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Hagia Sophia, not just a building…

Hagia Sophia exterior

Hagia Sophia’s conversion from a museum into a mosque has seen thousands and thousands of words committed to the page across the globe.

Most of it recycles the same information – that the great church was built in the sixth century under the Byzantine emperor Justinian, that it was converted to a mosque when Mehmed the Conqueror captured Constantinople in 1453 and that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, repurposed it as a museum in 1934.

All this is true but misses so much of the flavour and historical context of this hugely important building.

The tone of much western coverage is pained, as if the Hagia Sophia is somehow part of a European Christian cultural heritage now wrenched away into the dark folds of Islam by a Turkish president with neo-Ottoman delusions.

There can be no doubt that President Erdogan does indeed have his own agenda for converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque, and his timing is clearly political. It heightens his popularity with his core Islamic supporters at a time when the Coronavirus pandemic is running amok with Turkey’s struggling economy, and provides a welcome distraction. He makes no apology for his actions – and an Optimar poll show 60% of Turks support the move.

The important thing to understand is that the Hagia Sophia – like so many religious buildings – has its own highly political backstory. As ever the architecture reflects the politics in visible form and the current events are but the latest in a long line of twists and turns.

Ethnically diverse

The first church on the site was built in 360, but there is no evidence that it had Christian mosaics on the walls of the type found from the fifth and sixth century onwards. Walls instead were covered with marble revetments, plaster, and painted and gilded stucco in decorative patterns. Constantine denuded virtually every city in the empire of its pagan statuary to adorn Constantinople, his new Rome, just as Justinian scoured the empire for precious marble two centuries later, like the eight green columns from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, to build Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia marble columns from Ephesus

When the Western Roman Empire and Rome itself collapsed in 476, Constantinople became the largest and wealthiest city in Europe, and the influences upon it were wide and varied, including from the Roman Latin culture, the Egyptian Copts, the Thracians, Macedonians, Illyrians, Bythinians, Carians, Phrygians, Armenians, Lydians, Galatians, Paphlagonians, Lycians, Syrians, Cilicians, Misians, Cappadocians, Persians, and later the Arab Muslims.

Many Europeans call the Byzantine Empire ‘Greek’, when in practice it was very ethnically diverse. Greeks composed a relatively small portion of this multi-ethnic empire, and most Byzantine emperors were not ethnic Greeks.

Justinian was obliged to build the current Hagia Sophia after it was damaged beyond repair by angry crowds protesting his high taxes. According to art historian John Lowden, Justinian was ‘a person of vision and extraordinary energy, both intensely pious and utterly ruthless … his military ambitions matched by his grandiose building programme.’

Reconstructing Hagia Sophia

To re-establish control as quickly as possible, he commissioned two famous architects in 532, both from western Asia Minor, to complete the project with a huge workforce over an intense five-year period. Both ignored numerous stylistic quotations and detailed instructions from the emperor to come up with their own unique creation, universally recognised as the highpoint of Byzantine architecture and admired round the world for the stunning achievement of the central dome.

A very different image is conveyed by the western European Latin manuscript now held in the Vatican Library, in which an enormous Justinian, many times bigger than the Hagia Sophia itself, is seen directing a small, rather nervous-looking mason who is balancing on a ladder.

The inspiration for Hagia Sophia was never Hadrian’s Pantheon, but earlier Eastern traditions. St Simeon’s Basilica, in Syria west of Aleppo, completed in 490, was the largest and most important religious establishment in the world for fifty years before the construction of Hagia Sophia.

It also inspired the UNESCO World Heritage Site basilicas of Ravenna, briefly capital of the Western Roman Empire, where all the bishops up till 425 were Syrian and whose patron saint Apollinaris was a native of Antioch.

Famed across Europe as a site of pilgrimage, the Santiago de Compostela of its day, St Simeon’s could hold 10,000 worshippers, more than Notre-Dame de Paris or the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny.

The heavenly temple

Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world for over a thousand years, a major influence on and inspiration for future religious architecture, both Christian and Muslim. A series of earthquakes caused it to fall in 558, just twenty years after it was completed, by which time Justinian was seventy-six and both architects had died.

Sections of this second dome, completed in 562, collapsed again in 989 and in 1346, but were restored and repaired without material change. It was a remarkable achievement, openly praised by later Ottoman historians—following the typical Byzantine tradition, they used language implying that the architect must have worked in direct union with God, with descriptions of a guardian angel watching over the church.

Even before the Ottoman conquest of the city, Islamic tradition had identified Hagia Sophia as the heavenly temple that the Prophet Muhammad had seen on his nocturnal journey to heaven from Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, which was understood to predestine the church’s conversion to a mosque.

In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, Hagia Sophia suffered the greatest damage in its long history, looted and sacked, along with the whole of Constantinople, thereby consummating a major schism between the Latin and Greek churches—Roman Catholics against Greek Orthodox Christians.

For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed.

The Fourth Crusade

The defeat of Byzantium, already in a state of decline, accelerated political degeneration so that the Byzantines eventually became an easy prey to the Turks. The Fourth Crusade and the crusading movement generally thus resulted, ultimately, in the victory of Islam, a result which was of course the exact opposite of its original intention.

Pope Innocent III, who had unintentionally launched the ill-fated expedition, rebuked them:

“How, indeed, will the church of the Greeks, no matter how severely she is beset with afflictions and persecutions, return into ecclesiastical union and devotion to the Apostolic See, when she has seen in the Latins only an example of perdition and the works of darkness, so that she now, and with reason, detests the Latins more than dogs? As for those who were supposed to be seeking the ends of Jesus Christ, not their own ends, who made their swords, which they were supposed to use against the pagans, drip with Christian blood, they have spared neither religion, nor age, nor sex. They have committed incest, adultery, and fornication before the eyes of men. They have exposed both matrons and virgins, even those dedicated to God, to the sordid lusts of boys. ..They violated the holy places and have carried off crosses and relics.”

The pope’s outrage however did not prevent him accepting the stolen jewels, gold, money and other valuables, and the Church was much enriched as a result. A great deal of this wealth was in turn repurposed into huge building projects throughout Europe— much of it decorates St Mark’s Basilica in Venice and some of it certainly would have helped to finance Europe’s Gothic cathedrals.

Remorse was expressed 800 years later by Pope John Paul II for the events of the Fourth Crusade. Writing to the archbishop of Athens in 2001, he said:

“It is tragic that the assailants, who set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their brothers in the faith. The fact that they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret.”

Shared symbolism

When Mehmet the Conqueror took Constantinople in 1453, he permitted his armies three days of looting, as was the custom, but then called a halt.

Most churches were allowed to continue functioning, but the Hagia Sophia was adopted as a mosque. Mehmet erected a minaret and subsequent sultans erected three more, so there is now one at each corner, but the interior remains largely as it ever was.

