All about Assyrians

History and Identity

Who are the Assyrians? Simply put, the modern-day Assyrians are Semitic people, and the direct descendants of the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian people, including their predecessors the Akkadians and Sumerians, and have a history spanning over 6760 years. Assyrians are considered the indigenous and native people of Iraq and are not to be confused with other ethnic groups in Iraq and the region, such as Arabs, Persians and Kurds. Unlike these groups, Assyrians are Christians and have their own language (Assyrian Neo-Aramaic)

The heart of the Assyrian empire was located in the northern part of ancient Mesopotamia,present day northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria, and northwestern Iran.  Its sister city-state of Babylon occupied the southern portion of ancient Mesopotamia, present day southern Iraq and Kuwait.  These people were literally blood related and frequently intermarried, just the same as Israel and Judea were two separate kingdoms or city-states for the one Jewish people. Their main capital was Assur. The Assyrians are known for their various contributions to  the advancement of science, astronomy and warfare. King Ashurpanipal, one of the most popular and powerful Assyrian kings, is known for having built the first known library in history. Given all of this and the vast interest in the Assyrian civilization and its contributions to history, the field of Assyriology seeks to study and teach all about ancient the Assyrians and their empire.

The Assyrian empire dominated the region for close to 500 years, and in its peak, its control reached as far as Egypt in the west and all the way to present day Iran in the east. The empire officially fell in 612 B.C Despite this fall, Assyrians as people and ethnicity didn't cease to exist  and have continued to play a major role in the subsequent empires that ruled the region, including the Persian, Roman, Islamic and recently with the Ottoman empire.

Map showing the geographical extent of the Assyrian empire



Assyrians of today speak Assyrian (Neo-Aramaic), which is a neo-Aramaic dialect. This is also referred to as 'Syriac', a modern dialect of the Aramaic language. In fact, Syriac is often the term used for the literary and liturgical form of the Assyrian language. Prior to adopting the Aramaic language around 1000 BC-the lingua franca of the region at the time-the Assyrian empire used the Akkadian language, an extinct Semitic language. They also used cuneiform script as a way of scribing and documenting things.

The Assyrian alphabet of today is written from right to left and has 22 letters.  It is generally divided into an eastern and western dialects, with those living in Turkey and Syria speaking the western (also known as Soryoyo) dialect while those in Iraq and Iran speak the eastern dialect (also known as madenkhaya)

Assyrian Alphabet

Religion & Church

Assyrians of today are virtually and predominantly all Christians, having embraced the religion since the time of Christ.  Assyrians follow many different churches, but the majority are adherent of the 'Assyrian Church of the East', one of the original Christians churches, dating to the time of the apostles that spread Christianity in the first century A.D. In addition to this church, Assyrians are also followers of the 'Chaldean Catholic Church', 'Ancient Assyrian Church of the East' , 'Syriac Orthodox' , Syriac Catholic', 'Jacobites' and various other denominations. Prior to Christianity, the Assyrian religion in the empire was 'Ashurism', termed after the Assyrian god 'Ashur' whom Assyrians worshipped as a deity.

HH Mar Dinkha, the patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East.

In the last 200 years, Assyrians-as people and political entity-have undergone a lot of changes as well as suffering various setbacks that continues to shape them to the present day. This is in the form of genocides committed against the Assyrian people by various regional groups (Ottoman Turks, Kurds, Islamic terrorists etc.) as well a new sense of nationalism and political activism.  In one form or another, Assyrians have been very active politically, attempting to secure their ethnic, linguistic and religious rights, if not an out-right effort to gain independence as an Assyrian state within Iraq and neighboring countries.

Today, Assyrians are without a state and the majority live in their ancestral homelands, although a large number has migrated to the west, including the US, Canada, Australia and Europe. In Iraq, they still number in the hundreds of thousands, although that number is a far cry from what they used to number prior to 1990, when they numbered some 1.25 million. Today, following the war and insurgency in Iraq, and the systemic targeting and marginalization by the state as well as other terrorist and militia groups, Assyrians continue to leave their homelands, to seek a better future in the west.

The majority of Assyrians in Iraq live in the 'Nineveh Plain' which is a series of towns and villages, populated by an Assyrian Christian majority, right around where the ancient Assyrian empire was based. Many others live in the province of Dohuk (Nohadra) where the Kurdistan regional government is control. In the capital, Baghdad, Assyrians still number in the thousands, although that number was a lot higher before the war to topple Saddam in 2003. In addition to Iraq, tens of thousands of Assyrians live in neighbouring countries, including Syria, Iran, Turkey and Lebanon. Some of those are recent migrants from Iraq while the majority have always lived there.

Politically speaking, Assyrians have been working and struggling to get some basic rights in Iraq.  A more ambitious effort has also been underway in the last few years to grant them more administrative and political control in the northern 'Nineveh Plain' region. Essentially, this effort has been evolving and may culminate in Assyrians getting their own province, which will be under the direct influence of the central Iraqi government. 

The traditional Assyrian clothing



The Assyrian flag



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