A flag used by most Assyrians
An Assyrian Family making butter in Mavana, Iran
|Regions with significant populations|
|Traditional areas of Assyrian settlement:||735,000-745,100|
(Assyrian, Chaldean, Turoyo)
(majority: Syriac Christianity; minority: Protestantism)
|Related ethnic groups|
|Armenians • Mandeans • Mizrahi Jews • Maronites|
Assyrian people (Syriac: ܐܫܘܪܝܐ), or Syriacs (see names of Syriac Christians), are an ethnic group indigenous to the Middle East. Some of them self-identify as Chaldeans, or as Arameans. They speak modern Aramaic, whose subdivisions include Northeastern, Central, and Western Neo-Aramaic, as well as another language, dependent on the country of residence. The Assyrians claim descent from Assyria, one of the oldest civilizations in the world, dating back to 2500 BC in ancient Mesopotamia.
The areas that form the Assyrian homeland are parts of present-day northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran and northeastern Syria. The majority have migrated to other regions of the world, including North America, the Levant, Australia, Europe, Russia and the Caucasus during the past century or so. Emigration was triggered by such events as the Assyrian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, the Simele Massacre in Iraq in 1933, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Arab Nationalist Ba'athist policies in Iraq and Syria such as the al-Anfal campaign of Saddam Hussein, and the rise of ISIS and its takeover of most of the Nineveh Plains.
Assyrians are predominantly Christian, mostly adhering to the East and West Syrian liturgical rites of Christianity. The churches that constitute the East Syrian rite include the Assyrian Church of the East, Ancient Church of the East, and Chaldean Catholic Church, whose followers mostly speak the Northeastern branch of East Aramaic. Whereas the churches of the West Syrian rite, the Syriac Orthodox Church and Syriac Catholic Church, mostly speak the Central and Western branches.
Most recently, the 2003 Iraq War and the Syrian Civil War which began in 2011 have displaced the regional Assyrian community, because its people have faced ethnic and religious persecution at the hands of Islamic extremists. Of the one million or more Iraqis reported by the United Nations to have fled Iraq since the occupation, nearly 40% were Assyrians even though Assyrians comprised only around 3% of the pre-war Iraqi demography. According to a 2013 report by a Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council official, it is estimated that only 300,000 Assyrians remain in Iraq. Due to the Syrian Civil War, however, many Iraqis, including Assyrians, have fled back into Iraq, specifically to northern Iraq and the part of the country controlled by the Iraqi government, with ISIS still in control of much of the Assyrian homeland.
In prehistoric times, the region that was to become known as Assyria (and Subartu) was home to Neanderthals such as the remains of those which have been found at the Shanidar Cave. The earliest Neolithic sites in Assyria belonged to the Jarmo culture c. 7100 BC and Tell Hassuna, the centre of the Hassuna culture, c. 6000 BC.
The history of Assyria begins with the formation of the city of Ashur perhaps as early as the 25th century BC,. The Assyrian king list records kings dating from the 25th century BC onwards, the earliest being Tudiya, who was a contemporary of Ibrium of Ebla. However, many of these early kings would have been local rulers, and from the late 24th century BC to the early 22nd century BC, they were usually subjects of the Akkadian Empire.
In the traditions of the Assyrian Church of the East, they are descended from Abraham's grandson (Dedan son of Jokshan), progenitor of the ancient Assyrians. However, there is no historical basis for the biblical assertion whatsoever; there is no mention in Assyrian records (which date as far back as the 24th century BC).
The Assyrian people, after the fall of their empire, fell under foreign domination ever since. The Persian Empire was founded, which consumed the entire Neo-Babylonian or "Chaldean" Empire in 539 BC. Assyrians became front line soldiers for the Persian Empire under Xerxes I, playing a major role in the Battle of Marathon under Darius I in 490 BC.
The Assyrian army accounted for three legions of the Roman army, defending the Parthian border. In the 1st century, it was the Assyrian army that enabled Vespasian's coup. From the later 2nd century, the Roman Senate included several notable Assyrians, including Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus and Avidius Cassius.
From the 1st century BC, Assyria was the theatre of the protracted Roman–Persian Wars. It would become a Roman province (Assyria Provincia) from 116 to 363 AD. Despite the influx of foreign elements, the presence of Assyrians is confirmed by the worship of the god Ashur, all proof of the continuity of the Assyrians. The Greeks, Parthians, and Romans had a rather low-level of integration with the local population in Mesopotamia, which allowed their cultures to survive.
Early Christian period
The Assyrians were Christianized in the first to third centuries in Roman Syria and Roman Assyria. The population of the Sasanian province of Asōristān was a mixed one, composed of Assyrians, Arameans in the far south and the western deserts, and Persians. The Greek element in the cities, still strong during the Parthian Empire, ceased to be ethnically distinct in Sasanian times. The majority of the population were Eastern Aramaic speakers.
Along with the Arameans, Armenians, Greeks, and Nabataeans, the Assyrians were among the first people to convert to Christianity and spread Eastern Christianity to the Far East. The Council of Seleucia of ca. 325 dealt with jurisdictional conflicts among the leading bishops. They were divided by the Nestorian Schism in the 5th century, and from the 8th century, they became a minority religion following the Muslim conquest of Persia.
