Tag Archives: Caliphate

The Why and How of US Intervention in Iraq

Last night President Barack Obama announced that US military would be conducting two missions in Iraq.  The first, already started when he made the announcement, is dropping food and water supplies on the besieged civilians, mostly Yezidis, in the Sinjar mountains after their city of Sinjar was overrun by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), after reports of deaths due to dehydration among the children.  ISIS regards Yezidis as a devilish sect to be exterminated.  The second US mission is to use airstrikes to prevent ISIS from posing a threat to American personnel in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, or in Baghdad.

Not all analysts support US military intervention in Iraq; one cogent statement of the case against airstrikes is here.  I agree with almost the entirety of that argument, and have repeatedly written against US military intervention in the Syrian Civil War.  Why should the US intervene in Iraq, but not Syria?  Basically, there is no way for the US to do more good than harm in Syria, but the costs of letting ISIS continue to terrorize Iraq and Syria outweigh those of striking ISIS, not only for Iraqis, but for the world. Continue reading

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What is History?

The past doesn’t change, right?  So once we know what happened, what else is there to do?  What do historians do, anyway?

The history profession has many critics, but even many of its fans cannot figure out what historians do, other than teach.  I recently visited family and encountered these questions more explicitly than I had in the past.  As a historian starting an assistant professorship, these are questions I expect to hear from my students, and to which I hope to provide them with an adequate answer.

We might grant that the past doesn’t change, but to do so we need some large caveats.  While what happened does not happen differently (unless time travel is in fact possible, according to Back to the Future), our access to what happened is indirect.  New sources are being discovered which reveal additional aspects about parts of the past which were unfamiliar.  Discovery of new data is one of the important functions of historians.  And if you wish to learn anything outside of the past 500 years or outside of that portion of the world dominated by English speakers, you will need trained experts to interpret the evidence and translate it into a language you can understand.

But discovery of new data is only a small portion of what historians do, although it is always exciting when it happens.  A larger portion of the historian’s job is to interpret the data which is already known.  Okay, so we know that in 1258 the Mongol general Hulegu (grandson of Chinggis Khan) conquered Baghdad and executed the last Abbasid caliph.  So what?  Why is that an important event?  Who cares?  The historian’s job is to answer these questions.  This conquest put a final whimpering end to the myth of unity in the Islamic world.  For three centuries already the caliph in Baghdad had been a puppet in Baghdad with little real power, yet Sunni thugs who wanted to appear as legitimate rulers would send letters to Baghdad claiming to ask for recognition from the caliph, which the caliph rarely if ever refused.  And thus, at least for the region west of Libya, there was a notion that all Islam was united under one caliph.  After the Mongol pagan Hulegu killed the last Abbasid caliph, a new Abbasid caliphate was quickly established in Egypt (whose successors continued, after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt, in Istanbul until 1923), which achieved recognition within lands ruled from the Nile valley. But to the north in Anatolia and to the east of the Euphrates, areas now ruled by Mongols, Muslims religious thinkers learned how to get along without a caliph in their political theories.  The events of 1258 forced some rapid rethinking of the relationship between religion and politics in the Islamic world.

That’s the significance question, but historians also care about the causality question: why did the events of 1258 happen as they did?  Why did the Central Asian steppe nomads conquer most of Asia and part of Europe, but not India, Palestine, Egypt, or Western Europe?  It’s easy to say that they ran out of gas, but why then?  Why there?  Western European sources from the 1240s to the 1260s show clear concern that the Mongol juggernaut would roll over them next.  And why did the events of 1258 have the particular effects they did, rather than some other effects?  Why didn’t all Muslims in Iraq rise up in revolt at the death of the caliph and attempt to establish a new caliphate, as some are doing today in northern Iraq?  Causal questions are difficult, because the phenomena involved are many-faceted, and there are many variables that we don’t have access to in the evidence that survives (and historians are bound to the surviving evidence; that is what distinguishes them from authors of historical fiction).  Because questions of causality are difficult, they occasion much debate, as questions of significance also do, and historians debate these questions.

