Nineveh On  Line                                                                                              Education

From Contributions to Diaspora:

Assyrians in the History of Urmia, Iran 

  Arianne Ishaya, Ph.D.

Editorial Note:  This article was presented in the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) Conference 2001 in San Francisco in a panel titled “The Assyrians of Iran:  From Contributions to Diaspora”.  This article was published in JAAS Vol. XVI, NO. 1, 2002.

Setting the Scene: 

As a rural community around the turn of the 20th century, the Assyrians of Urmia were unique in their urban and westernized lifestyle not only in Iran, but also, perhaps, in many countries of the Middle East. Urmia also distinguishes itself as one of the few historical sites that bears some etymological resemblance to the compound word coinages in Assyrian Aramaic. It seems to be a compound word, which in modern Assyrian matches the combination of the words <ur> “place or city” of water (mia). The name attests to the antiquity of present-day Assyrians in the region.  

Two thirds of this community perished during WWI. This brief historical and ethnographic sketch is to familiarize the reader with the community on a closer, more personal level lest we should forget that each time a group perishes, all of us, as members of the human family, diminish in stature. The Assyrians were industrious and the most educated subjects of the region at the turn of the 20th century, and their demise deprived the plain of Urmia of a very productive segment of its population. The American-educated Assyrians, such as Dr. Isaac Adams and Joseph Khnanishu, played the role of cultural operatives through their publications that introduced the English-reading public to the culture, literature, and socio-political institutions of their country, Persia.1 This ethnic profile is based primarily on Assyrian sources in the form of personal diaries, travel journals, Assyrian periodicals, and family histories collected by the author. It is a history from the perspective of the Assyrians themselves.  

Until 1918, at which time they were uprooted from the region,2 the Assyrians lived in compact villages along the three rivers of Nazlu, Shahar, and Baranduz. These rivers flow eastward towards the lake of Urmia from their sources in the Zagros Mountains bordering Turkey. Of a total of 300 villages in the region, 60 had exclusively Assyrian population, and another 60 had a mixed Assyrian, Azari Turkish,3 and/or Armenian population.4 The total number of Assyrians in the region, at the turn of the century, was estimated between 30-35 thousand most of who lived in villages.5 The Assyrian population of the town of Urmia itself was only 600 people, or about 100 families.6 They lived in the special Christian quarter of the town. It is estimated that around 1900, 40% of the population of the region was Christian (Assyrian and Armenian).7 The uniqueness of the Urmian community was that it was highly urbanized and westernized. This was essentially attributed to the presence of various foreign missions in the region.  Actually the foreign missions would have preferred to be located in Muslim communities in order to take the Christian message to them. The Persian government did not allow them to do so for this very reason. At the same time, the government was interested in courting the “English Mullahs”, as its officials used to call them, in order to obtain better trade or political concessions from the foreign governments. Moreover, the royal family in Iran was interested in familiarizing itself with the western ways of life through the missionaries. So the Assyrians of Urmia were a compromise solution to the satisfaction of all. Thus, their community in Urmia became the center of rival missionary activities in the country.  Although foreign missions brought educational opportunities and a measure of intellectual enlightenment to the Assyrians, they were a mixed blessing.  The privileged position of the Assyrians made them a subject of envy and resentment to their Muslim neighbors.  The unified Church of the East became dissected into various protestant, Russian Orthodox, and Catholic denominations.  Moreover, the younger generation became alienated from their ethnic traditions and was trained in skills for which economic opportunities were scarce.

In 1906 there was a total of 201 schools with 5,084 Assyrian students in the region. Considering that Assyrians lived in only 120 villages, the number of schools indicates that there was more than one school in some villages. The following is a breakdown of schools administered by different missionaries and the number of students accommodated by them: 

Schools Students

American Mission 53 1721

Russian Mission 74 1640

Catholic Mission 54 1223

Others   20 5008  

With the beginning of WWI, the rate of literacy among the Assyrians of Urmia was estimated at 80%.9 This is a remarkably high rate of literacy for the time even by the standards of an urbanized center in the West, let alone a rural area in the Middle East. At the time, there were more Assyrian physicians in Urmia than all of Iran; Assyrian professionals under the supervision of the foreign missionaries staffed all missionary schools, newspapers and hospitals.10  

The first mission school opened in 1836 under the direction of Rev. Justin Perkins. Prior to that, the native Assyrians did have a few schools of their own. The one in Urmia was in the village of Gogtapa where Mougdoussi (pilgrim) Hormizd had hired a learned Assyrian from Tyari to educate a number of children there.11 The missionary Perkins was pleased to see the thirst of the Assyrians for education. He was impressed to find how fast the children learned to read, write, and memorize long verses from the Bible. The first so-called textbooks were in the form of lessons written on cards. In the absence of notepads, children used their fingers to do their manuscript writing arithmetic exercises in small sandboxes. The first Assyrian teacher was Rev. priest Abraham, the nephew of Hormizd, who was educated in the above-mentioned Gogtapa school.12 After learning to read and write, the Assyrian children began to teach their parents to do so. 

In 1843, the American Mission also opened a college in Seir, a seminary for women called Fiske Seminary. Later, in 1880 the Mission opened a medical hospital in Urmia There was also a town college, called Sardari, which was for the rich and admitted Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. The Assyrian schools were open to non-Assyrians, who could attend with the permission of their parents. In spite of the fact that at the time the local Muslim population considered the Christians religiously unclean and would avoid close association with them, there is evidence that non-Assyrians did attend such schools as evidenced by the graduation reports. For example, the end of the year report of one school lists a total of 35 students among whom 10 were Muslims and 6 were Jewish.13 Moreover, there was an all-Muslim school in Urmia run by Assyrian teachers under the supervision of Dr. Shedd.

