Assyrian culture is that of the Assyrians, an Eastern Aramaic speaking Semitic race indigenous to northern Iraq, southeast Turkey, northeast Syria and northwest Iran. The Assyrian people gradually converted from the ancient Mesopotamian religion to East Syrian Rite Christianity between the 1st and 4th centuries AD (although the final traces of Mesopotamian religion did not die out until as late as the 17th century AD), and many Assyrian cultural practices today are linked to their Christian faith, together with their ancient Mesopotamian ancestry and language. Many Assyrians (estimates of fluent speakers range from 575,000 to 1,000,000) still speak, read and write distinct Akkadian influenced dialects of Eastern Aramaic. They are predominantly adherents of the Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church, Syriac Orthodox Church, Ancient Church of the East, Assyrian Pentecostal Church and Assyrian Evangelical Church, although some Assyrians are largely secular in outlook.
Throughout the years, Assyrians celebrate many different kinds of traditions within their communities, with the majority of the traditions being tied to religion some way. Some include feasts (Syriac: hareh) for different patron saints, the Nineveh Rogation (ܒܥܘܬܐ ܕܢܝܢܘܝܐ), Ascension day (Syriac: Kaalu d-Sulaqa), and the most popular, the Kha b-Nisan (ܚܕ ܒܢܝܣܢ). Some of these traditions have been practiced by the Assyrians for well over 1,500 years.
Premta d'Simele; Martyr's Day
The Simele massacre (ܦܪܡܬܐ ܕܣܡܠܐ: Premta d-Simele) was the first of many massacres committed by the Iraqi government during the systematic targeting of Assyrian of Northern Iraq in August 1933. The killing spree that continued among 63 Assyrian villages in the Dohuk and Mosul districts, led to the deaths of an estimated 3,000 Assyrians.
August 7 officially became known as Martyrs Day or National Day of Mourning by the Assyrian community in memory for the Simele massacre, as it was declared so by the Assyrian Universal Alliance in 1970. In 2004, the Syrian government banned the Assyrian political organization and the Assyrian community of Syria from commemorating the event, and threatened arrests if any were to break the ban.
On August 7, Assyrians in the homeland and in the diaspora get together in local community clubs, and share poems about the incident, revial new art work, etc.
Kha B'Nisan; New Year
The Assyrian new year festival, known as Kha b-Nisan (Literally Translated as the first of April), is celebrated on 1 April.
Celebrations involve holding parades and parties. They also gather in clubs and social institutions and listen to the poets who recite "the story of creation". The men and women wear traditional clothes and dance in parks for hours.
After the formation of the Turkish state, Khab Nissan along with the Kurdish Newrouz were banned from public to celebrate. Assyrians in Turkey were first allowed to publicly celebrate kha b-nissan in 2006, after organisers received permission from the government to stage the event, in light of democratic reforms adopted in support of Turkey's EU membership bid.
Som Baoutha; Nineveh Feast
The Nineveh Feast (Syriac: Baoutha d-Ninwaye) is a three-day celebration that is composed of prayers and fasting that Assyrians of Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, and the Syriac Catholic Church (as well as The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and Syro-Malankara Catholic Church in India) consider sacred. The word Bo'utho/Ba'uta is an Syriac word for "pleading", and from this meaning we receive the title of this commemoration. This annual observance occurs exactly 3 weeks before the start of lent. This tradition has been practiced by the Syriac Christians since the 6th century.
In the 6th century, a plague inflicted the Northern regions of modern-day Iraq or what was called at the time, Nineveh. The plague was devastating the city and the villages surrounding it, and out of desperation the people ran to their bishop to find a solution. The bishop sought help through the scriptures and came upon the story of Jonah in the Old Testament.
