Terms for Syriac Christians

Syriac Christians are an ethnoreligious grouping of various ethnic communities of indigenous pre-Arab Semitic and often Neo-Aramaic-speaking Christian people of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. Syriac Christians advocate different terms for ethnic self-designation. Syriac Christians from the Middle East are theologically and culturally closely related to, but should not be confused with the Saint Thomas Christians from India, whose ties to Syriac Christians were a result of trade links and migration by Assyrian Christians from Mesopotamia and the Middle East mostly around the 9th century.

Historically, the three ethnic names used to describe those who would become Syriac Christians were extant before the advent of Christianity: Assyrian, referring to the land and people of Assyria in northern Mesopotamia, Aramean, referring to the people of Aram in The Levant and Syrian/Syriac, originally being used specifically as an Indo-European corruption of Assyrian, but from the late 4th century BC, being applied by the Seleucid Greeks to the Arameans of The Levant.

Other purely doctrinal and theological terms[1][2][3] such as "Syriac Christian", "Chaldean", "Jacobite" and "Nestorian", appeared much later, usually as labels imposed by theologians from Europe. The problem became more acute in 1946, when with the creation and independence of Syria, the adjective "Syrian" came to refer to that Arab-majority independent state, where Syriac Christians formed a minority.

There are around 7,000,000 Syriac Christians of various ethnicities and denominations in the world, the majority living in the diaspora with the largest centres being in India, the United States, Canada, Syria, Sweden, Australia, Lebanon, Germany, Russia, the Netherlands, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan), Turkey and Iran.

Historical background

Ancient history

In the pre-Christian era, during the mid- and late Bronze Age and Iron Age, the northern part of Iraq and parts of south-east Turkey and north-east Syria were encompassed by Assyria from the 25th century BC, southern Iraq by Babylonia from the 19th century BC, the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon and Syria by Phoenicia from the 13th century BC, and the remainder of Syria together with parts of south-central Turkey, by Aramea, also from the 13th century BC.

Modern Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and the Sinai peninsula were encompassed by various Canaanite states from the 13th century BC, such as Israel, Judah, Samarra, Edom, Ammon, the Amalekites and Moab. The Arabs emerged in the Arabian Peninsula in the mid-9th century BC, and the long extinct Chaldeans migrated to south-east Iraq from The Levant at the same time.

This entire region (together with Arabia, Asia Minor, Persia, Egypt, the Caucasus and parts of Ancient Iran/Persia and Ancient Greece) fell under the Neo-Assyrian Empire (935–605 BC), which introduced Imperial Aramaic as the lingua franca of its empire.

Little changed under the succeeding Achaemenid Empire (544–323 BC), which retained these lands as provinces under Achaemenid control, although some ethnicities and lands, such as Chaldea, Moab, Edom and Canaan disappeared before the Achaemenid period.

The terminological problem dates from the Seleucid Empire (323–150 BC), which applied the term Syria, the Greek and Indo-Anatolian form of the name Assyria, which had existed even during the Assyrian Empire, not only to both Assyria and the Assyrians themselves in Northern Mesopotamia (modern northern Iraq, northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey), but also to lands to the west in the Levant, which had never been a part of Assyria, previously known as Aramea, Eber Nari and Phoenicia (modern Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel). This caused not only the Assyrians of Mesopotamia, but also the ethnically and geographically distinct Arameans and Phoenicians of the Levant to be collectively called Syrians and Syriacs in the Greco-Roman world.

Syriac Christianity was established in Syriac and Eastern Aramaic-speaking Assyria (Persian ruled Athura/Assuristan) and Western Aramaic-speaking Aramea during the 1st to 5th centuries AD. The Church of the East (the mother church of the modern Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church and Ancient Church of the East) was founded amongst the Assyrians in Assyria between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. Aramea was also home to significant communities, (with Syrian Antioch being the center of some of the earliest Christian communities of the Near East). The Syriac Orthodox Church and Maronite Church emerged in this region.

Until the 7th century AD Arab Islamic conquests, Syriac Christianity was divided between two empires, Sassanid Persia in the east and Rome/Byzantium in the west. The western group in Syria (ancient Aramea), the eastern in Assyria and Persian Assyria (Athura/Assuristan) and Mesopotamia. Syriac Christianity was divided from the 5th century over questions of Christological dogma, viz. Nestorianism in the east and Monophysitism and Dyophysitism in the west.

Modern history

The controversy is not restricted to exonyms like English "Assyrian" vs. "Aramean", but also applies to self-designation in Neo-Aramaic, the "Aramean" faction from Turkey and Syria endorses both Sūryāyē (ܣܘܪܝܝܐ) and Ārāmayē (ܐܪܡܝܐ), while the "Assyrian" faction from Iraq, Iran, north east Syria and southeast Turkey insists on Āṯūrāyē (ܐܬܘܪܝܐ) but also accepts Sūryāyē (ܣܘܪܝܝܐ).