There is much shared symbolism between Christianity and Islam in the meaning of the dome as the physical representation of heaven and the afterlife, but the flavour of Hagia Sophia as a building was always different to the sacred buildings of Rome like the pagan Pantheon and Michelangelo’s St Peter’s.

Its design was rooted in Eastern traditions, where Persian mausoleums had a circular dome resting on a square drum. The transition between the circle and the square resulted in an octagon, which came to represent, both in Christianity and Islam, the resurrection and the journey between earth and heaven, which is why so many tombs are octagonal in both religions.

As well as shared concepts, Christians and Muslims in the eastern Mediterranean enjoyed a common heritage of building materials, techniques and tools passed on from the Graeco-Roman, Persian and even earlier Etruscan worlds.

They also shared workers, builders and craftsmen, who moved around according to demand, following the next or the most profitable commission from a wealthy patron, no matter what his religion. Byzantine mosaicists, for example, were frequently employed to decorate Islamic mosques, such as the Dome of the Rock, the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, and the Cordoba Mezquita.

In 1573 the great Ottoman architect Sinan was commissioned to strengthen Hagia Sophia, which was again starting to show signs of possible collapse. Extra buttressing was added to the outside to ensure its resistance to earthquakes.

In total, twenty-four buttresses have been added over the centuries to ensure its stability, making its external appearance quite different to how it would have looked originally.

In today’s world of intense economic pressures, a final mention should be made of the loss of revenue to the Turkish treasury through the conversion of Haghia Sophia to a mosque. Like the Blue Mosque next door, and like all mosques in Turkey (unlike many cathedrals and churches in Europe) entry will now be free to all.

The entrance fee to Hagia Sophia as a museum was expensive, c$15 per person. Maybe we should celebrate the fact that Muslims and non-Muslims alike can today make repeated visits to admire the blended architecture of Christianity and Islam on display for free in this unique building, standing on its promontory between East and West.

This article first appeared in Middle East Eye on 31 July 2020:

https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/hagia-sophia-backstory-Islam-Christianity-shared-history

NATO’s dilemma over the controversial Turkey/Syria border & the Kurds who straddle it

On 22 November 2019 I gave the annual John Martin lecture to the British Society of Turkish Area Studies (BATAS) at Regent’s University, London. My chosen title was ‘Turkey and Syria: deep past connections and deep present differences’, picked months earlier in order to focus attention on what had been, in my view, the long neglected border between Turkey and Syria. Little did I know that it would become, just weeks before the talk, the focus of worldwide attention after a phone call between President Trump and President Erdogan on 6 October 2019. The call was quickly followed by two connected events – the sudden US troop withdrawal from northeast Syria and Turkey’s incursion into Syria to create a long-demanded 30km deep safe zone along the border.

Originally agreed by the French and the new Turkish Republic after World War I, much of the border follows the course of the Berlin to Baghdad railway. A vastly long 822km line running from the Mediterranean eastwards, it crosses the Euphrates River and ends in Syria’s northeast corner where the Tigris River forms the border with Iraq.

It is an area I know well, having visited southeastern Turkey regularly since the late 1970s when first writing and then updating my Bradt guides to Eastern Turkey and to Syria. In fact it was where my feet first touched Turkish soil, after crossing from Syria at the Bab al-Hawa border post in my ancient Citroen 2CV. I therefore discovered Turkey ‘backwards’, entering from the east. At that time Syria was the safe haven, Lebanon was in the grip of civil war (I had just been evacuated from MECAS, my Arabic school in the hills above Beirut) and most of eastern Turkey was under martial law.

Syria engraving by John Tallis & J.Rapkin, c1851, showing wilayats of Aleppo,Tripoli, Acre, Beirut, Gaza (Diana Darke own copy)

To give an overview, I began the lecture by showing a series of historical maps of the region, starting from Ottoman times, when there were no physical borders, only administrative boundaries for tax purposes. The maps showed how, after World War I, what had been the Ottoman province of Syria gradually became smaller and smaller, losing Jerusalem, Gaza and Nablus to Britain in the south, losing Lebanon to a separate state created by the French, and losing the Sanjak of Alexandretta (Hatay) to Turkey in 1939. Syrian maps to this day still show Hatay as part of Syria, since the land transfer by the French was in clear breach of the terms of their Mandate.

Map of Syria drawn by N. Partamian in 1953, showing Banias in the Golan and Antioch within Syrian borders (Diana Darke, own copy)

Perhaps the least known historical map, and the one most relevant to today, is the one I discovered in the Institut Francais du Proche-Orient in Damascus, which shows the religious and ethnic groupings inside Syria and Lebanon. It was compiled by the French Mandate authorities ruling the region in 1935, and it marks the areas inhabited by Kurds along the Turkish border. These Kurds arrived after World War I as refugees from Mustafa Kemal’s new Turkish Republic. Non-Turkish minorities who stayed in Turkey were obliged to assimilate into a new all-Turkish identity and forgo their own cultural identities, so many left, either voluntarily or forcibly. The Kurds who crossed into Syria were later granted Syrian citizenship by the French Mandate authorities, only to have it taken away again by the Ba’athist government in 1962, which left 300,000 of them stateless, known as ‘bidoon’ (Arabic for ‘without’). President Assad of Syria hastily announced he would grant them citizenship in reaction to the 2011 uprising against him, but the UN estimates there are still 160,000 stateless Kurds inside Syria and that the remainder have mainly left the country.

Une_carte_des_communautés_religieuses_et_ethniques_de_la_Syrie_et_du_Liban_(1935)

This 1935 French map also clearly shows that the area in which Turkey has now created its ‘safe zone’, the stretch between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, was historically a Sunni Arab and Turkmen dominated region, a fact well known to Turkey and which is why it chose to begin its ‘safe zone’ operation here. Kurds settled there only since 2012 during the Syrian civil war, often displacing the original Sunni Arab population, as part of their push for an autonomous Kurdish region here – what they call Rojava, meaning ‘Western Kurdistan’. These Kurds belong to the PYD, the strongest of the seven main Syrian Kurdish political parties, founded in 2003. Though it seeks to deny such links today, the Syrian PYD is so closely affiliated with the Turkish PKK Kurdish political separatist party that it was commonly referred to as its Syrian wing. When the Assad regime army quietly withdrew from these border regions in 2012, the PYD were quick, as the best organised Kurdish group, to take their place, and have also kept lines of communication open to the Syrian Assad regime, which continued to operate Qamishli airport and to pay local salaries for civil servants and teachers.   

