The Sayfo or Seyfo (Neo-Aramaic: ܣܝܦܐ [ˈsajfoʔ] lit.'sword'; see below), also known as the Assyrian genocide, was the mass slaughter and deportation of Syriac Christians (mostly belonging to the Syriac Orthodox Church, Church of the East, or Chaldean Catholic Church) in eastern regions of the Ottoman Empire, and neighbouring regions of Persia, committed by Ottoman troops[1][2] and some Kurdish tribes during the World War I. The Sayfo mostly occurred between June and October 1915, concurrently with and closely related to the Armenian genocide.[3]

Part of World War I
Refugees near Lake Urmia, early 1915
Map showing where the Sayfo was carried out, with deportation routes in red
LocationUpper Mesopotamia, Hakkari, Iranian Azerbaijan
TargetSyriac Christians
Attack type
Deportation, mass murder, genocide, etc.
DeathsSee death toll section below
PerpetratorsCommittee of Union and Progress, Ottoman Empire, Kurdish tribes

The Assyrian civilian population of Upper Mesopotamia (the towns of Urfa, Mardin, and Midyat, as well as rural areas in Tur Abdin, Hakkari, Van, and Siirt regions of present-day southeastern Turkey, and the Urmia region of northwestern Persia) was forcibly relocated and massacred by the Ottoman army, together with other armed and allied Muslim peoples, including Kurds and Circassians, between 1914 and 1920, with further attacks on unarmed fleeing civilians conducted by local Arab militias.[4] The Assyrian populations of present-day Iraq, although under Ottoman rule at the time, were not subjected to mass killing.

The destruction of Assyrians had less involvement from the Sublime Porte than the Armenian genocide. Killing of Assyrians was often carried out upon the initiative of local politicians and Kurdish tribes, who obtained plunder and land from these attacks. Exposure, disease and starvation during the flight of Assyrians increased the death toll, and women were subjected to widespread abduction and rape.

At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the Assyro-Chaldean delegation stated that its losses were 250,000, about half its prewar population. The Sayfo is comparatively less well-studied than the Armenian genocide. Efforts to have the Sayfo formally recognized as a genocide began in the 1990s and have been spearheaded by the Assyrian diaspora. Several countries have recognized that Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire were victims of a genocide, but Turkey denies that an Assyrian genocide took place.


Terms for Syriac Christians such as "Assyrian" / "Syriac" / "Aramean" / "Chaldean" have become controversial, especially in diaspora communities such as Germany and Sweden, leading to the use of terms such as Assyriska/syrianska/kaldeiska folkmordet "Assyrian/Syriac/Chaldean genocide".[4][page needed] Historian David Gaunt states that there was no consensus among English-language sources what term to use for the ethnic group in the early twentieth century. Furthermore, since the Ottoman Empire was organized by religion, "Assyrian was never used by the Ottomans; rather, government and military documents referred to their targets by their traditional sectarian names. Thus, speaking of an 'Assyrian Genocide' is anachronistic".[5]

In Neo-Aramaic, the genocide is usually called Sayfo or Seyfo (ܣܝܦܐ), a cognate of the Arabic saif meaning "sword", which since the tenth century has also meant "extermination" or "extinction".[6][7] This word appears in such expressions as "Year of the Sword", referring to 1915,[7] and "sword of Islam", as Syriacs believed that their extermination was motivated by religion.[8]


Saint Elijah's Monastery, established in the sixth century by the Church of the East
Assyrian family making butter in Maranah, near Urmia, Iran, 1900

The people now called Assyrian, Chaldean, or Aramean—in Neo-Aramaic, Suryoye or Suryaye—probably originate in heterogenous populations native to eastern Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia that converted to Christianity in the first centuries CE, prior to the Roman Empire's adoption of Christianity. These populations historically spoke Aramaic languages and used Classical Syriac as a liturgical language. The first major schism within Syriac Christianity dates to 410, when Christians in the Sassanid Empire (Persia) formed the Church of the East to distinguish themselves from the official religion of the Byzantine Empire.[9] The East Syriac Rite churches trace their descent from this church, as opposed to those that use the West Syriac Rite, which developed within the Byzantine Empire.[10]

Following the condemnation of Archbishop Nestorius of Constantinople, Nestorius fled to Persia, and the Church of the East ultimately adopted a dyophysite Christology that was similar to Nestorius'.[10] The West Syriac church opposed both Nestorian Christology and the Chalcedonian Definition adopted by the Byzantine church in 451, instead insisting on miaphysitism; consequently it faced persecution from Byzantine rulers. The Bishop of Edessa, Jacob Baradaeus (c.500–578), set up the independent institutions of the Syriac Orthodox Church. The schisms in Syriac Christianity were fueled by political divisions between different empires and personal antagonisms between clergymen.[10]