Assyria-Syria naming controversy

The question of ethnic identity and self-designation is sometimes connected to the scholarly debate on the etymology of "Syria". The question has a long history of academic controversy.[4]

The 21st century AD discovery of the Cinekoy Inscription appears to conclusively prove that the term Syria derives from the Assyrian term 𒀸𒋗𒁺 𐎹 Aššūrāyu., and referred to Assyria and Assyrian. The Çineköy inscription is a Hieroglyphic Luwian-Phoenician bilingual, uncovered from Çineköy, Adana Province, Turkey (ancient Cilicia), dating to the 8th century BC. Originally published by Tekoglu and Lemaire (2000),[5] it was more recently the subject of a 2006 paper published in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, in which the author, Robert Rollinger, lends strong support to the age-old debate of the name "Syria" being derived from "Assyria" (see Etymology of Syria). The examined section of the Luwian inscription reads:

§VI And then, the/an Assyrian king (su+ra/i-wa/i-ni-sa(URBS)) and the whole Assyrian "House" (su+ra/i-wa/i-za-ha(URBS)) were made a fa[ther and a mo]ther for me,
and Hiyawa and Assyria (su+ra/i-wa/i-ia-sa-ha(URBS)) were made a single “House.”

The corresponding Phoenician inscription reads:

And the king [of Aššur and (?)]
the whole “House” of Aššur (’ŠR) were for me a father [and a]
mother, and the DNNYM and the Assyrians (’ŠRYM)

The object on which the inscription is found is a monument belonging to Urikki, vassal king of Hiyawa (i.e. Cilicia), dating to the 8th century BC. In this monumental inscription, Urikki made reference to the relationship between his kingdom and his Assyrian overlords. The Luwian inscription reads "Sura/i" whereas the Phoenician translation reads ’ŠR or "Ashur" which, according to Rollinger (2006), "settles the problem once and for all".[6]

Some scholars in the past rejected the theory of 'Syrian' being derived from 'Assyrian' as "naive" and based purely on onomastic similarity in Indo-European languages,[7] until the inscription identified the origins of this derivation.[8]

In Classical Greek usage, Syria and Assyria were used almost interchangeably. Herodotus's distinctions between the two in the 5th century BCE were a notable early exception,[9] Randolph Helm emphasizes that Herodotus "never" applied the term Syria to Mesopotamia, which he always called "Assyria", and used "Syria" to refer to inhabitants of the coastal Levant.[10] While himself maintaining a distinction, Herodotus also claimed that "those called Syrians by the Hellenes (Greeks) are called Assyrians by the barbarians (non-Greeks).[11][12]

In the first century prior to the dawn of Christianity, the geographer Strabo (64 BC-21 AD) writes that whom historians (most likely Greek ones) call Syrian were actually Assyrian;

When those who have written histories about the Syrian empire say that the Medes were overthrown by the Persians and the Syrians by the Medes, they mean by the Syrians no other people than those who built the royal palaces in Ninus (Nineveh); and of these Syrians, Ninus was the man who founded Ninus, in Aturia (Assyria) and his wife, Semiramis, was the woman who succeeded her husband... Now, the city of Ninus was wiped out immediately after the overthrow of the Syrians. It was much greater than Babylon, and was situated in the plain of Aturia. Although the mention of Ninus as having founded Assyria is inaccurate, as is the claim that Semiramis was his wife, the salient point in Strabo's statement is the recognition that the Greek term Syria historically meant Assyria. It was the Assyrian Empire, not the "Syrian Empire", that was overthrown by the Medes and built palaces in Ninevah.[13] However, while this statement provides insight into how "Syrian" was used by the Greeks (supporting the "lost a" theory), claims that Syria and Assyria were considered synonymous to non-Greeks, including Syrians themselves, as alleged by Herodotus, are cast in doubt considering his remark in Geographika: “Poseidonius (a celebrated polymath and native of Apamea, Syria) conjectures that the names of these nations also are akin; for, says he, the people whom we call Syrians are by the Syrians themselves called Arameans... for the people in Syria are Aramaeans”.

Flavius Josephus, Roman Jewish historian writing in the 1st century AD describes the inhabitants of the state of Osroene as Assyrians.[14] Osroene was a Syriac-speaking state based around Edessa in Upper Mesopotamia,[15] a key center of early Syriac Christianity. However, in Antiquities of the Jews, he writes that "Aram had the Arameans, which the Greeks called Syrians."[16]

Justinus, the Roman historian wrote in 300 AD: The Assyrians, who are afterwards called Syrians, held their empire thirteen hundred years.[17]

"Syria" and "Assyria" were not fully distinguished by Greeks until they became better acquainted with the Near East. Under Macedonian rule after Syria's conquest by Alexander the Great, "Syria" was restricted to the land west of the Euphrates. Likewise, the Romans clearly distinguished the Assyria and Syria.[18]

Unlike the Indo-European languages, the native Semitic name for Syria has always been distinct from Assyria. During the Akkadian Empire (2335-2154 BC), Neo-Sumerian Empire (2119-2004 BC) and Old Assyrian Empire (1975-1750 BC) the region which is now Syria was called The Land of the Amurru and Mitanni, referring to the Amorites and the Hurrians. Beginning from the Middle Assyrian Empire (1365-1020 BC), and also in the Neo Assyrian Empire (935-605 BC) and the succeeding Neo-Babylonian Empire (605-539 BC) and Achaemenid Empire, (539-323 BC) Syria was known as Aramea and later Eber Nari. The term Syria emerged only during the 9th century BC, and was only used by Indo-Anatolian and Greek speakers, and solely in reference to Assyria.

