Assyrians, Evangelicals, and Borderland Nationalism

Episode 301

hosted by Matthew Ghazarian

Download the podcast
Feed | iTunes | GooglePlay | SoundCloud

In the mid-nineteenth century Ottoman/Qajar borderlands (today’s Turco-Iranian border), East Syrian Christians had their first encounters with American Protestant missionaries. These encounters brought to the region new institutions like printing presses and American-style schools. They also helped remap Neo-Aramaic concepts for communal belonging like melat and tayepa – which loosely correspond with the Ottoman and Arabic terms millet and taife, what today we might translate as “nation” and “sect.” An older generation of scholars characterizes the missionary project as one of enlightenment or modernity, while others describe it as a form of colonialism. In this interview with Professor Adam Becker, we discuss approaches to studying changing notions of piety as well as different ways of thinking about the missionary encounter.

Stream via SoundCloud 

Contributor Bios

Adam H. Becker (Princeton Ph. D. 2004) is Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at New York University. His research interests include Christian martyrdom in the Sasanian Empire, Jewish-Christian relations in Late Antiquity, the social and intellectual history of the Syriac (Christian Aramaic) tradition, and the missionary encounter in the nineteenth century.
Matthew Ghazarian is a Ph.D. Candidate in Columbia University's Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, African Studies. His research focuses on the intersections of sectarianism, humanitarianism, and political economy in central and eastern Anatolia between 1856 and 1893.

Recommended Episodes
Vahé Tachjian #204
Reconstructing Ottoman Armenian Life
Ellen Fleischmann & Christine Lindner #230
Women and the American Protestant Mission in Lebanon
Akram Khater #229
Gender, Politics, and Passion in the Christian Middle East


Episode No. 301
Release Date: 21 February 2017
Recording Location: New York University
Audio editing by Matthew Ghazarian and Chris Gratien
Music: Istanbul'dan Ayva Gelir Nar Gelir - Azize Tozem and Sari Recep
Images and bibliography courtesy of Adam Becker


Mar Zay'a subdues the angel of death, from a book of prayers to different saints for various forms of protection (NYPL Syriac Ms. 3). Evangelical missionaries and their converts were strongly opposed to much of the traditional ritual life of the Syriac Christians in the region.
Cover of Rays of Light from June 1869 with a portrait of Justin Perkins, the founder of the American mission, upon his retirement. Rays of Light was published from 1849 until WWI at the American Mission Press in Urmia. The first nationalist newspaper, The Star, was published at the same press from 1906 onward.
Freydun Abraham (1891-1926), or as he is more commonly known, Freydun Atoraya (“The Assyrian”), was an important proponent of the Assyrian thesis (the notion that the modern Assyrians are descendants of the ancient ones), and remains today a romantic figure lionized by some Assyrians as a nationalist hero and martyr. He was a founder of the first Assyrian political party and eventually died in a Soviet prison.
“The Meeting with Mother” (Tpaqta b-yemma), a collection of poems printed in Tehran in 1965 by Yoshiya Amrikhas (1900-?), son of Pera Amrikhas (1872-1945), who taught at the Urmia College and wrote for Rays of Light and The Star. The gates of Nineveh became a common motif in modern Assyrian aesthetics. Even some churches have been built in a style reminiscent of these structures. During their occupation of Mosul ISIS has completely demolished the Mashki gate as well as the lamassus (winged creatures with human faces) of the Nergal Gate (note the creatures on both sides of the doorway depicted above).

Select Bibliography

Revival and Reawakening
by Adam Becker
University of Chicago Press

Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Baum, Wilhelm and Dietmar W. Winkler. The Church of the East: A Concise History. Translated by Miranda G. Henry. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

Becker, Adam H. Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

———. "Assyrian Christians and the ISIS Assault on the Remains of Nineveh." Informed Comment, March 27, 2015.

———. "Excerpt: Revival and Awakening – The Revealer." Accessed November 6, 2016.

de Courtois, Sebastien, The Forgotten Genocide: Eastern Christians, the Last Aramaeans. Translated by Aurora, Vincent. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2004.

Deringil, Selim. Conversion and Apostasy in the Late Ottoman Empire. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Doğan, Mehmet Ali and Heather J. Sharkey, eds., American Missionaries and the Middle East: Foundational Encounters (Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 2011).

Gaunt, David, "Relations between Kurds and Syriacs and Assyrians in Late Ottoman Diyarbekir", pp. 241-266 in Social Relations in Ottoman Diyarbekir, 1870–1915. Edited by Jongerden, Joost and Verheij, Jelle. The Ottoman Empire and its Heritage 51. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.

Heleen Murre-van den Berg, Scribes and Scriptures: The Church of the East in the Eastern Ottoman Provinces (1500-1850) (Louvain: Peeters, 2015).

Keane, Webb. Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007.

Makdisi, Ussama. Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007.

Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Mehta, Samira K. "Interview with Adam H. Becker, Author of Revival and Awakening." Religion in American History.Accessed October 24, 2016. Wilmshurst, David. The Martyred Church: A History of the Church of the East. London: East and West, 2011.

Wilmshurst, David. The Ecclesiastical Organisation of the Church of the East, 1318-1913. Louvain: Peeters, 2000.


Ottoman History Podcast is a noncommerical website intended for educational use. Anyone is welcome to use and reproduce our content with proper attribution under the terms of noncommercial fair use within the classroom setting or on other educational websites. All third-party content is used either with express permission or under the terms of fair use. Our page and podcasts contain no advertising and our website receives no revenue. All donations received are used solely for the purposes of covering our expenses. Unauthorized commercial use of our material is strictly prohibited, as it violates not only our noncommercial commitment but also the rights of third-party content owners.

We make efforts to completely cite all secondary sources employed in the making of our episodes and properly attribute third-party content such as images from the web. If you feel that your material has been improperly used or incorrectly attributed on our site, please do not hesitate to contact us.