In time, the curriculum of the American Mission schools became westernized. In a 1906 issue Kokhva, the sole Assyrian non-denominational newspaper, published a report with regards to the graduation ceremony of the American Mission College and high school students. While the report praised the high quality of students’ presentations in foreign languages, it lamented the total ignorance of these students about their own history.14 In subsequent reports we read how parents sat patiently during the graduation ceremonies listening to the presentations of their sons and daughters in English and Farsi, not understanding a word of what was being said. As unlikely as it seems, between 1906-1914, the Assyrians performed Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the village of Gulpashan, several plays by Moliere, translated by Kasha Mushi Babella, in the village of Golpatalikhan where the Catholic mission had built a large school. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and several plays by Gogol (Russian playwright) were staged in the town of Urmia. Interestingly, men played the role of women in these plays.15 

Kokhva spearheaded a move to establish a non-denominational school by the Assyrians themselves where the curriculum would be under the control of Assyrian educators. Mar Toma Audo’s grammar book and the arithmetic text by Rabi Peera Mirza were judged to be superior to translated books. Eventually, in the winter of 1908, an independent Assyrian school was established. From the three plays that this school staged in 1909, it is obvious that the educational goal was the emphasis on issues and subjects relevant to the local Assyrians. In other words, the goal was to stress the Assyrian values and their overall philosophy of life. For instance, the first “play” was a mock-debate between a Western and an Eastern philosopher each expounding the merits of his own perspective. The second was a play written by Rabi Yossip Eskhaq. It was about a family where the wife pushes her husband to go to Tiflis, work there, and send money home so that she can have a lifestyle comparable to that of her neighbor. In Tiflis, the husband falls prey to the vices of gambling and drinking and the family is plunged into deeper poverty. This play must have touched a raw nerve in the audience as it reflected the harsh realities of life. The third play depicted a group of young men whose village is looted by the Kurds. They get together and make a vow to unite and exonerate their families by facing the thieves and bringing the loot back home, which they do.16 Among the nationalist Assyrians was Rabi Benyamin Arsanis, a writer and a playwright, who wrote several plays that were staged at different times.  

This independent school did not last very long and had to shut down a year later. The reason was first; the students were more interested to learn foreign languages. Second, the parents preferred the denominational schools because they were subsidized and therefore cheaper. Kokhva attributed the failure of the independent school to the lack of unity and dedication on the part of Assyrians themselves. So it was back to dependency on mission schools. And all that the Assyrian nationalists could do now was to urge the American Mission schools to postpone foreign language education until higher school grades. After the failure of the independent school, a group of Assyrians formed a drama group. Among their activities was the staging of a play called Sarah Tkhumneta and Shamiram which was performed in several villages in 1914.17 Evidently, the title of the play suggests that the Assyrians were searching for their historical roots. 

Contrary to the American Mission, the Catholic Lazarists and the Anglicans made the teaching of the classical Syriac and the vernacular mandatory in their schools. The result was the emergence of a group of Assyrian Syriac scholars such as Paul Bedjan, Aba Solomon-d- Tkhuma, Havil Zia d-Mavana, Mir Aziz-d- Khosrava, Shamasha Yossip de Kelata, and others who contributed greatly to the field of Syriac studies.18 Mar Toma Audo, the Metropolitan of the Catholic Mission in Urmia and Salamas since 1892, was a great scholar who in addition to various publications in classical Syriac, also authored and translated several books in modern Assyrian. The majority of these scholars were murdered during the 1915 massacre, or the 1918 flight. 

As to the American Mission schools, they produced hundreds of doctors, teachers, preachers, nurses, and other kinds of professionals. There were almost as many men as there were women. The first women college graduates in Urmia were Sanam, Sarah, and Mourassa all of whom went on to become great educators.19 Many scholars and promising students were lost along with hundreds of priceless manuscripts and rare ecclesiastical documents in the ravages of WWI. Such losses were a great blow to the Assyrians and the Iranians because they are irreplaceable. 

The American Mission acquired a printing press in 1840 at a time when printing presses did not exist in all of Persia. The first Assyrian printer was Yonan of Charbash. He was selected in 1847 along with a few other promising seminary students for this post. Another printer was Ismail. He was a self-taught man, a very resourceful person. As a carpenter he made all the furniture of the printing office together with all the cases and stands. He was a good pressman, foreman, and was responsible for the final proofreading. He was a type-founder, and in short, a jack-of-all-trades.20 From 1840-1852 eighty works were off the press in both vernacular and classical Syriac, the first being the Bible. Following the example of the American Mission, the Catholic, Russian, and Anglican Missions also acquired printing presses for their own publications.21 

The image of Urmian Assyrians as an isolated rural community is totally inaccurate. They were fully aware of world events, national political developments, and local news through newspapers and periodicals. From mid 19th century until the eve of WWI, four denominational newspapers were published on a, more or less, regular basis. In 1906 a non-denominational newspaper was added to the group. Zahrira-d-Bahra (Ray of Light) started publication in 1849 by the American Mission. Later, the French Mission published Qala-d-Shrara (the Voice of Truth) began publication in1897; the Russian Orthodox Mission published Urmi Orthodoxeta; and finally, the Anglican Mission followed suit by publishing the Assyrian Missionary Quarterly.22 The independent Assyrian periodical was Kokhva (The Star) founded by Qasha Baba Nwyia-d-Wazirabad, a scholar and theologian who, after graduating from Urmia College, had spent nine years in U.S.A. and had obtained two separate degrees in theology and science. He coined the subtitle for Kokhva that reads: “Kokhva, a small lone star in the horizon.” Although he passed away shortly after Kokhva began publication, the editorial staff maintained this publication as the voice of the nationalist Assyrians. It was published biweekly from 1906-1918, with interruptions during the war years. Kokhva had various columns to cover world news, national political developments, and local events. It also published articles related to medicine, literature, sciences, and so on. Examples of articles that appeared in Kokhva are biographies on Joan of Arc; Tolstoy, Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Edison; world events such as the Titanic catastrophe, the San Francisco Earthquake, new inventions, political developments in Turkey, Germany, and in the Balkans. There were special articles on the Assyrian language, history, and a debate on the name “Assyrian” versus “Suraya” in several issues. Thus Kokhva kept the Assyrians of Urmia abreast with the latest developments in the world.  

