What you didn’t know about Syria
Assyria was the world’s first empire.
Around the year 2371, as related by Peter BetBasoo, the Assyrian Empire under Sargon of Akkad absorbed the original Sumerian civilization of the Mesopotamian Valley.
The oldest piece of literature on Earth was written in the original Assyrian language of Akkadian, the Epic of Gilgamesh, around 2500 BC.
The ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, near present-day Mosul, became a major religious/cultural center by 1800 BC, around the time of Abraham.
In 760 BC, the Old Testament prophet Jonah preached in Nineveh and it repented.
In 727-721 BC, King Shalmaneser V ruled the Neo-Assyrian Empire and carried Israel’s ten northern tribes into captivity.
King Sennacherib, 705-681 BC, made Nineveh one of the most magnificent capitals in the world. The word “Arab” is actually the Assyrian word “westerner,” first used by King Sennacherib in telling his conquest of the “ma’rabayeh”–westerners.
Assyrians and Babylonians laid down the fundamental basis of mathematics, the Pythagorean Theorem, the concept of zero and designed parabolic domes and arches.
Beginning in 538 BC, for the next seven centuries Assyria was ruled by other empires: Persian Achaemenid, Macedonian (Alexander the Great), Seleucid, Parthian Arascid, Roman and Sassanid.
Greeks began shortening the name to “Syria.”
The new lingua franca for Syria was the Aramaic language, in use at the time of Christ and still in use by Christians in the small Syrian village of Ma’loula, which was overrun by rebels this week.
With the arrival of Christianity, Saint Thomas, Saint Bartholemew and Saint Thaddeus founded the Assyrian Christian Church in 33 AD.
The Apostle Paul evangelized in Syria, beginning in the city of Damascus. The very word “Christian” was first used for followers of Jesus Christ in Antioch, Syria. (Acts 11:23-26) By the year 265 AD, Syria was one of the first nations to be completely Christian.
In the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries, Christian Assyrians began a systematic translation of Greek works in religion, science, philosophy (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle) and medicine (Galen) into Syriac and then, after the invasion of Islam in the 7th century, into Arabic.
The book, How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs, documented the work of 22 scholars, 20 of which were Christian Assyrians, with only 1 Persian and 1 Arab.
These translations were later taken by Moors into Spain, where Europeans translated them into Latin, laying the groundwork for the Renaissance.
One of the greatest Christian Assyrian achievements of the Fourth Century was the founding of the first university in the world, the School of Nisibis. It had three departments, theology, philosophy and medicine, and became a center of intellectual development in the Middle East, and the model for the first Italian university.
In the 5th century, nine Christian Syrian Monks translated Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac works into the Ethiopian language of Ge’ez. They organized Christian monastic orders and schools, some of which are still in existence.
Saint John of Damascus in Syria, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, was one of the greatest scholars in the 8th century. Assyrian Christians pioneered hospitals, with the Bakhteesho family having nine generations of physicians and founding the great medical school at Gundeshapur in present-day Iran.
The Assyrian Christian physician, Hunayn ibn-Ishaq, wrote a textbook on ophthalmology in 950 AD which remained the authoritative source until 1800 AD.
Assyrian Christian philosopher Job of Edessa developed a physical theory of the universe rivaling Aristotle’s. The literary output of the Assyrians and Jews was vast. After Latin and Greek, the third largest corpus of Christian writing was in the Assyrian “Syriac” language.
Assyrian missionaries brought Nestorian “Syriac” Christianity to Mesopotamia, the Persian Sassanid Empire (including parts of what is now Iran and Iraq), India, Central Asia, the Uyghurs, the Tang Dynasty of China, Korea, Japan, and the Philippines.
As Arab Muslims swept through the Middle East, beginning in 630 AD, Chaldean and Babylonian astronomers were forcibly Islamized till they eventually disappeared. As Muslims conquered trade routes to the east, they co-opted advances made by other civilizations. The hundreds of years of rich Assyrian civilization was expropriated into the Arab culture.
As the heavy burdens of the “dhimmi” status and intermittent persecutions caused the Assyrian Christian community to decline, the so-called Golden Age of Islam also declined.
Then Turkish Muslims invaded. Gregory Bar-Hebraeus (1226-1286), a Syrian Orthodox Church leader, wrote how Turkish Muslim tolerance toward Christians turned to hate:
“And having seen very much modesty and other habits of this kind among Christian people, certainly the Mongols loved them greatly at the beginning of their kingdom, a time ago somewhat short. But their love hath turned to such intense hatred that they cannot even see them with their eyes approvingly.”
In 1268, Mamluk Sultan Baibars conquered Antioch, Syria, and slaughtered all the Christian and Jewish men and sold the women into slavery, smashed church crosses, burned Bibles, desecrated graves, and dragged every priest, deacon, and monk to the altar and slit their throats. He destroyed the Church of St. Paul and the Cathedral of St. Peter.
