The views expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.
By Marcus Yalcin Beth Shao
Dear reader, I would like to congratulate you with Akitu – Ha b’Nison, the beginning of the New Year as celebrated in Beth Nahrin (Mesopotamia) and other places around the world.
Akitu is the Sumerian–Akkadian word for ‘head of the year’ and is derived from the Sumerian for ‘barley’. The word originally marked two festivals celebrating the beginning of each of the two half-years of the Sumerian calendar divided by the sowing of barley in autumn and the cutting of barley in spring. It became a spring festival, celebrated in ancient Beth Nahrin by several dynasties, empires, and peoples. As far as we know, it started in the earliest Beth Nahrin city-states of Sumer and Akkad to mark the rebirth of nature in the spring, the reestablishment of kingships by divine authority, and the securing of the life and destiny of the people for the coming year.
Other civilizations, such as the Indus, Persian, and Indian, also celebrate the new year between the end of March and the beginning of April. Well known spring festivals are Newroz — traditionally celebrated by Kurds, Persian speaking peoples, and Central Asian Turkic peoples, Diwali and Holi-Phagwa — celebrated by Hindus and other religious groups in India.
The mighty Babylonian and Assyrian empires incorporated Akitu as they succeeded each other and saw themselves as the successors of Sumer and Akkad. In the Babylonian religion, it came to be dedicated to Marduk’s victory over Tiamat. Akitu has played a pivotal role in the development of theories of religion, myth, and rituals. Although these empires eventually fell, the descendants of the native Babylonians, Assyrians, and Arameans continued to celebrate Akitu until this day.
The Meaning of Akitu Today
Although the exact origin of Akitu is still a subject of debate among historians and Assyriologists, the Syriac people inherited this feast from their Aramean, Babylonian, and Assyrian ancestors. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to understand the meaning of Akitu as this day brings us closer to our ancient Mesopotamian roots. Since the Syriac people are the direct descendants of different empires and ethnic groups of Anatolia and Beth Nahrin, Akitu can be seen as a festival for all Syriacs, without discrimination among the various lines of churches.
As I have stated above, the Syriac people are the descendants of the old empires and peoples of Beth Nahrin and have the privilege of being the inheritors of old traditions and rituals. This is crucial for the nation building process of the Syriac people which is ongoing.
Some may say, “We are predominantly a Christian people and therefore we do not need a pre-Christian ‘pagan’ feast in our lives” or “Let Akitu be celebrated by the Assyrians and Chaldeans, why should I celebrate it?”. But, in my opinion, these arguments are harmful.
Every people, nation, and ethnic group has its own traditions, cultural codes, festivals, and commemorations. The Syriac nation is no exception. Many ancient feasts have withstood the test of time and have adapted when its celebrators adopted a new religion or other form of identification. For example, while many Kurds and Iranians became Muslims, they still celebrate Newroz. These feasts form an important cultural meaning in the contemporary collective identity and are crucial in the social fabric of these peoples. Akitu is no exception to this phenomenon.
By stating that Akitu is only to be celebrated by the members of one or two Syriac denominations, the nation is being divided and people alienated from their ancient roots. No nation can survive without her ancient roots and no people can survive without common heritage!
On the positive side, our people in Beth Nahrin are taking guardianship over the Akitu feast. Despite numerous tragedies, protracted wars, and persecution by the Islamic State, Syriacs will remain. The celebration of Akitu on the 1st of April is a part of this.
In the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) for example, Akitu will be celebrated in Zalin (Qamishlo) and Hassake where still a sizable Syriac community lives. The Syriac Military Council (MFS) and Khabour Guards will provide security for the festivals. Equally important is that Akitu is recognized as a holiday by the AANES in Gozarto Region. The free celebration of Akitu highlights the existence, perseverance, and revival of the Syriac nation!
So, even if you don’t celebrate Akitu – Ha b’Nison, let’s embrace it as our common ancestral heritage and one of the national holidays in respect for everyone that does celebrate Akitu.