In the plain of Salmas, north of Urmia, was located the town of Khosrava, another Assyrian center of population. Khosrava served as the headquarters of the Catholic Mission where it established several schools, seminaries, and a hospital there. The town had a mixed population of Assyrians and Armenians numbering 30,000. The Catholic seminary produced internationally renowned scholars such as Paul Bejan. He was a collector of ancient religious and literary manuscripts. Single-handedly, he edited, compiled, wrote and published 36 volumes of literary material in both vernacular and classical Syriac. Khosrava was called “the little Rome of Persia.” By 1918 there was practically nothing left of the Catholic Mission in Persia. In one report we read: “In 1923 in some places the jungle had returned, full of reptiles, wolves, and savage animals. Churches, schools and houses were in ruin. 23  

Migrant Work

The various mission establishments could not offer employment to the large number of Assyrian men who were receiving schooling in mission establishments. Literacy and the presence of foreigners exposed the Assyrians to the world beyond what they had known as oppressed peasants. On the other hand, there was the possibility of engaging in migrant work in Russia, Europe and even U.S.A. Russia had already separated Georgia from Persia in 1801. When in 1828, it also conquered the northern part of Azerbaijan; thus, the Russian border came very close to the Urmia region. Hundreds of Assyrian men went to Tiflis and other border towns in Russia to work as migrant laborers or engage in trade. Tiflis was the center of Assyrian migrant laborers who numbered “in the thousands.” Assyrian contractors hired Assyrians laborers to work on various construction projects especially the railroad connecting Julfa to Alexandropol. Among the notable labor contractors were Jibrael Aslan, Mirza yohanan of Gouytapa, and Usta (title for a skilled craftsperson) Alahverdi Badaloph. The latter is reported to have had 300 workers under his employment most of whom were Assyrian.24  

News came from U.S.A. that it was possible to earn between $2:00-$4:00 a day in America if one was a union member. Since they knew some English, the Assyrian men became encouraged to go overseas. Kokhva recorded that in 1907 alone 306 Assyrian men left to U.S.A.25 Before long, the Assyrian villages had lost the majority of their able-bodied men. Women began to complain about what was to become of their daughters. Editorials appeared in Kokhva expounding the ills of migrant work. Had Kokhva known that several years later, the Assyrians abroad would become the only beacon of hope for the survivors of holocaust, and would provide the refugees safe passage to U.S.A., it would, perhaps, have been less critical of migration. In one issue, Kokhva reported that 90% of men were living abroad and urged women to take over men’s work to keep the community functional. It advised the men abroad to send sewing machines and fashion patterns so that women, organized in coops, could operate dressmaking shops. In 1908, Kokhva kept a record of deaths and weddings for a year. The totals were 55 weddings and 180 deaths. Kokhva warned that a ratio of three deaths to one wedding forecast a similar rate of drop in childbirth, which meant that in a generation the Assyrians would suffer a sizeable population loss.26 The village of Taka-Ardishay was referred to as an “all-women” village. Kokhva reported that there were not enough men to even carry a coffin to the graveyard. Women had to carry the coffin in a “gardoon” which was an ox –driven low wagon with no sides. The women of Taka-Ardishay had also to haul their grapes to their homes and dry the raisins on the rooftops instead of the “varazan”, a plastered slanting platform built in the vineyard for making raisins. This was because there were no men to stay in the vineyards overnight to protect the varazans from thieves.  

Migrant work plagued the Assyrian families in other ways, as well. In one issue, Kokhva praised a woman who had refused to resume matrimonial relations with her husband unless he was checked by a doctor and declared free from venereal diseases.27 In another issue Kokhva printed a letter an Assyrian woman sent to her church complaining about men who return home with foreign wives when Assyrian maidens are becoming spinsters. 

Why did the men leave their homes and families, and chose to work overseas? The following are some responses as elicited from the migrant laborers themselves: 

When I came to the United States, U.S. had a big name in Urmia. You thought you would come here and see lots of money. But I could hardly find a job. Finally I found a job as a boss-boy in the same hotel where my cousin was working. Everybody had come to earn money and return to Iran. But when the war started, they figured they better bring their families over…28 

My eldest brother was 28 years old when he came to America in 1912. No Assyrians went with the intention of staying. They all went to earn money, gold, and return, buy farms and vineyards. But the war changed their plans. I do not think anyone had gone to stay there.29 


I left Iran in 1913. I was barely sixteen. We were a large youth group. There were four or five from my village of Shamsha Jiyan; and more were added to the group from other villages as we went along until there were 78…So many young men were leaving out of necessity. We were not able to make a living there. We did not have enough. We wanted a life of comfort and plentitude; but the Turks raided our Villages. they killed and stole our cattle. We were targeted because our homes were better-finished, more respectable, people better dressed and fed. But continuous pillage reduced us to poverty and destitution. Wanted or not we had to emigrate in order to support our families. There were not enough jobs. Just like you see today in Poland and elsewhere there are no jobs. People are starving. They flee to other countries. So that was our condition. My father had left the country in 1903. He had left in a group too. They wouldn’t travel alone. My uncle had come to the U.S. earlier. He was a bricklayer. He had returned to the old country, and in 1913 when I was leaving for the U.S., he was coming for a second time.30  

