The Mandaeans: The Legitimate Heirs of the Chaldean Heritage

In 2002, author and historian Fred Aprim published his research article titled The Mandaeans: True Descendants of Ancient Babylonians and Chaldeans. In his article, Aprim noted that the Mandaeans (also commonly known as Sabeans) had always flourished in southern Mesopotamia, near the tip of the Persian Gulf, that is the historic homeland of the ancient Chaldeans. Aprim observed that this community held “a special interest in the study of astronomy and mathematics just like their forefathers”. Furthermore, the religion of the Mandaeans, according to Aprim, has also preserved significant elements of ancient Chaldean religion. In fact, one of the most sacred rituals practiced by this community was that of Mandaean new-borns being given an “astrological name” or “name of the sign of the Zodiac”. Furthermore, the language spoken by the Mandaeans, commonly known as Mandaic today, also features significant similarities to Babylonian Aramaic. Significantly, the name “Mandaean” itself is derived from the ancient Babylonian term mandētu meaning “the knowers” or “the knowledgeable”.

In his article, Aprim noted that the Italian explorer Gerolamo Vecchietti who travelled to southern Mesopotamia in 1604 observed that the Mandaeans originally referred to their mother language as the “Chaldean language”. Having spent a considerable amount of time studying this native community, Vecchietti concluded that the Mandaeans were in fact the true descendants of the ancient Chaldeans. However, about a century and a half before Vecchietti arrived in southern Mesopotamia, a small community of Christians adhering to the so-called “Nestorian Church” (more accurately; the Church of the East) in the island of Cyprus were also identified as “Chaldean”. According to Aprim, this particular community only began identifying with this historic name in 1445 following their conversion from the Church of the East tradition to Catholicism. It was at the instigation of Pope Eugene IV that this community came to be designated with the name “Chaldean” so as to distinguish them from those members of their mother church who were pejoratively known as “Nestorians”.

During the period in which Aprim’s article was published, the modern-day Chaldean Catholic community witnessed a rise in nationalism due to the adoption of this historic name. The notion of a Chaldean national identity gained great momentum, particularly among clerical circles. The desire to propagate this identity was further reinforced with the introduction of the Chaldean national flag, Chaldean calendar, and the introduction of the Chaldean Babylonian New Year. Various figures, particularly those in the United States spearheaded these efforts with the desire of having the name “Chaldean” recognised in the Iraqi constitution as a separate ethnic or national group. Despite all these efforts, there existed one problem— the alleged relationship between the ancient Chaldeans and the modern-day “Chaldeans” was weak and lacked any sound historical basis. In recent years, this so-called connection has come into question and so therefore Aprim’s article has been re-visited for consideration.

However, one question begs, does Aprim’s research hold any historical basis?

The proposed relationship between the Mandaeans and the ancient Chaldeans is not a modern observation, and neither was Vecchietti the first to draw this connection. In fact, this observation was widely documented as early as the eighth-century CE and is attested in various Arabic and Syriac literary evidence. For instance, Qatāda ibn Diʾāma (Basra, ca. 736 CE), an early Islamic commentator, just like Vecchietti, also drew the connection between the Mandaeans and the ancient Chaldeans. Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (ca. 780-850 CE) noted that the Chaldeans of his time were “worshippers of idols” and that this community was also “called Sabeans”, another name for the Mandaeans. According to the Arab historian al-Nadīm (Baghdad, ca. 990 CE), the Chaldeans were not considered to be members of the three principle Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and so this ancient community was forced to renounce their Chaldean identity during the caliphate of el-Maʾmūn (ca. 786-833 CE) and came to adopt the nomenclature “Sabean” as a self-designation. In his Nukhbat al-dahr, al-Dimashqī (ca. 1200-1300) noted that the Chaldeans were known as “Kāldan, Kasdān, Janbān, Jarāmiqa, Kūthārūn, and Kanʿānūn; these were Nabataeans; who constructed buildings, founded cities, dug canals, planted trees... They were all Sabeans who worshipped stars and idols.” It must be stressed that, early Islamic writers (see. al-Masʿūdī) geographically positioned this Chaldean community in southern Mesopotamia, precisely in Wāsiṭ and Basra where the Mandaeans form a significant community today. It is for this reason that, Prof. Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila of the University of Edinburgh asserted that “one might tentatively identify these [Chaldeans] as the ancestors of modern Mandaeans”.

It is worth noting that, Syriac literary evidence is in complete agreeance with the Arabic. According to the Syriac-Christian tradition, the name Chaldean held too strong pagan connotations. In fact, the name was highly repudiated by early church fathers. For instance, according to the Doctrine of Mār Addai the Apostle (ca. 300-400 CE), Christians were encouraged to avoid associating with the “deluded Chaldeans” as they practiced astrolatry, that is the worship of the stars. Any form of association with the Chaldeans was viewed as a threat to the authority of the early church. These implications are echoed in Aphrahat's Demonstrations (ca. 270-350 CE) and the Teaching of the Apostles (ca. 900-1000). According to the latter: “Whosoever resorts to magicians and soothsayers and Chaldeans, and puts confidence in fates and nativities, which they hold fast who know not God,— let him also, as a man that knows not God, be dismissed from the ministry, and not minister again”.

In his Book of Scholia, Theodore bar Kōnī, a ninth-century Nestorian monk and scholar from central Mesopotamia composed anti-heretical commentary against the Chaldeans and associated them with the Mandaeans. Similarly, in his Catalogue, Mār ʿAbdishōʿ Bar Berīkā (ca. 1250-1318) informs us that “Daniel of Resh ʿAïnā wrote poems against Marcionites, Manichees, heretics, and Chaldeans,” and “Bar Dkōsin wrote two volumes against the Chaldeans, and another against Porphyry the heretic”According to Prof. Sebastian P. Brock of the University of Oxford, a leading scholar in Syriac Studies, noted that “indeed one can observe an active dissociation in that the term 'Chaldean' normally designates a pagan astrologer.” For George Percy Badger (1852: 178-179): Whenever the term “Chaldean” occurs in the Nestorian rituals, “it is not used to designate a Christian community, but the ancient sect, who have been called also Sabeans”.

Why were converts from the Church of the East called “Chaldeans”?

Traditionally, the spiritual leader of the Church of the East held his office in Seleucia-Ctesiphon (central Mesopotamia) and held the title “Catholicos-Patriarch of the East” or “of Seleucia-Ctesiphon”. However, this geographical location was referred to as “Babylon” by early Latin authors. Given that the biblical city of Babylon is strongly associated with the biblical Chaldeans (see. Ezekiel 12:13)— the expression “Chaldean” was wrongfully applied to the entire eastern Christian population throughout Mesopotamia. Furthermore, the liturgical language (Classical Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic) used by this Christian community was erroneously referred to as “Chaldaic” and its speakers linguistically as “Chaldean”. It is worth noting that, although the name Chaldean was exclusively used only by Latin authors since the time of Jerome— references to the Chaldeans do not appear in any of the earlier synodical canons of the Church of the East, nor do they appear in any of the ecclesiastical correspondences extant. There exists no reference to a Catholicos-Patriarch or Metropolitan Bishop of the Chaldeans” nor a diocese called “Chaldea” in Syriac sources. This suggests that the name held little to no significance among the Christian community, particularly among those in Assyria and northern Mesopotamia.

What other historical evidence supports the Mandaean-Chaldean connection?

In addition to the Arabic and Syriac historical sources presented in this article, there also exists Hebrew and Baháʼí literary evidence that corroborates the relationship between the Mandaeans and the ancient Chaldeans. Hebrew references can be drawn from the works of Maimonides (ca. 1138-1204), a leading medieval Jewish philosopher and codifier of Jewish law. His views and writings hold a prominent place in Jewish intellectual history and thought. In his book titled Guide of the Perplexed, the terms Chaldean and Sabean (Mandaean) “are only different names successively given to the same people. In the time of the Bible, they were called Kasdim; in the age of the Talmud they were the Chaldeans, and later they received the name of the Sabeans”. In chapter 29, Maimonides goes on to explain that “it is well known that the Patriarch Abraham was brought up in the religion and the opinion of the Sabeans, that there is no divine being except the stars”. This connection was also supported by Shoghí Rabbání, the spiritual head of the Baháʼí Faith between 1921-1957. In a letter dated to 1939, Rabbání noted that “As to the religion of the Sabeans, very little is known about the origins of this religion, though we Baháʼís are certain of one thing that the founder of it has been a Divinely-sent Messenger. The country where Sabeanism became widespread and flourished was Chaldea, and Abraham is considered as having been a follower of that Faith.”

The modern-day Chaldean Catholic Church:

Today, the Chaldean Catholic Church is considered to be the largest Christian church in the Republic of Iraq and maintains full communion with the Holy See. The spiritual leader of this Eastern Catholic particular church is the “Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans” who holds his office in the city of Baghdad. The origin of this church dates the sixteenth-century schism within the Church of the East where several bishops in Assyria found themselves in conflict with their Catholicos-Patriarch. Although efforts at union with Rome are attested as early as 1445 in the island of Cyprus where a small portion of this community was for the first time referred to as “Chaldeans”, it wasn’t until 1553 that this union was formalised. Up until the nineteenth-century, this schism was highly conflictual as some parishioners of the Church of the East preferred communion with Rome. It should be noted that, the first patriarchs of this Catholic off-shoot of the Church of the East sealed the union with Rome as Patriarchs “of the Assyrians”, a title that was later changed to that “of Babylon” and “of the Chaldeans” to be in parallel with the title given to the community in Cyprus.

Although this community eventually came to adopt the nomenclature “Chaldean” as a self-designation, the Catholic Encyclopedia (1907: 559) maintains that “the name of Chaldeans is no longer correct”. In fact, according to the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation of Oriental Churches, the name Chaldean in the modern sense of the word is of “western-origin” and the community styling itself as “Chaldean Catholics” are in fact descendants of the ancient Assyrians. It was for this reason that, the famed linguist Justin Perkins in 1841 noted that “The title, Chaldeans, was given to these Papists by the Pope, on their embracing the Catholic system”. It is also worth noting that, by the early twentieth-century, this community had identified strictly as Assyrians or Assyrian-Chaldeans. According to a document dated 1917, the Chaldeans were considered to be “a Christian race who claim to be descended from the old Assyrian stock”.

The Church of the East survives today in various branches, namely the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, and the Chaldean Catholic Church. Regrettably, the latter has only in recent years opted to propagate the name “Chaldean” as an ethnic or national identity among its parishioners. This recent movement has perpetuated a great deal of confusion among its community and has threatened their rich Assyrian heritage. As demonstrated, the alleged ethnic identity with the ancient Chaldeans is in fact a recent creation and lacks any sound historical basis. In his conclusionary remarks, Aprim suggested that the appropriation of the name Chaldean consequently “denied the small community of the Mandaeans their legitimate descent”Aprim also rightly pointed out; “the two most unfortunate victims” were the Assyrians and the Mandaeans.


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