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Assyrians appreciate the following article by Mehmet Kalyoncu where he argues that the name Kurdistan has no historical legitimacy when applied to northern Iraq. However in describing who the contemporary Assyrians are he has used the opinions of uninformed writers who contradict each other and the documented historical evidence. For a better understanding of the Assyrians and their identity please visit the following link.

History and the identity of the Assyrians

The Boomerang Effect in Iraq: If 'Kurdistan', Why Not Assyria?

Mehmet Kalyoncu

January 10, 06

Arguably 'Kurdistan' already enjoying de facto independence; and the powerful Kurdish statelet in Iraq provides, under Massoud Barzani's rule, an example for other long-neglected minorities in the region of Northern Mesopotamia. Could the example of the increasingly independent Kurds in Iraq presage further rounds of ethnic discord and state fragmentation in the wider area?

For one, we could see an increase in demands from the Assyrians, a nation which has the necessary arguments on their side in order to make a land claim from the yet-to-be established Kurdistan.

The Assyrians might present historical evidence of large-scale massacres carried out against them by Kurdish chieftains during the late 19th and early 20th centuries- massacres often blamed on Turkey, especially by another Christian minority with a more powerful diaspora, the Armenians.

If all the efforts now being made in Northern Mesopotamia are for bestowing the Kurds with their long-desired independent state, why so far have those who are passionately struggling for an independent Kurdistan failed to voice the same independence or autonomy arguments for other ethno-religious groups in the region? And in any case, could the latter follow the Kurdish example and demand greater autonomy?

Historical residents of Mesopotamia, the Assyrians would make a capable nation, especially considering their sizeable and wealthy diaspora. They might follow the example of the Armenian diaspora, which has constantly blamed the Turkish state for what happened in eastern and southeastern Anatolia in the early 20th century. They have done so because the Turkish state, then the Ottoman Empire, was the most relevant official entity against which those accusations and claims could be levied.

Yet if it becomes independent, a Kurdish state would adopt all the rights and responsibilities of a sovereign state, and as such could be targeted as well by the very same diasporas, since it would have to account for the accusations in the court of public opinion and, perhaps, under international law. The Assyrian communities either inside Turkey or abroad have not yet voiced their claim for territorial self-determination or autonomy. However, they might be encouraged to do so by certain pressure groups in the West who are deeply interested in reviving and promoting the ancient Christian heritage in the traditional Kurdish territories.[1] That said, an independent Kurdish state might presage further fragmentation in Mesopotamia, and perhaps the region.

Who are the Assyrians?

Those who believe Islam to be an "eastern" religion and Christianity a "western" one should think twice. The latter religion, after all, was born in the Middle East and branched out to Egypt, Mesopotamia and Asia Minor- all areas largely populated by Muslims now. For modern historians, the Assyrians of Mesopotamia are widely accepted to be 'a Christian element of a most ancient and illustrious tradition'[2] and 'the spiritual descendants of the pioneer missionaries of the East.'[3]

Lastly, as the Assyrians themselves put it, they are 'the most God-fearing and peace-loving people [Christians] on earth.'[4]

Historian Salahi Sonyel suggests that there are various theories about the origin of the Assyrian Christians: "Some Assyrians claim that the word 'Suryani, or Syrian' is derived from the name of the Persian King Keyhusrev (559-529 B.C.), from Kyris, or Syrus and Sirus in Assyrian. Others claims that the word 'Suryani' is derived from the City of Tyre (Sur in Assyrian), on the southern coast of Lebanon from where the disciples of Christ mainly came. This word was later changed into 'Surin,' and those who believed these disciples were called 'Sirin' (Suryani -- 'Assyrian')."[5]

The theories about the origin of the Assyrians vary also from one Assyrian scholar to another. Assyrian researcher Yakup Bilge believes that the origin of the Assyrians goes back to the ancient Assyrians, whereas another researcher, Hanna Dolaponu, believes that the Assyrians are a mixture of Arameans, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Phoenicians, and Indians, that they are all called Assyrians.[6]