Men went to U.S.A. to make quick money, purchase the farmlands and vineyards they had worked for generations as sharecroppers and become freeholders and owners. Some succeeded, but others never realized this dream because the menial jobs they did abroad did not enable them to save enough money to make their dreams come true; besides, did not have the face to return home empty-handed either. So their absence from home became lasted longer. The men lived frugally; often sharing a room and using the bed alternately, so that they could save enough and send “barats” (money gifts) back home. The steady flow of “barats” to Urmia did help the locals to raise their standard of living. However, not all of the hard-earned money reached its destination. As there was no bank in Urmia, letters and currency were transferred by “chapars” or courier service. Often bandits intercepted the courier service and got away with the money. A more serious problem was the Kurdish marauders who descended upon the villages during the harvest season and not only plundered the crops, but also took away the livestock and robbed the people of their personal possessions, including the clothes they were wearing. The Persian government was too weak to protect its citizens. Kokhva’s reports provide a statistical base on the Assyrian villages, and shed some light on the extent and nature of this problem. A summary sample of the reports is reproduced below: 

Kokhva, vol. 1, no.3 (1906): p. 21:

Kurds have stolen livestock from suburban villages; 12 homes in Kizlashiq looted; 5 in Badilbu. A man and a woman killed. Government forces repelled. The “kokha” (headman) of the village of Saatlui robbed.

Vol. 1, no. 4, p.30:

In Targavar Harriki Kurds stole 500 sheep and killed the son of Yaccu.

Vol. 1, no. 5, p. 37:

Baranduz River villages are destitute from constant Kurdish depredations.

Vol. 1, no. 13, p.102:

The watchmen the villagers of Gogtapa hired for protection, turned out to be thieves who robbed them.

Vol. 1, no. 15, p. 116:

Kurdish attacks on the increase. 5 Assyrians and Armenians were robbed in the village of Pakabaglui. The village of Hassar located above the mission college was looted. The inhabitants have taken refuge in the American mission college. Vol. 1, no. 16, p.125:

A famous bandit named Ebad was killed while pillaging Dizataka.

Vol.1, no. 23, p. 183:

Degala attacked twice. Bandits repelled both times by village guards. Kurds attacked the Baranduz villages. Fierce fighting. Six Kurds killed.  

Kokhva, vol. 2. no. 1 (1907): p. 8:

Unprecedented peace and order in Urmia. A contingent of local fighters is formed in Sangar to protect Targavar from Kurdish Marauders. Even local Muslims have joined to show support. Christians are thankful.

Vol. 2, no. 3, p.33:

12 Assyrian villagers killed in the border fight in Targavar between Kurds backed by Ottomans.

Vol. 2, no. 4, p. 44:

Ottomans occupy Targavar. Kokhva is pleasantly surprised to report that the villagers of Seir petitioned the Ottoman leader there for justice against the Kurds who had stolen their herds. Half of the herd was returned to them by his orders. Kokhva is hopeful that finally Ottomans might be able to keep the Kurds in check.

Vol. 2, no. 11, p.128:

Robberies and looting start again. Kurdish bandits plundered both Assyrian and Turkish villages in Nazlu area. Killed an Assyrian woman.

Vol. 2, no. 12, p. 139:

Kokhva advises villagers to arm themselves with guns and post night watchmen to protect themselves from bandit attacks.

Vol 2, no. 13, p.151:

Ottomans are supporting the Kurds in border skirmishes. Savoujbulagh threatened.

Vol 2, no. 15, p. 177:

Baranduz looted. A Christian girl abducted.

Vol 2, no. 23, p. 270:

Ottomans amassing artillery in border area. Kurds are allied with them. Lower Baranduz villagers have deserted their homes, and have fled. Persian governor has set post guards and urges villagers to return. 

Kokhva, vol. 3, no. 9 (1908), p. 104:

Gotoorlui (near Gogtapa) attacked. Inhabitants fled and scattered.

Vol. 3, no. 10, p. 115:

Taka Ardishay pillaged. 

Kokhva, vol 3. no. 19 (1909), p. 235:

Anzal (northern district) under Ottoman (Turkish) control.

Vol 3, no. 22, (1908), p. 258:

Ottoman (Turkish) army present in Urmia and environs.

Vol. 4, no. 3 (1910), p. 31:

Kurds in occupation of Seir and Mar Sarguis. Live off the villagers.

Vol. 4, no. 5, p. 56:

Kurds are targeting Baloolan. Have plundered several villages. 

Kokhva, vol. 4, no. 16, p. 187:

One girl abducted. A woman converted to Islam.

Vol. 4. no. 17, p. 198, 210:

Two more girls abducted. Urmia landlords are attracting pro-Ottoman Kurds to settle the abandoned villages in Upper Nazlu, and Shahar Rivers. Local Turkish and Assyrian peasants worried.

Vol. 4, no. 19, p. 222:

Kurds and local Turkish bandits target Assyrian villages in Shahar and Baranduz River. Threat of pillage and killings in Hassar and Garajalu.

Vol. 4, no. 21, p. 249:

Pillage number one problem in all of Umia. 

Kokhva, Vol. 5, no. 2 (1910), p. 19:

14 Assyrian men in Khosrabad robbed; the house of one pillaged, wife killed.

Vol. 5, no. 4, p. 41-42:

Kurds burn down local Turkish villages.

Skirmish in karasanlui between Assyrians and Kurdish marauders. 50 head of cattle taken away.

