I’m still reading Shklovsky (see this post), and have gotten to the section where, disgusted with the increasing chaos of the Provisional Government, he “went to the War Ministry at the Soviet and said I would go anywhere, only as far away as possible,” and wound up in Persia, “which had already been occupied by Russian troops for ten years” (the northern part, that is). “We had gone to a foreign country, occupied it, added to its gloom and violence our violence, laughed at its laws, hampered its trade, refused to let it open any factories and supported the shah. And for this purpose, we kept troops… It was imperialism—what’s more, Russian imperialism, which is to say, stupid imperialism.” (Yes, the parallel occurred to me too.) Of the area he was in, around Urmia, he says “A mixed population. Persians, Armenians, Tatars, Kurds, Nestorian Aissors and Jews made up the population.” I was, of course, familiar with most of these groups, but “Nestorian Aissors” produced only a faint echo. I knew that the Nestorians were officially the Church of the East and that “Aissors” (usually Aisors or Aysors) was a term for the Assyrian ethnic-religious group of the Middle East, but other than that I had only a vague memory that there had been a massacre of Assyrians in Iraq in the ’30s. So I did a little googling and turned up an article by Arianne Ishaya, “From Contributions to Diaspora: Assyrians in the History of Urmia, Iran,” where I learned of the astonishing enclave of culture represented by the Assyrian community in that region a century ago:

Until 1918, at which time they were uprooted from the region, the Assyrians lived in compact villages along the three rivers of Nazlu, Shahar, and Baranduz. These rivers flow eastward towards the lake of Urmia from their sources in the Zagros Mountains bordering Turkey. Of a total of 300 villages in the region, 60 had exclusively Assyrian population, and another 60 had a mixed Assyrian, Azari Turkish, and/or Armenian population… The Assyrian population of the town of Urmia itself was only 600 people, or about 100 families. They lived in the special Christian quarter of the town. It is estimated that around 1900, 40% of the population of the region was Christian (Assyrian and Armenian). The uniqueness of the Urmian community was that it was highly urbanized and westernized. This was essentially attributed to the presence of various foreign missions in the region… Although foreign missions brought educational opportunities and a measure of intellectual enlightenment to the Assyrians, they were a mixed blessing. The privileged position of the Assyrians made them a subject of envy and resentment to their Muslim neighbors. The unified Church of the East became dissected into various protestant, Russian Orthodox, and Catholic denominations. Moreover, the younger generation became alienated from their ethnic traditions and was trained in skills for which economic opportunities were scarce.

