A Brief History
The relationship between the Assyrians and Istanbul dates back centuries. The mother of the Eastern Roman Emperor Constantinus (306-337), Helena (250-330), the wife of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian (527-565), Theodora (527-548), and Istanbul’s first metropolitan bishop (Archbishop) John Chrysostom (347-407) are a few of the Assyrians who left important marks on the history of Istanbul.1
Even though the existence of Assyrians, Anatolia’s ancient people, as individuals or community in Istanbul can be dated even further back, their institutionalization dates to the nineteenth century. Although it is known the that the Assyrians and their churches existed in Constantinople prior to the conquest, neither a high spiritual leader nor an institution existed at that time. This situation remained same after the conquest.2
Despite the spiritual leaders of the Assyrians attending the councils in Constantinople in 381 and in Kadıköy in 451, they did not become part of the institutional organization. Jacob Baradeus, the archbishop of Urfa (542-578), who was appointed as the Tibeloyo (universal archbishop) in 542, upon the encouragement of Ghassanid King Harith Ibn Jabalah (529-569) and with the support of the Byzantine Assyrian empress, Theodora, also chose not to establish a church for Assyrians in Constantinople.3
The Constantinople Assyrians were not united in one sect. While the Orthodox Assyrian formed the main body, the Assyrian Chaldeans separated from the main church in 1445, while the Assyrian Catholics separated in 1782, and the Assyrian Protestants emerged in 1852 as a result of missionary activities in Anatolia; as the presence of these groups continue to exist in Istanbul.4
When the Assyrian Catholics were recognized as community (millet) by the Ottoman government, their separation from the central church became official. Following this separation in 1845, the Assyrian Orthodoxs, who had previously been referred to as “Jacobian” or “Jacobian Assyrians” in reference to Jacob Baradeus, considered to be the second founder of the Assyrian Church, were now known as “Süryani Kadim” (Orthodox Assyrian).5
The presence of the Assyrians who live in Istanbul today dates back to the 1830s. Assyrians began immigrating to the western regions of Anatolia due to drought, poverty and lack of security; they decided to stay in Istanbul, which was the center of trade and industry. This decision to settle was encouraged in 1841 by the Patriarch of the Assyrian Orthodox Church, Ignatius Elias II (1838-1847).
6 Elias II sent Cyril Jacob (Cyril Jacob also served as patriarch after the death of Elias II, between 1847 and 1871), the metropolitan bishop of Jerusalem and Dayro d-Mor Hamanyo (the Monastery of St. Ananias) to Istanbul as a representative of the patriarch. At the first opportunity, Metropolitan bishop Jacob purchased a house on Karnavuzla Street (today, known as Karakurum Street), located in Tarlabaşı, Beyoğlu. Later on, in accordance with the edict of Sultan Abdülmecid (1839-1861), the house was converted into a church, called the Church of the Virgin Mary. Some sources claim that the building was an old Armenian church and had been given to the Assyrians by the Armenian patriarch.7 Metropolitan bishop Jacob also had a house built as his private residence next to the church. Soon afterwards, he purchased a small printing press and started to print the Assyrian Psalms and Gershuni books. Some of these books still exist today.8
The Church of the Virgin Mary, constructed out of wood, burned down during a fire in Beyoğlu in 1870. It was reconstructed as a brick building in 1880. When the Assyrian Orthodox population in Istanbul began to increase in the 1950s, the church proved too small to meet the demand of the congregation. As a result, it was decided to purchase the adjacent building and expand the church. The church took on its present shape after painstaking work between 1961 and 1963.9 The church, which went through renovations from 2004 to 2006, also serves as the current center for the patriarchate.10
Economic and Social Structure
After 1830, the second large wave of immigration of Assyrians to Istanbul began in the 1950s. The Assyrian population, which consisted of a few hundred people in the 1940s, today is close to 1,800 families. About 1,600 of these consist of members of the Assyrian Orthodox Church. Half of the remaining 200 families belong to the Assyrian Catholic Church, and the remaining are members of the Assyrian Chaldean Church or the Assyrian Protestant Church. When the families are divided by cities 1,100 originally came from Mardin, 400 from Diyarbakır, 200 from Adıyaman and Elazığ, and 100 from Antakya, Malatya and Siirt.11
A large portion of the Assyrian families living in Istanbul are financially comfortable. That is, 1,500 families, 84% of the Assyrians in Istanbul, are well-off, with the remaining families being in a weaker financial position.
