Dear publisher and editor,
I was very disturbed when I read your interview posted in the last month’s issue of the Via Dolorosa. The interview in question was with Dr. George Kiraz, founder of the Syriac Computing Institute, under the title: "Assyrian or Syriac? Common language and heritage, different denominations."
As much as Dr. Kiraz is knowledgable in issues relating to modern Syriac language, we have to admit that his knowledge in history in general and Assyrian history in particular must be somehow considered inadequate.
First Dr. Kiraz stated, and I quote: "Aramaic was used by many peoples and nations. It was the native tongue of the ancient Chaldeans, a second language to the Assyro-Babylonians, an official language of the Persian Achaemenians..."
To put a sentence in the above way is very deceptive, for lack of words. First, the Aramaic language was the native tongue of the ancient Arameans before anything else, and everybody else in the Near East borrowed it from them, which Dr. Kiraz failed to mention. Then to mention that the language was the native tongue of the ancient Chaldeans, who had a very minor impact on the history of Mesopotamia (ruled 87 years only), out of all other peoples who used the language, raise many questions. Among historians, there are still unanswered questions regarding what the native tongue of the ancient Chaldeans was. One theory, only for example, state that the ancient Chaldeans were from Elam and they originally spoke the language of the Elamites.
Later, Dr. Kiraz stated, "In the context of Eastern Christianity, the term "Assyrian" (its native form in Syriac is aturaya, in Arabic ashuri) has been used by the members of the Assyrian Church of the East as an ethnic designation since the 19th century, and more so after 1900...."
The above is absolutely false. Here are two historical accounts and testimonies regarding the issue, we hope that Dr. Kiraz would refer to in the future before making such claims.
1. The Church of the East Patriarchal succession list contain the names of patriarchs who identified themselves as Atourayeh (Syriac for Assyrians) from the early days of Christianity. Syriac documents lists a Mar Mari Atouraya (Assyrian) between 967 and 1000 and an Mar Abd Eshoa’ II (Bar Ars) Atouraya (Assyrian) between 1072 and 1090, as Patriarchs. [Patriarchal list of the Church of the East]
2. The titles Atourayeh and Ashourayeh (Syriac for Assyrian) were in use in the 16th century, as the Dominican Fr. John M. Fiey admitted to in the publication of the "Eastern Syriac Church" translated by Fr. Kameel H. al-Yasoo’ai, Beirut, 1990, pp. 38. The names appeared in addition in a Vatican document in connection with the Christians whose Patriarchate had its see in Quchanis, Hakkari. [Odisho Malko Giwargis, "We are not but from an Assyrian origin" an article in Syriac, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, Vol. XIV, No. I, 2000, pp. 41]
There are many accounts attesting to tthe fact that the Assyrian name was used, ethnically, continuously from the fall of the Assyrian Empire till this very day. The accounts available to us today can fill a whole newspaper, but we believe that the above will suffice.
The national phenomenon in general, and in the way we understand it today, is a new concept to all of us, including to the Europeans as you are aware of. It is new to the modern Greeks, modern Turks, modern Arabs, and every other modern nation out there. Why insinuate that the Assyrians are the only ones whose national aspirations are of modern times unless there are certain motives behind such unfair claims?
I would appreciate it if this simple note is published in response to Dr. Kiraz's remarks.
Thank you and God bless you.
Via Dolorosa requested a response to a letter by Mr. Fred Aprim (VD, April 2001, Vol. 3, No. 4, p. 8). Mr. Aprim’s letter in turn is a response to an interview I gave to VD (March 2001, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 6-7).
Mr. Aprim has two issues with my interview:
1. Aramaic and the ancient Chaldeans.
Mr. Aprim quotes my interview, “[Aramaic] was the native tongue of the ancient Chaldeans, a second language to the Assyro-Babylonians, an official language of the Persian Achaemenians, and a common language of the Jews replacing Hebrew.” He calls this statement “very deceptive, for lack of words.”
He actually has three objections. According to him, I failed to mention that Aramaic was first the native tongue of the Arameans and questions my motives behind stating that Aramaic was the native tongue of the Chaldeans, who — in Aprim’s words— “had a very minor impact on the history of Mesopotamia (ruled 87 years only).”