One might naively suspect that the causality and significance questions could be settled once and for all, and then historians would move to more recent topics.  But this has not happened, and will not happen, for a few reasons.  One reason is that we interpret the evidence of the past through our present understanding of the world.  As we understand better, or perhaps just differently, “how the world works,” so our understanding of the evidence for the past changes as well.  Historians are necessary to help sift out narratives about the past which depend on theories about the world which have been disproven.  For example, a theory about the rise of the Mongol Empire in the 13th C which remains popular today is the environmental theory put forward by René Grousset’s The Empire of the Steppes, according to which all Central Asian nomads grew up in a climate which forced them to be natural warriors with a desire to conquer the sedentary lands around them, and whenever the military of those sedentary lands degraded in quality, conquest from the steppe lands was inevitable.  This is to say that the Mongol conquests did not depend at all upon what happened where the nomads lived, but was exclusively a function of what happened in the “civilized lands.”  This is clearly wrong, and yet it remains popular, because it was written in a seductively clear narrative which was mass-marketed.  Historians need to challenge this notion.

Another reason these arguments will never cease is that we investigate history to learn more about the present.  As the present changes, so too does our view of the past; things that previously seemed very significant suddenly seem less so, or vice versa.  When a descendent of Hulegu, Ghazan Khan, adopted Islam, this is seen as a significant event.  (Personally, I doubt it was very significant).  When Ghazan’s brother Oljeitu rejected Sunni Islam for Shi’ism, this is seen by some as a significant event, precisely those people who look at Middle East conflicts today and see them as sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shia, while others think the switch was largely cosmetic on Oljeitu’s part (how much did he know about Islam anyway?).  Cultural forces which previous generations assumed were universal motivators, such as religion, have been considered in some recent historical scholarship to be just a front for “the real motives,” usually economic or sociological.  Historical causality and significance are difficult and elusive topics, and hence historians are always attempting to come to a better understanding of them.

But I think the most important job of the historian is not these, precisely, although these questions play a role in it.  The most important job of the historian is to help society come to terms with the quantity of the past.

There is a lot more information about the past than any single person can hope to understand, no matter how thoroughly she or he devotes a lifetime to the pursuit (and some people need to earn a living, and see friends and family).  The abundance of information about the past creates the problem that no one can fully understand it.  It’s also true that no one can know all the things that are going on in the world right now, so scientists create models of the physical world to enable us to understand why things happen a certain way, and to allow us to interact with the world around us.  Much more has happened than is happening (because whatever is happening is past just as quickly), and so historians create models and frameworks to organize our understanding of the past.  These mental models and frameworks are necessary to make sense of the past, to reduce the overwhelming details into stories which tell us about our world and what makes it the way it is.

People create mental models to understand their world somewhat reflexively; it’s one of the amazing things about being human.  But these models are not necessarily correct, no more than any other explanation after the fact is necessary correct.  So just as amazing, to my mind, is the propensity for people to create erroneous models of the past.  And historians argue about these models, to see which is better.  To come back to Hulegu’s conquest of Baghdad in 1258, we know it had an effect.  But was that effect significant enough to merit distinguishing all that went before it in the Middle East from all that went after it?  Or did the year 1200 have more in common with 1300 in most of the Middle East than either did with 900?  Historians debate this.  (I have debated this.)  This is the debate about periodization: where should we put the pauses in our accounts of the past in order to make the most sense?  And while historians rightly think that too much effort has been put into “getting the periodization right,” since different phenomena will inevitably have different natural stopping points, periodization is just one aspect of the question of which mental model makes the most sense about the past.

Many people continue to believe history is just a series of names and dates, and no doubt this is how history is commonly taught.  Meanwhile, historians see history as a series of debates, where the dispute is not (usually) about what happened or didn’t, but about larger questions, such as why it happened, why it matters, and what is the best framework for understanding this event in the larger trajectories of human experience.  Such questions transform history from a deadening litany of the dead into a living and changing collective attempt to understand better the world in which we live today.

Who are the Chaldeans?

A friend of mine recently met some Chaldeans in Michigan, and as I am his go-to guy for all matters Middle Eastern and Christian, he asked me who they were.  Here is my response, lightly edited for broader publication:

The subject of Chaldean ethnicity is rather complicated.  Basically “Chaldeans” are Catholic Assyrians,” as these two terms get used in modern Iraq.  The connection with the “Assyrians” of the Old Testament (much less the astrologers of Daniel 2) is debatable.