At the time of the Islamic conquest, Syriac Christians hoped for a respite in religious persecution that they faced. Under Muslim rule, they had the status of dhimmis, had to pay the jizya and faced restrictions that did not apply to Muslims, but made up a majority in some areas. However, due to the unsuccessful Crusades and the Mongol invasions, the indigenous Christian communities of the Middle East were devastated. Decline fueled additional schisms; in the sixteenth and seventeenth century the Chaldean Catholic Church and Syriac Catholic Church split from the Church of the East and Syriac Orthodox Church respectively, entering into full communion with the Catholic Church. Each church considered the others as heretical.[11] Due to these deep divisions, Assyrians were unable to coordinate a unified resistance effort when they were targeted for extermination.[12]

Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire

Percentage of the prewar population that was Assyrian, presented by the Assyro-Chaldean delegation to the 1919 peace conference.
  More than 50%

Because of the millet system, the Ottoman Empire did not recognize ethnic groups, instead different religious denominations, organized as millets: Süryaniler/Yakubiler (Syriac Orthodox), Nasturiler (Church of the East), and Keldaniler (Chaldean Catholic Church).[11][5] Until the nineteenth century, these groups belonged to the Armenian millet.[13]

Gaunt has estimated the Assyrian population at between 500,000 and 600,000 just before the outbreak of World War I, significantly higher than reported on Ottoman census figures. Midyat was the only town in the Ottoman Empire with an Assyrian majority, although divided between Syriac Orthodox, Chaldeans, and Protestants.[14] Syriac Orthodox Christians were concentrated in the hilly rural areas around Midyat, known as Tur Abdin, where they populated almost 100 villages and worked in agriculture or crafts.[14][15] Syriac Orthodox culture was centered in two monasteries near Mardin, Mor Gabriel and Deyrulzafaran.[16] Under the leadership of the Patriarch of the Church of the East, Assyrian tribes ruled the Hakkari mountains with aşiret status—in theory granting them full autonomy—with subordinated farmers.[14] Church of the East settlement began to the east on the western shore of Lake Urmia in Iran, in the town of Urmia and surrounding villages; just north, in Salamas, was a Chaldean enclave. There was a Chaldean area around Siirt in Bitlis Vilayet, but the bulk of Chaldeans lived farther south, in modern-day Iraq and outside of the zone that suffered genocide during World War I.[17] Outside of the area of core Assyrian settlement, there were also sizable populations in the towns of Urfa, Harput, and Adiyaman.[18] Prior to World War I, the Patriarch of the Church of the East, Mar Shimun XIX Benyamin, lived in Qotchanes, Hakkari, while the Chaldean bishop lived in Mosul.[19]

During the decades prior to World War I, their situation worsened as they suffered increasing attacks by their neighbors, which the Ottoman government did not prevent. These attacks aimed to appropriate land and property, but also had a religious aspect, in which Christians were forced to choose between conversion to Islam and death. The first mass killing targeting Assyrians specifically was the massacres of Badr Khan in the 1840s, during which Kurdish emir Badr Khan repeatedly invaded the Hakkari mountains to attack Assyrian tribes there. Contemporary newspapers reported that tens of thousands were killed.[20] Assyrians were also killed in ethnic violence during the 1870s and in the 1895 massacres of Diyarbekir during the Hamidian massacres.[20] The Hamidiye received assurances from the Ottoman Sultan that they could kill Assyrians and Armenians with impunity, and were particularly active in Urfa and Diyarbekir.[4] In 1907, a local Kurdish tribe from Midyat raided the Syriac village of B'sorino, near Azakh, burning down the church and killing many villagers, but sparing those who pledged loyalty to the tribe.[15]

Due to increasing Kurdish attacks, which the Ottoman authorities did nothing to prevent, the Patriarch of the Church of the East, Mar Shimun XIX Benyamin, entered into negotiations with the Russian Empire prior to World War I.[14] Beginning in the late nineteenth century, some Assyrians began to develop national awareness and shortly before World War I some intellectuals began to propose the unification of all Assyrians regardless of religion. Such national feelings sometimes meant a quest for autonomy or independence or for others were compatible with national belonging in the state that they lived in.[21]

World War I

Russian occupation of Tabriz in 1911

Prior to World War I, Russia and the Ottoman Empire both courted populations living in the other's territory to rely on to wage guerrilla warfare behind enemy lines. While the Ottoman Empire tried to enlist Caucasian Muslims as well as Armenians, Iranian Assyrians and Azeris, Russia looked to Armenians, Kurds, and Assyrians living in the Ottoman Empire.[22] In particular, the Ottoman Empire wanted to annex Iranian Azerbaijan, the northwestern part of Qajar Iran, in order to connect with the Russian Azeris and even realize Pan-Turanism.[23]

Years before the war, CUP politician Enver Pasha set up the paramilitary Special Organization, personally loyal to himself. Its members, many of whom were convicted criminals released from prison for the task, operated as spies and saboteurs.[24] In August 1914, the CUP sent a delegation to a Dashnak conference, offering an autonomous Armenian region if the Dashnaks incited a pro-Ottoman revolt in Russia in the event of war. The Armenians refused. Gaunt states that it is likely a similar offer was made to Mar Shimun during a meeting with Tahsin Bey in Van on 3 August. After returning, he sent letters urging his followers to "fulfill strictly all their duties to the Turks" and see if they were prepared to keep their promises.[25] In late 1914, Assyrians of Hakkari and Iran refused conscription into the Ottoman army.[26]

