Book Review: Let them not Return. Sayfo – The Genocide against the Assyrian, Syriac, and Chaldean Christians in the Ottoman Empire

David Gaunt, Naures Atto, and Soner O. Barthoma, eds. Let them not Return. Sayfo – The Genocide against the Assyrian, Syriac, and Chaldean Christians in the Ottoman Empire. Berghahn Books, 2019.

“Who, after all, speaks today about the annihilation of the Armenians?” asked Adolf Hitler a week before he started his war of extinction. More than a hundred years after the genocide of 1915 in the Ottoman Empire, it appears Hitler was wrong since the Armenian genocide is nowadays part of the international remembrance culture. However, Hitler might not have been wrong if he had referred to the genocide of the Assyrians that simultaneously took place in the same area. This crime never received the same level of attention as the Armenians’ mass murder. Therefore, this book is a significant contribution to complete our knowledge of what happened to the Christian population under the Ottoman rule in the shadow of World War I.

The Assyrians were a small minority of about 500,000 people within the Ottoman Empire. They lived in southeast Anatolia and the northern parts of today’s Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The Ottoman government perceived minorities not as ethnic but as religious communities. Since the Assyrians were dispersed across various Christian denominations, the communities’ sizes were much smaller. That made it even harder to receive international recognition of their fate. A significant cross-denominational identity as “Assyrians” or “Arameans” only evolved after the Ottoman Empire’s end. The four main denominations were the Church of the East (aka East Syriac Church or, erroneously, the Nestorian Church), the Syriac Orthodox Church (aka West Syriac Church), the Chaldean Catholic Church (a split-off of the Church of the East in union with Rome), and the Syriac Catholic Church (a split-off of the Syriac Orthodox Church in association with Rome). There were also some Assyrian Protestant and other Christian communities. As a result of the genocide, roughly 50 percent of the Assyrian population, i. e. 250,000 individuals perished. This compares to an estimated 1.5 million Armenians killed out of a population of about 2.1 million. Do these huge casualties qualify as genocide? The current Turkish government refuses to accept the term vehemently. The editors discuss its applicability in the introduction from different perspectives and conclude the terming is adequate. The Assyrians themselves began, shortly after the massacres, to refer to them as “i shato du Sayfo,”which translates “year of the sword.” In a broader sense, Sayfo (“sword”) means “extinction.”

The volume includes twelve chapters that address the historical events, the victims’ perspective, and Sayfo’s memorialization. In the first chapter, Uğur Ümit Üngör examines the events of 1915 in the Diyarbakır province, in southeast Anatolia. The local authorities intended to kill not only the Armenians but all Christians in the region. After the German consul in Mossul protested, Talaat Pasha (1874-1921), the Ottoman Minister of the Interior, indicated, half-heartedly, that only Armenians should be rounded-up, but the provincial governor ignored him. The anti-Assyrian actions have been prepared long beforehand and, if not initiated by, were condoned by the Istanbul government. They, therefore, were a genocide, Üngör confirms. David Gaunt explains that the population of Diyarbakır province lived in a long-standing “society of violence.” The various ethnic and religious groups included Turkish and Kurdish Muslims, Yezidis, Armenians, Assyrians, and other Christians. However, before 1915, violent outbreaks were locally confined, short-term, and usually the result of intertribal conflicts. Nonetheless, this “culture of violence,” Gaunt argues, was the ground that nourished a systematic genocide.

Florence Hellot-Bellier details the Assyrians’ situation in the northwest Iranian province Urmia. The area was under the strong influence of both neighboring powers, the Ottoman Empire and Russia. During the constitutional reforms in Iran in the early 20th century, the non-Muslim population’s initial hopes to get equal citizen rights were thwarted. On the contrary, conflicts increased as frequent Kurdish raids on the Christians, the abduction of young women, and their forced conversion to Islam encouraged resistance, including the arming of the Christian population. In that context, Jan J. van Ginkel explores the role of Syriac Orthodox church leader Mor Dionysios ‘Abd an-Nur Aslan (1851-1933). Dionysios was successively metropolitan of Harput (1896-1913), Homs (1914-1917), and Diyarbakır (1917-1933). In both Harput and Diyarbakır, he took office after massacres of Assyrians. Dionysios nonetheless advocated loyalty to the Ottoman government because he realized that the state was the single option to provide at least some security to the Christians. Naures Atto and Soner O. Barthoma observe similar attitudes in their analysis of the Syriac-Orthodox leadership’s post-genocidal policy (1918-26). Patriarch Ignatius Elias III Shakir (1867-1932) assured both the Sultan and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk of his loyalty, notwithstanding his flock’s suffering. Still, in 1924 Turkish authorities forbade him to use his patriarchal title in official correspondence. This order forced the patriarch to leave Turkey for Homs in Syria. Atto and Barthoma argue that loyalty served the Oriental churches as a traditional “survival strategy.” However, the Turkish government likely saw the patriarch as a potential threat after Ignatius Elias had introduced a Syriac-Chaldean autonomy plan at the Paris peace conference. When Britain and France showed little interest in the Assyrian cause, the Turkish government exploited the granted latitude to take action.

