The Assyrian continuity claim deals with the claims made by modern Assyrians that they are the direct descendants of the largely Semitic Akkadian inhabitants of ancient Assyria. These claims have seen considerable support among prominent Historians, Orientalists and Assyriologists such as Simo Parpola, Richard N. Frye, H.W.F. Saggs, Robert D. Biggs, Giorgi Tsereteli, Eden Naby, Mordechai Nisan, J.A Brinkman and Geoffrey Khan. Nineteenth century orientalists such as Austen Henry Layard, Horatio Southgate, George Percy Badger and Hormuzd Rassam (himself an Assyrian) also supported this view. Geneticists such as Cavalli-Sforza and linguists such as Geoffrey Khan also clearly endorse this position. Other scholars such as Jean Maurice Fiey, John Joseph and David Wilmshurst have voiced their various degrees of criticism against this claim.
The discovery of ancient Assyrian sites in regions mainly inhabited by indisputably indigenous pre-Arab and pre-Kurdish Semitic Assyrian Neo-Aramaic speaking followers of various denominations of Syriac Christianity was one important factor in reinforcing their already extant identification with ancient Assyria. Assyrian national identity has also gained further prominence at the beginnings of Assyrian nationalism and following the Assyrian Genocide, and it was warmly endorsed by a number of leading figures such as Naum Faiq and Freydun Atturaya.
Proponents of this theory point to the fact that in addition to existing as a nation state, and at times a powerful empire, from the 25th Century BC until the end of the 7th Century BC, Assyria existed as a distinct geo-political region named "Assyria" (including Athura, Seleucid Syria, Assuristan etc.) under Achaemenid Persian, Seleucid Greek, Parthian, Roman and Sassanid Persian rule, only ceasing to exist some time after the Arab Islamic invasion and conquest of the second half of the 7th century AD, and that its inhabitants regarded themselves and were regarded by their neighbours as Assyrians throughout these periods and have continued to do so afterwards.
Medieval Arab and Assyrian historians support continuity also; The 10th-century Arab scholar Ibn al-Nadim, while describing the books and scripture of many people defines the word Ashuriyun (Arabic for Assyrians) as "a sect of Jesus." The 2nd-century writer and theologian Tatian states clearly that he is an Assyrian, as does the satirist Lucian.
Native Assyrian religion, specific to the indigenous people, survived alongside Christianity until the 10th century AD.
... That even if their name is now "Syrian", they are originally "Assyrians" and they have had many honourable kings... Syria is in the west of Euphrates, and its inhabitants who are talking our Aramaic language, and who are so-called "Syrians", are only a part of the "all" (the all meaning Aramaic speaking Christians), while the other part which was in the east of Euphrates, going to Persia, had many kings from Assyria and Babylon and Urhay... Assyrians, who were called "Syrians" by the Greeks, were also the same Assyrians, I mean "Assyrians" from "Assur" (Ashur) who built the city of Nineveh.
Also according to the "Chronicle of the Carmelites in Persia", Pope Paul V shall, in a letter to the Persian Shah Abbas I (1571-1629) of 3 November 1612 mention that the Jacobites endorsed an "Assyrian" identity.
... Those in particular who are called Assyrians or Jacobites and inhabit Isfahan will be compelled to sell their very children in order to pay the heavy tax you have imposed on them, unless You take pity on their misfortune.
The question of the synonymity of Suria vs. Assuria was already discussed by classical authors: Herodotus has “This people, whom the Greeks call Syrians, are called Assyrians by the barbarians”. while strictly distinguishing the toponyms Syria vs. Assyria, the former referring to the Levant, the latter to Mesopotamia.
H. W. F. Saggs in his The Might That Was Assyria clearly supports ethnic and cultural continuity, pointing out that the Assyrian population was never wiped out or deported after the fall of its empire, and that after Christianisation the Assyrians have continued to keep alive their identity and heritage.
Efram Yildiz echoes this view also.
