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Simele massacre

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Simele massacre
  Area where villages were looted
  Heavily targeted Assyrian villages
LocationNorth of the Kingdom of Iraq, notably at Simele
Coordinates36°51′30″N 42°51′0″E / 36.85833°N 42.85000°E / 36.85833; 42.85000 (Simele massacre)Coordinates: 36°51′30″N 42°51′0″E / 36.85833°N 42.85000°E / 36.85833; 42.85000 (Simele massacre)
Date7 August 1933 (1933-08-07) – 11 August 1933 (1933-08-11)
Attack type
Summary executions, mass murder, looting

The Simele massacre (Syriac: ܦܪܡܬܐ ܕܣܡܠܐpramta d-Simele, Arabic: مذبحة سميلmaḏbaḥat Summayl) was a massacre committed by the armed forces of the Kingdom of Iraq led by Bakr Sidqi during a campaign systematically targeting the Assyrians of northern Iraq in August 1933. The term is used to describe not only the massacre in Simele, but also the killing spree that took place among 63 Assyrian villages in the Dohuk and Mosul districts that led to the deaths of between 600[1] and 3,000[2] Assyrians.

During the Assyrian genocide during and after World War I, more than half of Turkey's Assyrian population was massacred under the Ottoman Empire.[3] The term 'genocide' was coined by Raphael Lemkin, who was directly influenced by the story of this massacre and the Armenian Genocide.[4]


Assyrians of the mountains[edit]

The majority of the Assyrians affected by the massacres were adherents of the Church of the East (often dubbed Nestorian), who originally inhabited the mountainous Hakkari and Barwari regions covering parts of the modern provinces of the Hakkâri, Şırnak and Van in Turkey and Dohuk in Iraq, with a population ranging between 75,000 and 150,000.[5][6] Most of these Assyrians were massacred during the Genocide of 1915, at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. The rest endured two winter marches to Urmia in 1915 and to Hamadan in 1918. Many of them were relocated to refugee camps by the British in Baquba and later to Habbaniyah, and in 1921 some were enlisted in the pro-British Assyrian Levies which helped quell Kurdish revolts in the British Mandate of Mesopotamia.[7] Most Hakkari Assyrians were resettled after 1925 in a cluster of villages in northern Iraq.[8] Some of the villages where the Assyrians settled were leased directly by the government, while others belonged to Kurdish landlords who had the right to evict them at any time.[9]

The Assyrians did not share an amicable relation with their neighbours. Their historical feud with the Kurds, which culminated in 1915, was centuries old. Bitterness between the Assyrians and the Arabs was reported by British historians as far back as 1920.[10] This was made worse by the British officers of the levies who encouraged the Assyrians to think that they were first-class troops, which had the effect of increasing the natural pride of the Assyrians.[10] This, coupled with the fact that the British and Assyrian levies succeeded in suppressing Kurdish revolts when the Iraqi Army failed, created an inferiority complex among some Iraqi corps towards the British and the Assyrians.[11]

The conclusion of the British Mandate of Iraq caused considerable unease among the Assyrians who felt betrayed by the British. For them, any treaty with the Iraqis had to take into consideration their desire for an autonomous position similar to the Ottoman Millet system.[12][13] The Iraqis, on the other hand felt that the Assyrians' demands were, alongside the Kurdish disturbances in the north, a conspiracy by the British to divide Iraq by agitating its minorities.[14]

Iraqi independence and crisis[edit]

With Iraqi independence, the new Assyrian spiritual-temporal leader, Shimun XXI Eshai the Catholicos Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, demanded the Assyrians be given autonomy within Iraq, seeking support from the United Kingdom and pressing his case before the League of Nations in 1932. His followers planned to resign from the Assyrian Levies (a military force under the command of the British that served British interests) and to re-group as a militia and concentrate in the north, creating a de facto Assyrian enclave.[15]

In spring 1933, Malik Yaqu, a former levies' officer, was engaged in a propaganda campaign on behalf of Assyrian Patriarch Shimun XXI Eshai (or Mar Shimun) trying to persuade the Assyrians not to apply for an Iraqi nationality or accept the settlement offered to them by the central government. Yaqo was accompanied by 200 armed men which was seen as an act of defiance by the Iraqi authorities.[16] His activities caused distress among the Kurds and the Iraqi government started sending its army to the Dohuk region in order to intimidate Yaqu and dissuade the Assyrians from joining his cause.[17]

In June 1933, Patriarch Shimun XXI Eshai was invited to Baghdad for negotiations with Hikmat Sulayman's government and was detained there after refusing to relinquish temporal authority.[18] He would eventually be exiled to Cyprus.[19]

