Black Banners and Wizardly Bowlers

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The two-month silence on this blog is the result of our moving house – after four years in Morocco, I am now back in England with my family, settling into a new home, new weather, new circumstances. I shall continue to write about Morocco and the Middle East, and hope that you will stay with me.

Unpacking books the other day, I found myself sadly holding my copy of Sir Harry Luke’s Mosul and its Minorities. Luke was a colonial civil servant of distinction, whose papers are now at Oxford and who, if you’ll forgive a personal interest, ended his career as British Council Representative in the Caribbean. He published a good deal, and this little book, off the press in 1925 when he was Colonial Secretary in Sierra Leone, is a record of two journeys to Mosul, in 1907-8 and 1924; as well as much (just occasionally it seems too much) reading.

He sets out to describe the extraordinary, closely tessellated pattern of religious minorities which had been living on the northern Mesopotamian plain around Mosul for thousands of years. It is dreadfully poignant to re-read it today as Daish/ISIS bandits set about driving the last of these communities out of their soi-disant Caliphate,  enslaving women, killing children and posting slavering film of their atrocities online pour encourager les autres. These victims, of course, are real Mesopotamians, many with bloodlines stretching back in the same region for thousands upon thousands of years – and their persecutors, as so often in history, come from far away. Not all the black banners, though, come from Khorasan: most seem to emerge directly from the dim recesses of the Muslim world, the bidonvilles of South Asia and North Africa, and the dislocated anomie of European migration.

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When I was in Baghdad with the British Council at the end of the 1980s, I used to attend the Queen’s Birthday Party at the Embassy by the Tigris, and in a book I wrote about that time, I described it:

The régime took not the slightest notice of such occasions, so that there were none of the olive drab uniforms and berets of Ba’th Party functionaries. In fact the Iraqi element of the company seemed almost entirely ecclesiastical, a fantastic flotilla of clerical outfitting reflecting the rich mosaic of Christian sects in Iraq. There were Nestorians, Melkites, Jacobites (and no doubt Schismatic Jacobites, too), Greek Uniates, Assyrians, Catholics, Armenian Uniates and Orthodox. Sometimes there was the Anglican Bishop of Gibraltar. Each wafted across the rose garden bedizened in a different panoply of pink or black silk, red chiffon or black satin. The hats were like the skyline of an Indian cemetery, pepper-pots and onion-domes, birettas, canopies and indistinct pointy hennins of white drapery. Their owners milled about in swirls and vortices, gossiping and quarrelling, cutting each other dead or dropping viperous comments. I remember once coming across a hugely bearded archimandrite in one of the rose-alleys, reading the palm of an aged Armenian pianist: both were in floods of tears.

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My taxonomy was a little loose, but the impression is accurate, a snapshot of the amazingly diverse Christian heritage of Iraq. Less visible, though scarcely less important, were the non-Christian minorities, the Shebeks (a dim agricultural tribe, possibly Shi’ite Kurds, according to Luke), the Mandæans and the Yazidis. And of course, though it was easy to forget it under Saddam’s leaden hand, the Sunni Muslims themselves were a minority, too, in a predominantly Shi’i country whose census figures were necessarily shrouded in mystery. In city, plain and mountains, as Luke puts it, are scattered the remnants of other peoples, some of whom have known periods of great glory in singular contrast to their precarious present; while others have had so obscure a history that it is difficult even now to unravel their origins and the genesis of their beliefs. But of all these minorities it is safe to say that they have suffered tribulation and oppression, have undergone martyrdom for Christ, for Jehovah and even, unlikely as it may sound, for the Devil.

Luke lists Mosul’s glittering cavalcade of Church potentates, the Nestorian Patriarch, the Chaldæan Patriarch of Babylon, the Jacobite and Syrian Catholic bishops, each photographed in his splendour.  I was not wrong in my memories of exuberant hattery. Here is the Jacobite’s headgear: a large, swelling turban, made by covering a stiff, canvas frame with ingeniously plaited spiral folds of black silk, which officers of the RAF have been heard to describe as a “wizardly bowler.” Or the Chaldæan Patriarch’s flat band of shiny black satin, wound so many times round a low Tunisian fez that it projects quite a hand’s breadth from the head. Luke tells the complicated story of schism and fission that led through the fifth century Church Councils to the fragmentation of the Eastern Churches; the great Nestorian explosion of faith into furthest Asia; and the early modern seduction by the papacy in Rome of fragments of these fragments into the Uniate churches that still march alongside, and often eclipse, their elder sisters.


