The Mhalmoyto Region: Common Traditions and Rites between Christian and Muslim Mhalmoye

The Mhalmoyto Region (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 Syriac region.

By Denho Bar Mourad-Özmen, Journalist and Moderator at Suroyo TV 

Shahro d-Elath   ܫܗܪܐ  ܕ ܐܠܐܬ (Elath Veneration Day)

Two kilometers southwest of the Mhalmoyto village of Dayro Zbino (Acirli), just below the main road that runs from Midyat to Mardin, is the famous underground city of Elath. The town is located on an old, wooded hillside in an agricultural area. The small hill brings to mind the first Christian church communities that arose and grew in underground churches to protect their members from persecution.

Were it not for the great oaks that mark this hillside, no one could ever imagine that there was once a city underneath, a lively city with many walls, houses, and churches. According to locals, even graves of Muslims martyrs have been discovered there more recently [1]. Over the centuries, recreational facilities and Islamic monuments have also been built from the collapsed stones that once formed the entrance to Elath.

The Mhalmoye people call this underground city “Eles.” In Turkish it is called Şeyh Eles Mesire Alani. According to the ‘malfone’ (Syriac teachers) Yusuf Beğtas and Isa Garis [2] “the name of Elath comes from the Syriac noun ܐܠܐܬ (“Elath”) which means “a feminine cry for help,” “scream,” or “wail”.” In the same article, Yusuf Alp, an elderly man from Dayro Zbino, is interviewed. He states that there is “no doubt that Christians lived here [in Elath] in the old days.”

Clip from the article by malfone Yusuf Beğtas and Isa Garis. In Friends of Tur ‘Abdin (1977)

Elath was an underground and self-sufficient city-like system of caves connected to each other by narrow passageways and tunnel roads. In the caves of this underground city there are water wells, storages for foodstuffs, pre-Christian temples, and (later) churches. With the gradual Islamization of the majority of the population of the Mhalmoyto Region, construction of Islamic memorials, shrines, and houses of worship commenced in the area. Such a conversion and transformation process is a normal phenomenon when an incoming religion, culture, or (converted) population takes over a geographical area or place: existing places of worship, shrines, and memorials of the captured territory are transformed according to the practices and beliefs of the incoming religion, culture, or (converted) population. This has been the case throughout the history of Turkey – and its predecessors – in which the Mhalmoyto Region is located today [3].

Professor of Arabic and expert on the Aramaic languages of Tur ‘Abdin, Otto Jastrow, who has done extensive field research into the cultural and ethnographic history of the Mhalmoye, in his book [4] quotes a resident of the village of Qenderib (Kinderib / Sögutlu). In one of Professor Jastrow’s interviews, a local tells him an old and long story about Elath he remembered following an encounter with a woman originally from Dayro Zbino (the woman left the Mhalmoyto Region because of persecution and moved to Russia). The elderly man from Qenderib said:

“There are many caves in that [underearth] ruin. … That is, more than 4,000-5,000 caves. And more than 2,000-2,500 water wells. It is a ruin [originally] of non-Muslims…” [5]

Thousands of people flock to Elath every year in late summer. In early August they celebrate the communal veneration day (in the Syriac language: “Shahro”) of this place of ruins with its many patron saints. Although the majority of Mhalmoye is now Muslim, they still revere the Christian saints and regard the ancient churches and shrines as holy sites. Some sites have been converted into a Ziyara (Islamic holy place of pilgrimage) or mosque, others have been abandoned and fell in decay. But the Muslim Mhalmoye still call these sites by the original names of their Christian saints. Almost in every village in the Mhalmoyto Region there is such a sacred place or “Ziyara”. And in every Ziyara there is a sacred tree where people tie small pieces of cloth from their own clothes to the tree branches in the hope that their wishes will come true.

Locals make a pilgrimage to Elath in the first weeks of August in large numbers. They come from surrounding villages and towns such as Dayro d-Debo (Derindeb / Yolagzi), Tafo (Erişti), Dayro Zbino, Midyat-Estel, Habses (Mercimekli), Qenderib, and Apshe. Everyone is dressed in their finest clothes. The elders come to Elath to perform their rituals and pray to the saints. Most of the local pilgrims are young and beautiful, each with a desire in their heart. Youths come there hoping to find their love and future partner. Others come to participate in the many games and competitions – horseback riding, stone throwing, and running – that are organized during the festivities of the Shahro of Elath. These competitions are held between teams from different villages and the team that wins gets the team of the year honor.