At the subsequent Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon of 410, the Christian communities of Mesopotamia renounced all subjection to Antioch and the "Western" bishops and the Bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (modern al-Mada'in) assumed the rank of Catholicos. Whereas Latin and Greek Christian cultures became protected by the Roman and Byzantine Empires, respectively, Assyrian/Syriac Christianity often found itself marginalised and persecuted.
The Nestorian schism and Monophysite schisms of the 5th century divided the church into separate denominations. With the rise of Syriac Christianity, eastern Aramaic enjoyed a renaissance as a classical language in the 2nd to 8th centuries, and the modern Assyrian people continue to speak eastern Neo-Aramaic languages.
Assyria continued to exist as a geopolitical entity until the Arab-Islamic conquest in the mid-7th century, and Assyrian identity, personal, family and tribal names, and both spoken and written varieties of Aramaic have survived from ancient times to this day.
The Assyrians initially experienced some periods of religious and cultural freedom interspersed with periods of severe religious and ethnic persecution after the Arab Islamic invasion and conquest of the 7th century AD. Assyrian contributed to Arab Islamic Civilization during the Umayyads and the Abbasids by translating works of Greek philosophers to Syriac and afterwards to Arabic. They also excelled in philosophy, science Qusta ibn Luqa, Masawaiyh, Patriarch Eutychius, and Jabril ibn Bukhtishu) and theology (such as Tatian, Bar Daisan, Babai the Great, Nestorius, and Toma bar Yacoub) and the personal physicians of the Abbasid Caliphs were often Assyrian Christians such as the long serving Bukhtishu dynasty.
Indigenous Assyrians became second-class citizens (dhimmi) in a greater Arab Islamic state, and those who resisted Arabisation and conversion to Islam were subject to severe religious, ethnic and cultural discrimination, and had certain restrictions imposed upon them. Assyrians were excluded from specific duties and occupations reserved for Muslims, they did not enjoy the same political rights as Muslims, their word was not equal to that of a Muslim in legal and civil matters, as Christians they were subject to payment of a special tax (jizya), they were banned from spreading their religion further or building new churches in Muslim-ruled lands, but were also expected to adhere to the same laws of property, contract and obligation as the Muslim Arabs. nThey couldn't seek conversion of a Muslim, a non-Muslim man couldn't marry a Muslim woman and the child of such a marriage would be considered Muslim. They couldn't own a Muslim slave and had to wear different clothing from Muslims in order to be distinguishable. In addition to the jizya tax, they were also required to pay the Kharaj tax on their land which was heavier than the jizya. However they were ensured protection, given religious freedom and to govern themselves in accordance to their own laws.
As non-Islamic proselytising was punishable by death under Sharia law, the Assyrians were forced into preaching in Transoxania, Central Asia, India, Mongolia and China where they established numerous churches. The Church of the East was considered to be one of the major Christian powerhouses in the world, alongside Latin Christianity in Europe and the Byzantine Empire.
From the 7th century AD onwards Mesopotamia saw a steady influx of Arabs, Kurds and other Iranian peoples, and later Turkic peoples, and the indigenous population retaining native Mesopotamian culture, identity, language, religion and customs were steadily marginalised and gradually became a minority in their own homeland. Conversion to Islam as a result of heavy taxation which also resulted in decreased revenue from their rulers. As a result, the new converts migrated to Muslim garrison towns nearby. These conversions were so great in number that Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, the governor of Iraq forced them to leave the towns and pay their taxes. These upheavals lasted for over a century before it was made mandatory for everyone including the Muslim Arabs to pay the land tax.
Assyrian people, still retaining Akkadian infused and influenced Eastern Aramaic and Assyrian Church of the East Christianity, remained dominant in the north of Mesopotamia (what had been Assyria) as late as the 14th century AD and the city of Assur was still occupied by Assyrians during the Islamic period until the mid-14th century when the Muslim Turco-Mongol ruler Tamurlane conducted a religiously motivated massacre of indigenous Assyrians. After that, there are no traces of a settlement at Ashur in the archaeological and numismatic record, and from this point the Assyrian population was dramatically reduced in their homeland.
Starting from the 19th century after the rise of nationalism in the Balkans, the Ottomans started viewing Assyrians and other Christians in their eastern front as a potential threat. The Kurdish Emirs sought to consolidate their power by attacking Assyrian communities which were already well established there. Scholars estimate that tens of thousands of Assyrian in the Hakkari region were massacred in 1843 when Badr Khan the emir of Bohtan invaded their region. After a later massacre in 1846 the Ottomans were forced by the western powers into intervening in the region, and the ensuing conflict destroyed the Kurdish emirates and reasserted the Ottoman power in the area. The Assyrians of Amid were also subject to the massacres of 1895.
Culturally, ethnically and linguistically distinct from, although both quite influencing on and influenced by, their neighbours in the Middle East — the Arabs, Persians, Kurds, Turks, Jews and Armenians — the Assyrians have endured much hardship throughout their recent history as a result of religious and ethnic persecution.
Mongolian and Turkic rule
After initially coming under Seljuk and Buyid rule, the region eventually came under the control of the Mongol Empire after the fall of Baghdad in 1258. The Mongol khans were sympathetic with Christians and did not harm them. The most prominent among them was probably Isa Kelemechi, a diplomat, astrologer, and head of the Christian affairs in the Yuan dynasty of East Asia. He spent some time in Persia under the Ilkhans. The 14th century massacres of Timur in particular, devastated the Assyrian people. Timur's massacres and pillages of all that was Christian drastically reduced their existence. At the end of the reign of Timur, the Assyrian population had almost been eradicated in many places. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, Bar Hebraeus (or Bar-Abraya), the noted Assyrian scholar and hierarch, found "much quietness" in his diocese in Mesopotamia. Syria’s diocese, he wrote, was "wasted."
