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Reflections on “The Modern Assyrians of the Middle East”

Posted: Tuesday, January 15, 2002 06:56 AM CT


The Modern Assyrians of the Middle East
Encounters with Western Christian Missions, Archaeologists, & Colonial Powers

by John Joseph, PhD
Louis Audenreid Professor of History, Emeritus, at Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Format: Hardcover, 291pp.
ISBN: 9004116419
Publisher: Brill Academic Publishers, Incorporated
Published Date: August  2000

Table of Contents
  Preface vii
  Foreword (first edition) ix
  Preface (first edition) xi
I. Nestorians, Chaldeans, Syrians, Arameans, Assyrians 1
II. Early Beginnings 33
III. Missionaries, Kurds, and Christians 65
IV. Mission to Azerbayjan 87
V. The Powers, Kurds, and Christians 107
VI. The Calm and the Storm 131
VII. In Exile 151
VIII. The Inevitable Clash 175
IX. Between Mutually Hostile Neighbors 207
X. From Missions to Ecumenism 229
  Bibliography: Books and Public Documents 261
  Bibliography: Articles and Periodicals 277
  Index 285

Opinion and reflections by Sargon R. Michael

This book is a revised version of Dr. John Joseph's "The Nestorians and Their Muslim Neighbors, a study of Western influence on their relations", originally published by Princeton University Press in 1961.  The author's scholarly research and description of the history of Modern Assyrians enlightened this Assyrian reader.  It is not my intention to embark on a task of blind criticism nor it is an attempt to undermine the noble efforts of the author.  However, it is hard to suppress ones nationalistic sentiments whenever our true identity is at stake. Nonetheless, I would like to shed some light on what it is believed to be of interest to most Assyrian readers, i.e., the linkage, or lack there of, of the Modern Assyrians to the Ancient Assyrians. While acknowledging the author's vast knowledge in Middle Eastern studies and dare not challenge the historical facts and hypothesis in regard to the origin of modern Assyrians, I am prepared to engage into an intellectual debate on our national identity.  There are other Assyrian scholars including Dr. Edward Y. Odisho who have come out in the defense of the linkage in a scholarly and analytical manner.

"To be the native of a land for more than three millennia and yet to have the authenticity of one's nativity questioned or even denied is the most flagrant violation of one's human rights", (Dr. Odisho's presentation at Melammu Symposia, Helsinki 2001).

Dr. Odisho eloquently describes his presentation,

"…… this study was a practice in scientific research aimed at making judgements that are fairer and more objective…".

This reader’s opinion in the defense of the linkage is expressed in a philosophical rather than a scientific manner.  It is a simplistic and instinctive reflection of thoughts.   With humbleness and a sense of humility, I must confess, it is that of an innocent 9-year-old child whose unadulterated mind was not yet influenced by the diverging views on this debate.  The question posed by a prominent American missionary several decades ago "How could you prove that you are an Assyrian?" (Refer to this reader's editorial "Assyrians..Hope and Despair", Nineveh Magazine Volume 2, No. 1 January - February 1979):

"What nationality are you?" The missionary asked.  "Assyrian!" The boy replied.  "Assyrian? Those ancient people became extinct thousands of years ago.  To believe your claim, you must provide me with proof" the missionary pulled his passport and pointed to his identity as an American and said, "This is my proof. What is yours?".  "I am Assyrian because my father told me so.  You know my father never lies" the child exploded, his eyes gleaming with confidence.  "Who told your father that he was Assyrian" the missionary asked.  "His father" and "His Grandfather told his father" the boy went on and on repeating those words."


Assyrian Holocaust Survivor
View monument
English or Aramaic side

One must not neglect, though, to praise the author for the depth of his research and the wealth of information regarding our history as depicted through out the book.  Specifically, his in-depth and concerted effort on addressing the horrible conditions endured by Assyrians in the early part of the twentieth century.   However, further elaboration with greater details on the Assyrian Exodus during their migration from the Plains of Urmia to Baquba, Iraq would have done more justice to those who suffered and particularly those who perished during that terrible ordeal.  The Author did, however, mention this tragic exodus briefly yet eloquently, (109)

"the story of how thousands of these refugees suffered and died; how they were reluctantly received but humanely treated and brought to Iraq by the British has often been related.  One reason why they were transported to Iraq was the famine conditions in Persia, where thousands of Persians and Kurds starved.  That is the ugly story of war when man's natural enemies, cold, hunger, disease and fear combine with religious hatred and blind passion to overwhelm the dictates of humanity and conscience."

