The Jewish neighborhood in the Iraqi Kurdistan city of Koi Senjaq/ Koy Sinjaq (Koy Sanjaq, کۆیە, Koye, Koya, كوي سنجق, כוי סנג’ק).
There are around 200 Jews who were born in this town in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan. They speak the Neo-Aramaic language. In 1947, the total number of Jews in a town of 8,198 people was only 268. There were 7,746 Muslims and 184 Christians. Many of the Jews left in the middle of the 20th century due to the hostile attitude towards them by the Islamic political environment.
This town is generally called Koy by it’s Jewish and Christian population. The town had a few name changes before the Islamic government started ruling Kurdistan. It was once known as Koshar. After the Muslim political rulers took over the Kurdish region, it was renamed Kohsar. It was not until the Ottoman empire ruled the area did the town become known as Koy Sanjaq. The town was a military fortress at that time, and it’s name in Turkish means “village of the flag.” At that time, Jews eventually moved to the area to give services for the soldiers who were living in the area. 1
There is relatively little known of the history of the Jews in Koy Sanjaq. They have been mentioned in a few historical documents by people such as Rabbi Yosef son of Rabbi Yahuda in the 18th century. Most notable accounts referred to financial transactions. In addition, there was documentation of a Jewish literary work in Koy Sanjaq. The book contained prayers, hymns and topics of Jewish mysticism and law. 2
Economically, most of the men participated in the weaving, tailoring, dying trades, as well as being goldsmiths and merchants. There were a few that worked in the agricultural sector . 3 Because the Jews in this area tended to lead a more isolationist life concerning religious and cultural matters, they were often discriminated against by their neighbors especially the Kurds. However, in most cases they were not subject to persecution because of their well-known services to the town’s economic system. 4
After the middle of the 20th century when many Jews immigrated to Israel, most of the town’s Jewish population ended up moving to Israeli villages in other areas such as Shtula, Elqosh and Noga ( the two are in Galilee) and Noga (in the area of Negev). They also moved to the towns of Nahariyya, Ashqelon, Ashdod and Bay-Yam. 5
Today there is not much literary documentation on the town of Koy Sanjaq, but the people who live in Koy San Jaq have made a tourist social media site for their town. For more info visit https://www.facebook.com/places/Things-to-do-in-Koy-Senjaq-Arbil-Iraq/109480582409916/.
Maria Langen is also a photographer who is a part of Sverredal and Langen Gallery. She has created a photo project documenting the people and landmarks of Koy San Jaq. Her photography can be viewed at http://www.svelan.com/World-Projects/Iraqian-Kurdistan/i-fdRgQSf.
The Jewish Kurdistan Community
The Jews of Kurdistan come from a line of ancestors connected to the Ten Tribes of Israel beginning from the 6th century BCE Assyrian exile. In the 12th century, there were over 100 Jewish communities that spoke Aramaic. In 1848, a traveler named Benjamin the Second noted that in Kurdistan, there were Nestorian (Assyrian) tribal groups that also participated in Jewish customs. 6
In the age of the Second Temple, there was a Kingdom named Abiabene that was in this region. Their community along with their Queen Helena (also known as Heleni HaMalkah, Helena the Queen) converted to Judaism during the first century. Researchers speculate that the Kurdish Jews come from this community in the 1st century that converted to Judaism. 7
Across centuries the Jews of Kurdistan had led very difficult lives because their living area was quite unstable. For those Jews living in the cities, their livelihood was based around commerce and crafts, while in the mountains they led an agricultural livelihood. The community members attended synagogue and the Talmud Torah, a Jewish educational institute. The Jews of Kurdistan speak a form of Aramaic that has been influenced by Turkish, Persian, Kurdish, Arabic and Hebrew words. In their communities they reference this form of Aramaic under the new name of “the language of the Targum,” otherwise known as the Aramaic translation of the Bible. 8 In the 20th century, Kurdish Jews living in the cities started using Arabic as their main language but those living in the mountains continue to daily speak Aramaic.
In the 16th century Kurdish Jews began immigrating to what is now modern Israel. The 20th century allowed more and more Kurdish immigrants to arrive to the official state of Israel in 1948. Nearly all the Jews of Kurdistan in the Iraqi and Turkish areas were airlifted to the state of Israel in 1950-1951 under operation “Magic Carpet”. 9
After decades of instability in the region and conflict with Palestine, many Jewish families started coming back to Kurdistan after the KRG parliament, (the main government of Kurdistan) issued and approved the “Law of Minorities” under President Massoud Barzani. This law gave the communities in the Kurdistan region of Iraq the freedom to create embassy offices of any religion in the area, and to allow its people to practice their faith without discrimination. This was good news to the 300 plus Jewish families that dwell in Kurdistan. 10
The establishment of this law led to the increase immigration of Jews to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. In the 1950s, even when Jewish communities were airlifted out of Kurdistan, many of these families still felt a strong bond to their homeland of Iraq as Jews have lived in that region for centuries. As long as Jews do not participate in the politics of Kurdistan, many Jewish families affirm that it is a safe area for them to rebuild their lives after coming from the instability of other areas in the Middle East. 11
Even with the increase of Jewish families returning, because of age old political and societal discrimination, many Jewish families will not acknowledge their religion publicly in Kurdistan. At best, this law will allow more Jewish communities the freedom to publicly practice their customs and be more at ease from the trauma of persecution. 12
Abridged Kurdistan History
Kurdistan is a self-ruling country that crosses three nations, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Most of the Muslim-Kurdish community lives in Turkey, whereas the Jewish-Kurdish community lived in the Iraqi area. The Kurds obtained their autonomy after years of military and political strife. Their ethnic group composes about 20% of the Iraqi population. 13 The population of the Kurds ranges from 30-40 million people. 14
The Iraqi Kurds, first came under British rule after World War I when the Ottoman Empire was defeated in 1918. As the Kurdish people were still seeking independence, they continued to fight against the British and struggled against Iraqi ruling thereafter. The war for autonomy lasted for several decades including a revolution in 1958, and many civilian deaths through chemical weapons in 1988. In 1991 there was a no fly zone in northern Iraq after the first Gulf War. 15
These events led to Kurdish leaders and the Peshmerga army holding down northern Iraq which began the 2005 constitutional settlement and gave the Kurdish government its freedom to rule and officially establish Kurdistan. 16