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The Assyrian~Chaldean Dilemma: 
One Nation, Two Names, Part I

by Ghassan Hanna

Posted: Friday, June 09, 2000 at 06:31 PM UT

Published in Al Muntada Magazine.

“In treating Assyria, it is extremely difficult not to speak at the same time of its sister, or rather mother country, Babylonia, as the people of these two countries, the Semitic Babylonians and Assyrians, are both ethnographically and linguistically the same race, with identical religion, language, literature, and civilization.” — The Catholic Encyclopedia

“There is only one correct and acceptable name for our nation. Correct, because it's a historical and ancient name that our forefathers were called by and referred to, acceptable because it's a wonderful and a great feeling to be called Assyrian!”

Any observer of the current affairs of the Chaldean/Assyrian nation in its two religious branches (Chaldean-Catholic and Church of the East-Orthodox) has but to wonder behind the reasons of the "self-identity" ignorance that engulf a large portion of the population of this great and ancient nation. An ignorance that derives its sources from myths and historical distortions of the "origin" or even the "existence" of a nation that's called Chaldean/Assyrian or more accurately just Assyrian. This confusion comes mainly from the dual usage of the word "Chaldean" as a religious as well as an "ethnic" terminology in what it entails of the existence of a separate group of people different from the followers of the Church of the East who go by the name of "Assyrians". This dual usage of names to refer to the same people and the confusion it brought with it have thrown the Chaldean/Assyrian nation in paralysis for the last couple of centuries.

This study will attempt to shed some light on the origin of this great nation and clear some of the confusion that have plagued its members. In order to do that, I will attempt to answer the following questions:

What is the origin of the current days "Assyrians" and "Chaldeans"?
Is there "two people"?  What is the impact of the religious denominations on the current affairs of the Assyrian nation?


Geographically, Assyria occupies the northern and middle part of Mesopotamia, situated between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris; while the southern half, extending as far south as the Persian Gulf, constitutes the lands of Akkad and Sumer. Assyria originally occupied but a scant geographical area, comprising the small triangular shaped land lying between the Tigris and Zab Rivers, but in later times, owing to its wonderful conquests its boundaries extended as far north as Armenia; to Media on the east; to northern Syria, and to the country of the Hittites, on the west and to Babylonia and Elam on the south and southeast, occupying almost the entire Mesopotamian valley.

By the Hebrews it was known under the name of Aram-Naharim, i. e. "Aram [current Iraq and Syria] of the two rivers" to distinguish it from Syria proper, although it is doubtful whether the Hebrew name should be read as dual, or rather as a plural, i. e. Aram-NaharÓm (Aram of the many rivers or "Of the great river" -- Euphrates. In later Old Testament times, it was known under the name of Assur. By the Greeks and Romans it was called Mesopotamia, and Assyria; by the Aramaeans, Beth-Nahrain, "the country of the rivers"; by the Egyptians Nahrina; by the Arabs, Ath°r, or Al-Gezirah, "the island", or Bain-al-nahrain, "the country between the two rivers" -- Mesopotamia. Whether the name Assyria is derived from that of the god Assur, or vice versa or whether Assur was originally the name of a particular city and afterwards applied to the whole country cannot be determined.

