By: Ashur Sada
In 1991, the world witnessed the sudden and shocking collapse of one of the 20th centuries greatest powers, the Soviet Union.
Though the collapse dissolved the Soviet Union into several smaller independent states and with it the Soviet identity, it didn’t mean the loss of the Russian identity. It simply meant that those Soviet citizens would now identify themselves as Russians, Georgians, Ukrainians etc. But essentially, their identity remained and didn’t cease to exist with the collapse of their former Soviet empire. In 1000 years from now, we will be looking at books from the late 20th century and early 21st century and see that people in the former Soviet Union were no longer referring to themselves as being ‘Soviets.’ Would we conclude from this that those ‘Soviets’ has disappeared from the face of the earth? Not really, they still existed and their main heir, the Russians, simply came to be called by this name now. The name may have evolved but the lineage is direct and traceable.
This is essentially the case with the Assyrian identity and its survival following the collapse of the empire in 612 BC. The question of the Assyrian continuity in the aftermath of the fall of the empire has been proven beyond any doubt but there still remain some skeptics-many with agendas-who argue that the Assyrians of today are probably not the same Assyrians from the ancient empire. They claim that following the collapse of the empire, Assyrians as people and identity were lost forever. As silly as these claims sound, they have been answered by so many Assyriologists, archaeologists, historians and recently even by DNA tracing.
The circumstances and timeline of the collapse of the two empires-Assyrian and Soviet-may favor the latter in that their people’s survival was much easier given that they didn’t have to be annihilated by other empires and that they have only been out of the scene for 25 years and not 2500 years like the Assyrians. Sure, that is true. But at the end of the day, the Soviet example is a great one when analyzing the ‘Assyrian survival and continuity’
There are even more recent examples. Following the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the identity of the Ottoman people didn’t cease to exist. It was simply morphed or evolved to a full Turkish one. Today, no one calls themselves ‘Ottoman’ but that is obviously not an indication that today’s Turks are not the direct descendants of the Ottomans. In the case of the Assyrian empire and the aftermath of its collapse, the case for the survival of the Assyrian people and identity is very strong. Despite some 2500 years since the collapse and despite all the different stages, empires and religions they have had to live with and under, the Assyrian identity remained intact and often strong. Sure, the people and identity were threatened at various stages, including by the Median-Babylonian invasion, being subjects under powerful Persian and Roman empires, conversion to Christianity, the Muslim invasions, bloody attacks by the moguls, Ottoman genocides and more, yet the Assyrian people managed to keep their name and blood alive!
Speaking of Christianity, it is interesting and ironic to see that Assyrians’ early adoption of the religion was one of the biggest threats to their identity. Assyrians of the antiquity were often viewed in the bible as being ruthless and destroyers of Jewish people, God’s chosen people. This prompted the newly converted Assyrians to distance themselves from their old name and ancestors at times-Assyrianism-and start a new chapter, where they would simply be identified by their new religion or their general geographical area-Mespotamia, Assyria etc. Not to mention, the complication that arose from the introduction of the word ‘Syrian‘ and ‘Syriac’ made the term ‘Assyrian’ more lost in ambiguity.
Back in my teen years in the mid 90s, while living in Greece for a few years, I had a habit of writing daily journal entries. The topic would vary depending on my mood for that day. These entries were in English, despite it not being my first or second language at the time. Looking back at these entries recently, I noticed this one entry I had made about myself. Sort of a one page bio intro to myself. It caught me by surprise that there was not a single mention of the word ‘Assyrian’ neither as my language nor my ethnicity. I only mentioned myself being from Iraq and of a Christian religion. Does this mean I wasn’t Assyrian at this particular stage of my life? Of course not. Was it simply ignorance on my part or just part of my upbringing and the influence of school and the Saddam’s Ba’ath regime in brainwashing the masses? It could be. The point is, your ethnicity could be set in stone but it may not reflect in the way you live and write. Throughout the ages, starting from the time of Christ and up until the 1900s, Assyrians either didn’t see the need to constantly refer to themselves as being Assyrian, or they did but it was basically lost in translation. During my research into Assyrian continuity after the fall of the empire, I found no less than 20 different terms by which other nations referred to the old and new Assyrians. And that is just in my limited research and only in the English language. Imagine all the other ways they were referred to in all the other languages (Arabic, Greek, Latin etc.)
Think of the Assyrian identity and continuity post the fall of the empire in 612 B.C as a road (see the road image on the side for illustration). It starts as a small one, signifying the start of the empire, around 2400 B.C. Then the road gets wider-the empire at its peak strength and reach-and by 612 B.C, that road becomes very narrow and filled with potholes, dirt and is almost unrecognizable. Yet it is still a road and continues forward. This road goes through mountains, hills, even a cave. At times, it becomes a narrow bridge over very deep and fast moving water but at no point does it end, it just continues. In fact, there are stretches on this road that are so badly damaged and can’t be recognized, if you only managed to remove some of the dirt, you will realize that this road actually is continuing and it is the same road that you took when you started your journey. In other words, if you took this road from the start and despite all the difficulties you will encounter along the way, if you manage to continue on this road, you are guaranteed to get to your current destination. That is the Assyrian continuity for you in a nutshell: it is like road that changes so much in terrain but it is essentially the same one that you took and at no point does it cut off.
Assyrian continuity is a great example of the human will and its strong desire to remain relevant and alive in the face of all obstacles. We may take a nation’s survival for thousands of years for granted but it is not as easy as it looks, especially for the Assyrian people and ethnicity. The fact that Assyrians have been stateless complicates things even more. Assyrian resiliency, being this strong, can only be traced to their strong and powerful ancestors, the Assyrians of Nineveh and Ashur, from 2400 to 612 B.C.