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The various communities of Syriac Christians and speakers of Neo-Aramaic advocate different terms for ethnic self-designation:

The terminological problem goes back to colonial times, but it became more acute in 1946, when with the independence of Syriamarker, the adjective Syrian referred to an independent state. The controversy isn't restricted to exonyms like English "Assyrian" vs. "Aramaean", but also applies to self-designation in Neo-Aramaic, the "Aramaean" faction endorses both Sūryāyē and Ārāmayē , while the "Assyrian" faction insists on Āṯūrāyē but also accepts Sūryāyē or Sūrāyē .

Syriac Christians from the Middle East shouldn't be confused with Syriac Christian Dravidians from Indiamarker, who are an entirely different ethnic group but follow the same version of Christianity that was spread by Syriac Christians from the Middle East, centuries earlier.


Syriac Christianity was established among the Syriac (Aramaic) speaking population of Upper Mesopotamia during the 1st to 5th centuries. Until the 7th century Islamic conquests, the group was divided between two empires, Sassanid Persia in the east and Rome/Byzantium in the west. The western group settled in Syria, the eastern in Assyria. Syriac Christianity was divided from an early date over questions of Christological dogma, viz. Nestorianism in the east and Monophysitism in the west.

The historical English term for the group is "Syrians" (as in, e.g., Ephraim the Syrian). It is not now in use, since after the 1936 declaration of the Syrian Arab Republicmarker, the term "Syrian" has come to designate citizens of that state regardless of ethnicity.

The designation "Assyrians" has become current in English besides the traditional "Syrians" since at least the Assyrian genocide of the 1910s.The adjective "Syriac" properly refers to the Syriac language exclusively and is not a demonym. The OED explicitly still recognizes this usage alone:
A. adj. Of or pertaining to Syria: only of or in reference to the language; written in Syriac; writing, or versed, in Syriac.
B. n. The ancient Semitic language of Syria; formerly in wide use (="Aramaic"; now, the form of Aramaic used by Syrian Christians, in which the Peshito version of the Bible is written.

The noun "Syriac" (plural "Syriacs") has nevertheless come into common use as a demonym following the declaration of the Syrian Arab Republicmarker to avoid the ambiguity of "Syrians". Limited de facto use of "Syriacs" in the sense of "authors writing in the Syriac language" in the context of patristics can be found even before World War I.

Since the 1980s, a dispute between Assyrianists (Syriac Christians actually deriving their national identity from the Iron Age Assyria) and Aramaeanists (Syriac Christians emphasizing their descent from the Levantine Arameans instead) has become ever more pronounced. In the light of this dispute, the traditional English designation "Assyrians" has come to appear taking an Assyrianist position, for which reason some official sources in the 2000s have come to use emphatically neutral terminology, such as "Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac" in the US census, and "Assyrier/Syrianer" in the Swedish census.

In the Aramaic language, the dispute boils down to the question of whether Sūrāyē/Sūryāyē "Syrian" or Āṯūrāyē "Assyrian" is in preferred use, or whether they are used synonymously. A 2007 Modern Aramaic Dictionary & Phrasebook does treat the terms as synonyms:
Assyrians call themselves: S: Suraye, Suryaye, Athuraye / T: Suroye, Soryoye, Othuroye

The question of the history of each of these terms is less clear. The points to be distinguished are
  • was the term Āṯūrāyē introduced into Neo-Aramaic in the 19th century, during the Early Modern period, or has it been in use even in the Middle Aramaic vernacular of the Early Christian period?
  • what was the relation of the Greek terms Suria vs. Assuria in pre-Christian classical Antiquity
  • what is the ultimate etymological connection of the terms Syria and Assyria.
It is undisputed that reference to both the "Syrian" and "Assyrian" self-designations were in use by the mid 19th century.

Medieval Syriac authors show awareness of the descent of their language from the ancient Aramaeans, without however using "Aramaean" as a self-designation. Thus, Michael the Great (13th century) wrote

Michael the Great also mentions an earlier, 9th century dispute of a dispute of Jacobite Syrians with Greek scholars, in which the Jacobites supposedly endorsed an "Assyrian" identity.

