Assyrian continuity is the theory—supported by some scholars and modern Assyrians—that today's modern Assyrians descend from the ancient Assyrians, a Semitic people native to ancient Assyria, that originally spoke ancient Assyrian language, a dialect of Akkadian language. Notions of Assyrian continuity are based on both ethnic, genetic, linguistic and historical claims, and the asserted continuity of Assyria's historical and cultural heritage after the fall of the ancient Assyrian Empire.
Claims of continuity have an important place in public life of modern Assyrian communities, both in homeland and throughout the Assyrian diaspora. Modern Assyrians are accepted to be an indigenous ethnic minority of modern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria, and border areas of northwestern Iran, a region that is roughly what was once ancient Assyria.
Assyrians are a modern people who still speak, read and write Akkadian-influenced Eastern Aramaic dialects, such as Assyrian Neo-Aramaic. Most are Christians, being members of various denominations of Syriac Christianity: the Assyrian Church of the East, Ancient Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church, Syriac Orthodox Church, Syriac Catholic Church; as well as the Protestant denominations of the Assyrian Pentecostal Church and the Assyrian Evangelical Church.
There has been a significant contingent of contemporary scholars supporting Assyrian continuity, including Simo Parpola, Richard Frye, Mordechai Nisan, John Brinkman, Robert Biggs, and Henry Saggs. Among Assyrian scholars, one of the most prominent supporters of Assyrian continuity is university professor and Syriac scholar Amir Harrak.
Evidence for continuity from the Classical Antiquity
Evidence of Assyrian continuity from the period of Classical Antiquity refers to archeological and historical data related to the Assyrian regional, cultural and ethnic continuity during the periods of Neo-Babylonian, Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian, Roman, Sassanid and early Byzantine rule (7th century BCE - 7th century CE). In terms of an unbroken continuity of Assyrian regional traditions and identity, one of the main evidence is provided by the survival of Assyrian regional name, that not only outlived the fall of the Assyrian Empire, but was also officially used by some successive states as administrative (provincial) designation for the Assyrian heartlands (see: Achaemenid Assyria, Sassanid Asoristan, and Roman Assyria).
Second group of evidence is related to archeological finds from various post-Imperial periods. Modern archeological excavations in the Assyrian heartlands have indicated that there was a substantial continuity of local occupancy, accompanied by preservation of regional and cultural identities, primarily in terms of continuation of main Assyrian religious cults and practices.
Additional questions, that were raised by several authors already during the period of Classical Antiquity, referred to etymological and semantic relations between terms Assyria and Syria. The discovery (1997) of the Çineköy inscription appears to prove the already largely prevailing position that the term "Syria" ultimately derives from the Akkadian term Aššūrāyu (cuneiform script: 𒀸𒋗𒁺𐎹) through apheresis. The Çineköy inscription is a Hieroglyphic Luwian-Phoenician bilingual, uncovered from Çineköy in Adana Province, Turkey (ancient Cilicia), dating to the 8th century BCE. This Indo-European corruption of Assyrian was later adopted by the Seleucid Greeks from the late 4th century BC or early 3rd century BC and also then applied (or misapplied) to non-Assyrian peoples from the Levant, causing not only the true Assyrians (Syrians), but also the largely Aramaean, Phoenician and Nabataean peoples of the Levant to be collectively called "Syrians" or "Syriacs" (Latin: Syriaci, Ancient Greek: Συρίακοι) in the Greco-Roman world.
In Classical Greek usage, "Syria" and "Assyria" were used almost interchangeably. Herodotus's distinctions between the two in the 5th century BC were a notable early exception. Randolph Helm has emphasized that Herodotus "never" applied the term Syria to Mesopotamia, which he always called "Assyria", and used "Syria" to refer to inhabitants of the coastal Levant. While himself maintaining a distinction, Herodotus also claimed that "those called Syrians by the Hellenes (Greeks) are called Assyrians by the barbarians (non-Greeks).
The Greek historian Thucydides reports that during the Peloponnesian wars (c. 410 BC), the Athenians intercepted a Persian who was carrying a message from the Great King to Sparta. The man was taken prisoner, brought to Athens, and the letters he was carrying were translated "from the Assyrian language" which was Imperial Aramaic, an official language first of the former Neo-Assyrian Empire and then a language of diplomacy of the succeeding Achaemenid Persian Empire.
"Those who have written histories of the Syrian empire say that when the Medes were overthrown by the Persians, and the Syrians by the Medes, they spoke of the Syrians only as those who built the palaces at Babylon and Ninos. Of these, Ninos founded Ninos in Atouria, and his wife Semiramis succeeded her husband and founded Babylon ... The city of Ninos was destroyed immediately after the overthrow of the Syrians. It was much greater than Babylon and was situated in the plain of Atouria."
