Who are the Assyrians? 10 Things to Know about their History & Faith

Brannon Deibert

Who are the Assyrians? 10 Things to Know about their History & Faith

The Assyrian people, also known as Syriacs, are an ethnic population native to the Middle East. They are predominantly Christian and claim heritage from Assyria, originating from 2500 BC in ancient Mesopotamia.

Discover 10 things to know about the Assyrian history, culture, and faith.

The Origin of Assyrians

The story of the Assyrian people originates with the emergence of Akkadian speaking peoples in Mesopotamia sometime between 3500 and 3000 BC. This then led to the development of Assyria in the 25th century BC. 

During the early bronze age era, Sargon of Akkad joined all the native Semitic-speakers and the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, including the Assyrians, under the Akkadian Empire from 2335–2154 BC. Assyria was for most of this time a strong and relatively advanced nation and a primary center of the Mesopotamian civilization and religion.

 

The Three Empires of Ancient Assyria

The Old Assyrian Empire (2025–1750 BC): This era is the earliest period for which there are findings of a distinguished culture, different from that of southern Mesopotamia, thriving in the capital city of Ashur, settled on the Tigris River in present-day Iraq. Image below of the Old Assyrian Empire.

The Old Assyrian Empire

 

The Middle Assyrian Empire (1365–1020 BC): The Middle era observed reigns of notable kings, such as Ashur-uballit I, Arik-den-ili, Tukulti-Ninurta I and Tiglath-Pileser I. During this time, Assyria defeated the realm of the Hurri-Mitanni and surpassed the Hittite, Egyptian, and Babylonian empires in size and power. Image below of the Middle Assyrian Empire.

The Middle Assyrian Empire

 

The Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–605 BC): This Assyrian era was during the Iron Age and became the biggest empire of the world up to that point. The Assyrians developed early methods of imperial rule that would become a practice in later empires and, according to many historians, was the first true empire in history. The Assyrians were the first to be outfitted with iron weapons and employed military tactics that made them undefeatable in their time. Image below of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire

 

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.org

Assyrians Proclaim to Descend from Abraham

According to their tradition, the Assyrians are descendants of Abraham, the ancestor of the ancient Assyrians. Along with the Arameans, Phoenicians, Armenians, and Greeks, they were part of the original people to convert to Christianity and developed Eastern Christianity to the Far East.

Assyrian Province in the Roman Empire

The territory of Syria, then home to many Assyrians, became a Roman province in 64 BC, following the Third Mithridatic War. The Assyria-based soldiers accounted for three divisions of the Roman army, protecting the Parthian boundary. Syria was of significant strategic value during the trials of the third century. From the later 2nd century, the Roman senate included several notable Assyrians, including Claudius Pompeianus and Avidius Cassius. In the 3rd century, Assyrians even reached for imperial power, with the Severan dynasty.

From the 1st century BC, Assyria was the stage of the ongoing Perso-Roman Wars. It would become a Roman province once again between 116 and 363 AD, although the Roman authority of this province was unstable and was often yielded to the Parthians and Persians.

Muslim Conquest of Assyrians

After the Arab Islamic Conquest of the mid 7th century AD, Assyria was demolished as an entity. The before basic civilization of the desert-dwelling Arabs was greatly improved and enriched by the culture and knowledge of native Mesopotamian scientists and scholars.

Assyrian Christians contributed to the Arab Islamic civilization by translating works of Greek philosophers to Syriac and later to Arabic. However, despite this, native Assyrians became second-class residents in a greater Arab Islamic state, and those who resisted conversion to Islam were subjected to religious, ethnic and cultural discrimination, and had several restraints inflicted upon them.

 

The Assyrian Genocide

The Assyrian genocide refers to the mass killing of the Assyrian population of the Ottoman Empire and those in neighboring Persia by Ottoman troops during the First World War, in association with the Armenian and Greek genocides.

The Assyrian civilian population of upper Mesopotamia was coercively relocated and decimated by the Ottoman (Turkish) army, together with other allied Muslim peoples, between 1914 and 1920, with additional attacks on defenseless migrating civilians enacted by local Arab militias.

The Assyrian genocide took place in the same circumstances as the Armenian and Greek genocides. Since the Assyrian genocide occurred within the setting of the much more extensive Armenian genocide, research discussing it as a distinguished matter is uncommon.

