Note on the Modern Assyrians

The Modern Assyrians are a community of Christians, members of the historic Church of the East (often called, especially by historians, the "Nestorian" Church), in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, in the surrounding countries. They are part of a larger Aramaic speaking community of northern Iraq, eastern Syria and Turkey, and western Iran. Many are now living in exile. Aramaic speakers would have meant nearly everyone in Iraq in Late Antiquity, before the arrival of Islām and the Arabic language; but it is now a group almost vanished in a sea of Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish, and Persian speaking Muslims. Historians tend to call their language "Syriac," which goes back to the Classical Syriac that was the literary language centered in the city of Edessa (modern Urfa in Turkey), which was the cultural center of the Syrian Orthodox Church. "Aramaic" is customary in linguistics and ethnography.
Religious Communities
in Iraq, 1995
Syriac Catholic55,5000.3%
Syriac Orthodox37,2000.2%

Another community of Christians in the area are the Chaldeans. These are Aramaic speaking Christians, originally from the Church of the East also, who entered into doctrinal communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The term "Chaldean" was recognized in 1445 by Pope Eugenius IV. It seems to have been used earlier with other, interchangeable terms for the Christians of Mesopotamia. I have seen it used by Liutprand of Cremona in 949 AD. The actual "Chaldeans" were Aramaeans (though some now question this) who settled in southern Iraq, forming the basis of the Neo-Babylonian revival of the X (or XI) Dynasty of Babylon. The Biblical expression "Ur of the Chaldees" is anachronistic when applied to the original Ur of the Sumerians, who had nothing to do with the Chaldeans and were long gone before the Chaldeans were anywhere near even existing. As descendants of real Aramaeans, the modern Chaldeans are more likely to be related to the real Chaldeans than anyone else, but there is no documentary or historical connection that can be traced after the age of Nebuchadnezzar, when the ethnic Chaldeans had blended into the older Babylonian population, and Aramaic began to be spoken by everyone.

The Assyrians and Chaldeans are not the last people speaking descendants of Aramaic. First, there was an Aramaic speaking Jewish community in Kurdistan, but they now all, apparently, have moved to Israel [cf. Robert D. Hoberman, The Syntax and Semantics of Verb Morphology in Modern Aramaic, A Jewish Dialect of Iraqi Kurdistan, American Oriental Society, New Haven, 1989]. Second, there are the Aramaic speakers of the Syrian or Syriac Orthodox Church, with its Catholic Counter-Church, the Syrian/Syriac Catholic Church.

A confusing factor with the Aramaic speaking Christian communities is that the cultural boundary does not follow the linguistic boundary. Speaking dialects closely related to those of the Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Jews (Eastern Aramaic) are the Orthdox Christians who religiously are affiliated with the Western Syriac religious tradition, members of the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Syrian Catholic Church, which is the part of the Orthodox Church that, like the Chaldeans, has entered into communion with Rome. Culturally, the Syrian Church was in Roman territory (upper Mesopotamia), and looked to the Patriarchate of Antioch, rather than to the Church of the East, originally on Sassanid territory, whence the Assyrian and Chaldean communities derive. These Christians tend to see themselves as Syrians or Aramaeans. What remains of actual Western dialects of Syriac/Aramaean is only to be found in three villages near Damascus, in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains on the border between Syria and Lebanon. Stories about them turn up occasionally right before Christmas, with the plausible hook that this is the surviving language that would be the closest to the language actually spoken by Jesus -- who used a dialect of Aramaic, not Hebrew, for daily life. There is little hope for the survival of this community of Western Syriac speakers, however. At the same time, the Western Syriac alphabet sometimes is used to write Arabic by Lebanese Maronite Christians. This used to be characteristic in the Middle Ages:  Whatever language you spoke, you wrote it in the alphabet of your religion. Thus, Moses Maimonides wrote Arabic, Ashkenazic Jews wrote German (Yiddish), and Sephardic Jews wrote Spanish (Ladino), in Hebrew letters. In India, Moslems wrote Hindustani in Arabic letters (becoming Urdu) and Hindus wrote it in the Sanskrit Devanagari letters (becoming Hindi).

The Christian communities in Turkey and in Iraq and Iran have been persecuted over the years. The genocide of the Armenians in Turkey during World War I also included the other Christians. Many Christians in Iraq today actually fled from the Hikkari Mountains to the north because of attacks by Turks and Kurds. Subsequently, Iraqi Christians came under attack for cooperating during the years of the British Iraqi Mandate (1920-1932). As the British often did, they were happy to use the services of oppressed local minorities for their own purposes but then might simply forget them once British interests were no longer involved. While the Christians were not actively persecuted in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, they were officially regarded as Christian Arabs, not as a national minority. I have noticed that sometimes careless historians even refer to the Mediaeval Christians of Iraq, who would all have been Aramaic speakers, long before either Islam or Arabic became common in the population, as "Christian Arabs."

