In my humble opinion one will be very much wrong in thinking that the three day fast of Nineveh/Jonah is only to commemorate the three days that Jonah spent in the belly of the great fish. That is only but one of the many dimensions of this fast. It doesn't take into account the repentance of Ninevites and the various local traditions of Assyria. It is the traditions that helped to incorporate this fast into the oriental orthodox churches and more specifically the Syriac Orthodox Church. Hence I feel it would be an injustice if we forget these traditions and go only for the biblical interpretations of this fast. Here I hope to list the various traditions that exist in the church regarding Baoutha d'Ninwaye.
According to a local Assyrian tradition, in the 6th century AD, a plague was inflicted in the Persian Kingdom (modern day Iraq). The plague consumed the men of Beit Garmai, of Assyria, and of Nineveh. The people thought the plague was a punishment from God due to their sins and ran to the Bishop for guidance. Mar Sabrisho, the metropolitan-bishop of Beit Slokh who was well versed with the story of Jonah and repentance of Ninevites advised the people to fast and ask for God's forgiveness. After the first day itself the plague began to subside and on the sixth day the people partook in the Holy Qurbono and by it they were sanctified. From that time on they commemorated this incident annually by fasting for six days.
According to Bar Ebroyo,"The people in the East began the fast, which is being observed three days after the Epiphany, in this time (i.e. the time of Catholicos Hananeshu, who became the Catholicos in A.D.686). When Abdul Malik the son of Morwon heard of the beauty of the women in Hirto, he asked the Governor there to send all the virgins to him. As this command came, the governor started to gather all the virgins. Then all the Christians came together in the church, and prayed and fasted. They prostrated before the Lord and appealed Him to save them from this punishment. On the third day when their Bishop John was reading the gospel he got a revelation about the death of Abdul Malik, and he revealed it to the people. After some days, this news was confirmed. It is said that, from this time onwards the believers observe this fast. But some others say that this fast was begun in the East when the king Quzra Abroose prepared to rape the virgins."
(Source: �Prayersand fasts according to Bar Ebroyo (AD 1225/6-1286): a study on the prayers and fasts of Oriental Churches footnote# 219)
Vestiges of this tradition can be seen in the practices of local Assyrian girls. They believe that if a girl ,on the fourth night of the fast, goes to sleep without drinking water and then sees a man giving her water to drink in the dream, she will marry that person in the future.
Bar Ebroyo reportedly notes another tradition that, the confirmation of this fast was due to the crises the church went through in Hirat. The people there fasted three days and three nights praying constantly in fulfilment of the command of their bishop and they were rescued from the ordeal by God. Originally this fast used to last for six days, but it is now only three days. Mar Dionysius Bar Salibi states that Mar Marutha of Tikrit(+649) was the one who enjoined it on the Church of the East first in the region of Nineveh.(Source:
Fasting- written by His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas
The Nineveh fast which was once particular only to the Assyrian region is now observed by all the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Except for the Armenian Church, which fasts for 5 days, all the other Oriental churches maintains a three day period. It is believed that Afraham Ibn Zura, a Coptic Patriarch of Syrian descent, was the one who introduced the Nineveh fast to the Coptic Orthodox Church. It is
this same Afraham Ibn Zura better known as Abraham the Syrian whom the Caliph asked to move the Mokattam
studies on the threshold of a new millennium)
Let us fast and ask for forgiveness from God for our sins and also pray for our brothers in Nineveh (Iraq) who are facing difficulties in their country.
Zach George Arapura
PS. I am attaching an eBook (�Contemplations on the book of Jonah the Prophet by HH Pope Shenouda III of Coptic Orthodox Church) which I feel will be useful for everyone during this period of fasting.