BABYLONIAN AND ASSYRIAN RELIGION. The development of the religion of Babylonia, so far as it can be traced with the material at hand, follows closely along the lines of the periods to be distinguished in the history of the Euphrates valley. Leaving aside the primitive phases of the religion as lying beyond the ken of historical investigation, we may note the sharp distinction to be made between the pre-Khammurabic age and the post-Khammurabic age. While the political movement represented by Khammurabi may have been proceeding for some time prior to the appearance of the great conqueror, the period of c. 2250 B.C., when the union of the Euphratean states was effected by Khammurabi, marks the beginning of a new epoch in the religion as well as in the political history of the Euphrates valley. Corresponding to the states into which we find the country divided before 2250 B.C., we have a various number of religious centres such as Nippur, Erech, Kutha (Cuthah), Ur, Sippara (Sippar), Shirgulla (Lagash), Eridu and Agade, in each of which some god was looked upon as the chief deity around whom there were gathered a number of minor deities and with whom there was invariably associated a female consort. The jurisdiction of this chief god was, however, limited to the political extent or control of the district in which the main seat of the cult of the deity in question lay. Mild attempts, to be sure, to group the chief deities associated with the most important religious and political centres into a regular pantheon were made—notably in Nippur and later in Ur—but such attempts lacked the enduring quality which attaches to Khammurabi's avowed policy to raise Marduk—the patron deity of the future capital, Babylon—to the head of the entire Babylonian pantheon, as Babylon itself came to be recognized as the real centre of the entire Euphrates valley.
Associated with Marduk was his consort Sarpanit, and grouped around the pair as princes around a throne were the chief deities of the older centres, like Ea and Damkina of Eridu, Nebo and Tashmit of Borsippa, Nergal and Allatu of Kutha, Shamash and Ā of Sippar, Sin and Ningal of Ur, as well as pairs like Ramman (or Adad) and Shala whose central seat is unknown to us. In this process of accommodating ancient prerogatives to new conditions, it was inevitable that attributes belonging specifically to the one or the other of these gods should have been transferred to Marduk, who thus from being, originally, a solar deity becomes an eclectic power, taking on the traits of Bel, Ea, Shamash, Nergal, Adad and even Sin (the moon-god)—a kind of composite residuum of all the chief gods.
In the religious literature this process can be traced with perfect definiteness. The older incantations, associated with Ea, were re-edited so as to give to Marduk the supreme power over demons, witches and sorcerers: the hymns and lamentations composed for the cult of Bel, Shamash and of Adad were transformed into paeans and appeals to Marduk, while the ancient myths arising in the various religious and political centres underwent a similar process of adaptation to changed conditions, and as a consequence their original meaning was obscured by the endeavour to assign all mighty deeds and acts, originally symbolical of the change of seasons or of occurrences in nature, to the patron deity of Babylon—the supreme head of the entire Babylonian pantheon. Besides the chief deities and their consorts, various minor ones, representing likewise patron gods of less important localities and in most cases of a solar character were added at one time or the other to the court of Marduk, though there is also to be noted a tendency on the part of the chief solar deity, Shamash of Sippara, and for the chief moon-god to absorb the solar and lunar deities of less important sites, leading in the case of the solar gods to the differentiation of the functions of Shamash during the various seasons of the year and the various times of the day among these minor deities. In this way Ninib, whose chief seat appears to have been at Shirgulla (Lagash), became the sun-god of the springtime and of the morning, bringing joy and new life to the earth, while Nergal of Kutha was regarded as the sun of the summer solstice and of the noonday heat—the harbinger of suffering and death.
There were, however, two deities who appear to have retained an independent existence—Anu (q.v.), the god of heaven, and Ishtar (q.v.), the great mother-goddess, who symbolized fertility and vitality in general. There are some reasons for believing that the oldest seat, and possibly the original seat, of the Anu cult was in Erech, as it is there where the Ishtar cult that subsequently spread throughout Babylonia and Assyria took its rise. While Anu, with whom there was associated as a pale reflection a consort Antum, assigned to him under the influence of the widely prevalent view among the early Semites which conceived of gods always in pairs, remained more or less of an abstraction during the various periods of the Babylonian-Assyrian religion and taking little part in the active cult of the temples, his unique position as the chief god of the highest heavens was always recognized in the theological system developed by the priests, which found an expression in making him the first figure of a triad, consisting of Anu, Bel and Ea, among whom the priests divided the three divisions of the universe, the heavens, the earth with the atmosphere above it, and the watery expanse respectively.
Postponing the discussion of this triad, it is to be noted that the systematization of the pantheon after the days of Khammurabi did not seriously interfere with the independence of the goddess Ishtar. While frequently associated with Marduk, and still more closely with the chief god of Assyria, the god Assur (who occupies in the north the position accorded to Marduk in the south), so much so as to be sometimes spoken of as Assur's consort—the lady or Belit par excellence—the belief that as the source of all life she stands apart never lost its hold upon the people and found an expression also in the system devised by the priests. By the side of the first triad, consisting of Anu, Bel and Ea—disconnected in this form entirely from all local associations—we encounter a second triad composed of Shamash, Sin and Ishtar. As the first triad symbolized the three divisions of the universe—the heavens, earth and the watery element—so the second represented the three great forces of nature—the sun, the moon and the life-giving power. According as the one or the other aspect of such a power is brought into the foreground, Ishtar becomes the mother of mankind, the fertile earth, the goddess of sexual love, and the creative force among animals, while at times she appears in hymns and myths as the general personification of nature.
