By Denho Bar Mourad-Özmen journalist and moderator at Suroyo TV
The city of Sawro is located in the middle of the Mhalmoyto Region and is already mentioned by the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II as an important city. Its name is derived from the Syriac (Aramaic) word Sawro ܨܰܘܪܳܐ , which means ‘neck’ and stems from its location around the Sawro mountain and Castle. [I] In the Mhalmi language the city is called Sawur صور. The Kurds call it Sevre. The city is located around the top of the mountain, at a high altitude making it suitable for defense.
The most famous historical monument is the Castle or Hesno d’Sawro ܚܶܨܢܳܐ ܕ ܨܰܘܪܐ. The Castle had complete control over the ancient trade routes of Upper Mesopotamia. It also served as a hub between the towns of Bişmil, Midyat, Hesno d’Kifo and Mardin. The Castle had a very strategic focus for all the conquerors who came to ravage the area; Romans, Byzantines, various Arab conquering dynasties followed by various Turkic dynasties including the Eyyubis, the Artuklu Turks, and more recently the Ottomans and modern Turkey.
Sawro connects Upper Mesopotamia with the banks of the Tigris River in the north. For this reason, the city has been an important trading city since ancient times. It made Sawro a strategic point in ancient times and in the Middle Ages, as those who wanted to conquer the area had to pass by or through the city to conquer and consolidate the Keshyar Plateau. [II]
The population of Sawro
Until 1609, Sawro was primarily inhabited by Christian Mhalmoye – except for a few Ottoman colonizers on a conquest. That is, until the Ottomans gained full control of the city. Sawro’s emir ܥܡܺܝܪܵܐ ܕܘ ܨܰܘܪܐ was a Christian Mhalmoyo. The Church of Mar Tuma (St Thomas), today’s Ulu Cami in the Castle, was the residence of the archdiocese. Its bishop was called Polikarpos Sawroyo.
The following quote was told to me in 2015 by cammo “uncle” Cemil [III], while I was filming on location in the Ulu Cami mosque.
“The Ottomans issued an ultimatum to the emir [who he believed to be called Ishoc (Isa)] to either convert to Islam and maintain his position as the city’s leader or to keep his Christian religion but face torture and expulsion from the Castle. After much excited debate in the city, emir Isa consulted the bishop. The bishop advised the leaders to accept Islam, in order to maintain the leadership of the city and to protect the population from all kinds of torture and death. After all, the Ottomans would not stay in the area forever, was the reasoning. Once they leave the area, we can return to our faith.”
But the Ottomans stayed, and the population did not dare to return to their religion. It was during this time that the Church of Mor Tuma [IV] was converted into a mosque and the name of the flow Nahro d’Qadish ܢܰܗܪܳܐ ܕ ܩܰܕܝܫ (Kadish Nehri) was changed into Savur Cayi.
Sawro’s most famous Christian leaders
* The famous Christian leader of the 300s is Mor Slemun Meshtoyo (Meshtiye).
* Mor Polikarpos, one of its bishops.
* Cmiro ܥܡܝܪܐ Ishoc, Sawro’s emir from 1596-1609.
* Nahro d’Qadish ܢܰܗܪܳܐ ܕ ܩܰܕܝܫ or Savur Cayi, branch of the Tigris River.
* Mor Tuma Church. The Ulu Cami (mosque) since 1609.
* The Monastery of the Romans ܕܝܪܐ ܕ ܪܘܡܝ̈ܐ in the village of Mor Aday (Ahmadi/Baskavak).
* The Mor Yuhanon Dawlimoyo Church in the village of Qeleth (Dereiçi).
* The Mor Abay Monastery in Qeleth.
* The bridge in the village of Mor Aday (Baskavak köprusu).
* And, of course, the Sawro Castle.
Sawro’s famous shoulder dance (Raqdho da katfotho ܪܰܩܕܼܳܐ ܕ ܟܰܬܦܳ̈ܬܼܐ )
Sawro’s shoulder dance or raqdho da katfotho ܪܰܩܕܼܳܐ ܕ ܟܰܬܦܳ̈ܬܼܐ, differs slightly from the other folkloric dances in the Mhalmayto Region. Here, they dance with three steps that in the vernacular Mhalmi is called, tlath saknat تلاث سكنات or klay tlotho ܟܠܰܝ ܬܠܳܬܼܳܐ in the Syriac language.
