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November 7, 2014 11:25 am

The Assyrians, Kurds and the Jews

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Kurdish-inhabited areas cross the national borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

As the battles rage around Mosul, it is relevant to recall that what we now call Kurdistan was actually the core of the old Assyrian Empire, the one that carried off the Ten Lost Tribes. Indeed there is quite a lot of literature to suggest that the Kurds are descended from Israelites. Benjamin of Tudela (died 1173, in Castile), who visited them, thought that had not the Byzantines forcibly converted one half and the Muslims the other half, then they would still be Jewish. He detected, he said, several customs they all adhered to that could only have come from us. Now there’s a thought. Anyone volunteering to rescue Kobani?

Assyria looms large in the Bible. After it conquered the Arameans of Damascus who had ravaged the Northern Kingdom for years, it then turned its attention to the Kingdom of Israel. First they bullied King Jehu into submission and finally conquered it in 722. According to the Bible, they exiled all the population and replaced them with other victims from their empire who settled around Samaria, the Northern capital, and became known as Samaritans. They were plagued by wild animals and thought it was because they did not know the local gods. So the Assyrians commanded Judea in the south to send priests to teach and convert them. They became known as “Geyrei Arayot,” “Converts (out of fear) of lions.” In other words not genuine converts out of conviction. The struggle between Samaritans and Jews went on for quite a while. Needless to say, Samaritans dispute this story. But the story does indicate what a religiously tolerant sort of people the Assyrians were. They wanted your money, bodies, gold, and obedience, but really didn’t mind too much which god you worshiped.

They then turned their attention to the southern Kingdom of Judea and besieged King Hezekiah, “like a bird in a cage” according to Sennacherib’s stele. The Bible tells us that the Assyrians withdrew, but Hezekiah was forced to pay tribute nevertheless. Sennacherib, the one Byron describes as coming down “like the wolf on the fold,” retreated home and set about building a new capital called Nineveh (the ruins are to be found outside Mosul today, if you can avoid ISIS).

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The Assyrians finally fell foul of the Babylonians and they in turn capitulated to the Persians, whose king Cyrus let some Jews return. But they ran into trouble with the Samaritans, who said that this was their land now and the Israelites could jolly well go back to Persia and complain to the UN (or something like that). We keep on running into such problems, don’t we? But we persevered! We hung in there. Until, of course, the Romans decided otherwise.

But there’s an important lesson we learn from the Assyrians that we repeat every Yom Kippur when we read the book of Jonah. He was told to go to Nineveh to get them to repent their evil ways. He didn’t want to go because he knew that if they did repent they would be used as a tool to destroy his country, Israel. So he fled to Tarshish a well known port that was in the hands of the Kittim, the enemies of the Assyrians, the Sea Peoples from Crete and islands around. Well, we know the story of the fish and that when Jonah eventually got to Nineveh and started preaching, the King listened. Hence the well known phrase, “There’s no prophet in his own country.” They repented. Then proceeded to destroy the Northern Kingdom. (Don’t ask too many questions about chronology.) The lesson is clear. God does not support Israel if they misbehave. He will use some other power to destroy her. So He must have thought reasonably highly of the Assyrians. At that stage, at any rate, they were not just brutal, greedy conquerors, but in fact had a higher standard of morality than the Northern Kingdom.

Why am I telling you this? Because at this moment there’s an excellent exhibition called “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Anyone who would like to tour the exhibit with me and Dr. Michael Seymour, assistant curator in the museum’s Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, should just turn up at 10:00 p.m. at the Met on Thursday Dec. 4.

The exhibition is fascinating in many ways. First of all it includes the earliest archaeological artifact that refers to the “House of David.” It is an engraved stone, a fragment from an arch found at Tel Dan celebrating Hazael of Damascus’s destruction of the House of David. As you might expect the Palestinian archaeologists anxious to deny there were ever any Jews there claim it’s not the House of David, but the “House of Dod” (perhaps Dod’s your uncle). Given that there is no other evidence, record, or hint of such a house, it’s nonsense to suggest that it’s not what it obviously is. But hey, politics gets into archaeology too. And the Israeli archaeologists made so sure we would not miss the reference that they chalked the words white against the black background for all to see. Politics cuts both ways.

Then there’s the ivory balustrade found in northern Israel on display. The Bible mentions Solomon’s use of ivory, but this was found in Samaria. Ahab’s son Ahaziah fell through one of the balustrades of the palace and died soon after. Ahab’s dynasty was done away with by Jehu, and here he is at the Met, in stone on the Black Obelisk from Nimrud, the Assyrian capital before Nineveh, bowing down low to Shalmaneser, and it looks as though those following him are wearing four tassels that might even be tzitzit!

