Who Are The Assyrians?

by Nicholas Aljeloo  The Assyrian Australian Academic Society (TAAAS), Sydney, Australia

July 2, 2000


Although uniting the children of one nation through their ancestral language, the term “Syriac-speaking” also allows much space for them to divide themselves into Assyrians, Chaldeans, Aramaeans, Syriacs, Syrians, Maronites, and the list goes on. It does not allow for one national designation for one people. Some may disagree but the people that call themselves any of the above things today are Syriac-Speaking or of a Syriac-Speaking background and heritage and hence are of Assyrian origin. Many issues disputing whether they are Assyrian, apart from the concept of self determination, can be answered by some statements and research made by eminent historians and scholars, purely from a historical and scholarly perspective. In this paper I shall set out to demonstrate first of all about whom we can say are Assyrians, the regions inhabited by Assyrians in the Middle East and what Assyrians have always called themselves. I have gathered and shall be using the opinions of eminent scholars to back up these arguments and using them I shall make apparent the origin of the word Syriac itself, linking to the ancient Assyrians. Although the research has not yet been exhausted, it has been proven without a doubt that all “Syriacs” are Assyrians.

The Political Dictionary of the Modern Middle East[1] defines Assyrians as, “Remnants of the people of ancient Mesopotamia, succeeding the Sumero-Akkadians and the Babylonians as one continuous civilization. They are among the first nations who accepted Christianity. They belong to one of the four churches: the Chaldean Uniate, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East. Due to the ethnic-political conflict in the Middle East, they are better known by these ecclesiastical designations. The Assyrians use classical Syriac in their liturgies while the majority of them speak and write a modern dialect of this language. They constitute the third largest ethnic group in Iraq with their communities in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Russia and Armenia. Today they remain stateless and great numbers of them have left their homeland and settled in Western Europe, the United States and Australia.” The author of this fails to mention the members of the Syriac Maronite Church as Assyrians or to recognise the existence of non-Christian Assyrians.[2]

The Assyrian homeland encompasses what was once the core of the Assyrian Empire of antiquity and are now the areas of northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey and northeastern Syria, although there are Assyrian communities all over the Middle East, especially Lebanon. Northern Iraq includes the regions of Mosul, Dohuk, ‘Aqra and Zibar, Mezuriyeh, Gourzan (Gahra), Supna (Amadiya), Zakho and Adiabene (Arbil and Kirkuk). Southeastern Turkey includes the Assyrian regions of Hakkiari (Hakkari), Van, Bohtan (Cizre), Bedlis (Bitlis), ‘Ayn-Sliwa / ‘Ayn-Slibo (Siirt), Amed / Omed (Diyarbakir), Lagga / Lago (Lice), Tur-‘Abdin (Jebel Toor), Mirda / Merdo (Mardin), Siverek, Tella-Shleela (Viransehir), Kharput (Harput), Malatya, Perin (Adiyaman), Palu, Gerger, Shmeishat (Samsat), Urhay / Urhoy (Sanliurfa), and ‘Ayn-Tawa / ‘Ayn-Towo (Gaziantep). Northwestern Iran includes the Assyrian region of Urmia and Salamast and northeastern Syria includes the Khabour region, the Euphrates valley and the villages around Aleppo. Now, though, Assyrians no longer inhabit many of these places as a result of the persecutions that are the topic of today’s seminar.[3]

The Assyrians, whatever their region of origin, call themselves “Surayeh / Suroyeh” and their language “Surit / Surayt” according to their plentiful dialects[4]. Those of the Nineveh Plains and those of the southern and eastern regions of Hakkiari in southeastern Turkey call themselves “Sorayeh” and their language “Surath”, those of the northern and central regions of Hakkiari and Van in southeast Turkey and Salamast in northwestern Iran call themselves “Su-reh” and their language “Soorit”, those of the Urmian regions of northwestern Iran call themselves “Surayi” or “Suryayi” and their language “Suyrit” or “Suyrayi”, and those of the regions to west of the Tigris River in southeastern Turkey, Syria and Lebanon, call themselves “Suroyeh” or “Suryoyeh” and their language “Surayt” or “Suryoyo”. To be sure, many opinions have been expressed about this name, but relatively few of them have approached the truth.

It is safe to say that the ethnic, national, civic, administrative and other aspects of Assyrian daily life stopped being written and preserved by the Assyrians after the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC, with the exception of the few periods when the smaller Assyrian kingdoms of Adiabene, Haran and Osrhoene were in power. Thus, Assyrian history entered a national literary vacuum and began to live its long period of foreign manipulation.

The Word “Syriac” - its Meaning and Link to Assyrian The name “Assyrian” is read differently in different languages. In the Egyptian hieroglyphics it is read as “Iswer”[5], in ancient Assyrian Aramaic and latter Syriac records, “Athor / Othur”, in Biblical Hebrew and Arabic Assyrian is translated variously as “Ashouri” or “Athouri”, in Greek Assyria becomes “Assyrios” and Assyrians, “Assyrioi”.

