Syrians are experiencing violent conflict today in Syria. Assyrians suffered a genocide in Persia and the Ottoman Empire, but neither Assyria nor Syria existed. Armenians also suffered a genocide, but there was no Armenia then either. There was also a Greek genocide that did not happen in Greece. Confused? You’re not alone. It’s hard to keep track of of it all. I’ve put together a simplified glossary that may help.
I’ll start with the word genocide, which did not exist in English before Raphael Lemkin coined it in 1944. The terms used during the atrocities in the last years of the Ottoman Empire were massacre, mass murder, and crimes against humanity. Today, historians consider the ethnic cleansing of Christians in the region as one long genocidal policy—though the issue was much more complex than religious persecution.
- According to the Office of the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, genocide is legally defined in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part1; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” For information on the eight categories of factors indicating a risk of genocide, see this UN document (pdf).
- Armenia was the first nation to offically adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD. Armenia was a kingdom and empire from 300 BC to 400 AD when it was conquered and divided by Byzantium and Persia. In the early 20th century it was part of the Ottoman and Russian Empires until 1918 when the Republic of Armenia was formed—as a much smaller nation. Two years later it was swallowed up by Soviet Russia and did not gain independence until 1991.
- Even though Armenia did not exist from 400 to 1918, Armenians maintained their culture, language, and ethnicity. Most Armenians are Christians, members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, though there are some Catholics. There are two main dialects and alphabets: Eastern of the people in present day Armenia, and Western of the large diaspora. For more information on the Armenian genocide, see The Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute.
- Assyria was a kingdom and empire in ancient Mesopotamia, from the 25th century BC to around 600 BC. It survived as a geopolitical entity until the Muslim conquest of Persia in the 7th century. From that time Assyrians became an ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious minority in their traditional homeland.
- Assyrians in the early 20th century to today are descendants of three main Christian groups: Chaldean, Aramean, and Nestorian. The Assyrian genocide, also known as Seyfo, took place mainly in the Urmia region of northwestern Persia, and in eastern Anatolia along with the victims of the Armenian genocide. For more information see the Seyfo Center.
- Greek are descendants of an ancient civilization centered on the Aegean and Ionian seas. The Greek genocide is complicated. Ottomans of Greek heritage lived mostly in western Turkey, though there were many Greeks in villages inland and to the east. For many reasons, they mostly avoided the deportations and massacres inflicted upon Armenians and Assyrians in 1914-1916, though they suffered boycotts and persecution. In May 1919 Greece invaded Turkey, thus beginning the Greco-Turkish War or the Turkish War of Independence, depending on your point of view. Many Pontic Greeks (see below) were massacred during the early days of the war, and by the end of 1922 there were very few people of Greek heritage left in Turkey. Hundreds of thousands had either fled, been deported or were killed. For more information see The Genocide of Ottoman Greeks, 1914-1923
- The earliest Ottomans were followers of the Turkish tribal leader Osman I, located on the south shore of the Black Sea. Many, though not all, were Muslims. Once the Ottoman Empire began expanding, Ottomans consisted of multinationals, of many ethno-linguistic and religious heritages. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Europeans and North Americans used the terms “Turks” and “Turkish” interchangeably and erroneously with “Ottoman.” It was not until 1912 or so that the Ottoman government began to focus on the “Turkification” of what was left of the empire. And since most Turks were Muslims, and the government instigated a resettlement program of Balkan Muslims into Turkey, the demonizing of Christians as “non-Turks” began.
- Ottoman Empire
- The Ottoman Empire rose to prominence in 1453 when Mehmed the Conqueror captured the ancient city of Constantinople, thus ending the Byzantine Empire. The height of the empire is considered to be during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66) when it controlled much of southeast Europe, western Asia, the Caucasus and northern Africa, and the land bordering the Red Sea. Over the centuries and many wars, especially after the mid-1700s, the sultans lost territory. The Empire’s began a quick decline after the relatively bloodless coup by the Young Turks in 1908, and died when the Republic of Turkey was born in 1923.
- Pontic Greek
- Pontic Greeks are an ethnically Greek group, who speak a Pontic Greek dialect. They lived in the region of Pontus, south of the Black Sea. (see Greek above)
- Syria was an important center in 10,000 BC. Damascus, the capital city, and Aleppo, its largest city, are among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Syria was conquered and divided many times over the centuries, and was part of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century. After 1918 Syria became semi-independent under a French mandate, and gained independence after WWII (map shows Syria today).
- Syrians share a common Levantine Semitic ancestry, though ancient Greeks used the terms “Syrian” and “Assyrian” interchangeably. About 75% of Syrians today are Sunni Muslims, and 10% Christians. For some background information about the Syrian Civil War that wages on, read 9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask.
Maps courtesy of Wikimedia Commons