The region was later controlled by the in Iran-based Turkic confederations of the Ağ Qoyunlu and Qara Qoyunlu. Subsequently, all Assyrians, like with the rest of the ethnicities living in the former Ağ Qoyunlu territories, fell into Safavid hands from 1501 and on.
From Iranian Safavid to confirmed Ottoman rule
The Ottomans secured their control over Mesopotamia and Syria in the first half of the 17th century following the Ottoman–Safavid War (1623–39) and the resulting Treaty of Zuhab. Non-Muslims were organised into millets. Syriac Christians, however, were often considered one millet alongside Armenians until the 19th century, when Nestorian, Syriac Orthodox and Chaldeans gained that right as well.
A religious schism amongs the Assyrians took place in the mid to late 16th century. Dissent over the hereditary succession within the Assyrian Church of the East grew until 1552, when a group of Assyrian bishops, from the northern regions of Amid and Salmas, elected a priest, Mar Yohannan Sulaqa, as a rival patriarch. To look for a bishop of metropolitan rank to consecrate him patriarch, Sulaqa traveled to the pope in Rome and entered into communion with the Catholic Church. In 1553 he was consecrated bishop and elevated to the rank of patriarch taking the name of Mar Shimun VIII. He was granted the title of "Patriarch of the Chaldeans," and his church was named the Church of Athura and Mosul.
Mar Shimun VIII Yohannan Sulaqa returned to northern Mesopotamia in the same year and fixed his seat in Amid. Before being put to death by the partisans of the Assyrian Church of the East patriarch of Alqosh,:57 he ordained five metropolitan bishops thus beginning a new ecclesiastical hierarchy: the patriarchal line known as the Shimun line. The area of influence of this patriarchate soon moved from Amid east, fixing the See, after many places, in the isolated Assyrian village of Qochanis. Although this new church eventually drifted away from Rome by 1600 AD and reentered communion with the Assyrian Church, the archbishop of Amid reinstated relations with Rome in 1672 AD, giving birth to the modern Chaldean Catholic Church.
In the 1840s many of the Assyrians living in the mountains of Hakkari in the south eastern corner of the Ottoman Empire were massacred by the Kurdish emirs of Hakkari and Bohtan.
Another major massacre of Assyrians (and Armenians) in the Ottoman Empire occurred between 1894 and 1897 AD by Turkish troops and their Kurdish allies during the rule of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The motives for these massacres were an attempt to reassert Pan-Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, resentment at the comparative wealth of the ancient indigenous Christian communities, and a fear that they would attempt to secede from the tottering Ottoman Empire. Assyrians were massacred in Diyarbakir, Hasankeyef, Sivas and other parts of Anatolia, by Sultan Abdul Hamid II. These attacks caused the death of over thousands of Assyrians and the forced "Ottomanisation" of the inhabitants of 245 villages. The Turkish troops looted the remains of the Assyrian settlements and these were later stolen and occupied by Kurds. Unarmed Assyrian women and children were raped, tortured and murdered.
World War I and aftermath
The Assyrians suffered a number of religiously and ethnically motivated massacres throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries AD, culminating in the large scale Hamidian massacres of unarmed men, women and children by Muslim Turks and Kurds in the late 19th century at the hands of the Ottoman Empire and its associated (largely Kurdish and Arab) militias, which further greatly reduced numbers, particularly in southeastern Turkey.
The most significant recent persecution against the Assyrian population was the Assyrian genocide which occurred during the First World War. Between 275,000 and 300,000 Assyrians were estimated to have been slaughtered by the armies of the Ottoman Empire and their Kurdish allies, totalling up to two-thirds of the entire Assyrian population.
This led to a large-scale migration of Turkish-based Assyrian people into countries such as Syria, Iran, and Iraq (where they were to suffer further violent assaults at the hands of the Arabs and Kurds), as well as other neighbouring countries in and around the Middle East such as Armenia, Georgia and Russia.
In reaction to the Assyrian Genocide and lured by British and Russian promises of an independent nation, the Assyrians led by Agha Petros and Malik Khoshaba of the Bit-Tyari tribe, fought alongside the Allies against Ottoman forces in an Assyrian war of independence. Despite being heavily outnumbered and outgunned the Assyrians fought successfully, scoring a number of victories over the Turks and Kurds. This situation continued until their Russian allies left the war, and Armenian resistance broke, leaving the Assyrians surrounded, isolated and cut off from lines of supply. The sizable Assyrian presence in south eastern Anatolia which had endured for over four millennia was thus reduced to no more than 15,000 by the end of World War I.
The majority of Assyrians living in what is today modern Turkey were forced to flee to either Syria or Iraq after the Turkish victory during the Turkish War of Independence. In 1932, Assyrians refused to become part of the newly formed state of Iraq and instead demanded their recognition as a nation within a nation. The Assyrian leader Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII asked the League of Nations to recognize the right of the Assyrians to govern the area known as the "Assyrian triangle" in northern Iraq.
