ASSYRIANS IN IRAN

The ancient name “Assyrian,” derived from that of the god Aššur, designated the Semitic population of north Mesopotamia and their capital city. Even before the final destruction of the Assyrian empire in 612 B.C., its population had become largely Aramaic-speaking; knowledge of its ancient language, Akkadian, had become restricted to the educated people and to scribes.

 

ASSYRIANS IN IRAN

i. The Assyrian community (Āšūrīān) in Iran.

ii. Literature of the Assyrians in Iran.

iii. Assyrian settlements outside of Iran.


i. The Assyrian Community (Āšūrīān) in Iran

The term “Assyrian. Assyrians (Āšūrīs) is the term for the modern, East Syrian Christian communities in Iran. The ancient name “Assyrian,” derived from that of the god Aššur, designated the Semitic population of north Mesopotamia and their capital city. Even before the final destruction of the Assyrian empire in 612 B.C., its population had become largely Aramaic-speaking; knowledge of its ancient language, Akkadian, had become restricted to the educated people and to scribes. This facilitated the rise of a confusion over the identity of “Assyrian.” The term “Assyrian letters” used by Herodotus (4.87) meant to Ezra (465-24 B.C., scribe to Artaxerxes I) the Aramaic alphabet he used as a scribe; with it he transcribed the Pentateuch from the ancient Hebrew script, and he read these scriptures in this form before the Jewish congregation in 444 B.C. (Nehemiah 8). The Hebrew square-letter script was developed from this alphabet and is still called keṯāḇ aššūrī, “Assyrian script” and until the last century, the language of the Aramaic portions of the Bible continued to be called “Chaldean.”

Thus the confusion of the ancient Assyrians and Chaldeans with the Arameans is not recent. But it became further complicated when J. S. Assemanus (Bibliotheca Orientalis III/1-2, Rome, 1725-28, repr. Hildesheim and New York, 1975) and J. A. Assemanus (De Catholicis seu Patriarchis Chaldaeorum et Nestorianorum Commentarius Historico-chronologicus, Rome, 1775, repr. Gregg Intern. Publishers, 1969) used the improper name of Chaldeans for all Syriac-speaking Christians united with Rome. The term was applied, not only to those in Iraq (former Nestorians), but also to the Lebanese Maronites, in order to distinguish them from the Nestorians; the latter were heretical from the point of view of the Roman Catholic Church. The people seemed satisfied to call themselves sūryāyē or sūrāyē “Syrians” or Nestorians and Jacobites according to their main creeds. The use of the name Assyrians for the Nestorians and other related Christians (some converted to Protestantism or other denominations) is partly due to the influence of the Anglican mission, which probably wanted to create a counterpart to the term “Chaldean” introduced by the Catholics. But it also contributed to the national awakening of this mellat suryētā (“Syrian nation,” as they called themselves in their press until the end of World War I). The Anglican mission was called “The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Mission to Assyrian Christians.” The name Assyrians was especially propagated by the Anglican missionary W. A. Wigram in his popular publications, above all in his booklet The Assyrians and their Neighbours (London, 1929). Forty years later, J. Joseph, a member of this ethnic group, author of The Nestorians and Their Muslim Neighbours (Princeton, 1961), whose title is certainly suggested by Wigram’s booklet, returned to the original name of his people exposing the artificial nature of the names “Chaldeans” and “Assyrians” (pp. 6ff.). After World War I these people needed a name when they had to apply for their human rights before the League of Nations (Joseph, pp. 154ff.; Macuch, Geschichte, p. 260). Since by this time the name “Assyrians” had been officially introduced in the West, the eastern Syrians could only try to assert the term among themselves. In spite of the zeal of the “Assyrian” nationalists, it was not easy to bring it into general use; the Catholic part of this people still prefers the appellation Chaldean. But they succeeded to the extent that an Assyro-Chaldean union has been formed. Moreover, an Iranian Assyrian Catholic, Dr. Pēʾra Sarmas (see below), became the most zealous defender of the name “Assyrians.”

The development of the modern concept of “Assyrians” among these people themselves began with Botta’s excavation of the palace of Sargon II in Khorsabad (1843), followed by Layard’s discovery of Nineveh. This research opened the eyes, not only of the West, but also of the ethnically nameless Aramean population in these regions which had been satisfied to identify itself by religions denominations. Already in 1847, only two years after Layard’s discovery, a Jacobite copyist and poet ʿAbd-al-Wāḥed of Mosul designated himself as “of Assyrian origin and of Syrian Jacobite religion” (Ms. Mingana N. 77, fol. 106; Macuch, p. 421). True, the Neo-Syriac press in Urmia, founded in the 1840s by the American Presbyterian Mission, seemed satisfied with the name “Syrians” or with the religious designation ēdtā ʿāttīqtā d-madenḥā, “the Ancient Church of the East.” But the same press awakened the national self-consciousness of a people who, since the Mongol invasion, had fallen into illiteracy and lethargy. Soon after the arrival in Urmia of the first missionaries (especially Dr. Justin Perkins, who deserves the title of father of modern Syriac literature), the Assyrians found themselves in possession of schools, books and periodicals in their spoken language, a hospital and (from 1885 to the end of World War I) a university college, where educational science, theology, philosophy, and medicine were taught. Za(h)rīrē d-ba(h)rā (The rays of light), edited by the Presbyterian Mission from 1849 to the end of World War I, was the first periodical in Iran and enjoyed a longer life than any other Iranian periodical. In 1896 it was followed by Qālā d-šrārā (The voice of the truth), edited by the Catholic Lazarist mission; in 1904 by Ūrmī ārtādoksētā (“orthodox Urmia”), edited by the Russian Orthodox mission; and in 1906 by the periodical of the national movement, Koḵḇā (The star; see Macuch, pp. 136-211). These periodicals of Urmia (the spiritual center of the Iranian Assyrians) did their best to bring on a religious renaissance and to stir the interest of the people in its past—both in their Christian history and in archeological discoveries in the territory of Aššur and Babel. (See the detailed biography of Hormizd Rassam, Layard’s Chaldean assistant, in Zahrīrē d-bahrā 61, 1910, p. 105; Macuch, p. 171 f.) In 1911 Frēdon Ātōrāyā, a Russian Assyrian of Iranian origin (the first of several Assyrian migrations to Russia had occurred in 1828; see Macuch, pp. 114, 181, 185) was publishing Nāqōšā (Stroke of the clock) in Tiflis. In an article “Who are the Syrians and how shall we raise our nation,” he wrote: “The Syrians are the sons of Aššur. We are children of Assyrians with glorious history . . . ” (reprinted in the Iranian Assyrian journal Ātor No. 140, 1972; Macuch, p. 383). The equation “Syrian” = “Assyrian” became established, although the name “Syrian” has not yet been abandoned, e.g., the mentioned editor chose “Ātorāyā” as his family name, and, similarly, Āšūrī and Āšūrīān have become preferred Assyrian family names in Iran. The equation found a philological advocate in the Chaldean scholar Tʾōmā Ōdo, bishop in Urmia, in his Dictionnaire de la langue chaldéenne (Mosul, 1897, p. 9 n.) and Ktāḇā d-qeryānē gūbyē (Morceaux choisis, Urmia, 1906, pp. 168ff.; repr. P. Sarmas, Tasītā III, p. 67ff.). He argued that the appellation Ātōrāyē came into being through aphaeresis of the initial aleph and the change of pronunciation of the spirantized to s²; the latter is normal in several Neo-Syriac dialects. This simple philological equation is doubtful (see. F. Rosenthal, Die aramaistische Forschung, Leiden, 1939, p. 3 n. 1; and J. Joseph, pp. 12f.). But it obtained a zealous advocate in Dr. P. Sarmas (Macuch, pp. 293ff.), the author of the Neo-Syriac “History of Assyrian literature,” in his booklet Aḫnān mānī (y)waḫ? (“Who are we?” Tehran, 1967), he asserted: “It has been commonly accepted that the word "Syria" is derived from the ancient word "Assyria" (p. 70) . . . Only by calling ourselves by a uniform name, namely "Assyrians," shall we gain the sympathies of our government and the respect of our neighbors; (and) others will not point us out with a finger as "that nation which does not know its name"” (p. 146; extracts in Macuch and Panoussi, pp. 1-3).

Clearly, this small ethnic group divided into different confessions needed special arguments for accepting a standard name “Assyrians” after this term had already been accepted, for practical reasons, by their neighbors in the Near East and in Russia, Europe, and America. National zeal had to be reinforced and the whole history of the people to be assyrianized. (The name sū/ōrāyē of the earlier texts ought to be rendered in reprints with an initial aleph, though provided with a linea occultans, as (ʾ)sōrāyē, in order to bring it graphically closer to ātōrāyē.) Thus the history of the people is always made to begin with Sargon I, not only in general histories (e.g., by M. Š. Amīrā, I. Š. Dāwīd, etc.) but also in books such as “The Assyrians and the Two World Wars” (by Yaʿqūḇ bar Māleḵ Ismāʿḕl). P. Sarmas’ Neo-Syriac “History of Assyrian Literature” comprises Akkadian, Syriac, and Neo-Syriac literatures. An uninterrupted history from Akkad until the present time is professed by all modern Assyrian writers (in Iran especially by Benyāmīn Ārsānīs; see Macuch, pp. 279-81 ). The Arameans living in the territory of ancient Assyria (from Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria to Iraq and Iran) and even the Syrian Christians of Malabar (South India) continue to be taken as true Assyrians of the Christian period (see Y. Bḕ[t]-Solḕmān, Tašʿītā d-Ātorāyē b-zaḇnā d-kriskṭyānūtā [History of the Assyrians at the time of Christianity], New Britain, 1931; and the scholarly work of J. M. Fiey, Assyrie chrétienne I-III, Beirut, 1965-68). Those in the border regions (Turkey, Kurdistan, and Azerbaijan) are esteemed as true descendants of the Assyrian colonists (P. Sarmas, Aḫnān mānī (y)waḫ p. 70; Macuch and Panoussi, p. 2).

In order to animate people with interest in their ancient Assyrian history, recourse is often made in literature to personalities whose glory is mainly legendary. Sargon I already legendary in Neo-Assyrian times, is made the starting point of modern Assyrian history. The whole Near East is proved to bear the name of his land by a play Mātā d-Šārōkīn ( = Šarru-kīn) “The Land of Sargon” published and presented by the Assyrian Youth Committee in Beirut in 1969. It describes the fight of the “Assyrian” Christians against Jengiz Khan. Semiramis, the legendary founder and queen of Babylon (in fact Sammuramat, mother of the Assyrian king Adad-nirari III), is a resource for modern “Assyrian” name-giving, as well as romantic historical presentations. Šamīrām is a popular modern Assyrian woman’s name, also the name of the art and folklore associations of Assyrian youths in Tehran, founded by Lilē Tamrāz (Ātor 39, 1972; Macuch, p. 382) and in Beirut (Ātor 55, 1973; Macuch, p. 394). M. Š. Amīrā in his popular Neo-Syriac “History of Assyria” has Semiramis speak to her victorious armies returning from the conquest of Persia, Armenia, Egypt, and Abyssinia: “Beloved Assyrian youths, would that all of you could be as a single man that I might embrace him, press him to my breast, and kiss him on his mouth.” Then she ordered the flag of the Assyrian army brought and kissed it instead, because each soldier shared in the victory of this flag (op. cit., p. 108; extract in Macuch and Panoussi, p. 5).

