From Academic Kids

Assyrians are a Christian Syriac-speaking minority inhabiting northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iran, some of whom also identify themselves as Aramaeans, Syriacs and Chaldeans. They are the survivors of the formerly extensive Aramaic- or Syriac- speaking Christian community of Northern Mesopotamia, pre-dating the Islamic conquest of the region.

Modern Assyrians trace their heritage to an ancient Semitic race of the same name, which created the world's first empire in recorded history under Sargon I. At its peak, the empire encompassed what is now western Iran, all of Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Syria, Palestine, the Armenian highlands and which even threatened Egypt in the 8th and 7th centuries BC.

Assyrians traditionally belong to either the Assyrian Church of the East (Nestorian), the Chaldean Catholic Church, or the Syrian Orthodox Church. They read and write various dialects of Aramaic, a Semitic language which in the form of Syriac is used in their religious observances.



Main article: Aramaic language

Aramaic (also known as Neo-Aramaic) belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family, the Semitic language sub-family, and the Northwest Semitic language branch.

Assyrians speak Modern Eastern Aramaic, often called Syriac. Within this dialect, there are two principal divisions:

Neo-Aramaic Koine

Beside local Aramaic vernacular forms, there is a literary language based primarily on the dialect used in the Urmia district of easternmost Iran. It uses the Syriac alphabet in its Nestorian variety, redesigned by European missionaries in the first half of the 19th century. It was in this alphabet and language, Eastern Neo-Aramaic, that the first newspaper in all of Iran was printed (1849–1918). When American missionaries first arrived in Urmia, among 125,000 Aramaic-speaking inhabitants, merely 40 men and one woman (sister of the Patriarch) could read and write. By the 1890s, the Assyrians had made such progress in education that most of the dozens of villages in the Urmia area had primary schools and some had secondary schools as well. Although the attempts to create a literary form for Eastern Aramaic probably date back to the 17th century (with the priests of the school of Alqosh), the Americans and their local advisors in Urmia can fairly be credited for laying the foundations of what is now called Neo-Aramaic Koine: the Greek word "koine (κοινή) means "common"; it is employed in linguistics to designate a common language used as lingua franca by speakers of different dialects).

Aramaic as a spoken and written language is presently endangered, due to several forms of assault on its speakers in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Aside from the toll that World War I and the attacks by religious fanatics took on the Assyrian Christians, conversion has also been a problem. Conversion, especially of abducted women and girls who then enter polygamous marriages, particularly in Kurdish Muslim households, and both forced and voluntary conversions result in a loss of identity and a loss of language. In the second generation, children of such unions are fully identified as Kurds or other Muslims who do not speak any form of Aramaic.

Assyrians and Islam

Assyrians are not Arabs ethnically nor culturally. Their own rich history is distinct from the surrounding Arabs. Historically, they contributed to the rise of Arabic astronomy, philosophy and medicine during the Abbasid period, and many scientists and scholars were in fact of Assyrian birth: see "How Greek Science Passed To The Arabs" ( Since the early Islamic period, Assyrians like other non-Muslims were subjected to the special poll tax on non-Muslims, the jizya, and eventually to severe restrictions within the legal structure. Considered unclean in more extremist Islamic settings, like the Jews, Zoroastrians, Mandeans and others, they were restricted from certain employment that would place them in situations where they might interact with Muslims in food preparation or service, for example. Even today in Iran, a Christian shopper cannot touch food at markets run by some of the more fanatical Muslims.

The Abbasid economic and social restrictions on Assyrians, as well as the assaults during the time of Tamerlane (14th century) drove the Assyrians ever further into the remote mountains for refuge. Consequent decline in culture followed, so that the speakers and writers of the oldest preserved language of the Middle East - Aramaic - were heading toward widespread illiteracy between the 15th and 18th centuries.