Dr. Packard’s friendship with a Kurdish Sheikh pays off. The Sheikh promises the safety of the village of Seir from Kurdish marauders, and lifts the tribute he extracted from them. (p. 103).

Vol. 5, no. 9. p.104:

Ottomans, backed by the Kurds, have occupied Kahriz, Golunji, and Jamalabad (northern villages). As new landlords, they have been extracting heavy tribute from the villagers for three years. 

Reports of pillage diminish at the end of the year 1911. The Russian military presence and a more vigorous defense of the borders provided rural areas with a measure of safety. The inhabitants of some villages who had been displaced in previous years returned back. Among them were some Targavar villagers who were scattered as refugees since the 1907 Turkish attacks. Of the 94 families From Baloolan 20 resettled their former homes,31 not knowing that worse was awaiting them shortly after. 

1912-1914 The Era of Prosperity: 

After Russia established its mission station in Urmia in 1898, Armenians and Assyrians began to purchase the fields around it, and build luxury homes. Urban development in this area continued and took momentum in the years 1912-1914. Well-to-do Assyrians began to purchase land and build new homes for their own occupation or as rental property to Russian families, consular or military personnel. Delgosha (heart-refreshing.) became the new Christian quarter in Urmia. Red brick, imported marble and stone slabs adorned these homes. Almost all contactors, architects, bricklayers, carpenters, and joiners that were employed in the building of these homes were Assyrian. Among the notable architects were Usta Elia d-Gulpashan, Usta Avraham Ushana d-Charbash, and Usta Yohanan d-Wazirava. Along with urban development, Assyrians were also investing heavily in farmland, vineyards, and orchards. It looks like there was a concerted effort to buy the villages and farmlands where Assyrians had toiled as landless peasants and establish a free holding community instead. Kokhva reported real estate purchases on a regular basis. A quick survey indicates that the heaviest investments were in all-Assyrian villages. Among the villages that became wholly or partly Assyrian owned were Gulpashan, Degala, Gogtapa, Wazirabad, Shamshajian, Ada, Diza, Kurtapa, and Chamakie. In other villages, small peasants purchased their own farmlands, orchards, and were beginning to expand beyond their own property. City folks also developed a taste for having an orchard or a vineyard in suburban villages where they could spend the summer season. So there were numerous small or medium-sized holdings of this nature. Real estate prices soared during the prewar era, but this did not stop the Assyrians from investing in real estate. In hindsight, it is painful to read about the families who invested their wherewithal in farmland and homes they were going to lose soon after. If it were not for the WWI uprooting, a sizeable part of Urmia region would become liberated from the oppressive control of absentee feudal overlords and would be owned by free holding farmers.  

American style advertising appeared on the pages of Kokhva beginning in 1912. Consumerism was taking hold among the population. Assyrians were opening stores or stalls in the caravanserai or Middle Eastern style shopping malls. There were advertisements from merchants selling home fixtures such as cabinets, doors, mirrors, and home furnishings imported from U.S.A., Russia, or Europe (primarily Germany). Others opened stores to sell watches, bicycle parts, ladies and men’s wear, cloth, and other imported goods. Optometrists, dentists, and doctors advertised the address of their clinics and medical supplies. Some of the advertisements were in English which indicates the prevalence of this language among the population. (See the advertisements in the following page.) There was also advertising for European fashions, and instructions on how and where to wear them. One Assyrian opened a hotel for those coming from villages to town to have a place to stay. Another one invested in an “icemaker.” There is a significant difference in the investment pattern of Assyrians and Armenians. Possessing greater capital, Armenians were involved in overseas trade and were investing in land with mining reserves, flourmills and building modern style bazaars (shopping malls).  

As early as 1907 the Assyrian, Yossipkhan the photographer, was showing silent movies or “moving pictures” in a private home. Tickets were priced differently according to seating.32 The resourceful people of the Chamakie village had all their homes connected through a non-electrical type of telephone, which was made with waxed thick cotton thread, a tin can open at both ends, one end of which was covered with a thin sheet of leather. In the center was a tiny hole, which hooked the wax thread to the tin “receiver”. Kokhva claimed that when the thread was manually vibrated, the people at the next house heard a buzzing sound announcing a telephone call, and conversations could be carried on clearly.33

The news of prosperity in Urmia reached other Assyrian communities in the Middle East. Kokhva printed a letter that Rabi Binyamin Arsanis, the head of the village “motvas,” (associations) had received. It was from a man writing on behalf of his Assyrian community in Damascus, Syria. It said, in part: “5000 Assyrians live in Damascus. After hearing about the legendary Urmia, we would like to relocate. We ask permission and your help in immigrating to Urmia.”34  

Due to economic recession in U.S.A. in 1914, Kokhva urged Assyrians not to send their sons abroad so that they would not become a burden on their relatives there. Now the movement was back home. There were dramatic stories of men returning home after a long period of absence and even their wives and sisters could not recognize them. Again in hindsight it is with apprehension that one reads about men in groups returning back to Urmia from U.S.A., Europe, and Russia not knowing the horrors they would experience shortly after. The obituary columns of that time become welcome news. Lucky were those who died and did not witness the perdition of their families, neighbors, and the nation. 

1915: The Year of Bondage

Assyrians call the year of 1915 “the year of bondage” because it was in the winter of 1915 following the Russian army retreat from Urmia that Turkish forces together with their Kurdish allies and local Azari Turkish supporters or opportunists descended upon the Assyrian and Armenian villages. The Turkish and Kurdish forces occupied Urmia for 5 months or 18 weeks from January 2, 1915 until May 24, 1915. A detailed history of the holocaust that followed has been recorded in various sources and will not be repeated in this paper.35 Only less known facts will be recorded here. The Christian villages annihilated during the 16-week occupation were:

18 villages in the Branduz district

16 villages in the Shahar Chai or Urmia district.