The origin of the Assyrian nation is involved in great obscurity. According to the author of the tenth chapter of Genesis, the Assyrians are the descendants of Assur (Asshur) one of the sons of Sem (Shem -- Gen. , x, 22). According to Gen. , x, 11, "Out of that land [Sennaar] came forth Assur, and built Nineveh, and the streets of the city, and Chale. Resen also between Nineveh and Chale", where the Authorized Version reads: "built Nineveh, and the city of Rehoboth, and Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah". Till quite recently the most commonly accepted interpretation of this passage was that Assur left Babylonia, where Nimrod was reigning, and settled in Assyria, where he built the cities of Nineveh, Rehoboth, Chale (Calah), and Resen. Nowadays, however, this interpretation, which is mainly based on the Vulgate version, is abandoned in favor of the more probable one, according to which Nimrod himself, the beginning of whose kingdom was Babylon, Arach (Erech), Achad (Akkad), and Chalanne (Calneh), in Southern Babylonia (Gen. , x, 10), went up to Assyria (Assur in this case being a geographical name, i. e. , Assyria, and not ethnographical or personal), and there he built the four above-mentioned cities and founded the Assyrian colony. Whichever of these two interpretations be held as correct, one thing is certain: that the Assyrians are not only Semites, but in all probability an offshoot of the Semitic Babylonians, or a Babylonian colony; although, on account of their apparently purer Semitic blood (since Babylon was built by the non-Semitic Sumerians who were the inhabitants of the southern half of what was called later on Babylonia), they have been looked upon by some scholars as an independent Semitic offshoot, which at the time of the great Semitic migration from Arabia and Syrian desert (3000-2500 BC), migrated and settled in Assyria. In other accounts and based on recent discoveries, some scholars even state that the Assyrians and Babylonians were actually the original inhabitants of Mesopotamia, since Mesopotamia was already a thriving civilization at the time of the major Semitic migration (Akkadian, Amorite, Chaldean, etc. ) into it.

Babylonians and Chaldeans

In 1894 BC an Amorite dynasty was founded at Babylon which was to bring that city to a pre-eminence it maintained, psychologically if not politically, for nearly 2000 years.

Babylon's existence can be traced back to the later part of the Sumerian Early Dynastic period. By the time of the Agade king Shar-kali-sharri the town boasted at least two temples, and under the kings of Ur was of sufficient importance to be the seat of a local governor. The name Babylon - Akkadian: Bab-ilim, Biblical: Babel, "Gate of God" - is derived from the Greek distortion of the Akkadian word Bab-ilani, the plural form "Gate of the Gods".

It is under the rule of the Amorite King Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) that Babylon was able to unite the city-states of Akkad and Sumer and later on even replace this geographical area with its own name. It's interesting to notice that just as Babylon fell to an Amorite dynasty so did Assyria to that of Shamshi-Addad's. For the many centuries to follow the relationship between Assyria and Babylonia was that of competition and rivalry to dominate the whole of Mesopotamia and actually took turns to unite it. Interestingly to notice, that the Assyrian kings always appointed themselves or their sons as kings over Babylon which they viewed as the cultural center of the world in addition to being the "holy" city of Mesopotamia. The dual monarchy inaugurated by Tiglath-Pilser III (744-727) set a precedent which was followed by most of his successors for the next century. Yet the "Babylonian problem" remained unsolved. The Assyrians expended energy and resources their small country could ill afford in repeated attempts to control the troublesome southern tribes, while the Chaldeans fought alternately among themselves and to maintain their independence from Assyria. Thus the Chaldeans along with some Babylonian nobles and officials, with Elam to the east ever ready to supply both moral and military support, came to symbolize the anti-Assyrian movement and became the unwitting champions of Babylonian "nationalism". The citizens of Babylonia's northern cities, however, preferred peace and security at any cost and remained strongly pro-Assyrian even in the last years of Assyria's decline and subsequent fall to an alliance of Chaldeans and Medes.

The first time we hear of Chaldeans (Kaldu) is in the 9th century annals of Shalmaneser III of Assyria. The Chaldeans of antiquity (to be distinguished from the current followers of the Catholic Church) lived among the swamps and lakes along the lower courses of the Tigris and Euphrates. Their organization was tribal, and each Chaldean bitu ("house") was under the leadership of a Shaikh who at times called himself a "king". But the tribal regions were ill-defined and the political strength of each individual Shaikh was largely a matter of personal ability and prestige. The largest of the tribes , the Bit-Dakkuri, was located south of Borsippa, not far from Babylon. Further south were the Bit-Amukkani, and along the Tigris to the east bordering on Elam, the Bit-Yakin. Contemporary evidence shows beyond any doubt that these people were far from impoverished nomads. The Assyrian reliefs portray them living in an area of flourishing date palms and other evidence indicates that some were even city-dwellers. The Chaldeans kept large herds of horses and cattle, and to judge from the tribute exacted from them were, if not themselves merchants, at least in control of southern routes along which traveled such exotic luxuries as ebony, ivory, sisso (a kind of valuable Indian timber), elephant hides and gold.