Throughout his work, Strabo used terms Atouria (Assyria) and Syria (and also terms Assyrians and Syrians) in relation to specific terminological questions, while comparing and analyzing views of previous writers. Reflecting on the works of Posidonius (d. 51 BCE), Strabo noted:
"For the people of Armenia, the Syrians, and the Arabians display a great racial kinship, both in their language and their lives and physical characteristics, particularly where they are adjacent ... Considering the latitudes, there is a great difference between those toward the north and south and the Syrians in the middle, but common condition s prevail, [C42] and the Assyrians and Arimanians somewhat resemble both each other and the others. He [Poseidonios] infers that the names of these peoples are similar to each other, for those whom we call Syrians are called Aramaians by the Syrians themselves, and there is a resemblance between this [name], and that of the Armenians, Arabians, and Erembians."
Terms "Syria" and "Assyria" were not fully distinguished by Greeks until they became better acquainted with the Near East. Under Macedonian rule after Syria's conquest by Alexander the Great, "Syria" was restricted to the land west of the Euphrates. While the Romans mostly corrected their usage as well, they and the Greeks continued to conflate the terms.
Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, writing in the 1st century AD about various peoples who were descended from the Sons of Noah, according to Biblical tradition, noted that: "Assyras founded the city of Ninus, and gave his name to his subjects, the Assyrians, who rose to the height of prosperity. Arphaxades named those under his rule Arphaxadaeans, the Chaldaeans of to-day. Aramus ruled the Aramaeans, whom the Greeks term Syrians". Those remarks testify that Josephus regarded all there peoples (Assyrians, Chaldeans, Arameans) as his contemporaries, thus confirming that in his time Assyrians were not considered to be extinct.
Ancient kingdoms of Adiabene, Osroene, Beth Garmai (modern Kirkuk and it's surrounds)and Beth Nuhadra (centered in modern Dohuk) were Neo-Assyrian kingdoms within the Assyrian heartland, continuing its linguistic and cultural traditions, that can be observed particularly among social and political elites of Adiabene.
In the 380s AD, the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus during his travels in Upper Mesopotamia with Jovian states that; "Within this circuit is Adiabene, which was formerly called Assyria;" Ammianus Marcellinus also refers to an extant region still called Assyria located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Reflecting on various meanings of Syrian designations in works of classical authors, modern scholar Nathanael Andrade pointed that some of those uses are indicating the existence of ethnic continuities:
"This shift to "Syrian" as a social regional formulation did not suppress all veins of ethnic Syrianness. The Syrian ethnic articulations of Syrianness that characterized Seleucid times persisted through the Roman imperial period. The previously mentioned examples of Iamblichus and Lucian’s On the Syrian Goddess indicate this, and Strabo and Josephus posited ethnic continuity between Syrians and ancient Assyrians or Arameans."
Evidence for continuity from the Medieval Period and Renaissance
Arab conquest of the Near East during the 7th century CE marked the beginning of gradual Islamization and Arabization of native Christian communities, including Christian Assyrians, who were by that time mainly under the jurisdiction of the ancient Church of the East. During the early period of Muslim rule, terms for Assyria and Assyrians entered Arabic literature. The 10th-century AD Arab scholar Ibn al-Nadim, while describing the books and scripture of many people, defines the word "ʾāšūriyyūn" (Arabic: آشوريون) as "a sect of Jesus" inhabiting northern Mesopotamia.
The earliest recorded Western mention of the Christians of the area is by Jacques de Vitry in 1220/1: he wrote that they "denied that Mary was the Mother of God and claimed that Christ existed in two persons. They consecrated leavened bread and used the 'Chaldean' language".
The language that today is usually called Aramaic was called Chaldean by Jerome (c. 347 — 420). This usage continued down the centuries: it was still the normal terminology in the nineteenth century. Accordingly, in the earliest recorded Western mentions of the Christians of what is now Iraq and nearby countries the term is used with reference to their language. In 1220/1 Jacques de Vitry wrote that "they denied that Mary was the Mother of God and claimed that Christ existed in two persons. They consecrated leavened bread and used the 'Chaldean' (Syriac) language". In the fifteenth century the term "Chaldeans" was first applied to East Syrians no longer generically in reference to their language but specifically to some living in Cyprus who entered a short-lived union with Rome.
Following the schism of 1552, Yohannan Sulaqa went to Rome, claiming to have been elected as patriarch of the Church of the East. He made a profession of faith that was there judged to be orthodox, was admitted into communion with the Catholic Church and was consecrated patriarch by Pope Julius III. He returned to Mesopotamia as "Patriarch of the Chaldeans", or "patriarch of Mosul", or "patriarch of the Eastern Assyrians", as stated by Pietro Strozzi on the second-last unnumbered page before page 1 of his De Dogmatibus Chaldaeorum, of which an English translation is given in Adrian Fortescue's Lesser Eastern Churches.
