The Three Essential Issues Facing the Assyrian Community in Armenia

Razmik Khosroev, of Assyrian extraction, is a stage actor with the G. Sundukyan National Academic Theatre and the first representative of the Armenian Theatre to tackle the complex role of Shakespeare’s Richard II.

His play entitled “Asoruhi” (Assyrian Woman), a dialogue between an Assyrian and an Armenian regarding the Assyrian Genocide and the present situation of the Assyrian people in Iraq, performed at the theatre in Artashat, was the first Assyrian production in Armenia.

He chuckles when he states, “ But I delved into Assyrian history for another reason.” The actor is the last person to be born in the former village of Gyolaysor (trans. Assyrian garden) located in the Khosrov forest. The village, settled in 1833, was razed to the ground on the actor’s birthday, May 3, 1949. This was the only instance, a period during May 1 to May 15, when the Assyrians were persecuted in the Soviet Union. It was a time when the Assyrian movement overseas had gathered momentum and when, naturally, the Assyrian communities both here and abroad were in contact with one another. It was also a period when speaking to a foreigner openly on the street could be perceived as an act of treason to the fatherland.

There were eighty households in Gyolaysor. The villagers had moved down into the Araratian plains. Most had relatives in the village of Verin Dvin and relocated there soon after the death of Stalin. 2,000 of the 2.700 Assyrians living in Armenia settled in Verin Dvin.

For a long period of time Razmik Khosroev was a member of the National Minorities Council attached to the Office of the President of Armenia. Currently, he serves as the President of the National Minorities Cultural Center. Our discussion encompasses those issues facing the Center, specifically those problems confronting the Assyrian community.

– Mr. Khosroev, given the present situation, what are the immediate issues facing the national minorities in Armenia, particularly the Assyrian community?

– Whilst never having political problems, ethnic minorities living in Armenia have always faced educational/cultural issues. Until three years ago there was never an official state policy in Armenia regarding the national minorities. Of course today one still cannot state that a comprehensive policy exists. The organization of one or two festivals devoted to the national minorities does not translate into assisting their cultural identity. The government allocates twenty million drams yearly to meet the cultural needs of the national minorities and we are obligated to distribute that amount amongst eleven ethnic minority communities.

It’s truly a tiny amount and what’s even more ridiculous is that the money must be distributed equitably – the same amount goes to a minority community numbering 40,000 or to one represented by only three households. Many conflicts arise due to this absence of funding. During the Soviet period Assyrian radio broadcasts were quite active, but they shut down after independence was gained. Through our efforts, Assyrian radio is back on the air. However, instead of the weekly one and a half hour program that used to be broadcast, the current program is only forty-five minutes long. Only two people work at the radio station and they receive a combined monthly salary of 13,000 drams.

– Why is it that the culture of the national minorities is only represented at festivals?

– I have to confess that this is more our fault than anything else. We have always organized national celebrations and song and dance shows in our villages, in our homes. All this needed to be centralized in one location. This is why I place great importance on the creation of the Cultural Center. Our Center organizes a variety of events of which I’d particularly like to mention the one and a half hour “Erebuni-Yerevan” celebration. The small Philharmonic Concert Hall was placed at our disposal for this occasion and all the national minorities put on a stunning performance. This celebration was my first attempt to bring ethnic culture to the city. Obviously, we are confronted with the problem of preserving and developing ethnic culture; especially its development. I view ethnic festivals in the same light as I did fifteen years ago. One of the immediate tasks facing the Center is to change this situation.

– What work is the Center carrying out in the realm of education?