To magnify the small ethnic group, the concept of “Assyrians” is sometimes overextended to all Oriental Christians, even to Ethiopians. Māleḵ Qambar Wardā (Macuch, pp. 275f.) after having fought in Ethiopia in 1934-36 against Mussolini’s army, was asked by an Assyrian friend why he did it; he reportedly answered: “Brotherly help. Ultimately, they also are Assyrians.”

Assyrians in Iran from 1915. The 19th-century Iranian Assyrians, living under better conditions than their brothers in the Turkish empire, proved to be the best defenders of the Azerbaijan frontier. Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah, after his victory over the Kurds and the Turks, married an Assyrian girl in Dīkāla and organized a regiment of a hundred Assyrian soldiers for defending Tehran (Y. Bḕ[t]-Solḕmān, op. cit., p. 79). From the 1830s to the end of World War I, Urmia was the spiritual capital of the Assyrians by the influence of four Christian missions (see above), which also founded four printing-houses. In 1915-17 the missionary stations in Urmia were able to offer refuge to thousands of Assyrians from the Turkish territory of Hakkari who, under the leadership of their Nestorian patriarch, had to leave their homes to save themselves from the persecution of the Turkish government determined to exterminate all Christians in the Turkish territory. In the early years of the Iranian constitution, the Assyrians had a deputy in the Iranian Parliament (Zahrīrē d-bahrā 62, 1911, p. 1; Macuch, p. 176). The unfortunate events of the two world wars, however, forced a large number of the Assyrian population of the Urmia plain to migrate into other Iranian cities, especially Tehran, Hamadān, and Kermānšāh, to join relatives or friends there. Some found employment in Iranian administration or in the National Iranian Oil Company and founded new Assyrian communities in Ahvāz and Ābādān, where they established their churches, schools, and clubs. Because of their continual fluctuation it is difficult to give an exact number of Assyrians in different Iranian cities. In Tehran, where there may be about 50,000 Assyrians, they founded three churches and several cultural organizations, especially an Assyrian Youth Cultural Society with its own press publishing books and periodicals. They were supported by the Iranian Ministry of Culture. From 1963 to 1978 they had three successive deputies in the Majles (W. Ebrāhīmī, Dr. W. Bḕt-Manṣūr, and H. Āšūrīān). There was also an Assyrian brigadier-general in the Iranian army, Filip Bḕt-Qšaʿnā (see Ātor 42, 1972). An example of Iranian Assyrian political rhetoric is furnished by the writer Šmūʾḕl Bḕt-Kūlā: “In Isaiah 45:1-8 in the year 712 B.C. it was prophesized of Cyrus the Persian, who in 534 conquered Babyloŋ He freed himself from the Median yoke, became emperor of the Medes and Persians, conquered Babylon, and was a righteous ruler. For these 2,500 years we Assyrians have been faithful citizens of the heroic Persian empire” (“Ṣlōtā qā salāmātūtā d-malkān,” Ātor 29, 1971; cf. Macuch, p. 372).

The Nestorian patriarchate lost its political prerogatives after World War I but continued as a spiritual office—the leadership of Nestorian Assyrians throughout the world. Its hereditary status (succession passed to a late patriarch’s brother or nephew) ended with Mar Eshai Shimon XXIII (Macuch, pp. 336, 486); in 1976 the bishop of Tehran, Mar Denkha, was elected patriarch of “the ancient Church of the East.”

The modern Assyrian society in Iran and its social, political, and economic activities. Because of the fluctuation of the Assyrians after the first and second world wars in general and especially the Islamic Revolution in February, 1979, which may lead to further disintegration of religious minorities, it is extremely difficult to give an exact picture of the present state and activities of the Assyro-Chaldean community in Iran and to guess its future. Forced to leave their more or less compact settlements in Iranian Kurdistan and Azerbaijan, they have been living in a diaspora, predominantly in the larger Iranian cities, only a limited number remaining in their original habitats. The statistics of the years 1950-51 and 1970-71 published by Hubert de Mauroy in his book Les Assyro-Chaldéens dans l’Iran d’aujourd’hui (Paris, 1978) show not only the distribution of the Assyro-Chaldeans in Iran but also the fluctuation and growth of this small nation during these twenty years (Table 27).

We see that the urban Assyrian population almost doubled, from a little above 10,000 in 1950-51 to almost 20.000 in 1970-71, a growth corresponding to the general increase of the population of Iran and to the increased moving of the rural population to the cities in the last decades. The statistics also show that, whereas (apart from Reżāʾīya, a representative Assyrian city in the past) the urban Assyrian population diminished in Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, it increased excessively in the capital Tehran and, to some extent, in the larger cities of Ḵūzestān, where formerly there were no Assyrians at all, which is directly related to the growing prosperity of these cities due especially to oil industry. The number of Iranian Assyrians still living in villages can be roughly estimated at 60,000. The approximate numbers above are of course no longer valid. The Assyrian population in Tehran seems to have increased by about a third towards the end of the 1980s. Statistical data for the other cities, are impossible to come by in the current situation.

The Assyrians of Iran are divided into two main churches: (1) the Ancient Church of the East (Nestorian) and (2) the Catholic Chaldean Church, as well as a minor Protestant Church and some smaller denominations which came into existence in the last two centuries. The main two Assyrian churches are called, artificially, “Assyro-Chaldean,” as the members of the Catholic Church, in existence since 1552 through a division of the Ancient Church of the East and the subsequent union of the “Chaldeans” with Rome, are not ready to give up their traditional name “Chaldean.” In fact, this church is now somewhat larger than the original Nestorian “Ancient Church of the East” which has only one diocese (Tehran), whereas the Chaldaean Catholic Church is divided into three dioceses: (1) Tehran, (2) Urmia-Salmās (Reżāʾīya), (3) Ahvāz. The bishop of the Nestorian Church in Tehran, Mar Ḫenānyā Deṇḫā was elected patriarch of the Ancient Church of the East on 17 October 1976 in London, after the hereditary principle of the Nestorian patriarchate (passing to the brother or nephew of the patriarch) was given up after the assassination of the last patriarch of this hereditary chain (Macuch, p. 486).

