History

Present-day discussions on a shared identity among the members of the Syriac churches reflect a long common history in which these churches at some points (theological and sometimes political) were on opposite sides, but on many others (such as language, literature, spirituality and social position) share a common heritage. This shared heritage was never completely lost sight of, despite fierce polemical debates and opposing political interests. The Syriac churches of today all trace back their origin to the Christian communities that developed in Syria and Mesopotamia in the second and third centuries, especially to those that in this period used some variety of Aramaic rather than Greek as their primary language. One of the first Aramaic-speaking Christian centres might have been Adiabene (present-day Arbil, in Iraq), where the local ruling house had converted to Judaism around 40 ce. This Jewish city-state had regular contacts with Palestine, and it seems possible that through this route Christianity reached Adiabene as early as the first century. From here, Christianity travelled westward as well as eastward, especially towards Aramaic-speaking Edessa (present-day Urfa, in southeast Turkey) early in the second century. At about the same time, the mainly Greek-speaking Christian communities in Palestine and western Syria, especially Antioch, began to spread their faith into the Aramaic-speaking rural regions of Syria, to what is now south-eastern Turkey and northern Syria. After the conversion of the royal house of Edessa, usually dated to the early third century (King Abgar VIII, r. 179-212), the Aramaic language of Edessa, later to be called Classical Syriac, began to establish itself as the preferred language of the Christian communities of Syria and northern Mesopotamia, functioning as a lingua franca for a wide variety of Aramaic speakers. By the third century, some form of Syriac Christianity must also have spread to southern Mesopotamia (also partly Aramaic-speaking) and the Arabian peninsula. The earliest evidence of Christianity in the latter region points to the fourth and early fifth century; the western parts, with Najran as a bishopric, subsequently coming under Syrian Orthodox influence, the eastern parts, among which are Qatar and the island of Socotra, under the Church of the East. Arab Christianity of this period was dependent on the Syriac literary tradition in liturgy, scripture and doctrine.

A relatively small number of sources, dating from the second and third centuries, give the impression that early Syriac Christianity was characterized by a rather encratic form of spirituality, which emphasized the need to renounce marriage and possessions, sometimes even as a prerequisite for baptism. Such a dedicated Christian life was organized in the institution of the ' "Sons" and "Daughters" of the covenant' (bnay and bnat qyama), who, living as virgins and serving the community, did not retreat into separate religious communities. Various types of Christianity flourished in the region, including later-to-be-condemned forms such as those espoused by Marcion (d. 165)

and Bardaisan (d. 222), alongside various groups in the Gnostic tradition. In the third century, Mani (216-77) established a religion built on Christian, Jewish and Gnostic elements, which was to become a significant rival to Christianity in Asia.

The third century in Persia also saw the change from Parthian to Sassanian rule, whose first ruler Ardashir (r. 226-40) chose Zoroastrianism as the official religion of the empire. Although in general Christianity was tolerated and church life continued much as before, incidental persecutions took place in the latter half of the third century, especially at times when important Zoroastrians converted to Christianity. It was probably in this period that Christians from southern Mesopotamia took refuge in the Arabian peninsula and strengthened already existing Christian communities.

In the fourth century, political and religious developments in the Roman Empire led to a greater need for Christian unity and homogeneity. The Ecumenical Councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381) condemned the Christologies of Arius and Apollinarios, who both had a number of followers in the churches of Syria and Mesopotamia. In 410, when peace between the Roman and Sassanian Empires made contacts between the two parts of the church possible, the Council of Nicea was also accepted in the Church of Persia. It was the later councils of the fifth century, however, that would become decisive in the formation of the Syriac churches. At the Council of Ephesus (431), Cyril of Alexandria and his followers succeeded in having the Antiochene teachings of Nestorius on the two natures of Christ condemned. After the council, Nestorius' followers fled to Persia and found a welcome in the Persian Church, which by that time, mainly through the works of Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), was already sympathetic to Antiochene theology. Theodore's works were later to be translated into Syriac, and became the standard of orthodoxy in the Church of the East in the seventh century. The Council of Chalcedon in 451, although it did not revoke the condemnation of Nestorius, accepted a Christology that in many respects was close to Theodore's and Nestorius'. This council, however, was never officially accepted in the Church of Persia. Although the Dyophysite Antiochene theology that was admitted at the Synod of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in 486 could easily have been reconciled with the line of Chalcedon, political and geographical developments in the sixth and seventh centuries reinforced the isolated position of the Church of the East.

