History of Modern Assyrian Music

Zeitoune Abboud

1.Pre-Christian Music

In all stages of world history music has played an important role in the life of societies. It was performed as part of processions, religious rituals and in military affairs. Over the millennia, many nations developed their own music. This included the invention and development of musical instruments and performances. The development in Mesopotamia had a significant influence on the music of the Near and Middle East, and later on the entire Western world. In this region the first instruments were invented as early as 3,000 BCE.

In his book “The Music of the Sumerian and their immediate Successors the Babylonians and Assyrians” Francis W. Galpin stated that “in treating of the arts of the Sumerians we must bear in mind that, although we are speaking of days nearly five thousand years ago, we are not face to face with a “primitive” race in the accepted meaning of that word. When the curtain rises during the fourth millennium B.C. we are introduced to a highly cultured and artistic people…”[1]

The Sumerians also provided the basis for the further development of music of the whole Near East. Music has had an important role in the Mesopotamian civilization. Scenes with musicians and their instruments are visible on many stone and clay tablets. Besides writing, school pupils were also taught music theory and the playing of musical instruments.

The Assyrians as the successors of the Sumerians adapted their heritage as Carl Engel stated in his book[2]. However the focus of my book is not the music of the pre-Christian era. There are many publications which describe this period extensively.

Modern Assyrian music traces its origin to several millennia of tradition. Musicians and their appropriate instruments can be observed on stone reliefs from the ancient civilizations of Sumer, Babylon and Ashur. At that time, music was used for celebrations like the Akitu festival, which is the New Year festival that takes place from March 21st to April 1st.

2.     Music of the Syrian Church

The aforementioned kind of music performance was thought to have come with the appearance of Christianity into the Assyrian culture, but many well-known musicians and scholars say otherwise. Gabriel Asaad, Pol Mikhael, George Chachan and Nuri Iskandar, all four outstanding composers of the present, maintain that modern composition has its roots in pre-Christian music and has been preserved through Church hymns.

The introduction of modern folk music met with opposition within the Church. A sound justification for this position has not been delivered. The main argument was that the holy language in which Jesus Christ spoke will be desecrated. In my research into this matter I found an interesting fact in the Syriac version of the holy Bible.  

The Epistle to the Galatians or Paul’s letter to the Galatians stated in Chapter 5 (verse 19-21) “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”[3]

In the Syriac Bible (Peshitta-Version) the same part is written as follow:

ܚܣܳܡܳܐ ܩܶܛܠܳܐ ܪܰܘܳܝܽܘܬ݂ܳܐ ܙܡܳܪܳܐ ܘܟ݂ܽܠ ܕܰܠܗܳܠܶܝܢ ܕܳܡܶܝܢ ܘܰܐܝܠܶܝܢ ܕܗܳܠܶܝܢ ܣܳܥܪܺܝܢ ܐܰܝܟ ܕܡܶܢ ܠܶܘܩܕܰܡ ܐܶܡܪܶܬ݂ ܠܟ݂ܽܘܢ ܐܳܦ݂ ܗܳܫܳܐ ܐܳܡܰܪ ܐܢܳܐ ܕܡܰܠܟܽܘܬ݂ܶܗ ܕܐܠܳܗܳܐ ܠܳܐ ܝܳܪܬܺܝܢ

In the Syriac translation the word ܙܡܪܐ (Zmoro/Zmara) is used for revellings. Zmoro stands definitely for singing in the Syriac language.

One other passage from the Bible is the First Epistle of Peter (chapter 4/verse 3): “For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries”. The Syriac translation of this verse is:

ܣܳܦ݂ܶܩ ܓܶܝܪ ܙܰܒ݂ܢܳܐ ܗܰܘ ܕܰܥܒ݂ܰܪ ܕܰܦ݂ܠܰܚܬܽܘܢ ܒܶܗ ܨܶܒ݂ܝܳܢܳܐ ܕܚܰܢܦ݂ܶܐ ܒܳܐܣܽܘܜܽܘܬ݂ܳܐܘܒ݂ܪܰܘܳܝܽܘܬ݂ܳܐ ܘܰܒܨܰܚܢܽܘܬ݂ܳܐ ܘܒ݂ܰܙܡܳܪܳܐ ܘܰܒ݂ܦ݂ܽܘܠܚܳܢܳܐ ܕܫܺܐܕܶܐ

Also in this statement the word Zmoro/Zmara is used for revellings. Music as a word is found in other passages of the Bible. In Syriac language Music is translated as Qolo d-Zmoro (Tones of singing)[4].

This translation leads to the possible conclusion that beside festivities and revellings music also belonged to profane rites. Many scholars argue that the banning of music (i.e. singing with musical accompaniments) by the early Church was based on efforts for the disentanglement from profane rituals. They wanted to renounce old rites like sacrificial feasts[5].

The reasons for the usage of the term “Zmoro” in the Syriac version of the Bible are not very clear and require deeper research. Even the original manuscripts in Greek and Hebrew speak about revellings or orgies[6]. There are two possible explanations for this discrepancy:

  • At the time of the translation there was a common understanding of this term in connection with revellings or orgies. So everybody understood its nuance in this context. However, through time, this contextualised nuance was lost to the subsequent generations.
  • The bible translators used this term consciously for a clear renouncement of old, profane music rites. It was common in pre-Christianity to sing and dance while celebrating pagan gods. Idolatry is definitely condemned in several Bible verses.

The above listed Bible verses are seen as a rule of thumb in several treatises of early Church fathers. In a detailed consideration it is remarkably evident that until today there is not a strong connection between Music and the Church. In the Syrian Orthodox Church, Hymns (Qole) are chanted without the accompaniment of any music (Zmoro). The hymns chanted nowadays were mostly introduced in to the liturgy of the Syrian Church in the 2nd and the 4th century by Bardaisan and Mor Ephrem, respectively.

The attitude of the early Church Fathers towards music was always very restrictive. This was the main view of the eastern as well as the western Church. The sense of sin took on a new intensity with the belief that all mankind had been tainted by Adam’s fall, and that soon the world would end in a judgment of eternal punishment or reward. Many Christians were absorbed in the effort to come cleansed to that dreaded assize; they saw a lure of Satan in every pleasure of the senses, denounced the “world and the flesh,” and sought to subdue desire with fasts and varied chastisements. They looked with suspicion upon music, white bread, foreign wines, warm baths, or shaving the beard- which seemed to flout the evident will of God[7].

Aphrahat (ca. 270 – ca. 345 AD) is one of the early Syrian Church Fathers and originated from Nineveh (Mosul). There are not many known details about his life. He had close connections to ascetic-monastic circles of the Syrian Church. He was an abbot of a monastery and later became a bishop. He composed a series of twenty-three expositions or homilies (Demonstrations) on points of Christian doctrine and practices[8]. In the first demonstration “On Faith” he wrote in paragraph 19 “…And (it is necessary) that a man should separate himself from… magic, from fornication and from festive music, from vain doctrines, which are instruments of the Evil One…”[9]

“Yobal and Tubal-Cain, the two brethren, the sons of Lamech, the blind man, who killed Cain, invented and made all kinds of instruments of music. Jobal made reed instruments, and harps, and flutes, and whistles, and the devils went and dwelt inside them. When men blew into the pipes, the devils sang inside them, and sent out sounds from inside them. Tubal-Cain made cymbals, and sistra, and tambourines (or drums). And lasciviousness and fornication increased among the children of Cain, and these had nothing to occupy them except fornication – now they had neither prince nor governor – and eating, and drinking, and lasciviousness, and drunkenness, and dancing and singing to instruments of music, and the wanton sportings of the devils, and the laughter which affordeth pleasure to the devils, and the sounds of the furious lust of men neighing after women.”

In a work which is accredited to Mor Ephrem, the Cave of Treasures (Mcarath gaze) the invention of musical instruments is mentioned. The English translation of the Syriac manuscripts was published by E. A. Wallis Budge in 1927. The following is written about music and musical instruments[10]

Mor Ignatious Afram Barsoum I (1887–1957) Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch (1932-1957) lists in his extensive survey of Syriac literature three reasons for introducing Music (Singing or Melodies/Hymns) into the Church[11]:

  1. To combat the hymns of heathens and heretics by which they tried to corrupt the doctrine and the morals of youth they counteracted by composing lucid, moralistic and religious hymns which destroyed the corrupting poetry.
  • To assist in energizing the people to worship God and drive away boredom during the long services.
  • To stimulate the senses in order to realize the meaning of prayer.

Usually when worshippers sing or listen to the chanting of prayers they can more easily comprehend the meaning of what they chant.

The second and third reason is also mentioned by Gregorius Bar Hebraeus (1226-1286), an outstanding scholar of the Syrian Orthodox Church.  He compares the tolerability of the long prayer time with the impact of songs or music for camels. Thus camels are able to bear their load longer while hearing the singing of the camel driver[12].

Most of early Christian Hymns were composed by Assyrian Converts who were highly learned classes of the Assyrian nation. They were either priests or high priests, or sons of the priests, such as St. Ephrem. It was required from them to be well acquainted with the temple music, and so when they converted to Christianity, they carried with them, the ancient Assyrian temple music and hymns into Assyrian or Syrian Christian Church, after having changed the heathen texts of the songs to Christian poetry and theology[13].

