Today marks the beginning of the three-day Fast of Nineveh, Bā’ūṯā d-Nīnwāyē in Syriac, which translates literally as the “Petition of the Ninevites.” It is typically referred to by Assyrians as the “Rogation,” a term associated with Christian days of ritual fasting and prayer derived from the Latin term rogare, “to ask.”
The Fast of Nineveh harkens back to the events associated with the Hebrew Prophet Jonah’s divinely inspired (or, more precisely, commanded) mission to the Assyrian capital city in the mid-eighth century BC.
According to tradition, Jonah resided in the city of Gath-Hepher, near Nazareth, during the reign of Jeroboam II king of Israel, when God instructed him to go to Nineveh and prophesy against it. “Their great wickedness is come up before me,” God said, by way of explaining why he was dispatching Jonah on what must surely have struck the man as a difficult, even suicidal, mission.
Understandably frightened by the prospect of putting himself in the hands of Israel’s sometime-enemies to inform the Ninevites that the God of the Hebrews was “sore wroth” with them, Jonah “fled from the presence of the Lord.” First he went to the coastal city Joppa, where he took ship to Tarshish. But he never made it to his destination.
Instead, God caused the ship to be struck by a violent storm. With the ship threatening to founder in heavy seas, the ship’s crew discovered that the storm had been sent by God because He was angry with Jonah. Whereupon the sailors promptly cast him overboard.
The storm immediately ceased and the seas calmed, and the sailors made sacrifice to God to thank Him for saving them. Jonah, meanwhile, was swallowed by what has been characterized, variously, as a “great fish” or whale. He spent three days in the belly of the beast, during which time he prayed ceaselessly to God for salvation and forgiveness, promising that he would go to Nineveh if God let him live.
Pleased by Jonah’s repentance, God made the whale spit him out onto the shore. Jonah duly proceeded to Nineveh, where he informed the inhabitants that the city would be overthrown in forty days. Amazingly, the Ninevites took him at his word, even the king (possibly to be identified as Ashur-dan III, r. 772-755 BC), who ordered his subjects to clothe themselves in sackcloth and to fast and pray for the remission of their sins and the salvation of their city. The king further commanded that all the city’s animals be likewise made to wear sackcloth, and he descended from his throne, donned sackcloth, sat in ashes, and prayed for God to forgive him and his people.
Recognizing that the Assyrians were sincere in their contrition, God spared Nineveh, thus showing pity, and mercy, to what he characterized in later conversation with Jonah as a “great city.”
The story of the Fast of Nineveh does not end here, however. A thousand years after the time of Ashur-dan III, in the sixth century AD, all of Mesopotamia was devastated by a terrible plague. The region was then part of the Sasanian Empire, which was ruled by Khosrow I (AD 501-579), and the Assyrians had long since adopted the Christian faith. The Assyrians were, in fact, the first ethno-religious group to convert en masse to Christianity, and their church is first and oldest among all Christian churches and denominations. Khosrow was a tolerant king who respected the Assyrians and permitted free and open practice of their religion, even though he was himself an adherent of the Zoroastrian Mazdakite sect. With the plague claiming ever more lives throughout the Sasanian realm, the metropolitans in the imperial capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, remembering how and why God had spared Nineveh, directed and led their congregations in a regimen of fasting and prayer. The plague soon abated and disappeared, thus earning for the Assyrians Khosrow’s undying gratitude.
This is the origin of the Fast of Nineveh that Christian Assyrians celebrate to this day. In recent years, with another deadly plague ravaging Mesopotamia in the form of ISIS, Assyrian congregants of both the Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church have conducted rogation-type fasts on behalf of all peoples, Christians and Muslims alike, who have suffered and died under Islamist persecution.
Nor is the Fast of Nineveh the only way that Assyrians have remained steadfast in their devotion to their faith – and, not incidentally, to Judaism as well, the faith that formed the wellspring of Christianity. Today, with war raging in Iraq and Syria, Assyrian soldiers and civilians stand constant guard over the ancient tomb of the Hebrew prophet Nahum, located in the Iraqi town of Al-Qosh. As we noted in a previous post, “It was Nahum who prophesized the fall of Nineveh in the mid-seventh century BC, several decades before the city actually fell in 612 BC”:
The difficult job of defending the Assyrian people would be vastly simplified if the overstretched Assyrian forces, outnumbered by ISIS and lacking in all the materials needed for waging war, could leave Nahum’s tomb unguarded. Assyrian fighting men and women charged with protecting the ancient resting place of a long-dead Hebrew prophet–one who was, in his time, a dedicated foe of the Assyrian Empire–could certainly find plenty of employment battling the forces seeking their annihilation.
But that is not the Assyrian way. The Assyrians feel that it is their duty as a civilized people to resist the forces of barbarism in the region, and the fulfillment of that duty includes protecting the region’s culture heritage.