When Saddam Hussein was overthrown in the Third Gulf War, this soon led to near civil war between the Sunni and Shiite communities, with Terrorist-backed Sunnis unwilling to accept a democratically elected government in which Shiites would have a majority. In time the excesses of al-Qaida sympathizers, especially foreign Jihadists, alienated most of even the Sunni community, and the threat of civil war receded -- as meanwhile the Kurds had fortified themselves in their own part of the country. However, the radicals then began to focus their fanaticism of those who were not part of this larger conflict and who had not been significant enough to figure in the political modus vivendi. This meant the Christians, who were too small in number to figure in Iraqi political calculations and who tended to be under the radar to the Western press.

Assaults, kidnappings, and murders have now become common against Iraqi Christians. On 31 October 2010, these attacks culiminated in the seizure by Terrorists of a Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad. The Terrorists were outfitted as suicide bombers, and when authorities tried to storm the church, the bombs were detonated, killing dozens of Christians. This terrible event, like similar atrocities against the Copts in Egypt, got little notice in the Western press. Why there should be such unconcern may be due to two things:  (1) the political insignificance, as noted, of the Christian communities (whether in Iraq or Egypt), which goes with the desired perception that the Iraqi political situation is now "settled," allowing for American complacency and military withdrawl, and (2) the Leftist paradigm of the "mainstream" American media that Muslims are always victims and Christians are always oppressors. This template, of course, shades over into active aid and comfort for Islamic Terrorism and opposition to the measures needed to fight it -- what Ann Coulter calls the "Treason Lobby" of the modern Democrat Party.

Christian victims of Muslim persecution in the Islamic world have been ignored for years, beginning with the genocide and slavery practiced for decades against Black Christians in the South of the Sudan by the Arab Muslim North. Although sometimes noted, as on 60 Minutes, this situation aroused little alarm or outrage, outside activist Christians. Thus, President Obama characteristically fixed the "original sin of slavery," on the United States, where slavery was historically absolished, while the current practice of slavery, against Black people no less, by Arabs is overlooked. When it became more fashionable for the political elite to protest the genocide in Darfur, in the West of the Sudan, a curious feature of the campaign was the absence of information about the religion of the victims. One is left wondering that the people of Darfur must not be Christians, or their plight would have been ignored also. (Actually, they are Muslims.)

The Assyrian community in Iraq is considerably smaller than the Chaldean community, but they have been more organized, active, and militant. The information they provide from the Middle East sometimes can be confusing because self-identified Chaldeans and (Syirac Orthodox) Aramaeans, including the Catholics of the Syrian Catholic church, are frequently called "Assyrians" by Assyrian organizations. This is an artifact of the nationalistic ideology of Assyrian organizations, according to which all the Aramaic speaking communities are direct and coherent descendants of the Ancient Assyrians.

This may be deeply resented by many or even most in the other communities, who do not want to be identified, wholly or even partially, with the ancient Assyrians, or with modern Assyrian nationalism. This has led to intense dispute, for instance, over census categories in the United States and about statements in the press referring to the ethnic communities in Iraq. Thus, press reports sometimes even say that the Christian community in Iraq speaks "Assyrian," a language that disappeared in ancient times (though many Assyrians seem to believe they are speaking ancient Assyrian). Some Assyrians even reject their ancient Christianity and wish to revive the worship of Assyrian gods, like Ashur. This would not be tolerated in Islamic countries imposing Islamic Law, where polytheism and idolatry are prohibited. On the other hand, there are also militant Aramaic nationalists, who believe that the terminology of "Assyrian" and "Chaldean," and so Assyrian nationalism itself, are artifacts of Western imperialism.

The identity of Aramaic speaking Christians in the Middle East has been a puzzle since the Middle Ages. The issue became more acute in the modern age of nationalism, especially the Arab nationalism which, in its secular forms, really wanted to include Christians as well as Muslims (if not also Jews). A recently militant and fascist Islamism, however, which simply attacks Christians (as has happened in Pakistan and Indonesia, as well as in Egypt), may render the whole business theoretical and irrelevant, with the practical result that Christians flee to Europe and America, as Iraqi Jews had already fled to Israel. The tendency of Assyrian nationalists to regard Jews and Christians (who may be astonished at the exaltation of ancient Assyria) as enemies, becomes self-defeating in the worst way.

