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August 20, 2017

Urmia, the City on the Edge of Empires (Orumiyeh, Iran)

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One upon a time not too long ago there was a splendid little city called Urmia in what is now Iranian Azerbaijan. Though its precise origins aren’t known, the city was occupied and thrived under a people known as the Urartu. Being a place where the Anatolian highlands meet with Mesopotamia and the Iranian plateau, the Urartians and their prosperous kingdom were sitting on a very strategic junction of cultures, trade and ideas. Due to this, city and the areas surrounding it were coveted and conquered by various warlords, kingdoms and empires. Uremia’s location also brought it traders, artisans and even refugees who couldn’t find sanctuary elsewhere. Many of the people who came to Urmia stayed behind and formed their own communities while mixing with those which were already established, thus creating the diversity that Urmia has been known for through most of its existence. Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Armenians, Assyrians, Persians, Kurds, Turks and several other religious and ethnic groups at one time or another all called Urmia their home.

History of Urmia

As mentioned above, the city of Urmia (many today spell it Urumiyeh or Orumiyeh) had its origins in the remote past. Archaeological evidence indicates that an urban site existed here at least 4000 years and was within the realm of the ancient kingdom of Urartu. Living in such a volatile region, the Urartians were under constant attack from their neighbors, especially the Assyrians and later the Cimmerians. Weakened by the constant fighting, the state of Urartu eventually went into decline until it was finally overtaken by the Medes in the years between 610 and 590 BCE. From that point onward, the independent political entity known as Urartu disappeared from the historical record.

Since Urartu’s demise, Urmia has been ruled by several dynasties and peoples, most notably the Persians, Greeks and Macedonians, Romans, Armenians, Arabs and successive Turkic dynasties until it came under Persian rule once again in the 16th century under the Safavids. Since then it has more or less remained as part of Iran.

For over a thousand years, Urmia was a religiously and ethnically diverse melting pot of various peoples. There were several Christian denominations with members in the tens of thousands that once lived in the area including Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean, Nestorian and Russian Orthodox churches. There was also a Zoroastrian and a large Jewish community that numbered in the thousands, although most of these have left.

For the most part, all of these peoples lived peacefully among the Muslim population (mostly ethnic Azeris) until about the later part of the 19th century. It was around this time that foreign Christian missionaries (probably thinking that a city with a large Christian population would make an ideal base for converting the people of the region) began coming to Urmia in swarms. This ultimately caused problems for the local, indigenous Christians of Urmia. The missionaries, who were mostly from Protestant and Catholic churches, created resentment among the majority Muslim population for their proselytizing activities, and this ultimately created disdain for other Christian groups as well.

However, religion was not the only issue. Just next door, the Ottoman Empire was collapsing. This prompted many minorities and political groups within the crumbling empire to try their luck at achieving greater autonomy from the state, if not outright independence. Many in the Ottoman government saw the large Armenian population within their borders as a western fifth column that had to be dealt with. Thus, they drove hundreds of thousands of them into the harsh mountains of western Anatolia to die in what has commonly become known as the Armenian genocide. Many Armenians and other Christians found refuge in Urmia among the already established Christian communities there.

Assyrian Christian community in Urmia, Iran – date of photo or original source unknown

The problem though was that this part of the Iranian frontier was also not completely stable. WHEN World War I came to the region, Urmia changed hands several times between Russian, Iranian and Kurdish forces. The influx of Christian refugees from Anatolia only exacerbated the situation, especially because they were seen as natural allies of the Russians. Things came to a head when in February of 1918, Muslim residents of Urmia attacked the Christian quarter of the city. The Christians, especially the Assyrians who were well armed, counterattacked and took over the city until June of that year when they were defeated by a Turkish army and their Kurdish nationalist allies under Simko Shikak. Shikak had the Assyrian Church’s Patriarch, Shimun XXI Benyamin, assassinated and led his men in the massacre of thousands of Christians, also mostly Assyrians. He and his militia ended up ruling much of the area until 1922 when the Iranian army defeated his forces and he fled to Turkey. He was assassinated on June 30th, 1930 in an ambush by Iranian agents of the new king (Shah), Reza Pahlavi. The Shah encouraged the Christian population to return, a few of which ultimately did. Today though the Christian population in Urmia, once in the tens of thousands, is currently believed to be under five thousand souls.

Assyrian Christian community in Iran

Interestingly enough, the city’s name changed to Rezaiyeh in honor of the Shah. Whether it was the population of the city who bestowed this name or the Shah himself is not for certain. Regardless, the name was changed back to Urmia (or Orumiyeh) after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Today, Urmia is the 10th largest city in Iran. Its population is mostly Shia Muslim.

What’s in Urmia, Iran

Urmia (Orumiyeh) – Photo by Parviz “PAYA” on panoramio.com

The attractions of Urmia can be seen in less than a day, the more interesting of these being:

Seh Gonbad

This is a nine meter, 12th-century Seljuk burial tower that is believed to have been built atop the ruins of a Zoroastrian fire temple. It’s an interesting structure with a small park surrounding it.

St. Mary’s Church

According to legend, this church was believed to have been founded by St. Thomas on the burial site of the three Magi, the three “Kings” (actually Zoroastrian priests) who visited and brought gifts for the baby Jesus in the famous gospel story. If this story is true, that makes it one of the oldest functioning churches in the world.

Orumiyeh Museum

The is a small but very good museum that houses many ancient artifacts including pottery, cuneiform tablets and various objects crafted out of gold.

Masjid-i Jameh (Friday mosque)

This is the main mosque in Urmia and was allegedly built over an old Zoroastrian fire temple. The two most striking features of the current structure are its dome and beautifully-decorated Seljuk-era mihrab (object that indicates the direction to the Muslim holy city of Mecca).

More Information and Interesting Links

From Contributions to Diaspora: Assyrians in the History of Urmia, Iran

Map of Assyrian Villages in Urmia, Iran


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