Everyone prepares and brings the most expensive and tastiest food to eat together in the open air in the green nature under the big and sacred oaks. It was under these same old, large oak trees on the hill that their Christian Mhalmoye ancestors also sat and celebrated. In that same way, the Muslim Mhalmoye do today. They sit with family and acquaintances and meet locals. Family, acquaintances, and friends from different villages get the chance to meet family, acquaintances, and friends from other neighboring villages. They greet, hug, and kiss each other on the cheek. The young people form groups and walk around. The girls secretly peek at the passing boys who walk and talk in pairs or groups. Suddenly the “Dawole” (double-headed bass drum) and “Zurnaye” (woodwind instrument) start playing. The dancers take their place and everyone else gathers to watch the best dancers.

The typical folk dance of the Mhalmoye is called in Syriac the “Raqdo da-Katfotho” ܪܰܩܕܳܐ ܕܰ ܟܰܬܦܳܬܼܐ (shoulder dance) and in Mhalmi “Raqs al Ektef.” Men and women hold hands and either form a circle around the music players or make a long line facing the audience. The dance is called the shoulder dance because it depicts daily life in the Mhalmoyto Region. It is the life story of a people through the ages. It reflects their agricultural society in the area long before the Kurds arrived in the seventeenth century [6].

To the dance of the shoulders, songs were played about the life of the people, about religion, their moments of joy, love, sorrow, moments of sadness, the hard and cruel things people were forced to do, and the oppression of the Turkish military and the Kurds in the southeast of the country. I especially remember the following verses of a song about the religious authorities failing and neglecting their duties. It is sung by the women of the Mhalmoyto Region.

English translation Mhalmi (Latin letters) Mhalmi (Arabic letters)
Nowadays, no priest is a true priest, and no Imam is a true Imam. They cast magic spells on the girls without fearing God. La qas baqalu qas vala malla baqa malla. Sawaw. séhér lal banat u ma khafu mén Allah. لآ قس بقآ لو قس، ووللا ملّه بقا ملٌه

سوو سحر للبنات، و ما خافو من الله

Or the following song, which is about the love couples who secretly meet on their way home from e.g., working in the vineyards.

English translation Mhalmi (in Latin letters) Mhalmi (in Arabic letters)
My lover and I met on the way. The road ended before we could exchange a word. Ana u dalali mshina âla al tareq cemle. Hashri tareq n`kasar w ma nedamna kelme. انا و دلالي مشينا علا طَرق جمله

حَشري طَرق نقصر و ما نَدمنا كلمه.

Our love is like a pomegranate. My lover is the branch, and I am the fruit. Mhabbeti u mhabbetu mhabbet al rummane. Dalali shak al rihan u ana lpértaqane. محبتو و محبتي حبت رّمانه

دلالي شَق الريحن و انا البورتقنه

Mom, hand me my apron! I will go to the post office. I am worried that my darling’s letter did not arrive. Mama ctayni Tchartchafi, tanzal la telkhana. Mektub dalali maca fi l´maraq khallana ماما عطيني شرشفي تنزل لتلخنه

مكتوب دالي ما جا في المرق خلانا

Rakdo da-Katfotho ܪܩܕܐ ܕܐ ܟܬܦܬܐ (the shoulder dance)

A talented dancer could gain regional fame and become a celebrity in the Mhalmoyto region in a short period of time. He would be invited to all the big parties in the surrounding villages. From my home village of Habses my maternal uncle Hanno Beth Bahwaro, Malke dbe Barse, and Maçido dbe Haçi Khalil were very famous dancers. From Dayro Zbino it was Ҫemil Zahre and from Estel, Ҫemil Risko. They were often invited to the larger wedding parties, pilgrimage celebrations, and patron saint days in the various Ziyara’s in the 1960s [7]. The Mhalmoye possess a very tactful and traditional dance that is unique in all of Turkey; the shoulder dance.

The shoulder dance ܪܩܕܐ ܕܐ ܟܬܦܬܐ , is danced in two different ways. There is the “Raqdo mzaqfo,” where ܡܙܰܩܦܳܐ mzaqfo means ‘deep’ or ‘ full’ in Syriac) which embodies the rich agricultural fields and farming culture of the Mhalmoyto Region. Working a field required two strong oxen that could pull the “Abzoro” (plough) deep into the red soil and carry the heavy “Niro” (yoke). This involved putting a lot of weight on the shoulders when dancing the “Raqdo mzaqfo.” Often the men prefer this dance because it requires great skill, elasticity, and strength in both the shoulders and the legs. It often happens that those who do not know the technique quickly get tired and give up. The second shoulder dance type is the “Mşhaflo” ܡܫܰܦܠܳܐ (meaning base, footing, low or humble, in the Syriac language). It involves lighter movements that are more suitable for dancing with women. The emphasis is on the female forms, their breasts, straight physique, and the agility of the men.

It often happened that young boys met their future wives during such festive occasions. In general, public conversations between men and women were strictly forbidden and the people therefore developed various body movements and gestures in time to show their interest or love for each other.