According to Tsereteli, the Georgian equivalent of "Assyrians" appears in ancient Georgian, Armenian and Russian documents,[19] making the argument that the nations and peoples to the east and north of Mesopotamia knew the group as Assyrians, while to the West, beginning with Luwian, Hurrian and later Greek influence, the Assyrians were known as Syrians.[6]

Historic names of the Syriac Christians

Historically, the Syriac Christians have been referred to as "Syrian", "Aramean", and "Assyrian".

Purely theological terms such as Nestorian, Jacobite and Chaldean Catholic emerged much later. Nestorian only emerged after the Nestorian Schism of the 5th and 6th centuries AD, and Chaldean Catholic only in the late 18th century AD, subsequent to a number of Assyrians in northern Iraq breaking from the Church of the East. Both of these terms are solely denominational, and not ethnic in any sense, and both were applied to Syriac Christians by Europeans.

The historical English term for the group is "Syrians" (as in, e.g., Ephraim the Syrian). It is not now in use, since after the 1936 declaration of the Syrian Arab Republic, the term "Syrian" has come to designate citizens of that state regardless of ethnicity, with Syriac-Arameans and Assyrians only being indigenous ethnic minorities within that nation. The designation "Assyrians" has also become current in English besides the traditional "Syrians" since the late 19th century and particularly after the Assyrian genocide and the resulting Assyrian independence movement, although the term was used by European travelers as far back as the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Ethnic name dispute

The adjective "Syriac" properly refers to the Syriac language (founded in 5th century BC Assyria) exclusively and is not a demonym. The OED explicitly still recognizes this usage alone:

  • "A. adj. Of or pertaining to Syria: only of or in reference to the language; written in Syriac; writing, or versed, in Syriac."
  • "B. n. The ancient Semitic language of Mesopotamia and Syria; formerly in wide use (="Aramaic"; now, the form of Aramaic used by Syrian Christians, in which the Peshitta version of the Bible is written."[20]

Etymologically, it is generally accepted that the term Syrian (and thus derivatives such as Syriac) derive from Assyrian. The 21st century discovery of the Çineköy Inscription appears to conclusively prove the already largely prevailing position that the term "Syria" derives from the Assyrian term Aššūrāyu. (see Etymology of Syria).

The noun "Syriac" (plural "Syriacs") has nevertheless come into common use as a demonym following the declaration of the Syrian Arab Republic to avoid the ambiguity of "Syrians". Limited de facto use of "Syriacs" in the sense of "authors writing in the Syriac language" in the context of patristics can be found even before World War I.[21] Many modern scholars similarly use "Aramaic" a linguistic term without prejudicing particular identities.

Since the 1980s, a dispute between, on the one hand, the East Aramaic speaking Assyrians (aka Chaldo-Assyrians, who are indigenous Christians from northern Iraq, north western Iran, southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria and the Caucasus, and derive their national identity from the Bronze and Iron Age Assyria. On the other hand, the now largely Arabic-speaking, but previously West Aramaic speaking Arameans, who are mainly from central, south, west and northwestern Syria, south central Turkey, and Israel, emphasizing their descent from the Levantine Arameans instead) has become ever more pronounced. In the light of this dispute, the traditional English designation "Assyrians" has come to appear taking an Assyrianist position, for which reason some official sources in the 2000s have come to use emphatically neutral terminology, such as "Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac" in the US census, and "Assyrier/Syrianer" in the Swedish census.

Another distinction can be made: unlike the Assyrians, who emphasize their non-Arab ethnicity and have historically sought a state of their own, some urban Chaldean Catholics are more likely to assimilate into Arab identity.[22] Other Chaldeans, particularly in America, identify with the ancient Chaldeans of Chaldea rather than the Assyrians. In addition, while Assyrians self-define as a strictly Christian nation, Aramaic organizations generally accept that Islamic Arameans exist, and that many Muslims in historic Aramea were converts (forced or voluntary) from Christianity to Islam.[23] An exception to the near-extinction of Western Aramaic are the Lebanese Maronite speakers of Western Neo-Aramaic, however they largely identify with the Phoenicians (the ancient people of Lebanon) and not Arameans. Some Muslim Lebanese nationalists espouse Phoenician identity as well.

