History of the Assyrian people

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History of the
Assyrian people

medieval icon depicting Ephrem the Syrian.

Early history

Old Assyrian period (20th–15th c. BC)
Aramaeans (14th–9th c. BC)
Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–612 BC)
Achaemenid Assyria (539–330 BC)

Classical Antiquity

Seleucid Empire (312–63 BC)
Osroene (132 BC – 244 AD)
Syrian Wars (66 BC – 217 AD)
Roman Syria (64 BC – 637 AD)
Adiabene (15–116 AD)
Roman Assyria (116–118)
Christianization (1st to 3rd c.)
Nestorian Schism (5th c.)
Asuristan (226–651)
Byzantine–Sasanian wars (502–628)

Middle Ages

Muslim conquest of Syria (630s)
Abbasid rule (750–1258)
Emirs of Mosul (905–1383)
Buyid amirate of Iraq (945–1055)
Principality of Antioch (1098–1268)
Ilkhanate Empire (1258–1335)
Jalayirid Sultanate (1335–1432)
Kara Koyunlu (1375–1468)
Aq Qoyunlu (1453–1501)

Modern History

Safavid Empire (1508-1555)
Ottoman Empire (1555–1917)
Schism of 1552 (16th c.)
Massacres of Badr Khan (1840s)
Massacres of Diyarbakir (1895)
Rise of nationalism (19th c.)
Adana Massacre (1909)
Assyrian genocide (1914–1920)
Independence movement (since 1919)
Simele massacre (1933)
Post-Saddam Iraq (since 2003)

See also

Assyrian continuity
Assyrian diaspora

The history of the Assyrian people begins with the formation of Assyria circa 2500 BC, followed by rise of the Akkadian Empire during the 24th century BC, in the early bronze age period. Sargon of Akkad united all the native Akkadian speaking Semites and the Sumerians of Mesopotamia (including the Assyrians) under his rule. After the fall of the Akkadian Empire, the Akkadians split into two nations, Assyria in the north and much later, Babylonia in the south. However, Babylonia unlike Assyria, was founded and originally ruled by non indigenous Amorites, and was more often than not ruled by other waves of non indigenous peoples such as Kassites, Hittites, Elamites, Arameans and Chaldeans.

In Church tradition, they are descended from Abraham's grandson (Dedan son of Jokshan), progenitor of the ancient Assyrians. However there is no historical basis for the biblical assertion whatsoever; there is no mention in Assyrian records (which date as far back as the 24th century BC).

The Assyrian king list records kings dating from the 25th century BC onwards, the earliest being Tudiya, who was a contemporary of Ibrium of Ebla. However, many of these early kings would have been local rulers, and from the late 24th century BC to the early 22nd century BC, usually subject to the Akkadian Empire. Assyria essentially existed as part of a unified Akkadian nation for much of the period from the 24th century BC to the 22nd century BC, and a nation state from the 21st century BC until 605 BC. Assyria was for most of this period a powerful nation and had three periods of empire, between 1813–1750 BC, 1365–1020 BC and 911–605 BC.

Following the collapse of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and final resistance after 605 BC, Assyria came under the rule of its Babylonian brethren for a short period, from 604 BC until 539 BC. The last king of Babylon, Nabonidus, was ironically an Assyrian from Harran. Assyria then became an Achaemenid province named Athura (Assyria).[1] The Assyrian people were Christianized in the 1st to 3rd centuries,[2] in Roman Syria and Roman Assyria.[1] They were divided by the Nestorian Schism in the 5th century, and from the 8th century, they became a religious minority following the Islamic conquest of Mesopotamia. They suffered a genocide at the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and today to a significant extent live in diaspora.

They are culturally, linguistically, and ethnically distinct from their neighbours in the Middle East – the Arabs, Persians, Kurds, Turks, and Armenians. Assyrian nationalism emphasizes their indigeneity to the Assyrian homeland, and cultural continuity since the Iron Age Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Pre-Christian period: Assyrian Empire, followed by Median and subsequent Iranian/Roman hegemony[edit]

The history of ancient Assyria harks back to the Akkadian Empire of the Early Bronze Age. The Neo-Assyrian Empire flourished between 911 BC and 608 BC, before it was conquered by a coalition led by their Babylonian brothers, which also included Medes, Persians, Scythians and Cimmerians. The Assyrians today speak dialects of Eastern Aramaic, which still contain an Akkadian grammatical structure and hundreds of Akkadian loanwords. This language was originally introduced to Mesopotamia in 1200 BC by Aramean migrants who mixed with the native Akkadians. Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Assyrian Empire during classical antiquity.