The Assyrian Levies were founded by the British in 1928, with ancient Assyrian military rankings such as Rab-shakeh, Rab-talia and Tartan, being revived for the first time in millennia for this force. The Assyrians were prized by the British rulers for their fighting qualities, loyalty, bravery and discipline, and were used to help the British put down insurrections among the Arabs and Kurds. During World War II, eleven Assyrian companies saw action in Palestine and another four served in Cyprus. The Parachute Company was attached to the Royal Marine Commando and were involved in fighting in Albania, Italy and Greece. The Assyrian Levies played a major role in subduing the pro-Nazi Iraqi forces at the battle of Habbaniya in 1941.
However, this cooperation with the British was viewed with suspicion by some leaders of the newly formed Kingdom of Iraq. The tension reached its peak shortly after the formal declaration of independence when hundreds of Assyrian civilians were slaughtered during the Simele Massacre by the Iraqi Army in August 1933. The events lead to the expulsion of Shimun XXIII Eshai the Catholicos Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East to the United States where resided until his death in 1975.
The period from the 1940s through to 1963 saw a period of respite for the Assyrians. The regime of President Kassim in particular saw the Assyrians accepted into mainstream society. Many urban Assyrians became successful businessmen, others were well represented in politics and the military, their towns and villages flourished undisturbed, and Assyrians came to excel, and be over represented in sports.
The Ba'ath Party seized power in Iraq and Syria in 1963, which introduced laws that aimed at suppressing the Assyrian national identity, the Arab Nationalist policies of the Ba'athists included renewed attempts to forcibly "Arabize" the indigenous Assyrians. The giving of traditional Assyrian/Akkadian names and East Aramaic/Syriac versions of Biblical names was banned, Assyrian schools, political parties, churches and literature were repressed and Assyrians were heavily pressured into identifying as Arab Christians. The Ba'athist government refused to recognise Assyrians as an ethnic group, and fostered divisions among the ethnic Assyrians along religious lines (e.g. Assyrian Church of the East vs Chaldean Catholic Church vs Syriac Orthodox Church vs Assyrian Protestant).
In response to Baathist persecution, the Assyrians of the Zowaa movement within the Assyrian Democratic Movement took up armed struggle against the Iraqi government in 1982 under the leadership of Yonadam Kanna, and then joined up with the Iraqi-Kurdistan Front in the early 1990s. Yonadam Kanna in particular was a target of the Saddam Hussein Ba'ath government for many years.
The al-Anfal campaign of 1986–1989 in Iraq was predominantly aimed at Kurds. However, 2,000 Assyrians were murdered through its gas campaigns; over 31 towns and villages and 25 Assyrian monasteries and churches were razed to the ground; a number of Assyrians were murdered; others were deported to large cities, and their land and homes then being appropriated by Arabs and Kurds.
Since the 2003 Iraq War social unrest and chaos have resulted in the unprovoked persecution of Assyrians in Iraq, mostly by Islamic extremists, (both Shia and Sunni), and to some degree by Kurdish nationalists. In places such as Dora, a neighborhood in southwestern Baghdad, the majority of its Assyrian population has either fled abroad or to northern Iraq, or has been murdered. Islamic resentment over the United States' occupation of Iraq, and incidents such as the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons and the Pope Benedict XVI Islam controversy, have resulted in Muslims attacking Assyrian communities. Since the start of the Iraq war, at least 46 churches and monasteries have been bombed.
In recent years, the Assyrians in northern Iraq and northeast Syria have become the target of extreme unprovoked Islamic terrorism. As a result, Assyrians have taken up arms, alongside other groups (such as the Kurds, Turcomans and Armenians) in response to unprovoked attacks by Al Qaeda, ISIS/ISIL, Nusra Front and other terrorist Islamic Fundamentalist groups. In 2014 Islamic terrorists of ISIS attacked Assyrian towns and villages in the Assyrian Homeland of northern Iraq, together with cities such as Mosul and Kirkuk which have large Assyrian populations. There have been reports of atrocities committed by ISIS terrorists since, including; beheadings, crucifixions, child murders, rape, forced conversions, Ethnic Cleansing, robbery, and extortion in the form of illegal taxes levied upon non Muslims. Assyrians in Iraq have responded by forming armed militias to defend their territories.
The "Dawronoye" modernization movement has a growing influence on Assyrian identity in the 21st century. It is particularly influential in Syria, where the Syriac Union Party (SUP) has become a major political actor in Jazira Canton of the Federation of Northern Syria - Rojava. In August 2016, the Ourhi Centre in the city of Qamishli was started by the Assyrian community, to educate teachers in order to make Syriac-Aramaic an optional language of instruction in public schools, which then started with the 2016/17 academic year. With that academic year, states the Rojava Education Committee, "three curriculums have replaced the old one, to include teaching in three languages: Kurdish, Arabic and Assyrian." Associated with the SUP is the Syriac Military Council, an Assyrian militia operating in Syria, established in January 2013 to protect and stand up for the national rights of Assyrians in Syria as well as working together with the other communities in Syria to change the current government of Bashar al-Assad. Since 2015 it is a component of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Assyrians are considered to be one of the indigenous people in the Middle East. Their original homeland was thought to be located in the area around the Tigris and Euphrates. Today, the indigenous Assyrian homeland areas are "part of today's northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran and northeastern Syria". There were also historic urban communities outside the bounds of the Assyrian homeland in the major cities of the countries they were in such as Aleppo, Baghdad, Antep, Urfa, Amida, and Istanbul.