– I’ve been trying for the last three years to get a law passed regarding ethnic minorities. Many ministries and even parliamentary delegates are of the opinion that the rights of the minority communities are already protected by the Constitution so why, they ask, do we need another separate law? However, I am convinced that there is a need for a specific law on the books that also touches on educational issues. There’s a barrier in our educational system that prevents one from teaching without a pedagogical degree. We ourselves have to train our specialists since there is no institution of higher learning in Armenia where the Assyrian language is taught. We send people to Urmia (in northwestern Iran, where 870,000 Assyrians live). Having mastered the language they return here only to find that they cannot teach in the schools since they do not possess the proper teaching degree. The Khachatur Abovyan Pedagogical Institute is the only institution that assists Assyrians in this matter for which I am deeply grateful to the rector. Those Assyrians who study the language in Urmia are accepted into any of the Institute’s faculties on a correspondence basis. Upon graduation they are granted the right to teach Assyrian in the schools.

Maintaining the language is really very important for Assyrians today. Assyrians are unique amongst all national minorities in Armenia not only because they are one of the most ancient of peoples, but due to the fact that they do not have a government to tackle the problems of language preservation.

– After independence, what effect did the conversion of schools to an Armenian curriculum have on the preservation of the Assyrian language?

– We have a large village named Artagers in the Hoktemberyan area. Fifteen years ago the schools adopted an Armenian curriculum. In the village today you can hardly find a child who speaks Assyrian. The assimilative process proceeded quite rapidly. Thus we’re in favor of maintaining Russian-oriented schools. Our children graduate from Russian schools and still are able to pass the Armenian language exams with high grades. This year we have seven students. The Russian school is neither a problem for us, or for the Armenians.

– Despite the fact that the Assyrians are one of the world’s oldest peoples, it appears that many in Armenia are not only unaware that there are Assyrians living in their midst but that they believe that the Assyrian nation vanished off the face of the earth long ago. Is this perception due to your passivity or to our indifference?

– Sadly, this is true. I think that there are several factors at play here. One of the most important is the absence of any Assyrian literature. For successive centuries the Assyrian people maintained their existence on the oral tradition, the spoken word. After the fall of the Assyrian Empire in 605 B.C., Assyrian literature disappeared for all practical purposes and it’s only in the past 10-15 years that attempts have been made to revive it. It was in the early stages of the present war in Iraq that the Ashurbanipal Library and Museum, one of the oldest in the world, was razed to the ground and thus a centuries-old accumulated cultural inheritance was obliterated.

In fact, we’ve only begun to teach the Assyrian language in schools during the past twenty years and it is only lately that such classroom instruction continues till the 11th grade and not just the 3rd, as in the past. It’s truly tragic that one of the oldest peoples on earth is destined to oblivion. Alexander the Great bowed in admiration before the magnificence of the Assyrian culture when he conquered Babylon. The Assyrians brought civilization to the world, script and literature, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and the first constitution – the Code of Hammurabi in the face of a rock-cliff and which is still studied today in law schools. And what marvelous and wise laws they are. One, for example, states that if a physician injures a patient’s eye with a silver scalpel he is obligated to reimburse the patient to the tune of seventeen silver coins. If this law were ever to be included in any nation’s constitution today, one-half of the specialists would quit the profession.

– According to official statistics some 750,000 Assyrians were massacred during the period of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. I know that lately you have been actively seeking to publicize this issue. What’s been the response of the Armenian government?

– We have only been able to raise such issues in Armenia during the last ten years. Prior to this, one could not speak of such matters. Of utmost importance is that Armenians recognize the Assyrian Genocide. The government of Armenia has never been interested in placing the Assyrian Genocide in the same context as the Armenian massacres. We’ve repeatedly tried to publicize this matter. Three years a book by my daughter Anahit Khosroev (the youngest PHD at the National Academy) entitled The Assyrian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey and Adjacent Turkish-Populated Areas, was published. This academic publication was one of the first works to be devoted to the Assyrian massacres. Interestingly enough, there were many in the academic community who were uninformed as to this reality. Even Richard Hovhannisian was taken aback and proved to be the first one to invite Anahit to give a series of lectures on the subject in the United States. Our concern is that Armenia raises the issue of these two genocides jointly in international tribunals.

– Assyrians, just like Armenians, first set about building a church and their homes afterwards. In Verin Dvin, there’s a working church grounded upon the Nestorian faith. What is the state of relations between the Nestorian Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church?