Both the Syrian Kurdish PYD and the Turkish Kurdish PKK parties follow the ideology and teachings of the jailed Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, a fact that is made clear by his face appearing outdoors in flags on the battlefield and indoors in PYD office buildings. 

ocalan-1

In my lecture I considered the historic unity of the region, as revealed by the shared architecture of cities like Aleppo and Gaziantep built under the same Ottoman governor, shared trade, and the shared geography of the Fertile Crescent, where dams on the Euphrates have turned deforested plains into productive fields of cotton and wheat. Next I explained about the pockets of Christianity that straddle the border, looking at monasteries that have been newly established on old foundations by Syriac monks like Father Joachim of Mar Augen, on the ridge above Nusaybin in Turkey, looking out over Qamishli in Syria.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Many Syriac communities and other minorities found refuge here after escaping from the Sayfo massacre by the Kurds in 1915. When I had first visited Mar Augen in the 1980s the ruins were being lived in by a Yezidi family.

Before the current Syrian war, the border was very open and easy to cross. There were no visa requirements for Syrians and Turks to cross into each other’s countries, and as a result, many Syrians holidayed in Turkey and vice versa. President Erdogan and President Assad even holidayed together, in a symbol of these close ties.

But this porous border became a problem once jihadi fighters of all nationalities, including Europeans, started crossing it to join ISIS in its newly-proclaimed caliphate based in Raqqa, on the Euphrates in eastern Syria from 2013 onwards. Assad saw Raqqa as a provincial backwater and ignored the rise of ISIS there. Erdogan also underestimated what ISIS would become and was accused of turning a blind eye.

The four-month battle for Kobane in September 2015 was the turning point, when US fighter jets teamed up with PYD Kurdish fighters on the ground to expel ISIS from the city – the US/Kurdish coalition was born. Erdogan protested loudly from the start about this alliance between America and the Kurdish separatists it has considered terrorists since the 1980s when the PKK first began a long-running guerrilla war against the Turkish army in which 45,000 lives were lost. The PYD, in an effort to legitimise themselves in the eyes of the outside world, formed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) by recruiting some local Arab and Syriac fighters, but it was always Kurdish-dominated. To help understand, consider for example what would happen if Basque separatists, regarded as terrorists by the Spanish government, were to team up with the French army to defeat a group like ISIS. Spain would no doubt have been equally vocal about its displeasure from the outset.

In other words, the current problem that countries like France have with fellow NATO member Turkey’s actions against the PYD Kurds was foreseeable from the start. Turkey was willing to use its own army, but France and others in the US-led coalition against ISIS took the short term, expedient method of fighting ISIS using PYD Kurdish boots on the ground who were already there and only too willing to partner with the US and its allies. These PYD Syrian Kurds wanted to defend their Kurdish majority cities like Kobane and they knew it would play well to them and their image in the long-term, if they were seen to be reliable partners against ISIS.

They also showed themselves to be experts in PR, campaigning in Moscow, in Washington and in European capitals for support of their Rojava project – PYD offices abroad have opened in Moscow, Prague, KRG Sulaymaniyah, Stockholm, Berlin and Paris. Photo features on their Kurdish Kalashnikov-wielding female fighters have appeared so often in the western media that you could almost be forgiven for thinking the female fighters defeated ISIS single-handed. Rarely mentioned is that many of those female fighters were on the battlefront to escape patriarchal domestic dominance, notoriously prevalent in Kurdish society with its ‘honour killings’ and blood feuds. Some women have even set up all-female villages where they can live freely away from their controlling menfolk. Fighting ISIS offered an escape route.

In this highly complex and combustible situation along the Turkey/Syria border, everyone is fighting for different reasons, driven by conflicting aims and beliefs. When it was first formed after the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire by the Allies, this new border between modern Turkey and Syria was porous and easy to cross, and remained so till very recently. But in late 2014, largely in response to European criticism that it was allowing ISIS fighters to cross into Syria without checks, Turkey began construction of an impenetrable 3m high concrete security wall along the border, topped with razor wire. The EU funded the construction, according to German Der Spiegel, keen to protect itself from ISIS.

Today it is complete, the third-longest wall in the world after the Great Wall of China and the US-Mexico border wall. The communities that once straddled it are now divided permanently, for the first time in their long and interwoven history. Such barriers, as has been amply demonstrated in the past, erected as short-term solutions to complex problems, have a way of creating long-term obstacles to peace as well as to people. NATO’s future is at stake, so a well-coordinated, long-term solution must be found.

Syria Turkey border wall

What does Erdogan’s election victory mean for Turkey, ISIS and the Syrian Kurds?

Turkey’s conservative Muslims have spoken. What’s more they have spoken loudly, defying the polls and the expert predictions, returning President Erdogan’s conservative Islamist-leaning AK (Justice and Development) Party to power with its longed-for parliamentary majority, lost at last June’s elections. The Turkish lira and stock market have surged with relief. Electoral turnout was 86%. It is a mandate most politicians can only dream of, winning a thumping 50% of the vote, a vote of confidence in Erdogan himself, whose simple mantra: Choose me or chaos, worked.

Erdogan after 1st Nov election victory 2015

Love him or hate him, Erdogan is an ace politician, a “master of optimization”, more able than any of his rivals to turn the recent turmoil in Turkey’s security situation to his advantage. Threatened with instability on its 900km-long Syrian border, and with internal terrorist incidents ratcheting up markedly since June, it appears that Erdogan, Turkey’s authoritarian leader for the last 13 years, is widely perceived as the only politician with the strength and experience to handle such challenges.

His gains came at the expense of the far-right MH (Nationalist Action) Party and the left-wing HD (People’s Democratic) Party, both of which lost seats to 41 and 59 respectively. Significant here is that the HDP overtook the MHP for the first time, despite not even campaigning, a protest against Erdogan’s bullying tactics. Their charismatic new leader Selahattin Demirtas can take much credit. His time will surely come, but not yet it seems.

For now, it is still Erdogan’s Turkey. Travelling regularly throughout Central Anatolia and Eastern Turkey since the mid-1980s, I have observed first hand the dramatic changes that Erdogan’s AK Party has brought to those regions, especially the dominantly Kurdish provinces of the southeast. Far removed from the affluent Aegean and Mediterranean coastal areas where the secular CHP (Republican People’s Party) still holds sway, Turkey’s traditional heartlands were long neglected and ignored by politicians.

Erdogan changed all that, investing in massive infrastructure projects like improved road networks and high-speed trains heading east. The controversial series of dams on the Euphrates River generated much-needed hydroelectric and water resources to launch new agriculture ventures in the southeast, bringing employment and prosperity to areas formerly suffering from poverty and deprivation. The Anatolian Tiger cities like Konya, Malatya, Kayseri and Gaziantep have boomed, bringing to the fore a new breed of conservatively Muslim entrepreneurs, sometimes described as “Islamic Calvinists”. On my last stay in Gaziantep I met such a family, where the father was a successful lawyer, the mother was a biochemist in a local hospital in her day job, writing Turkish cookbooks and restoring the family courtyard house into a boutique hotel in her spare time. The three sons were all businessmen, and even the youngest, only 15, was already trading in mobile telephones across the border with Syria.