Approximate statistics of churches are given in Table 28.

These confessional divisions, however, in no way lessen the social and cultural unity of the Assyro-Chaldean people.

The political status of the Iranian Assyrians is that of a religious minority. Already an electoral law from the Constitution of 1907 made room for an Assyrian deputy in the Majles, but the lack of unity among the Assyrians and the situation created by the two world wars prevented the Assyrians from availing themselves of this possibility. Under the reign of the Qajars only for three short legislative periods (November, 1970-June, 1908; November 1910-December, 1911 and 1915) were Assyrian deputies elected. There has been none between World War I and II. It was only under the government of M. Eqbāl in 1959 that the Assyrians were again represented in the Majles and the first Assyrian deputy, the teacher William Ebrāhīmī was elected for a normal legislative period of four years. For the following legislative period, 1963, there were two candidates, W. Ebrāhīmī and Georges Māleḵ Yōnān. Ebrāhīmī was reelected with 6,000 votes out of 8,000. In 1967 there were four candidates: Wilson Bḕt-Manṣūr, G. M. Yōnān, W. Ebrāhīmī, and Bābā Laʿzār. Of 14,000 votes they got 6,000, 3,500, 2,000, and 500 respectively. In 1971, there was a certain agreement between the Assyrians to reelect Bḕt-Manṣūr that he might eventually be designated as a senator and to make place for a new Assyrian deputy (see the propaganda-article of Rābī ʾĪšaʿyā d-Šammāša Dāwīd in Bḕt-Manṣūr’s newspaper Ātor, no. 31, German summary by Macuch, pp. 375f.). Bḕt-Manṣūr (representing the Īrān-e novīn party) was reelected; the second candidate, Yōnān Māleḵ Manṣūr (of Mardom party) gave up his candidature. But the opposition against Bḕt-Manṣūr started to grow in 1973 as he founded his National Liberation Party supporting Iran’s anti-Iraqi policy in the question of Kurdish liberation fighting in northern Iraq in which many Iraqi Assyrians participated. Many Assyrians abroad criticized this policy and warned against it. As long as Iran supported the fighting Kurds, it was also possible to develop a help program for the Assyrian refugees from Iraq. But after the entente between Iran and Iraq, in 1975, Bḕt-Manṣūr was forced to give up his public functions. The last Assyrian deputy in the Majles from 1976 until the Islamic Revolution in February 1979, was Homer Āšūrīān. He consecrated all his forces to modernization and material and technical development of villages in Iranian Azerbaijan; electricity and water supplies, as well as connecting roads, etc., for several villages were made or, at least, planned under his supervision.

The Assyrians in Iran were hardly in a position to complain about the Pahlavi régime, which guaranteed them political and economical freedoms which the Assyrians enjoyed in no other country of the Near and Middle East; they expressed their gratitude to the shah and his government for the recognition of their human rights quite spontaneously, though a few oppositional Irano-Assyrian students in West Germany wrote a letter to two leaders of the Shiʿite opposition shortly before the beginning of the 1979 revolution in Iran (published by G. Yonan, op. cit., p. 89b), in which they requested respect for the human rights of their nation as well as of other national and religious minorities in their country.

The Assyrians founded charitable, folkloristic, and cultural institutions and even sport clubs in several cities. The first and most important “Assyrian Youth Cultural Society” (Sīʿtā siprētā da-ʿlaymē ātorāye, Tehran) was founded on 21 February 1950 and played a very important role through its publication of books and propagation of literature in modern-Syriac (“Assyrian”). There was also a theater group called Šāhdūst, founded in 1954, with its own choir. Its founder and director, Paṭros Tʾūmā Baḡzāda, wrote forty-five “Assyrian” theater pieces. Another famous and important folkloristic music, dance, and theater group, Šamīrām, was founded in 1957 by Lilē Taymūrāzī. A further Assyrian cultural committee Mutḇā edited in the sixties a monthly information bulletin Keṛḫā yaṛḫāyā. This committee along with the “Assyrian Youth Cultural Society” is still considered one of the most important Assyrian cultural organizations. It publishes “Assyrian” books and in 1974 it founded a National Assyrian Library. In 1976 it was reorganized by new deputy, Homer Āšūrīān, and in 1977 it started to publish a new periodical Šḇīlā “The way.” In August, 1969, the Assyrian Iranian Federation (after the model of the American Assyrian National Federation) was founded. This Federation stood under strong influence of the former deputy Bḕt-Manṣūr whose newspaper Ātor was its organ until his political decline in 1975. In 1970 the Iranian government gave a piece of land of 10,214 m2 to the Assyrian Youth Association in Tehran for cultural activities. A “Salon of Assyrian Youths” and a “Students’ Association” were opened there. Similar cultural associations and clubs have been founded also in other Iranian cities, where Assyrians are living. Among the first ones was the Rotary Club in Ābādān, where many Assyrians were working in the Iranian Oil Company. It was founded in 1955 by Pēʾrā Sarmas. In Urmia and the surrounding villages, there were several churches and summer schools in which the “Assyrian” language and religion according to the Chaldean and Nestorian creeds were taught. In 1966 an Assyrian working team was organized which also founded an Assyrian library. In July, 1970, the radio of Reżāʾīya began broadcasting an Assyrian program directed by Roza Dezāčī, Walwadīa Sargīs, and Šīmʿōn Bḕt-Īšōʿ. The Assyrian youths in Reżāʾīya also founded a sports club Koḵḇa d-Āšur “The Assyrian star.” In Tabrīz there is a youth organization led by Dr. James Hormozī.

