The wine of Izal is flowing in southeastern Turkey. The small Syriac-speaking Christian minority in the region of Izal is again pressing grapes from local vineyards. Multiple wine shops sell their wares in the old city of Mardin, and several wineries now operate outside the city of Midyat.
Izal is not the most familiar place name in the Bible. In fact, several English translations fail to use the name at all. However, some translations of Ezekiel 27:19 identify Izal (see NIV) or Uzal (see ESV) as the source for the casks of wine that Damascus traded with the Phoenician city of Tyre in exchange for its wares.
The plateau of Izal, sometimes spelled Izla, stretches 48 miles from east to west. It is located northeast of Carchemish, one of the most important archaeological sites in all of Turkey, and Haran, the traditional home of Abraham.
Today, Izal is better known by its Syriac name, Tur Abdin (mountain of hermits). Numerous Syriac monasteries were built here in the Byzantine period, but only three remain active: Mor Hananyo, Mor Abraham, and Mor Gabriel. Their names begin with “Mor,” a Syriac title of respect given to revered bishops and saints.1
At Izal’s western end is Mor Hananyo. Nicknamed Deyrulzafaran (Saffron Monastery), this yellow stone structure was built in 493 C.E. on the foundations of a temple to the Mesopotamian sun god Shamash. The monastery served as the seat of the patriarch of the Orthodox Syriac Church from 1160 to 1932.
At Izal’s eastern end are Mor Gabriel, built in 397 C.E., and Mor Abraham, founded in 571 C.E. Within a walled complex, Mor Gabriel is the oldest active Syriac Orthodox monastery and one of the oldest monasteries in the world. The Metropolitan Bishop of Tur Abdin resides there.
Visitors are welcome at the Mor Hananyo and Mor Gabriel monasteries, and services in Syriac are regularly conducted in their chapels. Syriac Christians today still speak a version of Aramaic, the language of Jesus and his disciples. On one wonderful visit to Mor Hananyo, I was with an Air Force chaplain from the American base near Adana. He wanted to hear the Lord’s Prayer in the language of Jesus, so a priest graciously read it for us.
At the southern foot of Izal is the city of Nisibis (modern Nusaybin), first settled more than 5,000 years ago. Beginning in the fifth century C.E., the city became a center for the Church of the East, one of the major branches of Eastern Christianity. As such, it had authority over the monasteries of Izal and the numerous Syriac churches and monasteries in the region. The few remains of ancient Nisibis are found around the restored Mor Yakup (Jacob) Church. Visitors to the region should not miss the church and its friezes, one of which even includes a sixth-century inscription about the church’s construction.
Wine has been produced in the region of Izal for nearly 4,000 years. At nearby Hirbemerdon, on the Tigris River, archaeobotanical findings show evidence of vineyards and wine production dating from the early second millennium B.C.E.2 Also nearby is Mt. Cudi, rising east of the Tigris River about 50 miles from the Izal plateau. Mt. Cudi is one of the sites traditionally associated with the resting place of Noah’s ark. Interestingly, the biblical text records that, after exiting the ark, Noah planted a vineyard (Genesis 9:20).
The grape variety boğazkere is indigenous to the area and is again being crushed for wine. It is often mixed with öküzgözü (“ox eye”), another varietal grape of eastern Turkey.
Winemaking has always been important for Syriac Christians because wine is necessary for the eucharist (Lord’s Supper). The names of Izal’s new vineyards and their vintages reflect local geography and historical sites. One winery is called Mezopotamya, the Turkish transliteration of Mesopotamia. Another is named Shiluh, the Syriac word for “peace,” related to the Hebrew shalom and the Arabic salaam. Shiluh produces a wine called Dara—an ancient trade center that flourished particularly in the Byzantine period and whose ruins are among the best-preserved in eastern Turkey.
Süryani Winery features a wine called Manistir (Monastery) that highlights Izal’s many monasteries. Another wine is named Aram, recalling the biblical name Aram-naharaim (literally, “the land of two rivers”), probably synonymous with Paddan-aram (e.g., Genesis 25). The cities of Haran and Nahor were located there, and it is where Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac (Genesis 24:10).3
Southeastern Turkey is home to some of the Bible’s earliest events. And Izal beckons not only with its rich history but also with delights for the palate. Made with ancient production methods, the wine of Izal offers a true taste of the biblical world.
Although some translations of Ezekiel 27:19 name Izal and its wine, others read “Vedan and Javan from Uzal” (NRSV) or “Greeks from Uzal” (NLT) instead of mentioning wine. This stems from a difference between the surviving Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. This biblical text was originally written in Hebrew. However, the earliest Hebrew manuscript with Ezekiel 27:19 is the Codex Babylonicus Petropolitanus (or the Petersburg Codex of the Prophets), dated to 916 C.E.
The Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, dates to the third or second century B.C.E. Whereas the Hebrew reads wedan weyawan me’uzzal (“and Dan and Javan that which is spun”), the Septuagint reads kai oinon eis ten agoran sou edokan ex Asel (“and they traded wine from Izal in your marketplace”). With the Septuagint’s testimony, biblical scholars have reconstructed the Hebrew text of Ezekiel 27:19 to read wdny yyn m’yzl (“casks of wine from Izal”).4
MARK WILSON is the Director of the Asia Minor Research Center in Antalya, Turkey, and Associate Professor Extraordinary of New Testament at Stellenbosch University. He also leads study tours for BAS.
This article was published in the Winter 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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1. A visually rich introduction to this region and its religious heritage is found in Hans Hollerweger, Turabdin: Where Jesus’ Language Is Spoken (Linz: Friends of Turabdin, 1999); see also Çigdem Maner, A Traveler’s Guide to Mardin (Istanbul: Marev, 2006), which is the standard guidebook to the region.
2. Chantel E. White and Naomi F. Miller, “The Archaeobotany of Grape and Wine in Hittite Anatolia,” Die Welt Des Orients 48. 2 (2018), p. 218.
3. For more on these regional names and their biblical connection, see Mark Wilson, Biblical Turkey (Istanbul: Ege, 2020), pp. 28–30.
4. See Alan R. Millard, “Ezekiel XXVII.19: The Wine Trade of Damascus,” Journal of Semitic Studies 7 (1962), pp. 201–203; Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 20–48 (Dallas: Word, 1990), p. 82.
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