After the defeat of Ashur-uballit II in 608 BC at Haran, and finally at Carchemish in 605 BC, the Assyrian empire was divided up by the key invading forces, the Babylonian Chaldean dynasty and the Medes.

Achaemenid Persian rule[edit]

The Median empire was then conquered by Cyrus in 547 BC.,[3] under the Achaemenid dynasty, and the Persian empire was thus founded, which consumed the entire Neo-Babylonian or "Chaldean" Empire in 539 BC.[4] King Cyrus changed Assyria's capital from Nineveh to Arbela. Assyrians became front line soldiers for the Persian empire under King Xerxes, playing a major role in the Battle of Marathon under King Darius I in 490 BC.[5] Cyrus II returned the sacred images of the Assyrians to Nineveh and Assur, established for them permanent sanctuaries, gathered all their former inhabitants and returned them to their habitations. The news of the assasination of Bardiya (son of Cyrus II), and this connection, Darius the Great declares that several satrapies including the Assyrian satrapy revolted.[6] In 482 BC, Babylonia and Assyria were joined together in the same adminstrative division.[7]

Early Christian period: Seleucids, Romans, Parthians, and Sassanid Persians/Byzantines[edit]

Funerary mosaic of an Edessa family, 3rd century.

Along with the Arameans, Phoenicians, Armenians, Greeks and Nabateans, the Assyrians were among the first people to convert to Christianity and spread Eastern Christianity to the Far East.

The Council of Seleucia of ca. 325 dealt with jurisdictional conflicts among the leading bishops. At the subsequent Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon of 410, the Christian communities of Mesopotamia renounced all subjection to Antioch and the "Western" bishops and the Bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon assumed the rank of Catholicos.

The Nestorian and Monophysite schisms of the 5th century divided the church into separate denominations.

With the rise of Syriac Christianity, eastern Aramaic enjoyed a renaissance as a classical language in the 2nd to 8th centuries, and the modern Assyrian people continue to speak eastern Neo-Aramaic dialects which still retain a number of Akkadian loan words to this day.

Whereas Latin and Greek Christian cultures became protected by the Roman and Byzantine empires respectively, Assyrian/Syriac Christianity often found itself marginalised and persecuted. Antioch was the political capital of this culture, and was the seat of the patriarchs of the church. However, Antioch was heavily Hellenized, and the cities of Edessa, Nisibis, Arbela and Ctesiphon became Syriac cultural centres.

The Seleucid Greek hegemony[edit]

At the end of the Achaemenid Persian rule in 330 BC, Mesopotamia was partitioned into the satrapy of Babylon in the south, while the northern part of Mesopotamia was joined with Syria in another satrapy. It is not know how long this division lasted, but by the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, the north was removed from Syria and made into a separate satrapy. Generally speaking, the Seleucid rulers respected the native priesthood of Meosopotamia, and there is no record of persecutions.[8] There is proof that the Parthians, when establishing their sovereignty over different parts in the empire, retained the dynasts that had become independant or had been acting on behalf of the Seleucids, as long as they accepted Parthian sovereignty. Full overlordship of the Parthians was established since the full establishment of the empire under Arsaces I of Parthia. Aramaic was the official language of the Achaemenid Persian Empire; after the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek replaced Aramaic, including up to the Seleucid empire. However both Greek and Aramaic were used throughout the empire, altough Greek was the principal language of the government. Aramaic underwent changes in different parts of the empire, and in Mesopotamia under the subsequent rule of the Parthians it evolved into Syriac.[9]

Roman Empire[edit]

Syria became a Roman province in 64 BC, following the Third Mithridatic War. The Assyrian army accounted for three legions of the Roman army, defending the Parthian border. In the 1st century, it was the Assyrian army that enabled Vespasian's coup. Syria was of crucial strategic importance during the crisis of the third century. From the later 2nd century, the Roman senate included several notable Assyrians, including Claudius Pompeianus and Avidius Cassius. In the 3rd century, Assyrians even reached for imperial power, with the Severan dynasty.

From the 1st century BC, Assyria was the theatre of the protracted Perso-Roman Wars. It would become a Roman province (Assyria Provincia) between 116 and 363 AD, although Roman control of this province was unstable and was often returned to the Parthians and Persians.

Parthian hegemony[edit]

Further information: Parthian Empire

When the Seleucids passed, it were the Iranian Parthians who took their place, wielding the sceptre over much of West Asia for some 400 years.[10] It is during the Parthian period that the Christianisation of Adiabene began. Despite the influx of foreing elements, despite the changes in architecture, the presence of Assyrians is confirmed by the worship of god Ashur, all proof of the continuity of the Assyrians.[11] The conclusion to be drawn from this is that the Greeks, Parthians, and Romans had a rather low-level of integration with the local population in Mesopotamia, which allowed their cultures to survive. Therefore the large influx of Greek and Iranian Parthian elements did not wipe out the local population and culture.

