By Denho Bar Mourad-Özmen journalist and moderator at Suroyo TV
The Islamization of the Mhalmayto region started with the Islamic conquests of Upper Mesopotamia at the end of the tenth century. Islamization continued under the successive alternating Persian, Arab, and Turkish powers. To a large extent, these powers Islamized the Mhalmayto through their long arm in the area, the Kurds, who were repeatedly instrumentalized by the Turks, Arabs and Persians, with the Sharia (Islamic law) as their guiding principle.
In this article, I will discuss the four main causes for the Islamization of the Mhalmoyto and its Mhlamoye residents: the application of the Sharia and Cizye; rivalry and divisions within the Syriac church; the mass conversion under Nasuh Pasha; deprivation and the many brutal persecutions, massacres and genocides.
Sharia and Cizye
The degree to which Sharia law was applied varied, sometimes Sharia was applied harshly and sometimes more mildly. The Sharia compelled all non-Muslim believers such as Christians, Yazidis, Shamshiye (‘soghdhay shimsho’ (ܨܳܓܕ̈ܝ ܫܶܡܫܳܐ) and others to convert to Islam or live as ‘dhimmis’ ( اهل الذمة) [I]. Dhimmitude meant they were forced to pay higher taxes, fund the conqueror’s military forces, and live under Islamic protection. Those who could not afford to pay the high taxes under the Cizye were faced with three options:
1 – To somehow pay the higher taxes, fund the conqueror’s military, and live under Islamic protection.
2 – To leave the area, to leave all property and belongings behind and escape, or;
3 – To convert to Islam.
The only alternative to these three options was death. This form of oppression continued even within the borders of the modern Republic of Turkey, albeit mostly in the already decimated areas such as southeastern and eastern Turkey.
Even before the Islamic conquest (الفتوحات الإسلميه) of the area, the situation of the Christian Syriacs / Mhalmoye was bad, both politically and economically. Tur Abdin, including the Mhalmayto region, was located on the border between the Roman and Persian Empire and was a constant war zone. The many wars between the Persians and the Romans consumed their resources and strength. The Persians and Romans took turns in conquering and ruling the region. This led to repeated suffering, starvation, death and deportations of the local population. When the Crusaders arrived in the eleventh century, the situation became even worse for the adherents of the Oriental Churches [II]. The Crusaders crushed small and independent Syriac autonomous states such as Urhoy (ܐܘܪܗܝ or Edessa), which included Tur Abdin and the Mhalmayto, as well as autonomous Erba Ilo (ܐܪܒܥ ܐܝܠ̈ܐ or Erbil) in current-day northern Iraq. The oppression and persecution at the hands of the Romans and the Crusaders weakened the Syriac people and caused internal religious and political divisions.
Against the backdrop of the wars, destruction, oppression, and deprivation, the Syriacs / Mhalmoye believed that Islam could be their salvation. They helped spread the new religion and take over their geographical areas in Syria, southeastern Turkey, Iraq and northwestern Iran. The Syriacs / Mhalmoye initially viewed Islam to be a possible salvation from Persian and Roman rule, as well as from the Western Byzantine Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. But this belief and hope was fundamentally shattered when Islam gained more political leverage in the area. The new religion proved to be much more ruthless than the Romans and Persians had been against the Syriacs / Mhalmoye and other non-Muslim ethnic groups. The following is an extract from the Edessan Syriac Chronicle of 1234, as quoted by Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Afrem Barsawm in his History of Tur ‘Abdin. It describes the entry of Islam into the region:
“On the ‘Mahdi’ who became the leader of the Kurds. At this time (in the days of the Caliph Ma’mun) after the year (AH) 216 (AD 830), a ‘Mahdi’ appeared to lead the Kurds, who had taken the Castle (Hesno d-Kifo?) and had entered into the religion of the Muslims. A large number of tribes of all nations, Persian, Arab and pagan, gathered around him in the name of plunder, destruction, and enslavement. He established himself in the well-defended mountains of the country of Corduene (on the far side of the Tigris from Tur ‘Abdin) and made war on Beth Zabday and Tur ‘Abdin; and their sword was inebriated with blood; and they had no pity on young or old. Even King Ma’mun was taken by them. But when they invaded Tur ‘Abdin and the Abbey of Qartmin and the surrounding villages, Hasan, the governor of that region, opposed them courageously, especially when he saw the tortures to which they subjected the monks, because this Hasan was a religious man with regard to the Christians. So, he fell upon them suddenly… and the Kurds turned tail; and the ‘Mahdi’ fled to the country of Ishak b. Ashud, who cut off that evil man’s head.” [III]
Once under Islamic rule, the Mhalmayto region was divided into three smaller administrative ‘emirates’ – baggawat or bagg in the Syriac vernacular and baggavat in the Mhalmoyo vernacular: Sawro ܨܘܪܐ (Savur), Hesno d-Kifo ܚܨܢܐ ܕܟܐܦܐ (Hasankeyf), and Marde ܡܪܕܝܢ (Mardin).
