istanbul. 
The door was opened and the light-filled mosque was crowded with a luminous congregation, who were busy performing the dawn prayer. It seems that I stood motionless at the foot of the pulpit and gazed in astonishment at this congregation with their beaming faces. “Good sir,” said I, turning to the person beside me, ”please tell me who you are, and what your noble name is? The man replied that his name was Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas, “‘the patron saint of archers.”
The other notables in the mosque, he explained to Evliya, were a whole host of prophets and Islamic holy men, including the People of the Bench, a select group of the Prophet Muhammad’s followers during his own lifetime; the first four “Rightly Guided” caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali; Hussain and the other martyrs of Karbala; and many others. Suddenly the mosque was filled with light and in through the door strode the Prophet Muhammad himself. He was wearing a yellow shawl and yellow boots and had a toothpick stuck in his turban. The Prophet then asked Evliya himself to recite various prayers. At the end of the long ceremony Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas “at once lay hold of my hand and brought me before him [the Prophet], saying, ”Your loving and faithful servant, Evliya, begs your intercession. At this point Evliya asked Muhammad to bless his endeavors as a traveler. Muhammad gave him his blessings, adding “may God give you health and well-being.” Muhammad and the other holy personages filed out of the mosque, leaving only Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas, who said to Evliya:
Be in God’s protection and safety. And receive these good tidings: Of all the spirits you met in this assembly and whose hands you kissed, you are vouchsafed to visit their tombs. You will be a world traveller and unique among men. The well-protected kingdoms through which you pass, the fortresses and towns, the strange and wonderful monuments, and each land’s praiseworthy qualities and products, its food and drink, its latitude and longitude—record all of these and compose a marvelous work.
At this point Evliya awoke. Fearing that his dream was no more than a phantasm of no significance, he sought the counsel of an interpreter of dreams named Ibrahim Efendi, who assured him that the dream was indeed a prediction of his future. “You will be a globe trotter and world traveller,” the interpreter of dreams told Evliya. “Your journey will be sealed with a good ending. You will be admitted into paradise by the intercession of the Prophet.”

Thus began Evliya’s career as a traveler and writer. He ended up wandering around the lands of the Ottoman Empire and surrounding territories for almost forty years, eventually recording his travels in his mammoth ten-volume Book of Travels (of the ten volumes, only eight have survived). His translator calls it “probably the longest and most ambitious travel account by any writer in any language.”

