Simele massacre

Simele massacre
Simele massacre

  Area where villages were looted.
  Heavily targeted Assyrian villages.
Location North of the Kingdom of Iraq, notably at Simele
Date August 7, 1933 (1933-08-07) – August 11, 1933 (1933-08-11)
Attack type Summary executions, mass murder, looting
Death(s) 600 - 3,000
Victim Assyrians
Perpetrator(s) Iraqi Army, Arab and Kurdish tribes
This article is part of the series on the

History of the
Assyrian people

medieval icon depicting Ephrem the Syrian.

Early history

Old Assyrian period (20th - 15th c. BC)
Aramaeans (14th - 9th c. BC)
Neo-Assyrian Empire (911 - 612 BC)
Achaemenid Assyria (539 - 330 BC)

Classical Antiquity

Seleucid Empire (312 - 63 BC)
Osroene (132 BC - 244 AD)
Syrian Wars (66 BC - 217 AD)
Roman Syria (64 BC - 637 AD)
Adiabene (15 - 116 AD)
Roman Assyria (116 - 118)
Christianization (1st to 3rd c.)
Nestorian Schism (5th c.)
Asuristan (226 - 651)
Byzantine–Sassanid Wars (502 - 628)

Middle Ages

Muslim conquest of Syria (630s)
Abassid rule (750-1256)
Emirs of Mosul (905-1383)
Principality of Antioch (1098-1268)
Turco-Mongol rule (1256-1370)

Modern History

Ottoman Empire (1534-1917)
Schism of 1552 (16th c.)
Rise of nationalism (19th c.)
Assyrian Genocide (1914-1920)
Independence movement (since 1919)
Simele massacre (1933)
Post-Saddam Iraq (since 2003)

See also

History of Syria
History of Iraq
Assyrian diaspora

The Simele Massacre (Syriac: ܦܪܡܬܐ ܕܣܡܠܐ pramta d-Simele, Arabic: مذبحة سميلmaḏbaḥat Summayl) was a massacre committed by the armed forces of the Kingdom of Iraq during the systematic targeting of Assyrians in 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] to 3,000[2][3] Assyrians.

The Assyrian people at the time were emerging from one of the darkest periods of their history. During the Assyrian Genocide during and after World War I, more than half of their population was massacred by Ottoman Turks and Kurds.[4]

The term 'genocide' was coined by Raphael Lemkin, who was directly influenced by the story of this massacre and the Armenian Genocide.[5]



The Mountains' Assyrians

The majority of the Assyrian affected by the massacres were adherents of the Assyrian Church of the East (often dubbed Nestorian), who have 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.[6][7] Most of these Assyrians were massacred during the Genocide of 1915. 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.[8] Most Hakkari Assyrians were resettled after 1925 in a cluster of villages in northern Iraq.[9] 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.[10]

The Assyrians did not share an amicable relation with their neighbour. Their historical feud with the Kurds, which culminated in 1915, is centuries old. Bitterness between the Assyrians and the Arabs was reported by British historians as far as the 1920s.[11] this was even made worst by the British officers of the Levies who have encouraged the Assyrians to think that they are first-class troops, which had the effect of increasing the natural pride of the Assyrians.[11] This, coupled with the fact that the British and Assyrian Levies succeed in suppressing Kurdish revolts when the Iraqi Army failed created an inferiority complex among some Iraqi corps towards the British and the Assyrians.[12]

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.[13][14] The Iraqis, on the other hand felt that the Assyrian demands where, alongside the Kurdish disturbances in the north, a conspiracy by the British to divide Iraq by agitating its minorities.[15]

Iraqi independence and crisis

Throughout the crisis, beginning in the late spring of 1933, the American representative in Iraq, Paul Knabenshue, described public animosity towards the Assyrians as at 'fever heat'.[16] With Iraqi independence, the new Assyrian spiritual-temporal leader, Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII 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.[17]

In spring 1933, Malik Yaqu, a former Levies' officer, was engaged in a propaganda campaign on behalf of 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.[18] 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.[19]

In June 1933, the Mar Shimun was invited to Baghdad for negotiations with Hikmat Sulayman's government and was detained there after refusing to relinquish temporal authority.[20] He would eventually be exiled to Cyprus.[21]


Clashes at Dirabun

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.[22] 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 the army's barracks with little success.[23] 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.[24] 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 and son of a prominent Arab nationalist Khaldun Husry claims that it was Yaqu's men who provoked the army at Dirabun.[1][25] Husry even confirms rumours which circulated among nationalist newspapers of the Assyrians mutilating the bodies of killed Iraqi soldiers,[26] which further enraged the Iraqi public opinion against Assyrians.[23]

