Trdat’s Legacy: The Revival of 7th Century Church Forms in Medieval Armenia

Written by Afsheen Sharifzadeh, a graduate of Tufts University focusing on Iran and the Caucasus. This article surveys medieval church forms in historical Armenia and examines the role of Trdat the Architect in appropriating vocabulary from Armenia’s own remote past.

The church of the Holy Cross (Sourb Khach Yekeghetsi) on Aghtamar Island, Lake Van, Turkey. Aghtamar was once the capital city of the Armenian Kingdom of Vaspurakan, which was ruled by the Artsruni noble family. This church served as the seat of an Armenian Catholicosate for nearly 800 years, between 1116 and 1895 A.D, before it was dissolved and abandoned in the aftermath of the Hamidian Massacres against the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population. 

The Armenian architectural tradition is distinguished by its conservation of a particular visual quality throughout the ages while simultaneously internalizing foreign influences from both East and West. But despite the timeless persistence of a uniquely Armenian aesthetic, the repository is not a monolith. Greek, Roman, Iranian, Muslim, and later Mongol sovereignty over the Armenian Highland left appreciable imprints on the visual vocabulary of both architecture and art. And whilst new, foreign pages were being added to the growing compendium of Armenian forms, indigenous architects were also drawing inspiration from the familiar pages of their own past; particularly, from well-known precedents scattered throughout Anatolia and the Caucasus that presumably remained operative in the social memory of the Armenian people. We can observe this tendency in a slew of 10th and 11th century Armenian churches that were unmistakably inspired by the earlier 7th century repository. That is, Armenian church architecture of the 10th and 11th centuries is marked by revival and appropriation of 7th century forms—the culmination of which took place under the architect Trdat, whose patent style infused centuries-old church plans with refined architectural details, an array of new local elements, as well as foreign borrowings.

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Ruins of the medieval city of Ani, the capital of the Armenian Bagratuni Kingdom, now in modern-day Turkey. Known as “the city of 1001 churches”, Ani once represented the pinnacle of Armenian architectural feats and material art. The city was sacked by Mongols, Turks, Persians, Georgians, and Arabs, and experienced a number of earthquakes before being abandoned by the end of the 16th century. Top: Ruins of Ani; Second row left: Cathedral of Ani and Church of Christ the Redeemer; Second row right: Cathedral of Ani, apse; Third row left: Church of the Apostles, south narthex (added 13th century); Third row right: Chapel of St. Gregory of Shushan Pahlevuni; Fourth row left: Monastery of the Hripsimian Virgins; Fourth row right: Church of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents

Renowned seventh century structures such as Zvartnots Cathedral at Vagharshapat and Mren Church came to inform the 9th and 10th century forms of Ani Cathedral and Gagkashen, as well as a number of other structure including Aghtamar, Haghpat, and Sanahin. Most importantly however, the fundamental forms and layouts of these churches were incorporated into the ever-shifting socio-political landscape of historical Armenia. But these two churches were certainly not alone in the compendium of 7th century churches. For example, the Church of Hripsime at Echmiadzin also served as a “mother church” or archetype of sorts, in turn inspiring an array of the 10th and 11th century replications throughout historical Armenia. The basic interior and exterior themes of Hripsime reappear at several sites throughout historical Armenia centuries after its construction, including at the Monastery of Haghpat and Church of the Holy Cross at Aghtamar, the 10th century capital of the Artrsuni Kingdom of Vaspurakan. Aside from the prominent example of Hripsime, other 7th century church forms were also revived and appropriated, such as the 7th century Church of Irind and the 11th century Church of the Redeemer at Ani.

The monastery of Sanahin (left) and its gavit (right), 10th century, Lori province, Armenia. Gavit (Armenian: zhamatun), the distinctive Armenian style of narthex, came to serve as the entrance, mausoleum, and assembly room of many churches throughout Caucasus. 

Aspects of Armenian Church Architecture
Pre-Christian Armenia stood at the crossroads of the ancient urban civilizations of the Near East and Greece. At the fall of Urartu in the 6th century B.C., Armenia became a satrapy to the Achaemenid Persian Empire under the so-called Yervandid rulers. For a period of nearly eight hundred years, Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion among the Armenian people, who began to incorporate elite visual vocabulary from the fallen Urartu, Persia and the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent into their own material productions. The Armenian pantheon developed around three Irano-Zoroastrian figures: Anahit (Avestan: Anahita), Aramazd (Avestan: Ahura Mazda) and Vahagn (Avestan: Verethragna), with a minority of Mithraists (Avestan: Mithra), and remained operative until the arrival of Christianity. Following Alexander’s conquest and the foundation of the Hellenistic Diadochi empires, the late Yervandids and later Artaxiads turned their gaze to the classical Greek world for artistic inspiration. In the first century A.D., the Artaxiad King Tigran the Great created an Armenian empire that spanned from the Mediterranean to the shores of the Caspian and Black Seas, only to be plundered by the Romans and consummated by Nero’s coronation of a new king, Trdat, in the Roman Forum.

Tigran the Great’s Empire; the Kingdom of Armenia at its greatest extent in history in the 1st century B.C. Tigran belonged to the Hellenophilic Artaxiad dynasty of Armenia, which had elevated the Greek language to the official language of their court. His capital Tigranakert (Latin: Tigranocerta) was sacked and plundered by the Romans, and the city was desecrated and razed to the ground. 

Armenia was evangelized in the 3rd century A.D. by Thaddeus and Bartholomew, two of Christ’s disciples from Syria, although the national folk conversion story is an anecdote featuring two Roman women Hripsime and Gayane and a certain “Gregory the Illuminator” (Grigor Lusavorich) who saves the King Trdat from his doom as a spell-bound pig. But Christianity was not unanimously accepted by the Armenian nobles (nakharars) at first; many families, including the Artsrunis and the Arshakunis, refused to renounce their Zoroastrian creed and allegiance to Sassanian Persia. But following his father’s major defeat at Avarayr, Vahan Mamikonian signed the Treaty of Nvasarak with the Sassanian King Vologases (Balash) and secured freedom of worship for the newly Christianized Armenia. In 301 A.D., Armenia became the first state apparatus to make Christianity its official religion.

Khor Virap monastery (Armenia) nestled on the foothills of Mount Ararat (Turkey). Khor Virap, literally “deep well,” is the site where, according to the national Christianization anecdote, King Trdat had Gregory the Illuminator imprisoned in a pit. During a hunt, Trdat suddenly turned into a pig, and had to recruit the help of the outcasted Gregory to release him from his affliction. As a token of gratitude, the King converted to Christianity and built churches throughout Armenia. Note the Armenian folk conversion tradition of Gregory, the patron saint of Armenia, bares inextricable parallels to the Georgian conversion tradition of Nino, the patron saint of Georgia.