Despite their homeland encompassing Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, sizable Assyrian populations only remain in Syria, where an estimated 400,000 Assyrians live, and in Iraq, where an estimated 300,000 Assyrians live. In Iran and Turkey only small populations remain, with only 20,000 Assyrians in Iran, and a small but growing Assyrian population in Turkey, where 25,000 Assyrians live.
In Tur Abdin, one of the two traditional areas of Assyrian settlement in Turkey, there are only 3,000 left, Down from 50,000 in the 1960 census, but up from 1,000 in 1992. This sharp decline is due to an intense conflict between Turkey and the PKK in the 1980s. However, There are an estimated 25,000 Assyrians in all of Turkey, with most living in Istanbul. The second traditionally Assyrian area was known as Hakkari, and it is located in what is the modern day Hakkari Province and Siirt Provinces of Turkey. However, Hakkaris Assyrian population was eliminated in the 1915 Assyrian genocide, and those who survived fled to other, unaffected areas of Assyrian settlement in Syria, Iran, and Iraq. However, some went to other neighbouring countries in and around the Caucasus and Middle East like Armenia, Georgia, southern Russia, Lebanon, Jordan, and others left the Middle East entirely and went to western countries, forming the modern day Assyrian Diaspora.
The Assyrian people are divided along geographic, linguistic, and denominational lines, with the three main groups being:
- The "Eastern" or "Nestorian" group, which historically inhabited the mountains of northern Iraq in the Nahla and Sapna valleys in Dohuk province, the Hakkari mountains of southeastern Turkey (now part of the Hakkari and Siirt Provinces), and the Urmia Plain of northwestern Iran in Urmia Province. The majority of Assyrians fall within this subgroup and they speak Assyrian Neo-Aramaic (Assyrian Church of the East and Ancient Church of the East);
- The "Western" or "Suryani" group, who live in northeastern Syria (Al-Hasakah Province) and southeastern Turkey (The Tur Abdin region). Some also live in the Nineveh Plains, where the Mar Mattai Monastery functions as an important center for Syriacs in Iraq. Western Assyrians speak Turoyo, a Western Aramaic language. (Syriac Orthodox Church and Syriac Catholic Church);
- The "Chaldean" or "Chaldean Catholic" group, which originate from northern Iraq (Nineveh Governorate and Dohuk Governorate), in addition to populations in Diyarbakir (where the church was first founded in the 1660s) and northwestern Iran. Chaldeans speak Chaldean Neo-Aramaic (Chaldean Catholic Church);
Due to their Christian faith and ethnicity, the Assyrians have been persecuted since their adoption of Christianity. During the reign of Yazdegerd I, Christians in Persia were viewed with suspicion as potential Roman subversives, resulting in persecutions while at the same time promoting Nestorian Christianity as a buffer between the Churches of Rome and Persia. Persecutions and attempts to impose Zoroastrianism continued during the reign of Yazdegerd II.
During the eras of Mongol rule under Genghis Khan and Timur, there was indiscriminate slaughter of tens of thousands of Assyrians and destruction of the Assyrian population of northwestern Iran and central and northern Iran.
More recent persecutions since the 19th century include the Massacres of Badr Khan, the Massacres of Diyarbakır (1895), the Adana massacre, the Assyrian genocide, the Simele Massacre, and the al-Anfal campaign.
Since the Assyrian Genocide, many Assyrians have left the Middle East entirely for a more safe and comfortable life in the countries of the Western world. As a result of this, the Assyrian population in the Middle East has decreased dramatically. As of today there are more Assyrians in the diaspora than in their homeland. The largest Assyrian diaspora communities are found in the United States (110,807–400,000), Jordan (100,000–150,000), Sweden (100,000), Germany (100,000), and in Australia (30,000).
By ethnic percentage, the largest Assyrian diaspora communities are located in Södertälje in Stockholm County, Sweden, and in Fairfield City in Sydney, Australia, where they are the leading ethnic group in the suburbs of Fairfield, Fairfield Heights and Greenfield Park. There is also a sizable Assyrian community in Melbourne, Australia (Broadmeadows, Meadow Heights and Craigieburn) In the United States, Assyrians are mostly found in Chicago (Niles and Skokie), Detroit (Sterling Heights, and West Bloomfield Township), Phoenix, Modesto (Stanislaus County) and Turlock.
Furthermore, small Assyrian communities are found in San Diego, Sacramento and Fresno in the United States, Toronto in Canada and also in London, UK (London Borough of Ealing). In Germany, pocket-sized Assyrian communities are scattered throughout Munich, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Berlin and Wiesbaden. In Paris, France, the commune of Sarcelles has a small number of Assyrians. Assyrians in the Netherlands mainly live in the east of the country, in the province of Overijssel. In Russia, small groups of Assyrians mostly reside in Krasnodar Kray and Moscow.
To note, the Assyrians residing in California and Russia tend to be from Iran, whilst those in Chicago and Sydney are predominantly Iraqi Assyrians. The Assyrians in Detroit are primarily Chaldean speakers, who also originate from Iraq. Assyrians in such European countries as Sweden and Germany would usually be Turoyo-speakers or Western Assyrians.
