I owe my involvement with the Syrian Orthodox Church to Nextel’s bad cell phone coverage. I had just quit Decahedron and was toying around with the idea of using an orchestra of rock instruments to score music too deep-rooted Christian chant. One afternoon, an excited friend called my cell phone to talk about some chants he found on-line. Through garbled static I heard, “I found these old Syrian chants that could really be cool to score.” What he actually said was, “I found these old Serbian Chants…” The misunderstanding sparked the memory of William Dalrymple’s book From the Holy Mountain that I read several years prior. I vaguely remembered Dalrymple came across a monastery in Syria that chanted possibly the oldest form of Christian music. Intrigued, I searched online and couldn’t find anything about the monastery or chants and then scanned though From the Holy Mountain with equal amounts of luck. After several days of fruitless research, I decided to email Dalrymple directly in attempt to hear the chants or at least learn the monastery’s name. To my surprise, he responded four hours later. “Jason, the earliest chants can be found not in a monastery but in the church of the Urfalees in Aleppo: if you get a taxi driver to take you to the Syrian Quarter, the Hayy el-Surian, ask for St George’s Syrian Orthodox Church you will soon find it!” Dalrymple’s directions inspired a journey East into the lands of Christianity’s birth, offering an opportunity to experience the oldest musical link the world has to Jesus Christ.
The Syrian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest Christian institutions to read, write, and worship in Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ. They have several forms of liturgical worship; the oldest being the Edessian school which dates back to the hymns, homily, and poetry of St. Ephraem (303-373 CE) and the rhythms and melodies of the Gnostic Bardaisan (154 -222 CE) both whom lived in ancient Edessa, presently Urfa. The clergy of St. George’s Syrian Orthodox Church are the last people on earth to perform these ancient and largely unknown rituals.
According to my research the Ottomans killed an estimated 71 percent of southeastern Turkey’s Syrian Orthodox population during the Armenian massacres of World War I. Many survivors fled to India, Europe, and The United States but the Urfalees were deported to Aleppo, Syria.
I emailed my musical vision to SyrianOrthodoxChurch.org in the hopes of gaining permission to use their chants and discover a way to hear them. To validate my interests, I explained my first encounter with the Syrian Orthodox.
In 2002 I rented car and drove 3,000 miles along Turkey’s borders with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, and Georgia visiting every holy site along the way. I had read there were a handful of Orthodox monasteries in the in Turkish-Mesopotamian region of Tur Abdin where the monks spoke in Aramaic. Eager to hear the language of Jesus first hand, I got a map.
I was greeted at the gates of Mar Gabriel by a young guy who looked to be 16 or 17. I pulled out my Turkish phrase book and began stumbling through an introduction. The kid interrupted, “Do you speak English?”
“Yes. I’m from Washington DC. My name’s Jason.”
“I am Gabriel.”
“Did you name this place?”
He laughed. “No, it was built in 397 A.D. and named after Saint Gabriel. It is the oldest Syrian Orthodox Monastery. Please come in and take a tour with me.”
Amazed, I accepted the offer.
“How do you know English so well?” I asked.
“I attended school for a year in St. Louis.”
“Missouri? How did you end up there?”
“It was through an exchange program.”
“What do you miss most, not living in the US?” I asked.
His face lit up, “The parties!”
“What?” I was totally dumbfounded.
“Oh yeah! We used to dance and party all night!”
“You don’t party here with the monks? I thought Saturday night was Aramaic Karaoke? I know you guys argue over who gets to sing St. Paul’s parts!” We both laughed and continued walking.
“What’s your favorite type of music?” I probed.
“Really? That’s crazy! Who’s your favorite artist?”
“Gabriel, do you know how strange it is talking about DMX in a 1700-year-old Christian monastery that teaches the language of Christ?”
Gabriel laughed and we finished up the tour. On my way out, we ran into a man who invited me to stay and eat lunch. I accepted with a growling stomach.
Gabriel pulled me aside, “You’ll be eating with the deacons and the Archbishop.”
“What? Is it cool I’m wearing a band t-shirt?”