Division within the Syriac Church
In addition to the repressive rule of Muslim emirs, the Syriac church lived through major internal conflicts. The patriarchate had its official seat in Mardin and Dayro d-Zahfaran. However, there was an unofficial and opposing patriarchal seat in the village of Saleh, outside Midyat, in the Mor Yakub Monastery. The emir of Hesno d-Kifo supported the unofficial patriarch of Saleh, while the official patriarch was supported by the emir of Mardin and the governor of Omid (Diyarbakir).
While all Syriac Orthodox bishoprics and foundations throughout Anatolia, Syria, Iraq and Palestine stayed affiliated with the Patriarchate of Mardin, the cities of Midyat, Beth Zabday (Idil) Sawro, Hesno d-Kifo, Beth Shiraye (Besiri) and Gozarto (Cizre) joined the unofficial patriarch of Saleh. The legitimate patriarchs were David Shah (1576-1591) and Hadayatullah Mardinoyo (1591-1640). The illegitimate patriarch was Sohdo Midyoyo, succeeded by patriarch Aziz from the village of Basila outside Mardin and later by several others.
By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Syriac Church witnessed a new division. This time in Tur Abdin, where two rival patriarchs were elected; Baselios Shabo Arboyo ܒܣܠܝܘܣ ܫܒܐ ܐܪܒܝܐ, who was the bishop of Zarcal, and Yuhanon Bar Qofar Caynwardoyo ܝܘܚܢܢ ܒܪ ܩܘܦܪ݈ ܥܝܢܘܪܕܝܐ.
These divisions and opposing patriarchs made the situation for the Christians in Tur Abdin / Mhalmayto region even more difficult. As they rivaled against each other and opposed the emirs of Hesno d-kifo, the people suffered from hunger and persecution by the hand of the ruling Muslim leaders.
The ruthless war in the Mhalmayto by Nasuh Pasha
The situation worsened even further for the inhabitants when a long war broke out between the Governor of Aleppo, Nasuh Pasha, who invaded the area to overthrow the Governor of Omid, Uzun Ahmetin oğlu Muhammad (see: Makthabzabno d-Turabdin, History of Tur Abdin). According to the ‘Naima History’ (book 2, p. 89), Nasuh Pasha himself was a “Devşirme” [IV], the son of a Christian family from Albania. Like many other young boys, he was forcibly taken and raised as a religious Muslim in the Sultan’s private army. Nasuh Pasha was a “Yeniçeri” [V].
Muhammad was a competent and just governor for the people of Mardin and Omid. He allowed the Christians to rebuild many of their villages that had been destroyed in the Mardin area. During his governorship, seven churches were built or restored in Mardin alone. Among these churches was one of Christianity’s oldest churches, the Mor Michael Church in Mardin, which was built as early as the 150s. Nasuh Pasha was faced with the fact that all Christian Syriacs, including those in the Mhalmayto area, supported Muhammad Pasha.
The war between Nasuh and Muhammed lasted for three years in the areas around Omid (Diyarbakir) and Marde (Mardin). Nasuh Pasha won the war and stayed in the area with his 5000 soldiers for three years. Nasuh Pasha won the war thanks to forming a kinship alliance with the Kurds in the north. He had married off his son to Judge Serefhan from the northern city of Bitlis. Thanks to this formation of kinship with the Kurds in the north, he managed to win the war and increase Kurdish influence over the Christian population, the majority in the area at that time.