On the other hand, Turkish historiographer Mithat Sertoglu proposes a radically different account regarding the origins of the Assyrians. He argues that "the original homeland of the Assyrians is in Central Asia, as they are a Turanian people. From Central Asia they moved to, and settled in, Jezire (Cezire), or Mesopotamia."[7]

Another Turkish researcher, Mehlika Kasgarli believes that the Assyrians were known in history as Sirris, and that the word 'Sirri, or Siri" has been misrepresented as 'Syrian.' Kasgarli suggests that "the name 'Sirri' was given to people who spoke Aramaic, which was akin to Hebrew; hence ethnically the Aramians are a branch of the Hebrews."[8]

Just as with the disparate theories regarding the Assyrians' origin, the terminology used for their sub-denominations varies as well. Sonyel suggests the Assyrians consist of three main religious sects: first, Nestorians (Nesturi), or East Syrians, who call themselves Assyrians; second, Chaldeans (Keldani), or East Syrian Uniates; and third, Jacobites (Yakubi), or West Syrians who are Orthodox.[9]

On the other hand, Sebastien de Curtois identifies four different denominations within the Assyrian tradition: first, the Syriac Orthodox Church; second, the Syriac Catholic Church; third, The Assyrian or Nestorian Church; and lastly, the Chaldean Church. Curtois lists also several other names in use for each of these sub-denominations. The Syrian Orthodox Church is also called respectively, the Jacobite Church, the Church of Antioch and of All the East, and the Western Syriac Church.

Similarly, the Syriac Catholic Church is called the Syrian Church and the Uniate Church. The Nestorian Church is called the Church of Mesopotamia, the Orthodox Assyrian Church, the Syrian Church of the East, and the Ancient Apostolic Church of the East. Lastly, the Chaldean Church is also called the Catholic Chaldean Church.[10]

These distinctions in terminology and beliefs among the Assyrians have probably become clearer to the members of the Assyrian community as their leaders and Church aligned themselves with different missionary groups from the West in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries.

Missionaries in Kurdistan: British Reports of Assyrians in the mid-19th Century

The ethno-religious diversity of the Northern Mesopotamia was officially discovered by the expedition to the region that was jointly organized by the Royal Geographical Society and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1840.

In their edited volume Kurds & Christians,[11] F. N. Heazell and Margoliouth chronicle Western penetration into the Kurdistan region, back to the Euphrates Expedition held in 1837 which set the stage for the joint-expedition by the Royal Geographical Society and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge soon after. This expedition triggered the interest of the Western missionary groups and the Church towards the ancient Assyrian Christians, who had resided in the region for millennia.

Some of the most important resources on the early missionary work in Kurdistan are the writings of Athelstan Riley. Upon a request by Archbishop Benson of Canterbury, Riley, M.A. of Pembroke College-Oxford, took a journey in the autumn of 1884 to Northwestern Persia and Kurdistan, with a view to ascertaining the present condition of the Assyrian and Nestorian Christians, as well as the state of the Mission sent there in 1881 by the late Archbishop Tait and the Archbishop of York. The narratives of Athelstan Riley provide sufficient information to allow us to compile a brief chronology of the early missionary activities in the newly discovered Kurdistan:[12]

1837: The Euphrates Expedition reports the existence of the Assyrian or Chaldean Christians.

1840: Upon learning about the ancient Eastern Christian peoples, the Royal Geographical Society and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge hold a united expedition to the Assyrian country. With this expedition, W. F. Ainsworth becomes the first to enter into the Kurdish mountains.

1842: Soon after Ainsworth, Rev. George Percy Badger is dispatched by the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr. Howley) and the Bishop of London (Dr. Blomfield) to Kurdistan in order to assist Mar Shimun, the patriarch of the Assyrian Christians, in the education and improvement of his people. Badger is also ordered to open communications with Mar Elia, the head of the Papal Chaldeans, who was believed to be inclined to enter into amicable relations with the English Church. During the mission of Dr. Badger, the great Kurdish insurrection led by Bedr Khan Beg takes place.

