1900-1999 A.D. Assyrian History

1929 London: The Assyrians and Their Neighbors
by Rev. W. A. Wigram
Posted: Friday, September 22, 2000 02:09 pm CST


Here are some passages from the book "The Assyrians and Their Neighbors" published in London in 1929 by Rev. W. A. Wigram.

“The Assyrian stock, still resident in the provinces about the ruins of Nineveh, where Mosul, Arbela, and Kirkuk were already great cities, seems to have been left to its own customs in the same way. Its individual life was far less conspicuous than that of a Greek city or a Jewish community, for it had neither center to focus it nor chronicler to record it. In due course, however, Christianity was to provide the one, and historians arose to produce the other.” “Page 26”

“Whatever success or failure attended the efforts of Mari in the south (author referring to the land of southern Iraq and Persian Gulf), there is no doubt that Christianity spread very rapidly in Adiabene (ancient province of todays Mosul & Arbil) in the north of the land. There, the peasants were of the old Assyrian stock, and their folk-memory may have preserved much of the Babylonian religion which the Assyrians held in common with their kinsfolk there.” “Page 36”

“Active persecution, however, did not break out until the conversion of Constantine had made the Roman Empire officially Christian. After that every Christian was politically suspect. It was not possible for the Persian official to believe that the “rayah” or subject who followed the religion of the Roman enemy was not a sympathizer with that enemy, and Roman authority provided any excuse that was needed. Constantine, most ostentatiously and tactlessly, claimed a protectorate over all the Christian subjects of the Shah-in-Shah, and then went to war with him. Christian powers have repeated the blunder in later days with the Turks. The first of these persecutions lasted forty years, and was full of every kind of horror. One must not, however, think of these movements as proceeding, in the East, in the orderly and relentless style of the Roman Empire. An Imperial Firman for the destruction of churches and the killing of such Christians as would not adore the sun was issued, but in the East a firman is not so much an order as permission, the standing order being, “thou shalt do nothing at all.” It was the release of a race-hatred, normally held in check, to do its will on its objects, if men liked; there were many ways of escape besides the ordinary slackness of the Oriental official. Still, for about a century and a half, whenever there was war between the Persian and the Roman, and we have seen how frequent that was sure to be, there was persecution for the Assyrian. Of course there were intervals of peace, and in one of these we find a sort of Charter, or Edict of Milan, issued by the Shah-in-Shah for the benefit and government of the whole body. By this act the King of Kings (Yezdegerd “the Wicked,” who was loked on by the Magians as almost an apostate for his pains), recognized the whole Assyrian Church as what a later age was to call a “millet,” a nationality organized in a Church under its religious authorities. The authority in this case being the Catholicos or Patriarch, with five “Metropolitans” and about forty bishops under him. The “millet” had the right to exist, and to worship in its own way, being controlled in internal matters by its own Patriarch.” “Page 50-51” “... in the question of the condemnation of Nestorius. Whatever the merits or demerits of the doctrine of that unlucky Patriarch of Constantinople, there was no doubt that his condemnation was unjust. In the tribunal that condemned him, the Council of Ephesus, Cyril of Alexandria, his personal enemy, united the posts of accuser and presiding judge, and then proceeded to pack the jury by refusing to admit any who might be possibly friendly to the defendant.” “Page 55”

“ Meantime, in its hour of distress, the Roman Empire had found a man, and one who appreciated the value of sea-power. Heraclius, striking alternately at Alexandretta and Trebizonde, entirely subdued the Eastern Empire in a series of marvellous campaigns. At last came the collapse of Persia, the miserable death of the “victorious” king, and the proposal for peace between the two exhausted combatants, on the basis of the status quo ante. Heraclius now showed himself a man of great dreams as well as of mighty deeds. He sought not only for the restoration of peace to the Empire, but to the Church as well, and longed for the reconciliation of the Assyrian and the Armenian Churches to that of Constantinople. For a moment it seemed that he had actually succeeded. Ishu-yahb, the Assyrian Patriarch, came to see the Emperor, charged with the return of the True Cross, a relic captured by the Persians when Jerusalem fell, and returned under the terms of peace. Emperor and Patriarch discussed reunion and soon came to an understanding, sharing together in the holy Mysteries; this understanding held good between the Emperor and the head of the Armenian Church. Unfortunately neither leader was able to carry his followers with him, for in all three parties the zealots were sure that “those others” must certainly be wrong. Assyrians suspected Greeks; Greeks had no great faith in the orthodoxy of the Emperor, and none were able to hold friendship with those of different custom to themselves. How was it possible, for instance, for a decent and orthodox Greek to hold communion in sacris with those Armenians ‘who did not mix water with the Eucharistic wine, and who did not eat either eggs or cheese on Saturdays in Lent.’ So nothing was done, for the Christian nations were irrevocably divided, and ere long those who had rejected the union saw the followers of a united Islam sweep over them all alike.” “Page 68-70”

