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The Concept of Martyr from an Assyrian Perspective:
Past and Present

by Aprim Shapera — activist, author, writer.  London, England.

Posted: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 07:50 PM UT


Repetition creates boredom. This is happening with the commemoration of Assyrian Martyrs' Day on August 7 of each year. The same faces, organizations and political parties repeat speeches of previous years. We are by now very familiar with the litany: the tragedy of Simel, the criminals of Iraqi army led by general Bakir Sidqi who martyred around three thousand innocent people, and the tragic story of the unfortunate Goreal Younan & his son. Assyrian publications as well as Assyrian websites fare no better. Likewise they adopt the "strategy" of repetition. There is nothing offered that is new and creative to make Assyrians more interested on this All-important day. The result is evident: attendance at these memorial events is ebbing, and many who show up do so as a matter of courtesy or in obedience to their political party whose "leader" will demonstrate his "Oomtanayouta" by the comments he delivers.

The time has come to think outside of the box, and to consider how this annual commemoration might be made substantive and more relevant to our people. "August 7" should be seen as an ideal occasion for reflecting on our history. To this end, seminars should be organized, and our printed media should consider the publication of special editions. The comments, which follow, are offered in that spirit.


A - Martyr & Related Terminologies:

Nearly all dictionaries give a convergent definition for martyr, which mainly means a person who willingly sacrifices his life, or is killed, for the sake of a principle or belief or case. In order to keep its noble meaning, some writers are associating such sacrifice and killing with a noble principle or case of social justice. Martyr could also be defined with extreme suffering, torment and misfortune. The early commonly and wide use of martyr terminology was during the early centuries of Christianity, when Romans martyred many Christians.

Christological martyr means a person who willingly suffers death rather than renounce Jesus Christ or his or her Christian religion.

Protomartyr means the first martyr of a belief or case. For all Christian Churches, Archdeacon Stephen is the Proto-martyr. Nearly each national church has also it own Proto-martyr. For instance, Mar Shimon Bar Saba'i , who was martyred by Persians in 341, is the proto-martyr for Assyrians and their Church of the East, and professor Ashor Yousif Bet Harboot is proto-martyr of Assyrian nationalism that was martyred by Turks in 1915.

Martyrology means collective history of martyrs or their list and conditions of martyrdom. In other words, it means the branch of knowledge studying the live of martyrs.

Martyrdom means the conditions, sufferings or death of a martyr. It also means an extreme suffering or torment, in such that Assyrians can be considered as a Martyrdom Nation.

Martyr is a shrine, chapel or a memorial erected in honor of a martyr or martyrs, such as Baquba monument of honoring thousands of Assyrians who were massacred during the early years of the last century. It was destroyed by Iraqi Arabs in 1920 and rebuilt in Chicago in 2002 by the Assyrian sculptor Dr. Norman Sulkhah.

Finally Martyr Day means a symbolic date dedicated for commemorating of martyrs as 7 August for Assyrians.

B - Etymology:

Martyr is a Greek word which means (witness), the one that witnesses to an event or to testify in a legal matter. Because Greek was the language of the New Testament for the early Church, speakers of other European languages would adopt Greek words in their own languages, but they would often have a specifically religious context. This would happen in English. In English, a witness was a person who personally experienced an event or who was called to testify in a legal situation. A martyr was a person called to testify about God in a legal situation and killed because of his own testimony of belief in God. The implication has always been primarily that the person testified in some way about his or her belief and was killed because of that belief. For that reason the etymology of word martyr is with religious context.