Ottoman Assyrians

The Ottoman Empire, before it began to decay, had an elaborate system of administering the non-Muslim "People of the Book." That is, they made allowances for accepted monotheists with a scriptural tradition and distinguished them from people they defined as pagans. (Buddhists and Hindus as well as some African groups were the ones with which they came in contact.) As People of the Book (or dhimmi) Jews, Christians and Mandaeans (in some cases Zoroastrians) received second-class treatment but were tolerated.

In the Ottoman Empire, this religious status became systematized as the "millet" administrative pattern. Each religious minority answered to the government through its chief religious representative. This is a system that the Ottomans adopted from previous Muslim Empires who in turn got it from the Sasanian Iranians. That is how we get the Hebrew term "Resh Galuta" (the head of Diaspora).

The Christians that the Ottomans conquered, gradually but definitively with the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, were already divided into many denominations, usually organized into a hierarchy of bishops headed by a patriarch.

The Assyrians under the Ottomans started out under the Armenian patriarchate but petitioned the Sublime Porte for separate status, mainly as western contacts allowed them a voice of their own. Thus the Assyrian Apostolic Church of Antioch and All the East (Jacobite, later changed to Syrian) received recognition as a separate communnity "millet " as did the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syrian Catholic and the Church of th the East. The last was the most remote of the Churches in distance from the Porte (in Istanbul).

The interest of Tsarist Russia and the western powers in the fate of the Christians of the Middle East, especially in the Maronites of Lebanon, gradually brought an elevation in culture during the 19th century, while at the same time causing schisms in denominational affiliation. The economic, educational and professional advancement of the Assyrians aroused the envy of their Muslim neighbors, especially the Kurds. Although not fanatically inclined as Muslims, the Kurds nonetheless display the socio-political characteristics of their Muslim neighbors in such matters as polygomous marriage and the second-class status of women. They have used their Islamic status to justify the attack on Assyrians in Tur Abdin, in Iran, in Turkey and in Iraq.

The Assyrians who had converted to Protestanism did not want to pay an annual tribute to the older churches through local bishops who then passed some of it up to the Patriarch who then passed some of it to the Porte in the form of taxes. They wanted to deal directly with the Porte, across ethnic lines, (even if through a Muslim administrator) in order to have their own voice and not be subjected to the rule of the Patriarchal system. This general Protestant charter was granted in 1850. (Joseph, Muslim-Christian relations and inter-Christian rivalries in the Middle East : the case of the Jacobites in an age of transition [1983])

At the turn of the 20th century, the Assyrians living in Ottoman territory (all of them except those in Persia, and those who had left for the Tsarist Caucasus and Transcaucasus) behaved like separate and competing communities organized along religious lines. The beginning of national secular identity were beginning to emerge among such intellectual leaders as Prof. Ashour Yosep (Harput), Malfono Naim Faik (Diyarbeker), John Mooshi (Urmia). When World War I decimated the Assyrians in both the Ottoman empire and in Iran, the friction among churches was not as strong as the friction between the secular leaders and the patriarchal leadership. (Naby, IJMES, 1977)

Late Ottoman massacres and other issues

Turkish nationalists in the Young Turk (or C.U.P.) movement, in control of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, began their systematic elimination of Christian minorities, beginning with the deportation of Greeks from eastern Thrace in January 1914. As early as December 1914, the Assyrians were also being forced from their homes. In northwest Iran, Kurdish tribes descended on Assyrian villages on the Urmia and Salmas plains when Istanbul entered the war in July 1914. The pillaging, looting, killings and abductions began the series of attacks and counterattacks that culminated in the final Ottoman military subjugation of northwest Iran in 1918. (Werda, Flickering Light of Asia reprinted 1990)

In 1915 Assyrians, like Armenains, were massacred by the Turks in the cities of Turkey, the Hakkari region in southeastern Anatolia and the Urmia region in northwestern Iran. To justify its massacres Turkey wrongly accused the Assyrian Christians of having thrown themselves under the protection of the British, who had forces in the field in Iraq and Syria. Such propaganda publicized in Istanbul newspapers as confirmation of Christian treachery, contributed to the butchery. Thousands fled into exile. By the middle of 1915 the deportations and killings were in full swing. About 500,000 to 750,000 Assyrians, or about three-fourths of the entire Assyrian population, were killed during the "Year of the Sword" (Shato d´sayfo), bitterly recalled by minorities today.

