The Shemsi and the Assyrians
Posted: Monday, November 15, 2010 at 01:37 PM UT
Many ethno-religious groups such as the Yezidis and the Sabean/Mandeans are struggling to survive in the Middle East. If the present trend of exodus and persecution continues it is unlikely that they will survive the twenty-first century in their homeland, though they will have a presence in the Diaspora. Middle East has always been home to obscure religious sects some of which did not survive to the twentieth century. One such group is the Shemsi (or Shamsiya, Shamsia etc). Very little is written about them in contemporary times. Only in the nineteenth century and earlier did the missionaries and travellers paid some scant regard to these people, who seemed to have been absorbed by the Syriac Orthodox Assyrians in Mardin.
The Diccionario Enciclopédico de Teologia published in 1835 has the following entry for the Shemsi:
The presence of the Shemsi is recorded in Ottoman sources both in Amid (Diyarbekr) and Mardin. In the first Tahrir Register conducted in 1518 in Diyarbekr to identify people liable to the capitulation tax (cizye), does not list the Shemsi, but the second Tahrir Register identify the Shemsi as a separate congregation.2 It is known that in the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries they had separate quarters and cemetery in Mardin.3 In Mardin, in the locality of Şemsiyyân, where the majority of the inhabitants were said to be Shemsi people, 22, 66 and 82 people liable for tax are recorded in 1608-1611, 1692-93 and 1694-95 respectively.4 Given that the ratio of those liable for the tax the general population was 1 to 5, it can be surmised that no more than 400 Shemsi lived in Mardin in the seventeenth century.
Simeon, the Polish traveller who visited Mardin in the early seventeenth century, claimed that the Shemsi were Armenian speakers. Simeon noticed the temple at the Mardin Gate, its remnants of which apparently survived until modern times when the road was widened.5 Simeon alleged that in that temple the Shemsi used to gather every Saturday night, pray, but also hold incestuous orgies. It must be said these kinds of accusations have burdened all esoteric religions in the Middle East, such as the Alawis, Druzes and the Yezidis and their veracity is doubtful. Simeon reported that a governor who heard about these sessions asked the sect of their origin. They said they were Armenian. The governor then gave them the choice of either attend a mosque or the Armenian Church or be put to the sword. The Shamsi promised to attend the Armenian Church. The governor threatened them with reprisals if they did not keep their promise. The frightened Shemsi were then said to have stopped using the temple and many migrated to Iran, “the Syrian country”, i.e. Tur’Abdin Mountains, Tokat, Merzifon and elsewhere.6
Simeon also noted that the sect was known as Arevortik (sons of the sun) among the Armenians since the fifth century and that the sect was thought to be of Persian origin. Simeon added that the Yezidis were also thought to be of Arevortik background.7 As the Yezidis prey at least twice a day facing the sun, the connection to the Yezidis seem plausible. Nevertheless, sun (light, fire) was worshipped by Gnostics, and Gnostics ideas are prevalent in both Alawi, Druse, Sabean/Mandean and Yezidi religions.
