The historian Tom Holland tweeted this morning: ‘What #ISIS are doing to the people & culture of #Assyria is worthy of the Nazis. None of us can say we didn’t know.’
— Tom Holland (@holland_tom) February 27, 2015
He linked to a Washington Post article about how the Islamist group had kidnapped at least 200 Assyrian Christians from their homes in north-east Syria, and may well be preparing to murder them. In another tweet he showed a video by Assyriology professor Simo Parpola on the history of the ancient Assyrians, from whom today’s Assyrians claim descent, the Finnish academic warning that their history and culture is being deliberately destroyed.
On top of the kidnappings, there are now reports that Isis have bulldozed the ancient city of Nimrod. Footage has also emerged of Isis men smashing up Assyrian artefacts in Mosul, northern Iraq, the biblical Nineveh. Some of these items date back as far as the 8th century BC, before archaic Greece had entered its classical glory (although at least some are thought to be replicas, the Winged Bull is thought to be the original). Three thousand years they have stood – then destroyed in an instant. (Ironically, according to Paul Kriwaczek’s Babylon, the Assyrians invented the veil for women, and the Muslim Arabs only picked up the idea later.)
There are a few thousand Assyrians in Britain, many of whom were given right of entry because their grandfathers fought alongside the British in two world wars. They are immensely proud of their heritage, and fond of the British Museum where so much of it remains safe; can one imagine how they feel watching footage of these savages destroying what their ancestors built and which they hoped to pass on to their descendants?
There are currently Assyrian troops fighting alongside the Kurds on the front line with Isis, but they are short of weapons. They say they have got little military support from the West, just as they have received little political support in the past; before the latest crisis broke out Assyrians in Iraq campaigned for a safe haven in the Nineveh Plains where they and other minorities, namely the Yazidi, could protect themselves inside the country. Without support from the Americans, the Baghdad government would not agree, and in light of recent events it seems like a reasonable request now.
The Syrian front line is not far from Edessa in modern-day Turkey, which was in the second century capital of the small Aramaic-speaking kingdom of Osrhoene. Legend has it that its incurably ill King Abgar V heard of Jesus of Nazareth and wrote a letter offering to let him stay in the country, as he was being persecuted at home. Jesus replied that he couldn’t go but he would send over his apostle Thaddeus, who arrived after the crucifixion and cured the king of his disease. The historical reality is that Christianity had reached Edessa very early, most likely in the first century, and in the second century its King Abgar VIII converted.
For the modern-day Assyrians, Christianity therefore plays a central role in their cultural identity, but so too does the heritage of the ancients; and just as their present is under attack, so is their past.
But what about their future? A century ago Edessa still had a thriving Christian population, but then came the 1915 genocide in which large numbers of Assyrians were wiped out alongside Armenians and Greeks. A century later history appears to be repeating itself.