The Semitic World and Assyrians
Anyway, this post germinated because someone used the term "anti-Semitic" in that exchange, and I realized yet again how much ignorance there is about the history and composition of different ethnic groups in the Middle-East among many of us.
In many parts of the world, the term "anti-Semitic" is bandied about as exclusively meaning anti-Jew without much thought as to its correct meaning and application. The term is a misnomer, because in its correct application it should apply to all Semitic people, more specifically, Semitic language speaking people including Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Jews, etc. The correct term should be "anti-Judaism", but "anti-Semitic" is overwhelmingly and incorrectly used. Here's Britannica's take on it.
In the post, I decided to write about a Semitic language speaking people, with whose history I'm a bit more familiar, why, I shall tell you in a minute. First, how many here can refer back to their ancient history lessons in school, and remember the discussion of ancient civilizations of the Mesopotamian region?
Let me go ahead and tell you what I was taught about it. I do recall being taught about the Sumerians, and the Babylonians found mention as well, perhaps mainly due to Hammurabi's Code. Perhaps the Assyrians and the Akkadians were discussed, but I honestly cannot remember. As abruptly as they had made an appearance in my life, the Sumerian gods, and King Hammurabi disappeared, and in my understanding the ancient Mesopotamians had been entombed in their relics and ruins, with little relation to contemporary Middle-East.
Till I met this friend of mine for the first time. The usual trivial banter:
TM: So where are you from?
TM: Oh, you're Persian.
Friend: No, I'm Assyrian.
TM: Ummm....from Syria then?(quizzical look on her face)
Friend: No, Assyrian.
Friend: Do you know about the Babylonians?
TM: Oh sure!! (not falling asleep in ancient history class can pay off)
Friend: So my ancestors were from Mesopotamia and were the great rivals of the Babylonians.
TM: (Trying desperately to remember whose kingdoms the Babylonians were pillaging, but only the names Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar pop out. Damn you Nebuchadnezzar, must you have such a quirky, memorable name?) *sheepish grin* I'm sorry, I don't think I know about the Assyrians. Tell me about them.
And so, over the years, bit by bit, my friend filled me with accounts of Assyrian history, ethnicity, religion and diaspora, albeit from his specific perspective as an Iranian citizen of Assyrian descent. And when I tried to find more information on the web, I found a tangled web of history, migration and geopolitics, somehow exemplary of the historical progression of the region we know as the Middle-East.
It all started in the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present day Iraq, an area called Beth Nahrain (house of the rivers) by the Assyrians and Mesopotamia (meaning land between the rivers in Ancient Greek) by the Greeks. In the 1400 year history of the Assyrian state, there were moments of expansionary conquest, as the rulers campaigned as far as modern day Egypt on the west and modern day Bahrain on the east. There was also a bitter rivalry with the Babylonians, who subjugated them and were in turn subjugated by the Assyrians. After the death of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, the kingdom disintigrated rapidly and the Assyrian state ceased to exist in 609 BC. Details about the history of the Assyrian state can be found here.
Even though the Assyrian state was gone, there was still the matter of the Assyrian people and people claiming Assyrian descent, who were now to be found across the breadth of the territory of the erstwhile Assyrian empire. Everyone knows how ethnic Kurds are divided by the geopolitical borders of Iran, Iraq and Turkey. For the Assyrians, it's a similar story, as the region of their erstwhile empire falls between the four modern states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. There are Assyrian in all these nations, the majority being in Iraq, estimated to be between 1.3 million and 1.5 million. The ubiquitous Foreign Minister of Saddam Hussain's so-called al-Qaeda supporting regime was Tariq Aziz, an Assyrian/Chaldean Catholic.
Almost all contemporary Assyrians are Christians, and follow diverse sects of Christianity although a majority are followers of some branch of Eastern Orthodoxy. The ancient religion of the Assyrians was Ashurism, worship of Ashur, but they became the earliest ethnic group to convert to Christianity, and the first Assyrian Church was founded in 33 AD.
