Adam Becker on Assyrians, Evangelicals, and Borderland Nationalism

This episode is cross-listed at Ottoman History Podcast. 

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.

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.
“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.




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.



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


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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.


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