MY RESEARCH IN THE ARCHIVES AND FIELD-WORK
My approach with the Christians of
Kurdistan goes through all my researches on the Kurds, both in the archives and
in the field-work.
Since I was a student my main interests
were toward the Kurds and Kurdistan. But whenever I met the Kurds I found that
also the Christians manifested a specificity. In particular I remember that
during a visit to Kirkuk in 1974 the middle-aged translator told me he was
Christian and that in the town the majority were Kurds, even if Saddam Huseyn’s
policy was to diminish their presence.
In 1988 in the refugee camp
of Yüksekova in Turkey I met a Christian. With his family he had escaped from
Saddam's chemical weapons. He was determined to emigrate to the United States:
“For us there is no future in Iraq”. Hence I could materialize the difference
between a Christian and a Kurdish refugee. The former looks for a final refuge.
The latter is determined to come back to his homeland when difficulties are
The Kurds are numerous. A
regime can massacre many Kurds but cannot succeed in exterminating the whole
population. The Christians are few and silenced. Their hope of survival is tied
to their emigration to the West. A choice without return.
My interest toward the Christians was also
nurtured by the fact that in those decades, Seventies and Eighties, I
collaborated with Catholic magazines that were among the few to publish
information on the Kurdish problem. In those years the Italian left wing
usually considered Saddam Huseyn an ally of the Soviet Union. The conservatives
made money with the Iraqi oil, so both were silent in front of the massacres
and Anfal period.
In the Seventies I started my researches on
the Italian literature on Kurds and Kurdistan from the 13th to the
19th century. A basic chapter concerned the presence of the
Dominican missionaries in Kurdistan. So I spent many days in the Dominican
archives in Rome.
As Mosul was inhabited by a
relevant number of Christian communities (Armenians, Jacobites, Nestorians, and
others), some preaching friars used to go to Mosul to bring them back to the
Catholic Church. So in the middle of the 18th century a Dominican
mission was established in Mosul and made a major contribution to the knowledge
of Kurdistan and its different people because the missionaries who had settled
there became acquainted with the local society through daily contacts with the
population, and wrote works of great value.
Domenico Lanza (1718-1782), Maurizio Garzoni (1734-1804) and Giuseppe
Campanile (1762-1835) were based in Mosul and they greatly contributed to the
knowledge of this region. They described in broad terms the language and the
social, political and economic structure of the Kurdish society. But their
reports were influenced by their European perspective and Catholic dogmatism.
Maurizio Garzoni reached Mosul in 1762 and
lived there until 1788. He published the first Kurdish grammar Grammatica e
vocabolario della lingua kurda composti dal P. Maurizio Garzoni De' Predicatori
Ex-Missionario Apostolico, in Rome (1787).
This work is very important in the Kurdish
history as it is the first acknowledgement of the originality of the Kurdish
language on a scientific base. Garzoni
was given the title of “father of Kurdology” and of “The pioneer Kurdish grammarian”.
Father Garzoni reports that
among themselves Christians use books in their own language. All of them,
however, need to know the Kurdish language not only for their daily contacts
with Muslims, but also in their economic transactions with the Kurdish owners
and tribal chiefs of the region (p. 8).
Campanile wrote Storia della regione del Kurdistan e delle sette di
religione ivi esistenti (History of the region of Kurdistan and of the
religious sects settled there).
Published in 1818 in Naples, this
book was the first Italian and most probably the first Western work in which
the author analyzes only the Kurds and the autochthonous people of Kurdistan.
But the facts he reports are characterized by an anti-Kurdish bias.
Dominican Poldo (Leopoldo Soldini) died in Zakho in 1779 and until this very
day his tomb has been a visiting site for the ill in search of a cure.
In 1978, I published my research on the
Italian literature on Kurds and Kurdistan from the 13th to the 19th
century in the scientifical journal Oriente Moderno. Father Joseph Habbi happened to read it,
translated it into Arabic and published it in the Journal of the Iraqi
Academy – Kurdish Section. This proved to be a very good opportunity for me to
let my work known among the Kurdish intellectuals. This research has been very
important because it brought me fame abroad, at a time when few European
researchers were interested on the Kurds and Kurdistan.
