Sunday, June 23, 2024

Who are the Assyrians?

The crimes against humanity committed by the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group in Iraq and Syria have brought to the world’s attention a largely forgotten nation: the Assyrians, an ancient nation with a very long history, unfamiliar to many. 

The Assyrians are the indigenous people of Iraq and descendants of ancient Assyria, one of the earliest civilizations emerging in the Middle East, with a history extending over 6773 years. Today, Assyrians can be found living in four corners of the world, educating those who are unfamiliar with their history.

Assyrians are descendants of Shem, the son of Noah, and are of Semitic origin: “The sons of Shem: E’lam, Asshur, Arpach’shad, Lud, and Aram” (Genesis 10:22). 

A people with a very rich heritage, Assyrians lived in northern Mesopotamia (in Assyrian, Bet-Nahrain). In early Greek, the word Mesopotamia meant “between rivers,” and the historic land is, indeed, located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers—the same rivers mentioned in Genesis 2:14. 

Millennia ago, the first inhabitants of Mesopotamia interacted with nature intellectually, socially, and even spiritually. Their society was not born accidentally, nor was it born thanks to a perfect climate, environment, or natural resources. Rather, it emerged from a ceaseless struggle with nature and destiny carried out by the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian peoples. It evolved from hunters to farmers growing cereal grains in their fields, to tablet-writing for record keeping. Their land Mesopotamia, home to the world’s earliest civilizations, is now known as the “Cradle of Civilization.” 

Not only famous for their conquest but also for their art, the ancient Assyrians placed much importance on producing lasting art and, in many cases, using vivid colors to beautify their world, from monumental temple complexes to magnificent palaces with mighty sculptures and brilliant wall paintings. The first organized library was in Nineveh, created by King Ashurbanipal. The city and state planning, innovation of irrigation systems, breathtaking architecture, discoveries made in the fields of medicine and pharmacology, and making of the color blue, which became a prestige color in beautiful palaces beyond Mesopotamia, are just a few contributions to humanity. 

Today, their worldwide population is approximately 2.5 million, with the majority concentrated in the United States. Before the US invasion of Iraq, there were 1.5 million Assyrians (also known as Chaldean or Syriac) who lived in their homeland. Today there are a mere 100,000 left, with a massive drop due to persecution. Over the past century, most have forcibly left their lands and live in exile.

Due to the brutality the Islamic State inflicted on Assyrians, a resurgence of interest in this ancient culture has given Assyrians renewed hope for the future. Since the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC, there has been a thirst to have an autonomous region in their homeland, the Nineveh Plain, northern Iraq.  

The Assyrian history proper began approximately 2,400 BC. The Assyrian homeland was located at the floodplain of the Tigris River in the northern part of Iraq. Ancient Assyria can be visualized in the form of a triangle—defined by the ancient cities of Assur (modern Qala’at Sherqat) on the western bank of the Tigris, Arbailu (modern Erbil) in the east, and its glory, Nineveh (modern Mosul). At its peak, the Assyrian Empire extended from the western part of Iran through the southern part of Turkey, expanding into Egypt. It is important to note that this was the empire—and the power of the Assyrian kings—that extended into these regions, and not the land of Assyria itself; these regions maintained their own geographical identities—e.g., some were vassal states, some were provinces of the empire.

Nineveh, which according to the Bible, was founded by Nimrud (Genesis 10:11), was the capital city of the mighty Assyrian Empire from the end of the 8th century BC until its final destruction by the Babylonians and Medes in 612 BC. Prior to Nineveh, Assur and Kalhu (Nimrud) were the capital cities of the Assyrian Empire.

Most Jews and Christians are familiar with Nineveh, thanks to the biblical account of Jonah. But they may not be aware of how the modern Middle Eastern Christian communities integrate the story of Jonah into a period of reflection and fasting. 

Every year, regardless of denominational affiliation, Assyrians observe a very important feast, Baouta’d Ninevaye or the “Rogation of the Ninevites,” the literal translation of which is “Nineveh’s Supplication.” It is also famously known as the “Fast of Jonah.” This commemorates the fasting and repentance of the people of Nineveh at the preaching of Jonah (Jonah 3:5–9). 

The Church of the East later incorporated the fast into its tradition so that every year, three weeks before Lent, Assyrians and other Eastern Christians observe this fast, symbolizing man’s repentance and God’s infinite mercy toward those who obey His commands.

Most Assyrians throughout the world speak at least two languages, the first usually being their mother tongue. The name of this language varies depending on the region: Aramaic, Modern-Aramaic, Syriac, Sureth, or Souyrai. Today’s Assyrians speak modern Aramaic, which is mainly divided into two dialects, Eastern and Western, with the dividing line being the Euphrates River, and it is written in a script famously known as Syriac. 