 

Pictured above is a Memorial for the Assyrian Genocide from Wikipedia.org

Modern Assyrian Persecution

The majority of Assyrians residing in what is today modern Turkey were compelled to flee to either Syria or Iraq after the Turkish victory of the Turkish War of Independence. In 1932, Assyrians declined to become part of the newly established state of Iraq and rather demanded their recognition as a separate nation.

Since the 2003 Iraq War social turmoil and disorder have produced the unprovoked infliction of Assyrians in Iraq, mostly by Islamic extremists, and Kurdish nationalists. In areas such as Dora, a community in southwestern Baghdad, the majority of its Assyrian population has either fled abroad or to northern Iraq or have been murdered. Islamic anger over the United States' invasion of Iraq, and occurrences such as the Muhammad cartoons and the Pope Benedict XVI Islam controversy, have resulted in Muslims attacking Assyrian communities. Since the beginning of the Iraq war, at least 46 churches and monasteries have been bombed.

 

Assyrian Culture

Assyrian culture is broadly inspired by Christianity. Common festivals occur during religious holidays such as Easter and Christmas.

Assyrians often enact greetings and farewells with a kiss on each cheek and by saying Shlama/Shlomo lokh, which means: "Peace be upon you" in Neo-Aramaic. Others are greeted with a handshake with the right hand only; as according to Middle Eastern traditions, the left hand is affiliated with evil.

There are many Assyrian traditions that are prevalent in other Middle Eastern cultures. For instance, a parent will often place an eye pendant on their baby to prevent "an evil eye being cast upon it". Assyrians are endogamous, meaning they ordinarily marry within their own ethnic community, although exogamous marriages are not regarded as a taboo, unless the foreigner is of a different religion, particularly a Muslim.

Assyrian Music

Assyrian music is a blend of traditional folk music and western modern music genres, namely pop, but also rap and recently, EDM. Instruments traditionally used by Assyrians include the zurna and davula, but has grown to include guitars, pianos, violins, synthesizers (keyboards and electronic drums), and other instruments.

Assyrian Dancing

Assyrians have various traditional dances which are performed mostly for special events such as weddings. Assyrian dance is a mixture of both ancient indigenous and common near eastern elements. Assyrian folk dances are largely made up of circle dances that are performed in a line. The most common form of Assyrian folk dance is "khigga," which is commonly danced as the bride and groom are greeted into the wedding reception.

 

Syriac Christianity - Assyrian Denominations

Assyrians belong to several Christian denominations such as the Assyrian Church of the East, with an estimated 400,000 members, the Chaldean Catholic Church, with about 600,000 members, the Syriac Orthodox Church, which has between 1,000,000 and 4,000,000 members globally (only some of whom are Assyrians), and the Ancient Church of the East with some 100,000 members. 

A modest minority of Assyrians affirmed the Protestant Reformation in the 20th century, possibly due to British influences, and are now organized in the Assyrian Evangelical Church, the Assyrian Pentecostal Church, and other Protestant Assyrian groups. While Assyrians are predominantly Christian, an echoing minority, especially those living in the west, tend to be irreligious or atheistic.

Many members of the following churches regard themselves as Assyrian. Ethnic identities are often profoundly intertwined with religion, a legacy of the Ottoman Millet system. The group is traditionally characterized as adhering to various churches of Syriac Christianity and speaking Neo-Aramaic languages. It is subdivided into:

  • Assyrian Church of the East and Ancient Church of the East following the East Syrian Rite also known as Nestorians
  • Syriac Orthodox Church following the West Syrian Rite also known as Jacobites
  • Syriac Catholic Church following the West Syrian Rite

The Assyrian Diaspora

Assyrian diaspora refers to Assyrians residing in places outside of their ancestral homeland after leaving from fear of persecution and violence. 

Since the Assyrian genocide, many Assyrians have fled the Middle East completely for a more secure and prosperous life in the countries of the Western world. As an outcome of this, the Assyrian population in the Middle East has diminished significantly.

As of today, there are more Assyrians in the diaspora than in their homeland. The largest Assyrian diaspora communities are found in Sweden (100,000), Germany (100,000), the United States (80,000), and in Australia (46,000).

 

Sources

Assyria | Ancient.eu

Assyrian People | Wikipedia.org

 


This article is part of our Denomination Series listing historical facts and theological information about different factions within and from the Christian religion. We provide these articles to help you understand the distinctions between denominations including origin, leadership, doctrine, and beliefs. Explore the various characteristics of different denominations from our list below!

Catholic Church: History, Tradition & Beliefs
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Lutheran History & Beliefs


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