Herbert Chick's "Chronicle of the Carmelites in Persia", which speaks of the Aramaic-speaking Christians generically as Chaldeans, quotes a letter of Pope Paul V to the Persian Shah Abbas I (1571–1629) on 3 November 1612 asking for leniency towards those "who are called Assyrians or Jacobites and inhabit Isfahan".
Scarcity of Assyrian names in the Christian Era
One of the main arguments against the continuity hypothesis is the scarcity of Assyrian and Mesopotamian (East Semitic) pagan personal names among the Assyrian Christian priests, bishops and other religious figures. This argument has been put forward by Jean Maurice Fiey, John Joseph and David Wilmshurst.
Dominican Syriac scholar J. M. Fiey noted that while Eastern Christian writers wrote extensively about Assyrians and Babylonians, they did not identify with them. 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 Assyrian and Chaldean Catholic 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 usual and common for peoples to adopt biblical names after undergoing Christianisation, particularly as names such as "Sennacherib" and "Ashurbanipal" have clearly pagan connotations, and thus unlikely to be used by Christian priests, and many were in fact throne names or eponyms. Fred Aprim has claimed that distinct Assyrian names continued in an unbroken line from ancient times to the present, giving examples of Assyrian personal names used as late as 238 AD.
Similarly, Odisho Gewargis explained the general scarcity of autochthonous personal names as a process taking place only after Christianisation, when peoples generally replace native names with biblical names; giving as an example of this 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," "Daniel," 'Michael," "Matthew," "Benjamin," "Elizabeth," "Mary," "Joanne," "Josephine," "Paula," "Rebecca," "Simone," "Ruth" etc. Gewargis also noted: "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?" In response, John Joseph strongly criticizes this argument as contradictory with Gewargis's other arguments:
"Contradicting himself, Mr. Gewargis notes that centuries ago, monks and ecclesiastics of the Eastern churches had 'great praise and exaltation for the Assyrians and their kings, their clergy and their judges and obvious downgrading of the prophets, clergy, kings and the elders of Israel. Thus one can say,' he concludes, that Sabhrisho, and monk Yaqqira and patriarch Ishoyabh 'were Assyrians filled with national pride.' We have here an unusual situation: 1. The Church fathers proudly calling themselves 'Aturaye'; 2. The common people, members of the church, for centuries calling themselves 'Suryaye'; 3. And Mr. Gewargis, an Aramaic-language expert who won't tell us the difference between these two Aramaic words, Aturaye and Suryaye."
Early modern opinions favoring continuity
Proponents of continuity such as Stephanie Dalley point out that as late as the 18th and 19th centuries, the region around Mosul was known as "Athura" by the native Christian population, which means "Assyria." A number of 19th century Assyriologists, such as Austen Henry Layard, the Assyrian archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam and the Anglican missionary and orientalist George Percy Badger supported Assyrian continuity.
Christian missionary Horatio Southgate (d. 1894), who travelled through Mesopotamia and encountered various groups of indigenous Christians, stated in 1840 that Chaldeans consider themselves to be descended from Assyrians, but he also recorded that the same Chaldeans hold that Jacobites are descended from those ancient Syrians whose capital city was Damascus. Referring to Chaldean views, Southgate stated:
"Those of them who profess to have any idea concerning their origin, say, that they are descended from the Assyrians, and the Jacobites from the Syrians, whose chief city was Damascus".
Rejecting assumptions of Asahel Grant, who claimed (in 1841) that modern Nestorians and other Christian groups of Mesopotamia are descendants of ancient Jewish tribes, Southgate remarked (in 1842):
"The Syrians are remarkably strict in the observance of the Sabbath as a day of rest, and this is one of a multitude of resemblances between them and the Jews. There are some of these resemblances which are more strongly marked among the Syrians than among the Nestorians, and yet the Syrians are undoubtedly descendants of the Assyrians, and not of the Jews".
Southgate visited Christian communities of the Near East sometime before the ancient Assyrian sites were rediscovered by western archaeologists, and in 1844 he published additional remarks on local traditions of ancient ancestry:
"At the Armenian village of Arpaout, where I stopped for breakfast, I began to make inquiries for the Syrians. The people informed me that there were about one hundred families of them in the town of Kharpout, and a village inhabited by them on the plain. I observed that the Armenians did not know them under the name which I used, Syriani; but called them Assouri, which struck me the more at the moment from its resemblance to our English name Assyrians, from whom they claim their origin, being sons, as they say, of Assour (Asshur)"
In 1849, British archaeologist Austen Layard (d. 1894) noted that among modern inhabitants of the historical region of Assyria there might be those who are descendants of ancient Assyrians:
"I have thought that it might not be uninteresting to give such slight sketches of manners and customs, as would convey a knowledge of the condition and history of the present inhabitants of the country, particularly of those who, there is good reason to presume, are descendants of the ancient Assyrians. They are, indeed, as much the remains of Nineveh, and Assyria, as are the rude heaps and ruined palaces."
