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Requiem for the Assyrians

by Cengiz Yildirim, ‘Asurlara Agit’, Cumhuriyet Kitap, 30 December 1999

Posted: Tuesday, July 24, 2001 at 10:22 PM UT


Book Review:  Gabriele Yonan, Assyrian Genocide/A Forgotten Holocaust,
Pencere Yayinlari, Istanbul, 1999
Translated by Dr Racho Donef

“After many years of efforts of an interesting mixture of good intentions, cunningness, delicate combinations, the slogan love thy neighbour, national development and who knows what else, the Assyrian Question disappeared partly in Iraq, partly in the Syrian desserts and partly in the files of the League of Nations...”

A book by Gabriele Yonan - who is renown through her research on Assyrians, Assyrian Genocide/A Forgotten Holocaust was published by Pencere Yayinlari. 1  The work is a rather wealthy collection of documents, which express the massacres and exiles endured by Assyrians during the last 150 years. The material collected through the search of hundreds of sources, contain detailed eyewitness accounts, travel notes, reports, correspondence, diaries, applications, maps showing Assyrians’ settlement areas, information on the daily life of the people, refugee camps and photographs which document the raids. The last expression in the book belongs to famous Spanish historian Madariaga: “After many years of efforts of an interesting mixture of good intentions, cunningness, delicate combinations, the slogan love thy neighbour, national development and who knows what else, the Assyrian Question disappeared partly in Iraq, partly in the Syrian desserts and partly in the files of the League of Nations...” That’s all.

Who are the Assyrians?

In our history books there are people of the antiquities. In order to understand them a little excavations in their settlements areas, especially in their capital cities need to be carried out. Excavations are luck of the draw... These peoples may have been influential in a particular period in history, they may have established empires or monarchies, they may have invented writing, language, religion, they may have fought wars, won and expanded their realms. Then one day they were defeated, their capital cities were burned to the ground and they disappear from the stage of history. You look for them in history books in vain. You cannot find their traces. It is as though when the monarchy disappeared so did the people, finding themselves under the rubble. The Assyrians are one of those peoples! In high school, in the general history exam, they used to ask: “Where did the Assyrians live? When was the First Assyrian Empire established? Who is Asurbanipal?” Of course the dates in the answers were always B.C. Thousands of years ago they settled in Mesopotamia, they established an empire here; the fist empire collapsed, they established the second, then... Let us read the rest from the Grand Larousse: “(...) the kingdom established on major achievements collapsed for unknown reasons and without leaving any historical documents.” 2  With the collapse of the second Assyrian Empire on 617 BC [sic], the “Assyrian” chapter in the encyclopaedia comes to an end! That is because after that date there was no Assyrian state. If there is no state, then there is no history! On the contrary Assyrians continued their existence to our days. After the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, “A minority, which went through a melting process, in 1915 had a relatively homogenous community with a shared language and religion in Upper Mesopotamia, in southern and Eastern Mosul and in the valleys of Urmia.” 3  Assyrians who faced major massacres in the First World War and were exiled from their country, today live in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and in the countries they migrated in Western Europe, USA and Australia.

Nationalism and massacres

The nationalist movement, which blossomed in the nineteenth century, in the lands under the Ottoman domination, had deeply affected the population, which calls itself Syriani Christian (Assyrian). “The history of the old Assyria and Babylonia, the Syro-Aramean Christianity, a common language, which has not lost its vigour, the national psyche formed the basis of the unity." 4  Armenian nationalism shook the Assyrians and national demands emerged. But was this union going to be successful in the context of the twentieth century turmoil? Were the demands going to be met? Gabrielle Yonan is documenting the last period of the melting process of these "stateless" people who are thought to be non-existent by the "statist" historians. The author’s verdict is striking: "In the same way the Jewish Holocaust overshadowed the Sinti and Romani who were lost in the Second World War, the Assyrian massacres disappeared in the context of the Armenian massacres." 5

Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, in the area named Kurdistan, Kurdish tribal leaders massacred Assyrians. It was not the case that the differences between the two local people could not have been settled. The problems used to be solved in assemblies consisting of the two side’s tribal leaders. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, with the rush of Western Christian missionaries to the area the relations became tense. While the Christians (that is the Assyrians) were strengthening as a result of the relations with their “religious brethren”, the Kurds saw these missionaries as a threat to them. In one document there is mention of Assyrian massacres perpetrated by the famous Kurdish chieftain Bedirhan: “Here, it should be added that Bedirhan, in 1843, raided the Tiyari region with his tribe and in cold blood killed 10,000 people and took a large number of women and children with him to sell them as slaves.” 6  Abdülhamit II’s policy in relation to the area was two pronged. On the one hand, in order to alleviate the threat of Kurdish tribal leaders who did not recognise his authority, he bought them off by giving them gifts, medals and positions. This way he prevented unity between tribes and used the Kurds against the Christians. In 1890, [this policy] facilitated the control of the Hamidiye Corps, consisting of Kurdish cavalries, by Kurdish chieftains and formed a strong armed force. According to the author, the real turning point in the Assyrian genocide emerged during the period of “Ittihat ve Terakki” [Union and Progress] regime under the leadership of Enver-Talat-Cemal triumvirate. The Turanian leaders entered the Ottoman Empire to the First World War on the side of the German Imperialism. When the Russian army entered the areas in which the Armenians lived, they decided, “to exile the populations which politically could not be trusted”. In the author’s words, “Holy War, made in Germany” was declared and its requirements were going to be carried out. Massacres, slaughters, exiles and pillaging ensued. (One’s heart cannot stand to quote eyewitness accounts of widespread rape incidents.) Those who somehow managed to save their lives found themselves on the road and hid in very steep inaccessible mountains. Wherever they hid, they could not escape “the sword” (In the Assyrian history, 1915 is known as “the year of the sword”). In this hell, those who somehow not captured also had to face hunger and the cold: “The great majority of the refuges were from Tergavar, Mergavar and other districts. They lived in Urmia as refugees; they were already attacked and pillaged before and had no choice but to leave with the Russian Army. Perhaps their total number was about 10,000; among them many women and children. Their clothes were not adequate to shield them from the cold weather; with death lurking they walked on their wounded feet towards the Russian borders. This terrible march continued through mountains and swamps. On the way you could hear breaking cries of fear." 7
According to the author two thirds of the Assyrian people were massacred. In 1915 in “Asiatic Turkey” alone the Assyrian populations was one and a half million...

The chessboard of the Imperialists

After the First World War ended, in 1919, the winners gathered in Paris to discuss the sharing of the world. France and England wrestled for primacy. The Russian Tsardom was in tatters; the USA had emerged in its stead. The Wilson declaration became a source of hope for many million of refugees whom the war displaced. Among them hundreds of thousand of Assyrians from the Ottoman Empire who lived in the Toros Mountains, Tur’Abdin, Botan and Hakkari, as well as in the northwest of the Urmia Lake. They hoped that fighting alongside the Russians and the English would have facilitated their return to their homelands. Their primary demands were autonomy and compensation from the Ottomans. England and France promised to represent Assyrian interests, but to no avail. “The Assyrian question” disappeared among the discussions for sharing [the spoils] and diplomatic games. The Assyrians who were then in Iraq were used by England against the Arabs and Kurds. The League of Nations searched for a solution for the Assyrians. In 1930 England ended their mandate in Iraq. Iraq, which was a member of the League of Nations, carried out terrible massacres against Assyrian civilians in Dohuk and Semile. Tens of thousands of Assyrians abandoned Iraq in 1937… The chess moves of the Imperialists had uprooted a population. Looking at the books, which end the Assyrians in [612] BC, one wonders: “What is the use of history books?” Gabriele Yonan, perhaps in order to salvage ‘history’, criticises Turkish and German historians: “Until today, neither the German nor the Turkish historians focussed on the subjection of two million Christian Armenians and Assyrians in Turkey to forced exile during the First World War or conducted a study on the joint crime and joint responsibility." 8  Do you think that our historians, who on the occasion of the 700. anniversary of the establishment of the Ottoman Empire, debated on television such questions as “Are we the continuation of the Ottomans?”, “Should we make peace with the Ottomans”, “Were the Ottomans tolerant?”, will listen to Yonan’s criticisms?


  1.  Gabriele Yonan, Assyrian Genocide/A Forgotten Holocaust,
    Trans. Erol Sever, Pencere Yayinlari, 448 pages.
  2. Büyük Larousse [Grand Larousse], Topic: Asurbanipal.
  3. Gabriele Yonan, op.cit., p.20.
  4. op.cit., pp. 20-21
  5. op.cit., p.13
  6. op.cit. p. 47
  7. op.cit., p. 331
  8. op.cit., p.: 17



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