The Prophet Nahum, the Assyrians of Alqosh, and the Kurdistan Region

View of the Monastery of Raban Hormizd  overlooking Alqosh.
View from the Monastery of Raban Hormizd, overlooking Alqosh. Credit: the author.

Disclaimer

This report is part of a series. For several years, the Kurdish Jewish leadership in Israel has tried to build constructively on their historic ties with the Kurdistan Region, but has been obstructed by a small group of impostors who rightly saw the actual Kurdish Jews as a challenge to their scheme. The impostors were led by publicity-seeking figures such as Sherzad Omar Mahmoud and Ranjdar Abdulrahman (under the aliases “Sherzad Mamsani” and “Ranj Cohen”), as well as Sherko Othman. These men pleaded in the media for visa cards and visa stamps — for themselves and their clients — under the false pretense of being forgotten and dispossessed Jews. The National Association’s press statement on this issue is available here.

Alqosh, an Assyrian town and the home of the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum

Alqosh is at the crossroads of Mesopotamia.

The population is entirely Assyrian, an ethnoreligious Christian minority that speaks Sureth, a.k.a Neo-Aramaic, which was the lingua franca of West Asia in antiquity, and the language of Jesus. Also, Sureth is practically identical to the Judeo-Aramaic mother tongue of the Jews from Kurdistan.

Assyrian communities follow various traditions of Christianity. Alqoshis are mostly affiliated with the Chaldean Catholic Church, which was established centuries ago to bring eastern churches in Mesopotamia into accord with the Vatican.

Inside the heart of Alqosh itself is the biblical Shrine of the Prophet Nahum, one of the oldest and most important Jewish sites in all of the Middle East outside of Israel. The Prophet Nahum lived in the age of the ancient Assyrians and prophesied the destruction of Nineveh.

The Shrine was a pilgrimage center for Kurdish and Babylonian Jews, who would all flock there during Shavuot. For the busy festival, the local Christians would even welcome the Jewish pilgrims into their homes.

“For Kurdish Jews, this tomb is the holiest site outside of Zion,” stated Dr. Mordechai Zaken, the supervisor of Jewish concerns in the Kurdistan Region for the National Association of Jews from Kurdistan in Israel, in an interview with Davar. “The pilgrims would come to the compound for a few days, where they would celebrate and pray in a family and community atmosphere.”

“On Shavuot, we would do a procession with an orchestra, drumming and dancing. Every day they would take out dozens of Torah scrolls, that had arrived from all over Iraq and beyond, as well as those kept in the synagogue in Alqosh,” stated Maurice Bar-On, whose family was the caretaker.

“We would walk about 3 kilometers to the spring that was in the mountains outside the town, where we would have a picnic and rest, and in the afternoon return with singing and dancing,” continued Bar-On. “This is how it was every day for a week. This is how the Jews of Iraq and Kurdistan celebrated.”

“Living in a place of pilgrimage gives meaning to life,” remarked Cheryl Benard, founder of the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (ARCH), in an interview with Davar. “This tomb is a big part of the identity of the Assyrian residents. They are proud of it.”

For several years now, the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum in Alqosh has been undergoing renovation by ARCH in two steps: first, an emergency stabilization; and following that, a full renovation.

The struggles to conduct an emergency stabilization of the Shrine

“When we were first there, you could still hear sounds of combat from Mosul and near Mosul, and at night, see rocket fire,” stated Dr. Benard. “We did feel safe in Alqosh, but the area remained very unstable. The next towns over had been abandoned, and their residents had fled to Alqosh and had not yet gone home.”

Dr. Benard was already on a trip to Erbil when some colleagues urged her to visit Alqosh. She immediately recognized the significance of the Shrine. 

“This site is uniquely important and valuable,” stated Dr. Benard.” On multiple levels, it is important to Jews. It is a testimonial to the region’s multi-faith heritage and history, and my first visit came at a time when radicals were working to erase any sign or memory of such. Also, it was important to Alqosh, but it was now a depressing, collapsing wreck right in the middle of a town that had long been proud of its identity as a place of pilgrimage.”

The Shrine was in awful condition. When Dr. Benard saw the situation, she immediately used ARCH’s network to begin an assessment and cultivate stakeholders’ support for a restoration effort.

“Two Israeli expert engineers were brought to Alqosh for a technical assessment,” stated Dr. Benard. “They said we could not wait. We had to at least stabilize the structure before the next winter or it was likely to entirely collapse.”

Unfortunately, it was not easy to gather support for a first-of-its-kind project concerning a Jewish biblical site while the war with the Islamic State raged nearby.

Thankfully, early moral support came from the National Association of Jews from Kurdistan in Israel. Rabbinical authorities blessed the project.  During the project’s early stages, ARCH began forming a diverse committee that would monitor the renovation and ultimately be entrusted with the site’s long-term care. After decades at a standstill, the Shrine had a beating heart again. 

Nonetheless, the project struggled to get off the ground.

“Fundraising for this was extremely difficult,” noted Dr. Benard. “Many people felt the situation was too dangerous, that this was basically still a war zone where everything could fall apart.”

Also, for many Jews, their relationship to the country was one of almost irredeemable pain.

“We tracked down prosperous Iraqi Jews, but they tended to feel quite bitter about the manner in which they had been expelled or forced to flee from Iraq,” noted Dr. Benard, “and not inclined to send any money to that country.”