Meanwhile, the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 had not brought the discussions on the two natures of Christ to a conclusion. Cyril of Alexandria's followers (he himself died in 444) did not accept the decisions of this council, interpreting them as a victory of 'Nestorianism' and the result of undue imperial influence on the churches of Syria. To accommodate their opposition, Emperor Zeno in 482 promulgated the Henoticon, a dogmatic formulation that allowed for greater acceptance of Miaphysite views within the Roman Empire. Despite this concession and the occasional support of members of the imperial family (Empress Theodora being one of them), the Miaphysite party found it difficult to establish a secure position. In 518, Patriarch Severus of Antioch, one of the fierce defenders of Miaphysite Christology, was removed from his see and his followers were persecuted. Although several more attempts were made to keep this party within the imperial church, the sixth century became the period in which a separate hierarchy was consecrated, mainly through the efforts of the Bishop of Edessa, Jacob Baradeus (Yacqub Burdcono), after whom this church, now known as the Syrian Orthodox Church, was called the 'Jacobite' church. It was here that the majority of the Syriac-speaking Christians of Syria and western Mesopotamia found a religious home; a minority of Syriac-speaking Christians remained in the imperial church, the Melkite or Rum-Orthodox Church of the Middle East.

The Arab and Muslim victories of the seventh century, leading to the establishment of the Muslim-ruled Umayyad Empire with its centre in Damascus, allowed for further expansion of the Syrian Orthodox Church towards the East, building upon the sixth and early seventh-century establishments in the Sassanian Empire. For the first time in history, the Church of the East and the Syrian Orthodox Church found themselves under the same political power. In many respects these churches benefited from the fact that the Umayyad dynasty maintained considerable impartiality towards all Christian churches, treating the 'heretic' non-Chalcedonian church in the same way as the Chalcedonian, imperial church. One of the first losses to Christendom, however, was that of most of the churches on the Arabian peninsula, whose members seem to have been attracted to Islam from the earliest period.

Dhimmi regulations, which slowly took shape in the first centuries of Islamic rule but built upon earlier minority regulations in the Byzantium and Sassanian Empires, provided the 'people of the book' - Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and Mandeans - with a special status. They were protected from forced conversions and military conscription and allowing a considerable amount of self-rule and religious freedom. Certain restrictions, especially in court, as well as the jizya, the poll tax for the dhimmi groups, might in some periods have induced Christian conversion to Islam, but it seems that during most of the early centuries of Islam these factors were outweighed by a relatively mild and tolerant climate; Christians were allowed to function satisfactorily within their own communities, as well as exerting considerable influence on Muslim society as a whole. Until about the tenth century the Christian communities appear to have remained more or less stable.

It was especially after the 'Abbasid caliphs took over the leadership of the Islamic Empire and the centre of the empire moved from Damascus to the new capital Baghdad (749), that the Syriac Christians entered a period of relative prosperity and considerable cultural influence. The patriarch of the Church of the East, whose see was moved from Seleucia-Ctesiphon to nearby Baghdad in 775, became the most influential non-Muslim at the court; a development that reached its peak under Timothy I (in office 780-823) who survived four 'Abbasid caliphs. He was active not only in the field of politics and religious dialogue, but also led his church into a period of expansion, while consolidating those dioceses that had resulted from earlier missions to Central Asia and China between the seventh and ninth centuries. In this period, scholars from both Syriac churches contributed considerably to the scientific and scholarly developments of the time, by translating Greek works via Syriac into Arabic and by contributing original works to the further development of physics, mathematics, medicine, grammar, philosophy and theology. The school of Hunain ibn Ishaq (d. 873) is one of the famous examples of Christian-Muslim cooperation and exchange. It is in this period that the use of Arabic, in writing and in speaking, increased considerably among the members of both Syriac churches. Despite the increase of Arabic Christian texts, however, Classical Syriac survived and held its ground, as is confirmed not only by Classical Syriac texts of the ninth to thirteenth centuries, but also by the survival of both Classical Syriac and spoken Aramaic until the present time. In the early eleventh century, the Byzantines regained parts of Anatolia and Syria, which in some areas within the 'Abbasid Empire caused anti-Christian measures, but also induced the Syrian Orthodox to move their patriarchal see from Byzantine-occupied Antioch to Amid (Diyarbakir) in eastern Anatolia in 1034.

