By Denho Bar Mourad-Özmen journalist and moderator at Suroyo TV
The waters of the Tigris River gave rise to the first settlements in the Fertile Crescent and Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilizations. Hesno d’Kifo is a very old settlement that already appears in ancient Assyrian clay writings. The city is located about 50 km north of Midyat and lies on the riverbanks of the Tigris River (ܕܩܠܬ – Deqlath) in Tur Abdin. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world. The city’s history spans some 10,000 years.
Hesno d’Kifo and its surrounding limestone cliffs are home to thousands of man-hewn caves, 300 medieval monuments and a unique canyon ecosystem. Together they form a fascinating open-air museum. Before, the visitor could see ruins that bear witness to its different and once bustling heydays. In the narrow deep valley, many ancient relics could still be found, such as objects from the Assyrian period in the form of coins and seals. Unfortunately, we cannot see anything of its former city glory anymore. Since 2019, the entire city has been covered by the water reservoir of the Ilisu Dam.
During the many alternating periods of rulers, Hesno d’Kifo has had different names. Hesno d’Kifo (ܚܶܣܢܳܐ ܕ ܟܺܐܦܳܐ) is the Syriac name of the city. The name means ‘Fortress of Stone.’ The Romans adopted the Syriac name and called it Cepha (ܟܺܐܦܳܐ). The Arabs translated the Syriac name directly into Arabic as Hesn Keyf (حصن كيف). In the 1930s, the Turks Turkified the name to Hasankeyf. In all languages, however, the names for this ancient city go back to the original Syriac.
In the year 1526, 1,301 households lived in Hesno d’Kifo, of which 787 were Christian households, 494 Muslim and 20 Jewish. In the second half of the sixteenth century, the settlement continued to grow to 1,700 households, of which 1,006 were Christian and 694 Muslim. In the years between 1915-1970 only two Christian families remained, one family was goldsmiths and the other family blacksmiths.
The first city to be stormed after the conversion of the Kurds to Islam.
According to oral accounts of Christian Mhalmoye, Hesno d’Kifo was the first city to fall during the rise of Islam and conquests. As early as 830 AD, newly Kurdish converts to Islam were the first to attack the “Castle” (Hesno d’Kifo) [I]. They were led by a Kurd who had declared himself ‘Mahdi’ and “a large number of tribes of all nations, Persians, Arab, and pagan, gathered around him in the name of plunder and enslavement.” The Mosul Governor called Hasan, however, could not tolerate the cruelty and massacres perpetrated by this Mahdi. He waged war against the Mahdi and expelled the Kurdish bandit clans from the city and handed over the leadership to the Syriacs / Mhalmoye. Hesno d’Kifo was ruled by Christian Mhalmoye until the 1250s. The first Kurdish emir of the city was Muvahhid Takiyeddin Abdullah (1249-1294). Then the Artuklu Turks took over in 1400. The largest church was converted – in accordance with Turkish Muslim tradition – into a mosque during the hegemony of the Artuklu dynasty. The city dwellers, however, were still Christian Mhalmoye.
In the time of the Ottomans, a bridge was built over the Tigris River. South of the bridge, visitors could see the ruins of the city’s largest church, the Syriac Orthodox Mor Zokhe Church (ܡܳܪܝ ܙܳܟܼܶܐ). It was this church that was converted into a mosque and given the name al-Rizik mosque. Northeast of the bridge was the city proper, which consisted of thousands of caves, chiseled out of the rock and which served as dwellings. From the elevated Hesno d’Kifo Fort ܚܶܣܢܳܐ you could see all the places in the area from a distance. The Fort was only accessible via a narrow spiral staircase. The top of the Fort was once an episcopal residence of the Syriac Church. Christian mouth-to-mouth tradition, down to our days, has it that “in the conquest of the city by the Artuklu Turks, they threw the archbishop of the city from the top of the fortress down into the river.”