In the Old Testament story, God sent the prophet Jonah to warn the city of Nineveh of great destruction unless they repent for their sins or as it is directly quoted: "the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amathi, saying: Arise and go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach in it: for the wickedness thereof is come up before me." Jonah did not wish for Nineveh to be saved since they (the people of Nineveh) were the enemies of Israel and preferred Nineveh to be destroyed. Instead of listening to God Jonah fled to Tarshish (modern day Spain), across the Mediterranean Sea. During his voyage a violent storm occurred. The other sailors feared the boat would be completely destroyed and kill everyone if they did not get rid of Jonah. So they decided to throw Jonah overboard. As soon as Jonah hit the water, a giant fish swallowed Jonah whole. Jonah found himself in the dark, in stomach of the fish. Jonah began to pray earnestly for God to save him. For three days and nights Jonah prayed and asked for forgiveness for his disobedience. On the third night the fish became violently ill and swam near to the seashore where it vomited Jonah onto the beach. Jonah thankful that he had been spared started on the journey to Nineveh. Reaching the walls of Nineveh, he began preaching to people as he walked through its streets, "In forty days God will destroy this city because of your great sins." The king of Assyria became disturbed at the message that Jonah preached. He called his people together and commanded them to wear sackcloth clothing and to let neither man nor animals eat as the people prayed and repented of their wicked ways. All of the people of the city cried and prayed and asked God to forgive them for their sins. The city then was not destroyed.
Upon looking at the story the bishop therefore ordered a 3-day fast to ask for God's forgiveness. At the end of the 3-day fast, the plague had miraculously stopped, therefore, on the 4th day the people rejoiced.
To this day, Assyrians of both faiths, Catholic and Orthodox, both in their original lands and in the diaspora, still observe the fast 3 days each year.
Somikka; Holy Halloween
Somikka shares some common themes with the American festival of Halloween, but its meaning is very much different. The main purpose of Somikka is to motivate and discipline Assyrian children to fast during Lent. This is done by scaring children into the discipline of observing lent, when people would abstain from eating eggs, meat and any dairy or animal products for the seven weeks preceding Easter.
The evening before the fast began, or what is called "Somikka night" (Assyrian: Laleh d'Somikka), small groups of young men would dress in scary Halloween like clothes, wearing masks and also carry accessories such as wooden swords and shields. These men then would knock on Assyrian homes and scare the children into fasting. The parents in return would give the "Somikka" money (food items in the old times) and tell their children that this was to bribe Somikka off them. They would also warn them that if they broke their fast during Lent, Somikka would come and punish them with misery and a hard life. To the permissive Western mind, this might seem a little abusive, or even cruel. But in the Eastern World, discipline was the hallmark of raising children to grow up into God-fearing and upright adults.
Assyrian Villages in Urmia had another custom relating to Lent. The head of every family would stick seven colored feathers into a large onion, the feathers representing the seven weeks of fasting. He would then tie the feathered onion with a string and hang it from the ceiling of their living room, where it would spin every time there was a draft when the door was opened. This attracted attention and served to remind the children of the fast. Every Sunday night he would remove, ceremoniously, one feather to indicate that one week of fasting was over, until all the feathers were gone by Easter night, the last day of fasting, before celebrating the Lord’s Resurrection.The city is a very small area.
Kalu d'Sulaqa; Bride of the Ascension
The legend of Kalu d’Sulaqa/Kaltho d'Suloqo tells of a young Malik Shalita, governor of the Assyrian homeland’s capital Mosul, who was first noticed by Tamerlane after he had successfully fought and defeated his initial attack on the city. The battle is then described as Assyrian freedom fighters, both Christian and Muslim, defended against the Mongolian attack.
It was during this time that, according to legend, Malik Shalita’s wife organized Assyrian women dressed in white, and was given the responsibility to collect provisions from the nearby towns in order to feed the men fighting at the front. Having heard of the fate that had befallen their countrymen in Tikrit and Mardin, they knew very well the fate in store for them if they were to lose this battle. Instead of running and hiding the women prepared for the battle and joined the ranks of the defenders against hopeless odds.