The crusades and their partial occupation of parts of western Syria hardly affected the Syrian Orthodox Church because, as one of their influential patriarchs of the time, Michael the Great (1126-99) notes in his Chronicle, the crusaders were relatively tolerant in confessional matters. The Latin presence in the Middle East prompted early attempts at unions with Rome on the part of the Syrian Orthodox, the Maronites and the Church of the East. After the battle of Manzikert (eastern Turkey) in 1071, however, the majority of the Syrian Orthodox lived under Seljuk reign, which, after the upheavals of yet another war, allowed for relatively peaceful circumstances for the Christians. It seems likely that in this period the dioceses in southern Mesopotamia and Persia, which in the ninth century were still strongholds of the Church of the East, began to weaken. By the end of the thirteenth century, they had all but disappeared, probably because most of the Christians of these regions had converted to Islam.

It was the invasion of the Mongols that changed the situation of both churches. After Baghdad was captured in 1258 by Hulagu, who himself was an adherent of the Mongol shamanist religion, Syriac Christians for the first time enjoyed a period of governmental support. This was at least partly due to the fact that in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Church of the East had again spread along Central Asia into northern China, converting several Mongol tribes to Christianity. The Mongol camps had churches and many of the khans, among which was Hulagu, had Christian wives. This total reversal from the earlier situation made Christians believe that a golden age had dawned. To a certain extent this was indeed the case, and authors such as Gregory Bar cEbroyo (Barhebreaus), a Syrian Orthodox prelate (d. 1286) and cAwdishoc bar Brikha, Church of the East Metropolitan of Nisibis (d. 1318), who both wrote in Syriac and Arabic, made use of this period of tranquillity to revitalize Christian Syriac scholarship, which had started to slow down in the eleventh century. Mar Yawalaha, a monk probably of Ongut descent from Mongol-occupied China, became Patriarch of the Church of the East between 1281 and 1317, and symbolized the good relationships between the Mongol rulers and the Christian Church.

This 'Syriac renaissance', however, was not to last very long, for soon the Mongols realized that Islam was too powerful a force to be disregarded if they wanted to stay in power in these western regions. The first Mongol khan to become a Muslim was Ahmad Tekudur (1282-4). His successor Argun returned to the earlier policy of religious pluralism and with the help of Yawalaha's right hand man, Rabban Sauma, requested the assistance of the West against the Muslim Mamluks via the embassy of 1287/8, but after his death in 1291 his successors returned to Islam and gradually became less sympathetic to Christianity. The fourteenth century saw many ups and downs for the Christians in Mesopotamia and Persia, as well as the end of the communities in Central Asia and China, especially after the overturn of the Mongol Yuan dynasty by the Chinese Ming dynasty in 1368. At the end of the fourteenth century, Tamerlane's destructive campaigns dealt a final blow to many of the remaining Christian centres, especially in Persia and southern Mesopotamia. Although the political events of the fourteenth century may with some justification be seen as the main factor in the reduction of the Church of the East and the Syrian Orthodox Church to small minority churches, the enormous losses of this period can only be explained by the long period of weakening that had preceded it. The communities that survived the fourteenth century were the most traditional and the most isolated, that is, Aramaic-speaking and mainly concentrated in mountainous rural areas. In all likelihood, the communities that disappeared were more urbanized, Arabic- or Persian-speaking, and perhaps assimilated to the surrounding culture to a larger extent than their more traditional counterparts.