As well as presiding over the economic and agricultural transformation in Turkey’s heartlands east of Ankara, Erdogan has also been the first politician to make real moves towards reconciliation with the Kurds and other minorities like the Syriacs, instituting language and cultural rights, and initiating a peace process (currently stalled) with the cooperation of Abdullah Ocalan, imprisoned leader of the PKK Kurdish separatist movement.

Since the Syrian Revolution of March 2011 gradually evolved into a regional proxy war displacing half the population, Turkey has hosted the largest number of Syrian refugees, some three million. European leaders are only just waking up to the problems of accommodating Syrian war refugees, but many Syrians are grateful to Turkey for its humanitarian open-border policy towards them, allowing them access to schooling and healthcare at huge cost to its own national budget.  Hospitality is a core Muslim duty, carried out without fuss or fanfare.

syrian refugees in turkey

Western media have given Erdogan a hard time in recent years for his vanities and authoritarian excesses like his absurdly grandiose White Palace with its gold toilet seats, together with his hawkish silencing of media opponents. But for the time being, it is a simple fact that there is no one else of his stature on the Turkish stage.

 

So what direction will Turkey take now? Yesterday’s decisive election victory stopped just short of the “super-majority” needed to give himself French or American-style presidential powers, but he will probably wield them anyway. Erdogan does not underestimate the challenges facing his country. He has more reason than most to want an end to the Syrian war, an end to the Kurdish PKK insurgency and an end to the spread of ISIS terrorism. If that means arriving at a conciliation with the Syrian Kurds in the form of Saleh Muslim’s PYD, and uniting with them in the fight against ISIS, that may well be a move he is prepared to make in order to restore stability to Turkey. It is in both their economic interests and Erdogan did after all reconcile with the Iraqi Kurds, enabling Turkey to become Iraqi Kurdistan’s  biggest trading partner. And who knows, the “Islamic Calvinists” of the Anatolian Tigers might yet present the pseudo-Islamic caliphate of ISIS with its greatest ideological challenge.

Related posts and articles:

https://dianadarke.com/2015/06/06/kurds-and-women-determine-turkeys-election/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34696489

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/203b1ef8-8139-11e5-8095-ed1a37d1e096.html#axzz3qLduUxtp

http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/2015/07/08-turkey-syrian-refugees-kirisci-ferris

 

 

 

 

 

Kurds and Women are new force in Turkey’s election

Turkey's women general HDP

Turkey’s general election on Sunday 7 June will have historic implications for the country’s 15 million Kurds. Will they finally be represented by a national political party rather than just winning a few seats as independents? Kurds form the country’s largest ethnic minority at around 20% of the population and growing, thanks to their high birth rate.

No one doubts that the AK (Justice and Development) party of President Erdogan which has been in power since 2002 will remain the largest party. Polls indicate it will gain about 40% of the vote, but that is down from nearly 50% in the 2011 elections.

turkey's erdogan elections

The game-changer this time is a newly formed group of pro-Kurdish and pro-minority rights parties which has come together to fight the elections under the banner of the HDP (People’s Democratic Party).

Turkey HDP logo

It is an all or nothing gamble that by banding together, they will cross the 10% threshold needed to gain seats in parliament. If they fail, they lose everything. Worse still, their votes will be redistributed and AK will be the main beneficiary, paving the way for Erdogan to award himself greater presidential powers.

The HDP is seen as Turkey’s equivalent of Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos, and their charismatic leader Selhattin Demirtas, a 42-year old human rights lawyer, has oratorial skills to rival Erdogan’s and looks that exceed his.

turkey demirtas orator

He must win votes from Erdogan’s traditional AK supporters in order to succeed. His appeal, to judge from the crowds at his election rallies, is broad, with enthusiastic young Kurds and secular Turks, women both headscarved and not.

turkey's kurdish women

His new party supports Turkey’s membership in the European Union, is calling for the PKK (the Kurdish separatists) to disarm, supports gays and same sex marriage and wants Turkey to recognise the Armenian Genocide. The party’s aim is to end all discrimination based on gender, race or religion. As Turkey’s only party championing minority rights, the HDP is gaining support from Syriac Christians, Kurds and Alevis.  In another exceptional difference from Turkey’s male-dominated parties, they have an automatic policy of sharing all top positions with women, seeking to promote the involvement of women in politics. As acclaimed Turkish novelist Elif Shafak put it: “Once seen by Turkish nationalists as a backward subculture, the Kurds are now Turkey’s leading progressive force.”

turkey election HDP

Erdogan in his presidential role is supposed to be apolitical though no one would have guessed it. His electoral rallies are unashamedly pro his own AK party which has triumphed repeatedly in the polls since he became its leader. But his current aspirations to change Turkey’s constitution to a presidential style system similar to that of France may yet be his undoing, as his hubris seems to have overstepped the mark. His excesses are well-publicised, from his grandiose 1,100-room White Palace in Ankara to the ‘toilet-gate’ affair over the alleged golden toilet seats installed at public expense. Corruption allegations are increasing and Turkey now ranks 149 out of 180 in the Corruption Perception Index, even worse than Russia.

turkey's erdogan

In spite of such criticisms, Erdogan remains hugely popular especially east of Ankara in the traditional and religiously conservative Anatolian heartlands. His economic policies have brought increased prosperity through vast investment in infrastructure projects like new roads and the high-speed train to cities like Konya. His encouragement of the headscarf has come as a ‘liberation’ to many women in eastern Anatolia who say they now feel more comfortable and respected.

But it is in these southeastern regions, where most of Turkey’s Kurds are concentrated, that Erdogan’s popularity is being challenged in this election.

turkey 2015 election map

Turkey’s spectacular growth of the last decade has given way to stagnation and high unemployment. Erdogan’s foreign policies have backfired leaving the Kurdish peace process dangling by a thread and his country overrun with two million Syrian refugees. In his recent rallies in the big eastern cities, some women are quite literally turning their backs on him in symbolic protest.

Turkey has the lowest female employment in the OECD, less than 30%, going backwards from over 40% in the 1980s.The AK party is still only fielding 18% women candidates in this election, and although that represents a rise from 14% in 2011, in practice women are totally absent in nearly half of Turkey’s 81 provinces and only occupy the top position in four of them.

Turkey's women

Public turnout in recent elections has been over 80% and the importance of this election may see that figure rise, as more women come forward to vote. A sophisticated young Turkish graduate from Ankara now working in Mardin  told me how impressed she was by the non-discriminatory policies of HDP, in power locally since 2014. “I will be voting for them,” she told me. “I think they are the future.”

turkey's women 2

Turkey’s electoral battle this Sunday hinges on many things – economics, religion, Kurdish and minority rights to name just a few. Maybe for the first time it is also about women. The choices made by Turkey’s women, be they Kurds or otherwise, may even determine the outcome.