Hesno d’Kifo’s and its role in the development of Christian liturgy and calligraphy
Hesno d’Kifo was not only a fortress, but a rich and famous cultural center for Syriacs / Mhalmoye. The city was, among other things, a Church Foundation which included the Mor Zokhe Church. The church in Hesno d’Kifo has given a lot to the Christian world. The city’s most famous and valuable gift comes from its famous calligraphers who immensely enriched Christian culture and writing. In his book “From the Holy Mountain” William Dalrymple (p. 106-111) says that in the middle of the sixteenth century Stephanos, the Patriarch of Armenia residing in Echmiadzin, was preparing to make a trip to Rome “when hatred saw his seat threatened”.
Stefanos put his hopes on support from Pope Paul III Farnese. Stephanos knew that if he were to succeed in his special papal visit and clear the threats to his seat, he would need to request the Pope to liberate the churches of the Orient. His advisers urged the patriarch to establish a personal relationship with the pope in the hope that he would come to the protection of the Christians of the Orient. What the patriarch needed was a suitable gift for the Roman pope. The patriarch’s advisers had told him that Pope Paul III had decided to establish once and for all the final text of the Bible and that the pope had a special interest in the study of the scriptures. The patriarch had called a meeting of scholars to come up with a suitable gift for the pope. Eventually, his advisers had a brilliant idea. Someone in Echmiadzin had heard that the libraries of one of the monasteries of Tur Abdin contained an astonishing collection of early Christian Gospel manuscripts. One of those manuscripts was a copy of the Diatessaron ܕܺܝܰܬܶܣܪܘܢ an early and unusual gospel harmony, i.e., the four canonical gospels united into one life of Christ. The Diatessaron was the standard New Testament text used in the Church of Antioch, that is, the churches that use the Syriac (Aramaic) language [II].
Armenian Patriarch Stephanos sent an envoy hundreds of miles south from the Caucasus to Mesopotamia to find this Diatessaron manuscript. When found, it was agreed that a local calligrapher, who was a Syriac Orthodox priest, would write and copy the Diatessaron, which was originally in Syriac (Aramaic), with the symbolic images of the evangelists incorporated in the book. The pictures represented the symbols of the four evangelists taken from the revelation of the evangelist John: Matthew as angel (the symbol of the incarnation); Marcus as a lion (symbol of royal power); Luke as a bull or taurus (symbol of prayer and sacrifice); and John as an eagle (symbol of inspiration of the Holy Spirit). The four symbols are still used today in all Christian churches around the world.
It was this copy that was brought to Rome by Patriarch Stephanos on his papal visit. According to a colophon in the manuscript, the writer was a resident of Hesno d’Kifo, near Dayro d’Zafaran. Thus, it is most likely that the original manuscript from which the papal copy was made came from the library of the Dayro d’Zafaran Monastery and was written by a calligrapher in Hesno d’Kifo.
Hesno d’Kifo was a cultural center of the Syriac Church for several decades. The city has given the world many writers, artists, calligraphers and talented architects. I would like to mention just a few.
* Archbishop Jakob Hesnoyo (1571–1590).
* Baselios, Bishop of Zarcal (1543–1551).
* Hesno d-Kifo’s Archbishop Abo d’Wafa. Author of the popular hymns called Sedre Mhire ܣܶܕ̈ܪܶܐ ܡܗܝ̈ܪܶܐ in Syriac (1392–1395). Abo d’Wafa was a very famous manuscript calligrapher.
* Qorillos Abrohom-Uth Hisno d’Kifoyo or Qorillos Abrohom-Uth of Hasankeyf. Also called Maqdshoyo Bar-Habib or son of Miqsi Habib. He was educated in Atifiye’s Dayro du Slibo (Monastery of the Cross) and served as its archbishop. Prior to that, he was archbishop of Hisno d’Kifo, from 1575, where he extended the boundaries of the monastery’s estates by purchasing lands and orchards for the monastery (1584). In his old age he donated everything to the monastery (1624). Baselios Saliba, who was Archbishop of Zarcal (1552) was his uncle’s son.
* Priest Yeshu Thomas (1248). Yeshu was a famous calligrapher and author. It is written about him that he had a very beautiful voice and when he sang hymns people took intense pleasure from it.
