On March 21st, 1997, Assyrians celebrated their 6747th new year. I wonder if those first Assyrian settlers of the city of Nineveh, in 5000 B.C., realized that their children would one day, 6700 years later, find themselves dispersed throughout the world, far from their homeland, yet still maintaining their proud heritage.
From the seed that those first settlers planted grew what was to become a magnificent legacy; indeed, the very basis of life for most societies in the world, for these settlers were among the early pioneers of the sedentary, agrarian societies. And it is here, in the Assyrian heartland, the land between two rivers, that the first agricultural societies are found. It is here that we find the first system of writing, the first cities, the first legal codes. It is here where the history of ideas begins. And it is here that the great Assyrian cities of Ashur, Nineveh, Arbela and Nimrod, arise to prominence by the end of the fourth millennium B.C.
The first Assyrian dynasty began in 2371 B.C. with Sargon of Akkad, who as an infant was placed in a basket and set afloat on the Tigris river. He was found and raised by an Assyrian couple. Sargon of Akkad was the first recorded Assyrian king, and he listed 173 kings before him. Although Sargon's empire was small in comparison to the second and third Assyrian empires, it laid the foundation for eighteen hundred years of Assyrian rule, beginning with Sargon I in 2400 B.C. and ending with the tragic fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C.
But before Assyrian hegemony would come to an end, the Assyrians would bring the highest civilization to the then known world. From the Caspian to Cyprus, from Anatolia to Egypt, Assyrian imperial expansion would bring into the Assyrian sphere nomadic and barbaric communities, and would bestow the gift of civilization upon them.
And though today we are far removed from that time, some of our most basic and fundamental devices of daily survival, to which we have become so accustomed that we cannot conceive of life without them, originated in Assyria. One cannot imagine leaving his home without locking the door; it is in Assyria where locks and keys were first used. One cannot survive in this world without knowing the time; it is in Assyria that the sexagesimal system of keeping time was developed. One cannot imagine driving without paved roads; it is in Assyria where paved roads were first used. And the list goes on, including the first postal system, the first use of iron, the first magnifying glasses, the first libraries, the first plumbing and flush toilets, the first electric batteries, the first guitars, and so on.
But it is not only things that originated in Assyria, it is also ideas, ideas that would shape the world to come. It is the idea, for example, of imperial administration, of dividing the land into territories administered by local governors who report to the central authority, the King of Assyria. This fundamental model of administration has survived to this day, as can be seen in America's federal-state system.
It is in Assyria where the mythological foundation of the old and new testament is found. It is here that the story of the flood originates, 2000 years before the old testament is written. It is here that the first epic is written, the Epic of Gilgamesh, with its universal and timeless theme of the struggle and purpose of humanity. It is here that civilization itself is developed and handed down to future generations. It is here where the first steps in the cultural unification of the Middle East are taken by bringing under Assyrian rule the diverse groups in the area, from Iran to Egypt, breaking down ethnic and national barriers and preparing the way for the cultural unification which facilitated the subsequent spread of Hellenism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
It is, indeed, here in Assyria where the history of ideas begins. This is the legacy of the pre-Christian Assyrians.
But the end of the Assyrian empire in 612 B.C. did not signal the end of the Assyrians; they continued living in their homeland until that momentous moment in human history, when the Lord Son of God gave himself for the salvation of mankind. Very soon after the crucifixion, the bulk of the Assyrian population converted to Christianity, although there remained to be Ashur worshippers, the original Assyrian religion, until 256 A.D. It was the Apostle Thomas, with Thaddeus and Bartholomew who came to the Assyrian city of Edessa and founded the Assyrian Church of the East, the first and oldest church in the world.
Armed with the word of God, and after 600 years of dormancy, the Assyrians once again set out to build an empire, not a military empire, but a religious empire founded on divine revelation and Christian brotherhood. So successful was the Assyrian missionary enterprise, by the end of the twelfth century the Assyrian Church was larger than the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches combined, and it spanned the Asian continent, from Syria to Mongolia, Korea, China, Japan and the Philippines.
When Marco Polo visited China in the thirteenth century, he was astonished to find Assyrian priests in the Chinese royal court, and tens of thousands of Chinese Christians. The Assyrian missionaries had reached China in the sixth century. With only the bible, a cross, and a loaf of bread in hand, these messengers had walked thousands of miles along the old silk road to deliver the word of God. So successful were the missionaries, when Genghis Khan swept through Asia, he brought with him an army over half of which belonged to the Assyrian Church of the East. So successful were the missionaries, the first Mongolian system of writing used the Assyrian alphabet.