No direct evidence indicates that the Chaldeans spoke a language other than Babylonian (a different dialect of Akkadian than that spoken in Assyria). Certainly most of those mentioned in letters and historical texts are the possessors of good Babylonian names. The presence of a few possibly Aramaean names is sometimes taken as an indication that Chaldeans spoke a local dialect of Aramaic, but ancient sources distinguish carefully between Chaldeans and Aramaean tribes to the north. The antecedents of Chaldeans remain in doubt. Some scholars suppose that they represent another migration of Aramaeans, earlier than the rest, who settled in the southern marshes to become regarded as a special ethnic group. But there is no proof of this; cuneiform sources invariably make a distinction between the two peoples, and there are features besides name which set the Chaldeans apart from Aramaeans. One distinguishing mark was their distribution. Whereas the Aramaeans were to be found not only throughout most rural areas of north and south Mesopotamia, but also in Syria and Transjordan, the Chaldeans as originally encountered were restricted to south Babylonia, and always remained predominantly there. While at a later period the Chaldeans spoke Aramaic, however this proves nothing, since the same was true eventually of most people between Palestine and Mesopotamia as a whole. Before 722 BC all we know of their language is a few place-names and less than twenty personal names, and of the latter over three-quarters are Akkadian, not Aramaic. There is no hint of any non-Semitic linguistic background, but this does not prelude the possibility that their ancestry included elements from earlier groups who had ruled the south of the country, or from the Kassities. Some scholars suggest that they were originally of east Arabian peninsula origin; there is little positive evidence for this, but it is not impossible, and if they came in via the west coast of the Persian Gulf it might explain why they remained only in the south of Mesopotamia.

The Chaldeans were quite different in their social organization from the Aramaeans. In contrast to the forty or so Aramaean tribes, they were organized in only five tribes, all designated bit plus a personal name. The three principle tribes were Bit-Dakkuri, Bit-Amukkani, and Bit-Yakin, and there were also two smaller ones, Bit-Sha'alli and Bit-Shilani. By the eighth century, Bit-Dakkuri and Bit-Amukkani occupied the region along the Euphrates southwards from Babylon, and the Bit-Yakin tribe lived from around Ur to the marshes which stretched as far as the Persian Gulf and the Elamite border. It was this geographical association which led to the Bible designating Ur as 'of the Chaldees'.

Although the Chaldeans retained their tribal structure and felt strong tribal loyalty, they became assimilated into the Babylonian way of life more readily than the Aramaeans. They often took Babylonian names, and at least some of the more prominent of them settled in the old cities within their tribal areas, where they sometimes came to play an active role in Babylonian politics. Even the majority who did not settle in the older cities were often ready to adopt urban institutions, so that before the end of the ninth century they had begun to build their own fortified towns. By 700 BC when Sennacherib undertook a major campaign against some of the Chaldean tribes, he listed 88 fortified cities of theirs, many of them new creations, although a few were ancient Babylonian cities of which the Chaldeans had recently gained control.

Little is known of the first Chaldean king of Babylon, but he was succeeded by another "Sealand" shaikh (Sealand, is the name the Assyrians called the land of the Chaldeans, which is current days southern marshes of Iraq) Eriba-Marduk (770 BC) who seems to have had some success in ridding the immediate neighborhood of Babylon and Borsippa of the ever encroaching Aramaeans and is remembered by later Chaldean kings as the true founder of their dynastic line.

