Assyrians Celebrate Their New Year In Qamishli, Syria


The embattled Assyrian community in the city of Qamishli in northeast Syria celebrates its New Year's Day, also known as Akitu.

The city of Qamishli in northeast Syria witnessed widespread celebrations marking Akitu, also known as the Assyrian New Year. The day, which is considered the apex of the 12 day New Year period in the Assyrian and Babylonian calendars, is set to the vernal equinox that is also marked by other, more widespread celebrations such as Nowrouz.

Although presently linked with the culture and religion of the ancient Assyrian Empire, the origins of Akitu goes back to the ancient Babylonian Empire. It was initially dedicated to the victory of the Babylonian deity Marduk (sometimes known with other, more localised names such as Sirianatum) over Tiamat, a representation of order winning over primordial chaos. These motifs persist even to this day, with Akitu being viewed as an emergence from the harsh winter seasons into the seasons of spring and summer and associated with the more modern, Abrahamic concepts of good and evil.

Although the modern Assyriac community is Christian, these ancient rituals have survived over the millennia, taking on new identities but remaining the same at the core, including the 12-day period of prayers and preparations leading up to the new year’s feast. Indeed, in the celebrations in Qamishli, traditional dances and costumes were in full display, alongside the more modern hallmarks of the Assyrian culture.

The display of Assyrian cultural symbols in Qamishli is also meant to express solidarity and resistance against the challenges their community faces. The Assyrian community in Syria suffered immensely over the past years under ISIS, and were persecuted even before then under the Ba’athist Government of Bashar al-Assad. Many of the Assyrians today, represented by the Syriac Union Party, have sided with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Like the city of Qamishli, however, the Assyrian community remains divided, with a significant chunk of Assad loyalists.

Tensions with Turkey also weigh heavily in the minds of the locals. The many slogans and posters around the city show that the events in Afrin have clearly rattled the community here. Indeed, the city sits right along the Turkish border and witnessed firsthand the heavy fighting between the Turkish Armed Forces and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in 2015 that left the city of Nusaybin on the Turkish side virtually in ruins.

One can hope that the new year here can herald an emergence from the chaos of the conflict that raged across Syria for the past seven years.