The Simel massacre as a third confrontation between the Assyrians and their governments and the tribal Kurdish society[edit]

Mordechai Zaken in his PhD and forthcoming book outlines three confrontations within 90 years (1843-1933) between the Assyrians and the governments in which they boundaries lived and with the tribal Kurdish society.[20] The first one between 1843 and 1846, which led to the massacre of the Assyrians in the Hakkari mountains by the Kurdish Chieftains to whom they refused to submit. The second confrontation happened during World War One, when the Assyrians of Hakkari decided to join the Allies forces and notably Russia and Great Britain who were located over the border in Persia, and the Turkish administration, which was beginning to execute and sweep the Armenian population, viewed the Assyrian action, whether rightly or wrongly, led by their patriarch Mar Shimun, in the Hakkari region, as a rebellion, and to pursue and attack the Assyrian people killing many civilians and chasing them, which led to many Assyrian victims and in fact to the end of the chapter of the Assyrians living in the Hakkari and the surroundings in south-eastern Turkey.

The third confrontation took place between 1931 and 1933, in Iraq, towards and after the official ending of the British Mandate, responsible for the repatriation of the Assyrian refugees in Iraq. The Assyrians, previously from Hakkari and Iran, had been settled by the British administration in Iraq. However, their problems and absorption in the new country was far from flawless. In 1932, the British decision to hand over the mandate over Iraq was taken and the Assyrians insisted that they would not be safe after the British left. When the end of the mandate became a certainty, Browne calls it 'political mutiny,' when Assyrian officers and men of the Levies acknowledged that they wished to be disbanded in a month from June 1, 1932. Browne says the British point of view: "they had no right to do anything of the sort, and a most dangerous [situation?] would have arisen if several thousand men, all armed, were collected together in the area north of Mosul."

From an Assyrian point of view, Browne argues, "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 several weeks of mounting tensions all the Levies withdrew their resignations and were asked to commit "never again to take part in any more demonstrations of a political nature while serving."

At the same time, the Assyrian Patriarch Mar Shimon went to Geneva to address the League of Nations the concerns and worries of the Assyrian people whom he represented. There were no results for his efforts, and the mandate over Iraq was transferred without the Assyrian problem being resolved. The British administration appointed a settlement officer, Major Thompson, to work under the Iraq government, and his work began in 1933. "Then matters began to move rapidly to a crisis", according to Browne. Concerns of the Assyrians were not addressed, and military men were annoyed, in a midst of a process which included resignation from the Levies and return to service in a hope that some solution will be provided to their concerns.

Two former Levy officers, Yaqub Ismail of the Upper Tiyari tribe, and Loko Shlimun of the Tkhuma Tribe, "after figuring in a series of disturbing situations" north of Mosul marched off into Syria with between 400 and 500 men. They were all armed. Browne argues they had no intention of fighting, because they left their women and children in Iraq, an act "they would certainly not have done had they intended war." After deliberations and involvement of Great Britain, France and Iraq, in order to solve this delicate situation, the Assyrians decided to march back into Iraq, and arrived on the Tigris River near Deirabun (Dehrabun), a Christian village. However, they were faced with a force of 4,000 Iraqi soldiers who were keeping the line. "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."

A small fight ensued but the Assyrians, after some initial success, suddenly broke off and retired. The Iraqi soldiers responded by opening fire on the prisoners, massacring between 400 and 500 men of the Baz tribe in the village of Simmel. Browne argues that the Iraqi army was entirely responsible for the deterioration, the civil authorities was not involved, and even the Kurds had nothing to do with these developments. Following these massacres, it was impossible for the Assyrians to remain in Iraq. The matter was brought before the League of Nations. The Levies had given their word not to take part in any political move whilst serving. Browne noted that the Assyrians who were stationed at Mosul, guarding the aerodrome, remained quiet at the face of the news from only 50 miles away: most levies kept their promise.

Since the date of the Simmel massacre, many attempts have been made to arrange for the settlement of Assyrians outside Iraq. The Parana Plantations in Brazil was suggested as an option, but the Brazilian Government turned down the project for political reasons. Then, British Guiana was also examined, but it proved unsuitable as an immediate solution because it required a full experiment with a few people for a long period. Finally, the League of Nations drafted 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.

