The Nestorian Christians of Hakkari exercised a peculiar fascination on the Western imagination in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But just who were they, and what business did an emissary of the distant Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England, have with them?
Declared heretical by the mainstream Orthodox Church in Constantinople following the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431, the Nestorian, or Assyrian, Church of the East, nevertheless grew apace, boasting converts as far afield as Central Asia, China, the Arabian Peninsula and India, as well as its heartland in northern Mesopotamia (now comprising parts of modern Turkey, Syria and Iraq). Following the devastating attacks of the Mongol ruler Tamerlane in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, the Nestorian Church began to decline, and eventually the Nestorians sought relief by relocating to the wild mountains of Hakkari (modern Turkey).
Isolated in their highland valleys, coexisting uneasily with the Muslim Kurdish tribes who had long held sway in the region, the Nestorians developed an ethnic, as well as a religious, identity of their own. By the 19th century, however, even the remoteness and instability of their mountain fastness was an insufficient deterrent to American Presbyterian missionaries. The first-wave of American missionaries was well-meaning and did not attempt conversions. Some later arrivals, however, convinced the Nestorians were barking up the wrong liturgical tree, sought to bring them into the Presbyterian fold. English missionaries were not far behind the Americans in breaching the walls of the Nestorians’ mountain fortress. They avoided converting the Nestorians, seeking instead to educate them so they could maintain their Christian faith (for example, by printing bibles in the language of the Nestorians, Syriac). Nonetheless, the English clergymen who preceded Reverend William Ainger Wigram and his party (“The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Assyrian Mission” was the official name of the small band of travelling clergy) could not but help but look down on the virtually tribal Nestorians, with their ancient but heretical (to an Anglican) beliefs and their harsh, subsistence way of life. Worse still for the hapless Nestorians, the work of the missionaries, American and British, only served to raise the suspicions of the Ottoman Turks, nominal rulers of the region, who feared (rightly) Western imperialist designs on their territory. The Nestorians’ Kurdish neighbors were also alarmed, believing the Western powers would favor the Christian Nestorians at their expense.
Tribal chiefs, evensong and sour yogurt
In Part 1, we left Wigram poised on the edge of Barzani territory, in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan. Then as now the Barzani family were powerful tribal chiefs, and with Sheikh Barzani’s blessing Wigram’s party was able to traverse his mountainous fiefdom in safety, crossing into what is today Turkish territory south of Oramar, a village on the fringes of one of Turkey’s most beautiful ranges, the lake and glacier-spangled Sat Mountains. Visiting a Nestorian hamlet surrounded by Kurdish Muslim villages, and a day’s march from the nearest fellow Christians, the reverend noted gloomily: “Religiously, they were left destitute. For 30 years they had had no one to celebrate their services, no one to marry them, no one to baptize their children, no one to bury their dead.” It must have been a bizarre scene when Wigram and his fellow Anglican clergyman took their place on Sunday evening in a simple mountain church, unused for three decades, and “recited our English evensong, the villagers standing around reverently and joining in the Amens, the only word they could understand.”
Wigram and his party wandered at will through some of the most stunning scenery in the world, jostling with floods of sheep and their Kurdish Heriki tribe shepherds on narrow mountain tracks, eating bread made from roasted acorn in rude highland villages and purchasing sour yogurt from nomadic pastoralists on their summer pastures. They travelled by mule, each day descending into deep gorges and ascending steep ridges, sometimes stopping at night in sheltered, oasis-like valleys, where vines, fig and walnut were cultivated. The tales the reverend heard from the locals, and recorded in his journal, “The Cradle of Mankind: Life in Eastern Kurdistan,” were of fighting between the Kurds and Nestorians, and of feuds and vendettas within and between clans.
Into Iran and back to Van
From the Sat range the party headed northeast to the Jilu district (today’s Cilo Mountains) around Hakkari town, which Wigram describes as “the most savage bit of primeval chaos in all the “ashiret” [tribal] districts of Kurdistan.” From there they climbed over the formidable Cilo range to emerge on the startlingly flat and fertile Yuksekova (Gevarova) plain, from where they crossed the border into the shah’s Iran and the other major Nestorian stronghold around Lake Urmia. The party then re-crossed into Ottoman territory, headed for another high-altitude soda lake, Van. The landscape that unfurled before the indefatigable Wigram was quite different to the spiky, serrated peaks of Hakkari, with the reverend writing, “The hills are rounded and grass-grown in summer, and the valleys wide and fertile, though for the most part uncultivated.” Soon the party “enters the land of the Armenian Christians, leaving the Assyrian or Nestorian land behind.” Başkale, today a town that is fervently ethnically Kurdish, was then “inhabited mainly by Jews, who are, as always, the financiers and merchants of the land.” The reverend was as every bit as impressed with his next stop, the fairytale fortress at Hoşap, as most modern travelers are. Recently restored and re-opened, Wigram wrote that the hilltop fortress, some 55 kilometers south of Van, “really embodies the dreams of Gustav Dore.”