Mesopotamian Index

Ethnic Nationalist Ideologies -- further Comments on the Modern Assyrians

The Semitic and Other Afroasiatic Languages

Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2010, 2011, 2019 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Ethnic Nationalist Ideologies --
further Comments on the Modern Assyrians, Strange Claims about the Greeks, and about India, and Note on "Afro-Centric" Egypt

The Assyrian heartland occupied a triangular region bounded by the Tigris and Lesser Zab Rivers to the west and southeast respectively, and by the lower elevations of the Zagros Mountains to the north...

Tiglathpileser I [1115-1077 BC] reported hostile encounters with Aramaean tribes in his western campaigns. Although he was able to keep them at bay during his reign, after his death the Assyrian state nearly collapsed under their intrusive pressure...

Little is known of Ashurbanipal's last years or of his successors' reigns. Assyria was finally brought down by a coalition of Medes and Babylonians. Though the last Assyrian king, Ashur-urballit II (611 to 609 B.C.), held out at Harran until 609, the true end of Assyria came three years earlier, in 612, when Nineveh's walls were breached and its palaces burned to the ground.

"Assyria," James A. Armstrong, The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, edited by Brian M. Fagan, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp.455-456

It has not been uncommon for modern nations and ethnic communities to develop inflated ideas of their own importance to a deceptive and, especially when dealing with other communities, sometimes unhelpful level. These ideas may be over relatively trivial issues.

In Egypt, people from the Coptic Christian community may claim that the Greek alphabet (which is used to write Coptic) was derived directly from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, ignoring the fact that the Greek alphabet was borrowed from the Phoenicians, whose own alphabet had been derived much more indirectly, if at all, from Egyptian [cf. p. 28, Who Are the Copts?, by Rev. Fr. Shenouda Hanna, Cairo, 1967].

Similarly, modern Greeks stoutly and famously maintain that the Modern Greek language, the lone surviving descendant of Classical Greek, is pronounced in exactly the same way as Classical Greek was 2500 years ago [note].

Such a thing is actually impossible (who has the "real" pronunciation of Latin? Italians? Spanish? Portuguese? Romanians? -- actually none); but if challenged, modern Greeks like to say, "We should know." They would know, in fact, if someone among them is more than 2000 years old and can actually remember the ancient pronunciation (there being no audio recordings from back then). Otherwise, they are not exempt from the obvious and natural drift in pronuncation that affects all languages. The proprietary claim, that members of a ethnic, national, or racial group have the right to say whatever they want about themselves, uncontradicted by others, is less paradoxical but morally far nastier [note].

In the section above I have given some indication of the controversies involved in the claims of modern Assyrian nationalism about the origin of the community. In the original version of this page, I simply expressed some surprise that Assyrian Christians would seek their identity in the Ancient Assyrians, who generally are not portrayed positively in the Bible -- except in the Book of Jonah, where they are said to repent after Jonah, escaped from the whale, preaches to them. Repentant or not, of course, Nineveh was nevertheless destroyed, as celebrated in the Book of Nahum. Also, I was disturbed about various false or ahistorical claims I was hearing, such as that the Sumerians were Assyrians, the Aramaic language of modern Assyrians was identical to the ancient Assyrian language, and so forth.

My perplexity was interpreted by some Assyrians, who in the Spring of 2001 happened to find the webpage, as an attack on the Assyrians (ancient and modern). My observations were hotly disputed and regarded as "anti-Assyrian" by many Assyrians. A protest was organized against me, and the President of my College was flooded with protesting e-mails, including one from someone who had been one of my own students, actually calling for my dismissal. People also seemed to have taken the idea, or perhaps been told, that I thought they should not call themselves "Assyrians." I never thought so or said so.

If there were things about Assyrian nationalism that I had found perplexing or disturbing previously, this hardly compared with what I began to see in the e-mails sent to the President and to me. I was accused of being a Jew. I was seeing claims that Christianity derived from ancient Assyrian religion and had nothing to do with Judaism, which of course was anti-Assyrian. And I soon learned that an element of the Assyrian community didn't want to be Christian at all but wished to revive the ancient Assyrian gods. There was a ringleader of the protest, who himself turned out to be a fan of Saddam Hussein and was virulently anti-American. He relished telling us that he was getting ready to leave the United States because he disliked it so much.