While in Istanbul I visited the Ahi Çelebi Mosque where Evliya met the Prophet Muhammad and other luminaries in his dream. It is located between the banks of the Golden Horn and a busy highway, just across the road and west of the Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar. In a city chockablock with magnificent mosques this small edifice has little to distinguish it except for its age—it was founded by Ahi Çelebi ibn Kemal, the Chief Physician of the Hospital of Mehmet the Conquerer, sometime between 1480 and 1500—and its association with Evliya, which is commemorated by a stone plaque in the form of an open book located in front of the mosque. I sat on one of the nearby benches for half an hour pondering the impulse that leads some to incessantly roam this world in search of new sights and sensations. After all, it was Evliya himself who said, “Travel is a fragment of hell, though it be but a single parasang [a measure of length equal to about four miles].
 The Ahi Çelebi Mosque (click on photos for enlargements)
A different view of the Ahi Çelebi Mosque showing the stone book
The stone book commemorating the mosque’s association with Evliya.  Some of the text is worn off.
Evliya ended up spending two months in Tabriz as part of an Ottoman embassy to the Safavid governor of the city Pir Budaq Khan Pornak Turkman. Evliya does not use the governor’s real name (his translator provides it) but instead calls him Kelp Ali Khan, which apparently means “Dog of Ali”, Ali being, of course, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and the progenitor of the Shiite sect. Evliya’s translator insists that this was a self-deprecating nickname, although it could be interpreted as  an anti-Shiite slur. In any case, Evliya, a strict Sunni Muslim, was shocked by the Shiites he encountered in the first village he visited inside Persia (Shiism became the state religion of Persia during the reign of the Savafid Ismael I [1501–1524] and of course remains so today):
A flourishing village with orchards and gardens beyond number—may God the Avenger destroy it! Because all the inhabitants are Shiites and caliph-cursers. This was the first time in Persia that I heard them—God forbid!—cursing the Caliph Umar. I nearly went out of my mind. But I was weak and tired, not yet in a position to do anything about it. Otherwise I could easily have killed that accursed curser; because when Ottoman envoys come to Persia they have the liberty of killing up to four Kızılbaş (i.e., the Safavids of Persia) cursers for the sake of the Four Companions of the Prophet, no questions asked. For now I bore it patiently.
Evliya calmed down by the time he reached Tabriz, a city with which he quickly fell in love:
Because in the entire kingdom of Persia there is no city and no countryside as fine as Tabriz, the ravisher of hearts . . . It is a large and ancient city with delightful climate, lovely boys and girls, lofty buildings and numerous foundations and institutions. May God vouchsafe that it once again belong to the Ottomans [the Ottomans had occupied Tabriz from 1585 to 1603] . . . may God Most High cause it to flourish forever!
While in Tabriz Evliya apparently witnessed the Ashura ceremony, which as noted commemorates the death of Muhammad’s grandson Husain and his family and supporters at the hands of the Umayyads at Karbala in what is now Iraq. It was this event which cleft Islam into two branches, Sunni and Shiite, the consequences of which we are living with to this day. Evliya:
Another marvelous and noteworthy spectacle is the Ashura ceremony held every year on the tenth day of Muharram [Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar; Ashura means, literally, “the tenth”]. . . . The great event of the day is when the Khan pitches his parti-colored pavilion i[in an open field] and all the Tabriz notables gather round knee to knee to hear the recital of ‘The Martyrdom of Husain’ which is comparable to the recital of ‘The Birthday of the Prophet” in Turkey. All the lovers of the Prophet’s family listen with dejection and humility, moaning and sighing. Finally, at the words, ‘The accursed Shibr, the oppressor, martyred his holiness Imam Husain, the oppressed, in this fashion,’ a curtain opens behind the reciter and a severed head and trunk of a body, with blood flowing, are thrown in front of the Khan’s pavilion. Then they bring mannequins of the Imam’s innocent children, who died of thirst. The audience wail and lament and are caught up in a woeful ecstasy. At this juncture some hundreds of professional barbers circulate among the lovers with razors in their hands. Those wishing to demonstrate their love for Husain on that day have the barbers slash their arms and breasts, shedding so much blood that the verdant green ground turns tulip red. Some of the lovers brand their heads with the Mark of Submission, or brand their arms with the marks of Hasan and Husain . . . or have tattoos pricked on their arms, shedding their blood for the love of Husain . . . What a grand spectacle!
About an hour and forty minutes out of Istanbul we pass into Iranian airspace. I have for some reason gotten the impression that northwestern Iran is scarcely populated, but below a half a dozen or more small cities or towns are visible are visible at any given time as we proceed eastward. Even though it is past three in the morning they are all extremely well lit up. The downtown areas are ablaze with lights; what look like single-house suburbs are illuminated with grids of bright lights; and the roads leading out of town are lined with street lights for many miles. Iran does not seem to be suffered from a shortage of electricity. Just after four local time we begin our descent into Tabriz. The brilliantly illumined city of around 1.5 million—the fifth (some say fourth)—largest city in Iran—appears to stretch from horizon to horizon. 

On the ground at the airport we file out of the plane to a waiting bus. All the women are now wearing head scarves. There are maybe ten people in front of me at the Immigration desk but they are Iranians and pass through quickly. Just as I present my passport a man outside the barrier to the immigration area shouts, “Mr. Corner!” I see that he is also holding a sign reading “Mr. Corner”. The immigration official waves him inside the barrier and the two have a short confabulation. Finally the young man says, “Welcome to Iran, Mr. Corner. My name is Hamid Taraghi. May I call you Donald?” I said my last name was actually Croner and that he could call me Don. “OK, Don. It will take ten or fifteen minutes for them to straighten out your papers and get you registered. In the meantime we can sit in the here in the reception lounge.” 

