I went on a trip to Iraq, to take part in an international Congress of Kurdology, organised in Erbil by the Kurdish Institute of Paris and the Government of Federal Kurdistan of Iraq. The Congress was held at Salahadin University from Tuesday 4 September 2006 to Friday, 8 November 2006.
I spoke about two brilliant and tolerant Kurdish Dynasties, that of the Marwanides (983-1085), established in Mayafarkin, and that of the ‘Ayubides of Jezira with the great Malik al-Asraf (+1237).
The Syriac chroniclers often wrote about these princes who kept in cordial touch with Syriac Christians living in that region.
Permanence of the Syriac culture, a culture of the world
Heirs of the old Mesopotamians, proud of their traditions, Syriac had an original vision of the world and of the man. During centuries, prelates, clerks, doctors, philosophers, and translators celebrated the flame of knowledge. They showed exceptional enthusiasm to be educated, to study theology, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, and Syriac language.
They founded many famous schools. Their culture, enriched with many documents, manuscripts, archaeological vestiges, inscriptions, took part in the cultures of the world, like Greek, Egyptian and Roman cultures.
Alas, since the creation of the State of Iraq in 1921, for lack of means and freedom, Syriac culture could not spread out and was enfeebled.
The beginning of revival
At the time of the revolt of the great Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani in 1961, who asserted autonomy, many Christian and Kurdish villages in the North of Iraq were destroyed by the governments of Baghdad and the populations were deported.
In 1991, during the Gulf’s war, the Kurds were agitated. The army of Saddam Hussein pursued them to the Turkish borders. Then the Americans and the Allied nations created a zone of protection in Kurdistan, which covered the governorates of Dohuk, Erbil and Soulemanya. The Iraqi Kurds began, since 1992, to manage their own affairs, to form a government and to create ministries and political institutions.
A new climate of liberty started to take place little by little for the Syriac people. Their culture sprang and developed in the form of courses of language, cultural centres, newspapers, reviews, radios and televisions.
Under the Direction of the Education Department of the Kurdistan Regional Government, there were new programs and text-books for the year 1993/1994. Several schools in Erbil welcomed Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac people. In Dohuk, teaching in the Arabic and Kurdish languages started to take shape and there was a special section for teaching the Syriac language.
Seventeen primary schools taught all their subjects in Syriac. Six Highs schools provided a teaching in all academic topics, but the Syriac language remained compulsory.
Specialist linguists wrote Arabic-Syriac, and Syriac-Arabic dictionaries specialised in the vocabulary of modern sciences.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, in 2003, the movement of revival sprang and kept on flourishing till the present day. In the towns and villages of the Nineveh’s plains, where there is a sizable community of Assyrians, Chaldeans and other Syriac speaking communities. Some of these towns include Bagdeda, (Qaraqoche), Bartella, Alqoche, Tell-Kaif, Karamless, Tell-Esqof, Batnaya and others towns and villages. Many cultural centres and primary schools that taught in Syriac were created and began to work in order to promote the Syriac studies, culture and traditions.
The new Ishtar television had started to broadcast and was very important for the culture.
It was only in 2005 that the name of the Assyrian-Chaldean people, one of the oldest in the Mesopotamian Fertile Crescent was inscribed in the Iraqi Constitution and recognised.
Today, the Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac people of the North of Iraq realise the richness of their culture and history. They wish to awaken in their children an interest in scientific subjects, such as chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology, but also for history, philosophy, literature and arts. They want to keep their language, the modern Syriac (Soureth) alive and flourishing as it has been for hundreds of years. On the other hand, the liturgical language remains the traditional Syriac, used since the very early centuries of Christianity.
Some values of the modern world, competition, money cult, and poor politics cannot totally fulfil the hearts and minds of the young generations, who are in need of morality ideals and traditional culture and meanings in their lives. Knowledge, intellectual research, literary and artistic creation lead the way of progress in people’ minds and open horizons of liberty, tolerance and fraternity.