Syriac or Aramaic from the beginning was the language of the New Testament for Assyrians, for their church and religious teaching, as was their national language. Therefore, there is monism in the terminology of the martyr word in Syriac and dualism in its meaning. The word "Sahada" in Syriac means as both a witness and martyr. The latter meaning is the same as in Greek with religious context. It is worth mentioning that "Sahada" or "Sahda" as pronounced, is a personal name for many Assyrians which could be influenced by the meaning of martyr in the New Testament and martyrology of the Church of the East. But more interesting is that "Sahda" is the name for overage persons mainly of those who were born before or during or straightway after Simel massacre of 1933, and no such name can be found among generations born after that year. This could be with some sociological and martyrological prospective of Assyrians mentality related to Simel or to the previous tragic event of World War I. Nevertheless, it could be argued that "Sahda", as other traditional personal names with religious roots, has disappeared and is no longer used among new generations. However, "Sahda" name was almost exclusively used by Nestorians and not other Assyrian denominations which indicates that the tragic events of the First World War were more prominent on Nestorians' mentality and the Simel Massacre was perpetrated only against them or those who identified themselves as Assyrians or "Athoori" as Iraqis would say.

C - National Mentality:

National mentality is made up of stories and memories of continued accumulations of historic events in the lives of its members and eventually precipitates in their memory. Survival of such memory will remain without remarkable changes as long as the consequences of the events remain correlated to their lives, their collective entity and are capable of reflecting historic event features and symbols in present circumstances. Such events remain more influential when there is chances of comparing and resembling between past and present with regard to the similarity of the consequences and the key participants or players of the event. Through a panoramic view, Assyrians of today look at the Turkish oppression, eradication of their historic civilization and demographic displacement from their homeland as the "Seyfo" Genocide of the current time. The Kurdish assassinations of Assyrians in northern Iraq and seizing of their villages, refreshes Assyrians mentality of Badir Khan and Simko's crimes of the past two centuries. They view the Kurdish hostile behavior as unchangeable. Through the same frame of mind, Assyrians see Bakir Sidqi's vision, the executor of 1933 Simel Massacre, in Saddam Hussein's face and look at Ba'ath's Arabization policy as an episode of a long chain of Iraqi persecutions of Assyrians.

Assyrian history, as we know, is replete with the martyrdom of thousands who were massacred through a series of genocides. Although some national and political reasons provide a justification for selecting 7 August 1933 as the "Day of Assyrian Martyrs", discussed in detail in my last year's article; 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. The Simel Massacre of 1933 is a symbolized commemoration of all other genocides perpetrated against Assyrians during the many past centuries. Such symbolism should not shroud the far greater number of Assyrian sacrifices before Simal. Therefore, the Assyrian concept of martyr and martyrdom is not built up from Simel, rather there are hundreds of "Firmans" of massacres and persecutions which forms the foundation of such Assyrian mentality.


At first glance, would such a term seem as a figurative concept and probably with a hyperbole facet? This is not true if we look at the history and literature of the Church of the East through a historic and national perspective. Doubtless, we will find a huge witnessed and documented history of martyrs' lives, lists of names, detailed stories of their sacrifices and conditions of their martyrdom. Specifically, I can refer to the great work of Fr. Paul Bedjan (1838 - 1921) in seven volumes titled "Life History of the Martyrs", printed in Paris - France (1897 - 1890), and to the Martyr Bishop Adai Shir's (1867 - 1915) book titled "Martyrs of the East" in two volumes printed in Mosul - Iraq (1900). In addition, there is more detailed martyrology specifying the lives of the martyrs & names, circumstances of their scarifying and martyrdom. There are amazing records and details on the first genocide of Assyrian Christians in the middle of Fourth century. Some of these detail refers to King Shapour II of Persia and his martyring of as little as 160,000 persons and as many as 200,000. Moreover, during the centuries following these massive massacres, there were many books and documents written mainly by clergies on individual martyrs and their tragic sacrifices. So influential were these sacrifices on the writers that later they glorified them as saints. There is more unwritten Assyrian martyrology in the extent that we can say nearly every Assyrian village or tribe or area has its own patron saint considered as martyr and has its own special commemoration and even a martyry.

Some may argue that such martyrology is purely religious and has nothing to do with today's national understanding of Assyrian martyrs. Such argument can easily be refuted when we come to know that the history of a certain people is a chain of several eras and it is an organic combination of many aspects of religious, geographic, cultural and national. Due to each era's circumstances an feature always appears on the surface as a dominating element in recognizing a people's identity. So if Christianity or the Church of the East appeared in early centuries as the main factor of Assyrian collective entity, that is because in that era the emergence of Christianity and expansion of the Church of the East was a threat to other religions and Churches. At that time religion, and the church of the East with regard to Assyrian, was the only available channel to express people's national identity. W.A. Wigram has extensively researched the organic relationship between religion and nationality and has concluded that in the East religion was the determinant of nationality.

