Note on the modern Assyrians

Teaching in Los Angeles, with a large immigrant community, I get students from all over the world, with especially large contingents from Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East. Among the Middle Eastern students from Iraq and Iran are those who call themselves "Assyrians." This is an extremely interesting and important group of people. They are the remnant of the Syriac speaking Nestorian Christian community of Northern Iraq, which had meant everyone there in Late Antiquity, but is now a group almost vanished in a sea of Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish, and Persian speaking Moslems. Indeed, they have been persecuted in Iraq, both for collaborating during the years of the British Mandate (1920-1932) and simply for not fitting in, religiously and lingustically, to Iraqi nationalist identity. The refugee community in Iran has recently encountered similar difficulties from the Islâmic Revolution there.

Another community of Iraqi Christians calls themselves "Chaldeans." These are basically Assyrians who have entered into doctrinal communion with the Roman Catholic Church (the term was actually introduced in 1445 by Pope Eugenius IV). The actual "Chaldeans" were Aramaeans who settled in southern Iraq, forming the basis of the Neo-Babylonian revival of the X (or XI) Dynasty of Babylon. The expression "Ur of the Chaldees" is anachronistic when applied to the original Ur of the Sumerians, who had nothing to do with the Chaldeans and were long gone before the Chaldeans were anywhere near even existing. As descendants of real Aramaeans, the modern Chaldeans are more likely to be related to the real Chaldeans than anyone else, but there is no documentary or historical connection that can be traced after the age of Nebuchadrezzar, when the ethnic Chaldeans had blended into the older Babylonian population, and Aramaic began to be spoken by everyone.

The Assyrians and Chaldeans are not precisely the last people speaking a descendant of Aramaic. In three villages near Damascus, in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains on the border between Syria and Lebanon, there have survived some remnant speakers of the Western dialect of Syriac. Stories about them turn up occasionally right before Christmas, with the plausible hook that this is the surviving language that would be the closest to the language actually spoken by Jesus -- who used a dialect of Aramaic, not Hebrew, for daily life. There is little hope for the survival of this community of Syriac speakers, however. At the same time, the Western Syriac alphabet sometimes is used to write Arabic by Lebanese Maronite Christians. This used to be characteristic in the Middle Ages:  Whatever language you speak, you write it in the alphabet of your religion. Thus, Moses Maimonides wrote Arabic, Ashkenazic Jews wrote German (Yiddish), and Sephardic Jews wrote Spanish (Ladino), in Hebrew letters. In India, Moslems wrote Hindustani in Arabic letters (becoming Urdu) and Hindus wrote it in the Sanskrit Devanagari letters (becoming Hindi).

Further Comments on the Modern Assyrians

Preserving their religion, language, and the Eastern version of the Syriac alphabet, the Assyrian community is historically important and a tragic victim of 20th century conflict and nationalism. However, many Assyrians, as I have seen among my students, have not been content with the great significance of who they are but have cultivated an ethnic mythology that serves to translate what was in the Middle Ages primarily a religious and linguistic identity (Nestorian Christianity and Syriac speech) into what has so often been the bane of the 20th century:  an ethnic nationalism.

It has not been uncommon for modern nations and ethnic communities to develop inflated, self-serving ideas of their own importance to a deceptive and, especially when dealing with other communties, unhelpful level. In Egypt, people from the Coptic Christian community may claim that the Greek alphabet (which is used to write Coptic) was derived directly from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, ignoring the the fact that the Greek alphabet was borrowed from the Phoenicians, whose own alphabet had been derived much more indirectly, if at all, from Egyptian [cf. p. 28, Who Are the Copts?, by Rev. Fr. Shenouda Hanna, Cairo, 1967]. Similarly, modern Greeks stoutly and famously maintain that the Modern Greek language, the lone surviving descendant of Classical Greek, is pronounced in exactly the same way as Classical Greek was 2500 years ago [note]. Such a thing is actually impossible (who has the "real" pronunciation of Latin? Italians? Spanish? Portuguese? Romanians? -- actually none); but if challenged, modern Greeks like to say, "We should know." They would know, in fact, if someone among them is more than 2000 years old and can actually remember the ancient pronunciation. Otherwise, they are not exempt from the obvious and natural drift in pronuncation that affects all languages. The proprietary claim, that members of a ethnic, national, or racial group have the right to say whatever they want about themselves, uncontradicted by others, is less paradoxical but morally far nastier [note]. Similarly, the modern Christian Assyrians like to claim that, culturally, linguistically, and physically, they are the ancient Assyrians, often with no more proof than, "We should know" -- though often too with elaborate arguments drawn from uncritical Classical historians and the, usually fragmentary, often ambiguous, but also misrepresented, ancient archaeology.