To support his war machine and 5000 troops, he imposed Cizye (higher taxes) on non-Muslims. Those who could not afford to pay this Cizye, would lose their young boys. They were taken from their parents, forcibly converted to Islam, and raised to become ruthless soldiers (Yenichars).
To summarize: the rival divisions within the church, the quarrels between the patriarchs, the famines, the oppresions, Governor Nasuh Pasha’s cruel war, and the risk of losing their honor or male children, forced many Christian Mhalmoye to convert to Islam between the 1500s and 1660s (see: Makthabzabno d-Turabdin or History of Turabdin). Those who could afford to pay the Cizye were allowed to keep their religion. The majority of the city of Sawro (Savur) and the villages that belonged to the Sawro emirate (Cmire du-Sawro or ܥܡܝܪ̈ܐ ܕܘ ܨܘܪܐ), for example, were forcibly converted to Islam in 1600-1658s. Khoury (Chorepiscopus) Gabriel Akyüz confirms that; “The majority of Mhalmoye of Syriac origin converted en masse to Islam in 1584.” He further says that “we have many indisputable and reliable sources which show that 14 Syriac villages in Siirt totally converted to Islam in 1896 for various sad reasons.”
At this time, the Artuklu Turks ruled the area. During their reign, the bigger churches in the larger cities were transformed into mosques. The churches-turned-mosques included the Mor Thouma Cathedral in Sawro, and the Mor Thouma and the Church of the Forty-Martyrs in Marde. These churches are today called Ulu Cami.
It is important to realize and emphasize, however, that even though the majority of the Christian Mhalmoye were forcibly converted to Islam, many remained Christian and stayed in their villages and towns. They were the ones who could afford to pay the Cizye. In his book Makthabzabno (ܡܟܬܒܙܒܢܐ), khoury Numan Aydin writes the following about the Mhalmoye: “Bet Ahlam is the name given to the western half of Tur Abdin. The area consists of just over 500 villages. Many of these villages are still known today: Dayro Zbino, Kfar Iroq, Qen Derib, Kfar Shomac, Estel, Kfar Hwar, Shorezbah, Dayr el Dib, Tafo, Taffe, Nuneb, ‘Ain Kaf, Kfar Gawze (Gercus) Kfar Saloto, and others. The inhabitants of all the villages and the area were Suryoye. All these villages had churches while Kfar Shomac, Estel ܐܣܬܶܠ, Shorezbah, Apshe, Kfar Hwar and Dayro Zbino, which in their time were bigger villages, even had a monastery.”
Other Syriac sources, including the History of Tur Abdin (Turabdin Tarihi) and Erbil Vakyinamesi, mention over 5000 Mhalmoye villages and towns. The majority of these places started converting to Islam in the early 1500s and this process continued until the 1680s under the Artuklu dynasty. There were, however, individual families who only over time either converted or left their respective settlements. Some of the villages that, despite all the oppression, stayed loyal to their religion were Beth-Awe (Kayadere), Macsarto (Ömerli), Goliye, Tchiftlik, Bnai Bil, Qeleth, Harbtho d-Gargnose (Alicli), Qalco d-Attho (Eskikale) and Mansuriye. These belonged to the baggawat (emirate) of Sawro and Mardin.
Villages that belonged to the baggawat in Hesno d-Kifo and retained their religion were the villages of Habsus (Mercimekli), several families in Dayro Zbino (Acirli), families in Shorezbah, families in Estel and Kfar Shomac.
Throughout this history, there were Syriacs who converted to Islam individually or in small groups at different times for various sad reasons. Unable to protect their identity, they assimilated into the societies in which they lived. We know this from reliable sources because many families today are split between Christian Syriacs and Muslim Syriacs. Those who are Muslim do not consider themselves Syriacs (Yukari Kafro, Hanna Basut, 2010). They have taken on an Arab, Turkish or Kurdish identity. Those who live among the Kurds are still called by the name “Bav Fellah” which means sons of Christians [VI]. Some who have adopted the Turkish identity are called converts (dönme) or kilic artiklari (Remnants of the Sword), that is, those who survived the Sayfo Genocide of 1915.