The implementation of music or rather introduction of Hymns and singing into the Syrian Church was introduced, especially, by the scholar Bardaisan (154-222 AD) and later by his son Harmonios. They introduced the music of their times into the church and developed what became the current Church hymns.

Taking many melodies of Bardaisan, Mor Ephrem (306-373 AD) established mixed Church choirs. These hymns were documented within the Beth Gazo, commonly known as “The Treasury of Chants”, which is used as the Church hymnal book. The Beth Gazo uses the modal system of music consisting of eight ecclesiastical modes. A Church cleric (i.e. priest, deacon, and singer) would need to master the modal system in order to perform his or her liturgical duties.

The texts of introduced hymns (melodies) were written without musical notation and were passed orally from one generation to another. Today, apart from sermons, all prayers are sung in the form of chants and melodies. Since a musical notation system was not developed in the Syriac tradition, the melodies were transmitted down the ages as oral tradition. As a result, a few schools of music emerged, most notably Mardin, Edessa, Tur Abdin, and Kharput, to name a few. Thousands of tunes and melodies were in use in the past, most of which are unfortunately lost. Yet about seven hundred melodies remain and are preserved in the Treasury of melodies known in Syriac as Beth Gazo[14]. Therefore the early Assyrian Church music has lost a huge part of its originality due to lack of musical notations as well as proper musical training. The first authentic music notation of Church hymns was not printed until the late 20th century[15].

In spite of the introduction of Church hymns and choirs the negative attitude to music and festivities remained. In Edessa a spring festival was celebrated by a public display of dancing and singing, until this was prohibited by the decree of Anastasius in 502 (Byzantine emperor from 491 to 518). Some years later the known Church father Jacob of Serug (ca. 451–521) stated that the blessed city of Edessa became clean from weeds[16].

The known scholar and father of the Syrian Orthodox Church Dionysius (Yaqob) Bar Salibi (+1171), bishop and Metropolitan of Marash and later Amid (today Diyarbakir) made a statement about how the Church dealt with music of this time. In his Treatise against the Melchites[17] he answered a letter of a converted monk named Isho[18]. In Chapter V:” On how tones and melodies do not bring any profit to those who sing them and those who hear them” he described the Church view of his time.  

In connection with the usage of music Bar Salibi quotes the Bible verse of (Isaiah 58; 1):

 Cry with thy throat, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet and show my people their transgression, and the children of Israel their sins.” From this view he continues:

“It is not good to forsake the words of God and do good worldly service at the altar.

You see how the Prophets and the Apostles exhort us to read, interpret, preach and teach the mysteries of the faith, and convert anyone who is against us, and not to sing and to contrive musical melodies like sirens, nor to bray like asses, nor to utter sweet sounds like nightingales, nor to sing like swans, nor to coo like doves, nor should we institute to-day a feast for so-and-so, and tomorrow another feast for so-and-so, and in this open our stomachs to excessive food, and broaden our gullets to drink, and thus pander to the proclivities of our alimentary desires and minister to occasions of sin and say :

“To-day is a feast; we must therefore eat and drink”. His final conclusion is the following: To pagans belong festivities, songs, dances, banquets and drink, and to Christians fasting, prayer, and reading of scripture. In their festivities the Greeks resemble, therefore, those who are outside our sheepfold”.

Chorepiscopos Dr. Emanuel Aydin, priest of the Syrian Orthodox Church and author of several books count two formative canon laws within his Church from the 13th century till 1929[19]. These are the canons of Gregorios Bar Ebroyo (“Hudoyo” or rather Nomocanon) and the canon law of Dionysius Bar Salibi. Paragraph 66 of Bar Salibi’s canon Law prosecutes “provocative behaviour by dancing and singing”[20].

He determines also the punishment for this offence:

  • Two months uncoupled from sacraments;
  • Two months fasting;
  • 40 knee bends daily;
  • ½ gold dinar as donation.
  • For deacons the double penalty was arranged.
  • Priests were in case of this offence three years prohibited to attend the Holy Communion; three years fasting, daily 50 knee bends and had to donate one gold dinar.

There are also clues about the prohibition of music and dance in the Eastern-Church. One of the rules decided on the synod in 576 under Patriarch Ezekiel was that Christian women should not sing secular songs[21].

Audisho Bar Brikha (+1318) has a similar status like Bar Salibi for his Church (Apostolic Church of the East). He was the Metropolitan of Nisibis and Armenia. His Collection of Synodical Canons was recognized as an authoritative collection of laws for the Church of the East at the Synod of Patriarch Mar Timateos II in 1318. In the 18th canon Bar Brikha stated that it is not lawful for Christians to converse with women musicians and to drink with them[22]. Nineb Lamassu analysed this in his article on the female voice in the Rawe folk songs, and concluded through a linguistic scrutiny of the Rawe songs, that there were many female singers at that time[23].