The Ghab scheme seemed likely to succeed, until the French decided to relinquish the Syrian mandate. This stopped it. However, 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. Browne in 1937 argued:

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. From an Iraqi point of view, they now had to deal with problems they did not created and were not responsible for. Towards the end of the British presence in Iraq, the Assyrians, previously from the Hakkari, led by the Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimon XXI, expressed their lack of confidence in the future regime and arrangements that the British were leaving in Iraq. In 1932, the Patriarch asked the League of Nations to recognize the right of Assyrians to govern the area known as the "Assyrian triangle" in northern Iraq. Eventually this led to the Iraqi government to commit its first of many massacres against its minority populations. In 1933, a wave of atrocities against the Assyrians of Iraq and a retreat of several groups of Assyrians into the then-French colony of Syria represented another blast for the Assyrians. A confrontation with Iraqi forces caused the death of some few thousands of Assyrians while those that crossed over to Syria had been settled along the Khabor (or Habor) River in 33 Assyrian villages along both banks of the River.

When Great Britain and Iraq signed the Anglo-Iraq treaty on 30 June 1930, the Assyrians felt that the British Mandatory power took no special provision for their safety and welfare. Indeed British officials assured the Assyrians that the League of Nations would guarantee the protection of minorities, and likewise, the Permanent Mandate Commission of the League of Nations referred to the protection minorities in Iraq following the British Mandate:

It would welcome the entry of Iraq into the League of Nations if and when certain conditions were fulfilled, in particular that it becomes apparent that Iraq is able to stand alone, and that effective guarantees be secured for the observance of all treaty obligations in Iraq for the benefit of racial and religion minorities. One of the members of the committee, M. Palacious, reminded the British representative that according to the Frontier Commission’s recommendations, “the Assyrians should be guaranteed the re-establishment of the ancient privileges” which they had possessed under the Turks, such as a certain local autonomy, the right to appoint their own officials and paying a tribute by way of their patriarch. Sir Francis Humphries, The British High Commissioner of Iraq, attempted to remove the anxiety regarding the future of the minorities in Iraq. He argued that in thirty years of experience with Islamic countries “he had never found such tolerance of other races and religions as in Iraq.” Regarding the future he argued: "if Iraq were to prove herself unworthy of the confidence, which has been placed in her, the moral responsibility must rest with her majesty’s Government, which would not attempt to transfer it to the Mandates Commission."

The Assyrians’ hope for special rights, if not a local autonomy increased when A. H. Rassam, Admiral H. Seymour Hall and Captain Matthew Cope established the Iraq Minorities Rescue Committee in Mosul in 1930. The committee persuaded the Assyrian patriarch to appeal to the League of Nations criticizing the policy of Great Britain that deserts them to their fate after the liquidation of the Mandate and expressed their fears of ill treatment under the Arabic government. The committee attracted many British friends of the Assyrians, a fact that raised the expectations among Assyrians, Yezīdis and other Christian groups, but the Iraqi government deported and imprisoned several of its members. In September 1931, the Assyrian Patriarch sent a letter to the League of Nations expressing the fears of the Assyrians that they would be exterminated after the emancipation of Iraq. If no real remedy could be found before the end of the British mandate, he warned, emigration from Iraq to other countries would be considered.

'We cannot exist here after the British leave. It will be a case of progressive ‘slavery’ and our Assyrian character and temperament make such conditions worse than death. Therefore, if the British leave, we must leave too."

Eventually, the forecast of the patriarch fulfilled itself. In 1931, the Iraqi government invited the Assyrian Patriarch to Baghdad to discuss a solution for the growing anxiety and the mistrust between the parties. Baghdad suggested the following suggestions: (1) Recognition in the patriarch as a spiritual head of the Assyrians and grant him a governmental pension; (2) Granting lands to unsettled Assyrians and provide initial assistance in cultivating them; (3) Opening schools for Assyrians in which both Aramaic and Arabic will be taught; (4) Allowing Assyrian subjects from other countries to enter into Iraq; (5) Nominating Assyrians in official positions and placing official interpreters in higher courts.

The Assyrians considered these suggestions insufficient because they lacked the guarantee of Great Britain or the League of Nations. As the end of the British mandate approached, the Assyrians asked to be recognized as a nation (millet) in Iraq, or to be reintegrated in their original habitation in Southeastern Turkey and to be given autonomy. The Assyrians put various petitions forward to the Mandate Commission, which issued a detailed report in November 1932, in which it recognized “the feeling of insecurity of the Assyrians due to their dispersal,” but did not encourage “Assyrian aspirations for autonomy.” Iraq promised the League of Nations to attempt to settle the Assyrians. Major Thompson of the British army arrived in Iraq in 1933 and conducted a census among the families, which had not yet been settled on land, almost fifteen percent of the families previously from Turkey. Nonetheless, this attempt failed as well.


