Choosing the Ice Lake – the 40 Martyrs

By Frank van Steenbergen, on a series of 3 blogs connecting biblical events with water.

In Southeastern Anatolia the church of Mor Behnam Ve Kiz Kardesi Saro in Mardin (Southeast Turkey) is the 1500 year live testimony to martyrdom and the transformation it brings. Dedicated to Saint (Mor) Behnam, his sister Saro and the forty martyrs, it harbors the remains of the Saint Behnam.

Church Saint Benam

As the ancient story goes, Behnam and Saro were born in the 4th century. They were children of the local King Sennacherib, King of Assyria, who ruled under the larger Persian reign. Whilst hunting with an entourage of forty followers, Behnam got lost and was forced to spend the night in the forest. In this lonely night an angel called upon him. The angel instructed him to go and look for the hermit Saint Matthew, because the hermit saint could heal his sister Sarah from the leprosy that was consuming her. The next day Behnam and his entourage followed a deer with a cross on its forehead and discovered the hermit in a cave. Saint Matthew the Hermit explained the Gospel to Behnam and invited him to bring Saro to him. When Saro came to Saint Matthew she was convinced of the Holy Word and asked to be baptized. When she got out of the water, everybody was surprised to see that her leprosy was gone. The entire group of 40 subsequently followed her example and accepted the new faith.

The king was incensed to hear that Behnam and Sarah had converted to Christianity and threatened to punish them if they did not denounce their new belief. Behnam, Sarah, and the forty followers fled to the coldness of Mount Alfaf, yet they were caught by soldiers sent by the king.

The forty martyrs were told they now had a binary choice: either to renounce their new faith and enter in the warm hammam bath, or else be thrown into the icy lake at Mount Altaf. Although they all had the same choice only one of the forty opted for the hammam. Yet this person even before entering the warm hammam water died instantly. The other 39 had already chosen to go in the cold pond and all froze to death by the next morning. One of the soldiers, who witnessed the instant death and the martyrdom of the 39 converted to Christianity on the spot. He was also thrown in the lake, meeting the martyr’s fate. And then 40 crowns descended from the sky, one for each martyr, confirming that they were to enter heaven.

Painting of the 40 Martyrs

Before dying Behnam and Saro has asked God to forgive their father and show him the light of faith. Yet the king was haunted after the death of his martyr children. The miracle of forgiving came in the shape of an angel, who appeared to the queen. The angel told her that the king would be cured of his madness if he converted to Christianity and visit the place where the martyrs had died.

Following the angel’s instructions, the king and queen invited Saint Matthew the hermit to their capital. He caused a special spring to come up – in which he baptized the royal pair. At the request of Saint Matthew, Sennacherib constructed a monastery atop Mount Alfaf, that is still known as the Monastery of Saint Matthew. In penance another monastery was built by King Sennacherib at Beth Gubbe where all had died. This became known as the Monastery of Saints Behnam and Saro and is now in Northern Iraq.

There was a clear choice. Martyrdom overcame comfort and doubt, created the rock on which to found holy transition.

Note: This is one in a series of blog articles on biblical events and their links to land, soil and water management in Turkey. You can access the other blogs of this series via the below links:

Choosing the Ice Lake – the 40 Martyrs

The oyster and the pearl

The Jesus Well

The everlasting shepherd

church of Mor Behnam Anatolia holy transition  
June 15, 2023  
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