A more detailed answer must be aware of the fact that Christianity in Iraq has almost disappeared as a result of a very difficult past century.  Widespread massacres in 1915 (better known in the West as the Armenian Genocide, although Armenians were not the only targets) killed large numbers and drove them south into the central Iraqi plain.  At the end of World War I, while the victorious Western powers were meeting in Paris, British officers in Iraq encouraged an Assyrian leader named Agha Petros to try to capture a territory for an Assyrian “homeland” and present the victors with a fait accompli; the attempt was disastrous.  The British Mandate government which subsequently ruled Iraq frequently used the Assyrian Christians as a paramilitary force, which made them deeply unpopular with other groups in the area.  After the British pulled out in 1932, the Simele massacres of 1933 further reduced Assyrian numbers and solidified Iraqi national sentiment against the Assyrians.  Many Assyrians emigrated from Iraq in this period.  Those who remained stabilized as a small minority within Iraq, and pressures to abandon the Assyrian neo-Aramaic language in favor of either Arabic or Kurdish have been intermittently very high.  Saddam Hussein was seen by a few (notably Jean-Maurice Fiey before 1973) as more friendly to Christians (his foreign minister Tariq Aziz is a Chaldean Catholic), though his Arab Nationalist Ba’ath party also discouraged the use of Assyrian neo-Aramaic in favor of Arabization.  Assyrians today speak not only of the genocide of 1915, but also of a cultural genocide.  So one must be careful how one addresses the history of an endangered minority.  Nevertheless, history cannot be written to serve present pain.

Most Assyrians emphasize that their ethnic identity has not changed since before the rise of Islam.  So I’ll give you three perspectives: the “traditional” Assyrian view (as forcefully expressed by various Assyrians I have met), the widely held scholarly view, and my compromise.

The “traditional” Assyrian view

Don’t be misled by the label “traditional”; one Orthodox priest used to say that unchanging tradition is whatever your grandmother did.  It need not be older than a century.  But this view says that the ancient Assyrians who ruled much of the Near East from their capital at Nineveh never died out.  Instead they were conquered by the Babylonians (in 612 BCE), the Achaemenid Persians (in the late 500s BCE), Alexander the Great (shortly before 300 BCE), the Parthians (in the 220s BCE), the Romans (briefly in the 110s CE), the Sasanian Persians (in the 230s CE), the Muslim Arabs (in the 630s and 640s), the Mongols (in the mid-13th C), and the Ottomans (in the 1530s).  In the meantime, the apostle Thomas had sent his disciple Addai to Edessa (modern Urfa in SE Turkey), and Addai in turn sent his disciple Mari to Seleucia and Ctesiphon, the capitals of the Persian Empire.  They converted the Assyrians among various other peoples, and although they used Syriac in the churches, they continued to speak Assyrian neo-Aramaic.  Assyrians practiced Christianity in large numbers and flourished in the plain around Mosul (founded across the Tigris river from ancient Nineveh), until at the end of the 14th C Timur Lenk (“Tamerlane”) conquered the region and slaughtered them, and many of them retreated to the mountains to the north.  (In the 16th C, many of those left in the plains adopted Catholicism and became “Chaldeans.”)  The “Mountain Nestorians” were the target of American and British missionary ventures in the 19th C, and during the sufferings of the twentieth century, those who could fled to the West (especially Chicago, Stockholm, and Melbourne, but also London, Detroit area, and other places).  Thus they are the ancient Assyrians, who recently have suffered genocide and cultural extermination.

The “standard” scholarly view

A few scholars accept the “traditional” Assyrian view, but most do not.  The skeptics point out that when the American missionaries traveled to the “Mountain Nestorians” in the 1830s and 1840s, they claimed to be the ten lost tribes of Israel!  On the most common view, the term “Chaldean” was not used within this community before the 1700s, being translated from the Latin.  The first use of the term “Chaldean” to refer to a contemporary community since antiquity was in 1445, when a branch of the Church of the East in Cyprus submitted to the Papacy and was called “Chaldean”.  The merger didn’t last long, but in 1553 a monk from northern Iraq traveled to Rome to ask to be appointed “Patriarch of Babylon,” and he and those who followed him were termed Chaldeans in Latin.  In Renaissance Europe, the main dialect of Aramaic which was studied was the one in Daniel 2 (and other biblical texts), which was termed “Chaldean” due to the fact that in the text it is the Chaldeans who first speak it to Nebuchadnezzar.  So when Christians from northern Iraq showed up speaking a (rather different) dialect of Aramaic, they were labeled “Chaldeans”.  The term “Assyrian,” it is claimed, was not used for a contemporary community until the English adventurer/archaeologist (Indiana Jones type) Henry Layard discovered the ruins of ancient Nineveh across from the city of Mosul.  In light of 19th C European theories of racial fixedness and physiognomy, Layard and other Brits after him declared that the Christians of the area were clearly “Assyrians,” from their facial resemblance to the stone reliefs which colonial antiquities collectors were busy bringing back to the British Museum in London.  In the second half of the 19th C, the term “Assyrian” was adopted by the community itself as an importation of European nationalism in order to argue for their right to political autonomy against the Ottoman Empire (just as the Greeks had done earlier).  With the genocide in the early 20th C and the 1933 massacres, ethnic identity assumed primacy over religious identity within this community, especially as they continued (whether still in Iraq or now in the West) to lobby for political autonomy using European terms.  Thus there is no continuity between the ancient Assyrians and the modern Assyrians.