We thus find in the post-Khammurabic period the pantheon assuming distinct shapes. The strong tendency towards concentrating in one deity—Marduk—the attributes of all others was offset by the natural desire to make the position of Marduk accord with the rank acquired by the secular rulers. As these emphasized their supremacy by grouping around them a court of loyal attendants dependent in rank and ready to do their master's bidding, so the gods of the chief centres and those of the minor local cults formed a group around Marduk; and the larger the group the greater was the reflected glory of the chief figure. Hence throughout the subsequent periods of Babylonian history, and despite a decided progress towards a monotheistic conception of divine government of the universe, the recognition of a large number of gods and their consorts by the side of Marduk remained a firmly embedded doctrine in the Babylonian religion as it did in the Assyrian religion, with the important variation, however, of transferring the rôle of the head of the pantheon from Marduk to Assur. Originally the patron god of the city of Assur (q.v.), when this city became the centre of a growing and independent district, Assur was naturally advanced to the same position in the north that Marduk occupied in the south. The religious predominance of the city of Babylon served to maintain for Marduk recognition even on the part of the Assyrian rulers, who, on the political side likewise, conceded to Babylonia the form at least of an independent district even when, as kings of Assyria, they exercised absolute control over it. They appointed their sons or brothers governors of Babylonia, and in the long array of titles that the kings gave themselves, a special phrase was always set aside to indicate their mastery over Babylonia. “To take the hand of Bel-Marduk” was the ceremony of installation which Assyrian rulers recognized equally with Babylonians as an essential preliminary to exercising authority in the Euphrates valley. Marduk and Assur became rivals only when Babylonia gave the Assyrians trouble; and when in 689 B.C. Sennacherib, whose patience had been exhausted by the difficulties encountered in maintaining peace in the south, actually besieged and destroyed the city of Babylon, he removed the statue of Marduk to Nineveh as a symbol that the god's rule had come to an end. His grandson Assur-bani-pal, with a view of re-establishing amicable relations, restored the statue to the temple E-Saggila in Babylon and performed the time-honoured ceremony of “taking the hand of Bel” as a symbol of his homage to the ancient head of the Babylonian pantheon.
But for the substitution of Assur for Marduk, the Assyrian pantheon was the same as that set up in the south, though some of the gods were endowed with attributes which differ slightly from those which mark the same gods in the south. The warlike nature of the Assyrians was reflected in their conceptions of the gods, who thus became little Assurs by the side of the great protector of arms, the big Assur. The cult and ritual in the north likewise followed the models set up in the south. The hymns composed for the temples of Babylonia were transferred to Assur, Calah, Harran, Arbela and Nineveh in the north; and the myths and legends also wandered to Assyria, where, to be sure, they underwent certain modifications. To all practical purposes, however, the religion of Assyria was identical with that practised in the south.
We thus obtain four periods in the development of the Babylonian-Assyrian religion: (1) the oldest period from c. 3500 B.C. to the time of Khammurabi (c. 2250 B.C.); (2) the post-Khammurabic period in Babylonia; (3) the Assyrian period (c. 2000 B.C.) to the destruction of Nineveh in 606 B.C.; (4) the neo-Babylonian period beginning with Nabopolassar (625-604 B.C.), the first independent ruler under whom Babylonia inaugurates a new though short-lived era of power and prosperity, which ends with Cyrus's conquest of Babylon and Babylonia in 539 B.C., though since the religion proceeds on its undisturbed course for several centuries after the end of the political independence, we might legitimately carry this period to the Greek conquest of the Euphrates valley (331 B.C.), when new influences began to make themselves felt which gradually led to the extinction of the old cults.
In this long period of c. 3500 to c. 300 B.C., the changes introduced after the adjustment to the new conditions produced by Khammurabi's union of the Euphratean states are of a minor character. As already indicated, the local cults in the important centres of the south and north maintained themselves despite the tendency towards centralization, and while the cults themselves varied according to the character of the gods worshipped in each centre, the general principles were the same and the rites differed in minor details rather than in essential variations. An important factor which thus served to maintain the rites in a more or less stable condition was the predominance of what may be called the astral theology as the theoretical substratum of the Babylonian religion, and which is equally pronounced in the religious system of Assyria. The essential feature of this astral theology is the assumption of a close link between the movements going on in the heavens and occurrences on earth, which led to identifying the gods and goddesses with heavenly bodies—planets and stars, besides sun and moon—and to assigning the seats of all the deities in the heavens. The personification of the two great luminaries—the sun and the moon—was the first step in the unfolding of this system, and this was followed by placing the other deities where Shamash and Sin had their seats. This process, which reached its culmination in the post-Khammurabic period, led to identifying the planet Jupiter with Marduk, Venus with Ishtar, Mars with Nergal, Mercury with Nebo, and Saturn with Ninib. The system represents a harmonious combination of two factors, one of popular origin, the other the outcome of speculation in the schools attached to the temples of Babylonia. The popular factor is the belief in the influence exerted by the movements of the heavenly bodies on occurrences on earth—a belief naturally suggested by the dependence of life, vegetation and guidance upon the two great luminaries. Starting with this belief the priests built up the theory of the close correspondence between occurrences on earth and phenomena in the heavens. The heavens presenting a constant change even to the superficial observer, the conclusion was drawn of a connexion between the changes and the ever-changing movement in the fate of individuals and of nature as well as in the appearance of nature.
To read the signs of the heavens was therefore to understand the meaning of occurrences on earth, and with this accomplished it was also possible to foretell what events were portended by the position and relationship to one another of sun, moon, planets and certain stars. Myths that symbolized changes in season or occurrences in nature were projected on the heavens, which were mapped out to correspond to the divisions of the earth. All the gods, great and small, had their places assigned to them in the heavens, and facts, including such as fell within the domain of political history, were interpreted in terms of astral theology. So completely did this system in the course of time sway men's minds that the cult, from being an expression of animistic beliefs, took on the colour derived from the “astral” interpretation of occurrences and doctrines. It left its trace in incantations, omens and hymns, and it gave birth to astronomy, which was assiduously cultivated because a knowledge of the heavens was the very foundation of the system of belief unfolded by the priests of Babylonia and Assyria. “Chaldaean wisdom” became in the classical world the synonym of this science, which in its character was so essentially religious. The persistent prominence which astrology (q.v.) continued to enjoy down to the border line of the scientific movement of our own days, and which is directly traceable to the divination methods perfected in the Euphrates valley, is a tribute to the scope and influence attained by the astral theology of the Babylonian and Assyrian priests.
