In the ancient monastery of Mor Augin in Turabdin lives a Syrian Orthodox monk who hates everything called Assyrian. He has recently published a 2,000-page dictionary where the words Assyrian, Assyria, Syria, Suryoyo and Ahiqar got a distorted description. This was recently unveiled in a program in Assyria TV. But this "man of God" showed his revulsion against his Assyrian heritage already 17 years ago in an article, in which he spewed out his bile over a language teacher who had written that the word suryoyo is derived from assuroyo.
In the late 1990s, a young man named Yoken Unval lived in Holland. He had come from the Assyrian village of Arnas in Turabdin to Enschede, where a large population of Assyrian immigrants has settled. Not far from Enschede was the monastery of Mor Afrem that bishop Isa Çiçek had acquired in the early 1980s. This bishop was known as one of the most ardent anti-Assyrians and backer of an Aramaic identity which denies all connection with ancient Assyrians. Bishop Çiçek (died 2005) and his inner circle have been the main reason for many Assyrians in Central Europe today call themselves Arameans, renouncing Assyrian identity. He was also well known for having forged the contents of old Assyrian books he reprinted, by replacing Assyrian names and evidences of Assyrian identity with other contents.
In this climate young Yoken Unval got his political education. In January 2000, he wrote the following about an Assyrian teacher who a year earlier had written an article in Hujådå and other magazines, claiming that the word suryoyo comes from othuroyo:
"We shall not deny our pre-Christian Aramaic name or recognize the lie that we are the sons of Assyria. It is inappropriate for us to feel proud of our neighbors' name, whom are the enemies of our suryoyo-Aramean nation."
Yoke Unval then moved to the Syrian Orthodox seminary in Damascus. He devoted his life to his Lord and became a monk. Today, he is abbot of the monastery of Mor Augin on IzloMountain in Turabdin. I will return to the events surrounding his article and the reaction of the teacher, but first want to tell you about Yoken’s recently published Syriac Dictionary - Qlido d leshono. The author uses here his family name Beth Yakub as surname (Unval is his Turkish surname. In this article I use both). The dictionary was published in early summer 2016. Shortly thereafter I was contacted by several people in Sweden, Holland and Germany expressing their surprise about the contents of the new lexicon. They also wondered if Assyria TV should not pay attention to this incorrect information. They sent me pictures of some keywords related to the Assyrian identity. It turned out that the author has distorted the Assyrians history of thousands of years. He also equate the name "Suryoyo" and "Oromoyo" which such obvious. His "evidence" is taken from the story of Noah in the Old Testament and some quotations from ancient church fathers like Yakub Bar Salibi who lived nearly a thousand years ago.
Denies new research
Modern research findings from excavations, especially the bilingual Çineköy-inscriptionwhich shows that the word Syria is derived from Assyria, he totally ignores. He writes that the name Syria comes from a mythical king in Antioch called Surus. He denies even half the truth in the story of Noah's son Shem. In Genesis 10:22, we read: "The sons of Shem were Elam, Assur, Arpachshad, Lud, and Aram." From this piece the author chooses to ignore the fact that Aram also had a brother named Assur. Although this story today lacks scientific relevance, it shows the author's sources are quoted selectively.
As to his large new dictionary, heavy as a concrete slab, it is all through a copy of the Chaldean Assyrian bishop Tuma Audo's great works Simto d leshono Suryoyo (Urmia 1896, reprint Assyrian Federation of Sweden 1979). The difference is that Yoke Beth Yakub has transcript it with the West Assyrian SERTO letters and added the grammatical bending of the verb. But instead of dedicating his work to the Bishop Tuma Audo, whose famous work still is the basis for later Assyrian dictionaries, he chooses to dedicate Syriac Dictionary to the Aleppo Bishop Yuhanna Brahim (kidnapped since 2013). This bishop is regarded as the foremost leader figure of the anti-Assyrian Aramaic faction within the Syrian Orthodox Church, thus revealing Yoken Beth Yakub’s political residence.
Beth Yakub, as I mentioned above, is a product of the intense campaign that some church leaders have conducted against the Assyrian identity since the late 1970s. Bishop Isa Çiçek reprinted also Tuma Audo's dictionary, but in a smaller format. There, he removed a footnote in the foreword where it says the word suryoyo comes from suroyo and assuroyo. Çiçek also forced Patriarch Zakka Iwas to dismiss Abdul-Massih Saadi, who was the rector of the seminary in Damascus in the 1980s, because Çiçek perceived Mr. Saadi as pro-Assyrian.