The congress of Kurdlogy having come to an end, I left Erbil and I returned by car to the Chaldean city of Ankawa, populated by nearly 20 000 inhabitants. I had visited Ankawa, 45 years ago. It had been a greatly modest village at the time, but now, I was pleasantly surprised to see its great development and expansion. Hundreds of beautiful, residential houses have grown there like mushrooms in open extensive fields.
Mentioned several times in an account reporting the siege of Qala by the Mongols, in 1310, the citadel of Erbil and the old village of Ankawa had become a bastion of Nestorian Christianity. But in the XVIII century, it was made Catholic. At the end of the century, a priest, Yussif Ibrahim al-Rawanduz (1832) came to live in Ankawa and greeted his small land of adoption like “the mother of Chaldean science.” He wrote several poems in the Turkish language, hymns in Chaldean (Soureth) and he carried out translations of Arabic into Syriac, a lexicon in Syriac language and in Soureth and a grammar into Syriac.
Today still, the bishop resides at Ankawa. He exerts his influence and his jurisdiction on the entire province. A very old church was dedicated to Saint Georges.
I went to visit the new Arts Centre in Ankawa. It was in a beautiful three-storey building. There was a large room at the entry of the building, open to the public, where the newspapers and the magazines published in Iraq and in Kurdistan were on display. A young man welcomed me and offered me his services.
I was shown round the Centre. I went into a vast reception room, on the right, furnished with gold velvet armchairs. There was a portrait of the Kurdish chief Mustafa Barzani mounting on the wall.
There were several administrative staff offices and also the manager’s office on the left side of the ground floor. We went up to the first floor and entered a room equipped with computers. There were many boys and the girls looking at the screens; they stopped and waved to me. I moved towards the library. A Chaldean woman, with black hair and eyes, was sitting behind her desk. She welcomed me, showing me around the library, which was full of shelves filled with a lot of beautiful books in English, Arabic, Kurdish and Syriac. She told me proudly that the library had 1788 books and that they had just acquired several new books. She was responsible for cataloguing and organising them.
I congratulated the librarian, and then passed quickly into the next room, which was used for training actors and actresses and it was also used for Eastern and Western music.
On the second floor there were other offices for files and management issues.
The Adiabene Room
Always escorted by my young companion, I visited another building by the ground floor, called the Adiabene room, which was used for lectures and receptions. It was a really large room of 600 square metres, with a splendid ceiling. It was a beautiful room, decorated with velvet curtains. It could receive 700 people and had modern conveniences and fully air-conditioned.
This room was also used as a grand theatre. I was told that many plays in Syriac were shown there, testifying to a true birth of the Syriac theatre activities.
I went upstairs and arrived in a vast kitchen and an elegant dining room, opened to the staff of the Centre and to the guests.
At the house corner, I saw workmen who finished the construction of six flats, intended to receive writers, painters, artists and journalists, invited by the Centre.
The talk with Jalal Marcos
I could not keep Jalal Marcos, the vice-president of the Centre waiting longer in his office, which was situated in the first building. He was a nice man with average size and grey-hair, about fifty years old. He invited me to sit down on the sofa. I told him that I was really impressed with the beauty and the order of the Centre in Ankawa. He smiled with gratitude. He had prepared some documents to show me and also to give me details about this Centre.
In answer to my queries, Jalal Marcos told me that the Centre was founded in 1998. It is currently financed by the Minister of Economy and Finance of Iraqi Kurdistan, Sarkgis Agajan, but managed by the Religious Chaldean Organisation. It is has now ten officials and many other office workers.
We had a long discussion about the numerous activities of the cultural Centre. I was told that the Centre had a magazine publication of 128 pages, written in Arabic, Kurdish and Syriac languages, and another magazine entitled Radya Caldaya. Another monthly newspaper published is the Beth Ankawa, written in Arabic and Syriac languages. The centre has a small publishing firm dedicated to the great Chaldean scholar Addaï Scher (1867- 1915), who wrote “The history of Chaldea and Assur”. The firm had published about fifteen books already, in order to promote the culture of the Assyian-Chaldean-Syriac people.