John Joseph in the Nestorians and Their Muslim Neighbors (1961) stated that the term Assyrians had for various political reasons been introduced to Syriac Christians by British missionaries during the 19th century, and strengthened by archaeological discoveries of ancient Assyria. In the 1990s, the question was revived by Richard Frye, who disagreed with Joseph, establishing that the term "Assyrians" had existed amongst the Jacobites and the Nestorians already during the 17th century, Frye further adduces Armenian and Persian sources to establish the pre-modern usage of Assyrian for the Christian group. The two scholars agreed on the fact that "confusion has existed between the two similar words ‘Syria’ and ‘Assyria’ throughout history down to our own day", but each accused the other of contributing further to this confusion.

The question of the synonymity of Suria vs. Assuria was already discussed by classical authors:Herodotus has “This people, whom the Greeks call Syrians, are called Assyrians by the barbarians”. while strictly distinguishing the toponyms Syria vs. Assyria, the former referring to the Levant, the latter to Mesopotamia.Posidonius has “The people we [Greeks] call Syrians were called by the Syrians themselves Aramaeans”.

Quite apart from the question of de facto usage, the question of the etymological relation of the two terms had been open until recently. The point of uncertainty was whether the toponym Syria was ultimately derived from the name Aššur (as opposed to alternative suggestions deriving Syria from the name of the Hurrians). The question does now appear to have been settled to the effect that Syria does indeed derive from Aššur. The existence of the two separate lexemes dates to at least the time of Herodotus (5th century BC).

Syriac diaspora


During the 2000 United States census, Syriac Orthodox Archbishops Cyril Aprim Karim and Clemis Eugene Kaplan issued a declaration that their preferred English designation is "Syriacs". The official census avoids the question by listing the group as "Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac". Some Maronite Christians also joined this US census (as opposed to Lebanese American).


In Swedenmarker, this name dispute has its beginning when immigrants from Turkeymarker, belonging to the Syriac Orthodox Church emigrated to Sweden during the 1960s and were applied with the ethnic designation Assyrians by the Swedish authorities. This caused many who preferred the indigenous designation Suryoyo (who today go by the name Syrianer) to protest, which lead to the Swedish authorities began using the double term assyrier/syrianer.

Syriac national identities

Assyrian identity

The positive identification with the Assyrians of antiquity as a national identity in Assyrianism needs to be distinguished from the merely incidental exonym "Assyrians" in use in English during the 19th and 20th century. The Assyrianist movement originated in the 19th to early 20th century, in direct opposition to Pan-Arabism and in the context of Assyrian irredentism. The emphasis of Assyrian antiquity grew ever more pronounced in the decades following World War II, with an "Assyrian calendar" introduced in the 1950s, taking as its era the year 4750 BC, the purported date of foundation of the city of Assurmarker and the introduction of an "Assyrian flag" in 1968.

The Assyrian movement today, is still very strong going amongst the Jacobites. In Sweden, the majority of those who identify themselves as Assyrians, are Jacobites from the Syriac Orthodox Church, but there are also Assyrians and Syriacs in Sweden representing the other Syriac churches.

Aramaean identity

An Aramean identity is one form of Syriac identity, emphasizing Aramaean identity. The Aramaeans were a people settling in the Levant since the Late Bronze Age, who following the Bronze Age collapse formed a number of small kingdoms before they were conquered into the Assyrian Empire in the course of the 9th to 8th centuries BC.

Such an Aramaean identity is mainly held by Syriac Christians in Lebanonmarker, Turkeymarker, Syriamarker and in the diaspora especially in Germany and Sweden.In English, they self-identify as "Syriac", sometimes expanded to "Syriac-Aramaean" or "Aramaean-Syriac". In German, Aramäer is a common self-designation.

The "Aramaean" faction often puts emphasis on the destruction of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, especially in the words of the prophet Nahum and his description of the fall of Ninevehmarker.

Chaldean identity

The Chaldean Catholic Church was established as a split off the East Syrian Rite, its first patriarch was proclaimed patriarch of "Mosul and Athur" on Feb. 20, 1553 by Pope Julius III. The term "Chaldean" was chosen at the time to distinguish from the adherents of the Assyrian Church of the East (also known as the Nestorian Church, after Nestorius).

Many Chaldean Catholics no longer subscribe to an "Assyrian" identity, due in part to the Church identity promoted by the Chaldean Catholic Church. However, many priests in the Chaldean Church, such as Mar Raphael I Bedawid, advocate the Assyrian ethnicity.

They have been settling primarily in Iraqmarker and Turkeymarker, for the most part speaking the Chaldean Neo-Aramaic language.

Also sometimes known as "Chaldean Christians" are the Christians of St. Thomas of India (also called the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church), ethnically Nasrani (speakers of Malayalam).

