Habses ܚܰܒܣܶܣ – an important village in the Mhalmayto Region (part I)

The Mhalmoyto (Ahlamu or Beth-Ahlam (ܒܝܬ ܡܚܠܡ ) is the name of the area in the western part of Tur Abdin. Its inhabitants are called Mhalmoye, Mahalmi, or Mhallami. In this series Denho Bar Mourad takes us on a historical journey through this ancient region.

By Denho Bar Mourad-Özmen journalist and moderator at Suroyo TV 

By the end of the 17th century most of the Mhalmayto Region had been forcibly Islamized. That is, with the exception of a few villages. The villages of Habses, Qeleth, Bnay Bil (bulbul) and Qalco d-Attho (Eski kale) escaped forced conversion and remained Christian. In the case of Habses, the matter was resolved in a different way. It involved some dramatic decisions and events with uncertain outcomes, but fortunately the Christian residents eventually found other refuges and managed to preserve their religion, their children and their honor.

After Habses’ closest neighboring villages, Dayro Zbino, Tafo, Dayro d-Debo (Derindeb) and Estel, were forcibly converted to Islam, the pressure on the residents of Habses to follow their neighboring villages increased. The villagers of Habses and the mentioned four villages were closely linked by marriage, kinship and common monasteries such as Mor Loózor and Mor Zbino ܕܝܪܐ ܕܡܪܝ݈ ܐܠܝܥܳܙܳܪ ܘ ܡܪܝ݈ ܙܒܝܢܳܐ in Habses and shrines such as the underground city of Eilath in Dayro Zbino and Tafo’s Ziara. They also shared common agricultural areas. Their arable land, orchards and vineyards bordered and mixed. Therefore, the newly Islamized villages were assumed to take on the task of convincing their brothers and sisters in the Habses to also convert and change their religion.

Mafqono ܡܦܩܢܐ (Exodus)

The pressure on the Habses residents to convert increased. They were persecuted by their new Muslim neighbors and the Kurdish Raman clan, who were Kurds living north of the village. The residents of Habses did not dare go out to their fields or orchards as they risked being attacked and murdered. During this troubled time, many prominent people of the village were murdered. The neighboring villages started an intimidation campaign by burning their crops, abduct their livestock and rape their girls. Over time, life for the villagers became unbearable. They understood that they were left with few lifechanging choices: either convert to Islam and follow the example of their brothers and sisters from the other villages or abandon the village and seek refuge elsewhere.

The Christian villages and towns administratively now belonged to Cizre (Gozarto d-Bukhtoye ܓܳܙܰܬܐ ܕ ܒܘܟܬܳܝܶܐ) and its emirs ܥܡܝܪܐ ܕܰ ܒܘܟ݂ܬ̈ܝܐ. That is, the area from Midyat to Cizre did not have to convert to Islam because the then emir, who was a descendant of Shah Ali Bey and Bedirhan Bey (Pasha), had paid the high taxes (Cizye), he had been ordered to pay by Nasuh Pasha to fund his war campaigns.

From the list of the Ottoman tax archives (see image below) we know that in 1567 some 165 tax-paying families lived in Habses. The same list shows that no Muslims lived in the village. These families, according to our village elders, belonged to three large clans: the Beth Mourad, Safar and Jallo clans. The village chief was named Yakub [I]. Yakub had good relations with the emir of Cizre. The villagers were summoned to a village council by the old and wise Yakub. The council took the following unanimous decision: the villagers who can find a safe haven to flee to can do so. The others who cannot find a safer place should leave the village together and go to the emir of Cizre.

Some members of the Beth Mourad and Beth Jallo clans moved to the village of Bnay Bil (Bulbul) where they had many relatives through marriage. In Bnay Bil, these families are still called dbe Yusufe (Beth Mourad) and Beth Jallo. The Beth Karmo family from the Beth Mourad clan moved to Goliye and Mardin. Some of the Safar families moved to Qalco d-Attho (Eski kale) outside Mardin. The rest of the villagers evacuated their home village and went to Cizre to see the emir. While the whole village left for Cizre, village chief Yakub decided to stay behind and die alone. According to malfono Zakay Demir (2013), Yakub took refuge in a cave somewhere halfway between the villages of Habses, Derindeb and Tafo. The cave is still called Yakub’s Cave ܡܥܪܬܳܐ ܕܝܥܩܘܒ. He lived there alone until his death and was buried in the cave by the people of the neighboring villages. [II]

His son Afrem took over his duties and continued the travel to Cizre. The emir was notified of the arrival of the residents of Habses and set out in person to welcome his dear friend, the wise chief Yakub. When the emir learned of Yakub’s fate this saddened him greatly. He promised Yakub’s son, Afrem, to do what he could to bring them to safety and give them security in his emirate. The emir referred them to a ruined village, an ancient settlement called Harbtho d-Miden. He gave the whole area to the Habses villagers.