In the Aramaic language, the dispute boils down to the question of whether Sūrāyē/Sūryāyē "Syrian" or Āṯūrāyē "Assyrian" is in preferred use, or whether they are used synonymously, with Assyrians using them interchangeably.[24]

Names in diaspora

United States

During the 2000 United States census, Syriac Orthodox Archbishops Cyril Aphrem Karim and Clemis Eugene Kaplan issued a declaration that their preferred English designation is "Syriacs".[25] The official census avoids the question by listing the group as "Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac".[26][27] Some Maronite Christians also joined this US census (as opposed to Lebanese American).[28]


In Sweden, this name dispute has its beginning when immigrants from Turkey, belonging to the Syriac Orthodox Church emigrated to Sweden during the 1960s and were applied with the ethnic designation Assyrians by the Swedish authorities. This caused many from outside Iraq who preferred the indigenous designation Suryoyo (who today go by the name Syrianer) to protest, which led to the Swedish authorities began using the double term assyrier/syrianer.[29][30]

National identities

Assyrian identity

An Assyrian identity is today maintained by followers of the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, Assyrian Pentecostal Church, Assyrian Evangelical Church, and Eastern Aramaic speaking communities of the Syriac Orthodox Church (particularly in northern Iraq, north eastern Syria and south eastern Turkey) and to a much lesser degree the Syriac Catholic Church.[32] Those identifying with Assyria, and with Mesopotamia in general, tend to be Mesopotamian Eastern Aramaic speaking Christians from northern Iraq, north eastern Syria, south eastern Turkey and north west Iran, together with communities that spread from these regions to neighbouring lands such as Armenia, Georgia, southern Russia, Azerbaijan and the Western World.

The Assyrianist movement originated in the 19th to early 20th centuries, in direct opposition to Pan-Arabism and in the context of Assyrian irredentism. It was exacerbated by the Assyrian Genocide and Assyrian War of Independence of World War I. The emphasis of Assyrian antiquity grew ever more pronounced in the decades following World War II, with an official Assyrian calendar introduced in the 1950s, taking as its era the year 4750 BC, the purported date of foundation of the city of Assur and the introduction of a new Assyrian flag in 1968. Assyrians tend to be from Iraq, Iran, southeast Turkey, northeast Syria, Armenia, Georgia, southern Russia and Azerbaijan, as well as in diaspora communities in the US, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Sweden, Netherlands etc.

Assyrian continuity, the idea that the modern Christians of Mesopotamia are descended from the Ancient Assyrians, is supported by a number of Assyriologists like H.W.F. Saggs, Robert D. Biggs, Giorgi Tsereteli and Simo Parpola,[33][34][35], Tom Holland and Iranologists like Richard Nelson Frye.[4][36]

Syriac Christians are on record calling themselves Athoraye, Assyrian[18], and the region of Iraq, north east Syria and south east Turkey was still known as Assyria (Athura, Assuristan) until the 7th century AD.

According to Christian missionary Horatio Southgate, "Syrian" and "Assyrian" were self-identifications among Jacobites (Syriac Orthodox) he met in 1841, before the Ancient Assyrians were rediscovered by archaeologists: "I began to make inquiries for the Syrians. The people informed me that there were about one hundred families of them in the town of Kharpout, and a village inhabited by them on the plain. I observed that the Armenians did not know them under the name which I used, Syriani; but called them Assouri, which struck me the more at the moment from its resemblance to our English name Assyrians, from whom they claim their origin, being sons, as they say, of Ashur who "out of the land of Shinar went forth, and build Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, and Resin between Nineveh and Calah: the same is a great city." [37] (Note: Assouri means simply Syrian, the Armenian word for "Assyrian" is Asorestants’i.[18] The quotation is Genesis 10:10-12's description of the Ancient Assyrians.)

Syriac identity

The term Syriac was historically taken only as a theological, cultural, and linguistic term, used to describe Neo-Aramaic speaking Christians from the Near East in general. In an ethnic sense Syriac Christians identified as Assyrian, Aramean or "Syrian", but in light of the use of the term Syrian as a demonym for residents of the Syrian Arab Republic, some Syriac Christians have also advocated the term "Syriac" as an ethnic identifier, particularly members of the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syriac Catholic Church and to a much lesser degree, the Maronite Church, in a way of preserving their historic endonym while distinguishing themselves from Arab Syrians. Those self identifying as Syriacs tend to be from western, northwestern, southern and central Syria, as well as southcentral Turkey.

In 2000, the Holy Synod of the Syriac Orthodox Church ruled that in English language this church should be called "Syriac" after its official liturgical Syriac language (i.e. Syriac Orthodox Church).[38]

Organisations such as the Syriac Union Party in Lebanon and Syriac Union Party in Syria, as well as the European Syriac Union, espouse a Syriac identity. Syriac identity has become closely merged with both Aramean identity in some quarters, whilst being accepted by Assyrians also, due to the etymological origin of the term.