The exhibition links Assyria to Spain through the Sea Peoples. They were what we now call the Phoenicians or the Philistines. Some suggest the Canaanites are their descendants too. The competition between them and Assyria was fierce. But it was often one of mutually beneficial trade. In the different artifacts you can clearly the connection between the Phoenician alphabet and the early Hebrew script. That was before the Jews of Babylon adopted the square letters we still use today. But it was that earlier one that Moses would have used.

It is very moving, and it goes to show that the Bible is not just a collection of fairy stories. The events it mentions come alive. They remind us of the immense achievements of our ancestors and their failures too. It is both a source of pride and a warning, that like Ozymandias, great kings end up in the dust and are remembered only by their epitaphs. But ideas live on.

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  • charlie johnson

    I really enjoyed the article.Then all the comments were interesting,Even if I see one I may not agree with I enjoy reading it.Unlike most modern entertainment if you read it forces you to think.

  • Terri Hormizd

    we Assyrians were religiously tolerant than, and we are religiously tolerant today. Great article, I always love reading about our History, makes me happy that not everyone has completely forgotten about us 😀 thank you for mentioning that Assyria is where Kurdistan is. Would have liked to read more info on the modern Assyrians. But still a good article.

  • Kathleen

    Thank you so much for this article.I really appreciate your fairmindedness & charitable responses to comments made.
    I wish I lived closer & could see the exhibit.Perhaps there’s a virtual tour online?

    • Jeremy

      Thank you Kathleen
      I will check when I am next there but you might check the Met Web site too.
      J

  • Dani Renan

    Jeremy, a good overview. But the story of Jonah actually gives us more insight. It is not that the Assyrians didn’t care which or who’s God you worship, it was that they were having problems with their God. Ashur (Assyria) started out as a city state with a city God, Ashur, as their protector. As the Empire grew, they outgrew their God. Ashur was good for the city and surrounding lands, but when they conquered another city with that city’s God that was really no different, all they could say was our God is stronger than yours. But after a while that was just bully talk. They realized that there was no substantial difference.

    When Jonah came and preached about a universal God, one with no borders, they found a God that was suited to their empire and adopted him. Not as the only God, but just the one that was over the others (same for most of the population in Israel and Judah at the time). So they had a massive (10,000 people) pray-in.

    We see this latter repeat in latter Empires when their local gods were just insufficient, they imported other, more powerful Gods, e.g., Rome importing Isis to Rome.

    The result was that Assyria was familiar with and apparently accepted the God of Israel, at least in their pantheon. During the first century many of the aristocracy converted to Judaism, and local kings (including of the Armenians) married into Harod’s family and converted as well. The kingdom of Arbela (Irbil) was predominately Jewish during the Great Revolt, and sent help.

    This familiarity enabled the early conversion to Christianity.

    Kurdish history seems to be rather clouded. They are Muslim, speak a Iranian language (separating from Old Persian before the rise of the Persian Empire.) But there also tales that the migrated from the Baltics. And seeing the large number of redheads and blonds and light eye coloring, it is very likely (at least for some). On the other hand there are many Assyrians that claim that Kurds are Assyrians that converted to Islam, and Kurds that claim that Assyrians are just Kurdish Christians. I haven’t seen any genetic studies supporting this, but it is again probable for a large segment of the populations.

    According to genetic studies the Kurds appear to be the closest to Jews. So there are two possible explanations (not mutually exclusive): That the Assyrians and Jews are closely related, like the Kingdom of Irbil. Also the Assyrians claim that Abraham was Assyrian, which is technically correct. He was Aramean, as are the Assyrians, and at the time it Ur and Harran were under the control of Assyria. But probably much more influence was that the exiles from Israel (and probably later from Judah under the Babylonians) mixed in with the local population to some degree. And the Kurds picked up those genes either by being originally from Assyrian stock, or a relatively small group of Aryans that moved in to the area and intermarrying with the local Assyrians.

    • Jeremy

      Thank you Dani
      Excellent contribution to the discussion.

    • Holly Romley

      Could it be that the non Muslim Kurds of today are (spiritually) descended from the Assyrians who converted after hearing Jonah preach? He preached before the Jews were carried into Babylon and therefore before the mixing of the two genetic pools began according to your first theory, right?
      Thus the descendants of the converted Assyrians with an understanding of a universal God might have been culturally ready to assimilate with Jews who arrived after the diaspora. Are there any Kurdish intellectuals who have thoughts on this or have addressed the possible link in any published articles?

    • Hajir

      You are right we are like identical to Jews in genetics. Its weird. According to many articles anyway. Even closer than the semtic arabs. And no its not from bias kurdish nationalists. I never saw myself even religious. But we got iranized,arabized and even turks got to us. And later Alexander the great took over the greeks and the persian empire who had taken over us. Which made us change language and culture pretty quickly. But dna don’t lie, we are of semitic origin, and not europeans. Even though we got greeks in us from Alexander’s empire when they took over the persians. The persians got to us long before Alexander’s army got his foot in the northern fertile.