Physically, the people of northern Iraq, Moslems and Christians, probably are pretty much what the ancient people were. At the same time, the mixture of real ancient Assyrians with immigrant Aramaeans, which took place over many years, cannot now be unmixed and distinguished. And since Aramaeans elsewhere also came to be indiscriminately called "Assyrians" or "Syrians" by Persians and Greeks, almost unlimited confusion becomes possible. Nevertheless, in the Assyrian homeland in northern Iraq, where Assyrian gods continued to be worshiped for several centuries, we may assume that the descendants of the original Assyrian people will be found. Some intermarriage of Arabs and Turks, immigrants during the Middle Ages, can have occured, and this would have affected the Christian community less than converts to Islâm. Thus, as with the Copts in Egypt, the Christians could well represent the ancient physical type better than Moslems do. That the Christian community of northern Iraq should call itself "Assyrian," to distinguish it from (1) Moslem and Christian Syrians, and (2) Arabic speaking Iraqi Moslems, is reasonable enough considering where they are, the probable physical continuity, and their cultural and linguistic differences with surrounding Moslems; but beyond that, there are problems.

First of all, it might strike one as unseemly that Christians should be at pains to claim association with a people who not only were not Christians but whose terror and brutality were a byword in the ancient world, and who were actually responsible for the disappearance and probable extermination of the Ten Tribes of Israel. In Sacred History, this would make the Assyrians as much the moral equivalent of Babylon, Pharaoh, or worse. Just as Egyptian Moslems often have mixed feelings about the ancient Egyptians, since Pharaoh is not spoken of well in the Qur'ân (or the Bible), which has led some Moslem fundamentalists to advocate destroying the ancient monuments (as when the Sultan of Egypt, alMalik al'Azîz 'Uthmân, 'Imâd adDîn, the son and successor of Saladin, tried to tear down the Pyramid of Menkaure in 1196 -- producing "Othman's Breach," a big, but not very big, hole in the side of the pyramid), one might expect Iraqi Christians to have mixed feelings about the ancient persecutors and murderers of Israel. Instead, they often seem eager to claim absolute identity with them and even to belittle and denigrate ancient Israel. What used to be the anti-religious project of treating the Old Testament as the mere history of a small and rather nasty Middle Eastern kingdom, has now been taken up by some Assyrians in order to dismiss the signifiance of Old Testament religion for Christianity itself. What used to be merely the scholarly project of tracing Jewish and Christian religious themes back to earlier mythology -- for instance that the Flood was a common idea in ancient Mesopotamian religion (as in the Epic of Gilgamesh) -- has now been taken up by some Assyrians into an extraordinary and bizarre project of tracing what is significant in Christianity directly to the ancient Assyrians. These strange permutations would seem to be characteristic of a strategy to nationalize Christianity away from its historic and doctrinal roots in Judaism. This is not surprising in a project of ethnic nationalism, but it should be disturbing for anyone with either a historical or a religious regard for the integrity of the Judeo-Christian tradition and Christian church history. While people are free to make up any religion and call it what they like, it is a shame when a genuine and impressive tradition, with a history of more than 1500 years, is traded in for an invented and dishonest one, especially when the ancient Assyrians, with an empire based on force, massacre, and deportations, hardly seem like a people to idealize and emulate. The modern Assyrians, as with many nations, like England, are a synthesis of various elements, which can now hardly be separated. England is neither essentially Saxon nor essentially Norman; it is both -- while the people often physically seem to be identical with the Brythonic Celts who inhabited the place under Rome. Similarly, the Assyrians are neither essentially ancient Assyrian, nor essentially Aramaean, nor essentially Christian, but all of these in a unique, venerable, and important synthesis.