As an illustration of the manner in which the doctrines of the religion were made to conform to the all-pervading astral theory, it will be sufficient to refer to the modification undergone in this process of the view developed in a very early period which apportioned the control of the universe among the three gods Anu, Bel and Ea. Disassociating these gods from all local connexions, Anu became the power presiding over the heavens, to Bel was assigned the earth and the atmosphere immediately above it, while Ea ruled over the deep. With the transfer of all the gods to the heavens, and under the influence of the doctrine of the correspondence between the heavens and the earth, Anu, Bel and Ea became the three “ways” (as they are called) on the heavens. The “ways” appear in this instance to have been the designation of the ecliptic circle, which was divided into three sections or zones—a northern, a middle and a southern zone, Anu being assigned to the first, Bel to the second, and Ea to the third zone. The astral theology of the Babylonian-Assyrian religion, while thus bearing the ear-marks of a system devised by the priests, succeeded in assimilating the beliefs which represented the earlier attempts to systematize the more popular aspects of the religion, and in this way a unification of diverse elements was secured that led to interpreting the contents and the form of the religion in terms of the astral-theological system.
The most noteworthy outcome of this system in the realm of religious practice was, as already intimated, the growth of an elaborate and complicated method of divining the future by the observation of the phenomena in the heavens. It is significant that in the royal collection of cuneiform literature made by King Assur-bani-pal of Assyria (668-626 B.C.) and deposited in his palace at Nineveh, the omen collections connected with the astral theology of Babylonia and Assyria form the largest class. There are also indications that the extensive texts dealing with divination through the liver of sacrificial animals, which represents a more popular origin than divination through the observations of the heavens, based as it is on the primitive view which regarded the liver as the seat of life and of the soul, were brought into connexion with astral divination. Less influenced by the astral-theological system are the old incantation texts which were gathered together into series. In these series we can trace the attempt to gather the incantation formulae and prayers produced in different centres, and to make them conform to the tendency to centralize the cult in the worship of Marduk and his consort in the south, and of Assur and Ishtar in the north. Incantations originally addressed to Ea of Eridu, as the god of the watery element, and to Nusku, as the god of fire, were transferred to Marduk. This was done by making Ea confer on Marduk as his son the powers of the father, and by making Nusku a messenger between Ea and Marduk. At the same time, since the invoking of the divine powers was the essential element in the incantations, in order to make the magic formulae as effective as possible, a large number of the old local deities are introduced to add their power to the chief ones; and it is here that the astral system comes into play through the introduction of names of stars, as well as through assigning attributes to the gods which clearly reflect the conception that they have their seats in the heavens. The incantations pass over naturally into hymns and prayers. The connexion between the two is illustrated by the application of the term shiptu, “incantation,” to the direct appeals to the gods, as well as by the introduction, on the one hand, of genuine prayers into the incantations and by the addition, on the other hand, of incantations to prayers and hymns, pure and simple. In another division of the religious literature of Babylonia which is largely represented in Assur-bani-pal's collection—the myths and legends—tales which originally symbolized the change of seasons, or in which historical occurrences are overcast with more or less copious admixture of legend and myth, were transferred to the heavens, and so it happens that creation myths, and the accounts of wanderings and adventures of heroes of the past, are referred to movements among the planets and stars as well as to occurrences or supposed occurrences on earth.
The ritual alone which accompanied divination practices and incantation formulae and was a chief factor in the celebration of festival days and of days set aside for one reason or the other to the worship of some god or goddess or group of deities, is free from traces of the astral theology. The more or less elaborate ceremonies prescribed for the occasions when the gods were approached are directly connected with the popular elements of the religion. Animal sacrifice, libations, ritualistic purification, sprinkling of water, and symbolical rites of all kinds accompanied by short prayers, represent a religious practice which in the Babylonian-Assyrian religion, as in all religions, is older than any theology and survives the changes which the theoretical substratum of the religion undergoes.
On the ethical side, the religion of Babylonia more particularly, and to a less extent that of Assyria, advances to noticeable conceptions of the qualities associated with the gods and goddesses and of the duties imposed on man. Shamash the sun-god was invested with justice as his chief trait, Marduk is portrayed as full of mercy and kindness, Ea is the protector of mankind who is grieved when, through a deception practised upon Adapa, humanity is deprived of immortality. The gods, to be sure, are easily aroused to anger, and in some of them the dire aspects predominated, but the view becomes more and more pronounced that there is some cause always for the divine wrath. Though, in accounting for the anger of the gods, no sharp distinction is made between moral offences and a ritualistic oversight or neglect, yet the stress laid in the hymns and prayers, as well as in the elaborate atonement ritual prescribed in order to appease the anger of the gods, on the need of being clean and pure in the sight of the higher powers, the inculcation of a proper aspect of humility, and above all the need of confessing one's guilt and sins without any reserve—all this bears testimony to the strength which the ethical factor acquired in the domain of the religion.
This factor appears to less advantage in the unfolding of the views concerning life after death. Throughout all periods of Babylonian-Assyrian history, the conception prevailed of a large dark cavern below the earth, not far from the Apsu—the ocean encircling and flowing underneath the earth—in which all the dead were gathered and where they led a miserable existence of inactivity amid gloom and dust. Occasionally a favoured individual was permitted to escape from this general fate and placed in a pleasant island. It would appear also that the rulers were always singled out for divine grace, and in the earlier periods of the history, owing to the prevailing view that the rulers stood nearer to the gods than other mortals, the kings were deified after death, and in some instances divine honours were paid to them even during their lifetime.