About 90 (5%) of the families that can be considered to be extremely wealthy are families from Mardin; these families are considered to be in the highest earning bracket. About 900 families (50%), again from Mardin or Diyarbakır, are considered to be well-off.
About 1,100 (60%) of the Assyrian families in Istanbul are self-employed. In the remaining 700 families, at least one family member is employed. A large portion of the businesses that these people work in are owned by Assyrians.12 More than half (around 55%) of the Istanbul Assyrians are home owners. Around 350 Assyrian families from Mardin live in Kadıköy, Moda, Feneryolu, Göztepe, Erenköy and Suadiye. A small number of families from Midyat can also be found among this population. About 300 Assyrian families originally from Mardin and Diyarbakır live in Yeşilköy, Florya and Avcılar.
Close to 400 Assyrian families, coming from all the different regions, live in Bakırköy, Bahçelievler and Ataköy. In Kurtuluş, where a majority of Assyrians from Diyarbakır live, there are 350 Assyrians.
In the area within the walls of the city close to two hundred Assyrian families, mostly of provincial origin, live in districts such as Kumkapı, Samatya and Kocamustafapaşa.13
While the literacy rate for Istanbul Assyrians is 80%, the rate falls to 50% for Assyrians over the age of sixty.
The total percentage of Istanbul Assyrians who are university graduates or students is about 3%, or about 200 individuals.14
Assyrians in Istanbul are active in almost all occupational groups. There are more involved in jewellery, the leather trade, self-employed businessmen, textiles and ready-to-wear garments, medicine, industry, construction, dried goods, accounting and teaching.15
Yusuf Çetin has served first as Patriarcal vicar and then metropolitan bishop of the Assyrian Orthodox Church since 1986.16 Four spiritual leaders, a horiepiskopos and three priests, serve within the church. In addition to the central church, there are seven other churches belonging to other communities. There is a foundation established in 1959, the Beyoğlu Assyrian Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary. The foundation is governed by a twelve-person board of directors, elected by the community every four years.17
The center of the Assyrian Catholics in Istanbul is the church in Gümüşsuyu. In addition to this, the church in Kumkapı, belonging to the Orthodox Assyrians, also belongs to the Assyrian Catholics. Since 1985, their religious leader in Istanbul has been Patriarch Yusuf Sağ. The center for the Assyrian Chaldeans, who are a part of the Babylonian Patriarchate in Istanbul, is located in Beyoğlu. In Istanbul, their religious leader is Metropolit Joseph Pallikunnel, who was appointed to the post in 2008. In addition to these, there are also two churches in Kurtuluş and Galatasaray, where a single priest presides.18
Assyrians have a very colorful ritual tradition. Assyrian Chaldeans adhere to the decisions of the Iznik (325), Constantinople (381) and Ephesus (431) councils.19 They perform seven sacraments in the form of Holy Baptism (ma’maditho), Confirmation (murun), Oblation (kurbono), Priesthood, Marriage, Absolution and the Oil of Unction.20
The Assyrians are the only Christian sect to continue practicing worship with raka’ats (prescribed movements), qiyams (standing up), and sajdas (prostration). The spiritual leaders pray seven times a day, the congregation prays the salat (slutho) three times a day. They fast five times a year: the Ninova Fast, the Grand Fast, the Virgin Mary Fast and the Milad Fast; there are weekly fasts which are undertaken on Wednesdays and Fridays. They make pilgrimages to holy places, with Jerusalem being the most significant destination. There is no concept of giving alms; rather there is a voluntary tithes and charitable practice to help meet the expenses of the church and to assist the needy and poor. The Assyrians have festivals and holy days that commemorate Jesus, the Virgin and the saints.21
Akdemir, Samuel, İstanbul Mozaiğinde Süryaniler, Istanbul: Promat Basım Yayın, 2009.
Bar Şawme, Tuma, Dünden Bugüne İstanbul Süryanileri, Södertalje/Sweden : Nsibin Yayınevi, 1991.
Çerme, Tomas, “Surp Asdvadzadzin Ermeni-Süryani Kilisesi”, Tarih ve Toplum, 2002, vol. 34, no. 202, pp. 36-37.
Demir, Zeki, “İstanbul Süryani Ortodoks Cemaati,” http://www. suryanikadim.org/ ortodoks_cemaati.aspx.(12.12.2012).