According to Wigram, the Van region is “a lofty plateau, averaging 6,000 feet above the sea, and dotted with the cones of one of the great volcanic fields of the world.” Confessing that he gets on “less well with Armenians than with other Orientals,” the reverend nonetheless admires the fact they have the “same power of endurance and toughness” as the Jews, with whom our Anglican narrator compares them. Armenians, of course, formed the majority in Van in 1909, and much of the reverend’s discourse on the town and region is taken with an assessment of the unhappy political situation of the time. The Armenian nationalist Dashnak (“Tashnak” in Wigram’s narrative) movement was incurring the ire of the Ottoman/Young Turk authorities for raising rebellion against Turkish rule, or as the reverend put it, “The line which the Tashnak brotherhood followed was simply this: to provoke open massacre by deeds they know must infuriate the Turk in the hope that if only the massacre was horrible enough, European intervention would follow.” Wigram tempers his assessment of the situation as he found it by making reference to past injustices against the Armenians. “They are never more than a minority wherever they are found … but even in this their original home, massacre, oppression and the deliberate planting of counter-balancing colonies of Kurds in the villages whence the original villagers have been expelled, has reduced them to something less than half the present population.” Despite the unrest, the optimistic Wigram writes, “Given better means of transport, and better government, one may yet see Van become a health resort for its waters are certainly curative in certain types of skin disease.”
Down to Hakkari and onto Baghdad
From Van the mission made its way back to the mountains of Hakkari, their goal the remote patriarchal seat of the Nestorians at Quodshanes (Kochanes), some 20 kilometers north of the town of Hakkari (Çölemerik). Here resided the patriarch of the Nestorians, Mar Shimun, leading services in a small, plain but dramatically set church overlooking a lush meadow high above the plunging valley of the Zab River. Nestorians from the surrounding mountains called on the patriarch for advice, and Wigram described a typical meeting between shepherd and flock: “Anyone may be present, and anyone may bring forward any conceivable business that he wishes to have discussed in public. Coffee and tobacco go round, and for picturesqueness the gathering is hard to beat. It is composed mostly of mountaineers who look as if they had stepped down from the Assyrian sculptures, clad in loose home-spun coats and trousers, gay cummerbunds that are wrapped round and round their waists, and high felt caps that have been their headgear since time immemorial. Below these hang the long, plaited pigtails that form the traditional arrangement of their long hair.”
From Hakkari the mission headed south to Amadiya, and thence onto Mosul (both then still Ottoman domains, of course, today part of the troubled country of Iraq). From Mosul the mission floated down the Tigris on a keleg, a traditional raft constructed from timber and inflated sheepskins. Wigram describes a raft journey as “probably the most absolutely restful mode of travel known,” and enjoys swimming in the river with a blown-up sheepskin as a buoyancy aid and watching the river banks slide by from the shade of a “grassy hut” built atop the raft. The river journey’s end was Baghdad, from where the intrepid clergyman returned to Britain.
In May 1915 the Nestorian patriarch gambled on Allied success in World War I and openly came out in support of the Russians. He felt he had little choice, as the future of Ottoman Anatolia’s Christian minorities, viewed as traitors and fifth-columnists by the ruling triumvirate of Cemal Paşa, Enver Paşa and Talat Paşa, was decidedly bleak. Later in 1915 the Russian’s withdrew from Van and, fearing Turkish reprisals, virtually the entire Nestorian population of Hakkari (some 60,000) packed up their bags and headed over the mountains to join up with their kinsmen and co-religionists in Urmia (Iran), then occupied by Russian troops. When the Russians pulled out of Iran after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Nestorians felt compelled to flee again. This time they headed for Hamadan (Iran) where they sought refuge with occupying British troops, though many thousands died en route. The British moved the survivors onto Baghdad, and the remnants of this proud mountain race ended up in lowland refugee camps. From 1920 many Nestorians attempted to resettle their highland home in what would soon become republican Turkey, but they were finally driven back into British-mandated Iraq by Kemalist forces in 1924. The British cynically used the Nestorians to help keep control of country’s unruly Arabs and Kurds, creating a force known as the Assyrian Levies. This aroused Muslim resentment, and when the British mandate over Iraq ended in 1933, many thousands of Nestorian Christians were massacred. Today the small Nestorian (or as they prefer to be called today, Assyrian) Christian populations of Iraq and Iran are under threat and dwindling, although many now live in Europe and the US. The patriarchal church at Kochanes survives in the mountains outside the town of Hakkari, an empty shell holding the ghosts of a near-forgotten people.
“The Cradle of Mankind” is readable online at www.aina.org/books/com/com.htm
For information on the Nestorian/Assyrian Christians read “The Church of the East: An Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity” by Christopher Baumer (I.B Tauris)
For a vivid account of American missionary activity in 19th-century Hakkari try “Fever and Thirst: Dr. Grant and the Christian tribes of Ku” by Gordon Taylor (Academy Chicago Publishers)