Villages that even after Sayfo in 1915 had Christian Mhalmoye families
Qeleth ܩܶܠܶܬܼ (Dereiçi)
Qeleth was one of the more prosperous villages of the Christian Mhalmoye. The village had abundant water for the irrigation of farmland – unlike the other villages of the Tur Abdin Plateau. Syriac Orthodox monk Abdallah Sadadi, who was in Qeleth in 1870 to collect the church dues, writes that it was a large and wealthy village. The residents donated with open hands. Below is his list of the families who paid the church dues.
According to the English orientalist G.P. Badger [V], 871 people lived in Qeleth in the 1850s. Orientalist E. Sachau [VI] writes that in the 1880s, 180 households lived in the village. He also writes that there was an American mission center in Qeleth. He names the following village churches and monasteries: the Monastery of Mor Abay, Mor Teothuto, Mor Shabay, and the Mor Dimet Monastery; the Syriac Orthodox Mor Shamoun da Qnono Church, Mor Yuhanon Dawlamoyo Church, and St Mary Church, as well as a Syriac Catholic and Protestant church.
In the 1960s, some 320 families lived in Qeleth, all Christian Mhalmoye [VII]. Today, only one family lives in the village. Qeleth’s residents have emigrated to Western Europe, Zahle in Lebanon and the United States. The village was completely emptied between 1970-1980 after village chief Ҫirçis was assassinated. During this period, more than 80 Syriac leaders were murdered in the area. In Turkey, these killings are called Faili Meçhul cinayetler or unsolved murder cases. These Faili Meçhul cases proved disastrous for the Christian Mhalmoye presence in the region. A true exodus of Christian Mhalmoye started. All the inhabitants of Qeleth left their village and became refugees in Sweden, Germany, Netherlands, France, Switzerland and many more countries.
Famous personalities in the history of Qeleth
* Patriarch Ignatios Yeshuc I (1509-1512).
* Bishop Yuhanon of Qeleth and Dara (1905-1912). He was educated in Qeleth’s Mor Abay Monastery after which he became its well-known teacher.
* Calligrapher qasho Dawud, son of Abo Dmuna (~1389).
* Abdulahad son of Yaqoub Qelthoyo (1686-1690).
* Mgabyo Ҫirçis. Ҫirçis was the village chief in the 2000s. He was a known businessman who had founded the first winery in Mardin Province.
The village of Elfan (Pinardere)
Elfan (Pinardere) had a Christian Mhalmoye population. During and after the Sayfo Genocide of 1915, most were murdered. Those who remained in the village were forced to change their religion to Islam in order to stay in the village and keep their property. [VIII]
The village of Ahmadi (Baskavak) [IX]
From information I got from an older Ahmadi resident, cammo Hassan Kavak, the last two families left the village in 1915 and fled to Bnay Bil (Bulbul).
The village of Rashidiye (Uckavak)
Consists of several villages centered around the main village of Köse. Many Christian families lived here. In 1915, they were slaughtered by the Barava Kurds [X], who dumped the bodies in a large underground cave named Tchala Kavoka (Doves’ Well) [XI] along with thousands of other Christians from Bişmil and its surroundings.
We also have to mention the extermination of the Christian Mhalmoye from the large Syriac village of Sacdiye, where the family of Hajji Ibrahim Bar Mourad’s comes from.
The village of Avine (Surgucu)
The village had a large Christian Mhalmoye population. Most were murdered in 1915, the rest fled to Mardin and later to Lebanon.
