The forgotten Assyrians of the Mesopotamia

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Jun 29 13:34:44 UTC 2006

Alkan Chaglar
alkan at

Assyrians have lived in South-Eastern Anatolia, Northern Iraq, Eastern
Syria and Western Iran since times of antiquity. Living beneath the shadow
of poplar and mulberry trees, and amid crimson poppies swaying in the wind
they number no more than a million in the entire region. Praying as their
ancestors had done for over a thousand years in small earth-coloured
churches surmounted by a dome and joined by a tower with plangent church
bells, the community are descendants of a once great empire.

The Assyrian empire once extended from the Zagros Mountains in the East to
the coast of Lebanon. The Assyrians who are also known more generally
under the umbrella terms for Nestorian Christians are not Christian Arabs
as some people believe, but speak a Semitic language, called Syriac.
Although semblable to both Arabic and Hebrew, the language pre-dates both
languages and is one of the oldest languages in the region. The community
has always been entrepreneurial, leading an active economic role in the
jewellery trade in Turkey. Their presence is quite strong in the
rambunctious Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. Assigned to the role of good
jewellers the community is often overlooked by both the government and the
media, which tend to focus on the situation of the more numerous Kurdish

Living in five mostly Muslim states in the Middle-East has often put the
Assyrians in the line of fire. According to F.P.Isaac in the early part of
the 20th century the Ottomans, faced with the break-up of their empire,
expelled thousands of Assyrians, matters did not improve much in the
secular Republic of Turkey which followed. From a presence of 130,000
Assyrians in the 1960s the number has dwindled down to 5000 today, of
which only 2000 of which reside in South East of Anatolia. Faced with
greater problems the Turkish state policy has done little to include the
Assyrians in recent years to feel apart of the secular state that Turkey
purports to be. This has fueled the steady immigration of the community

Life is not much better for the Assyrians in neighbouring countries
either. The Iraqi Chaldean-Assyrian minority was one of the prime targets
of the Baathist party for their role in collaborating with the British
during their occupation of Iraq. Today in post-Baathist Iraq Assyrians
find themselves the target of Islamic fundamentalists and insurgents who
hold them to blame for the actions of the Christian occupiers, the
Americans and the British. Faced with growing Arabisation and
Kurdification of northern Iraq, Assyrians have been making a steady exit
from Iraq to neighbouring Arab states and from there to the West.

In Turkey, Assyrians are recognised as a religious minority and not as an
ethnic minority like the Armenians, this might seem as a simple difference
in terminology but in fact it is quite a crippling status for the
community. Unlike the Armenians, Assyrians still cannot teach in their own
language, so this indigenous community is left manacled by the state.
Being prevented from teaching ones ancestral language to future
generations of that community has been one of the key factors forcing this
community to leave the country in recent decades.

Fortunately, the EU factor in Turkey coupled with the end of the worst
fighting between the PKK and Security Forces is beginning to provide short
term benefits to small minorities like the Assyrians, as the government in
Ankara seeks to harmonise many of her own policies with those of the EU.
Conditions are now improving for the community, which was previously on
the brink of extinction in the region. An interest in Assyrian culture and
its benefits for tourism is currently been explored and even the Turkish
governor now visits the community to offer his support. Five years ago
during the height of violence between the PKK and the Turkish security
forces this would have not been possible.

With funds from the European Union, Istanbul Bilgi University opened an
Assyrian cultural centre in the town of Midyat on the 29th of April 2006
for the first time and last year the city of Mardin hosted the first
international symposium of Mardin history. Some Assyrians from the
diaspora have repatriated to their ancestral region in recent years.

However, many of the children of those returning diaspora can only speak
Syriac and have little knowledge of Turkish, but faced with an absence of
Syriac classes, they are prevented from a proper education. The absence of
schools that teach Syriac is preventing the existing group from learning
their communitys language while on the other hand encouraging the new
arrivals to forget theirs.

Without downplaying the positive reforms in Turkey, the state, which
strives to be secular and a garden of different flowers needs not only to
be cognizant of the diversity of their country but needs to put this into
educational policy. Policy makers can encourage the teaching and use of
minority or regional languages without being detrimental to the use of
official languages. It should be government policy to promote, protect,
and preserve the Indigenous languages of the republic, this would be
mutually beneficial to both the ethnic group and the state in whose
confines they reside.

While Assyrians are faced with uncertainty in Iraq and Iran, where
insurgents are keen to destroy multiculturalism, Turkey should set a
precedent by not just promoting multi-faith communities but
multi-lingualism as well. Language like religion is a fundamental part of
a community's identity; it is used to transmit a community's history,
poetry, music and literature that will be forever lost without it. Like
other minorities elsewhere without schooling in their own language, the
future generations of Assyrians will be bereft of a future and unequal in
their rights as Turkish citizens. The Turkish state needs to extend full
citizenship to all her citizens.

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