I’d like to politely point the ‘liberating’ forces of the US Army in Iraq in the direction of Xenophon’s “Anabasis” in the hope that they would realise that which Xenophon’s army came to find out at great cost and peril thousands of years earlier: that it is one thing to invade Mesopotamia and another thing to retain it. The chaos ensuing from the invasion of Iraq has opened up a veritable can of worms in the region, pitting Arab against Kurd, Shi’ite against Sunni, Ba’athist against fundamentalist and Muslim against the West.
Greek media coverage of the Iraq debacle has note worthily been more sensitive in pointing out the abuses and problems faced by the US-led occupation forces that its Australian counterparts who generally report only instances of Iraqi aggression. Interestingly, while analysts embroil themselves in Sunni, Shia and Kurdish politics, next to no-one has spared a thought for the ever diminishing and embattled native population of Iraq: the Assyrians.
The Assyrian people have lived in the Mesopotamia, referred to by them as Bet-Nahrain (the land between the Two Rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris) since before the Greeks descended into the Balkans. While their empire and domination of the Middle East before the rise of the Persians is generally well documented, reaching as far as Cyprus and Egypt, as is their influence on Greek science, it is commonly and wrongly assumed that after the fall of Nineveh, their great capital, that they became extinct. However, the Aramaic speaking peoples of Bet-Nahrain remained such a vital part of the Persian Empire that their language became the official language of correspondence in that empire.
The Assyrians were quickly Christianised, and this caused them to suffer great reprisals by the Persians who saw them as a potential fifth column of the Byzantine empire. In this respect the Assyrians formed an uneasy buffer zone between two hostile civilisations, absorbing influences from both. Establishing a vital theology, the Assyrian Church of the East embarked on a vast missionary feat that had it spread Christianity as far as China and India.
Indeed, Marco Polo found Assyrian monasteries in Mongolia and the Mongolian Khans, rulers of the largest empire of the world, protected and were profoundly interested in Assyrian Christianity. Today, though much diminished, the Chaldean Orthodox Church of South India still looks to the Assyrian Patriarch for guidance. Assyrians also looked to the Greek world for theological and philosophical inspiration. Many of the ancient Greek as well as ecclesiastical texts surviving today, are so extant because of the Aramaic translations and commentaries compiled by Assyrian scholars, while the Antioch school of theology that so influenced Byzantine thinking was mainly Aramaic speaking. Again it is through the medium of these scholars that Greek philosophy was able to be passed on to the Arabs and dispersed throughout the Middle East, while Assyrians take pride in the fact that their language, Aramaic, was the language spoken by Jesus Christ.
The rise of Islam has not been kind to the Assyrians, though they have tenaciously clung to their Christian heritage. Forced to retreat to their heartland among the mountains of northern Iraq and southern Turkey, their story is one of continuous persecution and massacres by their Muslim neighbours. This has been never more so this century when the Assyrians suffered genocide at the hands of the Ottomans and Kurds at the same time as the Armenians and Pontic Greeks were going through a similar tragedy. One of the world’s better known Assyrians, Thea Halo, author of the book Not Even My Name who visited Melbourne last year, emphasises the joint suffering as creating an unsunderable bond between our two peoples – that is, if the Greeks paid attention to the 5,000-strong refugee Assyrian community within its borders. It is worthwhile noting that an Assyrian regiment of the British army fought in defence of Crete in 1941. Today, the once strong Assyrian community in Bet-Nahrain is slowly evacuating its ancient homeland. From an estimated two million Assyrians living in Iraq at the turn of last century, it is estimated that only 200,000 or so remain today. British promises of Assyrian independence caused thousands of Assyrians to enlist in British regiments, only to have their dreams snatched away from them and be left alone to face the mounting hostility and reprisals of Kurds and Arabs.
The Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein encouraged further tension between Kurds and Assyrians, resulting in murders and internecine strife. During Saddam’s rule, 200 churches were destroyed and the archaeological finds attesting to the glories of Assyrian civilisation were spirited away. Formal Assyrian language classes were banned and Assyrians were forced to give their children Arabic names in an effort to assimilate them. Saddam’s son Uday would deliberately target Assyrian girls as his playthings, to be raped and then killed by his bodyguards or ripped apart by his menagerie of wild beasts while members of the Assyrian community in Melbourne tell stories of kidnappings, murders and mutilations that turn one’s stomach. All the time, in the interests of strategy and big petro-dollars, the west stood idly by and did nothing. Now, after the so-called ‘liberation’ of Iraq, it is noteworthy that while a fundamentalist and anti-Christian climate has been created, none of the ‘protectors’ of Iraq has seen fit to take steps to protect its most vulnerable and peace-loving people. American soldiers permitted Iraqis to loot the Baghdad museum of all Assyrian antiquities, while imams actively encouraged looters to destroy artefacts that were not Islamic. The new Iraqi constitution studiously avoids any mention of the Assyrian minority and definitely does not provide any measures for the protection of its cultural heritage.
In the meantime, the few Assyrians remaining in the zone controlled by the new government are subject to harassment and violence by their Muslim neighbours. In the Kurdish controlled north, the traditional Assyrian heartland, thousands of Assyrian families are streaming across the border to Syria in fear of their lives. In towns such as Mosul and Arbil, the scene of Alexander the Great’s great victory over the Persians, being towns that enjoy significant Assyrian minorities, Assyrian businesses are plundered and prominent members of the community are being assassinated. So much then for a pluralistic and tolerant Iraq and for the efforts of our Western bringers of light, or rather to use the Latin, “lucifers.” An ancient people is through a situation caused by the West, or at the least by deliberate neglect, being allowed to walk the slow, traumatic walk into the pages of extinction. A proud people, to whom the prophets of the Old Testament refer to as the rod of God’s anger and who have contributed so much to world culture are doomed to revisit genocide and ethnic cleansing over and over again, victims of the machinations of ‘greater Powers’ and major historical bungling.
What a triumph of Western Civilisation the ‘democratisation’ of Iraq proved to be, especially for a Christian people. Now that, to quote the emperor Claudius in Robert Graves’ Claudius the God, all the poisons that lurk in the mud have hatched out, let us pray that despite this further Western betrayal of them, the Assyrian people will find the strength to survive, albeit just.
An ancient people is through a situation caused by the West, or at the least by deliberate neglect, being allowed to walk the slow, traumatic walk into the pages of extinction.
Author: DEAN KALIMNIOU
First published in NKEE on 12 July 2004