In addition to the correlated Assyrian martyrology of the several epochs of history, it is very normal and logical that Assyrians produce through long epochs of a hundred and nineteen decades of dominated history of Christianity and Church of East more martyrology than the last ten decades of modern nationalism. Starting form Mar Shimon Bra Saba'i, Mar Qardakh, Mar Bihnam & his sister Sarah and all other religious martyrs passing through the period of nationalism, starting from Professor Ashour Yousif, Mar Binyamen Shimon, Mar Toma Audo, Parydon Atoraya. These were all victims of Badir Khan, Sayfo & WWI and the Simel Massacre reaching to the new generations of martyrs: Yousip Toma, Youber Binyamen, Youkhan Esho, Francis Shabo and all sacrifices of Zowaa. These and others are considered the same in the Assyrian mentality of martyrdom, and identified as Assyrian Martyrs. They sacrificed their lives for the sake of the principle or case, no matter religious or nationalist, as long as such principle or case was determining their identity as a separated and recognized nation. H.C. Luke has testified Assyrian martyrdom and reached to a conclusion that "if the people of Mar Shimun have lost the pride they held in the past, they have not lost their capacity for producing martyrs".


Previously, it was testified that each era of Assyrian history produced it own kind of martyr. Since Assyrian history in question is back dated to around two thousands year and each time has it own priority of principles, commitments and cases, therefore it was very normal that different times represent different martyrs who could be for Assyrians as a Christian saint or national hero. Therefore, it is certain that we are not expecting any clergy of today's time to sacrifice his life or suffer for his principles as it was in the early centuries of Christianity, or even, giving up his brother's life for the sake of his nation, as did Mar Binyamin in 1915. Nor should we expect from today's Assyrian nationalists or their leaders that they will sacrifice their lives or take serious risk for the sake of national interests as happened with professor Ashor Yousif and Pryadon Atoray. In addition to the historical comparison, there is a geo-politics element also contributing in forming another interesting comparison between Assyrian society in the homeland and that in Diaspora with regard to the tragic nature of martyrdom and the size of sacrifices.

In order to reach to acceptable understanding of the historical and geo-political comparisons, there are some reasons, which make the consequences of such comparison so different and incomparable between the concept of yesterday's martyr and of today's. These can briefly be concluded as the following:

A - Extraordinary Faithfulness in Principles:

Since the fall of their empire in 605 B.C., Assyrians remained a stateless nation and an economically destitute people without political ambition and materialistic incentive. "My kingdom is not from this earthy universe", such was their slogan. Therefore, even Assyrians expanded their religious missions faraway to the east and its followers were the majority in many provinces, including in their homeland, Bet Nahrian. But they never strived to political and military power or established a national entity. For that reason, their homeland was easily conquered by invaders and their tiny semi-independent entities were destroyed. Assyrians have neither thrones, nor a state, nor national boarders that deserve the sacrificing of their lives in order to protect them. There was no such temporal privileges to fear or to be anxious about. There was only one thing which deserved the scarifying of many lives- the Principle and the extraordinary belief in the Principle. History has proven that Assyrians were a nation of principles. Their principles were, if not the only, essential element of surviving for such a long period despite being a tiny minority surrounded by hostile environment and widespread massacres.