The influence exerted by the Babylonian-Assyrian religion was particularly profound on the Semites, while the astral theology affected the ancient world in general, including the Greeks and Romans. The impetus to the purification of the old Semite religion to which the Hebrews for a long time clung in common with their fellows—the various branches of nomadic Arabs—was largely furnished by the remarkable civilization unfolded in the Euphrates valley and in many of the traditions, myths and legends embodied in the Old Testament; traces of direct borrowing from Babylonia may be discerned, while the indirect influences in the domain of the prophetical books, as also in the Psalms and in the so-called “Wisdom Literature,” are even more noteworthy. Even when we reach the New Testament period, we have not passed entirely beyond the sphere of Babylonian-Assyrian influences. In such a movement as early Christian gnosticism, Babylonian elements—modified, to be sure, and transformed—are largely present, while the growth of an apocalyptic literature is ascribed with apparent justice by many scholars to the recrudescence of views the ultimate source of which is to be found in the astral-theology of the Babylonian and Assyrian priests.
Bibliography.—Morris Jastrow, jun., Religion Babyloniens und Assyriens (Giessen, 1904), enlarged and re-written form of the author's smaller Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (Boston, 1898); A. H. Sayce, The Religion of the Ancient Babylonians (Hibbert Lectures, London, 1887), now superseded by the same author's Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia (Gifford Lectures, Edinburgh, 1902); Friedrich Jeremias, Die Babylonier und Assyrer, in de la Saussaye's Lehrbuch der Religionsgeschichte (3rd ed., Tübingen, 1905), vol. i.; L. W. King, Babylonian Religion and Mythology (London, 1899); T. G. Pinches, Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (London, 1906). Of special texts and monographs bearing on the religion may be mentioned various volumes in the new series of cuneiform texts from Babylonian tablets, &c., in the British Museum (London, 1901- ), especially parts v., xii., xv., xvii., xviii., xx. and xxi. and vol. iv. of the earlier series of Selections from the Miscellaneous Inscriptions of Western Asia, ed. by H. C. Rawlinson (2nd ed., London, 1891); H. Zimmern, Beiträge zur Kenntniss der babylonischen Religion (Leipzig, 1901); J. A. Craig, Assyrian and Babylonian Religious Texts (Leipzig, 1895-1897); L. W. King, The Seven Tablets of Creation (London, 1902); R. C. Thompson, The Reports of the Magicians and Astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon (London, 1900); A. Boissier, Documents assyriens relatifs aux présages (Paris, 1894-1897); and his Choix de textes relatifs à la divination assyro-babylonienne (Geneva, 1905-1906); Ch. Fossey, La Magie assyrienne (Paris, 1902); G. A. Reisner, Sumerisch-babylonische Hymnen (Berlin, 1896); L. W. King, Babylonian Magic and Sorcery (London, 1896); R. C. Thompson, Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia (London, 1903-1904); K. L. Tallqvist, Die assyrische Beschwörungsserie Maqlū (Leipzig, 1895); J. A. Knudtzon, Assyrische Gebete an den Sonnengott (Leipzig, 1893); Virolleaud, L'Astrologie chaldéenne (Paris, 1906- ); Craig, Astrological-Astronomical Texts (Leipzig, 1892); Martin, Textes religieux assyriens et babyloniens (Paris, 1900 and 1903); Paul Haupt, Das babylonische Nimrodepos (Leipzig, 1891); Friedrich Delitzsch, Das babylonische Weltschöpfungsepos (Leipzig, 1896); P. Jensen, “Assyrisch-babylonische Mythen und Epen,” in Schrader's Keilinschriftliche Bibliothek, vol. vi. part 1 (Berlin, 1900); also his Das Nationalepos der Babylonier, &c. (Strassburg, 1906); H. Zimmern in vol. ii. of 3rd ed. of Schrader's Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament (Berlin, 1903); Alfred Jeremias, Die babylonisch-assyrischen Vorstellungen von Leben nach dem Tode (Leipzig, 1887); and his Das Alte Testament im Lichte des Alten Orients (2nd ed., Leipzig, 1906-1907); and Babylonisches im Neuen Testament (Leipzig, 1905). On the religious literature of Babylonia and Assyria, see also chapters xv. to xxiv. in Jastrow's work (German and English edition), Carl Bezold's Ninive and Babylon (Bielefeld, 1905), chapters vi. to xii., and the same author's monumental catalogue of the cuneiform tablets in the Kuyunjik collection of the British Museum (5 vols., London, 1889-1899). (M. Ja.)
Flag used by most Assyrians
|3.3 million – 5 million|
|Regions with significant populations|
|Traditional areas of Assyrian settlement:||Numbers can vary|
|Syria||400,000 (700,000 Pre-Civil War)|
250,000-400,000(1.4 million - 2 million Pre-Iraq War)
|Diaspora:||Numbers can vary|
(Assyrian, Chaldean, Turoyo/Surayt)
(majority: Syriac Christianity; minority: Protestantism)
Assyrian people (Syriac: ܐܫܘܪܝܐ), or Syriacs (see terms for Syriac Christians), are an ethnic group indigenous to the Middle East. Some of them self-identify as Arameans, or as Chaldeans. They speak East Aramaic languages as well as the dominant languages in their countries of residence. The Assyrians are typically Syriac Christians who claim descent from Assyria, one of the oldest civilizations in the world, dating back to 2500 BC in ancient Mesopotamia.
The areas that form the Assyrian homeland are parts of present-day northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran and, more recently, northeastern Syria. The majority have migrated to other regions of the world, including North America, the Levant, Australia, Europe, Russia and the Caucasus during the past century. Emigration was triggered by events such as the Massacres of Diyarbakır, the Assyrian Genocide (concurrent with the Armenian & Greek Genocide) during World War I by the Ottoman Empire and allied Kurdish tribes, the Simele Massacre in Iraq in 1933, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Arab Nationalist Ba'athist policies in Iraq and Syria, the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and its takeover of most of the Nineveh plains.
Assyrians are predominantly Christian, mostly adhering to the East and West Syrian liturgical rites of Christianity. The churches that constitute the East Syrian rite include the Assyrian Church of the East, Ancient Church of the East, and Chaldean Catholic Church, whereas the churches of the West Syrian rite are the Syriac Orthodox Church and Syriac Catholic Church. Both rites use Classical Syriac as their liturgical language.