The best educational and cultural possibilities were, of course, given in the capital where, in addition to the above-mentioned cultural societies, there were four Assyrian schools. Two of them belonged to the Chaldean Church under the supervision of the Metropolitan Mār (= Mgr.) Yōḫannān ʾĪšay. The Nestorian school Šarq “The east” had about 370 pupils and fifteen teachers and the national school Šūšan over 750 pupils and fourteen teachers in ca. 1975. Apart from the inter-confessional associations, there were cultural organizations attached to almost all Assyrian churches.

See also NESTORIANS.

Bibliography:

M. S. Amīrā, Tašʿītā d-Ātor mn 4500 šinnē qa(d)m Mšīḥā hal ši(n)tā 1940 mn bā(t)e Mšīḥā (History of Assyria from 4500 B.C. until 1940 A.D.), Tehran, 1962.

Bābū Esḥāq Rafāʾīl, Tārīḵnaṣāra ’l-ʿErāq, Baghdad, 1948.

G. P. Badger, The Nestorians and Their Rituals I-II, London, 1952.

I. Š. Dāwīd, Tašʿītā d-Bētnahrayn Āšūr-Bāḇḕl (History of Mesopotamia, Assyro-Babylonia), Tehran, 1963.

P. Kawerau, Amerika und die orientalischen Kirchen, Berlin, 1958.

R. Macuch, Geschichte der spät- und neusyrischen Literatur, Berlin, 1976.

Idem and E. Panoussi, Neusyrische Chrestomathie, Wiesbaden, 1974.

G. D. Maleck, History of the Syrian Nation and the Old Evangelical-Apostolic Church of the East, Minneapolis, 1910.

Y. Malek, The British Betrayal of the Assyrians, Fair Lawn, N.J., 1935.

Idem, The Assyrian Tragedy, Annemasse, 1934.

B. Naṣrī, Ḏaḵīrat al-aḏhān I-II, Mosul, 1903-.

P. Rondot, Les chrétiens d’Orient, Paris, 1955, pp. 152-70.

F. Rosenthal, Die aramaistische Forschung seit Th. Noldeke’s Veröffentlichungen, Leiden, 1939, pp. 255-269.

P. Sarmas, Tašʿītā d-siprāyūtā ālorētā (History of Assyrian literature) I-III, Tehran, 1962-70.

Idem, Ḥoqūq-e bašar wa Āšūrīhā-ye īrānī, Tehran, 1344 Š./1965.

R. E. Waterfield, Christians in Persia: Assyrians, Armenians,Roman Catholics and Protestants, London, 1973.

W. A. Wigram, Our Smallest Ally: A Brief Account of the Assyrian Nation in the Great War, London, 1929.

Yaʿqūḇ bar Māleḵ Ismāʿḕl, Ātorāyē w-trē plāšeš teḇlāyē (Assyrians and the two world wars), Tehran, 1964.

For the numerous Assyrian periodicals, see Macuch, pp. 136-87, 195-201, 206-11, 310-22, 342-97.

(R. Macuch)

 

ii. Literature of the Assyrians in Iran

The modern Syriac idiom of the East Syrian Christians (termed “Neusyrisch” or modern, vernacular, or colloquial Syriac by scholars) has come to be labeled by the people themselves as “Assyrian.” This misleading term is also applied to the literature, replacing the old designation siprāyūtā b-liššānā sūryāyā swādāyā (literature in spoken Syriac); the latter was commonly used until the end of World War I. The term “Assyrian” was also intended to better distinguish literature in the spoken idiom from that in classical Syriac. Classical Syriac is referred to as liššānā ʿattīqa (ancient language) or liššānā siprāyā (literary language).

A spoken dialect of Mesopotamian Syriac, called Sūret and in local Arabic Fellīḥī, had been written by the poets of the “school of Alqoš” in the monastery of Rabban Hormezd as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century. But it remained for the American Presbyterian missionary Rev. Dr. Justin Perkins early in the 1840s to make the Iranian (As)syrian dialect of Urmia the most important literary language of the people who later called themselves Assyrians. Aided by the priests Aḇrāhām from Gūgtāpāh, Deṇḫā and Īšōʿ from Gāvār, as well as the Nestorian bishop Yōḫannān from Gavīlān and the deacons Isḥāq and Tammū, he worked out the first orthographical and grammatical rules for this spoken idiom and started an effective campaign against illiteracy. At the time of his arrival in Urmia, there were, among 125,000 inhabitants of the city, only about forty men able to read and write and among the women only one, the sister of the patriarch. Through Perkins’ admirable efforts, these people, after having been neglected for centuries, were awakened to an intensive cultural life. In the first (As)syrian press Perkins published not only his complete modern Syriac translation of the Bible, but also more voluminous publications than any Assyrian author after him (Macuch, pp. 117-30). Two of his first collaborators, Albert Lewis Holladay and David Tappan Stoddard, are known as the first grammarians of modern Syriac, the former through his neo-Syriac booklet Huggāyā (The speller) for the use of the natives, the latter through his English grammatical outline (London, 1855 = JAOS 5, 1856, pp. 1-180). The latter enabled Th. Nöldeke to present the first scholarly description of this language in his Grammatik der neusyrischen Sprache am Urmia-See und in Kurdistan (Leipzig, 1868, repr. 1974) with more certainty than he could have done using only neo-Syriac publications. The grammatical and lexicographical investigations of the missionaries culminated at the end of the century in two scholarly achievements by the English missionary A. J. Maclean (Grammar of the Dialects of Vernacular Syriac, Cambridge, 1895, repr. 1971, and A Dictionary of the Dialects of Vernacular Syriac, Oxford, 1901, repr. 1972). It is noteworthy that Maclean chose the name of “Vernacular Syriac,” though his Mission was officially called “to Assyrian Christians.”

