By Denho Bar Mourad-Özmen, Journalist and Moderator at Suroyo TV
Despite the fact that the majority of the Mhalmoye are Muslims today, they still follow many of the traditions of their Christian ancestors. Likewise, names of places, ancient churches, monasteries, wells, and caves still bear witness to Christian tradition through their Syriac names. In this article, I will try to succinctly portray some of these common traditions which are still practiced today by both Christian and Muslim Mhalmoye. It is my hope that the following chapters will be insightful to the reader and will contribute to the transfer of factual knowledge about the region’s ethnography and traditions and culture that have been — and still are — practiced. And they all come from primary sources. The sources are people who have participated and experienced the rituals and events firsthand.
Cave of the Girls (Mcartho da Bnotho — ܡܥܪܬܐ ܕܒܢܵܬܐ )
The Mcartho da Bnotho or Mcartho da Katchekat (The Cave of the Girls) is situated west of the Mhalmoyto village of Habses. According to legend, it used to be a focal point in the social life of the women of Habses already in pre-Christian times. In those times, people lived in caves dug into the rocks. These lengthy corridors of connected caves can be found all over the village of Habses. In the past, they had both a residential and security function. The narrow passages connecting the caves served as escape routes through the mountain during times of conflict and as underground roads in times of peace. Such caves are not only found in Habses. They are all over, or under, the Mhalmoyto Region and Tur Abdin. Almost every town and village in Tur Abdin is built on such a system of underground tunnels and caves. Some of the most well-known cave communities discovered by archaeologists are Matiate, which lies below the city of Midyat/Estel, and Elath (Eles) just outside Dayro Zbino (Acurli).
The Mcartho da Bnotho near Habses consists of two large caves connected by a small opening. To enter the inner cave, one has to tilt one’s head. Inside is a well that is always filled with water which functioned as a reservoir for the families who hid there in grim times. From the inner cave, a small underground tunnel connects to other adjacent caves. A second tunnel leads to yet another cave about 300 meters to the south. When people started building their houses above ground, the Mcartho da Bnotho served as a gathering place for the village women. There, they gathered to weave carpets and winnow wheat while chatting, rejoicing, and singing together.
My grandfather Yusuf Beth Mourad-Özmen1 told me how, in the 1920s and 1950s, the village women and girls gathered to spin and crochet in the cave. While doing their chores, they would talk about their secrets, love, and their romances in a safe and relaxed atmosphere. They chatted, sang, and dressed more freely at the Cave of the Girls than when they were among the community. In this cave, and similar caves in other Mhalmoye villages, the most beautiful love songs were composed in Syriac and the Mhalmi Arabic vernacular. They are still sung by women born in Habses at the turn of this century.
These songs and dances made a great impression on me during my upbringing and later in life. I still cannot help but cry when my mother and aunts sing these beautiful songs in the Syriac and Arabic dialects of the Mhalmoye:
In addition to heart-wrenching songs like this one, the shoulder dance or Raqdo da-Katfotho (ܪܰܩܕܳܐ ܕܰܐ ܟܰܬܦܳ̈ܬܼܐ ) was performed in Habses, Dayro Zbino, Tafo, and other villagers in the Mhalmayto Region. The shoulder dance is a characteristic Mhalmoye dance. No other ethnic group other than the Syriac Christian and Muslim Mhalmoye can dance it so elegantly.
Contacts between Youngsters in a Patriarchal Society
As a child, I sometimes went out to play with the girls in the company of my big sister. On one of these playful occasions, I heard the girls saying that Halime dbe Shamdino, a Muslim girl and the most beautiful girl in the village, was in love with Ishok.