Most recently, the 2003 Iraq War and the Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011, have displaced much of the remaining Assyrian community from their homeland as a result of ethnic and religious persecution at the hands of Islamic extremists. Of the one million or more Iraqis reported by the United Nations to have fled Iraq since the occupation, nearly 40% were Assyrians even though Assyrians comprised only around 3% of the pre-war Iraqi demography. According to a 2013 report by a Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council official, it is estimated that only 300,000 Assyrians remain in Iraq.
Because of the emergence of ISIS and the taking over of much of the Assyrian homeland by the terror group, another major wave of Assyrian displacement has taken place. ISIS was driven out from the Assyrian villages in the Khabour River Valley and the areas surrounding the city of Al-Hasakah in Syria by 2015, and from the Nineveh Plains in Iraq by 2017. Since the expulsion of ISIS, the Nineveh Plains have been divided into Iraqi and Kurdish-controlled zones, with Assyrian militias on both sides. In Gozarto/Northern Syria, Assyrian groups have been taking part both politically and militarily in the Kurdish-dominated but multiethnic Democratic Federation of Northern Syria project.
Main article: History of the Assyrian people
Main articles: Achaemenid Empire, Achaemenid Assyria, and Neo-Assyrian Empire
In prehistoric times, the region that was to become known as Assyria (and Subartu) was home to Neanderthals such as the remains of those which have been found at the Shanidar Cave. The earliest Neolithic sites in Assyria belonged to the Jarmo culture c. 7100 BC and Tell Hassuna, the centre of the Hassuna culture, c. 6000 BC.
The history of Assyria begins with the formation of the city of Assur perhaps as early as the 25th century BC. The Assyrian king list records kings dating from the 25th century BC onwards, the earliest being Tudiya, who was a contemporary of Ibrium of Ebla. However, many of these early kings would have been local rulers, and from the late 24th century BC to the early 22nd century BC, they were usually subjects of the Akkadian Empire.
During the early Bronze Age period, Sargon of Akkad united all the native Semitic-speaking peoples and the Sumerians of Mesopotamia (including the Assyrians) under the Akkadian Empire (2335-2154 BC). The cities of Assur and Nineveh, together with a number of other towns and cities, existed as early as the 25th century BC, although they appear to have been Sumerian-ruled administrative centres at this time, rather than independent states. The Sumerians were eventually absorbed into the Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) population. From 1700 BC and onward, the Sumerian language was preserved by ancient Babylonians and Assyrians only as a liturgical and classical language for religious, artistic and scholarly purposes.
In the traditions of the Assyrian Church of the East, they are descended from Abraham's grandson (Dedan son of Jokshan), progenitor of the ancient Assyrians. However, there is no historical basis for the biblical assertion whatsoever; there is no mention in Assyrian records (which date as far back as the 24th century BC). The Assyrian people, after the fall of their empire, fell under foreign domination ever since. The Persian Empire was founded, which consumed the entire Neo-Babylonian or "Chaldean" Empire in 539 BC. Assyrians became front line soldiers for the Persian Empire under Xerxes I, playing a major role in the Battle of Marathon under Darius I in 490 BC.
The Assyrian army accounted for three legions of the Roman army, defending the Parthian border. In the 1st century, it was the Assyrian army that enabled Vespasian's coup. From the later 2nd century, the Roman Senate included several notable Assyrians, including Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus and Avidius Cassius.
From the 1st century BC, Assyria was the theatre of the protracted Roman–Persian Wars. It would become a Roman province (Assyria Provincia) from 116 to 363 AD. Despite the influx of foreign elements, the presence of Assyrians is confirmed by the worship of the god Ashur, all proof of the continuity of the Assyrians. The Greeks, Parthians, and Romans had a rather low-level of integration with the local population in Mesopotamia, which allowed their cultures to survive.
Early Christian period
Further information: Syriac Christianity, History of Eastern Christianity, and Asōristān
The Assyrians were Christianized in the first to third centuries in Roman Syria and Roman Assyria. The population of the Sasanian province of Asōristān was a mixed one, composed of Assyrians, Arameans in the far south and the western deserts, and Persians. The Greek element in the cities, still strong during the Parthian Empire, ceased to be ethnically distinct in Sasanian times. The majority of the population were Eastern Aramaic speakers.
Along with the Arameans, Armenians, Greeks, and Nabataeans, the Assyrians were among the first people to convert to Christianity and spread Eastern Christianity to the Far East. The Council of Seleucia of ca. 325 dealt with jurisdictional conflicts among the leading bishops. They were divided by the Nestorian Schism in the 5th century, and from the 8th century, they became a minority religion following the Muslim conquest of Persia.
At the subsequent Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon of 410, the Christian communities of Mesopotamia renounced all subjection to Antioch and the "Western" bishops and the Bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (modern al-Mada'in) assumed the rank of Catholicos. Whereas Latin and Greek Christian cultures became protected by the Roman and Byzantine Empires, respectively, Assyrian Christianity often found itself marginalized and persecuted.
The Nestorian schism and Monophysite schisms of the 5th century divided the church into separate denominations. With the rise of Syriac Christianity, eastern Aramaic enjoyed a renaissance as a classical language in the 2nd to 8th centuries, and the modern Assyrian people continue to speak eastern Neo-Aramaic languages. Assyria continued to exist as a geopolitical entity until the Arab-Islamic conquest in the mid-7th century.
Further information: Muslim conquest of Persia
The Assyrians initially experienced some periods of religious and cultural freedom interspersed with periods of severe religious and ethnic persecution after the 7th century Muslim conquest of Persia. Assyrians contributed to Islamic civilizations during the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates by translating works of Greek philosophers to Syriac and afterwards to Arabic. They also excelled in philosophy, science (Qusta ibn Luqa, Masawaiyh,Eutychius of Alexandria, and Jabril ibn Bukhtishu) and theology (such as Tatian, Bardaisan, Babai the Great, Nestorius, and Thomas of Marga) and the personal physicians of the Abbasid Caliphs were often Assyrians, such as the long-serving Bukhtishu dynasty. Many scholars of the House of Wisdom were of Assyrian Christian background.