My views

There are various mediating positions which scholars adopt between the extreme view just summarized and the “traditional” view.  A few details: the term “Assyrian” was known and used before 1840, in various centuries.  For example, the 2nd C Christian author Tatian identified himself in Greek as “Assyrios.”  The Armenians used “Asoristan” (the “land of the Assyrians”) straight through the medieval period, and also (though less commonly, perhaps) used the group name “Asorik’.”  The Syriac terms “Athor” (a place) and “Athoraya” (a person from that place) were very rarely used from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century.  Additional citations can be found on the Wikipedia page “Assyrian Continuity“.

The difficulty is that proponents of Assyrian continuity typically fail to ask the question what “Assyrian” means in different contexts, but assume its meaning is unchanging.  What Tatian meant, I am not sure, but probably appealed to a Mesopotamian birth (and not all Mesopotamians are or were “Assyrians” in the modern sense).  The eleventh-century Greek historian Michael Attaleiates termed one person an “Assyrios” on account of his having been born in Antioch in Syria, not in Mesopotamia at all.  The Armenian “Asuristan” is clearly a designation for Iraqi Mesopotamia as distinct from “Mijaget” (“Mesopotamia”), which was used for upper Mesopotamia in what is now Syria and Turkey, and “Sham” (Syria southwest of the Euphrates).  The Syriac “Athor” refers to the region around Mosul in northern Iraq, and “Athoraya” refers exclusively to someone from that small region, not to any of the people in other regions (such as the mountains of Kurdistan or Hakkari, or the plain west of the Lake Urmia in NW Iran) whose descendants now call themselves “Assyrians.”  So some memory of Mosul as the capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire seems to have survived.

But pre-modern Middle Easterners did not use ethnic names for enduring descent groups, as became popular in modern Europe.  So “ethnic” labels such as “Assyrian” should be understood with reference to places, languages, or religious groups.  (Indeed, the “ethnic” term preferred by 17th C poets who would later be called “Assyrians” was not “Athoraye” but “Suraye” – i.e. Syriac speakers.)  Given the American missionaries’ reports that the “Mountain Nestorians” in the 1830s believed they were the ten lost tribes of Israel, it seems likely that leaders in the community were willing to adopt whatever “ethnic” label would be most advantageous, and one can hardly blame them in light of their subsequent sufferings.  Thus it is simply false to say that there has always been a well-defined ethnic group known as the “Assyrians” to themselves and to others, who preserved the cultural identity of Sargon and Sennacherib and the ancient Assyrian Empire.

On the other hand, it is certainly true that the ancient Assyrians were not exterminated, so the modern Assyrians are probably descendants of the ancient Assyrians.  But the ancient Assyrians are not known to have practiced strict endogamy, so they certainly intermarried with newcomers in the form of Israelite captives, Kurds, Persian conquerors, a small group of Greek invaders, Armenians, Arabs, and finally Turks.  Just as my own “northwestern European” cocktail of ancestry is not distinctively French, English, German, or Irish, much less any specific tribe in any of these areas, so modern Assyrians can count their ancestors from many different groups.  Modern Assyrian culture is probably also a continuous development from ancient Assyrian culture, but again not exclusively, as their Aramaic dialects absorbed words of Persian (in at least two waves), Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkish.  So ancient Assyrian culture would be as unrecognizable to modern Assyrians as painting oneself blue is to modern Brits.  In the 15th C, the Church of the East still thought of itself as a universal church, and identified several ethnic labels within its ranks.

But as Christians in the Hakkari Mountains and Iraq encountered European ideas of ethnic persistence and self-determination, they cast about for which ethnicity they could claim, and “Assyrian” seemed a sensible choice which was close to hand.  The problem is that those European ideas of ethnic persistence and physiognomy are demonstrably wrong, and yet ethnic essentialism persists among Middle Eastern Christians still hoping in vain for Western world leadership to live up to Western political ideals of national autonomy and self-determination.

You can see why it’s a sensitive topic.  But the short answer is that “Chaldeans” are Catholic “Assyrians.”