    • Husayn

      Iraqi Kurds are 28.4 % J2 and 22.1 % J1
      The Kurds are from the indo Aryan(iranic) medes who are from Maday bin Yaafith(Japheth) who married a daughter of Shem , the Medes mixed with the Chaldeans who are the Arameans who are the Nabateans who are just the Amorites(imliq) and Akkadians who mixed with Arami tribes Ad (uz) and Thamud(gether) with element of Arphaxad. Adites conquered iraq and syria when actual tribe of Ad perished Prophet Hud pbh was with the Thamud who are from him , thamud lived from al hijr to greater part of Syria , mixing with the Assyrians , when actual tribe of thamud perished it was imliq(amorites are fromm Prophet Saaleh !

  • Dani Renan

    Jeremy, a good overview. But the story of Jonah actually gives us more insight. It is not that the Assyrians didn’t care which or who’s God you worship, it was that they were having problems with their God. Ashur (Assyria) started out as a city state with a city God, Ashur, as their protector. As the Empire grew, they outgrew their God. Ashur was good for the city and surrounding lands, but when they conquered another city with that city’s God that was really no different, all they could say was our God is stronger than yours. But after a while that was just bully talk. They realized that there was no substantial difference.

    When Jonah came and preached about a universal God, one with no borders, they found a God that was suited to their empire and adopted him. Not as the only God, but just the one that was over the others (same for most of the population in Israel and Judah at the time). So they had a massive (10,000 people)pray-in.

    We see this latter repeat in latter Empires when their local gods were just insufficient,they imported other, more powerful Gods, e.g., Rome importing Isis to Rome.

    The result was that Assyria was familiar with and apparently accepted the God of Israel, at least in their pantheon. During the first century many of the aristocracy converted to Judaism, and local kings (including of the Armenians) married into Harod’s family and converted as well. The kingdom of Arbela (Irbil) was predominately Jewish during the Great Revolt, and sent help.

    This familiarity enabled the early conversion to Christianity.

    Kurdish history seems to be rather clouded. They are Muslim, speak a Iranian language (separating from Old Persian before the rise of the Persian Empire.) But there also tales that the migrated from the Baltics. And seeing the large number of redheads and blonds and light eye coloring, it is very likely (at least for some). On the other hand there are many Assyrians that claim that Kurds are Assyrians that converted to Islam, and Kurds that claim that Assyrians are just Kurdish Christians. I haven’t seen any genetic studies supporting this, but it is again probable for a large segment of the populations.

    According to genetic studies the Kurd appear to be the closest to Jews. So there are two possible explanations (not mutually exclusive): That the Assyrians and Jews are closely related, like the Kingdom of Irbil. Also the Assyrians claim that Abraham was Assyrian, which is technically correct. He was Aramean, as are the Assyrians, and at the time it Ur and Harran were under the control of Assyria. But probably much more influence was that the exiles from Israel (and probably later from Judah under the Babylonians) mixed in with the local population to some degree. And the Kurds picked up those genes either by being originally from Assyrian stock, or a relatively small group of Aryans that moved in to the area and intermarrying with the local Assyrians.

  • Sarah R

    Stop it, you’re making me regret abandoning Assyriology for the Middle Ages!–actually not really, your comment about Benjamin of Tudela is fascinating. Do you know what year he first wrote of the Kurds as a lost tribe? I’m curious whether it’s related to the rise of Saladin or whether Jewish-Kurdish sympathies had an earlier origin.

    Hoping to catch the exhibit next month, but alas, I probably won’t make your tour. Be grateful, I’ll be driving everybody nuts pretending I remember enough Akkadian to read the inscriptions. Also, I would quarrel with your usage of the word “tolerant.” All the ANE empires accepted worship of local deities; they would have considered it a threat to their own cult centers if anybody had completely abandoned their ancestral god(s) for one of their rulers’. Religious exclusivity was something we invented, and tolerance has no meaning without it.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      You are right, the word “Tolerance” is much used and misused and perhaps I should have used the term “syncretic” instread!
      J

  • Jeremy

    Zyx
    You may be right but if you read widely you will see there are different theories, even some suggest the Canaanites were Sea People originally. There’s a lot of conjecture, overlap and I am certainly not the last word nor am I an expert. But if you go to the Met you will see for yourself the extent that their experts believe in an overlap.

  • The archaeology of the Bible tells the truth, the facts. Thank you for this excellent article.

