Eastern Syriacs and the 1924 Hakkari Exile

As a result of centuries of genocide, exile, attacks, and ‘faili meçhul’ (“unsolved murders), many of the Syriacs, living in fear of repetition of past atrocities against them, were expelled or forcefully emigrated from their historical living areas in what is now Turkey’s southeast. Who are the Syriacs? What happened between the Sayfo Genocide of 1915 and the 1924 Hakkari Exile?

By Marta Sömek

Birds view of the Syriacs The Syriacs, the first people to accept Jesus as Savior and Son of God, are divided into Western and Eastern Syriacs. Over time, the Syriacs divided into Christian denominational communities e.g. Nestorians, Chaldeans, Maronites, and Melkites. These Christian denominations organized internally into independent churches.

At the Council of Chalcedon (451), the Christological dogma of Syriac Patriarch Nestorius was accepted – Jesus is pure human, God cannot be divided, and therefore they do not have common eternity. The Syriac Church of Antioch and the Byzantine and Western churches separated over these doctrinal differences about the godly and human nature of Jesus Christ.

The Syriacs who adopted the Christological argument of Patriarch Nestorius are called “Nestorians”. In the 16th century, a group of Nestorians separated after the group adopted the Catholic belief and started calling their Church “Chaldean”. Later in the 19th century, according to historical sources, the Nestorians started to be called “Assyrians”.

The Syriac Melkites (Rum) or Malkoye (from the Syriac word for ‘king’ malko ) were “supporters of the Emperor” as they accepted the conciliating dogmas coerced by the Byzantine Empire. Today, they are known as Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics.

With Syriacs adopting Protestantism, new Protestant Syriac communities and churches emerged, also in Tur Abdin. The Protestant Syriacs do not have a patriarchal hierarchy and do not have clergy as in the other Syriac churches.

The Syriac language is a member of the Semitic Aramaic language group. In the Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic churches, the western variant of the Syriac language is used. The eastern Syriac variant is used in the Ancient Church of the East, and the Assyrian and Chaldean churches.

Sayfo Genocide of 1915 Syriacs were subjected to genocide in 1915 and call this systematic and pre-planned massacre “Sayfo”, i.e. “(Year of the) Sword”. Five hundred thousand Syriacs were affected by the Sayfo Genocide. Approximately three hundred thousand were massacred in cold blood. Thousands of women were subjected to sexual assault, many of them ending their own lifes. Many of the two hundred thousand Syriac men, women, and children who survived the Sayfo, were forcefully taken into Muslim families, lost their Christian Syriac identity, and many others were deported or forced into exile from their homelands.

A large part of Eastern Syriacs who lived around Van, Hakkari, and Cizre were massacred in the Sayfo Genocide of 1915. Historical data shows that twenty-five thousand Syriacs managed to escape and flee to the Urmia region in Iran, and to Iraq. In 1923-24, Eastern Syriacs who had fled from the Van, Hakkari, and Cizre regions intended or started returning to their villages and towns.

Eastern Syriacs and Hakkari Nestorians, Eastern Syriacs living in the Hakkari-Van-Urmia region can be divided into two groups, one consisting of ‘reaya’ or Syriac tax-paying subjects of the Ottoman Empire living mostly on the vast plains in the Van region, and one group living in the mountainous region of Hakkari. Both groups had adopted the tribal system. In the Hakkari mountains, the Nestorians maintained a high degree of autonomy. At that time, the Nestorians were headed by the (hereditary) Patriarch Mar Shamoun. After the death of Patriarch Mar Shamoun, only his young nephew could succeed him.

Historical reports tell us that in 1904, 37% of Hakkari’s population was Assyrian. It is known that around 100,000 Nestorians lived in the Ottoman Empire in 1912. 75 thousand of this number lived in Hakkari.

Distribution of Assyrian tribal population, villages, and churches living in Hakkari mountains and districts:

Tiyyari: population 50.000; 51 villages; 29 churches
Thuma: population 25.000 ; 5 villages ; 5 churches
Jilo: population 25.000; 16 villages; 12 churches
Taz: population 7.000; 13 villages; 11 churches
Baz: population 8.000; 5 villages; 5 churches,
Diz: population 6.000; 13 villages; 13 churches

Eastern Syriacs from Baz.

After they had started to return to their original living areas, the Eastern Syriacs who had been forced to emigrate from the Hakkari and Van regions, were subjected in 1923-24 to repressive measures by Turkish forces and Kurdish regional tribes. On August 7, 1924, there was an armed conflict between the Eastern Syriacs and the army under order of the governor of Hakkari. The conflict is described as a “rebellion”, the Nestorians say it was planned and a “provocation” by the state. On August 13, 1924, Turkey’s Army Chief of Staff prepared a report to attack the areas to which East Syriacs had returned. This was approved by the Council of Ministers a day later.

Measures were taken to prevent any support from the Eastern Syriacs who had fled to the Urmia region of Iran. On September 12, 1924, as a result of the cooperation between some regional tribes, attacks on Nestorians began in Hakkari, Beytüşşebap, Oramar, Çukurca, Amadiye and its surroundings. The attacks continued until 26 September. Hundreds of Syriacs were killed in the attacks, churches were looted and burned, and many residential areas were wiped off the map.

As a result of this “Hakkari Exile”, 80 thousand Nestorian-Eastern Syriacs were subjected to forced migration. Most of the exiles went to Iran and Iraq, later a large part had to resettle in the Khabur region of Syria. Some of the Syriacs of the Tur Abdin region were also exiled to Syria. In total some 100.000 Syriacs from Turkey are known to have been exiled.

In 1972, the Military History Research Department of the Turkish General Military Staff published a report on the ‘Uprisings during the first period of the Republic of Turkey”. The report states that in order to quell the “Nestorian Revolt” attacks were launched against them.

Today, there are no more Syriacs living in Hakkari. As a result of centuries of genocide, exile, attacks, and ‘faili meçhul’ (“unsolved murders), many of the Syriacs, living in fear of repetition of past atrocities, have forcefully emigrated from their historical living areas in what is now Turkey’s southeast. Currently only 25.000 Syriacs remain in Turkey of which the vast majority is West Syriac. Of the Eastern Syriacs, only three families remain in Şırnak Province.

There are many Syriacs who want to return to their villages and towns and come home in summer from Europe. However, on January 11, 2020, Syriacs faced another trauma when the Chaldean Diril couple, one of the three families living in Şırnak Province, was kidnapped. After 70 days, the lifeless body of 65-year-old Şimuni Diril was found near their village in the Beytüşşebap district. 254 days have passed and there is still no news about the whereabouts or the fate of Hurmüz Diril (71).

Gawar / Yuksekova

Disclaimer: Translated form the original Turkish. Originally published on September 26, 2020, by Gazete Karinca.


Gabriele Yonan, Lest We Perish: A Forgotten Holocaust: The Extermination of the Christian Assyrians in Turkey and Persia

Abraham Yohannan, Mezopotamya’nın Kayıp Halkı Nasturiler