A short excerpt from Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism (University of Chicago Press, 2015) by Adam H. Becker.
With an introduction by the author.
Assyrian Christians have been in the news of late for unfortunate reasons. In their ongoing assault on the cultural heritage and ethno-religious diversity of northern Mesopotamia, ISIS has targeted both the ruins of ancient Assyria and that community who most identify themselves with it. Many people have not heard of the Assyrians, the modern ones at least. Sometimes, when confronted with the fact that there is a contemporary community of Assyrians, people are perplexed. For they more often imagine the Assyrians as the powerful ancient empire, the rod of God’s anger by which he punished the sinful Israelites, than as a small, widely dispersed, and often beleaguered, Christian community from the Middle East.
My recent book, Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism, attempts to explain the origins of how this very old Christian community, which in fact derives from the spread of Christianity in Mesopotamia during the time of the later Roman Empire, began to identify itself with the ancient Assyrians in the late 1890s. In the nineteenth century European and American missionaries introduced the Assyrians to the emerging fields of archeology and Assyriology and also provided them with a certain understanding of the very “oriental-ness” of the East. These missions, especially the American one, which was founded in Urmia, Iran, in the 1830s, cultivated new ideas about language and nationality, as well as new social practices and ways of understanding how knowledge and the senses worked. There emerged from this decades-long encounter a new, racialized understanding of the Christian community as a nation and, eventually, this newly imagined nation renamed itself the Assyrians.
From the early twentieth century onwards many Assyrians have engaged in a retrieval of what they have deemed their national past, borrowing names, and both architectural and figural forms, from the ancient Assyrians. This process may have been hastened by the terrible violence they suffered during and after WWI, events that were in fact often related to the more commonly known Armenian genocide. Resettled in Iraq and Syria, or diasporically cast around the globe, the Assyrians have come to identify viscerally with ancient Assyria and this innovative identity has been part of the maintenance of community amidst the various dislocations the Assyrians have endured. Right now, perhaps ironically, the source of this ethnic way of thinking about their community, the very image of Assyria itself, has been vandalized while those belonging to this ethnic community are being attacked because of their Christian religion.
I begin the preface of the recent book by discussing an Assyrian nationalist music video, which is posted here. This video attests to the Assyrianizing style of Assyrian Christian pop culture and demonstrates the contemporary Assyrian Christian re-presentation of the community’s retrieved past. Late in the video, ancient Assyrian ruins are presented, including the Nergal Gate, one of the entrances into the city walls of ancient Nineveh (the capital of the Assyrian Empire, now across the Tigris from Mosul). This is the same structure that ISIS members have literally defaced. In order to broadcast their iconoclastic piety they have chiseled off the faces of the protective winged bull-men that have stood guarding the city for approximately twenty-seven centuries.
Prelude: A Song of Assyria (From Revival and Awakening, pp. ix-xi)
I have a music video to thank for the origins of this project. Around the year 2000 I discovered Juliana Jendo’s “Alap Bet,” a song and video that aim to teach the Christian Aramaic alphabet. Jendo, an Assyrian pop singer, originally hails from Tel Tamer, a village north of Hassake in Syria. Assyrian Christians settled in this part of eastern Syria in the 1930s after many were expelled from the new state of Iraq. Some of those expelled were already refugees from what is now Turkey due to the expulsion of Assyrians during World War I, an event simultaneous with and related to the better-known Armenian genocide. In 1980 Jendo and her family came to Chicago, where a large Assyrian community remains today.
The lyrics of the song, which I translate here from Neo-Aramaic, begin: “alap: Assyria is our mother / bet: Mesopotamia is our country. We have one language and these are our letters.” The first lines have an alliterative acrostic play: the word for “Assyria,” ator, begins with alap, the first letter of the Assyrian alphabet, whereas bet, the second letter, is part of the word for “Mesopotamia,” bet nahrain (lit. “the place of the rivers,” originally meaning “between the rivers”). The twenty-two letters of the alphabet are then chanted, a series that is repeated in the song’s refrain. Each individual letter of the alphabet receives special attention in the song as a series of words that begin with that letter are listed—alap alaha ata (alap: then the words for “God,” “flag”), bet baba bruna brata (bet: “father,” “son,” “daughter”)—and the lyrics continue through the whole alphabet alliteratively listing words from the mundane (“world” and “wealth”) to abstractions, practices, and social figures relevant to the community (“love,” “freedom,” “fasts,” “prayers,” “teachers,” and “martyrs”). During the introductory credits of the accompanying video, which include Jendo’s name in English and Aramaic, a winged ancient Assyrian bull flies across the screen. These creatures, familiar to those who have visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the British Museum, are commonly found in contemporary Assyrian national iconography.