In accordance with the law of phonetics[6] “Athoraya / Othuroyo” has changed to “Assuraya / Ossuroyo” because in the evolution of certain words we see that the letter “TH” changes into “S”. According to these phonetic rules, the sounds T, TH, S and SH are all interchangeable. The change of sound from “TH” to “S” is noticeable in the dialects of the Assyrians of Sena (Sanandaj, Iran)[7], Margosoreh (near Zakho, Iraq) and S’irt (Siirt, Turkey)[8] in the Eastern group of dialects and those of Mlahso / Mlahtho and ‘Ansha (near Diyarbakir, Turkey)[9] and Bo-Qisyon / Ba-Qisyan (in Tur-‘Abdin, Turkey) in the western group. The Assyrians of these villages pronounce the word “qriytha / qriytho” as “qriysa / qriyso” (village) and the word “Allahutha / Alohutho” as “Allahusa / Alohuso” (divinity). By the same law of phonetics it becomes very easy to identify the word “Assuraya / Ossuroyo” with “Suraya / Suroyo”.[10]

We may also say that “Suraya / Suroyo” comes from “Ashuraya / Ashuroyo”. As Dr. John A. Brinkman[11] points out, the name Ashur is written the same way, in cuneiform, for different usages and was only prefixed with different syllables signifying city, god, or country (matu – the modern Assyrian mata / motho). Around 1000 BC, the pronunciation of Ashur changed to Assur[12], again showing the interchangeability of the letters SH and S. Probably as early as 337 BC when Alexander the Great and his men passed through Assyria, they called the “Ashurians” they met “Assurioi” not only because of the new pronunciation of Ashur, but also because they do not have the letter SH in their alphabet and it is also a non-existent sound in the Hellenic language.

What we now know as Syria once consisted of several city-states, which were later incorporated into the Assyrian Empire. The region became known as ‘Abar-Nahra (‘Across the River’) by the Assyrians, Babylonians and later by the Persians. The Greeks and the Romans knew it as Syria, short for Assyria, because it had long remained under Assyrian rule[13]. When, in 64 BC the Roman Emperor Pompey annexed the land west of Euphrates and incorporated them into the Roman Empire, the area came to be known as Syria, short for Assyria, as Assyria proper lay within the boundaries of the Persian Empire[14]. As The Encylopedia Americana writes, under the entry Syria, “It is now certain that the name “Syria” is derived from the older “Assyria”[15]

Herodotus, a well-known Greek historian from the mid-fifth century BC, clearly indicates that the word “Syrian” is merely a Greek corruption of the word “Assyrian”. He describes the Assyrian infantry in the Persian Army during the rule of King Xerxes (485-465 B.C.) as follows:

“The Assyrians went to war with helmets upon their head, made of brass, and plated in strange fashion, which is not easy to describe... These people, whom Greeks call Syrian, are called Assyrian by the barbarians. The Babylonians serve at their rank”[16]

The last part of this passage has also been translated as, “The Greeks call these people Syrians, but others know them as Assyrians.”[17]

In the first century prior to the dawn of Christianity, the geographer Strabo (64 BC-21 AD from Amisos in Pontus) confirms Herodotus’ statement by writing that,

“When those who have written histories about the Syrian empire say that the Medes were overthrown by the Persians and the Syrians by the Medes, they mean by the Syrians no other people than those who built the royal palaces in Babylon and Ninus (Nineveh); and of these Syrians, Ninus was the man who founded Ninus, in Aturia (Assyria) and his wife, Semiramis, was the woman who succeeded her husband... Now, the city of Ninus was wiped out immediately after the overthrow of the Syrians. It was much greater than Babylon, and was situated in the plain of Aturia.”[18]

Strabo also lists several of the traditional cities (including Nineveh and 'Calachene' [Kalhu]) in the Assyrian heartland, which he calls ‘Aturia’.

Mor Michael the Great, Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch and all the East (1166 - 1199), wrote[19] that those who inhabit the land to the west of the Euphrates River were properly called Syrians, and by analogy, all those who speak the same language, which he calls Aramaic (Aramaya / Oromoyo), both east and west of the Euphrates to the borders of Persia, are called Syrians. He continues that the basis of the Syriac language is from Edessa (Sanliurfa, Turkey). Even more interesting is his list[20] of the names of peoples who possessed writing. Among them are “Aturayeh d-hawiyn Suryayeh / Othuroye d-hawiyn Suryoyeh” (“Assyrians”, i.e. “Syrians”), by which presumably he means the ancient Assyrians, whom he identifies with his contemporary speakers of Syriac. This book by a learned native speaker shows the continuous equating of the terms “Syrian” and “Assyrian” for many Eastern Christians. His late Holiness, in his famous history book, also makes mention that, “It has been shown by Assyrian and Chaldean kings that they used the Aramaic language and were familiar with its literature” and that, “They are all, then, usually named; the Chaldeans by their old name and the Ashurayeh / Oshuroyeh, i.e. Athorayeh / Othuroyeh, are called after Ashur who settled Nineveh. This is what Eusebius says. The Jewish writer Josephus, calls Ashur Assur, as in the Greek language, and makes mention of, Assur, the ancestor of the Assurayeh / Ossuroyeh, who built Nineveh. He mentions that the Chaldeans are those that with the Assyrians (Assurayeh / Ossuroyeh) and Aramaeans form the Syriac (Suryayeh / Suryoyeh) people.”[21] The name Syrian was never used by Arabs to identify themselves with until the creation of the Syrian Arab Republic. Even then, they do not call themselves Syriani / Suryani (the name of the Christian “Syrians”) but Suri.[22]