The above described canons are not removed from the Church but with time they became obsolete. Nowadays nobody will be punished because of attending a Linda George party and talking to her.

The ban of secular music existed contrary to the (European) Western Church until modern times. The reasons may lay in continuous persecution and decimation of the Assyrians since the 13th century by the rulers of their region (Mongols, Turks and Arabs). An exception could be seen in the singing tradition of the inaccessible mountain regions of the Tiyari, Tkhuma and Berwari Tribes. They were able to preserve different kind of singing like Rawe until modern times.

The roots of the Syrian church music lay in the pre-christian era in Mesopotamia. By establishing the church the Akkadian seven-tune-scale was transmitted. The Syriac tone ladder has eight different tunes (see figure 03)[24]. This is also the basis for oriental music of Today.

The rhythms can be simple or compound and the melodies show great variety, being reflected in folk music

Church music compositions stopped around the seventh century. This rich heritage was also the basis for the Arabic music. They transmitted during the ninth century A.D., the Assyrian lyrical music known by the name of Al-Muwashahat (Mushhotho in Syriac) by the Assyrian Ibrahim Al-Mousali and his son Ishak (767-850 A.D.). Also the famous melodies of Baghdad (Mawalat) derived from Assyrian music tradition. The Arabs spread afterwards this tradition in their regions and also in Europe (Iberian Peninsula).[25]

[1] Galpin, Francis W. (1937): The Music of the Sumerian and their immediate Successors the Babylonians and Assyrians, page 1

[2] Engel, Carl (1864): The Music of the Most Ancient Nations, London.

[3] The Holy Bible, King James Version.

[4] For example Luke chapter 15 verse 25.

[5] A detailed description of the former view, with many citations can be found in an article by Ashby L. Camp (Music in Christian Worship) from 2006.

[6] This check was done after a request of the author by Nineb Lamassu, Hebrew and Semitic Studies (Cambridge University).

[7] Durant, Will (1944): Caesar and Christ, the Story of Civilization, New York, page 602

[8] The main print of the Syriac text and Latin translation by Jean Parisot (1894).

[9] English translation taken from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/370101.htm. For Syriac check the German part of this book.

[10] Budge, E. A. Wallis (1927): The Book of the Cave of Treasure, London, page 87.

[11] Barsoum, Afram I. The Scattered Pearls: History of Syriac Literature and Sciences, Gorgias Press, Translated by Matti Moosa (2005). page 56-57

[12] Gregorius Bar Hebreaus (1279): Ethicon – Christian Ethics (Morals). Arabic translation by Mar Gregorius Paulos Behnam 1967 (Baghdad), page 139

[13] Sawme, Abrohom Gabriel /Basim A.G. Sawme (1990): Mardutho d Suryoye, Volume XI, Sao Paulo, page 111

[14] Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim/George Kiraz (2010), Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, Vol. 2.1, 47.–56 and Poetry and Music of the Syrian Orthodox Church on http://sor.cua.edu/Music/index.html (Syriac Orthodox Resources).

[15] See chapter Assyrian Music Notation. The work of Nuri Iskandar is commended as an authentic record of this heritage. He published two books with Beth-Gazo Notation (1992/1996 and 2003).

[16] Segal, J.B. (1970/2001): Edessa – The blessed city, Gorgias Press, page 106ff.

[17] Denomination of church members of the Byzantine ritus or rather a part which split from the east church since the synod of Chalcedon (451). Today there exist two traditions (orthodox and catholic).

[18] Mingana, Alphonse (1927): Christian Documents in Syriac, Arabic and Garshuni, Volume I, Cambridge, page 36ff. The printed Syriac manuscript is dated from 1183 (Greek 1494).

[19] Aydin, Emanuel (1993), Das Strafrecht der Syrisch-Orthodoxen Kirche (Hirmo), Vienna, page 2.

[20] Ibid. 39 (English translation by the author).

[21] Malech, George David (1910): History of the Syrian Nation and the old Evangelical-Apostolic Church of the East, Minneapolis, page 192-193.

[22] Bar Brikha, Mar Audisho, The Concise Collection of Synodical Canons (Chicago: Atour Publication, 2006), page 183.

[23] Lamassu, Nineb (2009): The Female Voice in Rāwe: The Strive for Gender Equality, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, Vol. 23, no. 2, 2009

[24] Asaad, Gabriel (1990): Al Musiqa Al-Suriya Caber Al-Tarikh, page 19-21

[25] Sawme, Abrohom Gabriel /Basim A.G. Sawme (1989): Mardutho d Suryoye, Volume X, Sao Paulo, page VIII

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