Hesno d’Kifo was not only a cultural center of the Syriac Church but also a center of trade with other cities along the Tigris River (ܕܶܩܠܰܬܿ). This trade dated back to the time of the Assyrians. It continued until the 2000s after which the city fully disappeared under the Ilisu Dam. Due to its strategic location, not only Christian and Muslim Mhalmoye lived there, but also, until 1915, Armenians and Kurds. After 1915, the city’s Christian Mhalmoye disappeared except maybe for a few families who remained to work as craftsmen and goldsmiths. The city’s Muslim Mhalmoye and the Kurds remained.
Hesno d’Kifo during the Sayfo Genocide of 1915
According to church statistics compiled in 1870 by the monk Abdalla Sadadi of the families who paid their dues to the Syriac Orthodox Church, that is, members of the church, a total of 2,600 people lived in Hesno d’Kifo at that time (see table below). To these can be added members of other Christian communities, such as Protestants, Chaldeans and Armenians. The number of 2,600 therefore needs to be increased by a few thousand Christian inhabitants. The Syriac Orthodox Church had two churches in Hesno d’Kifo: the Mor Zokhe Church and the Mor Gewargis Church or “Dayr al-Qayim” as it was popularly called. There were several small chapels spread over the city. The Chaldeans had one church, the Protestants one church and the Armenians also one.
According to khouri (chorepiscopus) Sleman dbe Henno (1998, p 111), 500 Christian Mhalmoye families lived together with Armenians in Hesno d’Kifo during the Year of Sayfo, i.e., 1915 [III]. The majority of the city’s residents were Christian and Muslim Mhalmoye. There were also Kurds and Yazidis living in the city. The genocide and barbarism started in Hesno d’Kifo on June 5, 1915. It began at the behest of Midyat Mayor and government appointee to the area, Ahmad Munir, who sent an official order to Jalal Rumi, the city administrator of Hesno d’Kifo [IV]. According to Sleman dbe Henno, Ahmad’s order read as follows:
“I hereby call on you to gather all the Kurdish clans and all the city officials and begin the attack on the infidels in Hesno d’Kifo.”
Upon hearing this order, Amin agha, the son of hajji Abdalla, hurried from the village of Mcare ܡܥܰܪܵܐ (Shkafte in Kurmanci) and gathered all the Kurdish clans in the Raman area. He assured everyone that the order is official and came directly from the government.
“We, the Kurds, with the support of the army, must exterminate all Christians in Hesno d’Kifo. You have the freedom to rape their daughters, seize their property and take whatever you find. Gold, silver… everything. If we succeed in exterminating them and drive them out, we will distribute their farms, farmland and livestock fairly among all of you.” [V]
Once inside the city of Hesno d’Kifo, the army united with the Kurdish mob who came from all directions. With the help of the army, they surrounded the city. Amin agha (agha means clan leader) called on the city’s Muslim Mhalmoye to cooperate with them and open the gate to the fortress. The Muslim Mhalmoye initially hesitated and refused to cooperate with the army and Kurdish mob. But, when the city administrator heard from the slaughterer Amin agha, son of hajji Abdalla, that the order had come from the authorities, the Muslim Mhalmoye opened the gate to the fortress. To prevent the Christians from fleeing, Amin set up armed guards at the gates of the fortress. Herds of Kurds and soldiers began an extermination campaign and killed the Christians in their homes. It ended in an unpunished bloodshed.
Some Christian youths tried to escape but were captured by the Kurds and thrown down from the high walls while the Kurds amused themselves with seeing their bodies shatter after hitting the ground. The atrocities perpetrated by the Kurds and soldiers lasted for days without interruption. According to Gawriye [VI], who escaped the massacre, “the cold-blooded slaughter and torture of the vulnerable women and girls continued for four days.” Some youths managed to survive. Gawriye was one of them. They survived thanks to climbing in and through the openings in the high boulders. These youths first fled to Kfar Gawze (Gercus) and from there to Midyat. The women who were still alive threw themselves off the high walls and drowned in the Tigris River.
