The Assyrians of South West Asia: Modern People, Ancient Past

ANEE publishes a series of blog posts on decolonization of the ancient Near East, produced in cooperation with Finnish Institute in the Middle East.

I am Assyrian.

Oh, you are from Syria.

No, I am Assyrian.

What do you mean? The ancient people in the Bible? But they are extinct!

The above is an example of a typical conversation an Assyrian individual experiences every time they are asked about their cultural and ethnic identity. Assyrian identity is contested by others, often without understanding or knowledge of the community, its culture, and traditions when mentioned in academia. What is usually granted to their neighboring ethnocultural communities is often negated when it comes to the Assyrians, including their right to their name, culture, and homeland - fundamental human rights. Now reduced to a small group of people, who originated in Mesopotamia (mainly modern Iraq), modern Assyrians have survived a long history of genocides, suppression, displacement, and cultural cleansing. For this reason, when I was asked to write about how the modern Assyrian community engages with its ancient past, I decided to write from the point of view of the people themselves in an attempt to create a space that allows for an alternative narrative to be part of our understanding of this ancient culture and people—a narrative that goes beyond the typical colonial and nationalist storylines that dominate our schools, classrooms, and textbooks and engages with the people and their agency.   

Assyrians today view themselves as a global population indigenous to northern Mesopotamia, part of northern Iraq (including today's Iraqi Kurdistan), southeast Turkey, northwestern Iran, and northeastern Syria. They took Christianity as their religion early on, traditionally following the Church of the East in Mesopotamia. Today, most Assyrians are affiliated with one or another of the following churches: the Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Syrian Catholic Church. However, there are Assyrians who are members of other religions and beliefs. Incorporated into Muslim-dominated empires and states, Assyrians’ religious identity labeled them as Christians living on Muslim lands, undermining their long history, rich culture, and significant contributions to these states. Modern Assyrians believe they are descendants of the ancient people of Assyria, whose culture they continue to carry on. Indeed, the current Assyrian language and material culture constitute one of the oldest traditions in Iraq and the Middle East today. Therefore, in their diaspora communities and ancestral homeland, Assyrians express strong connection and visible engagement with the ancient heritage, tangible and intangible, despite all challenges. Before we explore the nature of this engagement, it is valuable to outline the status and position of the ancient Assyrian heritage in our world today.

Assyrian Heritage: Between Colonialism and Nationalism

Nothing is more entangled with the mythicized and imagined Mesopotamia, the land between the two rivers, than its ancient heritage, especially Assyrian history, and material culture. Unfortunately, the study and understanding of the Assyrian archaeological heritage have been confined by colonialism and nationalism, which ignored and prevented any space that allows for communities' engagement, connections, and perspectives. Even today, this heritage remains framed within postcolonial and neo-colonial narratives, a product of Western appropriation of Mesopotamian cultures, all while excluding the later and current cultures and peoples, thus producing a present that disagrees with the past as constructed by the West. The resulting interpretations, especially those about the moral and political roles of ancient Assyrian rulers and kings, have been recycled over time and have become a stereotype. They now form the pillars of the study of ancient Assyria, directing our focus on Assyrian palaces, reliefs, and their ideology and propaganda.  

Early excavations and "discoveries" were not the results of scientific interest in this region's civilizations, cultures, and people but rather the effects of Western understanding of the Bible and classical histories. European museums enriched and enlarged their offerings to visitors through excavations of Assyrian palaces and bas-reliefs, lamassu figures, and cuneiform inscriptions in the 1840s and 1850s. The art and monuments brought from the Orient offered the European audiences a dramatic insight into the savage, imperfect, and unknown world they called the Near East, all while providing them with biblical evidence, deep antiquity, and spectacular forms and monumental relics. All Assyrian monuments and artifacts were integrated into the canon of art history through which they were connected to Western art and architecture, alongside which they were exhibited and understood. This appropriation needed to isolate and disconnect this heritage from its original landscape and people who lived and continue to live side-by-side and interact with it, alienating related communities such as the Assyrians and making them "the other." As scholars have repeatedly shown, this agenda went hand in hand with the Western geopolitical interests in this region, especially its oil, starting with the British occupation of Iraq in the 19th century and to this day. This entanglement of oil and antiquities was best demonstrated by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the consequent control over oil resources alongside the unprecedented destruction, looting, and displacement of Mesopotamian cultural heritage, including Assyrian material culture and Assyrian people.  