What he wanted was a debate. He didn't want the webpage withdrawn, he just wanted to be able to publicly challenge it. I did withdraw the page at the time. After the debate, I posted the original page and considerable material about the controversy under Correspondence. The debate was supposed to be a big event in the local Assyrian community. Unfortunately, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred before the debate was scheduled to take place in the Fall of 2001. The Assyrian community wisely stayed away from the debate, with its perhaps anti-American overtones, and only a few friends of the ringleader attended, with some classes from the History and Philosophy departments at the College.

As it happens, the gentleman who had been the ringleader of the protest against me wrote again in February 2009 to apologize. He had become disillusioned with Assyrian nationalist ideology. But he had also gone over to the Aramaean ideology which denied the legitimacy of categories like "Assyrian" and "Chaldean" -- which I had never done myself. Thus, he now says, "I would only add that there is no such thing as modern Assyrians or Chaldeans... growing up in this community I well recall that we never referred to ourselves as 'Ashuri' [ancient Assyrian for "Assyrian"] or 'Aturi' [Aramaic for "Assyrian"], but always as Suyraye [i.e. "Syrian"]..." And now he seems to take his Christianity seriously, saying, "What we are is Christian....either Nestorian, Jacobite or Catholic..." However, when he says, "The Chaldean and Assyrian name was first applied to our Christian communities by Catholic missionaries and then archeologists," I don't think this is quite right. Liutprand of Cremona (945 AD) used "Chaldean" and was writing well before there were Catholic missionaries in the area. The use of the term "Assyrian" for the community, however, may only date from the 1840's, after the rediscovery of the ruins of the ancient Assyrian cities. The very oldest references to the Christian community in Iraq seems to have been as "Nestorians," a term used by Cosmas Indicopleustes in 525 AD.

The protest against my little webpage, however, turned out to be all too common a phenomenon in the lives of scholars far more serious and better informed than me about the modern Aramaic communities -- if they did not toe the nationalistic party line. Even scholars who were Assyrians themselves have come in for protests and threats. As it happened, the Chair of the History Department at my own College, at the time of the protest against me, was of Assyrian origin herself; but she told me, "Those people are so irrational," that she had had nothing to do with them in years. Most telling in this respect is the work of John Joseph, already in 1999 an Emeritus professor from Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. Joseph's book, The Modern Assyrians of the Middle East, Encounters with Western Christian missions, archaeologists, and colonial powers [Brill, Leiden, Boston, Köln, 2000], is the most sensible general treatment of modern Assyrian history and ideology, and it apparently has earned him considerable vilification from the nationalists.

Thus, Dr. Joseph summed up the controversy about Assyrian origins and identity this way:

The people who today call themselves Assyrians are, strickly speaking, members of a cultural and religious group, molded together into a minority by ties of a common language and, until the nineteen century, a common church membership which, until the birth of the modern nation-state in the Middle East, was the strongest tie among people. The lineal origin of the community, like that of most Middle Eastern nationalities -- and nationalities the world over -- is hidden in the mists of history. The religious and linguistic minority under discussion is naturally a mixture of ethnicities, mainly Aramaean, but also Persian, Kurdish, Arab, and Jewish, just as present-day Arabs are the result of a similar merging of a variety of nationalities. But just as it was the speakers of Arabian language who gave most of the converts to Islam in the Middle East and North Africa the name "Arab," so the Aramaeans gave the various converts to Christianity their mother tongue, and for the next 1,800 years, bequeathed to them the language of their literature and liturgy as well as the very name by which they have for centuries called themselves -- Suraye, Suryaye. [op.cit., pp.31-32, boldface added]

I believe that today there are modern Assyrians who sincerely believe that "We have always known" that the community is simply and coherently that of the ancient Assyrians which has survived in lineal descent through the centuries (although this is then muddled when people say that Nebuchadnezzar or the Sumerians were "Assyrians"). Unfortunately, no such continuity can be documented; and the record shows that the name of "Assyrian" is a recent adoption -- an adoption that was attended by considerable debate, whose record survives in old Syriac language newspapers from a century ago.

Merely bringing such facts to light, however, has made scholars, including Dr. Joseph himself, targets of protest, threats, and insults -- while an irresponsible scholar such as the Finnish Assyriologist Simo Parpola has encouraged this with strange claims that the Babylonians, Medes, and Persians were Assyrians, that Biblical monotheism and Greek philosophy were Assyrian in origin, and that "the Christian religion is essentially a religion of the ancient Assyrians" [ibid., note 102, pp.29-30]. That Jews and Christians (and Classicists) would find this kind of thing astonishing and appalling has been interpretated to mean that the priniciple enemies of the modern Assyrians are Jews and Christians. Hence the accusations against me of being a Jew.