The literary production of the first decades of this literature was almost entirely in the hands of the missionaries. It is only at the end of the last century that we can name some outstanding native authors: Paul Bedjan (1838-1920) from Ḵosrava, known chiefly as an indefatigable editor of voluminous classical Syriac texts, was also a fine modern Syriac writer, as is proved by his Ktāḇā d-ebādatkārūtā. Manuel de piété (Paris, 1886, 2nd ed. 1893); Ḥayyē d-qaddīšē. Vie des saints (Paris and Leipzig, 1912), etc. Another Chaldean scholar Mgr. Tōmā Odō (1853-1918), the most outstanding modern Syriac writer, published Ktāḇā d-Kalīlā wa-Dimnā. Fables indiennes, traduites en langue chaldéenne (Mosul, 1895); Dictionnaire de la langue chaldéenne (Mosul, 1897); Ktāḇā d-grāmātīqī d-liššānā swādāyā (“Grammar of vernacular Syriac,” Urmia, 1905, 1911); Ktāḇā d-qeryānē gubyē (Morceaux choisis, Urmia, 1906); Ktāḇā d-māʾʾ matlē (“A Book of hundred tales,” a translation of the Fables of Lafontaine, Urmia, 1907, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1956); along with several theological and nationalist publications. His fine poetic style remains unequalled in modern Syriac literature. Rābī Bābā d-Kōsī, the head of the national movement in Urmia at the beginning of this century, was preparing an extensive Dictionary of Modern Syriac, of which only a few fascicles were issued; the work as a whole remained unpublished because of financial difficulties which prevented many Syriac writers from publishing the fruits of their labors.

The most important editors of the periodicals appearing in Urmia were as follows: Mīrzā Šmūʾḕl Bādāl Ḫāngaldē (1865-1908): Za(h)rīrē d-ba(h)rā; Āḇā Solomon: Qālā d-šrārā; Šlīmōn Īšōʿ from Salmās (1884-1951): Ūrmī ārtādoksḕtā; Yōḫannān Mūšē (1874-1918): Koḵḇā. The following writers are mostly known from the mentioned periodicals: Rev. Aḇrahām Morhāč; Mīrzā Masrūf Ḫān Karam (1862-1943) published later a translation of the Robāʿīyāt of ʿOmar Ḵayyām and of the verses of the poet Bābā Ṭāher ʿOryān (Tabrīz, 1933); Rābī Pōlōs Sarmas (1870-1939); Rev. Mūšē Dūmān (1872-1917); Rābī Pēʾrā Amrīhaṣ (1872-1945); Rābī Aprḕm Uršān (1874-1937); Šmūʾḕl ʿAywāz Bḕt Yaʿqōḇ who emigrated to America but contributed from there to Koḵḇā; and some others, among them several immigrants in America who continued to participate in the literary life in their native country.

Although there were four missionary printing-houses in Urmia before the end of World War I, the Iranian Assyrian writers and poets were producing much more than they were able to publish. Many of their literary products remained in manuscript or were published only posthumously, sometimes long after the death of the author. E.g., Ktāḇā d-mūšḫātē (A book of poems) of Šimʿōn bar Dāwīd from Āda (1859-1914) was published in 1945 in Baghdad by his daughter Maryam; a heroic poem Ātor rabtā (Great Assyria) of Dāwīd Gīwargīs Māleḵ from Sopūrḡān (1876-1931) was published in 1932 in Beirut by Māleḵ Qambar; a collection of nationalist poems of Šlīmōn Īšōʿ from Salmās (1884-1951), Sāpār d-demʿḕ b-uṛḫā d-demmā (The journey of the tears on the bloody way) was published in Tehran, 1962 by William W. Māleḵ Pēʾrā. After World War I neo-Syriac books continued to be published in Tabrīz, but in that time of material distress the Assyrians could hardly afford much more than to reprint some older books which had been published in the press of Urmia. In fact, the most fruitful Assyrian writers in Tehran, Benyāmīn Kaldānī (b. 1879) and Benyāmīn Arsānīs (1882-1957) had to publish their works in lithographed editions.

Due to the lack of a proper printing-house, the Assyrian book production remained limited until the brothers Adday and Jean Aḷḫāṣ in Tehran, 1951, founded a new printing-house named “Ḥoneyn” after the Syriac-Arabic translator of Greek science. Adday Aḷḫāṣ (1897-1959) started in the same year to publish a new literary periodical, Gilgameš, which continued to appear for a decade and became a literary tribune for Assyrian writers, not only in Iran but in the whole world. He also achieved the first masterpiece of modern Syriac poetry, a versified translation of the Akkadian epic of Gilgamesh, which appeared in installments in his periodical. A complete edition was provided six years after his death by Jean (1908-69) (Tehran, Ḥoneyn Press, 1965). With his collaborators, the philologists Zayʿā d-Bḕt Zayʿā (1897-1972) and Nemrōd Sīmōnō (b. 1908), he succeeded in purifying the modern Syriac idiom of Turkish and Kurdish words, replacing them by classical expressions and creating an elegant literary language.