14 villages in the Nazlu district.

3 villages in Targavar.36  

In 1917 after a Russian contingent had retuned to Urmia and the Turks had retreated, the American Mission under the direction of Dr. Shedd sent agents to the Urmian plain to enumerate the surviving Christians and classify them for purposes of food rations. These estimates are regarded as the most accurate. 

The total Assyrians of the Urmia region were 3,915 families comprising 15,669 persons. Of these 3,132 were able-bodied, 1350 were orphans, and 1321 were elderly men and women. The Assyrian mountaineers were 2,850 families comprising 14,154 persons. Of these 1,991 were able-bodied, 2,333 were orphans, and 1498 were elderly men and women. The Assyrians of Sulduz were 108 families comprising 598 persons. Of these 112 were able-bodied, 76 were orphans, and 60 were elderly men and women. The Assyrians of Baranduz were 67 families comprising 337 persons. Of these 84 were able-bodied, 60 were orphans, and 35 were elderly men and women.37  

These statistics reveal that of the 30-35,000-pre-war population of the plain of Urmia, 50% was lost even before the final exodus. Of the lost some had taken refuge in Russia, and the rest were either killed or in hiding. Another noticeable fact is that the death toll among the mountaineers was much higher. Of the original estimated pre war population of 160,000 only 50,000 had made it to the plain of Urmia as refugees. And in 1917 only 14,154 persons were alive. 

The first holocaust was to be followed by a second one in the summer of 1918 when the civilian population was left unprotected again. This time the entire Christian population, including the Armenians fled south to join the British forces in Sain Kala, from where they were taken to Baquba refugee camps. 

On the eve of WWI, all the mission stations in Urmia had packed and left except for the American and the French. The French mission was attacked and burnt down, and all the refugees as well as the clergy were massacred. The American missionaries risked their lives taking care of 15,000 traumatized and starving refugees who had taken shelter in their headquarters.38 The Assyrians who survived the holocaust attest to the fact that “without the presence f the American Mission not one Assyrian would have been spared during WWI.”39  

After a period of hiding, Kokhva began publication in March of 1917. The lead article says:

“The little kokhva (star) bows down to the ground before the American and French missionaries who selflessly endangered their own lives and purchased this nation at a price beyond monetary calculations.”40 

In spite of the unspeakable atrocities, there were pockets of Christian and Muslim neighbors who protected one another during those dark days. Although at the time the Assyrians were themselves living on rations, in one report we read that a group of women collected some food and clothing and carried it to the Kurdish refugees in town. They had made small bags of raisins especially for the children.41 

Assyrians, Russians, and the British: 

During the WWI years, the Assyrians were exposed to two different foreign powers as their “allies” and “protectors”: The Russian and the British. But the Assyrian experience is very different concerning these two protecting forces. The Russians are portrayed in Assyrian war annals, personal diaries, and memories as human, friendly, and compassionate. The British, on the other hand, are described as aloof, haughty, and exploitative. 

The Assyrian experience with the Russian forces took place during the first flight in the winter of 1915, when 10,000 Assyrians from the villages near the Russian border followed the Russian retreating forces. Here is one of the eyewitness accounts (female respondent): 

When the warning came that the Turks and the Kurds would attack, my uncle who had come from Russia and had brought a “droga” (a four-wheel cart) with him, loaded the furniture of three households on it. (This is how many we were). He put us (the children, there were 9 of us) on top. We started off towards the Russian border. On the way, the wheels got stuck in the mud…My uncle begged the Russian cavalrymen who were passing by, to snatch the children before we were massacred by the enemy in pursuit. Those Russian soldiers were kind. Each picked one of us, and put us in front of them on the horse and covered us with their mantle. They fed us their rations leaving for themselves only so much as not to starve. At night, they kept us warm. Thus, they took us across the border into Russia. There we waited until our uncles and mothers arrived.42 

Another respondent: (male) 

We fled from Iran to Russia. We fled behind the retreating Russian troops. I was four, and my sister was two. My mother took me on her back with my sister in her arms. But after walking for a couple of blocks my mother returned and left my sister with my grandmother, because she could not carry us both. My grandmother had a house full of furnishings, an orchard, and a vineyard. She would not part with them. She thought no one would harm an old woman. But she was mistaken. All those who remained behind were killed. I remember vividly, as we were going, my mother fell face down on the snow while I was on her back. A Russian Kazak dismounted and put me on his horse. He helped my mother to her feet. He carried me on his horse for the rest of the time. On the way, my mother found a 10-months old baby left on the snow. She picked him up and brought him along for the child she had left behind. Now he is a physician in Chicago.43  

The Assyrians came into contact with the British after the 1918 flight from Urmia. The following are a few eyewitness accounts: 

In her family history Miriam Youhanan describes an episode that is worth noting. Her immediate family who included her husband and their three small children were among the refugees that fled from Urmia to Hamadan in the summer of 1918. Her husband Dr. David Youhanan, a well-known physician educated in U.S.A., fell ill in Bijar before reaching Hamadan. So they were unable to continue their trek. The British had a strong garrison in Bijar. When he requested medication from the British physicians, they refused on the ground that their medical supplies were for the use of the British army. As his illness got worse, his wife repeatedly pleaded for medication, or transportation elsewhere.  But the British physicians and officers refused to provide them with either medication or transportation knowing full well that he would die if not helped.44 

Other refugees report that when they reached Hamadan, they were half-starved and emaciated from the horrible days they had passed fleeing for their life with the enemy in pursuit. Yet as soon as they arrived in Hamadan, the British lost no time using them as labor force. The men and youth were enlisted for military duty and women were consigned to break rocks and sew sacks for the British road construction project, which was to connect Hamadan to Baghdad. In his own words a male respondent mentioned: 

