1937: The Assyrians: A Debt of Honour
The story of the Assyrians is not one of which the British can be proud. Had we not afforded them protection and help, their situation might, it is true, be worse than it is today. But everyone who reads General Browne’s moving account must feel that here indeed is a debt of honour which it would be shameful to leave unpaid. No two men have done more to redress the balance than General Browne, who commanded the Assyrian Levies in Iraq for eight years and was chosen by the League of Nations to investigate the possibilities of Assyrian settlement overseas; and Captain Gracey, Organizing Secretary of the Assyrian Settlement National Appeal.
If the Assyrians of today are of the same race as the old conquering people of that name in pre-Christian history, any account of them must span a period of little less than 4000 years, beginning as it does some-where about 1800 B.C. But they do not themselves claim this descent. It is true that they resemble the ancient Assyrians in appearance, dress, language and personal names - those of Sargon and Nimrud are very common among them but they are content to say, “We know that we were once a great people”, and to leave it at that.
If they are in fact descended from the ancient race, a curious repetition of history has recently taken place. Somewhere about 1100 B.C. Asshur-Nazir-Pal, King of Assyria, built a number of mound forts among the center of the valley which runs eastwards from Silaimanieh, in Iraq, to keep that part of the country in order. In A.D. 1925, when building police posts in the same valley for the same purpose, we found that the best places were these same mound forts, and their construction was guarded by the Assyrian troops of the Iraq Levies. Whatever may be the truth about their descent, the Assyrians of today date their history from their conversion to Christianity by St. Thomas and St. Thaddaeus in about A.D. 70. This begins the development of what I will call the Missionary Period. The Assyrian, in his natural surroundings, displays a fierce and determined character, full of energy, and fired by the new Faith they spread it north-wards and eastwards. This brought them into conflict with the revived Persian Empire of the Sassanids, and a cruel persecution followed.
Relief came from the south. In the year 633 the Arabs burst into Mesopotamia as conquerors and proselytizers, offering to all the choice of conversion, tribute, or the sword. The Assyrians chose to pay tribute, and, probably because of the Persian cruelties, they joined the Arabs, and the Persian Empire went down in ruins.
The Prophet Mohammed then gave the Assyrians a written firman, which was in existence as late as 1847, according them permission to carry out their own religious observances without interference. The Arabs also seem to have raised no objection to missionary work, and the Assyrians spread their faith across Asia into China, where its influence can even yet be traced, and to India, where there is still a community of some 12,000 or 15,000 souls under a Bishop, on the Malabar coast. Thus, the period between the 7th and 13th centuries might be called the Golden Age of the Assyrian Church, compared with its subsequent history.
Then came a period of calamity - and unless we can find some real scheme of settlement for these people. I am afraid that we must admit that they are still in such a period. It began with the Mongol invasions, which started about 1230 and ended just after 1400. When they ceased, the population of Mesopotamia was reduced to one-tenth and the land ruined. The canal system was broken down, and, as the canals in many places were in a built-up bed above the surrounding country, the land was turned first into a swamp and then, as the canals silted up, into a salt desert. From the air, the country now looks like a skeleton. The lines of what were once canals can be traced, running from the rivers into what is now desert. Mounds and rubble as intervals mark what formerly were villages.
The remnant of the people fled to the more inaccessible parts, the Assyrians mainly into the mountain district of Kurdistan known as Hakkiari. Here, in 1517, they became subjects of the Turkish Empire, and so remained until the outbreak of the great war, when some 80,000 were established in this highland area. Others remained within the present boundaries of Iraq, in Mosul and the valley of the Tigris, numbering at the same period about 10,000. The Assyrians pre-war habitat was not, however, solely confined to Turkish territory, for yet another group of 35,000 Assyrian lowlanders dwelt on the shores of Lake Urmia, in the Persian Azerbaijan. The followers of the Assyrian Patriarch thus reached a total of 125,000, excluding the community of India.
A short sketch of their method of rule may be of interest. Their Head is the Patriarch, called the Mar Shimun, his full title being “His Beatitude the Mar Shimun”, Katholikos Patriarch of the East”. Under him are three Metropolitans, whom we might call Archbishops; two are in Iraq and one in India. The Mar Shimun may not marry, so that the office descends from uncle to nephew in the Mar Shimun family. Up to the last few years the Mar Shimun was not only spiritual head but also directed the policy of his people, acted as their representative in dealing with officials and, under certain conditions, as their leader in war.