Early Christian buildings in Armenia were basilicas, such at that at Aghts’k’, which were longitudinal, aisled buildings that were cheap to build and could accommodate a growing Christian population within its walls. The 4th century Tsiranavor Basilica at Artashat is covered by a barrel vault, a sort of 3-D arch, which was distinct from the basilicas of the Roman world that were normally covered by timber vaults. Another distinct feature of Armenian and Georgian churches is the use of rubble masonry, which calls for cleanly cut, polish facing stones filled with fieldstone, rubble, and mortar. This sort of material is not only economical but also lightens the superstructure of the building, allowing for heightened verticality, and smooth curves. Contrarily, the fifth century churches of Syria such as that of Qalb Lozeh are almost exclusively solid stone masonry, or ashlar masonry.

Qalb Lozeh Basilica, 5th century, Syria. Early Syrian Churches employed solid stone masonry, or ashlar masonry, while Armenian and Georgian churches almost exclusively employed rubble masonry, which is more affordable, easier to use, and allows for a lighter superstructure and curvature. 

The last and most distinct feature of early Armenian churches are steles and later khachkars that appear on ecclesiastical grounds outside of the main church structure. This suggests outdoor worship, which would have been highly unusual in the early Christian world and may be an appropriation of pre-Christian, Urartian rituals that were still operative in the social memory of the inhabitants of the Armenian highland.

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Odzun Church, 7th century, Armenia. Outside the church is a raised arch form with stairs leading to two steles sculpted on all four faces, featuring stories from the Old Testament, images of saints, military saints, King Trdat with a pig head (from the folk conversion story), and a relief of the tomb of Hripsime with a ladder. This form suggests some kind of outdoor worship, perhaps an heirloom of Urartian culture, and was nonetheless highly unusual in the early Christian world.  

Trdat the Architect

The Armenian architect Trdat earned unusual celebrity from his high-level projects in the Caucasus and the Byzantine world, and as such he is one of the few medieval architects mentioned by name in contemporary sources. Trdat was entrusted with the construction of cathedrals, chapels, and monasteries at sites such as Ani, Haghpat, and Sanahin at the turn of the 11th century. Here it is important to note the unique identity of medieval Armenia, which was not only linked to the Mediterranean but also to the Islamic world, and possessed a language and form of Christianity distinct from its Byzantine overlords. The architect Trdat thus served as a cultural ambassador of sorts—responsible for both introducing new styles from Byzantium as well as preserving traditional Armenian forms in his buildings. He is also renowned for experimenting with new plans and styles, which is evident at sites such as Haghpat and Sanahin. But Trdat’s work was not limited to Armenia and Armenian patrons—it was the same Trdat who was entrusted with refurbishing the Hagia Sofia church in Constantinople following a devastating earthquake that led to the collapse of its dome in 989 A.D. Although the details surrounding Trdat’s Constantinopolitan commission remain unclear, eminence attained from his high-level projects in the Caucasus must have played a primal role in securing his candidacy.

Interior of Hagia Sophia Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey. Originally a Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica constructed by the Byzantines in the 6th century A.D., the dome collapsed at the end of the 10th century and Trdat the Architect (Trdat Chartarapet) from Armenia was entrusted with its refurbishing. According to John Scylitzes, the scaffolding alone costed one thousand pounds of gold. It would be interesting to know how Trdat earned such a prestigious commission, as one can imagine hiring a local architect would have been more practical.

Zvartnots Cathedral and the Church of Gagik

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Zvartnots Church, the patriarchal resident of Nerses III (640-661 A.D.). The setting in the landscape of the church must have been deliberately aligned with Mount Ararat. The Ionic capitals of the exedrae are engraved with the framed circular monogram “Narsou” (“of Nerses”) in Greek. 

Perhaps one of the most outspoken examples of the medieval revival can be observed in the comparison between the 7th century Zvartnots Church near Echmiadzin and the 11th century Gagkashen Cathedral at Ani, which was constructed by Trdat. Both of the churches feature aisled tetraconch plans, with four large, W-shaped piers and exedrae comprised of six columns. Both structures feature stylobates and both were built employing rubble masonry, which was typical of Armenian churches as opposed to ashlar masonry in Syrian churches. Zvartnots is the largest aisled tetraconch in the Caucasus, and it lies within an extensive patriarchal or Episcopal palace complex. Most scholars agree on the rotunda plan of Zvartnots, with arched windows and a ring of oculi. What is most important in analyzing Zvartnots is understanding the socio-political context of its founding. The 7th century A.D. witnessed a cosmic confrontation of two age-old foes: the Byzantines and the Sassanid Persians. From a Christological standpoint, the Armenians condemned the doctrine of Monophysitism, but also rejected the Orthodox doctrine of the Byzantines, which professed the duality of Christ’s nature, as proclaimed by the fourth ecumenical council at Chalcedon in 451 AD. But the geographical location of Zvartnots in the Byzantine Empire adjacent to the Sassanian border thus necessitated the development of a sort of “cultural allegiance” to Constantinople, which manifested itself in the form of visual vocabulary in architectural forms. In this vain, the local leader Nerses III had in fact religiously aligned himself with the Byzantines. This motivation in turn allowed for the transmission of a number of architectural innovations from a Byzantine milieu into Armenian Church architecture, as evidenced by the church of Zvartnots. The first is the use of columns and exedrae in the interior of the church, which is evident in Byzantine churches in western Anatolia, a prominent example of which is the Hagia Sofia. The columns composing the exedrae at Zvartnots are of the Ionic order, however they have been “Armenized” by the use of local knot motifs in a fashion similar to the Dvin “Ionic” capital from the 5th-6th centuries. Nerses III’s deliberate choice to affiliate with the Byzantine world is perhaps best evinced by the use of Byzantine cross monograms with a Greek inscription that reads “Of Nerses”. The eagle images are also appropriated from a Byzantine milieu, where the bird is a symbol of power and divinity. While the Greek monograms themselves are symbols associated with an era of Greek dominance in the politics of historical Armenia, the layout and architectural concept of the church itself as a multi-level rotunda with an interior tetraconch design became a timeless standard in the Armenian repository that was actively drawn upon for centuries to come.

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Gagik’s Church (Gagkashen) at Ani, 1001-6 A.D. The columns of the exedrae at Gagkashen are also of the Ionic order, but do not feature Greek monograms like those at the Zvartnots cathedral four centuries before.