Related articles:

http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2015/6/8/turkey-free-from-costly-conflicts-with-its-own-minorities

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-32950750

http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2015/6/7/turkey-votes-in-high-stakes-elections

Two Women of Mardin v ISIS

mardin buildings

Mardin, a stone-carved historic hillside city in southeast Turkey whose buildings gaze south towards Syria and the Fertile Crescent, boasts two famous women.

The first is the colourful Shahmeran, half-woman half-snake, a legendary creature from the shared mythology of ancient Mesopotamia. Pictures of her bold green and red image adorn the streets.

sahmeran

The second is a much younger addition to the city’s history, the 26 year-old co-mayor, Februniye Akyol. Shy and self-effacing, dressed simply in a white jacket, she is the first representative of the ever-dwindling Syriac Christian community to govern one of Turkey’s metropolitan municipalities.

She has agreed to a rare interview, and we sit together on the elegant white sofa of her Mardin office.

Mardin mayor April 2015

Earlier I had watched her give a refreshingly brief speech to assembled bigwigs, marking the official rehabilitation of the city’s main street, a 9.2 million euro project funded by the European Union to promote tourism. Mardin, already part of a United Nations-backed scheme for a Silk Road cultural corridor, is nothing if not ambitious. Next it plans to become a “City of Peace”, hoping eventually for UNESCO World Heritage status.

As for Februniye, who had to change her Syriac name of Febronia Benno to a ‘turkified’ version to enter Turkish politics, her success was not so planned. “I never expected this career,” she tells me softly. “In the 1990s growing up as a child in this region, we experienced terrible times, persecution, the rape of women.  Our situation was very bad. My father was arrested. For 16 days we didn’t know where he was. It affected me deeply.”

As the first woman from the local Syriac minority to go into higher education, attending Istanbul’s Marmara University in the Faculty of Insurance, she has now become a role model. Most Syriac graduates use their studies as an escape route for emigration to Europe. Instead, Februniye returned home.

Mardin Artuklu Uni

Then, while she was doing an MA at Mardin’s Artuklu University in Syriac Cultural Studies, unique in Turkey, her political career was suddenly launched  when she was chosen, together with a respected Kurdish veteran, to run for the BBP or Peace and Democracy Party, in last year’s local elections. “It is BBP policy always to have a woman co-mayor in their municipalities,” she explains.

februniye akyol

In an overwhelmingly Muslim region of long-standing enmities between Turks, Kurds and Arabs, now further complicated by the ISIS threat on the doorstep, the task in front of Februniye is a daunting one.

“I had some prejudices against the Kurds,” she says, “but I realised I had to overcome them.” Now she is working alongside her former enemies and persecutors, promoting an ideology diametrically opposed to ISIS with its subjugation of women and violent intolerance of minorities.

“Isn’t this the same system the Syrian Kurds are using,” I ask her, “in their provinces of Kobani, Afrin and Jazira?”

Kobani Map

“Yes,” she replies, “We are from the same families, just separated by the border. We all work together, no matter what race or religion, and have an equal quota for women on all our committees. Like them we want cultural, religious and linguistic freedoms for everyone.”

“Do you have contact with them?” I venture to ask, knowing the Syrian border is within sight of Mardin.

“Of course,” she replies with disarmingly frankness, “They come across for meetings from time to time.”

“But the border is closed. How do you manage that?”

“It can be opened when necessary,” she says simply.

Behind her delicate almost fragile appearance, I sense a steely resolve. She hands me her card and I notice her title is ‘Mrs. ’

“You are married?” I ask.

“Newly married,” she replies fingering her wedding rings as if still getting used to them.

It gives me the excuse to ask the obvious question, in this traditionally male-dominated society, where ISIS is knocking at the door:

“And how do the men feel about women sharing power?”

“They realise it has to be,” she replies, “It was even their idea.”

Strolling later past the renovated shop-fronts of Old Mardin I see the Shahmeran everywhere, in the famous jewellery, on key-rings, cushions and mirrors. I ask the shopkeepers about her meaning.

They explain how their Queen of Serpents is a source of healing and wisdom whose image reminds people to mend their ways, to shun evil and avoid betraying each other.

Mardin’s two famous women – one ancient, one young – will need to conjure all such powers here, if they are to survive the ISIS onslaught and defeat it.

sahmeran redMardin mayor 2

Turkey’s dilemma over Kobane

It is a case of deja vu for Turkey’s President Erdogan.

Three years ago, as Turkey’s Prime Minister, he was urgently calling for a no-fly zone and the setting up of a safe haven on Syrian soil along its border with Turkey. No one listened. Now he is calling for it again. In late summer 2011 after many months of trying to reason with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, when high-level delegations shuttled regularly between Ankara and Damascus, Erdogan finally lost patience with his former ally, a man he had even gone on holiday with, and began his support instead of the Syrian opposition rebels. It was a bold move, partly influenced by his thinking that support for Islamist rebel groups inside Syria would act as a counterbalance to the Kurds, who make up c20% of Turkey’s population.

What he did not foresee, was that Syria’s Kurds, taking advantage of the vacuum left by the Assad regime in the northeast, would seize control of the northeast areas round Al-Hasakah and Qamishli, even seizing some of the border crossings into the Kurdish parts of southeast Turkey like Ras al-Ayn and Ayn al-Arab (known to Kurds as ‘Kobane’).

The Syrian Kurds were more prescient. They had foreseen in the Syrian revolution a major opportunity to further their aspirations for their own homeland, or autonomy at the very least. The Kurdish street slogan was: ‘Democracy for Syria. Federalism for Syrian Kurdistan.’ Bashar finally gave them citizenship in 2012 after 50 years of state deprivation, in an attempt to deter them from joining the revolution, but by then it was too little too late.

Kurds have historically been bad at uniting, with seven dialects and seven political organisations to bring together, but over the course of the Syrian Revolution some of Syria’s Kurds linked up with their fellow Sunni Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan, and have been openly receiving military training from them. Turkey’s government has been horrified, fearing the effects on their own restive Kurds, whose guerrilla activities under the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) recently flared up again after ten years of near stabilility. Some 45,000 were killed in that struggle inside Turkey since 1984.

Ankara is currently engaged in a delicate peace process with its Kurds, giving them greater freedoms and rights in return for them laying down their arms and withdrawing to Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey knows how easily Kurdish ambitions could derail plans for the economic expansion of its southeast regions and how expensive that would be.

