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.


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.


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Apr 2, 2015 @ 9:09 am
The majority of the Iraqi Christians, approximately 500,000-600,000, are often incorrectly labeled in certain media and in contradiction to the historical facts as, “Assyrian Christians”. They are the indigenous Aramean people of Mesopotamia. They are not “Assyrians”. This ancient Semitic people, now divided into several denominations and spread throughout the Middle East, have been in Mesopotamia for thousands of years and have made a significant contribution to world civilizations particularly through their Aramaic language. Aramaic was also spoken by Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ. Today, they amount to approximately 4-5 million people worldwide who have faced hundreds of years of discrimination, ethnic cleansing, genocides and continuous persecutions.

The name “Assyrian” was used by the Anglican missionaries in the 19th century to denote the Aramean tribes of Urmia (Iran) and Hakkaria (bordering Turkey-Iraq) who since then prefer to call themselves “Assyrians” and try by all means possible to distort the Aramean heritage and the Aramean language by spreading a vast amount of misinformation in the media[1].

In the ancient times the cradle of the Aramean forefathers was called Aramnahrin (or: Aram-Nahrin) in Aramaic. In Hebrew it was called Aram-Naharaim which we encounter in the Old Testament [2]. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the term Aram-Naharaim was translated to Mesopotamia, which many become familiarized with through reading many educational and historical texts.

The northern area of Aram-Naharaim was called Paddan-Aram, meaning the land of Aram where Biblical figures like Abraham and Jacob lived and walked.

In Genesis 24:4 Abraham says to his servants,
“You must go back to the country where I was born and get a wife for my son Isaac from among my relatives."
Abraham says, “….the country where I was born….” meaning the country of his Aramean fathers Paddan-Aram (part of Aram-Naharaim).

Roughly speaking, this area is situated in present south-eastern Turkey. A section of Paddan-Aram is now called Tur Abdin in the Aramaic (Syriac) language, which means “the mountains of the servants of the Lord”, due to the overwhelming presence of monasteries and churches.

According to the Aramean historical traditions, the area of Paddan-Aram- in particular ‘Tur Abdin’ – is the proto-land of the Aramean nation. From this proto- or indigenous land, in the course of time, the Arameans started to expand all over the near east.

Because of overwhelming presence of Arameans in the southern part of Aram-Nahrin, in the era of early Christianity, it was called Beth-Aramaya, meaning (in Aramaic) “the house of the Arameans”.
Regarding Beth Aramaya, Yacob Avgin Manna (Jacques-Eugene Manna 1867-1928), Bishop of the East-Aramean Chaldean church wrote,
“The people from Babylon and Assur, are Arameans. The countries of Babylon and Assur were always called Beth Aramaye, that means country of the Arameans.”

Regarding the proto-land “Tur- Abdin”; the East- Aramean Chaldean metropolitan Aday Sher, born in 1867 in Shaqlawa [Northern Iraq] and became the archbishop of Seert [Turkey]; says,, "The first inhabitants of Tur Abdin are the Arameans, for they inhabited the whole Mountain of Masios... This is also repeated by Patriarch Afrem Barsauwm, also called ‘the star of the middle-east’

After the coming of Jesus Christ, the Arameans (including ,,Assyrians” and Chaldeans) of Aram-Naharaim accepted the teachings of Christ and established together with the apostles of Jesus and the converted Jews, the Syrian Church of Antioch, the second Patriarchy after Jerusalem, where for the first time the followers of Jesus Christ were called ,,Christians” (Acts 11:26). This church was the mother of all the Churches – and the first Church established outside Israel, whose Patriarch currently resides in Damascus, Syria.

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