The Assyrian National Council of Stanislaus, headed by Dr. Fred Adam sponsored an intriguing lecture by the esteemed Assyrian Archeologist, Dr. Donny George Youkhanna at California State University of Stanislaus on December 13, 2008. Over 200 people, mostly local Assyrians were fascinated by Dr. George’s informative presentation followed by a question and answer session.
Dr. Donny George was the Director of the National Museum in Baghdad. He was also the President and Chairman of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Dr. George is internationally known for recovering almost half of the 15,000 stolen priceless relics during the chaos that followed U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. His instrumental role in recovering the looted artifacts, in addition to the fact that he is an Assyrian Christian in a position of authority over Muslims did not sit well with the Islamic fanatics, and brought him death threats, and he was forced to flee his ancestral country in 2006. He shared, “People warned me saying Donny, be careful, these Muslims will do to Christians what they did to Jews in 1947.”, when anti-Jewish propaganda in Iraq had intensified. The government of Iraq had labeled Iraqi Jews “Hostages”. Hundreds of Jews were murdered and their property damage amounted to millions of dollars, similar atrocities the Assyrian Christians have been subjected to since the onset of war in 2003. As the Semitic people of Middle East, Assyrians and Jews share many similarities, so much that they use to call each other “Gharivee“, meaning “my best man”.
Dr. Donny George expressed, “I realized that I had received my first warning, and my second warning would have been assassination. I knew these people’s mission is to cut us from our roots.” He and his family arrived in New York in 2006 where he currently is a professor at Stony Brooks University-Anthropology department. However, his students are not the only ones who benefit from his in-depth knowledge and experience in the field of archeology. Dr. George arranged the annual candlelight vigil launched by the Saving Antiquities For Everyone (SAVE) organization to bring worldwide awareness to the looted heritage of humankind. His message, “Let’s gather and see what we can do, so people will not forget what happened”, draws annual participation in the candlelight vigil every year from April 10-12 in many universities, schools, cultural and religious organizations around the world.
Dr. George continues to bring awareness to stolen treasures year-round by lectures and conferences all over the world. His latest assistance was critical in stopping the sale of a pair of looted 3000 years old gold neo-Assyrian earrings which are a part of the Treasure of Nimrud, one of the greatest archeological finds of the last century. "I'm sure it is from the collection. I've been there during the excavations; I know the pieces.", said Donny George to FBI investigators and Christie auction authorities in New York.
The exuberant lecture began by showing ancient pictures of discovered archeological evidence linking today’s Assyrians to their ancestors. The first picture was of Ashur (Assur), the Assyrian national God statue found in the remains of the Holy city of Ashur. Dr. George explained, “The national identity of Assyrians (Ashurayeh) is derived from the name of their One unseen God, Ashur.” He continued, “Based on the findings in the Temple of Ishtar, it is believed that God Ashur was worshipped by the Assyrians whom lived during the Sumerian time thousands of years ago.” Although Sumerians were a different people as Donny George says, Assyrians, Akkadian, and Babylonians were the same people.
Throughout his presentation, Dr. George showed many pictures of the Assyrian antiquities with the colors their creators used in the sixth and seventh century B.C. intact and marveled, “How wonderful taste of arts Assyrians had!”
He provided historical and geographical evidence as to who the Assyrians are and where they came from. He talked about what happened after the fall of Assyrian Capital of Nineveh in 612 B.C. He reiterated despite common belief, the Assyrians did not simply vanish in the thin air. After the fall of Nineveh, the Assyrian king commanded his generals to burn the royal house with him and his family inside it and move on to a safer place. Ten Assyrian Generals took their families and followers to the northern mountains of Hakkari. Their act of bravery and perseverance is the reason this ancient nation has survived to this day. Assyrian scientists were essential contributors in translation of Assyria’s vast knowledge and civilization to the conquering powers in centuries that followed.
Describing facial and physical features of ancient Assyrians, Dr. George scanned the room and graciously commented, “those features match most of the people in this room.”
He provided examples on similarity between the words ancient Assyrians used in their language to the ones used by their descendents today. Some examples are:
|Ancient Word||Modern Assyrian Language|
|Rab Khaylu (Commander)||Rab Kheyla|
Some ancient names still used by modern Assyrians were also provided: Qamsu, Tolu, Gandalu, Tammu, Dannu, Hablu, Khamu, and Najiah.
The audience was astonished when Dr. George explained carved horn shaped circles on the headgear of ancient Assyrian Guardian (Lamasu) monument. The circles were the symbol of Divinity which are almost identical to today’s headgears worn only by the Assyrian Bishops and Patriarch. At that very moment, 200 set of eyes rested on the headgear worn by His Grace Mar Sargis Yousip, bishop of the Assyrian Church of the East sitting in the front row.
Ancient Assyrians used to call meat, “Shara/Shera”, said Dr. George. He also spoke about ancient religious traditions and how this is still evident in today’s Assyrian culture, where Shara refers to the religious festivals modern Assyrians celebrate throughout the year and prepare meat as sacrifice.
Addressing the question who is claiming to be Assyrians, Dr. George mentioned the Arabs and how during his presidency, Saddam Hussein claimed the ancient Assyrian kings’ names to glorify himself, but at the same time he had forbidden Assyrian families from giving their newborns Assyrian names. He also mentioned the Kurds and their attempt to claim the Assyrian land. He used the example of the Kurdish Prime Minister recently calling Assyrians “The Christian Kurds” in accordance with the Kurdification policy active in northern Iraq.
The Assyrians of today were mostly born in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, but are scattered in many western countries in which they have found refuge due to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
Dr. George addressed the identity problem among Assyrians, mainly those who identify themselves with their church denomination as Syrians and Chaldeans, rather than their national identity as Assyrians. He encouraged brotherly love among all the Assyrians, but he emphasized, “You can change your faith, your religion, but you cannot change your blood, your DNA.”
In response to a question from audience regarding Iran’s role in looting of antiquities, Dr. George affirmed, “Iran is a problem. The Iranian government never admits to stolen antiquities.”, referring to the news about seizure of antiquities near Dubai Creek where customs officers seized and arrested six Iranian sailors who were trying to smuggle some 128 rare antiquities believed to be around 5000 years old through the emirate three weeks ago.
At the end of his lecture, Dr. George encouraged people to mobilize against antiquity dealers around the world who allow sales of the looted artifacts, and to not hesitate reporting to FBI any information found. He advised that in 1956 the law to stop exporting antiquities went into effect, therefore, any Mesopotamian antiquities showing up in auctions are believed to be stolen treasures. He stated, “Museums are soft targets. All Iraqi museums still remain to be closed to the public, but to this day, 12,500 archeological sites in Iraq continue to be looted, and the government of Iraq is not doing much to protect those sites.”
Dr. Donny George takes pride in his rich Assyrian heritage which the world benefits from till today. It is mind-boggling to think of just one of the Assyrian inventions, the wheel, and how it has revolutionized the world of industry. He concluded his lecture by saying, “After all this, who does not want to be the descended of such a great nation?”