The Sayfo Genocide of 1915 in Sawro and its surrounding villages
Priest Ishak Armale, who was an eyewitness to Sayfo in 1914–1915, writes (p. 290) the following about the genocide that took place in Sawro and its surrounding villages;
“Until 1915, Sawro was inhabited by about 300 Christian Syriac / Mhalmoyo families and a few Armenian families who had settled in the city after 1912. At the end of June 1915, the infamous Baggawat (chieftains) gathered and discussed with the provincial authorities in Mardin what to do with the Christians who lived there. The message from the authorities in Mardin was clear; the Baggawat had the full freedom to commit all kinds of atrocities, torture, rape and genocide. Subsequently, the chieftains imprisoned and tortured all men and young people. The victims were then brutally killed. The leaders of the Christians, Yusuf Bar Elyas and four others, were kept hostage inside the prison.”
“After three weeks, those in charge turned to Yusuf Bar Elyas and the other four imprisoned leaders. They were told that they would be taken to the provincial capital Mardin. There they would be handed over to the governor of Mardin so that he could take a decision regarding their lives. But this turned out to be a lie. Once outside the city of Sawro, they were tortured and killed. Their bodies were thrown into ditches. The killers then returned to Sawro and went from house to house, yelling at the women and children: “Give us your gold, silver, and jewels! You will get it back in Mardin. Your men have already been sent to Mardin. You will meet them in Mardin.”
The executioners looted everything they could get their hands on. They arrested the women and children, took them to the barracks and closed the doors. They then unleashed their wildest yokels, who carried off both invaluable and valuable, both small and large, and brought the spoils to government building. After two days in prison, the tongues of women and children were dry with thirst, their stomachs empty and their strength exhausted from all the crying and lamentation. Mayor Hasan Bey, Mustafa Anfis, Hamdo, Ismail Dafo and a few others came to tell them to get ready. The women were brought out in pairs with their children by the hand or by their breasts and their fetuses in their bellies. They were all hungry, thirsty and they wept. When they got to Khirba, the soldiers started firing at them and stabbing them with their swords. Those who were not killed there were taken to the village of Bakesa (Beth Qayse), where the soldiers undressed them and searched for valuables in their clothing. Father Ishak Armale describes it like this;
“My pen has the greatest difficulty writing down all the scum and the crimes they have committed. They beated an violated virgins and naked women.”
Most survived, however. The beastly barbarians handed them some cloths to cover themselves with. After a short rest in Bakesa, the march continued.
As they approached Reshmel and Kabala, men came from the villages and took the boys and girls they liked. The women cooed like pigeons who just lost their young. The deportees were then driven on, under torture and beatings with daggers and swords, until they reached Ras El-Maydan east of Mardin. The people of Ras El-Maydan in turn picked the children who appealed to their voracious minds. The remaining women and children were then forced by the soldiers to immediately resume their nightly march towards Harrin. After this, they marched to Nusaybin and from there to the village of Kharab Gurt. There they had to rest for a while after the hardships of the long deportation march. Father Ishak Armale remarks emotionally;
“It cannot have escaped your notice, dear readers, that the women have not been given anything to eat or drink since they were taken away from their homes.”
In the morning they were awakened and again put on a brisk march. Kurds from the surrounding villages approached, grabbed them one by one, stripped them, beat them on the head and threw them down a well shaft. Finally, they hit Maryam, daughter of Abdulmasih Kalayili, on the head and threw her into the well to let death do its work slowly.
A man named Hidir, son of Sofi Murad Adkhe, happened to pass by the well when he heard a woman moaning. He shouted down into the well, “I want to save you.” She replied, “If you bring me up from here, you will kill me.” He swore by his own life and the prosperity of the state not to kill her. She said: “If the state had done any good, it would not have inflicted so much harm on the women. Their honor is the honor of the sultan.” Hidir was surprised by her confident statement and threw down a cloth she could cover herself with. Then he lowered a rope and pulled her up. He took her home and fetched a doctor who treated her. Eventually, she returned to Mardin and settled in the home of her uncle Abdulahad Shakro.
After 1918, many families returned to Sawro, though this time as human wrecks. Insecurity, persecution, and financial hardships had marked their lives. In particular at the hands of the Kurdish tribes that lived in the Barava area, which lies between Sawro and Bşhem Il ܒܫܶܡ ܐܝܠ (Bişmil) in the north.