After many centuries, it is evident that the Syriac appellation had not really changed. Badger in early nineteenth century noted that the oldest and the most important Chaldean community in Diyarbakir could only boast of the name ‘Sooraya’ and ‘Nestoraya’[23]. Even by the end of the nineteenth century Rassam concedes that, “the peasantry do certainly call themselves ‘Sooraya’ and ‘Msheehaya’…”[24]

It is also worth noting that the historically constant designation of the Assyrians by the Armenians, Turks and Persians is Asori / Asuri (Assyrian; an adjective meaning “belonging to Ashur”). Horatio Southgate wrote the following about the Assyrians of the Kharput region, “I began to make enquiries for the Syrians… I observed that the Armenians did not know them under the name which I used, Syriani; but called them ASSOURI, which struck me the more at the moment from its resemblance to our English name Assyrians, from whom they claim their origin, being sons, as they say, of Assour, (Asshur,)…”[25] and “Their common language in the district is Turkish, in which language it is that the Athour of the Syriac and Arabic is converted into Asour, and the Athouri of the Arabic, (Syriac, Othoroyo,) into Asouri, the common name of the Syrians.”[26]

Assyrians and the Aramaic Language

Dr. Brinkman states that in the 7th century BC, Aramaic had begun to replace Assyrian in Assyria and the king had to insist that letters from his officials be written in Assyrian and not Aramaic. He also theorises that the Aramaic language took over because of its simple alphabet as opposed to the 600-700 syllables of the Assyro-Babylonian language.[27] In fact it had attained such a high status in the Assyrian imperial period and was used so profusely by Assyrians that, as highly esteemed Assyriologist Dr. Simo Parpola relates, “The Greek historian Thucydides reports that during the Peloponnesian wars (ca. 410 BC) the Athenians intercepted a Persian who was carrying a message from the Great King to Sparta. The man was taken prisoner, brought to Athens, and the letters he was carrying were translated “from the Assyrian language”, which of course was Aramaic…”[28]And so it becomes evident that, just as Aramaic was the Imperial Assyrian language, the very similar Syriac (or if one agrees with the Greek historians - Assyrian) also later became the ecclesiastical language of the Assyrian Eastern Churches.

Assyrian Continuity?
Anglican missionary, Rev. W. A. Wigram, in his book The Assyrians and Their Neighbours[29] (1929), writes, “The Assyrian stock, still resident in the provinces about the ruins of Nineveh, where Mosul, Arbela, and Kirkuk were already great cities, seem to have been left to its own customs in the same way.”[30]

Esteemed Assyriologist, H.W.F. Saggs, Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages of the University College at Cardiff, tells us of the continuity of the Assyrian identity from the fall of the Assyrian Empire and into the Christian era, in his book, The Might That Was Assyria[31]. He states that,

“The destruction of the Assyrian Empire did not wipe out its population. They were predominantly peasant farmers, and since Assyria contains some of the best wheat land in the Near East, descendants of the Assyrian peasants would, as opportunity permitted, build new villages over the old cities and carried on with agricultural life, remembering traditions of the former cities. After seven or eight centuries and after various vicissitudes, these people became Christians. These Christians, and the Jewish communities scattered amongst them, not only kept alive the memory of their Assyrian predecessors but also combined them with traditions from the Bible. The Bible, indeed, came to be a powerful factor in keeping alive the memory of Assyria and particularly of Nineveh. Nineveh was at the center of one of the most fascinating of the Old Testament legends, the story of the prophet Jonah who attempted in vain to escape the God-given duty of preaching to the great pagan capital. On part of the ruins of Nineveh there was a sacred mound, and this - probably originally an Assyrian temple - Christians and Jews came to identify with the spot where Jonah preached. A church was built on the site. When the Muslims conquered Mesopotamia in the seventh century AD, they adopted the local traditions of the Christians and Jews amongst whom they lived, and Jonah became significant to Muslims no less than to Jews and Christians. A mosque replaced the church but retained - and retains to this day - the association with Jonah.”[32]