And this is where the Indian connection of the Assyrians comes in. If I have any Malayali readers, they would be familiar with the Syrian Christian community or the Mar Thoma Khristianis (St. Thomas Christians) of Kerala. They happen to be the earliest converts to Christianity in India and were converted by St. Thomas the Apostle, who came to India in 52 AD. Now in those days Syrian and Assyrian were synonymous, and a researcher on the Kerala Syrian Christians I spoke to in the past confirmed that "Syrian" does not refer to the name of the modern day country of Syria, but rather the ethnic group using Syriac in their religious liturgy, i.e., the Assyrians.
The language of the Assyrians is an interesting topic. Initially, they used to speak ancient Assyrian, an Akkadian language. However, with the growth of the Assyrian empire, another language gained ground and was sanctioned as an official lingua franca of the state. This language happened to be Aramaic, the language of the Aramaean people, which remained widely spoken in the region even after the fall of the Assyrian empire in 609 BC. One of the dialects of Aramaic was the language in which the most famous son of those lands, Jesus Christ (or Eshu M'Shikha in Aramaic) spoke and preached his message.
Present-day Assyrians continue to speak a language which is a form of Aramaic (also called Syriac or Assyrian Neo-Aramaic), however it is completely different from the old Aramaic of the Assyrian empire and the mother tongue of Jesus, though there are certainly many common elements. In fact, the Assyrians are one of the few living communities speaking a form of Aramaic. Being a Semitic language, it also has common elements with Hebrew and Arabic.
As I stated earlier, the trajectory of the Assyrian people is a reflection of the complex and tortuous history of the Middle-Eastern region. Many Assyrians were either killed or forced to flee their homeland in northern Iraq and North-western Iran due to the conflict with the Ottomans during 1914-1918, which depending on which side you are listening to, is either the Armenian and Assyrian genocide, or an uprising by the Armenians and Assyrians against the Ottomans (I'll be honest, I tend to believe that there was a genocide of ethnic Armenians and Assyrians). In recent years, after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran in 1979, thousands of Assyrians have migrated to the West, leaving what had been their homeland for more than 3000 years. And the Iraq conflict has also led to many Assyrian/Chaldean Iraqis to migrate to the West from the Beth Nahrain, from whence their empire once sprang.
To conclude, I'd leave you with this:
Many of you must have heard the song Kandisa, sung by the band Indian Ocean, which is apparently a 2000 year old Syrian Christian hymn. Given that the language of the hymn has to be Old Aramaic, it is most probably the language that was spoken by Assyrians at the time.
I did ask my friend to try and decipher the song lyrics, but his knowledge of Syriac/Aramaic hymns is limited, and he also suspects that over 2000 years, the words have been considerably Indianized to the point of non-recognition by someone who actually knows Aramaic. For example, he told me that though he isn't familiar with the word "Kandisa" (according to Indian Ocean, it means "praise") but there is indeed a word "Q'adisha", which means "holy" (search for "holy" in this lexicon and scroll down).
So just as I was looking for more information on Kandisa, I stumbled upon this great transliteration of the Kandisa song, provided to the blogger Zimbly Mallu by a Syrian Orthodox person, and now it does look like Aramaic compared to what the Indian Ocean were singing.
I kept digging further, and finally found the source hymn, which happens to be an important part of the Syriac liturgy and indeed Christian liturgy in general, known as the Trisagion, and is unrecognizable in its "Kandisa" form:
Qadisha alaha, quadisha Khailathana. Qadisha la maiyoutha, ethrakhem 'ailaen
(Holy God, Holy and Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us)
Courtesy: Syro-Chaldean liturgy (scroll down to prayer before the Trisagion)
Here's the hymn being sung as liturgy in the Syro-Chaldean church (scroll to Qadisha alaha). Notice the pronounciation, Aramaic being a Semitic language, sounds closer to Hebrew and Arabic.
If you'd like to find out what contemporary Assyrian sounds like, a good introduction are the songs of Evin Agassi, an Iranian Assyrian singer, who sings with an Iranian Assyrian dialect. Notice anything unusual about his name? Yep, the reason why he shares his last name with the tennis champion Andre Agassi is because Andre's father Emmanuel "Mike" Agassi is half-Assyrian half-Armenian, and is also from the Assyrian heartland of Urmia in Iran.