“It’s fine, come with me. I’ll take you to the dinning room.” We wound our way though several stone corridors into a humble dining room filled with 12 men, huddled around a long wood table, eating soup. All eyes were on me.
“Hey, I’m Jason.”
The men remained silent. One man picked up his bowl and left the room. Gabriel escorted me to the vacated wooden chair.
The Archbishop was presumably the stern looking man with a huge black beard cascading over solid black robes. “Welcome to our table.” He said with a deep voice.
“Thanks. It’s good to be here.” I chirped.
A couple of men introduced themselves in English and took the liberty of introducing the rest of the table. We talked for a while discussing my trip, the monastery’s history, and the role it plays in the modern Church. The Archbishop dismissed lunch with a prayer in Aramaic that sent shivers down my spine. We said our good-byes and I hit the road.
After reading my conceptual email, The Archbishop of the Eastern United States, Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim, responded himself two days later. “Thank you for your e-mail and your interest in the Syriac Christians. I will be happy to assist in any way I can. If you are planning to be in the New Jersey/New York area please let me know. I will be happy to meet with you and get to know more about what you have in mind.”
I called his office that day and discussed my concepts at length. He explained the Edessian School is only practiced at St. George’s Church in Aleppo and made of 700 sacred liturgical chants that are collectively called the Beth Gazo. I asked how I could hear them and he said chuckling, “go to Aleppo, there are no recordings.” They have been doing this for 1700 years and there are no recordings? He had a book that transcribed the entire Edessian Beth Gazo, and offered to mail it to me. “Unfortunately, the words are in Aramaic. Do you know someone that speaks the language?”
The only person I knew that spoke Aramaic was Christ.
He then asked, “Have you heard of The Hidden Pearl series?”
“It is a book and video set that tells the story of the Aramaic language. It’s very nice. I will send you the Beth Gazo book and The Hidden Pearl for you to enjoy.”
I said, “Thank you so much” but thought, “Holy Crap, this is insane!”
“I will give you now to my assistant so we can schedule a meeting.”
Mor Karim seemed to be a generous, jolly man, who laughed often and truly enjoyed people.
The night before the meeting I felt like a teenager trying to find a suit for Homecoming. On a good day I have no fashion sense, on the eve of the biggest meeting of my life, I was hopeless. I went through four shirts, five ties, and three pairs of pants and still couldn’t decide what to wear.
“I think the suit’s too formal. It’s just your first meeting.” Jenny, my fashion conscious fiancé, advised.
“I’m meeting with the Archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church. I think that’s pretty formal!” I snapped. I drove North with out a tie in dark green pants and a black dress shirt.
Jenny and I slammed the car doors and walked towards the office of St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Church, a converted Presbyterian church located in a suburban neighborhood of Teaneck, New Jersey. We were half way up the sidewalk when Archbishop Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim swung the door opened and called, “Jason! Welcome!” We were already old friends. He ushered us into a formal sitting room, which had two or three-dozen dark-wood chairs arching off the sides of the Archbishop’s throne. The chairs were covered in fine red linen but the Archbishop’s throne was covered in lavish red velvet. A large red liturgy book, embossed with gold a cross on the cover, rested on the Archbishop’s velvet seat. Small traditional Syrian tables to rest coffee or tea were placed every couple of chairs. We were offered a seat and Mor Karim brought in fresh coffee. I normally don’t drink coffee but took a cup to be hospitable, Jenny passed. After setting down the coffee tray he took a seat next to his throne. He wore black pants and a red shirt with a priest collar, and no head covering. To my surprise, he was very informal; we were just hanging out having a conversation. As he sat down, I crossed my legs and realized I was wearing ankle socks. I immediately planted both legs on the ground and pulled the legs of my pants down as far as possible.
We discussed family, upbringing, and my impending wedding. We chatted for ten-fifteen minutes and, in an attempt to transition from small talk to business, I nervously handed him my proposal and portfolio. “These are the ideas I have been working on the past couple of weeks. Let me know what you think.”
I sat in silent anxiety staring at him as he slowly reviewed the proposal. The first question he raised was concerning our idea to archive the final recordings on reel-to-reel tape. I explained the advantages of using analog storage over digital media for archival purposes, which seemed satisfactory and he continued reading. He made comments to himself and turned to me when was finished reading.