Jalal Marcos was responsible for the publication of printed work and also for increasing publications.
I thought of the printing works of the Dominican Fathers of the Ottoman Vilayet of Mosul, opened in 1859, and then closed by the Turks in 1914. It had published 350 books in Arabic and Syriac languages and had placed them at the disposal of the population. I had the feeling that a new age had started for the Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac researchers, writers and journalists. They could give a new impulse to their original culture.
I thanked Jalal Marcos for his hospitality and we separated. The team went down and greeted me with cordiality. I promised them a lecture on the history of our culture and people the next time I visited them.
My visit in Ankawa came to an end; I had the impression that the city was going to become the cultural capital of our people.
A Stop at the Assyrian cultural Centre of Dohuk
I went up in the car and returned to Dohuk, a city located between the mountainous chains (Bekher and Shndokha), which border Turkey, and Syria in North and West. Today, it is populated by more than 800 000 inhabitants, Moslems, Christians and Yazidis.
I thought of the famous Syriac writer Narsaï (399-503), who had been born in a village close to Ma’altâye and who had founded the famous School of Nisibe (a kind of university), which had given Mesopotamia many famous philosophers, doctors, and theologians. Today, Ma’althâye was a new district of Dohuk.
I arrived in the town mid afternoon. I went straight to the Assyrian cultural Centre, which I had been told many things about in the past. It was a large, blue-mauve building, crenulated, decorated with a Syriac inscription.
The Director, Nissam Mirza, who had been informed of my visit, came up with his team of supporters and workers to welcome me. He was a tall, slim, dark-haired man, who had been a graduate in Management and Economy. He took me to his office and ordered coffee which was served in little cups. While sipping his coffee, he spoke to me about the history of the cultural office.
He told me that the Assyrian Arts Centre, the first in the area of Dohuk, was first established on 15 March 1992. The main objective was to start a new renewal phase to the culture and language, the inheritance of the Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac people. Another objective was to make known the writers of the Chaldo/Assyrian culture. A third one was to establish a link and respectful dialogue with the Kurds. Since the opening of the Centre, the Syriac language started to be taught at the primary and secondary schools.
It is also a training centre for Information Technology, in order to familiarise all students with the computer and to Internet.
Each year, several exhibitions of books, works of art and publications are organisned. Hundreds of visitors, especially those who have interest in the Syriac culture, attend and admire the exhibits. Some personalities come to give lectures and seminars.
I asked Nissam Mirza about the financial resources and support for these important cultural activities and exhibitions. He told me that they were all gifts from the Assyrian community of Dohuk and also from the various charitable organisations from America.
The Director took me on a tour of the Centre building and offices. He showed me the large room of lectures, exhibitions and festivals, which was often rented for marriages and constituted a source of useful income for the Centre.
I was then led to the library which contained 1600 books in Arabic, Kurdish and Syriac. The young readers were sitting in front of tables and were lost in their books, in spite of the semi-darkness. The Director told me that the readers there would damage their eyesight, because the lamps gave a poor light. In addition, it seemed to me that the blue plastic armchairs were too modest and rather uncomfortable.
He told me that he agreed and that they were aware of the problems. He added that they were going to undertake a construction of a new, more spacious library, with large windows.
Then I was led to the Editorial Office of the quarterly journal entitled Kukhwa Beth Nahrain, The Star of Mesopotamia. Created in December first 1992, it is published in Syriac and Arabic and comes in 132 pages. It is financed by some Assyrian benefactors. I attentively studied an issue, and congratulated Farid Yacoub, in charge of it, for it was a really good and well presented magazine, cover of glazed paper, decorated with coloured photographs and beautiful Syriac (Soureth) characters.
I told Mr Yacoub that I was really impressed with that brilliant work. He told me that his people are well experienced with the art of creating newspapers, reviews and magazines. The Assyrians of Ourmia in Iran had created the magazine Zahira of Behrea, the Ray of light as early as 1846.