There is also a system of tribal rule. The tribes fall into two distinct divisions: The Ashiret, or free tribes, numbering 6; and the Rayat, or tribes subject to Kurds, Turks or Persians, numbering 15. The tribes are ruled by a malik or chief, hereditary in most cases; but in some, Tkhuma for instance, a malik is elected for a term of four years from one of five families. The Ashiret tribes formed a small compact enclave on both sides of the Greater Zab. Qudshanis, the home of the Mar Shimun, was on the north side of this enclave, close to Julamerk, the headquarters of Wali, or Turkish official in whose jurisdiction Hakkiari lay. Cut off from the outside world, the Assyrians carried on such industries as were necessary for their livelihood. Certain tribes, however, specialized. For instance, the Baz tribe were expert builders in stone, and many well built stone houses constructed by them can be seen in Kurdish villages.
About 170 years ago, part of the people living in the plains broke away from the Patriarch and formed the Chaldean Church. Otherwise there is little to note until the year 1847, when the Wali of Mosul, frightened by the tales that reached him of the increasing strength of the Assyrians. Instigated by him, and helped by Turkish troops, a powerful Kurdish chief called Bedir Khan Beg attacked the Assyrians. A horrible massacre followed, much destruction was done, and the firman of Mohammed was destroyed.
The news reached Constantinople. Our ambassador there, Stratford Canning, reported to London, and on the representatives of our Government the massacre was stopped. For this the Assyrians still venerate the name of Queen Victoria. In the eighties, Archbishop Benson, then Archbishop of Canterbury, formed the mission to the Assyrians, and a body clergy and laymen went out to help in educating their clergy. Already American missionaries were there, and as a result of this influence a number of Assyrians have since emigrated to America.
We now come to the Great War. At first, even after Turkey came in, the Assyrians remained quiet. I have been told that the Wali of Julamerk was a good man and a friend to them, and that, had he remained, they might have stayed quietly in their hills. But he was moved, and another took his place. Then the Russians, having defeated the Turks at Sari Kamish, got into touch with the Assyrians, and urged them to rise against the Turks. The new Wali heard of this, decided on terrorism and attacked the Assyrian in Albaq. This determined the course the Assyrians were to persue. As was their custom when an important decision had to be made, the Patriarch called together the Grand Council of tribal representatives to consider what attitude they should take in the Great War. The Patriarch put the questions to the vote, and the vote was for war with Turkey, which was accordingly declared in May 1915.
In Mosul was the young brother of the Patriarch, Hormizd d’Mar Shimun. The Wali of Mosul seized him and send a message to the Patriarch to say that he would execute Hormizd unless the Assyrians kept quiet. The Patriarch replied that he must think of his people, and Hormizd was executed. The decision for war had only just been taken when the Russians, hard-pressed in Poland, withdrew their forces and left the Assyrians to face the Turks and Kurds alone. In the summer, they could hold off their enemies in their mountains; but this was impossible in the arctic winter of Kurdistan. The Patriarch made his way through the enemy to Urmia, where the Russians, who virtually controlled northern Persia before the War, were established; interviewed and made plans with them and returned.
Then, led the Patriarch, the whole nation broke through the enemy lines, crossed over the mountains to Urmia and joined the Russians. Three Assyrian Battalions were formed, one led by the Mar Shimun himself, the other two being commanded by Russian officers, with Assyrian officers as interpreters. They fought alongside the Russian troops. Then came the Russian Revolution, and once again the Assyrians were left alone. Turkey was, however, assailed from several directions, and the Assyrians were able to hold on. Early in 1918 the British, who had by then extended their lines from Baghdad tacross Persia to the Caspian, through Kermanshah, Hamadan and Kazvin, made contact with the Assyrians. A British airman landed at Urmia and brought back news that the Assyrians needed arms and ammunition, and arrangements were made to send them a convoy.
Disasters now fell on the Assyrians. They first lost their wise and brave leader, the Patriarch, Benjamin d’Mar Shimun. He was advised to make an agreement with a Kurdish chief, Ismail Agha of Shekak, called Simko, or the little man. This man received the Patriarch at his house, and had him shot down as he left, apparently thinking he would please the Persians by so doing. It is satisfactory to know that he gained nothing by his act. The Persians repudiated him, the Turks wished to execute him. The Assyrians, to avenge their Patriarch, marched against Simko, seized his town and burnt it. He escaped, but lived as a hunted man for twelve years and was finally shot by Persians in 1930. Polus d’Mar Shimun, the Patriarch’s brother, was elected Patriarch. Then came the second disaster.
