The blood of the Assyrians
In all the emotions that the 20th century will have created, is there any room left for another and yet terrible war story, of bloodshed and extermination?
I have always stated that the worst crime of the Nazis had been to create a first time, a reference point and a sort of mass murder catalogue. By its cold, industrial and administrative execution as well as its amplitude in a very short time, it gives the most extreme measure of what can be done when the extermination of an entire people is planned. The Shoah, is, until proven otherwise, the maximum level of the efficiency in mass elimination. We cannot help comparing all the mass murders to this etalon of horror. Compared to this horrendous criminal upsurge, the mass murders, extermination attempts, genocides and other ethnic cleansings of the 20th century seem dull. They show a level of amateurism that sparks disdain more than awe.
However, the 20th century will probably remain in History as a century of exterminations, more than a war century, despite the two world wars and the planetary cold war that followed. Indeed, an interesting exercise is to ask someone to mention three 20th century genocides. Of course, the horrendous Shoah will inevitably come first and that is a good thing. Then, one will mention the Rwanda genocide, though not knowing the details of it, and the Armenian genocide, that is not better known either. Jewish, Armenian and Rwandese are words that have recently been associated to the word genocide and by idea association, if one says “Jewish” to you, you will think “genocide” and if one says “genocide”, you will probably think Armenian.
But if we say “Assyrian” to you, you will first hear “Syrian” and we shall need to articulate better “A-s-s-y-r-i-a-n” so that you understand this word means nothing to you, except maybe vague memories from college days or Sunday school. Maybe classical music lovers will link the work to Verdi’s Nabucco.
So, if we tell you that the Assyrians lost 75% of their populations during a mass crime at the beginning of the 20th century, you will wonder what class you have missed, not remembering that fact. Chill. Even if you were a bright pupil, you could not have known as you had never been taught.
Year 1915 is “annus horribilis” for mankind’s history. One of mankind’s most brilliant inventions, plane, appeared as a fabulous tool for war. The old fashioned gun charge was replaced by mud in the trenches. Cavalry charges were replaced by the cowardice of Yperite and combat gases. The blood of the young Australian and New-Zealand nations reddened the Dardanelles beaches, all Europe was ablaze on land, at sea, under the sea and in the air. The Ottomans started a program to “ottomanise” and islamise their empire, trying to exterminate the Armenians whose acquaintances with the Russian enemy would justify in their eyes the “treatment” and liquidation of the several Christian communities in current Turkey, Syria and Iraq. These Christian communities from Mesopotamia were bearing several names according to their churches or geographical origins: Nestorians, Syriacs, Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldean and Assyro-Chaldeans.
Indeed these communities were the oldest Christian people of History. Evangelised in the 1st century CE, when the Romans were feeding the lions with the first Christians, Mesopotamians were no other than the heirs of the proud Assyrian and Babylonian empires, before they were swept by the Persians, swept by the Greeks, swept by the Romans, swept by the Arabs and so on. Despite all these invasions and despite the establishment of Arab Muslim caliphates in the whole Middle-East in the 8th century CE, these Christian people will keep their identity and their language, Aramaic which was the common language from the rivers of Babylon to the city of Jerusalem in Jesus’s and the first Christians’ times. Indeed, in the Roman provinces of Judea, Samaria and Galilee, Aramaic was spoken, imported from Babylon during the return of the Jews to Jerusalem, in Nehemiah’s time. Only the scholars would speak Greek, only the priests would use Hebrew as liturgical language and very few would speak the Roman occupant’s Latin.
Keeping their language and religion, not mingling much with the Arab conquerors, the Christians of Orient crossed centuries generally unharmed, but more and more moving back to mountain isolated regions, leaving each time more land and power to the Muslims that kept expanding into Africa, Asia and Europe, during the conquest of Spain. The apex of Muslim power will certainly be in 1453 when Constantinople falls. It is then the Christian flagship city, capital of the Roman Empire of Orient and seat of the Orthodox Catholic church. However the flow is coming. Granada falls in 1492 and Ottomans fall at the gates of Vienna in 1529. From then, despite a few convulsions (the last battle for Vienna happens in 1683), Islam loses ground. Even more alarming, the Golden Age of an Islam that is open, heterogeneous, interwoven with many thought schools and inspired by foreign philosophies and sciences, is finishing. Muslim society closely follows the decline of the Ottoman Empire that starts to loss land and influence. In the 19th century, the French and British in the Mediterranean take advantage of the Ottoman weakness to seize the Maghreb and Egypt. The American Marines come to fight the Barbaresque pirates in Tripoli and the nations in the Balkans slowly obtain independence.
Already, during the 19th century, the Christian populations of the Ottoman Empire start to suffer hatred from Muslims who suspect them not to be loyal. Several massacres occur against Christian populations in the 1880’s, as an ominous sign of what will follows. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire is on the brink of collapse and suffers a stiff Islamic and Turkish nationalist fall back. When the Great War erupts in 1914, the Ottomans ally with the Central Empires of Germany and Austria-Hungary, hoping for a return of their lost influence and power.
But in order to renew the glory of the great hours of the Empire, as in any declining empire, the rulers ride on nationalism and Ottoman identity that do not tolerate anymore and suddenly, the Armenians, the Mesopotamians… in short the Christians. The myth of the enemy inside that will sabotage the nation, that had been seen briefly during the Dreyfus affair and that will lead to German Nazism, is a global phenomenon that will not spare the Ottomans.
The Armenians showed, on several occasions before the war, intentions of uprising and independence, if necessary using violent action and they generally allied with enemy Russia at the beginning of the Great War. On their side, the Assyro-Chaldeans, in their vast majority, have been living at the heart of the Empire for centuries and have never represented a threat for the Ottomans. Only they faith is a problem and makes them suspicious.
Exactions start at the same time as those on the Armenians. Ottomans arm the Kurdish militias in order to slaughter the populations and occupy villages and land. A proud and rough people from the mountains, the Assyrians do not yield without fighting, but the violence and barbarism of the Kurdish, joined with the classic military might of the Ottoman army leave few chances to the Assyrian defences and their families. The Tur-Abdin region, meaning “Mountain of those who adore God” in the actual Turkish South-East, is all but knifed with daggers. Slaughter is enormous. Assyrian resistance regroups in churches that are used are fortifications and sometimes the Assyrians manage to store enough weapons and water to hold a siege during several weeks. Inevitably, without reinforcements or help, the pockets of resistance fall one after the other. The Assyrians will only find some rest during an unfinishable flight.
The fall of the Ottoman Empire will not change anything; slaughters will continue from time to time until the Assyrians regions are virtually empty. The French Protectorate on Syria will allow some of them to take shelter but the result of this “Ottomanisation” is heavy. According to recent studies, it is estimated that between 500,000 and 750,000 (75%) of the Assyro-Chaldean population disappeared under Ottoman and Kurdish killings between 1915 and 1920. The rate of loss is higher than in any other previous conflict.
And if only the slaughter had finished… Armenians obtain Armenia’s independence when the Ottoman Empire falls but Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs live now in several states, including the new Turkey, Syria under French protectorate and the Iraqi kingdom under British protectorate. Iraq’s Assyrians believed for some time that an Assyrian State would be established thanks to the British. A military Assyrian group, the Assyrian Levies, was even constituted to help the British against the Arab and Kurd uprisings. However, from 1932 and the end of the British mandate, their fate became tragic again. Iraq’s and the French Mandate Syria’s refusal to grant them an autonomous territory led to the slaughter of thousands of them by the hands of the Iraqi troops.
Following that, during the whole second half of the 20th century, the Assyro-Chaldeans from Turkey and Iraq will always be harassed and persecuted, leading them to exodus, mostly in Europe, America or Australia. They almost do not exist anymore in Turkey. Many have taken refuge in Syria, in Lebanon and Israel where they are safe. Even from these relative peacefulness, exodus continues.
Iraq has the greatest concentration of Assyro-Chaldeans but Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship who wanted to assimilate them by force and exterminate the Aramaic language left the place for the Al-Qaeda fanatics and other groups who harass the Christians in a savage and systematic manner. We cannot count anymore the assassinations, kidnappings, beheadings, rapes, shootings, terror attacks and arsons the Christians of Iraq have been suffering. Since the British – US invasion of Iraq in 2003, more than a hundred churches were attacked with explosives. We remember the hostage taking in the Notre Dame de la Délivrance cathedral in Bagdad, where fighting between terrorists and police forces caused the death of 58 people and the injury of 60 churchgoers.
We finally understand, that what the Turks started in the middle in the 19th century, which is the ethnical and religious cleansing in the Middle-East, is still going on when these lines are written. The Jews were expelled in numbers from most Muslim lands after 1948. The Assyro-Chaldeans and the Syriacs, through a discreet but steady policy of the Middle-East Muslim powers, are still being pushed to the exit of a land to which they have belonged since the beginning of History. The Muslims, led by Islamic fundamentalists against which no one really protest, are creating a “virgin” Muslim land, free from any different influence or religion. That is the definition of ethnic and cultural cleansing. The Assyrians, who are not Arabs and are Christians, become authentic martyrs and this time the word is not overused.
As far as I am concerned, the word “Assyrian” makes me think of the feared warriors of Nebuchadnezzar or of Tilgath-Pilezer of whom I was reading the military feats in the Bible, when I was a child. When I grew up and becoming interested in History, I discovered the complexity and marvels of these Mesopotamian civilisations. The invention of writing by the Sumerians, the Hammurabi code considered as the oldest law corpus of History, the architectural marvels of Babylon and Ninive which doors and bas-reliefs are the pride of many archaeological museums, the majesty and splendour of the Ishtar gate are so many things that make me dream and force my admiration for these antique people, though being spoken of badly in the Bible. We must remind that the sons of these so important people in History, were first to embrace Christianity and propagate it towards Asia and Extreme-East. In China, there exists a Christian stone, written in Aramaic and Chinese and dating from the 7th century. Oriental Christianity traces are found as far as in Indonesia.
How then can we stay unmoved at this attack against mankind’s memory and the crime against humanity that is represented by the silent elimination of the Assyro-Chaldean Syriacs from their historic homeland? It was started in 1915, with the “Seyfo”, a word that will unfortunately never be as famous as Shoah but points at the same thing: a mass murder against an antique people, against an original faith and an ancestral culture because of an unrealistic and sectarian ideology: that is the purity of a Muslim land in one case and the purity of the Aryan race in the other.
The blood of the Assyrians has already been shed too much but nothing seems to be able to stop the haemorrhage. This blood takes away a great part of humanity’s heritage, in a silent extinction which history and importance I have learnt not so long ago.
As the Ecclesiastes Kind Solomon said, in a time when the Assyrian Empire was rising: “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow”. Indeed the blood of the Assyrians hurts me.
Pug, October 6, 2014
Translation – LD