The Assyrian nation is one of the world’s most ancient. As an ethnic and religious minority in the Middle East, the Assyrians have long suffered from riots and persecution. During World War I, the Turks murdered hundreds of thousands of Assyrians; between one half and two third of all Assyrians living in the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish government continues to deny the Assyrian Genocide.
The Assyrians are an ancient, Semitic people whose roots are in ancient Mesopotamia—in the region of the Fertile Crescent—and who speak in an Eastern Aramaic dialect. The roots of the Assyrian people can be traced to the Sumerian-Akkadian Empire founded around 2,350 BCE. The Assyrian Empire emerged after the fall of the Akkadian Empire; at its height it controlled most of the territories in the ancient Near East. It was eventually overrun and occupied by the Babylonians.
The ancient Assyrian people traditionally prayed to multiple gods; in the early Middle Ages they converted to Christianity. Today the Assyrians are Christian and belong to various churches under the umbrella of Eastern Christianity, among others the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church. Following the spread of Islam, in the period in which it controlled the Middle East, the Assyrians were subjected to many pogroms and massacres; with time they became a persecuted and oppressed minority in their historical homeland.
The Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire:
In the 16th century the Ottoman Empire conquered Eastern Anatolia and the Middle East. The Assyrians lived in the area of Upper Mesopotamia (present-day southeast Turkey and northwest Iran). The population of the Ottoman Empire was ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse, and its ruling religion was Islam. Jews and Christians living in the Empire were considered second-class citizens and termed “millets.” The millets were granted political and religious autonomy on the condition that they did not challenge Islamic rule. Community leaders governed their members according to their religious laws insofar as those did not clash with the laws and interests of the country. In return the communities pledged their loyalty to the Empire and accepted the limitations that were placed on them as legally protected minority groups: the imposition of special taxes, the prohibition of carrying a weapon, the mandate to carry visible markers of identity, and in some areas the prohibition of speaking their native language. Over a million Assyrians lived around Iran’s Lake Urmia, in the area of Turkey’s Lake Van, in the Hakkari Mountains, in Damascus, in Mesopotamia, and likewise in the eastern Ottoman districts of Diyarbakir, Erzurum, and Bitlis. Despite their protected status, the Assyrians were frequently persecuted, forcibly converted by their Muslim rulers and Kurdish neighbors, and even slaughtered.
The dominance of the Empire began to wane toward the end of the 19th century, due to internal corruption and threats posed by external European powers, particularly Russia. The rise of regional nation states took place concurrently, followed by a surge in Turkish nationalism and Islamic envy, and the faltering of the various millets’ standing. Ethnic minorities—in particular the large Kurdish minority—leveraged the weakening of the Empire to their advantage and began working to increase their power. Amid the Assyrians there lived a Kurdish majority, and when the Ottoman rulers turned to crack down on Kurds, the Kurds in turn unleashed their wrath on the Assyrians. Thus manifested the violent upheavals against the Assyrians.
From 1842-1845, during the Massacres of Badr Khan, the Kurds butchered the Assyrians on the Hakkari Mountains and in the vicinity of Tiyari. 10,000 Assyrians were murdered in the massacre and thousands more were imprisoned. An unknown number of Assyrian women and children were enslaved; many Assyrian leaders, priests and tribal heads were murdered. Violence against the Assyrians ensued throughout the latter half of the 19th century and included the desecration of holy sites, the kidnapping of women and children for slavery, and massacres. Approximately 23,000 Assyrians were murdered in the year 1860 alone.
The Hamidean Massacre:
In August 1894 an Armenian revolt erupted in the Sason district. The Ottomans responded to the revolt with great cruelty, murdering scores of Armenians. Armenian protests led to further massacres of Armenians, committed by Turks and Kurds over a three-year period. The killing initially directed at the Armenian population quickly spread to and afflicted all Christian minorities in the Empire. In the years 1895-1896 the Turks and Kurds butchered Assyrians in Diyarbakir and Urhoy. Some 25,000 Assyrians were murdered in this massacre, which became known as the “Hamidean Massacre,” named after Sultan Abdul Hamid II.
Rise of the Young Turks:
In 1908, a military revolution shook the Ottoman Empire. The Young Turks, a political party whose members were educated in Europe and sought to establish a parliamentarian regime that would unite the various streams, seized control. Their slogan was “unity and progress.” As more nations began asserting their right to self-determination, and the Empire weakened as a consequence of defeats in battle—which resulted in the Empire losing territories in Europe and north Africa—the idea of “Pan-Turkism” took hold of the Young Turks. At the 1911 Young Turks’ conference on unity and change the movement announced it aim to initiate a process of “Ottomanizaton”—in essence a process of “Turkificiation” and “Islamization”—throughout the Empire. The direct result of this decision was the dawn of a dark era that entailed the ethnic cleansing of the Ottoman Empire’s Christian minorities—among them the Assyrians, the Armenians, and the Greeks.
The Assyrian genocide was part of a policy of “Pan-Islamism” and “holy war” (Jihad) that the Ottoman regime enacted against the Christian minorities within the Empire: Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians. The Ottoman Empire’s Turkish military forces—in conjunction with armed Islamic militias (among them Kurds, Circassians, and Chechens)—carried out the genocide. The genocide took place mostly in 1915, nicknames “Year of the Sword.”
The genocide was launched in northwest Iran, which the Turks infiltrated in August 1914. Toward the end of 1914, Turkish and Kurdish forces successfully entered the villages surrounding Urmia and began evacuating Assyrians from their homes on the Ottoman-Iranian border. Upwards of 8,000 Assyrians were evacuated by January 1915. In January 1915, Djevdet Bey, the governor of Van, invaded Iran from the north and destroyed the Assyrian population in each city he conquered. He also burned the Assyrian villages he encountered and butchered the masses of refugees who attempted to flee. In February 1915, he stated: “We cleansed the Armenians and the Syrians (the Christians) from Iran and we’ll do so in Van as well.” On February 22, 1915 the Turkish army beheaded 41 Assyrian leaders. During February and March the Ottomans conquered more than 100 defenseless Assyrian villages, butchering all men, women and children and burning the villages to the ground. Approximately 20,000 Assyrians were murdered in this spree of slaughter. When the Ottomans reached Urmia they butchered 10,000 more Assyrians while an additional 4,000 died of hunger and disease after their forced evacuation from their homes. There are known cases of Turkish soldiers passing through the homes of Persians in order to look for Assyrians and Armenians in hiding and executing those found.
More than half of the residents of Siirt province in the Diyarbakir district (southeast Turkey) were Assyrians, and among them lived many Armenians. The Chaldean archbishop resided there. In the summer of 1915, a brigade of 8,000 soldiers, known as “The Brigade of Butchers,” entered Siirt. The Turks murdered the archbishop along with 4,000 Christians in the city of Siirt alone, in addition to 20,000 or so Assyrians in some 30 surrounding villages.
The 300,000 Armenians and 90,000 Assyrians living in the districts of Diyarbakir, Van and Aleppo were annihilated under the command of Rashid Bey beginning in June 1915; thousands were murdered on-site, others were led in convoys to the desert.
Failure of Self-Defense in the Hakkari Mountains and Urmia:
The Assyrians were successful in fending off the Turks for a few months on the Hakkari Mountains in southeast Turkey. Finally in July 1915, the Turks broke the Assyrian line of defense and burned the remaining villages and with it destroyed every trace of Assyrian presence.
Following the Russian invasion of Urmia, Agha Petros commanded an Assyrian army of volunteers that fought alongside the Entente Powers. Following the Russian retreat from the military campaign the Assyrians were cut off, few in number, and surrounded. After they were defeated the entire Assyrian population of Urmia was wiped out, 200 villages were destroyed and 65,000 Assyrian refugees died in episodes of mass murder, “convoys of death,” and as a result of hunger and disease. Several thousand refugees who managed to make it to Turkey were massacred on arrival.
On the eve of the First World War, estimates of between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Assyrians lived in the Ottoman Empire and Iran; between 275,000 and 400,000 of them were murdered in the genocide.
The Persecution of Assyrians Following the Genocide:
In mid-1918 the British army convinced the Ottomans to grant them access to 30,000 or so Assyrians across Iran. The British decided to transport the Assyrians from Iran to Baquba, Iraq. The transfer lasted a mere 25 days, yet 7,000 Assyrians died on the way. Some died of hunger, exhaustion and disease, while others fell victim to attacks by Islamic and Kurdish militias. In Iraq, too, the Assyrians suffered from similar incursions.
In 1920 the British decided to close down the camps in Baquba. The majority of Assyrians who lived in the camps preferred to return to the Hakkari Mountains; the rest dispersed across Iraq, where a 5,000-year-old Assyrian community lives.
The Simele Massacre and Continued Assyrian Persecution in Iraq:
On August 7, 1933, with the help of Kurdish forces, the Iraqi military butchered Assyrians in Simele and other parts of Iraq. Approximately 3,000 Assyrians died that day. Since then the day is commemorated as “Assyrian Martyrs’ Day” during which Assyrian communities around the world remember the oppression suffered by their people throughout the decades.
In the years since the genocide and in light of their continued persecution in Iraq, many Assyrians left their homeland. Today some 550,000 Assyrians live in Europe. Particularly large Assyrian communities have formed in Sweden, Germany, the United States and Australia.
During the 1988 Al-Anfal Campaign—in which 180,000 Kurds were murdered by the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein—hundreds of Assyrians who lived among them were also targeted, including tens of children. When the United States and NATO invaded Iraq in 2003, estimates of 1.5 million Assyrians lived in the country, constituting a total of 8% of the total population. In June 2014, as NATO forces departed Iraq, ISIS fighters seized control of the Nineveh Valley, where the majority of Assyrians live. Approximately one million refugees fled from their homes, of whom 40% were Assyrian. Many Assyrians have since died at the hands of ISIS, and their sacred sites have been destroyed.
Modern Turkey was founded in the wake of the First World War. The nation has failed to acknowledge the Assyrian Genocide, and has even worked to deny it and conceal it along with the Armenian Genocide. Following the economic depression of the 1930’s, and then the Second World War, the Assyrian Genocide failed to warrant recognition and received little attention. With the exception of a few publications, it was not until the 1980’s that scholars began researching and writing about the Assyrian Genocide. At first, it was seen as part of the Armenian Genocide; only later were the two distinguished from each other.
Denial of the Assyrian Genocide is inherently linked to the denial of Assyrian nationhood—one with ancient ethnic and cultural roots. The Assyrians are termed Aramaics, Nestorians, Chaldeans, Kurdish Turks and Arab Christians. This is to undermine their envied right to cultural, spiritual and material treasures—all of which are thousands of years old—and on the basis of their being one of the oldest cultures to have survived as an ethnic group. In addition, it is to validate the denial of the systematic annihilation of the Assyrians, and to portray the genocidal campaign as a response to the disobedience of various Christian groups throughout the Ottoman Empire.
The European and Australian parliaments recently recognized the Assyrian Genocide, and in the wake of these actions memorials were erected in Europe and Australia in memory of the victims.