Pre-revolution, Bashar al-Assad was quoted as saying ‘Turkey is the model [for religious toleration in a secular state] because we have the same society and similar traditions.’ Over the last ten years under Erdoğan, Turkey opened up much faster than Syria under Bashar, liberalising its economy, embracing privatisation and free enterprise. As a result its economy has been booming, with growth peaking at about 12 per cent in 2010–11, though that figure has since slackened off considerably. It declared a ‘zero problems with neighbours’ foreign policy, trading with them all, and in 2009 opened its borders to Lebanese, Jordanians, Iraqis and Syrians, dropping all visa requirements. More and more Syrians started going to Turkey for their holidays.

At first Turkey welcomed Syrian refugees from the fighting, providing camps for them along the border. They began as a small trickle, building up to about 10,000 after the first year, then increasing exponentially to hundreds of thousands once the violence in Aleppo flared up. The flow then became such that they ran out of camp space, hurriedly building more, while backlogs of desperate refugees piled up on the Syrian side of the border. Now the numbers are close to a million and the strains are becoming unbearable.

Today once again Turkey is calling for a no-fly zone and a safe haven inside Syrian territory. Erdogan wants the US-led coalition to help him achieve this, knowing it means taking on the Assad regime, knowing it is too risky alone. Once again no one is listening. The reaction of the Syrian government is unpredictable. So far the US-led coalition air strikes and the focus on Kobane have enabled them to make gains on the ground around both Aleppo and Damascus. Even Iran is now talking of getting involved, to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, though it is far from clear how it would do this.

The longer the dilemma goes on, the harder Turkey’s decision will be. It has to juggle the pros and cons, knowing that its involvement in the Syrian conflict is deeply unpopular with its own Turkish population who have no appetite for war, yet also that its international reputation is at stake. Its ideal solution would be for Kobane to be saved by US-led airstrikes and Kurdish peshmerga battling ISIS on the ground, and for its peace process with its Kurds to be saved by securing a deal with the PKK similar to that which Ankara already has with Iraqi Kurdistan, whose oil Turkey badly needs. Erdogan knows he must save Turkey’s domestic stability at all costs, for the sake of the future and of investor confidence, for once broken, it will take years to put back together again.

Kurds on the Turkish borber, supporting their fellow Kurds battling for Kobane, Syria [October 2014]

Kurds on the Turkish border, supporting their fellow Kurds battling for Kobane, Syria [October 2014]

Related:

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/10/iranians-ask-soleimani-defend-kobani.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=59e97cd3b2-October_8_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-59e97cd3b2-93116701

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/08/us-increasingly-frustrated-turkey-inaction-islamic-state

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01gsjdw

http://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/postcard-nusaybin-turkey

 

 

Is Syria solvable?

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus' Hijaz Railway with the caption: 'We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.' Blood drips from the words 'with blood'.[DD]

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus’s Hijaz Railway with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.[DD]

At the funeral yesterday of a dear friend who died of natural causes in his own bed, I wept for Syria. Life coming to an end is hard to bear in any circumstances, but in Syria I cannot come to terms with why the lives of 200,000 people have ended, unnaturally, not in their beds, often with no funerals at all. What have they died for? Have their deaths achieved anything at all?

The mess that is Syria today scarcely resembles a country. Its identity has been shredded. After three and half years of a revolution that began peacefully but was met with violence, is it still even a revolution? So many opposing forces, so many countries are now involved that it has become impossible to see the way forward. Lawlessness has become the new norm. Inside Syria people are so confused about who is fighting whom and for what, that they have lost sight of what to strive for. Corruption is everywhere, the opportunism of war creating its own economy, with a ruthless few getting rich beyond their wildest dreams. Apart from the deaths, tens of thousands remain in prison. No one knows the numbers for sure. All across the country millions have been displaced and homes have been snatched – mine among them – sometimes just by needy people, but more often by immoral individuals taking advantage of the breakdown of law and order. Even in areas that used to be under tight regime control people are starting to realise that the government cannot protect them. Kidnappings purely for ransom money have become commonplace but no one is sure who the perpetrators are. More and more cases are being reported of the pro-government militia, the NDF (National Defence Force), tricking people into leaving their homes by warning them of imminent danger from DAESH (ISIS), then looting the contents and selling them on. As Lina Sinjab reports in her recent BBC piece about the NDF and its behaviour (see link below):

A few men with guns call themselves the ‘protectors of the neighbourhood’… They then set the rules and bypass the law, in a country that is already lawless.” (words of a Damascus resident)

As for the increasing cases of young people going out to Syria to fight, I cannot help but think of the scene in the film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie where Mary Macgregor’s brother goes out to Spain to join in the Spanish Civil War, trying to do something noble with his life, only to join the opposite side to what he intended and be pointlessly killed. Seen from so far away, the idealism can seem so clear. From close up, all clarity vanishes, as it has done inside Syria. The Spanish Civil War lasted less than three years but killed around 500,000. The rebels finally prevailed and Franco went on to rule Spain for 36 years till his death in 1975. But the Syrian war has no precedent in history. We are in uncharted territory.

The international community has allowed the situation inside Syria to fester so long that it has become insoluble. The US air strikes are not helping ordinary Syrians. On the contrary the bombing of Jabhat al-Nusra targets is likely to turn Syrians against the West and its belated involvement which is not to save them, but to save itself from DAESH (the locally used acronym for ISIS/IS). Syrians have been sacrificed at the altar of world indifference and now, with the rise of DAESH, we will all have to pay the price. Only a change in Iranian policy towards Syria would shift the dynamics on the ground. Lured by the incentive of a US rapprochement, might they abandon the Assad regime and do a deal with Saudi Arabia and Turkey to remove Assad and his top layers, whilst keeping the military and security establishments largely intact? It is the obvious solution, but what are the chances of it happening?  As I wrote in My House in Damascus, “Pigs might fly…”

More than ever, I will have to remain a ‘hopeless dreamer’,  for the sake of all those lives lost unnaturally.

My Damascus House

My Damascus House

 

Related articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-29429941

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/10/international-alliance-no-change-front-lines-syria-rebels.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=15b8a0b861-October_2_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-15b8a0b861-93116701

How #ISIS misuses early Islamic history to justify its actions

ISIS gangs smashing a priceless 8th C BC Assyrian statue (May 2014, Tell Ajaja, Syria)

ISIS gangs smashing a priceless 8th C BC Assyrian statue (May 2014, Tell Ajaja, Syria)

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS, declared himself ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ in June 2014. Claiming a genealogy traced back to the Prophet Muhammad and his noble tribe the Quraysh, together with a PhD from the Islamic University of Baghdad, his religious credentials are certainly stronger than previous Al-Qaeda leaders.