This ancient heritage was employed to build and solidify national identity to eliminate the Colonial monopoly and control over oil and antiquities in the postcolonial states. In Iraq, the Iraqi Nationalist movement of the 1960s, which overthrew British rule and attempted to reclaim oil production and antiquities of the land, used this heritage to serve the Pan-Arab, Pan-Islamic social context for the new state. During Saddam Hussein's era, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Sumerian cultures were utilized to construct an Iraqi national identity that distinguished Iraq and its people from the rest of the Arabic-speaking world and gave them their sociopolitical and cultural specificities. While employing this shared heritage to unify a people of various cultural and ethnic backgrounds to find common ground is not necessarily a harmful act nor unique to Iraq as a postcolonial state, Saddam manipulated these cultures to create an egocentric identity that served his image first and foremost. Such practices, unfortunately, continue to overshadow the Iraqis’, in general, and the Assyrian community’s, in particular, own connection to this heritage. Much has been published on how Saddam used the image of ancient Assyrian and Babylonian kings to align himself with powerful and famous historical figures and how he reconstructed the ancient city of Babylon and stamped its bricks with his name, thus planting himself not only in the present but also the past of this land. However, there is hardly any discussion of how Iraqi society and its ancient communities, including the Assyrians, see this heritage, how they connect with it, and why.

Today, Assyrian heritage remains hostage to a new era of colonialism on the one hand and local nationalism(s) on the other. In a fragmented Iraq, central and regional governments use this heritage to serve their nationalist agendas, including or excluding communities. Assyrian ancient heritage is now being re-contextualized to fit a new political reality on Assyrian lands and re-write the region's history. The Assyrian material culture continues to be "discovered," packaged, and presented to Western audiences and academia without knowledge sharing or mutual collaboration. Foreign expeditions continue to exploit this heritage to serve their scientific and professional progress, all while neglecting the impact of their policies and practices on the local communities and their connection to this heritage.


A Native Perspective  

It is well known that cultural heritage is not static nor frozen in time. In many parts of the world, cultural heritage is a living and evolving artistic process of meanings, memory, and memory-making and remaking. Rooted in the Assyrian homeland, modern Assyrians continuously engage with their ancient heritage through visits to ancient sites and monuments, songwriting, music, visual arts or language, dress, food, rituals, etc., evoking individual and collective identity and cultural memory. Assyrians, among other communities, were aware of this heritage before it was "discovered" by Western archaeologists and travelers. Several archaeological sites, including Nineveh, Maltai, Nerem/Gunduk, etc., were known to the local Assyrian communities across northern Mesopotamia. European travelers who passed by Nineveh, later Mosul, in the 16th and 17th centuries often noted that they were taken to the ruins of the ancient city by the locals who still called it by its Akkadian name Ninua/Nīnwē: the very same name Assyrians call their ancient city even today. Similarly, Simon Rouet, a diplomat working for the French government in Baghdad, noted that during one of his trips, a Chaldean peasant guided him to a place with impressive rock reliefs, later known as Maltai reliefs deriving the modern name from the nearby Assyrian village of Maltai. In the village of Nerem, today's Gunduk, a third-millennium cave site was known to the contemporary Assyrian community living in the village as Guppa d'Mar Yohanan (Cave of St. John), where the community associated the reliefs with St. John and Christian rituals, thus continuing with the sacred nature of the ancient site.  