Chaldean and Chaldo-Assyrian identity

In recent times, a small and mainly United States-based minority within the Chaldean Catholic Church have begun to espouse a separate Chaldean ethnic identity.[39]

However, historically Chaldean Catholics were exclusively former north Mesopotamian members of the Assyrian Church of the East, who entered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church between the 16th and 18th centuries after failing to gain acceptance into the Syriac Orthodox Church.[40] and only in 1683 AD this was changed to The Chaldean Catholic Church. These two communities were historically united and mostly come from the same ancestral towns in Iraq.[41][42][43]

It is believed that the term Chaldean Catholic arose due to a Latin misinterpretation and mistranslation of the Hebrew Ur Kasdim (according to Jewish tradition the birthplace of Abraham in Northern Mesopotamia) as meaning Ur of the Chaldees.[44] In reality the Hebraic Ur and Kasdim did not refer to Ur in southern Mesopotamia, nor did Kasdim refer to Chaldeans.

Strictly, even in a theological sense, the name of Chaldeans is no longer correct; in what was Babylonia, and Chaldea proper, apart from Baghdad, there are now very few adherents of this rite, the Chaldean Catholic population originating in the north, and being found in the cities of Kirkuk, Arbil, and Mosul, in the heart of the Tigris valley, in the valley of the Zab, in the mountains of Kurdistan, a region known as Assyria until the 7th century AD, and whose Christian inhabitants have always been known as Assyrians, Syriacs or by variants of that name. Even those in Baghdad, are largely migrants from the north. It is in the former Ecclesiastical Province of Ator Assyria that the Chaldean Catholic Church originated, and where the most flourishing of the Catholic Chaldean communities are still found. The native population accepts the ethnic names Assyrians or Atoraya-Kaldaya Chaldo-Assyrians while in the neo-Syriac vernacular Christians generally are also known as Syriacs, a name deriving from Assyrians.[45]

The minority of Chaldean Catholics subscribing to a Chaldean identity[46] do so mainly to espouse a Catholic identity, rather an ethnic one, promoted by the Catholic Church.[46] However most Chaldean Catholics identify as Assyrian.[47]

Raphael Bidawid, the then patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church commented on the Assyrian name dispute in 2003 and clearly differentiated between the name of a church and an ethnicity:

I personally think that these different names serve to add confusion. The original name of our Church was the ‘Church of the East’ ... When a portion of the Church of the East became Catholic in the 17th Century, the name given was ‘Chaldean’ based on the Magi kings who were believed by some to have come from what once had been the land of the Chaldean, to Bethlehem. The name ‘Chaldean’ does not represent an ethnicity, just a church... We have to separate what is ethnicity and what is religion... I myself, my sect is Chaldean, but ethnically, I am Assyrian.[48]

In an interview with the Assyrian Star in the September–October 1974 issue, he was quoted as saying: Before I became a priest I was an Assyrian, before I became a bishop I was an Assyrian, I am an Assyrian today, tomorrow, forever, and I am proud of it.[49]

Others prefer to call themselves Chaldo-Assyrian to avoid division on theological grounds. The Iraqi and Iranian governments uses this term in recognition that Assyrians and Chaldeans are ethnically the same people, but have developed different religious traditions since the late 17th century AD.

Aramean identity

Advocated by a number of Syriac Christians most notably members of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Syriac Catholic Church.

The modern Arameans claim to be the descendants of the ancient Arameans who emerged in the Levant during the Late Bronze Age, who following the Bronze Age collapse formed a number of small ancient Aramean kingdoms before they were conquered by the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the course of the 10th to late 7th centuries BC. They have maintained linguistic, Aramean and cultural independence despite centuries of Arabization, Islamization as well as Turkification, although Levantine Western Aramaic now has very few native speakers. They were among the first peoples to embrace Christianity during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. During Horatio Southgate's travels through Mesopotamia, he encountered indigenous Christians and stated that the Jacobites in the region of Levant called themselves for Syrians "whose chief city was Damascus".[50]

Such an Aramean identity is mainly held by a number of Syriac Christians in southcentral Turkey, southeastern Turkey, western, central, northern and southern Syria and in the Aramean diaspora especially in Germany and Sweden.[51] In English, they self-identify as "Syriac", sometimes expanded to "Syriac-Aramean" or "Aramean-Syriac". In Swedish, they call themselves Syrianer, and in German, Aramäer is a common self-designation.

The Aramean Democratic Organization, based in Lebanon, is an advocate of the Aramean identity and an independent state in their ancient homeland of Aram.

Self-identification of some Syriac Christians with Arameans is well documented in Syriac literature. Mentions by notable individuals include that of the poet-theologian Jacob of Serugh, (c. 451 – 29 November 521) who describes Venerated Father St. Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306 – 373) as "He who became a crown for the people of the Aramaeans [armāyūthā], (and) by him we have been brought close to spiritual beauty".[52] Ephrem himself made references to Aramean origins,[53] calling his country Aram-Nahrin and his language Aramaic, and describing Bar-Daisan (d. 222) of Edessa as "The Philosopher of the Arameans", who "made himself a laughing-stock among Arameans and Greeks.” Michael the Elder (d. 1199) writes of his race as that of "the Aramaeans, namely the descendants of Aram, who were called Syrians.”[54] Bar Hebraeus (d. 1286) writes in his Book of Rays of the "Aramean-Syrian nation".

