John Joseph

The Modern Assyrians of The Middle East

Encounters with western Christian missions,

Archeologists & colonial powers








John Joseph





 Just over a hundred years ago the Anglican missionaries Arthur J Maclean and William H Browne wrote in their well-informed book "The Catholicos of the East and His People" (1892). They subtitled it "Some account of the customs of the Eastern Syrian Christians, otherwise variously known as Assyrians, Chaldeans or Nestorians". East Syrians was the name used in Europe & America to distinguish these Aramaic-speaking christians from the "West Syrians", more commonly known today as Syriac Orthodox ("Jacobites"). East referred to the pre-islamic Parthian and Sassanian empires of Persia, includning their territories in Mesopotamia. The use of these terms--Nestorians, Chaldeans, Syrians/Syriacs, Arameans, and Assyrians--in reference to the same Christian minority, depending on the users preferred term, has continued to cause confusion. We will briefly survey the history of these various appelations, with emphasis on the most recent of them: Assyrians. Because of the nationalism that has flown from the adoption of that historic name, we shall conclude this chapter with a commentary on the relationship that "the modern Assyrians" claim exists between them and the ancients by that name.



Of the original Christian churches and rites of Western Asia, the "Nestorian" Church, formally known as the Church of The East (and as The Assyrian Church of the East since 1976), was one of the only two churches--the other being the Armenian Orthodox Church--to grow outside the Roman Empire.[1] When the Nestorians of the Ottoman Empire and Qajar Iran became an important focus of attention of the Western Protestant missions in the 19th century, some writers took the position that the use of the name Nestorian in reference to these Christians went back only to the 17th century when a considerable number of them reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church and were organized by it into a seperate body.[2] Those who remained loyal to their own mother church, we are told, were dubbed Nestorians. To the community, of course, was referred to as Nestorian long before the 17th century.[3] Cosmas Indicopleustes spoke of "Nestorian" Christians as early as 525.[4] To the medieval Arab authors, they were known as Nasturiyun or al-Nasara al-Nasturiyah (Nestorian Christians).[5] Toward the end of the 13th century the traveler Burchard referred to the Nestorians as constituting a "nation"; it was his impression  that the jurisdiction of their prelate "reached much farther in the East than that of the entire Western Church".[6] Writing in the mid-19th century--when these Christians were yet to be called Assyrians-- George P Badger noted that he had in his possetion an Arabic manuscript written by a Sleewa ibn Yuhanan of Mosul, dated A.D. 1332, in which the author explained that the Eastern Christians were called Nestorians because they refused to excommunicate and anathematize Nestorius at the request of Mar Qurillos (Cyril) of Alexandria (d.444). "And this name", wrote Ibn Yuhanan, "has been applied to us from that day up to the present".[7]In time, these Eastern Christians began to refer to themselves as Nestorians. Mar 'Abd Yeshu' (Mar Odisho) (Servant of Jesus), the Nestorian bishop of Nisibin in the 13th century, drew up a symbol of faith which he entitled "The Orthodox Creed of the Nestorians", and concluded the work with the statement that it was written in "the church of the blessed Nestorians"[8] The community continued to refer to itself as Nestorian through the 19th century. When in 1874 the Evangelical or Protestant section of the community was formally recognized as an organization separate from the mother church, it was referred to as the Reformed Nestorian Church.[9] Some of the more educated members of the community began to resent the appellation toward the end of the 19th century when the Western missionaries, especially those of the Church of England, made them conscious of the stigma and reproach of "heresy" that the term Nestorian was originally intended to convey.[10] The Church was formally known as "The Old Church of the East".[11]

[1] For a recent collection of scholarly articles on the early history of these two churches see East of Byzantium: Syria and Armenia in Formative Periods, edited by Nina G Garsoian, Thomas F Mathews and Robert W Thomson. Washington D.C. (Dumbarton Oaks, Center for Byzantine Studies), 1982. For the early beginnings of the East Syrian Church, see also below, pp. 35 ff.

[2] William F Ainsworth, Travels and Researches in Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Chaldea and Armenia. (London, 1842), II, 272; Horatio Southgate, Narrative of a Tour through Armenia, Kurdistan, Persia and Mesopotamia (London ,1840), II, 178-179; Austin Henry Layard, Nineveh and its Remains (New York, 1851), I, 217. For details on the 17th century schism, see below, pp. 55-58.

[3] Leonhart Rauwolff, Itinerary into the Eastern Countries, as Syria, Palestine, or the Holy Land, Armenia, Mespotamia, Assyria and Chaldea, etc., trans. Nicholas Staphorst (London, 1693), pp. 22, 350-351. (Rauwolff's travels took place in 1573-1574.) Pedro Teixeira, who visited Baghdad in 1604, found 80 houses of "Nestorians" and ten of "Armenians." The Travels of Pedro Teixeira translated and annotated by William F Sinclair.(London, 1902), pp. 66, 168, 252; see also Rafa'il Babu Ishak, Ta'rikh Nasara al-'Iraq mundh Intishar a-Nasraniyah fi al-Aqtar al-'Iraqiyah ila Ayyamina (Baghdad, 1948), p. 124.

[4] See John Stewart, Nestorian Missionary Enterprise (Madras, 1928), pp. 89, 114, 328.

[5] al-Biruni, al Athar al-Baqiyah 'an al-Qurun al-Khaliyah, ed. E Sachau (Leipzig, 1878), pp. 288, 309; al-Shahrastani, Kitab al-Milal wa al-Nihal, ed W Cureton (London 1846), p. 175; Ibn Hazm, al-Fisal fi al-Milal wa al-Ahwa wa al-Nihal , (Cairo, 1928), I, 48. In modern times the term al-Nasatira is used in Arabic source.

[6] Burchard of Mount Sion, A Description of the Holy Land, trans. Aubrey Steward (London, 1896), p. 107, (in Palestine Pilgrims Text Society Library, Vol XII, Pt. 1). See also Abbe Carre , The Travels of Abbe Carre in India and the Near East, 1672-1674 (London, 1947), 1, 87.

[7] George P Badger, The Nestorians and their Rituals (London, 1852), I, 127-129, For the theology of Nestorius, and its condemnation, see below, pp. 40-41.

[8] Ibid., 49.

[9] Badger notes that the Patriarch Mar Awraham Shamun told him that all the Christians "Only we are Nestoraye." J. F. Coakley quotes a letter written in 1888 by Mar Ishaq (Matran) Khnanishu saying "We, Eastern Nestorians..." J.F. Coakley, The Church of the East and the Church of England , (Oxford, 1992), pp. 141, 365 n. 8.

[10] John L. Mosheim, An Ecclasiastical History, Ancient and Modern. (New York, 1867), I,  151; Arthur J. Maclean and William H Brown, The Catholicos of the East and His People (London, 1892), p. 6; Coakley, under "Nestorian doctrine" in his index. See also below, pp.  40f.

[11] The preferred usage since 1976 has been The Assyrian Church of the East. While the hierarchy of the Church has followed the laity in choosing a "national" name, there has been a clash over this subject of names in the West Syrian (Jacobite or Syriac Orthodox) Church; the "national" and historical name preferred by the hierarchy is Aramean while a minority among the laity opt for Assyrian. For details, see chapter by Wolfhart Heinrichs entitled "The Modern Assyrians--name and nation," in Festschrift Philologica Constantino Tsereteli Dicta, ed. Silvio Zaorani (Turin, 1993), pp. 103, 111-12. See also below, pp. 9-10; 32n.113.



The usage and origin of the name Chaldean has also been the subject of much acrimonious debate. While this term is generally accepted today as referring to the Roman Catholic off-shot of the Nestorian Church, it has in the past been used as a national name in reference to both branches. 19th century European writers, in order to distinguish between the two churches, have referred to them as Nestorian Chaldeans and Catholic Chaldeans.[12] In 1840, Ainsworth one of the first few non-catholic Europeans to visit the Nestorians, reported that these people considered themselves Chaldeans and "descendants of the ancient Chaldeans of Assyria, Mesopotamia and Babylonia". In order to distinguish between the two branches  of the Church, explained Ainsworth, the term Nestorian was invented in 1681 for those who retained their ancient faith.[13] Austin Henry Layard, who unearthed the ruins of Nineveh during the first half of the 19th century,[14] like Ainsworth, believed that the term Nestorian was coined during the 17th-century schism, noting that the people had always referred to themselves as Chaldean.[15] Layard reported that in the chapel of Rabban Hormizd, where the Nestorian patriarchs once resided, there were tombs of several patriarchs buried there long before the schishm; the title carved upon their monuments, he wrote, was "Patriarchs of the Chaldeans of The East",[16] Layard, however, is contradicted by Badger who claimed to have examined "all the epitaphs" with care and could not discover any phraseology to confirm Layard.[17] According to Badger the title inscribed on all the tombs was "Patriarchs and Occupants of the Throne of Addai and Mari,"[18] a title by which some Nestorian patriarchs had at times designated themselves. Repruductions of these early epitaphs confirm Bagder's criticism of Layard, but do not support Badger's own reading of the inscriptions.[19] The American missionaries Eli Smith and H.G.O. Dwight, [20] who visited the Nestorians a decade before Layard and Ainsworth, reported that the congregation that converted to Roman Catholicism from the Nestorian Church was dignified by the name "the Chaldean Church" during the 17th-century schism. Two other American missionaries Justin Perkins and Asahel Grant, both of whom, again, visited the community prior to Ainsworth and Layard, made the same observation. The term Chaldean, wrote Grant, is seldom applied to the Nestorians; in no case does it seem to be applied to them prior to the period of the split. Horatio Southgate, who was touring the region in the early 1830s, wrote that the Nestorians "call themselves, as they seem always to have done" Chaldeans; indeed, "Chaldean" was their "national name," he stressed. Interestingly, after Southgate became aware that it was Grant's firm position that the Nestorians did not use the name Chaldean in reference to themselves, and that the were the descendants of The Lost Tribes (10 lost tribes of Israel) of the Old Testament, he (Southgate) became more self-assertive. He wrote that "undoubtedly" these Syrians were "descendants of the Assyrians and not of the Jews." His source "Those of them who profess to have any idea concerning their origin". According to that same source the "Jacobites" were the descendants of the Arameans--"The Syrians whose chief city was Damascus."[21] Smith and Dwight were in error when they asserted that "Chaldean" was the nomenclature adopted in the 17th-century. In the late 17th-century, French Biblical critics Richard Simon spoke of many Christian sects in the East "who bear the name Chaldean or Syrian" and mentioned that most of the Chaldeans "are those whom we call Nestorians" [22] Pope Paul V (1605-1621) wrote to patriarch Elias (Mar Elia) that "A great part of the East is infected by this heresy [Nestorianism], especially the Chaldeans, who for this reason have been called Nestorians."[23] As far back as 1445 the Nestorians of the See of Cyprus were called Chaldeans upon their reconciliation with The Church of Rome.[24]