Indigenous Assyrians became second-class citizens (dhimmi) in a greater Arab Islamic state, and those who resisted Arabisation and conversion to Islam were subject to severe religious, ethnic and cultural discrimination, and had certain restrictions imposed upon them. Assyrians were excluded from specific duties and occupations reserved for Muslims, they did not enjoy the same political rights as Muslims, their word was not equal to that of a Muslim in legal and civil matters, as Christians they were subject to payment of a special tax (jizya), they were banned from spreading their religion further or building new churches in Muslim-ruled lands, but were also expected to adhere to the same laws of property, contract and obligation as the Muslim Arabs. They couldn't seek conversion of a Muslim, a non-Muslim man couldn't marry a Muslim woman and the child of such a marriage would be considered Muslim. They couldn't own a Muslim slave and had to wear different clothing from Muslims in order to be distinguishable. In addition to the jizya tax, they were also required to pay the kharaj tax on their land which was heavier than the jizya. However they were ensured protection, given religious freedom and to govern themselves in accordance to their own laws.
As non-Islamic proselytising was punishable by death under Sharia, the Assyrians were forced into preaching in Transoxiana, Central Asia, India, Mongolia and China where they established numerous churches. The Church of the East was considered to be one of the major Christian powerhouses in the world, alongside Latin Christianity in Europe and the Byzantine Empire.
From the 7th century AD onwards Mesopotamia saw a steady influx of Arabs, Kurds and other Iranian peoples, and later Turkic peoples. Assyrians were increasingly marginalized, persecuted, and gradually became a minority in their own homeland. Conversion to Islam as a result of heavy taxation which also resulted in decreased revenue from their rulers. As a result, the new converts migrated to Muslim garrison towns nearby.
Assyrians remained dominant in Upper Mesopotamia as late as the 14th century and the city of Ashur was still occupied by Assyrians during the Islamic period until the mid-14th century when the Muslim Turco-Mongol ruler Timur conducted a religiously motivated massacre against Assyrians. After, there were no records of Assyrians remaining in Ashur according to the archaeological and numismatic record. From this point, the Assyrian population was dramatically reduced in their homeland.
From the 19th century, after the rise of nationalism in the Balkans, the Ottomans started viewing Assyrians and other Christians in their eastern front as a potential threat. The Kurdish Emirs sought to consolidate their power by attacking Assyrian communities which were already well-established there. Scholars estimate that tens of thousands of Assyrian in the Hakkari region were massacred in 1843 when Bedr Khan Beg, the emir of Bohtan, invaded their region. After a later massacre in 1846, the Ottomans were forced by the western powers into intervening in the region, and the ensuing conflict destroyed the Kurdish emirates and reasserted the Ottoman power in the area. The Assyrians were subject to the massacres of Diyarbakır soon after.
Being culturally, ethnically, and linguistically distinct from their Muslim neighbors in the Middle East—the Arabs, Persians, Kurds, Turks—the Assyrians have endured much hardship throughout their recent history as a result of religious and ethnic persecution by these groups.
Mongolian and Turkic rule
Further information: Timurid Empire, Aq Qoyunlu, and Kara Koyunlu
After initially coming under the control of the Seljuk Empire and the Buyid dynasty, the region eventually came under the control of the Mongol Empire after the fall of Baghdad in 1258. The Mongol khans were sympathetic with Christians and did not harm them. The most prominent among them was probably Isa Kelemechi, a diplomat, astrologer, and head of the Christian affairs in Yuan China. He spent some time in Persia under the Ilkhanate. The 14th century massacres of Timur devastated the Assyrian people. Timur's massacres and pillages of all that was Christian drastically reduced their existence. At the end of the reign of Timur, the Assyrian population had almost been eradicated in many places. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, Bar Hebraeus, the noted Assyrian scholar and hierarch, found "much quietness" in his diocese in Mesopotamia. Syria’s diocese, he wrote, was "wasted."
The region was later controlled by the in Iran-based Turkic confederations of the Aq Qoyunlu and Kara Koyunlu. Subsequently, all Assyrians, like with the rest of the ethnicities living in the former Aq Qoyunlu territories, fell into Safavid hands from 1501 and on.
From Iranian Safavid to confirmed Ottoman rule
See also: Massacres of Badr Khan and Massacres of Diyarbakir (1895)
Further information: Safavid Empire, Afsharid Empire, Zand dynasty, Qajar dynasty, Ottoman Empire, Ottoman-Persian Wars, and Treaty of Zuhab
The Ottomans secured their control over Mesopotamia and Syria in the first half of the 17th century following the Ottoman–Safavid War (1623–39) and the resulting Treaty of Zuhab. Non-Muslims were organised into millets. Syriac Christians, however, were often considered one millet alongside Armenians until the 19th century, when Nestorian, Syriac Orthodox and Chaldeans gained that right as well.
A religious schism amongs the Assyrians took place in the mid to late 16th century. Dissent over the hereditary succession within the Assyrian Church of the East grew until 1552, when a group of Assyrian bishops, from the northern regions of Amid and Salmas, elected a priest, Mar Yohannan Sulaqa, as a rival patriarch. To look for a bishop of metropolitan rank to consecrate him patriarch, Sulaqa traveled to the pope in Rome and entered into communion with the Catholic Church. In 1553 he was consecrated bishop and elevated to the rank of patriarch taking the name of Mar Shimun VIII. He was granted the title of "Patriarch of the Chaldeans," and his church was named the Church of Athura and Mosul.