It happened that girls ran away with their loved ones if for some reason they were forbidden by their family to marry. Loved ones would develop a kind of secret communication. At a predetermined date, time, and place, they would meet and run away to a neighboring town or city and surrender to the protection of an influential person there. This protector was respected by both the girl’s and the boy’s family, as long as he made sure that their marriage was performed according to religious tradition, i.e., they were married by the imam if the couple was Muslim or by the priest if they were Christian. The boy or his parents paid dowry (“Naqdo” in the Syriac language) to the girl or her parents.

The Mhalmoyto village of Tafo

Shahro of the Ziyara of Tafo ܫܗܪܐ ܕܝ ܙܝܐܪܐ ܕܬܦܐ

The festivities in the village of Tafo begin after that of Elath. “Tafo” means “edge” or “mountain slope” in the Syriac language. On the same slope lie the village itself and the Ziyara d-Tafo (also called “Şeyh Talip”).

In my younger years, I visited this beautiful, wooded place together with my big sister and other people from my home village of Habses. I personally heard the songs that were sung there in 1968. Thirty years later, in 1998, I asked my mother and my aunts to remember and sing to me those old songs which describe the living conditions, culture, and folk traditions of us, the Mhalmoye. With great gratitude to my mother and aunts, I have selected below some of the lyrics of the old songs and their topics.

Military Service: Many parents feared harm would befall on their children during their compulsory and lengthy military service. Many, therefore, registered their boys as older in years to do military service in time. If they survived, they would have enough time to get married. This fear was not unique to the Christian Mhalmoye but was also shared by their Muslim Mhalmoye brothers and sisters, because Muslim Mhalmoye were and are still not accepted as being Turks or Kurds. The fear of the gendarmes coming to get their boys for military service is clearly witnessed in the folk songs of the Mhalmoyto Region. The arrival of the gendarmery always meant intimidation, persecution, and bribery. Below three verses bear witness to the repressions and intimidations that the people had to go through when confronted with the military [8].

English translation Mhalmi (Latin letters) Mhalmi (Arabic letters)
Damned military service! It has sapped my strength, destroyed my house, and killed my comrades. Hashriyet hal câskariye nahalétni, Nahalat hayli u qatalet réfqéti. حشريَت هل عسكريا نحلتني

نحلت حيلي و قتلت رفقتي

In the narrow street I met the orphan with tears on his cheeks, I could not help but cry too. Réhto fi zaboq dhayyéq hak yatim laqani, Damcèto âla wétchu esh baku bakkani. رحتو في زابُق ضيّق هك يتيم لقاني

دمعتو عل وجهو ايش بكو بكّاني

My father’s house is high and the road there is hilly. The state military plays butcher there. Mandarét bayt abuwi cali kéllu talcat, caskar aldawle yélcab câlaya jallad. مندرت بيت ابووي عالي كلّو طلعات

عسكر الدوله يلعب عليها جلّاد

I walked past my parents’ house. It is not like it used to be. The damned order has changed it, It caused the stars to change places. Réhto qéddam bayt abuwi mabaq kama lawwal. Hashri nizam nqalab u falak thawwa. رحتو قدّام بيت ابي، ما بق كما الاول

حشري نضام نقلب و فلك ثوّا

Marriage: The marriage between children of two large, influential families was seen as a sign of strength and future security. This was sung about during almost all wedding parties.

English translation Mhalmi (Latin letters) Mhalmi (Arabic letters)
Your brother and my brother have become brothers in arms. God bless them, they fit together. Akhi wakhuki kél saru ékhwat dénye. Qulu mashaAlla iliqéllén mashu cemle. اخي و اخوكي صَرو إخوَت دنيه

قولو ما شأاله إليقلن مشو جمله

The Shahro of the Ziyara of Béste

After the festivities in Tafo, it is the turn for festivities in Dayro d-Debo, i.e., in the Ziyara of Béste with the ruins of the Saint Antonios Monastery. As in other songs from the Mhalmoyto Region and with regard to other Ziyaras, songs with different topics are sung. I will give some more verses here.

One of the topics is about young girls who are married off against their will:

English translation Mhalmi (Latin letters) Mhalmi (Arabic letters)
With my parents I resembled a bunch of grapes. With the strangers I was turned into a broken branch. Kénto fi dar bait abi kama l`ânéb manshor. Réhto la dar al gharib sérto âud maksur. كنتو قدّام بيت ابي كما العنب منشور

رحتو لدار الغريب صرتو عود مكسور

In my parents’ house I was like a fragrant rose. In the strangers’ house I became a maid and a servant. Kénto fi dar bait abi shémme u shémmame. Sérto fi dar al gharib ceriye u khéddame. كنتو في دار بيت ابي شَمّه و شًمّامه

صرتو في دار الغريب جريه و خدّامه

The next verse is about the frequent kidnappings by force of girls, without their or their parents’ consent.