Why were the Nestorians called Chaldeans? One of the earliest authors who refers to the them as "children of the ancient Chaldeans" is Ibn al-'Ibri (Mar Gregorios Yuhanan  Bar 'Ewraya, Barhebreus, also known as Gregory Abu al-Faraj), the renowned 13th-century catholicos of the rival West Syrian/Syriac Orthodox (Jacobite) Church. But, as we shall soon see, he used the term in a derogatory manner. Yosef Assemani, the scholar most probably responsible for the propagation of the term Chaldean, had explained simply, and rightly, that "the Nestorians are generally called Chaldaic Christians, because their principal, or head church, is in ancient Chaldea."[25]When the Roman Catholic branch of the Nestorian Church was established in the 17th-century, its new primate was styled the "Patriarch of Babylon" (Pateryarkha d-Bab/wel), another old and dignified title that the Nestorian patriarchs had used when they flourished at Seleucia-Ctesiphon (Siloq w-Qtispun) before the advent of Islam.[26] The new catholic patriarch was also referred to as The Patriarch of the Chaldeans of the East, clearly indicating a confusion of geografical and ethnic terms. Some scholars have even suggested that the use of Babylon in the title of the Uniat patriarch is due to the erroneous 17th century identification of modern Baghdad with ancient Babylon.[27] Be that as it may, it was because of the geographical location of their patriarchate, and not beacause of their ethnic origin, that the East Syrians/Syriacs (Nestorians) were called Chaldeans. The various names by which they were known, and they titles bestowed by the Roman Catholic Church upon their patriarchs, had such other exotic combinations as "Chaldeans of Assyria" and "Eastern Chaldeans of Catholic Assyria" nomenclatures that were "hardly ever used" by the Nestorian patriarchs or their people themselves. They employed such familiar and traditional titles as "Patriarch of the Orient," "Servant of the Seat of Mar Addai"; in the 17th century, according to Fiey, Mar Shimun VIII Dinkha referred to himself in a letter addressed to Pope Clement X, simply as "Servant of the Patriarchal Seat which is in the East."[28] As for Bar 'Ewraya's reference to the Nestorians as "descendants of the Chaldeans,"[29] a careful reading shows that he used the term to be facetious. He spoke of the Aramaic language as split into various dialects, some of quite unintelligible, such as the dialect of those "wonderful Easterners", "children of the ancient Chaldeans", in whose tongue "there is no difference between Ptakha/Ftoho and Zqapa/Zqofo" [Vocalization marks]. [30] By Chaldean Bar 'Ewraya meant "magicians" and "sorcerers" in the same sense as used in Daniel (2:2, 10). Indeed, in one of his better-known books, Bar 'Ewraya defines "Kaldayutha/Kaldoyutho"--Chaldeeism-- as "astrology and the art of magic".[31] Another reason for calling the Nestorians "Chaldeans" is that their mother tongue, a dialect of Aramaic, was identified with the so called Chaldee language. Hormuzd Rassam wrote that "the present Chaldeans [members of both the Nestorian Church and it Catholic off-shot], with few exceptions, speak the same dialect used in the Targums, and in some parts of Ezra and Daniel, which are called Chaldee."[32] To bolster his theory that the Nestorians were the descendants of the ancient Chaldeans, Rassam drew up on classical historical sources and asserted that Xenophon had called the inhabitants of northern Mesopotamia "Chaldeans". By "Chaldeans" Xenophon meant the inhabitants of Urartu (the ancient Assyrian/Akkadian name of the mount Ararat which belongs to modern Armenia), who are also known as Haldians, Khaldians, and Chaldeans (after the Urartean god Haldu,)Interestingly, when Xenophon and his ten thousand passed through Assyria just over two-hundred years after the fall of the Assyrian Empire, he found the region sparsely populated and identified the sites of Nimrud and Nineveh as ruined Median cities and referred to their former inhabitants as Medes.[33] "Chaldean" therefore, like "Nestorian" was used long before the 17th century schism and was used in reference to all the East Syrians/Syriacs because of the geographical location of their "head church". In the 17th century, the Roman Catholic Church  abstained from calling the members of the Uniat branch by the "heretical" name Nestorian; the Uniats became Catholic Chaldeans. When the terms Chaldeans and Nestorians were thus strictly differentiated, members of the mother church (Nestorian), claiming the same relationship to the inhabitants of Babylon as their Catholic brethren, began also to use the name Chaldean. Nestorian patriarchs occasionally used "Chaldean" in formal documents, claiming to be the "real Patriarchs" of the whole "Chaldean Church", even though the Uniat branch did not accept the Nestorians claims as lawful. But while the Nestorians wanted to deny the Uniats exclusive right to the historic name Chaldean, the term never became attached to them (the Nestorians), From the 19th century on, when the present-day Uniat branch was permanently organized and officially recognized by the Ottoman government, [34] we find the term Chaldean losing its "national" connotation and coming to mean only the name of a religious denomination, the Catholic Chaldeans, formerly Nestorians.

[12] Claudius J Rich, Narrative of a Residence in Koordistan and on the Site of Ancient Nineveh (London, 1836), II, 276; I, 275n. See also Jean B Piolet, Missions catholiques francaises au XIX siecle (Paris, 1901), I, 223; Ainsworth, II, 198, 223; Mary Sheil, Glimpses of Life and Manner in Persia (London, 1856), p, 349; Joseph Wolff, Travels and Adventures of the Rev. Joseph Wolff (London, 1861), pp. 223, 457.

[13] Ainsworth, II, 272.

[14] For details on these excavations, see pp. 15-16 below.

[15] Layard, Nineveh, I, 5, 217.

[16] Ibid, I, 199.

[17] Badger, I, 181.

[18] Ibid.

[19] For reproductions of the epitaphs in question, see Kurkis Hanna 'Awwad, Athar Qadim fi al-'Iraq -- Dayr al-Rabban Hurmizd (Mosul, 1934), pp 35, 37, and Jacques Voste, "Les Inscriptions de- Rabban Hormuzd et de N-D des Semences pres d-Alqos (Iraq)," Le museon, 43 (1930), pp. 263-316. The pre-19th century titles inscribes are simply "Catholicos Patriarch of the East," or "Patriarch of The East," and occasionally, simply "Catholicos." Badger had seen "The impression of a [patriarchal] seal" bearing the title "Patriarch and Occupant of the Throne of Addai and Mari," but reproductions of the epitaphs do not bear him out. For the revision of this note the author is indebted to Dr. H.L. Murre-van den Berg, who brought the extensive Voste article on these inscriptions to his attention.  For more information on the Nestorian patriarchal titles see below, pp. 22-23, and Thomas of Marga, The book of Governors, ed. and tr. E.A.W. Budge (London, 1893), I, clxxi, and letter from the Nestorian patriarch sent to Mr. Perkins in 1836, literally translated and printed in The Missionary Herald, 33 (1857), 55, and ibid., 36 (1840), 305; the title used is simply "Patriarch of the East" (Pateriarkha d-madenkha).

[20] For other references to Smith and Dwight, see below, pp. 65, 67.

[21] Horatio Southgate, Narrative of a Tour through Armenia, Kurdistan, Persia and Mesopotamia, 2 vols. (New York, 1840), vol 2, pp. 182-183. Cf Coakley , op. cit., p. 367 n12, Heinrichs , op. cit., p. 110, n. 20. See also Asahel Grant, The Nestorians or The Lost Tribes, (London, 1841), pp. 198-199; Justin Perkins, A Residence of Eight years in Persia among the Nestorian Christians (New York, 1943), p. 4. For more on Grant and his thesis on Nestorian origins, see below , p. 37.

[22] Richard Simon, Histoire critique de la creance et des coutumes des nations du levant (Frankford, Holland, 1684), p. 83.

[23] Joseph S Assemani, Bibliotheca orientalis, iv (Rome, 1721), 75.

[24] One of the ruined churches of Famagusta in Cyprus continued to be known as the Nestorian Church. See Camille Enlart. L'Art gothique et la renaissance en Chypre (Paris, 1899), pp. 356-365.

[25] Assemani , III, ii, 177.

[26] See Sunhadus, ix, 1.

[27] J. Labourt, "Chaldean Christians," The Catholic Encyclopedia; H Dressler "Baghdad,"  The New Catholic Encyclopedia. See also Donald Attwater, Catholic Eastern Churches (London, 1935), p. 231n; Butrus Nasri "Lam'ah fi al-Abrashiyat al-Kaldaniyah wa-Silsilat Asaqifatuha," al-Mashriq, 9 (1906), 640; Badger, I, 153.

[28] For the profusion of patriarchal titles granted by the Roman Catholic Church, see J-M Fiey. "'Assyriens' or Arameens?", L'Orient syrien, 10 (1965), pp. 146-148 and his more recent, posthumously published article, "Comment l'Occident en vint a parler de 'Chaldeen?" in Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 78 (Autumn, 1996), pp.163-170. See also Layard, Nineveh, I, 199 ; Samuel Giamil, Ktawa d-Mat'aninwati d-'idta d-kaldayi 'am kursya shlikhaya d-Rumi (Rome, 1902), p. 208.

[29] Hormuzd Rassam, "Biblical Nationalities Past and Present", Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archeology, 8 (1885), 373; Butrus Nasri and Addi Saliba Ibrahina, "Ta'ifat al-kaldan al-Kathulik," al-Mashriq, 3 (1900), 818.

[30] Ibn al-'Ibri, M'alta L'Grammatiqi (Jerusalem, 1916), pp.vii-viii, manuscript in the library of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Bishopric of Beirut.

