Matthew Multari: The Fight for Assyrian Independence
“And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.
And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,”
- Lord Byron, The Destruction of Sennacherib
The Western world of the early 19th century thought Assyria, and its descendants, dead. For Lord Byron, a British poet who wrote The Destruction of Sennacherib in 1815, the only record of Assyria’s existence was a biblical account of the tyranny of its monarchs. Henry Layard, a British archaeologist, conducted his first excavation at Nimrud, an ancient Assyrian capital, in 1845. His subsequent series of excavations revealed wondrous artifacts, statues, tablets, and cities buried beneath the Mesopotamian sands. For a time, the British public was mesmerized by the discovery of the treasures of the civilization of the fertile crescent, the first civilization in human history. Nevertheless, to most of the world, Assyria lived only in clay and stone, not flesh and blood. It was only in the late 19th and early 20th century that the group of Syriac speakers indigenous to Northern Mesopotamia began making their identity as the descendants and cultural inheritors of ancient Assyria and Babylonia known to the world.
The group of Syriac speakers native to Northern Mesopotamia, which is today’s Southwestern Turkey, Northern Iraq, and Western Iran, speak the Aramaic language. This language was instituted as an official imperial language, alongside its more ancient relative Akkadian (the original language of the Assyrians and Babylonians), of the Neo-Assyrian Empire by the king Tiglath-Pileser III in the 8th century B.C.E. The dialects of Aramaic spoken by the Assyrians today retain a high number of Akkadian words, especially in rural villages that are further away from contact with other cultures. This, along with cultural customs such as dress, food, dances, and folkloric stories (which have elements of ancient Mesopotamian tales such as the Epic of Gilgamesh), provides evidence for the continuity between the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian cultures and these modern Assyrians (or Assyro-Chaldeans, as they are referred to in a show of unity between the Assyrian and Chaldean/Babylonian identities). The Assyrians were also some of the first people to adopt Christianity and continued to practice and spread Christianity throughout Asia (reaching China and India at the furthest extent of their influence). These cultural and religious elements made Assyrians distinct from neighboring populations, and during times of political turmoil and distress, made them targets of attacks.
Massacres of Assyrians by Kurdish tribes, such as the 1842 massacre led by Badr Khan, along with growing popularity of nationalist ideology in other parts of the Ottoman Empire, such as the Balkans, contributed to the rise of Assyrian nationalism in the 19th century. Henry Layard’s team’s excavation of ancient Assyrian relics may have also contributed to this national consciousness, especially since Layard’s right-hand-man, Hormuzd Rassam, was Chaldean. The Ottoman genocide of 1915 was a crucial event that galvanized Assyrian nationalist ideology into a movement calling for an independent nation-state in the homeland of Mesopotamia. The genocide consisted of massacres conducted on Assyrian villages, and forced exile from these villages, which were attested to by American, British, and German eyewitnesses (in addition to Assyrian survivors of the attacks).
Accounts of the genocide’s death toll are rough estimates, since documentation of the Assyrian population before World War I is sparse, but most accounts range between claiming that 250,000 (the number used by the Assyrian delegation to the League of Nations during World War I) and 750,000 (the number used by most genocide awareness organizations today) lives were lost. Between half and two thirds of the Assyrian population was systematically murdered, and the rest of the population was forced to take refuge in neighboring countries. The survivors were left with an urgent desire for an autonomous state since they saw this as the only political arrangement that would protect Assyrians. The Russian and British military leadership entreated the Assyrians to join forces with the Allied Powers and help them defeat the Ottomans in World War I, with the promise of statehood in Northern Mesopotamia as a reward upon victory. The Assyrians accepted this offer and contributed to the Allied victory in 1918. After the war, many Assyrians, having been forcefully relocated from Turkey to Iraq, joined the Iraqi Levies, military units of the government of British Mesopotamia. They were deployed in seven significant battles and many minor skirmishes in Northern Iraq during the early 1920s to secure British control over the region.
During the period between the World Wars, from 1918 to 1939, Assyrian leaders participated in peace conferences and levied requests to the League of Nations for the autonomous state they were promised in return for their military service. Assyrian delegations from the Caucasus, Turkey, Mesopotamia, Iran, and the United States submitted five memoranda to the Paris peace conference in 1919. The delegates argued the Assyrian national case considering the tragedy of the 1915 genocide, the Assyrian military service during and after World War I, and the threat of life in Mesopotamia without the safety of an autonomous territory. The Treaty of Sevres, signed by the Allies in 1920, partitioned the former Ottoman Empire and included a clause requiring “complete guarantees as to the protection of the Assyro-Chaldeans and other ethnic or religious minorities in this area.” Though the treaty made fewer provisions for Assyrians than for other groups, such as the Kurds (to whom it granted autonomy), its explicit reference to Assyrians and provision for there safety was a landmark step in the Assyrian national cause. Unfortunately, this treaty was never ratified by Turkey, which underwent a revolution and became the Republic of Turkey, the leadership of which (namely, President Mustafa Kemal) denied that the Treaty of Sevres had any merit. The Treaty of Lausanne was negotiated and ratified by the League of Nations in 1923 and omitted this clause to protect Assyrians, and Assyrians were not allowed at the delegation to negotiate the treaty.