Identity and subdivisions
Assyrians of the Middle East and diaspora employ different terms for self-identification based on conflicting beliefs in the origin and identity of their respective communities. In certain areas of the Assyrian homeland, identity within a community depends on a person's village of origin (see List of Assyrian villages) or Christian denomination rather than their ethnic commonality, for instance Chaldean Catholics preferring to be called Chaldeans instead of Assyrians, or a Syriac Orthodox Christian preferring to be called a Syriac.
During the 19th century English archaeologist Austen Henry Layard believed that the Syriac Christian communities were descended from the ancient Assyrians, a view that was also shared by William Ainger Wigram. Today, Assyrians and other minority ethnic groups in the Middle East, feel pressure to identify as "Arabs", "Turks" and "Kurds".
In addition, Western Media often makes no mention of any ethnic identity of the Christian people of the region and simply call them Christians, Iraqi Christians, Iranian Christians, Syrian Christians, and Turkish Christians, a label rejected by Assyrians.
Below are terms commonly used by Assyrians to self-identify:
- Assyrian, named after the ancient Assyrian people, is advocated by followers from within all Middle Eastern based East and West Syrian Rite Churches as a catch all term. (see Syriac Christianity)
- Chaldean, named after the ancient Chaldean people, is advocated by some followers of the Chaldean Catholic Church
- Syriac, named after the Syriac language and as a corruption of "Syrian", can be found advocated by followers of the Western Rite Syriac Orthodox Church and Syriac Catholic Church.
- Aramean, also known as West Assyrian or Syriac-Aramean, named after the ancient Aramean people, is advocated by followers of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Syria and some followers of Syriac Catholic Church in Israel. Some scholars argue that the Aramean identity has become predominant amongst followers of West Syrian churches, and has been partially merged with the Syriac identification.
Assyrian vs. Syrian naming controversy
As early as the 8th century BC Luwian and Cilician subject rulers referred to their Assyrian overlords as Syrian, a western Indo-European bastardisation of the true term Assyrian. This corruption of the name took hold in the Hellenic lands to the west of the old Assyrian Empire, thus during Greek Seleucid rule from 323 BC the name Assyria was altered to Syria, and this term was also applied to Aramea to the west which had been an Assyrian colony. When the Seleucids lost control of Assyria to the Parthians they retained the corrupted term (Syria), applying it to ancient Aramea, while the Parthians called Assyria "Assuristan," a Parthian form of the original name. It is from this period that the Syrian vs Assyrian controversy arises. Today it is accepted by the majority of scholars that the Medieval, Renaissance and Victorian term Syriac when used to describe the indigenous Christians of Mesopotamia and its immediate surrounds in effect means Aramean.
The modern terminological problem goes back to colonial times, but it became more acute in 1946, when with the independence of Syria, the adjective Syrian referred to an independent state. The controversy isn't restricted to exonyms like English "Assyrian" vs. "Aramaean", but also applies to self-designation in Neo-Aramaic, the minority "Aramaean" faction endorses both Sūryāyē ܣܘܪܝܝܐ and Ārāmayē ܐܪܡܝܐ, while the majority "Assyrian" faction insists on Āṯūrāyē ܐܬܘܪܝܐ but also accepts Sūryāyē. However, an increasing number of scholars as well as "Syriacs" have begun to use Aramean to refer to this distinct ethnicity (as opposed to ethic Assyrians) since this is historically, culturally and linguistically a more accurate term.
The question of ethnic identity and self-designation is sometimes connected to the scholarly debate on the etymology of "Syria". The question has a long history of academic controversy, but majority mainstream opinion currently strongly favours that Syria is indeed ultimately derived from the Assyrian term Aššūrāyu. Meanwhile, some scholars has disclaimed the theory of Syrian being derived from Assyrian as "simply naive", and detracted its importance to the naming conflict.
Rudolf Macuch points out that the Eastern Neo-Aramaic press initially used the term "Syrian" (suryêta) and only much later, with the rise of nationalism, switched to "Assyrian" (atorêta). According to Tsereteli, however, a Georgian equivalent of "Assyrians" appears in ancient Georgian, Armenian and Russian documents. This correlates with the theory of the nations to the East of Mesopotamia knew the group as Assyrians, while to the West, beginning with Greek influence, the group was known as Syrians. Syria being a Greek corruption of Assyria.
The debate appears to have been settled by the discovery of the Çineköy inscription in favour of Syria being derived from Assyria.
The Çineköy inscription is a Hieroglyphic Luwian-Phoenician bilingual, uncovered from Çineköy, Adana Province, Turkey (ancient Cilicia), dating to the 8th century BC. Originally published by Tekoglu and Lemaire (2000), it was more recently the subject of a 2006 paper published in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, in which the author, Robert Rollinger, lends support to the age-old debate of the name "Syria" being derived from "Assyria" (see Etymology of Syria).
The object on which the inscription is found is a monument belonging to Urikki, vassal king of Hiyawa (i.e., Cilicia), dating to the eighth century BC. In this monumental inscription, Urikki made reference to the relationship between his kingdom and his Assyrian overlords. The Luwian inscription reads "Sura/i" whereas the Phoenician translation reads ’ŠR or "Ashur" which, according to Rollinger (2006), "settles the problem once and for all".
Assyrian culture is largely influenced by Christianity. Main festivals occur during religious holidays such as Easter and Christmas. There are also secular holidays such as Kha b-Nisan (vernal equinox).
