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.
A Semitic people indigenous to Mesopotamia, with a history spanning 4,700 years.
Contemporary Assyrians are the descendants of the Akkadian-speaking inhabitants of the Assyrian Empire, which ended in 612 b.c.e. Ancient Assyrians worshipped the god Assur until 256 c.e.; their descendants were among the first to accept Christianity, with the founding of the Assyrian Church of the East by the apostle Thomas in 33 c.e. By 1300, the modern culture's homeland included the territories of present-day northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria, and northwestern Iran. Contemporary Assyrians are ethnically distinct from Arabs and Jews and speak Neo-Syriac. Islam and Arab civilization engulfed the Assyrian Christians and some converted to Islam, but the Mongol invasions led by Tamerlane forced others into the Hakkari Mountains of eastern Turkey. Others continued to live in northern Iraq and Syria. Assyrian Christians of this period belonged to either the Assyrian Church of the East or the Syriac Orthodox Church. In 1550, a religious schism resulted in the creation of the Chaldean Church of Babylon and a Roman Catholic Uniate. The Assyrian Church of the East is Nestorian, but English speakers in the West classify Nestorian churches as belonging to the Oriental Orthodoxy. Contemporary religious divisions include the Chaldean, Syrian Catholic, Maronite (Uniate), and Jacobite churches, but Protestantism (Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian) has also attracted converts.
Assyrians migrated to Europe and the United States by 1870, but the end of World War I witnessed genocides and dispersal throughout the world. From 1915 to 1918, approximately 750,000 Assyrians were massacred by Turkish and Kurdish forces. The French in Syria and the British in Iraq exacerbated the plight of the Assyrian survivors, who lost their ancestral lands and dispersed throughout the Middle East, Europe, and North America. Persecutions in Iran (1948), the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990), unrest in Iraq (1970s), and the Gulf War (1991) resulted in increased immigration. By 2000, the Assyrian population was estimated at 3.5 million, with approximately one-third in a diaspora. Current demographic estimates are: Iraq, 1,500,000; Syria, 700,000; United States, 400,000; Sweden, 120,000; Lebanon, 100,000; Brazil, 80,000; Germany, 70,000; Russia, 70,000; Iran, 50,000; Jordan, 44,000; Australia, 30,000; Turkey, 24,000; Canada, 23,000; Holland, 20,000; and France, 20,000. Smaller numbers migrated to Belgium, Georgia, Armenia, Switzerland, Denmark, Greece, England, Austria, Italy, New Zealand, and Mexico. Chicago, Detroit, and Phoenix have substantial populations. Assyrians in the diaspora seek to maintain their language, culture, and religion, and financially support Assyrian refugees in the Middle East and other countries.
see also gulf war (1991); lebanese civil war (1975–1990); maronites.
Andrews, F. David, ed. The Lost Peoples of the Middle East: Documents of the Struggle for Survival and Independence of the Kurds, Assyrians, and Other Minority Races in the Middle East. Salisbury, NC: Documentary Publications, 1982.
Brentjes, Burchard. The Armenians, Assyrians, and Kurds: Three Nations, One Fate? Campbell, CA: Rishi, 1997.
Macuch, R. "Assyrians." In Encyclopedia Iranica. London: Routledge & Kegan, 1992
Michael, John, and Jassim, Sheren. "The Assyrians of Chicago." Available from <http://www.aina.org/aol/ethnic.htm>.
Charles C. Kolb
Ancient country in northeastern Mesopotamia (see mesopotamia, ancient). Its heartland was the area of the middle Tigris, the site of the cities of Assur (from which the land takes its name), nineveh, and Calah (see Gn 10.11). Shut off by mountain ranges on the north and east, the land has a rugged aspect throughout much of its extent; this factor encouraged the yearly military campaigns by which, from the 14th century b.c., the kings of Assyria sought to gain control of neighboring and more richly endowed lands. Their greatest successes were obtained from the 9th to the 7th centuries b.c., with the subjugation of Syria, northern Palestine, and parts of Egypt and Asia Minor (see 2 Kgs 15.27; 17.3–6; 18.13–19.37). At the zenith of its power, Assyria was overcome by a coalition of its Chaldean and Median enemies, who captured the capital city of Nineveh in 612 b.c. (see Neh 2.2–14).
Bibliography: b. meissner, Babylonien und Assyrien, 2 v. (Heidelberg 1920–25). Reallexikon der Assyriologie, ed. e. ebeling and b. meissner (Berlin 1928) 228–303. m. a. beek, Atlas of Mesopotamia, tr. d. r. welsh (London 1962).
[r. i. caplice]
Name of an ancient Mesopotamian civilization (1800–600 b.c.e.), also attributed in the nineteenth century to Nestorian Christians living notably in Iraq and Turkey and having Aramaic as their native and liturgical language. Having been subjected to the same genocidal policies as the Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire, numbers of them fled to Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, particularly Jerusalem. The Assyrians in Jerusalem (Syriani, in Arabic) have their own church and have enjoyed a longstanding community there.