Riley claims that "thousands of Christians were put to the sword; and Mar Shimun himself, flying from the infidels [Muslims], obtained a shelter under Dr. Badger's roof at Mosul."[13] Accordingly, he comments that "the fact of the presence of an English priest as a counselor and protector during the greatest calamity that has befallen their nation in modern times may perhaps explain the devotion the Assyrians have ever since exhibited towards England and England's Church."[14]

1868: Upon a petition signed by three Bishops, five Maliks, or chiefs, thirty-two priests, and eleven deacons and sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, the Rev. E. L. Cutts is commissioned to undertake a journey to Kurdistan in 1876 to obtain more definite information about the Assyrians and how they can be helped. Dr. Cutts publishes Christians under the Crescent in Asia.

1881: Upon receiving Dr. Cutts' reports, Rev. Rudolph Wahl of the American Church, an Australian by birth, is sent to Kurdistan by the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Tait.

1884: Archbishop Benson sends Mr. Athelstan Riley, M.A. of Pembroke College-Oxford to undertake a journey in the autumn of 1884 to Northwestern Persia and Kurdistan, desiring to ascertain the present condition of the Assyrian or Nestorian Christians, and the state of the Mission sent there in 1881 by the late Archbishop Tait and the Archbishop of York.

A History of Conflict between the Kurds and the Assyrians

The current Turkish state is often asked to take the blame for the actions of its Ottoman predecessors against the Assyrian and Armenian populations of eastern Anatolia. Yet many of the atrocities and massacres for which the Ottomans have been blamed were actually carried out by Kurdish chieftains, who for centuries had enjoyed autonomy over the eastern territories of modern-day Turkey.

Regardless of who actually carried out these atrocities, Armenians today blame the Turkish state, perhaps not unreasonably, since it is the only official state entity in the region which can be petitioned at the moment. And Turkey does include within its borders territory that the Armenians believe to be historically theirs. But a further question exists as to whether the same allegations would be directed by the Armenians (not to mention by the Assyrians) against a future Kurdish state, and accordingly, whether certain concessions would be demanded of the latter.

In support of the argument that the mid-19th century was a period of hostility between the Kurdish Muslims and the Assyrian Christians, Riley provided sensational testimony, such as this gruesome description of the murder of the Nestorian Bishop in Urmi, Mar Gauriel, and his twelve companions by the henchmen of a Kurdish sheikh:

"the Bishop was found to have had his head cut open by a sword gash, his stomach ripped up, his head nearly severed from his body, and to have been stripped of all his clothes One can give no reason for the murder, except the hatred of the Kurds towards all Christians."[15]

Sebastien de Courtois, on the other hand, provides a more balanced view of the reasons behind the Kurdish hostility towards the Assyrians. Courtois suggests that the feudalism that survived until the late 19th century as the only form of political organization had also been "the source of bloody conflicts, first among the Kurds, then with Christian neighbors the Armenians, 'Nestorians' and 'Jacobites,' and finally with the Ottomans."[16]

The Kurdish leaders, he notes, were only partly subject to Ottoman authority before 1850, and even afterward enjoyed broad autonomy. Along the same lines, Salahi Sonyel notes that trouble erupted between the Kurds and the Nestorians in 1843, when the Tiari Nestorians ceased paying their annual tribute to the Emir of Hakkiari:

"the latter asked Kurdish leader Bedirhan Bey's support to punish them [the Tiari Nestorians]. Apparently the Kurds were only too eager to vent their anger on the Tiari Nestorians; hence, a large body of tribal troops was sent against them. An ugly fight ensued, and the Kurds were accused of having killed nearly 10,000 men, and carried away many women and children as slaves."[17]

Unlike Athelstan Riley and Sebastien de Courtois, who consider the conflict to stem from the inherent Kurdish animosity against Christianity, or 'all the Christians' as Riley puts it, Sonyel argues that the conflicts were actually inflamed by a widening socio-economic gap between the Kurdish and the Christian communities that occurred as a direct result of the external support provided to the latter by the missionaries' activities- a strange and unfortunate side effect of foreign intervention of the most benevolent sort.