The Church of Gagik (Gagkashen) at Ani, built 1001-6 A.D. by the architect Trdat, appears to be a stylistic imitation of the church of Zvarnots. This observation did not escape the attention of the medieval Armenian chronicler Stepanos of Taron, who most aptly noted: “Gagik, King of Armenia, was taken with the idea of building in the city of Ani a church similar in size and plan to the great church at Vagharshapat, dedicated to St. Gregory, which was then in ruins.” As Stepanos relates, Zvartnots lay in ruins at the time of the construction of Gagkashen, which casts a degree of mystery on Trdat’s ability to produce a strikingly similar plan and layout at Gagkashen. The church follows a rotunda plan with an aisled tetraconch and columnar exedrae. However the diameter of the central shell at Gagkashen is markedly larger than that at Zvartnots, which in turn makes for a more spacious interior and less-pronounced ambulatory surrounding the tetraconch. In addition, Gagkashen only has three entrances, while Zvartnots has five. Both Gagkashen and Zvartnots feature sculpted colonnettes and oculi on the exterior, ground segment of the churches, although Gagkashen is a true rotunda while Zvarnots is comprised of thirty-two sides on the bottom two segments and sixteen on the drum. Gagkashen also employs Ionic columns, however they conspicuously lack the Greek monograms found on the columns at Zvartnots. This of course is relevant to the contemporary socio-political context of Gagkashen’s construction; namely, while Zvartnots was commissioned by a pro-Byzantine (or simply Hellenophilic) patron during the era of Greek dominance in Armenia, Gagkashen was constructed during the Bagratuni suzerainty under the Abbasid Caliphs, when Armenia was a contested territory between the Muslims and Byzantines. The incidence of distinctly Greek visual vocabulary in buildings at Ani is thus less pronounced, as Trdat constructed the church in a period of relative Armenian autonomy in the region between two warring empires. In addition, the colonnettes of the four piers at Gagkashen project more emphatically than at Zvartnots, creating a greater sense of linearity. Trdat also replaced the solid eastern apse at Zvartnots with a fourth exedra at Gagkashen that is open to the ambulatory. Altogether, the Church of Gagik outlines two prominent features of Trdat’s architectural aesthetic: linearity created by profiling of supported arches, and enlarged central spaces. These elements would also be incorporated into other structures built by Trdat in imitation of 7th century forms.

The Church of Mren and the Cathedral of Ani

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Mren Church, 7th century, located by a river gorge at the border of modern-day Turkey with Armenia. Distinguished by its rose-colored stones, painting in the interior of Mren does not survive due to the smoothness of masonry. Regrettably, there is a large crack at the northwest facade, and the building is collapsing. 

Another prominent example of architectural revival can be observed in the 7th century Church of Mren and the 10th century Cathedral of Ani. Considering the geographical proximity of the two sites, the stylistic resemblance of the two churches is not difficult to surmise. Mren follows a domed basilica plan, which was common among religious structures of the early Christian period throughout the Near East and Europe as for accommodating a growing Christian population. The interior of the church is divided into aisles that lead to two side chambers adjacent to the apse, which is projecting outwards on the exterior of the structure. The centralized dome is supported by piers, and the structure employs rubble masonry featuring a geometric exterior with a faceted drum and conical roof. Of note, the dome is held up by squinches, which was an Iranian innovation and was employed much more commonly in Armenia during the earlier centuries of Christianity before the widespread adoption of European pendentives.

Mren features an exquisite array of exterior sculpture, which is a feature characteristic of Armenian Church architecture in comparison to other styles from around the Christian world. The west façade features an inscription depicting the return of the Holy Cross to Jerusalem from the Sassanian capital, Ctesiphon, by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in 630 A.D. The inclusion of this scene is revealing of the strong network of alliances that existed between Byzantium and Armenian princes. The portal under the inscription is also sculpted, including depictions of angels, which demonstrates Byzantine influence at frontier regions such as Mren. Another exterior sculpture is that depicting Christ, Peter, Paul, the appointed imperial official Davit Saharuni, and the local imperial official Nerses Kamsarakan. This inscription seems to be informed by an Iranian milieu, particularly in the style of dress of the local figures Davit and Nerseh, who are wearing Persian riding coats. This observation is consistent with the many centuries of Iranian sovereignty over Armenia preceding the Byzantine conquest of the region, and validates the importation of Iranian styles of raiment and vocabulary of political legitimacy in an architectural context. Altogether, the content and vocabulary of the exterior sculpture at Mren demonstrates the interaction of Armenians with foreign powers at the frontier. And while these depictions vary depending on the contemporary political allegiances of Armenia, the tradition of exterior sculpture would become part of the architectural canon of Armenian churches and would inform the design of churches for many centuries to come.

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The Mother Cathedral of Ani, 10th century, at Ani in modern day Turkey. Stylistic resemblances between the churches at Ani and Gothic architecture in Europe such as the church abbey of St. Denis have raised questions regarding the origin of that architectural order. In orientalist fashion, the German traveller Karl Schnaase (1884) remarks that the interior of the Cathedral of Ani must have been built by a European master builder, an observation which nonetheless speaks to the uncanny resemblance between the two styles.

The Cathedral of Ani is one such church that seems to have appropriated many components of Mren but in a 10th and 11th century context. Ani Cathedral was constructed by Trdat the Architect, to whom the Church of Gagik in the same city has also been attributed, as discussed above. The cathedral itself was commissioned by another regal patron, King Smbat II, although according to an inscription on the church, construction was interrupted by the the King’s death in 989 and later resumed by Queen Katramide the Georgian. Like the church of Mren, the Cathedral of Ani follows a domed basilica plan, and it once supported a dome with a conical roof held up by pendentives. The whole structure including the apse is inscribed in a rectangle, while the apse is projecting at Mren. Much like Mren, the interior is divided into three aisles by four large, freestanding piers. The church also features exterior niches and a stylobate. However, in contrast to Mren, Ani Cathedral has narrower side aisles caused by closer placement of the piers to the lateral wall, which in turn enlarges the central space. As discussed, this was an innovation Trdat also employed at Gagkashen. Another departure from 7th century architecture was Trdat’s use of pendentives instead of squinches to support the central dome, which was probably imported from a Byzantine milieu from structures such as the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Thus while Ani Cathedral drew heavily from the layout of Mren, it also appropriated many contemporary elements of architectural design that were associated with the ruling class of 10th and 11th century Armenia.

Scale of the Cathedral of Ani, 10th century, west entrance. The dome is supported by pendentives (a European innovation, as opposed to Iranian squinches found at Mren) held up by slightly pointed 3-ribbed arches supported on bundled shafts that spring from profiled piers, in effect giving the interior a strikingly muscular effect and an emphasis on linearity. 