By arrangement with the British, a large proportion of the fighting men had gone to meet the convoy which was being sent to them, when the Turks suddenly attacked. The depleted line broke, and the whole mass of Assyrians started on a hurried retreat to the south. Having made no arrangements, they seized food in the villages through which they passed. The villagers attacked the stragglers. Typhus and dysentery broke out. An eye-witness gives a ghastly picture of how the exhausted people dropped where they could for the night, how they struggled up in the morning to continue the march, leaving dead, dying and those too weak to move behind them, while the enemy swept down on the helpless people to rob and murder.
Eventually they struck patrols of the 14th Hussars, who beat off the persuers, and the Assyrians reached Hamadan. Fifty thousand started, and thirty thousand arrived. Twenty thousand died or disappeared. From Hamadan they were sent by lorry to Bakuba [Monument in Aramaic, English] in Iraq, where they were camped until the War ended. Here Polus d’Mar Shimun died. The hardship of the retreat were too much for one who was already a sick man. His prospective successor and nephew, Eshai d’Mar Shimun, a boy of sixteen, was elected, and later went to England and studied at St. Augustine’s College, Canterbury, and at Westcott House, Cambridge.
The Great War ended, and an attempt was made to repatriate the Assyrians by marching them back to their own country under their own leaders. This failed. Their own organization was bad, it was too late in the year to cross the higher mountains, and finally the route to Hakkari led through the country of Kurds who had attacked the Assyrians in 1915, and fighting broke out. They were therefore all sent to the Mosul liwa ( province) to wait, while the victorious Allies wrangled in Paris.
A sequence of events now occurred which vitally affected the future of the Assyrians. As early as 1915 the British authorities in Iraq had begun to enroll a force now known as the Iraq Levies, consisting chiefly of Arabs and Kurds under British officers. In 1921, at a conference held in Cairo, it was decided that thenceforth Arabs should serve only in the Iraqi Army controlled by the Arab government then in process of establishment under the British mandate. Iraq, until that period, had been held mainly by troops of the British and Indian armies at a cost of some ₤20,000,000 pounds a year, but it was now proposed to reduce this sum to ₤4,000,000 pounds by entrusting military responsibility to the Royal Air Force. The latter, however, insisted on the necessity of having an absolutely reliable force to back them, especially for the protection of their aerodromes, and such a force was fortunately at hand in the shape of the Iraq Levies; for, now that the Arabs were no longer available, soldiers had to be found elsewhere, and it was decided to enlist the Assyrians.
These had already demonstrated their reliability, not only when operating our columns in Kurdistan in 1919, but in the critical situation which developed at the time of the widespread Arab insurrection of 1920. General Sir J.Aylmer Haldane, who was then in command in Iraq, stated that “their valour saved the British forces”, and Sir Arnold Wilson, the Civil Commissioner, confirmed this. Yet further confirmation of their value was afforded by the first High Commissioner under the mandate, Sir Percy Cox, who, in his Report on Iraq Administration, 1920-22, stated that they had “proved their strategic value on the Iraq frontier”. In March, over 2000 enlisted in the Levies within three weeks; it is far from improbable that this instant response on the part of a people whose qualities as fighting men are renowned was the main reason which induced the Kemalists to abandon their projected attack. Led by British officers they are second to none.
Thus the Iraq Levies became entirely Assyrians, and the British Government are very much indebted to the Assyrians for their ability to effect a great saving of expense in Iraq from 1922 to 1932.
But the use of the Assyrians in this way, and the memory of their attitude during the Arab revolt, had serious consequences for themselves, as it made them very unpopular with the Iraqi Nationalists, who looked upon them as a sort of Praetorian Guard of the British, and the Assyrians did not help to improve matters by speaking of themselves as King George’s Troops, as opposed to the Arab Army. Attempts were made to combat this with a view to the future. Assyrians were encouraged to join the Iraqi Army, and about 100 did so. Six Assyrian boys, including Theodorus d’Mar joined the Police, and two became sub-inspectors.