In the “Chronicle of Matthew of Edessa” of the twelfth century, Matthew mentions the sun worshipping Arevabacht8 (also known as Arevorti) who appeared to have maintained the cult of fire. Dulaurier notes that they lived in the city of Samosate,9 which meant sun, and that “Grégoire Makisdros, who wrote in the eleventh century, mentions this sect in a letter addressed to the Patriarch of the Syrians”. Those of Samosate wanted to embrace Christianity in the following century, as it can be seen from in a letter of Patriarch Saint Nersès the Gracious. Thomas Medzop’hetzi, historian of the fifteenth century, said, recounting the invasion of Timour (Tamerlan) in Mesopotamia: “[h]e came to Mardin and vandalised this city; he destroyed from top to bottom four villages lived by the worshippers of sun (the Arévorti): Schôl, Schmershakh, Safari and Maraghi. But afterwards, with the instigations of Satan, these sectarians multiplied in Mardin and Amid”.10 Satan is a reference to the much vilified Yezidis who have been erroneously labelled as Devil worshippers. The possible connection between the Yezidis is also strengthened by the existence of a “major tribe among the Yezidis or Armenia […] named Şemsiki”.11
Michel Fevbre, who lived among the Yezidis in the seventeenth century, noted that there were nine to ten thousand Shemsis, though, he does not indicate how he arrived at this estimate. He also reported that “they have neither temples nor churches to pray to God; they gather only in certain underground places and forts outside the cities, to assemble together and treat subjects of their religion; which they do secretly, so it can never be discovered that which they do among themselves”. According to Fevbre, even those converted to Christianity, out of fear of being assassinated, did not reveal the secret of the religion - due to a resolution which was adopted by their assembly.12
Febvre also recounted that “[t]he pashas seeing that they have no temples and that they live like beasts, without professing any religion externally, which is recognised by its rites and its ceremonies, like those of other nations”, forced the Shemsi to chose either Islam or a Christian sect “recognised and tolerated by the Empire of the Turks.” They joined the Syrians/Jacobites to avoid becoming Turks. Fevbre noted that the Shamsi did not follow Jacobite practices and continued holding secret assemblies.13
In his subsequent publication, in 1682, Febre noted that about six years ago [c. 1676], two young Shemsi went to Aleppo “to be baptised by the Armenian Catholic bishop and abandon their errors in general, without wanting to specify which instance in particular, of their bad practices and superstitions of their unfortunate Sect”.14 In his subsequent publication Fevbre also recounted his voyage from Diarbekr to Baghdad, in a caravan. One of his travelling companion, a rich merchant, was named Joseph, a common name among Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. Fevbre observing Joseph’s habits or discourse could not figure out to which of the three religions he belonged to, because he did not seem to be practicing any of these - rather living as a ‘pagan’. He was informed by third parties that the merchant was Shemsi. Others said he was a Muslim. When Fevbre inquired directly about the merchant’s religion, whether or not he was a Christian, he, in sotto voce, said that he was. However, when Fevbre
The next reference to the Shemsi can be found in a 1739 study about Manichaeism: [t]hey believe in God, Paradise, Hell, last judgment and honour Jesus Christ […]. It is said that they are united with the Jacobites of Syria. They are valiant, but humane, hospitable and live among us in great harmony.16 This is inconsistent with both Simeon and Fevbre’s biased accounts.
The Danish traveller and explore Carsten Niebuhr who visited the Assyrians in Mardin in remarked in 1760s that:
Anglican missionary Wolff who had visited Mardin in 1825, says that it was Sultan Murat, 150 year prior who ordered all the sects without sacred books to be put to death. The Shemsi were in danger of being exterminated. The Syriac patriarch reportedly bought 100 Shemsi families for 1,000 piaster, on the condition that they would embrace the Christian faith to which they submitted voluntarily. Wolff notes that their practice of Christianity was not sincere and that on his insistence the bishop Abd’Allah found him two Shemsi notables to inquire about their religion. They told him that they believe in God and that they are friends of all men. When pressed by Wolff to find out whether they believed in the holy trinity, they responded “why not?” Evidently, the two Shemsi provided the answers which would please the inquirer. When asked about the origin of their name all that they said was that “that was their name”. Wolff noted that there were no intermarriages between the Shemsi and the Syriac Orthodox.18
It is difficult to ascertain the veracity of some of Wolff’s account especially in relation to the narrative about the Patriarch buying the Shamsia. From whom were they bought is not specified. Was it paid as a tax to the Palace? It is not very clear. Also, in another source though relying on the account of Wolff it states that it was the patriarch of the Nestorians (rather than Syriac Orthodox) who paid the 1,000 piaster.19 Consequently, most of the accounts are not reliable in this aspect and are likely to be erroneous, as we shall see.
