In a cemetery about two-and-a-half hours away from Chicago, in Normal, Illinois, there is a headstone with Assyrian calligraphy on it. The grave belongs to Issa Benyamin and his wife, Clara Manasserians. Beneath Issa Benyamin’s name is the epitaph, “Father of Assyrian Calligraphy.” Although calligraphy has been a popular form of art among many groups of people in the Middle East for centuries, Benyamin helped make it a more prominent style of art among Assyrians.
Issa Benyamin was born in Tabriz, Iran (Persia at the time) in 1924. His father, Mirza Benyamin Kaldani, was originally from Salamas, but left that area during the genocide that occurred in Urmia during World War I. Benyamin learned to appreciate the written word at an early age from his father, who wrote thirteen books and taught his son how to read and write Assyrian. Benyamin furthered his studies in the Assyrian language under the Catholic Archbishop of Urmia and Salamas, Havil Zaya.
In 1957, Benyamin married Clara Manasserians, an Assyrian-Armenian woman whose family was from the village of Gulpashan in Urmia, Iran. She, like Benyamin, also loved the written word. She received a bachelor’s degree in English literature and taught English to high school students for twenty-seven years.
Issa Benyamin remained active in Iran’s Assyrian community until he departed to the United States in the mid-1980s. While still in Tehran, Iran, he helped co-found Seeta Supreta D’Ulime Attoraye, also known as the Assyrian Youth Cultural Society of Tehran, which produced hundreds of Assyrian books before Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979. He also published an Assyrian calendar, a biography about a high school teacher in Tehran named Louise Ourshan, and an Assyrian-Persian weekly publication called Bright Future. Additionally, he was the Assyrian editor for a weekly Assyrian periodical called Isthar from 1981 to 1983.
Despite his many literary accomplishments, Benyamin is best known for his use of the Assyrian (Syriac) script in his artwork. He created hundreds of different art pieces that implemented Assyrian calligraphy. He also created 52 different types of Assyrian fonts. During his lifetime, Benyamin’s artwork was displayed at different exhibits in both Iran and the United States until his passing in 2014.
By Esther Lang
Arsanis Arts. “The Art of Issa Benyamin.” RoxieMedia, May 6, 2009. YouTube video, 4:42. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pbmh1NvsGrA (accessed March 1, 2021).
“Clara Manasserians Benyamin.” Find A Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/131152827/clara-benyamin (accessed March 1, 2021).
“Integrity and Dedication.” Assyrian Star, Fall 2002. http://www.calligram.com/Exhibits/Article3/article3.html (accessed March 1, 2021).
“Issa Benyamin.” Find A Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/123461076/issa-benyamin (accessed March 1, 2021).
“Issa Benyamin, Calligraphist.” Calligram. http://www.calligram.com/Biography/biography.html (accessed March 1, 2021).
“Issa Benyamin: Calligraphist, 1924-2014.” Nineveh, Second Quarter 2013.
Naby, Eden. “A Tribute to a Living Legend: Rabi Issa Benyamin.” Mesopotamian Night. May 5, 2009.