However, references such as these to are scarce after the early Middle Ages, until the development of Aramean nationalism in the late 20th century.

In 2014, Israel has decided to recognize the Aramean community within its borders as a national minority, allowing most of the Syriac Christians in Israel (around 10,000) to be registered as "Aramean" instead of "Arab".[55] This decision on part of the Israeli Interior Ministry highlights the growing awareness regarding the distinctness of the Aramean identity as well as their plight due to the historical Arabization of the region.

Phoenician identity

Most of the Maronites identify with a Phoenician origin, as do most of the Lebanese population, and do not see themselves as Assyrian, Syriac or Aramean. This comes from the fact that present day Lebanon, the Mediterranean coast of Syria, and northern Israel is the area that roughly corresponds to ancient Phoenicia and as a result like the majority of the Lebanese people identify with the ancient Phoenician population of that region.[56] Moreover, the cultural and linguistic heritage of the Lebanese people is a blend of both indigenous Phoenician elements and the foreign cultures that have come to rule the land and its people over the course of thousands of years. In a 2013 interview the lead investigator, Pierre Zalloua, pointed out that genetic variation preceded religious variation and divisions:"Lebanon already had well-differentiated communities with their own genetic peculiarities, but not significant differences, and religions came as layers of paint on top. There is no distinct pattern that shows that one community carries significantly more Phoenician than another."[57]

However, a small minority of Lebanese Maronites like the Lebanese author Walid Phares tend to see themselves to be ethnic Assyrians and not ethnic Phoenicians. Walid Phares, speaking at the 70th Assyrian Convention, on the topic of Assyrians in post-Saddam Iraq, began his talk by asking why he as a Lebanese Maronite ought to be speaking on the political future of Assyrians in Iraq, answering his own question with "because we are one people. We believe we are the Western Assyrians and you are the Eastern Assyrians."[58]

Another small minority of Lebanese Maronites like the Maronites in Israel tend to see themselves to be ethnic Arameans and not ethnic Phoenicians.[55]

However, other Maronite factions in Lebanon, such as Guardians of the Cedars, in their opposition to Arab nationalism, advocate the idea of a pure Phoenician racial heritage (see Phoenicianism). They point out that all Lebanese people are of pre-Arab and pre-Islamic origin, and as such are at least in part of Phoenician-Canaanite stock.[56]

Saint Thomas Christians of Kerala, India

Also known as "Assyrian Christians", Chaldean Christians, Nestorian Christians or "Syriac Christians" are the Saint Thomas Christians of India. They are not ethnically related to the Assyrian people, but nevertheless have strong cultural and religious links as a result of extensive missionary work and trade links during the 1st century at the height of the Church of the East. However, due to the Synod of Diamper in 1599 they were cut off from the Assyrian Church of the East in Mesopotamia, and new churches formed as a result of the Coonan Cross Oath and later schisms.

Other names

  • "Nestorians", is a now defunct catch-all term to describe Church of the East Assyrians, but also included non-Assyrian followers of the Church of the East. The term was used by Europeans from Medieval times to the Victorian age. In the 19th century, this was narrowed to apply specifically to those Assyrians who were members of the Assyrian Church of the East. The term now is rejected by Assyrians who point out they are a multi denominational ethnic group rather than a religious sect, and by the modern day Assyrian Church of the East, which does not identify with the doctrines of Nestorianism anymore.
  • "Christians", Western media often makes no mention whatsoever of any ethnic identity of the Christian people of the region, and simply call them "Christians" or "Iraqi Christians", "Iranian Christians", "Syrian Christians", and "Turkish Christians". This label is rejected by many[59] Syriac and Coptic Christians (as well as by Armenians and Kurdish Christians) as it wrongly implies no difference other than theological with the Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Iranians and Azeris of the region.
  • "Ashuriyun", a term used by Medieval Arabs for the eastern Aramaic-speaking Christians of Mesopotamia. The term has now fallen out of use, however it is noteworthy in that it illustrates the early Arab Islamic rulers acknowledged a distinct Assyrian identity in northern Mesopotamia. Assyrians today point to this term as one of the numerous historical proofs for the existence of an Assyrian ethnic identity as distinct from the Aramean ethnic identity.
  • "Arab Christians", a term not accepted by most Syriac Christian populations (including Assyrians/Assyrian-Chaldean in northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey and northeastern Syria; and Arameans/Aramean-Syriac in central Syria),[59] nor is it accepted by Copts in Egypt, Sudan and Libya, or by the minorities of Armenian, Kurdish, Turcoman, Georgian, Greek and Berber Christians throughout the region. There is an almost unanimous agreement among scholars and academics that this is historically and ethnically an inaccurate term.

Generally, those self-identifying as "Arabs" tend to be indigenous to Jordan, Israel (and Palestine), the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen, although even in these areas an Arab identity is not universally accepted among Christians. Also Israel took the initiative in 2014 to recognize the Aramean identity as a distinct nation which was welcomed by the leader of the Arameans in Israel Father Gabriel Nadaf.[60] More and more Arameans have spoken against the incorrect terms used not only by the international community but also by many community members. They believe incorrect terms such as "Nestorians" and "Jacobites" further the plight of the 'Aramean nation' and has a corrosive divisive nature. They call upon everyone to instead promote the term Aramean.