Elaborating further, Layard also noted that local Christian communities, Chaldeans and Jacobites, might be the only remaining descendants of ancient Assyrians:
"A few Chaldaeans and Jacobite Christians, scattered in Mosul and the neighboring villages, or dwelling in the most inaccessible part of the Mountains, their places of refuge from the devastating bands of Tamerlane, are probably the only descendants of that great people which once swayed, from these plains, the half of Asia."
Reflecting on the question of ancient Assyrian heritage in the region, Layard formulated his views on Assyrian continuity:
"Still there lingered, in the villages and around the site of the ruined cities, the descendants of those who had formerly possessed the land. They had escaped the devastating sword of the Persians, of the Greeks, and of the Romans. They still spoke the language of their ancestors, and still retained the name of their race."
Ely Bannister Soane wrote in 1912, "The Mosul people, especially the Christians are very proud of their city and the antiquity of its surroundings; the Christians, regard themselves as direct descendants of the great rulers of Assyria."
Sidney Smith argued in 1926 that poor communities continued to perpetuate some basic Assyrian identity after the fall of the empire through to the present.[Note 1] Efrem Yildiz echoes this view also.
Anglican missionary Rev. W. A. Wigram, in his book The Assyrians and Their Neighbours (1929), writes "The Assyrian stock, still resident in the provinces about the ruins of Nineveh, Mosul, Arbela, and Kirkuk, and seem to have been left to their own customs in the same way".
R. S. Stafford in 1935 describes the Assyrians as descending from the Ancient Assyrians, surviving the various periods of foreign rule intact, and until World War I of having worn items of clothing much like the ancient Assyrians.
Some academics, including the Assyrian historian John Joseph, largely reject the modern Assyrian claim of descent from the ancient Assyrians of Mesopotamia, and their succeeding the Sumero-Akkadians and the Babylonians as one continuous civilization. He criticises modern Assyrian writers who "eager to establish a link between themselves and the ancient Assyrians, conclude that such a link is confirmed whenever they come across a reference to the word Assyrians during the early Christian period, to them it proves that their Christian ancestors always 'remembered' their Assyrian forefathers. Nationalist writers often refer to Tatian's statement that he was 'born in the land of the Assyrians,' and note that the Acts of Mar Qardagh trace the martyr's ancestry to Ancient Assyrian kings". He claims that while "The name Assyrian was certainly used prior to the nineteenth century . . . [it] was a well known name throughout the centuries and wherever the Bible was held holy, whether in the East or West", due to the Old Testament. However, the terms 'Assyria' and 'Assyrian' were only applied to people living within historical Assyria, and not, for example, to Levantine or Arabian persons or peoples.
Adam H. Becker, Professor of Classics & Religious Studies at New York University, disagrees with Assyrian continuity 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." (Both Anderson and Hobsawm study the origins of invented traditions in nationalism.) Becker describes Assyrians as "East Syrians" in his writings.
David Wilmshurst, a historian of the Church of the East, believes that Assyrian identity only emerged as a consequence of the earlier archaeological discovery of the ruins of Nineveh in 1845. Any continuity, he argues, is insignificant, if it exists at all.
Another argument is based on the etymology of "Syria." The noted Iranologist Richard Nelson Frye, who supports ethnic continuity from ancient times to the present, argues that the term 'Syrian' originating from 'Assyrian' supports continuity, particularly when applied to the Semites in northern Mesopotamia and its environs. In a response to John Joseph, Frye writes "I do not understand why Joseph and others ignore the evidence of Armenian, Arab and Persian sources in regard to usage with initial a-, including contemporary practice." Historian Robert Rollinger also uses this line of argumentation in support of the notion that "Syria" was derived from "Assyria", pointing to the evidence provided by the newly discovered Çineköy inscription. Joseph was long skeptical about the initial a-theory, using it as a central plank in his argument against continuity, but has since been forced to accept it following the discovery of the Çineköy inscription.
Prominent Assyriologist Henry Saggs in his book The Might That Was Assyria points out that the Assyrian population was never wiped out, bred out or deported after the fall of its empire, and that after Christianization the Assyrians have continued to keep alive their identity and heritage. However, Saggs disputes an extreme "racial purity"; he points out that even at its mightiest, Assyria deported populations of Jews, Elamites, Arameans, Luwians, Urartians and others into Assyria, and that these peoples became "Assyrianised" and were absorbed into the native population.