The caliphate in early Islam was a military and political office, not simply a religious one. The Prophet Muhammad during his lifetime was religious leader, lawgiver, chief judge, commander of the army and civil head of state all in one. ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ is following this model. The Prophet Muhammad died suddenly in 632 leaving no male children. Disputes over who was to be his khalifa or caliph, (Arabic ‘successor’) have been responsible for most of the schisms of Islam, including the major Sunni/Shi’a division. ‘Never was there an Islamic issue which brought about more bloodshed than the caliphate,’ wrote the respected historian Al-Shahrastani (1086-1153) in his Book of Sects and Creeds.

To boost his standing further, ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ appears to be modelling himself on the first four Sunni Orthodox caliphs – Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali – known as Al-Rashidoun, ‘the rightly-guided ones’, who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad. Under them the Islamic state expanded within a decade from Arabia to conquer first Syria, then Iraq, Persia, Egypt and beyond. Those early conquests were characterised by military campaigns led by brilliant strategists like Khalid ibn al-Walid and Amr ibn al-Aas, using horses and camels in lightning raids against their enemies – the Byzantines and the Sassanians – whose armies were generally on foot. Today’s ISIS attacks too are characterised by their speed and surprise, always mounted on vehicles, attacking from many sides like a Bedouin ghazwa (raid). Raiding was seen as a noble occupation in early Arabia – much poetry is devoted to its praise. Acquisition of new territories was one of the principal duties of the caliph, and it is to this tenet of jihad (religious war) that Islam owed its fast early growth.

The Prophet Muhammad’s great achievement was to break tribal allegiances and replace them with a new fraternity of Islam: “Know ye that every Muslim is a brother unto every other Muslim, and that ye are now one brotherhood.”  All new converts of whatever tribe, race or nationality were welcomed. The new ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ is using the same tradition to welcome foreign fighters to his fold.

New actors on the world stage like ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ do not come out of nowhere. Conditions have to be right for them to flourish. When the Prophet Muhammad preached the new religion of Islam in what is now Saudi Arabia, anarchy already reigned in the 7th century world around him. Arabia’s political structures had broken down, sapped of energy by never-ending tribal feuds and disputes over springs, pasture and livestock – the bare necessities of life in an arid desert environment.  Long-running wars between the Byzantines and the Persian Sassanians, heavy taxes imposed by both empires and the multiple schisms of the Christian Church paved the way for the rapid advance of the early Muslim armies.

Like the early caliphs, ‘Caliph Ibrahim’s’ conquests have been eased and enabled by the chaotic regional environment. The post-2003 ‘de-Ba’athification’ process carried out by the Americans after deposing Saddam Hussein left an Iraq reeling and beset with government in-fighting. Ripe for harvest, its oilfields beckoned tantalisingly.

Syria’s tragic revolution-turned- civil-war provided the perfect cloak to ISIS ambitions. Under a general amnesty in early 2012, Al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists were released from Assad prisons. Some regrouped with remnants of Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq and organised themselves into what has evolved as ISIS. In March 2013 they captured Al-Raqqa on the Euphrates, 25 miles east of Tabqa, Syria’s largest dam, just as in August 2014 they captured the Mosul Dam, Iraq’s largest, on the Tigris – now wrested back for the time being by the Kurdish peshmerga with the help of US air cover. In Syria ISIS practised its fighting skills, not on the well-equipped Assad army, but on Syria’s Kurds and on the poorly-armed rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army. ISIS now controls most of Syria’s eastern oilfields, and in Iraq too its strategy involves systematically seizing the northern oil installations, fuelling its wealth. Conservative estimates put ISIS income from oil alone at US$1 million a day. The bearded chiefs have grown rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Thanks to such control of oil and water, new followers flow strongly into the fold. An impoverished population suffering from the effects of drought, unemployment and disenchantment with the powers-that-be, makes fertile recruiting ground. Most of the Prophet Muhammad’s early converts to Islam were slaves and lower classes – people with something to gain. The first caliph Abu Bakr, when recruiting for his armies, wrote to the people of Mecca promising them there was rich booty to be won from the Byzantines. To raise more money from its conquered territories, early Islam also imposed a means-assessed poll tax on Jews, Christians, Sabians (and later Zoroastrians) considered ‘People of the Book’, acknowledged to be monotheists. Only groups like the Yazidis, who were misunderstood as ‘devil-worshippers’, were presented with the stark choice of ‘convert or be killed’. The poor paid a quarter of the rich, while women, children, beggars, the old, the insane and the sick were exempt. ISIS has been taking taxes from towns under its control in Syria since 2013. In Iraq it has been demanding protection money from local business, whilst also presenting a generous face through handing out food, petrol and subsidising electricity.

As well as offering an attractive and powerful identity, ISIS can offer $400-500 a month as regular income to young Sunnis only too happy to believe in a new ideology based on their own supremacy, and in which the Arabian concept of ghanimah, booty, is legitimate.  Sura 8:42 of the Koran says ‘one-fifth of the booty is for God, the Prophet, those close to him, orphans, the poor and the wayfarer’ ie belongs to the state. By implication therefore the rest can be taken by the fighters. Yezidi women and children are legitimate spoils of war in this ideology.

Under the rallying cry of religion, the ISIS of today is driven by motives it sees as sanctioned under Islam – to gain territory, to acquire new converts, and to spread its strict Islamic rule of law – the Shari’a – with punishments like amputation for theft and beheading for apostasy or for non-believers who refuse to convert. It is copying the social mores of 14 centuries ago.

But behind this religious cloak the same economic forces that drove the Prophet Muhammad’s followers and led to his early conquests are driving the speed of ISIS’s advance. Many despairing Syrians and Iraqis who have watched their countries crumble around them are now joining ISIS out of pragmatism, rather than ideology. The attraction of being on the winning side cannot be overestimated. As long as the region remains in disarray, the likelihood is that ISIS will increasingly be seen by many as the only answer – and a rewarding one to boot.

Bombs

 

Postcard from Nusaybin, southeast Turkey

POSTCARD from NUSAYBIN (as published in Chatham House’s The World Today magazine (Aug/Sept 2014 issue)

Mar Yakoub Church and university, Nusaybin [DD, 2012]

Syriac Mar Yakoub (St James’s) Church and university dating to the 4th century, Nusaybin [DD, 2012]

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.

The defunct border crossing from Nusaybin to Qamishli [DD, 2014]

The defunct border crossing from Nusaybin to Qamishli [DD, 2014]

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.

Roman columns of Nisibis in the no-man's land between Nusaybin (Turkey) and Qamishli (Syria) [DD, 2013]

Roman columns of Nisibis in the no-man’s land between Nusaybin (Turkey) and Qamishli (Syria) [DD, 2014]

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.