The Assyriologist Simo Parpola says that there is strong evidence that Assyrian identity and culture continued after the fall of the Assyrian Empire and into the present day. Parpola further points out that traditional Assyrian religion remained strong until the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, surviving among small communities of Assyrians up to at least the 10th century AD in Upper Mesopotamia, and as late as the 18th century AD in Mardin. Parpola asserts that the Mesopotamian kingdoms of Adiabene, Osrhoene and to some degree Hatra which existed between the 1st century BC and 5th century AD in Assyria, were distinctly Assyrian linguistically and to a great degree culturally and ethnically.
J. A. Brinkman points out that there is absolutely no historical evidence or proof to suggest the population of Assyria was wiped out or removed at any time following the destruction of its empire. He puts the burden of proof upon those denying Assyrian continuity to prove their case with evidence.
Georges Roux notes that Assyrian culture and national religion were still very much alive into the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, with the city of Ashur possibly being independent for a while in the 3rd century AD, and that the Neo-Assyrian kingdom of Adiabene was a virtual resurrection of Assyria.
Similarly, Robert D. Biggs accepts genealogical continuity without prejudicing cultural continuity, pointing out that the modern Assyrians are the ethnic descendants of their ancient ancestors but became culturally different from them with the advent of Christianity.
The noted Iranologist Richard Nelson Frye also clearly accepts ethnic continuity from ancient times to the present. Frye points out that the term 'Syrian' actually meant 'Assyrian', particularly when applied to the Semitic Christians of northern Mesopotamia and its surrounds.
Giorgi Tsereteli points out that the term Assyrian continued to be used to describe the Christian Eastern Aramaic speaking people in and around northern Mesopotamia in Georgian, Armenian (known as Assouri), Russian, Arab and Persian records from ancient times, the Middle Ages and through to the present day.
Eden Naby asserts that the Assyrians are clearly linguistically, genetically, culturally and historically distinct from all other peoples in the Near East, and that they are descendants of their ancestors based upon genetic, linguistic, cultural and historical proof.
Hannibal Travis states that later erroneous names which served to confuse Assyrian identity in the Western World, such as Nestorians, Syrians, Syriacs, and Chaldeans, were names imposed by Western Missionaries such as the Catholics and Protestants on the Ottoman, Persian and Mesopotamian Assyrians. The Greek, Persian, and Arab rulers of occupied Assyria, as well as Assyrian, Chaldean Catholic and Syriac Orthodox patriarchs, priests, and monks, as well as Armenian, Georgian, Arab, Kurdish, Turkish, Russian, British, and French laypeople, called them Assyrians.
Artur Boháč asserts that Assyrians are an ethnically, linguistically and religiously distinct minority in the Near East, descendant from the ancient Semitic Assyrians, and unrelated on ethnic, linguistic, cultural and genetic levels to Arabs, Kurds, Iranians, Armenians and Levantine Syriacs. Boháč ehoes Hannibal Travis in pointing out that the confusion of later names applied to the Assyrian ethnic group were introduced by Western theologians and missionaries, and others arose out of doctrinal rather than ethnic divisions.
Some historians disagree; Adam H. Becker of New York University regards the continuity claims as "hogwash" and writes that the special continuity claims "must be understood as a modern invention worthy of the study of a Benedict Anderson or an Eric Hobsbawm rather than an ancient historian." Becker describes Assyrians as East Syrians in his writings.
David Wilmshurst, a historian of the Church of the East, accepts only limited and insignificant continuity, and argues that a consciousness of Assyrian identity only emerged in the final decades of the 19th Century, as a consequence of the archaeological discovery of the ruins of Nineveh in 1845.
However, the observations made by Horatio Southgate whilst travelling in northern Mesopotamia in the early 1840s in the period prior to these Assyrian archaeological discoveries show that the Armenians of southeastern Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia were at that period clearly using the term 'Assyrian' in preference to the term 'Syrian', and that the Assyrians in these regions clearly regarded themselves as Assyrians descendant from their ancient namesakes.
