Armenians and Assyrians: Shared Experiences though the Ages


By Nicholas Al-Jeloo

Armenians and Assyrians have lived closely as neighbors for more than 3,000 years. At times their relationship with one another has been cordial, at times quite close, and at other times not well at all.

Despite this, they have been through many experiences together, whether pleasant or traumatic, and have witnessed each other’s triumphs and sufferings. In modern times what brings them together especially is the issue of the Genocide. Research in the past 20 years on the Assyrian Genocide, known as Seyfo, which occurred concurrent with the Armenian Genocide is increasing and the subject is gaining more visibility.

Armenians and Assyrians in Antiquity

In ancient times the Assyrian Empire and the kingdom of Urartu (ancestors of today’s Armenians) were often at each other’s throats, but at the same time they also borrowed ideas and cultural material off one another — the Urartians wrote their language in the cuneiform script used by the Assyrians, and their artworks also heavily resemble Assyrian art forms. Legend has it that up to7,000 Assyrian prisoners of war were used to build the ancient town of Erebuni (modern Yerevan), and Moses of Khorene writes of the Assyrian queen Shamiram (Greek: Semiramis) who wooed the Armenian king Ara the Fair, and built the city of Van. Even today there is a village and canal near Van named Shamiram Suyu (“Shamiram’s stream”).

Jewish Talmudic tradition states that Adramelech and Shahrezer, sons of Assyrian king Sennacherib, killed their father after he had promised to sacrifice them to a piece of wood from Noah’s Ark, which he had begun to worship on his return from campaigning in Palestine, and fled to safety in the region of Ararat (Urartu).The village of Shushantz near Van is said to be named after their sister Shushan, and the Armenian kings of Vaspurakan (whose capital was at Van) claimed to be Assyrian, and that they were descended from King Sennacheribb through them.

Brothers in Christianity

During the Christian era, Assyrians and Armenians maintained the close bond they had in antiquity, and early on the Catholicossate of Echmiadzin was dependant on the Assyrian Orthodox Patriarchate in Antioch. Before St. Mesrop Mashdotz’s creation of the Armenian alphabet, Armenian religious texts were written in Syriac/Aramaic (Assyrian) or Greek, and there are still some surviving examples of Armenian texts written with the Syriac script.

In Turkey’s Hakkari region, before World War I, there were a handful of Armenian villages that belonged not to the Apostolic Church, but to the Assyrian Church of the East, and even their churches were built in the Assyrian style. Similarly, Assyrians from Til, near Kharpert, built their churches in the Armenian style, even though they belonged to the Assyrian Orthodox Church. Under the Ottoman regime,

Assyrians were represented at the court in Constantinople by the Armenian Patriarch of that city, and in the Urmia region of Iran, even today, there is an agreement by which an Assyrian priest may serve Armenians when a priest of their own is unavailable, and vice versa.

Prior to the Genocide, thousands Assyrians lived alongside Armenians in areas of modern Turkey and Iran such as Aghbak (Albaq), Gavar, Urmia, Sanamast (Salmas), Baghesh (Bitlis), Van, Timar, Kharpert (Harput), Urfa, Siverek, Malatya, Adiyaman, Palu, Diyarbakir (Amid), Silvan, Mardin, Seghert (Siirt) and others. In some of these areas, Assyrians, as a minority, blended in and assimilated in the Armenian way of life and in Kharpert and Baghesh, the Assyrians spoke only Armenian and Turkish and frequently intermarried with the Armenians. It is also said that the Armenians of Sasun are of Assyrian descent, and many Assyrian families in villages of southeast Turkey and northern Iraq are also descended from Armenians, for example the large Assyrian town of Alqosh which is home to the Arimnaya family. In Iraq, Iran and Syria, there are still many cases of intermarriage between Assyrians and Armenians.

Assyrians and Armenians today share many customs, among them the dance of fire which the Assyrians call the dance of Shamiram, and the annual summer water festival of Vartivar (also known as Navasard). The Assyrians call this feast Nusardil, which descends from the ancient Mesopotamian feast of Musardilu, celebrating the return of the god Tammuz from the underworld. In general also, Assyrian foods, music and traditional dance share much in common with Armenian forms of the same, and many other traditions are also common to both.

Shared Suffering: The Genocide

Even in their most defining moment of suffering — Genocide under the Ottoman Empire — the Armenians and Assyrians suffered together and in many cases fell victim to the same massacres and deportations. Not only were Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire represented by the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, but they also suffered the stigma of being known by Turks as Ermeni (i.e. Armenian), a slang term used across the Ottoman and Persian Empires to mean any Christian in general, whether or not they were ethnically Armenian. This also led to the massacre and deportation of many Greeks from Pontos, Thrace, Ionia and Cappadocia as a result of the Genocide, culminating in the “population exchanges” of the 1920s.

Since they lived side by side in many areas, Assyrians fell prey to the same Genocidal acts carried out by the Ottoman state — whether it was during the massacres of1895/6, to which over 100,000 Assyrians fell victim; the Adana massacres of1909, in which 3,000 Assyrians perished; or the Genocide carried out between1914 and 1924, which left between 500,000 and 750,000 Assyrians dead and more than 250,000 displaced. The pre-1914 population of Assyrians around the world did not exceed 1 million; thus for them the loss of two thirds of their number was a tragedy they still have not recovered from.
At the time, Assyrian and Assyrophiles in the US, France, England, and Syria wrote extensively about their experiences under the Ottomans and the aftermath of the Genocide and roughly a score of books are known to have been published in this period. Books on the Armenian Genocide also clearly mention the Assyrians, who feature largely in the Blue Book (Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire) by Lord Bryce. Another book by him, titled Treatment of Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire, was prepared but never published. Even the chapter in the Blue Book dealing exclusively with the massacres of Assyrians in the Urmia region was removed from the French edition and many later editions of the book.

The first academic study of the Assyrian Genocide since the 1920s was written by Dr. Gabriele Yonan in Germany in the 1980s and since then a wave of publishing, translation, scholarship and activism has been unleashed. Conferences and seminars on the Assyrian Genocide have been held in the Europe, the USA, Canada and Australia, and the Assyrians in Europe are well known for holding hunger strikes and demonstrations, as well as charity events, for Genocide recognition. At present the Seyfo Centre in Europe (www.seyfocenter.com) is the intellectual centre for the study and documentation of the Assyrian Genocide.

Abdullah Oçalan and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) were the first to officially recognize the Assyrian Genocide, alongside that of the Armenians in the 1990s, and since then many municipalities and provincial governments in the USA, Australia and Europe have recognized the Assyrian Genocide as well. In March 2010 Sweden was the first country to recognize the Assyrian Genocide, and there are plans to lobby more countries to do the same. Assyrian Genocide monuments exist in the US, France, New Zealand and one is being planned in Sydney, Australia. The Armenian Government has allotted a plot of land in Yerevan for the erection of an Assyrian Genocide monument there as well. 

Conclusion

Assyrians today are a stateless and transnational ethnic group who have not recovered from the Seyfo and are still suffering discrimination by Arabs and Turks, as well as ethnic cleansing by Kurds in northern Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. They are divided along sectarian and political lines, and in general have lower levels of education and wealth than others. They are the least fortunate out of the three nations that suffered in the Genocide of Christians in Anatolia and Asia Minor and are constantly searching for affirmation and recognition of their plight and national question.

As neighbors with a long history of shared experiences with Armenians, and in many cases shared ancestry and intermixing, and as sufferers and witnesses to the Armenian Genocide it is only natural that Armenians be the next nation to officially recognize the sufferings of the Assyrians. Hopefully this will not be too far off in the future.