Who Were the Assyrians?

On Language

By Philologos

Published March 05, 2008, issue of March 14, 2008.
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If I were provident, I’d save this letter, which arrived some two months ago, until December. But who can wait so long? So here it is now, from John Miller of Bryan, Texas:

“Every year it happens. As December arrives, our local newspaper prints a Hanukkah article, either as a compulsion to be ‘inclusive,’ or perhaps as a relief to the relentless Christmas cheer. An integral part of this article is the interview with our rabbi, wherein he recounts the story of the Maccabees. Somewhere in the article, the bad guys are always referred to as ‘the Assyrians.’

“Yet history tells us that the villain of the Hanukkah story was Antiochus IV Epiphanes (or Epimanes, if you like). He was one of the Seleucids, a Hellenic dynasty which ruled much of the Middle East from the time of Alexander the Great until the period of the Roman Empire, and whose capital was in Antioch, in what is today northwestern Syria. By the time the Seleucids arrived, the Assyrians had long ceased to be a regional power.

“In the Al ha-Nissim (‘For all the miracles’) prayer that is said on Hanukkah, there is mention of malkhut Yavan ha-resha’ah, ‘the wicked kingdom of Greece.’ And the second stanza of the Hanukkah song Ma’oz Tsur, ‘Rock of Ages,’ begins Yevanim nikbetsu alai, ‘Greeks gathered against me.’ Yet the translations found in the venerable Silverman prayer book — and for that matter, ‘The New Union Prayer Book’ — make no mention of Greeks. Could it be that this, and the ‘Assyrians’ of my rabbi, are to avoid antagonizing modern Greeks and Syrians?

“So, Philologos, who was it? Greek, Syrians, or Assyrians?”

Mr. Miller is probably right about both his rabbi and the Conservative movement’s “Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book,” edited by Morris Silverman. (I don’t possess a copy of the Reform movement’s “New Union Prayer Book.”) It’s just as he says. In the Silverman translation, “the wicked kingdom of Greece” becomes an unspecified “tyrannical power,” while the freely translated (although quite singable) second stanza of Ma’oz Tsur gives us:

Children of the martyr-race, whether free or fettered,
Wake the echoes of the songs, where ye may be scattered.
Yours the message cheering that the time is nearing
Which will see all men free, tyrants disappearing.

The desire not to incriminate contemporary Greeks or Syrians in Antiochus’s anti-Jewish measures, which led to the outbreak of the Maccabeean revolt in 166 BCE, is most likely behind the “Assyrians” of Mr. Miller’s rabbi and the anonymous “tyrants” of the Conservative prayer book. Yet as Mr. Miller points out, “Assyrians” is certainly not the right word for Antiochus and his Seleucids. The Assyrian Empire had ceased to exist half a millennium before the time of the Maccabees, when it was destroyed by the Babylonians in the seventh-century BCE, nor did it leave an Assyrian people behind when it collapsed, since its subjects were a conglomeration of different Aramaic-speaking tribes and populations that did not share a common identity.

Moreover, although the Assyrian Empire spread westward in the two centuries before its demise from its capital of Nineveh on the Tigris River (now in Iraq) to conquer the area known today as Syria, the name “Syria,” contrary to what one would expect, has no apparent etymological connection with Assyria. It was rather a Greek geographical term deriving from the Lebanese port city of Tyre, whose Phoenician name of Sur was pronounced with an emphatic, velarized “s” that does not exist in European languages. (The Hebrew name for Tyre, Tsor, was pronounced with an “s” in ancient times, as in the Arabic name Sur today.) “Syria,” that is, was in the beginning a word used by Greek traders in the eastern Mediterranean to denote Tyre and the nearby mountains of Lebanon, while the area beyond them, Koilé Syria or “low-lying Syria” (Coele Syria in Latin), originally signified the Beka’a Valley between the Lebanon and anti-Lebanon mountain ranges.

The Seleucids were thus certainly not Assyrians. But should we call them Syrians? No more than we would call the French-speaking Normans who conquered England in 1066 Englishmen, since they and the urban classes in their kingdom were Greek-speaking and culturally Hellenized. By contrast, the peasantry and lower classes of Coele Syria remained speakers of Aramaic and retained their Semitic culture.

Were the Seleucids then Greeks, as the prayer book calls them? Yes and no, because most Greek speakers living in Coele Syria were descended not from the soldiers who had come with Alexander, nor from Greek settlers who arrived at a later date, but from natives of the area who adopted Greek and Greek culture. Although they were assimilated to Greek ways, few of them had Greek ancestors or had ever set foot in Greece.

Perhaps it would be best just to say “Seleucids” and leave it at that. The term, which comes from the name of the founder of the Seleucid dynasty, Alexander the Great’s general Seleucus Nicator, is more accurate than any other term and has the advantage of hurting no one’s feelings. Unlike Greeks and Syrians, there are no descendants of the Seleucids still around to sue.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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