Assyrian diaspora

At the turn of the century the Christian population in Ottoman regions had numbered about 5,000,000. When the massacres finally ended in 1923, about 20,000 Greeks, 10,000 Armenians, and 30,000 Assyrians remained. The Assyrian diaspora includes a community in Chicago that numbers as many as 80,000, more than in any other American city. Since World War I, the Assyrian diaspora has steadily increased so that there are more Assyrians living in western (including Australia) diaspora than in the Middle East. Södertälje in Sweden is often seen as the unofficial Assyrian capital of Europe due to the city's high percentage of Assyrians and the Swedish professional football team Assyriska, promoted to the top division of the Allsvenskan football league in 2004, is often viewed as a substitute national team by the diaspora and has fans worldwide. The international Suroyo TV which broadcast in the Assyrian/Aramaic language is also based here.

In 1918 Britain resettled 20,000 Assyrians in Iraqi refugee camps in Baquba and Mandan after Turkey violently quelled a British-inspired Assyrian rebellion. From there, due to their higher level of education, many gravitated toward Kirkuk and Habbaniya where they were indispensible in the administration of the oil and military projects. As a result, approximately three-fourths of the Assyrians who had sided with the British during World War I found themselves living in Kurdish areas of Iraq. Thousands of Assyrian men had seen service in the Iraqi Levies, a force under British officers separate from the regular Iraqi army. Pro-British, they had been apprehensive of Iraqi independence. Most of those thus resettled by the British have gone into exile, although by the end of the 20th century, almost all of those who remain were born in Iraq. Assyrians living in northern Iraq today are those whose ancestry lies in the north originally. Many of these however, in places like Berwari, have been displaced by Kurds since World War I. This process has continued throughout the 20th century as Kurds have expanded in population, Assyrians have come under attack as in 1933, and as a result have fled from Iraq. (Stafford, Tragedy of the Assyrians, 1935)

Unlike the Kurds, the Assyrians scarcely expected a nation-state of their own after World War I, but they did demand reparations from Turkey for the material and population losses they had suffered, especially in northwest Iran, a neutral party in WWI invaded by Turkish forces. Their pressure for some temporal authority in the north of Iraq under the Assyrian patriarch, the Mar Shamun, was flatly refused by British and Iraqis alike. In Iran, the once thriving Assyrian community of around 200,000 is diminished at the close of the 20th century to a mere 5,000 while the total population in all of Iran hovers at around 15,000 to 20,000.

Assyrians in Iraq

In 1933, the Iraqi government held the Patriarch of the Church of the East, the Mar Shamun, under house arrest. When he left Iraq to appeal to the British with regard to how the Assyrians were being mistreated in Iraq contrary to the agreement at Iraq's independence to refrain from discrimination against minorities, he was stripped of his citizenship and refused reentry.

During July 1933, about 800 armed Assyrians headed for the Syrian border, where they were turned back. While King Faisal had briefly left the country for medical reasons, the Minister of Interior, Hikmat Sulayman, adopted a policy aimed at a final solution of the Assyrian "problem". This policy was implemented by a Kurd, General Bakr Sidqi, who, after engaging in several clashes with the Assyrians, permitted his men to kill about 3,000 Assyrians, including women and children, at the Assyrian villages of Simel/Simele (Sumayyil) district, and later at Suryia.