At the dawn of Christianity the people living in Assyria were Assyrians, Medes, Parthians, Persians, Greeks, and Armenians.[12]

Sassanid Persian hegemony[edit]

Further information: Sassanid Empire

In 225 AD Parthian rule over the Assyrian territories straightly moved to the newly established and vibrant Sassanid Persian Empire.[13]

The population of Asorestan was a mixed one, composed of Assyrians, Arameans (in the far south, and western deserts), and Persians.[14] The Greek element in the cities, still strong in the Parthian period, was absorbed by the Semites in Sasanian times.[14] The majority of the population were Assyrian people, speaking Eastern Aramaic dialects. As the breadbasket of the Sasanian Empire, most of the population were engaged in agriculture or worked as traders and merchants. The Persians were found in the administrative class of society, as army officers, civil servants, and feudal lords, living partly in the country, partly in Ctesiphon.[14]

At least three dialects of Eastern Aramaic were in spoken and liturgical use: Syriac mainly in the north and among Assyrian Christians, Mandaic in the south and among Mandaeans, and a dialect in the central region, of which the Judaic subvariety is known as Jewish Babylonian Aramaic. Aside from the liturgical scriptures of these religions which exist today, archaeological examples of all three of these dialects can be found in the collections of thousands of Aramaic incantation bowls—ceramic artifacts dated to this era—discovered in Iraq. While the Jewish Aramaic script retained the original "square" or "block" form of the Aramaic alphabet used in Imperial Aramaic (the Ashuri alphabet), the Syriac alphabet and the Mandaic alphabet developed when cursive styles of Aramaic began to appear. The Mandaic script itself developed from the Parthian chancellery script.

The religious demography of Mesopotamia was very diverse during Late Antiquity. From the 1st and 2nd centuries Syriac Christianity became the primary religion, while other groups practiced Mandaeism, Judaism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and the old Mesopotamian religion.[15] Christians were probably the most numerous group in the province.[15] The Sasanian state religion, Zoroastrianism, was largely confined to the Persian administrative class.[15]

Asorestan, and particularly Assyria proper, were the centers for the Church of the East (now the Assyrian Church of the East), which at times (partially due to the vast areas the Sasanian empire covered) was the most widespread Christian church in the world, reaching well into Central Asia, China and India. The Church of the East went through major consolidation and expansion in 410 during the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, held at the Sasanian capital (in Asorestan). Selucia-Ctesiphon remained a location of the Patriarchate of the Church of the East for over 600 years.

This period of Sassanid hegemony lasted all the way till the advent of the invading Rashidun Arabs between 633 and 638 AD after which Assuristan got annexed by the Islamic Arabs. Together with Mayshan became the province of al-'Irāq. A century later, the area became the capital province of the Abbasid Caliphate and the centre of Islamic civilization for five hundred years; from the 8th to the 13th centuries.

Islamic empires[edit]

The ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh had its own bishop of the Church of the East at the time of the Arab conquest of Mesopotamia. The Arabs still recognised Assyrian identity in the Medieval period, describing them as Ashuriyun.[16]

Starting from the 19th century after the rise of nationalism in the Balkans, the Ottomans started viewing Assyrians and other Christians in their eastern front as a potential threat. Furthermore, constant wars between The Ottomans and the Shiite Safavids encouraged the Ottomans into settling their allies, the nomadic Sunni Kurds, in what is today Northern Iraq and South-eastern Turkey.[17] Starting from then, Kurdish tribal chiefs established semi-independent emirates. The Kurdish Emirs sought to consolidate their power by attacking Assyrian communities which were already well established there. Scholars estimate that tens of thousands of Assyrian in the Hakkari region were massacred in 1843 when Badr Khan the emir of Bohtan invaded their region.[18] After a later massacre in 1846 The Ottomans were forced by the western powers into intervening in the region, and the ensuing conflict destroyed the Kurdish emirates and reasserted the Ottoman power in the area. The Assyrians/Syriacs of Amid were also subject to the massacres of 1895.

20th century[edit]

By the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating. World War I and its aftermath saw its end, during which time Assyrians (and Armenians and Greeks) suffered a genocide (from 1914 to 1922), where an estimated two-thirds of Assyrians died in organized massacres, starvation, disease, and systematic kidnapping and rape.

Assyrians prominently served in Iraq Levies organized by the British in 1919.

