The Aramaic Diaspora: Scattered Seed
Armenia, Turkey, United States
The term “Diaspora” has been popularly used to refer to the traumatic and widespread dispersion of the people of Israel, first by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and then by the Romans, from Jerusalem, in 136 AD. The word was taken directly into English vocabulary from the Greek, meaning, “a scattering or sowing of seeds.”
Generally speaking, “Diaspora” is a word referring to any ethnic group that is forced or induced to leave its traditional homeland, to the process of dispersal of such people, and to the resulting changes in their culture. The cause of the Diaspora may be varied: political policy, ethnic conflict, religious persecution, or economic deprivation. The effects are similar: people, en masse, are forced to move, adapt and assimilate to an entirely new cultural and linguistic milieu—or face extinction.
Assyrians: Inventors and Victims of Diaspora
Aramaic-speaking peoples make up one of the most notable diasporas of the 20th century. A large portion of this population, identifying themselves as Assyrians, are descended from powerful rulers of a vast, ancient empire once extending throughout Mesopotamia, Palestine and northeastern Africa as far as the upper Nile valley. Today, the Assyrians and other Aramaic speakers are a stateless people, scattered around the world. Today, far more speakers of modern Aramaic dialects can be found, collectively, in about 18 countries around the world, than in their original homelands.
It could be argued that the rulers of the Assyrian Empire, at the height of their power in the ancient Near East, maintained that power through diaspora-as-policy – that is, the intentional mass-relocation of whole conquered populations from their original homelands to other geographic locations. Prominent in the historical books of the Old Testament are accounts of encounters between the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah with that empire. In two successive waves, the Kingdom of Israel was first severely reduced in size (732 BC; 2 Kings 15:29) at the hand of Tiglath-Pileser III, and then eliminated completely by Shalmaneser V (722 BC; 2 Kings 17:3-6). In both campaigns, the kings of Assyria deported large numbers of the population to eastern parts of the empire.
Other kingdoms also found themselves subject to the empire’s deportation policy. The Old Testament (2 Kings 16:9) records the forced relocation of the population of Damascus from that city to another region. The official records of King Sargon II record yet another example: “The Arabs who live far away in the desert, who know neither overseers nor officials, and who had not yet brought their tribute to any king, I deported...and settled them in Samaria.” Some historians believe that the Samaritans of Jesus’ time were the descendants of this population of deportees who intermarried with the remaining indigenous Israelites.
The Assyrian Empire itself fell to the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar, in 622 BC.
By the time of Christ, the descendants of the former rulers and inhabitants of the empire still lived throughout their original homelands, from Asia Minor to Damascus to Nineveh and eastward into Persia. When the gospel was proclaimed to them by the first generation of Jesus’ disciples, the message was readily embraced by the Aramaic-speaking peoples of the region. The church among the Aramaic-speaking peoples flourished and grew from the 1st to the 7th century. In their obedience to the commands of Christ, they in turn took the gospel message eastward, as far as present day India and China and the Philippines.
Then came the advent of Islam. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, his followers spread his message, together with Arabic language and culture, outward in all directions from its center in Arabia. Within just a few generations Islam took root and became dominant throughout the territories encompassed by the former Assyrian and Babylonian Empires. Over time, the culture and language associated with the new religion predominated, and older cultures shrank to enclaves within their former territories.
Over the ensuing centuries the generally Christian, Aramaic-speaking peoples were subjected to persecution from all sides. In the era of the Crusades, they were seen as enemies by both the Byzantine Christians and the Muslims. In the years surrounding the First World War they suffered a number of terrible massacres at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. In recent years, with the renewal of conflict in the region, often fueled by religious zeal, these minority groups have again come under attack. All of this resulted in, first, displacement of the people from their homes to neighboring areas, and later, the diaspora that can be seen today, spread to most of the earth’s continents.
The Lead Translator of the Assyrian-Aramaic Bible Translation Project posed a theory concerning the preservation of Aramaic-speaking people despite years of persecution. Comparing the experience of his people under such pressures with that of other people groups throughout history, he said, “I cannot help thinking that there were a lot of people like us who fell into a lot of these killing waves during history, and lost their identity and their language; they lost everything. Including the original Egyptian people. The original Egyptians were not Arabs, they were Copts. Yet today they are a small minority in their original country and have not retained their original language except as used in church liturgy. But what happened with the Assyrian people? How is it that, without any support from inside or outside, they kept their language, traditions and churches? I believe that God made it possible. I believe that the one thing that allowed us to keep our identity in the face of these historical tornadoes, until now, is the fact that we were able to keep our language, the language that God's Son himself spoke. We were the custodians of that language, custodians of that faith, because it came directly to us from our Lord. This is why we have not forgotten the language even now.”
Speaking along similar lines, the Lead Translator of the Suryoyo-Aramaic Project said, “For the Middle East, our religion is not just a matter of faith, but also of identity. It is really a part of our name, who we are as a people. With faith being part of our identity, we were able to survive over the centuries. The Aramaic people were the first to translate the Bible. We know that in the last 400-500 years, under so much pressure, not much happened in the life of the church—but still they survived.”
Over the time of recorded history, dozens of ethnic groups have been subjected to displacement from their original homelands. Many have relocated to entirely new regions of the world – or to many regions of the world – and have joined the ranks of people now known as “Diaspora communities.” The Aramaic-speaking peoples have assimilated to their new surroundings but have also been able to maintain some sense of their unique identity as a people—their language, culture, heritage and faith. Like seed scattered in a field, they have the potential to enrich their surroundings as they contribute their uniqueness to the larger tapestry of human expression and experience all around them.