Dr. John A. Brinkman[33] states that, “For several centuries people lived in Assyria after the fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (614-610 BC) and followed the Assyrian religion and can be classified as Assyrians.”[34]When asked if there was racial continuity in Assyria after the empire Dr. Brinkman replied, “There is no reason to believe that there would be no racial or cultural continuity in Assyria since there is no evidence that the population of Assyria was removed.”[35]

The Historical Evidence

Dr. Brinkman makes mention of the fact that Assyrian cuneiform did not die out with the empire’s destruction, four Assyrian texts written by Assyrians in the Assyrian dialect and script being found at a site called Dur-Katlimmu (Sheikh Hamed), on the Khabour River in Syria. These are “couched in Assyrian legal formulae” and date to the second and fifth years of Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon, i.e. from 603-600 BC, between nine and twelve years after the fall of Nineveh. So Assyrian cuneiform had survived the empire.[36] James Henry Breasted in his book; The Conquest of Civilization[37], mentions that, “... the remnants of the Assyrian army fled westward and with Egyptian support held together for a short time...”[38]. Professor Saggs also says that, even after the empire’s fall, the Assyrians were “not yet finished”[39]. Those of the Assyrian army that were able to flee Nineveh escaped hundreds of miles westward to Harran, where Ashur-Uballit II of the Assyrian royal family was proclaimed king of Assyria.

Konstantin Petrovich Matveev in his book The Assyrians and the Assyrian Question[40] writes that, “It has been documented that Meneshe, an Assyrian prince, was able to escape towards the north during the fall of Nineveh and fortify in the mountains of Ashur.” (Translated from Arabic by Fred Aprim[41]). A report by Reuters from 1987, states that, “The new evidence shows that rather than dispersing, surviving Assyrians formed small societies some distance away from their main cities.”[42] The new evidence refers to Assyrian Tells (mounds) in Iraq dating to the third century BC, three centuries after the fall of their empire. Dr. Brinkman also states that in the Assyrian religious capital Assur, Assyrians tried to keep the religion alive by rebuilding two shrines and reusing inscriptions and decorations from the old temples.[43] Rev. W. A. Wigram in his book The Assyrians and Their Neighbours also states that, “At least they [the Assyrians] were there in days of Tiglath-Pileser I, the founder of the Assyrian Empire in the year 1000 BC, and they were there still in the year 400 BC, when Xenophon with his Greeks fought his way homeward through their mountains.”[44]

In 400 BC, a Greek general named Xenophon, employed by the Persian king Cyrus son of Darius, wrote his chronicle[45] as he and his 10,000 strong army retreated through Assyria along the river Tigris.He always comments on the plentiful supplies that were available, arguing a considerable production of grain. He writes that Assur, which was now called Kinai, was a prosperous city and that his army bought cheese and wine from the local inhabitants. It seems, from his writings, that many of the buildings and houses had survived the destruction of the city in 614 BC. He also wrote of many surviving villages in Kalhu, which was now called Larissa, and of a village called Mespila near a large undefended fortification, which may be identified with today’s Mosul.[46]By careful examination of the topography described by Xenophon, scholars have determined[47] that the fortification was the city of Nineveh, though under the eponymic name of Ninus. Mespila, on the other hand, as suggested by Hayim Tadmor[48] and Stephen A. Kaufman[49], is the Aramaic ‘mashplah’ as heard by Xenophon from the local population, meaning "the fallen one". The Assyrians living in Mosul have never forgotten that their city had a glorious past. As E.B. Soane wrote in 1892, “The Mosul people, especially the Christians are very proud of their city and the antiquity of its surroundings. The Christians, regard themselves as “direct descendants of the great rulers of Assyria”[50]

Documents show that when Hurmizd Rassam was negotiating with the authorities to excavate one of the two tells at Nineveh, he was told that its legal name was “Ninua”. Though according to Xavier Koodapuzha, Mar Yuhannan Sulaqa, the first “Chaldean” Patriarch, was proclaimed Patriarch of “Mosul and Athour” on February 20th 1553 by Pope Julius III and Vatican documents originally refer to Sulaqa as the elected Patriarch of “the Assyrian Nation.”[51] Henry Burgess explains that this should not sound odd as, “In many Syriac manuscripts, Mosul is styled as Athour and it is not uncommon practice with ecclesiastical writers of the present day to use the same phraseology.”[52]Stephanie Dalley, though, writes that, “In Syriac Church literature ‘Athour’ is the name of Mosul, on the bank of the Tigris opposite Nineveh; but it also designates a metropolitan see, including Mosul, Nineveh and other towns.”[53]

Dr. Brinkman also makes mention that the Romans captured Nineveh, which they called Ninus, in 115 BC and again in 200 AD when they set up the province, which they named Assyria.The temple of Nabu at Nineveh was also repaired in the first century AD. Assyrian, Aramaic, and Greek inscriptions have been found in Nineveh, dating to this time. Kalhu was also resettled and the temples rebuilt.Assur became a great and prosperous city again and the temple of Assur restored. The inhabitants, though, had now lost the idea of a ziggurat as a religious building and began to use it solely as a watchtower.All the gods of the Assyrian pantheon were still being worshipped 800 years after the fall of the Assyrian empire.[54] This is backed up by esteemed archaeologist and historian Georges Roux in his book Ancient Iraq.[55]

