Assyria is the ancient region of northern Mesopotamia around the city of Assur, founded around 2600 BC on the banks of the Tigris (today its ruins are in northern Iraq). It was part of the Akkadian Empire of Sargon of Akkad until 2154 BC, which united all the Mesopotamian cities. And from the second millennium BC onwards, the region was the centre of the Assyrian Empire, which in its greatest expansion between the 8th and 7th centuries BC controlled practically all the territory between present-day Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.

The destruction of its capital, Nineveh, in 612 BC by the alliance of the Babylonians and the Medes marked the end of the empire, whose provinces were divided between them.

The region would shift from the domination of one empire to another: Medes, Achaemenids, Macedonians, Seleucids, Parthians, Romans, Sassanids…Between the end of the 3rd century BC and the middle of the 2nd century BC a series of small independent Assyrian kingdoms emerged: Ashur, Adiabene, Osroene, Beth Nuhadra, Beth Garmai and Hatra. The final dissolution of Assyria would occur in the mid-7th century AD, with the Arab conquest and the expansion of Islam.

The Assyrian empire around 1400 BC. / photo Rowanwindwhistler on Wikimedia Commons

During those 33 centuries of history the region was inhabited by the Assyrian people, a Semitic group that originally spoke the Akkadian language and later ancient Aramaic (which would later become the lingua franca of the Achaemenid empire).

By the time the Muslims arrived the Assyrians were already mostly Christian, although the Akkadian-Mesopotamian names still survived.

The Flood Tablet in the Gilgamesh Poem from the Ashurbanipal Library, British Museum / photo Fæ on Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, there are no historical records or evidence that the population of Assyria was ever exterminated, deported, exiled, or forced to emigrate after the fall of their empire or in later times.

Therefore many experts believe that there is a continuity between the ancient Assyrians and the modern Assyrians, an ethnic minority spread over present-day northern Iraq, south-eastern Turkey, north-eastern Syria and parts of north-western Iran. An area that coincides precisely with what was once ancient Assyria.

They are Christians and still speak, read and write a dialect of Aramaic influenced by ancient Akkadian. They are divided among several churches such as the Syrian-Orthodox Church, the East Assyrian Church or the Chaldean Church, although ethnically they are a single compact group with approximately 300,000 to half a million individuals in Iraq, about 400,000 in Syria and 200,000 in Iran.

Celebration at the Syriac Orthodox Monastery in Mosul at the beginning of the 20th century / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

There is also a diaspora and refugee community in Europe, America, Australia, Armenia and Russia. A migration caused by the Armenian-Assyrian genocide committed by the Ottomans allied with the Kurds in the First World War, the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 or the persecution campaigns of Saddam Hussein and the Islamic State.

Researchers who defend the continuity of the Assyrian people to the present day rely on the term Syria being derived from Assyria, which would make the Syrian Christians the descendants of the aboriginal Assyrians who lived more than 4,500 years ago.

One of the evidences that would prove this is the inscription of Çineköy. It was discovered in 1997 in the town of the same name in the Turkish province of Adana and dates back to the 8th century BC. It is a bilingual inscription in Luvite and Phoenician in which Sura/i can be read in Luvite with the Phoenician equivalent of Ashur, which according to Robert Rollinger in his study published in 2006 in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies is evidence that the Syrian name is derived directly from Assyria.

Proposal for the creation of an Assyrian-Chaldean nation at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919 / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Classical sources, with the notable exception of Herodotus, use the terms Syria and Assyria almost interchangeably. Herodotus, however, mentions that those whom the Greeks call Syrians are called Assyrians by the barbarians. Strabo also wrote in the first century BC that those whom historians call Syrians are actually Assyrians.

The Assyrians went to the war with helmets upon their heads made of brass, and plaited in a strange fashion which it 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 Greeks call Syrians, are called Assyrians by the barbarians. The Chaldaeans served in their ranks, and they had for commander Otaspes, the son of Artachaeus.

Herodotus, History VII-63

R.S. Stafford described the Assyrians of his time in 1935 as descendants of the ancient Assyrians, having survived intact the various periods of foreign domination, and claimed that until World War I they wore clothing very similar to that of the ancient Assyrians.

Flag currently used by the Assyrian people / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Other authors doubt this continuity and argue that the current Assyrian people are no more than a mixture of the different peoples who inhabited the area.

In any case, the so-called neo-Assyrians consider themselves direct descendants of the ancient Assyrians, as most historians and researchers do. The United Nations, through the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), also recognizes modern-day Assyrians as the indigenous people of northern Iraq, with its capital in ancient Nineveh.

Likewise, genetic studies have shown that the Assyrians form a homogenous group with respect to all other groups in their environment (Jews, Armenians, Kurds, Arabs, etc.)

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on April 18, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Los Asirios, el pueblo que construyó un imperio en Mesopotamia hace 4.000 años, aun existen


UNPO / The Modern Assyrians of the Middle East (John Joseph) / Assyrian identity in ancient times and today (Simo Parpola) / The Genetics of Modern Assyrians and their Relationship to Other People of the Middle East(Joel J.Elias) / Wikipedia

  • Share this article:

Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.