Hiding his anti-Assyrianism
This monk in Mor Augin appears outwardly to be a low-key, humble and pious hermit who has dedicated his life to serve God. After the monastery was restored and opened to visitors in 2008, thousands of Diaspora Assyrians visited it every year. Most give good donations, also during the events organized by the Mor Augin Associations in Sweden and Germany. All this is aimed to keep the monastery alive after having been closed since the 1980s. Even I have contributed to this by translating the biography of the saint to Swedish, a book which has sold well compared to other newly released books. The money has been donated to the monastery.
On my last visit to Mot Augin Monastery in the fall of 2014, along with my son Nemrud, I got the same impression of this monk as all other visitors; friendly and interested to know the sources when I told him about Assyrian history, for example, why the Assyrian kings had a cross around their necks, which Patriarch urged Senharib Bali's father to name his son after the Assyrian king Senharib to keep the story alive and so on. Nemrud wrote a factual novel about Seyfo after his visit in Turabdin with this monk on the cover. I sent a copy to the monastery and designated him as the guardian of our heritage, but never got a thank you to answer. I could, however, impossibly imagine that he has such a grudge against the Assyrian identity. My impression is that he hates Assyrians has strengthened since I got his article from 2000 in my hand. This was after I did the program in Assyria TV about his new dictionary.
Scrambling ancient Assyrian history
Before I go into the content of his old article from 2000, I want to return to the historical distortions the mentioned dictionary contains. He describes the following words like this:
OTHUR: "an akkadian name of the city built by King Shapur, which is Mosul." There have been two Persian kings by this name in 3rd and 4th centuries. The city of Othur/Assur is about 5,000 years old.
OTHUROYO: Explained with various synonyms, where "enemy" is the most remarkable. No source is given, but the author is likely quoting a 10th century dictionary by an Arab called Hassan Ibn Bahlul. Beth Yakubs article from 2000 shows that also the author considers the Assyrians as his personal enemies.
ATHURYA: "the Akkadian name of Babylon."
ASHUR: "Parthians and Assyrians, Mosul and Iraq."
AHIQAR: "a wise Aramaic man who served as minister of King Senharib (704-681) and Sarhadum (681-669) ...." Does not even mention that these were Assyrian kings.
SURIYA (Syria), "named after Surus - he who murdered his brother and ruled between the rivers and whose whole kingdom was called Beth Suriya. In the past, Suryoye were called Arameans. When Surus became their ruler got the name Suryoye”. Thus, ignoring the fact that the discovery of the Çineköy inscription has put an end to any doubts among historians and scholars that the word Syria is derived from Assyria.
About ARAM it is said he was the son of Shem son of Noah, but the author avoids, as I mentioned, the part which says that Aram also had a brother named Assur - a deliberate concealment where the author chooses the part which suits his political purposes.
Before I conducted the program on Assyria TV about the new dictionary, I called this monk and asked him if he wanted to participate and explain himself, but he declined. He said that the reason was a comment I had forwarded on social media at the beginning of December 2016, which he perceives as an attack against him. He called my post "dirty words in your disgusting Facebook page," which he had not expected of me. In mentioned post I wrote the following ironizing about his lack of knowledge in history: "It seems that we will not see a greater historian than monk Yoken anymore. His grudge against the Assyrian name has blinded his mind to the point that he falsifies the history this way. Pitty! He should keep serving the language and not interfere into daily politics".
I wrote these lines fully aware of its meaning and my suspicion is now even more confirmed by the contents of his article from 2000, which I did not know about by that time. This man has at least during two decades harboured a hatred towards the Assyrian identity, as strong hatred as we can see by other known anti-Assyrians, for example Assad Sauma Assad (more about him here). In comparison with monk Yoken’s attacks against the Assyrian identity and his insulting of our 6,000 years old history, my comment on Facebook seems as a gust of wind.
Now to the events about Yoken Unval’s attack on an Assyrian teacher. In 1999 this teacher, who today wants to be anonymous, wrote a long article on Assyrian identity and language in Hujådå and other magazines. The article is four A4 pages. We can take only the following quotations:
"We must take care of our ethnic Assyrian name, which is a generic name for different ethnic groups integrated with each others by the Assyrian empire, for example Akkadians, Babylonians and Arameans. At the days of King Senharib the Assyrians spread their culture and language throughout the region with Aramaic script, because the Aramean letters were easier to use. On this basis, the language of the Assyrian empire developed, which by the Jews came to be known as Aramaic, meaning pagan. This did not mean that other languages were eradicated. At that time, the Jews used to label all the peoples who did not believe in one God as “Arameans”, i.e. the pagans. Likewise, their language was called Aramaic by the Jews, and this name was given priority over other language name. The Assyrians themselves called their language othuroyo (Assyrian) which later got the abbreviation of suroyo and suryoyo ".