With the accession of Nabonassar (Nabu-nasir) in 747 BC (king of Babylon during the era of the Assyrian Emperor Tiglath-Pileser) we enter a new era in the history of Babylon. Henceforth precise records of historical events were systematically kept, and both the Babylonian Chronicle and the "Ptolemaic Canon" begin their accounts with the accession of this king. Indeed, according to later Ptolemaic reckoning the Nabonassar Era began precisely at midday on 26 February 747 BC!! Tradition relates that highly accurate astronomical observations were also kept from this time onwards. Astronomical "diaries", a number of which have been preserved, were now compiled. In these Babylonian diaries were listed monthly astronomical observations together with fluctuations in such matters as commodity prices, river levels and weather. One authority has suggested that this intensive astronomical activity noted from this time onwards may have been inspired by a spectacular conjunction of the moon and planets in Nabonassar's first regal year, but the increasing political stability from this time onwards must also have been a factor in the greater preservation of records. In Hellenistic astronomy the Nabonassar era was indeed recognized as a turning point in history of science and the very term Chaldean came to signify "astronomer". A 'label' which will play a tremendous role during the advent of the Greek-swayed Christianity in Mesopotamia in distorting and even pushing the Mesopotamians to deny their 'ethnic and nationalistic' affinity. An impact that we still have to resolve to this moment!!

Finally, there is neither a historic evidence nor is there any Mesopotamian history scholar who claims that the Chaldeans of antiquity (or any of their five tribes) ever left their homeland in southern Babylonia and migrated to the heartland of Assyria, the homeland of the modern day Chaldean-Catholics. A fact that strongly stands against the claims of some proponents of the ethnic link between the current days Chaldean-Catholics and that of the Chaldeans of antiquity.


A west Semitic people whose main land was that of Syria and Transjordan. The Aramaeans were mainly nomadic people as they were always referred to as "Ahlamu" meaning nomad in Akkadian by the Babylonians and Assyrians. By the 1200 BC, the circumstances of the Ahlamu seems to have changed, for the Assyrian king Ashur-res-ishi (1133-1115 BC) reported that he had clashed with an army of these people and scattered them, suggesting that the Ahlamu were no longer simply nomadic traders, but that some of them constituted roving bands so menacing as to be a threat to outlying parts of Assyria.

Under the next Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser (1114-1076 BC), the situation had become worse. He had to undertake repeated campaigns against groups who are now designated by the compound name Ahlamu-Aramaeans, whom he encountered over a very extensive region. One of Tiglath-Pileser's texts indicates that they might be found anywhere from Lebanon to the city of Tadmor in the Syrian desert, and along the Euphrates from the borders of Babylonia to Carchemish in the north. But their main center seems to be Jebel Bishri south of middle Euphrates (middle Syria).

Due to climatic changes during the 12 century BC, Aramaeans and other people started migrating from their old lands into other areas. In the case of the Aramaeans, they moved towards urban Syria in the south and west, and Mesopotamia in the east. The migrants by no means formed a homogeneous group. Although their basic way of life was pastoralism, the fact that some of them lived in towns in the Jebel Bishri region, shows that they included groups who were familiar with urbanism and the specialized activities and social organization which accompanied that way of life.

Some of the Aramaeans moved westwards into Syria and began to settle as far as Palestine where they formed important kingdoms. Both the Bible and cuneiform inscriptions provide abundant evidence of their presence in these areas. One of the earliest Aramaeans kingdoms was Zobah, which according to the Bible clashed with the earliest kings of Israel, Saul and David. During Solomon's reign the main power center of the Aramaeans shifted from Zoba to Damascus (1 Kings 11:23-5) and by the Beginning of the ninth century the Aramaean kingdom of Damascus was powerful enough to be of serious threat to Israel.

Other groups of Aramaeans attempted to migrate into Assyria. Although vigorous Assyrian resistance kept them out of the central part of the country, they managed to settle in the western fringes, along the middle Euphrates and south of Ashur. They also began to overrun Babylonia. By the end of the eleventh century the Aramaean semi-nomads had taken over regions along the middle Euphrates and a buffer strip between south Assyria and north Babylonia, so the threat to merchant caravans of marauding tribesmen seriously affected Babylonia's trade routes through those regions to the north and west.

The Aramaean immigration also caused problems in some Babylonian cities. The one to suffer most initially was Sippar (in north Babylonia). Babylon and Borsippa was also badly affected. In one of the Babylonian king Nabu-mukin-apli (977-942 BC) chronicle we read " in the month Nisan, the Aramaean were hostile, so that the king could not come to Babylon, Nabu (god of neighboring city Borsippa) was unable to come there, Bel (Marduk) could not come out, and the king did not perform the sacrifices of Akitu (New Year festival)". All this seriously hit the Babylonian economy, and this is reflected in the fact that economic documents from this period are relatively few.