One thing I found Assyrian students claiming was that, not just they, but their language is the direct descendant of the ancient Assyrian language. The falsehood of this is beyond doubt (cf. W.M. Thackston, Introduction to Syriac, Ibex Publishers, Bethesda, Maryland, 1999, p.vii; and John Huehnergard, A Grammar of Akkadian, Scholars Press, Atlanta, Georgia, 1997, p.xxi). The modern Christians speak the Eastern dialect of Syriac, which developed out of Aramaic. Aramaic is rather closely related to Hebrew and Arabic and only distantly related to ancient Assyrian. Assyrian and Babylonian were both developments of the even more ancient Akkadian, whose records go back well before Hebrew, Aramaic, or Arabic were even written languages. The Akkadians inherited the civilization started by the Sumerians, whose own language was entirely unrelated to Akkadian (and so to Assyrian, Babylonian, Hebrew, Aramaic, or Arabic). Indeed, the affinities of Sumerian are entirely unknown, although the reasonable speculation is that it was related to other vanished ancient languages, like Elamite, Kassite, and Hurrian. The ancient Assyrian language largely ended in the Fall of Assyria, even as Aramaic speaking nomads had spread over the region and the dialects of their language were replacing all the older languages, from Babylonian to Hebrew to Phoenician. Fragmenatary Assyrian documents occur for a few years after the Fall, and then disappear forever.

Most absurdly, an Assyrian student even claimed to be, not just a descendant of the Assyrians, but even of the Sumerians themselves, whose homeland was rather distant from Assyria, and who ceased to exist as a distinct linguistic community after the end of the III Dynasty of Ur (2112-2004 BC). If the evidence for this is that "We should know," then memory has done for the Christian Assyrians what it has done for no one else on earth. This is in the same category as the English "remembering" that they are actually one of the Ten Tribes of Israel. History means written records, documents and inscriptions. Oral traditions become muddled quickly, turning Minoan palaces into prisons for monsters. Real ancient Assyrian records end with fall of Nineveh, and there is no shred of evidence or logic that the Assyrians were somehow the special descendants of the Sumerians.

Although I am now informed that these claims about Aramaic and the Sumerians are not generally held by Assyrians, it has also come to my attention that other claims and confusions about the languages may be. Thus, since the word "Syrian" appears to be a derivative of "Assyrian," and as speakers of Aramaic came to generally be called either "Syrians" or "Assyrians," and the language itself ultimately "Syriac," the claim can be made that all Syrians, or all speakers of Syriac, were all descendants of the ancient Assyrians! Since Greek and Roman historians speak of the inhabitants of Syria, and even of Babylon, as "Syrians," because of their language, it then becomes possible to claim that the Babylonians themselves must really be Assyrians. Thus, one of the causes of the actual downfall of Assyria, the advent of the Aramaeans, is turned around into a means of spreading the Assyrians to everywhere that the Aramaeans ever went. This is very bizarre when applied to Babylon (where the Chaldean Aramaeans supplied the last Dynasty), but still peculiar enough when applied to Syria. Thus, the Roman Emperor Elagabalus, whose mother was Syrian, can be claimed as an Assyrian himself. However, the error in this is evident from the very name of the Emperor:  El was an ancient Syrian god, not an Assyrian one. (The related word in Assyro-Babylonian simply meant "god," not a particular god as in Syria-Phoenicia-Palestine.) The inhabitants of Syria at the time of the Assyrian conquest were the speakers of the ancient Canaanite languages related to Phoenician, Hebrew, etc., as at the city of Ugarit, the Neo-Hittites cities in the north, left over from the collapse of the earlier Hittite Empire, and whatever would have been left of the Hurrian-Mitanni people who had dominated the great bend area east of the Euphrates river (see the map above). The Hittites and Mitanni were Indo-European speakers, and the Hurrian language was unrelated to either Indo-European or Semitic languages. While the Assyrians certainly wouldn't have minded colonizing the region with Assyrian settlements, they really did not have the population to do that. The Assyrian dilemma was quite the opposite:  attempting to restrain the tide of Aramaeans and other non-Assyrians from overrunning the Assyrian homeland along the Tigris. Assyrian colonization efforts were with the peoples they deported from one area to another.