Villages that had Christian populations before major forced conversions in the seventeenth century
Mardin, Mansuriye (Mardin Yeni Sehir), Ciftlik, Göliye, Qalco d-Attho (Eski kale), Rishmil (Yesilli), Bnay Bil (Bulbulköy), Sawro ܨܘܪܐ / (Savur), Alfan, Tawqo (Al Tawq), Macsarto (Ömerli), Harbtho d-Gargnose (Alicli), Avine, Beth Awe (Kayadere), Qen Darbe (Kenderib), Sorezbah, Rish, Shorezbah, Estel ܐܣܬܶܠ , Dayro Zbino (Acirli), Kfar Gawze (Gercus), Haldah, Kfar Shomac (Karsaf), Hesno d-Kifo (Hasankeyf), Avine, Afshe (Senköy), Difne (Difnith), Qartmin, Qaluqtho (Qaluk), Marwaniye, Qeleth ܩܶܠܶܬܼ and Habsus which had large Christian Mhalmoyo populations.
Families forced to leave their villages due to the forced mass conversions in the seventeenth century
I want to mention some of the families who did not convert to Islam in the seventeenth, but as a result were forced to leave their villages and move or settle in other Christian Syriac villages:
- The Be Elo family which came to Midyat from Shorezbah.
- The Malke Mire family which fled Kfar Shomac and settled in Midyat.
- The Yauno family: fled from Qen Darbe and Dayro Zbino and settled in the village of Zaz.
- The Rocyo family. Fled from Hesno d-Kifo and settled in Midyat.
- The Shakho Family. Came from Hesno d-Kifo to Midyat.
- The Asmaro family. They fled the village of Dayro Zbino and settled in Upper Kafro (Kafro Celayto). They come from the Sharbeniye family in Dayro Zbino. Their other branch settled in a village ruin around Macsarto (Ömerli). This village ruin was called Harbtho du Haci. According to Hanna Basut and Nishanyan, in order to settle in the village, the whole village convened for deliberation. [VII]
I mention these families only as examples to show how those who kept to their religion fared after the seventeenth century.
Some of the villages that got rid of the Christian Mhalmoye during and after Sayfo in 1915
|Alfan||Can Luze (Ciloze)|
|Aphshe||Dayro d-Debo (Der el dib)|
|Qen Darbe (Kenderib)||Ephshe (Senköy)|
|Rishmil (Yesilli)||Rish (Duzova)|
Sheikh Fathallah from ‘Ain Kefo
Sheikh Fathallah is praised by many Syriacs to have played a key role in the rescue of the Syriacs during the Sayfo Genocide in 1915 – ܣܰܝܦܳܐ Year of the Sword or the Ottoman genocide on its Christian Syriac, Armenian, and Pontic Greek peoples.
According to Syriac oral sources, Sheikh Fathallah was a Mhalmoyo from ‘Ain Kefo – ܥܝܢ ܟܐܦܐ / Ain Kaf عينكاف (Kayapinar, in Turkish). Other oral sources, Muslim Mhalmoye in particular, claim that the Hamidi family to which the sheikh belonged was not originally a Mhalmoyo family, but was placed in ‘Ain Kefo by the emir of Hesno d-Kifo. However, I personally doubt this claim because it is not logical. Why invest in a single sheikh and his family in a completely Christian village back in the early 700s?
Sheikh Fathallah in person intervened in the rescue and liberation of besieged Christian Syriacs, especially in the Syriac village of ‘Ain Wardo ܥܝܢ ܘܪܕܐ. Riding on a white horse with his brother, he visited the top Turkish military leadership and the Governor of Mardin. He interceded for the mercy of Christians as well as mediating for their secure return to their home villages and towns. He met with the Kurdish clan leaders and the military and informed them of the amnesty he had obtained from the top military leadership to end the siege of ‘Ain Wardo. He handed over the same information to the Christian Syriacs under siege and who refused to capitulate and opposed the amnesty.
When the Syriacs, with their bad experiences with the Kurds and Turks in mind, did not want to believe him, he offered himself and his brother up as guarantor. Sheikh Fathallah was the first Muslim to be admitted to ‘Ain Wardo (Gulgöze) after the siege to meet the defenders in person and negotiate with the Syriac leadership under Mascud. The Sheikh promised them to personally accompany those who did not dare to return to their villages. From there he went to Hah (Anitli) and Dayro du Slibo (Catalcam), and also freed the entrenched Christians while defending themselves.