Assyriologist John A. Brinkman argues that there is absolutely no historical or archaeological evidence or proof to suggest the population of Assyria was wiped out, bred out of existence or removed at any time following the destruction of its empire. He puts the burden of proof upon those arguing against continuity to prove their case with strong evidence. Brinkman goes on to mention that the gods of the Assyrian Pantheon were certainly still being worshiped even 900 years after the fall of the Assyrian Empire. He also indicated that Assur and Calah, among other cities, were prosperous and still occupied by Assyrians, which he claims indicates a continuity of Assyrian identity and culture well into the Syriac Christian period.
British archeologist John Curtis disputed assumptions based on non historical biblical interpretations that Assyria became an uninhabited wasteland after its fall, pointing out its wealth and influence during the various periods of Persian rule. Modern archeological finds in the Assyrian heartland have indicated that Achaemenid Assyria was a prosperous region. Assyrians soldiers were a remnant of Achaemenid armies, holding important civic positions, with their agriculture providing a breadbasket for the empire. Imperial Aramaic and Assyrian administrative practices were also retained by the Achaemenid kings. In addition, it is known that a number of important Assyrian cities such as Erbil, Guzana and Harran survived intact, and others, such as Assur and Arrapha, recovered from their previous destruction. For those cities that remained devastated, such as Nineveh and Calah, smaller towns were built nearby, such as Mepsila.
French Assyriologist Georges Roux notes that Assyrian culture and national religion were alive into the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, with the city of Assur possibly being independent for some time in the 3rd century AD, and that the Neo-Assyrian kingdom of Adiabene was a virtual resurrection of Assyria, but emphasises that "the revived settlements [in ancient Assyria] had very little in common architecturally with their earlier precursors." Roux also states that, "After the fall of Assyria, however, its actual name was gradually changed to 'Syria'; thus, in the Babylonian version of Darius I inscriptions, Eber-nari ("across-the-river," i.e. Syria, Palestine and Phoenicia) corresponds to the Persian and Elamite Athura (Assyria); besides, in the Behistun inscription, Izalla, the region of Syria renowned for its wine, is assigned to Athura." Roux, as well as Saggs, note that a time came when Akkadian inscriptions were meaningless to the inhabitants of Assyria, and ceased to be spoken by the common people.
Patricia Crone and Michael Cook state that Assyrian consciousness did not die out after the fall of its empire, asserting that a major revival of Assyrian consciousness and culture took place between the 2nd century BC and 4th century AD.
Some supporters of Assyrian continuity, though not all, argue that Assyrian culture as well as ethnicity is continuous from ancient times until today. The Assyriologist Simo Parpola echoes Saggs, Brinkman and Biggs, saying that there is strong evidence that Assyrian identity and culture continued after the fall of the Assyrian Empire. Parpola asserts 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, based on accounts of Carsten Niebuhr. Parpola asserts that the Neo-Assyrian Upper Mesopotamian kingdoms of Adiabene, Assur, Osrhoene, Beth Nuhadra, Beth Garmai and to some degree Hatra which existed between the 1st century BC and 5th century AD in Assyria, were distinctly Assyrian linguistically, as they wrote in the Syriac language, a dialect of Aramaic which began in geographic Assyria.
Similarly, British linguist Judah Segal pointed to several historical sources from the period of Late Antiquity, containing references to contemporary Assyrians in various regions, from Adiabene to Edessa. He noted that Assyrian designations were used by Tatian, and Lucian of Samosata in his work "On the Syrian Goddess", and also by Christian authors in the later "Doctrine of Addai".
Robert D. Biggs supports genealogical/ethnic continuity without prejudicing cultural continuity, asserting that the modern Assyrians are likely ethnic descendants of ancient Assyrians but became largely culturally different from them with the advent of Christianity.
British writer Tom Holland in an article in The Daily Telegraph of 2017 clearly links the modern Assyrians to the ancient Assyrians, stating that they are the Christianised ancestors of the ancient Assyrians.
Philip Hitti states that "Syrian", "Syriac Christian" and "Nestorian" are simply vague generic terms encompassing a number of different peoples, and that the Semitic Christians of northern Mesopotamia are historically and ethnically most appropriately described as "Assyrians."
Kevin B. MacDonald asserts that Assyrians have survived as an ethnic, linguistic, religious and political minority from the fall of the Assyrian Empire through to the present day. He points out that maintaining a language, religion, identity and customs distinct from their neighbours has aided their survival.
Professor Joshua J. Mark supports a continuity, stating in the Ancient History Encyclopedia, "Assyrian history continued on past that point (the fall of its empire); there are still Assyrians living in the regions of Iran and Iraq, and elsewhere, in the present day."
French film maker Robert Alaux produced a documentary film about the Assyrian Christians in 2004, and states they are descendants of the Ancient Assyrians-Mesopotamians, and were among the very earliest people to convert to Christianity.
