Assyrian nationalism



Assyrian nationalism[1] is a phenomenon that started in the second half of the 19th century and has seen a great advance during the 20th century.

This nationalist movement has been the result of an aspiration for a national consciousness for the Christians in the Middle East. However, the re-use of the name Assyrians has caused much discussion and confusion within the Christian communities in Mesopotamia.

The issues that led to the re-use of this historical name must be considered in their context, taking into account the historical circumstances during this period.

Historical background re-use Assyrian name


From the 15th century AD for the Christians of the Church of the East (Eta d’Mèdenha) the national name Chaldeans was officially taken back into use. A national name linked to the geographical location of the Church of the East (south Mesopotamia) and to the Mesopotamian ancestors of these Christians.

It is remarkable that they were all called Chaldeans and to make a distinction the Christians who were Catholics were called Chaldeans or Chaldean Catholics and those who did not convert to Catholicism were called Chaldean Nestorians[2].

Important to know is that the Chaldean Nestorians also identified themselves as Chaldeans. There was no mention of the name Assyrians.

However, this changed with the archaeological excavations of mid-19th century in Mosul-Nineveh. The Briton Austin Henry Layard had a large share in these excavations with the discovery of spectacular things from the time of the Assyrian Empire. The name Assyrians was thus brought back to life. Austin Henry Layard speaks in his book “Nineveh and its remains” [3] exclusively about Chaldeans and Chaldean Nestorians, with which he referred to the Christians of the Church of the East, including the non-Catholic group. Also the 19th century explorer William Francis Ainsworth has come into contact with the Christians of the Church of the East and he uses in his book exclusively the name Chaldeans to refer to these Christians[4].

These sources alone show that there was no mention of the term Assyrians and that the archaeological mission of Henry Layard was the actual beginning of Assyrian nationalism.

The missions of the Church of England[5] also had a major influence on the re-use of this historical name. They called their missions to the Chaldean Nestorian ‘mission to the Assyrian Christians’, where Assyrian refers to the geographical position (former Assyria).

Initially this name was used for the Christians in the Mosul-Nineveh area, but thanks to the influence and propaganda of the Church of England[6], the Chaldean Nestorians adopted the name ‘Assyrian’ and the name ‘Chaldean’ gradually lost its national character and one continued to use this name only for the Chaldean Catholics.

Aim for national consciousness

The consequence of the re-use of the name Assyrians, however, has led to a nationalist campaign in which ‘Assyrian’ Christians have striven to use the name Assyrians as a collective term for all the Eastern Christians belonging to the Syrian-liturgical Churches. The Assyrian Christians became, as it were, Christian Assyrians. They did this to convince all these Christians of an Assyrian identity, in which they wanted to prove the ethnic link with the Assyrians of the ancient Assyrian Empire. Substantially many Mesopotamian Christians (mainly the Chaldean Nestorians) have therefore become convinced of this false theory.

This Assyrian nationalism has been accompanied by an aggressive propaganda in which historical sources have been manipulated and historical facts have been invented[7].

All sorts of theories were sent into the world to reinforce this propaganda like the widely used theory that tells us that the name ‘Suraye’ originally comes from ‘Ashuraye’, where the ‘A’ would not have been pronounced for more than 2500 years.

The Assyrian nationalists also claim that Chaldeans or Arameans are ethnic Assyrians and merely Chaldean or Aramaic in religious matters.

Also the archaeological discoveries in Nineveh (Iraq) of Austen Henry Layard would in itself prove that all the Mesopotamian Christians are ethnic Assyrians.

Apart from the fact that these theories are false and result from manipulated history, we can also conclude that these false theories are created with a great lack of respect for historical events and popular identities.

The consequences of this Assyrian nationalism are still felt today in the 21st century in the form of a name conflict and the resulting discussions have driven people and communities from Eastern Christianity apart.




[1] Frahm, E., A companion to Assyria, chapter 32: Assyrian Christians (by Butts Michael Aaron), John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Yale University, New Haven, US , 2017.

[2] Jozeph, J., The Modern Assyrians in the Middle East, Encounters with Western Christian Missions, Archaeologists, and Colonial Powers, Brill, Leiden, Boston, Keulen, 2000, 291 pages.

[3] Layard, A.H., Nineveh and its remains, The gripping journals of the man who discovered the buried Assyrian cities, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2013, 528 pages (originally published by John Murray (Londen) in 1849).

[4] Ainsworth, W.F., Travels and researchers in Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Chaldea and Armenia, John W. Parker, West Strand, Londen, 1842, 364 pages.

[5] Coakley, J.F., The Church of the East and the Church of England, A History of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Assyrian Mission, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1992, 432 pages.

[6] Wigram, W.A., The Assyrians and their Neighbours, G.Bell & Sons, Londen, 1929, 247 pages.

[7] Wilmshurst, D., The Martyred Church, A History of the Church of the East, East & West Publishing Ltd, Londen, 2011, 522 pages. See pages 413-416 ‘The Assyrian Identity’