My research on the Italian literature is
always active and my task is to update it continuously. So I published it into
English (1995), into Kurdish in Iran (1996), an enlarged edition in Italian (2001).
Due to my interest on the
Italian and European visitors of Kurdistan, I then deepened this subject in my
research on the Kurdish cities, as seen through the eyes of their European
visitors and Western travellers in Kirkuk.
The presence of numerous
Christian and Jewish communities in the region is further justification that
there is and was a strong appeal among European and Middle Eastern people of
the same faith for visiting Kurdistan. As a mirror image of the biblical world,
the Jews and the Eastern Christians played an important role during many
The great Jewish and Spanish
traveller Benjamin of Tudela visited the Jewish settlements in Kurdistan in the
second half of the twelfth century. Benjamin was the first explorer to give a
first-hand report on the life of these hardy mountaineers, whom he described
as: "militant and independent warriors, subject to no king or minister of
the Gentiles, only to a single Jewish minister."
Especially the Southern and
Eastern areas of Kurdistan represent a pluralistic region in terms of
population, where each religious group has maintained its identity. Judaism and
Christianity were a considerable force in the Sasanian empire (226-651 A.D.)
and their influence was concentrated in Iraq. Rivalries between Persians and
Romans had a strong impact on Christians.
Under the rule of Yazdgard
II, Christians were persecuted and twelve thousand of them were martyred in
Kirkuk in 445. It is of no small historical interest to find that
every year a solemn assembly is still convened to commemorate the death of
these martyrs, at the little church on the hillock outside the town which was
dyed with their blood.
Saint Anastasius was a Persian
monk, martyred in 628 under Chosroes II, whose commemoration occurs in many
medieval calendars and martyrologies on 22 January. His body was buried at the
monastery of St. Sergius near Bethsaloe (Kirkuk), the place of his martyrdom.
When news of Anastasius' sufferings and death reached his own monastic
community in Jerusalem, there arose a great desire to acquire the martyr's
mortal remains. These remains were obtained covertly - since the monks of St.
Sergius were unwilling to relinquish the relics - and were brought back in
triumph to Palestine, first to Caesarea and then to Jerusalem, where they
arrived on November 2, 631. By the middle of the seventh century (probably
already by 645), the head of Anastasius was being venerated in Rome. The
monastery of “ad Aquas Salvias”, where the relic of St. Anastasius was kept and
venerated, soon became an honored place of pilgrimage.
In the Nineties I deepened my
analysis on the relationships among the Kurds and the other communities living
in Kurdistan, and my research was published in the republic of Armenia in 1994. Since that time I include this chapter in
all of my publications on Kurdistan.
twentieth century the Armenian-Kurdish region can be considered a region of
genocide. A million and half Armenians perished in the first holocaust of the
century (1915). In the same year
seventy thousand Assyrians, chaldeans
and Syrians were massacred. More than two
hundred thousand Turkish Kurds were killed and a million and half deported to
the Seventies the Ba‘th has been applying a strategy of scientific genocide in
Iraqi Kurdistan. Saddam’s war against the Kurds killed more than four hundred
thousand, among whom 182.000 are “missing” or ten per cent of the entire Iraqi
A million and a half were deported, and four thousand
villages destroyed (1987-1988). During March-April 1991, two million among
Iraqi Kurdish and Christian refugees sought safety in Iran and Turkey. These
data give an idea of the demographic upheavals in this area. In particular the
genocide policy seems to have become a method of governing in Kurdistan in the
20th century. We know the region is pluralistic, with different
languages, alphabets, religions, and calendars. For thousands of years Muslims
(Kurds, Turkomans), Christians (Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans), Jews and
Yezidis have lived together.
The complex relationships among
the various communities emerge in part from the travel memoirs of past
centuries. Unfortunately research material is still lacking regarding the
structure of the ethnic division of labour and on inter-ethnic relationships in
Kurdistan. Numerous publications exist on every community considered
singularly, but what is lacking is a comparative analysis of these different
cultures, due to various difficulties, the main of which is the linguistic.