Left without formal recognition by the international community, Assyrian leaders feared for the safety of their people in Iraq. Since they could not create a centralized, autonomous region within the Iraqi state, they were scattered across villages in Northern Iraq. The Assyrian Church of the East patriarch Mar Shimun XXIII, who acted as both a spiritual and political leader for the Assyrian nation during this time of crisis, perceived that public sentiment in Iraq towards Assyrians was souring. The population of Iraq at the time was mostly Arab, and the government was as well. Assyrians, like Kurds, were viewed as potential threats to national homogeneity. In the late 1920s Britain was preparing to relinquish its control of Iraq to the government it installed under King Faysal, and Mar Shimun viewed this as a death sentence to Assyrians. In 1932, he addressed the League of Nations saying, “If the mandate [British government of Mesopotamia] is lifted without effective guarantees for our protection in the future, our extermination would follow.” The League of Nations nonetheless granted Iraq independent statehood that year.
Mar Shimun’s intuition about the ill fate of Assyrians without protection in an independent Iraq proved correct. In 1933, the Iraqi military conducted massacres of more than 2,000 Assyrians in Northern Iraq. They issued propaganda slandering Assyrians and robbed and looted 60 villages. The massacres themselves were of the utmost brutality. The most gruesome details included soldiers cutting the stomachs of pregnant women open, impaling children with bayonets, torturing and murdering priests, and burning girls alive with holy books used as kindling. These massacres came to be known as the Simele Massacres, and were clearly intended to strike fear into Assyrians in Northern Iraq in order to force them into submission of the Iraqi government. Despite knowledge of this atrocity, the League of Nations took no action against Iraq, since it was a member of the League, and instead endeavored to find a location to move Assyrians for their safety. By 1934, these endeavors ceased, and by 1940, the question of Assyrian independence was no longer discussed by the international community. The Assyrians of Iraq fought on behalf of the Allied Powers during WWII against the Nazi-aligned Iraqi government, and successfully defended a crucial airfield during the Battle of Habbaniya, but there efforts amounted to naught for their cause of independence.
The denial of Assyrian requests for independence between the two World Wars, and after World War II, is a major reason why most of the modern Western public is as unaware of the existence of Assyrians as it was in the year 1800. Despite this, Assyrians continue to preserve their language, religion, customs, traditions, food, folklore, dances, and unique knowledge of their history in diaspora around the world. They are ever resilient in the hope that the ancient heritage they bear; the heritage of the earliest human civilization; can continue to thrive and offer value and vibrancy to the modern world. This resilient people and culture should not be allowed by the international community to wither and die. The Assyrian population in Northern Iraq, lacking political autonomy, continues to face ethnic cleansing, such as that committed against it by ISIS between 2014-2017. ISIS not only killed, raped, and exiled thousands of Assyrians from their homes, but it also defaced and destroyed ancient Assyrian monuments in the city of Nimrud to erase the very cultural heritage Assyrians represent. This incident, and the long history of persecution that precedes it, proves that empty promises and resolutions to preserve the rights of minorities within states are not sufficient to protect the Assyrian population in its homeland of more than 3,000 years. The cry for Assyrian independence is one that the international community can no longer conscionably ignore.
“† 1842: Massacres by Kurdish Chief Badr Khan Bey,” n.d. https://www.atour.com/history/1800/20000815c.html.
“Akkadian Words in Modern Assyrian,” n.d. http://www.aina.org/articles/akkadianwords.htm#page-6.
“British Betrayal of the Assyrians,” n.d. http://www.aina.org/books/bbota.htm.
Donabed, Sargon. “The Assyrian Heroic Epic of ‘Qaṭīne Gabbara’: A Modern Poem in the Ancient Bardic Tradition.” Folklore 118, no. 3 (2007): 342–55.
Seyfocenter. “How Many Assyrians Were Killed in the Assyrian Genocide,” May 9, 2020. https://www.seyfocenter.com/english/how-many-assyrians-were-killed-in-the-assyrian-genocide/.
“Iraqis Mourn Destruction of Ancient City of Nimrud: ISIS ‘Tried to Destroy the Identity of Iraq,’” n.d. https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/iraqis-mourn-destruction-ancient-city-nimrud-isis-tried-destroy-identity-n694636.
Reade, Julian. “Hormuzd Rassam and His Discoveries.” Iraq 55 (1993): 39–62. https://doi.org/10.2307/4200366.
Stafford, R. S. The Tragedy of the Assyrians, n.d.
“The Destruction of Sennacherib by Lord Byron… | Poetry Foundation,” n.d. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43827/the-destruction-of-sennacherib.
Yacoub, Joseph. The Assyrian Question, 1986.