Some Assyrians also claim that the Hebrew alphabet was invented by them. This claim can arise because the familiar "square script" of the Hebrew alphabet was not the ancient alphabet of Palestine, similar to the Phoenician alphabet, but a version of the Aramaic alphabet, originally adopted by the Jews of the Babylonian community and called, from the location and language, 'Ashshûrî (cf. The Early Alphabet by John F. Healy, The University of California Press/British Museum, 1990, p. 43). Again we have the now familiar identities of Aramaic with Assyrian with Syrian with Syriac. Christian Assyrians are related to this only because they are what remains of Aramaic speakers, though both their language (Syriac) and their alphabet (Syriac) have undergone considerable changes since that period. If what they mean to claim is that they originally invented the alphabet as such, then they go too far, since the Aramaic alphabet itself is a version of the older alphabet used originally by Hebrews, Phoenicians, and others.

Among other self-flattering Assyrian stories from my students is one that the Persian Empire was conquered, not by the Persians, but by Assyrians hired by Cyrus the Great. Why Iranian peoples who were largely responsible for the destruction of Assyria itself, to an extent that an Assyrian state really never existed again, would then need the help of their crushed former enemies to extend their own conquests, assimilating them into the new tactics and equipment used by the Persian army, is unclear. Some of the documentary evidence cited for this is the list given by Herodotus of the ethnic units conscripted into the Persian army, which included people identified by Herodotus as, alternatively, "Syrians" or "Assyrians." As above, this confusion of people from northern Iraq with those of the Levant can be seized upon to mean that the people were all true ethnic Assyrians. The actual text gives no hint of how many ethnic Assyrians would be involved. They have really disappeared into the growing sea of Aramaic speakers. Furthermore, the ethnic units in the Persia army were not the core of the army. Conscipted subject peoples could never be entirely trusted. The core of the army would have to be Iranian, like the 10,000 "Immortals" -- called that because casualties were immediately replaced, an uncommon practice even in modern armies.

Claims to be the actual people who founded the first civilization, invented writing and then the alphabet, and then were the secret power behind later empires may well enhance the "self-esteem" of the people who make them, but they are tragic and disgraceful when they replace with fiction the real history that is unique and significant enough. The translation of Greek philosophy into Arabic, when it came, was often based on the precedent of translations into Syriac that were made first in Late Antiquity. Christian missionaries who turned up the court of T'ang Dynasty China in 635 were Nestorians all the way from Iraq. This has to have been some of the most ambitious and dangerous missionary work ever undertaken by Christians. Their own Syriac alphabet then became the basis for the alphabets used in Central Asia by the Uigers, Mongols, and Manchurians. That alphabet is still used to write Mongolian. With all this fascinating and important history, it is seems shameful to ignore or belittle it in favor of inventions that magnify an earlier and very different culture and religion, with the implication of insulting the roots of Christianity itself in ancient Israel. The ancient Assyrians, in short, are not worthy of the mediaeval and modern Assyrians.

I originally wrote these remarks in order to have something to which I could refer Assyrian students, who might make some of these claims in class, so that I wouldn't have to argue with them and waste time in class about it.

Since this material has been posted with my other class materials on the Internet, however, I have been contacted by some Assyrians who have wanted to straighten out the "mistakes" in the account. Since I am not the specialist in ancient history, Assyriology, or linguistics, I am really not the person to whom people should complain about any of this. What I have presented simply seems to me the standard and well established scholarly understanding of these matters, as I have gathered from many sources over the years, all the way back to my class in ancient Middle Eastern history at the American University of Beirut in 1970. Anyone who has complaints about my treatment should first consult some standard sources.