A further complication was the need for discretion.

“Although it made our fundraising very difficult, we decided to stay out of the press as we did not want to attract the wrong kind of attention,” stated Dr. Benard. “We didn’t want some lunatic to think, ‘Oh, we blew up the tombs of Daniel and Jonah, but we missed this one.'”

The emergency stabilization got underway

However, the emergency stabilization managed to get off the ground.

“We got this done on a bare-bones budget,” stated Dr. Benard. “We used our frequent flyer miles to get there, people donated their time, from the engineers to the photographer.”

The achievement sent a powerful message which rallied essential public support.

“It was the first cultural pushback against the Islamic State and people understood that,” stated Dr. Benard, “and suddenly there was a willingness to help make this happen.”

Thankfully, observers recognized that powerful message, and things began to improve. ARCH planners had anticipated that a three-year gap would be necessary between the emergency stabilization and a full renovation. Those three years would provide an opportunity to do the essential fundraising.

Ultimately, the project moved ahead from emergency stabilization into full restoration without a halt. ARCH understood that it was essential to maintain the project’s momentum, so they made the risky decision to move ahead, despite not yet having received funding commitments for more than a quarter of the anticipated costs.

Restoration work at the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum in Alqosh. Credit: the author.

Full renovation of the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum

“The people in Alqosh said, ‘Oh, people always come here and start something and then they leave and we never see them again.’ So we felt that for morale, it was essential to start right away,” stated Dr. Benard.

Then a key patron took an active role. President Nechirvan Barzani of the autonomous Kurdistan Region, who was then the Prime Minister, became a patron and supporter of the effort. President Barzani undertook the restoration of the Prophet Nahum’s Shrine as a personal project and pledged funds toward its completion. The U.S. government contributed an amount as well, but there was still a worrisome gap of 500,000 dollars. 

Then at 6:30 am, an early morning call came from an unknown number. “I picked up, still half-asleep,” stated Dr. Benard. “This voice said, ‘Do you need 500,000 dollars?'” The call was a shock. “I thought, ‘Is this some sort of prank call?'” However, it turned out the US Consulate was contacting her because they had  a funding opportunity.

“The exact amount we needed, at exactly the right moment?” reminisced Dr. Benard. “It seemed like quite a coincidence. … Sometimes, I think we had help from the Prophet.”

Collapsed portions of the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum were reconstructed. Credit: the author.

ARCH recruited GEMA ART International, a Czech company specializing in the conservation and restoration of protected monuments and art, especially those that are significant and complex. GEMA had previous experience at the Citadel of Erbil, and the Minaret of Sultan Muzaffar (Choly Minaret). Also, GEMA had worked on various religious sites in Europe, dating back to the 14th century, including several Jewish sites.

By January 2019, the process was underway.   It was an exercise in authenticity and precision. The engineers judged details down to the exact molecular composition of the mortar they were using, which would need to last for centuries.

The tomb at the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum being repaired. Credit: the author.

Impostors attempted to seize and excommunicate

Unfortunately, the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum gathered the attention of impostors such as Sherzad Omar Mahmoud (a.k.a. “Sherzad Mamsani”) and Ranjdar Abdulrahman (a.k.a. “Ranj Cohen”).

From the beginning, Sherzad Omar lobbied to renovate the site instead, though he had neither the qualifications, nor the professional partners, nor any relevant experience in cultural heritage conservation.. Nonetheless, he demanded complete control. When that was ignored, he sent threatening letters and made strange allegations.. His public antics were disturbing because  it was necessary not to draw excess attention to the project. Ultimately, his attempts at hijacking the restoration failed. 

But a few years later, Ranjdar Abdulrahman (a.ka. “Ranj Cohen”) undertook even bolder efforts. During a staged event in December 2019, he gained unauthorized access to the Shrine, breaking into the construction site during a holiday period when the engineers were not there.. He falsely told reporters whom he had brought for the occasion that he and his Aramic organization were undertaking the renovations. He subsequently made similar claims during repeated visits to the Shrine. Each time he ensured that media were present to cover his antics. 

Looking to the future

This is a serious matter, because especially once the Shrine’s renovation is completed, the international Jewish public will not take kindly to interlopers desecrating a site of such value and importance to them. Instead, it will need to be placed under the supervision of a legitimate authority, in this case, the authentic Kurdish Jewish leadership. To handle matters, the National Association appointed Dr. Mordechai Zaken as the supervisor of Jewish concerns in the Kurdistan Region.

Commendably, the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs has provided the restoration effort some critical protection: they refused to support the impostors. They denied any requests by the impostors to transfer control of the Shrine’s restoration. Also, Sherzad was dismissed from his role and left the Kurdistan Region in disgrace, although in Germany he continued soliciting for support as not only a long-lost Jew, but also a sort of victim based on his firing and futility.

“The National Association hopes to establish a new era for reconciliation and the security of Jewish heritage, through its outreach to the Kurdistan Region,” stated the National Association.

There are positive signs about the future of these efforts.

About the Author
Levi Clancy lives in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Region in Iraq, and is the founder of Foundation of Ours, which supports Jewish expression in the Kurdistan Region, and provides platforms for reconciliation and coexistence between all communities. He was born in Venice, California and moved to the KRI in 2014, after which he became involved in cultural, social, and religious affairs in addition to his work as a software developer, photographer, and videographer.
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