 

 

#Syriac Christians threatened with the ‘Sword’ again

Graves in the village of Anitli (Haho) [DD, May 2014]

Graves in the village of Anitli (Haho) [DD, May 2014]

The threat of  ‘the sword’ has special resonance for Syriac Christians. Syriac for ‘sword’ is Sayfo, the name they use to refer to the massacre they suffered in 1915, when tens of thousands of them were slaughtered. On Friday 19 July the Syriac Christians of Mosul, whose ancestors were the Assyrians with their capital at Nineveh on the bank of the Tigris opposite Mosul, were threatened with the sword, unless they converted to Islam or paid the jizya, a tax levied by early Islam on religious minorities. Beheading by the sword was the earliest form of capital punishment in Islam. This time, to escape such a fate, they are fleeing northwards in their thousands, mainly into Iraqi Kurdistan, whose Kurdish rulers do not define themselves or anyone else by religion. Islam is one among many religions and Kurdish schools there teach all religions equally. Nearly a hundred years ago,  the Syriacs fled southwards from Turkey. On that occasion their persecutors were mainly Kurdish tribesmen acting on the instructions of  Turkish masters seeking to purge the Turkish state of non-Turkish minorities, but today their tormentors are fanatical fighters of mixed nationalities from the State of the Islamic Caliphate (formerly ISIS), who took control of Mosul,  Iraq’s second city, on 10 June 2014.

As Europe remembers the outbreak of World War One a hundred years on, the oft-forgotten group of Aramaic-speaking Christians has been gearing up for its own centenary. Their original heartlands are the region known as the Tur Abdin (‘Mountain of the Servants of God’ in Syriac),  a remote corner of what is now southeast Turkey, where their churches and monasteries date back to the 4th century. As their anniversary approaches, this resilient community, helped by members of their increasingly active diaspora from Sydney to Stuttgart, has been resolutely fighting back.

Their expulsion from Mosul will definitely not be the end of them. The following text of my BBC From Our Own Correspondent piece with accompanying photos, describes their determination to survive:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p022kkk3 (direct link to the BBC Radio 4 broadcast of 10 July 2014)

“No need for alarm clocks in Midyat. Every day in this ancient Syriac Christian town high on its plateau in southeast Turkey I am woken by goats bleating at my window and by cattle clattering past on cobbled streets. Kurdish children are herding them to nearby pastures from once elegant mansions that now serve as stabling.

Syriac stone mansion in Midyat [DD, May 2014]

Syriac stone mansion in Midyat [DD, May 2014]

For visitors like me the livestock lends a rustic charm, but not for members of the Syriac diaspora like Gabriel Khoury, whose ancestral home is one such pungent stable. Gabriel’s family emigrated to Australia when he was a boy, but now he has come back to claim his property. ‘I have six court cases to fight,’ he declares, his blue-eyes flashing angrily.  I encounter him at church where he leads the chanting in Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ. Then he takes me to the one-roomed hovel, his current home, which is all he has left of his heritage. His surname ‘Khoury’ reveals he comes from a line of priests.  ‘Long story short,’ he explains, ‘I will not give up till I have my family’s houses and shops back. Then, if God wills, I will rebuild them.’

Gabriel in his single room [DD, 2014]

Gabriel in his single room [DD, 2014]

Rebuilding is a constant refrain in this region known as the Tur Abdin,  where the Syriacs, one of the world’s earliest Christian communities, suffered heavily at the hands of the Kurds and Turks, especially in the 1915 massacres. At the village of Kafro I meet Niall, who has returned from 30 years in Stuttgart to help rebuild his community. An imposing row of large walled villas with a slightly fortified feel now flanks the single street. Alongside the ruins of the house where he was born, he has opened an al fresco pizzeria shaded by a nine-sided gazebo draped with vines. Multiples of three, representing the Trinity, are everywhere in the architecture here, and vines too hold deep spiritual significance, producing wine from the precious blood-stained soil. Traditionally each family planted just enough for its own modest consumption, but now some Syriacs have set up a wine factory imaginatively concealed in a mock mansion carved with friezes of grapes and wine glasses. Producing five reds and two whites to growing worldwide acclaim, its carefully chosen trademark  Shiluh means ‘peace’ in Syriac.

‘Two more families are coming back this year,’ smiles Niall, as he takes me to see the derelict shell of their original church. ‘When our community is bigger, we will restore this one. For now we are using a smaller one.’ He leads me past a well-tended cemetery where an open grave is awaiting the body of a 90-year-old returnee from Germany. This land reclaims its old, but reclaiming the young is more problematic. ‘Our teenagers,’ he explains, gesturing at a group just finishing their pizzas, ‘will leave soon for universities in Germany. A school bus takes the three of them from Kafro to Midyat where they are the only Christians in classes of over 40. How can we expect them to return here?’

Back in Midyat, Gabriel is on the case. The refugee camp established on a nearby hill was intended just for Syriac  Christians fleeing the fighting in neighbouring Syria, but so successful were they in being sponsored to leave, that only one family now remains.

The Syriac refugee camp on a hill outside Midyat [DD, May 2014]

The Syriac refugee camp on a hill outside Midyat [DD, May 2014]

 People like Gabriel took responsibility for the Christian refugees, many of whom have since moved west to Istanbul. Some have stayed in Midyat, like Maryam, a fair-haired beauty originally from Qamishli just across the border in northeast Syria. She now works as a waitress at one of Midyat’s magnificently restored Syriac mansions, converted to a 15-room hotel.

Midyat boutique hotel (Shmayaa) converted from a Syriac mansion [DD, May 2014]

Midyat boutique hotel (Shmayaa) converted from a Syriac mansion [DD, May 2014]

‘Long story short,’ says Gabriel, ‘we need more like this to bring our people back, more girls and more hotels.’ He even wonders if one of his sons might marry Maryam – his own wife was from Qamishli – and plans how young men might return from Europe as architects and managers to design and run hotels, as businessmen to create new enterprise, and above all  as lawyers to champion their cause. I dare to raise December’s controversial settlement of the land dispute with the biggest of the monasteries. ‘Don’t make me laugh,’ he retorts  tossing his head, ‘they gave us 20% only, the other 80% is still held back. Long story short,’ he continues, ‘we will fight on till we get back what is rightfully ours. ‘

Father Joaqim, Syriac monk at Mor Awgen, near Nusaybin [DD, May 2014]

Father Joaqim, Syriac monk  who has revived Mor Awgen Monastery, near Nusaybin [DD, May 2014]

As the centenary of their historic massacre, the Sayfo, approaches, long story short, maybe they will.

Related links:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p022kkk3

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/editorials/conversion-of-iraq-as-isis-drives-christians-out-of-their-homes-the-groups-genocidal-intentions-take-on-horrible-clarity-9617651.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/time-runs-out-for-christian-iraq-isis-deadline-passes-with-mass-flight-9617606.html

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/07/jabhat-al-nusra-announce-islamic-emirate.html

Church of the Mother of God, Haho July 2013

Church of the Mother of God, Haho [DD, May 2014]

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