The best general ancient history of Sumeria, Babylonia, and Assyria that I am aware of is Ancient Iraq by Georges Roux (Penguin Books, 1966, 1980, 1992). Roux's admiration for the Assyrians leads him to tone down his characterization of their ferocity, but his description of events speaks for itself. His description of the ethnic communties of the ancient Middle East is thorough and excellent. No one is going to confuse the Aramaeans with the Assyrians from his account. More varied and recent information can be found in The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, edited by Brian M. Fagan (Oxford University Press, 1996). This book draws on the knowledge of literally dozens of specialists. Particular attention should be paid to the sections "Mesopotamia: Assyria," pp. 455-456, and "Near East: Iron Age Civilizations in the Near East," pp. 496-498. Especially, it should be noted that:

The Assyrian heartland occupied a triangular region bounded by the Tigris and Lesser Zab Rivers to the west and southeast respectively, and by the lower elevations of the Zagros Mountains to the north. From the middle of fourteenth century B.C. to the end of the seventh century B.C., this area....formed the irreducible core of the Assyrian state, from which it grew during expansionist periods and to which it retreated in times of weakness. [p. 455]

This is worthy of attention because I have now seen claims that the Assyrian heartland was all the space between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, reaching well over into northern Syria, and that the city of Harran, in the great bend of the Euphrates, which later contained an Assyrian palace and administrative center, and to which the last Assyrian kings retreated under the onslaught of the Babylonians and Medes, was an ethnically Assyrian city. Instead, that northern Syrian area, and that city, were in an originally Hurrian and Neo-Hittite area, eventually covered by Aramaeans, whose city-states, the Oxford Companion says, "stretched from the Upper Tigris River south through the Habur River area to the Euphrates River" [p. 498 -- the Habur River is labelled on the map above]. Indeed, Tiglathpileser III (744-727), in initiating the policy of deportation and forced resettlement, transfered 18,000 Aramaeans from the left bank of the Tigris to northern Syria [Roux, p. 307].

Lingustic resources for Akkadian and Assyro-Babylonian are disgracefully thin, but there is A Manual of Akkadian by David Marcus (University Press of America, 1978) and the previously mentioned A Grammar of Akkadian by John Huehnergard, (Scholars Press, Atlanta, Georgia, 1997). A good general discussion of the relationships among Afro-Asiatic and Semitic languages may be found in Ancient Egyptian, A linguistic introduction, by Antonio Loprieno (Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 1-5), discussed elsewhere.

How appropriate the exaltation of the Assyrians may be for Christians is not ultimately for me to say. How accurate it may be to trace Christianity to Assyria rather than to Judea can easily be resolved by almost any study of Church history in Late Antiquity, as dealt with in the many sources cited in "Decadence, Rome and Romania, the Emperors Who Weren't, and Other Reflections on Roman History". The moral appropriateness of projects to fictionalize history is for me, and anyone, to say:  It is reprehensible.

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Strange Claims about the Greeks, and about India

It now comes to my attention, and there is even a website about it, that some Greeks are claiming that the Romans were actually Greeks -- that is, the original Romans at the City of Rome, not the later Mediaeval Romans who were Greek, Armenian, Albanian, Vlach, etc. speakers. They can try to make such a claim because educated Romans often spoke Greek (the Emperor Marcus Aurelius kept his diary in Greek) and because the mythic history for Rome had details such as that the Trojan prince Aeneas settled in Latium. In making such claims, the Greeks seem to overlook, though it is hard to imagine how they could, the prestige and antiquity of Greek culture in relation to Rome. Mediaeval Europeans wrote in Latin, which did not mean that the Irish, English, and Germans were really Romans. They weren't; but their own languages were merely spoken, not written, for some time. As for the story about Aeneas, even if this could be taken seriously as history, which it cannot, they overlook the circumstance that Aeneas was not a Greek himself. The Trojans and their allies were of the autochthonous peoples of Asia Minor, who were not Greeks. Aeneas speaks Greek in the Iliad and the Odyssey, which some regard as evidence, but then everyone speaks Greek in the epics, even Egyptians. Homer was not going to interpose a translator between Achilles and Hector. Why someone like Julius Caesar should be a Greek with a name that is phonetically and morphologically Latin I have never even seen explained. Theories like this, as Raymond Chandler once said about chess, are the most elaborate waste of human intelligence outside an advertising agency. But there is an easy solution:  Plutarch (c.46-c.120 AD), who was Greek, wrote a series of biographies, Parallel Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans, where he matched up individuals whose lives he considered similar from Greek and Roman history. Since the Romans were, by this principle, not Greeks, then they are clearly something else, i.e. Romans.