But the antipathy between the Iraqi Nationalists and the Assyrians, full of anxiety for their future, did not die down. During the period 1920-24, Assyrians had been moving back into their country in small numbers, and it looked as if they might be quietly re-established there. But, in the middle of 1924, the Turkish Wali of Julamerk made a tour through Hakkiari, and he and his escort had a small fight with some Tkhuma Assyrians. Both sides met afterwards and decided that it was a mistake, but the attention of the Turkish Government was drawn to the area. A Turkish force marched into Hakkiari, drove out the Assyrians and entered Iraq. They were driven back on the Hezil River by air action, and in the Ser Amadiya area by a force of Iraq Levies and Assyrian irregulars under their Bishop, Mar Yuallaha of Berwar.
The matter was referred to the League of Nations and a boundary line between Iraq and Turkey was drawn out of a meeting of the Council of the League in Brussels. A League Commission, sent out to examine the situation, recommended the Brussels Line as the Iraq-Turkish boundary, and this recommendation, in spite of all the efforts of the British, was adopted.
From this decision, now admitted to be a blunder, date all the troubles in which we, Iraq and the League are involved today. It left the Assyrian country, except a very small area, within the Turkish frontier, and the Turks will not have the Assyrians back; it left over 30,000 Assyrians without homes in Iraq; and left Great Britain and Iraq with an insoluble problem. The story of the Assyrians from now on makes depressing reading, culminating in the present situation. Attempts were made to domicile them in the northern part of Iraq, and a certain number of Assyrians were settled; but, generally speaking, the problem was far from solved when, in 1932, the decision to give up the mandate was taken. Assyrians all along insisted that they would not be safe after the British left, scattered as they were in small parties among the Kurds. When the relinquishment of the mandate became a certainty, they took a desperate step to bring their case to notice.
This was the ‘political mutiny’ when officers and men of the Levies declared that they wished to be disbanded in a month from June 1, 1932. From our point of view they had no right to do anything of the sort, and a most dangerous would have arisen if several thousand men, all armed, were collected together in the area north of Mosul. No one knew what their plans were. From the Assyrian point of view it was simply a desperate attempt to bring their case home to everyone before it was too late. Many took part unwillingly, and the more level-headed admitted they were wrong; but all decided that they must hold together.
After some weeks of tension, it was decided that the Mar Shimun should go to Geneva and put the case of his people to the League in person. The Levies all withdrew their resignations and all were made to promise individually never again to take part in any more demonstrations of a political nature while serving. To their honour they have kept this promise to the letter, as will be shown later. The efforts of the Mar Shimun at Geneva had no result, and the mandate over Iraq was given up without the Assyrian problem being solved. But a settlement officer, Major Thompson, was sent out to work under the Iraq Government, and his work began in 1933. Then matters began to move rapidly to a crisis.
Two ex-Levy officers, Yakub Ismail of the Upper Tiari, and Loko Shlimun of the Tikhuma, after figuring in a series of disturbing situations in the country north of Mosul, marched off into Syria with between 400 and 500 men. They were all armed, but they had no intention to fighting, because they left their women and children in Iraq, a thing they would certainly not have done had they intended war. A delicate situation followed, involving France, Iraq and Great Britain. Then these Assyrians decided to march back, and they arrived on the Tigris near Deir Abun. Unfortunately, the Iraqi Government had put a force of some 4000 men into the area and were holding the line of the river. Had they not done this, it is conceivable that the Assyrians would have made their way back into Iraq, feeling that they had acted foolishly, and the ensuing events would never have occurred. As it was, two groups of people, both armed, both disliking each other intensely, met on the river. It was only necessary for one rifle to go off for hostilities to begin, and that is what happened. Who fired first will never be known. A savage little fight ensued, in which the Assyrians, after some initial success, suddenly broke off and retired. There is no excuse for what followed. So far, the action of Iraq had been correct. Now prisoners were shot in cold blood, and a horrible massacre of between 400 and 500 perfectly innocent unarmed men of the Baz tribe took place in Simel. The Iraqi army were entirely responsible. The Civil Authorities seem to have had no hand in it. Contrary to expectation, the Kurds, with very few exceptions, did nothing against the Assyrians.
This occurrence made it impossible for the Assyrians to remain in Iraq, and the matter was brought before the League. I stated a little further back that the Levies had given their word not to take part in any political move whilst serving. Here was a supreme test. In Mosul was a company of Levies, all Assyrians, guarding the aerodrome. One can imagine what the feelings of these men were on receiving the news from the north, only 50 miles away: the reports would have lost nothing in the telling. And in some cases-as in that of the brother of Yakub Ismail, Daniel Ismail by name, Chief Assyrian Officer of the Levies in Baghdad-their close relatives were involved in the affair. But the whole lot kept their word, and not one single attempt was made to give trouble in circumstances which might well have imposed too great a strain even on the discipline of British troops. The matter was now primarily the League’s affair, and so it still remains, while the world is being searched to find a home for these people.