According to current rules all American citizens visiting Iran must be accompanied at all times by a guide provided by a government authorized travel agency. Mr. Taraghi will be my guide and compulsory companion for the next sixteen days. He appears to be in his early thirties and from what I can gather speaks nearly perfect English with hardly any accent. I ask him about our itinerary for the day. Before delving into Tabriz I had planned to rest for a few hours and then spend half a day visiting the ancient Armenian Church and Monastery of Stephanos, about eighty miles north of Tabriz, hard by the Iranian-Azerbaijan border. Hamid said the trip was still on and we could visit the church grounds, but he was afraid the church itself might not be open, since today was Ashura, one for the most holy of days on the Shiite calendar. Did I come to Iran specifically on this date to witness the Ashura ceremonies, he wondered? Actually I had picked my arrival date more or less at random, and I did not have the slightest idea today was Ashura. Curiously, however, the last thing I had read in Evliya’s travel account before our plane began its descent was his description of Ashura in Tabriz in the late 1640s.  He had also had his dream in which his future as a traveler was foretold on Ashura. Now I was arriving in Iran for the first time on Ashura, the tenth day of  Muharram. Just a coincidence, apparently.

After all the Iranian passengers had cleared Immigration an official appears and leads us to his office. Here all ten of my digits were electronically finger printed. Apparently this is mandatory for all American citizens entering Iran. Various paperwork is exchanged between Hamid and the official and finally we are free to leave. Just as we approach the door to the public arrival lounge an elderly woman yells at me and points to an x-ray machine. She gives my small carry-on bag a cursory inspection on the x-ray screen and then waves me on. Outside my hired car is waiting for me. My driver’s name is Masud, and he will be accompanying me for the entire trip. 

Twenty minutes after leaving the airport our driver deposited Hamid and me at Pars El Goli Hotel, an eleven story pile of grass and concrete perched atop a small knoll on the outskirt of the city. It was, Hamid assured me, a five-star hotel, the best in Tabriz. The guide, the car and driver, and the up-scale hotels were all part of a package that I as an American citizen had to buy in order to get an Iranian visa. Initially I had been irked by these requirements, but I had finally decided to bow to the unavoidable. Unless the travel agency was misleading me I had no choice if I wished to visit Iran.

The hotel is a standard five-star (OK, maybe four star) business and upscale tourist venue with all the usual amenities, plus a supposedly revolving restaurant at the very top. I am quickly checked for a three night stay. The receptionist says he would keep my passport until I leave. Before going to my room Hamid warns me not to step outside the hotel without him. If I am discovered outside I would probably just be taken back to the hotel and given a light reprimand. He, however, was my authorized guide and responsible for my actions in Iran. If I broke any of the rules, like leaving the hotel without him, he could be fired from his job, lose his guiding license, or worse. I assured him I would not leave the hotel unaccompanied. Otis elevators (apparently pre-Sanctions) whisk me up to the fifth floor. The room was certainly sufficient, with a sitting area and table and a desk. There was even an adequate reading lamp by the bed, the lack of which is one of my pet peeves with hotels. The internet connection was reasonably fast. Blogger.com I soon discover is blocked but all the major news sites work (with the curious exception of dailybeast.com). Finally I collapse on the huge double bed and sleep for three hours. 

Around nine I head down to the huge dining hall. The place probably seats well over a two hundred but only a dozen or so people were having breakfast at this hour. There are two Chinese and two Africans, apparently businessmen, and the rest are besuited Iranian men each eating by themselves. The usual breakfast buffet items are available, including omelets cooked to order, but I quickly decide on comb honey, clotted cream, dates, and flat bread. A better breakfast could hardly be imagined. There was no brewed coffee, so I had to settle for Nescafe. There was an assortment of teabags, but I, a tea cognoscenti, could hardly be expected to drink tea made from bags. At ten I met Hamid and Masud in the lobby for our trip to the Church of St. Stephanos.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Turkey | Istanbul | Mongol Invasion