Assyrian communities across the world are connected through their language. Assyrian language, also referred to as Neo-Aramaic/Neo-Syriac, with heavy Akkadian influence, is another thread through which the Assyrian community interacts with its ancient heritage. Akkadian and Aramaic were the official languages of the Neo-Assyrian Empire that flourished from 934 to approximately 600 BCE. The fact that the modern Assyrian language continued as a minority-spoken language based on a high percentage of Akkadian is an impressive index of in-group particularity. Assyrian writers, poets, linguists, and historians continue using and studying this language both inside and outside academia.

In addition, Assyrian Christianity exhibits ancient elements unique to this community and links to its ancient heritage, including the Rogation of the Ninevites, during which members of the community fast for three days commemorating the repentance of the Ninevites at the hands of the prophet Jonah according to the Bible. Another celebration is the day of Nusardel (Feast of God), usually celebrated in Tammuz (July). Following the holy mass, members of the community throw water at each other to cleanse God's path. This tradition most likely originates in the ancient Assyrian and Mesopotamian rituals, such as those of the New Year. These and other rituals have been celebrated in Assyrian villages and towns for centuries and everywhere they live today.

The engagement with ancient Assyrian/Mesopotamian heritage connects modern Assyrians to their landscape, villages, and towns and links them as a diaspora community worldwide. With their declining numbers in the homeland, ancient sites, monuments, and landscapes offer the community a sense of belonging, reaffirm their identity, and stand witness to their existence on this land throughout time. Therefore, communities worldwide organize trips to their homeland where young men and women connect with their ancestral homeland. One of the most popular Atra (homeland) tours is offered by Gishru (bridge), a nonprofit organization based in the United States. These tours include visits to ancient Assyrian sites in northern Iraq, ancestral villages, schools, and cultural institutions. Such activities connect young Assyrians in the diaspora with their fellow Assyrians at home and allow them to understand their identity.

Around the world, Assyrian artists have been experimenting and interacting with ancient Assyrian art and cultural elements. This awareness and engagement increased, especially after ISIS attacks on Assyrian cultural heritage in Iraq. To counterpart ISIS's attempt for ethnic and cultural cleansing of the Assyrians in the areas they controlled, Assyrian artists in the homeland and diaspora have been recreating lost material culture and pushing for the survival of this heritage through exhibitions, talks, and workshops, including artists such as Nenous Thabet (Iraq), Nahrin Malki (Netherlands), Ninos DeChammo (United States), Lweis Batros (Australia), whose statute of Gilgamesh stands tall at the University of Sydney, Camperdown. In addition, young Assyrian artists have taken their engagement with their ancient heritage even further by returning to their historic villages and towns and creating art inspired by the past of their communities; such examples may include artist Eshter Elia who traveled thousands of miles to the village of Nala in northern Iraq to paint murals depicting Assyrian heritage.

Ancient Assyrian culture is not dead for modern Assyrians, contrasting Western scholars' and researchers' beliefs. Elements of the ancient culture continue today in the contemporary Assyrian homeland, including language, food, dress, music, art, etc. Likewise, such cultural components are visible where Assyrians live, learn, and gather worldwide and in the homeland. Opening our minds to consider this connection and continuity and the meaning of this engagement beyond the typical colonial and nationalist stereotypes will broaden our understanding of the region today and allow us to expand our academic studies of the people and their cultures both in the past and present and for the future as we continue with our scientific progress.


Further reading:

  • Sargon Donabed 2015. Reforging a Forgotten History: Iraq and the Assyrians in the Twentieth Century.
  • Hannibal Travis 2017. The Assyrian Genocide: Cultural and Political Legacies
  • Alda Benjamin 2022. Assyrians in Modern Iraq: Negotiating Political and Cultural Space
  • Onver A. Cetrez et al. 2012. Assyrian Heritage: Threads of Continuity and Influence
  • Amy Gansell and Ann Shafer 2020. Testing the Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology.
Helen Malko

The author of this text, Dr. Helen Malko, is an anthropological archeologist focusing on Iraq and the Middle East. She is Associate Director at Stanford Humanities Center, Stanford University.