In the Nineties in the
historical archives of the Ministry of Italian Foreign Affairs in Rome, I
started my research on the Italian policy toward the Kurds from the Sèvres
treaty until the II World War. I especially focused my attention on the
situation in Iraq. During my research I found a huge documentation on the
Assyrian question. It is known that during the First World War Assyrians were
forced to leave Turkey, in search of a safe haven in Iran, later in Iraq (under
the British mandate) and Syria (under the French mandate). So I enlarged my
analysis to the Kurds and the Christians of Kurdistan, and I was able to
contact Assyrians in the United States and Chaldeans living in France. The two
most important Kurdistani Christians communities living in the western
diasporas. Since that time I strengthened my relations with both and the Journal
of the Assyrian Academic Society published some articles of mine and a long
review on my book on the Christians.
In those years I got first
hand information on the Christians situation from Father Habbi who used to stay
in Italy for a period every year as professor at the Oriental Pontifical
Institute in Rome. For his knowledge of different cultures and languages and
for his open-mind, Father Habbi was a bridge between Iraq and Europe. He also
represents a good example of the importance of the Christians as a link between
the Middle East and the West. In 2000 he died in a car accident and his death
was a great loss for everyone and for the Christian and Muslim dialogue.
I wondered what I could do to
commemorate the person and his work. My vehicle is writing, so the idea sprung
up to write a book on the Christians of Kurdistan.
I tried to show my fondness
for the whole region and at the same time to give an extensive view of
Christians and their history.
I gathered materials already
published as analyses, testimonies and interviews. This project was also highly
supported by my fellow colleagues and scholars throughout the world.
My basic topic is the history
and problems of the Christians of Kurdistan. With this book I try to offer a
great amount of information, I show extensive research and present the points
of view of numerous individuals, who were or are today witness to the
predicament faced by Christians of Kurdistan.
I analyze both the “Christians of
Kurdistan” and the “Christians from Kurdistan”, making it clear that the region
called Kurdistan by the Kurds is the Chaldea, Assyria or Media for the
The various Christian Churches have
different denominations and include the Armenian Church, the Syrian Orthodox
(or Jacobites), the Syrian Catholics, the Eastern Syrian (Church of the East or
Nestorians), the Chaldeans who rejoined the Catholic Church, and so on.
It is a peculiarity of Iraq that most
Christians are Catholic, about seventy-seventy five per cent. It is
comprehensible why the Vatican pays such strong attention to Iraq.
The Christians are dispersed, divided into
different confessions, uncertain as to their ethnic identity and concerned
about Muslim intolerance. The task of my historical analyses is to understand
not only the past but also the future of the Christian communities in
My book traces the history of
the Kurdistani Christians from the biblical time, of Noah who landed on Ararat
or on Judu mount, up to the 21st century Christian diaspora.
In the past the Christians
were isolated geographically and culturally. Christian communities were
organized in tribes, under the religious and political authority of their
patriarchs. In the long phase spanning the 16th to the 18th
century, on one hand we see Christians who tend to integrate with the Kurdish
social and economic structure and, on the other, who are the object of
missionary Catholic penetration.
The presence of missionaries
generally had nefarious consequences. Besides, in the 19th century
the Western protestant churches arrived in the Ottoman empire and the Russian
orthodox church penetrated in Iran, especially in the Urmia region. All these
foreign Christian presences in Kurdistan were disastrous because they ruptured
the century-long relationships that existed between the autochthonous
Christians and their Muslim neighbours. This intrusion contributed to induce,
even though unintentionally, the expulsion of the Christians, the Armenian genocide
and the massacre of the Assyro-Chaldeans.
An important part of the book
refers to emigration, the diaspora and the future of Christians of and from
For better or for worse, the
destiny of Christians of Kurdistan is inextricably bound to the destiny of
Kurds, especially of Iraqi Kurds, in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
In North Iraq there has been quite a positive political progress for all of the
population, and not only for the Kurds.