We walked the distance to Hamadan under very difficult circumstances. I have stayed without food for more than three day. When we reached Hamadan, I was walking in the bazaar; the British apprehended me and said that I had to enlist in the army. I was 16 then. They took us to a village. It was very cold and we were without food or clothing. There were about 2-3 thousand of us aged 16-25. After a few weeks I deserted and ran away. The British there were not able to get provisions. They were giving us a kind of bread that looked like manure. It was inedible.45 

The Role of Germany in the Assyrian Holocaust:  

The generation of Assyrians born after WWI was heavily oriented in literature that emphasized the “British Betrayal of the Assyrians.” While there is ample documentation to validate that perspective, the role of Germany in instigating the holocaust was obscured until Gabriele Yonan came up with her groundbreaking research. She revealed the German documents attesting to the fact that Jihad, the “Holy War,” was actually made in Germany. In other words, it was under German instigation that Turkey made the Jihad an excuse to wipe out thousands of Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks in Turkey, and to attack a neutral country like Persia.46  

If the role of Germany was lost to the post-war generation of the Assyrians, it was not to the Assyrians of the WWI generation. Although there is no explicit reference in the Assyrian sources to the role of Germany in instigating the Jihad, there is clear documentation of German support of it. Even before the occupation of the region by the Turks, Kokhva noted that the Kurds, backed by the Turks, were no longer raiding the border villages to plunder, but to massacre and that Germany, as the Turkish ally, was permitting the holocaust. In the Assyrian sources Emperor Wilhelm of Germany was portrayed as a “madman,” a devilish figure, who, with the philosophy of “might is right,” was ruthlessly permitting his army to massacre civilians in France as well. There were reports that Germans were shipping truckloads of dead soldiers (including their own) to special factory sites where the cadavers were processed into different types of lubricants. That the Germans had sent their generals and officers to train the Turkish army was interpreted as an outright colonization act. Surveying foreign newspapers, Kokhva reported “Now the real Turkish ruler is not the Sultan, but Germany which like the British did in India, aims at controlling the government by controlling the army.”47 

In her book “the Assyrian Holocaust”, Gabriele Yonan makes the interesting remark that the Holocaust that the Assyrians, Armenians, and the Greeks experienced is different from the Jewish holocaust. The difference is that the Assyrians and for that matter the Christians had a choice. Had they agreed to convert to Islam, they would have been spared.  Obviously, based on the following comment by Rev. Justin Perkins, who first met the Assyrians of Urmia in 1836, the Assyrians were ready to pay the dearest price for their Christianity:


American Christians know nothing, in comparison with the Nestorians, of suffering for the name of the Lord Jesus. They are habitually called by their superiors the Muhammedans, unclean infidels and dogs, and are treated in accordance with those epithets. Often, their properties, and sometimes children, are wantonly stripped from them on account of their attachment to Christianity, while their renouncement of it would place them at once beyond the reach of such indignities and sufferings.48 

In a 1913, in a war report on Tkhuma, Kokhva writes: 

Of the nine who were killed, three died a martyr’s death. One was asked to deny Christ and accept Muhammed “I am fasting and cannot deny my Lord.” He said. A second was killed for scorning the suggestion. A woman was shot for professing Jesus Christ.49 

Similar scenes are recorded in various other accounts.50 Undoubtedly some Assyrians did renounce their religion to spare their life and that of their family, but those who did not, and yet survived the genocide, are the ones that to this day have maintained their religion, their name, and their cultural heritage.  

Consequences of the WWI Genocide on the Assyrians:

During WWI the Assyrians, Armenians, and the Greeks in Ottoman territory were all victims of state-sponsored horrendous acts of barbarism on the part of Turks and Kurds. But the case of Assyrians is of special concern because the genocide has had irrevocable and far-reaching effects on the present situation and the future fate of this ethnic group. Let us examine some of the consequence of the genocide on the Assyrians:

  • Close to two-thirds of the Assyrian nation perished during WWI uprooting. Among those especially targeted were the intellectual and political elite of the nation.
  • Unlike the Armenian and the Greek refugees who were assisted by their nationals when they were in refugee camps, and could rejoin fellow-citizens in Armenia and Greece,51 the Assyrians were uprooted with no chance of repatriation (except for the Assyrian remaining of Iran). Despite vigorous pleas on the part of the Assyrian representatives, the Entente Powers or the United Nations did not grant the Assyrians even a settlement with some local autonomy.
  • The traditional political organization of the Assyrians, which until WWI had maintained the institutional continuity of the nation, was so completely shattered that an effective alternative organization has not been achieved given the geographically dispersed condition of the communities in Diaspora. The reason is the above-mentioned blows snowballed into a chain of adverse effects.
  • The pillage and confiscation of all the economic assets during the holocaust, threw the nation into total bankruptcy. Since then no national recovery in the form of the establishment of a national fund has been possible. The Assyrians are still building their financial base one family at a time.

Thus while the Armenians and the Greeks have maintained or attained statehood and are slowly recovering from the worst effects of the genocide, (although there can be no recovery from human loss, especially on a personal level), the Assyrians remain destabilized. Through a heroic effort and sheer determination, the destitute Assyrian refugees of WWI who found shelter in various countries throughout Europe and the Americas, have everywhere established socially and economically viable families. Today, through collaboration with the Armenians and Greeks, they are renewing their efforts to set the historical record straight regarding their plight and their rights as a nation. Let us hope that the Armenians and the Greeks will give equal recognition to the Assyrian cause in this collaborative effort.




