PHOTOS: Shingal, an ancient town worth fighting to preserve
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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 the 1915 genocide in Turkey. They describe a very generous welcome by the Ezidi tribes, who recognized the Armenians as needing protection. The Armenians persevered in Shingal as a small community until their annihilation in 2014.
Curiously, inside the town of Shingal itself, there were no Ezidi shrines before 2014. The Ezidi community consistently says this was due to fear and violence amid the Islamization and Arabization of the town over the centuries. The only safe place for Ezidi shrines was for them to be tucked away on Shingal mountain. Many shrines stand proudly there, only some of which the Islamic State reached and destroyed.
Altogether, these shrines on the mountain – outside of the city – form a constellation of holy sites that describe many chapters of Ezidi history. There is a total of several dozen Ezidi shrines in the broader Shingal region. Of those that were ruined since 2014, some are already being rebuilt with financial support from the Iraqi government.
After 2014, the demographics of Shingal have completely changed. The few residents living in Shingal today are almost all Ezidi. There is also a tiny population of Shia, mostly around the rebuilding and protection of the Shia shrines. Outside of the town, some Arabs from the Shemmar tribe have returned while other Arab tribes are prevented from returning.
Remarkably, despite the staggering depopulation and Islamization currently reconfiguring the Nineveh Plains, in the center of Shingal itself, there is a new Ezidi holy place being built. It is the first one in Ezidi’s collective memory to ever exist in the town itself. When completed in late 2019, the temple of Kobe Ezi will stand as an ambitious vision for an Ezidi future in Shingal that nonetheless hangs precariously in the balance.
Viewing Shingal only as a setting for the events of 2014 onward is the way the Islamic State intended for Shingal and all the rest of Islamic State territory to be seen: misery, control, obliteration, and Pyrrhic victory. Oddly, that may be better than the alternative, as some officials living nearby have gone on the record just five years after the genocide and begun denying that many events of the genocide ever took place.
However, we have the power to delve into Shingal’s history and heritage and acknowledge the Islamic State’s atrocities while also denying the terror group from being the only thing for which Shingal is famous.
Shingal is a stunning town of incredibly diverse cultural heritage. It is a living, walkable, urban museum, and its people and possibilities must be included in an urgent and well-backed vision for reconstruction and economic development.
Coming next: the city of Shingal in the 20th and 21st centuries and a deeper look into its old homes; and a survey of the sacred geography of Shingal mountain.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany