Postcard from Nusaybin, southeast Turkey
POSTCARD from NUSAYBIN (as published in Chatham House’s The World Today magazine (Aug/Sept 2014 issue)One glance at a modern map is enough to understand why Nusaybin is a hotspot in today’s world. Situated in southeast Turkey, it looks across the border at its southerly reflection, Qamishli in northeast Syria; its main east-west highway hosts an endless convoy of tankers with their precious cargo heading out from Erbil in oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan into oil-poor Turkey; and another highway leads southeast to Iraq’s Mosul. This volatile triangle of territory is delineated by watchtowers and fences along the Syrian-Turkish border, erected in the 1970s, and by the long Syrian-Iraqi desert frontier which became a physical barrier only after 2003.
All this talk of borders would have made no sense at all before World War One. Sykes-Picot had yet to draw their ‘lines in the sand’ creating the modern states of the Middle East. The maps in Baedeker’s 1906 Palestine et Syrie show only the loose provincial Ottoman boundaries and the journey from Nusaybin to the ruins of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire on the banks of the Tigris opposite Mosul, is described as ‘five days on horseback requiring a strong escort.’ Even in the 1930s under the French Mandate when Agatha Christie accompanied her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan to dig the famous tells of Mesopotamia, they would arrive by train at Nusaybin via the Berlin-Baghdad railway, then head south with no customs formalities, despite their trunkloads of luggage.Nusaybin’s strategic location on east-west trade routes ensured a complex past. Beginning with the Assyrians, empires came and went, and as Roman Nisibis it formed a fortress-frontier against the Persian Sassanids. Forever caught in the power-play of outside forces, there are two indigenous peoples, the Kurds and the Syriacs, in and around Nusaybin who rarely get a mention, stateless peoples whose aspirations for nationhood were repeatedly thwarted. But an unintended consequence of recent events like the US invasion of Iraq, the ‘Arab Spring’ and the rise of ISIS militants has changed the dynamic.
The city’s residents today, like most in the area, are overwhelmingly Kurdish, with just a small Syriac community, but in the 4th century the population was mainly Syriac, and Nusaybin’s Syriac roots are still deep. St James’ Church in the centre is one of the world’s oldest functioning churches, dating back to 325. Alongside it sits the newly excavated university where famous scholars like St Ephrem the Syrian, ‘Harp of the Spirit’ (306-73), composed hymns and trained all-female choirs. His language was Syriac, and his descendants, ancestors of the Assyrians, still speak a dialect of ancient Aramaic known locally as ‘Suryani’, using its classical form in their liturgy.
Successive persecutions at the hands of fellow Christians, Muslims and Kurds across the centuries caused most to escape to Europe and beyond, but to ensure the language does not die, each year dedicated members of the Syriac diaspora send their children to Syriac summer schools run by monks at the nearby monasteries. Those who stayed scattered into small broken communities across the region within cities like Raqqa and Aleppo in Syria, Mosul and Baghdad in Iraq. Qamishli was largely created by Christians fleeing the fighting of World War One.
Next summer will be the centenary of their worst ever persecution, the 1915 Sayfo (The Sword), little known in the West, a massacre in which tens of thousands of Syriacs were slaughtered alongside Armenian Christians, mainly at the hands of Kurdish tribesmen. Yet remarkably, today the highly educated and talented Syriac community is reviving, fed not only by families from abroad, but also by refugees from Syria, returning to their ancient homeland. Most significantly of all, they are gradually healing historic rifts with their Kurdish neighbours, acknowledging that they were manipulated during the 1915 Sayfo by their Turkish masters.Looking across today’s barbed-wire border from Nusaybin, through the no-man’s-land where the last relics of Roman Nisibis still rise, the houses and grain silos of Syria’s Qamishli are clearly visible. Blessed with fertile wheat fields, Syria’s largest oilfield and three major rivers, this panhandle of northeast Syria is quite a prize, and in January 2014 Syria’s Kurds, as the dominant population, declared Qamishli capital of ‘Rojavo’ or western Kurdistan. The 22 cabinet ministers are a Christian/Muslim/Kurdish mix, in line with their secular ideology. Kurdish identity is defined by ethnicity, language and culture not by religion, a fact reflected in Iraqi Kurdistan’s schools where all world religions are taught equally.
Today’s fragile balance is now threatened by new invaders, the Sunni militants of ISIS, who want to rid the region of imperialist borders, and impose an ultra-conservative Islamic state across Iraq and Greater Syria. A year from now, at the centenary of the Sayfo, will Nusaybin still be in Turkey? What will the map look like? Only one prediction can safely be made – that it will still be a hotspot.