On 1 January 1915, Russia, which had been occupying Iranian Azerbaijan, abruptly withdrew its forces. Ottoman forces led by Jevdet Bey, Kazim Karabekir, and Ömer Naji occupied it with no opposition.[27]


General characteristics

According to historian David Gaunt, a primary characteristic was the total targeting of the Assyrian population, including farming villages as well as rebelling mountain tribes. The killing in rural regions was more extensive, while some survived the massacres in cities; Gaunt states that this indicates that a primary aim was the confiscation of land. The property, villages and animals of the villagers were destroyed totally to prevent their return. Gaunt states that organized troops were tasked with killing and expelling Assyrians in Hakkari and Ottoman-controlled parts of Persia, as well as resisting villages.[28]

Gaunt wrote that there was no standardized way of killing. He cites accounts of killings at town halls, river rafts, tunnels, streets, and during the flight of the victims. The methods included stabbing, decapitation, drowning, shooting and stoning among others according to eyewitness accounts cited by Gaunt; these accounts also record local officers having collections of body parts, such as ears, noses and "female body parts".[29] Gaunt also wrote, "The manner in which people were murdered was, in places, extreme and proceeded by gratuitous public humiliation of the victims and their families."[30] In most areas, the genocide occurred between June and October 1915.[31]

Percy Sykes, a British officer in Persia, wrote that the Assyrians would have been exterminated if they had not fled to Persia. However, starvation, disease and fatigue cost the lives of 65,000 more Assyrians on their way to Persia or once they had arrived there, according to Christoph Baumer.[29]

Where Assyrians had assimilated with local Armenian populations while retaining religious differences—notably Beshiri, Mardin, and Harput, where they spoke Kurdish, Arabic, and Armenian respectively—both groups met the same fate in 1915.[5]


Tigris river rafts, similar to those used to kill Christian notables from Diyarbakır in 1915

Under the leadership of governor Mehmed Reshid, a systematic anti-Christian extermination took place in Diyarbekir Vilayet, despite Talat Pasha's orders that only Armenians should be killed.[32] Historian Uğur Ümit Üngör states that, in Diyarbakir, "most instances of massacre in which the militia engaged were directly ordered by" Reshid and that "all Christian communities of Diyarbakir were equally hit by the genocide, although the Armenians were often particularly singled out for immediate destruction".[33] On 12 July 1915, Talat telegraphed Reshid, ordering that "measures adopted against the Armenians are absolutely not to be extended to other Christians ... you are ordered to out an immediate end to these acts". However, no action was taken against Reshid for exterminating non-Armenian Christians, or even assassinating Ottoman officials who disagreed with the massacres, and in 1916 he was rewarded by appointment as governor of Ankara. As a consequence, it is debatable to what extent Talat's telegram was merely sent to assuage German opposition to the massacres.[30]

According to the reports, the Assyrian population of Faysh Khabur was completely killed, along with all the male Assyrians of Mardin and Siirt. The widows and orphans of these men were reportedly left to flee to Mosul on foot, and died on their way due to starvation and harsh conditions. These atrocities prompted the Assyrian patriarch to appeal to the Russian representative in the Caucasus, claiming that the Turkish leaders were intent on killing all Assyrians.[34] The German ambassador reported that the Ottoman Empire was being "clear[ed]" of its indigenous Christians by "eliminat[ion]". In July 1915, he confirmed that the Assyrians of Midyat, Nisibis, and Jazirah were also slain.[4]

According to the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate, the Turkish government ordered an attack on the Christian villages near Mardin, which were mostly inhabited by Assyrians. The soldiers went beyond attacking property and killed civilians, for instance, the Assyrians of Kızıltepe/Tell Armen were gathered in a church and burned. In Diyarbakir, women and children were deported, but only a very small number reached their destinations as women were killed, raped or sold.[35]

Individual accounts of the massacres include several villages. In the village of Cherang near Diyarbakir, 114 men were killed and the women and children were put to forced agricultural labor and given the choice to convert or die. The massacre was committed by an Al-Khamsin death squad, which were recruited by the government and led by officials, while composed of local urban Muslims.[36] In the village of Hanewiye, about 400 Assyrians are believed to have been murdered. In Hassana, a village near Jezire, the 300 inhabitants were massacred, with some managing to survive and flee. The inhabitants of the village of Kavel-Karre were attacked by Kurdish tribes on 19 June 1915 and killed; their bodies were then thrown into the Tigris River. In Kafarbe, 2 km from the Mor Gabriel Monastery, 200 Assyrians were attacked by a clan of Kurds and murdered in 1917. However, there were also cases when those in power chose to protect the Assyrians, as Rachid Osman, the agha of Şırnak protected the 300–500 inhabitants of Harbol.[37]