I entered a Portal on October 9 and after having spent several weeks in a Parallel Universe emerged just recently in Istanbul, which as cognoscenti know contains a Portal Connected to Shambhala. I reappeared in Istanbul just in time to meet up with my pal Ms. Saraa from Ulaanbaater, who had flown into town on Turkish Airlines for a few days of shopping and R&R.
Ms. Saka at her hotel (click on photos for enlargements)
We hit the streets running. I must say I experienced a different Istanbul than the one I am accustomed to: mainly the shopping scene. First we visited the Historia Mall, a huge new complex just up the street from the Aksaray Metro Station. Thank Heavens they had a Starbucks! I parked myself there while Ms. Saka hit the stores. She had already advised me that she did not like people peering over her shoulder while she was shopping. It had recently dawned on me that I knew very little about the Achaemenids who ruled much of what is now Iran and surrounding countries from 550 BC to 330 BC, when their empire was conquered by Alexander the Great. I had brought my Kindle along (actually I never go anywhere with it), and now I took the opportunity to get up to speed on the Achaemenids by reading Matt Water’s marvelously entertaining Ancient Persia: A Concise History of the Achaemenid Empire, 550-330 BCE.

I had already reached the sack of Persepolis by Alexander the Great when Ms. Saka reappeared. After three hours of shopping she had found nothing she liked. So we moved on to the mammoth Forum Shopping Center a few stops further out on the Aksaray-Airport Metro Line. They too had a Starbucks! I finished Ancient Persia and moved on to Alexander the Great and the Conquest of the Persians. By the time Ms. Saka  appeared three and a half hours later Alexander was dead. Still she had found nothing she liked.

The next day we went to the Russian shopping district near the Laleli Mosque, not far from the Grand Bazaar. Many of the stores here are wholesale. Ms. Saka finally got down to business. She bought at least fourteen dresses, several pairs of boots, and other assorted items. I spent an enjoyable day listening to women from Russia and the former Soviet republics haggle with beleaguered sales clerks. Although I have not lived in Russia for years I was able to at least get the drift of most of the conversations. There following three more days of whirlwind shopping. Then finally to the Spice Market area where Ms. Saka bought raisins, apricots, dried cranberries (for kidney ailments), walnuts, both shelled and unshelled (her mother believes tea made from the shells of walnuts are good for the bones), cashews, almonds, and various other fruits and nuts. That concluded the shopping portion of Ms. Saka’s trip. 

Now for sightseeing. This was Ms. Saka’s first visit to Istanbul so we hit all the high spots, starting with the square between Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, certainly one of the world’s most iconic tourist venues. 
Ms. Saka and Hagia Sophia, built in the 530s AD by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. 
Ms. Saka and the Blue Mosque, built  between 1609 to 1616 by Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I
The Blue Mosque at night
We also visited the Basilica Cistern, built in the 520s AD to store water for the area around Hagia Sophia. The underground cistern has 336 columns and reportedly can hold over 100,000 tons of water. 
The Basilica Cistern
Two of the columns in the cistern rest on bases with carvings of Medusa. This one is on its side. No one know why. 
The other Medusa is upside down. Again, no one knows why.
Ms. Saka upside down
The Yeni Cami, or  New Mosque, near the Spice Market, completed in the 1660s
Courtyard of the New Mosque
Ms. Saka buying simit from a simit seller
Of course no trip to Istanbul is complete without seeing the Whirling Dervishes at the Mevlevi Hall in Galata, across the Golden Horn from Sultanahmed where Ms. Saka was staying.
Performers prepping for the dance
Whirling, whirling . . .
After the Dervishes we left for Büyükada, the largest of the Prince Islands, located in the Sea of Marmara about an hour’s ferry ride from the main part of Istanbul. 
Ms. Saka at the Ferry Dock
On the ferry to the Prince Islands
Ms. Saka
Ms. Saka at the Büyükada (Big Island) ferry station
Ms. Saka strolling the streets of Büyükada. No cars are allowed on the island, so it’s either horse carriages, bikes, or on foot. 
Back in Istanbul we visited the famous fish restaurants near the Galata Bridge. Thoroughly sated by Istanbul, Ms. Saka caught the next plane back to Ulaanbaatar. She had arrived with only the clothes on her back but returned with 40 kilos of loot—not a bad shopping trip!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Mongolia | Uzbekistan | Chingis Khan Rides West

Chingis Khan Rides West is now available on Amazon: Paper Version and Kindle Version. The Kindle version is best read on devices that support color. 