There were two reasons for making Assyrians' principles so powerful: the sanctity & nobility of the principle resources and the historical & continual of principles. Assyrians adopted their principles from two main and vary noble resources, Christianity and the Assyrian or Bet Nahrain civilization. The new studies confirm that Assyrians, after the fall of their empire and associating with the captivity of Jews in Bet Nahrain, had heard about the advent of the Savior Messiah and the embodiment of God in the form of a human being. This was very similar to the ancient Assyrian concept of symbolizing Ashur god as a winged-man. In addition to that, Assyrians had found out many details about mightiness and glories of their "lost" empire in the original Bible. Therefore, there was a strong tendency to accept the Savior who could save them from the unjust earthly and temporal life to immortality of the heaven kingdom; from a corrupted materialistic world to a pure spiritual kingdom. Jesus' life and sacrifice for the sake of human being's salvation was an idealistic example for their martyrdom. A careful study of Assyrian martyrology will show that Assyrian martyrs were imitating Jesus in sacrificing their life for the sake of their principles. That was their destined life. Such imitation was even in the way of martyrdom, as Mar Simon Bar Saba'i preferring the Good Friday for his execution. The imitation of Jesus was not an exclusive phenomenon to the clergies, but also to seculars. The well recorded history of the Malik Ishmael and the young Assyrian girls during the massacre of Badir Khan in mid Nineteen century who willingly preferred death, rather than giving up their Christian faith and adopt Islam, are the perfect examples.

At present time, without any doubt there is not a single sign of the imitation of Jesus among the clergies. It is too far-fetched and a type of illusion in mentioning life sacrificing for the sake of Jesus and Christianity. It is too much to ask clergies to sacrifice their lives for their beliefs, because we know the circumstances of today are totally different from the early centuries of the Christianity when thousands were massacred for the sake of their faith. If life scarification is unimaginable, then what about giving up a little of their personal interests for the sake of their church or followers so that can be a "good shepherd" of today's time and good evidence for that great church and nation of martyrdom. Unfortunately, the great character of the extraordinary faithfulness in principles nearly vanished among clergies. Then how can we dare to ask Assyrians to offer minimum sacrifices for the church while its leader are not willing to give up a minimum of their personal privileges? How can we dare to ask Assyrians to be faithful and loyal descendent of that great church while it is till splitting, continuously regressing and reflecting on national level while there is no any real, faithful and practical effort from the churchy leaders towards improving the miscible situation of the church and nation? Alas to that great Church and nation of martyrdom.

B - Intensity of Contradictions

As we mentioned earlier, religion was the law of the East in determining nations and still is very active, in particular in the Middle East, the place of descent of the heavenly religions. Even with such priority, Assyrians were historically, culturally, linguistically, socially and psychologically different from other people who lived among then and stayed always as alienated nation from the states, which ruled them. Such differences will remain with severe boundaries if passed through long historic stages without easing or relaxing them, in particular when are in association with religion. These sever differences of Assyrians overlapped with their extraordinary faith of religious principles, which led them to unavoidable contradictions and clashing with the others.

It was the deadly contradiction between Jesus Christ, whom the Assyrian Patriarch Mar Shimun Bar Saba'i and his followers worshiped, and the sun or fire, which the Persian king Sapor II and Persians adored. The same was with their followers and later generations, still valid up to now with slight differences in circumstances and priorities of principles. The several differences and severe contradictions between faithful Assyrians and powerful Turks were impossible to solve, which eventually led to massive massacres in 1915. The same was with Zowaa's martyrs Yousip, Youbert and Youkhana whose demand of the Assyrian legitimated rights was so contradicting and clashing with Ba'ath regime in Iraq and with its Arabization policy. The only available solution for the dictator was their martyrization.

Although Assyrians in Diaspora are more differential from European, American, or Australian nations than Middle Eastern, such differences will not mount up to reach to incurable contradictions. The reasons for that are, firstly, there is no priority for religion in determining national boarders or to associate with national and political elements. Secondly, democratic regimes are very capable to produce peaceful solution to deal with such differences. Dealing with politics or national case in democratic societies or claiming political rights is without any risk, therefore there is no existence of typical circumstances of martyrdom and the Assyrian case cannot produce a martyr in Diaspora society. This situation is leading us to conclude that the Assyrian martyr is a consequence of national case in the homeland not in Diaspora.