Stroking his beard, “I think all four points you have are good. How much do you think this will cost?”
Underestimating the progress of the meeting I wasn’t prepared to talk numbers. I had nothing to go on except some half-remembered Orbitz tickets. I had no idea what to say; I tried to buy myself some time by talking. “Well, there are obviously four separate parts to this project and I don’t think that it would be fair for the Church to fund parts of the proposal that don’t directly relate to the recording of the Beth Gazo…”
“How much do you think? I can contact Father Tarzi on the west coast to help raise funds.” The Archbishop gently persisted.
“I’m not sure. I need some time to figure costs.” I replied.
“I guess with airfare and living expenses for the month… somewhere between five to seven thousand?” I said meekly. In actuality, I should have said somewhere between 30 and 35 thousand.
Mor Karim looked at the proposal and said, “Oh, I can do that myself. This is not a problem.”
“Remember, I need to talk with Josh about costs and things.” I reiterated.
“Sure.” He said
Well, I undersold the project wearing ankle socks.
His cell phone rang. He took the call and began speaking in heavy Arabic. I sat, ankles exposed, hoping I didn’t sabotage the project. The phone-call lasted a few minutes allowing my doubts to fester. His cell phone interrupted our meeting several times because his secretary wasn’t around to field calls.
“I will call Father Tarzi and His Holiness in Damascus later today to tell them of your ideas. I think this is a great project and is important to our people. You will have full cooperation in Aleppo. The Archbishop there knows the local governments so there will be no problems if you need a cover.”
Smiling but terrified, I asked “A cover?” Jenny didn’t like the sound of it either. She grabbed my arm and listened intently.
“There should be no problems. He will arrange the people for you and they should have a place for you to stay.”
I hid my excitement as he delivered the good news. I was going to Syria.
We moved into his office to check out the St. George’s website which was in Arabic so I couldn’t read a thing. We tried to listen to some Urfalee mp3’s, that were not in the Edessian School, but they were bad recordings and were hard to understand.
The phone rang again. “You will have to excuse me. I am very sorry.” After he got off the phone we walked over to the church’s nave, which retained the look and feel of the Presbyterian church with oak pews, white walls, and blood red carpet. A white lectern laced with gold stood at the forefront of a beautiful sanctuary tiled in marble. In the center of the Sanctuary hung a large white veil, displaying a risen Jesus, hiding a gold domed structure.
I asked,” What’s behind the curtain?”
Mor Karim replied, “Behind the veil is The Holy of Holies or Tabernacle.” I didn’t know Christian Churches had Tabernacles. In the Old Testament, the Tabernacle housed the Ark of the Covenant and was believed to be the throne of God himself. It was kept dark and could be entered once a year by a priest.
“Would you like to see it?” He asked.
“I would be honored.”
The Archbishop opened the veil and invited me up to view the Tabernacle. I removed my shoes and with the utmost reverence approached the Holy of Holies. Under the golden dome resided a communion chalice, a bible, a cross, candles, and flowers, all symbols of God’s new covenant with man. The symbolism was so overwhelming I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and prayed.
I was taken back by Mor Karim’s display of faith. Here I was, a virtual stranger, all he knew of me came from an email and maybe 40 minutes of conversation; yet he offered money, protection, and access to the most sacred aspects of his Church. We were two very different individuals coming from very different places; He was an Orthodox Archbishop, spiritually in charge of half the United States and I was a rock-n-roll massage therapist struggling with wedding responsibilities. I found beauty and reassurance in the commonality of our faiths in God and our willingness to follow the path which faith takes us.
It was 1:30 and our meeting had lasted two-and-a-half hours. Subsisting on a Luna bar and a hand full of pistachios, Jenny and I were fading fast. We walked back to Mor Karim’s office, took a couple of portraits, and said our good byes. Mor Karim suggested the vegetarian restaurant around the corner for lunch. Regrettably he had to stay behind and take care of business matters before leaving town the following day. I walked down the church steps spiritually enlightened, astonished, and amazed that I was going to Syria.