Pre-Iraqi Kurdistan

US and Kurdish soldiers hqndle ISIS flag. Mosul, December 2016.

The population of Mosul has been estimated to be anything between sixty and eighty thousand people. If the whole “vilayet” is included the number will be something like a million and a half. These people are made up of many different nationalities and tribes, each retaining its own leading characteristics, whilst many have a language peculiar to themselves.

The inhabitants of Mosul are chiefly Arabs, of whom by far the larger part are Mohammedans. These, of course, form the strong religious element in the city, as they are the conquerors of the land. This is a fact, too, which they take care never to lose sight of.

In the market, the mosque, and the street, the Mohammedan is always proclaiming by look, word, and deed that he is the master. A Christian finds himself at a great disadvantage in the market, for when buying from a Moslem he is not allowed to handle the food, and must purchase his goods to a great extent on trust.

In all mosques, which once were Christian churches, it is customary for the mullah to preach with a naked sword in his hand. This is done in order to remind the people that the Mohammedan religion was propagated by the sword, and must, if necessary, be retained by the same means. In the streets, the difference is very marked between the two, the Mohammedan behaving as if the whole place belonged to him, while the Christians, and more especially the Jews, always appear as if they were apologising for their very existence.

The Moslems are the rulers, and they make their power felt. An amusing instance illustrating this feeling occurred a short time ago. A little Moslem boy was walking through the street on his way to our house when, apparently without any provocation, a Christian girl began to revile him as he passed. The boy instantly turned on the girl and gave her a thrashing.

I did not hear anything of this for some days, and then only in an indirect way. Someone told me that the boy had received a severe beating from the master of the school which he was attending, and on asking the reason for the punishment was told the foregoing story. I am very fond of the boy, he is such a dear, bright little chap, with great wondering eyes.

Upon hearing the history of his encounter with the girl, I sent for the boy and tried to tell him how wrong it was for a man to strike a woman. “But,” said the boy, quite innocently, “she was a Christian!” Thus early in life is instilled into the young mind of the Moslem his inherent right to act the tyrant.

On the other hand, it is a strange truth that Moslems very often prefer to have Christian servants in their houses, as they find they are more faithful. In many hareems, the “slaves,” or girls who have been bought for life, are very often children of Christian parents, who have been willing for a few pounds to sell their girls. The reverse of this is also true, that Christian families often find that a Moslem servant is more trustworthy than one of their own religion.

A few months ago I heard of a little black boy in Mosul, whose mother, a Moslem negress, was anxious to find him a home. We offered to take the boy and bring him up, but the mother absolutely refused our offer, as we were Christians, and she was afraid her boy might become the same, as he was then only one year old, and had not yet learnt to hate the Christians!

There are some 15,000 to 20,000 Christians in Mosul, who are said to date their conversion back to the time of St. Adday, who was a disciple of St. Thomas; others migrated from Baghdad to Mosul at the time of the Caliphas. These Christians have remained firm to the religion of their forefathers in spite of much persecution and many trials.

Today in Mosul there are many different sects of Christians to be found, viz. the Chaldean, Syrian, Nestorian, Jacobite, Armenian, and Greek. The population of Mosul also consists of Arabs, Kurds, Yazidis, and Jews. The Arabs are the original inhabitants of the desert, who date their descent back to the time of Shem, the son of Noah. They are divided into many tribes, of which the most important in Mesopotamia is that of the great Shammar clan, who are to be found in all parts.

There are three classes of Arabs, namely, those who have settled down in one place and become town Arabs, such as the inhabitants of Mosul: the wandering tribes of the desert or Bedouins, who live in tents and whose occupation is sheep farming: a third class of Arabs are the robbers of the desert, who subsist solely by plunder, and roam the desert seeking for a livelihood by any means that may come to their hand.

The wandering tribes find it very hard to settle down to a fixed abode after the free life of the desert, and they prefer often to suffer pain and inconvenience rather than spend a few days or weeks beneath a roof and within the walls of a hospital. Arab women have come to the hospital from time to time, but they always long to return to their desert life and are impatient at the restraints of town life.

The Kurds are a warlike people inhabiting the mountains around Mosul. They are the descendants of the wild people of the mountains mentioned by Xenophon as the Karduchi, who so severely harassed the Greeks during their retreat. In later years they were known as the Parthians, who opposed the Romans. From this people came the celebrated Saladin, the opponent of Richard Cœur de Lion in the crusading days. The Kurds have been compared to the old Scottish Highlanders, who were noted for their devotion to their chiefs.

A well-known writer, in speaking of this trait in the character of these people, says that once he heard the following story: “A chieftain having died, one of his followers, who was standing on the roof of his house when the news of his master’s death was brought to him, exclaimed, ‘What! is the Beg dead? Then I will not live another moment,’ and immediately threw himself from the roof and was dashed to pieces.”

A few of these Kurds are Nestorians, but the majority of them are Moslems and are a very fierce-looking set of people. They carry as a rule large daggers in the waistband and are quite capable of using them when necessary. We once had a servant who was a Kurd, and although as a rule a peaceable man, he often longed to be off when he heard of any fighting going on in his country. He used to boast to the other servants of the many people he had robbed and murdered! but said, of course, he would never harm us, as we were in the place of father and mother to him. We are quite hoping to secure his services again on our return to Mosul.

There are about two thousand Jews in Mosul, who date their descent from the time of the Captivity. When Cyrus issued his decree allowing all Jews to return to their native land, about fifty thousand of those living in Mesopotamia joyfully availed themselves of this permission, but a few preferred to remain in their adopted land, and their descendants are there to this day. In spite of much persecution, they have remained firm in their belief.

Mohammed quite hoped at first that the Jews would easily be converted to Mohammedanism. He therefore instructed all his followers to turn their faces towards the temple at Jerusalem when praying, but before many months he saw that his hopes in this direction were doomed to disappointment. He, therefore, withdrew his former instructions and ordained that in future all Mohammedans should turn to the Ka’aba at Mecca when engaged in prayer.

The Jews in Mosul are looked down upon and despised by Christian and Moslem alike. In the dispensary, it is sad to see with what loathing the Jews are treated. The scornful way in which the word “Yahudi” (Jew) is hurled at these people is enough to make one’s heart ache for them. If there is anything degrading to be done, a Jew is the only one to be found willing to do it.

The Jews are the shoe-blacks of Mosul. It being considered very degrading to clean boots and shoes, the Jew undertakes this task, receiving payment at the rate of about ¼d. a pair.

It is a wonderful sight to see all these different nationalities—Moslems, Christians, Jews, Kurds, Arabs, Devil Worshippers—all sitting down together in the waiting-room of the dispensary while waiting their turn to see the doctor.

It reminds one of the picture of Peace, in which the artist depicts the lion, the leopard, and the wolf living in harmony with the lamb. I am afraid the resemblance is only superficial, for in the hearts of that rude miscellaneous throng there is little of peace, and much of anger, wrath, jealousy, hatred, and murder.

Adapted from Behind the Veil in Persia and Turkish Arabia, by ME Hulme-Griffith (1909). Photographs courtesy of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Published under a Creative Commons license.