The chapters capturing the victims’ perspective and their attempts to come to terms with the genocide start with Shabo Talay’s analysis of the terms Sayfo (sword), Firman (Sultan’s decree, punishment), and Quafle (deportation) used by the Assyrians to name the genocide. He demonstrates that they extend the original meanings and relate to the notion of “extinction.” According to Talay, the Assyrian victims viewed the genocide as a Muslim attack on Christians, and not as the result of interethnic hatred. An extraordinary text is the only preserved contemporary Assyrian documentation of the massacres. Sebastian Brock provides a translation and a commentary of a short but touching report hidden in the annex (colophon) to a liturgical text copied in 1915, the year of the genocide, in the Dayro d-Zafaran (Deyrulzafaran) Monastery east of Mardin. Gallo Shabo (1875-1966) was another eyewitness in ‘Iwardo (Gülgöze), a mountain-top village about 80 kilometers east of Mardin. Shabo worked through this traumatizing experience in his poem Sayfo, which he probably wrote shortly after the event. Simon Birol interprets the verse and unfolds its eschatological character, which is typical for this literary genre in the Oriental churches. But the poem also includes, as Birol points out, moments of hope for salvation. The Sayfo-trauma also affected the next generations. Ömer Cetvrez conducted an empirical study in 2012-13 among the Assyrian diaspora in Sweden about its intergenerational transmission. Fear and distrust, he determines, are still prominent feelings among the currently living Assyrians. Cetvrez links these emotions to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that originates in the genocide.

The last three chapters address problems of the remembrance policy. Racho Donef illustrates with several examples Turkey’s continuing genocide denial. He establishes two main strategies for exonerating the Ottoman government, either to blame the victims for having committed “treason” or to confine the “treason-charge” to the Armenians and claim Assyrians and Turks lived peacefully together. Abdulmesih BarAbraham provides a detailed review of two apologetic books issued by the Turkish Historical Society, “The Assyrians of Turkey – victims of great power policy” by Salahi Sönyel, published in English in 2001, and “The Assyrians’ Past and Present: The Assyrians during World War I” by Bülent Özdemir (2009). Finally, Christophe Premat explores the differences in the policy of remembrance in both France and Sweden. While French legislation focuses on the Armenian genocide, Swedish laws embrace the Sayfo. That is due to the different numbers of Armenian and Assyrian immigrants in both countries. Premat also points to the other timelines of immigration. Armenian genocide survivors started moving to France in the early 1920s, whereas the first bulk of Assyrians immigrated to Sweden in the 1960s. French Armenian Genocide legislation was also related to the debate about the Vichy regime and French citizens’ involvement in the Holocaust.

Let them not return (the book’s title quotes Talaat Pasha’s telegram to local governors from 30 June 1915) is the result of a research project sponsored by the Dutch Inanna Foundation. All contributions are most informative; each concludes with a list of endnotes and a bibliography. Some chapters are based on Ottoman archival sources. That is especially commendable since reading Ottoman documents requires special expertise. The volume is worthwhile reading not only for specialists of the Near East but for anyone interested in genocide and memory studies. It encourages the reader to reflect on why we remember out of two simultaneous genocides only one and (almost) forget the other, a crucial question for anyone working in this field. Let them not return is a substantial contribution to the study of the Sayfo, the study of genocides, and remembrance history. Yet, it also helps the Assyrian genocide step out of the shadow of oblivion.


University of Leipzig