In the 9th century AD Michael the Syrian mentions that the Christians of Mesopotamia known as 'Syrians' in the west, are in fact known as 'Assyrians' by themselves and in the east.
Pope Paul V also uses this term in the early 17th century when describing the Assyrians of north western Iran.
Scarcity of Assyrian names
One of the main arguments against the continuity hypothesis is the almost complete absence of Assyrian (East Semitic) personal names among the Christians supposedly descended from the ancient Assyrians. This argument has been put forward by John Joseph, Jean Maurice Fiey and David Wilmshurst. Fiey comments, 'I have made indices of my Assyrie chretienne, and have had to align some 50 pages of proper names of people; there is not a single writer who has an 'Assyrian' name.' Wilmshurst comments, 'The names of thousands of Nestorian and Chaldean bishops, priests, deacons and scribes between the third and nineteenth centuries are known, and there is not a Sennacherib or Ashurbanipal among them.'
Defenders of the continuity hypothesis have argued that it is common for peoples to adopt Biblical names after undergoing Christianisation, particularly as names such as Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal have clear pagan connotations, and many were in fact throne names. Fred Aprim has asserted that distinct Assyrian names did indeed continue in an unbroken line from ancient times to the present, though without giving many examples. Simo Parpola also gives evidence of the continuation of ancient Assyrian names. Odisho Gewargis explained the general scarcity (but not total absence) of autochthonous personal names as a process taking place only after Christianization. The reduction in ethnic naming is of course common in most peoples that adopt a monotheistic religion,and they are generally replaced with Biblical Names; an example of this would be the scarcity of traditional English names such as Wolfstan, Redwald, Aethelred, Offa and Wystan among modern Englishmen, compared to the commonality of non English biblical names such as John, Mark, David, Paul, Thomas and Matthew.
Syria and Assyria
Another argument concerns the controversy between the terms Syrian/Syriac vs Assyrian. Sceptics had long pointed out, and some continue to do so, that the prevalence of the term Syrian/Syriac is a strong argument against the idea of Assyrian identity. Supporters of the Assyrian continuity hypothesis argue that the terms Syrian and Syriac are indeed derivatives of Assyrian, and in past times these terms actually meant Assyrian, particularly when referring to the inhabitants of Mesopotamia and its immediate surrounds. Majority mainstream scholarly opinion strongly supports the position that 'Syrian' and 'Syriac' indeed derived from 'Assyrian', and the 21st Century discovery of the Çineköy inscription seems to clearly confirm this.
Other Naming Controversies
Other scholars note that terms such as Syriacs, Syrians, Chaldeans and Nestorians were imposed at a later date upon a people always historically known as Assyrians by themselves and neighbouring peoples by external, largely Western and Theological sources. Apart from the terms Syriacs and Syrians originally meaning Assyrians, the term Nestorian was applied not just to the eastern Aramaic speaking Assyrians, but to any member of an eastern rite church, regardless of geography, ethnicity and language, and included such diverse peoples as Assyrians, Arameans, Indians and Chinese, thus it is a doctrinal rather than an ethnic label. The term Chaldean refers to those Assyrians, former members of the Assyrian Church of the East who entered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church between the 16th and 18th centuries. Again, this is a doctrinal term, rather than an ethnic one. The Chaldean Catholic Church was originally named the Church of Assyria and Mosul, and was changed to distinguish its members from the Assyrian Church of the East. Its members were from northern Mesopotamia (Assyria), rather than the far south east of Mesopotamia where the long disappeared Ancient Chaldeans had lived.
Following the destruction of the Neo Assyrian Empire by 608 BC, the population of the Assyria came under the control of their Babylonian relatives until 539 BC. Ironically, Nabonidus, the last king of Babylonia, was himself from Assyria. From that time, Assyria as a political and named entity was under Persian Achaemenid, Macedonian, Seleucid, Parthian Arascid, Roman and Sassanid rule for seven centuries undergoing Christianisation during this time.