Demir, Zeki,, “İstanbul Süryani Ortodoks Toplumu,” http://www. suryanikadim.org/ortodoks_toplumu.aspx.(13.11.2012).
Dilmener, Naim, “İstanbul Süryanileri”, http://www.reyono.net/ menu.aspx?s=14&t= abrasiye.( 13.11.2012).
Durak, Nihat, Süryaniler Açısından 451 Kadıköy Konsili, Istanbul: Rağbet Yayınları, 2012.
Durak, Nihat, Süryani Ortodoks Kilisesi’nde İbadet, Istanbul: Rağbet Yayınları, 2011.
Günel, Aziz, Türk Süryaniler Tarihi, Diyarbakır 1970.
Özcoşar, İbrahim, “19. Yüzyılda Mardin Süryanileri” (doktora tezi), Erciyes Üniversitesi, Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü, 2006.
Seyfeli, Canan, “Osmanlı Devleti’nde Gayrimüslimlerin İdari Yapısı: Süryani Kadim Kilisesi Örneği”, Süryaniler ve Süryanilik, prepared by Ahmet Taşğın, Eyyüp Tanrıverdi and Canan Seyfeli, I-IV, Istanbul: Orient Yayınları, 2005, vol. 1, pp. 251-265.
Şakarer, Truman, “Tarlabaşı Kilisesi Tarihi,” İDEM (REYONO) İstanbul Süryani Ortodoks Metropolitliği Haber ve Kültür Dergisi 2004, no. 7-8, pp. 14-19.F
2 Canan Seyfeli, “Osmanlı Devleti’nde Gayrimüslimlerin İdari Yapısı: Süryani Kadim Kilisesi Örneği”, Süryaniler ve Süryanilik, prepared by Ahmet Taşğın, Eyyüp Tanrıverdi and Canan Seyfeli, IV vol., Istanbul: Orient Yayınları, 2005, v. 1, p. 260.
3 Samuel Akdemir, İstanbul Mozaiğinde Süryaniler, Istanbul: Promat Basım Yayın, 2009, p. 92.
4 Akdemir, İstanbul Mozaiğinde Süryaniler, p. 46.
5 Aziz Günel, Türk Süryaniler Tarihi, Diyarbakır 1970, p. 35; İbrahim Özcoşar, “19. Yüzyılda Mardin Süryanileri”, Phd. dissertation, Erciyes University, 2006, p. 32.
6 Akdemir, İstanbul Mozaiğinde Süryaniler, p. 92.
7 Thomas Çerme, “Surp Asdvadzadzin Ermeni-Süryani Kilisesi”, TT, 2002, vol. 34, no. 202, p. 36.
8 Akdemir, İstanbul Mozaiğinde Süryaniler, p. 94.
9 Zeki Demir, “İstanbul Süryani Ortodoks Cemaati”, 12.12.2012, http://www.suryanikadim.org/ ortodoks_cemaati.aspx.
10 Akdemir, İstanbul Mozaiğinde Süryaniler, p. 122.
11 Tuma Bar Şawme, Dünden Bugüne İstanbul Süryanileri , Södertalje/İsveç: Nsibin Yayınevi, 1991, p. 8; Demir, “İstanbul Süryani Ortodoks Cemaati”.
12 Bar Şawme, İstanbul Süryanileri, pp. 9-10.
13 Bar Şawme, İstanbul Süryanileri, pp. 10-11.
14 Bar Şawme, İstanbul Süryanileri, pp. 11-12.
15 Demir, “İstanbul Süryani Ortodoks Cemaati”.
16 Truman Şakarer, “Tarlabaşı Kilisesi Tarihi”, İDEM (REYONO) İstanbul Süryani Ortodoks Metropolitliği Haber ve Kültür Dergisi , 2004, no. 7-8, p. 19.
17 Akdemir, İstanbul Mozaiğinde Süryaniler, p. 48; Zeki Demir, “İstanbul Süryani Ortodoks Toplumu”, 13.11.2012, http://www. suryanikadim.org/ortodoks_toplumu.aspx.
18 Bar Şawme, İstanbul Süryanileri, p. 18.
19 Nihat Durak, Süryaniler Açısından 451 Kadıköy Konsili, Istanbul: Rağbet Yayınları, 2012, p. 96.
20 Nihat Durak, Süryani Ortodoks Kilisesi’nde İbadet, Istanbul: Rağbet Yayınları, 2011, p. 166.
21 Durak, Süryani Ortodoks Kilisesi’nde İbadet, pp. 106-111.