Ani Cathedral is distinguished by its appropriation of exterior sculpture in the contemporary context of the city of Ani. Namely, the entire masonry skin is united by sculpted colonettes and arches, and this became a feature of many Armenian churches in the 10th and 11th centuries. The vaulting of the cathedral is supported by slightly pointed rib-arches that spring from profiled piers, which bear the structural advantage of supporting more load, and adds to the verticality of the structure while affording a greater sense of “linearity” from a stylistic point of view. In addition, the steps of the arches “bind” with the ribbed piers, creating a more integrated interior design. Altogether, the Cathedral of Ani represents a refinement of interior vocabulary used at Mren, in that it takes rudimentary profiling and incorporates it into an aesthetic. These developments are not only telling of continued appropriation of elements from a Byzantine milieu, but also of the masterfulness of Trdat the Architect as a reviser of the simpler forms from the 7th century.


Maranci, Christina. “Building Churches in Armenia: Art at the Borders of Empire and the Edge of Canon.” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 88, No. 4 (Dec., 2006), pp. 656-675

Maranci, Christina. “Byzantium through Armenian Eyes: Cultural Appropriation and the Church of Zuart’noc’.” Gesta. International Center of Medieval Art: 2001. pp. 105-124.

Maranci, Christina. “The Architect Trdat: Building Practices and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Byzantium and Armenia”. The Journal of the Society of architectural historians, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Sep., 2003), pp. 294-305.



Al-Maqām al-‘Irāqi in the Baghdadi Jewish Tradition

Written by Afsheen Sharifzadeh, a graduate of Tufts University focusing on Iran and the Caucasus.
This article examines the maqām in the Baghdadi tradition, first paying attention to the origin of the repertoire and then focusing on the role of Baghdadi Jews in its evolution and propagation. In doing so, the authors proposes that Iraqi Jewish musicians played a capital role in the development of the standard Iraqi maqām style, and later served as “international agents” of the Iraqi repertoire–that is, as exponents of their host country’s musical heritage–in a fashion not dissimilar to the Sephardic Jewish financiers of Ottoman Istanbul and the Armenian silk merchants of Safavid Isfahan. They disseminated their tradition through contact with foreign musicians and absorbed foreign aspects into the Iraqi repertoire. Indeed this bi-directional model of musical appropriation carried into the Israeli and Indian diaspora communities.

Iraqi Jews by Ezekiel’s tomb, Baghdad, 1932. Before 1948, Jews made up a burgeoning one-third of Baghdad’s population and had lived in Iraq for over 2,000 years. Today, there are less than 10 Jews left in the country. 

Al-maqām al-‘Irāqi

Except in Iraq, maqām has three levels of meaning: a degree of sound, a theoretical scale, and the modal organization of the Arab-Islamic area. In Iraq, the former three are known as nagham, while maqām is the main urban vocal repertoire. Currently the origin of the Iraqi maqām remains poorly characterized—while some contemporary Iraqi specialists posit that the repertoire dates back to the Abbasid era, (750-1258 A.D.), others believe that it may be a relatively new phenomenon dating back only four to six centuries. Nonetheless, I propose a development in an Iranian environment that may have reached its present state through cultural contact between Persian and Baghdadi Jews.

Farida performing a Baghdadi pesteh, “Yumm al-‘Oyoun al-Soud”, with chālghī Baghdādī accompaniment in Amsterdam 

In enumerating the underlying Iranian elements of the Iraqi maqām, we can count the following: the seven main modes or maqāmāt of the Iraqi Maqām are identical to those of the Persian āvāz or dastgāh repertoire; most of the maqāmāt have Persian names; and instruments such as the santūr and joza further suggest appropriation from an Iranian milieu. Many of the Iraqi maqāmāt sung with Classical verses are found in the Persian tradition as well, particularly the Mukhālif, Mansūrī, Dashtī, Awshār, Bakhtiyār, and Mathnawī. Another distinguishing trait of the Iraqi maqām among Arab musical repertoire is that each maqām has a distinct vocal introduction (badwa or tahrīr), the lyrics of which are usually in Persian: Sigāh has “Lilay, lilay…”; Rāst has “Yār, yār…”; Humāyūn and Dashtī have “Amān, amān…”; whereas Bayāt and Hijāz have “Faryād-e man…” (“Oh my wails” in Persian.) Thus conceivably, Iraqi musicians absorbed elements of Persian style through the performance of what Iraqi musicians have called “Persians songs”—although not the classical Persian repertoire.

While it would be a futile exercise to attempt to ascribe these cultural transformations to a single musician or host throughout the centuries, it is important to note that Persia lost control of Baghdad in the 16th century and sporadically regained control until the 19th century. And while there has existed a minority Muslim Persian population within Baghdad for many centuries, the vast majority of Persian-speakers in that city have been Jews of Persian extraction with surnames such as Shīrāzī, Shahrabānī, Irānī, Bābāyī, Āghāsī, Lārī, ‘Ajamī, Āghā-Bābā and the like. Thus the role of Jews—many of whom lived intermittently between Iran and Iraq as traders, artisans and merchants—as agents in the propagation of these influences is probable if not imperative, as Jews were also traditionally disposed to musical professions in Persia. Indeed, in one episode contact between Iraqi Jewish musicians and a Persian professional musician even resulted in Iran’s adoption of the qānūn repertoire. Thus communication between Baghdadi Jewish musicians and their Persian coreligionists is a reasonable medium of musical acculturation between the two societies that still remains to be studied definitively.

Interview (in Iraqi Arabic) with Farida, a renowned Iraqi maqām vocalist based in the Netherlands 

Nonetheless, the chālghī Baghdādī ensemble has traditionally performed at secular and religious occasions for Muslims, Jews, Christians, Mandaeans, and Yezidis in Iraq. The central instruments of the ensemble or al-chālghī al-baghdādī are the santūr, the al-kamāna [al-baghdādīyya], the joza, the daff, and the dumbag, while the ‘ūd, santūr, and nāy as well as Western Classical instruments such as the violin and cello are popularly considered to be later additions that were appropriated from either an Egyptian or Maslāwi Christian milieu. There exist some fifty individual maqāmāt and three regional traditions: namely, those of Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk. While the Baghdadi repertoire is typically performed in Arabic, Persian, or Hebrew, the traditions of northern Iraq are most often in the regional Turkoman (South Azerbaijani), Neo-Aramaic, and Kurdish languages and are distinguished by incorporation of a number of regional instruments in addition to the standard chālghī Baghdādī ensemble. When performed in the Arabic language, the poem at the center of the lyric can take the form of mawwāl or zhayrī, which is colloquial or hybrid, or the qasīda which is strictly a monorhyme ode based on Classical Arabic prosidy. The former type of maqāmāt amounts to twenty-five, according to al-Wardī, while the latter includes forty-one.

A maqām preformed in the Turkoman (South Azerbaijani) language of northern Iraq, particularly Kirkuk and Erbil. 

A standard Iraqi maqām begins with the badwa or tahrīr, which is the opening melody/main theme that is repeated throughout the maqām; qitā ‘ (sing. qita‘a) and awsal (sing. wusla), or secondary melodies, which form the building blocks of the composition; the meyāna, or climax, which is usually a qita‘a or a wusla sung in the high register; a small cadence known as a jelsa, which precedes the meyāna; a qarār, or a descent into the lower register; and the taslīm, which is the final, closing cadence that signals the end of the maqām and the coming pesteh (from Persian “baste” via Ottoman Turkish “beste”). Pestāt are in turn rhythmic songs with repetitive melodies that often contain simple, humorous, texts dealing with cotidian matters and various aspects of society. These, while not a part of the maqām repertoire, are popular, light-hearted urban songs typically in Arabic and Persian.

Iraqi female vocalist Zuhuur Hussein performing the pesteh “Ya ‘Aziz al-Ruh” in Arabic and Persian

Jews in al-Chālghī al-Baghdādī Ensemble

As in most mashriqī Arab musical traditions, maqām singers (mughannīn or even mutribūn) have traditionally been Muslims, and many are reciters or chanters of the Qur’ān for Islamic rituals and ceremonies. They are rarely professionals. In Iraq, the singers have traditionally belonged to the Arab, Kurdish, and Turkoman ethnic communities and most often belong to the lower urban social classes of merchants and craftsmen. However, central to our discussion here is the curious fact that until 1950, almost all the instrumentalists of the Iraqi maqām (daggagāt, ālātīyya) were Jews.

In explaining this phenomenon, a number of ethnomusicologists propose a class-based theory. Of course Islam has traditionally been unfavorably disposed towards music, so professional musicians have necessarily held low rank in society. Yet music has been an indispensable component of Muslim social life, so naturally a reasonable resolution was to regulate musical functions to ethnic minorities in order to preserve the cultural tradition in the face of opposing social and religious attitudes. Moreover, in explanation of this trend, scholars suggest that it is precisely musicians’ low rank that allows them to be enjoyed. As low-ranking persons they are a negligible element of society; they simply are not to be taken seriously as social beings deserving of interaction. As providers of a social service, their rank is assumed; therefore they can be admired solely for their musical product.

Consistent with these societal attitudes, many musicians were blind or handicapped and were recruited by the Jewish vocational institute in Baghdad in the 20th century. However it should be noted that the majority of mughannīyūn or vocal performers of the maqām have been Muslims. Jews in turn attribute this to the Muslims’ “superior” pronunciation of Arabic, or at least concede that the Muslim dialect is the highbrow, prestige dialect of that city. A brief survey of the two dialects reveals considerable phonological, lexical, and morphological differences, even impairing mutual intelligibility in some instances. The outspoken differences between the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian dialects of Baghdad arise from conflicting origins: while the Muslim dialect is of Bedouin provenance, the latter two descend from Medieval Baghdadi Arabic which was a sedentary dialect with considerable Aramaic and Persian substrate. Furthermore, the Jewish dialect includes a sizeable inventory of Hebrew vocabulary that further distinguishes this mode of speech to linguists as “Judeo-Baghdadi”. Resultantly, Jewish maqām readers (qurrā’) were not appreciated due to their outspoken “Jewishness” which manifested itself in their peculiar mode of speech. It was only in the form of vocalists such as Salīma Murād–a Jewish qāri’a who converted to Islam and displayed a marked attempt in her songs to imitate the Muslim Baghdadi dialect—that Jews could be universally appreciated and she in turn became one of the most famous mughannīyūn of the 20th century.

A sample of the Jewish Baghdadi dialect of Arabic, now only spoken by the diaspora in Israel and abroad

As the preferred musical performers of Baghdad, Jews served as domestic and international flag-bearers of the Baghdadi maqām repertoire. Jews had to become familiar with widespread musical systems— the chālghī baghdādī, rīfī folk songs, abūdhiyya poetry with rabāb accompaniment as well as synagogue repertoire in the maqām system. Due to their knowledge and mastery of Muslim repertoire, Jewish instrumentalists and qāris were hired to sing for Muslim holiday services, such as Ramadan evening parties and radio-broadcasts during the holy month. As a result of Jewish hegemony in the Iraqi music industry by the early-mid 20th century, many Muslims were not satisfied as there was virtually no music to be enjoyed during Jewish holidays. An attempt was even made in 1936 to close down the broadcasting station’s music program that was directed by Jews until Muslims learned to play Iraqi music, although after several months the Iraqi officials ceded control back to Jewish musicians in defeat. As agents of the a diverse range of repertoires, the Jews were successful in soliciting acclaimed Muslim vocalists such as Rashīd al-Qundarchī and ‘Abdallah Fāris to sing in the Judeo-Baghdadi Arabic as an ode of appreciation to the Jewish pioneers of the Iraqi maqām. In sum, Jewish masters of the maqām became highly-regarded musicians in Baghdad and exerted their influence over their Muslim counterparts.

However the influence of Baghdadi Jewish musicians was not limited to the urban centers of Iraq. Indeed, Iraqi Jewish musicians as members of a diaspora served as “international agents” in a similar fashion to the Sephardic Jews of Ottoman Istanbul and the Armenian community of Safavid Isfahan by disseminating their tradition through contact with foreign musicians and absorbing foreign aspects into Iraqi repertoire throughout the 20th century. They were responsible for introducing foreign elements unfamiliar to their society due to close ties with foreign musicians, primarily Egyptian. For example, the violin was probably adopted from Egypt under the influence of Ezra Aharon, a Baghdadi Jew who was an outspoken proponent of Egyptian musical trends. This very Ezra Aharon traveled with Iraqi Jewish music delegation, which was led by the acclaimed Iraqi musician Muhammad al-Gubbānchī, to the Congress of Arab Music held in Cairo in 1932. After emigrating to Israel following the Farhūd persecutions of 1950, he is known for fashioning his Iraqi radio ensemble to follow the Egyptian mainstream style.

Ezra Aharon and Muhammad al-Gubbānchī with the Iraqi Jewish music delegation to the Congress of Arab Music, Cairo, 1932

But the influence felt between Iraqi and other Arab musicians was reciprocal, as Iraqi musicians were acclaimed masters of their art and thus served as points of reference for their Arab counterparts. For example the Jewish composer Salah al-Kuwaytī taught Umm Kulthūm a composition and taught Abd al-Wahhāb the maqām lāmi, which he later utilized in a composition. Within in Iraq itself, it so happened that Arabs unknowingly sang many traditional Jewish melodies whose Hebrew text had been changed to Arabic by Jews. Additionally, at least one maqām was recorded in Hebrew in 1920 and sporadically after that, indicating that there must have been some demand for Hebrew renditions of maqāmāt. But perhaps the most conspicuous vestige of Jewish hegemony in Iraqi maqām is observed in the badwa of maqām al-țāhir, which begins with the Hebrew word “Hallelujah.” Evidently Jewish Baghdadi musicians were able to exert their influence on their Muslim counterparts both inside and outside of Iraq, and they left a distinct Jewish imprint on the Iraqi maqām repertoire alongside loans from Egypt and the West.

In conclusion, Iraqi Jewish musicians have played a capital role in the development of the standard Iraqi maqām style, and later served as “international agents” of the Iraqi repertoire–that is, as beneficiaries of their host country’s musical heritage–in a fashion not dissimilar to the Sephardic Jewish financiers of Ottoman Istanbul and the Armenian silk merchants of Safavid Isfahan. They disseminated their tradition through contact with foreign musicians and absorbed foreign aspects into Iraqi repertoire. While the Baghdadi Jewish diaspora in Israel has remained markedly more operative and prolific in the continuation of the Iraqi maqām tradition than its Indian and Javanese counterparts, it too struggles to define its identity in the face of an ever-homogenizing host society. With the emigration of all of the Jews of Iraq out of the country in the mid twentieth century and pressures towards assimilation in their host countries, the Iraqi maqām faces a difficult and defining future.


Eli Timan. “Menashi Somekh Recollections on Iraqi Maqams.” 4 April 2013. Youtube. April 15th. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcXsCgS_YQ8&feature=player_embedded> 

Esther Warkov. “Revitalization of Iraqi-Jewish Instrumental Traditions in Israel: The Persistent Centrality of an Outsider Tradition.” Asian Music. University of Texas Press: Vol. 17, No. 2, Music in the Ethnic Communities of Israel (Spring – Summer, 1986), pp. 9-31.

Gen’ichi Tsuge. “A note on the Iraqi Maqam.” Asian Music. University of Texas Press: Vol. 4, No. 1, Near East-Turkestan Issue (1972), pp. 59-66.

“Jews of Iraq in Recent Generations.” Journal of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center. Nehardea: No.14, Autumn 2003. <http://www.babylonjewry.org.il/new/english/nehardea/14/7.htm&gt;

Scheherazade Qassim Hassan. “Iraq.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 10 April. 2013. <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/13899&gt;

Virginia Danielson; Scott Marcus; Dwight Reynolds. “The Iraqi Maqām and Its Transmission.” Garland Encyclopedia of Music. Routledge: Vol. 6 (Aug 2001) 1200 pp.




The Nestorian Legacy: Aramaic, Mongolian Christians, and the Persian Church of the East

Written by Afsheen Sharifzadeh, a graduate of Tufts University focusing on Iran and the Caucasus. This is the story of the modern Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac people, and the legacy of their ancient language and faith in the pre-modern world. 

Modern Assyrians celebrating ancient Akitu (New Years), al-Hasakah, Syria (2002)

The Nestorian Creed
The year is 431 A.D., and cataclysmic events are afoot in Constantinople. As the Byzantine emperor frantically prepares for a cosmic confrontation with the Sassanian Persians to the East, the Church finds itself in a threatening predicament of its own. The 3rd ecumenical council has convened for over a month now in the Aegean port of Ephesus, where 150 of the Christian World’s most prominent theologians and ecclesiastical dignitaries have been feuding over pressing issues of church and doctrine. The Archbishop of Constantinople, a man by the name of Nestorius, is the main topic of discussion here. Nestorius had daringly argued in his sermons that Christ’s human and divine natures were distinct—a doctrine known as dyophysitism, literally “two natures;” as opposed to mono- or miaphysitism, “one nature.” As a result, Nestorius declared that the Virgin Mary must be referred to by the Greek title Christokos “Christ-bearer,” in place of the suggestively monophysite Theotokos, or “God-bearer.” Perhaps all of this seems like much fuss over a technicality to the 21st century reader, but indeed these very assertions were fighting words in the early Christian world.

After a series of tempestuous deliberations, the synod makes its decision. Nestorius is officially condemned in five separate canons produced at the council, declared a heretic, excommunicated from Christianity, and exiled from the realm. The deposed Patriarch gathers his followers and embarks on an exodus to the East, all the time insisting his ideals were in fact “orthodox.” But Nestorius was not alone–the Council’s findings were rejected by many of the attendees from the fringes of the Byzantine Empire, including the Syriacs, the Egyptians, the Ethiopians and the Armenians, all of whom heretoforth became alienated from Western Christendom. These dramatic events in the 5th century AD amounted to the “Nestorian Schism,” which gave birth to the Persian Church (the Church of the East) and resulted in the dissemination of Nestorius’ creed from Egypt in the west to China in the east. Within a short period, the Nestorians would reach the T’ang court at Chang’an (Xi’an), and would enjoy evangelical success among Mongol tribesmen, Sogdian merchants, Chinese sailors, and South Indian farmers along the way.  

Extent of the Nestorian Church (Church of the East) based in Persia in the Middle Ages

The extent of Syriac Christianity in Asia and the Aramaic language in the Near East. Green represents Mongol tribes that adopted Christianity

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Daqin Pagoda, a 7th century Nestorian Church near Xi’an, China  

St. Gregorios Malankara Syriac Orthodox Church, Kerala, India. Historically the Christians of India were affiliated with the Persian Church (the Church of the East), until local Patriarchs forged relationships with the Syriac Orthodox Church in the 19th century (which, like Nestorianism, is a Non-Chalcedonian creed).

Now let us shift our lens from Constantinople to the Persian capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia. Here on the Tigris, the Sassanians had established a world-class urban center comprised of a series of sprawling “settlements”–a spectacle that inspired the Arab Muslim invaders of the 7th century to call the city Al-Madā’in, or “The Cities.” But most important to our story here is the ethno-linguistic dichotomy of Sassanid Mesopotamia—namely, a Zoroastrian Iranian elite and a Christian, Jewish, and Sabian Aramaic-speaking bourgeois (there were also minorities of Greeks, Armenians, Arab Christians, etc.). In an attempt to deter the Christians of Persia from succumbing to Byzantine sympathies, the Iranian elite actively pursued a policy of aligning the Aramaic-speaking Christians of the Sassanian realm with the new heretical Nestorian creed from Byzantium. The goal was to anathematize the Persian Christian population from the Patriarch in Constantinople, and thereby prevent defection and collaboration with their coreligionists.  ctesiphon
Ruins of Tâq-i Kasrâ Palace at the Sassanian Persian capital, Ctesiphon (located on east shore of the Tigris, Seleucia was across from it on the west shore) in modern-day Iraq

Thus under the support of Sassanian monarchs and noblemen (nakhwadârân), Nestorian refugees were welcomed from the Byzantine Empire into the Sassanid realm and were soon given authority of the Diocese of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in the capital, headed by a Catholicos later deemed the “Patriarch of the East” or the “Patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon”. This was the genesis of the Persian Church, which had jurisdiction over all Nestorian Christian communities throughout the world. Of course Christian Europe would forever view the Nestorians as “false Christians”; as oriental bumpkins whose knowledge of Christ and doctrine was tantamount to paganism, and would even dispatch missionaries with the sole purpose of “converting” them to Christianity. But these ecclesiastical attitudes should not undermine our understanding of the role that Nestorianism has played in historical developments in Eurasia. For example following the conquest of Jerusalem, the Nestorian wife of Shahanshah Khosrow II, Queen Shirin, brought the holiest relic of Christendom, the Holy Cross, back to her palace in Ctesiphon. The sacred object remained at Shâhigân-i Spêd Palace until it was repatriated to the Holy Sepulchre by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in 628 A.D.

 Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Arezzo
Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Piero della Francesca at Arezzo, Italy. The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius returns the relic of the True Cross to Jerusalem from Ctesiphon in 628, following its capture by the Sassanian Persian King Khosrow II and his Nestorian wife Shirin fourteen years earlier.

Aramaic Languages
But who exactly were these Aramaic-speakers, soon-to-become-Nestorians? Here we have to deal briefly with some terminology. Of course prior to the Muslim invasion of the Near East and the subsequent Arab migration into that region from the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century AD, the Near East boasted a very different ethno-linguistic landscape from that of today. Mesopotamia and Greater Syria were primarily populated by a group of people known collectively as Aramaeans or Nabataeans (from Arabic nabai, pl. anbā). The Aramaeans spoke languages of the Aramaic group, which is a Semitic language family related to Hebrew, Arabic, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Akkadian, and Amharic. The ancient Neo-Assyrian empire witnessed the spread of the Old Aramaic language which eventually displaced Akkadian, and thus Aramaeans throughout history have come to refer to themselves (somewhat nostalgically) as “Assyrians” as descendents of that people. Among Aramaeans there were Jews, Sabians (Mandaeans), Samaritans, and Christians. These non-Zoroastrians were the commoners and working class of Parthian and Sassanian Mesopotamia. The Nestorian Church or Persian Church eventually developed into the “Assyrian Church of the East”, which later underwent pro-Catholic (Chaldean) and pro-Jacobite (Syriac) schisms. In sum, the terms Aramaeans, Nabataeans, Sabians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Mandaeans, all refer to ancient and modern speakers of Aramaic languages.

NENA (Iraqi Koinē) Ṭuroyo Neo-Mandaic (Khorramshahr) Standard Arabic Modern Hebrew English
āna ewin/ewan* -(a)no, -(o)no* -(a)na ana aní I [am]
shlāma shlōmo shlomā salām shalóm peace
khayūta ħaye heyyi ħayāt khayím life
shimsha shemsho shāmesh shams shamásh sun
malka malko malkā malik mélekh king
kikhwa kukwo kakuā kawkab kokháv star/planet
nāshe nōshe barnashānā nās anashím people
libba lebo lebbā lubb<(qalb) lev heart, core
lishāna lishōno leshānā lisān lashón tongue/language
resha risho rishā ra’s rosh head
khulma ħulmo ħulm khalóm dream
ida idho idā yad yad hand
brōna, bnūne abro, abne ebra, ebri ibn, abnā’;banūn ben, baním a son, sons
brāta, bnāte bartho, bnōtho berāt, benāthā ibna;bint, banāt bat, banót daughter, daughters

Language comparison table prepared by the author of modern Semitic languages showing some common cognates: Northeastern Neo-Aramaic (NENA), Ṭuroyo (Neo-Aramaic from Ṭur ‘Abdin), Neo-Mandaic, Standard Arabic, and Modern Hebrew. *NENA and Ṭuroyo distinguish between gender in the 1st person copula.

Coin (drachma) of Shapur I with Aramaic inscription, Sassanian period. Aramaic was the official administrative language of pre-Islamic Iranian dynasties, and typically numismatic inscriptions were in Aramaic. i.e Bagi Papaki Malka “Divine King Babak”; Mazdisn Bagi Artahshatr Malkan Malka Airan Minuchitri min Yazdan “The Ahura Mazda-worshipping Divine Artaxerxes, King of the Kings of Iran, heaven-descended of the Gods”.

Aramaic languages have enjoyed a great deal of political, literary, and religious patronage in the Iranian world, reaching Greece and even India. After all, Old Aramaic displaced Hebrew as the language of Israel by the 6th century BC, and was the language spoken by Jesus Christ himself. Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, and “Imperial Aramaic” became the official administrative language of pre-Islamic Iranian polities through the Sassanid period. It might come as a surprise that instead of the Iranian term Shahanshah, Parthian and Sassanian coins usually feature the Aramaic calque Malkan Malka. Before the arrival of Islam and Arabic script, many Middle Iranian languages (Middle Persian, Parthian, Sogdian, Chorasmian, with the exception of Bactrian and Khotanese) and even Avestan were written in modified Aramaic scripts, and inscriptions in these language even contain Aramaic heterograms called huzwârish. What’s more, Middle Aramaic languages like Syriac, Mandaic, and Babylonian Aramaic (the language of the Talmud) became important liturgical and scholarly languages in the pre-Islamic Near East. The School of Nisibis was a 4th century Syriac-language university, and like the Academy of Gondeshapur in Persia, is sometimes referred to as the world’s first university. With the advent of Islam in the 7th century AD, the inhabitants of the Near East soon relinquished Aramaic for Arabic, except for small pockets of Christians, Jews, and Sabians who retained their language and enjoyed dhimmi status under the Caliphate.  

Yasna 45.1 from the Gathas in Avestan script. Avestan is the liturgical language of Zoroastrianism; this script was developed in the 3rd or 4th century based on Aramaic script (with Greek influences).  

Today, Northeastern Neo-Aramaic languages (NENA)–which are not derived from any classical literary Aramaic language but rather from a rural periphery group–are still spoken by Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Kurdistani Jews residing in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Armenia, Georgia, and abroad. The standard literary version of NENA was developed in 1836 by Justin Perkins, an American Presbyterian missionary to Iran, and is based on the Urmia dialect of Iran (Urmežnaya). However the modern spoken varieties of NENA continue to exhibit a great deal of morphological, phonetic, and lexical variability resulting in strained intelligibility among groups. This situation has been in part ameliorated by the Iraqi Koinē phenomenon, but dialects remain drastically distinct along lines of religious affiliation, region, and even village. Aside from the NENA dialect continuum, the other Neo-Aramaic languages are Ṭuroyo spoken in Ṭur ‘Abdin in southeastern Turkey (also called Central Neo-Aramaic), Neo-Mandaic spoken by Mandaeans in Iraq and Iran, and Western Neo-Aramaic, spoken in a set of three small villages in the Anti-Lebanon mountains northwest of Damascus. None of these languages are mutually intelligible.

Assyrian men in traditional garb in ‘Ankawa, Erbil, Iraq

While the impact of Iranian languages (Parthian Pahlavi, Sassanian Pahlavi, New Persian, Sorani, Kurmanji) has historically been paramount on Aramaic languages, there are at least a few examples of lexical borrowing in the opposite direction. Perhaps some of us are familiar with a few Persian words of Aramaic (Syriac) origin. For example,

1.) Sumac or Somâgh in Persian (>Arabic sumāq >Syriac summāq “red”, from root s-m-q, akin to NENA smuqa, smiqta “red” and Ṭuroyo semoqo, semaqto “red”)

2.) Yaldâ (>Syriac yaldā “birth” from the radicals y-l-d, cognate to Arabic root w-l-d via Northwest Semitic isogloss w- > y-; ArabicForm I gerund: wilāda, milād “childbirth”; Form V gerund: tawallud, “generation, engendering” → N.Persian tavallod “birth”). Thus the holiday Shab-e Yaldâ is “The Night of Birth”, celebrating the birth of the Iranian God Mithra, and the name was probably coined in the Sassanid period.

3.) Kiânâ (>Syriac kyānā “nature, Innate essence [of Christ]”, also NENA kyana, cognate to Arabic kayān “entity”, from root k-w-n). Note a false Persian etymology: “Queen”, from kiân “royal”+â (“-â” is not a Persian feminine suffix; Middle Persian had already lost grammatical gender, which only existed vestigially from Old Persian, such as in nouns of the feminine -ka declension as –əg → N.Pers –ə, which has shifted to –ê in Western Persian. i.e. O.Pers fra-zāna-ka → M.Pers Frəzânəg → N.Pers Farzâ “intelligence”; O.Pers Spaita-ka, M.Pers Spêdəg, N.Pers Sêpidê “white, clean”).  

Hormuzd Rassam (1826-1910), a native Assyrian Assyriologist from Mosul who discovered the clay tablets that contained the Epic of Gilgamesh as well as the Cyrus Cylinder at the ruins of Babylon. The name “Hormuzd” was a Sassanian-era corruption of Avestan “Ahura Mazda”, a popular name among Kings, and is still used among Aramaic-speakers today.  

Nestorian Christianity in East Asia
In the 12th century AD, a legend developed among European Christians about a righteous King who ruled over a true Christian nation somewhere among the pagans of the Orient. His name was Prester John, and he became the subject of ecclesiastical missions, military expeditions, and exploration by Europeans up through the 17th century. One school of speculation ascribed the identity of Prester John to the Mongolian Kereyid chief, Ong Khan. Indeed Ong Khan’s tribe, the Kereyids, had converted to Nestorian Christianity, but that did not stop Genghis Khan from marrying his son Tolui to one of Ong Khan’s nieces, Sorkhakhtani Beki. This Nestorian matriarch was mother to the four great inheritors of the Mongol realm: Kublai Khan, Hulagu Khan, Möngke Khan, and Ariq Böke. She is regarded very highly in the Secret History of the Mongols, where it is related that the Great Khan Ögedei consulted her on various matters. In 1310, she was regarded as “Empress” in a ceremony that included a Nestorian mass, and her body was enshrined in a Christian church in Ganzhou in 1335, where sacrifices were to be offered.

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Tolui Khaqan and his queen consort, Sorkhokhtani Beki, a Mongolian Nestorian Christian and mother to the four partitioners of the Mongol Empire: Kublai Khan, Hulagu Khan, Möngke Khan, and Ariq Böke.  

Sorkhakhtani’s son Hulagu Khan, who founded the Ilkhanate in Persia, also married a Mongolian Nestorian princess by the name of Doquz Khatun. She is said to have accompanied her husband during his campaigns, and during the Siege of Baghdad in 1258, she even ordered him to spare the Christian inhabitants of that city from the bloodbath that ensued. Hulagu offered the royal palace to the Nestorian Catholicos Mar Makkikha II, and ordered a cathedral to be built for him. In this remarkable episode, the far-flung geographical extent of the Nestorian faith facilitated an unseemly alliance between peoples from Mesopotamia and Mongolia.

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Wall painting from a Nestorian Christian Church in Qocho, China (683-770 AD)

But within centuries, Nestorianism too would succumb to the test of time. Sporadic persecution of Nestorians as well as neglect by their European coreligionists would weigh down on this already declining creed. Today Neo-Aramaic speakers are small in number, in great part due to the mass-killings of Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire and later the Assyrian Genocide committed by the Young Turks during WWI and then the Ba’athist regime in Iraq. The Assyrian Church of the East moved its Patriarchal See from Baghdad to Chicago, Illinois in 1989, where assimilation has become an imminent threat among the diaspora. But despite these calamities,  the Nestorian legacy and the Aramaic language still provides us with a kaleidoscopic view of connections between peoples and cultures; as the timeless diplomats between East and West, between our past and our present. Indeed we can make use of the texts, art, and architectural ruins to put together the pieces of this undying chapter of the human story.

Contemporary Assyrian singer Juliana Jendo singing Burbaslan Go Mdinate “We have dried up in our [own] cities”, about the dwindling Assyrian population in historic homeland, migration, assimilation abroad. 

External Links:

Juliana Jendo- Lishana Aramaya “Aramaic Language”, with George Homeh

Juliana Jendo- Lele Kul Watan Yimma  “No Country is our Motherland”, filmed at the Chaldean Nestorian Church in Kerala, India in 1994.

Juliana Jendo- Beth Yaldakh Hawe Brikha “Happy Birthday”, part of campaign to preserve Neo-Aramaic language among children of the diaspora in the Unites States.

Jualiana Jendo- Barboslan Go Mdinate “We have dried up in our [own] cities”, speaks about the dwindling Assyrian population in historic homeland, migration, assimilation abroad.