[31] Ibn al-'Ibri, The Chronography of Gregory Abu'l Faraj, trans. E.Q Wallis Budge (London, 1932), 1, 7; se also ibid., pp. 9, 52. For the meaning of Chaldean, see Ya'qub Augin Manna, Margi Pighyanayi d-Marduta d-Aramayi (Mosul, 1901), pp. 4f. Ibn al-'Ibri obviously was not aware of the ancient Chaldeans achievements in astronomy. As early as the 7th century B.C, the study of astronomy in Babylon had begun to conform to present reckoning; lunar year had 365 days, regulated into 12 months, alternating between 29 and 30 days. See Bernard Grun, The timetables of History (New York, 1975), p. 11. For the various usages of the term Chaldean, including its reference to a priestly class, see F. Rochberg-Halton, "New evidence for the History of Astrology," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 43 (1984), 115-16.

[32] For more on the relationship between the ancient Chaldeans and Arameans and their languages, see below, p. 12.

[33] See Xenophon's Anabasis, II, iv to III, v and passim. Throughout his celebrated memoir, Xenophon designates the name of Assyria as Media. See Eduard Meyer, "Media," in Encyclopedia Britannica (11th ed.). See also David Oates, Studies in the Ancient History of Northern Iraq.London (Oxford, 1968), p. 60; M. Rostovtzeff, A History of the Ancient World (Oxford, 1925), I, 117; J. Friedrich, Extinct Languages (New York, 1957), p. 81; A.T.E. Olmstead, History of Assyria (New York, 1923), pp. 100-111; H.R. Hall, The Ancient History of the Near East (London, 1947), pp. 458-459.

[34] See below, pp. 57-58.



Syrians/Syriacs (Suraye/Suroye/Suryaye/Suryoye, Suryani) Arameans

Throughout the 19th century the Nestorians were also referred to as Syrians by European travelers and writers. Indeed, "Syrians" (Suraye, Suroye) was the name by which the "Nestorians" and "Jacobites" called themselves until the post-World War I period; thereafter, Suraye was gradually replaced among the "Nestorians" by Aturaye, the name of the ancient Assyrians in Syriac. The "Jacobites" continue to call themselves Suroye/Suryoye.[35]

The designations Syria and Syrian were derived from Greek usage long before Christianity.[36] When the Greeks became better acquainted with the Near East, especially after Alexander the Great overthrew the Achaemenian empire in the 4th century B.C., they restricted the name Syria to the lands west of the Euphrates. During the 3rd century B.C., when the Hebrew Bible was translated by Jewish scholars into the Greek Septuagint for the use of the Hellenized Jews of Alexandria, the terms "Aramean" and "Aramaic" in the  Hebrew Bible, were translated into "Syrian" and "the Syrian (Syriac) tongue" respectively.[37] In Palestine itself, according to Theodor Nöldeke, the Jews and later the Christians there, referred to their dialect of Aramaic as Syriac; in Babylon, both Greek and Persians called the Arameans Syrians.[38] The 2nd century B.C. Greek historian Posidonius, a native of Syria, noted that "the people we [Greeks] call Syrians were called by the Syrians themselves Arameans...for the people in Syria are the Arameans."[39]

From their humble beginnings as wandering tribesmen, the Arameans emerged by the end of the second millennium B.C. as an important factor in the cultural, political and economic life of southwestern Asia. During this early period, Wayne T. Pitard refers to the Arameans as "one of the most important ethnic groups of the Near East." Aramean tribes attained great power in the large areas on both sides of the Syrian desert, eventually succeeding in settling and establishing ruling dynasties there. The most important Aramean kingdom was that of Aram, centered in Damaskus, described as "the strongest and most influential powers in the western fertile crescent," and one of the "most significant states in the whole of the Levant." [40] The kingdom enjoyed a central position in the political life of the Near East, dominating the region's main international trade routes; it used the Aramaic idiom of Damascus as the administrative language of diplomacy and commerce beyond its borders.

While the most important territories penetrated by the Arameans were in geographical Syria, we find them also in distant regions, stretching from Tur 'Abdin to Nisibin, which during the Christian era, centuries later, would be the homegrounds of some of the Syrian Christians noted in this chapter.[41] By the end of the 10th century B.C. and the beginnings of the 9th, Assyrian inscriptions for the first time informs us of Aramean political units in northern Mesopotamia, while in the southern parts of that country their confederacies remained a chronic menace to the Assyrians until their very downfall. The Assyrian king, Tighlath-pileser I (Tukulti-Apil-Esharra I) (1115-1076 B.C) has recorded that he conducted 28 campaigns against the Arameans; his namesake, Tiglath-Pileser III (Tukulti-Apil-Esharra, Bible old testament Pul), some 350 years later, was still engaging Arameans in war. It was in the 9th and the 8th centuries B.C. when the Arameans were defeated ; in 720 B.C. Sargon II (Sharrukin II) finally brought to an end the Aramean kingdoms of the west; their territories were incorporated into the Neo-Assyrian provincial system, a century and a decade before Assyria itself was overthrown.

The expansion of Assyrian rule over the lands beyond the Euphrates, however, became a major burden to the Assyrians and proved to be a suicidal act. They subdued all the Aramean, Phoenician/Canaanite, and Hebrew communities in what Arnold Toynbee calls "the homeland of Syriac Civilization," but this hastened the Aramean "cultural conquest of their military conquerors," proceeding "pari passu with the extension of the Assyrian domination over the Syriac World."[42] Even before its western expansion beyond the Euphrates river, the Assyrian empire had found it necessary to use an Aramaic dialect of geographical Syria as its official language, a move dictated by the wide expanse of Aramaic and the convenience of its alphabet and script. With a much larger Aramean population now under its rule, far removed from Assyria homebase, the smaller ethnically-Assyrian population could not resist aramaization, a process that gradually transformed the face of the empire, "leading to the Assyrians being outlived and absorbed."[43] Before too long, Aramaic had displaced Akkadian even as the language of everyday speech within Assyria itself. According to Assyriologist H.W.F. Saggs, the cities of Assyria proper had become so cosmopolitan and polyglot, that people of actual Assyrian descent were possibly a minority within those cities.[44] The dominance of Aramaic over Akkadian in both speech and writing was so extensive in the 8th century B.C, that Aramaic script--not Aramaic language-- came to be called in Egyptian (Demotic), Greek and Hebrew languages as "Assyrian writing" (Greek: Assyria Grammata).[45] The momentous but imperceptible changes that led to the aramaization of the Assyrians coincided with steady decline of their empire, especially after the death of King Ashurbanipal. His weak successors could not cope with the "festering problem of Babylonia," where the rising power of the Chaldeans and their Aramean allies helped build up the Neo-Babylonian empire.[46] With Assyrian political and military power gone, Aramean ethnicity, language and script remained and continued to expand, facilitating the absorption process farther, peacefully penetrating "the Babylonic body social." The high point of Aramaic was reached under Achaemenids (539-332 B.C), when the influence of Aramaic language and script went beyond their former boundaries. Aramaic now attained official status in all Achaemenian territories, including Egypt and Anatolia.[47] Under the Iranians/Persians[48] Aramaic was also used for all aspects of written communication and records, emerging by about the sixth century B.C. as the lingua franca of Western Asia, and by the beginning of the fifth century, as the common dialect of all peoples of the region. In his article "Aramaic in the Achaemenian Empire," Jonas C. Greenfield speaks of "ethnic groups of varied cultural backgrounds throughout the vast expanse of the Persian realm" who used Aramaic language and writing.[49] Unlike the Assyrians, the Persians did not forget their own mothertongue; they maintained their national-linguistic identity, largely because their own Aramaic-speaking subjects did not predominate from within Persia as they did in the core region of Assyria, later known as Beth Aramaye--home of the Arameans. (With the advent of Islam, centuries after the Achaemenids, Sasanian Persians were also able to resist arabization; they liberally borrowed from the Arabic vocabulary and adopted the Arabic script, but they were able to Persianize what they have borrowed. In the case of the Assyrians and other ethnicities aramaization was total just as the absorption of the various other peoples would be, centuries later, through arabization.) Hebrew University Professor Benjamin Mazar, cited above, writes that an impressive phenomenon in the history of the Arameans is their tradition of unity and distinctiveness, which remained unimpaired even in the period of decline.

One of the casualties of Alexander the Great's destruction of the Achaemenian empire was the Aramaic koine. The universal Imperial Aramaic tongue was "deliberately replaced," writes Arnold J Toynbee, by the Greek koine, a dialect of ancient Greek. From the third century B.C., Greek became the language of learning, diplomacy and commerce; it expanded especially rapidly along the Mediterranean coast in Phoenician and Philistine cities, and then to the lands beyond. Aramaic survived in the countryside but the old standard language broke up into local dialects. Some of these local vernaculars continued to play major roles, developing different and separate alphabets such as Edessan (Syriac), Mandaic, Palmyrene, Hatran, Nabatean, Jewish and Samaritan etc.[50] The future of Aramaic now lay with the dialects of Eastern Aramaic of Mesopotamia and Babylonia, as influenced by the local dialects of the non-Aramaic languages there. The monuments of the major Eastern Aramaic dialects of Mesopotamia and Babylon were the Jewish Babylonian Talmud, the scriptures of the Mandean religion, and Christian literature in Edessan Aramaic/Syriac.[51]

The Aramaic dialects of Mesopotamia and Babylonia that survived the introduction of the Greek koine, and even revived after the Christian era, had not been used as literary languages during the Assyrian and Achaemenian times. According to Stephen A. Kaufman, the historical core of the Official Aramaic adopted by the Assyrians and Persians was located geographically and typologically somewhere between Gozan/Tell Halef and Aleppo/Halab. Syriac (Suryoyo/Suryaya), the major Eastern dialect with which we are concerned was the Aramaic dialect of Edessa/Urhay/Urhoy (today Urfa in Turkey); it gradually became the new unofficial koine for all of the various Christian sects. Even before the Christian period the Edessan dialect had become the literary language in and around Edessa, but it attained special prominence there in the 2nd century A.D, when it gradually became the literary language of what Theodor Nöldeke called "Aramean Christendom." Its importance increased with the expansion of Christianity in Mesopotamia from the beginning of the 3rd century on. As the language into which the Bible was translated, it became the venerable language of the Aramaic-speaking Christians of Mesopotamia and Persia--then both unde0r Parthian rule. As the language of the Church and its liturgy, Syriac also became the language of the literature and correspondence, the way Quranic Arabic--a dialect of Mecca--became the "classical" language of Arabic literature and written communication from the 7th century on.