Clashes at Dirabun[edit]

On 21 July 1933, more than 600 Assyrians, led by Malik Yaqu, crossed the border into Syria in hope of receiving asylum from the French Mandate of Syria. They were, however, disarmed and refused asylum, and were subsequently given light arms and sent back to Iraq on 4 August. They then decided to surrender themselves to the Iraqi Army.[21] While crossing the Tigris in the Assyrian village of Dirabun, a clash erupted between the Assyrians and an Iraqi Army brigade. Despite the advantage of heavy artillery, the Iraqis were driven back to their military base in Dirabun. The Assyrians, convinced that the army had targeted them deliberately, attacked an army barracks with little success.[22] They were driven back to Syria upon the arrival of Iraqi aeroplanes. The Iraqi Army lost 33 soldiers during the fighting while the Assyrian irregulars took fewer casualties.[23] Historians do not agree on who started the clashes at the border. The British Administrative Inspector for Mosul, Lieutenant Colonel R. R. Stafford, wrote that the Assyrians had no intention of clashing with the Iraqis, while the Iraqi historian Khaldun Husry (son of the prominent Arab nationalist Sati' al-Husri) claims that it was Yaqu's men who provoked the army at Dirabun.[1][24] Husry supported the propaganda rumours, which circulated in the Iraqi nationalist newspapers, of the Assyrians mutilating the bodies of the killed Iraqi soldiers.[25] This further enraged the Iraqi public against the Assyrians.[22]

Beginning of the massacres[edit]

Bakr Sidqi led the Iraqi Army during the Massacre of Simele.

Even though all military activities ceased by 6 August 1933, exaggerated stories of atrocities committed by the Assyrians at Dirabun and the persistent anti-Christian propaganda and rumours insisted that the Christians were planning to blow bridges up and to poison drinking water in major Iraqi cities.[26] According to some historians, the agitation against the Assyrians was also encouraged by Rashid Ali al-Gaylani's Arab nationalist government, which saw it as a distraction to the continuous Shiite revolt in the southern part of the country.[27][28][29]

The Iraqi Army, led by Bakr Sidqi, an experienced brigadier general, an Iraqi nationalist and general of Kurdish origin, although not a Kurdish nationalist,[30][31] moved north in order to crush the Assyrian revolt. The Iraqi forces started executing every Assyrian male found in the mountainous Bekher region between Zakho and Duhok starting from 8 August 1933. Assyrian civilians were transported in military trucks from Zakho and Dohuk to uninhabited places, in batches of eight or ten, where they were shot with machine guns and run over by heavy armoured cars to make sure no one survived.[32]

Looting of villages[edit]

While these killings were taking place, nearby Kurdish, Arab and Yazidi tribes were encouraged to loot Assyrian villages. Kurdish tribes of Gulli, Sindi and Selivani were encouraged by the mayor of Zakho to loot villages to the northeast of Simele,[33] while Yazidis and Kurds also raided Assyrian villages in Shekhan and Amadiya.[34] Most women and children from those villages took refuge in Simele and Dohuk.[35]

On 9 August, the Arab tribes of Shammar and Jubur started crossing[dubious ] the east bank of the Tigris and raiding Assyrian villages on the plains to the south of Dohuk.[35] They were mostly driven by the loss of a large part of their own livestock to drought in the previous years.[36]

More than 60 Assyrian villages were looted. Even though women and children were mostly left to take refuge in neighbouring villages, men were sometimes rounded up and handed over to the army, by whom they were duly shot.[34] Some villages were completely burned down and most of them were later inhabited by Kurds.[37]

Massacre of Simele[edit]

The Lethbridge Herald,
18 August 1933

The town of Simele became the last refuge for Assyrians fleeing from the looted villages. The mayor of Zakho arrived with a military force on 8 and 9 August to disarm the city. During that time thousands of refugees flocked around the police post in the town, where they were told by officials that they would be safe under the Iraqi flag.[35] 10 August saw the arrival of Kurdish and Arab looters who, undeterred by the local police, took away the freshly cut wheat and barley. During the night of 10–11 August, the Arab inhabitants of Simele joined the looting. The Assyrian villagers could only watch as their Arab neighbours drove their flocks before them.[38]

On 11 August the villagers were ordered to leave the police post and return to their homes, which they began to do with some reluctance. As they were heading back Iraqi soldiers in armoured cars arrived, and the Iraqi flag flying over the police post was pulled down.[38] Without warning or obvious provocation, the troops began to fire indiscriminately against the defenseless Assyrians. Ismael Abbawi Tohalla, the commanding officer, then ordered his troops not to target women. Stafford, describes the ensuing massacre as follows:[39]

