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R E L I G I O N
The Assyrian (Ašurian) Christians in Iran
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Encyclopedia Iranica
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Assyrians (Āšūrīs) is the term for the modern, East Syrian Christian communities in Iran. The ancient name “Assyrian,” derived from that of the god Aššur, designated the Semitic population of north Mesopotamia and their capital city. Even before the final destruction of the Assyrian empire in 612 B.C., its population had become largely Aramaic-speaking; knowledge of its ancient language, Akkadian, had become restricted to the educated people and to scribes. This facilitated the rise of a confusion over the identity of “Assyrian.” The term “Assyrian letters” used by Herodotus (4.87) meant to Ezra (465-24 B.C., scribe to Artaxerxes I) the Aramaic alphabet he used as a scribe; with it he transcribed the Pentateuch from the ancient Hebrew script, and he read these scriptures in this form before the Jewish congregation in 444 B.C. (Nehemiah 8). The Hebrew square-letter script was developed from this alphabet and is still called keṯāaššūrī, “Assyrian script” and until the last century, the language of the Aramaic portions of the Bible continued to be called “Chaldean.”

Thus the confusion of the ancient Assyrians and Chaldeans with the Arameans is not recent. But it became further complicated when J. S. Assemanus (Bibliotheca Orientalis III/1-2, Rome, 1725-28, repr. Hildesheim and New York, 1975) and J. A. Assemanus (De Catholicis seu Patriarchis Chaldaeorum et Nestorianorum Commentarius Historico-chronologicus, Rome, 1775, repr. Gregg Intern. Publishers, 1969) used the improper name of Chaldeans for all Syriac-speaking Christians united with Rome. The term was applied, not only to those in Iraq (former Nestorians), but also to the Lebanese Maronites, in order to distinguish them from the Nestorians; the latter were heretical from the point of view of the Roman Catholic Church. The people seemed satisfied to call themselves sūryāyē or sūrāyē “Syrians” or Nestorians and Jacobites according to their main creeds. The use of the name Assyrians for the Nestorians and other related Christians (some converted to Protestantism or other denominations) is partly due to the influence of the Anglican mission, which probably wanted to create a counterpart to the term “Chaldean” introduced by the Catholics. But it also contributed to the national awakening of this mellat suryētā (“Syrian nation,” as they called themselves in their press until the end of World War I). The Anglican mission was called “The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Mission to Assyrian Christians.”

The name Assyrians was especially propagated by the Anglican missionary W. A. Wigram in his popular publications, above all in his booklet The Assyrians and their Neighbours (London, 1929). Forty years later, J. Joseph, a member of this ethnic group, author of The Nestorians and Their Muslim Neighbours (Princeton, 1961), whose title is certainly suggested by Wigram’s booklet, returned to the original name of his people exposing the artificial nature of the names “Chaldeans” and “Assyrians” (pp. 6ff.). After World War I these people needed a name when they had to apply for their human rights before the League of Nations (Joseph, pp. 154ff.; Macuch, Geschichte, p. 260). Since by this time the name “Assyrians” had been officially introduced in the West, the eastern Syrians could only try to assert the term among themselves. In spite of the zeal of the “Assyrian” nationalists, it was not easy to bring it into general use; the Catholic part of this people still prefers the appellation Chaldean. But they succeeded to the extent that an Assyro-Chaldean union has been formed. Moreover, an Iranian Assyrian Catholic, Dr. Pēʾra Sarmas (see below), became the most zealous defender of the name “Assyrians.”

The development of the modern concept of “Assyrians” among these people themselves began with Botta’s excavation of the palace of Sargon II in Khorsabad (1843), followed by Layard’s discovery of Nineveh. This research opened the eyes, not only of the West, but also of the ethnically nameless Aramean population in these regions which had been satisfied to identify itself by religions denominations. Already in 1847, only two years after Layard’s discovery, a Jacobite copyist and poet ʿAbd-al-Wāḥed of Mosul designated himself as “of Assyrian origin and of Syrian Jacobite religion” (Ms. Mingana N. 77, fol. 106; Macuch, p. 421). True, the Neo-Syriac press in Urmia, founded in the 1840s by the American Presbyterian Mission, seemed satisfied with the name “Syrians” or with the religious designation ēdtā ʿāttīqtā d-madenā, “the Ancient Church of the East.” But the same press awakened the national self-consciousness of a people who, since the Mongol invasion, had fallen into illiteracy and lethargy. Soon after the arrival in Urmia of the first missionaries (especially Dr. Justin Perkins, who deserves the title of father of modern Syriac literature), the Assyrians found themselves in possession of schools, books and periodicals in their spoken language, a hospital and (from 1885 to the end of World War I) a university college, where educational science, theology, philosophy, and medicine were taught.