After completing the visit to the Centre, Nissam Mirza, showed me the Printing house and told me that about fifteen books had been printed and published there. They have now a great freedom and a lot of projects are planned ahead. They have great ambitions to print and publish the writings of our fathers and scholars. He hoped that one day they would be pleased to translate into Syriac one of my own books, “The Epic of the Tiger and Euphrates”. They had already read it in Arabic translation and they liked it tremendously. I was really pleased to offer my acceptance and admiration for their activities.
When I was about to leave I was given a gift of a bag with ten books in it. I took that as a great privilege.
The International School of Dohuk
I could not pass to Dohuk without going to visit the International School of Dohuk. A few years ago, the dynamic bishop of Amadia, his Grace Bishop Raban had been entrusted with the project, which matured little by little. That led to the creation of an International School. The authorities of Kurdistan, with the assistance of the Town of Dohuk, granted a ground and the construction started.
The International School, under the auspices of the Education Department of the Kurdistan Regional Government, was opened on 15 September 2004. The Chaldean Community ensured the presidency of it, but the direction was Kurdish.
Nowadays, the school has 170 students, 30 teachers and 28 staff members.
I met the director, Wahid Atrushi, a Moslem Kurd, a cultured, humanistic open-minded man. He told me that the school uses the English language to teach Years 4, 5 and 6 respectively, mainly scientific subjects such as chemistry, physics, mathematics and biology.
The students are also taught Social Sciences, Human rights, Democracy, History of the Kurds and English, French, Arabic, Kurdish, Aramaic languages. Aramaic was taught one hour weekly and was compulsory for Christians but optional for followers of other religions. The school wished to help Iraqi Youth to study English and French languages, so as to open their minds to the world and to “occidental” culture.
The pupils write a magazine and they have sports teams. The education there is free of charge.
I asked who could study there. The answer was that there was a great selection. The students who are usually accepted in the school must have obtained a minimum of 75% in the Baccalaureate of the 3 rd Year and have 15 years of age and more. The European and American students must pass an interview.
Then, I visited the school which was very modern, occupying a five-storey building, already equipped with all modern conveniences and computers. All the students were wearing a uniform, a model of white shirt, a blue dress or trousers.
I also learnt that the students were full board. The building had a large canteen and a vast room for lectures.
The weather was hot and Wahid Atrushi took me along to his office, where I rested. The phone rang. It was His Grace, the Bishop Raban of Amadia. He gave his apologies for not being aware of my visit and for not coming to meet with me. He had not been informed of my visit in Dohuk. He thanked me for the hundreds of books which our delegation of Kurdlogy had brought from Paris for the library of the school.
Hîzil, the social and cultural Centre of Zakho
I had a keen desire to stay a few days in Zakho, now a large city which is about 120 kilometres of Mosul, not far from the Turkish / Iraqi borders. It is today a significant trading centre, populated by some 250000 Kurds, Chaldeans, and Armenians. It is the sub-prefecture, which belongs to Dohuk Governorate. I had been born in Sanat, which was affiliated to Zakho.
I thought of the father R.P. Guiseppe Campanile, O.P., who has appointed apostolic Prefect for Mesopotamia and Kurdistan in 1809. He visited and liked Zahko. He wrote:
“Zakho is the most gracious and pleasant city amongst the miserable cities of Bahdinan. It is located on a soft slope and forms an island surrounded by the Khabour River which joined together with some ramifications of Hîzil River at a little distance from Zakho. Zakho is located in the middle of a very beautiful cutting of green grass hills, which form picturesque and delicious perspectives. The small gardens which surround it contribute to make it merrier and pleasant.
It is a rich and commercial city. The traders come there, from almost all Kurdistan and Mesopotamia. There, they buy and sell a lot of good : Walnuts, who are estimated to be the best of all the Kurdistan, rice, wax, honey, oil, sumac (soummâk in Arabic), raisins, lentils and a lot of fruits. There are also very famous sulfatemines.”1
Two centuries had passed, but Zakho had preserved its charm and attraction and also its dynamism. I could have re-written the text of Guiseppe Campanile !