In their book The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Viscount Bryce and Arnold Toynbee included a letter from the Presbyterian American Church in Urmia, sent on 6 March 1916, which related information from a survivor of the events described. In the document, it is written that nearly all of the 30,000 Assyrians (called "Nestorians") of the Bohtan region had been massacred by the Kurds and Turkish soldiers with the orders of the government. While some Kurdish leaders tried to protect the population, they were unable to as the order had allegedly come from the government and such friendly acts were punished. All Christian villages of the plain were reportedly "wiped out", including three Protestant villages. In Monsoria, one of these villages, Assyrian women reportedly jumped into the Tigris River to prevent their capture by the Kurds. The surviving women and children were taken as captives.[38]

Figures by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate presented to the peace conference after the war state that 77,963 Assyrians were killed in 278 villages of the Diyarbakir province.[39] Jean Naayem writes that about 50 villages close to Midyat were ruined and their Assyrian inhabitants slaughtered, but he does not name any of them nor give any casualty figures. However, the figure agrees with the data of the patriarchate.[40]

Van and Bitlis

Painting by Leonardo de Mango, picturing the execution of Chaldeans in the Wadi Wawela gorge

In October 1914, 71 Assyrian men of Yüksekova/Gawar were arrested and taken to the local government center in Başkale and killed.[41] In November 1914, Russian troops briefly occupied the towns of Başkale and Saray, following their retreat, the Assyrian and Armenian populations of these areas were accused of collaboration and targeted for revenge. According to eyewitness accounts collected by Russians and local observers, at least twelve villages were "wiped out" in this period.[42]

Jevdet Pasha the governor of Van, is reported to have held a meeting in February 1915 at which he said, "We have cleansed the Armenians and Syriac [Christian]s from Azerbaijan, and we will do the same in Van."[43]

In late 1915, Jevdet Bey, Military Governor of Van Vilayet, upon entering Siirt (or Seert) with 8,000 soldiers whom he himself called "The Butchers' Battalion" (Turkish: Kasap Taburu),[44] ordered the massacre of almost 20,000 Assyrian civilians in at least 30 villages.[citation needed]

The same "butcher battalions" killed all the male Assyrian and Armenian population of Bitlis. They reportedly raped the women, and subsequently sold them or gave them as "gifts".[45] The town of Sa'irt/Seert (modern-day Siirt), was populated by Assyrians and Armenians. Seert was the seat of a Chaldean Archbishop Addai Scher who was murdered by the Kurds.[46] The eyewitness Hyacinthe Simon wrote that 4,000 Christians died in Seert.[47]>[48] According to Joseph Naayem, who was an Assyrian priest, the number of Assyrians killed in the town of Seert/Siirt alone exceeded 8000. Eyewitness accounts state that the Assyrian men were rounded up by criminal gangs and forced to a march to the valley of Zeryabe, where they were killed. This was followed by the gangs' attack on women. The Ottoman officer Raphael de Nogales described a "slope [...] crowned by thousands of half-nude and still bleeding corpses, lying in heaps". He then wrote that when he entered Siirt, he saw that the police and the locals were sacking Christian homes, and learned that the governors of the town directed the massacre, which had been arranged beforehand.[29]


Assyrian refugees from Tyari and Tkhuma near Urmia in late 1915

According to "the Blue Book" of the British government, widespread ethnic cleansing and massacres occurred against the Assyrians as well as Armenians in the Hakkari area, with the orders for the deportations of Armenians being misinterpreted as orders against all Christians by the local Kurds. It was reported that an attack was launched on Assyrian dwellings in summer 1915, and that Assyrians were attempted to be "starved out". According to Paul Shimmon and Arnold J. Toynbee, an Assyrian village called "Goele", with the population of 300, was attacked and its men were killed, while the women and children were forced into slavery and the houses were pillaged. In another village with fifty houses, the Kurds reportedly killed the entire civilian population. "The Blue Book" states that in one district of Hakkari, only 17 Christian survivors were left from 41 villages.[45] In April 1915, after a number of failed Kurdish attempts, Ottoman Troops invaded Gawar, a region of Hakkari, and massacred the entire population.[49] There were later reports of the mass killing of hundreds of Assyrians in the same area, and women being forced into sexual slavery.[45]

David Gaunt wrote that the Assyrians of the Hakkari area were targeted in a "full ethnic cleansing" and asserted that they "faced the full wrath of the Ottoman government as well as the local Kurdish tribes". He claimed that due to their consistent contact and collaboration with the Russians, they were targeted with atrocities, and after a battle in which they collaborated with the Russians to defeat the Ottoman Army, the army perpetrated the massacres against Christians in Başkale, Siirt and Bitlis described above. Talaat Pasha also allegedly ordered a policy in which Ottoman troops, with the support of Kurdish tribes, defeated Assyrians and drove them to the mountains, subsequently destroying their property.[50]


Map of the Sayfo in Urmia, showing destroyed Christian-inhabited towns and escape routes of refugees