The Aramaic-speaking inhabitants continued to use their varied local dialects for everyday speech alongside classical Syriac.[52] According to Stephen A Kaufman, one finds no traces of the Assyrianized Aramaic in these lesser, local dialects that might have been there at one time; they were eliminated, he explains, by shifting population groups and possibly by the early demise of the Assyrian Empire.[53] Under Islam, the local Aramaic dialects were gradually displaced even as spoken languages, paving the way for the islamization and arabization of the vast majority of the Aramaic-speaking population. Members of the various Christian churches discussed in this chapter are the majority of those who to this day speak a dialect of Aramaic.[54]

[35] An encyclical presented to the faithful in 1981 by their patriarch, Ignatius Zakka Iwas, covered, among other matters "the issue of the true name" of the Church. That name, the encyclical confirmed, is the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch ('idto suryoyto ortodoxoyto d-Antiokhia), and its language is known as the Syriac language; (leshono suryoyo), and its people by the Syrian (Syriac) people ('amo suryoyo). Any other name "is not only alien and foreign, but also a distortion, falsification and forgery of the historical truth". For the text in the Encyclical in the Arabic language, see Al-Majallah al-Batriyarkiyah (1981), pp.386-389. The author is greatful to Dr George Anton Kiraz for providing him with a copy of that article as well as its translation as it appears on the Internet, where the document is maintained by the Editorial Board of the Syriac Orthodox Resources, last updated on December 14, 1997.

[36] It is important to remember that the Greco-Roman period of Middle Eastern history lasted almost exactly one thousand years; known as the Hellenistic Period, it was brought up to an end by the Arab conquest of the seventh century A.D.

[37] The Authorized Version of the Bible continued to use the same terms that the Septuagint had adopted. In 1970, the New English Bible, published by Oxford and Cambridge University presses, and translated by biblical scholars drawn from the various British universities, went back to the original Hebrew terms, using Aram and Arameans for Syria and Syrians respectively.

[38] See T. Nöldeke, "Semitic Languages", in Encyclopedia Britannica,11th ed., p. 625; Nöldeke also notes that it is "properly speaking, incorrect to employ the word 'Syriac' as meaning the language of Edessa alone" even though Edessan Aramaic has the best claim to it.

[39] See J.G. Kidd, Posidonius (Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries, 1988), vol. 2, pt. 2, pp. 955-956. Consult also Arthur J Maclean, "Syrian Christians," Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics; Frederic Macler "Syrians (or Arameans)" in ibid., where the two terms are "taken for granted" to have been originally synonymous. Consult also Sebastian P Brock, "Eusebius and Syriac Christianity," in Harold W. Attridge and Gohei Hata, eds., Eusebius, Christianity and Judaism (Leiden, 1992), p 226. See also T. Nöldeke, "Assyrios, Syrios, Syros," in Hermes, 1871, p. 461 and W. Heinrichs, pp103-105.

[40] See Benjamin Mazar, "Aramean empire and its relations with Israel," Biblical Archeologist, 25 (December, 1962), 101-102, 112-117. For more on the Arameans, see also Wayne T. Pitard, Ancient Damascus: A Historical Study of the Syrian City-State (Winona Lake, Indiana, 1987); Abraham Malamat, The Arameans in Aram Naharaim and the Rise of Their States (Jerusalem, 1952), Emil Kraeling, Aram and Israel or, Arameans in Syria and Mesopotamia (Columbia University Oriental Studies: No 13, reprint ed.)         

[41] Glenn M Schwartz, "The origins of the Arameans in Syria and northern Mesopotamia: Research problems and potential strategies," in To the Euphrates and Beyond, archeological studies in honor of Mauritis N. von Loon, ed. O.M.C. Haex, et al. (Rotterdam, 1989), pp. 277-279. For a map showing the widespread Aramean migrations of the 11th century B.C., see H.W.F. Saggs, The Might That Was Assyria, (London, 1984), p. 67.

[42] See Toynbee, History (1954), vol. viii, pp. 440-441 and vol. xii (1961), p 393. Consult also Richard N Frye, The Heritage of Persia (Mentor Book edition, 1966 printing), pp. 80-81; "Assyrian political expansion" writes Frye, was accompanied by "the Aramean ethnic expansion."

[43] Consult Hayim Tadmor's chapter "The Aramaization of Assyria: Aspects of Western Impact," in H.J. Nissen and J. Renger. eds., Mesopotamien und Seine Nachbarn, (Berlin, 1987), vol. 2, p. 459. See also Saggs, loc. cit., pp 125 seq.

[44] See also below, pp. 27-29.

[45] See Joseph Naveh and Jonas C. Greenfield, "Hebrew and Aramaic in the Persian Period," in Cambridge History of Judaism (1984), v. 1, pp. 126-127. Richard C. Steiner's research points to Egyptians as the first who called Aramaic writing "Assyrian script." The Greek Assyria Grammata (script of Assyria) and Samaritan Hebrew Ktav Ashuri are derived from the Egyptian Demotic, directly in the case of Greek, indirectly in the case of Samaritan Hebrew. Steiner speaks of the Egyptians as being "Far enough away and insular enough not to feel to distinguish Aram from Assyria". Consult his article, "Why the Aramaic script was called 'Assyrian' in Hebrew, Greek and Demotic," in Orientalia (Rome: Pontificium institutum biblicum), 62 (1993), pp 80-82.

[46] Saggs, The Might That Was Assyria, pp. 89, 95, 99; Frye, Heritageof Persia, pp. 80 seq.

[47] Toynbee (1954), vol. viii, pp. 440-442. See also J.C. Greenfield, "Aramaic in the Achaemenian Empire," in The Cambridge History of Iran, v. 2, p. 709.

[48] The terms Iran and Iranians will be used interchangeably with Persia and Persians.

[49] Loc. cit. See also Roux, op. cit. (1992 ed.), pp. 276, 411-412.

[50] Toynbee, xii (1961), pp. 442-443, citing A. Dupont Sommer's Les arameens (Paris, 1949), pp. 98-102. See also Joseph A. Fitzmyer, A Wandering Aramean (Ann Arbor, 1979), p. 71, where he notes that of the various forms of Aramaic, the closest to old Official Aramaic seems to be that represented in Palestine.

[51] See also Raymond A Bowman, "Arameans, Aramaic and the Bible," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 7 (April, 1948), pp. 84-87. For studies on the various divisions and phases of Aramaic, see Fitzmyer, ibid, pp. 57-84; Franz Rozenthal, Die Aramäistsche Forschung, op. cit. and his article "Aramaic Studies the Past Thirty Years," in Journal of Near Eastern Studies , 37 (1978), 81-91. The only remains of the Western Aramaic dialect still spoken on the soil of geographical Syria are those used in Ma'lula, and the nearby villages of Bakh'a and Jubb' Adin. See Murre-van den Berg, op. cit., p. 3.           

[52] Fore more on the revival of Syriac during the Hellenistic and Islamic period, see below, pp. 50ff.

[53] See Stephen A. Kaufman, The Akkadian Influences on Aramaic (Chicago: The University of Chicago, Assyriological Studies, No. 19, (1974), pp. 160, 164-165 and p. 165 n. 105. See also idem., "Reflections on the Assyrian-Aramaic Bilingual from Tell Fakheriyeh," Maarav, 3/2 (1982), 152. 

[54] For details on the present state of these dialects, see Zomaya S. Solomon, "The State of Spoken Aramaic Today," in Proceedings, Ninth World Congress of Jewish Studies (1986), pp. 23-30.


It was in 1843 when the French Consular agent at Mosul, Paul Emile Botta, began his diggings at Khorsabad, about 12 miles north of Mosul, and uncovered the ruins of the magnificent palace of Sargon II, King of Assyria (722-705 B.C.). That same year the British excavation, under Austin Henry Layard, discovered the majestic palace of Shalmanasar I (ca. 884-860 B.C.) with its winged bulls, followed later by that of Ashurbanipal (668-ca. 626 B.C.), with his libraries vast collection of cuneiform tablets. These and other splendid collections, would soon adorn the museums of London, Paris, and Berlin and, most important of all, a lost chapter in history of civilization would be retrieved.

Before too long, in one of the greatest triumphs of human ingenuity, the cuneiform writing impressed on clay tablets or chiseled in stone, was deciphered. Assyrians texts, in Akkadian language, were soon read with the same certainty as Hebrew and Syriac. In 1860, the great corpus The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia was published by Sir Edward Rawlinson, with the help of Edwin Norris and George Smith; about 1835, Rawlinson had deciphered the Persian portion of the trilingual inscription of Behistun.[55]

What especially fascinated the Christian West by these archeological excavations was that a few of these Assyrian monuments, starting with the reign of King Shalmaneser, dealt at some length with the history of the same events that were narrated in the Bible. Most of the kings of Israel and Judah from Jehu onward were mentioned in the annals of the Assyrian kings. one of the two most dramatic finds was the Black Obelisk, excavated by Layard at Nimrud. in 1846 and now one of the most popular treasures of the British Museum in London. The obelisk, a four sided, 6 ½ -foot-high stela, carved with five registers of relief sculptures, displays 190 lines of text. There King Shalmanasar III describes 31 of his military campaigns, including his forays in Asia Minor, Media, Babylonia , and the Persian Gulf. One of the registers portrays the Israelite King Jehu, or one of his emissaries, paying tribute to Shalmaneser, a rare reference to a Biblical king in a contemporary extra-biblical source.[56]

The Bible-reading public was well familiar with these Assyrian names and events; they had been part of British and American cultural consciousness, wrote Assyriologist H.W.F. Saggs. The history of the ancient Hebrew kingdoms of Israel and Judah, noted Saggs, "was a living thing, as generally known as British history"[57] To the Jews and the Western Christians of the 19th century, the most important thing about the newly-discovered tablets and monuments was that they had proven the Hebrew Bible to be right. The general public in England began to view the Assyrian sources as a weapon to be used primarily against Biblical "Higher Criticism" as then applied to the Old Testament.[58]  

[55] The Ashurbanipal palace library's 22, 000 clay tablets cover subjects in history, medicine, astronomy, astrology and recorded information on the movement of the planets and signs of the zodiac. For the fascinating story of these early excavations and their translation, C. Wade Meade, Road to Babylon, Development of U.S. Assyriology (Leiden, 1974). After World War II the excavations at Nimrud were re-opened (1949) by Max Mallowan on behalf of the British School of Archeology  in Iraq. The team worked there until 1963, under direction of David Oates. Since 1963 several teams have excavated at Nimrud, including an expedition from the British Museum in 1989. For a summary article see John Curtis, "Nimrud, Ancient and Modern," The Illustrated London News, 280 (Summer, 1992), 75-77. 