The historical account is in keeping with the legend, as both describe a brutal battle of attrition, in which both men and women joined together and defended themselves against Tamerlane’s attack. Malik Shalita and his wife - according to the legend dressed in white – are recorded as having been killed in this fateful battle.
The Assyrian historian Arsanous states that the young boys and girls represent the dead young men and women who ascended to heaven because they died for the cause of Christianity and in defence of their homeland. The tragic nature of the 1401 event had left such an indelible impression on the minds of the survivors that they remembered the final battle and have honoured the memory of the fallen by re-enacting the camaraderie of the Assyrian men and women who died defending their homeland.
There are many traditional practices that Assyrians observe when celebrating Kalu Sulaqa (Ascension Day). Most commonly, in Hakkari, prior to the First World War, girls in each village would gather and choose the prettiest one among them to be the Kalu d- Sulaqa / Kaltho d-Suloqo (the Bride of the Ascension) for that year. She would be dressed in a traditional Assyrian wedding costume and then paraded around the village singing and asking for gawzeh w-kishmeesheh/yabeesheh (walnuts and raisins), which they would then share amongst themselves in a feast held afterwards in honour of the ‘bride’.
Assyrians would celebrate this day like any other “Shahra / Shahro”, with music, dancing, food and drink - but also a few differences. Apart from the little girls dressed as brides there was also a peculiar custom practiced by Assyrians living in Hakkari, whereby ropes were tied to strong branches of large trees common to that district. After this was done, all those present would attempt to climb one, and any not doing so would mean bad luck for them, while anyone reaching the end of the rope and the branch would have the best of luck for the coming year. This was done to represent the Ascension of Christ into Heaven and the eventual resurrection of the dead and final judgment. This custom is seldom practiced today apart from certain areas in the northernmost extremities of Iraq.
In Urmi, on the other hand, it was customary for the little girls in the villages to dress as brides and when doing their rounds of their villages would also ask for pennies or trinkets - although this is only a reflection of the generally greater wealth of the Assyrians in the plains of that region.
It is also said that the very same custom was used during fierce battles. Young girls, dressed as brides, were ordered to take provisions to the men fighting on the battlefield. Their mothers, knowing that they may never return, used this custom to instill courage in their young daughters.
In Syria young girls and boys would join together and form a couple, dressed as bride and a groom, and then go from door to door, singing. They were usually rewarded, not with money or candy, but rather people would give pirdha (wheat), rice, fruits, and so on, then at the end the children would go out to a field to cook and eat what they had collected on the day.
This custom, peculiar to members of the Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church, survives in these communities worldwide and is always marked by a party, often women only. It is also a new custom to hold a mock wedding reception. It is held just like any other traditional Assyrian wedding reception - khigga, slow dance, dinner, cake and all, the only difference being that the Bride, Groom, Best-Man and Matron-of-Honour are all young girls.
Assyrian rituals consist of many different types of elements that have shaped today's modern rituals for the past 3,000 years. An Assyrian wedding traditionally lasted a week and consisted of different rituals for each day. Today, weddings in the Assyrian homeland usually last for 2 to 3 days while Assyrian weddings in the diaspora go for 1 or 2 days. During the wedding reception most women has a Kafiya to dance with different colors and noises to distract evil spirits.
The Blanket Ritual
A week before the Marriage all the women of the neighborhood and the women in the family go to house of the bride and make her a very big honeymoon blanket. Everybody had to make sure they sewed a bit of that blanket. So the needle would be passed from one woman to the other and this way all the women sewed a bit. The younger women would dance around it and the older women would sing and do the dabke. During the party food and sweets are served, and the party ends when the blanket was done.
The Washing of the Groom
Also referred to as khyapta d'khitna or zyapta d'khitna. Before the wedding all the men in the neighborhood and the men who are related to the groom go to his house and they cut his hair and shave his face. The groom's male relatives give a him a good scrubbing from head to toe, cleaning him of evilness. A young boy is usually bathed first, typically by his mother or aunts, then the groom takes a shower or bath afterwards.