Halime’s mother Aliya was well aware of this love between her daughter and Ishok but did not want to break up their secret contact. The mother liked Ishok and did not oppose that he marry her daughter Halime. She knew, however, that if their secret love were to be revealed, Ishok would be forced to convert to Islam. And if he refused, he would be killed. According to a widespread Islamic tradition, a Muslim woman is not allowed to marry a non-Muslim unless he converts. Otherwise, death awaits them both. Ishok’s relatives learned of the delicate matter. They rushed to save their son. The best thing for them and Ishok was to send him far away from the region. Ishok was illegally brought to Lebanon where he worked illegally for four years. Meanwhile, Halime was forcibly married off to an older man from the neighboring village of Dayro Zbino. After Halime gave birth to her first child, Ishok’s parents and family knew that danger had passed. Halime now had children and had to stay with her husband. They notified Ishok that the situation was safe and that it was ok to return home from Lebanon.
To stop the rumors and preserve the family’s honor, Halime’s father Hassan2 married her off against her will. He did not consider the protests of Halime and her mother. Halime and her mother cried all day long. She had never seen the man she was forcibly married off to nor did she know him. It later turned out that the man had been previously married. The woman he divorced also lived in the village. They had three children together.
Later I heard that this beautiful woman had suffered greatly and that she was in prison, convicted of having murdered her husband’s first wife.
It often happened that young men from the village would sneak up to The Cave of the Girls to watch the girls they were in love with. If a young man were caught near the cave, he would get stones to his head. That is why men were very careful when they neared or passed the cave when the girls were there — especially on Sundays, when all the girls were gathered in their most beautiful clothes, dancing, singing, playing, and confiding their secrets to each other.
There was a sisterly consensus between all women and young girls. And no religious or linguistic problem ever arose between the Christian and Muslim Syriac Mhalmoye in The Cave of the Girls.
Shamé Throws Herself into the Well
In terms of traditions among the Christians and Muslims in the Mhalmayto Region, there was no difference. One of these traditions was that betrothed would not meet, under no circumstances, until marriage. Even in the most conservative societies, however, it is not possible to completely control two people who are in love and prevent any contact between them.
Shamé and Gabro were engaged and hence were not allowed to meet — and preferably would not even see one other — until they were married. One day, when the girls had gathered again in the Mcartho da Bnotho, Gabro discovered Shamé was there too. He sneaked up to the girls in the cave alongside two other young men. When Shamé found out that her fiancé was watching her, she was embarrassed and wanted to hide. From the shame and despair she experienced at that moment, she threw herself into the well which was filled to the top. She could not swim and could have drowned was it not for the present boys who rushed to her rescue.
Their story ended happily. They eventually married and had children. Today, they live with their children and grandchildren in a Western European country in the diaspora.
Behind the Church (Bithri Cito)
In the summer, while the women and young girls gathered in the Mcartho da Bnotho or in each other’s homes, the men, in turn, gathered “Behind the Church” (Bithri Cito — ܒܶܬܼܪܝ ܥܕܺܬܳܐ). There, they rested from the arduous work in the fields in the shadow of the church. At the same time, they could protect themselves from the stifling heat of the midday sun. Resting in the shadow behind the church served a social function — the assembled men exchanged rumors and news. Their gatherings resemble news or political forums in modern societies. Here, they discussed the latest rumors, politics, matters of village life and agriculture, and many more topics. All this happened in a relaxed manner. The common language in Habses was Syriac, regardless of whether the villager was Christian or Muslim. At home, the Muslim Mhalmoye spoke Arabic and Kurdish. The Christians spoke Syriac.
An example of such a conversation in the shadows of the church might be that dodo (uncle) Gevriye had been to another village and brought fresh news of his journey. The affairs of the village were also widely discussed. Which vineyards stood out during the year? How was the harvest?
The best at discussing politics in the group was Hadji. He had the first radio in the village in the 1960s–1970s and listened diligently to world politics. I will never forget when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. Everyone in the village heard the news from Hadji Ali. It was summer, when everyone was sleeping on the rooftops. Suddenly, Hadji Ali was heard shouting that the “Gavur”3 had defiled the moon by ascending and treading on its sacred grounds.