The bulk of the video consists of an alternation between images of the Aramaic alphabet in the Assyrian national colors of red, white, and blue and images relevant to the words listed after each letter of the alphabet. Superimposed over the letter ṣad, which begins the words for “prayer” and “cross,” is a crucifix, and on the side are the profiles in bright pink and blue, respectively, of a young girl and boy praying with yellow halos over their heads; the letter semkat, which begins the word for “martyrs,” has a baby behind it and a cross next to it. In the center of the cross is an Assyrian national star, and on the top of it is a soldier’s helmet. Interspersed among all these images is footage of children on a sports field. They are dressed in the national colors, and as the song proceeds, they collectively form the letters with their bodies and also spell out ator, Assyria. Jendo sings and dances among them. At points in the video, images of ancient Assyrian architecture appear, as well as photographs of the rebuilt walls and gate of ancient Nineveh, today across the Tigris from Mosul in northern Iraq, and by the end Jendo flies over these stone structures.
At the song’s conclusion, Jendo adds a final verse: “Come, let us be like the vowels in our lovely letters.” This exhortation requires explanation because in Aramaic, as in other Semitic languages, vowels are not treated as letters. Written texts in Semitic languages often do not include vowels, which are diacritical marks written around the consonants. Today, in Hebrew and Arabic, for example, most writing does not require these vowel marks because readers know the languages well enough to read without them. It is as if I were to write “Kck th dg,” assuming you would understand “Kick the dog.” (In English, ambiguities in such a system of shorthand would be more common than they are in Semitic languages.) The word for “vowel” in Aramaic, zo‘a, literally means “movement,” and so Jendo’s call to “be like the vowels” implies the animation of the letters and provides a sense absent from a simple English translation. Her invitation to enliven the letters fits with the football-halftime-like performance of the children in the video, forming the letters with their bodies. Furthermore, “movement” in Neo-Aramaic has the same political sense as it does in English: like its Arabic equivalent, haraka, the word for political movement is also zo‘a, and the main Assyrian nationalist organization in Iraq, the Assyrian Democratic Movement, is often simply referred to as “the movement” (zo‘a).
The tune itself is singsongy and repetitive. Its saccharine sound and sentimental politics inspired the original questions of this project, and the close identification it draws between nationality and language, including the very embodiment of the letters of the alphabet by the children performing in the video, has fascinated me as both typical of nationalism but also particular to the church tradition of Assyrian Christians. Large human maneuvers on the field are characteristic of national performances, from Nazi Germany to modern Turkey and the United States, but such a focus on the alphabet is rare. As is common in the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds, the alphabet in Classical Christian Aramaic—or Syriac, as the dialect is referred to by scholars—has traditionally been understood to have certain inherent powers. For many Jews and Christians in antiquity (and later Muslims), the alphabet was not an arbitrary system of signs: the letters of the alphabet were considered no less than the very building blocks of creation. In one late sixth-century Syriac text, composed in a city in southeastern Turkey, on the border with Syria and not far from northern Iraq, God’s act of creating the world is described as a reading lesson in which God put together letters to spell out words for the angels. As he subsequently read each word aloud, each respective entity came into being and the angels then repeated the name of the entity before him. The alphabet could serve as a magical tool in antiquity, one even used in nonsense abracadabra word formations. In the Jendo video the alphabet remains special, but it depends upon and represents a national ontology, not a divine one: the letters now represent a national culture, albeit one that is sacralized and linked to Christianity. In the video the nation is embodied by the letters, which are in turn animated by the children on the field, moving as “vowels” do. This nationalizing of the letters fits with shifts in the basic usage of terms. Words, such as “freedom” (ḥeruta), which in Classical Syriac is used to refer to theological “free will,” are used here for political freedom, and the “martyr” (sahda) is now represented by the soldier martyr of the battlefield of nations.
Want to read more? Revival and Awakening is available for purchase here.
Adam H. Becker is Associate Professor of Classics and Religious Studies and Director of the Religious Studies Program at New York University. http://classics.as.nyu.edu/object/AdamBecker.html