The enemy attacked the Christians and stormed their houses, murdering, looting, raping and destroying everything that came in their way. The army arrested prominent Christian leaders Cercis and Zokhe and imprisoned them. At the end of the extermination campaign, the city administrator and Amin agha went down to the dungeon, attacked Circis, Zokhe and two others, and dismembered their bodies with swords and daggers. Not a single Christian survived or was able to escape from Hesno d’Kifo except a few youths mentioned by Gawriye.
What happens when you commit genocide?
With the extermination of a people, i.e., genocide, not only that people is exterminated. Together with the people, their culture, folklore, stories, crafts, calligraphy, and architecture disappear. After the Ilisu Dam was put into operation in 2018 by the Turkish authorities and the submergence of Hesno d’Kifo, an intellectual and cultural world heritage, accumulated over thousands of years, has disappeared forever. The survivors remain traumatized for life.
One obvious example of the extinction of the people and culture of Hesno d’Kifo is the Hesno d’Kifo museum.
To preserve artifacts and cultural monuments from the city, the Turkish authorities built a museum in the newly built city of Hesno d’Kifo, north of the submerged old city. The new Hasankeyf Museum gives visitors an extraordinary glimpse of everyday life during the Neolithic age – when people first began to live in settled communities. Its collection of archeological and architectural remains from Hesno d’Kifo also include rare examples of early Islamic tombstones, Roman and Late Byzantine jewelry and coins, and architectural ornaments from the middle ages of Islamic civilization, when Hesno d’Kifo was ruled by the art dynasties of the Artuqids, Ayyubid and Akkoyunlu.
Although the historical scope of the museum is impressive, its collection and presentation of artifacts from the Christian community of Hesno d’Kifo’s is very weak. This is most surprising considering the fact that the Christian Mhalmoye were the inhabitants of the city for over 1,300 years. Various statistics prove that the Christian Mhalmoye made up the majority of the city up to 1915, the Year of Sayfo. In the current exhibition, however, the museum gives the visitor the impression that the history and culture of the city’s Christians ended with the arrival of Islam in the eighth century. In confirmation of this, I refer to Ottoman data from the end of the sixteenth century. It clearly states that of the 1,700 households in Hesno d’Kifo, almost 60% were Christians.
There is considerable physical evidence too that testifies to a living Christian community well into the later centuries of the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, most of this has been left unprotected and unpreserved in the water reservoir of the new Ilisu Dam. One example is the cave church at the foot of Ras Kayim ܥܕܬܳܐ ܕܪܝܫ ܥܡܘܕܳܐ, the hill at the eastern edge of Hesno d’Kifo’s lower city. Its interior walls were adorned with a pattern of crosses carved out of stone. Another example is the St. Mary’s Church in the Cave ܥܕܬܐ ܕܝܳܠܕܰܬܼ ܐܠܳܗܐ ܕܡܥܪܬܼܳܐ in the Saha Valley, in the southwestern corner of the lower city, There are many other Christian antiquities and ancient Assyrian architectural objects, which have not been preserved, such as the Mor Zokhe Church.
As a visitor one really regrets going. You do not expect modern Turkey to ignore such an old and rich culture. The Turks built the museum under the motto: save what belongs to the ruling group and make forget the cultures of other (non-Turkic) peoples. These cultures are today a World Heritage Site!?
The village of Defne is about half an hour on foot east of Hesno d’Kifo, on the southern part of the Tigris River. Between Hesno d’Kifo and the village of Defne lies the famous Monastery of the Cross or Dayro du Slibo (also known as Dayro d’Maharܕܰܝܪܳܐ ܕ ܡܘܟܼܪܳܐ), 15 minutes away from Defne. Defne was part of the Hesno d’Kifo’s Church Foundation and the Monastery of the Cross was hence the main seat.
In 1870, the following (larger) families lived in Defne:
During the Year of Sayfo, 1915, the village was administered by the priest Shemun, originally from the village of Zaz. The village leader was Sawme. The village was prosperous and the people financially strong. The soil of the village was fertile and yielded great harvests thanks to the affluent irrigation provided by the nearby Tigris River. You could even grow cotton.
Before the hangmen reached the village of Defne, some Harabe-Banda residents who were acquainted with the priest came to the village and took him and his family to Harabe-Banda ܚܰܪܒܬ݂ܳܐ ܕܒܰܢܵܶܐ to protect them. The Kurds of the Raman clans gathered under the leadership of Amin Ahmad and attacked the Christians in the village. They took them to the banks of the river, where they killed them and threw their bodies into the river. They looked for the priest but could not find him in the village. Someone in the village betrayed that the priest had fled to the village of Harabe-Banda. The bloodthirsty Amin sent his followers there and they threatened the lives of all the Harabe-Banda residents if they did not immediately hand over the priest to the bloody Kurds. The priest’s brother, Tuma, threw stones at them after which they broke his leg. As for Fr. Shemun, they tied him to a board with his hands outstretched. They began to insult and ridicule him. They then dragged him to the Monastery of the Cross and subjected him to torture to force him to deny his Lord. Mor Ignatius Efrem Barsawm mentions the following in his ‘History of Tur Abdin’: “Priest Shemun of Defne was skinned alive by the barbarians and set as a target until he died. His body was thrown into the river.”
From the sources I know, it does not appear that the Muslim Mhalmoye were active participants in the genocide of their brothers the Christian Mhalmoye, except for a few individuals who were employed by the state or wanted economic gain.
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, Habses ܚܰܒܣܶܣ – an important village in the Mhalmayto Region (part II)
Notes[I] See Hans Hollerweger, Living Cultural Heritage, Tur Abdin, 1999. On page 44, Professor Andrew Palmer quotes Patriarch Efrem Barsawm’s History of Tur ‘Abdin, who in turn quotes the Syriac Chronicle of 1234, written at Urhoy (Edessa). [II] The Syriac Orthodox Church, Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Catholic Church, Maronite Church, Chaldean Church and several smaller Protestant churches. [III] The Sayfo is the genocide of all Christian peoples in the Ottoman Empire. [IV] According to Jan Beth Sawoce, Jalal Rumi was from the district capital of Mardin. He was a member of the Young Turks organization “Ittihat ve Tarakki Cemiyeti.” Talat Pasha and Enver Pasha, who committed the genocide of Christians in Turkey, are the most known members of this “Committee of Union and Progress.” [V] This story has been told since that time by all our Syriac elderly, those who met with the survivors from the city. [VI] Gawriye was 87 years old when he was interviewed by Matay Habsoyo in the village of Qabre Hewore, Syria.
Hisn Kaifa, Encyclopedia of Islam, 1st edition, Leiden: Brill, 1913-36.
According to the İslam, Ansiklopedisi – “Hasankeyf,” İslam Ansiklopedisi, 16. Cilt, İstanbul: Diyanet Vakfı, 1997.
Hasankeyf: Üç Dünyanın Buluştuğu Kent, Oluş Arık, p. 188-190.
Labels: Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, Hasankeyf Preservation.
From the holy mountain, William Dalrymple, Flemingo, 1997.
Habobo d mafsah. Makthabzabno d dairo d Saleh, 1973
ܗܒܒܐ ܕܡܦܨܚ.ܥܠ ܡܟܬܒܢܘܬܐ ܕ ܕܝܪܐ ܕܡܪܝ ܝܥܩܘܒ ܕ ܨܠܚ. ܦܝܠܟܣܝܢܣ ܝܘܚܢܢ. 1973. ܨܗܝܬ. ܠܒܢܢ.
Massakern på syrianerna i Turabdin 1914 – 1915, Fr. Suleyman Henno, Syrianska riksförbundet, 1998.
Sayfo b Turcabdin 1914-1915- an noshe kmahken, Aydarbo hawi u Sayfo?, Jan Beth-Sawoce, Beth Froso Nsibin, 2006.
Living Cultural Heritage, Turabdin, Hans Hollenweger, Linz, 1999.
Hasankeyf/Ḥiṣn Kaifā on the Tigris: A Regional Center on the Crossroad of Foreign Influences, Patterns of Stylistic Changes in Islam, Michael Meinecke, 1996.
Statistik. Bacdh Belad wa Qura. Sanat 1870. Byadh Dayroyo (Monk) Abdallah Stuf Sadadi