Méshe’s Rooftop (Goro d’Méshe — ܓܳܪܳܐ ܕܡ̈ܶܫܶܐ)
The youngsters, on the other hand, regularly visited the Goro d’Méshe (Roof of Méshe). They played with there with balls (ba Glulyotho —ܓܠܘܠܝ̈ܬܼܐ), played cards, and Hatro u Pallo ܚܰܬܪܳܐ ܘ ܦ݆ܰܠܠܳܐ)) a game with a long and short stick. The team that won would throw the shorter stick, the Pallo, as far as it could. The losing team would run the distance without breathing or in the one breath, producing a long *hnnngh* sound from the nose without interruption.
At the Roof of Méshe, only boys and men gathered. In addition to various ball and card games, there was a lot of exchange of goods and trade.
Christian and Muslim Holidays
Christian and Muslim Mhalmoye in the village of Habses celebrated Easter and Christmas as their main holidays. The Muslims also observed Ramadan and Qurban. During the Christian holidays, it was tradition that all Muslim men and youngsters would visit all the Christian homes in the village, one-by-one, to wish them a Merry Christmas or Happy Easter. In the same way, all Christian men and young boys would visit every Muslim home and wished them a happy end of Ramadan and Qurban. During these door-to-door visits, the families celebrating their respective holidays invited the grown men over for tasty food and offered sweets, raisins, or eggs at Easter. We, the children, came home with bags filled with candy, eggs, and dried fruits. The villagers shared one another’s holidays in a spirit of joy.
Weddings in the village lasted for three days and three nights. The groom’s family arranged everything and the whole village was invited. It was customary to bring artists from other villages to entertain the wedding guests. Christians and Muslims danced together and shared the joy of the wedding family. The groom’s family slaughtered several sheep, lambs, or goats and invited the whole village for food. Likewise, they shared each other’s grief, for example at funerals or during other painful situations.
Pilgrimage to Saint Shamoun of the Olives Church
The inhabitants of the neighboring villages of Dayro Zbino, Tafo, Dayro Dibo (Yolagzi), and Estel used to make an annual pilgrimage on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday to the Mor Shamoun Zayte Church in Habses. The church is named after the Mhalmoye’s foremost saint, Mor Shamoun Zayte. He was the son of a Mhalmoyo leader named Munther. Mor Shamoun Zayte’s chronicle states that he was rich and built many churches in the Mhalmayto Region and Tur Abdin. In the places where Muslims lived, he also built mosques. Therefore, he is considered a saint for both Muslim and Christian Mhalmoye.
Muslim and Christian Mhalmoye came in large groups from the above-mentioned villages to the church to show their reverence for the saint and say their prayers. The Christians of Habses used to clear the church and give preference to the guests so that they could pray in silence and say their wishes.
It was custom for these pilgrims to have a prayer and a wish. For example, a woman’s wish for a baby boy or the healing of a loved one. They entered the church with their heads bowed and without speaking. In the church, they kneeled down before the altar to say their prayers, request, or wish. When they came out, they greeted us and everyone who happened to be there. After the prayer in the church, everyone gathered in the cemetery and drank water from the well of the cemetery, called Gubo du Qdolo (Well of the Throat — ܓܘܼܒܳܐ ܕܽܘ ܩܕܳܠܳܐ). The well is well-known in the Mhalmoyto Region, and the water has been sacred to the people of the neighboring villages since the sixth century AD. Where does its water come from? No one knows to this day. According to tradition, the water of the well has a health-promoting effect. It is believed that after drinking from the well, women who had no children could become pregnant, the sick got better, and so on.
We in the village believed that the well had a healing effect on the diseases of the throat, hence the name “Well of the Throat”. Only after our guests had drunk water from the well did they break the sacred silence and greet the people of Habses.
Respect for One Another’s Religious Leaders
Both Christian and Muslim Syriac Mhalmoye revere Saint Shamoun of the Olives as their saint and spiritual guide. Similarly, Sheikh Fathallah was a Muslim spiritual and popularly respected leader among both communities.