They settled in Harbtho d-Miden, built houses and started cultivating the fields. At the time, the Mhalmoye were skilled farmers compared to the Kurdish population of the area. The Kurds were mostly nomadic and kept livestock. In a relatively short time, they managed to transform the area into a lush oasis. The prospering new settlement called Miden, caught the attention of the villages around them. It is said that the surrounding villagers went to the emir and told him that “these refugees you have received and settled in Miden, have managed to become richer than the whole area in a short time.” [III] Therefore, they demanded they had to be taxed like the rest of the population. In addition, they would need to teach the inhabitants of other villages in the area the art of tilling the land and building stone houses. The emir listened to his subordinates and did as he was asked.

The three clans of Beth Mourad, Beth Jallo and Beth Safar, still live in Miden. The villagers of Habses and Miden have common Syriac language features that are still used today by the people of Miden and Habses, for example, the word; ‘Cuqlo’ ܥܘܩܠܐ, meaning ‘Raghlo’ (foot) or the use of the masculine gender form regardless of gender; i.e., ‘tre abne’ ܬܪ̈ܐܶ ܐܒܢ̈ܐ and ‘tre bnotho’ ܬܪ̈ܐ ܒܢ̈ܬܼܳܐ (two boys and two girls). In other villages, both male and female genders are used; ‘tre abne’ ܬܪ̈ܐܶ ܐܒܢ̈ܐ (two boys) and ‘tarte bnotho’ ܬܰܪܬܶܐ ܒܢ̈ܬܼܳܐ (two girls).

Families from Habses still live in Miden today, including the Beth Jallo family and the Shamunkiye or Beth Edde family.

Ottoman tax archive of the Syriac village of Habses (1567)
The pictures on the name list were taken from “Habsus-Turabdinde bir Suryani köyu” written by malfono Zakay Demir (Istanbul, 2013).

Hfukhyo ܗܦܘܟܝܐ The return to Habses

The village of Habses remained empty and neglected for at least 13 years. The Dayro Zbino residents, who were their closest relatives, used the village to keep their animals in summer. They farmed the land and converted the area around the lake and St. Mary’s Church into a stable.

According to the stories of the villagers, Dayro Zbino residents got into an argument about the property, land, houses and vineyards of Habses. To prevent escalation, enmity and murder between the two largest clans in Dayro Zbino, i.e., the Beth Zaito and Sharbeniye clans, they agreed to send a message to the inhabitants of Habses, who they knew had settled in Miden. The messengers were chosen from among the two clans. The messengers went to Miden and promised the people of Habses protection if they would return to their home village. The Habses residents’ council deliberated and concluded that many wanted to return.

According to the 1960s oral accounts I heard when I was young, when the Dayro Zbino messengers came to Miden, a lot of time had passed since the original villagers had left. Some said that 16 years had passed, others said the Habses villagers had already settled in Miden between 16 to 20 years ago. Many did not remember the village enough to yearn to return nor did they want to return solely on the word and promises of the two Muslim messengers. In Miden, they had established themselves and cultivated the land. They asked themselves; is it possible to trust the words of these messengers? Was this not a new plan to murder the people of Habses and take over their village once and forever? In addition to taking great risks, returning also meant fearing for one’s own life and the beginning of a new life in the shadow of the newly Islamized villages around Habses.

They first started the discussion internally and came to the conclusion that they should consult the emir of Cizre first. After all, it was his father who had settled them in Miden. They were advised by the emir to secure protection for those who wished to return to the village. He summoned therefore the leaders of Dayro Zbino and ordered that some Muslim families from Dayro Zbino should also settle in Habses to protect the returnees. The emir asked the leading clan leaders of Habses, the Beth Mourads and the Beth Safars, to provide accommodation and land to the ‘protector’ Muslim families from Dayro Zbino. The Muslim Dayro Zbino clans which settled in Habses were the Beth Skano clan and the Beth Shamdino clan. The Beth Skano received accommodation and land from the Beth Mourad clan. [IV] The second greatest Christian clan was that of Beth Safar. This clan in turn received the Beth Shamdino from Dayro Zbino as their patron and gave them housing and land.