Mar Shimun VIII Yohannan Sulaqa returned to northern Mesopotamia in the same year and fixed his seat in Amid. Before being put to death by the partisans of the Assyrian Church of the East patriarch of Alqosh,:57 he ordained five metropolitan bishops thus beginning a new ecclesiastical hierarchy: the patriarchal line known as the Shimun line. The area of influence of this patriarchate soon moved from Amid east, fixing the See, after many places, in the isolated Assyrian village of Qochanis. Although this new church eventually drifted away from Rome by 1600 AD and reentered communion with the Assyrian Church, the archbishop of Amid reinstated relations with Rome in 1672 AD, giving birth to the modern Chaldean Catholic Church.
In the 1840s many of the Assyrians living in the mountains of Hakkari in the south eastern corner of the Ottoman Empire were massacred by the Kurdish emirs of Hakkari and Bohtan.
Another major massacre of Assyrians (and Armenians) in the Ottoman Empire occurred between 1894 and 1897 AD by Turkish troops and their Kurdish allies during the rule of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The motives for these massacres were an attempt to reassert Pan-Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, resentment at the comparative wealth of the ancient indigenous Christian communities, and a fear that they would attempt to secede from the tottering Ottoman Empire. Assyrians were massacred in Diyarbakir, Hasankeyef, Sivas and other parts of Anatolia, by Sultan Abdul Hamid II. These attacks caused the death of over thousands of Assyrians and the forced "Ottomanisation" of the inhabitants of 245 villages. The Turkish troops looted the remains of the Assyrian settlements and these were later stolen and occupied by Kurds. Unarmed Assyrian women and children were raped, tortured and murdered.
World War I and aftermath
Main articles: Assyrian Genocide and Assyrian struggle for independence
The Assyrians suffered a number of religiously and ethnically motivated massacres throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries AD, culminating in the large scale Hamidian massacres of unarmed men, women and children by MuslimTurks and Kurds in the late 19th century at the hands of the Ottoman Empire and its associated (largely Kurdish and Arab) militias, which further greatly reduced numbers, particularly in southeastern Turkey.
The most significant recent persecution against the Assyrian population was the Assyrian genocide which occurred during the First World War. Between 275,000 and 300,000 Assyrians were estimated to have been slaughtered by the armies of the Ottoman Empire and their Kurdish allies, totalling up to two-thirds of the entire Assyrian population.
This led to a large-scale migration of Turkish-based Assyrian people into countries such as Syria, Iran, and Iraq (where they were to suffer further violent assaults at the hands of the Arabs and Kurds), as well as other neighbouring countries in and around the Middle East such as Armenia, Georgia and Russia.
In reaction to the Assyrian Genocide and lured by British and Russian promises of an independent nation, the Assyrians led by Agha Petros and Malik Khoshaba of the Bit-Tyari tribe, fought alongside the Allies against Ottoman forces in an Assyrian war of independence. Despite being heavily outnumbered and outgunned the Assyrians fought successfully, scoring a number of victories over the Turks and Kurds. This situation continued until their Russian allies left the war, and Armenian resistance broke, leaving the Assyrians surrounded, isolated and cut off from lines of supply. The sizable Assyrian presence in south eastern Anatolia which had endured for over four millennia was thus reduced to no more than 15,000 by the end of World War I.
The majority of Assyrians living in what is today modern Turkey were forced to flee to either Syria or Iraq after the Turkish victory during the Turkish War of Independence. In 1932, Assyrians refused to become part of the newly formed state of Iraq and instead demanded their recognition as a nation within a nation. The Assyrian leader Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII asked the League of Nations to recognize the right of the Assyrians to govern the area known as the "Assyrian triangle" in northern Iraq.
The Assyrian Levies were founded by the British in 1928, with ancient Assyrian military rankings such as Rab-shakeh, Rab-talia and Tartan, being revived for the first time in millennia for this force. The Assyrians were prized by the British rulers for their fighting qualities, loyalty, bravery and discipline, and were used to help the British put down insurrections among the Arabs and Kurds. During World War II, eleven Assyrian companies saw action in Palestine and another four served in Cyprus. The Parachute Company was attached to the Royal Marine Commando and were involved in fighting in Albania, Italy and Greece. The Assyrian Levies played a major role in subduing the pro-Nazi Iraqi forces at the battle of Habbaniya in 1941.
However, this cooperation with the British was viewed with suspicion by some leaders of the newly formed Kingdom of Iraq. The tension reached its peak shortly after the formal declaration of independence when hundreds of Assyrian civilians were slaughtered during the Simele Massacre by the Iraqi Army in August 1933. The events lead to the expulsion of Shimun XXIII Eshai the Catholicos Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East to the United States where resided until his death in 1975.
The period from the 1940s through to 1963 saw a period of respite for the Assyrians. The regime of President Abd al-Karim Qasim in particular saw the Assyrians accepted into mainstream society. Many urban Assyrians became successful businessmen, others were well represented in politics and the military, their towns and villages flourished undisturbed, and Assyrians came to excel, and be over represented in sports.
The Ba'ath Party seized power in Iraq and Syria in 1963, introducing laws aimed at suppressing the Assyrian national identity via arabization policies. The giving of traditional Assyrian names was banned and Assyrian schools, political parties, churches and literature were repressed. Assyrians were heavily pressured into identifying as Iraqi/Syrian Christians. Assyrians were not recognized as an ethnic group by the governments and they fostered divisions among Assyrians along religious lines (e.g. Assyrian Church of the East vs. Chaldean Catholic Church vs Syriac Orthodox Church).
In response to Baathist persecution, the Assyrians of the Zowaa movement within the Assyrian Democratic Movement took up armed struggle against the Iraqi government in 1982 under the leadership of Yonadam Kanna, and then joined up with the Iraqi-Kurdistan Front in the early 1990s. Yonadam Kanna in particular was a target of the Saddam Hussein Ba'ath government for many years.
The Anfal campaign of 1986–1989 in Iraq resulted in 2,000 Assyrians being murdered through its gas campaigns. Over 31 towns and villages, 25 Assyrian monasteries and churches were razed to the ground. Some Assyrians were murdered, others were deported to large cities, and their lands and homes then being appropriated by Arabs and Kurds.