Prior to the war, Russia estimated that 40 percent of the percent of Urmia province were Christian, including 50,000 Armenians and 75,000 Assyrians.[51] The Ottoman Empire invaded northwestern Persia in 1914.[4] Before the end of 1914, Turkish and Kurdish troops had successfully entered the villages in and around Urmia. On 21 February 1915 the Turkish army in Urmia seized 61 leading Assyrians from the French missions as hostages, demanding large ransoms. The mission had enough money to convince the Ottomans to let 20 of the men go. However, on 22 February the remaining 41 were executed, having their heads cut off at the stairs of the Charbachsh Gate. The dead included bishop Mar Denkha.[citation needed]

Most of the Assyrian villages were unarmed. The only protection they had was when the Russian army finally took control of the area, years after the presence of the Ottoman army had been removed. On 25 February 1915, Ottoman troops stormed their way into the villages of Gulpashan and Salamas. Almost the entire village of Golpashan, of a population of 2,500, were massacred.[44] In Salmas, about 750 Armenian and Assyrian refugees were protected by Iranian civilians in the village. The commander of the Ottoman division stormed the houses despite the fact that Iranian Azerbaijanis lived in them, and roped all the men together in large groups and forced them to march in the fields between Khusrawa and Haftevan/Hafdewan. The men were shot or killed in other ways. The protection of Christians by local civilians (primarily Iranian Azerbaijanis) is also confirmed in the 1915 British report: "Many Moslems tried to save their Christian neighbours and offered them shelter in their houses, but the Turkish authorities were implacable."[41] According to American official accounts, the largest Assyrian village in the Urmia region was overrun and all its men killed, while the women were attacked. In Haftevan, the Russian troops later discovered more than 700 corpses, and The Washington Post also claimed the abduction of 500 Assyrian girls. According to similar reports, 200 Assyrians were killed by burning in a church.[45]

During the winter of 1915, 4,000 Assyrians died from disease, hunger, and exposure, and about 1000 were killed in the villages of Urmia.[4] According to Los Angeles Times, in Urmia alone, 800 Assyrians were massacred and 2000 died from disease. American documents report widespread sexual violence against Assyrian women of all ages and the looting and destruction of the houses of about five-sixths of the Assyrian population. Reports state that over 200 girls were forced into sexual slavery and conversion into Islam. Eugene Griselle from the Ethnological Society of Paris gives the figure of 8,500 for the number of deaths in the Urmia region; according to other reports, out of an Assyrian population of 30,000, one-fifth was killed, their villages and churches destroyed. An English priest in the area estimates the death toll at 6,000.[45]

However, David Gaunt wrote that the massacres were reciprocated by the Assyrians. Assyrian Jilu tribes were accused of committing massacres of local villagers in the plains of Salmas; local Iranian officials reported that between Khoi and Julfa, a great number of villagers were massacred.[52]

In 1918, the Assyrian population of Urmia was nearly wiped out, 1,000 killed in the French and American mission buildings, 200 surrounding villages destroyed, and thousands perished from disease, forced marches and the Persian famine of 1917–1919.[4] According to French historian Florence of the massacres of Assyrians west of Lake Urmia, "some were part of an extermination plan and others not".[53]

Responsibility of the Ottoman government

The degree of the responsibility of the Ottoman government and whether the genocide had a systematic nature has been the subject of different scholarly opinions. Concerning the responsibility of the Ottoman government, Hilmar Kaiser wrote that Talaat Pasha ordered the deportations of the Assyrians in the area on 26 October 1914, fearing their collaboration with the advancing Russian troops, but the order was postponed and abandoned three days later due to a lack of forces. When the Assyrians did not collaborate with Russians, any plans to deport them were cancelled. Kaiser wrote that the massacres of Assyrians were apparently not a part of the official Ottoman policy and that the Assyrians were ordered to be treated differently from the Armenians.[54] Donald Bloxham, a genocide scholar, stated that while Assyrians of western Persia, Hakkari, Bitlis, Van and Diarbekir were massacred along with Armenians, they were "not subject to the same systematic destruction".[55]

Dominik J. Schaller and Jürgen Zimmerer wrote that due to the lack of an international diaspora and a nation state, the Assyrian were perceived as more vulnerable and less threatening by the Young Turks, which led to their extermination being "less systematic". Massacres of Assyrians were often undertaken through the initiatives of local officials and groups. Nevertheless, they classified the campaign against Assyrians as having "genocidal quality".[56] Ernst II, Prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, the German special envoy in Constantinople, sent a report describing "systematic extermination" of the Christian population of the Diarbekir province by Reshid Bey, the governor. Martin Tamcke wrote that a German chargé d'affairs in Constantinople sent to the German Chancellery an article from a Young Turk-controlled newspaper, which mentioned the expulsion of Assyrians in the east as an example of the "cleansing of the empire of Christian elements". Tamcke wrote that documents such as these, along with oral traditions, are evidence of a systematic policy of extermination.[57] Heleen Murre-van den Berg states that while "the destruction of the Syriac communities in Anatolia was less systematic and complete than that of the Armenians," the extermination of Syriac Christians in Diyarbekir proves that there was more to the anti-Assyrian campaign than merely securing borders with Persia.[26]

