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Assyrian Identity in Ancient Times and Today

by Dr. Simo Parpola — Director, Department of Assyriology at Helsinki University, Finland.
The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project (State Archives of Assyria)

Posted: Friday, April 16, 2004 at 07:05 AM CT

Editors' Note

On March 27, 2004, the Assyrian Youth Federation (AUF) in Sweden organized a historical academic seminar as part of Assyrians´ cultural and educational program.

Professor Simo Parpola presented his lecture, "Assyrian Identity in Ancient Times and Today," at the seminar. The complete article is available here in a PDF version.

Video summary by AUF.

Professor Simo ParpolaAssyrian

“In this context it is important to draw attention to the fact that the Aramaic-speaking peoples of the Near East have since ancient times identified themselves as Assyrians and still continue to do so. The self-designations of modern Syriacs and Assyrians, Sūryōyō and Sūrāyā, are both derived from the ancient Assyrian word for "Assyrian", Aššūrāyu, as can be easily established from a closer look at the relevant words.”

“Today, the Assyrian nation largely lives in diaspora, split into rivaling churches and political factions. The fortunes of the people that constitute it have gone different ways over the millennia, and their identities have changed accordingly. The Syriacs in the west have absorbed many influences from the Greeks, while the Assyrians in the east have since ancient times been under Iranian cultural influence. Ironically, as members of the Chaldean Catholic Church (established in 1553 but effectively only in 1830), many modern Assyrians originating from central Assyria now identify with "Chaldeans", a term associated with the Syriac language in the 16th century but ultimately derived from the name of the dynasty that destroyed Nineveh and the Assyrian Empire!”

“Disunited, dispersed in exile, and as dwindling minorities without full civil rights in their homelands, the Assyrians of today are in grave danger of total assimilation and extinction (Aprim 2003).  In order to survive as a nation, they must now unite under the Assyrian identity of their ancestors.  It is the only identity that can help them to transcend the differences between them, speak with one voice again, catch the attention of the world, and regain their place among the nations.”

Dr. Simo Parpola
Director, Department of Assyriology
Helsinki University, Finland.

Assyrian Identity in Ancient Times and Today
Assyrian Identity in Ancient times and Today (original complete PDF version)

Assyrian Identity in Ancient Times and Today1
by Dr. Simo Parpola



The Neo-Assyrian Empire was a multi-ethnic state composed of many peoples and tribes of different origins (cf. Postgate 1989). Its ethnic diversity notwithstanding, it was a uniformly structured political entity with well-defined and well-guarded borders,2 and the Assyrian kings certainly regarded it as a unified whole, "the land of Aššur", whose territory they constantly strove to expand (Tadmor 1999; see also below). To the outside world, it likewise was a unified, monolithic whole, whose inhabitants were unhesitatingly identified as Assyrians regardless of their ethnic backgrounds.3

However, just how far did the masses of the Empire's population actually share the Assyrian identity? Did they consider themselves as members of the Assyrian nation, identifying with the ideals and ways of life of the Assyrian ruling class, or did they rather identify themselves in terms of their diverse ethnic origins, loathing and resenting the Assyrian rule and way of life? I shall try to answer these questions by first considering the matter briefly from a theoretical perspective and then reviewing the available evidence, both Assyrian and post-Assyrian, in detail. Complete PDF article

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