People often greet and bid relatives farewell with a kiss on each cheek and by saying "ܫܠܡܐ ܥܠܝܟ" Shlama/Shlomo lokh, which means: "Peace be upon you" in Neo-Aramaic. Others are greeted with a handshake with the right hand only; according to Middle Eastern customs, the left hand is associated with evil. Similarly, shoes may not be left facing up, one may not have their feet facing anyone directly, whistling at night is thought to waken evil spirits, etc.
There are many Assyrian customs that are common in other Middle Eastern cultures. A parent will often place an eye pendant on their baby to prevent "an evil eye being cast upon it". Spitting on anyone or their belongings is seen as a grave insult.
The Neo-Aramaic languages are ultimately descended from Old Aramaic, the lingua franca in the later phase of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, displacing the East Semitic Assyrian dialect of Akkadian. Aramaic was the language of commerce, trade and communication and became the vernacular language of Assyria in classical antiquity. By the 1st century AD, Akkadian was extinct, although some loaned vocabulary still survives in Assyrian Neo-Aramaic to this day.
To the native speaker, "Syriac" is usually called Soureth or Suret. A wide variety of languages and dialects exist, including Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, Chaldean Neo-Aramaic, Western Neo-Aramaic and Turoyo. Minority dialects include Senaya and Bohtan Neo-Aramaic, which are both near extinction. All are classified as Neo-Aramaic languages and are written using Syriac script, a derivative of the ancient Aramaic script. Jewish varieties such as Lishanid Noshan, Lishán Didán and Lishana Deni, written in the Hebrew script, are spoken by Assyrian Jews.
There is a considerable amount of mutual intelligibility between Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, Chaldean Neo-Aramaic, Senaya, Lishana Deni and Bohtan Neo-Aramaic. Therefore, these "languages" would generally be considered to be dialects of Assyrian Neo-Aramaic rather than separate languages. The Jewish Aramaic languages of Lishan Didan and Lishanid Noshan share a partial intelligibility with these varieties. The mutual intelligibility between the aforementioned languages and Turoyo and Western Neo-Aramic is, depending on the dialect, limited to partial, and may be asymmetrical.
Assyrians also may speak one or more languages of their country of residence. Being stateless, Assyrians also learn the language or languages of their adopted country, usually Arabic, Armenian, Persian or Turkish. In northern Iraq and western Iran, Turkish and Kurdish are widely spoken. Also, due to their statelessness, Assyrians would have loanwords from the aforementioned languages.
Assyrians predominantly use the Syriac script, which is written from right to left. It has 22 consonants and 3 vowels. The vowel sounds are supplied either by the reader's memory or by optional diacritic marks. It is a cursive script where some, but not all, letters connect within a word. The Syriac script was used to write the Syriac language from the 1st century AD. It is one of the Semitic abjads directly descending from the Aramaic alphabet and shares similarities with the Phoenician, Hebrew and the Arabic alphabets. Furthermore, for practical reasons, Assyrian people would also use the Latin alphabet, especially in social media.
The oldest and classical form of the alphabet is the ʾEsṭrangēlā script. Although ʾEsṭrangēlā is no longer used as the main script for writing Syriac, it has received some revival since the 10th century, and it has been added to the Unicode Standard in September, 1999. The East Syriac dialect is usually written in the Maḏnḥāyā form of the alphabet, which is often translated as "contemporary", reflecting its use in writing modern Neo-Aramaic. The West Syriac dialect is usually written in the Serṭā form of the alphabet. Most of the letters are clearly derived from ʾEsṭrangēlā, but are simplified, flowing lines.
Assyrians belong to various Christian denominations such as the Assyrian Church of the East, with an estimated 400,000 members, the Chaldean Catholic Church, with about 900,000 members, and the Syriac Orthodox Church (ʿIdto Suryoyto Triṣaṯ Šuḇḥo), which has between 1,000,000 and 4,000,000 members around the world (only some of whom are Assyrians), the Ancient Church of the East with some 100,000 members, and various Protestant churches, such as the Assyrian Pentecostal Church with 25,000 adherents, and the Assyrian Evangelical Church. While Assyrians are predominantly Christians, a number are irreligious.
As of 2011 Mar Dinkha IV, resident in Chicago Illinois, was Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Mar Addai II, with headquarters in Baghdad, was Patriarch of the Ancient Church of the East, and Ignatius Zakka I Iwas was Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, with headquarters in Damascus. Mar Emmanuel III Delly, the Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, was the first Patriarch to be elevated to Cardinal, joining the college of cardinals in November 2007.
Many members of the following churches consider themselves Assyrian. Ethnic identities are often deeply intertwined with religion, a legacy of the Ottoman Millet system. The group is traditionally characterized as adhering to various churches of Syriac Christianity and speaking Neo-Aramaic languages. It is subdivided into:
- adherents of the Assyrian Church of the East and Ancient Church of the East following the East Syrian Rite also known as "Nestorians"
- adherents of the Syriac Orthodox Church following the West Syrian Rite also known as Jacobites
- adherents of the Syriac Catholic Church following the West Syrian Rite
For obvious reasons the Chaldean Catholics who follow the East Syrian Rite and were originally members of the historical Church of the East are not Nestorian in theology, a designation which the Church of the East itself denied.
A small minority of Assyrians of the above denominations accepted the Protestant Reformation in the 20th century, possibly due to British influences, and is now organized in the Assyrian Evangelical Church, the Assyrian Pentecostal Church and other Protestant Assyrian groups.