A cold blooded and methodical massacre of all the men in the village then followed, a massacre which for the black treachery in which it was conceived and the callousness with which it was carried out, was as foul a crime as any in the blood stained annals of the Middle East. The Assyrians had no fight left in them, partly because of the state of mind to which the events of the past week had reduced them, largely because they were disarmed. Had they been armed it seems certain that Ismail Abawi Tohalla and his bravos would have hesitated to take them on in fair fight. Having disarmed them, they proceeded with the massacre according to plan. This took some time. Not that there was any hurry, for the troops had the whole day ahead of them. Their opponents were helpless and there was no chance of any interference from any quarter whatsoever. Machine gunners set up their guns outside the windows of the houses in which the Assyrians had taken refuge, and having trained them on the terror stricken wretches in the crowded rooms, fired among them until not a man was left standing in the shambles. In some other instance the blood lust of the troops took a slightly more active form, and men were dragged out and shot or bludgeoned to death and their bodies thrown on a pile of dead.

In his depiction of the massacre, Mar Shimun, mentions that:[40]

Girls were raped and made to march naked before Iraqi commanders. Children were run over by military cars. Pregnant women were bayonetted. Children were flung in the air and pierced on to the points of bayonets. Holy books were used for the burning of the massacred.

The official Iraqi account that the Assyrian casualties were sustained during a short battle with Kurdish and Arab tribes has been discredited by all historians.[41] Khaldun Husry claims that the mass killing was not premeditated and that the responsibility lies on the shoulders of Ismael Abbawi, a junior officer in the army.[42]

On 13 August, Bakr Sidqi moved his troops to Alqosh, where he planned to inflict a further massacre on the Assyrians who found refuge there.[43][44]

Targeted villages[edit]

The targeted villages in the Simele and Zakho districts
List of targeted villages[45]
Ala Keena Bameri Betershy Dairke Gond Naze Kaserezden Korekavana Majel Makhte Sirchuri
Aloka Barcawra Betafrey Dair Kishnik Harkonda Kerry Kowashey Rabibyia Shekhidra
Badalliya Baroshkey Bidari Derjendy Idleb Kitba Lazga Rekawa Spendarook
Baderden Basorik Biswaya Fishkhabour Kaberto Khalata Mansouriya Sar Shorey Tal Zet
Bagerey Bastikey Carbeli Garvaly Karpel Kharab Koli Mawani Sezary Tel Khish
Bakhitmey Benaringee Chem Jehaney Gereban Karshen Kharsheniya Qasr Yazdin Sidzari Zeniyat

Today, most of these villages are inhabited by Kurds. The main campaign lasted until 16 August 1933, but violent raids on Assyrians were being reported up to the end of the month.[46] The campaign resulted in one third of the Assyrian population of Iraq fleeing to Syria.[47]


The Assyrian town of Alqosh where a massacre was planned on its population.

On 18 August 1933, Iraqi troops entered Mosul where they were given an enthusiastic reception by its Muslim inhabitants. Triumphant arches were erected and decorated with melons pierced with daggers, symbolising the heads of murdered Assyrians.[48] The crown prince Ghazi himself came to the city to award 'victorious' colours to those military and tribal leaders who participated in the massacres and the looting.[49] Anti-Christian feeling was at its height in Mosul, and the Christians of the city were largely confined to their homes during the whole month in fear of further action by the frenzied mob.[49]

The Iraqi Army later paraded in the streets of Baghdad in celebration of its victories.[50] Bakr Sidqi was promoted; he later led Iraq's first military coup and became prime minister.[51] Popular support for a compulsory conscription bill rose after the massacres.

Immediately after the massacre and the repression of the alleged Assyrian uprising, the Iraqi government demanded a conscription bill. Non-Assyrian Iraqi tribesmen offered to serve in the Iraqi army in order to counter the Assyrians. In late August, the government of Mosul demanded that the central government 'ruthlessly' stamp out the rebellion, eliminate all foreign influence in Iraqi affairs, and take immediate steps to enact a law for compulsory military service. The next week, 49 Kurdish tribal chieftains joined in a pro-conscription telegram to the government, expressing thanks for punishing the 'Assyrian insurgents',[52] stating that a "nation can be proud of itself only through its power, and since evidence of this power is the army," they requested compulsory military service.[52] Rashid Ali al-Gaylani presented the bill to the parliament, his government fell, however, before it was legislated and Jamil al-Midfai's government enacted conscription in February 1934.[53][54]