Phoenician identity

Middle East expert Walid Phares speaking at the 70th Assyrian Convention, on the topic of Assyrians in post-Saddam Iraq, began his talk by asking why he as a Lebanese Maronite ought to be speaking on the political future of Assyrians in Iraq, answering his own question with "because we are one people. We believe we are the Western Assyrians and you are the Eastern Assyrians."

However, other Maronite factions in Lebanonmarker, such as Guardians of the Cedars, in their opposition to Arab nationalism, advocate the idea of a Phoenician racial heritage (see Phoenicianism). Kamal Salibi on the other hand, a prominent Lebanese historian, is critical of any Phoenician ancestry:

See also

External links




  1. Assyria
  2. Syriac-Aramaic People (Syria)
  3. "Eastern Churches", Catholic Encyclopedia, see Eastern Syrians and Western Syrians respectively. Modern terminology within the group is Western Assyrians and Eastern Assyrians respectively, while those who reject the Assyrian identity opt for Syriacs rather than Assyrian or Syrian.
  4. OED, online edition s.v. "Syriac", accessed November 2008
  5. e.g. "the later Syriacs agree with the majority of the Greeks" American Journal of Philology, Johns Hopkins University Press (1912), p. 32.
  6. Nicholas Awde, Nineb Limassu, Nicholas Al-Jeloo, Modern Aramaic Dictionary & Phrasebook: (Assyrian/Syriac), Hippocrene Books (2007) ISBN 9780781810876
  7. Horatio Southgate (1843): "I began to make inquiries for the Syrians. The people informed me that there were about one hundred families of them in the town of Kharpout, and a village inhabited by them on the plain. I observed that the Armenians did not know them under the name which I used, Syriani; but called them Assouri, which struck me the more at the moment from its resemblance to our English name Assyrians, from whom they claim their origin, being sons, as they say, of Assour who 'out of the land of Shinar went forth, and build Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, and Resin between Nineveh and Calah." Horatio Southgate, "Narrative of a Visit to the Syrian Church", 1844 p. 80[1] Philoxenos Yuhanun Dolabani (1914): "My dear and beloved Aramean, in many ways I am indebted to you on account of the racial love of Adam and the Semitic one of Aram (that burns in my heart)." Preface of Mor Philoxenos Yuhanun Dolabani's book of the bee (kthobo d-deburitho), published by Verlag Bar Hebräus, Losser-Holland, 1986.
  8. "That even if their name is "Syrian", they are originally 'Assyrians' "and they have had many honorable kings ... Syria is in the west of Euphrates, and its inhabitants who are talking our Aramaic language, and who are so-called 'Syrians', are only a part of the 'all', while the other part which was in the east of Euphrates, going to Persia, had many kings from Assyria and Babylon and Urhay. ... Assyrians, who were called 'Syrians' by the Greeks, were also the same Assyrians, I mean 'Assyrians' from 'Assure' who built the city of Nineveh." History of Mikhael The Great Chabot Edition p. 748, 750, quoted after Addai Scher, Hestorie De La Chaldee Et De "Assyrie"[2]
  9. Frye, Assyria and Syria: Synonyms, pp. 34, ref 15
  10. Frye, Assyria and Syria: Synonyms, pp. 34, ref 14
  11. Frye, Reply to John Joseph, pp. 70, "I do not understand why Joseph and others ignore the evidence of Armenian and Persian sources in regard to usage with initial a-, including contemporary practice."
  12. Herodotus, The Histories, VII.63, [3]
  13. Frye, Assyria and Syria: Synonyms, pp. 30
  14. Joseph, Assyria and Syria: Synonyms?, pp. 38
  15. Rollinger, pp. 287, "Since antiquity, scholars have both doubted and emphasized this relationship. It is the contention of this paper that the Çineköy inscription settles the problem once and for all." See also Çineköy inscription
  16. Assyrian Heritage of the Christians of Mesopotamia
  17. Census 2000
  18. Syriac Orthodox Church Census 2000 Explanation in English
  20. Assyriska Hammorabi Föreningen, Namnkonflikten
  21. Berntsson, pp. 51
  22. Assyrian people
  23. A S S Y R I E N S U N D E R G Å N G ! (see the section 'Nahums profetia om Assyriens undergång')
  24. Rabban, "Chaldean Rite", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, Vol. III, pp.427-428
  25. 70th Assyrian Convention Addresses Assyrian Autonomy in Iraq

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