With the beginning of WWI, the rate of literacy among the Assyrians of Urmia was estimated at 80%. This is a remarkably high rate of literacy for the time even by the standards of an urbanized center in the West, let alone a rural area in the Middle East. At the time, there were more Assyrian physicians in Urmia than all of Iran; Assyrian professionals under the supervision of the foreign missionaries staffed all missionary schools, newspapers and hospitals.
The first mission school opened in 1836 under the direction of Rev. Justin Perkins. Prior to that, the native Assyrians did have a few schools of their own. The one in Urmia was in the village of Gogtapa where Mougdoussi (pilgrim) Hormizd had hired a learned Assyrian from Tyari to educate a number of children there. The missionary Perkins was pleased to see the thirst of the Assyrians for education. He was impressed to find how fast the children learned to read, write, and memorize long verses from the Bible. The first so-called textbooks were in the form of lessons written on cards. In the absence of notepads, children used their fingers to do their manuscript writing arithmetic exercises in small sandboxes. The first Assyrian teacher was Rev. priest Abraham, the nephew of Hormizd, who was educated in the above-mentioned Gogtapa school. After learning to read and write, the Assyrian children began to teach their parents to do so.
In 1843, the American Mission also opened a college in Seir, a seminary for women called Fiske Seminary. Later, in 1880 the Mission opened a medical hospital in Urmia There was also a town college, called Sardari, which was for the rich and admitted Jews, Muslims and Christians alike…
In time, the curriculum of the American Mission schools became westernized. In a 1906 issue Kokhva, the sole Assyrian non-denominational newspaper, published a report with regards to the graduation ceremony of the American Mission College and high school students. While the report praised the high quality of students’ presentations in foreign languages, it lamented the total ignorance of these students about their own history. In subsequent reports we read how parents sat patiently during the graduation ceremonies listening to the presentations of their sons and daughters in English and Farsi, not understanding a word of what was being said. As unlikely as it seems, between 1906-1914, the Assyrians performed Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the village of Gulpashan, several plays by Moliere, translated by Kasha Mushi Babella, in the village of Golpatalikhan where the Catholic mission had built a large school. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and several plays by Gogol… were staged in the town of Urmia. Interestingly, men played the role of women in these plays…
Contrary to the American Mission, the Catholic Lazarists and the Anglicans made the teaching of the classical Syriac and the vernacular mandatory in their schools. The result was the emergence of a group of Assyrian Syriac scholars such as Paul Bedjan, Aba Solomon-d- Tkhuma, Havil Zia d-Mavana, Mir Aziz-d- Khosrava, Shamasha Yossip de Kelata, and others who contributed greatly to the field of Syriac studies. Mar Toma Audo, the Metropolitan of the Catholic Mission in Urmia and Salamas since 1892, was a great scholar who in addition to various publications in classical Syriac, also authored and translated several books in modern Assyrian. The majority of these scholars were murdered during the 1915 massacre, or the 1918 flight.
As to the American Mission schools, they produced hundreds of doctors, teachers, preachers, nurses, and other kinds of professionals. There were almost as many men as there were women. The first women college graduates in Urmia were Sanam, Sarah, and Mourassa all of whom went on to become great educators. Many scholars and promising students were lost along with hundreds of priceless manuscripts and rare ecclesiastical documents in the ravages of WWI. Such losses were a great blow to the Assyrians and the Iranians because they are irreplaceable.
The American Mission acquired a printing press in 1840 at a time when printing presses did not exist in all of Persia. The first Assyrian printer was Yonan of Charbash. He was selected in 1847 along with a few other promising seminary students for this post. Another printer was Ismail. He was a self-taught man, a very resourceful person. As a carpenter he made all the furniture of the printing office together with all the cases and stands. He was a good pressman, foreman, and was responsible for the final proofreading. He was a type-founder, and in short, a jack-of-all-trades. From 1840-1852 eighty works were off the press in both vernacular and classical Syriac, the first being the Bible. Following the example of the American Mission, the Catholic, Russian, and Anglican Missions also acquired printing presses for their own publications.
The image of Urmian Assyrians as an isolated rural community is totally inaccurate. They were fully aware of world events, national political developments, and local news through newspapers and periodicals. From mid 19th century until the eve of WWI, four denominational newspapers were published on a, more or less, regular basis. In 1906 a non-denominational newspaper was added to the group. Zahrira-d-Bahra (Ray of Light) started publication in 1849 by the American Mission. Later, the French Mission published Qala-d-Shrara (the Voice of Truth) began publication in 1897; the Russian Orthodox Mission published Urmi Orthodoxeta; and finally, the Anglican Mission followed suit by publishing the Assyrian Missionary Quarterly. The independent Assyrian periodical was Kokhva (The Star) founded by Qasha Baba Nwyia-d-Wazirabad, a scholar and theologian who, after graduating from Urmia College, had spent nine years in U.S.A. and had obtained two separate degrees in theology and science. He coined the subtitle for Kokhva that reads: “Kokhva, a small lone star in the horizon.” Although he passed away shortly after Kokhva began publication, the editorial staff maintained this publication as the voice of the nationalist Assyrians. It was published biweekly from 1906-1918, with interruptions during the war years. Kokhva had various columns to cover world news, national political developments, and local events. It also published articles related to medicine, literature, sciences, and so on. Examples of articles that appeared in Kokhva are biographies on Joan of Arc; Tolstoy, Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Edison; world events such as the Titanic catastrophe, the San Francisco Earthquake, new inventions, political developments in Turkey, Germany, and in the Balkans. There were special articles on the Assyrian language, history, and a debate on the name “Assyrian” versus “Suraya” in several issues. Thus Kokhva kept the Assyrians of Urmia abreast with the latest developments in the world.
In the plain of Salmas, north of Urmia, was located the town of Khosrava, another Assyrian center of population. Khosrava served as the headquarters of the Catholic Mission where it established several schools, seminaries, and a hospital there. The town had a mixed population of Assyrians and Armenians numbering 30,000. The Catholic seminary produced internationally renowned scholars such as Paul Bejan. He was a collector of ancient religious and literary manuscripts. Single-handedly, he edited, compiled, wrote and published 36 volumes of literary material in both vernacular and classical Syriac. Khosrava was called “the little Rome of Persia.” By 1918 there was practically nothing left of the Catholic Mission in Persia. In one report we read: “In 1923 in some places the jungle had returned, full of reptiles, wolves, and savage animals. Churches, schools and houses were in ruin…
American style advertising appeared on the pages of Kokhva beginning in 1912. Consumerism was taking hold among the population. Assyrians were opening stores or stalls in the caravanserai or Middle Eastern style shopping malls. There were advertisements from merchants selling home fixtures such as cabinets, doors, mirrors, and home furnishings imported from U.S.A., Russia, or Europe (primarily Germany). Others opened stores to sell watches, bicycle parts, ladies and men’s wear, cloth, and other imported goods. Optometrists, dentists, and doctors advertised the address of their clinics and medical supplies. Some of the advertisements were in English which indicates the prevalence of this language among the population… There was also advertising for European fashions, and instructions on how and where to wear them. One Assyrian opened a hotel for those coming from villages to town to have a place to stay. Another one invested in an “icemaker.” There is a significant difference in the investment pattern of Assyrians and Armenians. Possessing greater capital, Armenians were involved in overseas trade and were investing in land with mining reserves, flourmills and building modern style bazaars (shopping malls).
As early as 1907 the Assyrian, Yossipkhan the photographer, was showing silent movies or “moving pictures” in a private home… The news of prosperity in Urmia reached other Assyrian communities in the Middle East. Kokhva printed a letter that Rabi Binyamin Arsanis, the head of the village “motvas,” (associations) had received. It was from a man writing on behalf of his Assyrian community in Damascus, Syria. It said, in part: “5000 Assyrians live in Damascus. After hearing about the legendary Urmia, we would like to relocate. We ask permission and your help in immigrating to Urmia.”