Moreover, The "Assyrian Genocide" by the Ottomans’ could have been addressed more thoroughly and in the same manner that the Simile Massacre was described. The author’s analysis and commentary on the socioeconomic, political & and humanitarian aspect of the Assyrians as indigenous people, is superb.  His distinction between the Assyrians as Eastern Christians and their Muslim neighbors is expressed delicately, (222)

"While the Eastern Christians and their Muslim neighbors have a great deal in common, religious differences still set them apart.  Members of each faith have their own distinctive religious custom and tradition; they conduct their marriage ceremonies differently, celebrate different feast and holidays, fast and worship differently, and more importantly what each religious community holds holy is different.  Because of the important role that religion plays in the social and political life of the people, religious differences between them, strengthening their self awareness and sense of ethnic identity, this being true especially among the members of the minority"

In the preface writes the author,

"I am grateful to Dr. Spindler for accepting also a revised title for the book.  The reasons for choosing the name Nestorians in the past are given in the original preface reproduced below.  The more controversial name "Modern Asyrians" is now used because of its greater unambiguity.  To my surprise, there were a number of people, among them specialists on modern Middle Eastern history, who, while familiar with the "Nestorians" and with the modern "Assyrians," were still unaware that "Nestorians" of my original title referred to very same people who since the turn of the century came to be commonly called "Assyrians" in English.

A justification, not mentioned by the author, for changing the name from Nestorian to Modern Assyrian, is the fact that the church had never identified itself as a "Nestorian Church" but rather, called itself by its true identity "The Church of the East".  Furthermore, this is a denominational identity and not of neither ethnicity nor nationality.  The author quote from a speech by The Archbishop of the Assyrian Archdiocese of Lebanon, Mar Narasai de Baz  (254)

"the Assyrian Church of the East, is not a 'Nestorian' Church.  Though Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, is honored and venerated in her thought and liturgical action, the Church of the East was established in Mesopotamia during the apostolic age centuries before the birth of Nestorius".

"Yet another proof" writes the author (22) "that the Aramiac speaking Christians are descendents of the ancient Assyrians argues that the language of the two people are the same.  Layard wrote that the Nestorians spoke "the language of their"Assyrian' ancestors, an opinion expressed by Layard's Aramiac-speaking assistant, Hormuzd Rassam: that the ancient Assyrians "Always spoke the Aramiac language" and they "still do" We have just seen that the ancient Assyrians did not always speak Aramiac; their mother tongue was Akkadian, the language of the famed cuneiform tablets and monument that Rassam himself helped excavate."

The author seems to insinuate lack of proof for linkage of modern to ancient Assyrians by emphasizing to what Hormuzd Rassam wrote, "Assyrians, Always spoke the Aramiac language," rather than what Layard wrote?  Layard did not use the word "always", because it was obvious to him that Assyrians adopted the Aramiac language and they had spoken their mother tongue before.  Furthermore, the author had concurred with that the Assyrians spoke entirely Aramiac in the years preceding their downfall and that they had forgot their mother tongue,

"Unlike the Assyrians, the Persians did not forget their own mother tongue" (13).

The author's emphasis on disproving the belief of Modern Assyrians that "Suraye" and "Aturaye" are synonymous (17-21), is an apparent indication of his advocacy of the "lack of linkage" hypothesis.   Equating "Suraye" to "Syrian" from the geographical Syria further undermines the linkage hypothesis.  Based upon this logic, the Modern Assyrians who called themselves "Suraye" from time immemorial are actually "Syrians" from the geographical "Syria". This reader favors the opposing logic that the modern days Assyrians are from "Geographical Ancient Assyria" or the "Plains of Ninveveh".  The hypothesis presented by the author failed to convince this reader that Assyrians of Hakkari and those living in the various villages of the Mosul plain (Modern days Chaldeans) are geographically from any other place but the Geographic Ancient Assyria. The Assyrians also spoke Aramaic, as did the Syrians from Syria. The Syrians from Syria were Arabized, therefore, forgot their mother tongue of Aramaic. The "Suraye" synonymous to "Aturaye" from the 'Plains of Nineveh" continue till this day to speak Aramaic.  I am of the opinion that the author's study, despite its scholarly and impressive presentation, failed to disprove the linkage of Modern Assyrians to the Ancient Assyrians.