Assyria flourished during the Achaemenid period from 539-323 BC (see Achaemenid Assyria), becoming a major source of manpower for the Achaemenid armies and a breadbasket for the empire, with Assyrians also attested as having important administrative posts within the empire, disproving the Biblical assertion that Assyria was both depopulated and devastated. Assyria was even powerful enough to raise a full-scale rebellion against the Achamenids.
The Seleucid empire succeeded that of the Achaemenids in 323 BC; from that point Greek became the official language of the empire at the expense of Mesopotamian Aramaic. The general populace of Assyria were not Hellenised however, as is attested by the survival of native language and religion long after the destruction of the Seleucid Empire itself had been destroyed. The province flourished much as it had under the Achaemenids for the next century, however by the late 3rd century BC Assyria became a battleground between the Seleucid Greeks and the Parthians but remained largely in Greek hands until the reign of Mithridates I when it fell to the Parthians.
During the Seleucid period, the term Assyria was altered to read Syria, a Mediterranean form of the original name that had been in use since the 8th or 9th century BC among some western colonies of the Assyrian Empire (see Çineköy inscription). The Seleucid Greeks used this term to name Aramea to the west Syria (read Assyria) as it had been an Assyrian colony for centuries. When they lost control of Assyria proper (which is northern Mesopotamia, north east Syria and part of south east Anatolia), they retained the name but applied it only to the former Assyrian colony of Aramea (i.e. The Levant). This created a situation where both the actual Assyrians of Mesopotamia and the Arameans to the west were referred to as Syrians by the Greco-Roman civilisations and western world, causing the later Syrian vs. Assyrian naming controversy.
The region was pointedly renamed Assyria (Assuristan) during the Parthian era. The Parthians appeared to have exercised only loose control at times, leading to the virtual resurrection of Assyria with the native kingdom of Adiabene 15 B.C. to 117 A.D. centered in modern Arbil. Its rulers were converts from Mesopotamian religion to Judaism and later Christianity, and it retained Mesopotamian Eastern Aramaic as its spoken tongue.
Christianity, as well as Gnostic sects such as the Sabians and Manicheanism, took hold between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. Assyria became the center of the distinct Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Christianity and of Syriac literature.
The Parthians regained control of the region a few years later, and pointedly retained the name Assyria (Assuristan). Other small kingdoms had also sprung up in the region as well as Adiabene, namely Osrhoene and Hatra, which were Aramaic/Syriac speaking and at least partly Assyrian. Assyrian identity appears to have remained strong, with the 2nd-century writer and theologian Tatian stating clearly that he is an Assyrian, as does the satirist Lucian in the same period.
Assur itself also appears to have been independent or largely autonomous, with temples being dedicated to the national god of the Assyrians (Ashur), as well as other distinctly Mesopotamian dieties, into the second half of the 3rd century AD, before it was once again destroyed by the invading Sassanids in 256 AD. In addition, a sanctuary for the Assyrian moon god Sin with Syriac inscriptions invoking his name dating to the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD was found at Sumatar Harabesi not far from Harran and Edessa.
The Sassanids recognised the land as Assyria, retaining the name Assuristan.
It has been claimed that Assyrians retained a distinct identity and a degree of local autonomy in the Sassanid period; according to the legend of Mar Behnam, the region around Nineveh was governed in the 4th century A.D. by a certain local Assyrian king, pointedly named Sennacherib, who established the Mar Behnam monastery in memory of his son.
Assyria remained recognised as such by its inhabitants, Sassanid rulers and neighbouring peoples until after the Arab Islamic conquest of the second half of the 7th century AD. Even after that event, and under the pressure of Arabization and Islamification, Assyrian identity remained; a plaque found in northern Mesopotamia dating from the late 7th century AD mentions a man by the name of Otal Bar Sargon, "Sargon" being a very distinct Assyrian name.