David Gaunt compared the attacks on Assyrians in Hakkari and Diarbekir, and wrote that while the former was mainly perpetrated upon the orders of the Turkish government, the latter was a local initiative of CUP politicians unconnected with the central government, and with no orders to exterminate Assyrians in the area.[50]

Assyrian resistance

Assyrian resistance in Tur Abdin

One of the best documented cases of Assyrian resistance was the defense of the Syriac Orthodox village of Azakh (now İdil), termed "Midyat rebellion" by the Ottoman authorities, where the local Syriac Orthodox population, joined by a small number of Armenians and Chaldeans who fled from elsewhere, chose to make their stand as Azakh was a defensible location. Kurdish tribes launched major attacks against surrounding Syriac villages in June and July 1915 in order to confiscate land. Azakh was first attacked on 18 August, but the defenders repelled the attack as well as subsequent attacks. Against the advice of general Mahmud Kâmil Pasha, Enver ordered the rebellion to be immediately crushed in November.[58] German general Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz and the German ambassador, Konstantin von Neurath, informed Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg of an Ottoman request for German assistance in crushing the resistance. The Germans refused, fearing that it would be cited by the Ottomans to insinuate that Germans had initiated the anti-Christian atrocities. The defenders launched a surprise attack on Ottoman troops during the night of November 13–14, which led to a truce that ended the resistance on favorable terms for the villagers.[59]

Assyrian resistance in Persia

Jilu Assyrian fighters near Urmia, 1918

The Assyrians in Persia armed themselves under the command of General Agha Petros, who had been approached by the Allies to help fight the Ottomans.[when?] They put up a resistance, and Agha Petros' volunteer army had quite a few successes over the Ottoman forces and their Kurdish allies, notably at Suldouze where 1,500 Assyrian horsemen overcame the far larger Ottoman force of over 8,000, commanded by Kheiri Bey. Agha Petros also defeated the Ottoman Turks in a major engagement at Sauj Bulak and drove them back to Rowanduz. Assyrian forces in Persia were greatly affected by the withdrawal of Russia from the war and the collapse of Armenian armed resistance in the region. They were left cut off, with no supplies, vastly outnumbered and surrounded.[4]

Assyrian resistance in Upper Mesopotamia

An Assyrian nation under British and Russian protection was promised the Assyrians first by Russian officers, and later confirmed by Captain Gracey of the British Intelligence Service. Based on these representations, the Assyrians of Hakkari, under their Mar Shimun XIX Benjamin and the Assyrian tribal chiefs "decided to side with the Allies, first with Russia, and next with the British, in the hope that they might secure after the victory, a self-government for the Assyrians."[60] The French also joined the alliance with the Assyrians, offering them 20,000 rifles, and the Assyrian army grew to 20,000 men co-led by Agha Petrus Elia of the Bit-Bazi tribe, and Malik Khoshaba of the Bit-Tiyari tribe, according to Joseph Naayem (a key witness, whose account on the atrocities was prefaced by Lord James Bryce).[61][62]

On 3 March 1918, the Ottoman army led by Kurdish soldiers assassinated one of the most important Assyrian leaders at the time. This resulted in the retaliation of the Assyrians. Malik Khoshaba of the Tyari tribe, alongside Assyrian military leader Agha Petros led a successful attack against the Ottomans. Assyrian forces in the region also attacked the Kurdish fortress of Simko Shikak, the leader who had assassinated Mar Shimun XIX Benyamin, they successfully stormed it, defeating the Kurds, however Simko escaped and fled.

Assyrians were involved in a number of clashes in Turkey with Ottoman forces, including Kurds and Circassians loyal to the empire. When armed and in sufficient numbers they were able to defend themselves successfully. However, they were often cut off in small pockets, vastly outnumbered and surrounded, and unarmed villagers made easy targets for Ottoman and Kurdish forces.


External image
Les Assyriens et les Assyro-Chaldéens sur les routes de l’exil, 1915-1935.

Assyrians felt betrayed after the war that the promises of an Assyrian homeland that had been made in exchange for their support of the Allies were not fulfilled by the British, despite the high price that they paid for fighting on the Allied side during the war.[63]

Baquba camps

Baquba camp, 1920

By mid-1918, the British army had convinced the Ottomans to let them have access to about 30,000 Assyrians from various parts of Persia. The British decided to relocate all 30,000 from Persia to Baquba, northern Iraq, in the hope that this would prevent further massacres. Many others had already left for northern Iraq after the Russian withdrawal and collapse of Armenian lines. The transferring took just 25 days, but at least 7,000 of them had died during the trip.[64] Some died of exposure, hunger or disease, other civilians fell prey to attacks from armed bands of Kurds and Arabs. At Baquba, Assyrians were forced to defend themselves from further Arab and Kurdish raids, which they were able to do successfully.

A memorandum from American Presbyterian Missionaries at Urmia During the Great War 16 to British Minister Sir Percy Cox had this to say:

Capt. Gracey doubtless talked rather big in the hopes of putting heart into the Assyrians and holding up this front against the Turks. [Consequently,] We have met all the orders issued by the late Dr. Shedd which have been presented to us and a very large number of Assyrian refugees are being maintained at Baquba, chiefly at H.M.G.'s expense.