The missionary Giuseppe Campanile in his 1818 study states that the Shemsi joined the Syriac Orthodox only for protection during the reign of Sultan Mustafa and that when the danger subsided they abandoned Christianity and resumed their old way.20 Campanile reports that Sultan Murat passed by Mardin with a large army, in 1693, on his way to take back Baghdad from the Persians. The Syrians accused the Shemsi of idolatry. The sultan, who did not want idolatrous people in his dominion, ordered them to embrace Mohammedanism. Reportedly, the Jacobite patriarch, hoping to bring the sect to Christianity gave a sum of silver to the sultan to buy the Shemsi. However, the Shemsi continued to worship within the confines of their own religion. After seventy years of continuous brawls between them, in 1763, they were compelled by the Jacobites, who, once again, reportedly, bribed government officials, to force the Shemsi to enter Syriac Orthodox churches to practice Christian worship.21
Much like Wolff’s account, Campanile’s information also contains factual errors. Mustafa I ruled between 1617-18 and 1622-23, also known as Mustafa the Mad (Deli Mustafa), he was more than likely suffering from a mental illness. Most of his life was imprisoned in his room by the palace clique. It would have been unlikely that Mustafa I ordered the Shemsi to convert to Islam or Christianity. Reportedly, he was so weak he could not even ride a horse.22 Mustafa II ruled between 1695-1703. We know from Fevbre that by then the Shemsi already united with the Syriac Orthodox. Murat IV ruled between 1623 and 1640 and waged a campaign to Bagdad in 1639.23 It is possible that Campanile made a typographical error stating 1639 as the year Murat passed through Mardin. In 1693, Ahmed II was the Sultan on the Ottoman throne.
Walpole who visited Mardin in 1850 also mentions that it was during the Sultan Murat reign that the Syrian Patriarch of the day took them under his protection. Known as worshipper of the sun, they would not divulge any information about their religion even to the Patriarch who protected them. The penalty for divulging details of the religion was stated to be “death from the hands of their fellows”,24 which explains the difficulties in obtaining reliable information.
The narratives about Shemsi conversion are varied to such an extent to be almost apocryphal. It is either an unnamed governor/pasha or the Sultan (Mustafa or Murat) who forced the Shemsi to convert to a recognised religion. Evidently, there are many inconsistencies in these narratives. We do know from Fevbre that the conversion occurred much earlier than suggested by either Campanile or Wolff. In fact, Syriac sources suggest that the Shemsi joined the Syrian Orthodox congregation in 500 AD. A document of Patriarch Ibrahim bar Gharib, dated 1400 AD state that “the Shamsis […] were led to God’s obedience and the doctrine of the Syrians 900 years ago”.25 The date of conversion suggested in this document coincides with the construction of the Deir-al-Zafran monastery. However, this date is more than likely to be approximate. A document by Basilius, Maphryono of the East, in 1446, still suggests that the conversion took place 900 years ago (546?) and a letter by Patriarch Ignatius Khalaf in 1458 does the same (558?).26 Clearly these latter documents copied the original document by Patriarch Ibrahim bar Gharib.
A manuscript by Mar Basilius, Maphryono of the East in 1460 states that the Shemsi united with the Syrians 920 years prior.27 A letter by Patriarch Dawud Shah, in 1460, stated that “the Shamsis joined our fold (the Syrian Church) and united themselves to us, and we and they became one. They have in their possession documents attesting to this” and “I […] issued for them this present document. I testified in it, as my fathers did earlier, that the Shamsis are members of our body. They are our brothers and from our community. They follow our path, our law, and tradition”.28
Another document issued by Patriarch ‘Abd Allah in 1521, which refers to the original issued by Ignatius Ibrahim bar Gharib, still states that “the Shamsis were guided to God’s obedience and the doctrine of the Syrians 900 years ago”, while Patriarch Mar Ignatius, in 1542, wrote that “for the last 962 [580 AD?] years or more they mixed with Syrian denomination and adopted its beliefs”.29
What we can surmise from these invaluable sources is that the Shemsi joined the Syrian Orthodox congregation much earlier than the missionaries and the travellers were led to believe. It is certain that they were given patently false information.