As the Aramaeans settled, economic conditions gradually improved. The Aramaeans were rarely of overt political consequence in the history of Mesopotamia, but they were not without cultural importance in the ancient Near East. This was shown mainly in two areas, which were inter-linked. First, they played an important role in trade. The trading role of the Aramaeans across all of Syria and Mesopotamia had a secondary consequence, it lead to the spreading of their language to other ethnic groups, until by 400 BC it was spoken or used for some purposes from Egypt to Iran.

The Aramaeans in Babylonia never formed a single united group, and eventually there were some forty Aramaean tribes there distinguished by name. One of the most powerful tribes, the Puqudu, is mentioned in Jeremiah 50:21 and Ezekiel 23:23; in the later passage it is named alongside the Babylonians, Chaldeans and others. Two other important Aramaean tribes in Babylonia around Nippur, the Puqudu north and east of Ur, and the Gambulu south of Diyala river towards the Elamite border. The Gumbulu tribe occupied at least one major city, Dur-Athara, sufficiently populous for Sargon II of Assyria to deport 18,000 inhabitants when he conquered it.

The division of Aramaeans into so many groups suggests a social structure which made them disinclined to unite under a single leader. Such factors made it difficult for the Aramaeans in Babylonia to unite for common cause and action, and more than once it happened in a struggle for control of the country that different Aramaeans groups supported different contenders. The Assyrians, who were well aware of this fissiparous used it. Thus at the time of the Mukin-zer rebellion in Babylon (732-729 BC), we find a commander reporting that he offered freedom from corvee service to any Aramaean who deserted from the rebel leader. A consequence of this was that the political influence of the Aramaeans in Babylonia was always more limited than their wide distribution might lead one to believe. The Aramaeans remained largely pastoral and had few large towns, although individual Aramaeans often assimilated into Babylonian life. Personal names shows that Aramaeans were sometimes found at court; particular evidence relates to the Assyrian court, but there is no reason to think it was otherwise in Babylonia. Aramaeans also served in the army, and one small tribe, the Itu'a, are often mentioned in Assyrian letters as policing conquered cities,.

One last point to make is that due to the fierce resistance of the Assyrians, there is no historical evidence to support the claim that Aramaeans have settled in the heartland of Assyria (around Nineveh and Arbil), the homeland of the Chaldean-Catholics of today.


As can be seen from the above mentioned historical records, that the forefathers of the current days Chaldean-Catholics can neither be Chaldeans of antiquity nor Aramaeans. Having their homeland, the fertile valley around Nineveh, the heartland of Assyria, supported by the fact that most of the "Chaldean-Catholic" towns were built during the Assyrian era (e. g. Tel Keppe, Alqosh, Karamlis, etc. ) can only lead to the correct conclusion that those people are but the direct descendents of the Assyrians of antiquity. It is interesting to note that the Catholic Encyclopedia defines "Chaldeans" of today as:

“The name of former Nestorians now reunited with the Roman Church. . . Strictly, the name Chaldean is no longer correct; in Chaldea proper, apart from Baghdad, there are now very few adherents of this rite, most of the Chaldean population being found in the cities of Mosul, Arbil, and Kirkuk, in the heart of the Tigris valley, in the valley of the Zab, in the mountains of Kurdistan. It is in the former ecclesiastical province Ator (Assyria) that are found the most flourishing of the Catholic Chaldean communities. . .”

