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The Tigris: The river that birthed civilisation

There, a woman in a quilted beige jacket sat on a bench, her right hand cupped around her ear. Her name was Feleknaz Aslan, and for 30 minutes, her booming voice held us captive. She was a dengbêj, a Kurdish singing storyteller, whose ancestors have passed histories and folktales down through generations. Aslan’s song was about a doomed love affair on the banks of the Tigris. Most dengbêj are men now, she said, but the practice was invented by women. It was a way of preserving identity and culture, and she explained that the Tigris is a common backdrop in these songs – recognised then as now as a central feature of life for Kurds in this region. 

South-east of Diyarbakır, the Tigris etches a deep canyon through the Tur Abdin region of Turkey’s Taurus mountains. For centuries, this has been the heartland of the ancient Syriac Orthodox Church, whose origins date back to the dawn of Christianity. We climbed to a remote 4th-Century monastery, Mor Evgin, which clings to the cliff as if suspended by faith alone. 

Inside the nave, plaster applied by some of the world’s first Christians still stuck to the walls, and spidery Syriac script crawled around the walls in webs of prayer. I lit a candle in an alcove and bowed my head. It was another reminder of how the Tigris’ fertile watershed allowed Judaism, Christianity and Islam to flourish (Abraham, a spiritual model for each faith, is said to have come from here), and how these populations later took their goods, ideas, beliefs to the far corners of the world.

We travelled by small boat whenever possible, though access to the Tigris is often tricky. In Turkey, navigating the river is difficult because of a series of highly contentious dam-building projects. In Syria, the Tigris is an international border. It wasn’t until Mosul, a city carved in two by the river, that we were finally able to travel more freely.

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