A tradition symbolic of the bride leaving the home of her parents. Usually the bride is in her home taking pictures with family and the groom's family visits to take her out of the home and to the church. While in the house, the women sing tradition lilyaneh and dola and zurna is played as they dance. Before the bride leaves the house, a member of the bride's family usually a cousin, niece/nephew,uncle/aunty etc... stands at the door and receives an amount of money from a member of the grooms family usually a Father, or brother, the amount is decided by who's holding the door.
The wedding tradition where the bride and groom are blessed by a priest in a church. The burakha traditionally lasted about four hours, but more recently the event goes for about one hour. Pins in the shape of two crosses are usually placed on the groom's back. There are some details during the ceremony that differ from village to village. The Assyrians of the village of Baz are known to have someone poke the groom with a needle to ward off any evil spirits while Assyrian from the village of Tyari make noise with the cutting motion of scissors to ward off evil spirits. At the end of the burakha as the bride and groom are coming out of the church, dola and zorna is played while rice, candies, and coins are thrown at the bride and groom and people take part in traditional Assyrian dances.
Henna is mud-like material that is prepared on the day before the wedding. On night for the wedding, in the old days all the ladies would gather at the house of the bride (but nowadays it's mixed, also male relatives and family friends are invited.) A bowl is filled with henna. Henna is celebrated differently throughout the Assyrian community. In some areas, whoever holds the bowl with the henna will dance with it around the others. The groom and bride put in the bowl their little finger and their little finger will be wrapped and connected to each other by a ribbon. In other areas, everyone is given a turn to wrap his finger with henna, and after everyone, the person that is getting henna in his hand starts the chant of praise for the future couple, as everyone else follows him.
The Burial Rituals of the Assyrians is described by Surma D'Bait Mar Shimun and the manner by which Assyrians of the highland cared for their dead relatives resemble what Olmsted wrote about how the ancient Assyrian cared for theirs.
Surma wrote: "In some districts-as in Tkhuma for instance - food is also placed on the graves and in this valley the graves are often made with a little niche in the side of them both for this purpose and for the putting of the light."
About the burial customs of the ancient Assyrians Olmsted writes: "always the lamp was left in a niche, and even the smoke can still be seen. A large water jar, a jug, and several dishes formed the remainder of the equipment needed for the after-life..."
Surma further adds; On the morning of the resurrection day before day light Assyrians in the highland visited the graves of their loved ones and lighted tapers on their resting site. The usual greeting at this time was "light to your departed".
Many Assyrians give traditional Assyrian names associated with the names of kings and queens as first names, along with Syriac and Biblical names.
Some popular male Assyrian given names are: Ashur, George, Gewargis, Hano, Samano, Naramsin, Ramsin, Sargon, Sargis, Ninos, Ramin, Dawid, Benyamin, Banipal, Shmuel, Zaya, Orahim/Avrahim/Oraha, Shimun, Elia, Abgar, Addai/Aday, Apram/Aphrem, Bardaisan, Hunain, Yukhanna, Yonan, Younan, Yatrin, Yoel, Petros/Patrus, Gabriel, Yacob/Yaqub, Eshaya, Nimrud, Daniel, Yousip, Dinkha, Eshai/Ishai, Moushe, Thoma, Tulmay, Yahballaha, Dadisho/Dadishu, Narsai, Ishoyahb, Aho, Isho, Sharbel, Sharo, Sabrisho/Sabrishu, Belo, Eliya, Shalim, Bilgamish, Hammurabi, Sinharib/Sennacherib, Ninsun, Adam, Ashurdan, Ninev/Nineb, Shmuel, Sada, Shima, Ezekiel, Atur, Goru, Patu, Beniel, Matti, Mari, Hedo/Haydoo, Odisho/Odishu, Eshu/Esho, Ilishu and Shalita.