From the nationalists' point of view, the Assyrian Levies were British proxies to be used by their 'masters' to destroy the new Iraqi state whose independence the British had consistently opposed. The British allowed their Assyrian auxiliary troops to retain their arms and granted them special duty and privileges: guarding military air installations and receiving higher pay than the Iraqi Arab recruits.[55] Under British protection, the Assyrian Levies did not become Iraqi citizens after until 1924.[56] The nationalists believed the British were hoping for the Assyrians to destroy Iraq's internal cohesion by becoming independent and by inciting others such as the Kurds to follow their example.[57]

The massacres and looting had a deep psychological impact on the Assyrians. Stafford reported their low morale upon arrival in Alqosh:[58]

When I visited Alqosh myself on August 21st I found the Assyrians, like the Assyrians elsewhere, utterly panic-stricken. Not only were they disturbed, but their spirit was completely broken. It was difficult to recognize in their cowed demeanour the proud mountaineers whom everyone had known so well and admired so much for the past dozen years.

Assyrian refugees on a wagon moving to a newly constructed village on the Khabur River in Syria

Because of the massacre, around 6,200 Assyrians left Nineveh Plains immediately for the neighbouring French Mandate of Syria, and were later joined by 15,000 refugees the following years. They concentrated in the Jazira region and built a number of villages on the banks of the Khabur River.[59]

King Faysal, who recently returned to Iraq from a medical vacation, was very stressed during the crisis. His health deteriorated even more during the hot summer days in Baghdad. The British chargé d'affaires met him in his pajamas squatting in his bed on 15 August, where he denied that a massacre was committed in Simele. Faysal left Iraq again on 2 September 1933, seeking a cooler climate in London, where he died five days later.[60]

Mar Shimun who had been detained since June 1933, was forced into exile along with his extended family, despite initial British reluctance. He was flown on an RAF plane to Cyprus on 18 August 1933, and to the United States in 1949, later forcing the head of the Assyrian Church of the East to relocate to Chicago, where it remained until 2015. In 1948, Shimun met with the representatives of Iraq, Syria and Iran in Washington, subsequently calling upon his followers to "live as loyal citizens wherever they resided in the Middle East" and relinquishing his role as a temporal leader and the nationalistic role of the church. This left a power vacuum in Assyrian politics that was filled by the Assyrian Universal Alliance in 1968.[61]

The seat of the Assyrian Church of the East remained in the United States even during the times of Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV. Only with the newly consecrated Patriarch Mar Gewargis III in 2015 did the patriarchal seat of the Assyrian Church of the East return to Iraq relocating in north Iraq.[19]

Responsibility for the massacres[edit]

Official British sources estimate the total number of all Assyrians killed during August 1933 at around 600, while Assyrian sources put the figure at 3,000.[failed verification][1] Historians disagree as to who was responsible for ordering the mass killings. Stafford blames Arab nationalists, most prominently Rashid Ali al-Gaylani and Bakr Sidqi.[17][62] According to him, Iraqi Army officers despised the Assyrians, and Sidqi in particular was vocal of his hate for them. This view was also shared by British officials who recommended to Faysal not to send him to the north during the crisis.[17] Husry blamed the Assyrians for starting the crisis and absolved Sidqi from ordering the mass killing in Simele. He hinted that Faysal was the authority who might have issued orders to exterminate Assyrian males.[62] Kanan Makiya, a leftist Iraqi historian, presents the actions taken by the military as a manifestation of the nationalist anti-imperialist paranoia which was to culminate with the Ba'athists ascending to power in the 1960s.[63] Fadhil al-Barrak, an Iraqi Ba'athist historian, credits Sidqi as the author of the whole campaign and the ensuing massacres. For him, the events were part of a history of Iraq prior to the true nationalist revolution.[63]

British role[edit]

Iraqi–British relations entered a short cooling-down period during and after the crisis. The Iraqis were previously encouraged by the British to detain Patriarch Shimun in order to defuse tensions.[64] The British were also wary of Iraqi military leaders and recommended Sidqi, a senior ethnic Kurdish general who was stationed in Mosul, be transferred to another region due to his open animosity towards the Assyrians.[64] Later, they had to intervene to dissuade Faysal from personally leading a tribal force to punish the Assyrians.[62]

The general Iraqi public opinion, promoted by newspapers, that the Assyrians were proxies used by the British to undermine the newly established kingdom, was also shared by some leading officials, including the prime minister. British and European protests following the massacre only confirmed to them that the "Assyrian rebellion" was the work of European imperialism.[65]

