Assyrians shared and celebrated their culture at a first-ever festival bringing together parishes from the Central Valley and Bay Area.
The Assyrian Festival started Saturday and continues Sunday at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds in Turlock. The joint venture of the Assyrian Church of the East Diocese of California brings together parishes from Turlock, Modesto, Ceres and San Francisco. The free family event includes cultural exhibits, arts and crafts, folk dancing and traditional food.
Deacon Ashur Dekelaita of the Mar Narsai Parish in San Francisco said he wanted people to enjoy themselves while learning more about Assyrian culture.
“I think it will be an eye-opener for most people. History classes don’t talk about the East as much,” Dekelaita said. “We want to share the contributions of the Assyrian nation.”
The Assyrian people, who originated in Mesopotamia, continue to speak a form of Aramaic, considered the language of Jesus. The culture is credited with inventing everything from the wheel to beer. Dekelaita said some people also do not realize the Assyrian Church of the East is a Christian church.
The event also commemorated the 100-year anniversary of the Assyrian genocide in the Ottoman Empire, where more than 250,000 Assyrians were killed by Turks from 1914 to 1923. An exhibit showcased Assyrian cultural contributions, religious heritage and remembered the genocide.
Several hundred people gathered at the event Saturday afternoon, including many parishioners from throughout the region who came to volunteer.
“A lot of people don’t know who Assyrians are,” said Modesto resident Babylonia Benjamin, who came with her husband and their four children. “Or they don’t think we exist, that we were only from the Bible.”
The first Assyrian people migrated to the Turlock area in 1895 and established the first Church of the East parish on the West Coast. The Central Valley now boasts a large and active Assyrian community. A separate Assyrian Food Festival in Ceres, sponsored by the Assyrian Cultural Center, returns for its 18th annual event in September. Earlier this month San Jose hosted its 23rd annual Assyrian Food Festival.
Food is also a large part of the Turlock festival. Booths served up beef and chicken kabobs, falafel, shawarma, dolmas and more. People also could sample sweet delicacies like baklava, kadeh (tea bread) and nazooken (vanilla cookies).
The event included a kids activity area with bounce-houses, rides and more.
Festival organizers plan to make it an annual event. Festivalgoers said they were glad the parishes were teaming up to bring a joint event to the Central Valley.
“I think we’re better off all together,” said Modesto resident Silvana Robin, who attends the Mar Zaia Cathedral in Modesto. “We’re all the same culture and religion.”
The festivities continue from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday at the fairgrounds in Turlock, 900 N. Broadway. Admission is free.
For more information call 209-634-7096 or go to www.cvassyrianfestival.com.
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BY MARIJKE ROWLAND