Through the efforts of these literary personalities and of the Assyrian Youth Cultural Society founded in Tehran, 1950, the Iranian Assyrians have taken the leading role in modern Syriac literature. The following authors of our time deserve to be mentioned: Prānsā Beblā (b. 1896): Qānūnē šātʾēsāyē d-Hamūrābī (Hammurabi’s fundamental laws; Tehran, 1966); Laylawātē d-Bāḇēl (The nights of Babylon; Tehran, 1966); Ātorāyē d-māhal d-Wān (The Assyrians of the region of Van; Tehran, 1968). Warda Bḕt Haydārē (b. 1896): poetry. Šmūʾḕl Yōsip Bḕt Kūlyā (1898-1975): Sāpar d-qašīšā Ṣlīḇō lešmayyā (The journey of the Priest Ṣ. to Heaven, Tehran, 1962); Ḫāčāqōğḕ yan plaḫtā d-helṭūnyūtā b-hamāntā l-dūglē (The hypocrites of errors of superstitions, poetry; Tehran, 1967); he has left several manuscripts. Gūršūm Dūmān, Gūṇḫā d-gūṇḫē b-dōrā d-ātōmā (Atrocity of atrocities in the atom age, Tehran, 1965). Lilē (Lilly) Aḇrāhām Taymūrāzī (b. 1900): children literature, folklore, poetry, translations from English and Russian. Yūšīyā Amrīḫaṣ (b. 1900): Tpaqtā b-yemmā (The meeting with mother, nationalist poetry; Tehran, 1965). Dr. Pēʾrā Sarmas (1901-72): Tašʿītā d-siprāyūtā ātorētā I-III (History of Assyrian literature; Tehran, 1962-70); a Neo-Syriac translation of Barhebraeus’ Anecdotes (Tehran, 1964); a supplementary dictionary of the Assyrian (= neo-Syriac) language (Tehran, 1965); Aḫnām mānī(y) waḫ? (Who are we?; Tehran, 1965); and in Persian Ḥoqūq-e ensānī wa Ašūrīhā-ye Īrān (Tehran, 1965). Bābā Lāčīn (b. 1902): Ātorāyē wa-mšīḫāyūtā (Assyrians and Christianity, Ātor, 1969); poems in periodicals and calenders. Kākū Ōšaʿnā (b. 1902): Uṛḫā kitwanta (A thorny way; Tehran, 1965). Raǰīnā Īsḫāq (1902-66): Penqītā d-mūšhātē (A booklet of poems, published after her death, Tehran, 1966). Mārōsā ʿĪsā-Ḫān (b. 1903: Patriotic poems in Gilgameš). Īšaʿyā Šammāšā Dāwīd (b. 1906): Tašʿītā d-Betnahrayn Āšūr-Bāḇḕl (see Bibliography); numerous articles and poems in periodicals. Menašše S. Amīrā (b. 1906): Tašʿītā d-Ātor... (see Bibliography above); a collection of poems. Mīḵāʾēl Š. Amrīǰāʾṣ (b. 1909): Tašʿītā d-plāšā teḇlāyā trayānā (A history of the Second World War, poems; Tehran, n.d.). Amēṛḫāʾn A. Bḕt-Ḫūdā (b. 1909): Walwalyātē d-yātōmē (The lamentations of the orphans; Tehran, 1967). William Sarmas (b. 1910), brother of Dr. Pēʾrā (see above), is the most prominent and prolific Assyrian author, poet, dramaturgist, lexicographer and journalist (d. 1985). He lived in Cannes, where since 1970 he edited the periodical Maṭēʾbānā bulletin d’information de l’association des assyriens (et des amis des assyriens) en France (see detailed review by Macuch, pp. 310-22). Mīšāʾḕl Bḕt Paṭros (1910-70): numerous poems and articles in Gilgameš and Ātor. Ṣūpyā (Sofia) Bāsīlīyōs (b. 1911) wrote poems and songs for the Assyrian club Nīnīve which were set to music by the famous Assyrian composer Nēbū ʿĪsā-bī and published under the little of ʿEsrī syāmē d-myūzīg (Twenty musical compositions, Tehran, 1970). Erāmyā Yūḫannān Slībā (b. 1911) has published the following collections of poems: Za(h)rīrā qa(d)māyā (The first ray; Tehran, 1955); Za(h)rīrā trāyānā (The second ray) and Tpaqtā d-lā spārā b-Nānū Šīrīn (An unexpected meeting with N. Š.; Tehran, 1965). William S. Dānīʾḕl, poet and composer: A(h)rīrē d-umtā nūtā (Rays of nationalism, popular Assyrian songs with melodies, 1944); Qāṭīnā ga(n)bārā:Mūšḫātē ga(n)bārē b-liššānā ātorāya I-III (The Hero Q., a heroic epic in the Assyrian language, Tehran, 1961-65); Rāmīnā pātantā (The charming R.; Tehran, 1967). He is now living in the USA where he directs the Assyrian radio and television program in Chicago and edits the periodical Mhadiana. Bābāǰān I. Āšōrē (b. 1912): poems, Šeblē (The gleaning, Tehran, 1965) and Beblē (The blossoms; Tehran, 1970). Dr. Wilson Bḕt-Manṣūr (b. 1927), editor of the periodical Ātor-Āšūr in Neo-Syriac, Persian, and English, published in Tehran. Ṭūḇīyā Abrāhām Gīwargīs (b. 1932), poet and translator, an official collaborator of the periodical Ātor, has published a translation of W. E. Wigram, Our Smallest Ally (Tehran, 1967) and a collection of aphorisms Mārganyātē d-ḫekmyātē (The pearls of wisdom, Tehran, 1970).

The manifold subjects of the Iranian-Assyrian literature in our day prove that it liberated itself from the narrow religious frame in which it was predominantly kept in the past.

(R. Macuch)

 

iii. Assyrian Settlements Outside of Iran

The Assyrians of Iran are a fraction of the larger Assyrian nation with an estimated population of close to 1,500,000 people. Prior to World War I Assyrians were heavily concentrated in the border regions of present day Turkey, Iraq, and Iran (the area between Lake Urmia, Lake Van, the town of Mosul; and further beyond, in the major cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Mārdīn, Medyāt, and Baghdad). Today they are widely dispersed the world over.

The dispersion of the Assyrians took place during World War I, when the whole nation was uprooted from its homegrounds. The diaspora is still in progress. Presently in the Middle East, besides Iran, Assyrian settlements are located in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey. In other parts of the world Assyrian refugee and immigrant communities are found in the U.S.S.R., in Europe (Sweden, West Germany, England, Holland, Greece, and Italy), in Australia, the U.S.A., Canada, and in South America (Brazil, Argentina).

