Alqosh: An Island of Contradiction in a Sea of Development by Christian Chung

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The entrance to the Saint Harmizd Monastary in Algosh. Source: Christian Chung.

High in the mountains of northern Iraq, nestled in a valley overlooking the farming plains of Ninevah Province, sits Alqosh, a city almost as complicated as its surrounding environment and its country.

Home to one of the oldest Christian communities in Iraq and the Middle East region and literally meaning “God of Righteousness” in Aramaic, Alqosh is a mystifying city in ways beyond its physical beauty and ancient history. Historians trace its recorded history back to the earliest days of the Assyrian Empire, when most of its population was composed of enslaved Hebrew people forcibly settled in the area by the Assyrian army around 1000 BC. In the first few decades of the new millennium, Alqosh quickly became a hub for Eastern Christianity; the Nestorian monk Saint Rabban Hormiz would establish a monastery years later, around 620 AD. At least, this is everything my driver, a local Assyrian, was telling me as I stood on the ledge of a crumbling stone wall of the monastery.

My trip to this small enclave in Ninevah was by accident, really. The single road leading into town from the main highway to Duhok seemed strangely inviting, and a friend and I beckoned for our driver to follow it. We came across a lone Iraqi National Police officer guarding access. He was quite confused as to why two Americans wanted to visit this isolated Christian enclave. “Meseehee?” he asked, using the Arabic word for “Christian,” while inquisitively sticking his head in our SUV. We nodded, paid our “entrance fee” (which curiously went straight into his pocket), and went on our way to tour this mysterious city.

In many ways, Alqosh is symbolic of the social complexities of Iraq, complexities that are harder to explain and even harder to understand. The city, surrounded by a sea of support for the Kurdistan Regional Government (not including the Sunni-hotbed area of Mosul), is instead a secluded bastion for Maliki and the federal government in Baghdad; the flag of the Federal government, and not the Kurdistan Region, flies high overhead. Iraqi National Security Forces are based in the city, surrounded by officially allied but unofficially opposed Peshmerga units.

The monastery from afar, recently renovated with the support of Assyrian Party Zawaa and the Federal Government. Source: Christian Chung

Yet the preconditions for hostility between the two forces have not boiled over into conflict or even any extreme feelings of antagonism between inhabitants of Alqosh and the neighboring farming villages. Assyrian, Kurd, Arab, Turkmen—the communities have lived together in a mostly-continuous peace for hundreds of years; yet, with daily reports of sectarian inspired violence coming mostly from the south of Iraq, Kirkuk and nearby Mosul, one would be hard pressed to hear similar stories of prosperous and historically rich communities like Alqosh.

After climbing up the age-old rocky trail to the ancient monastery, we caught a glimpse of the valley below. Smoke rising from three spots in the distance grabbed my attention, and, after inquiring, my driver just smiled and informed me that they were probably the day’s bombings in nearby Mosul. Directly below us, contrasting with the scene in the distance, was the city center of Alqosh, complete with children playing soccer and women hanging clothes to dry on lines outside.

Mosul, a Sunni Arab enclave in the predominately Kurdish north, has been the mainstay of sectarian-inspired violence since the fall of the predominately Sunni Regime in 2003, and remains an extremely dangerous city and no-go area for all foreigners. Since first coming to Iraq, I was warned by everyone I met to stay as far away as possible from Mosul; even uttering the name garners immediate looks of concern from any Kurd or Arab within earshot (as an aside, the first commander of coalition forces in Mosul was none other than the officer credited for turning Iraq around, General David Petraeus).

The monastery is massive: hundreds of yards of underground tunnels built for defense run beneath the ancient gravel. Since its inception, Alqosh and the monastery have been victims of numerous attacks, including in the 1970s and 1980s. On a hill overlooking the city below stood the tombs of six monk martyrs, killed at various times throughout the modern history of the monastery, a powerful symbol and reminder of the persecution Assyrian Christians have faced in Iraq and the region.

The tombs of six martyred monks overlooking Alqosh, killed at various times over the 20th century. Source: Christian Chung

It was obvious that there were ongoing renovation efforts: dirt was absent from the bricks of the building, the path looked vaguely redone, and the Statue of the Virgin Mary was clean and proudly displayed.

“Who paid for all of this?” I had asked my driver. Like nearly everything in Iraq, following the money explained a lot of the political and social power dynamics.

The Assyrian Democratic Movement, an Iraqi political party better known by its Syriac named Zowaa (“The Movement”), has funded nearly all of the renovation work at the monastery. Surprisingly, Zowaa is also partnering with the ruling State of Law Coalition, the organization to which the often-demonized Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki belongs, to provide other social services to the city like better security, continuous electricity and garbage collection. This seems to contradict the image that many Kurds and Arabs in the political opposition have shared with me about the Prime Minister: that Maliki, grabbing power and concentrating resources in the Office of the Prime Minster, had no intention of supporting any one else besides the Shi’ite Arabs.

I cannot help but think that Alqosh perfectly epitomizes the complicated social dynamics of Iraq. The violence in Mosul just a few kilometers from where I stood seems to be the only picture that most outside Iraq have of the country. But by not being more aware of the hidden diversity in areas like Alqosh, we are depriving ourselves of a fuller and more complete understanding of the rich history that this beautiful country has, and, worse, underestimating the complexity and challenges that it poses for keeping alive here our sometimes over-idealized conception of democracy.

Christian Chung is a sophomore in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is currently working in northern Iraq as the Security and Political Reporter for the English language section of Rudaw News, with a focus on Iraqi political and security developments, Arab-Kurd relations, the political challenges faced by Iraqi ethnic groups, and security throughout the country since the American withdrawal. 

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