Both King George V of England and Cosmo Gordon Lang the Bishop of Canterbury took a personal interest in the Assyrian affair. British representatives at home demanded from Faysal that Sidqi and other culprits be tried and punished.[65] The massacres were seen in Europe as a jihad against a small Christian minority.[66]

In the long term, however, the British backed Iraq and rejected an international inquiry into the killings, fearing that this may provoke further massacres against Christians.[65] They also did not insist on punishing the offenders, who were now seen as heroes by Iraqis.[65] The official British stance was to defend the Iraqi government for its perseverance and patience in dealing with the crisis and to attribute the massacres to rogue army units. A report on the battle of Dirabun blames the Assyrians, defends the actions of the Iraqi Army, and commends Sidqi as a good officer.[65]

The change in British attitude towards the Assyrians gave rise to the notion of the "British betrayal" among some Assyrian circles.[67] An idea which first gained popularity after 1918, when the Assyrians who were concentrated in Urmia did not receive the British relief which led to their massacre by the Turks and Kurds and their deportation to Hamadan.[68]

Cultural impact and legacy[edit]

Church of Martyrs – named after the massacre, it stands today in the town of Simele.
The word "August" in Syriac with the number 7 is often a symbol chosen by Assyrian organizations to commemorate the events.

7 August officially became known as Martyrs Day or National Day of Mourning by the Assyrian community in memory for the Simele massacre, as it was declared so by the Assyrian Universal Alliance in 1970.[69]

In 2004, the Syrian government banned an Assyrian political organization from commemorating the event and threatened arrests if any were to break the ban.[70]

Assyrian music artist Shlimon Bet Shmuel has written a song about the event.[71] A number of poems and stories have been written about the incident, including one by the American-Armenian writer William Saroyan, titled "Seventy Thousand Assyrians", written in 1934;

...We're washed up as a race, we're through, it's all over, why should I learn to read the (Assyrian) language? We have no writers, we have no news—well, there is a little news: once in a while the English encourage the Arabs to massacre us, that is all. It's an old story, we know all about it.[72][73]

The Simele massacre was instrumental in Raphael Lemkin's creation of the concept of genocide.[74] In 1933, Lemkin made a presentation to the Legal Council of the League of Nations conference on international criminal law in Madrid, for which he prepared an essay on the "Crime of Barbarity" as a crime against international law, the concept of the "crime of barbarity" evolved into the idea of genocide.[4]

The massacres also had a deep impact on the newly established Kingdom of Iraq. Kanan Makiya argues that the killing of Assyrians transcended tribal, religious, ideological and ethnic barriers as Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, Sunni Kurds, Sunni Turkmen, Shia Turkmen, and Yazidis; Monarchists, Islamists, nationalists, royalists, conservatives, Leftists, federalists, and tribalists, were all united in their anti-Assyrian and anti-Christian sentiments. According to him, the pogrom was "the first genuine expression of national independence in a former Arab province of the Ottoman Empire" and that the killing of Assyrian Christians was seen as a national duty.[11]

