Assyrians

ETHNONYMS: Chaldeans, Nestorians, Surayi


Ancient Assyrians were inhabitants of one the world's earliest civilizations, Mesopotamia, which began to emerge around 3500 B . C . The Assyrians invented the world's first written language and the 360-degree circle, established Hammurabi's code of law, and are credited with many other military, artistic, and architectural achievements. For 300 years Assyrians controlled the entire Fertile Crescent, from the Persian Gulf to Egypt. In 612 B . C ., however, Assyria's capital, Nineveh, was besieged and destroyed by a coalition of Medes, Scythians, and Chaldeans, decimating the previously powerful Assyrian Empire.

Modern Assyrians claim descent from the inhabitants of the ancient Assyrian Empire, and linguistic evidence seems to support that contention. Different dialects have developed from ancient Aramaic, a language used within the Assyrian Empire. The modern language is sometimes called Assyrian, but some scholars reserve the terms "Assyrian" and "Babylonian" for the cuneiform writing of the ancient empire. The modern language, then, is generally referred to as "neo-Aramaic," "Chaldean," or "Syriac" and is considered to be 75 percent pure (i.e., ancient) Aramaic. The ancient and modern Assyrian languages belong to the Semitic Language Family. The survival of Syriac as a spoken language is an important indication that the Assyrians have been a cohesive, endogamous group for more than two thousand years.

Religion is an important factor in the identification and description of both ancient and modern Assyrians. Modern Assyrians refer to themselves as "Surayi," which can be translated as either "Assyrian" or "Syrian." Assyrians may be further divided into Assyrian Nestorians and Assyrian Jacobites, some of whom prefer to be called Syrian Aramaeans. In their homelands, the Nestorians are considered the easterners and the Jacobites the westerners. The distinctions between the two are based primarily on religious differences. The term "Nestorian" derives from Nestorius, who was the patriarch of Constantinople from A . D . 428 to 431. Nestorius was condemned for heresy; he and his followers fled from Syria to Persia, where they practiced their distinctive religion for fifteen centuries. The Jacobites are named for Jacobus Baradeus, who was also considered heretical at the Council of Chalcedon in A . D . 451; his followers have kept their faith for as long as the Nestorians.

The ancient split between the Church of the East (Nestorians) and the Church of Antioch (Jacobites), and between these two and the rest of Christianity, has continued to the present. The picture was further complicated when, beginning in the sixteenth century, Christian missionaries from various denominations made their way to the Middle East to convert the indigenous Christians. Their limited success led to a variety of Christian denominations and patriarchs in the Middle East. Some Nestorians have continued to support the Church of the East; others, known as "Chaldeans," converted to Roman Catholicism. Most Jacobites remained with the Church of Antioch, but those who converted to Catholicism are called Syrian Catholics. All four of these groups support a church hierarchy or patriarchy in the homeland.

Geography has also played an important role in the history and culture of the Assyrians, especially Nestorian Assyrians. The geographic heart of Assyria was traditionally located in the north Tigris highlands, north of Babylon and south of Armenia. In classical times, Persia and Byzantium boxed in the mountain Assyrians. Later, they found themselves between Turks and Persians, Kurds and Arabs. After the rise of Islam, the Assyrians were the target of converging Sunni forces from the south and the north and Shiite forces from the east. For security and collective well-being, they took refuge in the rocky Hakkâri Mountains, which served as a natural military fortress.

The Assyrians, or their Nestorian descendants, lived in small villages along the Great Zab River and in the Sapna Valley of northern Iraq, as well as near the shore of Lake Urmia in western Iran until the twentieth century. They survived as a group in this compact, relatively contiguous area for more than 1,500 years. Unfortunately, this area had the great disadvantage of lying within the boundaries of three different states—Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.

Within this environment, the Nestorian Assyrians' subsistence stemmed from irrigation agriculture. Crops included wheat, barley, millet, melons, lentils, and other vegetables. A few sheep, goats, donkeys, and water buffalo were also raised. The staple foods consisted of cereals, vegetables, and milk products. Meat was rarely eaten.

The extended patriarchal family was the primary social and ecomomic unit of the Nestorian Assyrians. Tribal formations sometimes led to internal conflicts, but the constant threat of outside attacks led to internal cohesion and group solidarity. Nestorian Assyrians did not intermarry with other Christians, and intermarriage with Muslims was, generally speaking, not even an option.

Women in ancient Assyria may have received greater status or dignity than their counterparts in other Middle Eastern cultures have since then. In the mid-twentieth century Nestorian women were treated almost as equals with men. For example, most women were considered companions to their husbands and, as such, participated in social gatherings. In Iraq, Assyrian Christian women were often more literate than Muslim men. The patriarchal tradition, however, assured that male predominance in husband-wife relations was the norm.

Because of many factors, including the massacres of 1918 (by Turks and Kurds) and 1933 (by Iraqi Arabs and Kurds), constant battles with the Kurds, forced migrations, forced participation in Iraqi wars, assimilation and "Arabization" into majority cultures, and emigration out of their traditional homeland, the population of the Assyrians in their traditional homeland has dwindled considerably. Additionally, confusion over the terms "Assyrian," "Chaldean," "Nestorian," and "Jacobite"—as well as a lack of consensus over which groups of people they designate—makes counting the Assyrians even more difficult. One estimate of the number of Chaldean Catholic Assyrians in Iraq is 750,000, or 4 percent of the population (1991). From available census counts, there are about 10,000 Assyrians in Syria (interpolated from Grimes 1988), 77,375 in Iraq (1986), 40,000 in Iran (1982), 25,000 in Turkey (1981), and 15,000 in the former Soviet Union (1979). It is estimated that there are also 150,000 Assyrians in the United States (Ishaya and Naby 1980); some Assyrian leaders believe there are about one million Assyrians scattered throughout the world.

In Iraq, the extent to which Assyrians are surviving or accommodating to Arabization attempts is not clear. Outside the Middle East, particularly in the United States, Assyrian group life continues to reflect ancient religious as well as relatively new political divisions. For example, the Syrian Aramaeans of New Jersey are Jacobites, but they prefer to call themselves Syrian rather than Assyrian in order to avoid political implications with which they disagree. Further, some Assyrians are in favor of the establishment of an Assyrian homeland, and some are not.

Within the United States, there may be a collective revitalization taking place. There are two major Assyrian centers in the United States—one in Chicago, the other in California. Preserving ethnic ties and cultivating social relations have become important goals for these Assyrian communities. There is a concerted effort by Assyrians outside of Iraq to maintain their self-determination, and some Assyrians still hope for their own territory.


Bibliography

Bynum, Joyce (1991). "Oral History and Modern Identity: A Case Study." Et Cetera 48:220-227.


Grimes, Barbara F., ed. (1988). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 406, 411, 418-419. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.


Ishaya, Arian, and Eden Naby (1980). "Assyrians." In Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, edited by Stephan Thernstrom, 160-163. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press.


Nisan, Mordechai (1991). Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-Expression. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.


Severy, Merle (1991). "Iraq: Crucible of Civilization." National Geographic 179(5): 102-115.


RONALD JOHNSON

User Contributions:

JoJo
Report this comment as inappropriate
Jan 4, 2010 @ 7:19 pm
Yo! Awesome info! Thanx! YOU PEOPLE ROCK AND ARE REALLY COOL!!! U GIVE TONS OF INFO!
Report this comment as inappropriate
May 11, 2010 @ 11:11 am
Im assyrian and everything in here is one hundred percent TRUE(: I love it! soo much good information came out of this :D
Report this comment as inappropriate
Sep 16, 2010 @ 11:23 pm
This is a lot of info but is not really helping me know what there achievements were. Homework sucks, but i have know book yet.
Report this comment as inappropriate
Oct 6, 2010 @ 11:23 pm
Thank you sooo much. You have no idea how this helps me right now! I used this biography for my whole report! Thank you so much!
Bob
Report this comment as inappropriate
Jan 20, 2011 @ 11:11 am
Hi This website is awesome! Thanks for building this website. It helped a lot!
Maryiam
Report this comment as inappropriate
Mar 3, 2011 @ 12:00 am
I love this website because its about Assyrians. Assyrians have great History .
Rawrnny
Report this comment as inappropriate
Mar 27, 2011 @ 6:06 am
thx. this info is very gud and i wil be using it in my group project about mesopotamia!
Report this comment as inappropriate
May 18, 2011 @ 11:23 pm
you should put more stuff about the culture and art and their contribution to the world. that would be awesome.
Report this comment as inappropriate
Oct 17, 2011 @ 10:10 am
Very interesting but more facts about the law would be nice
Report this comment as inappropriate
Oct 17, 2011 @ 10:10 am
HELLO THIS IS A VERY GOOD ARTICLE I LIKE IT VERY MUCH
Seth
Report this comment as inappropriate
Mar 14, 2012 @ 1:13 pm
You guys are the best did a whole project off here
Jill
Report this comment as inappropriate
Oct 8, 2012 @ 2:14 pm
THIS WAS A VERY INTERESTING ARTICLE, IT IS FULL OF A LOT OF GOOD INFORMATION. IT REALLY HELPED ME WITH MY PROJECT THAT I AM WORKING ON IN SCHOOL.
mely
Report this comment as inappropriate
Oct 14, 2012 @ 9:21 pm
This is very good information but I think should have more about religion.
cruz
Report this comment as inappropriate
Mar 27, 2013 @ 8:08 am
this article must be good or i will fail assignment. and i cant afford to fail it.
Mud Boggin Rage
Report this comment as inappropriate
Oct 3, 2013 @ 2:14 pm
This website gives awesome info. This helps a lot with my report!!!
Chelsea Hsu
Report this comment as inappropriate
Oct 22, 2013 @ 11:23 pm
Thanks for all the information whitch is very helpful
Really clear and easy to understand especially for second language
It's save much time to collect all the inform
Emily
Report this comment as inappropriate
Nov 25, 2013 @ 8:08 am
This was very helpful for my report, I definately won't fail this one. Thank you ^.^
MyLittleBrony
Report this comment as inappropriate
Feb 5, 2014 @ 3:15 pm
I really like this, it's very detailed, but I agree with kitty kat. You should definitly add more about culture and their additions to the world. But this definitly helped me! :D
Hayley joy
Report this comment as inappropriate
Aug 18, 2014 @ 6:06 am
Very helpful for the student like me and simply awesome
THANKS BRA
Report this comment as inappropriate
Oct 21, 2014 @ 8:20 pm
Thank you so freaking much this was like a gift from god u saved me from crying... u stopped me from crying

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:

CAPTCHA


Assyrians forum