The majority of Habses villagers, however, stayed in the Miden and did not trust the promises they received from the Dayro Zbino residents. According to older Habses residents such as Abde dbe Shamdino-Demir and Gallo Bahwaro-Alkan, there were three families who resettled from Miden. They each represented one of the three greater clans of Beth Mourad, Beth Safar and Beth Jallo. The returnees divided the village among themselves and began cultivating their land and building relationships with neighboring villages. But the terms were different now; the once large and important village that was formerly the leader of both Mhalmayto parties, namely the Khalil Bagiye and the Isa Bagiye, was now led by the villages of Dayro Zbino and Shrizbah.

Later, Christians fled other villages and settled in Habses. According to Hanna Bahwaro-Alkan (1998), among these families were the Beth Cazo, Beth Yube and Beth Malke Maseke.

Mor Loózer Monastery, Habses. Image from Facebook.

Life gradually returned to Habses. The people enjoyed a peaceful time and started to build houses to move back to the village. They renovated what was worth renovating. They also renovated the church of Mor Shamoun Zaite, as well as the Monastery of Mor Loózor and Mor Zbino. Monks moved into the Monastery of Mor Loózor. And, although they had converted to Islam, the residents of Dairo Zbino, Tafo and Estel flocked to the church of Mor Shamoun Zaite to perform their prayers and drink water from the church well of ‘Gubo du Qdholo’ ܓܘܒܳܐ ܕܘ ܩܕܳܠܳܐ, just as their ancestors had done for centuries. Although they changed religion, they retained much of their ancestral beliefs and traditions.

But unfortunately, they sought their ethnic identity in one that linked them to Islam. The more they linked their lineage to the Prophet’s al-Sahaba الصحابة (Companions of the Prophet), who had come to the area, the more respect and acceptance they thought they would get from the Turks and Kurds. And since the Syriac language was very similar to Arabic, they also adopted Arabic as their language, albeit with a high degree of Syriac/Aramaic words and notions.

In Habses, three different languages were spoken in parallel. In addition to Assyrian / Syriac, which was everyone’s common language, the Beth Shamdino clan spoke Mhalmoyo and the Beth Skano Kurdish and Mhalmoyo. Why the Beth Skano clan spoke Kurdish is difficult to understand as they came from Dayro Zbino. According to Malke Aksöz, who I asked about this, the reason they abandoned the Syriac language and the Mhalmoyo language محلّمي was because they married Kurdish women in order to form strong bonds with Kurdish tribes. Until the late 1970s, Assyrian / Syriac was the official language at meetings and gatherings.

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 eraThe Mhalmoye (ܡܚܠܡ̈ܝܐ) and their conversion to Christianity, The Mhalmoye (ܡܚܠܡ̈ܝܐ). Who are they?, The Mhalmoyto: its cities, villages, monasteries and churches


[I} The name of the then village leader of Habses (Yakub) was noted in the prayer book Fanqitho ܦܰܢܩܝܬܳܐ of the Syriac village of Miden. This was confirmed on all occasions when the older villagers told us this story when we still lived in the village.

[II] Other oral sources say that because of his advanced age, village chief Yakub (Jacob) did not want to accompany the villagers to Gozarto d-Bukhtoye (Cizre) but stayed in the village of Tafo in a cave that still bears his name (Mcartho d-Yakub in Syriac or Mgharet Yakub in the Mhalmoyo vernacular). He was protected by the people of Tafo and respected until his death.

[III] I heard this from older Habses residents like my grandfather Yusuf dbe Mourad-Özmen, Abde dbe Shamdino (Muslim resident of Habses) and Barse dbe Sharre.

[IV] According to Malke Dbe Sacde-Aksöz (1985), when the Muslim families were brought to the village, the Beth Mourad family settled the Skano family on the east side of the village. In popular speech, it is called the Cala Qassat. The Beth Jallo’s offered the Shamdino family the left side of the village.


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