[56] For biblical references to Jehu, see 2K 9:14, 10:4. An article in a recent issue of the journal Biblical Archeology Review, entitled "Did King Jehu kill His Own Family?", attempts to reconcile the Biblical text with that of the Black Obelisk. The Assyriologist author remarks that modern Biblical scholarship generally concludes that Assyrian information is reliable within certain parameters. The Hebrew Bible, writes Tammi Schneider, "does not refute the Assyrian information, it does not simply mention it." 21 (January-February 1995), 26-33, 80-82.

[57] Saggs, The Might That Was Assyria, pp. 290, 305-6, and his booklet, published by the University of Wales Press in 1969 entitled Assyriology and the Study of the Old Testament--an inaugural lecture delivered at University College, Cardiff.

[58] D.J. Wiseman, The Expansion of Assyrian Studies, (London, 1962), p. 11. If some cuneiform tablets corroborated parts of the historical books of the Bible, others seemed to challenge their originality. In the 1870s George Smith stirred England with the announcement of his discovery of a tablet containing a parallel to the legend of the deluge in Genesis. Other tablets he deciphered contained, he reported, accounts of the origin of the world, the creation of animals and man, and the fall of man from a sinless state. Such documents fueled Biblical criticism adding to the secular challenges to revealed religion that 18th and 19th century discoveries in geology, anthropology and biology had already produced. The Assyrian documents, it was argued, now proved that the ancient Hebrews, like other peoples, had simply added to what they had borrowed from much older neighboring cultures; that it was Christian bias which placed Israel/Palestine at center stage. See George Smith , The Chaldean Account of Genesis (New York, 1876), p. 17. See also Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and Others (Oxford, 1989), pp. 7 seq., and H.W.F. Saggs, The Encounter with the Divine in Mesopotamia and Israel. London, 1978. Consult also Darwin's Origin of the Species, published in 1859 when the excitement of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian excavations was reaching its peak. For a delightful account of these challenges, read Naomi Shepherd, The Zealous Intruders, The Western Rediscovery of Palestine (London, 1987); see also, Emil G. Kraeling, The Old Testament since the Reformation, (New York, 1955) pp. 91 seq.; S. J. Barrows, "Assyriology and the Bible," Unitarian Review and Religious Magazine, 12 (1879), seq. 46, and George Sarton, History of Science (Baltimore, 1927-1949), vol 1, p 246.

Nestorians and Chaldeans Proclaimed Remains of Nineveh and Assyria 

 When the Assyrian excavations revealed the remains of Nineveh to the wondering eyes of the world, the Nestorians and their "Chaldean" brethren in the environs of the ancient Assyrian capital an beyond attracted special attention. The hero of these excavations, Austin Henry Layard, hastened to proclaim these historic, linguistic, and religious minorities to be "as much the remains of Nineveh, and Assyria, as the rude heaps and ruined palaces."[59] In the midst of this excitement , J.P. Fletcher wrote that "the Chaldeans and the Nestorians" are "the only surviving human memorial of Assyria and Babylonia."[60]

While the name Chaldeans was already, as we have seen, appropriated by those Nestorians who had embraced Roman Catholicism, the illustrious twin name "Assyrians" was eventually adopted by the Nestorians as a name for themselves. Interestingly, Layard and Hormuzd Rassam continued to use the older and more familiar name Chaldean and applied it to both the Chaldean Catholics and "Nestorians."[61] Coakley notes a dispute that Rassam had with Arthur J Maclean of the Anglican mission in Qochanis in 1889 over the names "Syrians" and "Assyrians"--"why should we invent a name when we have such a very convenient one, used for centuries, at our hand?" it was understandable, he agreed, that someone living so close to the ruins if Nineveh, "should have a fit of enthusiasm of Old Assyria," but "is it common sense to cast aside the name used by the people themselves [Suraye] and to invent another for them of very doubtful applicability?" Rassam's position was that "Syrian" was wrong; the correct form was "Assyrian," but preferred, "Chaldean."[62] Layard always referred to the Nestorians as "Chaldeans" or as "Nestorian Chaldeans" in order to distinguish them from those united with Rome.[63] Only a few years prior to the Assyrian excavations, as already noted, one of the bishops of Urmiyah had emphasized that the Nestorians were as Chaldean as any Catholic renegates.[64]

Prior to World War I, the Anglican mission to the Nestorians gave the Assyrian nomenclature a new impetus. Formally known as "The Archbishop of Canterbury's Assyrian Mission," it re-enforced, no matter how unintentionally, the linkage between the Nestorians and the ancient Assyrians.[65] "Assyrian Christians" which originally had only meant "the Christians of geographical Assyria," soon became "Christian Assyrians."[66] By the late 19th century, a few of the educated and politically conscious among the "Nestorians," especially those who had immigrated to America, began using Aturaye [Assyrians] in their writings.[67] The assumption that the Nestorians were the descendants of the ancient Assyrians found a great advocate in the Anglican missionary William Ainger Wigram, who in his post-World War I books, The Assyrians and their Neighbors and Our Smallest Ally, popularized the name Assyrian and familiarized the world with the tragedy that had befallen these "descendants of Shalmaneser."[68] During the interlude of the two world wars the world heard a great deal about these modern Assyrians through newspapers and from the forum of the League of Nations, a subject covered at length below. In their own language [Sureth], the people gradually began, vocally, to call themselves "Aturaye" (Assyrians) during the inter-war years, until then it was as natural for them to speak of themselves as Suraye as it still is for the Syriac Orthodox to call themselves by that name, Suroye/Suryoye....

Because the "Nestorians" had always called themselves Syrians (Suraye), strenuous efforts were made by the more educated to prove that Suraye (Syrians) was simply a truncated form of Ashuraye (Assyrians in Akkadian) and that the two terms were synonymous. The initial A of "Assyrian," it was explained, was "lost" (tliqta in Syriac--it had dropped out); The lost "A" was now retrieved but placed under cancellation mark, meaning that it was originally there but was not pronounced. Thus Suraya was written "[A]Suraya", which pronounced "Ashuraya", also means Assyrian. (of the two names which mean "Assyrian"--Aturaya [from Aramaic] and Ashuraya [from Hebrew and Akkadian]--it is the former, Aturaya, that is commonly used by the people. The Iraqi government, oddly, in its effort to deny the minority an ancient Assyrian ancestry, refers to these Christians as "Athuriyn" but never "Ashuriyn". The members of the minority resent this usage and prefer to be referred to as "Ashuriyn," the form they themselves do not use.)

Wolfhart P. Heinrichs rightly calls the lost-A hypothesis very ingenious, facilitating the claim of the nationalists, but points out that in the Armenian language, the names for Syrian and Assyrian, although similar sounding, both have always retained and pronounced the initial A: Asoric/Asori for Syria/Syrian and Asorestan/Asorestantc'i for Assyria/Assyrian.[69] Moreover, even if "Syrian" were derived from "Assyrian," it does not mean that the people and culture of geographical Syria are identical to those of geographical Assyria.[70]

Prior to the lost-A hypothesis, the learned Mar Tuma Odu wrote (in his book Simta d-Lishana Suryaya), that the Greeks had changed Atur (meaning Assyria in Aramaic) to Asur which gradually became "Sur" and eventually "Suriya/Syria". While this hypothesis sounds plausible, it should be remembered that even in classical Syriac, "Syrian" and "Assyrian" are always differentiated by two distinct terms: "Suryaya" for Syrian and "Aturaya" for Assyrian. In Greek, the name Assyria is a translation of the Hebrew (and Akkadian) Ashur, which in the Old Testament connotes only geographical Assyria, without its conquered territories; the biblical name for geographical Syria is Aram, while Athur is the Aramaic name for geographical Assyria.[71]

Herodotus is often erroneously cited by the nationalists as having equated "Assyria" with "Syria," referring to his statement that the people whom Greeks call Syrians are called Assyrians by others. Herodotus himself, however, always differentiated between the two terms. Randolph Helm's researches show that Herodotus "conscientiously" and "consistently" distinguished the terms Syria and Assyria and used them independently of each other. To Herodotus, writes, Helm, "Syrians" were "the inhabitants of the coastal Levant, including North Syria, Phoenicia, and Philistia"; he never [emphasis Helm's] uses the name "Syria" to apply to Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia is always called 'Assyria'....[and its] inhabitants 'Assyrians'.[72] Some have argued that the physiognomies of the ancient Assyrians and the present-day Nestorians closely resemble eachother. Before Wigram advocated his hypothesis that the Nestorians are "Assyrian by blood,"[73] Fletcher had observed that those who have studied with care the sculptural representations of the ancient Assyrians and compared them with the moderns inhabitants of the plain of Nineveh, can hardly fail to trace the strong features of affinity which exists between the robed monarchs and priests of the early days and the Christian peasants of [the plain of Mosul]."[74] Before Fletcher, Asahel Grant did not find it difficult to write that the Nestorians were the descendants of the "Lost Tribes of Israel"; he noted that "the physiognomy of the Nestorians Christians bears a close resemblance to that of the Jews of the country in which they dwell."[75] Adducing as peculiar to the ancient Assyrians and the present-day Nestorians features, customs and practices which are shared by a great number of other Nears Easterners, Wigram, or Grant, are indeed trying to prove too much. A number of the peoples of the region resemble both the Jews and the Nestorians in their physiognomy, and not all the Nestorians share the same physical features, as both Fletcher and Wigram have themselves observed.

Yet another "proof" that the Aramaic-speaking Christians are the descendants of the ancient Assyrians argues that the language of the two peoples is the same. Layard wrote that the Nestorians spoke "the language of their [Assyrian] ancestors,"[76] an opinion expressed by Layard's Aramaic-speaking assistant, Hormuzd Rassam: that the ancient Assyrians "Always spoke the Aramaic language" and they "still do." We have just seen that the ancient Assyrians did not always speak Aramaic; their mothertongue was Akkadian, the language of the famed cuneiform tablets and monuments that Rassam himself helped excavate.[77]   

[59] Layard, Nineveh, I, 5. 