The Assyrians of Iraq are indigenous to that geographical area. At present they live in the major cities of Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk or they are dispersed in the villages of northern Iraq. There is a small number of Assyrians of Iranian origin in Baghdad who are the descendents of the families who chose to stay in Iraq in 1921 when the Iranian Assyrian refugees were repatriated. The total population of Assyrians in Iraq is estimated at 600,000 people. (The population estimates are quoted from the Assyrian periodical Immigrant, September-October, 1984, p. 2.) The Assyrian settlements in Syria date back to 1930s. They are composed of Assyrian highlanders from Ottoman Turkey who were not repatriated after World War I. Under the auspices of the League of Nations, the refugees were removed to Syria where they were settled along the Ḵābūr river. The two towns of Qamishle and Haseke in the same area, contain many Assyrian families. Altogether there are close to 50,000 Assyrians living in Syria today. The Assyrians of Turkey are a remnant population of the formerly large Assyrian Jacobite faction. They number about 70,000 souls. With the continuous political turmoil in the Middle East the Assyrian population of that region is rapidly depleting as more and more families seek refuge in other parts of the world.

In the U.S.S.R. the Assyrians are found in Transcaucasia (in Tiflis and in the villages of Armavir district), and in Armenia (the Erevan district). Smaller colonies exist in Krasnodar, Rostov, Kiev, Leningrad, and Moscow (Joseph, The Nestorians, pp. 120, 219; Naby, “Les Assyriens,” pp. 449-50). These are largely refugee settlements dating back to the 1915-flight of Assyrians into Russia from Iran during World War I (Joseph, op. cit., p. 132). According to the 1970 U.S.S.R. census, there were 24,294 Assyrians in that country (Naby, art. cit., p. 445). But a recent estimate runs as high as 150,000 (Immigrant, 1984). The migration of Assyrians to U.S.A. started around the turn of this century. It has been a continuous process with peak periods in the 1920s (as a result of World War I uprootings), the 1970s (due to the Kurdo-Iraqi war in northern Iraq), and in the 1980s (after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, 1979, and the general political turmoil in the Middle East). The total Assyrian American population is close to 200,000 people; Chicago and Illinois rank first, with an Assyrian population of 70-75 thousand; followed by Detroit, Michigan (40-45 thousand), and California (15-20 thousand). (These estimates were obtained by the author from the clergy of the various churches in 1984.)

There are close to 20,000 Assyrians in Sweden. They are found mainly in the city of Södertälje. These are largely Assyrian Jacobites from Turkey who have emigrated within the past twenty years. Substantial numbers of Assyrian refugees from Turkey, Iraq, and Iran have settled in West Germany and England since the 1970s. In England they are concentrated in London; in West Germany they are dispersed in Augsburg, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Wiesbaden, and Berlin. The total Assyrian population of western Europe does not exceed 50,000 souls. The Assyrian communities in Greece and Italy are a transit refugee population waiting for their visas to be processed by the receiving countries in North America or Australia.

The migration of Assyrians to Canada began in the 1970s. These were originally refugees from Iraq who were stranded in Lebanon and Greece and have been settled in Canada in successive waves within the limits of that country’s refugee quotas. Since 1979 Assyrians from Iran have also migrated to Canada as the U.S.A. quotas have become saturated. The total estimate today stands at 5,000 people. Most are found in the province of Ontario, in the cities of Toronto, Hamilton, and London. But there is a remnant Assyrian colony in North Battleford, Saskachewan, which dates back to 1902, when a small farming colony from Iran found its way to the Northern Prairies (Ishaya, The Role of Minorities).

Sydney, the capital of Australia, harbors a substantial Assyrian settlement. The estimate for the whole country runs to 15,000 people. These are primarily refugees from Iraq and Iran which have been settled in that country, since the 1970s, in successive waves. Smaller colonies of Assyrians exist in Brazil and Argentina, about which little is known.

Most of the Iranian Assyrians live in the U.S.A. The largest colonies are found in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, and in California (Bay Area, Stanislaus County, and Los Angeles). All these settlements have Assyrian churches and civic organizations, radio and television programs, and Assyrian periodicals. The Assyrian emigrants from Iran keep in close touch with the community back home through correspondence, telephone, and by travel. All the Assyrians find an opportunity for annual reunions during the Assyrian-American National Federation Convention.

 

Bibliography:

J. Joseph’s The Nestorians and Their Muslim Neighbors (Princeton, N.J., 1961) covers the history of Assyrians in Iran and Iraq from the turn of this century until the 1930s. E. Naby’s article, “Les assyriens d’Union Soviétique” (The Assyrians of the U.S.S.R.), Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique 16/3-4, 1975, pp. 445-57, traces the preconditions for the immigration of Assyrians to that country, and documents the preservation, and even the awakening of Assyrian national awareness among the immigrants. A. Ishaya’s The Role of Minorities in the State: History of the Assyrian Experience (Anthropology Papers, No. 19, Winnipeg, Canada, 1977), contains ethnographic data on the Assyrian-Iranian immigrant colonies in the U.S.A. and in Canada. Two unpublished Ph.D. dissertations are written on the Iranian-Assyrian immigrants in Stanislaus, California. The first is Gary Smith’s From Urmia to the Stanislaus: A Cultural-Historical Geography of Assyrian Christians in the Middle East and America (University of California, Davis, 1980). The other is Arian Ishaya’s Class and Ethnicity in Central California Valley: The Assyrian Community in Modesto-Turlock 1910-1985 (University of California, Los Angeles, 1985).

(R. Macuch, A. Ishaya)

Originally Published: December 15, 1987

Last Updated: August 17, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. II, Fasc. 8, pp. 817-825