The British were standing firmly behind the leaders of their former colony during the crisis, despite the popular animosity towards them. Brigadier General E. H. Headlam of the British military mission in Baghdad was quoted saying "the government and people have good reasons to be thankful to Colonel Bakr Sidqi".[75]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Zubaida 2000, p. 370
  2. ^ "Displaced persons in Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraqi refugees in Iran" (PDF). International Federation for Human Rights. January 2003. p. 17. Retrieved 23 September 2011.
  3. ^ Yacoub, Joseph (July 1988). "La Question Assyro-Chaldéenne, Les Puissances Européennes et la Société des Nations". Guerres Mondiales et Conflits Contemporains (151): 103–120. JSTOR 25730513.
  4. ^ a b "Raphael Lemkin". EuropeWorld. 22 June 2001. Archived from the original on 16 April 2010. Retrieved 23 September 2011.
  5. ^ Joseph 2000, p. 60
  6. ^ Gaunt & Beṯ-Şawoce 2006, pp. 125–126
  7. ^ Stafford 2006, pp. 62–63
  8. ^ Stafford 2006, pp. 42–43
  9. ^ Stafford 2006, pp. 53–54
  10. ^ a b Husry 1974, p. 165
  11. ^ a b Makiya 1998, p. 170
  12. ^ Husry 1974, p. 162
  13. ^ Husry 1974, p. 168
  14. ^ Husry 1974, p. 164
  15. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 110
  16. ^ Husry 1974, p. 170
  17. ^ a b c Stafford 2006, pp. 128–129
  18. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 133
  19. ^ a b "Biography of His Holiness, The Assyrian Martyr , The Late Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII". Committee of the 50th Anniversary of the Patriarchate of Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII. Retrieved 23 September 2011.
  20. ^ See his PHD Dissertation, Mordechai Zaken, “Tribal Chieftains and their Jewish Subjects in Kurdistan: A Comparative Study in Survival,” The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2003) and in his forthcoming book.
  21. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 136
  22. ^ a b Stafford 2006, p. 145
  23. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 146
  24. ^ Husry 1974, p. 174
  25. ^ Husry 1974, pp. 175–176
  26. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 183
  27. ^ Makiya 1998, p. 169
  28. ^ Joseph 2000, p. 198
  29. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 149
  30. ^ David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, I.B.Tauris, 2000, ISBN 978-1-85043-416-0, p. 289.
  31. ^ Denise Natali, The Kurds and The State: Evolving National Identity in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, Syracuse University Press, 2005, ISBN 978-0-8156-3084-5, p. 35.
  32. ^ Stafford 2006, pp. 154–155
  33. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 167
  34. ^ a b Stafford 2006, p. 168
  35. ^ a b c Stafford 2006, p. 158
  36. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 169
  37. ^ Makiya 1998, p. 168
  38. ^ a b Stafford 2006, p. 159
  39. ^ Stafford 2006, pp. 160–161
  40. ^ Shimun 2010, p. a62
  41. ^ Husry 1974, p. 345
  42. ^ Husry 1974, p. 347
  43. ^ Stafford 2006, p. a62
  44. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 162
  45. ^ Eshoo, Majed. "The Fate Of Assyrian Villages Annexed To Today's Dohuk Governorate In Iraq And The Conditions In These Villages Following The Establishment Of The Iraqi State In 1921". Assyrian International News Agency. Retrieved 23 September 2011.
  46. ^ Stafford, R. S. (1934). "Iraq and the Problem of the Assyrians". International Affairs. 13 (2): 159–185. doi:10.2307/2603135. JSTOR 2603135.
  47. ^ Official journal , Volume 18. League of Nations. 1937. p. 927.
  48. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 184
  49. ^ a b Stafford 2006, p. 188
  50. ^ Anderson & Stansfield 2004, pp. 23–24
  51. ^ Anderson & Stansfield 2004, p. 25
  52. ^ a b Simon 2004, p. 113
  53. ^ Eisenstadt, M; Mathewson, E (2003). U.S. policy in post-Saddam Iraq: lessons from the British experience. Washington Institute for Near East Policy. p. 84. ISBN 978-0-944029-84-8.
  54. ^ Nisan 2002, p. 106
  55. ^ Kelidar 1979, p. 106
  56. ^ Omissi 1990, p. 65
  57. ^ Sluglett 2007, pp. 154–156
  58. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 171
  59. ^ League of Nations (1935). Official journal: Special supplement, Issues 138–144. the University of Michigan. p. 70.
  60. ^ Husry 1974, pp. 351
  61. ^ DeKelaita, Robert (22 November 2009). "The Origins and Developments of Assyrian Nationalism" (PDF). Committee on International Relations Of the University of Chicago. Assyrian International News Agency. Retrieved 23 September 2011.
  62. ^ a b c Zubaida 2000, pp. 375–376
  63. ^ a b Zubaida 2000, pp. 377–378
  64. ^ a b Husry 1974, pp. 173
  65. ^ a b c d e Zubaida 2000, p. 371
  66. ^ Husry 1974, pp. 353
  67. ^ Malek, Y. "The British Betrayal of the Assyrians". Retrieved 14 November 2011.
  68. ^ Ishaya, A. "Assyrians in the History of Urmia, Iran". Nineveh. Retrieved 14 November 2011.
  69. ^ Shapira, Aprim. "Why is the 7th of August an Assyrian Martyrs' Day?". Beth Suryoyo Assyrian. Retrieved 23 September 2011.
  70. ^ Abraham, Salim (8 August 2004). "Syrian Authorities Ban Assyrian Party from Commemorating Martyrs Day". Associated Press. Retrieved 23 September 2011.
  71. ^ "Shlimon Bet-Shmuel's Discography". Retrieved 23 September 2011.
  72. ^ William Saroyan, "Seventy Thousand Assyrians", in William Saroyan, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories. New York: New Directions, 1934
  73. ^ Seventy Thousand Assyrians, William SAROYAN, WikiQuotes.
  74. ^ Sargon Donabed (1 February 2015). Reforging a Forgotten History: Iraq and the Assyrians in the 20th Century. Edinburgh University Press. pp. 110–. ISBN 978-0-7486-8605-6.
  75. ^ Makiya 1998, p. 174


Further reading[edit]