[60] J.P. Fletcher, Notes from Nineveh and Travels in Mesopotamia, Assyria and Syria (Philadelphia, 1850), p. 188. Fletcher was Badgers lay companion sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to begin work among the Nestorians in 1842.

[61] See above, pp. 3ff.    

[62] The correspondence between Rassam and Maclean was carried on through on of the administrators of the Anglican mission in England, for details see Coakley The Church of the East and the Church of England, pp. 147-148.

[63] See his Nineveh and Its Remains passim.

[64] See above, p. 8.

[65] Isabella L. Bishop, Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan. (London, 1891), II, 237. See also Aubrey R. Vine, The Nestorian Churches (London, 1937), pp. 179-180. Cf. Coakley, p. 366 n. 12.

[66] An appeal by Archbishop Tait published in 1870, was entitled "Appeal on behalf of the Christians of Assyria, commonly called the Nestorians." and "From that moment 'Assyrian' replaced 'Nestorian" in formal Anglican vocabulary," writes Coakley, the historian of that mission. Op. cit. p. 65. See also Rufus Anderson, History of the Missions of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in the Oriental Churches (Boston, 1872), ii, 83, where he points out that in 1840, the American missionaries used the designation "Assyria Mission" in reference to their apostolic work among the Christian sects in Mosul.

[67] Daniel P. Wolk's recent research shows that even the Urmiyah Christians in America, in their own language, continued until after World War I to refer to themselves as Suryaye. In his reading of some of their major publications from 1907 to 1920, Wolk found that the first ethno-nationalist organization established in Urmiyah, Khuyada--Unity--was a Suryeta organization. Chicago's newspaper Mashkhiddana Suryaya-- Suryaya Herald--first published in 1915--changed to Mahskhiddana Aturaya only in 1920, when the nationalist discourse had come to age; the title in English was Assyrian, American Herald, most probably  because "Syrian" in the United States stood for the more numerous Arab Christians from geographical Syria. See Wolk's "The Emergence of Assyrian ethnonationalism: The Discourse Against the Hachoqage ('Thieves of the Cross')," paper presented at the Middle East Studies Association Conference (MESA), Chicago, December 6, 1998. For the growth of Assyrian nationalism, quickened during the war years, an the presence of an Assyrian American delegation at the Peace Conference in Paris, see below, pp. 156-157.

[68] Maclean and Browne, p. 6. See also Coakley,. 147, where he quotes Maclean saying "there is really as far as I know no proof that they ['the Syrian Christians'] had any connection with the Old Assyrians. One of the few Anglicans who did use the term Assyrian was Archbishop of Canterbury Benson," but that is a fad of His Grace, as no one else does," wrote one of the missionaries quoted by Coakley. See also Fiey (1965), pp. 149-151.

[69] Heinrichs, pp 106-7, where he calls the hypothesis "simply naive." Armenian name Asori referred to the people of geographical Syria, the Arameans wherever they were found. The writer is grateful to the late Dr. Avedis K. Sanjian, Narekatsi Professor of Armenian Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, for confirming my reading of these terms in his letter dated October 10, 1994. Cosult also Norayr de Byzance, Dictionnaire francaisarmenien (Constantinople, 1884) under "Assyrien," "Syrien" and "Syriaque"; S. Mulkhasyantch, Armenian Etymological Dictionary (Erivan, 1944), I 236; G Avadikian, K. Surmelian and M. Avkerian, Dictionary of Armenian Language (in Armenian) (Venice, 1836), I, 314. See also, M. Falla Castlefranchi, "Armenia," Encyclopedia of the Early Church, v. 1, p. 79; Frederick C. Conybeare, "Armenian Language and Literature," in eleventh edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. In late 16th century, Sharaf Khan al-Bidlisi referred to the Nestorians as "Christian infidels called Ashuri" a borrowing from the Armenian. See also al-Bidlisi's Sharafnameh (in Farsi/Persian) (Cairo, n.d.), pp. 130-132.

[70] Heinrichs, pp. 102-103, 104., n. 9. Well known Semitic scholars are of the opinion that "Syrian" and "Assyrian" are of completely different origins even though it remains for the future historians to prove the correctness of the theory. See Rosenthal's Die aramäistische Forschung seit. Th. Nöldeke's Veröffentlichungen (Leiden, 1939), p. 3, n. 1.

[71] This confusion of terms was highteaned in an article entitled "Assyria and Syria: Synonyms," by Richard N Frye; it appears in the Journal of the Nears Eastern Studies, v. 51. n. 4 (October, 1992), 281-285. This article was reprinted in the Journal of the Assyrian Academic Studies, followed by a critique by this writer entitled "Assyria and Syria: Synonyms?" See JAAS, v. 11 n. 2 (1997), pp. 30-34. Fore more on Mar Tuma Odu and his position on this subject, see Heinrichs, p. 103.

[72] See Helm's "Herodotus Histories VII.63 and the Geographical Connotations of the Toponym 'Assyria' in the Achaemenid Period" (paper presented at the 190th meeting of the American Oriental Society, at San Francisco, April 1980). See also his "Greeks' in the Neo-Assyrian Levant and 'Assyria' in Early Greek Writers" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1980), pp. 27-41; see also Herodotus' Histories, I.105 and II.106. The late Arnold J. Toynbee, has also clarified that the Syrioi "are the people whom Herodotus includes in his 5th Taxation District" which includes "the whole of Phoenicia and the so-called Philistine, Syria together with Cyprus." The Syrioi, emphasizes Toynbee, are "not  the people of an 'Assyria' which contains Babylon and which is the 9th district of his list." A Study of History (1954), vol. vii, p. 654, n. 1. See also George Rawlinson, The History of Herodotus, ed. Manuel Konroff (New York, 1956), bk. ii, p. 115. Cf. Odisho, The Sound System of Modern Assyrian, op. cit., pp. 8-9.

[73] W. A. Wigram, The Assyrians and their Neighbors (London, 1929), p. 167.

[74] Fletcher, op. cit., p. 188.

[75] Grant, Nestorians, p. 223. In his review of Grant's book, Semitic scholar Edward Robinson made a strong argument against Grant's hypothesis in American Biblical Repository, 6 (1841), 454-482. 7 (1842), 26-68. See also Ainsworth, II, 256-271. Consult also Encyclopedia Judaica under Israel Joseph Benjamin (also known as Benjamin II), where, independent of Grant and only a few years after him, Benjamin II wrote of an ancient popular tradition that among the Nestorians there were families of Jewish origin. A.J. Maclean has noted that many Jews in Eastern Turkey and Persia have a vernacular closely akin to the spoken Aramaic dialect of the Nestorians. Speaking of the population of the Jilu district of Hakkari, he wrote that the people there "are very different in appearance and character from most of the other Syrians, being of a more Jewish cast." See his Grammar, op. cit. p. xiii. In his monumental history of the Jews in Babylonia, Jacob Neusner writes that he is "much impressed by Asahel Grant's argument in favor of the northern Israeli (Adiabenian) origin of the Nestorians." See v. 3, pp. 15-31, 339n. For a study of the Jews in Grant's day in Kurdistan, see W.J. Fischel, "The Jews of Kurdistan, a Hundred Years Ago, a traveller's record," Jewish Social Studies (1944), 195-226. For details on Jewish origin of Syriac Christianity in general, see below, pp. 36-38.

[76] Nineveh, I, 203.

[77] See Rassam "Biblical Nationalities," pp. 178, 371. For details on the aramaization of the Assyrians, see pp. 11-12, 27-29.

        The Bible Kept Memory of Assyrians Alive

Thank to the Old Testament, the names Assyria and Assyrian were well known for centuries, long before the archeological excavations of the 19th century. In the works of the early Eastern Christian writers, notes Fiey, we find all the gamut of references to these ancients, employing indifferently the words Syrians, Athurians [Assyrians], Chaldeans, and Babylonians, but these writers never identified with these ancients. "I have made my indices of my Christian Assyria," emphasized Fiey. "and have had to align some 50 pages of proper names of people; there is not a single writer who has an 'Assyrian' name."[78] In early modern times, as noted above, the Roman Catholic Church added to the confusion by coining a number of names for the various Christian communities of the East and their patriarchs; these Roman Catholic titles and names, however, tried to identify the geographical location of the churches and patriarchates of the region and not the ethnic origin of the people involved.[79] In the 18th century Assemani used "Assyrian" in reference to the Nestorians but with no implication that they were the descendants of the Assyrians. Assemani, according to Fiey, found a certain Assyrian descendance in all the peoples in the region: Jacobite, Nestorian, Sabaeans, Yezidis, and a great deal among the Kurds.[80] Also in the 18th century, the British historian Edward Gibbon, aware of this confusion of names, wrote that the Nestorians, "under the name of Chaldeans or Assyrians are confounded with the most learned or most powerful nation of Eastern antiquity."[81]

Until the 19th century A.D., the only common folk who had some knowledge of the ancient Assyrian--their history, empire, names of some of their kings, etc.--where the Jews, and through them the Christians. These were the only people who religiously read the Bible or listened to its stories and histories being read or narrated. For over 2000 years, the Jewish people had been reading or hearing about the Assyrians before the Assyrian cuneiform tablets were discovered and deciphered in the 19th century A.D. Assyrian monuments of stone and clay lay buried under the dust and debris of two millenniums, written in a language long forgotten before they were deciphered during the 1850s.[82]  Biblical texts during those same long centuries, were carefully copied on parchment, leather or papyrus, and reverently transmitted by hand from one generation to the next, their stories read or listened to throughout those ages. The Christians, too, were for centuries tuned to the biblical accounts--for over a thousand years before the Assyrian cuneiform documents were rediscovered.[83]

Because of the centrality of the subject in Jewish history, the Bible dwelt at some length on Assyrian and Babylonian kings, religion, geography and history. The destruction of Israel by Assyria, and of Judah by Babylon, had resulted in a national trauma for the Jews. Jewish history, fatally entangled with that of the imperial powers of Mesopotamia, was mourned and reflected upon in the various prophetic works; it was always remembered, keeping at same time, the memory of ancient Assyria alive.[84]

It is important to bear in mind that throughout the centuries, the cultural and religious life of the people who embraced Christianity, in both the West and the East, was reshaped by the Bible's prayers, proverbs, lamentations, and poetry. Biblical stories, histories, and legend's became favorite folktales, the source of their folklore and myths for centuries to come. The Hebrew Bible that the Christians inherited gave them not only a sacred book but also a vision of the past and of its peoples; it provided them with a new and distinct identity.[85] In time the only past that these Christians knew came from the Old Testament--what Fergus Millar calls "the historical inheritance of the Bible."[86]

[78] See his "'Assyriens' ou 'Arameens'?", p. 146.