It's obvious from the passage above, that the name "Chaldean" was given to the newly converted Catholics of Mesopotamia mainly to indicate a historical "geographical" area and not an "ethnic" group. That is, since the seat of the Catholics was Baghdad (part of the land of the last Babylonian dynasty, the Chaldeans) at the time the monk Yohanan Sulaga was given the title Patriarch of the Chaldeans in Babylon by Pope Julius III in 1551 AD in Rome where he spent about three years being taught the Catholic doctrine. It's also important to realize that the religious name "Chaldean" was extended also to cover the ex-Nestorians of the west coast of India, the ones that are referred to by the Catholic Encyclopedia as "Christians of Malabar". Those people were converted to Christianity by the efforts of the Church of the East. They use Syriac as their language of liturgy and reported to the Church of the East till they were forced by the Catholic Church to do otherwise. The following extract from the Catholic Encyclopedia should explain it all:

After... the renewal of relations between Rome and the Chaldean Catholics, their procurator, Bishop Hormizd Elias, was sent to India (1562) by the pope and the Patriarch 'Abdisho', with two Dominican missionaries, one of whom was a bishop. 'Abdisho' ordained as Bishop of Malabar a certain Joseph whom the Portuguese detained at Goa so that he was able to reach his mission only after two years. In the meantime, because of urgency, a successor had been named, Bishop Abraham of Angamale. This was the cause of misunderstandings and disputes to which Pius IV put an end (1565) by dividing the Malabar territory. This step did not greatly relieve the anxieties of the United Chaldeans of Malabar. Bishop Abraham complained to the pope "that the Fathers of the Society [of Jesus] and the Latin Portuguese tried to withdraw him from obedience to the Chaldean patriarch and to persuade him to demand the pallium directly from the pope. In this way they sought to compel him to "conform to the Latin Rite and to turn over gradually to the Holy See the administration of this province". The King of Cochin himself asked from the pope (1576) for Bishop Abraham a safe-conduct to attend at Goa the Provincial Council of the Indies, without fear of imprisonment. In 1599, Alexis Menezes, Archbishop of Goa, convoked at Diamper a celebrated synod, in which it was decided to unify the hierarchy and to correct the rituals, missals, and other liturgical books of the Malabar Christians in the sense of the Roman Liturgy. Portuguese authority enforced these decisions on the Malabar Coast, but the policy eventually failed. Many Catholics left the Latin Church and joined the Nestorians. A little later (1603) the Jacobite (Monophysite) patriarch sent a bishop to India, whereupon more than a hundred thousand Malabar Christians accepted him with a view to the preservation of their liturgical (Syriac) tongue, heedless of his Monophysitism, which was, no doubt quite unintelligible to them.

Owing to the Carmelite missionaries, who succeeded the Jesuits, nearly 250,000 persevered in Catholic unity, and have remained to the present, loyal to the Holy See and submissive to the Latin hierarchy though they have never ceased their petition to be restored to the obedience of the Chaldean patriarch.

Chaldean Catholic Church Patriarch, Mar Raphael Bidawid.
Lebanon, 2001.
Chaldean Catholic Church Bishop, Mar Sarhad Jammo
USA, May 24, 1996.

This re-affiliation has not been accorded them, even after the Encyclical of Leo XIII "Orientalium Dignitas". The pope, however, has withdrawn them from the jurisdiction of the Latin bishops and has given them three vicars Apostolic of their nation and rite. These native bishops administer the Dioceses of Trichur, Ernakulam and Changanachery, and are directly subject to Propaganda (1897). This is only a provisional solution. The Catholic Chaldeans of Malabar look always towards the (Catholic) Chaldean patriarchs, who never tire of urging the extension of their jurisdiction over the distant Malabar churches, historically united with the Church of Persia and its legitimate representatives.

Finally, while it's highly commended the efforts undertaken by the respective churches of our nation towards re-unification of the Church of the East, however, religious names should not be allowed to carry over to the national name. We can not invent a new name for our nation (e. g. Chaldo-Assyrian) nor continue the dual usage of Chaldean/Assyrian. It's totally unacceptable to "create" a new name to satisfy everyone's "feelings", for two wrongs does not make it right! There is only one correct and acceptable name for our nation. Correct, because it's a historical and ancient name that our forefathers were called by and referred to, acceptable because it's a wonderful and a great feeling to be called Assyrian!

In the next article we will attempt to discuss the sociopolitical conditions of the Assyrians (in both their religious denominations) since the fall of the Chaldean Empire to present day state of affairs.

The Assyrian~Chaldean Dilemma: One Nation, Two Names, Part II

Dr. Hirmis Aboona (1940-2009)

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