Between the second century BC and third century AD, authors Patricia Crone and Michael Cook state in their book Hagarism[56] that,

“Assyria… had been left virtually alone by the Achaemenids and Seleucids; condemned to oblivion by the outside world, it could recollect its own glorious past in a certain tranquillity. Consequently when the region came back into the focus of history under the Parthians, it was with an Assyrian, not a Persian let alone Greek, self-identification: the temple of Ashur was restored, the city was rebuilt, and an Assyrian successor state returned in the shape of the client kingdom of Adiabene.”[57]

Georges Roux, the author of Ancient Iraq[58], mentions that after the introduction of Christianity into Assyria, “We know that some of the ancient temples were restored, that Ashur was worshipped in his home town, that a cult was rendered to Nabu in Borsippa until, perhaps, the fourth century AD.”

Roux further states that, "After the fall of Assyria, however, its actual name was gradually transferred to Syria. Thus, in the Babylonian version of Darius I inscriptions, Susa f, Eber-nari ("across-the-river," i.e. Syria, Palestine and Phoenicia) corresponds to the Persian and Elamite Athura (Assyria). Besides, in the Behistun inscription, Izalla, the region of Syria renowned for its wine, is assigned to Athura.” (Izalla or Izla / Izlo is the southern part of the Tur-‘Abdin region in which is the famous monastery of St. Eugenius)

Assyrians and Syriac Christianity

Aziz Suryal Atiya, a historian and professor of history, discusses the origin of Syriac / Assyrian Christianity under the heading of “Age of Legend” thus, “Assyrian or Syriac traditions link the establishment of Syrian [the Greek for Assyrian] Christianity with the earliest Apostolic age. Some even assert that the evangelization of Edessa occurred within the lifetime of Jesus Christ himself. Accordingly, the Nestorians promoted three legends in support of that contention while relating them to the three Magi and their visit to the infant Jesus, the story of King Abgar of Edessa, and the Acts of St. Thomas the Apostle... Whatever the historicity of those legends may be, the moral is that the roots of Assyrian Christianity are deep in antiquity. Though it may be hard to accept the hypothesis of Abgar V’s conversion around the middle of the first century AD, Abgar VIII (176-213) is known to have been a Christian from the testimony of Sextus Julius Africanus, who visited his court.”[59]

We read in ‘Edessa the Blessed City’[60] by J.B. Segal that Abgar the black of the first century AD wrote a letter to Narsai King of Assyria. Historical evidence indicates that Narsai King of Adiabene also known as King of Assyria was a contemporary of the Abgar the Great (177-204 AD). Reportedly the Parthians drowned Narsai in the Great Zab for his pro-Roman symphaties.[61]

A reference from the Encyclopedia Britannica CD 98 takes one back to the fourth century AD of Assyrian Christianity. “Aphraates became a convert to Christianity during the reign of the anti-Christian Persian king Shapur II (309-379), after which he led a monastic life, possibly at the monastery of St. Matthew near Mosul, Iraq... insulated from the intellectual currents traversing the Greco-Roman ecclesiastical world, the "Homilies" manifest a teaching indigenous to early Assyrian Judeo-Christianity.”

The history of the Assyrian Churches has no shortage of names of martyrs who affixed Assyrian to their names from the early days of Christianity. We read of Tatian the Assyrian, a philosopher who was born in AD 130, and Mar Behnam and his sister Sarah, the children of Sennacherib, king of Ashur, who were martyred in AD 352.[62]

Rev. Aubrey R. Vine in his book The Nestorian Churches[63] mentions that the Church of the East had Metropolitan Sees at Nisibis and Adiabene (Arbil) and Bishoprics at Nineveh and Singara, all formerly Assyrian imperial cities.[64]

Philip Hitti, Professor of Semitic literature at Princeton University, in his book History of Syria[65], writes that, “Before the rise of Islam the Syrian (Suryani) Christian Church had split into several communities. There was first the East Syrian Church or the Church of the East. This communion, established in the late second century, claims uninterrupted descent in its teachings, liturgy, consecration and tradition from the time the Edessene King Abgar allegedly wrote to Christ asking him to relieve him of an incurable disease and Christ promised to send him one of his disciples after his ascension. This is the church erroneously called Nestorian, after the Cilician Nestorius, whom it antedates by about two and a half centuries...”[66] Hitti continues later, “The East Syrian Church was represented at the beginning of the First World War by… members domiciled around Urmiyah, al-Mawsil (Mosul) and central Kurdistan. Those who survived have since drifted into Iraq and Syria. As an ethnic group they would rather be called Assyrians, an appellation that does not seem inappropriate when the physical features of many of them are compared with the Assyrian type as portrayed on the monuments.”[67]


