Prof Henry Saggs on Assyrian Continuity

7/16/2008 1:52:00 AM
Professor Henry William Fredrick Saggs

The following is the preface written by honorable Professor Henry William Fredrick Saggs for the book Assyrian National Question at the United Nations by Dr. Sargon Dadesho.

Civilization has always been under threat from the forces of barbarism. Without a strong arm to defend it, it can be destroyed.

From the beginning of the third millennium B.C. the civilization upon which our own is based took root in the plain of the Tigris and Euphrates in south Iraq. In the course of the next two millennia its influence spread out, towards Iran, Turkey, Syria, and the borders of Egypt. But small warring kingdom in the west and fierce migrating peoples in the north and east threatened the stability of the civilized order. Expanding Mesopotamian civilization needed a defender. It found it in the kingdom of Assyria.

The Assyrians spread their empire from western Iran to Egypt, from the Persian Gulf to central Asia Minor, sweeping away petty tyrannies, bringing security and good administration, and giving the region the beginnings of cultural unity.

Just before 600 B.C. the Assyrians were overthrown. But the peoples who Overthrew them had learned the arts of government from the Assyrians themselves, and the Assyrian imperial achievement passed as a heritage to the Persians, and then to Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic world.

In the final years of their empire, the Assyrians, tough farmers, many of them by now speaking Aramaic, were defending the area from Nineveh (Mosul in north Iraq) to Carchemish in south Turkey. What happened to them? We hear of no massacres, no deportations. They just stayed on where they had been, as Aramaic-speaking villagers. The area was still full of villages two hundred years later, when the Athenian Xenophon passed through.

Before 200 A.D. the area from south Turkey to the Zagros foothills was a major center of Aramaic-speaking Christians: the part of this area east of the Tigris was still called Assyria. Anyone who wants to dispute the ethnic link of this Christian community with the Assyrians of that area eight hundred years earlier has a major question to answer: where is the evidence that the old Assyrians left their homeland and that an entirely new group of peoples replaced them?

The Christian community in old Assyria, often miscalled Nestorians, showed themselves the most influential of the eastern churches. Their energy and evangelistic zeal spread Christianity across Asia into India and to the borders of China. Later, Mongol invasion and Muslim intolerance destroyed much of this, but the Christian Assyrians remained strong in their Near Eastern homeland. So they were until last century. The Assyrians then were what the Bible calls "a strong man armed". No one dared touch them. It was said that if a dog wore an Assyrian cap, their enemies would salute it.

But well-meaning interference by Western missionaries put the Assyrians themselves into a position in which they were no longer able to defend themselves. In 1843 a ruthless Kurdish Agha made a barbarous attack on their districts, massacring nearly 10,000 of the inhabitants and carrying off women and children as slaves. This was the first outrage of many. The settlement after the First World War held out new hope for the Assyrians and they were not short of promises. But the reality was another terrible massacre, this time in north Iraq in 1933. Since then the world seems content to see the Assyrians fade into history as just another forgotten minority.

The Assyrians still wait for justice. I hope that Dr. Sargon O. Dadesho's book will waken some consciences on this matter. I am honoured to have been invited to write this preface to his book.

Henry W.F. Saggs, B.D., M.Th., M.A., Ph.D., F.S.A.
Department of Semitic Languages
University College, Cardiff, England