Born in an Oil City

Ali Al-Zaak

A history chapter in the life of Captain RajabAbdulhameed

The mighty Ottoman Empire organized its vast territories into Velayats (or states) with Wali or Vali (governor) appointed by the Ottoman sultan and called the beylerbey. The Velayats were subdivided into Sanjaks governed by sanjak-beys or Mutasarıf selected from the high-rank military circle. 

When Rajab Abdulhameed was born, he was given such a double name after Sultan Abdulhameed ll, the 34th monarch of the Ottoman Empire who reigned from 31 August 1876–27 April 1909.  This name may have reflected his family’s high hopes thathe would be one day one of the Sultan’s Pashas or Beys. Well, he grew up and became Effendi and an officer in the Ottoman army. 

Effendi was an Ottoman social title that identified a school graduate who might gain later the title Bey carried by some of the upper class in society. The Sultan occasionally granted a few Beys and army generals the honorary title of Pasha

Rajab Abdulhameed Effendi was from the pre-historic Nineveh land known in the nineteenth century as Mosul Velayate, created by order of Sultan Abdulhameed ll in 1879. In addition to Mosul city, the Velayate included Kirkuk Sanjak where Rajab Abdulhameed was born. The Ottoman Empire incorporated Kirkuk into its domains in 1534.


My Tourkman friend Lukman Al-Hakeem, who is a well-informed historian from Kirkuk, told me that Sultan Abdulhameed took a particular interest in Velayate Al-Mosul, including Kirkuk for its potential oil basin, which proved to exist. Small-scale and regular oil digging in Mosul and Kirkuk began in 1888. Strategically, the Sultan moved to purchase Mosul’s oil basin. He added the land to the Crown Estate to protect it from the conspiracies of  foreign powers. 

It was smart to follow British monarchs’ example where the so-called Crown Estate is a collection of holdings belonging to the monarch. It is a sole corporation and a sovereign’s public estate. Thus it is neither government property nor part of the monarch’s private estate. 

Lukman and I unintentionally went through a dialogue about olden times when I said: “the oil history is deep-seated in Kirkuk.” 

“It is deeper than you think. The Ottoman official documents show that the Sultan Murad VI gave a concession or oil contract in 1639 to the Naftchi Zada family, a well known family in Kirkuk. The concession came in an official Ferman, which is a command referring to an edict made by the Sultan, featuring his Tughra (or a seal) in the heading.

This family investment begun with three surface wells from which the oil was manually collected in buckets and sold to distributors in Kirkuk city. Their business then expanded to 15 wells and so on. This concession was re-confirmed in another Ferman by the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhameed Iin 1782 when the family complained about some property excesses and abuse,Lukmanexplained.

“That old? You seem to be an oil historian,” I said.

“To add, in 1766, Karsten Niebuhr, the German cartographer, and explorer, described in his Arabian journey the shallow holes of oil, flames, and the hot sand in Baba Gugur vicinity near Kirkuk. As well, in 1782, the French explorer Volney described the oil flames when locals dug small holes in the ground in the same area of Kirkuk. You know the rest of the Baba Gurgur story when it turned out to be one of the largest oil fields in the world in 1927,” Lukman confirmed. 

“So it is deep-rooted in history,” I reflected.

“And much deeper in Iraq history,” he responded. “Sumerians and Babylonians used asphalt, obtained from naturally occurring deposits of bitumen, in buildings, tarmacked roads, lighting, flame weapons, etc. Also, the Babylonians used oil in an interesting practice. When it accumulated in the natural deposits and spontaneously poured out, they let it seep along inner roads downtown, then burned it at night so that the city appeared to be in flames. Regardless of the environmental hazard, the occasional soaking of the roads in this way enabled the cleaning of dirt, lessened the dust, and eradicated mosquitoes. It was a weird practice but effective by the standards of that time,” he explained.

“Isn’t it peculiar too that those naturally occurring deposits are formed from the remains of ancient plants, algae, and marine organisms in shallow seas,” I commented.

That was the end of our informative conversation.


Rajab Abdulhameed‘s father was born in Erbil, which was a small sub-county of Kirkuk Sanjak. Rajab Abdulhameed himself was born in the historical Kirkuk citadel in the year of Cholera outbreak.

Because of the general public illiteracy, they used to link and date birth or death to wars, natural disasters or other big events. They did not link love to such events as in the novels Love in the time of Cholera” or “Love in the time of Nebuchadnezzar.” Anyway, Rajab Abdulhameed was probably born in 1888.

Kirkuk citadel was built on an artificial mound by the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II, who reigned between 883-859 BC, as a military defence post for Arrapha, the ancient name of Kirkuk.

 Seleucus I Nicator, the Greek King, and successor of Alexander the Great, later built a strong defensive wall with 72 towers around the 72 streets and the two entries to the citadel.

Some historical and spiritual sites still exist there. Among these is the alleged tomb of the biblical prophet Danielwho lived in Babylon at the time of Nebuchadnezzar through the entire seventy years of the Jewish re-location.”

However, other places are believed to contain the tomb of Daniel. Some think that the grave is in a Persian city named Susa as first mentioned by Benjamin of Tudela, the medieval traveller and significant figure in geography and Jewish history. Tudela visited Asia between 1160 and 1163.

Anyway, Kirkuk was a temporary stay for Tamerlane, the Turco-Mongol conqueror and the founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia. His real name was Timur-i-Ling (the Iron Limper) because in his youth he was wounded in the foot with an arrow, and remained lame for life. Timur-i-Ling was modified into Tamerlane.

Timur-i-Ling stopped over Kirkuk Citadel in 1393 during his military expedition. Ironically, the name Timur is widely spread in the region even though Timur-i-Ling committed many massacres during his wars and expansions. He invaded Baghdad in June 1401, and after capturing the city, his troops killed at least twenty thousand of its inhabitants. In the year before, he invaded Armenia and Georgia, depopulating many towns. 


Rajab Abdulhameed enrolled in Al-Rushdia School in Kirkuk that was established by the governor Hashem Pasha in 1868. Some considered the school as the first public school, but according to education sources, the then governor of Kirkuk Ismail Pasha established the Royal Rushdia School three years earlier. It comprised 133 students.

There were similar schools built in the sub-counties of Kirkuksuch as Al-Rushdia school in Erbil city (founded in 1868,)   Al-Rushdia school in Rawandoz sub-county (founded in 1873,) Al-Rushdia school in Kifri (founded in 1881,) and another school was established in 1888 by Governor Abdulwahab Pasha in Kirkuk.

Some think that education was carried only in Mosques, but private schools were known in Kirkuk since the establishment of Shah Gazi School in 1657. There were even technical schools. A private industrial school was established in 1874, and supervised by governor Nafed Pasha.

There were many small schools established later. Each had less than ten students who were usually taught by one or two teachers only. There were Christian schools too, and a Jewish school built in 1815. These schools had up to 60 students. Teaching was in the Turkish language.

As an educator, I was surprised to know that the Christian sisters established the first primary school for girls in Mosul in 1873. None was in Kirkuk until very much later. TheOttomans founded the first public school for girls in Baghdad in 1899. They built additional girls’ schools in other cities afterward. The first secondary school for girls opened in 1929.

Rajab Abdulhameed completed the primary and intermediary level within seven yearsin the Al-Rushdia School. There he began his journey moving into an exceptional love story as well as fortitude and courage in the Balkans, Çanakkale and the Dardanelles, Kut and elsewhere until it was concluded in Kirkuk with the massacre of July 1959. 

To be continued..

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