Today’s Iraq is known as the Second Holy Land. It became the center of Jewish learning from the time of the destruction of the First Temple until the end of the tenth century. That is where the Bible and the Talmud Bavli (or the Babylonian Talmud) were compiled.

One cannot study the Old Testament without reading multiple stories and verses on Assyria and her people. The first Biblical mention is in Genesis 2:14, where a river is cited flowing from Eden and separating into four headwaters: “… The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur [Assyria]. And the fourth river is the Euphrates,” followed by another passage in Genesis 10:10-12, which says, “The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Uruk, Akkad and Calneh, in Shinar. From that land, he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah, and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah—which is the great city.” Nineveh, one of the most famous capital cities of ancient Assyria, during the 7th century BC, was an ostentatious and opulent city that was unmatched during ancient times. 

Most Assyrians worldwide profess their faith in Christianity. According to multiple documents written in Syriac, the Church of the East was first established by Jesus’ disciples St. Thomas, St. Thaddeus (Mar Addai), and Mar Mari (one of the 70 disciples) during the first century A.D. Later, Patriarch Timothy I (reigned 780-823 AD) expanded the Church of the East to Afghanistan, India, Tibet, and China.

Much of Western history fails to mention that those who first encountered Muslims were not the Latin peoples. In fact, the Eastern Christians were the ones who first came face to face with the followers of this new religion/form of governance. The Western world is not very aware of writings from the famed Syriac writers who first encountered Muslims in the eastern lands. 

Based on ancient historical records drawn from Greek, Roman, Persian, and Syriac writings, and starting in the 1400s when Europeans made archeological and religious discoveries that extend into modern times, all present the world with certainty that the Assyrians of today are without a doubt the children and heirs to the Assyria of antiquity.

Assyrians are builders of civilizations, and their many inventions and innovations have benefited humanity since time immemorial. This ancient nation, however, has also suffered from severe persecution at the hands of those who invaded and captured their lands– particularly in modern Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran. These acts of persecution, extending back as far as the sixth century, include Turkey’s 1913-23 Christian genocide, Iraq’s 1933 Semele massacre, Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, oppression by the Ba’ath regimes of Iraq and Syria, the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the outbreak of Sunni-Shiite fighting in Iraq in 2006, al-Qaeda terrorism, the 2014 genocide by ISIS, ongoing Turkish airstrikes on Iraq and Syria and in many cases, pressures and harassment at the hands of their Muslim neighbors. All this persecution has forced many Assyrians to leave their home countries and seek asylum elsewhere.  

The height of the Assyrian persecution was the 1913-23 Assyrian genocide committed by Turkey and, in most cases, carried out by Kurdish proxy militias. The other victims were Armenians, Greeks, and other minorities such as Yazidis. During the genocide, Christian minorities faced systematic massacres, rapes, the destruction of 1,500-year-old churches, cultural desecrations, and forced deportation to foreign lands. For ten long years, the slaughter went on, ending only in 1923 after claiming 2.5 million victims, including two out of three Assyrians.

The ideology of the genocide perpetrators was similar to the Nazis’, involving a homogenous nation-state created through the forced removal of all minorities. Through this methodology, Turks and their Kurdish collaborators ruthlessly launched their genocidal Jihad, waging a holy war against Assyrians, Armenians, and Greeks. In 2007, the Assyrian genocide was recognized by the International Association of Genocide Scholars.

The Assyrian persecution in the Middle East has never ended. In August of 1933, Assyrians were exposed to yet another massacre in Semele and over 60 Assyrian villages in Dohuk and Mosul. Over 3,000 men, women, and children were killed, with some estimates going as high as 6,000. Dozens of villages were raided and looted. 

In the 1980s and 90s, Assyrians in Turkey were stuck between and affected by the unending fights between the Turkish army and the Kurdish PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party). During that period, many Assyrians in Turkey were murdered. Native Assyrian villages were burned down or evacuated by the Turkish army, and thousands of Assyrians were once again forced to leave their native lands. 

In 2014, Assyrians in Iraq and Syria became victims of yet another genocide at the hands of ISIS. From June of 2014, when ISIS invaded Mosul, until its destruction by the Iraqi army with coalition support in 2017, the city of Mosul did not hear the church bells ringing, and its Christian faithful were either killed, taken into slavery, or forced to leave. For the first time in almost 1800 years, Mosul ceased to be home to its Christian citizens. 

Today, Assyrians continue to be exposed to discrimination and persecution in their native lands. Those who fled and are refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan are dehumanized and live in poverty and subhuman conditions. 

The resilient Assyrian nation, which has contributed so much to humanity and civilization, is still awaiting help from the West and the rest of the world. Let us finally hear their cry and extend our hands in support and solidarity. 

Parts of this article are excerpts from Taimoorazy’s upcoming book, The Daughter of Nineveh.

Author profile
Juliana Taimoorazy

Founding President of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council

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