See also



  1. Travis, Hannibal. Genocide in the Middle East: The Ottoman Empire, Iraq, and Sudan. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2010, 2007, pp. 237-77, 293–294
  2. http://conference.osu.eu/globalization/publ/08-bohac.pdf
  3. Nisan, M. 2002. Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle for Self Expression .Jefferson: McFarland & Company.
  4. 1 2 Frye, R. N. (October 1992). "Assyria and Syria: Synonyms" (PDF). Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 51 (4): 281–285. doi:10.1086/373570. Archived from the original (PDF) on 31 July 2004.
  5. Tekoglu, R. & Lemaire, A. (2000). La bilingue royale louvito-phénicienne de Çineköy. Comptes rendus de l’Académie des inscriptions, et belleslettres, année 2000, 960–1006.
  6. 1 2 Rollinger, Robert (2006). "The terms "Assyria" and "Syria" again" (PDF). Assyriology. Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 65 (4): 284–287. doi:10.1086/511103.
  7. Festschrift Philologica Constantino Tsereteli Dicta, ed. Silvio Zaorani (Turin, 1993), pp. 106–107
  8. Rollinger, Robert (2006). "The terms "Assyria" and "Syria" again" (PDF). Journal of Near Eastern Studies 65 (4): 284–287. doi:10.1086/511103.
  9. The legacy of Mesopotamia, Stephanie Dalley, p94
  10. John Joseph (2000). The Modern Assyrians of the Middle East: A History of Their Encounter with Western Christian Missions, Archaeologists, and Colonial Powers. p. 21.
  11. (Pipes 1992), s:History of Herodotus/Book 7
    Herodotus. "Herodotus VII.63". VII.63: The Assyrians went to war with helmets upon their heads made of brass, and plaited in a strange fashion which is not easy to describe. They carried shields, lances, and daggers very like the Egyptian; but in addition they had wooden clubs knotted with iron, and linen corselets. This people, whom the Hellenes call Syrians, are called Assyrians by the barbarians. The Chaldeans served in their ranks, and they had for commander Otaspes, the son of Artachaeus.
    Herodotus. "Herodotus VII.72". VII.72: In the same fashion were equipped the Ligyans, the Matienians, the Mariandynians, and the Syrians (or Cappadocians, as they are called by the Persians).
  12. http://www.aina.org/articles/frye.pdf
  13. P. 195 (16. I. 2-3) of Strabo, translated by Horace Jones (1917), The Geography of Strabo London : W. Heinemann ; New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons
  14. https://books.google.com/books?id=Ta08AAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false%5Bpage needed%5D
  15. The Ancient Name of Edessa," Amir Harrak, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 51, No. 3 (July 1992): 209-214 [3]
  16. Antiquities of the Jews, translated by William Whiston
  17. The Origins of Syrian Nationhood: Histories, Pioneers and Identity Adel Beshara
  18. 1 2 3 Joseph, Assyria and Syria: Synonyms?, p. 38
  19. Tsereteli, Sovremennyj assirijskij jazyk, Moscow: Nauka, 1964.
  20. OED, online edition s.v. "Syriac". Retrieved November 2008
  21. e.g. "the later Syriacs agree with the majority of the Greeks" American Journal of Philology, Johns Hopkins University Press (1912), p. 32.
  22. Minority Rights: Iraq - Chaldeans
  24. Modern Aramaic Dictionary & Phrasebook: (Assyrian/Syriac) "Assyrians call themselves: S: Suraye, Suryaye, Athuraye / T: Suroye, Soryoye, Othuroye" Nicholas Awde, Nineb Limassu, Nicholas Al-Jeloo, Hippocrene Books (2007)
  25. Assyrian Heritage of the Christians of Mesopotamia Archived 26 November 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
  26. Census 2000 Archived 5 July 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  27. Syriac Orthodox Church Census 2000 Explanation in English
  28. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 11 May 2003. Retrieved 11 May 2003.
  29. Assyriska Hammorabi Föreningen, Namnkonflikten Archived 20 February 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  30. Berntsson, p. 51
  31. Assyria Archived 12 October 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  32. From a lecture by J. A. Brinkman: "There is no reason to believe that there would be no racial or cultural continuity in Assyria, since there is no evidence that the population of Assyria was removed." Quoted in Efram Yildiz's "The Assyrians" Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, 13.1, pp. 22, ref 24
  33. Saggs, The Might That Was Assyria, p. 290, The destruction of the Assyrian empire did not wipe out its population. They were predominantly peasant farmers, and since Assyria contains some of the best wheat land in the Near East, descendants of the Assyrian peasants would, as opportunity permitted, build new villages over the old cities and carry on with agricultural life, remembering traditions of the former cities. After seven or eight centuries and various vicissitudes, these people became Christians.
  34. Biggs, Robert (2005). "My Career in Assyriology and Near Eastern Archaeology" (PDF). Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies. 19 (1): 10. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-02-27. Especially in view of the very early establishment of Christianity in Assyria and its continuity to the present and the continuity of the population, I think there is every likelihood that ancient Assyrians are among the ancestors of modern Assyrians of the area.
