Babylonia assimilated the Chaldean people and absorbed their country in the sixth century BC.
Chaldea had come into being between the late 10th and early 9th centuries BC. Abraham, father of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths, was a Chaldean from Ur.
In this article, we’ll look at the history and religion of the Chaldean people.
Who Were the Chaldeans?
The Chaldeans also spell the name of their land Chaldaea, (Babylonian) Kasdu, (Assyrian) Kaldu, (Hebrew) Kasddim. Early documents refer to the same area as “Sealand.” It’s the first mention of Chaldea in the annals of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II.
The Chaldeans lived in Mesopotamia, in Southern Babylonia, in the first millennium BC. They made their home in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, which is in the southern part of present-day Iraq. Shalmaneser III of Assyria raided Chaldea in 850 BC, reaching reached as far as the Persian Gulf, which he called the Sea of Kaldu. The Chaldean Marduk-apla-iddina II, the ruler of Bit-Yakin, seized the Babylonian throne from Sargon II in 721. Despite Assyrian opposition, he held it from 721 to 710.
This ancient people group pre-date Israel. Apart from the Abraham story, they pop up in the Bible again and again. For example, they were part of the army of Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon, which he used to surround Jerusalem in 2 Kings 25. Nebuchadnezzar may have been of partial Chaldean descent himself. The Book of Daniel calls Belshazzar, often portrayed as the son of Nebuchadnezzar, the “King of the Chaldeans.”
The Bible describes the Chaldeans as intelligent, influential, and educated. The Chaldeans were also one of the groups that raided Job, killed his servants, and stole his livestock. The Bible prophesied their destruction in the Book of Jeremiah.
The Chaldeans kicked off a dynasty that would create the neo-Babylonian Empire. This dynasty ruled from about 625 BC until 538 BC, when the Persian King Cyrus the Great invaded.
These ancient Chaldeans were intelligent but warlike and aggressive: a highly-educated and influential group at the height of the Babylonian Empire.
– Who are the Chaldeans Today?
Chaldeans today are Aramaic-speaking, Eastern Rite Catholics. They numbered around 400,000 in 2016, down from 550,000 in 2008 and 1.4 million in 2003. All Iraqi Christians were under attack by Sunni extremists, who unleashed terrorism against their churches and communities in the wake of the 2003 Gulf War invasion.
The best-known Iraqi Chaldean Catholic may have been Tariq Aziz, the Foreign Minister, and Deputy Prime Minister during Saddam Hussein’s reign.
An estimated 500,000 Chaldeans/Assyrians live throughout the United States. Michigan, California, Arizona, and Illinois have the most significant numbers. Their population experiences constant growth because of the continuous flood of Christian refugees. Christians are still fleeing Iraq due to religious persecution.
The modern-day Chaldeans continue to form the most prominent Christian group in Iraq. Their numbers in that country have shrunk in recent years because of displacement and religious violence. These factors have led to western migration, although Iraq still has the largest Chaldean population globally. Chaldeans also comprise the largest non-Muslim ethnic group in the American diaspora.
Many Chaldeans object when people call them Arabs, and they do have their own identities. They speak Aramaic rather than Arabic, and they’re Christian rather than Muslim. Aramaic is the Semitic language spoken by Jesus Christ when he preached in Galilee. It is the oldest continuously spoken language in the world. The Chaldeans’ history and culture also make them distinct. They tend to classify themselves as Catholic Iraqis or “Middle Eastern,” which is not cultural but geographic.
Yet, the Iraqi government defines them as Arab. Baghdad has a Sunni-Arab regime, and the government seems to want the Chaldeans to identify with it. In Northern Iraq, Christians fall into two groups. One can be either “Assyrian” or “Chaldean” for census and administrative purposes. There is a movement within the two communities to unite for administrative purposes.
Many people calling themselves “Chaldean” still live in Syria and the surrounding regions. Latin Romans often bought Chaldean slaves for their European villas during the time of the Roman Empire. Afterward, their freed descendants settled nearby.
The Chaldean People
They experienced genocide by the Ottoman Empire in the First World War and the Simele Massacre in Iraq in 1933. They also went through the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Then they faced Arab Nationalist Baathist policies in Syria and Iraq and the Al-Anfal Campaign of Saddam Hussein. The Kurdish Nationalist policies in northern Iraq caused even more Chaldean bloodshed.
Those who remain in Iraq report feeling bitter, abandoned, and helpless. Some are wary of neighbors. These neighbors had once shared feasts and religious celebrations, Christian and Muslim alike.
They were among the first group targeted in the sectarian bloodbath. For years after the 2003 US-led invasion, this violence prevailed, and kidnappings, bombings, and killings became an everyday occurrence. Sometimes there were several incidents on the same day.
