On the Existence of National Identity Before 'Imagined Communities': The Example of the Assyrians of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Persia
4 Pages Posted: 18 Apr 2011 Last revised: 1 Nov 2011
Date Written: April 13, 2011
Studies on nationalism and the emergence of modern ethnic identities rarely examine sources dating from the period between 0 CE (A.D.) and 1453 CE, or the period between the fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the mid-first millennium BCE and the Age of Discovery in the mid-second millennium CE. Testing generally accepted theories of national and ethnic distinctiveness against these sources reveals that a similar case exists for the existence of an Assyrian identity and nation as for a Greek, Kurdish, Jewish, or Persian identity or nation. Assyrian populations, religions, and political formations survived in present-day Iraq, Iran, and Turkey from 0 CE well into the 1800s CE.
Commentators on modern nationalism in relation to Assyrian identity have assumed, with little evidence, that the non-Arab, non-Jewish peoples of the East lacked the agency or the intellect to maintain a consistent identity or national movement, and that these peoples relied in their ignorance and indolence on the theories of Western missionaries and colonial officials. In the 1980s, a new generation of scholars emerged who posited that nations and peoples emerged in conjunction with modern capitalistic cultural forms and secular nationalistic liberalism. The new theory of "imagined communities" represented a departure from a long tradition of historical and cultural work which assumed nations and peoples as subjects of analysis without critically examining the linguistic, cultural, or religious foundation of these groups of individuals or families. This new theory, however, has the risk of degenerating into a vulgar instrumentalism, which speculates that identity entrepreneurs can manufacture ethnic, racial, or religious identity for their own purposes and little objective foundation. Thus, more recent research points out the flaws in grounding national and ethnic distinctions in modern nationalism by compiling evidence that nations and peoples perceived themselves and were perceived as such by other collectivities, long before the rise of European humanism or the Enlightenment.
This study attempts to show that the longevity and diversity of national and ethnic distinctions undermine a one-size-fits-all explanation of such distinctions in the manner of Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities.” The evidence from the Assyrian case suggests that the undifferentiated hordes of Asia did not coalesce and order themselves in modern times and under Western influence into nations created and sustained by advanced technology. This “Imagined Communities” narrative suffers from hindsight bias and an exaggerated Eurocentrism. It also insults and infantilizes the peoples and nations of premodern eras and non-Western regions by assuming they lacked the intelligence with which modern Europeans constructed national cultures, laws, literatures, schools, and economies. Historians have long since disproved such ideas.
By examining translations of and academic commentary on Aramaic, Greek, Roman, and Persian literature and inscriptions, among other sources, this Essay demonstrates that the British Empire invented neither the modern Assyrians as a people, nor the territory of modern Assyria that was considered for statehood by the League of Nations after World War I. Rather, the identification of present-day northern Iraq, northwestern Persia, and southeastern Turkey as “Assyria” draws support from the Middle Assyrian and Neo-Assyrian usage of the second and third millennia BCE, and the Greek, Roman, Persian, and Aramaic usage in the first millennium CE. Finally, the contribution of ancient Assyria to the cultures, languages, and religions of the non-Muslim populations of contemporary Iran, Iraq, and Turkey may no longer be doubted, especially when it comes to the Assyrian Christians, Mandaeans, and Yezidis. This ancient contribution is present in these peoples' daily vocabularies, place-names, and indigenous beliefs.
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Keywords: Assyrians, Greeks, Persians, Sassanians, Kurds, Mandaeans, Yezidis, Herodotus, Strabo, Posidonius, Ptolemy, Ammianus, Lucian, Tatian, Cassius Dio
JEL Classification: K00
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation