One of the world’s first empires, the Assyrian Empire (circa 2500 BC – 609 BC) spanned the periods of the Early to Middle Bronze Age through to the late Iron Age. Their empire covered vast territory including areas of modern Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. In addition to being a great military power, the Assyrians were talented artists (particularly sculpture and jewelry making), astronomers, and were believed to use technology like telescopes and magnifying glasses. They were also great lovers of wine.
During their heyday, records from their time show the expansive planting of vines, especially around Nineveh in Turkey’s southeast. They [Assyrians] were renowned for their vines and wines and extended plantings wherever they conquered. Origin myths about vineyards and wine cited in sacred books are supported with archaeological data in the geographical region. Archaeological and genetic evidence places one of the many wild vine varieties – perhaps vitis vinifera – in the fertile crescent (Zagros, the name of the crescent-shaped geography of the Taurus, Amanos and Lebanon mountains). The Turabdın region of northern Mesopotamia indicates that some of the oldest cultured/domesticated grape seedlings identified as vitis vinifera were recovered there.
Assyrians of old were a polytheistic people and used wine in worship of many of their gods including their national god Ashur; Nanna, god of the moon; Ishtar, goddess of fertility; Ninurta, god of agriculture; and many more. Its importance went beyond use for religious rites, ceremonies, and feasts. In addition to being produced for regular consumption, wine was a major part of the Assyrian economy. It was so valued that vineyard land cost more than forty times that of any other agricultural land during this period. Moreover, legal penalties could be levied against people for “human stupidity” crimes, such as trampling vines.
The Assyrian population in Turkey has dwindled to only roughly 15,000. And while they may have lost the empire, they have not lost their traditions.
In the extreme southeast of Turkey, at the conjunction of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, pockets of Assyrian communities continue to make wine at home. They gather grapes from gardens in homes and monasteries to produce simple field blends. Some even continue the old methods of semi drying grapes under the sun before gathering the grapes into burlap sacks to be manually stomped. Pressure from neighboring conservative Muslim communities has long kept the Assyrian’s winemaking a furtive secret. However, two commercial wineries in southeast Anatolia are working to change that.
In 2008, wishing to share this part of their culture outside the community, members of three Assyrian families: Gabriel, Aktaş, and Aslan, created the first commercial winery to produce Assyrian wine, Shulih. Taking its name from the Syriac word for “peace,” Shiluh continues the tradition of its Mesopotamian antecedents.”We are wine and history,” they say.
Located in the Mardin Province, Midyat sits at about 953 meters (3,127 ft) above sea level. Here in the semi-arid climate with very hot and dry summers and cold, wet winters, the winery grows Boğazkere (which they also source from vineyards in the not-so-distant Diyarbakır) and Öküzgözü. Shiluh also works with two rare, white, local grapes – Kerküş and Mazrona. They obtain these grapes, many of which grow on vines 50 or more years old, from private vineyards and gardens around Midyat.
The very names of Shiluh’s wines evoke Assyrian culture and history with names like Manastır (monastery), Turabdın (derived from Tur Abdın, ‘Mountain of the Servants [of God]’, a region of great importance to the Syriac Orthodox Christians), and Ninve (from Nineveh, an ancient Assyrian city). Shiluh also makes a special wine called Dara: a Boğazkere-Öküzgözü blend with mahlep added to it. Mahlep is a spice made from the pounded pits of a specific cherry. Its use in the culinary word dates as far back as Assyrian winemaking.
Forty-five kilometers east of Midyat lies Midin. Part of the Şırnak Province, Midin sits at an elevation of 760 meters above sea level and has a hot summer Mediterranean climate. Basalt rocks of varying size generously pepper the local landscape, a legacy of the last volcanic eruption here 10,000 years ago. These basalt rocks cover a variety of soil types that make a crazy patchwork of sandy volcanic tufa, terra rossa, and fertile humus. This region looks inhospitable, but it is perfect for grapes.
Opened by the Saliba family, one of the village’s oldest families belonging to the Midin village since 1525, Midin Wine is more than a winery, it is a social and agricultural preservation project. The Salibas began the winery with their father’s vineyards. He planted his vines 60 years ago alongside vines a generation older. Previously, the family used the grapes to make some wine at home, but like many of the village’s old vineyards, theirs fell into disuse. Until, that is, the family realized an opportunity to share their culture of wine outside the village and to help lift the village at the same time and reached out to the villagers with a plan.
Midin, the Aramaic version of the Turkish name Öğündükköyü, is a small village with a population of under 400 people from 55 families. Many of these families have small vineyard plots which were harvested for table grapes, molasses, home wine production, sold for pennies per kilo at market, or lay neglected and forgotten and were at risk of being uprooted for more profitable crops. With encouragement from the new, commercial winery, villagers gave up plans to tear out their old vines. Midin Wine pays villagers three times per kilo what they received previously and hopes to increase that price as their wines begin to sell. Thanks to their project, people have returned to the vineyards and are again caring for the vines. Much like they share a single shepherd for their animals, the village has become a small winemaking collective through their contributions to Midin Wine’s production.
Grapes few have ever heard of like Bilbizeki, Gavdoni, Kerküş, Mazrona, Midin Karası, and Raşe Gurnık flourish mixed together in the vineyards. No one remembers who planted many of these vineyards. Vines range from 60 to 150 years in age and grow untrained and naturally as bushes. Some are so old they have trunks so large that one cannot span them with both hands and have reached almost 6 feet tall. The Assyrian Empire may be lost and its people much diminished and scattered. Both through Shiluh and Midin Wine, we can still taste a glimpse of its history.