Despite the attestation by the Patriarchs that the Shemsi “maintain the unity of God and follow the Gospel according to the customs of the Syrians in their prayers, baptism, matrimony, and burial of the dead”,30 the fact that the Shemsi periodically requested such certification suggests that their true conversion was doubted by the congregation itself. “These documents were couched in such manner that they could, if need be, be presented to Muslim religious leaders. The Shamsis of Diyarbakr strove to keep these documents until the [1840s]”.31
As to the origin of the Shemsi people some theories were promulgated in the nineteenth century. Burckhardt who visited the Ansayri claimed that they divided into three sects: the Kelbye, the Shamsye and the Mokladje32 which suggest a connection between the Shemsi and the Ansayri (also know as Nusayris and Alawis). Volney also described the Ansayri as divided into three classes - the Shamsia, or adorers of the sun; the Kelbia, or worshippers of the moon and dogs; and the Kadmusi, who worshipped woman, particularly a female organ.33
Walpole says the Ansayri are in reality simply divided into two parties - the Shamsia and the Clausee, or Khamari. The first party had for spiritual heads Shaikh Habib, Shaikh Abbas, and Shaikh Ibrahim Sayid, and they resided in the districts of Latakia, Casius, Antioch, and in Cilicia. This district was also called Kaldahha, or Kelbia, and it is to this that Walpole attributes Volney's mistake of the Dog (Kalb) worshippers. As to the Kadmusi, they were Ismailis.34 Walpole added that “[t]he Shamsia do not smoke; they declare it an idle habit, and wrong.”
Hüseyin Türk in his study on the Nusayris in Turkey, notes that one branch of the Nusayri, the Haydârî, are known as Şemsî.35 Thus, one hypothesis is that the Shemsi originated from the Ansayri/Nusayri, an off-shoot of the Shiites, but just like the Alawis, the Alevis and the Druzes moved away from Islam completely to a unique system of beliefs.
Campanile notes that it was not known when the sect is established itself in Mardin: “Some people say that some of his families emigrated from India. Others assure that for a long time they lived dispersed in villages […] and some, not without some foundation, support that they were from Arabia Felix and that, because of the upheavals which occurred, certain families fled and came to establish themselves in Mardin”.36
Elsewhere connection has been suggested between the Shemsi and Zoroastrianism. Walter Keating Kelly who wrote in 1844 claimed that
In the ever persistent compulsion in the Turkish historiography of connecting of every ethnic group or nation that lived in Anatolia to Turcic origins, it is claimed that the Shemsi were specifically of Oğuz Turkish, though apparently Christian Oğuz background.38 Discounting the latter as a not serious scholarly consideration, there are still a number of hypotheses which remain outstanding.
Bruinessen notes that the extant information (based on Niebuhr’s and Simeon’s accounts) “is insufficient for deciding whether these Shemsis were related to the older Sabaeans of Harran, as some would have it, or whether the small Yezidi communities still existing in the same areas have absorbed them and preserve elements of their religion”.39
Indeed, the scant information does not allow us to speculate about the size of the sect, their precise religious beliefs and/or practices, or their origin. Some information concerning their religious practices have been recorded, but this information seems to be second hand rather than through direct observation. From the limited amount of information available about their religion, it could be said that they shares some religious tenets with Yezidis, Sabeans, Zoroastrians, Alawis and Druzes. Given that Gnostic elements are present in all these religions, all we can deduct from this is that Gnosticism has influenced many religions in the Middle East. Their secrecy prevented their neighbours to find much about their religion and rituals. In fact the only reliable fact is the obsession with secrecy of this sect as reported by many observers.