Armed with the word of God, Assyrians once again transformed the face of the Middle East. In the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries they began a systematic translation of the Greek body of knowledge into Assyrian. At first they concentrated on the religious works but then quickly moved to science, philosophy and medicine. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Galen, and many others were translated into Assyrian, and from Assyrian into Arabic. It is these Arabic translations which the Moors brought with them into Spain, and which the Spaniards translated into Latin and spread throughout Europe, thus igniting the European renaissance.
By the sixth century A.D., Assyrians had begun exporting back to Byzantia their own works on science, philosophy and medicine. In the field of medicine, the Bakhteesho Assyrian family produced nine generations of physicians, and founded the great medical school at Gundeshapur. Also in the area of medicine, Hunayn ibn-Ishaq*s textbook on ophthalmology, written in 950 A.D., remained the authoritative source on the subject until 1800 A.D.
In the area of philosophy, the Assyrian philosopher Job of Edessa developed a physical theory of the universe, in the Assyrian language, that rivaled Aristotle*s theory, and that sought to replace matter with forces.
One of the greatest Assyrian achievements of the fifth century was the founding of the first university in the world. The School of Nisibis had three departments: theology, philosophy and medicine, and became a magnet and center of intellectual development in the Middle East. The statutes of the School of Nisibis, which have been preserved, later became the model upon which the first Italian university was based.
When Arabs and Islam swept through the Middle East in 630 A.D., they encountered 600 years of Assyrian Christian civilization, with a rich heritage, a highly developed culture, and advanced learning institutions. It is this civilization which became the foundation of the Arab civilization.
But this great Assyrian Christian civilization would come to an end in 1300 A.D. The tax which the Arabs levied on Christians, simply for just being Christian, forced many Assyrians to convert to Islam to avoid the tax; this inexorably drained the community, so that by the time Timurlane the Mongol delivered the final blow in 1300 A.D., by violently destroying most cities in the Middle East, the Assyrian Christian community had dwindled to its core in Assyria, and henceforth the Assyrian Church of the East would not regain its former glory, and the Assyrian language, which had been the lingua franca of the Middle East until 900 A.D., was completely supplanted by Arabic (except amongst the Assyrians). This, from 1300 A.D. until World War One, became the second Assyrian dark age.
It was the momentous events of World War One which brought the Assyrians out of their 700 year seclusion and thrust them into the world scene once again. This time, the Assyrians united with the Allies, fighting against the Turks. The Assyrian losses were devastating; 750,000 Assyrians, three out of four, were massacred by the Turks, along with one million Armenians. As a result of the Turkish genocide, Assyrians fled to other countries, including Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. They also fled to Europe and America. It is at that time that the first significant Assyrian population came to America, and it is at that time, for the first time in their history, that the Assyrians became a diasporic nation. It remains to be seen whether the Assyrians can survive the diaspora.
But the biggest exodus of Assyrians from their homeland began in the sixties and continued into the late seventies. Hundreds of thousands of Assyrians emigrated to the West, mostly to America. There are now 300,000 Assyrians in America, with 80,000 in Chicago, 80,000 in Detroit, 40,000 in the Bay Area, 20,000 in the Los Angeles Area, 20,000 in San Diego and 5,000 in Yonkers..
This large exodus of Assyrians was precipitated by oppressive policies practiced by Arab/Muslim governments, which most Assyrians find themselves living under. Not having their own state, Assyrians have become the victims of intolerant governments, prejudiced societies, and opportunistic nationalists. In Iraq, Assyrians are not recognized as a national minority, even though there are two million living there, and they are not granted citizenship, yet they are expected to die for the country, as 40,000 Assyrians died in the Iran-Iraq war.
And the exodus continues. As a result of the Gulf War, one hundred thousand Assyrians have left Iraq, and the remaining ones are living in extremely harsh and inhuman conditions.
Wherever Assyrians live, they are a law-abiding people, with strong family and Christian values. They are also loyal citizens of their host country. After all, was it not Khalil Gibran, an Assyrian, who said, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country?
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Who are the Assyrians?
A: A semitic peoples indigenous to North Iraq; builders of the great Mesopotamian civilizations; ethnically distinct from Arabs and Jews (the other semitic poeples of the region).
Q: What language do they speak?
A: They currently speak modern Assyrian (also known as neo-Syriac), which is the oldest extant language, and was the lingua franca of the Middle East until 700 A.D., when it was supplanted by Arabic. Before this they spoke Akkadian (the switch from Akkadian to Aramaic was completed by 750 B.C.). Modern Assyrian is written right to left, and has a lot of Akkadian influence in it.
Q: What is their religion?
A: All Assyrians are Christians. They belong to three main Assyrian churches: 1) The Assyrian Church of the East ("Nestorian"), established in 33 A.D. by Theodos, Thomas, and Bartholomew; 2) the Assyrian Orthodox Church ("Jacobite"), established in 450 A.D.; 3) the Chaldean Church of Babylon (Roman Catholic), established in 1550 A.D.
Q: Where do they live?
A: The majority of Assyrians live in their ancestral homeland, which is now part of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Here is a geographical breakdown
Iraq 1,500,000 France 15,000
Syria 700,000 Georgia 14,000
USA 300,000 Holland 10,500
Armenia 180,000 Denmark 10,000
Brazil 80,000 England 8,000
Iran 50,000 Austria 7,000
Lebanon 40,000 Greece 5,000
Russia 35,000 Belgium 5,000
Sweden 35,000 New Zealand 3,000
Australia 30,000 Switzerland 3,000
Germany 30,000 Italy 3,000
Turkey 20,000 Other 100,000
Q: What are important dates for Assyrians
A: March 21st, Assyrian New Year. The Assyrian year is now 6747 (1997 A.D.). August 7th, Assyrian Martyrs day.
A Brief History of the Assyrian Churches
Assyrians of today belong to three major churches: the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East ("Nestorian"), The Assyrian Orthodox Church ("Jacobite") and the Chaldean Church of Babylon ("Chaldeans", who are Roman catholic uniates). Precise numbers are difficult to estimate, but there are about 800,000 members in the Church of the East, 1,000,000 members in the Chaldean Church, and about 700,000 members in the Assyrian Orthodox Church.
The Assyrian Church of the East (hence forth ACE), whose official name is the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, was established in 33 A.D. by the apostles Thomas (Toma in Assyrian), Theodos (Addai in Assyrian), and Bartholomew (Bar Tulmay in Assyrian). The first Patriarch of ACE was Addai, although Thomas and Bartholomew are also officially listed as the first Patriarchs (see Table of Apostolic Succession below).
ACE spread from the Assyrian city Arbela (in North Iraq; Arbela means "Four Gods" in Assyrian) to the surrounding areas of Persia, Syria, and Iraq, and later became centered in Seleucia-Ctesiphon (just south of Baghdad). Through an incredible missionary enterprise, ACE became the largest Church in the world by the 12th century, extending from Syria to China, Korea, Japan, and the Phillipines. ACE was overwhelmed by the Mongol Timurlane and after the thirteenth century could never recover its past glory. It was reduced to a small church in the Assyrian heartland in North Iraq.
The significant achievements of ACE include the first University in the world (Nisibis), and the incredible translation movement of its clergy and laity, which saw the translation of all the major Greek works of science, philosophy and religion into Assyrian (then into Arabic), and which produced original Assyrian thinkers who wrote extensively and diversely
The First Division
ACE was centered in the Sassanid empire, which was rival to the Byzantine empire to the west. Political tension between the two empires separated Eastern from Western Christians, and doctrinal disputes over the nature of Christ (monophysites/diophysites) further distanced the Christian communities. The monophysitic movement gained a stronghold in the Byzantine realm and the Church of the East divided along these geopolitical/doctrinal lines by 450 A.D. -- The Assyrian Orthodox Church (AOC) was born.
The Second Division
In 780 A.D. there occurred a division in AOC, and Mar Maron took his followers from Syria and settled in Mount Lebanon, founding the Maronite Church. The Christians of Lebanon are known as "Maronites", after Mar Maron. The Maronite Church has since become a Roman Catholic Uniate.
The Third Division
In 1552 A.D. there arose a debate over how the Patriarch of ACE should be chosen. The Patriarch had been elected, but a faction in the Church desired that the Patriarchate become hereditary. The Hereditary faction lost its dispute and as a result sough allegiance with the Catholic Church of Rome. The Roman church made the hereditary faction Roman Catholic Uniates and called the new church the Chaldean Church of Babylon (CCB), to distinguish it from ACE. But in an interesting reversal, the hereditary faction returned fifty years later and took control of ACE, and the election faction took control of CCB.
Table of Apostolic Succession for the Assyrian Church of the East
Table of Apostolic Succession for the Syrian Orthodox Church
The Might That Was Assyria; H.W.F. Saggs; Sidgwick and Jackson; 1984.
History of Assyria; A.T. Olmstead.
Hagarism: the Making of the Islamic World; Patricia Crone, Michael Cook; Cambridge University Press; 1977.
History of Christianity in Asia: Volume One, Beginnings to 1500; Samuel Moffet; Harper Collins; 1994.
Cambridge Ancient History: The Roman Republic, 133-44 B.C.; W. W. Tarn; Cambridge University Press; 1985; pp 597.
By Foot to China: Mission of the Church of the East, to 1400; John M. L. Young; Grey Pilgrim Publications; Lookout Mountain, GA; 1991.
The Nestorians and their Rituals; George Percy Badger.
A Short History of Syriac Christianity; W. Stewart McCullough.
Patriarch, Shah, and Caliph; William G. Young.
An Introduction to the History of the Assyrian Church; W. A. Wigram.