Main articles: Assyrian exodus from Iraq and 2008 attacks on Christians in Mosul
Since the 2003 Iraq War social unrest and chaos have resulted in the unprovoked persecution of Assyrians in Iraq, mostly by Islamic extremists, (both Shia and Sunni) and Kurdish nationalists (ex. Dohuk Riots of 2011 aimed at Assyrians & Yazidis). In places such as Dora, a neighborhood in southwestern Baghdad, the majority of its Assyrian population has either fled abroad or to northern Iraq, or has been murdered. Islamic resentment over the United States' occupation of Iraq, and incidents such as the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons and the Pope Benedict XVI Islam controversy, have resulted in Muslims attacking Assyrian communities. Since the start of the Iraq war, at least 46 churches and monasteries have been bombed.
In recent years, the Assyrians in northern Iraq and northeast Syria have become the target of extreme unprovoked Islamic terrorism. As a result, Assyrians have taken up arms alongside other groups (such as the Kurds, Turcomans and Armenians) in response to unprovoked attacks by Al Qaeda, ISIS/ISIL, Nusra Front and other terroristIslamic Fundamentalist groups. In 2014 Islamic terrorists of ISIS attacked Assyrian towns and villages in the Assyrian Homeland of northern Iraq, together with cities such as Mosul and Kirkuk which have large Assyrian populations. There have been reports of atrocities committed by ISIS terrorists since, including; beheadings, crucifixions, child murders, rape, forced conversions, Ethnic Cleansing, robbery, and extortion in the form of illegal taxes levied upon non Muslims. Assyrians in Iraq have responded by forming armed militias to defend their territories.
The Dawronoye modernization movement has a growing influence on Assyrian identity in the 21st century. It is particularly influential in Syria, where the Syriac Union Party (SUP) has become a major political actor in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. In August 2016, the Ourhi Centre in the city of Zalin was started by the Assyrian community, to educate teachers in order to make Syriac an optional language of instruction in public schools, which then started with the 2016/17 academic year. With that academic year, states the Rojava Education Committee, "three curriculums have replaced the old one, to include teaching in three languages: Kurdish, Arabic and Assyrian." Associated with the SUP is the Syriac Military Council, an Assyrian militia operating in Syria, established in January 2013 to protect and stand up for the national rights of Assyrians in Syria as well as working together with the other communities in Syria to change the current government of Bashar al-Assad. Since 2015 it is a component of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Main articles: Assyrian homeland, List of Assyrian tribes, and Proposals for Assyrian autonomy in Iraq
The Assyrian homeland constitutes northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran and northeastern Syria. This includes the ancient cities of Nineveh (Mosul), Nuhadra (Dohuk), Arrapha/Beth Garmai (Kirkuk), Amida (Diyarbakir), Edessa/Urhoy (Urfa), Harran, Nisabina/Zalin (Nusaybin/Qamishli), Arbela (Erbil), and also the Christianized settlements from the 5th century AD after the spread of Islam, such as Urmia in Iran, Hakkari (Yuksekova, Çukurca and Semdinli), Uludere and Tur Abdin (Midyat and Kafro) in Turkey, among others.
Assyrians have existed in what is now Syria since ancient times, but more recent settlement in Qamishli, Al-Hasakah, Al-Qahtaniyah, Al Darbasiyah, Al-Malikiyah, Amuda, Tel Tamer and a few other small towns in Al-Hasakah Governorate were populated by Assyrians in the early 20th century, after the Assyrian genocide in 1914, when they were displaced from other areas of their homeland by the Ottoman Turks and Kurdish tribes. During the 1930s and 1940s, an influx of Assyrians, mainly those from northern Iraq who were targeted during the Simele massacre, resettled in northeastern Syrian villages, mainly in Tel Tamer and smaller villages along the Khabour River Valley.
The Assyrians in Syria did not have Syrian citizenship and title to their land until late 1940s. Sizable Assyrian populations only remain in Syria, where an estimated 400,000 Assyrians live, and in Iraq, where an estimated 300,000 Assyrians live. In Iran and Turkey, only small populations remain, with only 20,000 Assyrians in Iran, and a small but growing Assyrian population in Turkey, where 25,000 Assyrians live.
In Tur Abdin, a traditional center of Assyrian culture, there are only 2,500 Assyrians left. Down from 50,000 in the 1960 census, but up from 1,000 in 1992. This sharp decline is due to an intense conflict between Turkey and the PKK in the 1980s. However, There are an estimated 25,000 Assyrians in all of Turkey, with most living in Istanbul.
Hakkari's Assyrian population was ethnically cleansed during the Assyrian Genocide of the First World War. Those who survived fled to unaffected areas of Assyrian settlement in Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Many went to neighboring countries in and around the Caucasus and Middle East like Armenia, Georgia, southern Russia, Lebanon, Jordan. Most Assyrians currently reside in the West due to the centuries of persecution by the neighboring Muslims.
There are three main Assyrian subgroups: Eastern, Western, Chaldean. These subdivisions range from fully or semi-overlapping linguistic, historical, cultural, and religious similarities between each grouping.
- The Eastern subgroup historically inhabited the northern Zagros Mountains, the Nahla and Sapna valleys in Nuhadra, and the Nineveh and Urmia plains speaking Northeastern Neo-Aramaic languages. They are religiously diverse, adhering to the East Syriac churches, Protestantism, Judaism, or are irreligious.
- The Chaldean subgroup is a subset of the Eastern one, as they are traditionally speakers of Northeastern Neo-Aramaic and belong to the East Syriac Rite. While some today consider themselves as having a distinct Chaldean identity or belonging to a distinct Chaldean culture, many Chaldean Catholics identify as Assyrian or Chaldo-Assyrian.
- The Western subgroup historically inhabited Tur Abdin and Upper Mesopotamia speaking Central Neo-Aramaic languages. Most adhere to the West Syriac churches, but a number are irreligious.