(Click on Photo for Enlargement)

Back Cover Blurb:
Since the time of the Xiongnu two thousand years ago the nomads of the Mongolian Plateau traditionally looked south toward China for both plunder and trade. In 1215 Chingis Khan turned his attention westward and by 1219 had decided to invade the Islamic realms of Inner Asia, unleashing a sequence of events that would result in the sack of Baghdad in 1258 by his grandson Khülegü and the fall of the 508 year-old Abbasid Caliphate. The dissolution of the Caliphate by Khülegü dealt a blow to the Islamic world from which some might argue it has never fully recovered. We are still to this day living with the consequences of the Mongol invasion. Chingis Khan Rides West examines the motivation of Chingis Khan’s ride westward to attack the Islamic world and recounts the fall of the great Silk Road cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, Termez, Gurganj, and others.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Iraq | Yezidis | Peacock Angel |Shambhala



Things can't get worse than this: Iraqi civilians are escaping into Syria to get off a northern mountain wheretthey've been trapped without food or water for weeks. Between 20,000 to 30,000 minority Yazidis have found a safe passage through Syria and back into Iraqi Kurdistan, assisted by Kurdish guerrilla forces. Meanwhile, American and British missions have been dropping emergency relief Mt. Sinjar and U.S. has launched air strikes on Islamic State militants nearby.


As anyone who pays even cursory attention to the news now knows the United States is airdropping humanitarian aide to the Yezidis in Iraq. See US Drops New Aid To Iraqis Fleeing Militant Surge if by some chance you are not up to speed on this. The fleeing Iraqis in this case are Yezidis, although of course Syriac Christians are also fleeing from the Jihadists in Iraq. I think I first became aware of the Yezidis when I read about them in the book Meetings With Remarkable Men by twentieth century magus George Gurdjieff back in the early 1970s. Then in  2009 I met a Yezidi in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, where he was working in a carpet store. I had my laptop with me and he asked to see a post I had made about his store—there is wi-fi in the Grand Bazaar—and after he had seen that post he began surfing through other of my blog entries. Suddenly he stopped and blurted out, “What is this!?!” It was a Short Post About Yezidis. “How do you know about Yezidis?” he demanded. He actually seem shocked that I should know about anything about this subject. I said that I read about them in books and had seen various material about them on the internet. After some hemming and hawing he finally admitted that he himself was a Yezidi. He said that for various reasons he usually did not tell tourists who came into his store about this, but since I already knew about Yezidis he felt he could tell me. Admittedly he was not too eager to share his beliefs, but he did offer to take me to eastern Turkey to met his relatives if I was so inclined. 

According to One Source, “The religion is little known to outsiders but contains elements of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, and also includes the veneration of the Peacock Angel.” What, you are wondering, is the Peacock AngelAccording To Yezidis:
Tawsi Melek, the “Peacock Angel” and “Peacock King,” is the most import deity of the Yezidis. But he is not just the possession of the Yezidis, he belongs to the entire world. The Yezidis believe that they possess the oldest religion on Earth, the primeval faith that features Tawsi Melek, and that all other traditions are related to them through the Peacock Angel. They contend that Tawsi Melek is the true creator and ruler of the universe, and therefore a part of all religious traditions. He does not, however, always manifest within these diverse traditions as a peacock. Tawsi Melek has taken on many other forms throughout time. The Yezidis do not believe that the Peacock Angel is the Supreme God. The Supreme God created him as an emanation at the beginning of time. He was brought into manifestation in order to give the invisible, transcendental Supreme God a vehicle with which to create and administer the universe. Tawsi Melek is thus a tangible, denser form of the infinite Supreme God. In order to assist Tawsi Melek in this important role, the Supreme Creator also created six other Great Angels, who were, like the Peacock Angel, emanations of the Supreme God and not separate from him. Tawsi Melek was, therefore, both the first form of the Supreme God and one of the Seven Great Angels, which is a cosmic heptad mentioned within many religious traditions. The Jews, Christians, Persian, Egyptians all have their seven angels and creators. In the Meshefê Re, the Yezidis “Black Book,” there is one passage that describes the Seven Great Angels and associates their creation with the seven days of Creation. The text first states that the Supreme God first created a pearl containing the substance or substratum of the soon-to-be physical universe, ostensibly referring to the molten mass preceding the “Big Bang” championed by modern physics.
 The Peacock Angel
One of the manifestations of the Peacock Angel in human form is believed to be Shaykh Adi ibn Musafir al-Umawi. He was born in 1070 in what now Lebanon. He studied in Baghdad but soon took up the life of a recluse in upper Mesopotamia. He eventually became a Sufi, but also adhered to the Zoroastrian beliefs still prevalent in the area. His syncretistic tendencies and saintliness soon attracted the attention of local Yezidis, who recognized him as a manifestation or incarnation of the Peacock Angel. He died in 1162 at the age of ninety and was entombed in a mausoleum in a village near Lalish, Iraq. His mausoleum and shrine exists to this day and has become one of the main Yezidi pilgrimage sites. 
The Mausoleum of  Shaykh Adi ibn Musafir al-Umawi near Lalash (not my photo)
The Jihadists in Upper Mesopotamia have destroyed many shrines in the region, perhaps most notably the Tomb of Jonah, Jonah being the belly-of-the-whale-guy who makes an appearance in both the Bible and the Quran. Christian churches, Shiite Mosques, and Sufi holy places have also been targeted. Jihadists May Have Already Captured The Mosul Dam above the city of Mosul. Lalash is just twenty-five miles northeast the breast of the Mosul Dam. If the Jihadists reach Lalash they will undoubtedly destroy the mausoleum and shrine of Shaykh Adi ibn Musafir al-Umawi. 