Differences between Assyrians and neighbouring peoples
Wolfhart Heinrichs differentiates between Levantine Aramaean and Mesopotamian Assyrian populations, stating that; "even if 'Syrian' were derived from 'Assyrian', it does not mean that the people and culture of geographical Syria are identical to those of geographical Assyria".
A series of modern genetic studies have shown that the modern Assyrians from northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran and northeastern Syria are in a genetic sense one homogenous people, regardless of which church they belong to (e.g. Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Assyrian Protestant). Their collective genetic profile differs from neighbouring Syrians, Levantine Syriac Arameans, Kurds/Iranians, Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Jews, Yezidis, Shabaks, Greeks, Georgians, Circassians, Turcomans, Maronite Christians, Egyptians and Mandaeans.
Late 20th century DNA analysis conducted on Assyrian members of the Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church and Syriac Orthodox Church 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, Turcoman, Kurdish 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 each Assyrians religious affiliation.[Note 2]
In a 2006 study of the Y chromosome DNA of six regional populations, including, for comparison, Assyrians and Syrians, 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 with different historical destinies."
In 2008, Fox News in the United States ran a feature called "Know Your Roots." As part of the feature, Assyrian reporter Nineveh Dinha was tested by GeneTree.com. Her DNA profile was traced back to the region of Harran in southeastern Anatolia in 1400 BC, which was a part of ancient Assyria.
In a 2011 study focusing on the genetics of Marsh Arabs in Iraq, researchers identified Y chromosome haplotypes shared by Marsh Arabs, Arabic-speaking Iraqis, Mandaeans and Assyrians, "supporting a common local background."[Note 3]
A 2017 study of the various ethnic groups of Iraq appeared to show that Assyrians (along with Mandaeans and Yazidis) have a stronger genetic connection to the population extant during the period of Bronze Age and Iron Age Mesopotamia than their neighbours, the Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Iranians, Armenians and Turcomans.
A study by Akbari et al supports the genetic distinctiveness of the Assyrian people in relation to their neighbours, and notes their ancient origins in the region
Among Assyrians, numbers of fluent speakers range from approximately 600,000 to 1,000,000, with the main dialects being Assyrian Neo-Aramaic (250,000 speakers), Chaldean Neo-Aramaic (216,000 speakers) and Surayt/Turoyo (112,000 to 450,000 speakers), together with a number of smaller, closely related dialects with no more than 10,000 speakers between them. Contrary to what their names suggest, these mutually intelligible dialects are not divided upon Assyrian Church of the East/Chaldean Catholic Church/Syriac Orthodox Church/Assyrian Protestant/Syriac Catholic Church lines.
By the 3rd century AD at the very latest, Akkadian was extinct, although significantly, some loaned vocabulary, grammatical features and family names still survives in the Eastern Aramaic dialects of the Assyrians to this day.
As linguist Geoffrey Khan points out that 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 Aramaeans, Phoenicians, Nabataeans, Jews and Levantine Syriacs of Syria and the Levant do not. This indicates that the Assyrian Eastern Aramaic dialects gradually replaced Akkadian among the Assyrian populace, and that they were both influenced by and overlaid the earlier Assyrian Akkadian tongue of the region, unlike Aramaic dialects spoken in the Levant.
Similarly, linguists Alda Benjamen and Andrew Breiner also note the Akkadian ( also known as Old Assyrian, Old Babylonian) and Sumerian sub stratum and influences on modern Assyrian dialects that are absent from other dialects of Aramaic and other West Asian languages, and indicates the speakers of these dialects are the same people that once spoke Akkadian.
There are 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'.
Simo Parpola asserts that Eastern Aramaic had become so entrenched in Assyrian identity that the Greeks regarded the Imperial Aramaic of the Achaemenid Empire during the 5th and 4th centuries BC as "the Assyrian Language."[Note 4] During the 3rd century BC composition of the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek for the Hellenised Jewish community of Alexandria, "Aramaic language" was translated into "Syrian tongue," and "Aramaeans" into "Syrians".
Parpola's assertions are also supported by professor of Semitic languages Alan Millard who states "Those (Aramaic texts) engraved on hard surfaces tend to be formal, but the notes scratched on clay tablets and the few ostraca reveal more cursive forms. From them descended the standard handwriting of the Persian period (called 'Assyrian writing' in Egyptian) and eventually both the square Hebrew script (also known as 'Assyrian writing' in Hebrew), and through Nabataean, the Arabic alphabet."
It is believed that all extant forms of Aramaic stem from Imperial Aramaic, which itself originated in Assyria.
Speaking Aramaic long ago ceased to signify an Aramaean ethnic identity, for the language spread among many previously non-Aramaean and non-Aramaic-speaking peoples in the Near East and Asia Minor from the time of the Neo-Assyrian Empire onwards. Korean orientalist Chul-hyun Bae of Seoul National University states "The Arameans' political power thus came to an end; however, their language survived, ironically achieving a far wider presence that the people among whom it had originated".