The Assyrian nation, apart from undergoing an ongoing genocide, has also suffered a cultural genocide that has attacked the Assyrian identity and questioned its origins and unity as a people. Assyrians have come to be called Nestorians, Chaldeans, Jacobites, Syriacs, Syrians, Maronites and Melkites through religious influences and by the governments that now rule over portions of what is their ancestral homeland. As esteemed social anthropologist Dr. Arian Ishaya of UCLA in her paper Intellectual Domination and the Assyrians[68] states, there are different ways of dominating a people, those most direct being to take hold of their land and resources, deny them statehood, and force their manpower to do the labour work or fight the battles of the conqueror. But she also mentions that domination may also come in a more indirect, abstract form which is intellectual, this form being the most dangerous as it penetrates the victim’s inner feelings and thoughts. Thus, she determines, the victim remains unaware and willingly subjugates itself to intellectual domination.[69]

Dr. Ishaya goes on to point out that, last century the Assyrians fell victim to the wave of western Orientalism that swept the world, which attacked the culture of the “Easterners” and was an era when numerous diplomats and missionary movements attempted to “civilise” them. In the twentieth century, though, social scientists and academics replaced the missionaries or the diplomats of the previous century as the “experts” on the Assyrians. But although the experts have changed, the orientalist bias is still there, and reappears in a new guise. If one examines recent manuscripts and publications on the Assyrians one will notice that it has become almost fashionable for most dissertations, books, or articles to either directly or indirectly start with the question: “Are contemporary Assyrians really Assyrian?” Some claims from certain groups thus question the linkage of today’s Assyrians to those of antiquity. We hear of claims hinting that the Assyrians of antiquity simply disappeared and vanished from the face of the earth after the fall of their last capital in 612 BC, while, others imply that today’s Assyrians are different peoples, and it just happened that they coincidentally acquired that name some 150 years ago. One good example may be found in The Church of the East and the Church of England[70] by J.F. Coakley. This question is then followed by a painstaking comparison of the racial and cultural traits of the Assyrians of today with the remnants of archaeological relics to establish if the historical continuity between the two exists or not!

In Dr. Ishaya’s opinon, “What these scholars and some of their readers do not seem to realize is that to question the legitimacy of the name of today’s Assyrians is not a “scientific” act; it is a political one, because this is the type of question that the colonial powers raise to deny the territorial and cultural rights of several dominated peoples.”[71]

Dr. Ishaya then continues to mention the Kurds in Turkey, the Africans in South Africa and the Assyrians in Iraq, within the borders of which, the heartland of ancient Assyria lies. All of these peoples face the same problem. Their very name is denied so as to deny their national legitimacy. For the Turkish government the Kurds are “Mountain Turks”, and for the Afrikaners, the former white ruling minority of South Africa, the native Africans were just diverse Bantu tribes, and not a single people. In the same way the Assyrians are merely “Syriac-speaking Christians" from the perspective of the Arab Ba’athist government of Iraq, which also calls them Arab or Kurdish Christians. What Dr. Ishaya does not address is that the Turkish government also denies its Assyrian population the right to a national identity, calling them “Semite-Turks” or “Turco-Semites” or even, derogatorily, “Armenians”.[72]

Dr. Ishaya goes on to state that it is evident, in view of these facts, that, “ … scholars, by posing the very question of identity, are providing the ruling powers with a weapon to use against their minorities. What other purpose can an utterly unscientific question serve? Why is the question unscientific? Because there has been a tremendous amount of cultural and racial admixture among human societies through the centuries. Cultural and racial continuity is impossible to be established for ANY national group.

Moreover, during the 20th century old nations have been dismantled and new ones created without any regard to cultural and historical realities - as a glance on the map of Europe readily shows. In Europe after World War I people who shared the same language and culture were torn apart to constitute different “nations” and people with diverse linguistic and racial characteristics forcefully sandwiched together to form one nation. And since the arrangement suited the superpowers, no questions are asked as to the legitimacy of these nations on cultural or historical grounds and yet the Assyrians are on the millstone for those very reasons!”[73]

The Assyrians call themselves and other people of Syriac-speaking heritage Assyrians for a very simple and convincing reason: they are the age-old inhabitants of ancient Assyria. It is their homeland. They have churches there that date as far back as third and fourth century AD and still others, such as St. Mary at Kharput[74] and St. Mary at Urmia[75], that are of apostolic foundation. That is sufficient and says it all. There is no need to engage in the inconclusive argument of racial and cultural purity. When any nation says that it is what it is, it is that because its forefathers inhabited that region since time immemorial. The Assyrians say they are Assyrians because their forefathers inhabited Assyria and the French say that France is their homeland because they have lived there for many centuries. One claim is as valid as the other. What makes the French claim more respectable and that of the Assyrians questionable isn’t science. It is politics pure and simple. Thus, Dr. Ishaya concludes, “ … the question of whether the contemporary Assyrians are Assyrians, should never be asked. When a scholar makes that a topic of research, he is playing POLITICAL GAME in the guise of science. There is no excuse for the academics to remain naive any longer. The scholars have no choice but to decide what they want to do with their profession: put it in the service of the people or use it to promote the interest of the ruling powers. Whatever choice they make, they can be sure that they can no longer fool the people.”[76]

Thank you!