The modern history of the Northern Mesopotamia has been marked by ethno-religious conflicts. The reasons for these conflicts have been affixed to religious differences between the Kurds and the non-Muslim communities (according to the Western missionaries argued), or due to deliberate incitement of the Kurds against the non-Muslim communities by the Russian, French, or British officers (as Sonyel argues).

Foreign Interference: A Possible Peril for the Future

In light of this unhappy recent history, it is neither necessary nor beneficial for any external power to take or aspires to take advantage of the fluid situation to "reshuffle" the Northern Mesopotamian region, and one hopes they can resist the temptation to do so. Considering the region's current "great powers," it could be Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey or even the US who would try to reap the benefits of increased fractiousness and instability in the Northern Mesopotamia region. And the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh claimed in 2004 that Israel was covertly involved in Kurdistan.

But intervention of various kinds could also come from Russia, Britain or France, just as a century ago, or the European Union. But they should all be wary of whether the benefits of, for example, an independent and "democratic" Kurdish state would outweigh the risks of further fragmentation.

Just as they did over 150 years ago, external powers are taking an interest in the Assyrians of Mesopotamia. To coincide with recent Christmas celebrations in this cradle of Christianity, the European Commission restated its concerns for Assyrian human rights in Iraq. At the same time, regional powers like Iran are delighted that the new, US-approved Iraqi constitution has officially made Iraq into an Islamic state- something that has already had unfortunate repercussions for Assyrians and other Christians in Iraq.

As could be expected, the Assyrian diaspora is also active. Its main umbrella group, the Assyrian Universal Alliance stated on December 2 that

"our people must put our prosperity and survival ahead of everything else. If we do not, history will never forgive us. It is the existence of a nation that is at stake, and we must rise to the occasion, put our trivial differences aside and work together for the Assyrian people in particular and the Iraqi people in general."

And, is if to remind that the past is never finished, another pro-Assyrian lobby group, Save the Assyrians, refers explicitly to the 19th century British missionary expeditions in stating its belief that "the United Kingdom has a special responsibility to ensure justice and peace for the Assyrians; a special responsibility derived from a special relationship forged between the British and Assyrians in the last century."

Although memories are long, the external powers change over time. Yet what tends to remain unchanged about foreign interference is the misery it so often has brought to the people of Northern Mesopotamia, be they Kurdish, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkmen, Arabs or Yezidi.

By Mehmet Kalyoncu


[1] See

[2] Chamber's Encyclopedia, vol.1, London (1973), p. 719; cited in Salahi R. Sonyel "The Assyrians of Turkey: Victims of Major Power Policy," Ankara: Turkish Historical Society Publications (2001), Serial: VII -- No.168, p. 1

[3] David Parsum Perley, "Whither Christian Missions?" Assyrian National Federation (1946), p. 2; cited in Salahi R. Sonyel, "The Assyrians of Turkey: Victims of Major Power Policy"

[4] A. J. Oraham, "Assyrian English Dictionary," Chicago (1943), preface, p.5; cited in Salahi R. Sonyel, "The Assyrians of Turkey: Victims of Major Power Policy"

[5] Salahi R. Sonyel, "The Assyrians of Turkey: Victims of Major Power Policy," p. 3

[6] Ibid. p. 3

[7] Ibid. p. 3

[8] Ibid. p. 3

[9] Ibid. p. 2

[10] Sebastien de Coutois, The Forgotten Genocide: Eastern Christians, The Last Arameans, Gorgias Press (2004), trans. Vincent Aurora, p. xix-xxi

[11] The Rev. F. N. Heazell and Mrs. Margoliouth, Kurds & Christians, Gorgias Press (2004), p. 5

[12] Ibid. pp. 5-10

[13] Ibid. p. 6

[14] Ibid. pp. 114-115

[15] Ibid. pp. 114-115

[16] Sebastien de Coutois, The Forgotten Genocide: Eastern Christians, The Last Arameans, p. 53

[17] Salahi R. Sonyel, "The Assyrians of Turkey: Victims of Major Power Policy," p. 29

Mehmet Kalyoncu is a graduate student at Georgetown University's Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies.


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