Assyrian Identity: Post-Empire (Lecture Highlights)

Drawn entirely from a remarkable collection of ancient artefacts, manuscripts, folios, illustrations, and cartographic data; this lecture explores the threads of Assyrian continuity as portrayed through art. These objects, celebrated for their rich symbolism, and historic importance, have remained central to the study of Assyrian identity throughout the ages.

Relief depicting the Athuriya (Assyrians) bearing tribute, Apadana staircase, Persepolis, Iran

In ca. 539 BC, a new power emerged spearheaded by Cyrus II of the Achaemenid Dynasty. Having conquered the Neo-Babylonian Empire, it was a moment of astonishing significance. In 1879 AD, archaeologists unearthed fragments of cuneiform deposited within the ruined walls at Babylon which came to be known as the Cyrus Cylinder. The narrative as preserved in the clay has been studied, translated, and quoted in a myriad of contexts by archaeologists and scholars alike. According to the text "From Babylon to Aššur… I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements." [1] Carved upon the cliff top within the necropolis of Naqsh-e Rustam, Iran is a remarkable stone relief commemorating the Achaemenid King Darius the Great. Dated to approximately the 4th century BC, the ancient monarch is depicted atop a highly-detailed throne elevated by various subject nations within his imperial realm. Old Persian inscriptions adorn the royal tomb detailing the said subject nations, one throne bearer is described- Iyam Athuriya (this is an Assyrian). [2] Furthermore, the famed trilingual Foundation Charter which was excavated in the ancient Elamite metropolis of Susa echoes the Assyrian contribution of raw materials and craftsmanship during the Achaemenid Dynasty. Whilst the Old Persian text documents the Assyrians as Athuriya, its Elamite counterpart transliterates to Aššurap coinciding with the Akkadian term Aššurayi. [3]

[1] Irving Finkel, The Cyrus Cylinder: The King of Persia's Proclamation from Ancient Babylon (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013), 6.
[2] Roland Kent, Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon (New York: American Oriental Society, 1950), 140.
[3] Paul Cartledge, After Thermopylae: The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Graeco-Persian Wars (Oxford University Press, 2013), 69.

The Canticle honouring the Patriarchs of the East, ca. 1250 AD

This Canticle is part of a collection of hymns and poems in Classical Syriac, traditionally titled “Book of the Rose”, that is usually attributed to Giwargis Warda of Erbil. The Book of the Rose or Warda Collection consists of a significant number of compositions – mostly hymns which commemorate various historical figures and chronicles events, such as famines, epidemics, warfare, and are also associated with observations in the East-Assyrian liturgical calendar. Remarkably, this 13th century AD work honours various Catholicos-Patriarchs who led the so-called “Nestorian Church” or Church of the East whom, according to the author, were of Assyrian ancestry.

• Mar Mari the Âthôrâyâ (Assyrian) from the renowned lineage [987 - 999 AD]. • Awdisho the Âthôrâyâ (Assyrian) from the noble race, who served the see of Nisibis and was elevated to the Apostolic one [1074 - 1090 AD]. • Makikha the zealot, a just and blessed man, that was a prelate in Âthôr (Assyria), and was made Catholicos according to the law [1092 - 1110 AD]. • Eliya full of victories, who became the greatest among the teachers, in Âthôr (Assyria) the fountain of learning, and he was counted in the company of the just [1111 - 1132 AD]. • Awdisho the chosen vessel, from Âthôr (Assyria) the beautiful citadel, that was chosen by the spirit of the Lord, unto the high and sublime chair [1139 - 1148 AD].

[1] Giwargis Warda, The Book of the Rose, MS-ADD-01980

Mar Abdisho IV Maron’s Confession of Faith, 1562 AD

During the Middle Ages, schismatic monks adhering to the Church of the East quarrelled with the then Catholicos Patriarch due to the hereditary succession. The Patriarchate, now dominated by one dynastic lineage came under fierce scrutiny. In an act of unprecedented defiance, various monks conspired to elect an opponent Catholicos, Yohannan Sulaqa. The insubordinate apologists were unsuccessful in acquiring reinforcement within the Metropolitanate. Thus, the rival Catholicos would lack legitimacy per the canonical code. A scandalous delegation journeyed to Rome in 1552 AD with the goal of attaining a Papal concession in establishing a rival Catholic Patriarch. Declaring his confession of faith before Pope Julius III, Yohannan Sulaqa succeeded in his consecration as Patriarchae Assyriorum (Patriarch of the Assyrians). Oblivious to Sulaqa's stratagem, Rome had unwittingly fabricated a second hierarchy within the Church of the East. Sulaqa's misconduct would consequently incite his incarceration by the Ottoman authorities with instructions for his immediate execution. [1] Evidentially demonstrated by Roman Catholic cardinal and Vatican librarian Marco Antonio Da Mula in 1562 AD, Catholicos Abdisho IV Maron would succeed Sulaqa as Patriarchae Assyriorum Orientalium (Patriarch of the Eastern Assyrians) and of Muzal in Assyria Orientali (Mosul in Eastern Assyria). [2]

[1] Peter Bayle, The Dictionary Historical and Critical (London: 1697), 267.
[2] Abdisu and Marco Antonio Da Mula, R.D. Patriarchae Orientalium Assyriorum De Sacro Oecumenico Tridentini Concilio. MDLXII (Trent: 1562).

Portrait of the Assyrian noblewoman Sitti Maani Gioerida, ca. 1626 AD

Pietro Della Valle was an aristocratic Italian author, traveller, linguist and composer who journeyed throughout the Orient and Levant during the Renaissance period. Della Valle is one of the most important, yet least known, Near Eastern travellers of the 17th century AD. Whilst in Jerusalem, Della Valle laid eyes upon a portrait of an Eastern maiden by the name of Sitti Maani Gioerida, an ethnic Assyrian whose family originated from the northern Mesopotamian city of Mardin. As per the records of Della Valle, it was in the city of Baghdad where he and Sitti Maani Gioerida are said to have married. Shortly after their marriage, the 23-year-old Assyrian noblewoman is said to have died and her corpse was transported to Rome in 1626 AD. Pietro Della Valle would deposit the remains of his deceased wife in his family vault located at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli. Thus, a news report from Rome to Florence explained “Pietro met Sitti Maani, the Assyrian noblewoman who was to become his wife, in Baghdad. She died within a few years of their nuptials, at the age of 23. Pietro had her body embalmed and carried it with him for the rest of his travels, eventually burying his wife in the Eternal City.” [1] In a poem dedicated to his late wife, Pietro Della Valle writes “I see, I see thee gliding by, with drooping lash, and raven curl, and mien of gentle dignity, though sweet Assyrian girl.” [2]

[1] Sheila Barker, ‘Read All About It!’, The Medici Archive Project [website], (2016)<>, accessed 02 Dec. 2016.
[2] The Asiatic Journal (London: Parbury, Allen & Co., 1832), 176.