[79] Ibid. See also Coakley, The Church of The East, pp. 65-66.

[80] See Fiey (1965), p. 148, n. 33, where the expression in French is "beaucoup parmi les Kurdes."  See also Assemani, III, ii, 177.

[81] Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. J.B. Bury (London, 1898), v. 150.

[82] See above, pp. 15ff.

[83] For the text of the Book of Isaiah--a major Biblical source on the ancient Assyrians--"preserved complete" in many Syriac manuscripts from the 5th century A.D. on--see Isaiah, Part III, fascicule 1 of The Old Testament According to the Peshitta Version, ed. by the Peshitta Institute of Leiden, prepared by Sebastian Brock (Leiden 1987), pp. viii, x, xi, xiii, xx, xxii. See also "Text History and Text Division in Peshitta Isaiah," in P.B. Dirksen and N.J. Mulder, The Peshitta: Its Early Text and History, (Leiden, 1988). The books of the Peshitta Old Testament were translated at different times by Jews for Aramaic-speaking Jews of Mesopotamia; they were adopted as their own by the early Aramaic-speaking Christians, many of them formerly Jews. The origins of the various components of the Peshitta Old Testament, writes Sebastian Brock "remain extremely obscure" (1992, p. 225). See also Han J.W. Drijvers "Early Syriac Christianity: Some Recent Publications," in Vigilae Christianae, 50, no. 2 (1996), 174.

[84] The historical books of the Hebrew Bible recorded the danger to Israel that emanated from Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt. The imperial expansion of the two Mesopotamian empires westward toward Palestine and Egypt had naturally attracted the attention of the prophets. Assyrian power and cultural influence were at their height in the time of the prophet Isaiah, the prophet who showed the keenest interest in the affairs of the Assyrians. The various chapters of the book of Isaiah deal with a number of crises and alliances in the region, including negotiations in 727 between Assyria and Egypt, the Assyrian suppression of a Babylonian rebellion in 731-729, and the Assyrian King Sargon's new anti-Egyptian policy. Consult John R Bartlett, The Bible Faith and Evidence, a critical enquiry into the nature of biblical history (London, 1990), pp. 61, 103,-6, 115; Saggs (1969), p. 1. See also Is. 5:26-30.

[85] See also below, pp. 35ff.

[86] Rome and the East 31 B.C - A.D. 337 (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 2227, 487-88. See also his article, "Empire, Community and Culture in the Roman Near East: Greeks, Syrians, Jews and Arabs," Journal of Jewish Studies, 38 (1987), 143-164.  

Jesus and the Ancient Assyrians

While the Assyrians are associated in the Old Testament with war and violence, they are also remembered there as a special people. one of the books of the Old Testament, albeit a brief one, is wholly devoted to the Assyrians: the story of Jonah, one of the great favorites of the Bible. God bids Jonah, read, to a journey on a special mission to the capital of the Assyrians, Nineveh. Through the mouth of Jonah, God warned the Assyrians that should they not give up their wicked ways, "in forty days Nineveh will be overthrown." The Ninevites "took heart this warning from God; they declared a public fast, and high and low alike put on sackcloth." God then "relented and did not inflict on them the punishment he had threatened."[87]

During the Christian period, over seven hundred years after the fall of Nineveh and of the Assyrian empire, the story of Jonah became on of the great favorites of the church fathers, its theme being the divine pardon for repentant sinners--that God's universal love and mercy extend to all men, even to the Assyrians. Jesus, a Jew well familiar with the Hebrew Bible, referred to the ancient story; He used the Assyrians of Nineveh as a model for the Jews of his day, whom he reproached for their unwillingness to repent. "The men of Nineveh," Jesus told his listeners, "will appear in court when this generation [of Jews] is on trial, and ensure its condemnation, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and what is here is greater than Jonah."[88] Because of these New Testament references, the story of Jonah and its universal message had a special meaning for the Christians and are referred to through the patristic literature. To Christians everywhere, the Assyrians of Nineveh became a model during the Lenten penance. The Roman Catholic Church reads the third chapter of Jonah on Wednesday of the first week of Lent. In the Greek Orthodox liturgy, the entire book of Jonah is read during Lent, while Anglicans and Lutherans read portions of it. During the afternoon service on Yom Kippur, the Jews read the book of Jonah because of its emphasis on God's forgiveness after genuine repentance.[89]

The Eastern Christians, whether Armenians, Copts, Ethiopians, Jacobites, or Nestorians, observe a pre-Lenten fast remembering the message of Jonah and what Jesus said of the Ninevites. Locally, both Christians and Jews commemorated the event: Christians built a church where Jonah "had preached." The Jews of Mosul had the synagogue of Obadiah which, according to tradition, "Jonah built."[90] William C. Emhardt and George M. Lamsa in the 1920s, and the Assyrian nationalists after them, have misinterpreted the Rogation of the Ninevites (Ba'uta d-Ninwaye) as a unique fast among the Nestorians, observed as a thanksgiving "for the salvation of their forefathers," entirely missing the theological and historical significance of the Biblical story of Jonah in both Jewish and Christian tradition.[91]

Eager to establish a link between themselves and the ancient Assyrians, the nationalists conclude that such a link is confirmed whenever they find a reference to the word "Assyrians" during the early Christian period; to them it proves that their Christian ancestors always "remembered" their Assyrian forefathers. Nationalist writers often refer to Tatian's/Tatianos statement that he was "born in the land of the Assyrians," and note that the Acts of Mar Qardagh trace the martyr's ancestry to ancient Assyrian kings.[92]

It is not surprising that "in the land of the Assyrians" one encounters an occasional legend that traces the ancestry of an individual or group to an ancient hero. This writer has heard Persians on the streets of Kermanshah begging and claiming that they were the lineal descendants of Imam Husayn--grandson of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad--who lived over 1,300 years before them. Michael G. Morony speaks of villagers of Aramean descent who, assimilated with the Persians, claimed to be of Royal Persian descent--"from Kisra, son of Qubadh."[93] The story of Mar Qardagh, himself a semi-legendary figure, is such a legend; it traces the ancestry of his father to the family of Nimrud and that of his mother to the family of Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.), a genealogy that harks back over a thousand years.[94]

[87] See Jonah 1:17; 3:4-10. Biblical scholars are of the opinion that the book of Jonah may have originated in the 5th century B.C., long after the fall of Nineveh. The venomous oracles of Nahum, who probably lived and preached about the time of Nineveh's fall, depict the Assyrian capital as a harlot and relate its punishment to the sins of Assyrians. See Nahum, 3:4-7, Besides the book of Jonah, there are almost 120 references on the Assyrians, in 13 other books of the Bible.

[88] Matthew 12:40-41. See also Luke 11:29-30: "For just as Jonah was a sign for the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be a sign for the present age." For interpretations of the Jonah story in Western art and literature, see James Linburg, Jonah: A Commentary (Louisville, 1993).

[89] See "Jonah" in Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion (1997)

[90] Influenced by both Jewish and Christian traditions, Muslims believe that the prophet Jonah is buried in Mosul, where a mosque is dedicated to him.

[91] William C. Emhardt and George M . Lamsa, The Oldest Christians People (New York, 1926; reprinted by AMS Press in 1970), p. 22. According to the authors, "Abraham was Assyrian" and Aramaic "is not only the language which Christ spoke, but the language also, we are told, which God spoke to Adam."

[92] Tatian not only did not claim to be an Assyrian, but scholars point out that he was not even born in the lands to the east of the Euphrates. Tatian (Greeik Tatianos), writes Fergus Millar, no more came from geographical Assyria than did that other "Assyrian" with a Latin name, Lucian (Greek Lucianos) of Samosata, Fergus Millar explains that the terms Assyria and Assyrians were common terms then from geographical Syria and its inhabitants. See his Rome and the East,pp. 227, 454-455, 460. Consult also Asmussen, op. cit., p. 927; Encyclopedia of the Early Church (New York, 1992), under "Tatian"; Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Hagarism (Cambridge, 1977), p. 197, n. 163.

[93] See his Iraq After the Muslim Conquest (Princeton, 1984), p. 173.

[94]  The Acts also tells us that young Qardagh, before his conversion to Christianity, was a Zoroastrian; his father bearing the Persian name of Gushnavi. When Qardagh became a Christian he was serving Shapur II as a military governor in geographical Assyria. After his conversion he, like other martyrs, performed miracles; when faced with Satan in human form, he cursed him and made the sign of the cross, turning Satan into a snake. See Mar Aprim, The Nestorian fathers, op. cit. See also Hagarism, p. 190, n. 71, where in accordance with their methodology, authors Crone and Cook accept Qardagh's descendance from Assyrian kings as a believed fact by his contemporaries, making Hagarism a favorite source book of the modern Assyrian writers. In a letter to the author , dated June 11, 1997, Patricia Crone wrote that she and Cook  "do not argue that the Nestorians of pre-Islamic Iraq saw themselves as Assyrians or that this is what they called themselves. They called themselves Suryane, which had no greater connotation of Assyrian in their usage than it did in anyone else's...We take it for granted that they got the modern Assyrian label from the West and proceeded to reinvent themselves....of course the Nestorians were Arameans." In their prefatory remarks Crone and Cook, who warn the non-specialist not to expect a "guided tour" but a pioneering expedition through some very rough country, also anticipate, "the raised eyebrows" of the specialists. For reviews of Hagarism, see Oleg Grabar, in speculum 53, (October, 1978), pp. 795-799; Michael G. Morony, in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 41, no. 2, (1982), 159; Joseph Van Ess, "The Making of Islam," in Times Literary Supplement (September 8, 1978), pp. 997-998. For nationalist references to, and misinterpretation of, Hagarism, see Odisho Bet Ashur (pen name), "The Continuity of Assyrian History," Nineveh, v. 17, no. 3 (1994), pp. 16-17, notes 19, 20, 24; Odisho, Sound Systems, pp. 10, 15-16.    

