Formerly known as “the Jerusalem of Assyria,” Zakho was once home to a population of Aramaic-speaking Jews, many of whom claimed to trace their presence in the region to the period of the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Some Jews in Zakho, however, did not espouse this historical claim and believed that they descended from the “lost tribes of Israel,” an even more ancient community traditionally tracing its roots to about 722 BCE.
Whatever the nature of their origins, here, in an area remote from any regional capital, the inhabitants of Zakho preserved traditions that had disappeared in the rest of the region centuries before; among other things, they served as part of the Jewish exile community that created the Babylonian Talmud in Middle Aramaic.
In Ariel Sabar’s book My Father’s Paradise, his memoir of his search for his father’s roots in Zakho, he writes:
“Aramaic’s longevity owes much to the isolation of places like Zakho: the island in the river in plains ringed by mountains, a fortress against the world. More than twelve hundred years after the arrival of Arabic, Aramaic was still hanging on, thanks in large part to Kurdistan’s twenty-five thousand Jews, a forgotten race of peasants and peddlers who saw themselves as the direct descendants of the lost tribes of Israel.”
The name Zakho could come from the Aramaic for “house of victory” or from the Kurdish “river of blood” or “bend in the river.” Today, it is located just 8 kilometers from the Ibrahim al-Khalili border crossing, a crossing named for Abraham himself.
Home to the modern-day University of Zakho, the town still contains traces of history. Among these are the Delal Bridge (Pira Delal), an impressive and ancient stone bridge straddling the Little Khabur, a branch of the Tigris River; the tower that remains of Zakho castle in the center of the city; and the Qubad Pasha castle, located in the city’s cemetery.