Rev. Abraham Yohannan
Did you know that Columbia University in New York City had an Assyrian professor who taught Oriental languages there from 1894 to 1925? During his time at Columbia University, Rev. Abraham Yohannan taught Classical and Modern Assyrian (Syriac), Armenian, Persian, and Turkish, although he also knew Arabic and Hebrew.
Born in the village of Abajalu in Urmia, Persia (present-day Iran), Yohannan descended from a family of Assyrian priests. He attended Presbyterian missionary schools while in Urmia, including Urmia College, where he studied and then taught Oriental languages. During that time, he also married a woman named Sanam, with whom he had six children.
In 1886, Yohannan came to the United States to assist the American Bible Society in an updated translation of the Presbyterian missionaries’ 1846 translation of the New Testament. An early proponent of the use of pure Assyrian (not borrowing words from other languages), Yohannan also began compiling a Syriac-English dictionary. However, he only completed a volume for Alep, the first letter of the Assyrian alphabet, in 1900, and never completed the entire alphabet. You can read his dictionary for Alep online here: https://archive.org/details/modernsyriacengl00yoharich.
Yohannan received a degree in theology in 1890 from General Theological Seminary, which is an Episcopal seminary in New York City. Afterwards, he became a priest for the Episcopal Church, and worked for its Oriental Mission for Middle Eastern immigrants. He would lead services in Armenian, Assyrian, English, and Turkish. You can read some of his sermons online here: https://archive.org/details/vigil00yoha/page/n3/mode/2up.
After completing his theological education and ordination, Yohannan continued to pursue his education at the School of Philosophy at Columbia University. That is how he eventually became a lecturer in Oriental languages there. Among Yohannan’s other accomplishments were translating Mar Audisho’s Book of the Pearl from Classical to Modern Assyrian, donating 60 Arabic books to Columbia University, and attempting to assist Assyrians and Armenians during the Genocide of World War I. During World War I, in 1916, he wrote a book called The Death of a Nation: or, The Ever Persecuted Nestorians or Assyrian Christians, which you can read online here: https://archive.org/details/deathanationore00yohagoog.
Perhaps one of the most unusual events in Abraham Yohannan’s life happened in 1915. On May 1, 1915, Yohannan received a letter in Persian demanding that he give some anonymous men $200. According to a May 6, 1915 article in the New York Times, The letter claimed to be from “a number of young men desirous of returning to our country to help our people.” Presumably, the letter was from some Assyrian men who wanted the money to return to Iran to help their people during the Genocide. Yohannan, not trusting the threatening tone of the letter, reported the strange incident to detectives, who eventually caught the three men involved in the affair, after catching one of them trying to collect money from Yohannan. These men went to prison for threatening Yohannan.
Written by Esther Lang
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“Died: Yohannan, Sanam.” The New York Times, February 15, 1920. https://www.nytimes.com/1920/02/15/archives/obituary-5-no-title.html?searchResultPosition=1 (accessed September 13, 2021).
“Dr. Yohannan Speaks at Chapel.” Columbia Spectator, February 13, 1908. https://spectatorarchive.library.columbia.edu/?a=d&d=cs19080213-01.2.17&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——- (accessed September 13, 2021).
Eden Naby & EIr, “Yohannan, Abraham,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2017, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/yohannan-abraham (accessed on September 13, 2021).
“Extortionist Confesses: Three Persons Arrested for Threatening Columbia Professor.” The New York Times, May 6, 1915. https://www.nytimes.com/1915/05/06/archives/extortionist-confesses-three-persons-arrested-for-threatening.html?searchResultPosition=1 (accessed September 13, 2021).
Modern Syriac-English Dictionary. “Abraham Yohannan Ph.D. (1853-1925). Assyrian Information Management. https://www.atour.com/people/20010702b.html (accessed September 13, 2021).
Prof. Yohannan Menaced: Arrest of Alleged Agent Follows Threat by Persians. The New York Times, May 5, 1915. https://www.nytimes.com/1915/05/05/archives/prof-yohannan-menaced-arrest-of-alleged-agent-follows-threat-by.html (accessed September 13, 2021).
Yohannan, Abraham. The Death of a Nation: Or, the Ever Persecuted Nestorians or Assyrian Christians. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1916. https://archive.org/details/deathanationore00yohagoog (accessed September 13, 2021).
Yohannan, Abraham. A Modern Syriac-English Dictionary. New York: Columbia University, 1900. https://archive.org/details/modernsyriacengl00yoharich (accessed September 13, 2021).
Yohannan, Abraham. The Vigil. New York, 1910. https://archive.org/details/vigil00yoha/page/n3/mode/2up (accessed September 13, 2021).