I remember, on visits to Mosul from Baghdad, visiting churches that were old before the Council of Chalcedon, thick with the smell of wax, light filtered through smoke and alabaster. In those days there were no other foreign visitors and the key had to be found, the key-keeper woken. There was an amazing sense of the depth of history, the unbroken, if slender, continuities that linked Mosul to the deep past. It was a history that also held Muslims in the close embrace of their own distant past, though “the Moslem Arabs are,” as the NID Geographical Handbook of 1944 puts it, “recent immigrants,” while “the Kurds and their racial associates, the Yezidis and ‘Assyrians’ … were already present in the northern mountains in the Parthian period, and are generally regarded as the descendants of the Medes.”

All this is now being ground to dust beneath the heel of the ignorant platoons bringing their sullen, bloodthirsty fury from the back alleys of Casablanca and Cardiff, Paris, Benghazi and Cairo, on a tide of Gulf money, into the land between Aleppo and Mosul. This plain is the great west-east axis of Assyria, the first steps of the Silk Road, which has given shape to northern Mesopotamia through the ages. Murder, rape, expulsion and massacre are now daily occurrences here. The human fabric of civilisation is being ripped apart. So too is the hardware. Churches, monasteries, tombs and mosques are being blown up, burnt and desecrated in pursuit of an ideology which it is tempting to see as primitive and mediæval, but which is actually very modern in its facile merging of savagery, intellectual shallowness, technical sophistication and totalising, unreflective self-righteousness.

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This has happened before, repeatedly, over the centuries, but never quite as thoroughly as today. The last massacre of Bedr Khan Beg left so indelible an impression on the minds of the survivors that the Assyrians, in ordinary parlance, still date their years from 1845, wrote Luke in 1925. In future those who are left to discuss dates will doubtless talk in much greater horror of 2014.

The Yazidis suffered if anything even more. Layard describes a massacre by the Kurdish Beg of Rowanduz, who chased the Yezidis of the Sheikhan to Mosul and  “massacred the wretched fugitives on the hill of Qoyunjik within the full view of the exulting Moslawis.” The appalling fate of the Yazidis in recent weeks, driven out of Sinjar and other towns onto the mountainside of Mount Sinjar, many to be killed or to die of starvation, is testimony to the fanatical malice of the Daish towards this ancient minority. When Luke wrote of their undergoing martyrdom, unlikely as it may sound, for the Devil, he was perpetuating an easy fallacy rooted in tittle-tattle. The truth (inasmuch as outsiders know it) is much more interesting, the devil being nothing of the kind, but the peacock-angel Melek Taus who refused to bow before Adam, and was entrusted by God with the governance of His creation. Shi’ites, too, are treated as heretics and meet much the same fate. So do Sunnis who fail to toe the Daishi line, who display sentiment over the ravaged tomb-shrines of Jonah, or Seth or any one of dozens of others razed with dynamite.

But whether non-Daishis worship God or the Devil seems irrelevant. They are being extirpated from their home of millennia by outsiders driven by blood and fury, who want a ‘Caliphate’ amputated from human history and populated by cloned salafi-jihadis, with overgrown beards, grubby pedal-pushers, closed minds and womenfolk hoarded in black bags. Poor Mosul. Poor Iraq. Poor Christendom. And the poor, poor Umma. As Zephaniah said of Nineveh:

How is she become a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down in. Everyone that passes by her shall hiss, and wag his hand.

Wag on.



A propos of nothing above, one fascinating little comment in Luke’s book gives me gentle pleasure. Driving across the desert from Damascus, he comments that as we began to near the Euphrates we occasionally crossed or ran parallel with the ploughed furrow which indicates the air route from ‘Amman. The thought of aeroplanes following a furrow across the desert for navigation is wonderful, and seems almost as long ago as the Council of Chalcedon.

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