The tragedy of this kind of thing, of course, is that Iraqi Christians are not being killed by Jews or Christians, but by Islamist fanatics. Indeed, the Christian communities in the Middle East have shrunk over the centuries precisely because of pressures to convert to Islam. Today, an Islam that is frustrated with its own failures and impotence in the modern world is undergoing an attempted revival of the religion in its purity, which unfortunately means expressions of the most primitive and savage sort from its past, with the tools of modern Terrorism, aided and abetted by the diehard Leftists who supported the wrong side in the Cold War. Middle Eastern Christians have been caught in the middle, just as innocent and fragile Cambodia was destroyed in the previous geopolitical conflict. They may understandably be bitter about this -- but they are also urged (by the Left) to blame it on the United States (again -- something that was common in the Cold War), instead of on the people who are actually killing them.

Recollecting the protest and controversy from 2001, I find it difficult not to reflect on the arguments I used to have with Jews and Israelis about Israel. After my time at the American University of Beirut and traveling in the Middle East, I was for many years very sympathetic with the Palestinian cause and willing to argue about it. One thing that strikes me about these arguments now is that, despite my point of view, I was never the target of hostility, threats, or insults. The Jews and Israelis I dealt with, including, as it happened, an Israeli girlfriend, never took offense at my arguments but simply replied in an earnest and sincere way, confident that if I could see their point of view, I would agree. Looking back, I think they may have persuaded me more with this approach than with their actual case -- even as I felt that the Palestinian case was being discredited by the adoption of Terrorism, let alone its more recent Islamist and Jihadist permutations.

The hostile reaction of Assryian nationalists to the slightest criticism of their ideology was not like the reaction of the Jews and Israelis with whom I argued but more like, indeed, the reaction of the Islamists and Jihadists to what they perceive as "insults" to Islam. The death threats, riots, murders, vandalism, mayhem, and terrorism that seem to be widely regarded in the Islamic world as suitable responses to "insults," are far more extreme than the reactions of Assyrian nationalists, but there is definitely a similarity of tone. You become an enemy, even if you are a person with every reason to be sympathetic with the situation of all Christian communities in the Middle East -- and particularly intrigued by the long and fascinating history of the Church of the East. But to the Assyrian nationalists, it did look like their connection with Ashurbanipal was emotionally more important than Christianity, while protesting against Jews and Christians somehow was more satisfying, or perhaps safer, than protesting, let alone threatening or insulting, the Muslims actually inflicting murderous attacks on the Aramaic communities.

The near future for Middle Eastern Christians is grim. Foreign intervention in Egypt is out of the question, while the powers, principally the United States, that intervened in Iraq to overthrown Saddam Hussein, are not likely to show much enthusiasm to upset a relatively benign settlement between the major communities, Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish, in order secure sufficient protections for the Christians. The favorite solution to the Assyrians, an autonomous and protected zone near Mosul, would be most likely to create a grim redoubt under constant siege. The Jews had their own redoubt, also under siege but with some extent, and ports, to which to flee. So the Christians, until far greater humanity and political maturity grips the Middle East, may have no choice but the refuge of the West.

Mesopotamian Index

Return to "Historical Background to Greek Philosophy"

Sports Teams and Identity Ownership

Strange Claims about the Greeks, and about India

The Pronunciation of Greek

Note on "Afro-Centric" Egypt

History of Philosophy

Philosophy of History

Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2010, 2017, 2021, 2023 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Strange Claims about the Greeks, and about India

It now comes to my attention, and there is even a website about it, that some Greeks are claiming that the Romans were actually Greeks -- that is, the original Romans at the City of Rome, not the later Mediaeval Romans who were Greek, Armenian, Albanian, Vlach, etc. speakers. They can try to make such a claim because educated Romans often spoke Greek (the Emperor Marcus Aurelius kept his diary in Greek) and because the mythic history for Rome had details such as that the Trojan prince Aeneas settled in Latium. In making such claims, the Greeks seem to overlook, though it is hard to imagine how they could, the prestige and antiquity of Greek culture in relation to Rome. Mediaeval Europeans wrote in Latin, which did not mean that the Irish, English, and Germans were really Romans. They weren't; but their own languages were merely spoken, not written, for some time. As for the story about Aeneas, even if this could be taken seriously as history, which it cannot, they overlook the circumstance that Aeneas was not a Greek himself. The Trojans and their allies were of the autochthonous peoples of Asia Minor, who were not Greeks. Aeneas speaks Greek in the Iliad and the Odyssey, which some regard as evidence, but then everyone speaks Greek in the epics, even Egyptians. Homer was not going to interpose a translator between Achilles and Hector. Why someone like Julius Caesar should be a Greek with a name that is phonetically and morphologically Latin I have never even seen explained. Theories like this, as Raymond Chandler once said about chess, are the most elaborate waste of human intelligence outside an advertising agency. But there is an easy solution:  Plutarch (c.46-c.120 AD), who was Greek, wrote a series of biographies, Parallel Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans, where he matched up individuals whose lives he considered similar from Greek and Roman history. Since the Romans were, by this principle, not Greeks, then they are clearly something else, i.e. Romans. Indeed, Anthony Kaldellis recently wrote:

Despite his general admiration for the Romans, acceptance of the empire, and personal possession of Roman citizenship, Plutarch regarded Greeks as irreducibly different from Romans, who were allophyloi, and he did not approve of Greek integration into Roman society. [Hellenism in Byzantium, Cambridge, 2007, 2011]

An equally curious, nationalistic claim about India, that is advocated on the Internet, is the idea that speakers of Indo-European languages, rather than being invaders of India, in fact originated there, so that India is itself the homeland of all Indo-European languages. On this view, the Indo-European and Dravidian languages of India actually are closely related and have a common origin in the (unattested) languages of the Indus Valley Civilization, which itself then is the oldest civilization of all and the source of the others, like the Sumerian, that were previously thought to be older.

As with similar claims about the Greeks or Assyrians, this thesis is argued with documentary and archaeological evidence that is sometimes true, sometimes misinterpreted, and sometimes completely false. Thus, an important characteristic of the Indo-European (or Indo-Aryan) invaders of India and the Middle East is that they introduced the horse, which originated in Central Asia (though, as we know now from paleontological evidence, it had evolved millions of year earlier in North America). The Egyptians of the Old Kingdom, for instance, had donkeys, and the early Sumerians had an extinct ass, the "onager," but horses don't start turning up in Mesopotamia until around the beginning of the 2nd millennium (i.e. c.2000 BC) and not in Egypt until the Second Intermediate Period (1786-c.1575). Thus, "horse" in late Sumerian was , anshe-kur-ra, the "ass of [foreign] countries." Similarly, the Indus Valley Civlization was at first innocent of horses also, though it survived down into the period (c.1500) by which the arrival of some horses could already be expected. Thus, if archaeological evidence for horse burials could be interpreted as belonging to the earlier period, the argument could be made that horses had always been there, which is precisely the claim I have seen made. The non-specialist on Indus Valley archaeology is then in no position to dispute such presumed evidence.

Now, as it happens, what may have looked liked horse bones in the Indus Valley were, as in Sumeria, those of onagers (Equus hemionus). See The Indus, by Andrew Robinson, pp.87-88 [Reaktion Books, London, 2015]. Also, see Robinson in relation to the Indus script discussed below [pp.144-171].

The most easily disposed fallacy of the thesis about the Indo-Europeans in India, however, is in the linguistic evidence. The oldest Indo-European language of India, Vedic Sanskrit, is not related to the Dravidian languages of India in any conventionally ascertainable way. Vedic Sanskrit, however, is nearly identical to Avestan, the oldest attested form of an Iranian language. There are new theories that Indo-European and Dravidian (and Semitic, etc.) languages may be ultimately related, but this connection would be much more remote than the theory of common origin in India would allow. What is clear, however, is that Vedic Sanskrit has already borrowed some Dravidian vocabulary and some Dravidian phonology. The languages of India become a sprachbund, which means a group of unrelated languages that borrow features from each other because of geographical proximity (as in the Balkans).

All the languages in India have a characteristic set of "retroflex" or "lingual" consonsants, , ṭh, , ḍh, , and , corresponding to the ordinary "dentals," t, th, d, dh, n, and s. These do not occur in other Indo-European languages, which is hardly possible if Indo-European languages had originated with those sounds in India. Ockham's Razor requires the simpler theory that, if no Indo-European languages but in India have retroflexes, then Proto-Indo-European did not have retroflexes. By the same token, the contrast between the Indo-European vowels a, e, and o has been lost in all Indo-Aryan languages (which means Iranian as well as Indian languages), which only have a. Linguistically, it is easy enough for the three vowels to simplify to one, but unheard of for one to differentiate into three without being the effect of some phonetic or morphological environment. No theory of such an environment, as far as I know, has been suggested as part of the Indian-origin theory. Instead, e, and o actually did reemerge in Sanskrit from the diphthongs ai, and au, respectively. Much the same process can be seen in modern Arabic, where bêt, "house," develops from Classical Arabic bayt.