  35. Parpola, National and Ethnic Identity in the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Assyrian Identity in Post-Empire Times, p. 22
  36. Frye, Richard N. (1992). "Assyria and Syria: Synonyms". PhD., Harvard University. Journal of Near Eastern Studies. The ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote that the Greeks called the Assyrians, by the name Syrian, dropping the A. And that's the first instance we know of, of the distinction in the name, of the same people. Then the Romans, when they conquered the western part of the former Assyrian Empire, they gave the name Syria, to the province, they created, which is today Damascus and Aleppo. So, that is the distinction between Syria, and Assyria. They are the same people, of course. And the ancient Assyrian empire, was the first real, empire in history. What do I mean, it had many different peoples included in the empire, all speaking Aramaic, and becoming what may be called, "Assyrian citizens." That was the first time in history, that we have this. For example, Elamite musicians, were brought to Nineveh, and they were 'made Assyrians' which means, that Assyria, was more than a small country, it was the empire, the whole Fertile Crescent.
  37. [Horatio Southgate, Narrative of a Visit to the Syrian [Jacobite] Church of Mesopotamia (1844)]
  38. The SOC News (2000): Holy Synod approves the name "Syriac Orthodox Church" in English
  39. Travis, Hannibal. Genocide in the Middle East: The Ottoman Empire, Iraq, and Sudan. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2010, 2007, pp. 237-77, 293–294 ISBN 9781594604362
  40. Rabban, "Chaldean Rite", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, Vol. III, pp.427–428
  41. Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq, 3rd ed., Penguin Books, London, 1991, p.381-382
  42. Joan Oates, Babylon, revised ed., Thames & Hudson, 1986
  43. Council of Florence, Bull of union with the Chaldeans and the Maronites of Cyprus Session 14, 7 August 1445 [1]
  44. Biblical Archaeology Review May/June 2001: Where Was Abraham's Ur? by Allan R. Millard
  45. Siemon-Netto, Uwe (August 1, 2004). "Iraq's Church Bombers vs. Muhammad". Christianity Today. In the 16th century, a major segment of the Assyrian-Nestorian church united with Rome while retaining its ancient liturgy. They are now called the Chaldean Church, to which most Assyrian Christians belong.
  46. 1 2 "Why Chaldean Church Refuses to Acknowledge its Assyrian Heritage? When Religion Becomes Divisive". Christians of Iraq.
  47. Mar Raphael I Bedawid (2004). "National and Ethnic Identity in the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Assyrian Identity in Post-Empire Times" (PDF). Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, Vol 18, N0. 2. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 July 2011. I personally think that these different names serve to add confusion. The original name of our Church was the ‘Church of the East’ ... When a portion of the Church of the East became Catholic, the name given was ‘Chaldean’ based on the Magi kings who came from the land of the Chaldean, to Bethlehem. The name ‘Chaldean’ does not represent an ethnicity... We have to separate what is ethnicity and what is religion... I myself, my sect is Chaldean, but ethnically, I am Assyrian.
  48. Parpola, Simo (2004). "National and Ethnic Identity in the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Assyrian Identity in Post-Empire Times" (PDF). Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies. JAAS. 18 (2): 22. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 July 2011.
  49. Mar Raphael J Bidawid. The Assyrian Star. September–October, 1974:5.
  50. Southgate, Horatio (1840). Southgate, Horatio. Narrative of a tour through Armenia, Kurdistan, Persia and Mesopotamia. Tilt & Bogue.
  51. Assyrian people
  52. .P. Brock, “St. Ephrem in the Eyes of Later Syriac Liturgical Tradition,” in Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 2:1 (January, 1999), §12
  53. S.H. Griffith, “Christianity in Edessa and the Syriac-Speaking World: Mani, Bar Daysan, and Ephraem; the Struggle for Allegiance on the Aramean Frontier,” in Journal of the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies 2 (2002), p. 20 n. 76.
  54. 'Translation by L. van Rompay, “Jacob of Edessa and the early history of Edessa,” in G.J. Reinink & A.C. Klugkist (eds.), After Bardaisan: Studies on Continuity and Change in Syriac Christianity in Honour of Professor Han J. W. Drijvers (Groningen, 1999), p. 277.
  55. 1 2 http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/Flash.aspx/304458
  56. 1 2 Kamal S. Salibi, "The Lebanese Identity" Journal of Contemporary History 6.1, Nationalism and Separatism (1971:76-86).
  57. Maroon, Habib (31 March 2013). "A geneticist with a unifying message". Nature. Retrieved 3 October 2013.
  58. 70th Assyrian Convention Addresses Assyrian Autonomy in Iraq
  59. 1 2 http://www.aina.org/releases/arabization.htm
  60. http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/.premium-1.613727


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