Ezidi temples, Christian churches, Shia shrines, and historic civilizations: Shingal, an ancient town worth fighting to preserve

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A view overlooking the old city of Shingal, from a Catholic Cathedral toward the Shia Muslims’ hilltop Shrine of Saida Zeyneb. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy)

Sinjar, known as Shingal in Kurdish, was catapulted into the world’s consciousness after the shocking Yezidi (Ezidi) genocide that emptied the town and surrounding villages in 2014. Lost in the aftermath of apocalyptic violence, however, is the seldom-discussed story of Shingal as a town of enormous cultural heritage that is nearly unrivaled to have all in one place: a medieval minaret, a soaring stone-built cathedral, stunning old homes, a universe of Ezidi temples going back to Sheikh Adi himself, and thousands of years of history from ancient Mesopotamia through the present day. The interior of a ruined mansion that was converted into an Islamic State base. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) We first become aware of Sinjar in the written record in Roman times, when many Roman authors, including Ptolemy, mentioned it as Singara. The Romans conquered it in 114 CE, an event Roman historian Cassius Dio documented a few decades later. Shingal was already a fortress by that time, suggesting its settlement history likely stretches back much earlier. It occupies a strategic position at the meeting point of the Nineveh Plains and the massive Shingal mountain, which would have been useful for Persian, Assyrian, and other civilizations. However, little is currently understood about Shingal before Roman times. An old stone structure atop Shingal mountain. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) Shingal’s capture by Romans was 44 years after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple of the Jews in Jerusalem, and years before the Roman annihilation of the Jewish dynasty of Adiabene in Erbil. Also, the town of Nusaybin a few hours northwest of Shingal had a strong Jewish character at that time due to the Jewish exiles brought by ancient Assyrians. Because Jewish presence is so well-documented in the area, it is possible that when the Romans came to Shingal in the second century CE that there were some Jews who lived in or around the town. Little is known about the Jewish community of Shingal, but older Ezidis alive today describe witnessing a small Jewish population that existed until the Ba’ath regime ultimately exterminated Jewish life in Iraq in the 20th century. A view overlooking Shingal. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) At the same time the Romans took Shingal, early strands of Christianity were beginning to spread across the Roman territory and would climax with the official adoption of the religion in the fourth century. However, what was perhaps the dominant religious group was based on whatever was the reigning civilization at the time. The second century was at the very end of local Mesopotamian practice, with the final demise of cuneiform happening around this time. Also, it was over 500 years after the cessation of Mesopotamia’s prominence as the seat of international superpowers like Assyrians and Babylonians. The remoteness of Shingal perhaps played a role in conserving indigenous Mesopotamian traditions. Some groups surely resisted Christianization and Islamization, and these certainly played a role in Ezidism. Mam Fakher, a religious man in Shingal, makes a prayer at the Shrine of Ma’awi after its destruction by the Islamic State.(Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) Ezidi tribes divide their history into two major epochs: before Sheikh Adi, and after Sheikh Adi. Their prophet was born in the Levant and lived in the 11th and 12th centuries, and oral tradition says he organized and “rectified” the Ezidi community in both social and religious ways. Ezidis widely understand that Sheikh Adi was the driving force behind modern Ezidism that is practiced today. Ezidi oral tradition takes the maximalist stance that Shingal has always been Ezidi for thousands of years, and that, in fact, everywhere from the Mediterranean all the way to India was once Ezidi territory. A more critical, minimalist approach to Ezidi history looks to the time before Sheikh Adi as an era when there were still Near Eastern, Persian, Hindu, Greek, and Roman traditions spread widely across the continent. This does not assume that communities practicing these traditions all referred to themselves as Ezidis. This is a broad look at a robust non-Abrahamic universe that traded, communicated, migrated, intermarried, and often quickly syncretized together along caravan routes. This universe is the likely milieu from which proto-Ezdis (communities that later followed Sheikh Adi) likely were drawn. That eclectic non-Abrahamic landscape must have persisted in some way well into the times of Christian and subsequent Islamic dominance. Sheikh Adi arrived almost six centuries after the Islamic conquest defeated the Zoroastrian Persians controlling Mesopotamia. By that time, Islam was by far the dominant religious force in the region. Surviving communities of non-Abrahamic religions seem like the most plausible candidates to accept Sheikh Adi’s evangelizing in the region. They may have only survived in isolated pockets with highly local traditions, which would reinforce the “organizational” changes that Sheikh Adi catalyzed and which is deeply emphasized by Ezidi folklore about him. Ezidi shrines on Shingal mountain associated with medieval times may be backdated, but it is more than likely that when the Romans came to Shingal in the second century, they encountered groups whose kaleidoscopic traditions would survive the next 1,000 years until their organization by Sheikh Adi. There is no reason to consider maximalist (folkloric) and minimalist (scholarly) perspectives on Ezidis as being mutually exclusive, especially as Ezidi history remains weakly documented and theorized in academia. Locally known as the Roman gate, this archway is a nod to the historic fabric of the Shingal’s hilltop old city where perhaps the Romans did truly rule. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) Details of the Roman gate. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) Romans held onto Shingal until the fourth century, when Sassanids took it. By this time, Nineveh had been destroyed by a Babylonian-led alliance almost 1,000 years earlier and the Palmyra-esque wonders of Hatra a few hours south had been destroyed and abandoned some generations earlier. Today, the Roman gate has one of the battle walls that infuse almost every corner and street of Shingal due to war with the Islamic State. These walls are made out of rock-filled water tanks, cinder blocks, and/or sandbags. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) Although the Ezidi character of Shingal is well-treated in international media, the Shia population experienced a similar annihilation as Ezidis when the Islamic State advanced. This lesser-known genocide against Shias resulted in many Shia martyrs and the detonation of their holy places. The Shia of Shingal are Kurdish, but interestingly they describe themselves as a tribe that originated from Arab slaves from the south of Iraq who Yazid I’s army took captive in the seventh century and then relocated them to Shingal. However, like some other Kurdish tribes that describe non-Kurdish origins, they have now fully assimilated into Kurdish identity. The entrance to the rebuilt shrine of Saida Zeyneb, the first holy place belonging to any religion to be rebuilt in Shingal. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) Although it translates as shrine, this is a “maqam” — meaning a place dedicated to Saida Zeyneb but not her actual tomb. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) Some walls still show bullet holes, iconoclasms of the Islamic State. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) Sayid Ammar at the guest room of the shrine. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) Sabah is a Shia Kurd from Shingal who fled to Zakho as an IDP, where he lives today. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) A pilgrim at the shrine of Saida Zeyneb during reconstruction. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) Some old inscriptions survived the blasts of the Islamic State. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) The second Shia holy place in Shingal is the shrine of Zakr al-Deen, and next to it is the ruined dome of a Shia mosque. The shrine and the mosque were both destroyed by the Islamic State, and neither of them has been rebuilt yet. Surrounding them is a high concentration of homes marked “Beit al-Shia” by the Islamic State, meaning they were Shia homes eligible for occupation and desecration by Islamic State followers. The entrance to the shrine of Zakr al-Deen. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) The shrine of Zakr al-Deen. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) A view of the shrine and mosque in its former splendor. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) Many Shia martyrs’ graves are at the shrine. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) The Islamic State destroyed graves at the shrine. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) An old tree, now dead, is still cherished near the entrance to the shrine. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) The town re-emerges in the historical record as the seat of a Zengid emirate in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Zengids were part of the broader Turco-Persian world that had emerged in the Near East. This culture originated when Arab rulers spread Turkic people across Islamic lands to serve as slaves. Over centuries, these slaves became soldiers and then military leaders and finally wound up as political rulers who shaped a unique blend of Persian, Turkic, and Islamic culture. This culture, along with their territorial control, become the major political force across Mesopotamia. Various (and often warring) Turkic groups would give rise to various modern nations: Azeris, Turkomanis, and — most famously — the Ottomans as well. The Zengid emirate of Shingal was contemporaneous with Salahaddin as well as Sultan Muzaffar, the Turkomani governor of Erbil. Like at Erbil, coins were minted in Shingal by the ruler and ambitious urbanization projects were undertaken. One of the most important medieval sites in Iraq is the minaret of the Zengid emir Qutb al-Din Muhammad (reigned 1197 – 1219) who commissioned a grand minaret and whose coins can still be found around the world, where they were left behind along caravan routes. The minaret of Qutb al-Din Muhammad remained a prominent landmark in the old city of Shingal until the Islamic State obliterated the minaret. Up until that time, it stood several meters high and stood in the middle of a roundabout. Only rubble remains today where the minaret once stood, but there is the hope of restoration. Just as the main gate of the Erbil Citadel was destroyed by Saddam Hussein and subsequently rebuilt in the 21st century off of historical photographs, the minaret in Shingal can also be rebuilt. The ruins of the minaret of Qutb al-Din Muhammad have been almost totally obscured. Assorted rubble from the street has been thrown over with the ruins of the minaret. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) Little international attention has been given concerning the case of restoring the minaret. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) Intensive study and reconstruction are necessary to identify any remaining blocks or foundations of the minaret and to rebuild it in a historically accurate manner. This approach was taken when constructing a totally new but historically accurate gate for the Erbil Citadel in the 21st century under the supervision of UNESCO. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) Coin of Qutb al-Din Muhammad minted in Shingal in the 12th or 13th century, part of the Museum of Ours collection in Erbil. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) There are three churches in Shingal. Two belong to the Syriac communities: a Syriac Orthodox church that was built in the later 20th century, and a Syriac Catholic cathedral that is much older. The third church is a small one which belongs to the Armenian community. There were only a few dozen Christian families in Shingal in the 21st century, and when the Islamic State arrived, the remaining Christians who were captured were ordered to convert to Islam. No Christians currently remain in Shingal. Wa’ad is a Syriac Catholic gentleman from Shingal. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Levi Clancy) One survivor, a Syriac Catholic named Wa’ad, described his life under forced conversion before he managed to escape. He was visiting Shingal for a work rotation, but otherwise lives outside and is waiting to join his wife and children who have already immigrated. Another Christian, an Armenian, evaded the Islamic State by fleeing to Zakho. He now returns to the Shingal region on work rotations but declined to be photographed because he was on duty at the time with the Iraqi security force. The Syriac community in Shingal – a division of the broader indigenous Christian communities in Iraq known collectively or separately as Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Syriacs – has deep roots in the region and likely existed in Shingal at least as early as the Roman Empire’s adoption of Christianity as the state religion. However, the Armenian community in Shingal arrived as refugees from