Beginning of the massacres

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

Even though all military activities ceased by 6 August, stories of atrocities committed by the Assyrians at Dirabun and rumours that Christians were planning to blow bridges up and poison drinking water in major Iraqi cities spread.[27] According to some historians, the agitation against 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.[28][29][30]

The Iraqi army led by the experienced brigadier general Bakr Sidqi moved north in order to crush the Assyrians once and for all. They started executing every Assyrian male found in the mountainous Bekher region between Zakho and Duhok starting from 8 August. 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.[31]

Looting of villages

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,[32] while Yazidis and Kurds also raided Assyrian villages in Shekhan and Amadiya.[33] Most women and children from those villages took refuge in Simele and Dohuk.[34]

On 9 August, the Arab tribes of Shammar and Jubur started crossing the east bank of the Tigris and raiding Assyrian villages on the plains to the south of Dohuk.[34] They were mostly driven by the loss of a large amount of their own livestock to drought in the previous years.[35]

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.[33] Some villages were completely burned down and most of them were later inhabited by Kurds.[36]

The massacre of Simele

The Lethbridge Herald,
August 18, 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.[34] The 10th of 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.[37]

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.[37] Without warning or obvious provocation, the troops began to open an indiscriminate fire on the defenceless Assyrians. Ismael Abbawi Tohalla, the commanding officer, then ordered his troops not to target women. Stafford, describes the ensuing massacre as follows:[38]

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:[39]

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.[40] Khaldun Husry claims that the mass killing was not premeditated, and that the responsibility lies on the shoulder of, Ismael Abbawi, a junior officer in the army.[41]

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. He was prevented in this by the intervention of the Chaldean Patriarch Yousef VI Emmanuel II Thomas.[37][42]

Targeted villages

The targeted villages in the Simele and Zakho districts
List of targeted villages[43]
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, but violent raids on Assyrians were being reported up to the end of the month.[44] The campaign resulted in one third of the Assyrian population of Iraq fleeing to Syria.[45]


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

On 18 August, 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.[46] 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.[47] 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.[47]

The Iraqi army later paraded in the streets of Baghdad in celebration of its victories.[48] Bakr Sidqi was promoted; he later led Iraq's first military coup and became prime minister.[49]

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',[16] stating that a "nation can be proud of itself only through its power, and since evidence of this power is the army,"[16] they requested compulsory military service. Rashid Ali al-Gaylani presented the bill to the parliament. His government fell before it was legislated and Jamil al-Midfai's government enacted conscription in January 1934.[50]

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.[51] Under British protection, the Assyrian Levies did not become Iraqi citizens after until 1924.[52] 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.[53]

The massacres and looting had a deep psychological impact on the Assyrians. Stafford reported their low morale upon arrival in Alqosh:[54]

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.[55]

King Faysal, who recently 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 Charge d'Affaires met him in his Pyjamas squatting in his bed on 15 Augusts where he denied that a massacre was committed in Simele. Faysal left Iraq again on 2 September seeking a cooler climate in London where he died 5 days later.[56]

Mar Shimun who was detained since June 1933 was forced into exile along with his extended family despite initial British reluctance. He was flown to by an RAF plane to Cyprus in 18 Augusts, and later to the United States in 1949, thus later forcing the head of the Assyrian Church of the East to relocate to Chicago where it remains to this day.[21] In 1948, Mar 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" 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.[3]

Responsibility for the massacres

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.[1] Historians disagree as to who holds responsibility for ordering the mass killings. Stafford blames Arab nationalists, most prominently Rashid Ali al-Gaylani and Bakr Sidqi.[57][19] 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 Brittish officials who recommended to King Faysal not to send him to the north during the crisis.[19] Husry on the other hands while blaming the Assyrians for starting the crisis and absolves Sidqi from ordering the mass killing in Simele. He hints at King Faysal I as the authority who might have issued orders to exterminate Assyrian males.[57] 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 ascent to power in the 1960s.[58] Fadhil al-Barrak, an Iraqi Ba'athist historian, puts 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.[58]

British role

The Iraqi British relations faced a short turndown during and after the crisis. The Iraqis were previously encouraged by the British to detain Mar Shimun in order to diffuse the tensions.[59] The British were however recommended to transfer Bakr Sidqi, an ethnic Kurdish general, who was stationed in Mosul, to another region fearing due to his open animosity towards the Assyrians.[59] Later, they had to intervene to dissuade King Faysal from personally leading a tribal force to punish the Assyrians.[57] The general Iraqi public opinion promoted by newspapers, was 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 himself. The British and European protests following the massacre only confirmed to them that the "Assyrian rebellion" was the work of European imperialism.[60]