The 1991 the Gulf War
accelerated the migratory flow of Christians to the West. Like the rest of the
population, Christians suffered embargoes, political instability and an
Even though Iraqi Christians
can publish their magazines, have their own TV channels and radios, Assyrians
and Chaldeans continue to emigrate due to the chronic uncertainties of the
region, in hope to acquiring security, a higher social status, longing for a
more promising future in the West. Moreover, the existence of Islamic
fundamentalism in their midst only energizes their desire to relocate.
I devote a special attention
to the diaspora. Are the Christians destined to disappear? They face dangers on
all sides. In the Middle East they run the risk of being absorbed by Middle
Eastern societies. When they emigrate, they are absorbed by the western
societies to which they emigrate. The day isn’t far, maybe we have already
crossed it, when the greater part of Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syrians will
reside in the diaspora. Emigration takes on an irreversible character.
Christians have organized
themselves in political parties and associations, and they publish periodicals,
thus cultivating the sense of belonging and strengthening community ties among
groups dispersed in some fifty countries.
The satellite antennas and the
internet are able to forge a new international solidarity, giving a sense of
ethnic belonging. A person has only to click on a search engine with the words
“Assyrians” or “Chaldeans” to find numerous sites all over the world. But the
question is, how many diaspora Christians do that? It is difficult, especially
for the new generations, to maintain their original identity because it is so
easy to integrate into the host community.
Father Joseph Habbi spoke
out: “It is pernicious to publish pessimistic analyses regarding the extinction
of Christians in the Middle East… We are going through a crisis, but we can’t
talk of disappearance… The departure of Christians isn’t good for anyone. For
centuries Christians have been an element of equilibrium in the region.
Pluralism and heterogeneity abate tensions; they avoid the formation of a
compact Islamic block against the West and Israel”.
I must say the book deserves
consensus, so I am determined to deepen this subject. Societies in Kurdistan
are on the move and I believe it is fundamental to fix, to make a photo of the
present situation, because in a few years this reality will be archaeological
A Catholic patriarchate established in Mesopotamia in 1531. In 1632
a mission of Capuchin friars was founded in Mosul and definitely closed in
1725. Thomas Bois O.P., “Les Dominicains à l'avant-garde de la Kurdologie au
XVIIIe siècle”, Archivum Fratrum Praedicatorum, XXXV (1965), p. 262-292.
Domenico Lanza, Compendiosa relazione istorica dei viaggi fatti
dal Padre Domenico Lanza dell'Ordine dei Predicatori da Roma in Oriente
dall'anno 1753 al 1771, Archivum Generale Ordinis Praedicatorum, S. Sabina,
Roma, Ms. XIII, 07.2000, p. 625 (manuscript).
Domenico Lanza, al-Mawsil
fî 'l-gîl ath-thâmin 'ashar, trans. from Italian by R. Bîdawîd, Mossul,
Matba'at an-Nagm, 1951, p. 78 (2a ed., Mossul, Matba'at ash-Sharqiyyat al-Hadîthah,
1953, p. 101).
Lanza's manuscript has never been published in Italy, while some parts of it
have been translated into Arabic and published in Iraq. As a priest and a
physician, Lanza contacted a large number of notables in Mosul. He could
describe the society and the life of the town from the inside with first-hand
information, even though his apostolate was aimed at composing the differences
between the Catholic Church and the Nestorian dissenters. For this activity
Lanza is now considered the forerunner of ecumenism in Mosul. His remarks on
the Kurds are marginal and follow the common line of thought.
Maurizio Garzoni, Grammatica e vocabolario della lingua kurda
composti dal P. Maurizio Garzoni De' Predicatori Ex-Missionario Apostolico,
Roma, Nella Stamperia della Sacra Congregazione di Propaganda Fide, 1787, p.
According to Michele Febvre, the French Capuchins would have
composed a Kurdish Dictionary and a Kurdish grammar during their stay in
Amadiya and Mosul (Michele Febvre Teatro della Turchia, Bologna, per gli
heredi di Gio. Recaldini, 1683, p. 342). But these manuscripts were probably
lost (Thomas Bois, op. cit., p. 275).
O. Fossum, A practical Kurdish grammar, Minneapolis, The inter-Synodical
Ev. Lutheran Orient-Mission Society, 1919 p. 272.