The Shemsi were then considered to be Christians Jacobites but they seemed to have played a leap service to formalities of Christianity. It seems certain however they assimilated into the Assyrian Orthodox (Syriac) community in Mardin, in Turkey. As to their worship, we have very little information, other than being sun worshippers. Campanile notes that they venerated cows and that they met three times a year to make “an idol of pâte in form of [a kind] lamb and put it in a big bowl of tin by covering only the head. They pray in front of it, prostrate themselves, kiss it with big respect and demonstrate many other acts of adoration. At the end of these rituals the leaders of the sect, which are to the number of twelve, make small pieces which they introduce into the mouth of the helpers.”40 It is worthy of note that early in the twentieth century rumours were circulating that the Druzes also used a calf representation in their rituals. Hitti noted the existence of a gold figure of calf used in the leading places of seclusion (khalwaw) was “ascertained beyond doubt”.41
Southgate who visited the Syriac Orthodox (Jacobite) in Mardin in the nineteenth century noted that the Shemsi
Buckingham who also visited Mardin tried to obtain information about the Shemsi. Buckingham notes that politically the Shemsi were regarded part of the Syrian Patriarch’s flock:
The same patriarch, after an intimacy of many years with some of the heads of these people, could never obtain from them any disclosure on the subject of their religion, as they all agreed, that death from the hands of their fellows would be the penalty of such crime. [...] the number of the Shemseeahs was stated to be now about one thousand families; but every one admitted that the greatest care was taken by them to prevent the disclosure of their real tenets.43
Despite the factual errors, noted above, Campanile’s account contains some interesting observations. Campanile notes that “[i]f they speak with Turks, they claim to be Turks and brag to be Jewish with the Jews and Christians with the Christians”.44 This seems to be a practice of dissimulation (taqiya) which both the Druzes and the Alawite practiced, which strengthens the hypothesis about connection between the sects.
Campanile also collected some information about the cultural and religious practices of the Shemsi. He reported that the Shemsi believed that their sins are tied to hairs. Also when one of them is near death, they shave off his beard, his hair and other body hair, to speed up death. “After death, they drip liqueur to his/her throat to quicken the journey to the other world, as they say. They it also put a gold coin in the hand to pay for the entrance to Paradise. A Jacobite priest comes to bury them, but they do not allow him to see the body before it is put in beer and tied”.45 The women distinguished themselves from those of the country because they carried a white topcoat. “All lived in inside of city of Mardin. They were poor and lived very poorly. It was very difficult to have other details on them, because they made everything big secret, for fear of being discovered and accused of idolatry”.46
One of their religious/cultural practices up to the mid nineteenth century was to burry “their dead with many of their household belongings, arms, and gold and silver jewellery. They had their own graveyard in Diyarbakr.”47
In the early nineteenth century the sect is said to have numbered about fifty families,
There are some claims that the Shemsi survived up to the mid twentieth century - or at least some individuals continued practising the religion. Reportedly, “up to World War I, no more than seventy of their families were still living in Diyarbakr and Mardin under the name of Shamsiyya. In Mardin, they occupied a private district in the Sur Gate50 and had a small, new church in the name of the virgin.”51 Amed Gökçen who writes on Yezidis claims that the Shamsi sect survived right up to the 1960s:
Except for this source, all other indications are that the Shemsi melted away within the Assyrian community in Mardin. What is not clear is why they choose the Assyrian
The Mar Gabriel monastery has the sun symbol in one of its walls, and a Syriac Orthodox church in the village of Sare (Gawayto/Sarı), as well as the Mar Johannan Church has a sun relief. These examples suggested to Sever the existence of sun worshippers in the centuries preceding Christianity.55 It should be added that part of another Syriac Church, Mar Behnam, also once served as a sun worshippers’ temple.56
All references in the nineteenth century suggest that the Shemsi resisted becoming Christians for centuries if not for more than a millennium. They may have eventually capitulated and joined the Syriac orthodox congregation in practice, as well as in spirit, and, perhaps through intermarriage integrated fully with the Assyrians.
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