We who often used to be in the church always heard the following song that Muslim pilgrims sang on the way to the Saint Shamoun of the Olives Church:
Abdé, the Self-Taught Nature Doctor
Abdé dbe Shamdino was considered the most intelligent man in the village. Everyone in the village respected him for his skills as a village doctor. Abdé knew all diseases that people in the village suffered from and was able to produce medicines from various plants for almost all known diseases. He was adept at healing bone fractures and had more knowledge and experience than most doctors in the region. Abdé was also a tracker. He could follow the trail of thieves at any distance. He was also counted among the most experienced and historically knowledgeable people of the village and surrounding area.
Abdé once told me about his experiences during the 1915 Sayfo Genocide.4 He was 12 years old at the time. He recounted:
“While Christian Mhalmoye had fled to ‘Ainwardo and Anhel, some had been hiding in the various caves and mountains of the village. Some were fortunately not caught. The only large family found and caught by the Ramman clans — who destroyed the village and took over the houses of the Christians — was the Christian Be Cazo family.5 The Be Cazo family members were slaughtered. They were all murdered and thrown into the deep well where they were hiding.”
Habses was conquered by the Kurdish Ramman clans who inflicted suffering, destruction, and murder on Christians in several villages on their way to Habses. The animals and property they stole from the Christians were kept in the large and gated courtyard of the Mor Shamoun Zayte Church. Abdé, who was in his teens, remembers how the villagers, i.e., the Muslim Mhalmoye of Habses, “resisted and drove away these tyrannical executioners, the Ramman Kurds”.5
Radicalization of the Muslim Mhalmoye
In the early 1960s, many Mhalmoye went illegally to Lebanon for work. In Lebanon, they came into contact with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah. Many radicalized there. Back in their native village, they began to influence and incite the villagers against their Christian brothers.
In the village of Habses, a tragic event took place in which a radicalized person returning from Lebanon influenced his secularized cousin and together they kidnapped a Mhalmoyto Christian girl from the village under threats and brute force. They shot the girl’s father and aunt. The girl’s aunt, who now lives in Sweden, later identified the one who had been in Lebanon as the one who shot her.
This event accelerated the emigration of Christians from Habses. By the late 1980s, all but one of the Christian Mhalmoyto families had left the village. The rest of about 110 families today are divided and live in various Western European countries, the U.S., and Australia.
Denho Bar Mourad-Özmen is a former special educator and advisor at Sweden’s National Agency for Special Education. He is a lecturer, has produced educational films for 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.
Note from Mourad-Özmen: 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 original Mhalmoye cities 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
- The Mhalmoyto City of Sawro ܨܰܘܪܐ
- My grandfather was very talkative and was always willing to answer my sometimes difficult questions. While I slept in his arms in the summer nights and looked at the stars, he always told me about how he had grown up during the Sayfo Genocide of 1915, about astronomy, about how to orientate oneself through the stars at night to not get lost, and many other things.
- The actual names of all involved have been made fictitious due to the sensitivity of the situation and because some of them are still alive. This goes for all the names in this article.
- ‘Gavur’ refers to all peoples and countries that are not Muslims. The word means heathen, heretic, and unclean.
- He told me about the Sayfo while we on our way from our fields in Gubo Rabo, which is about an hour’s walk from the village.
- See a full report about the fate of the Be Cazo family in my previous articles on Habses: Part I and Part II.
- The Ramman Kurds are Kurds who lived in the villages north of Hesno d’Kifo (Hasankayf).
Al Nafs Al-Jariha, Selim Mattar, Dar Al-Mashriq Lil Nasher, Libanon, 1998.
Suboro, Nurgül Ҫelebi, www.syriacpress.com, 4 April 2022
Mihalmi Kulturu- Etnografik bir Calisma, Otto Jatrow, Avesta, 2015.