The War Next Door Won't Stop Turkey's Assyrian Winemakers
Turkey’s tiny Christian Assyrian community continues to produce wine the way it has for thousands of years, despite political turmoil and war just across the border in Syria.
On a fiercely sunny afternoon in late autumn, Kuryakos Acar, 30, a member of Turkey's tiny Christian-Orthodox Assyrian community, proudly shows the monastery where he spent an important part of his life as a student to visitors.
Assyrians are an ethno-religious people indigenous to Mesopotamia who speak Syriac, an Aramaic language that is very close to what Jesus spoke, Acar explains.
"Although it's only around 15,000 of us left here, I don't consider myself a minority," he adds.
"This has been our home since the ancient times," he says, referring to Mardin and its surroundings—a stunning ancient city in Southeast Turkey, which is a stone-throw's away from the Syrian border.
However, although Acar is passionate about the 1,700-year-old Mor Gabriel Monastery, his hometown of Mardin, and his heritage as an Assyrian citizen of Turkey, he has a different day job: During business hours, he's a wine merchant.
An important part of the community's cultural identity, Assyrian wine has largely been home-produced until recently, with locally sourced grapes—namely, anything that would be found in the gardens of homes and monasteries.
"We love wine but never drink to get drunk. It symbolizes the blood of Jesus Christ and most Assyrian families just make some at home to drink a glass with dinner," Acar says.
Wine and the process of producing it at home remain an important part of the Assyrian family traditions. Many members of the community have fond memories involving the wine.
"Producing wine requires a lot of physical strength. All the family members would gather at the rooftop to help," Edip Balci, 52, recalls. He's currently running a shop dedicated to Assyrian wine and goodies in the old town of Mardin, whose profits go directly to the protection and improvement of the iconic Mor Gabriel Monastery—the oldest surviving Assyrian-Orthodox monastery in the world, which holds a great cultural and spiritual importance to its communities.
At times, wine consumption has yielded interesting dialogues between Assyrians and the Muslim community, which peacefully coexisted in Mardin for centuries, despite some misunderstandings.
"When we didn't manage to do all the work on our own, we used to hire help from our [Muslim] neighbours. Sometimes they were hesitant to help us since wine is haram in Islam—but everyone needs to make money."
But Balci and his family dispelled some of the taboos of his Muslim neighbours about wine. "They'd think we add some particularly sinful ingredients to turn the grape into wine—so we'd simply explain them the fermentation process and how it is God that's behind it, not Assyrian witchcraft," Balci adds with a laugh.
When AKP, Turkey's ruling party since 2001, started a peace process to end the decades-long conflict between the Turkish Armed Forces and the Kurdish rebels, Mardin began to see a lot of investment and a massive tourism boom. As a result, the Assyrian community, which had independently produced wine on rooftops, decided to go big and opened their first commercial winery in 2008.
Fast-forward to 2017 and the peace-process has dwindled, a devastating war broke out in neighbouring Syria, and the tourism that was just picking off has abruptly shrunk. Although the winery is still active, it's producing wine mainly for domestic wine aficionados. That said, with its unique history and traditions, Assyrian culture and wine has slowly been gaining international attention, too.
"We Assyrians have an extremely rich culture and tradition, be it our silver-making craftsmanship, monasteries, food, or wine. Tourism moguls and hotel chains are aware that this is marketable, which boosted the interest to our wine," Balci says.
"I am happy it takes some attention, but then our culture just becomes an exotic, consumable object," Balci adds, complaining about the hipsters who consume Assyrian wine to be cool and trendy, without understanding and appreciating the deep culture behind it.
"Now that [Assyrian wine] is getting a bit famous, many people [in the wine business] are taking advantage of it. They produce some [non-Assyrian] wine and label it 'Assyrian wine' to sell it. It contaminates the reputation of our wine. Those are nothing like the delicious and organic wines without additives we produce."
Despite the crisis in the region and cultural appropriation of their products, Assyrian winemakers remain upbeat about their wine, as its global reputation slowly grows.
"Our wine has a lot of potential and I sincerely believe it can go global with our efforts, and especially if the things get better in the region," says Acar. "But even if nobody buys it, we'll continue to make wine for our own enjoyment, like we did for thousands of years."