He then set an example of how the Jews called the language of the Assyrians “Aramaic” in the story of Isaiah describing when the troops of King Senharibs had surrounded Jerusalem: "Then Eliakim and Shebna and Joah said to Rabshakeh, "Speak now to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it; and do not speak with us in Judean in the hearing of the people who are on the wall” (Isaiah 36:11).
Even Prof. Efrem Yildiz, professor of Semitic languages at the University of Salamanca in Spain, says the same thing about how the Westerners have named our language Aramaic in accordance with biblical sources. I interviewed him during the Assyrian Convention in Gothenburg in October 2016. "The Assyrians themselves have always called their language suraya or suryaya," he said in his East Assyrian dialect. You can see the program here.
Slandering Assyrian teacher
A year after this debate article Yoken Unval wrote a response in the journal of Shushoto Suryoyo released by the Suryoyo Federation in Holland. Already in the title the author is using coarse words about the teacher in question which he also names in the text. The headline is ”Malfone lo mawdyone w shaqore da-shmo wad-leshono oromoyo”. It means "Teachers who are ungrateful and traitors to the Aramaic name and language". Then he starts in the first lines to say; "All the books written in Aramaic language show that the name suryoyo comes from Surus, and that the suryoyo people originally are Arameans and no other people". Then he continues his attacks and explains why he sees these teachers as “ungrateful traitors”. He believes that “they earn their living because they are teaching the Aramaic language" but they betray it by calling themselves the descendants of the Assyrians. After quoting some ancient Church Fathers as proof of his arguments about Aramaic identity, he concludes with the following words:
"We shall not deny our pre-Christian Aramaic name or recognize the lie that we are the sons of Assyria. It is inappropriate for us to feel proud of our neighbours' name, whom are the enemies of our suryoyo-Aramean nation."
The apology in Dutch and Assyrian
Apology to the teacher
I have now in retrospect spoken to the teacher in question. He does not want to appear with his name and believes that the case is closed as far as it concerns him. But he has told me about all the details. When he had read the attack of Yoken Unval, he translated it and his own article to Dutch. He then sought a lawyer to sue Yoken Unval for defamation. The lawyer sent a letter to Unval, who by this time had moved to the Patriarchate in Damascus. Time passed but there was no answer. Then, the lawyer sent same letter recommended. Patriarch Zakka Iwas got in touch with Bishop Çiçek and urged him to ensure that the teacher withdraws his notification. It did not work. Eventually Yoken Unval had to travel back to Holland and apologize. He signed the apology written in two languages in the presence of the lawyer on October 1, 2001. He also paid 5,000 Gulden in legal fees. In his apology, he writes; "I have named his teacher (his name here) deliberately, used harsh words against him, slandered him and caused him harm. I now recognize that it was wrong of me and by this correction I want to show my repentance and recall everything I said about him. I apologize to him”. This apology was published in Hujådå, where I now have read it, and even in Shushoto Suryoyo, as I remember in my conversation with the teacher.
In retrospect, one might think that it was a good excuse - although performed under the gallows. After all, it was the words of the teacher himself who had formulated the text in both languages. But a monk who devotes his life to spiritual activity should continue to interfere in political disputes within our collective. Above all, he should not continue to violate the Assyrian identity by falsifying his ancestral heritage which has sat so deep imprint at the civilization of the world.
Ten years ago, he also wrote a new book for elementary teaching of grammar at the monastery of Mor Gabriel in Turabdin. It's called “Skulastiqoyo - Turos mamlo b-leshono suryoyo l-mashqlo qadmoyo da-shnat 2008-2009”. Even here he sneaks the propaganda for the name Aram and Arameans in several places (p. 149/157).
In the future, this monk very well may be ordained as bishop of Turabdin, because he is considered as one of the most educated monks within the Syrian Orthodox Church. It is probably a deliberate move by him and his anti-Assyrian buddies in the Aramaic movement that he chose to settle in such a lonely monastery on a mountain top, instead of life in the big city of Damascus or in Europe. Whatever, he should know that we will continue to pay attention to historical revisionism and violations against the Assyrian identity.