– For Assyrians, as for Armenians, are the most important factors when it comes to self-preservation. There are some 4 million Assyrians living throughout the world today but we’re split into 7 religious branches. You frequently run into people overseas who speak perfect Assyrian but when asked regarding their identity they’ll respond by saying, “I’m not Assyrian. I am a Chaldean or Jacobite” In terms of literature, all books and periodicals are published in the same dialect of Urmia, that more than 400 years has served as the literary version of the Assyrian language. Offshoots, naturally serve to divide the nation. The Holy Tovmas Church in Verin Dvin, which was rebuilt five years ago, is the only functioning Assyrian Church in Armenia today. It was originally constructed in the 19th century out of clay and was near totally in ruins.

In 2001, when the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia was being celebrated, I proposed to the Catholicos that a joint observance be organized and that the reconstruction of the Assyrian Church be included in the itinerary. He declined and explained that the Apostolic Church didn’t maintain relations with the Nestorian Church. This despite the fact that the Khalt and Yacubian Churches are sister churches with the Apostolic Church. But isn’t it true that religious history intimately binds the Armenian and Assyrian peoples? Prior to the creation of the Armenian alphabet and the translation of the Bible into Armenian, Aramaic was the language for conducting religious services in the Armenian Church. Hakob of Mtsbin (the first person in history who attempted to climb Mount Ararat), who traveled to Armenia with Gregory the Enlightener, and who built numerous churches and schools, was an Assyrian. Bishop Daniel, Zenob Glak and Yeprem Asori were all Assyrian as well.

– Nevertheless, how did you go about rebuilding the church?

– During the 1700th anniversary celebrations a woman from Switzerland, who was a specialist in eastern churches, approached me. It turned out that she remembered me from one of our theater’s stage tours in Switzerland where I performed in a production of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters”. I took her to see the church ruins and it was then that she informed me that she had brought $10,000 to donate to Etchmiadzin but since many people would give money to Armenian Church she offered me the money instead. That’s how we were able to rebuild the church. We then invited Isahak Tamraz, a clergyman from Iraq, to serve in the church. For the first time in eighty years Assyrians living here prayed in their mother tongue.

– Have Assyrians living in Armenia retained any national traditions?

– Unfortunately not. What I can do is note some traits characteristic to Assyrians such as the work ethic, vindictiveness, and a deep loyalty to family customs. For example, an Assyrian is capable of murdering his wife in a fit of jealous rage but he’ll never divorce her. As regards marriage or other domestic rituals, they are similar to those practiced by Armenians, except for perhaps immaterial differences. For example, wedding gifts presented by relatives and neighbors are collected in the house courtyard, not inside the house. Till recently the Assyrians, just as the Armenians, placed great importance on the wedding dowry. Let me also mention a custom that in my opinion is an enviable one – an Assyrian girl who masters the mother tongue would only bring half the dowry with her. For me, this is a wonderful custom that serves to preserve the national character. Of course, in Armenia today, this custom is not observed. Everyone speaks such excellent Assyrian that who now pays attention to the dowry?

– One tradition, nonetheless, has been preserved. Namely, celebrating the New Year on April 1st.

– That’s right. We have been observing the New Year on April 1st for 2,670 years now. When the Euphrates and Tigris rivers overflow their banks, the powerful God Marduk who has no equal in the pantheon of Gods, does battle with Tiamat, the God of the Seas, and defeats him. It was on the occasion of this victory that celebrations first began. One of the most important laws of the Code of Hammurabi speaks to this matter. For fifteen days it was not allowed to punish children, the courts were not in session, one could not punish slaves – everyone was happy, singing and dancing, and praising Marduk.The king abdicated the throne. The rich undertook charitable good deeds. All became equal. These celebrations are called “The Impetuous Days”. When the Assyrians adopted Christianity this pagan holiday, along with many others, was preserved.

Translated by Hrant Gadarigian