During the 12th century AD, well into the Arab Islamic period, the Arab Muslims were still referring to the indigenous population as Ashuriyun, and Assyrian religion survived in the region amongst the Assyrians until as late as the 10th Century AD.
Similarly the ciy of Ashur was occuped by Assyrians as late as the 14th Century AD, only being abandoned after the massacres of Assyrian Christians by Tamurlane, significantly the abandonment of Ashur coincides with the massacres of Assyrians.
Some evidence also exists that the last remnants of Mesopotamian religion existed in small pockets into the 18th century.
A number of eastern Medieval scholars and theologians (such as Michael the Syrian), as well as a number of neighbouring peoples such as the Arabs, Armenians and Georgians, still recognised the Semitic Christian population of northern Mesopotamia as Assyrians.
European travellers in Mesopotamia in the first part of the 19th century came upon Eastern Aramaic speaking Christians who still identified themselves as Assyrians, bearing Assyrian names, and who were identified by their neighbours as such.
In addition, a number of vocabulary and grammatical features in the colloquial modern neo-Aramaic dialects spoken by the Assyrians shows similarities with the ancient Akkadian language, whereas significantly, the now near extinct Western Aramaic dialects of the Arameans and Syriacs of Syria and the Levant do not.
One example is the use of the prefixed article k- or other variants of it such as ki- and či- which does not appear in classical Syriac. Evidence of the existence of an earlier language which differs from Classical Syriac can be found in other medieval texts such as an Arabic medical book that was composed by Ibn Baklarish in Spain. The book lists a number of medical elements in a variety of languages including one designated as al-suryāniyya which would presumably correspond with Syriac. The words listed under it are not Classical Syriac however, but correspond to forms found only in the modern Assyrian dialects spoken to the east of the Tigris.
Another distinguishing grammatical feature of modern Assyrian which differs from Syriac is the infliction of past verbs by a series of suffixes that contain the preposition l-, e.g. grišle 'he pulled' and grišli 'I pilled' compared with the Syriac graš and gerešt respectively. The use of this suffix has been attested to Aramaic documents dating back to the 5th century B.C. This verbal form is originally a passive construction consisting of a passive participle and an agentive phrase. Examples of this passive construction has been later found in Mandaic and Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic and even in Syriac. All these forms of Aramaic are however far more frequently expressed by the active verbal form graš, and the passive types are likely to be reflections of the contemporary spoken vernacular that have infiltrated the standard literary language.
There is also a number of Akkadian words mostly connected with agriculture that have been preserved in modern Syriac vernaculars. One example is the word miššara 'rice paddy field' which is a direct descendant of the Akkadian mušāru. A number of words in the dialect of Bakhdida (Qaraqosh) shows the same origin, e.g. baxšimə 'storeroom (for grain)' from Akkadian bīt ḫašīmi 'storehouse' and raxiṣa 'pile of straw' from raḫīṣu 'pile of harvest produce'.
Some grammatical features that are found in the modern Assyrian dialects are typologically more archaic than the corresponding features in classical Syriac. In the dialect of Qaraqosh, for example, the infinitive of all verbal stems does not have an initial m-, by contrast with Syriac infinitives, which have acquired this prefix by analogy with the participles.
A number of Assyrian family names, such as Ashur, Hadad, Shamash and Akkad, together with tribal names such as Bit-Shamasha, Bit Tyareh and Bit-Eshtazin have clear reference to Ancient Mesopotamian origin.