“At first, when the Arabs conquered Mesopotamia, the power of the Christians was very great, for they were the sole educated class. It is true that the Arabs proved apt learners, and this advantage was lost in a century or so, but for the time it was important. All the learning of the Greeks came to the Arabs and in measure to the Persians too, through their Christian teachers, who were for the most part of the Assyrian Church. They had their colleges at Nisibis and at Selecucia, where Plato and Aristotle were taught, in Syriac and later in Arabic, and it was thus that Arabs became acquainted with Greek learning. When one remembers that after the night of the Dark Ages had descended on Europe, and Greek had been altogether forgotten, it was through Arab professors at Cordova and Salamanca that Western Europe first learnt to know Aristotle once more, one feels that Paris and Oxford owe more to the Assyrian schools, and to their turbulent founder Barsoma, than they always realize.” “Page 82-83”

“ So passed what we may describe as the greatest “might-have-been” in the history of the Church (author is referring to the Assyrian Church). The Mongol or Turkish stock had been willing for a couple of generations to accept Christianity and not Islam as their national faith, at least one prince of the House of Jenghiz being actually baptized, and had it been presented to them by the Oriental representatives of an undivided Christianity, there is little doubt that they would have done so. If this had happened, what might not have followed ?” “Page 139”

“In another campaign, the province of Adiabene (the Mosul-Erbil district) was practically depopulated. This was to a great extent a Christian province at the time, having been the stronghold of the Assyrian Church since the days of Mar Adai. Now it was swept with the besom of destruction, and its surviving people driven (according to their own tradition) up to the mountains of Hakkiari, the gorges of which were to remain their home until the twentieth century and the Great War swept them even out of that refuge.” “Page 145”

“ Under this custom, the Patriarch selected his own successor, almost as soon as he had been consecrated himself, and that successor was usually his own nephew. This designated heir to the office was known as the “ Natar Cursya “, or Guardian of the Throne, and the system is known familiarly in the “millet” by that name. Naturally, the Natar Cursya could not be the Bishop’s son, for by then all holders of that rank were celibates, and had been so for ages, however, a matter of custom, not of canon. Barsoma had secured the passing of a law that Bishops might marry, and though his council had been annulled, that particular cannon had been re-enacted, and up to the sixth century there were cases of married Bishops and Patriarchs in the Church. Universal feeling in favour of celibacy, at least in the higher ranks of the hierarchy, and the example of saintly Patriarchs like Mar Aba, then brought about a change of customes, so that now Bishops do not marry though priests and decons are allowed to do so freely. The law. rather oddly, seems to have ramained unchanged. Thus, the various canons of the councils of the Church were brought together and codified, about the year 1300, and the result published in the book of the “Sunhadus” (Synodus), which is still the manual of the Canon Law of the “millat,” Abd-Ishu of Nisibis, its compiler, could find no canon to forbid episcopal marriage, and he passed over the point in discreet silence.” “Page 157-158”

“ It is sometimes said that the Assyrian or Nestorian Christians have no connection with the Assyrians of antiquity, either by language or, so far as is known, by race. With all respect, the present writer ventures to differ altogether from that conclusion, and to assert his belief that the present Assyrian, Chaldean, or Nestorian does represent the ancient Assyrian stock, the subjects of Sargon and Sannacherib, so far as that very marked type survives at all. It is not a matter that is capable of documentary or monumental proof, from the nature of things, but certain facts that can be quoted seem to speak at least as loudly as do the words of any historian. Here are a people who, in the time of the begining of the Christian era, are founded living in the lands where, in the year 600 B.C. the Assyrian stock had been established since history began; nor is there any record of any considerable immigration into, or emigration from, that land, in the interval.” “Page 178”



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