[1] Korbani, Agnes G. (1995), The Political Dictionary of the Modern Middle East, Lanham, Md.: University Press of America

[2] “But if it be maintained, that the modern Nestorians are descendants of the ancient Chaldeans, and may therefore justly lay claim to the title, no valid objection can be urged against the assumption; but in this national acceptance of the term, the Nestorian proselytes to Rome, the Jacobites, Sabeans, Yezeedees, and many of the Coords of this district, may with equal right take to themselves the appelative, there being as much proof to establish their descent from the Chaldeans of old, or rather the Assyrians, as there is in the case of the Nestorians.” p. 179

Badger, G.P. (1987), The Nestorians and their rituals : with the narrative of a mission to

Mesopotamia and Coordistan in 1842-1844, and of a late visit to those countries in 1850 : also, researches into the present condition of the Syrian Jacobites, Papal Syrians, and Chaldeans, and an inquiry into the religious tenets of the Yezeedees

London : Darf Publishers

[3] The fact that Assyrians inhabit or once inhabited these areas is well attested by the varied accounts of travellers such as Austen Henry Layard, George Percy Badger, E.B. Soane, Justin Perkins, the Wigrams,

Lord Warkworth, Lady Bishop, F.N. Heazell, Asahel Grant, W.H. Browne and countless others.

[4] “[the Nestorians and Chaldeans] call themselves Sooraye (Syrians), and their language Soorith (Syriac).”Op. cit. no. 2, p. 178

[5] Figure 1.1, p.4 of Demovic, M. & Baker, C. (1999), New Kingdom Egypt South Melbourne: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999

[6] As demonstrated in “The Fluidity of Language” table, p. 185 of Rohl, D. (1998), Legend: the Genesis of Civilisation

London: Random House

[7] Quoting Mar Toma Oddo on p. 69 of Dr. Pera Sarmas (1965), Who Are We? Assyrian Youth Cultural Society Press: Tehran, Iran

[8] Ibid., p.69

[9] An extensive study of this particular dialect has been published by esteemed scholar of Aramaic, Otto Jastrow (1994), Der neuaram�ische Dialekt von Mlahs�

Wiesbaden : Harrassowitz

[10] This explanation is also advocated by Dr. Pera Sarmas op. cit. no. 7, pp. 68-70

[11] Charles H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor of Mesopotamian History in the Oriental Institute and in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations at the University of Chicago, Editor of

the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary and Curator of the Oriental Institute’s Cuneiform Tablet Collection.

[12] Dr. Brinkman in a lecture entitled Assyrians After the Empire, held at the Mesopotamian Museum in Chicago on January 17, 1999, hosted by the Assyrian Academic Society in conjunction with the

museum. This is mentioned at http://aas.net/brinkman.htm

[13] Professor Richard N. Frye of Harvard University, USA Ethnic Name Designations: the Case of the Assyrians

The Assyrian Australian Academic Journal, Vol. 4 (July 1999)

Sydney: TAAAS

p. 7

[14] Ibid, 7-8
[15] The Encyclopedia Americana, International ed. (c1986) Danbury, Conn.: Grolier

[16] Herodotus, translation by Aubrey de S�lincourt (1972), Herodotus: The Histories Harmondsworth: Penguin Books

[17] Herodotus, trans. Harry Carter (1958), The History of Herodotus New York: The Heritage Press

[18] P. 195 (16. I. 2-3) of Strabo, translated by Horace Jones (1917), The Geography of Strabo London : W. Heinemann ; New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons

[19] His Holiness Patriarch Mor Michael the Great (1899), The Book of the Histories Paris

[20] Ibid, Vol. 1, p. 32

[21] Ibid, p. 748

[22] Assad Sauma-Assad, The Origin of the Word Suryoyo-Syrian The Harp, Vol. VI No. 3 (December 1993)

Kottayam, India: SEERI

p. 171-172

[23] Op. Cit. no. 2, p. 180

[24]Rassam, H. (1897), Asshur and the Land of Nimrod London

[25] Southgate, H. (1844) Narrative of a Visit to the Syrian [Jacobite] Church of Mesopotamia : With Statements and Reflections Upon the Present State of Christianity in Turkey and the

Character and Prospects of the Eastern Churches

New York: D. Appleton

p. 80

[26] Ibid, p. 87

[27] Op. Cit. no. 12

[28] In Assyrians After Assyria by Dr. Simo Parpola. Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, Vol. XIII No. 2, 1999

Published at Chicago, USA

[29] Rev. W.A. Wigram (1929), The Assyrians and Their Neighbours London

[30] Ibid, p. 26

[31] H.W.F. Saggs (1984), The Might That Was Assyria London: Sidgwick & Jackson

[32] Ibid, p. 290

[33] Op. cit. no.12

[34] Ibid

[35] Ibid

[36] Ibid; also Assyria 1995: Proceedings of the 10th Anniversary Symposium of the Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project / Helsinki, September 7-11, 1995.

