Student Focus - Rashel Pakbaz

At Clare Hall we pride ourselves on attracting graduate students from all over the world. Here we continue our series of articles about our students’ research.

Rashel Pakbaz is an Ethnomusicology PhD student at the College. Rashel researches the liturgical music of the Assyrian Church of the East, formerly known as the Church of the East, looking at its role in the preservation of Assyrian ethnic identity after the rise of ISIS in 2014. 

Assyrian Church of the East is a Syriac rite which was established in the fifth century CE and encompassed territories from Mesopotamia to China. Soon after the formation of this denomination, the liturgical text was written down. The liturgical music, however, was never documented and has been passed down orally from one generation of clergy to the next. Therefore, to study this oral tradition, I decided to conduct ethnographic research in Iran and Iraq, where I recorded various worship services and interviewed the clergy. Since the largest Assyrian community in the homeland (two million people before the US invasion; 300,000 people after the US invasion in 2003) resides in Iraq where there are also Assyrian Church seminaries and monasteries, I focused my ethnography on the church communities in Northern Iraq. During my travels around the region, I recorded chants performed by the clergy from Nineveh plain and its highlands, urban and rural areas, monasteries and parish churches as well as chants sung by old and young priests and deacons. All of these recordings reveal key differences in the way chants are performed today. These differences include musical and performance features such as microtonal division, ornamentation and tempo. You can hear a vesper chant performed by a deacon in the mountainous region of Nahla in this audio file.

Music, as a form of representation, has been the topic of various ethnomusicological researches. Different groups of people use music as a medium to communicate their physical presence, feelings and ideas. After the Christian Genocide of 1914-1918 in Anatolia and more recently, the rise of ISIS in 2014, Assyrian musicians became eager to save the Assyrian culture and language as they felt they have been threatened by extinction. In this attempt, they turned their attention to the liturgy of the Assyrian Church of the East. My goal in this research project is to examine the ways in which this music has changed and the role its performances play in the preservation of Assyrian ethnic identity.


Nahla Region, Northern Iraq

Sunday Mass at St John the Baptist Church in Erbil, Northern Iraq


St John the Baptist Church in Erbil, Northern Iraq

St Narsai Church in Duhok, Northern Iraq