In the latest piece from her series on heritage and survival, Sofya Shahab, from the IDS-led Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development, describes her research with Assyrian Christians and how the deliberate destruction of physical heritage sites by Daesh has torn this ancient but vulnerable religious minority asunder in Iraq and Syria – driving some from their homeland whilst those who’ve stayed put mourn the loss of community amidst a desire to rebuild.
“When I call myself Assyrian I think of my roots. I have deep roots in this area and I see that I own this country and the old civilization in this country. By talking about the heritage, I see that I am the owner of this area and the original people of this area through the folklore, through music, through history, language… “(Daoud, Hasakah)
Assyrians are an ethnic and religious minority who have been present in parts of what is now considered the Middle East for approximately 5,000 years. They were among the earliest converts to Christianity and many still speak the Syriac language.
For Assyrians such as Daoud, the ancient Assyrian heritage in the region fostered a sense of belonging to both a place and history, and helped to reinforce his sense of identity and community. So when this heritage was destroyed, (deliberately by Daesh (PDF)), the connections between land and people were lost. In my recent research with Assyrian communities from Iraq and Syria, I found that the loss of this heritage had ongoing impacts on emigration and community cohesion.
Why heritage matters for the survival of religious minority communities
When emblems of heritage, such as shrines or churches, have been intentionally destroyed, people’s histories embodied and enabled by this heritage are also erased. Tangible heritage such as archaeological sites serve as visual representations of a group and their presence in a place. As scholar Laurajane Smith has noted, to know our place is to situate ourselves culturally, socially and geographically in the world, to know where we belong. This incorporates the freedom and right to practice our culture and religion without fear or persecution.
However, as a result of the destruction of heritage sites by Daesh, such as the ancient Iraqi cities of Nineveh and Nimrud, or monasteries and churches, the Assyrian Christians I worked alongside felt that they were no longer welcome or safe in the areas where they had once lived.
By erasing neighbourhoods Daesh tore down the markers that cemented belonging within these communities. Such heritage facilitated the practices and rituals of everyday life which helped form their identities. These feelings of insecurity and alienation resulting from the targeted destruction of heritage were reinforced when national and international governments, and security forces, failed to protect communities’ heritage. As another interviewee, Sarah, highlighted:
“the monuments make me feel tied, and […] have a bond with my country but if I lose this, what kind of bond would I have? With a government that doesn’t respect me or the really basic rights that I need to have, so these kind of things [heritage] help people a lot, they are so important for them in order to survive and live.” (Sarah, Hasakah)
When I spoke to those who had remained in Iraq and Syria, I noticed that despite maintaining their physical connection to the land (by not emigrating), there was a similar experience relating to the loss of place. For them, this loss was experienced as a loss of community and social relations that had created their place in the world rather than a loss of connection to the land. This was due to the mass emigration of their community, as well as the mass destruction unleashed by Daesh. Despite remaining in their homes, the security of the familiar had been fundamentally shaken.
Emigration – the only option?
In this way, the terror campaign waged by Daesh through place-based violence and the resulting experiences of processes of deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation served to alienate the Assyrian communities from each other as well as from the landscapes they inhabited, posing a physical and existential risk to their survival.
The divisions provoked by the conflict and the destruction of their heritage meant that many Assyrian Christians no longer thought that they could live side-by-side with those who had once been their neighbours, forcing them to emigrate to Jordan and beyond. Through the reconfigurations of place, it was not only statues that were broken but the ties between communities who had lived together. There was heightened fear among my interlocutors that despite the reclamation of territory by security forces from Daesh, the conflict and persecution they had experienced could easily occur again. As a result, those who were living as refugees in Jordan felt that pursuing a future in Europe, North America or Australasia was the only option available to them in order to practice their religion freely.