Dubbed “the fading colour of Mesopotamia” and dwindling in number, southeast Turkey’s Assyrians are in a battle against time to preserve their history. Much of the collective memory of this ancient Christian community is contained in fragile books of scripture held in its churches. 

73-year-old Gabriel Akyüz (Credit: Mehmed Salih Bedirxan)

These are books that 73-year-old Gabriel Akyüz, who lives in the village of Beth Kustan in Mardin province, is working hard to preserve and copy. 

Akyüz is a Horoyo, a religious official who ranks above a priest, and he writes in Syriac, the Assyrian language, which was once widely spoken in the region. The plateau that covers southeastern Mardin, and reaches into the nearby provinces of Batman and Şırnak, is called Tur Abdin by local Assyrians. Meaning “the mountain of men”, it is considered to be the religious and cultural centre of the community. 

Beth Kustan, which lies 15 kilometres outside the town of Midyat in Tur Abdin, is known for its stone homes and grape vines. The 7th-century birthplace of Saint Gabriel, a bishop in the Syriac Church, Mor Gabriel in the seventh century, Beth Kustan means “the house of Constantine” in Syriac.

An Assyrian church in the Beth Kustan village (Credit: Mehmed Salih Bedirxan) 

A majority of the village’s population was forced to migrate to Europe in the 1970s, as a result of inter-ethnic conflict in the region. Today, around 120 people live in the 15-household village, making their living from farming, or making wine and jewellery. 

Aktaş, Saint Gabriel’s namesake, was born in Beth Kustan in 1947. In his role as Horoyo, he facilitates masses in the nearby villages of Zaz and Hah, both also located on the Tur Abdin plateau. Aktaş developed an interest in writing while studying theology and Syriac at the Beth Kustan churches of Mor Eliyo and Mor Dimet. Aktaş writes and distributes his own hymns, but perhaps more importantly, he has copied out thousands of pages of Syriac scripture and hymns dating back to the year 343 AD. 

Aktaş became a Horoyo in 2018, but he has been working to preserve Mor Eliyo’s four ancient books of scripture since 2000. The majority of his time is spent repairing torn and fading books, writing with special ink and pens. 

In 2005, Aktaş copied books of scripture and printed them in Istanbul, sending copies to Syriac churches in Turkey, the US, Switzerland, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. 

“I wanted to write down the Bible for our church too, but I had to quit writing after having problems with my sight,” Aktaş told Inside Turkey.

Beth Kustan muhtar (village head), Fetrus Aktaş. (Credit: Mehmed Salih Bedirxan)

Since losing his wife 18 years ago, Aktaş spends most of his time in the local churches. Several generations of villagers in Beth Kustan, Zaz and Hah have learned about their religion and their ancestral language from Aktaş. That includes his nephew, the Beth Kustan muhtar (village head), Fetrus Aktaş, 50.

“The copies he makes of scripture are highly revered, not just by Assyrians in Tur Abdin, but across the world. You could say he’s the second-top clergyman in Tur Abdin after the metropolitan bishop,” said Fetrus of his uncle.

Eliz Duman, a former pupil of Aktaş (Credit: Mehmed Salih Bedirxan) 

Eliz Duman, now 28, was a pupil of Aktaş as a child. “I was taught by Mr Gabriel between the ages of 12 and 15,” she said. “He’s very good at teaching, I don’t know anyone better.” Duman added that her own children are now being taught about their heritage by Horoyo Aktaş.