1 See Rev. Isaac Adams, Persia by a Persian (1900); , Joseph Knanishu About Persia and its People (1899; reprint, Piscataway, New Jersey: Gorgias Press LLC, 2001).


2 Some returned to a few of the former villages after the war.


3 Azari Turks are indigenous Iranians who have mixed with Afshar Turks and adopted the Azari dialect. They are Shi’ite Muslims. Afshar Turks have moved there from the interior regions of Iran.


4A. Ishaya (trans.), B. Nikitine, “Family Life among the Assyro-Chaldeans of the Plain of Urmiah,” JAAS. 7, no. 2 (1993): 53.


5 Curzon gives a higher estimate of 44,000. What is the reference for Curzon?


6 Rev. Justin Perkins, A Residence of Eight Years among Nestorian Christians (New York: Allen, Morrill & Wardwell, publisher, 1843), 9-10; V. Minorsky. Urmiya: Encyclopedia of Islam (1934), 1032-38.


7 “Urmia,” The Columbia On Line Encyclopedia.


8 Kokhva vol. I, no. 2 pp. 85-86. (What is the date for Kokhwa vol.1?)


9 C. Issawi, The Economic History of Iran: 1900-1914, vol. 1 (1971), 24. (Do you have the name of the publisher and the city?)


10H. Murre-van den Berg, “The Missionaries’ Assistants,” JAAS 10, no. 2 (1996): 10.

 11Missionaries of the A.B.C.F.M, Nestorian Biography (Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath Schoo Society, 1857. Reprint, Chicago: Ninveh Press, 1933), 185.

 12 Prkins, 250-251.

13 Kokhva, vol. 2 no.1, p.31.

 14 Kokhva, vol. 1 no. 1, p. 6. (Is 1906 the first year of Kokhva?)

 15 Kokhva, vol. 2 no. 3, p.19; 1909 vol.3 no. 18, p.152; 1913 vol.7 no. 21, p.247; 1914 vol.8 no. 15 p.174. (vol 2 is 1907, vol 3is 1909? What happened in 1908? Is the number of volumes quoted correct?)

 16 Kokhva, 1909 vol. 3, no. 13, p. 211.

 17 Kokhva, 1914 vol. 9, no. 1 p.2.

 18Rev. S. David, The Assyro-Chaldean History (1923), 141. (Place of publication and name of the publisher ? Most probably Chicago)

 19 Y. Baaba. Nineveh, vol. 20 no. 4, p. 8. ( the title of the article and the year?)

 20 Nestorian Biography, 56. 

21 Yoab Benjamin, “Assyrian Journalism: A 140-Year Experience,” JAAS 7, no.2 (1993): 5.

 22 Rabi K. Shleemoon, Nineveh 20, no. 3 (date ?): 50-54.

 23 E. Vincenzizne, La Chiesa in Iran (The Church in Iran), JAAS 12, no. 2 (1998): 97-99.

 24 Kokhva, vol. 1 no.2 (1906): 16.

 25 Kokhva 1908. vol. 2, no. 14, p.180. (Previously volume 2 was recorded as published in 1907, please clarify)

 26 Kokhva 1908. vol. 2. no. 14, p.157.

 27 Kokhva, vol. 3, no. 9 (1908): 10.

28 A. Ishaya. Respondent no. 53, Nov. 14, 1981. (Is this from your dissertataion ? If it is, then your reference 42 should be here. I will make the changes if answer is yes)

 29A. Ishaya. Respondent no. 15, Dec. 16, 1981.

 30 A. Ishaya, Respondent no.29, Feb. 8, 1982.

 31 Kokhva vol.. 8, no. 23 (1914): 270.  

32 Kokhva, vol. 2, no. 12 (1907): 144. 

33 Kokhva, no. 17 (1917): 130. (Any volume number?) 

34 Kokhva, vol. 8, no. 23 (1914): 266-268.

 35 See D. Wigram. Our Smallest Ally. 1920; G. Yonan. Ein Vergessener Holocaust (A Forgotten Holocaust) (any date and publisher name for Yonan’s book?); Mary L. Shedd, The Measure of A Man: TheLife of William Ambrose Shedd Missinary to Persia. (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1922); . 1900-1999 A.D. Assyrian History Archives.

36 J. Alichoran, “ Assyro-Chaldeans in the 20th Century: From Genocide to Diaspora,” JAAS 8, no. 2 (1994): 50.

 37 Kokhva 10, no. 31(1917): 5.

 38 The Kurds had orders not (to?) attack the American Mission because of the great service the American doctors had rendered their leaders.

 39Rev. S. David, 146.

 40 Kokhva 1917. no. 1. P. 4 (is volume 10?)

 41 Kokhva 10, no. 18 (1917): 138.

 42 A. Ishaya, “Class & Ethnicity in Central California Valley,” (Unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, U.C.L.A., 1985),158.

 43 Ibid., 157.

 44 Miriam Youhanan,. An Assyrian Odyssey, ed. Y. A. Baaba (Alamo, California: Youel A. Baaba Library, 1998), 104-113.

 45 A. Ishaya, Class & Ethnicity, 156.

 46 Jihad, or the “holy war” gave the Muslims, whether they were military or civilians, a free hand to massacre Christian men, women and children

  47 Kokhva, 9. no. 7, 167.

 48 J. Perkins. Residence of Eight Years in Persia, (page number?)

 49 Kokhva 1913. vol. 7. no. 23. P.270.

50 See W. Wigram in Nineveh. vol. 4, no. s. 1, 3; vol. 5, no. 1; Rev. S. David, 166-169.

 51 Gen. H. H. Austin, The Baqubah Refugee Camp (London: The Faith Press, 1920): 55.

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