The Assyrian people


The Assyrian people are closely related to other speakers of Semitic languages, includ-ing Arabs and Jews. Assyrians use several forms of Neo-Aramaic as well as Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Armenian,Swedish, French, English, and Russian. They are also known as Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Arameans. Depending on the criteria used in determining membership in their com-munity, there may be as many as 3 million Assyrians worldwide. While the 20th- and early 21st-century conflicts have led to the migration of many Iraqi Christians, includ-ing Assyrians, there may be as many as 1 million Assyrians in Iraq. Syria and Lebanon may host an additional 0.4 million, the United States 0.1 million.

Other signifi-cant populations can be found in Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Sweden, Russia, Armenia, the Netherlands, and Canada. There are two districts in the Nineveh province of Iraq with slight Assyrian majorities. According to the Ethnologue, about 400,000–500,000 can speak either the Chaldean or Assyrian versions of Neo-Aramaic. There are large and visible Assyrian communities in Turlock, California; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. As a native Mesopota-mian population, Assyrians are traditionally farmers and townspeople engaged in crafts.

The community differs concerning its name, with some preferring the term “Aramean” while others preferring the term “Assyrian,” and there are closely related communities that use Aramaic in their liturgy but not in their daily lives, such as the Maronites of Lebanon and Syria. Some Maronites now reject Arab identity and prefer to be designated as either Phoenician or Aramean instead. While there is a clear basis for this claim in terms of liturgical language as well as self-identification, common use of the terms Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac, and Aramean has not historically included the Lebanese and Syrian Maronite commun-ities.

To complicate matters, the appear-ance of an independent Arab state bearing the name “Syria” increased the level of confusion concerning who is an Assyrian. Some of the confusion has been fed by the existence of several national churches among Assyrians. These include the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church (Miaphysite), the Assyr-ian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, and the Syriac Catholic Church. Depending on how the community is defined, the list may also include the Antiochian Orthodox Church and the Maronite Catholic Church.

The existence of separate churches for a community that spoke dialects of the same language prevented the rise of a unified Assyrian identity until the modern period. While there are also Muslims who use the Ara-maic language, they generally do not maintain an Assyrian or Chaldean identity, and much the same applies to Jewish users of the same language. The Catholic Church in Iraq generally resists the desig-nation “Assyrian,” preferring “Chaldean” instead.

As with other Middle Eastern Chris-tians, Assyrians and Chaldeans celebrate a number of Christian holidays including Easter, Christmas, and All Saints Day. These holidays are celebrated on different days by each denomination, but the cele-brations are usually similar to those among other Christians. All Saints Day is celebrated as an aid to fasting; young men dress in frightening costumes and visit Assyrian homes to motivate children into abstaining from animal products. Uniquely Assyrio-Chaldean celebrations include the Nineveh fast (a three-day period of fasting associated with Job) and the feast of the Bride of the Ascension, which commemorates Assyrian resistance to Tamerlane.

The Assyrian New Year (Kha B-Nisan) begins on April 1, and the day is marked with parties and parades. While marriage, birth, and burial tradi-tions vary by community and location, there are some commonalities. Marriage includes ritually cleaning the groom and placing cross pins on his coat or cloak during the wedding ceremony, the passing of a symbolic blanket to the bride a few days before the wedding, and the payment of a symbolic bride price.

These rituals combine pre-Christian traditions with church procedures. Turkey banned the Assyrian New Year celebrations, and the country is not alone in proscribing Assyr-ian cultural practices—Syria has banned commemorations of the attempts by Iraq to destroy Assyrian culture in the 1930s.

Like other Ottoman Christians, the Assyrians faced massacres and attempts at liquidation in 1915. While the Assyr-ians and most historians describe these events as genocide, Turkey does not, insisting that the deaths were a result of World War I; the estimated numbers of dead range between 200,000 and 500,000. The Assyrians had been encour-aged to rebel by the British, and their leader, Agha Petros, was able to help the British drive the Ottoman military out of northern Iraq; having served his purpose, the British exiled Petros to France after they joined Mosul to Faisal’s Iraq.

The Assyrians’ relationship with Great Britain, despite its fruitlessness, made them sus-pect to their Arab neighbors, and Iraq responded by inducing Kurdish tribes to target and massacre Assyrians in over 60 villages in northern Iraq in 1933. The Simele massacre was the beginning of a series of attacks that arguably continues to this day, carried out by Kurdish and Arab nationalists, Islamists, and Baathists alike, despite the close association of the now-condemned Tariq Aziz with the pre-vious Baathist government.

The removal of Saddam Hussein revived calls for autonomy in Assyrian areas, and there are signs that the current Iraqi government seeks to reverse earlier policies. The Assyrian Democratic Movement is repre-sented in the Iraqi parliament with one seat. While the instability and the target-ing of Christians in Iraq by violent Islam-ists has led to the migration of thousands of Assyrians, the funeral of Emmanuel “Ammo Baba” Dawud, an Assyrian soccer coach and former star, was conducted in an atmosphere of national mourning and empathy towards his family.

Jack Vahram Kalpakian

Further Reading

“Assyrian Population.” Zinda Magazine, Assyr-ian Iraqi Documents Project, April 2003. ments/assyrianpopulation.html (accessed December 2, 2009).

“Funeral Held for Iraqi Football Legend Dawud.” British Broadcasting Corporation, May 29, 2009. (accessed Dec-ember 2, 2009).

Giwargis, Ashur. “The Assyrian Liberation Movement and the French Intervention (1919–1922).” Assyrian International News Agency, 2011. (accessed April 1, 2010).

Hanoosh, Yasmeen. “The Politics of Minority: Chaldeans between Iraq and America.” PhD thesis, University of Michigan, 2008. 2027.42/61663/1/yhanoosh_1.pdf (accessed December 3, 2009).