Giuseppe Campanile, Storia della regione del Kurdistan e delle
sette di religione ivi esistenti, Napoli, dalla stamperia de' Fratelli
Fernandes, 1818, p. XX+213.
Mirella Galletti, “Curdi e Kurdistan in opere italiane del XIII-
XIX secolo”, Oriente Moderno, LVIII, n. 11, 1978, p. 563-596.
Mirella Galletti, "The Italian contribution to Kurdology (13th
to 20th century)", The Journal of Kurdish Studies (Louvain), Peeters
Press, vol. I, 1995, p. 97-112.
Sirwe (Urmia), 1st part, n. 133-134, 1997, p. 21-25; 2nd
part, n. 135, 1997, p. 7-13.
Mirella Galletti, “Curdi e Kurdistan in opere italiane dal XIII al
XX secolo”, in: Mirella Galletti, Le relazioni tra Italia e Kurdistan,
[Roma], Istituto per l'Oriente C.A. Nallino, 2001, p. 1-108 («Quaderni di
Oriente Moderno», XX [LXXXI], n.s., 3).
Mirella Galletti, “Kurdish cities through the eyes of their
European Visitors”, in: Mirella Galletti, Le relazioni tra Italia e
Kurdistan, [Roma], Istituto per l'Oriente C.A. Nallino, 2001, p. 109-148 («Quaderni
di Oriente Moderno», XX [LXXXI], n.s., 3).
“The Oriental Travels of Rabbi Benjamin of Tutela”, in:
Manuel Komroff (edited by), Contemporaries of Marco Polo. Consisting of the
Travel Records to the Eastern parts of the world..., New
York, Boni & Liveright, 1928, p. 290-291.
Jean Maurice Fiey O.P. “Vers la réhabilitation de l'histoire de
Karka d'Bét Slôh”, Analecta Bollandiana, vol. 82, fasc. 1-2, 1964, p. 211-213.
Under Yazdgard II (439-57), religious fanaticism culminated in the attempt
forcibly to convert Christian Armenia, the Zoroastrian clergy having an
important share in this project and in widespread persecution of all
non-Zoroastrian religions, including the Jewish minority. See Ehsan Yarshater
(edited by), The Cambridge history of Iran. Volume 3 (2). The Seleucid,
Parthian and Sasanian periods, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983,
Carmela Vircillo Franklin - Paul Meyvaert, “Has Bede's Version of
the “Passio S. Anastasii” come down to us in “BHL” 408?”, Analecta
Bollandiana, vol. 100, 1982, 373-400; Bernard Flusin, Saint Anastase le
Perse et l’histoire de la Palestine au début du VIIe siècle, Paris,
CNRS, 1992, vols. 2.
Mirella Galletti, “Kurdistan: A mosaic of peoples”, Acta
Kurdica. The International Journal of Kurdish & Iranian Studies, I
(1994), p. 43-52.
 Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, London,
Oxford University Press, 1968, p. 356.
Harry Norris – David Taylor, “The Christians”, in: Richard Tapper
(edited by), Some minorities in the Middle East, London, Centre of Near
& Middle Eastern Studies - School of Oriental and African Studies,
University of London, 1992, p. 26; Mordechai Nisan, Minorities in the Middle
East. A history of struggle and self-expression, Jefferson (N.C.)-London,
McFarland & Company, 1991, p. XII+300.
Jürgen Roth, (edited by), Geographie der Unterdrückten - die
Kurden, Hamburg, Rowohlt, 1978, p. 68.
Kendal Nezan, “Quand ‘notre’ ami Saddam gazait ses Kurdes”, Le
Monde Diplomatique, n. 528, a. 45, mars 1998, p. 18-19.
Resool Mustafa Shorsh, Genocide mass deportation. 3839 villages
and towns destroyed in Iraqi Kurdistan, s.l., Information
Department P.U.K., 1989, p. 379.
Mirella Galletti, “Italian Policy Towards Assyrians and Kurds
(1920-1943)”, Journal of the Assyrian Academic Society, vol. IX, n. 2,
1995, p. 3-24,
(*) Professor at Naples University