Assyrian history is replete with the martyrdom of thousands who were massacred for the sake of their beliefs, religious or national. Clearly, too, the number of Assyrians massacred before August 1933 especially during the period of World War I is far greater than the number killed in Simel. This raises the question why Assyrians have zeroed in on the August 1933 tragedy over all others. More specifically, what motivated the Assyrian Universal Alliance (AUA) in 1970 to designate the 7th of August each year as the “official” Assyrian Martyrs Day.
The rationale for selecting this particular date over several alternative ones forms the central motif of my booklet, 7th of August The Day of Assyrian Martyrs - Symbol of the Nation’s Immortality. Here are some of the considerations.
The elements and trappings of nationhood typically include a flag, a slogan, an anthem, a monument to the unknown soldier (or martyrs), heroic names and legacies. The date of August 7th is a rallying symbol expressing the maturity of Assyrian national and political awareness. It underlines the importance of their national entity, and in some situations making the ultimate sacrifice for the Assyrian nation, as was the case in August 1933. It is worth noting that, at the same period, i.e., in early 1970’s, at the peak of national consciousness, a national flag, an anthem and April 1st were declared national symbols.
The tragedy of Simel is relatively recent, and it serves more effectively than previous massacres the contemporary ideology relating to the Assyrian nation and its politics. This is consistent with a principle of political science which holds that the emphasis on contemporary events is a better than older historical ones as a rallying point for national zeal and awareness.
Most of the national movement figures of 1933 were alive until recently. In addition, many eyewitnesses survive to this day. This first-hand attestation is not only more reliable, but also more powerful than events which are recorded in books or preserved as oral history. Assyrian nationalists of the second and even of the third generation have been personally moved by the remembrances of those who lived in the eye of the storm.
The last three decades has seen the emergence of a number of Assyrian political parties and nationalistic organizations. Like all political entities, these new organizations needed to be invested with acts of heroism and examples of supreme sacrifice, as a means of fortifying their resolve. Still vividly in the memory of many, Assyrian political parties found the tragic event of 1933 to be a timely, and most suitable symbol for the support of national aspirations, no matter the cost.
The Simel massacre (and its contemporaneous Assyrian national movement) has spawned a plethora of books and other documentation in Assyrian, English, Arabic, Russian and Farsi. This unusual amount of writing served to increase awareness of the event, and eased the way to elevating its national symbolism. Worth mentioning among the many works on this subject are Mar Shimun Eshai’s The Assyrian Tragedy (author ‘Anonymous’ at the time of publication); Malik Yacu’s Assyrians and the Two World Wars, and Yousef Malik’s The British Betrayal of Assyrians. These particular works are all the more significant because they were authored by individuals who were considered leaders of the Assyrian national movement of 1933, and who remained highly visible several years after.
The Simel massacre and its high celebration is unique in another way. For the first time, this event was framed by the Assyrian national movement in terms more apart from religious considerations than was ever the case in previous Assyrian tragedies. While the old leadership possessed strong allegiance to the church and the tribal system, underneath there were nationalist embers. It seemed only natural that such a budding national movement would inspire patriotic fervor, propelling the people to the next stage, including political parties and national organizations.
The August event killed thousands of Assyrians, and resulted in widespread looting and the obliteration of farms and entire villages. Obviously such savagery has a major physical component. But the ripple effect was far-reaching, with psychological, political and legal consequences. From the point of view of the Iraqis, it led to characterizing Assyrians as a mutinous, renegade and alien minority, one which had migrated from Turkey only to be a disruptive British tool (a fifth column) in the newly-independent country of Iraq. In turn, this Iraqi attitude translated into a series of unfair laws whose inequities have had to be borne by ensuing generations of Assyrians. A particular onerous example is the problem of obtaining the certificate of Iraqi nationality, a difficult task for all Assyrians and even more so for any known follower of the Mar Shimun. Ironically, the inherent bias of such laws towards Assyrians played into the perpetuation of Simel as a watershed event, and its consequent echo on Assyrian national consciousness.
The foregoing provides a justification for selecting August 7, 1933, as the Day of Assyrian Martyrs. At the same time, efforts should be made not to allow one event to overshadow the many others which have claimed thousands of Assyrian lives. With the passage of time, massacres of olden times become shrouded in the clouds of history, unless we the people refuse to abandon these sacrifices. Having said that, it is understandable for the morale of the nation that the focus should be on one event with a specific date. Simel symbolizes all of our other tragedies as well, and our national aspirations. The AUA was right to declare it our day of mourning and of national pride.