In 1920, the British decided to close down the Baquba camps. The majority of Assyrians of the camp decided to go back to the Hakkari mountains, while the rest were dispersed throughout Iraq, where there was already an Assyrian community.[citation needed] However, they would again be targeted there in the 1933 Simele massacre.

Death toll

Assyro-Chaldean delegation to the Paris Peace Conference

Assyrian delegates at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference stated that their losses were 250,000 for both the Ottoman Empire and Persia, around half the prewar population. In 1923, at the Lausanne Conference, they changed their estimate to 275,000. Gaunt states that "the accuracy of these figures has proven impossible to check—and given the nature of the peace conference and the desire of the Christians to be compensated for the extent of their suffering, it would have been natural for them to have exaggerated the figures".[65]

According to the figures presented by Assyrians at the Paris Peace Conference, deaths included 25,000 Assyrians in Midyat, 21,000 in Jezira-ibn-Omar, 7,000 in Nisibis, 7,000 in Urfa, 7,000 in the Qudshanis region, 6,000 in Mardin, 5,000 in Diyarbekir, 4,000 in Adana, 4,000 in Brahimie, and 3,500 in Harput.[45][44][66][67] In its 4 December 1922, memorandum, the Assyro-Chaldean National Council stated that the total death toll was unknown. It estimated that about 275,000 "Assyro-Chaldeans" died between 1914 and 1918.[68] Gaunt estimates that the population of the Assyrians of the Ottoman Empire and Persia was about 600,000 before the genocide, and was reduced by 275,000, with very few survivors in 1930s Turkey or Iran.[69][4] Contemporary newspapers reported death tolls of 200,000 to 250,000.[45] Representatives from the Anglican Church in the region claimed that about half of the Assyrian population perished.[29]

The Syriac Orthodox Church estimated its losses at 90,313 people, with 345 villages burned and 156 churches destroyed. The archbishop demanded 250,000 pounds sterling of reparations to compensate for the destruction of the churches. The figures of the archbishopric places the death toll in Harput at 3,500, in Midyat at 25,830, in Diyarbekir and surroundings at 5,679, in Jezireh at 7,510, in Nusaybin at 7,000, in Mardin at 5,815, in Bitlis at 850, in Urfa at 340, and tens of thousands at other areas. The archbishopric states that the Ottoman government undertook massacres of Assyrian civilians with "no revolutionary tendencies" in the provinces of Diyarbekir, Urfa, Van, Harput and Bitlis.[70][71]

In some areas, a death rate of 50% may have been exceeded, but in Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra, the mostly Chaldean population was left intact, for unknown reasons.[72]

Assyrian and Armenian population in Diyarbakır Province in 1915–1916[73]
Sect Before World War I Disappeared (killed) After World War I
Armenians Gregorians (Apostolic) 60,000 58,000 (97%) 2,000
Armenian Catholics 12,500 11,500 (92%) 1,000
Assyrians Chaldean Catholics 11,120 10,010 (90%) 1,110
Syriac Catholic 5,600 3,450 (62%) 2,150
Syriac Orthodox 84,725 60,725 (72%) 24,000
Protestants 725 500 (69%) 2,150
Assyrian and Armenian population in Mardin province in 1915–1916[47]
Sect Before World War I Disappeared (killed) After World War I
Armenians Catholics 10,500 10,200 (97%) 300
Assyrians Chaldean Catholics 7,870 6,800 (86%) 1,070
Syrian Catholic 3,850 700 (18%) 3,150
Syrian Jacobite 51,725 29,725 (58%) 22,000
Protestants 525 250 (48%) 275

International response

Newspapers in the United States published many articles about the genocide.[74] The Blue Book, a collection of eyewitness reports published by the British government in 1916, contained 104 pages of its 684 pages about the fate of Assyrians. The original title was Documents Relating to the Treatment of Armenians and Assyrian Christians in the Ottoman Empire and Northwestern Persia, Subsequently in the Outbreak of the European War, Following upon Correspondence between Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and Viscount Bryce, but the eventual title was The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.[75]


Beginning in the 1990s, prior to the first academic research on the genocide, Assyrian diaspora groups began the quest for formal recognition of the Sayfo as genocide, patterned off earlier campaigns for Armenian genocide recognition.[76][77] In historiography, the Sayfo has been considered both as a political genocide, emphasizing growing role of ideology and nationalism in causing the genocide, and a colonial genocide, taking a long-term perspective and situating the event within "an increasingly lethal local inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict".[78]

As of 2020, three American state legislatures (Arizona, California, and New York) have passed resolutions that officially recognize the Assyrian genocide. Ten other legislatures (Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington D.C., and West Virginia) have passed resolutions that recognize the Armenian genocide, but acknowledge the Assyrian victims in their text.[79]