Soon after, all this vanished, one small forgotten piece of the unimaginably huge disaster that was World War One.


  1. And once again, all you can do is weep for all that is lost…
    It was that American mission where D.T. Stoddard wrote his Grammar of the Modern Syriac Language as spoken in Oroomiah, Persia, and in Koordistan published in Journal of the Amerian Oriental Society , Vol. 5 (1855-1856). In the introduction, he recounts the history of printing in Nestorian characters and gives a list of works in Modern Syriac the mission printed since the arrival of the press in 1840. Aside from translations of the Bible and various religious tracts, it also includes the aforementioned monthly The Rays of Light, textbooks of arithmetics and geography and a translation of Bun yan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. I wonder what happened to those books and if any still can be found somewhere…

  2. What a wonderful post. Oddly enough, the thing it reminds me of is a chapter in Bill Bryson’s Notes on a Small Island on working-class culture in, I think, Durham. A hundred years before BB wrote the book there had been a thriving culture of concerts, lectures, reading groups, all established by working-class men and women for an aim that has now been made to seem quaintly earnest — self-improvement. A community of people with very little formal education and very little money and very little free time created this world for themselves. The buildings they used are for the most part still there.

  3. I understand the identity of the “Assyrians” is rather controversial. The modern Assyrians apparently now believe they are descended from the ancient Assyrians. Even Wikipedia accepts this theory: “The Assyrians are believed to have descended from the ancient Akkadians, who, starting with Sargon of Akkad, emerged as the ruling class of Assyria.”
    Kelly Ross of apparently tried to debunk this theory, and came in for a great deal of criticism. His description of the problems he encountered can be seen at this page

  4. More information on Kelly Ross’s fight with modern Assyrian nationalists can be found here:

  5. I am saddened by reading this. The follies of war are like that.
    And yet, I’m encouraged in my hope for man by learning of such ingenuity and earnest search for knowledge.
    Thank you for putting this up. I’m not a regular commenter; I rarely have anything to add, and I’m always awed by the erudition of you and your audience. But while that does make me feel somewhat stupid very often, it nevertheless more often teaches me lots of things that are completely new to me – not least after having spent most of my (perhaps still short) life in pursuit of ‘science’ rather than the humanities.
    Ms DeWitt’s comment about Durham is interesting. I have only visited once and shortly so this is entirely new to me too. It makes me regret even more that I did not manage to go there for a post doc.

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