However, if the easy political conditions in democratic countries required no tragic sacrificing for the sake of Assyrianism as it is in the homeland, there are some other internal contradictions, related to Assyrian society and threatening its identity such as denominationalism, tribalism, individual selfishness and abandonment of national case. Solving these contradictions needs a massive sacrificing probable not by life but by what ever is valuable to such life; money, time, personal relaxation, intellectuals and physical efforts. Although these sacrifices are without direct deadly risk, they can produce circumstances for indirect martyrdom by scarifying requirements of personal life. This is what makes the concept of martyr and martyrdom between Assyrian society in the homeland and that in Diaspora so different. The perfect example of Assyrian martyr in Diaspora is Malfono Na'aom Fa'aiq (1868 - 1930) who sacrificed all necessities of his life for the sake of his nation. He spent all his time, intellectual and physical efforts and even his personal happens in order to serve his nation. He financially supported and published his honorable magazine (Bet Nahrian) from his daughter's salary that she was the sole bread earner of his family of five members. Because of his financial destitution, psychological anxiety and physical exhaustion eventually became sick and was then martyred.


It goes without saying that the survival of Assyrians in the face of a long and tragic history is due in no small measure to the thousands of martyrs whose lives were sacrificed for the Christian and national principles. Through out this ordeal, the spiritual side always played a far more significant role than the material side in defining the essence of Assyrianism. " Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul"(Mathew 10:28). The Ba'ath regime hanged Yousip, Youbert, and Youkhana, but their national spirit remained steadfast and even grew, permeating Assyrian land and infusing the Assyrian Democratic Movement with more zeal and determination. As result, this led to thousands of Assyrian children sitting in classes where their mother tongue is the language of instruction for their various subjects.

The national spirit can and does stay with Assyrians, even those living long distances from the land of Ashur. History has proven that physical attributes do not determine one's Assyrianism. Our national feeling is the key. It is obvious that a nation without spirit is a dead nation. We may lose our homeland, force our national language and traditions to extinction, but we can survive if we hold a national feeling, will and determination of being Assyrians. This "feeling" grows out of a long and hallowed tradition of Assyrian martyrs. The creative and untouchable spirit of Assyrian martyrs will remain forever as a symbol of Assyrian immortality.

Aprim Shapera


  1. English Plus, Newsletter online, February 2002.
  2. Bahra Dictionary, Y. Hozaya and A. Youkhana.
  3. Albert Abona, History of the Eastern Syriac Church, Vol 1, Beirut, Lebanon, 1992 PP 33-44.
  4. W.A. Wigram, Introduction to the History of the Assyrian Church, reprinted copy in USA, page 66.
  5. Harry Charles Luke, Mosul and its Minorities, Martin Hopkinson & Co., London, 1925, P. 97.
  6. For more details, see Aprim Shapera, Assyrians in Politics and Contemporary History, Assyrian Federation of Sweden, 1997, PP 161 - 189.
  7. J.P. Asmussen, The Early Spread of Christianity in the Iranian Empire (100 - 633), Translated, edited and commented by Georgis Fat - Hullah, Zahrira Publication, Stockholm, 1998, P. 36.
  8. It is very amazing that these three Assyrians martyrs have names starting with the same three letters (Y, O and U) and it is the same in Syriac and Arabic. I personally witnessed the time of arresting 21 members of Zowaa in July 1984 and martryizing these three in February 1995. All of them were unfairly accused as criminals dealing with foreign countries against Iraqi regime without any witness and prove. 16 of them were received life imprisonment, one 15 years and the remaining three were executed. Before their martyrizing, and during my first visit to these 17 Zowaa member imprisoned in Abu Ghraib prison, I heard from few members of the Iraqi Communist Party and AL Da'awa Islamic Party who were in the same cell with these three Assyrian martyrs waiting for execution day. They told me to not be worried soon they would be covered by the President pardon and their verdict will reduce from execution to life imprisonment as happened with them. However, this did not happen with the three Assyrians. At that time, rumours were spreading among Assyrians that the President said, "Assyrians done it twice and this is third time and I will break their noses." No one concluded what he meant by two times. Could be Simel in 1933 and Falojah in 1941?
  9. Aprim Shapera, Na'aom Fa'aiq - The Master of the National unification, Sargon publishing house, Sweden, 2000.

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