For photos of Lalish see Visit The Holy City Of The Iraqi Religious Minority That ISIS Is Threatening With Destruction (allow the ad to run for 15 seconds)

The Peacock Angel Manifests Itself In Many Religions, including Buddhism, and is believed to occasionally incarnate as the King of Shambhala:
In Tibet the Peacock Angel appears to be manifest as Amitibha, the peacock-riding dhyanibuddha who sits upon his Peacock Throne in the heaven of Sukhavati and occasionally takes a physical incarnation as the King of the World in legendary Shambhala, the land of immortals that flies the Peacock Flag. Shambhala, meaning the “Place of happiness,” is a place designed as eight territories or “petals” and recognized to be the heart chakra of planet Earth. In the center of the planetary heart chakra is the palace of the King of Shambhala, who thus functions as not only planetary monarch but soul of the world (just as the human soul resides within the human heart chakra). According to one legend, the Peacock Angel not only spread his colors around the globe but additionally merged his spirit with that of the Earth and became the world soul. Thus, his physical body is the Earth and his will is reflected in the actions of all creatures that live upon the face of the Earth.  

Turkey | Tur Abdin | Mor Gabriel Monastery

Lots of news coming out of Mesopotamia. I posted earlier about Midyat, in Turkey, where a refugee camp has been set up to house Syriac Christians fleeing the civil war in Syria. I also posted about the Syriac Christians from Mosel in Iraq who had sought Refuge On Mount Alfaf, about eighteen miles north of current-day Mosul. The plight of Christians in Mesopotamia has continued to worsen; see Ancient Christian population of Mosul Flees Islamic State. Now with the fall of Qaraqosh, Iraq's Largest Christian City, to Jihadists, Syriac Christians in Iraq face annihilation. See ISIS Persecution Of Iraqi Christians Has Become Genocide. Given these conditions, Turkey, which in the past has had its own checkered relationship with its Christian minorities, now appears to be a safe haven for Syriac Christians. 

After visiting Midyat we wandered down to Mor Gabriel Monastery, twelve miles southeast of Midyat and fifteen miles north of the Syrian border. Here, at least, Syriac Christianity appears to be surviving. This is one of the oldest monasteries in the world. It was founded in 397 by Mor (saint) Samuel (d. 433) and Mor Simon (d. 409). Originally it was called the Monastery of Mor Samuel and Mor Simon, but in the seventh century it was renamed Mor Gabriel Monastery after Mor Gabriel (634-668), the bishop of the Tur Abdin Region. Except for brief periods during wars and civil disorders the monastery has operated continuously since the year 397. Visitors are not allowed to wander around the grounds by themselves (although you can stay overnight if you make previous arrangements), but a guide is provided to give you a tour. Our guide, a young Syriac Christian, spoke perfect, unaccented English. 
Entrance to the monastery (click on photos for enlargements)
Entrance to the courtyard
Inner courtyard of the monastery
Monastery grounds
Steeples
This circular room, a later addition to the original monastery, was built in the sixth century with funds provided by the notorious Empress Theodora, the wife of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I
Circular Room. The small windows on the dome open on monks’ cells. 