Timeline of recognition

Memorial ceremony in Botkyrka Municipality, Sweden, 26 April 2015
  • On 24 April 2001, Governor of the US state of New York, George Pataki, proclaimed that "killings of civilians and food and water deprivation during forced marches across harsh, arid terrain proved successful for the perpetrators of genocide, who harbored a prejudice against ... Assyrian Christians."[80]
  • In December 2007, the International Association of Genocide Scholars passed a resolution officially recognizing the Assyrian genocide.[81] The Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (I.A.O.), passed a resolution officially recognizing the Assyrian genocide in June 2011.[82]
  • In April 2008, David Paterson, the governor of New York, recognized the genocide.[83][84]
  • On 11 March 2010, the genocide was officially recognized by the Riksdag of Sweden, alongside that of the Armenians and Pontic Greeks.[85][86][87]
  • In May 2013, the Assyrian genocide was recognized by the New South Wales state parliament in Australia.[88][89]
  • In March 2015, Armenia became the second country to recognize the Assyrian genocide in a declaration from the National Assembly which concurrently recognized the Greek genocide.[90]
  • In April 2015, the parliaments of both Netherlands and Austria also recognized the Assyrian and Greek genocides.[91][92]
  • On 2 June 2016, the German Bundestag recognized the genocides against the Armenian and Assyrian (also referred to as Syriacs, Chaldeans or Aramaic-speaking Christians) people.[93][94]
  • On 1 November 2016, the state of Indiana recognized the Assyrian genocide under Governor Holcomb.[95]
  • On 22 February 2018, the Dutch parliament recognized the Assyrian genocide for the second time.[96]
  • In April 2018, the state of California recognized the Assyrian genocide on the 103rd anniversary of the Genocide Remembrance under Assembly Joint Resolution No. 37.[97][98]
  • In February 2020, the parliament of Syria adopted a resolution that officially recognized the Assyrian and Armenian genocides.[99][100]
  • In March 2020, the state of Arizona recognized the Assyrian Genocide under HCR 2006 and officially recognized 7 August as Assyrian Genocide Remembrance Day.[101][102][103][104]


Assyrian Genocide memorial in Yerevan, Armenia.

There are monuments commemorating the victims of the Assyrian genocide in France, Australia, Sweden, Armenia,[105] Belgium,[106] and Greece. Sweden's government has pledged to pay for all the expenses of a future monument, after strong lobbying from the large Assyrian community there, led by Konstantin Sabo. There are three monuments in the United States, one in Chicago, one in Columbia and the newest in Los Angeles, California.[107][108]

In August 2010, a monument to the victims was built in Fairfield City in Australia, a local government area of Sydney where one in ten of the population is of Assyrian descent. Designed by Lewis Batros, the statue is designed as a hand of a martyr draped in an Assyrian flag and stands at 4.5 meters tall. The memorial statue was proposed in August 2009. After conference with the community, Fairfield Council received more than 100 submissions for the memorial and two petitions.[citation needed] The monument was condemned by Turkey's consul general to Sydney.[109][110][111] On 30 August 2010, twenty-three days after it was unveiled, the Australian monument was vandalised.[112][113] The genocide monument in Sydney, Australia was vandalized again on the 15 April 2016, with the words "F**k Armenians, Assyrians and Jews" spray painted on the monument.[114][115]


Those who seek to justify the destruction of Assyrian communities in the Ottoman Empire cite military resistance of some Assyrians against the Ottoman government. Gaunt, Atto, and Barthoma state that "under no circumstances are states allowed to annihilate an entire population simply because it refuses to comply with a hostile government order to vacate their ancestral homes".[116] In Turkish the Sayfo is often called a "so-called genocide" (Turkish: sözde soykırım).[117]

In 2000, Syriac Orthodox priest Yusuf Akbulut was recorded by journalists without his knowledge stating: "At that time it was not only the Armenians but also the Assyrians [Süryani] who were massacred on the grounds that they were Christians". The journalists gave the recording to Turkish prosecutors who charged Akbulut with inciting ethnic hatred based on this statement.[118] In 2001, the National Security Council (Turkish intelligence agency) commissioned a report on the activities of the Assyrian diaspora.[119]

In Turkish academia, the historians Mehmet Çelik and Bülent Özdemir are the main exponents of the idea that there was no Assyrian genocide. Çelik claimed in a 2008 interview that Talat Pasha sent instructions "not to bleed the nose of a single Süryani".[120]

Adriaan Wolvaardt wrote that "Turks view Assyrian allegations as unfounded, unproven and an attack on Turkish national identity" and that "Turks reject the Assyrian claims based on the stigma associated with the concept of genocide and their understanding of Turkish history".[121]



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Journal articles

Further reading

  • Hellot-Bellier, Florence (2014). Chronique de massacres annoncés: les Assyro-Chaldéens d'Iran et du Hakkari face aux ambitions des empires, 1896-1920 (in French). Geuthner. ISBN 978-2-7053-3901-2.
  • Kaiser, Hilmar (2014). The Extermination of Armenians in the Diarbekir Region. İstanbul Bilgi University Press. ISBN 978-605-399-333-9.