Assyrian Survival After the Fall

Modern Assyrian writers usually cite a statement that assyriologist Sydney Smith allegedly made early in the 20th century (1925)--namely, that the ancient Assyrians disappeared "immediately" and "vanished" after the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C. To "disprove" Smith, the cite another assyriologist, W.W. Tarn, who noted that for centuries after the fall of their empire, Assyrian "survivors" perpetuated old Assyrian names at various places on the site of ancient Ashur. Edward Y. Odisho refers to "a few" historians who "talk about the continuation of the (Assyrian) [sic] identity" until the establishment of Christianity in geographical Assyria, some 8 centuries after the fall of the Assyrian empire.[95] What do these few historians and assyriologists really "talk about"?

Excavations in northern Iraq, according to Sidney Smith, "have, it is true, shown the poverty-stricken communities perpetuated the old Assyrian names...but the essential truth," he concludes, "remains the same": the Assyrians were "unduly devoted to practices which can only end in racial suicide."[96] W.W. Tarn notes that under the Parthians in the early 3rd century A.D. "a little body of people" worshipped the god Ashur; he describes theirs as a "pathetic survival."[97] More recently, assyriologist Joan Oates, in a section entitled "Assyria after the fall," points out that on the ancient site of old Ashur, where "a large Parthian city" was excavated, the influence of Assyrian tradition and symbolism can sometimes be seen "in architecture and art."[98] Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, in their Hagarism note that under the Parthians "The temple of Ashur was restored, the city was rebuilt, and an Assyrian successor state returned in the shape of the client kingdom of Adiabene/Hadyab/Khadyab,) adding that the region had an Assyrian "self-identification" and speak of the human survival of a "a native aristocracy."[99] Odisho's reading of Hagarism leads him to the conclusion that as late as the Parthian period--over 800 years after the fall of the Assyrian empire--"there survived a strong native (Assyrian) [sic] aristocracy peculiar to itself and very conscious of its past and proud of it."[100] To reinforce this hypothesis, Odisho cites historian of ancient Iraq George Roux, who notes that during the Parthian period geographical "Assyria was literally resurrected," and the several of its cities were "inhabited again, and Assur, rebuilt anew, became at least as large city as it had been in the heyday of the Assyrian empire."[101] According to Odisho, the resurrection and rebuilding of Assyria were done by the "strong native Assyrian aristocracy" that he believes flourished under the benign rule of the Parthians. A more careful reading of Roux, however, would have shown that there is no mention of any Assyrian involvement in the reoccupation and reconstruction of the "towns and villages which had been lying in ruins for hundreds of years." In the very next sentence following the above quotation, left out by Odisho, Roux writes that it must be emphasized that "the revival settlements had very little in common with their Assyrian or Babylonian precursors"; that the old Sumero-Akkadian civilization, which was "perpetuated by a few priests in a few temples," was an "ossifized" civilization that simply could not withstand the profound ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural changes that were introduced by successive waves of invaders in northern Mesopotamia--Persians, Greeks, Arameans, pre-Islamic Arabs--"who could be neither kept at bay nor assimilated." This massive influx of foreign peoples and ideas "had submerged what was left of the Sumero-Akkadian civilization." Speaking specifically of the ancient Assyrians, Roux explains in what sense the Assyrians "disappeared": they were a people who had forgotten their Akkadian mother tongue, and a "nation which forgets it language forgets its past and soon loses its identity."[102]

 [95] Odisho, ibid, p. 17.

[96] "Asurbanipal and the Fall of Assyria" The Cambridge Ancient History, The Assyrian Empire, v. 3 (1954 reprint), pp. 130-131. See also above, pp. 11f.

[97] See "Parthia" in ibid., The Roman Republic 133-44 B.C. v. 9, (1962), pp. 597-598. Cf. Odisho Bet Ashur. op. cit., p. 13.

[98] The Cambridge Ancient History. The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires, v. 3, pt. 2 (2nd ed., 1991), pp. 189-193.

[99] During the Parthian period, geographical Assyria, the lands situated between the Greater and Lesser Zab rivers to the eats of the Tigris river, were known to Western historians as Adiabene, a corruption of Hadyab in Aramaic. The Parthian name for Assyria was Norshirakan, while Northern Mesopotamia was known as Arabistan. See A.D.H. Bivar, "The Political History of Iran under the Arsacids," in The Cambridge History of Iran, v. 3, pt. 1 (1983), p. 89. Consult also Wilhelm Eilers, "Iran and Mesopotamia," in ibid., p. 496. For the misinterpretation of Hagarism by modern Assyrian writers, see above, p. 27n.94.

[100] Loc. cit., p. 17.

[101] Ibid., p. 9 n. 5.

[102] Cf. Roux, ibid. (1964 edition), pp. 352, 354-355, and pp. 419-420, 423-42 (1992 edition), One of the tenets of modern Assyrian writers is that it was the Arameans who were assyrianized and their identity changed. In a recent article, one of them wrote, one of them wrote that some of the modern Assyrians "rightly point out that even the idea of the ancient Assyrians adopting the language of a wandering tribal group is questionable; why would a civilization as great as Assyria adopt the language of essentially desert nomads." See Odisho Bet Ashur [pen-name], "The Continuity of Assyrian History," Nineveh, 17, no. 3 (1994), p. 12. Lately, Assyrian nationalists have found a supporter in the Finnish scholar Simo Parpola. In a lecture before the annual Assyrian convention on September 4, 1999, Parpola told his audience that the Assyrian empire had, in its final analysis, "never been destroyed at all but had just changed ownership: first to Babylonian and Median dynasties, and then to a Persian one." The Assyrian Empire "continued to live on despite the fact that the Assyrians themselves were no longer in control of it." According to Parpola, one of whose research interests is to trace the roots of Hebrew monotheism and Greek philosophy to Mesopotamian and Assyrian origins, the Christian religion is essentially a religion of the ancient Assyrians; "many teachings of the Early Church," he said, "were consonant with the tenets of Assyrian imperial religion. In fact, it can be argued that many features and dogmas of early Christianity were based on practices and ideas already central to Assyrian imperial ideology and religion." Parpola's lecture, reproduced on the Internet on September 17, 1999, is reportedly to be published in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, vol. xiii, no. 2, 1999. See also his article "The Assyrian Tree of Life--tracing the origins of Jewish monotheism and Greek philosophy," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, vol. 52, no. 3 (July, 1993), pp. 161-208. For Hebrew cultural borrowings from Mesopotamia, see above, pp. 16-17 n. 58.            

The Middle Eastern "Millets"

Aramaic language molded widely differing ethnic, social, and political elements into a uniform and integrated culture. Just as Arabic language later amalgamated various ethnic groups, creating the Arabs, without much regard to their Arabian physical origin, so did Aramaic mold peoples of different identities into Arameans [Aramaye/Oromoye] ("Syrians/Syriacs/Suryaye/Suryoye/Suroye/Suraye"). The ancient Assyrians did not "vanish" when they were vanquished in the late 7th century B.C., nor did everyone of them immedietly "perish".[103] The merely "merged with the mass of Near Eastern Arameans," just as other peoples before and after them, were similarly assimilated, like the Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites, Hurrians, and others.[104] About 800 years after the fall of Nineveh, a common religion (Christianity , in this case Syriac Christianity), together with a common langauge (Syriac/Aramaic) unified the peoples of this region, just as Islam and the Arabic tongue would arabize and muslimize most of the Arameans a few centuries later, causing them to "disappear".

Christianity began in an Aramaic environment; Jesus preached his message in an Aramaic dialect. Among the converts to the new faith were Jews and Gentiles of all ethnic backgrounds. The Church and the new religion served as a melting pot; as members of a new dispensation, the converts tended to lay aside former distinctions and prejudices and became in the character of Christians one homogenous people devoted to the Lord, not unlike the Islamic umma of the 7th century A.D.[105] Writing in the third century, Bar Daysan, the eminent Edessan known as founder of Syriac literature, did not feel himself to be a leader of a sect  but rather to belong unquestionably to the universal Church. "What shall we say about ourselves, the 'new race' of Christians whom Christ has caused, to be raised in all countries as consequence of his own coming? We are all Christians by the one name of Christ wherever we may be found." He then proceeds to speak of brethren in Gaul, Parthia, India, Persia and Mesopotamia without making any distinction.]106]

But the Christian community could not for long think of itself as a new nation. Various factors--geographical, political, sociological-- were bound to give rise to a whole new set of ideas which were very different from the aims of the accepted Church tradition. In the case of the Church of the East the hostility between the Roman and Persian empires made it necessary for these Aramaic-speaking Christians of Persia to build up their own independent ecclesiastical organization. Eventually, the Church in Persia became a sort of national church over which the Bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon wielded unlimited power.[107]

The various sections of the dissected Christian community in the Middle East eventually developed into "secondary ecological and kinship units." They became millets, a term which, depending on the group's geography, history and size, could be translated into sects, communities, minorities, or nationalities--groups of people who owed allegiance to one another and their religious leaders by the ties of faith and language. A member who adopted another creed was regarded as a renegade.[108] The people who today call themselves Assyrians are, strictly speaking, members of a cultural and religious group, molded together into a minority by ties of a common language and, until the 19th century, a common church membership which, until the birth of the modern nation-state in the Middle East, was the strongest tie among people. The lineal origin of the community, like that most of Middle Eastern nationalities--and nationalities the world over-- is hidden in the mists of history. The religious and linguistic minority under discussion is naturally a mixture of ethnicities, mainly Aramean, but also Persian,[109] Kurdish,[110] Arab, [111] and Jewish,[112] just as present-day Arabs are the result of a similar merging of a variety of nationalities. But just as it was the speakers of Arabian language who gave most of the converts to Islam in the Middle East and North Africa the name "Arab," so the Arameans gave the various converts to Christianity their mother tongue, and for the next 1,800 years, bequeathed to them the language of their literature and liturgy as well as the very name by which they have for centuries called themselves--Suraye/Suroye, Suryaye/Suryoye.[113]