Chaldeans comprise less than ten percent of the population of Iraq. Yet, Chaldean Americans form the bulk of Iraqi immigrants living in the United States.
Still, they are religious people proud of their Christian heritage. Telkaif is one of several Christian towns in the northern Iraqi province of Mosul. It lies near the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh. Over 95 percent of Chaldeans in Detroit can trace their origins to Telkaif.
Chaldeans, like many other ethnic groups, agonize over the continuance of their religion and identity. They are also desperate to preserve their culture and language. They have the task of keeping tradition and uniqueness alive in foreign lands. It’s difficult because of the significant reduction in their homeland population. Some people think that getting married to non-Chaldeans will dilute their heritage.
Through it all, Chaldean Catholic bishops have encouraged their people to persevere. They have admonished the people to hold on to their faith and identity.
– Early Waves of Immigration
The first known Chaldean immigrant to the US was Zia Attalah in 1889. He worked in a hotel in Philadelphia, then returned to Iraq, where he opened his own. Then, in the 1920s, many Chaldeans, lured by Henry Ford’s $5 workday, migrated to Detroit. The city was a natural choice since it already had Arabic-speaking Lebanese and Syrian immigrant communities.
The 1960s and 1970s produced the most significant wave of Chaldeans as US immigration laws became less strict. Chaldeans also live in Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Turkey, and the European Union countries. The most recent arrivals are escaping religious persecution.
Chaldeans are still hoping that religious persecution will go away. Many want to be able to return to their native land.
Are Chaldean Christians Distinct from Other Groups?
Religion has much significance in Chaldean society and is responsible for the name of the ethnic group and the people’s identity. No separation between church and state exists with Chaldeans because while they have a church of their own, they have no state. The Church of the East of the Chaldeans plays a considerable role in their daily lives. Their faith and unique culture bind them.
Chaldeans are followers of an independent Catholic church. It is an Eastern Catholic particular church in full communion with the Holy See and the rest of the Catholic Church. It preserves a distinctive liturgy and ritual while acknowledging the Pope’s authority. The base for their spiritual leader, known as the Patriarch of Babylon, is in Baghdad.
About 80 percent of Iraqi Christians are Chaldean Catholics. The other Christian groups consist of Armenians, Syriacs, Arab Christians, and Assyrians.
The Chaldean religion has been present in Iraq since the second century AD. At first, it comprised members of the Church of the East (also known as the Nestorian Church). Nestorians believe that Jesus Christ has two natures: mortal and divine. The Church of the East came into being in Mesopotamia in the first century AD.
The church’s territory fell under the rule of the Persian Empire and split from the Holy See in the early fifth century.
– The Chaldean Designation
The church now follows the Chaldean Rite, also known as the East Syrian Rite. Their liturgical practices have a historical association with the Assyrian Church. The Chaldean Rite grew out of the Jerusalem-Antioch liturgy. Pope Eugenius IV was the first to use the term “Chaldean” in 1445 to distinguish those members of the Assyrian Church of the East in Cyprus. Their patriarch had just converted to Catholicism.
In the two centuries before this event, the Chaldeans held several meetings with the Latin Church. Thus, Chaldeans enjoyed short periods of communion or near communion with Rome. Pope Innocent IV sent Dominican missionaries to meet with the East Syriac patriarch. The Bishop of Cyprus established the first official East Syriac union with the Holy See in 1445. This event took place at the Council of Florence with the support of the Latin archbishop of Rhodes, Andreas of Colossae, OP.
A century later, in 1551, Patriarch John Sulaka went to Rome and made his profession of the Catholic faith. The church referred to those Nestorians who became Catholic as “Chaldeans” from that period onward. It made other attempts at unions in 1672, 1771, and 1778.
The present-day continuous line of “Patriarchs of Babylonia” started in 1830. Then Chaldeans broke away from the Ancient Assyrian Church of the East because of long-running dynastic battles.
Until the 1950s, the Mosul Plain had always been the center of Chaldean life. Seventy percent of Iraqi Christians lived in and around Mosul in 1932. By 1957 only 47 percent remained there. The situation deteriorated over the next 50 years. It led to the abduction of the Chaldean Catholic archbishop in Mosul in February 2008. He was found dead the following month.
Where are the Chaldean Churches?
According to the Book of Acts, at Pentecost, the people present at Pentecost were from areas where the Church of the East eventually flourished. “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia,” says the Bible. According to tradition, Thomas (the Doubter) was the first of Jesus’ apostles to preach in Mesopotamia. Thus, the church can trace its roots to Mar Mari and Mar Addai, both disciples of Thomas.