He refutes my statement indicating scholars are debating whether Aramaic was the original native language of the Chaldeans. He concludes “[Kiraz’s] knowledge in history in general and Assyrian history in particular must be somehow considered inadequate.”
Mr. Aprim may have missed the sentences that immediately preceded the one he quoted which read, “Syriac is a form of Aramaic, a language in continuous use since the 11th century BC. Aramaic is originally the language of the Aramean people, but by the 6th century BC it became the lingua franca of the Near East.” That is, Aramaic was first the native language of the Arameans, and then became the native language of, or used by, others. Mr. Aprim should have read the interview with more care.
Concerning his second objection, Mr. Aprim seems to have devised a quota of how many years the ancient Chaldeans should have ruled before qualifying to be listed in the context of the interview. Very puzzling indeed!
As to his third objection, yes, the Chaldeans may have spoken a different language before they spoke Aramaic, so did the Assyro-Babylonians, the Persian Achaemenians and the Jews. It is implied in my statement. As to why Mr. Aprim singled out the ancient Chaldeans, belittling their history, is not clear to me.
2. Historical usage of the terms “Assyrian” and “Syriac.”
Mr. Aprim quotes my interview, “In the context of Eastern Christianity, the term “Assyrian” (its native form in Syriac is aturaya, in Arabic ashuri) has been used by the members of the Assyrian Church of the East as an ethnic designation since the 19th century, and more so after 1900.”
He calls this statement “absolutely false” and goes on listing two sources where the term aturaya is used before the 19th century. Mr. Aprim continues using the same polemic style to suggest that I “insinuate that the Assyrians are the only ones whose national aspirations are of modern times,” and that “there are certain motives behind [my] unfair claims.”
My original statement was in response to a question by Via Dolorosa, “What is the difference between Assyrian and Syriac?”
I gave the concise usage of both terms from a modern perspective, as the very nature of the question derives from modern usage. (No one would have asked the question 150 years ago.) I did indicate that dwelling historically on the matter “would require a great deal of analysis” which is neither within the scope of the interview, nor of this response. Indeed, there are numerous references to the term aturaya in Syriac literature prior to the 19th century and much earlier than the examples Mr. Aprim provides, with a rich and wide range of usage and meanings.
Oversimplifying the historical usage of the term aturaya, in the manner of Mr. Aprim’s analysis, does not give the term the justice it deserves. The historical usage of terms like “Assyrian,” “Chaldean,” and “Aramean” in Syriac literature is quite complex and has been well analyzed by the late J. Fiey, whom Mr. Aprim cites from a secondary source, but neglects Fiey’s analyses and conclusions.
J. Fiey produced one study on the terms “Assyrian” and “Aramaean” (“Assyriens” ou “Aramaens”? L’Orient Syrien, Vol. 10, 1965), and another on the term “Chaldean” (Comment L’Occident en Vint: Parler de “Chaldeans” in J. Coakley and K. Parry (eds.), The Church of the East: Life and Thought, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, Vol. 78, No. 3, 1996).
On the modern usage of the term “Assyrian,” one can consult an article by Harvard Professor W. Heinrichs, The Modern Assyrians—Name and Nation, in Silvio Zaorani (ed.), Festschrift Philologica Constantino Tsereteli Dicta, 1993.
Unlike Mr. Aprim’s pop history-style objections, these works are scholarly and devoid of bias. There is nothing for me to add that has not been presented by these well-respected scholars.
Any alleged insinuations against Assyrian national aspiration on my part, or any hidden motives behind my statements are the sole imaginative of Mr. Aprim. One cannot but admit the benefits of national aspiration, be it Assyrian, Chaldean or Syriac: the revival of literary classical Syriac and Surith, the renaissance of music and folklore, and the establishment of hundreds of cultural organizations. Where would Fr. Akbulut, the Syriac Orthodox priest who was lately arrested, then acquitted, by the Turkish authorities just because he spoke his mind, be had it not been for the appreciated efforts of nationalists?
Mr. Aprim demonstrated his ability to read in two extremes. In the case of the Aramaic language issue, he read a sentence very literally, ignoring its immediate context, and in the case of the Assyrian vs. Syriac identity issue, he read way too much between the lines where in fact there was nothing to be read. In the process, Mr. Aprim managed to belittle the very history that his Chaldean brethren keep dear to their hearts.
Dr. George Kiraz