But the responsibility for a solution of this problem does not rest with the League alone. Great Britain herself is deeply committed both by her past actions and by the utterances of her statesmen.
Speaking at the Lausanne Conference of 1922-23, Lord Curzon said: “In so far as they are now settled with the borders of British influence, they [the Assyrians] are assured of our friendly interest and protection”. In the House of Commons, in 1931, Dr. Drummond Shiels, Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, said: “The Assyrians…were a people to whom we were under special obligations”. And in 1932 Lord Passfield, Secretary of State for the Colonies, gave assurances that “after the conclusion of any treaty, and after the admission, if it were brought about, of Iraq into the League of Nations, the welfare of the Assyrian people would be a matter of the closest concern of H.M. Government.”
At the time when Iraq was admitted to membership of the League of Nations in 1932, the League Council had referred to the Mandates Commission certain petitions which had been received from the Assyrians and Kurds; but in view of the fact that the Treaty between Britain and Iraq, governing the termination of the mandate, included a draft declaration containing guarantees to cover the protection of minorities, Iraq was admitted before the Mandates Commission had prepared its Report. In submitting this to the Council at a later date, the spokesman of the Mandates Commission drew attention to the British Government’s declaration that in recommending the admission of Iraq to the League it regarded itself as ‘normally responsible’. He added that ‘had it not been for this declaration the Commission would, for its part, have been unable to contemplate the termination of a regime which appeared some years ago to be necessary in the interests of all sections of the community’. It has been suggested that this assumption of eventual ‘moral responsibility’ by H.M. Government absolved the League of Nations from moral responsibility for the result.
The result, in all its implications, has already been described. Since the date of the Simel massacre nearly four years ago many attempts have been made to arrange for the settlement of Assyrians outside Iraq. The first solution suggested was the Parana Plantations in Brazil. The Brazilian Government turned down the project for political reasons. Then British Guiana was tried; but it proved unsuitable as an immediate solution because it required a full experiment with a few people for a long period. It seems remarkable and, indeed, shameful, that no suitable area can be found within the vast range of the British Empire; but H.M. Government in the United Kingdom is not in a position to dictate to the other Empire governments, and their approaches to the latter have hitherto been unsuccessful.
Finally the League evolved a scheme for Assyrian settlement in the Orontes Valley in Syria, known as the Ghab scheme. Contributions towards the financial cost of this scheme, which was to be 1,146,000 sterling pounds, were allocated as follows: The Iraqi and British Governments each voted 250,000 sterling pounds, the French Mandated Territory of the Levant 380,000 pounds, and the League of Nations 86,000 pounds, making a total of 966,000 pounds, and leaving a balance of 180,000 pounds to be found. It was towards finding as much as possible of this last sum that the Archbishop of Canterbury launched the Assyrian Settlement National Appeal at a meeting in the Mansion House of March 31, 1936, at which the Lord Mayor presided, and His grace the Archbishop, the Foreign Secretary, Mr. Anthony Eden, Sir Samuel Hoare and Mr. L.S. Amery, spoke , supported by the French Ambassador and others. The Ghab scheme seemed likely to succeed, until the French decided to relinquish the Syrian mandate. This stopped it. But the preliminary arrangements to carry it out had been started, and some 8500 Assyrians are now camped on the Khabur River in Syria, the first stage of the move.
So I must close this article with the problem still unsolved. The Assyrians with whom we are concerned are now in four groups: 8500 on the Syrian Khabur, about 17,000 in the Mosul and Erbil liwas of Iraq and some 1500 with Levis at Baghdad. I am omitting, of course, those in Persia and elsewhere.
I will end with a question. What danger do we fear for these people, now situated as they are? The answer is, shortly, this. We fear a repetition of the 1933 events. They are helpless and scattered. They are to a great extent inarticulate. Many of them are getting desperate. Round them are hostile peoples, with all the means of modern warfare. One act by a few desperate men may bring aeroplanes and armoured cars against them, and, for those in the open country, the Assyrian problem may be solved indeed. Let us only hope that we may not see, as one of the landmarks of history of these days, the disappearance of this ancient Christian people.
ADDITIONAL NOTES ON THIS ARTICLE