Late 20th century DNA analysis conducted by Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi and Alberto Piazza, "shows that Assyrians have a distinct genetic profile that distinguishes their population from any other population." Genetic analysis of the Assyrians of Persia demonstrated that they were "closed" with little "intermixture" with the Muslim Persian population and that an individual Assyrian's genetic makeup is relatively close to that of the Assyrian population as a whole. Cavalli-Sforza et al. state in addition, "[T]he Assyrians are a fairly homogeneous group of people, believed to originate from the land of old Assyria in northern Iraq", and "they are Christians and are probably bona fide descendants of their namesakes." "The genetic data are compatible with historical data that religion played a major role in maintaining the Assyrian population's separate identity during the Christian era". A 2008 study on the genetics of "old ethnic groups in Mesopotamia," including 340 subjects from seven ethnic communities (Assyrian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Armenian, Turkmen and Arab peoples of Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait) found that Assyrians were homogeneous with respect to all other ethnic groups sampled in the study, regardless of religious affiliation.
In a 2006 study of the Y chromosome DNA of six regional Armenian populations, including, for comparison, Assyrians and 72 Syrian students from Damascus University, researchers found that, "the Semitic populations (Assyrians and Syrians) are very distinct from each other according to both [comparative] axes. This difference supported also by other methods of comparison points out the weak genetic affinity between the two populations (Assyrians of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and north east Syria versus Syrians) with different historical destinies."
In a 2011 study focusing on the genetics of Marsh Arabs of Iraq, researchers identified Y chromosome haplotypes shared by Marsh Arabs, Arabic speaking Iraqis, Mandeans and Assyrians, "supporting a common local background."
An Assyrian Television reporter named Nineveh Denha was subject to a genetic mapping profile as part of an American News Documentary in 2008, which showed her genetic ancestry traced to circa 1400 BC in what was then ancient Assyria,
- Nationalism and ancient history
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- Ancient Church of the East
- Achaemenid Assyria
- Khan 2008, pp. 6
- The Fihrist (Catalog): A Tench Century Survey of Islamic Culture. Abu 'l Faraj Muhammad ibn Ishaq al Nadim. Great Books of the Islamic World, Kazi Publications. Translator: Bayard Dodge.
- History of Mikhael The Great Chabot Edition p. 748, 750, quoted after Addai Scher, Hestorie De La Chaldee Et De "Assyrie"
- H. Chick: A Chronicle of the Carmelites in Persia. London 1939, S. 100.
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- Frye, Assyria and Syria: Synonyms, pp. 30
- Saggs, pp. 290, "The destruction of the Assyrian Empire did not wipe out its population. They were predominantly peasant farmers, and since Assyria contains some of the best wheat land in the Near East, descendants of the Assyrian peasants would, as opportunity permitted, build new villages over the old cities and carried on with agricultural life, remembering traditions of the former cities. After seven or eight centuries and after various vicissitudes, these people became Christians. These Christians, and the Jewish communities scattered amongst them, not only kept alive the memory of their Assyrian predecessors but also combined them with traditions from the Bible."
- S. Smith, "Notes on the Assyrian Tree," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, (1926): 69: "In Achaemenian times there was an Assyrian detachment in the Persian army, but they could only have been a remnant. That remnant persisted through the centuries to the Christian era and beyond, and continued to use in their personal names appellations of their pagan deities. This continuance of an Assyrian tradition is significant for two reasons; the miserable conditions of these late Assyrians is attested to by the excavations at Ashur, and it is clear that they were reduced to extreme poverty by the time of Parthian rule."
- Assyrians After Assyria, Parpola
- From a lecture by J. A. Brinkman: "There is no reason to believe that there would be no racial or cultural continuity in Assyria, since there is no evidence that the population of Assyria was removed." Quoted in Efram Yildiz's "The Assyrians" Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, 13.1, pp. 22, ref 24
- Georges Roux - Ancient Iraq
- "Especially in view of the very early establishment of Christianity in Assyria and its continuity to the present and the continuity of the population, I think there is every likelihood that ancient Assyrians are among the ancestors of modern Assyrians of the area." Biggs, pp. 10
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- Odisho, We Are Assyrians, pp. 89, "If the children of Sennacherib were, for centuries, taught to pray and damn Babylon and Assyria, how does the researcher expect from people who wholeheartedly accepted the Christian faith to name their children Ashur and Esarhaddon?"
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