Year of the Sword: The Assyrian Christian Genocide, a History. By Joseph Yacoub. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. $29.95.
This important contribution to genocide studies documents how the world's oldest Christian communities—variously referred to as Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Arameans, but best known as Assyrians—were, along with the Armenians, "the victims of the [Ottoman] plan for exterminating Christianity, root and branch." In fact, as half of the Assyrian population was massacred—going from 600,000 to 300,000 in 1915-18—relative to their numbers, no other Christian group, including the Armenians, suffered as much under the Ottomans.
Yacoub, emeritus professor at the Catholic University of Lyon, offers copious documentation and reports from reliable eyewitnesses, state actors, and relief agencies that recount atrocities against the Assyrians, including massacres, rapes, death marches, and the destruction of some 250 churches. The eyewitness accounts are especially blood-curdling in their details.
According to Yacoub, Assyrians were not only "annihilated by the murderous madness of Ottoman power, driven by a hideous form of unbridled nationalism" but became victims due to a "policy of ethnic cleansing ... stirred up by pan-Islamism and religious fanaticism. ... The call to Jihad, decreed on 29 November 1914 and instigated and orchestrated for political ends, was part of the plan." As a result, unexpected actors such as the Kurds, who had their own reasons to oppose anything decreed by
Turks, became accomplices in the massacres for religious-ideological reasons.
While focusing on the mass murders that began in 1915—"the year of the sword" to the Assyrians—Yacoub makes clear that such events were not aberrant. Instead, they are part of a continuum that stretches back to the seventh-century Muslim conquest of Mesopotamia and that continues to this day under the guise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other Middle East actors.
Indeed, many of the Assyrian Christians who have been and continue to be persecuted by ISIS are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those massacred by the Ottomans and their minions. As Yacoub—whose own family suffered massacres and deportations—puts it, perhaps the greatest lesson is that "there is no shortage of similarities between 1915 and 2015."