In response to cries for help, King Louis IX of France set sail from Aigues-Mortes in 1270 leading the 8th Crusade to come to the aid of Christian states in Syria. He was diverted to Tunis where he was defeated and died of dysentery. In 1271, the future King of England, Edward I, undertook a 9th Crusade to help in Syria.
Tripoli (in present-day Lebanon) fell to Mamluk Sultan Qalawun in 1289, and Acre (in present-day Israel) fell to Mamluk Sultan as-Ashraf Khalil in a bloody siege, 1291, ending the last traces of Christian rule in Syria.
As Marco Polo traveled east in 1271 AD, he noted Assyrian Christian missionaries had converted tens of thousands to Christianity in China and India. Even the influential mother of Kublai Khan, Sorghaghtani Beki, was a Nestorian Christian. The first Mongolian system of writing used the Assyrian “Syriac” alphabet, with the name “Tora Bora” being an Assyrian phrase meaning “arid mountain.”
Nestorian Christianity declined in China when the Ming Dynasty forced out Mongolian and other foreign influences.
Nestorian Christianity was eradicated from Persia and Central Asia by the Muslim crusader Tamerlane, who massacred an estimated 17 million. In 1399, Tamerlane invaded Syria, sacked Aleppo and captured Damascus, massacring the inhabitants and erecting towers made out of skulls. Northern Iraq had remained Assyrian Christian until Tamerlane systematically decimated the population.
When Turks began to imposing the Turkish language throughout the Ottoman Empire, Syrian Christian intellectuals helped preserve use of the Arabic language.
For centuries, Syria was under Ottoman Muslim rule. In 1867, Mark Twain visited Syria, writing in his book Innocents Abroad:
“Then we called at…the mausoleum of the five thousand Christians who were massacred in Damascus in 1861 by the Turks. They say those narrow streets ran blood for several days, and that men, women and children were butchered indiscriminately and left to rot by hundreds all through the Christian quarter; they say, further, that the stench was dreadful. All the Christians who could get away fled from the city, and the Mohammedans would not defile their hands by burying the ‘infidel dogs.’ The thirst for blood extended to the high lands of Hermon and Anti-Lebanon, and in a short time 25,000 more Christians were massacred and their possessions laid waste … How they hate a Christian in Damascus! — and pretty much all over Turkeydom as well.”
In 1908, the Young Turk revolution began. There was initial joy as they forced out the tyrannical Ottoman Sultan Abd-ul-Hamid, but this quickly turned to horror when the Three Pashas promoted the idea of “Ottomanization” — creating a homogeneous Turkey of one race, one language, and one belief. They systematically expelled or exterminated non-Muslims.
While the world focused on Germany, France and England during World War I, Turkey was massacring ethnic minorities. Over 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children were killed, 750,000 Syrians, and 1 million Greeks, Albanians, Serbs, and Bulgarians.
Historian Arnold Toynbee wrote:
“Turkish rule…is now, oppressing or massacring, slaughtering or driving from their homes, the Christian population of Greek or Bulgarian stock … Armenia and Cilicia, and Syria, where within the last two years it has been destroying its Christian subjects … The Young Turkish gang who gained power when they had deposed Abd-ul-Hamid, have surpassed even that monster of cruelty in their slaughter…”
After World War I, the Ottoman Empire fell. Britain took Iraq as a protectorate, allowing them independence 1932, but one of Iraq’s first governmental acts was to massacre 3,000 Assyrians in the village of Simmele.
France took Lebanon and Syria as protectorates, allowing them independence in 1943 and 1946, respectively. Though a republic, Syria soon suffered through upheaval, coup d’etat, socialism, riots, civil disorder, and the “Arab Spring,” which has brought the Muslim Brotherhood whose goal is to re-establish a caliphate.
Since the invasion of Islam in 630 AD, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, the Maronite Church, and the Chaldean Catholic Church, quietly suffered 33 major genocides, averaging one every 40 years.
As reported by cnsnews.com, the Patriarch of Antioch, Gregory III, who oversees the 1.6 million members of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Palestinian territories and Sudan, stated:
“We must listen to the Pope’s appeal for peace in Syria. If Western countries want to create true democracy then they must build it on reconciliation, through dialogue between Christians and Muslims, not with weapons. This attack being planned by the United States…will only reap more victims, in addition to the tens of thousands of these two years of war. This will destroy the Arab world’s trust in the West. What or who have led Syria to this thin red line, this point of no return? Who created this hell in which our people have been living for months?”
Patriarch Gregory III continued:
“Every day, Islamic extremists from all over the world are pouring into Syria with the sole intent to kill and not one country has done anything to stop them; even the U.S. has decided to send in more weapons. We renew our rejection of any foreign military intervention in the Syrian crisis.”
Gregory III concluded:
“For the last two and a half years, Eastern and Western countries have not stopped sending weapons, money, military experts, secret service agents and Salafist fundamentalist armed gangs of thugs and criminals, who have fallen on Syria like a destructive new flood, far more dangerous even than destructive chemical weapons, whose use on our Syrian soil we reject on any pretext whatever.”
William J. Federer is author of What Every American Needs to Know About the Qur’an-A History of Islam & the United States