In 1932, Assyrians refused to become part of the newly formed state of Iraq and instead demanded their recognition as a nation within a nation. The Assyrian leader Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII asked the League of Nations to recognize the right of Assyrians to govern the area known as the "Assyrian triangle" in northern Iraq.[19] Eventually this led to the Iraqi government to commit its first of many massacres against its minority populations (see Simele massacre).[20]

Post-Ba'thist Iraq[edit]

Further information: Assyrian independence

With the fall of Saddam Hussein and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, no reliable census figures exist on the Assyrians in Iraq (as they do not for Iraqi Kurds or Turkmen), though the number of Assyrians is estimated to be approximately 800,000.

The Assyrian Democratic Movement (or ADM) was one of the smaller political parties that emerged in the social chaos of the occupation. Its officials say that while members of the ADM also took part in the liberation of the key oil cities of Kirkuk and Mosul in the north, the Assyrians were not invited to join the steering committee that was charged with defining Iraq's future. The ethnic make-up of the Iraq Interim Governing Council briefly (September 2003 – June 2004) guided Iraq after the invasion included a single Assyrian Christian, Younadem Kana, a leader of the Assyrian Democratic Movement and an opponent of Saddam Hussein since 1979.

In October 2008 many Iraqi Christians(about 12,000 almost Assyrians) have fled the city of Mosul following a wave of murders and threats targeting their community.The murder of at least a dozen Christians, death threats to others, the destruction of houses forced the Christians to leave their city in hurry. Some families crossed the borders to Syria and Turkey while others have been given shelters in Churches and Monasteries. Accusations and blames have been exchanged between Sunni fundamentalists and some Kurdish groups for being behind this new exodus. For the time the motivation of these culprits remains mysterious, but some claims related it to the provincial elections due to be held at the end of January 2009, and especially connected to Christian's demand for wider presentation in the provincial councils.[21]


See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b Frye, Richard N. (1992). "Assyria and Syria: Synonyms". PhD., Harvard University. Journal of Near Eastern Studies. The ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote that the Greeks called the Assyrians, by the name Syrian, dropping the A and first S. And that's the first instance we know of, of the distinction in the name, of the same people. Then the Romans, when they conquered the western part of the former Assyrian Empire, they gave the name Syria, to the province, they created, which is today Damascus and Aleppo. So, that is the distinction between Syria, and Assyria. They are the same people, of course. And the ancient Assyrian empire, was the first real, empire in history. What do I mean, it had many different peoples included in the empire, all speaking Aramaic, and becoming what may be called, "Assyrian citizens." That was the first time in history, that we have this. For example, Elamite musicians, were brought to Nineveh, and they were 'made Assyrians' which means, that Assyria, was more than a small country, it was the empire, the whole Fertile Crescent. 
  2. ^ Parpola, Simo (2004). "National and Ethnic Identity in the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Assyrian Identity in Post-Empire Times" (PDF). Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies (JAAS) 18 (2): 21. From the 3rd century AD on, the Assyrians embraced Christianity in increasing numbers 
  3. ^ Olmatead, History of the Persian Empire, Chicago University Press, 1959, p.39
  4. ^ "Ancient and Modern Assyrians: A Scientific Analysis". Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  5. ^ Artifacts show rivals Athens and Sparta, Yahoo News, December 5, 2006.
  6. ^ "Ancient and Modern Assyrians: A Scientific Analysis". Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  7. ^ "Ancient and Modern Assyrians: A Scientific Analysis". Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  8. ^ "Ancient and Modern Assyrians: A Scientific Analysis". Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  9. ^ "Ancient and Modern Assyrians: A Scientific Analysis". Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  10. ^ "The Assyrians and Their Neighbors". Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  11. ^ "Ancient and Modern Assyrians: A Scientific Analysis". Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  12. ^ "The Assyrians and Their Neighbors". Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  13. ^ "The Assyrians and Their Neighbors". Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  14. ^ Cite error: The named reference EI was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  15. ^ a b c Etheredge, Laura (2011). Iraq. Rosen Publishing. p. 72. ISBN 9781615303045. 
  16. ^ Hannibal Travis (2006), "Native Christians Massacred": The Ottoman Genocide of the Assyrians During World War I, Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal, vol. 1.3, pp. 329
  17. ^ Hirmis Aboona, Assyrians, Kurds, and Ottomans: intercommunal relations on the periphery of the Ottoman Empire, pp. 105
  18. ^ David Gaunt, Massacres, resistance, protectors: Muslim-Christian relations in Eastern, pp. 32
  19. ^ Ye'or, Bat; Miriam Kochan; David Littman (2002). Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. p. 148. ISBN 0-8386-3943-7. OCLC 47054791. 
  20. ^ Iraq Between the Two World Wars: The Militarist Origins of Tyranny, by Reeva Spector Simon
  21. ^ http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7696242.stm