English translation Mhalmi (Latin letters) Mhalmi (Arabic letters)
Between Apshe and Qenderib I was brought. I swear I was on the brink of death. Apshe u Kenderib dawaruni. U hyat âaynaiki l`hal l´mawt wassaluni. ابشه و كندريب دوّاروني دوّاروني

وحيات عينيكي لحد الموت وَصّلوني

People often sang about their brothers. According to local tradition, it was the male members of the family who protected the family from outside dangers, defended the family honor, and embodied the family’s livelihood. If a girl had many brothers, no one dared to attack her. Therefore, girls sang the praises of the strength, bravery, and great deeds of their brothers. [9]

English translation Mhalmi (Latin letters) Mhalmi (Arabic letters)
May God protect and prolong my brother’s life. May God increase his wealth and preserve his sons. Qurban akhuwi Allah i dimu Alla i dimu. Alla izid dawlétu wi khallilu bninu. قوربن اخوي اله يديمو اله يديمو

اله ايزيد دولتو ه اي خَلّيلو بنينو

My beloved brother is the father of sons. He enjoys respect at the Palace in Mardin. Qurban akhuwi abu l`èbnin abu l´èbnin. Qadr akhuwi fi sarayet Merdin. قوربن اخوي ابو البنين ابو البنين

قَدِر اخوي في سراية ماردين

My brother is very welcome as my guest. With one hand I hold his horse and with the other his sword. Mit al salame f`akhuwi, lyawm ked jali dayf, Fid tamsek farasu u fid tahmel l`saif. ميت سلامه اخوي ليوم كد جالي ضيف

فيد تمسك فرصو و ف ايد تحمل السيف

Praises for girls from other villages or towns.

English translation Mhalmi (Latin letters) Mhalmi (Arabic letters)
Four girls from Ahmadi and four girls from Sawro. Their clothes glow red, and they invite to love. Arbaä banat l`Ahmadi arbaâ banat l`Sawr, Kèllén msheshi hémr taht l´gharam yesrawn. اربع بنات لاحمدي اربع بنات لصور

كلن مشهشي حمر، تحت الغرام يسرون

Between Estel and Midyat we walked several paths, until we chose my darling from among their girls. Bayn Estel u Midyad saddayna u raddayna, U men komét ibanat habibti naqqayna. بين استل و مدياد سدّينا و ردّينا

و من كُمت لبنات حبيبتي لقّينا

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.

Other articles in this series:


[1] In the local paper “Dinler ve Diller Kenti Midyat” of the municipality of Midyat it stated the following; “According to unconfirmed reports, there are graves of martyred companions [of the Prophet] like Abdulesved Ebul Hevi. They died during the Islamic conquests of the region.”

[2] Gezi-Izlenim: Kaya oyuklari ve kilise kalintilarinin yeri Elath (“Travel-Impressions: Rock cavities and church ruins in Elath), published in the magazine Friends of Tur ‘Abdin (1977).

[3] Among the most recent transformations is the fourth century Hagia Sofia Cathedral, which became a mosque in 1453, a museum from 1935, and was reconverted into a mosque in recent years.

[4] Mihalmi kulturu-etnografik bir calisma, Otto Jastrow, Avesta, 2003.

[5] Idem, page 205.

[6] The people of the Mhalmoyto Region used to call the Kurds “Kotchar”, meaning nomads; the wandering Kurds used to come down to the settlements of the Christian and Muslim Mhalmoye to buy hay for their sheep and goats, especially when winters were harsh in the mountains.

[7] Ziyara means “cult” or “holy place” which people visit and perform rites.

[8] All these songs are still sung in the villages. These verses I reproduced here were sung by my uncle Hanna Alkan-Bahwaro, my mother Basna Özmen-Bahwaro, my aunt Neçme Belge-Bahwaro and my aunt Hatune Shamoun-Bahwaro.

[9] All these songs are still sung in the Mhalmoyto villages. The verses given here were sung by my uncle Hanna Alkan-Bahwaro, my mother Basna Özmen-Bahwaro and my aunt Neçme Belge-Bahwaro.


Dinler ve Diller Kenti Midyat, Midyat municipality paper, 2022.

Gezi-Izlenim: Kaya oyuklari ve kilise kalintilarinin yeri Elath (“Travel-Impressions: Rock cavities and church ruins in Elath), Yusuf Beğtas and Isa Garis, published in the magazine Friends of Tur ‘Abdin, 1977.

Mihalmi kulturu-etnografik bir calisma, Otto Jastrow, Avesta, 2003.

Index-Anatolicus: Turkisk bosättningsinventering, Sevan Nisanyan,