Thanks to him, the Syriacs were able to return save to their villages from ‘Ain Wardo and live in peace. When they returned home, they searched for their children and women who had been kidnapped by the Kurds and Mhalmoye. Sheikh Fathallah succeeded in persuading the Mhalmoye to return the Syriac children and women to their relatives. Those who had been kidnapped by the Kurds could however not return to their relatives. Sheikh Fathallah possessed influence on the Mhalmoye, but not on the clans or sheikhs of the other peoples.
Sheikh Fathallah was a great Syriac leader whose efforts have meant a lot, not least that Christian Syriacs still live in Turkey today. In contrast to the Christian national leaders, much less attention has been paid to the national leaders of the Syriac Mhalmoye people. So, it is of immense importance to also pay attention to all the personalities who have done so much for the survival and development of our people, regardless of their religion or sect. In the name of justice, we should give this man of peace and the savior of the Syriacs the same dignity as Mor Shamoun Zayte and Mor Benjamin Shamoun as we write our modern history.
NB: I embrace all the names used today for one and the same ethnic group, that is, today’s Syriacs, Assyrians, Arameans, Chaldeans, Maronites, Rūm, and Mhalmoye. By this I mean that all names belong to one and the same ethnic group, culturally, geographically, linguistically and socially. In today’s Middle East, they all face the same fate. Namely, either emigrate from the current situation, or convert to Islam as their brothers the Mhalmoye did before them. The demographics in the Mhalmoye region are also changing in favor of Kurdish expansion in the region. In the original Mhalmoye towns of Midyat, Hesno d-Kifo, Sawro, and Macsarte, the Mhalmoye have become a minority.
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 Habses, 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 a moderator at Suroyo TV.
Other articles in this series: Famous Mhalmoye of the Christian era, The Mhalmoye (ܡܚܠܡ̈ܝܐ) and their conversion to Christianity, The Mhalmoye (ܡܚܠܡ̈ܝܐ). Who are they?, The Mhalmoyto: its cities, villages, monasteries and churches
Notes[I] According to classical Islamic legal (Sharia) and political literature, a dhimmi (Arabic: ذمّي) is a Jew or Christian who lives in a Muslim state and enjoys the protection of the state. The term literally means “protected person” and is etymologically derived from dhimma, “be taken care of”. [II] By adherents of the Oriental Church I mean, the followers in Mesopotamia of the Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Church of the East. [III] Living Cultural Heritage. Tur Abdin, Hans Hollerweger, Linz, 1999, p. 44. [IV] Devshirme is the system of collecting young and talented Christian children from the countries conquered by the Ottoman Empire, especially in the Balkans, and creating a superior soldier or bureaucrat by undergoing rigorous training. The system was called “blood tax” in the Balkans. Many history books of the Balkan states used the reference term “Ottoman slavery” for this system. [V] “Yeniçeriler” (Yenitchars) were the cruelest soldiers of the Ottoman Empire. During their upbringing, they were isolated from the civilian population and educated in martial arts, murder, and torture. [VI] ‘Bav Fellah’ is the word used by the Kurds for the Syriacs or Armenians who converted to Islam. [VII] According to www.Mardinlife.com, the Harbtho du Haci was founded in 1850 by Haci Abdurrahman Ali, originally a Christian Syriac / Mhalmoyo from Dayro Zbino (Acirli). All the villagers are descendants of this Haci Abdurrahman.
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Tarihte Mardin, Archbishop Hanna Dolabani, Istanbul, 1972.
Year of the Sword. The Assyrian Christian Genocide, Joseph Yacoub, Hurst and Company, London (2016).
Türkiye Yer Adları Sözlüğü, Sevan Nışanyan, Liberya Yayınları, 2020.
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Habsus-Turabdinde bir suryani mihallami köyu, Zakay Demir, Anadolu offset, 2013.
Habobo d mafsah. Makthabzabno d dairo d Saleh. 19783
ܗܒܒܐ ܕܡܦܨܚ.ܥܠ ܡܟܬܒܢܘܬܐ ܕ ܕܝܪܐ ܕܡܪܝ ܝܥܩܘܒ ܕ ܨܠܚ. ܦܝܠܟܣܝܢܣ ܝܘܚܢܢ. 1973. ܨܗܝܬ. ܠܒܢܢ.
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