Baptism and First Communion are celebrated extensively, similar to a Bris or Bar Mitzvah in Jewish communities. After a death, a gathering is held three days after burial to celebrate the ascension to heaven of the dead person, as of Jesus; after seven days another gathering commemorates their death. A close family member wears only black clothes for forty days and nights, or sometimes a year, as a sign of mourning.
Some well known Assyrian singers in modern times are Ashur Bet Sargis, Sargon Gabriel, Habib Mousa, Josef Özer, Janan Sawa, Klodia Hanna, Juliana Jendo, and Linda George. Assyrian artists that traditionally sing in other languages include Melechesh, Timz and Aril Brikha.
The first International Aramaic Music Festival was held in Lebanon in August 2008 for Assyrian people internationally.
Assyrians have numerous traditional dances which are performed mostly for special occasions such as weddings. Assyrian dance is a blend of both ancient indigenous and general near eastern elements.
Assyrian festivals tend to be closely associated with their Christian faith, of which Easter is the most prominent of the celebrations. Members of the Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church and Syriac Catholic Church follow the Gregorian calendar and as a result celebrate Easter on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25 inclusively. However, members of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Ancient Church of the East celebrate Easter on a Sunday between April 4 and May 8 inclusively on the Gregorian calendar (March 22 and April 25 on the Julian calendar). During Lent, Assyrians are encouraged to fast for 50 days from meat and any other foods which are animal based.
Assyrians celebrate a number of festivals unique to their culture and traditions as well as religious ones:
- Kha b-Nisan ܚܕ ܒܢܝܣܢ, the Assyrian New Year, traditionally on April 1, though usually celebrated on January 1. Assyrians usually wear traditional costumes and hold social events including parades and parties, dancing, and listening to poets telling the story of creation.
- Sauma d-Ba'utha ܒܥܘܬܐ ܕܢܝܢܘܝܐ, the Nineveh fast, is a three-day period of fasting and prayer.
- Somikka, All Saints Day, is celebrated to motivate children to fast during Lent through use of frightening costumes
- Kalu d'Sulaqa, feast of the Bride of the Ascension, celebrates Assyrian resistance to the invasion of Assyria by Tamerlane
- Nusardyl, commemorating the baptism of the Assyrians of Urmia by St. Thomas.
- Sharra d'Mart Maryam, usually on August 15, a festival and feast celebrating St. Mary with games, food, and celebration.
- Other Sharras (special festivals) include: Sharra d'Mart Shmuni, Sharra d'Mar Shimon Bar-Sabbaye, Sharra d'Mar Mari, and Shara d'Mar Zaia, Mar Bishu, Mar Sawa, Mar Sliwa, and Mar Odisho
- Yoma d'Sah'deh (Day of Martyrs), commemorating the thousands massacred in the Simele Massacre and the hundreds of thousands massacred in the Assyrian Genocide.
Assyrians also practice unique marriage ceremonies. The rituals performed during weddings are derived from many different elements from the past 3,000 years. An Assyrian wedding traditionally lasted a week. Today, weddings in the Assyrian homeland usually last 2–3 days; in the Assyrian diaspora they last 1–2 days.
Assyrian clothing varies from village to village. Clothing is usually blue, red, green, yellow, and purple; these colors are also used as embroidery on a white piece of clothing. Decoration is lavish in Assyrian costumes, and sometimes involves jewellery. The conical hats of traditional Assyrian dress have changed little over millennia from those worn in ancient Mesopotamia, and until the 19th and early 20th centuries the ancient Mesopotamian tradition of braiding or platting of hair, beards and moustaches was still commonplace.
Assyrian cuisine is similar to other Middle Eastern cuisines. It is rich in grain, meat, potato, cheese, bread and tomato. Typically, rice is served with every meal, with a stew poured over it. Tea is a popular drink, and there are several dishes of desserts, snacks, and beverages. Alcoholic drinks such as wine and wheat beer are organically produced and drank.
Late 20th century DNA analysis conducted by Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi and Alberto Piazza, "shows that Assyrians have a distinct genetic profile that distinguishes their population from any other population." Genetic analysis of the Assyrians of Persia demonstrated that they were "closed" with little "intermixture" with the Muslim Persian population and that an individual Assyrian's genetic makeup is relatively close to that of the Assyrian population as a whole. "The genetic data are compatible with historical data that religion played a major role in maintaining the Assyrian population's separate identity during the Christian era".
In a 2006 study of the Y chromosome DNA of six regional Armenian populations, including, for comparison, Assyrians and Syrians, researchers found that, "the Semitic populations (Assyrians and Syrians) are very distinct from each other according to both [comparative] axes. This difference supported also by other methods of comparison points out the weak genetic affinity between the two populations with different historical destinies."
A 2008 study on the genetics of "old ethnic groups in Mesopotamia," including 340 subjects from seven ethnic communities ("Assyrian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Armenian, Turkmen, the Arab peoples in Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait") found that Assyrians were homogeneous with respect to all other ethnic groups sampled in the study, regardless of religious affiliation.
Assyrians are related to Iraqis, and also to Jordanians, yet due to religious endogamy have a distinct genetic profile that distinguishes their population. "The Assyrians are a fairly homogeneous group of people, believed to originate from the land of old Assyria in northern Iraq [..] they are Christians and are bona fide descendants of their namesakes." A number of northwest and central Iraqis who today speak Arabic are originally of Assyrian roots.
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