[37] Breasted, H.J. (1954), The Conquest of Civilization New York, Harper & Row, 1954

[38] Ibid, p.175

[39] Op. cit. no. 29, p. 120

[40] Qustantin Bitrufij Matfif Barmti (1989), al-Ashuriyun wa-al-mas'alah al-Ashuriyah fi al-`asr alhadith

Dimishq : al-Ahali lil-Tiba`ah wa-al-Nashr wa-al-Tawzi`

[41] http://www.nineveh.com/continuity.htm

[42] Printed in Nabu Magazine, Vol. 3, Issue 1 (1997)

[43] Op. cit. no. 12

[44] Op. cit. no. 27, p. 7

[45] The Persian Expedition by Xenophon text, with introduction and notes by Jeremy Antrich and Stephen Usher

Bristol : Bristol Classical Press, [1981?]

[46] Op. cit. no. 12

[47] Also based on narratives in Ktesias, as preserved in Diodorus Siculus (II: 26-27)

[48] Tadmor, H. (c. 1991), Ah, Assyria: studies in Assyrian history and ancient Near Eastern historiography

Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University [49] Kaufman, S.A. (1974),The Akkadian influences on Aramaic

Chicago : University of Chicago Press

[50] Soane, E.B. To Mesopotamia and Kurdistan in Disguise John Murray: London, 1912

p. 92

[51] Koodapuzha, Xavier Faith and Communion in the Indian Church of St. Thomas Christians

Oriental Institute of Religious Studies: Kerala, India

p. 59

[52] Burgess, Henry The Repentance of Nineveh Sampson Low: Son and Co., London, (1853)

p. 36

[53] Dalley, Stephanie (1993) Nineveh After 612 BC

Alt-Orientanlische Forshchungen #20


[54] Op. cit. no. 12

[55] Roux, Georges (1964), Ancient Iraq Great Britain: Allen & Unwin Ltd.
p. 351-352

[56] Patricia Crone and Michael Cook (1977), Hagarism

Malta: Interprint

[57] Ibid, p. 55

[58] Op. cit. no. 53, p. 353

[59] Aziz Suryal Atiya (1968), A History of Eastern Christianity London: Methuen

[60] Segal, Judah Benzion (1970), Edessa ‘The Blessed City’ Oxford : Clarendon Press

[61] Ibid, pp. 70, 79

[62] Read Poutrus Nasri (1974), History of Syriac Literature Cairo

[63] Rev. Aubrey R. Vine (1937), The Nestorian Churches: a Concise History of Nestorian Christianity in Asia from the Persian Schism to the Modern Assyrians

London: [s.n.]
[64] Ibid, p. 57

[65] Hitti, Philip Khuri (1957), History of Syria, including Lebanon and Palestine Macmillan; St. Martin's P.: London, New York

[66] Ibid, p. 517

[67] Ibid, p. 519

[68] Intellectual Domination and the Assyrians, Nineveh Magazine, Vol. 6 No. 4 (Fourth Quarter 1983), published in Berkeley, California.

Dr. Arian Ishaya wrote this article when she was a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of

California, Los Angeles.

[69] Ibid

[70] J.F. Coakley (1992), The Church of the East and the Church of England : a History of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Assyrian Mission

Oxford [England]: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press. [71] Op. cit. no. 66

[72] pp. 13-16 Des Suryoye vus par le “Turkish Daily News’’ / Suryoye Seen by the “Turkish daily News’’, Droits de l’homme: Sans Frontiers – Journal Europeen des Droits de l’homme, 9e annee no.

1-2 / 1997, published in Brussels, Belgium

[73] Op. cit. no. 66

[74] Horatio Southgate confirms this whan he writes that, “The priest informed me that the Church was built originally by the Apostle Adi, or Thaddeus…” op. cit. no. 23, p. 86

[75] Arthur John Maclean and William Henry Browne write, “It is said to have been built by the Magi, and to contain the tomb of one of them.” In The Catholicos of the East and his People: being the impressions

of five years' work in the "Archbishop of Caterbury's Assyrian mission," an account of the

religious and secular life and opinions of the Eastern Syrian Christians of Kurdistan and Northern

Persia (known also as Nestorians) , London : S.P.C.K. ; New York : E. & J.B. Young. This point is also

supported by Dr. Abraham Yohannan (1916) in The Death of a Nation, or, The Ever Persecuted

Nestorians or Assyrian Christians, New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons, where he openly states this fact

and mentions it in the caption under the picture of the church.

[76] Op. cit. no. 66


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