An equally curious, nationalistic claim about India, that is advocated on the Internet, is the idea that speakers of Indo-European languages, rather than being invaders of India, in fact originated there, so that India is itself the homeland of all Indo-European languages. On this view, the Indo-European and Dravidian languages of India actually are closely related and have a common origin in the (unattested) languages of the Indus Valley Civilization, which itself then is the oldest civilization of all and the source of the others, like the Sumerian, that were previously thought to be older.

As with similar claims about the Greeks or Assyrians, this thesis is argued with documentary and archaeological evidence that is sometimes true, sometimes misinterpreted, and sometimes completely false. Thus, an important characteristic of the Indo-European (or Indo-Aryan) invaders of India and the Middle East is that they introduced the horse, which originated in Central Asia (though, as we know now from paleontological evidence, it had evolved millions of year earlier in North America). The Egyptians of the Old Kingdom, for instance, had donkeys, and the early Sumerians had an extinct ass, the "onager," but horses don't start turning up in Mesopotamia until around the beginning of the 2nd millennium (i.e. c.2000 BC) and not in Egypt until the Second Intermediate Period (1786-c.1575). Thus, "horse" in late Sumerian was anshe-kur-ra, the "ass from foreign countries." Similarly, the Indus Valley Civlization was at first innocent of horses also, though it survived down into the period (c.1500) by which the arrival of some horses could already be expected. Thus, if archaeological evidence for horse burials could be interpreted as belonging to the earlier period, the argument could be made that horses had always been there, which is precisely the claim I have seen made. The non-specialist on Indus Valley archaeology is then in no position to dispute such presumed evidence.

The most easily disposed fallacy of the thesis about the Indo-Europeans in India, however, is in the linguistic evidence. The oldest Indo-European language of India, Vedic Sanskrit, is not related to the Dravidian languages of India in any conventionally ascertainable way. Vedic Sanskrit, however, is nearly identical to Avestan, the oldest attested form of Persian. There are new theories that Indo-European and Dravidian (and Semitic, etc.) languages may be ultimately related, but this connection would be much more remote than the theory of common origin in India would allow. What is clear, however, is that Vedic Sanskrit has already borrowed some Dravidian vocabulary and some Dravidian phonology. The languages of India become a sprachbund, which means a group of unrelated languages that borrow features from each other because of geographical proximity (as in the Balkans).

All the languages in India have a characteristic set of "retroflex" or "lingual" consonsants, t., t.h, d., d.h, n., and s., corresponding to the ordinary "dentals," t, th, d, dh, n, and s. These do not occur in other Indo-European languages, which is hardly possible if Indo-European languages had originated with those sounds in India. Ockham's Razor requires the simpler theory that, if no Indo-European languages but in India have retroflexes, then Proto-Indo-European did not have retroflexes. By the same token, the contrast between the Indo-European vowels a, e, and o has been lost in all Indo-Aryan languages (which means Iranian as well as Indian languages), which only have a. Linguistically, it is easy enough for the three vowels to simplify to one, but unheard of for one to differentiate into three without being the effect of some phonetic or morphological environment. No theory of such an environment, as far as I know, has been suggested as part of the Indian-origin theory. Instead, e, and o actually did reemerge in Sanskrit from the diphthongs ai, and au, respectively. Much the same process can be seen in modern Arabic, where bêt, "house," develops from Classical Arabic bayt.

A claim that has recently come to my attention is that the writing of the Indus Valley, whose texts are probably too few, and with no bilingual examples, to ever be deciphered, has now been identified as consisting of alphabet characters which are recognizably the source of both the later Brahmi script of India and of the alphabet systems -- Phoenican, Canaanite, Hebrew, etc. -- of the Middle East. I see three problems with this:  (1) When every other know writing system in the world begins with pictographic characters and only later evolves phonetic elements, it is improbable to incredible that an alphabetic or syllabic system should leap into maturity in India, without anything like a similar evolution, let alone all the pre-literate stages now known for Sumerian. (2) The chronological gap between Indus Valley literacy and the later attested writing, i.e. from c.1500 to 800 or 700 BC, is so large as to render unlikely to impossible the survival of the earlier system. And (3) the Middle Eastern alphabets appear in the wrong place to be derived from India, i.e. in Syria and Palestine, which is a place strongly linked in trade and culture to Egypt (whose writing the alphabets resemble), but not to someplace on the other side of the India Ocean. To be sure, related alphabetic writing appears in Yemen, where Indian trade could be postulated, but the derivation of South Arabian writing from Levantine seems uncontroversial to Semiticists.

