24/12/1866 – Tinco celebrates Christmas Eve in the tolerant city of Baghdad

Over the past few years, the followers of the christian and hebrew faiths in Iraq have been having a difficult time. It was’t always like that. Whereas Baghdad was founded as a muslim city in the year 762, the Iraqi capital has had a general reputation for tolerance throughout the centuries. People of all faiths lived and worked together. This was still the case when Tinco Lycklama spent the winter of 1866-67 in Baghdad. As it’s Christmas Eve, and as Tinco was a christian, we offer readers a translation of Tinco’s brief description of how he spent the night of December 24, 1866 – exactly 150 years ago.

When Tinco arrived in Baghdad (on December 4, 1866), he first stayed a few days at the house of Mr. Weber, the head of the Swiss trading house through which Tinco did his ‘banking’ and organised the logistics of his travel. But, he needed more permanent lodgings, as he was going to spend the whole winter in the city.

He found an excellent place. It was located just opposite the mission house of the catholic order of the Discalced Carmelites. At the time, they were constructing a church in the yard of the mission. The archives of the order tell us that this was the exact same spot were now stands St Joseph’s Cathedral.

The church that Tinco saw didn’t have the same proportions, but the location still exists as it was integrated into the cathedral and turned into a library.

At the helm of the order of the Discalced Carmelites in Baghdad were two missionaries from France. They not only built churches but also schools and a dispensary of medical care. They were well respected in Baghdad, and they turned their mission into a vibrant community. Tinco Lycklama met both these carmelites.

Father Marie-Joseph de Jésus, ca.1896 – in the gardens of the Carmelite mission in Baghdad (*)

Father Marie-Joseph de Jésus was born Gustave Cancel in 1830 in La Magistère (near the French city of Montauban). In 1858, he was sent to Baghdad to become the superior of the mission. He occupied that position until his death, in 1898. During all that time, he returned to Europe only twice. During his first visit, he came across a young French doctor from the Faculté de Médecine in Paris, Pierre Batailley. Father Marie-Joseph took Batailley along with him to Baghdad, where the doctor became the mission’s second carmelite under the adopted name of Father Damien. He died in Baghdad in 1896, after spending 30 years tending to the sick and the poor, and was considered the best doctor in town.

On Christmas Eve, in 1866, Tinco Lycklama just crossed the street and joined Father Marie-Joseph and Father Damien for mass. Tinco was a protestant by birth (he converted to catholicism in 1868, in Jerusalem). But, he was a christian, and all faiths were respected in Baghdad. During his Baghdad stay, he became close friends with the carmelites.


Below follows the translation of Tinco’s Christmas Eve. The original (French) text (**) can be viewed online in the digital collection of Gallica/BnF…


There are many christian sects in Baghdad – the Latins, the Syrians, the Armenian catholics, the schismatic Armenians, the Chaldeans, and the Greek catholics. Long ago, the catholics possessed just a single small chapel for the whole city, but that is different today. Besides the roman catholic church that is currently under construction there were, in 1867, a Syriac church, a Chaldean church, an Armenian catholic church and, finally, two churches that belong to the schismatic Armenians. The Greek catholics celebrate mass at the Syriac church. Each church has its own school, where they teach young boys to read and write in the local language. For girls, there is only one school, located at the Carmelite mission; this school is led by the nuns of the same order, natives from Baghdad and its environs, but not well disposed to teach even the basic principles of their religion. All these christian communities are totally devoted to their priests, and the good peace and order in the city is especially due to the influence and example set by the latin Church.

When it comes to religious ceremonies, I participated (among others) in the midnight celebration of Christmas Eve, held at the latin church of the Carmelites. I arrived shortly before the start of the ceremony, which lasted very long but was nevertheless beautiful. Upon entering the church, I was given a candle. A few minutes later, all the men in attendance started a procession around the church, holding candles like myself. We were followed by one of the priests who was holding the Infant Jesus in his arms. When we re-entered the church, all the candles on the altar and on the many chandeliers were lit. This illumination was a very pretty sight.The women were draped in colourful veils, and they sat crouched before the altar, the oriental way. The men took place behind the women, most of them also sitting on the floor. The celebration started soon after, interrupted by the kissing of the Infant Jesus which one of the priests was presenting to the faithful in front of the altar. After communion, which was shared with about thirty people, father Marie Joseph climbed the pulpit and delivered an eloquent and forceful sermon, in Arabic. The Arabic language is essentially oratorical and its diction has a majestic and solemn gravity to it. Mass finished in deep contemplation.The religious chants were sung by the local sisters of charity, accompanied by a harmonium organ, and they did well.


(*) Source : “Les missions catholiques françaises au XIXe siècle. Tome 1”, par Jean-Baptiste Piolet, ca. 1900
(**) T. M., chevalier Lycklama a Nijeholt,“Voyage en Russie, au Caucase et en Perse, dans la Mésopotamie, le Kurdistan, la Syrie, la Palestine et la Turquie, exécuté pendant les années 1866, 1867 et 1868”, Volume III, 1874, Arthus Bertrand (Paris, Libraire-Editeur) et C.L. van Langenhuysen (Amsterdam, Libraire-Editeur).

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