The headquarters of the Chaldean Church is in Baghdad. It has dioceses, or eparchies, around the world. Iraq is home to 110 Chaldean churches, more than 60 of which extremists have bombed since 2003, resulting from the insurgency and anti-Christian sentiment that still exists.
The largest population of Chaldeans outside the Middle East is in Michigan, USA. Their cathedral is Mother of God, located in Southfield, Michigan, in the Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle.
El Cajon, a city about ten miles inland from San Diego, CA, also has a large Chaldean population. The community, which is about 15,000 strong, has made its mark on the city. Chaldeans living in El Cajon own clothing stores, restaurants, corner markets, and jewelry shops catering to their community. El Cajon also has Chaldean churches and schools and a radio station. The Chaldean population in the East County of San Diego is 60,000.
Which Is the Real Chaldean Country?
The ethnic and linguistic identity of Chaldeans is Assyrian. The Catholic Chaldeans originate from central historical Assyria and the Nineveh Plains. They inhabited the modern-day Nineveh Province near the ruins of the ancient Assyrian capitals of Nimrud and Nineveh. Assyrian Christians, who are not Catholic, do not recognize the primacy of the Pope.
Nowadays, one can find Chaldeans occupying high government positions. Many are also technocrats and businesspeople. Still, on a recent visit to Iraq, Pope Francis said that the country’s Christians should have a more significant role in public life. He added that Iraq’s diversity was “a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to eliminate.”
The Pope later said Mass at Baghdad’s Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation. Jihadists had targeted that church in an attack in 2010 that left 52 Christians and police officers dead.
Chaldean Ethnicity: Are Chaldeans Assyrian or Not?
Iraqis sometimes have heated debates about the actual identity of Chaldeans/Assyrians/Syriacs. Some writers think that they are all descendants of one ethnic group. In contrast, others believe that they are several groups with different identities.
Chaldeans only classify themselves as “Assyrian” or “Chaldean.” And how do other people from the regions from which they originate see themselves? They tend to fall into groups such as white (Caucasian) or Middle Eastern.
Yet, Chaldeans like to maintain an identity that’s distinct from the Assyrians. In the year 2000, the US Census Bureau moved to lump the two together under the same ancestry code. Some Assyrian-Americans took umbrage that they were to get co-billing with the Chaldeans. They see Chaldean Christians as a religious subgroup. The Assyrians even sued over the issue.
As an ethnic group, Chaldeans are aware of their heritage. It doesn’t stop them from assimilating into the wider society. This is particularly true of the more recent immigrants to the United States. They are more likely to seek jobs outside their communities than their ancestors 100 years ago. They are also more willing to seek loans from traditional agencies such as banks and credit unions. The first generation of immigrants was more comfortable borrowing from family members.
The Chaldean language, neo-Aramaic, is spoken throughout a large region. Speakers go from the Nineveh Plains in Northern Iraq to parts of southeastern Turkey. Linguists consider the language to be a dialect of Assyrian neo-Aramaic. Chaldean communities in many other countries, including Australia and Turkey, speak the language.
Neo-Aramaic speakers also live in Belgium, Lebanon, and Germany. You’ll also find them in Sweden, the Netherlands, Syria, and the USA. Chaldean neo-Aramaic resembles the Assyrian tribal dialects of the Hakkari Province.
Chaldean neo-Aramaic is a member of the Aramaic branch of Semitic languages. Each village that speaks the language has its dialect. Chaldeans write in the “madnhaya” version of the Syriac alphabet, also used for Classical Syriac. Most speakers are members of the Chaldean Catholic Church.
Chaldeans use Classical Aramaic in their liturgy. The vernacular neo-Aramaic is for home and daily life. Aramaic has an alphabet of 22 letters and is the mother tongue from which Arabic and Hebrew are derived. Chaldeans educated in Iraq also read and speak Arabic. Many Chaldean-Americans are tri-lingual, understanding Chaldean, English, and Arabic. Many families also speak Spanish, having settled in Mexico on their way to the US.
Modern Chaldean History
The newest wave of immigrants sometimes has to deal with Islamophobia in the US. They were at pains to emphasize a Christian identity. So, they’ve appropriated the pre-Islamic history of their ancient namesake. It helps others to distinguish between them and other immigrants from Arab lands.
Chaldean history spans several millennia, going as far back as biblical times. The modern Chaldeans may or may not be descendants of the ancients. A 15th-century pope designated them as such because he wanted to distinguish them from another ethnic group.
The modern Chaldean population is dwindling fast in its native Iraq. Chaldeans have faced persecution, but there is hope. With ISIS weakened, Chaldeans may soon be able to return home. Many are looking forward to rebuilding their homes, their churches, and their lives.