A claim that has recently come to my attention is that the writing of the Indus Valley, whose texts are probably too few (3700 inscribed objects, 60% of which are seals, with much duplication), and with no bilingual examples, to ever be deciphered, has now been identified (by S.R. Rao and others) as consisting of alphabetic characters which are recognizably the source of both the later Brahmi script of India and of the alphabet systems -- Phoenican, Canaanite, Hebrew, etc. -- of the Middle East. A very good recent examination of all the work and claims in this area can be found in Lost Languages, The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts, by Andrew Robinson [McGraw Hill, 2002, "At the Sign of the Unicorn, the Indus Script," pp. 264-295]. According to Robinson, the good basic recent work in the Indus Valley script has been done by Asko Parpola and Iravatham Mahadevan.

I see three problems with the thesis of the derivation of later alphabet from the Indus script:  (1) When every other known writing system in the world begins with pictographic characters and only later evolves phonetic elements, it is improbable to incredible that an alphabetic or syllabic system should leap into maturity in India, without anything like a similar evolution, let alone all the pre-literate stages now known for Sumerian (and, recently, perhaps even Egyptian). (2) The chronological gap between Indus Valley literacy and the later attested writing, i.e. from c.1500 to 800 or 700 BC, is so large as to render unlikely to impossible the survival of the earlier system. And (3) the Middle Eastern alphabets appear in the wrong place to be derived from India, i.e. in Syria and Palestine, which is a place strongly linked in trade and culture to Egypt (whose writing the alphabets resemble), but not to someplace on the other side of the India Ocean. To be sure, related alphabetic writing appears in Yemen, where Indian trade could be postulated, but the derivation of South Arabian writing from Levantine seems uncontroversial to Semiticists.

A National Geographic story on the Indus Valley civilization ("Indus Civilization, Clues to an Ancient Puzzle," Vol.197, No.6, June 2000, pp.108-129) mentions some key information, for instance that 400 symbols have been identified in the Indus script (p.122). The longest Indus text is only 26 symbols, while "the average is just five -- not much for a decipherer to work with." Indeed. Robinson says there are 425 +/-25 attested characters (p.281), with the uncertainty due to the possiblity of ligatures (combinations) and allomorphs (alternate forms). This is too many to be either an alphabetic or even a syllabic system, but is a bit deficient to be the whole of an ideographic system -- about 1000 characters are known from the similarly fragmentary texts of the Shang Dynasty. Nevertheless, Robinson mentions that only about 500 characters are attested from Hittite hieroglyphics, 600+ from Sumerian, and about 800 (or as few as 500) in Mayan glyphs. So we seem to be a little short, but in the right order of magnitude.

Thus, after almost endless confusion, we must return to the conventional wisdom that the Romans are not Greeks and that the Indo-Aryans invaded India.

Return to text on Assyrians

Ethnic Nationalist Ideologies

The Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus, by Andrew Robinson, Reaktion Books, London, 2015, 2017

History of Philosophy

Philosophy of History

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2011, 2018, 2021 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Note on "Afro-Centric" Egypt

One of the strangest forms of this proprietary ethnic mythmaking has been "Afro-Centric" educational programs in the United States that seek to boost the self-esteem of black American students by (1) identifying them with the ancient Egyptians, (2) attributing to the ancient Egyptians most of the accomplishments of civilization, including flight, and (3) accusing Western Civilization, starting with the Greeks, of "stealing" everything from the Egyptians.

One thing this ideology does is actually leave out the Egyptians, i.e. the Modern Egyptians. This has intensified recently with the Netflix pseudo-documentary on Cleopatra, which portrays her and pretty much all Egyptians as black. In the day of social media, the backlash from actual Egyptians has been intense, especially when they are accused by foreigners of all being Arabs, Persians, or Romans and not the descendants of Ancient Egyptians at all.

Foreigners telling Egyptians who they are is of course a major sin and crime against political correctness and "progressive" ideology, since it is a "colonialist" imposition and smearing of native Egyptians by people, mainly Americans, who apparently don't know anything about them. The irony of this is, of course, lost on people who are unaware of irony. The "documentary" begins with a typical American academic fool telling us that her "grandmother" had told her, as a child, that Cleopatra was Black -- without any hint how her grandmother is supposed to have known this.

The "Afro-Centric" claims have been so bizarre and ahistorical, that one hardly knows where to start in dealing with them, though they are often left unchallenged by people who clearly know better, perhaps out of fear of being called racists (an offense against the sort of proprietary claims to exclusive self-characterization -- i.e. one can say nothing about anyone that contradicts what they say about themselves). Again, the irony is that these claims are not made by actual Egyptians but by foreign academics who seem largely unfamiliar with the history of Egypt.