Za(h)rīrē d-ba(h)rā (The rays of light), edited by the Presbyterian Mission from 1849 to the end of World War I, was the first periodical in Iran and enjoyed a longer life than any other Iranian periodical. In 1896 it was followed by Qālā d-šrārā (The voice of the truth), edited by the Catholic Lazarist mission; in 1904 by Ūrmī ārtādoksētā (“orthodox Urmia”), edited by the Russian Orthodox mission; and in 1906 by the periodical of the national movement, Koḵḇā (The star; see Macuch, pp. 136-211). These periodicals of Urmia (the spiritual center of the Iranian Assyrians) did their best to bring on a religious renaissance and to stir the interest of the people in its past—both in their Christian history and in archeological discoveries in the territory of Aššur and Babel. (See the detailed biography of Hormizd Rassam, Layard’s Chaldean assistant, in Zahrīrē d-bahrā 61, 1910, p. 105; Macuch, p. 171 f.) In 1911 Frēdon Ātōrāyā, a Russian Assyrian of Iranian origin (the first of several Assyrian migrations to Russia had occurred in 1828; see Macuch, pp. 114, 181, 185) was publishing Nāqōšā (Stroke of the clock) in Tiflis. In an article “Who are the Syrians and how shall we raise our nation,” he wrote: “The Syrians are the sons of Aššur. We are children of Assyrians with glorious history . . . ” (reprinted in the Iranian Assyrian journal Ātor No. 140, 1972; Macuch, p. 383). The equation “Syrian” = “Assyrian” became established, although the name “Syrian” has not yet been abandoned, e.g., the mentioned editor chose “Ātorāyā” as his family name, and, similarly, Āšūrī and Āšūrīān have become preferred Assyrian family names in Iran. The equation found a philological advocate in the Chaldean scholar Tʾōmā Ōdo, bishop in Urmia, in his Dictionnaire de la langue chaldéenne (Mosul, 1897, p. 9 n.) and Ktāā d-qeryānē gūbyē (Morceaux choisis, Urmia, 1906, pp. 168ff.; repr. P. Sarmas, Tasītā III, p. 67ff.). He argued that the appellation Ātōrāyē came into being through aphaeresis of the initial aleph and the change of pronunciation of the spirantized to s²; the latter is normal in several Neo-Syriac dialects.

This simple philological equation is doubtful (see. F. Rosenthal, Die aramaistische Forschung, Leiden, 1939, p. 3 n. 1; and J. Joseph, pp. 12f.). But it obtained a zealous advocate in Dr. P. Sarmas (Macuch, pp. 293ff.), the author of the Neo-Syriac “History of Assyrian literature,” in his booklet Anān mānī (y)wa? (“Who are we?” Tehran, 1967), he asserted: “It has been commonly accepted that the word "Syria" is derived from the ancient word "Assyria" (p. 70) . . . Only by calling ourselves by a uniform name, namely "Assyrians," shall we gain the sympathies of our government and the respect of our neighbors; (and) others will not point us out with a finger as "that nation which does not know its name"” (p. 146; extracts in Macuch and Panoussi, pp. 1-3).

Clearly, this small ethnic group divided into different confessions needed special arguments for accepting a standard name “Assyrians” after this term had already been accepted, for practical reasons, by their neighbors in the Near East and in Russia, Europe, and America. National zeal had to be reinforced and the whole history of the people to be assyrianized. (The name sū/ōrāyē of the earlier texts ought to be rendered in reprints with an initial aleph, though provided with a linea occultans, as (ʾ)sōrāyē, in order to bring it graphically closer to ātōrāyē.) Thus the history of the people is always made to begin with Sargon I, not only in general histories (e.g., by M. Š. Amīrā, I. Š. Dāwīd, etc.) but also in books such as “The Assyrians and the Two World Wars” (by Yaʿqūḇ bar Māleḵ Ismāʿḕl). P. Sarmas’ Neo-Syriac “History of Assyrian Literature” comprises Akkadian, Syriac, and Neo-Syriac literatures. An uninterrupted history from Akkad until the present time is professed by all modern Assyrian writers (in Iran especially by Benyāmīn Ārsānīs; see Macuch, pp. 279-81 ).
The Arameans living in the territory of ancient Assyria (from Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria to Iraq and Iran) and even the Syrian Christians of Malabar (South India) continue to be taken as true Assyrians of the Christian period (see Y. Bḕ[t]-Solḕmān, Tašʿītā d-Ātorāyē b-zanā d-kriskyānūtā [History of the Assyrians at the time of Christianity], New Britain, 1931; and the scholarly work of J. M. Fiey, Assyrie chrétienne I-III, Beirut, 1965-68). Those in the border regions (Turkey, Kurdistan, and Azerbaijan) are esteemed as true descendants of the Assyrian colonists (P. Sarmas, Anān mānī (y)wa p. 70; Macuch and Panoussi, p. 2).

In order to animate people with interest in their ancient Assyrian history, recourse is often made in literature to personalities whose glory is mainly legendary. Sargon I already legendary in Neo-Assyrian times, is made the starting point of modern Assyrian history. The whole Near East is proved to bear the name of his land by a play Mātā d-Šārōkīn ( = Šarru-kīn) “The Land of Sargon” published and presented by the Assyrian Youth Committee in Beirut in 1969. It describes the fight of the “Assyrian” Christians against Jengiz Khan. Semiramis, the legendary founder and queen of Babylon (in fact Sammuramat, mother of the Assyrian king Adad-nirari III), is a resource for modern “Assyrian” name-giving, as well as romantic historical presentations. Šamīrām is a popular modern Assyrian woman’s name, also the name of the art and folklore associations of Assyrian youths in Tehran, founded by Lilē Tamrāz (Ātor 39, 1972; Macuch, p. 382) and in Beirut (Ātor 55, 1973; Macuch, p. 394). M. Š. Amīrā in his popular Neo-Syriac “History of Assyria” has Semiramis speak to her victorious armies returning from the conquest of Persia, Armenia, Egypt, and Abyssinia: “Beloved Assyrian youths, would that all of you could be as a single man that I might embrace him, press him to my breast, and kiss him on his mouth.” Then she ordered the flag of the Assyrian army brought and kissed it instead, because each soldier shared in the victory of this flag (op. cit., p. 108; extract in Macuch and Panoussi, p. 5).

To magnify the small ethnic group, the concept of “Assyrians” is sometimes overextended to all Oriental Christians, even to Ethiopians. Māleḵ Qambar Wardā (Macuch, pp. 275f.) after having fought in Ethiopia in 1934-36 against Mussolini’s army, was asked by an Assyrian friend why he did it; he reportedly answered: “Brotherly help. Ultimately, they also are Assyrians.”

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