By Denho Bar Mourad-Özmen journalist and TV moderator for Suroyo TV
Like many of the religions and cults of other peoples of Upper Mesopotamia, the Mhalmoye religion was one of worship to the sun god Shamash. In the vernacular Mhalmoyo language, the Arabic dialect of the Mhalmoye, the sun worshippers were called ‘Shamshiye’ (الشمسية) and in Syriac they were called ‘soghdhay shimsho’ (ܨܳܓܕ̈ܝ ܫܶܡܫܳܐ) or (ܫܶܡܫܳ̈ܝܐ).
The altar in the temple of the god Shamash (ܐܠܗܐ ܫܰܡܰܫ) was always facing east, where the sun rises in the morning. Their Christian descendants continued the same tradition in their churches. The altars of all churches and chapels in the Upper Mesopotamian area have the altar facing the sunrise, i.e., facing east. Thus, in all Syriac churches and monasteries there is a window to the sun. A clear example of this can be found today in the Dayro d-Zahfaran or Zahfaran Monastery, near the city of Marde (Mardin) in southeastern Turkey.
The city of Omid lies some 100 kilometers northwest of the Mhalmayto (ܐܝ ܡܚܠܡܝܬܐ). According to Yilmaz Kaya in his article ‘Şemsiler’e ne oldu?’, the Grand Mosque in Omid, accepted as the fifth Harem-i Sharif in Islam and one of the oldest mosques in Turkey, was the Mor Touma Church which was built on the temple of the sun god Shamash. That is, until 639 A.D. when it was transformed into a mosque with the rise and spread of Islam.
Like many of the churches and monasteries in the Mhalmoyto, the 1,700-years-old Church of the Virgin Mary in Omid was also a sun temple in ancient Assyrian times and used by the Shamshiye as a place of worship. Likewise, the 1800-year-old monumental Saint George Church, which is located within the fortified Walls of Omid, now on the UNESCO World Heritage list, was an ancient sun temple.
The Şemsiler district in Omid
One of the eye-catching legacies of the Shamshiye in Diyarbakır is the Şemsiler district (ܫܘܝܬܐ ܕ ܫܡ̈ܫܝܐ). According to historians, centuries ago it was called “Şemsiler tepesi” and used as a place of worship. The neighborhood lies across the Hevsel Garden, which continues all the way to the banks of the Tigris River on the way from the Mardin Gate to the Ongözlü Bridge. The temple complex was demolished some 20-25 years ago during road and construction work between the Mardin Gate and the Ongözlü Bridge. However, the area is still officially registered as the Şemsiler district (حاره الشمسيين).
This presence of the sun cult and temple complexes, tells us that the Mhalmayto area was inhabited by Semitic people(s) in Upper Mesopotamia who worshiped the god Shamash. When these Semitic peoples converted to Christianity, they maintained the same traditions but now culturalized in a Christian context. Likewise, when they converted to Islam, they continued the same traditions but now culturalized in a Muslim context (I will write about Traditions in more detail in a next article).
When did the Mhalmoye convert to Christianity?
The Christianization of the Shamshiyas in Upper Mesopotamia is believed to have proceeded in three stages.
Large-scale Christianization began around 120 A.D. with the preaching by the disciples of the apostle Thomas in the major southeastern Turkey cities of Urhoy (Urfa), Omid, Sawro (Sawur) and Beth Zabday (Idil-Hazakh). But some centuries passed before the whole area would become Christian. Churches and monasteries were built in most towns and villages around the same time. At the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries, the whole area had converted to Christianity.
Mor Augin (died 363) who came from Egypt with his 72 disciples, left his mark on the regional form of Christianity. His disciples spread over all of the upper Mesopotamian area, especially in the Mhalmoyto area and the larger Tur Abdin area, founding monasteries and churches. Some of the monasteries and village churches were named after the disciples of St. Thomas and adopted as their patrons and village saints. Villages and communities arose and grew around these monasteries, which were also named after disciples, e.g., Dayro Zbino (Acirli) after the disciples, e.g., Mor Zbino, Kfar Hewor (Kfarhwar) named after Saint Heworo, Mor Shalito, and Adai (present-day Ahmadi or Baskavak).
The historian Mshikha Zkha, writing in the sixth century, tells us that the entire area around Beth Zabday was Christian in the second century. From this we can conclude that missionary work started very early in the area. We know that the disciples of Saint Thomas passed through these regions on their way to India and baptized locals into Christianity. Other preserved church sources say that the area was Christianized in the early 300s.
The Syriac liturgy book of Phanqitho in the village church of Habsus even advances the beginnings of Christianity in the area to the return of the Three Wise Men from Jerusalem after visiting the newborn Child Jesus in the cave of Bethlehem. These Three Wise Men sojourned in the village of Hah and laid the foundation for the world’s first Christian church. According to church tradition, this church in Hah is the oldest church of the world. It is called the ܝܠܕܰܬ ܐܠܳܗܳܐ ܕ ܚܰܐܚ ; ‘Yoldath Aloho d-Hah or Church of the Mother of God in Hah.
In summary, it can be said with high probability that Christianity began to spread during three main periods in the Mhalmayto area and throughout northern Mesopotamia.
- In very early Christianity with the arrival of the Three Wise Men after visiting the newborn Child in Bethlehem. These Wise Men rested in the city of Hah (now a village), and before leaving for their respective kingdoms, they laid the foundations for the church of St. Mary.
- The second wave of missionary work was in the early 120’s by Mor Touma’s (St. Thomas) disciples Aggai and Adai.
- The whole area became Christian in the late 400s by Mor Augin in Tur Izlo and his 72 disciples who missionized the whole of the Mhalmayto and Tur Abdin. During this period, they founded many monasteries and villages in the area. Some of the villages they founded still bear their patron names.
The Christianization of the whole of Upper Mesopotamia, including the Mhalmayto area, took about 300 years.
Denho Bar Mourad-Özmen is a former special educator and advisor at Sweden’s National Agency for Special Education. He is a lecturer, published educational films on Swedish TV, and has written articles in Swedish educational magazines. He was born in the village of Habsus, Tur Abdin, and has written on the Syriac people for Hujada Magazine and the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchal Magazine. He is a long-time journalist and TV moderator at Suroyo TV.
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