A very recent (Vol.197, No.6, June 2000) National Geographic story on the Indus Valley civilization ("Indus Civilization, Clues to an Ancient Puzzle," pp.108-129) mentions some key information, for instance that 400 symbols have been identified in the Indus script (p.122). This is too many to be either an alphabetic or even a syllabic system, but is a bit deficient to be the whole of an ideographic system -- about 1000 characters are known from the similarly fragmentary texts of the Shang Dynasty. The longest Indus text is only 26 symbols, while "the average is just five -- not much for a decipherer to work with." Indeed.

Thus, after almost endless confusion, we must return to the conventional wisdom that the Romans are not Greeks and that the Indo-Aryans invaded India.

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Note on "Afro-Centric" Egypt

The strangest form of all this proprietary ethnic mythmaking has been "Afro-Centric" educational programs in the United States that seek to boost the self-esteem of black American students by (1) identifying them with the ancient Egyptians, (2) attributing to the ancient Egyptians most of the accomplishments of civilization, including flight, and (3) accusing Western Civilization, starting with the Greeks, of "stealing" everything from the Egyptians. These claims end up being so bizarre and ahistorical, that one hardly knows where to start in dealing with them, though they are often left unchallenged by people who clearly know better, perhaps out of fear of being called racists (an offense against black proprietary claims about themselves).

The most curious aspect of all this to me, however, is the idea that the ancient Egyptians were "black" in the sense of looking like the sub-Saharan Africans who were brought to the New World as slaves and from whom black Americans are descended. Since modern Egyptians mostly do not look like sub-Saharan Africans, one is left to wonder, "Where did the old Egyptians go?" The inescapable conclusion would be that, since modern Egyptians look like many other Arabs, they must have been exterminated or driven out of the country in the Arab conquest of Egypt. This, however, would not be very flattering to Islâm (or the Arabs), to which (and to whom) many black nationalists look as a religion (and a nation) more appropriate and friendly to blacks than Christianity (or America). (This black celebration of Islâm must be particularly galling to Ethiopians, who preserved their Christianity against Islâm for many centuries.) However, there were in fact hardly enough Arabs in the Arab conquest to drive anyone out of Egypt, and it was never the business of Islâm to displace, let alone massacre, the Egyptians.

In fact, the ancient Egyptians looked pretty much like modern Egyptians, as anyone examining Egyptian painting and sculpture can tell -- just as the same sources clearly distinguish the much darker, indeed black, people who have always lived as close to Egypt as Nubia (the area just south of the modern Aswan). A nice example of continuity in appearance is a V Dynasty wooden statue (shown at right) that was unearthed in 1860. The statue bore such an uncanny resemblance to the nearby living "chief of the village" (shaykh al-balad) that the Egyptian workers immediately began calling it that. By the same token, those with the best claim to being the direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians, Coptic Christians, do not look particularly different from other modern Egyptians. The former Secretary General of the United Nations, Butros Butros Ghali, is himself a Copt. What he looks like is very much a matter of public record. Since Arabs were not legally allowed to convert to Christianity to marry Copts, and since Copts probably did convert to Islâm to marry Arabs, one suspects that the Coptic community contains relatively little Arab blood.

On the other hand, there was a certifiably black Dynasty of ancient Egypt:  The XXV Dynasty of Napata, in Kush, south of Nubia. Pi'ankhy (751-730 BC) entered Egypt to contest it with the Libyan dynasties that had been ruling for some time (since 945). Later, XXV Dynasty kings had to deal with the Assyrian invasions of Egypt. They did not fare well in that contest, but when Tanuatamun retreated back into the south, it was to found a line that would continue at Napata and Meroë for many centuries, even building pyramids, until overthrown by the Abyssinians in 355 AD.

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