The Israeli orientalist Mordechai Nisan also supports the view that Assyrians should be named specifically as such in an ethnic and national sense, are the descendants of their ancient namesakes, and are denied self-expression for political, ethnic and religious reasons.
Sargon Donabed notes that Assyrians have been downplayed, denied and under represented in studies on modern Iraq and Turkey due to racial.and religious prejudice, and also that the confusion of later religious denominational names applied to them has harmed their cause.
Dr Arian Ishaya, an historian and anthropologist from UCLA states that the confusion of names applied to the Assyrians, and a denial of Assyrian identity and continuity, is on one hand borne out of 19th and early 20th century imperialistic, condescending and arrogant meddling by westerners, rather than by historical fact, and on the other hand by long held Islamic, Arab, Kurdish, Turkish and Iranian policies, whose purpose is to divide the Assyrian people along false lines and deny their singular identity, with the aim of preventing the Assyrians having any chance of unity, self-expression and potential statehood.
Naum Faiq, a 19th century advocate of Assyrian nationalism from the Syriac Orthodox Church community in Diyarbakır, encouraged Assyrians to unite regardless of tribal and theological differences. Ashur Yousif, an Assyrian Protestant from the same region of southeastern Turkey as Faiq, also espoused Assyrian unity during the early 20th century, stating that the Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic and Syriac Orthodox were one people, divided purely upon religious lines. Freydun Atturaya also advocated Assyrian unity and was a staunch supporter of Assyrian identity and nationalism and the formation of an ancestral Assyrian homeland in the wake of the Assyrian genocide. Farid Nazha, an influential Syrian-born Assyrian nationalist, deeply criticised the leaders of the various churches followed by the Assyrian people, accusing the Syriac Orthodox Church, Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church and Syriac Catholic Church of creating divisions among Assyrians, when their joint ethnic and national identity should be paramount. Assyrian doctor George Habash asserts that the Assyrian people have been denied representation due to a betrayal by Western powers and by policy of deliberately denying their heritage and rights by Muslim Arab, Turkish, Iranian and Kurdish regimes.
In Christian denominational terminology, both medieval and early modern, it was customary to label the Church of the East as the "Nestorian Church", and its adherents, including Assyrians, as "Nestorians". Kelly L. Ross notes that the oldest western reference to the 'Christians' of Iraq is as "Nestorians," a term used by Cosmas Indicopleustes in 525 AD, though she acknowledges that this is a 'doctrinal' term and not an ethnic one. Hannibal Travis, in contrast, argues that "Assyrian" is the oldest name for this community, and that the term long predated Nestorian. Artur Boháč, Fellow at the Center for Non-Territorial Autonomy at the University of Vienna, echoes Hannibal Travis in arguing that the confusion of later names applied to the Assyrians were introduced by Western theologians and missionaries, and others arose out of doctrinal rather than ethnic divisions.
Historian David Gaunt states that there was no consensus among English-language sources what term to use for the ethnic group in the early twentieth century; the term "Assyrian" had only been accepted for followers of the Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church and Chaldean Catholic Church who were extant in Iraq, southeast Turkey, northeast Syria and Northwest Iran Furthermore, since the Ottoman Empire was organized by religion, "Assyrian was never used by the Ottomans; rather, government and military documents referred to their targets by their traditional religious sectarian names".
All adherents of the Assyyrian Church of the East and it's offshoot, the Chaldean Catholic Church, reject the label of "Nestorian" even in a theological sense, since the ancient Church of the East certainly predates Nestorianism by centuries, and is doctrinally distinct. Philip Hitti stated that "Nestorian" is an inaccurate term both chronologically and theologically and has no ethnic meaning as it applied to Christians as far afield as China, Central Asia, India and Greece, while Sebastian Brock indicated that Nestorian designations were a lamentable misnomer.
In recent times, a mainly United States-based minority within the Chaldean Catholic Church has begun to espouse a separate 'Chaldean' ethnic identity. They assert that they are a different and separate ethnicity compared to modern Assyrians, and are the direct descendants of the ancient Chaldeans of southern Mesopotamia. As a compromise between the two positions, some have chosen to be referred to by the label 'Chaldo-Assyrian' or 'Assyro-Chaldean'.
Chaldean Catholics are members of the largest church that traces its origins from the Church of the East. For many centuries, the term "Chaldean" indicated the Aramaic language. It was so used by Jerome, and was still the normal terminology in the nineteenth century. Only in 1445 did it begin to be used to mean Aramaic speakers who had entered communion with the Catholic Church. This happened at the Council of Florence, which accepted the profession of faith that Timothy, metropolitan of the Chaldeans in Cyprus, made in Aramaic, and which decreed that "nobody shall in future dare to call [...] Chaldeans, Nestorians".