The Assyrian repression marked the entrance into Iraqi politics of the military, a pattern that has periodically re-emerged since 1958, and offered an excuse for enlarging conscription. The hugely popular Assyrian massacre, an indication of the latent anti-Christian atmosphere also set the stage for the increased prominence of Bakr Sidqi. In October 1936 Bakr Sidqi staged the first military coup in the modern Arab world.

This period also marks the intensification of denominational antagonism among Aramaic speakers in Iraq as some church institutions began to distance themselves from the members of the Church of the East who were seen as magnets for Muslim antagonism. It is from this period that, as the new Mosul-born patriarch of the Assyrian Apostolic Church of Antioch and All the East (Jacobite) came into the pinnacle of this church's hierarchy, he began to move the Church away from the term Assyrian and toward the term "Syrian." At the same time, this Church moved its See to the capital of the country of Syria.

In modern times, Assyrians, for whom no reliable census figures exist in Iraq (as they do not for Kurds), have been doubly mistreated; first by their Kurdish neighbors, then by Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime. Assyrians were deprived of their cultural and national rights while at the same time the Baathist regime tried to co-opt their history. In northern Iraq today, a similar pattern is emerging as Kurds attempt to rewrite the history of the region to give it a Kurdish flavor and diminish its historic Assyrian heritage. As in Baathist Iraq, there is a strong tendency in Iraq today to recognize only two ethnic groups: Arab or Kurd.

After Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003, the Assyrian Democratic Movement was one of the smaller political parties that emerged in the social chaos of the occupation. Its officials say that while members of the Assyrian Democratic Movement also took part in the liberation of the key oil cities of Kirkuk and Mosul in the north, the Assyrians were not invited to join the steering committee that was charged with defining Iraq's future. The ethnic make-up of the Iraq Interim Governing Council briefly (September 2003 - June 2004) guiding Iraq after the invasion included a single Assyrian Christian, Younadem Kana, a leader of the Assyrian Democratic Movement and an opponent of Saddam Hussein since 1979.

Neo-Assyrian revival

Many Assyrians currently have an apocalyptic belief in the future of their nation, based on the following passage from the Bible:

At that time there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will visit Egypt, and the Egyptians will visit Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. At that time Israel will be the third member of the group, along with Egypt and Assyria, and will be a recipient of blessing in the earth. The Lord who leads armies will pronounce a blessing over the earth, saying, "Blessed be my people, Egypt, and the work of my hands, Assyria, and my special possession, Israel!" (Isaiah 19:23-25).

At the same time, recognizing the dire prospects for the survival of any Aramaic-speaking, Christian Syriac-based community in Iraq, a slow process of ecumenicism on the one hand, to bring together the various church groups, and a political awakening is taking place. Both in the large diaspora and in the Middle East, enhanced communication, especially through the Internet and by e-mail is breaking down the barriers that 20th century nationalism in Iraq, Syria and Turkey in particular, had fostered. While there are still many quarrels, the multi-lingualism of Assyrians and the rise in communications in English, is breaking down some of the antagonisms. To some extent, the quarrels are fed inadvertantly by Western scholarship combined with a lack of cultural knowledge among Assyrians themselves. Many continue to link language use with ethnic name: since all Assyrians speak one of two living forms of Aramaic (eastern and western), the assumption is made that this must also become the ethnic name of the group. Others who want to revive classical Syriac, the revered liturgical language of the community, insist on some term having to do with the word "Syriac." Because the indigenous word in both dialects for the people themselves and for the language is "suryoyo" or "suryaye," some take the facile route of equating these terms with Syriac or Syrian without realizing that the terms Assyrian and Syrian are the same.

Similar disagreements over language and unity exist among many minorities in the Middle East which have had no state structure. Assyrians have managed to preserve Aramaic for two thousand years and more without any state backing. The rich traditions and history of this people have provided sustenance in times of persecution before. The cultural heritage and the language will help to preserve the community again.

Assyrian denominations

  1. Assyrian Church of the East
  2. Chaldean Catholic Church
  3. Syriac Orthodox Church

Current Assyrian World Population


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