LegacyIt is apparent that the author, (27-29) Assyrian survival after the fall, had attempted to perform a balancing act of the many different views on linkage issue.  Citing Dr. Edward Y. Odisho and Simo Parpola advocating linkage in counter to the views of many western historians, most notably Sidney Smith. (28-29)

Modern Assyrian writers usually cite a statement that Assyriologist Sidney allegedly made early in the twentieth century--namely, that the Assyrians disappeared "immediately" and "vanished" after the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C.  To "disprove" Smith, they cite another Assyriaologist, W.W. Tarn, who noted that for centuries after the fall of their empire, Assyrian "survivors" perpetuated old Assyrian names at various places on the site of ancient Ashur.  Edward Y. Odisho refer to "a few" historians who "talk about continuation of the (Assyrian) identity" until establishment of Christianity in geographical Assyria, some eight centuries after the fall of the Assyrian empire. (Footnote 102 page 29), The author quote Simo Parpola, that the Assyrian empire had, in the final analysis,

"never been destroyed at all but had just changed ownership: first to Babylonian and Median dynasties, and then to a Persian one." The Assyrian Empire "continued to live on despite the fact that the Assyrian themselves were no longer in control of it."

The author, did however, express his own conclusion in a general manner open for different interpretations and perhaps a justified criticism.  (31-32)

"The people who today call themselves Assyrians are, strictly speaking, members of a cultural and religious group, molded together into a minority by ties of a common language and, until the nineteenth century, a common church membership which, until the birth of the modern nation-state in Middle east, was the strongest tie among people."

This book could be characterized as an elaborate study and an outstanding textbook in Middle Eastern affairs and Islam in relation to the Western cultures, Christianity and modern day world politics.  (223)

"but in the eyes of the majority, Western presence was foreign and oppressive.  It took another World War (1939-1945) before the British and French rule came to and end, but hardly had they departed from the scene, when the Arabs were faced with a new and more permanent enemy in the Jewish state of Israel, created in the midst of the Arab-Muslim world by the departing Western Powers, joined by the United States of America.  For the entire second half of the twentieth century Israel would symbolize not only Palestinian homelessness but also the powerlessness and humiliation of millions of Arabs and non-Arab Muslims (see Marin Kramer, "the Muslim Middle East in the 21st Century)…….Combined with other factors and grievances of the region, the festering Palestinian problem and the triumph of Islam in Iran, gave rise in the region to an Islamic renewal and new self-assertiveness.  Among those joined the movement were the young and educated classes; as leader of the next generation, they were disillusioned with the ideologies and strategies that had failed to work out a solution for their parents (see James r. Kind "The Theme of Alienation in contemporary Middle Eastern Literature").  They longed for something different, but familiar, with native roots; uniting them was the mistrust of the West."

One could only hope that the leaders and the general public of our beloved nation, the United States of America, would read this book, get an insight and be enlightened with the treasure of knowledge that the author presents in this area of constant conflicts.  Acquiring knowledge in the true but rather sad history of the middle east as demonstrated in this book, would certainly enrich the policy makers of the roots and causes of terrorism by Islamic extremists so they may be better prepared to deal with it effectively.

There are many zealous, but well-intentioned Assyrian nationalists, who have been critical of the author's writings.  While the published work of the author has been unfairly portrayed as a betrayal of our Assyrian heritage, I must regrettably admit that the author's controversial views regarding the linkage issue open itself to valid challenges.  For those of us who are passionately convinced that we are descendents of ancient Assyrians, this may not be the proper book of history, nor the author, is the ideal historian, to further prove our conviction of the linkage.  However, Assyrians should learn from, be proud and respectful of our author, who has written such a scholarly book of history even though they may disagree with his conclusions.  Our national identity as it has been engrained in us from time immemorial, is deeply rooted in the soul of every Assyrian.  The Author's presentation of hypothesis disproving the linkage would not change the perception of the Modern Assyrians who are passionately convinced of their ethnicity.  It is obvious, however, that the author’s foresight is far more reaching to the world beyond that of the Assyrian readers.

In conclusion, I could not resist the urge but to draw from my poetic mind a handful of philosophical words, paint a picture of abstract and meditate:

May God bless the author with another hundred years of healthy and prosperous life.

May God give him a relentless wisdom so he may record the "yet to unfold" history of "future Assyrians".

May God lead him to the path of discovery where the Assyrians of ancient, modern and future are one of the same "Assyrian".



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The Assyrian Genocide and Article 312 of the Turkish Penal Code: the case of an Assyrian Priest in Turkey (1)
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Assyrian Holocaust Website

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