Both King George V of England and Cosmo Gordon Lang the Bishop of Canterbury took a personal interest in the Assyrian affair. The massacres were seen in Europe as a Jihad against a small Christian minority.[61] British representatives at home demanded from Faysal that Sidqi and other culprits be tried and punished.[60]

On 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.[60] They also didn't insist on punishing the culprits who were now seen as heroes by Iraqis.[60] The official British stance was defend the Iraqi government for its perseverance and patience in dealing with the crisis and to attribute the massaces to army units out of control. A report on the battle of Dirabun blames the Assyrians, defends the actions of the Iraqi Army and commends Bakr Sidqi as a good officer.[60]

The changed in British attitude towards the Assyrians gave rise to the notion of the British betrayal among some Assyrian circles.[62] An idea which first gained popularity after 1918 when the Assyrians who were concentrated in Urmia did not receive the British relief which lead to their massacre by the Turks and Kurds and their deportation to Hamadan.[63]

Cultural impact and legacy

Church Of Martyrs - named after the massacre, it stands today in the town of Simele.
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. [64]

In 2004, the Syrian government banned an Assyrian political organization from commemorating the event and threatened arrests if any were to break the ban.[65]

Assyrian music artist Shlimon Bet Shmuel has written a song about the event.[66] A number of poems and stories have been written about the incident, including one by the American 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.


The Simele massacre inspired Raphael Lemkin to create the concept of "Genocide".[69] 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, which later evolved into the idea of genocide, was based on the Simele massacre, the Armenian Genocide and the Jewish Holocaust.[5]

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 and ethnic barriers as Arabs, Kurds and Yazidis were united in their anti-Assyrian and anti-western sentiments. According to him, the massacre was "the first genuine expression of national independence in a former Arab province of the Ottoman Empire".[12]

The British were standing firmly behind the leaders of their former colony during the crisis, despite the popular animosity towards them. General 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".[70]

See also

Portal icon Assyrians portal
Portal icon Iraq portal


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  12. ^ a b Makiya 1998, p. 170
  13. ^ Husry 1974, p. 162
  14. ^ Husry 1974, p. 168
  15. ^ Husry 1974, p. 164
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  18. ^ Husry 1974, p. 170
  19. ^ a b c Stafford 2006, pp. 128–129
  20. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 133
  21. ^ 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. 
  22. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 136
  23. ^ a b Stafford 2006, p. 145
  24. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 146
  25. ^ Husry 1974, p. 174
  26. ^ Husry 1974, pp. 175–176
  27. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 183
  28. ^ Makiya 1998, p. 169
  29. ^ Joseph 2000, p. 198
  30. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 149
  31. ^ Stafford 2006, pp. 154–155
  32. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 167
  33. ^ a b Stafford 2006, p. 168
  34. ^ a b c Stafford 2006, p. 158
  35. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 169
  36. ^ Makiya 1998, p. 168
  37. ^ a b c Stafford 2006, p. 159
  38. ^ Stafford 2006, pp. 160–161
  39. ^ Shimun 2010, p. a62
  40. ^ Husry 1974, p. 345
  41. ^ Husry 1974, p. 347
  42. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 162
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  44. ^ Stafford, R. S. (1934). "Iraq and the Problem of the Assyrians". International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1931-1939) 13 (2): 159–185. JSTOR 2603135. 
  45. ^ Official journal , Volume 18. League of Nations. 1937. p. 927. 
  46. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 184
  47. ^ a b Stafford 2006, p. 188
  48. ^ Anderson & Stansfield 2006, pp. 23–24
  49. ^ Anderson & Stansfield 2006, p. 25
  50. ^ Nisan 2002, p. 106
  51. ^ Kelidar 1979, p. 106
  52. ^ Omissi 1990, p. 65
  53. ^ Sluglett 2007, pp. 154–156
  54. ^ Stafford 2006, p. 171
  55. ^ League of Nations (1935). Official journal: Special supplement, Issues 138-144. the University of Michigan. pp. 70. 
  56. ^ Husry 1974, pp. 351
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  58. ^ a b Zubaida 2000, pp. 377–378
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Coordinates: 36°51′30″N 42°51′00″E / 36.858334°N 42.850099°E / 36.858334; 42.850099 (Simele massacre)

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