    • Julian Clovelley

      The Bible as history – I think not Irene

      According to archaelogy so far the absence of vital items (eg evidence) suggest there was
      No garden of Eden
      No Tower of Babel
      No destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
      No evidence of the Great Plagues
      No Exodus in which “Hebrews” evacuated from one part of Egyptian administered territory to another.
      No Great Flood
      No extensive Davidic Kingdom yet discovered

      There is no evidence for a D-vinely “Promised Land”

      So which bit of archaeology do you have in mind, Irene?

      My son said at the age of five that he had discovered what the Bible was – “a book of Laws with legends in it”

      Works for me.

      • Sinn Fein

        Great job Sherlock Troll, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

        • charlie johnson

          Left out one,No evidence of Satan.But yet there is one believer who is a faithful servant.If the educated have a high priority mission they set out to serve evil and deny their hand in the matter.This planet can be destroyed in a few short hours due to scientific achievement. We hear that the things we see were not created but evolved.But in the final times the end will be a matter of the creativity of godless science.

      • raizel

        Julian: Your ‘facts’ are just as reliable as from whence you got them, from a five year old.
        The Torah (Bible) is the only factual Book ever.
        The only place where Truth will be found 100% of the time.

  • Nirari

    Why are Kurds even mentioned? what do they have to do with Assyrians and their exhibition or history? And what kind of bull is this linking the Kurds with the Israelis…… Kurds have a completely different language with absolutely no similarities to Israelis or assyrians, whereas Israeli and assyrian languages have very similar words. If anything this article should have discussed the current ssyrian and Israeli situation in the Middle East.

    • Jeremy

      Why are you getting so upset with the messenger? I only quoted Benjamin of Tudela and suggested a possibility! So much of ancient history is theory . relax and enjoy.

      • Lynne T

        If I recall correctly, it has been recently reported that there is DNA evidence supporting a connection of some sort between the Kurds and the Jews.

      • Joseph Ezkosheez

        The interest of Israel in the Kurds ( & ISIS) are the couple of oil tankers that made their way with oil from that area to Israel’ land oil depots
        As to Jeremy suggestion “Anyone volunteering to rescue Kobani?”
        The “Universal revolutionary Jew” may have heard of the Jeremy suggestion
        Canadian-Israeli Woman Fighting With Kurds Against ISIS (AUDIO)
        NOVEMBER 10, 2014 10:38 AM
        http://www.algemeiner.com/2014/11/10/canadian-israeli-woman-fighting-with-kurds-against-isis-audio/

    • Azriel Berkovits

      Language is less important than the genetic evidence. That is very much point toward a genetic relatively, close relationship between Kurdish and Jewish people. How it came about, it should be seriously, investigated. It is also true about other northern Mesopotemian today Christian and some Caucasian people.

    • Husayn

      Kurds are from the Medes , who mixed with the chaldeans who also mixed with indo aryan lydians and both lydiand medes mixed . Also the mitanni live in same area as kurds either mitanni evolved into the medes or just same origin, which is maday bin japheth who married a daughter of shem . Lydians are the hittites who had interaction with Assyrians and so did Mitanni

  • Paul

    GOod work I love Jerusalem and I want to be like king David God willing. Shalom Peace

  • Zyx

    Nice article. Thank you, but the Philistines and the Phoenicians are not the same people at all. The Philistines came from ancient Greece and used to live in what is now the Gaza Strip. The Phoenicians used to live in what is now called Lebanon. Well known archaeologist William Dever says that the Phoenicians called themselves the Canaani or Canaanites.

    • Sarah R

      The Philistines (who were indeed Greek) lived along the coast all the way up to Jaffa. The Phoenician capital was Tyre, which was allied to the Davidic kingdom… that would be a bit odd if they were Canaanites. I don’t think anybody really knows who the Canaanites were except that they were probably also Semitic.

      • raizel

        Sarah: Just read Genesis in the Torah and you will see that the Cannanites were DEFINITELY not Semites.
        They descended from Cham, the son of Noach; whereas the Jews are desccended from Shem, Noach’s son.

      • bensue

        The Cannanim (Canaanites) who fled from Joshua settled in the areas in Europe which are now in France and Germany ( see Even Ezer and Radak on sefer Ovadiah (book of Obadiah);

        Rashi in Devorim comments that Mount Herman was referred to as “Shnir” derived from the word “snow” ( Schnee) in both the Cananite and Germanic languages.

    • Azriel Berkovits

      The collective name “Canaanites” is refer to many kind of people some Semitic that are related to the Phoenicians, some are Indoeuropean people like the Hittites. The Philistines are probably the same as the “Sea People” as the Egyptians mentioned them originated either from Crete or the Eastern Adriatic area a non-Semitic people of doubtful ethnic origin.

      • Husayn

        The dravidians are the original Mediterranean people , they were the info aryan lydians who are the minoans and the etruscan

        • Husayn

          Correction , I meant to say the dravidians were in the Mediterranean with the indo aryan lydians who are the etruscans and minoans

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