The most curious aspect of all this to me, however, is the idea that the ancient Egyptians were "black" in the sense of looking like the sub-Saharan Africans who were brought to the New World as slaves and from whom black Americans are descended. Since modern Egyptians mostly do not look like sub-Saharan Africans, one is left to wonder, "Where did the old Egyptians go?" The inescapable conclusion would be that, since modern Egyptians look like many other Arabs, the Ancient people must have been exterminated or driven out of the country in the Arab conquest of Egypt.

This, however, would not be very flattering to Islām (or the Arabs), to which (and to whom) many black nationalists look as a religion (and a nation) more appropriate and friendly to Africans and African-Americans than Christianity (or America). (This black celebration of Islām must be particularly galling to Ethiopians, who preserved their Christianity against Islām, and Arab slavers, for many centuries.) However, there were in fact hardly enough Arabs in the Arab conquest to drive anyone out of Egypt, and it was never the business of Islām to displace, let alone massacre, the Egyptians.

Another notion, however, seems to be that the Egyptians moved south as Semitic immigrants came into the Delta, starting in the Middle Kingdom. Since the Egyptians say nothing about moving south, and the Kushites, in the south, have their own language and are clearly not Egyptians (according to the Egyptians themselves), this is a desperate and unmotivated theory.

In fact, the ancient Egyptians looked pretty much like modern Egyptians, as anyone examining Egyptian painting and sculpture can tell -- just as the same sources clearly distinguish the much darker, indeed black, people who have always lived as close to Egypt as Nubia (the area just south of the modern Aswan) -- as we see portrayed on a cane handle from the tomb of Tutankhamon, at left.

A nice example of Egyptian continuity in appearance is a V Dynasty wooden statue (shown at right) of someone named "Ka-aper" that was unearthed in 1860. The statue bore such an uncanny resemblance to the nearby living "chief of the village" (shaykh al-balad) that the Egyptian workers immediately began calling it that.

By the same token, those with the best claim to being the direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians, Coptic Christians, do not look particularly different from other modern Egyptians. The former Secretary General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, is himself a Copt. What he looks like is very much a matter of public record. Since Arabs were not legally allowed to convert to Christianity to marry Copts, and since Copts probably did convert to Islām to marry Arabs, one suspects that the Coptic community contains relatively little Arab blood.

If one objects that the shaykh al-balad has lost its skin color, so, for all we know, Ka-aper could have been very dark, there are many other portraits and sculptures that retain their color, not just from later periods of Egyptian history, but even from the Old Kingdom. A couple of the best preserved and striking are at right, the statues of Rahotep and his wife Nefert from their IV Dynasty tomb at Meidum. Nefert is pale indeed, and it can be claimed that this exaggeration renders the skin colors "symbolic" -- something a correspondent actually wrote to me, defending "Afro-Centrism."

That, however, Rahotep would want to have a "symbolic" skin color that is brown, if he was actually as dark as Nubians, is not very believable. Nefert is so light in color that either it is an exaggeration or, perhaps, she is wearing powder, something quite familiar from later cosmetics, though I am not aware of any preserved in surviving Egyptian cosmetic cases (of which there are some). But however we wish to take it all, there is no reasonable explanation for these portraits except that the range of skin colors is either naturalistic or just slightly idealized. This is consistent with other portraits and tomb paintings. Why an idealization would want to turn a black skin into a brown one raises curious questions on its own.

The Egyptians frequently portrayed Nubians and Kushites as enemies and prisoners of Egypt, which is what see in a scene from the tomb of Tutankhamon below, where the brown skinned King is slaughtering black enemies (this is on the side of a box whose other side shows the King slaying Asiatic enemies).

On the other hand, there was a certifiably black Dynasty of ancient Egypt:  The XXV Dynasty of Napata, in Kush, south of Nubia. Piʿankhy (751-730 BC) entered Egypt to contest it with the Libyan dynasties that had been ruling for some time (since 945). Later, XXV Dynasty kings had to deal with the Assyrian invasions of Egypt. They did not fare well in that contest, but when Tanuatamun retreated back into the south, it was to found a line that would continue at Napata and Meroë for many centuries, even building pyramids, until overthrown by the Abyssinians in 355 AD. Another matter of note is that the subsequent Egyptian XXVI Dynasty did not acknowledge the Kings at Napata as proper Kings of Egypt. A bit of Egyptian racism there?

"Blackwashing" Cleopatra

Return to text on Assyrians

Ethnic Nationalist Ideologies

Index of Egyptian History

History of Philosophy

Philosophy of History

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2008, 2023 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved