|Re: THE TRAGEDY OF THE ASSYRIANS-1933|
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Before the war they had little political conscience as such. Their chief idea was to live undisturbed by Government official and by their Kurdish neighbours. In brief, they and the Kurds were living much as were the highlanders of Scotland before the Forty-Five. They acknowledged the Mar Shimun as their paramount chief and their ecclesiastical head. Their tribal councils in fact, ruled them, each tribe being led by a MALIK and each section by a RAIS. These titles were hereditary in the case of some tribes; in the case of others these leaders were popularly elected. In theory, at any rate, the title-holder had to be approved by the Mar Shimun.
Their spoken language was SYRIAC, directly derived from the Aramaic, the language which Christ spoke and which is still used in their Church services. Their churches were small and, like the houses, built of stone, containing a kind of Holy-of-Holies, a small and dark room. MEN and WOMEN worshipped together, though the two sexes stood in different parts of the church. Sermons were seldom given, and even commentaries on the Scriptures were rare.
Before the war the clothes of the Assyrians were extremely picturesque. Their outer garments, consisting of baggy trousers and a short coat, were of locally woven stuff of many bright colours. In this they resembled the Kurds, except that they wore a small conical cap instead of a turban.*2 This costume is still worn by many of the villagers in the mountains, but most of them who have been in the towns have now adopted European dress.
** This conical cap, be it noted, is seen on some of the ancient Assyrian tablets.
The skin and complexion of the Assyrians resemble those of the Southern Italian and in many cases are much lighter. The men, though not tall, are generally of good physique, the weaklings having died during infancy. Fair hair and blue eyes are often seen. The women, and a rule are darker than the men and are seldom good-looking. They possess great fortitude and remarkable powers of recovery. The life, which they led before the war, and the hardships, which they have undergone since, are not likely to have made them soft. The women also wielded considerable influence, SURMA KHANUM, the AUNT OF THE Mar Shimun, of whom much will be written later, is certainly the most dominant personality among the Assyrians at the present time. The standard of morality among the Assyrians has always been particularly high.
Such in brief was the life and situation of the Assyrians at the outbreak of the war. (1) Politically, their anxieties were pressing, but economically and socially their manner of living had altered but little during the last five centuries. The Assyrian are convinced that they are the descendants of the rightful heirs of the ancient Assyrian Empire, which with its capital at Nineveh (2) flourished during the second millennium B.C., until 600 B.C. and which is familiar to schoolboys, at any rate of an earlier generation, from Byron’s famous verse of Sennacherib.
The Assyrians of that empire were a Semitic people who had migrated from the south of Mesopotamia after the fall of Ur about 2000 B.C. They were the founders of the first military empire in history, and their power was felt all over the Middle and Near East. They spread their conquests far a field, but the heart of their country was the Tigris plain between Nineveh and Assur, the modern Shergat.
(1) For a full description of the life of the Assyrians before the war, Canon Wigram’s “The Cradle of Mankind and Assyrians and their Neighbours should be consulted.”
(2) Nineveh is situated on the left bank of the Tigris, just opposite Mosul, and traces of its vast walls can still be seen.
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