Our guide related that Theodora was born near here, in what is now Syria, and that her father was a Syriac priest. It was this connection with the area and the Syriac Church that motivated her to make a sizable donation to the monastery for the purpose of building this room. This is the sanitized version of Theodora’s background. Most sources do agree that she was born in Syria, but many maintain that Theodora was the daughter of a bear trainer and a professional dancer and actress. They began pimping out Theodora and her sister Komito when they were both pre-adolescents. Theodora quickly began one of Constantinople’s most notorious prostitutes. If we are to believe the Byzantine historian Procopius (c. AD 500 – c. AD 565), who probably knew her personally, Theodora engaged in behaviour which would make even Kim Kardashian blush:
One night she went into the house of a notable during the drinking, and, it is said, before the eyes of all the guests she mounted the protruding part of the couch near their feet and forthwith pulled up her dress in the most disgraceful manner, and did not shy away from displaying her lasciviousness. And though she made full use of three orifices, she often found fault with Nature, complaining that Nature had not made the holes in her nipples larger so that she could devise another variety of intercourse there. Of course, she was frequently pregnant, but by using pretty well all the tricks of the trade she was able to induce an immediate abortion. Often in the theatre too, in the full view of the people, she would throw off her clothes and stand naked in their midst, having only a pair of knickers over her private parts and her groin – not, however, because she was ashamed to expose these also to the public, but because no one is allowed to appear there absolutely naked: underwear over the groin is compulsory. And with this costume she would spread herself out and lie on her back on the floor. Certain menials on whom this task had been imposed would sprinkle barley grains over her private parts, and geese trained for the purpose used to pick them off with their beaks one by one and swallow them. Theodora, far from blushing when she stood up again, actually seemed to be proud of this performance. For she was not only shameless herself but did more than anyone else to encourage shamelessness. And many times she threw off her clothes and stood in the middle of the actors on the stage, leaning over backwards or pushing out her rear to invite both those who had already enjoyed her and those who had not been intimate as yet, parading her own special brand of gymnastics. With such lasciviousness did she misuse her own body that she appeared to have her privates not like other women in the place intended by nature but in her face! And again, those who were intimate with her showed by so doing that they were not having intercourse in accordance with the laws of nature, and a person of any decency who happened to meet her in public would swing round and beat a hasty retreat, for fear he might come into contact with any of the hussy’s garments and so appear tainted with this pollution. For to those who saw her, especially in the early hours of the day, she was a bird of ill omen. (Quoted from Procopius’s Secret History)
None of this mattered to Emperor Justinian, who became besotted with Theodora and eventually married her. As the wife of a Byzantine emperor Theodora might well have wanted to upgrade her image by donating money to religious institutions. Thus she has been memorialized here at Mor Gabriel Monastery. Justinian himself initiated the construction of Aya Sofia in Istanbul, to this day one of the most magnificent religious structures in the world. Maybe he was feeling guilty about marrying a nymphomaniacal prostitute and wanted to do something to atone for it?
Theodora (c. 500 – 28 June 548) portrayed on a mosaic in a church in Ravenna, Italy (not my photo)
This was probably the dining hall in the monastery
A book, I believe a Bible, but I am not sure, in Syriac Script. The Syriac Language is closely related to Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus of Nazareth, leader of the Galileans.
The Syriac Script was based on the ancient Aramaic Script. The Sogdians of Inner Asia adapted the Syriac Script into their own Sogdian Script; the Uighurs in what is now Xinjiang Province in China adapted the Sogdian Script into their own Uighur Script; and later the Uighur Script was used as the basic for the Traditional Mongolian Script. Thus the Mongolian Vertical Script, which is experiencing somewhat of a revival in Mongolia, can be traced back to the ancient Aramaic Script, a variation of which is still used by Syriac Christians in Turkey today. 
Closer view of Syriac Script. 
A Syriac inscription on a wall in the monastery

New addition to the monastery. Local stone carvers and masons have lost none of their traditional skills.
Good example of local stonework