The Christians had to do away their lands and live in poverty which caused most of them to leave Sawro and environs and settle in Mardin or move south to Syria and Lebanon. Some went to France from there. Only craftsmen and blacksmiths remained in Sawro. In the 1970s, there were about 20 Christian Syriac / Mhalmoye families in Sawro. The Sawreni (Cankalp) family was the last family to move away from the city and now lives in Sweden.
It has become a kind of custom that we equate Sayfo only with the 1915, the Year of the Sword, that is, when the genocide actually took place and the main reason why the Christian population of Turkey has been decimated. But we must not forget that the murders, the loss of property, the daily violence against those who survived the genocide – the Turks call them “Remnants of the Sword” (Kilic Artiklari) – and the violent confiscation of land, houses and violent abductions of Christian girls by Kurdish tribes only increased after 1915. All these factors were a major push factor for the Christian Mhalmoye, as with the other Christian peoples, to leave behind everything they owned in land, houses, businesses, shops, and the land of their fathers, to flee to safer lands.
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.
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.
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), The Mhalmoyto city of Hesno d’Kifo ܚܣܢܳܐ ܕ ܟܐܺܦܳܐ
Notes[I] Short description of the etymological names of Mhalmoye villages by Fr Abraham Garis. [II] The Keshyar Plateau consists of Tur Abdin including the Mhalmayto Region. In other words, the area between Mardin in the west and the Ghozarto d’Bukhtoye (Cizre) in the east. [III] Uncle Cemil, or cammo Cemil, the name by which this elderly man was known in 2015 in Sawro, was the one who would normally be found in the courtyard of the mosque, sitting by the well. He told me all this with joy as I sat next to him and listened with great interest. The reason that makes this story so fascinating is that it passed down from generation to generation as a kind of primary socialization. A true story that did not have to be censored by several biased historians. A true story that did not get censored by the many biased historians. [IV] The cross is still visible today in the minaret and in the walls of the mosque. [V] www.mardinlife.com [VI] www.mardinlife.com [VII] I got this information from Abdo Altun, a Qeleth resident who used to regularly visit the village in the summers. [VIII] This according to Ablahad Qasro originally from the village of Beth Awe. He now lives in Zahle, Lebanon. I met Ablahad in 2015 in Zahle during the filming about Bnay Bil village for the Suroyo TV program Dore u Yawmotho. [IX] The village of Ahmadi (Baskavak) is named after this monastery and is named after its saint Mor Abay. [X] Barava is the name of the area between Sawro and Bişmil. [XI] This information was provided to me by my grandfather’s second-degree cousin Hajji Ibrahim Bar-Mourad (Oruç) from Bişmil. Uncle Ibrahim himself was 7 years old in 1915. His father and brother’s body were also thrown into the Tchala Kavoka caves.
Living Cultural Heritage, Turabdin, Hans Hollenweger, Linz, 1999.
De spridda pärlorna, Ignatios Aphrem I Barsoum, Alfa print, Sundbyberg, 2006.
Türkiye Yer Adları Sözlüğü, Devam Nışanyan. Liberya Yayınları, 2020.
Massakern på syrianerna i Turabdin 1914-1915, Suleyman Hinno, Syrianska riksförbundet, Örebro, 1998.
“Mardin Savur traditionell urban textur och hus” (pdf), M. Feral Hanifoğlu, Neslihan Dalkılıç, 2006. Uludag University Journal of the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture, volym 11, no.1. Archived from the originalet (pdf), Download, 2022.
Ögonvittne till de kristnas hemska katastrofer- Osmanernas och ungturkarnas folkmord i norra Mesopotamien, 1895/1914-1918, Fr Ishak Armale, Nsibins bokförlag, 2005.
Short description of the etymological names of Mhalmoye villages by Fr Abraham Garis, Fr Abraham Garis.
Monastery of Mor Abay Savur District, Kıllıt, Qellet (Dereiçi) Village, Andıddeyr Locale Present Function: Abandoned Registry Status: Registered – 06.07.2010/3280 Diyarbakır Regional Board for Conservation of Cultural and Natural Assets
Dmo Zliho, Abdumasih Qarabashi, Lebanon.