Some popular female Assyrian given names are: Nineveh/Ninva, Dinah/Deena, Martha, Arbella, Sharukina, Nuhadra, Nouhra, Nahrain, Waleeta, Semiramis/Shamiram/Shamiran, Ishtar, Nina, Ninurta, Sarah, Siduri, Suriya, Ninlil, Atour, Aramina/Ramina, Ashourina, Khammi, Mona, Mariam, Esmar, Helena, Bartilla, Bakhdida, Deeana, Larsa, Sona, Surma, Khannah, Khava, Fabronia, Glima, Lilitu/Lilith, Talitha, Samantha and Arbilina.
Assyrian surnames may have a Bit, "Bet" or "Ben" in front of them, simply meaning "house of" or "son of."
Some popular Assyrian surnames are: Ashur, Hadad, Shamash, Atturayeh, Warda, Adam, Younan, Yonan, Pityou, Iyyar, Dayan/Daian, Alakko, Mamo, Yaqu, Shlaimun, Yokhannan, Giwargis/Gewargis/Givargis, Odishu/Odisho/Odichou, Hormizd/Hormis, Qawila, Dinkha, Denha, Kinkha, Dadishu, Ruwal, Agassi, Thoma, Mansur, Guzi, Sliwa/Sliwo, Aziz, Choushino, Youkhanna, Kasha, Khano, Parto, Sargis, Shmuni, Bar Sabbaye, Bishu, Sawa, Sabrishu, Zaya, Bar Ishaq, Ishu/Esho, Bar Saliba/Saliba, Bar Hibraius, Bar Mokates, Malek, Bet Qinyana, Arad, Sheenu/Shinu, Gabriel, Daniel, Malka, Malki, Graish, Bet Abraham, Abraham/Avrahim, Samano, Khiyyo, Shimun, Barkho, Akbalit/Akbalut, Sarmas, Hasaddo, Jendo, Mardo, Nisan/Neesan, Bar Sabaee, Hedo/Haydoo, Khoshaba, David/Dawid, Sharo, Abdishu/Abdisho, Balu, Jannu, Belo, Akkad, Somo, Danili, Khamur, Sorishu, Dudashu, Mishael/Michael, Moushe, Malishu, Sulaqa, Khanna/Hanna, Naby, Yaqub, Khnanisho, Knaninyah, Bazi, Enwiya, Awia, Shammo, Shimun, Shlemun, Ezekiel, Oshana/Ochana, Oraha, Daniel, Elia, Yonadam, Yokhanis, Murza, Shabo, Homeh, Lazar, Tamraz, Mikho, Emmanuel, Sayad, Aho, Oshalim, Kakku/Kako, Talia, Kanna, Adamo, Rashu/Rasho, Bassoo, Khananishu, Ashita, Khaya, Mannu, Khammo/Khamu, Birkhu/Birkho, Israel, Asia, Yona, Chikko, Keno/Kinu, Babu/Baboo, Ammo Baba, Rasho, Tyareh, Eshtarzin, Kasri, Tkhoma, Yalda, Nochiya, Kiko and Hadodo.
- International Federation for Human Rights — "Displaced persons in Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraqi refugees in Iran", 2003.
- The Origins and Developments of Assyrian Nationalism.
- Good Morning Assyria, Zinda Magazine.
- Assyrians Celebrate New Year for First Time in Turkey (SETimes.com)
- "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-05-16. Retrieved 2009-08-11.
- S urma D 'beit-mar Shimoun, "Assyrian Church Customs and the Murder of Mar Shimoun", Mar Shimoun Memorial Fund 1983 p.40
- A.T. Olsmtead, "History of Assyria" The University of Chicago Press 1968 third edition p.625
- Harper, Prudence O.; et al. (1995). Assyrian origins: discoveries at Ashur on the Tigris: antiquities in the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 0870997432.