Previously, when there were as yet no Catholic Aramaic speakers of Mesopotamian origin, the term "Chaldean" was applied with explicit reference to their "Nestorian" religion. Thus Jacques de Vitry wrote of them in 1220/1 that "they denied that Mary was the Mother of God and claimed that Christ existed in two persons. They consecrated leavened bread and used the 'Chaldean' (Syriac) language".
In an interview published in 2003 with Raphael I Bidawid, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church between 1989 and 2003, he commented on the Assyrian name dispute and distinguished between what is the name of a church and an ethnicity:
I personally think that these different names serve to add confusion. The original name of our Church was the 'Church of the East' ... When a portion of the Church of the East became Catholic, the name given was 'Chaldean' based on the Magi kings who came from the land of the Chaldean, to Bethlehem. The name 'Chaldean' does not represent an ethnicity... We have to separate what is ethnicity and what is religion... I myself, my sect is Chaldean, but ethnically, I am Assyrian.
Proponents of a Chaldean continuity or separateness from Assyrians sometimes claim that they are separate because they speak Chaldean Neo-Aramaic rather than Assyrian Neo-Aramaic. However, both of these appellations are only 20th-century labels applied by some modern linguists to regions where one church was seen to be more prevalent than another for convenience, with no historical continuity or ethnic context implied in either. They are also inaccurate; many speakers of Chaldean Neo-Aramaic are in fact members of the Assyrian Church of the East, Assyrian Pentecostal, Evangelical Churches or Syriac Orthodox Church, and equally, many speakers of Assyrian Neo-Aramaic are members of the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syriac Catholic Church or other confessions. This is also true of the Surayt/Turoyo dialect, and minority dialects such as Hértevin, Koy Sanjaq Surat, Bohtan Neo-Aramaic and Senaya. Furthermore, each of these dialects originated in Assyria, evolving from the 8th century BC Imperial Aramaic of the Assyrian Empire and 5th century BC Syriac of Achaemenid Assyria.
- "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."
- "The relationship probability was lowest between Assyrians and other communities. Endogamy was found to be high for this population through determination of the heterogeneity coefficient (+0,6867), Our study supports earlier findings indicating the relatively closed nature of the Assyrian community as a whole, which as a result of their religious and cultural traditions, have had little intermixture with other populations."
- "In the less frequent J1-M267* clade, only marginally affected by events of expansion, Marsh Arabs shared haplotypes with other Iraqi and Assyrian samples, supporting a common local background."
- 'The Greek historian Thucydides reports that during the Peloponnesian wars (ca. 410 BC) the Athenians intercepted a Persian who was carrying a message from the Great King to Sparta. The man was taken prisoner, brought to Athens, and the letters he was carrying were translated "from the Assyrian language", which of course was Aramaic…'
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VII.63: The Assyrians went to war with helmets upon their heads made of brass, and plaited in a strange fashion which is not easy to describe. They carried shields, lances, and daggers very like the Egyptian; but in addition they had wooden clubs knotted with iron, and linen corselets. This people, whom the Hellenes call Syrians, are called Assyrians by the barbarians. The Babylonians served in their ranks, and they had for commander Otaspes, the son of Artachaeus.
Herodotus, Herodotus VII.72,
VII.72: In the same fashion were equipped the Ligyans, the Matienians, the Mariandynians, and the Syrians (or Cappadocians, as they are called by the Persians).
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- Assyrian Academic Society: Summary of the Lecture - Quote from a lecture held in 1999 by historian John 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."
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- Based on interviews with community informants, this paper explores socialization for ingroup identity and endogamy among Assyrians in the United States. The Assyrians descent from the population of ancient Assyria (founded in the 24th century BC), and have lived as a linguistic, political, religious, and ethnic minority in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey since the fall of the Assyrian Empire in 608 BC. Practices that maintain ethnic and cultural continuity in the Near East, the United States and elsewhere include language and residential patterns, ethnically based Christian churches characterised by unique holidays and rites, and culturally specific practices related to life-cycle events and food preparation. The interviews probe parental attitudes and practices related to ethnic identity and encouragement of endogamy. Results are being analyzed.
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Assyrians are one of the indigenous populations of modern-day Iraq.
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- "The hindrance before the advancement of the Assyrian people was not so much the attacks from without as it was from within, the doctrinal and sectarian disputes and struggles, like Monophysitism (One nature of Christ) Dyophysitism (Two natures of Christ) is a good example, these caused division, spiritually, and nationally, among the people who quarreled among themselves even to the point of shedding blood. To this very day the Assyrians are still known by various names, such as Nestorians, Jacobites, Chaldeans"
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