When I arrived, I wanted to see the old, famous Dalal Bridge which spans the Khabour River, probably dating from the Roman time, or from a late epoch. I saw that the stones were falling over; the bridge urgently needs to be restored. Anxious, I called on my mobile phone Kana’an Mufti, the Director General of Antiquities, a courteous and pleasant man. I warned him of the danger of the bridge breaking down due to decay. He promised me to take action for a restoration of the bridge.
After a few days, at home, with my kinship and relations, I went to visit the cultural and social Centre, close to the Chaldean See. I asked to meet the director. Much to my surprise, I saw Amir Goga, a friend of childhood, lost of sight for a long time. He looked older; of course, partly white-haired, but had kept his enthusiasm, his dynamism, his wittedness.
He told me he was so happy to see me back in my home country after all these years I spent abroad. Then, we exchanged memories. We told some jokes in our Soureth language.
I asked him about their cultural and social activities, as I had heard that it was a very good Centre.
Amir Goga told me that eighty-three employees work at the Centre. Many people come to the dispensary every day, requesting assistances of all kinds which are free of charge. They are given drugs.
The Centre offers a monthly allowance to 912 Christian families emigrated of Mosul, Baghdad, and also to 570 other needy families of the area. As for the culture, the Centre publishes in Arabic and in Kurdish a review entitled Hîzil. The writers, the artists of the province of Zakho can promote their inheritance.
Then the director showed me the back of a magazine which he took from over his desk. To my great surprise and pride, there was a picture of my own village, Sanat. What an emotion!
I was told by Amir Goga that a small team was charged to animate a radio which diffused its programs in Kurdish, Arabic, Syriac and Armenian from 8.30 a.m. to 8.30 p.m . The audience can listen to radio news, music, and songs.
Another team in charge of Information Technology for the young people and had in the area 5 centres equipped with computers offering the access to the Internet.
Then I was informed by Amir Goga with much liveliness and sensibility of a great project: the rebuilding of the Christian villages destroyed by the Baathist regime of Iraq, like Peshkabour, Deraboun, Bajida, Karaoula, Charanes, Deschtatar and many others.
Six hundred and fifty houses had been already rebuilt, with running water, electricity, and two hundred are awaiting the end of the public works. Eight primary schools had opened their doors.
The Diocese of Zakho had taken charge of rebuilding the churches.
I told my friend that I had been to Deschtatar the day before, where the Sanati are coming to live on the lands of their ancestors. I saw the new buildings, and then I had a picnic with residents on the bank river Nhera. I felt a true feeling of joy! I reminded a proverb of the area:
“Bird, tell me, where are you the most happy? –It is where I was born,
answered the bird.”
Indeed, I was in communion with this little bird !
I was impressed by the extensiveness of the task, and I asked the director if he was not cramped for room.
He told me that the buildings were too exigent then now, but they were about to buy a greater Centre for all their social and cultural activities. Fortunately, the Kurdish Federal Government, directed by the Prime Minister, Nejirvan Barzani, and the minister for Economy Sarkgis Agajan, agreed to finance all their projects.
I felt that my friend was doing a great job and I conveyed my feelings to him as I was leaving him, praising his dynamism and devoutness.
On my return home in Paris, I think of all things I had seen in Iraq. I reconsidered with my visits in the various cultural Centres of Iraqi Kurdistan and with the people who I had the opportunity to meet. I had the feeling of a beginning of renewal of the Assyro-Chaldean-Syriac culture and language. I had seen the signs of them. The Federal Government of Kurdistan and the President Masoud Barzani backed up this cause, this renewal.
I hope that one day, a Syriac University will be born for the greatest joy of all young and old Chaldo Assyrian people youth. They do say dreams sometimes come true. We will pray for that dream.