It was from these somewhat isolated and traditional communities that, towards the end of the fifteenth century, the Church of the East and the Syrian Orthodox Church slowly began to recover from the enormous losses of the fourteenth century. Churches and monasteries began to be restored and manuscripts were copied, to such an extent that the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries became a high point in Syriac manuscript production, especially in the Church of the East. Manuscript production was stimulated not only by relatively stable political and economic conditions, but also by the need to replace the earlier manuscript losses, many of these texts being of a liturgical nature and thus needed in everyday church life.

In the early sixteenth century northern Mesopotamia had become part of the Ottoman Empire, which after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 had grown into a new Islamic world power. The same general dhimmi rules were in force under Ottoman rule, and by the nineteenth century the millet system had grown into an intricate set of regulations. In general, as in earlier periods, the millet system guaranteed considerable self-rule for the Christian communities, provided that the heads of the millets were approved of by the Ottoman Porte and that poll taxes were paid in time. The Syrian Orthodox Church and the Church of the East, whose centres in eastern Anatolia and Mesopotamia were again far away from the political power that had moved to Istanbul, were for most of the Ottoman period not granted the status of a separate millet. They were represented at the Porte by the Armenian patriarch, although the patriarchs of both Syriac churches often did ask for Ottoman approval after being elevated to office.

In this period the relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, which had occupied church leaders during the crusades and the time of the early Mongols, again became an important political factor in both churches. In the middle of the sixteenth century, a group of clergy and lay people from the Church of the East asked for papal recognition of their candidate for the patriarchate, the monk Yuhannan Sulaqa, a move which might have been stimulated by earlier contacts between the Indian Church of the East and Portuguese missionaries. This confirmation was granted by Rome in 1553, albeit on the erroneous assumption that the patriarch in office, Shimcun VII Ishocyaw bar Mama of the Abuna family (1538/9-58), had died. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Sulaqa's successors, who had been located in Diyarbakir and Seert, moved first to Persia, later to Hakkari (Qodshanis), and subsequently refrained from seeking papal recognition. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the traditional patriarchs of the Abuna family firmly established themselves in Rabban Hormizd near Alqosh (northern Iraq), and became the most influential patriarchate of the Church of the East. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, Capuchin missionaries became the prime agents in the conversion to Catholicism of the Bishop of Diyarbakir, who became the Chaldean patriarch Yosep I in 1681. In 1830 his line united itself with the patriarchate in Alqosh under Yuhannan Hormizd (1830-8) to become the Chaldean patriarchate. In the nineteenth century, French Dominican missionaries in Mosul contributed to the further strengthening of the Catholic Chaldean Church in northern Mesopotamia. In the meantime, the successors of Sulaqa in Oodshanis had reintroduced hereditary succession and carried the traditional patriarchal name Shimcun. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this patriarchate by a curious twist of church politics became the sole representative of traditional Church of the East leadership.

In the middle of the sixteenth century the Syrian Orthodox, too, initiated contacts with Rome. The contacts between Patriarch Ignatius cAbd-Allah and Pope Julius seem to have led to some kind of union. Ignatius' successors Nicmat-Allah and Dawud Shah tried to continue these contacts, but the former was accused of treason by the Ottomans and converted to Islam (later fleeing to Rome and returning to Christianity); the latter, probably also under Ottoman pressure, around 1580 declined to negotiate with a papal delegation in Mesopotamia. Almost a century later, in 1656, Bishop c Abdul-Gal (later Andreas) Akhijan of Mardin converted to Catholicism under influence of Capuchin missionaries in the region, as had Yosep I. Despite formal recognition by the Ottoman authorities, this union lasted only till the death of his second successor in 1721. The most successful attempt at a union took place in 1783, when Michael Jarweh, Metropolitan of Aleppo, converted to Catholicism and was confirmed by Pope Pius VI as its first patriarch. He was supported by bishops from the Mardin region. Mardin remained the patriarchal see till 1888.

In the nineteenth century, Presbyterian and Congregationalist missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) became active in the Middle East. In Iran, they were particularly successful among the Church of the East, by introducing a written language based on the spoken modern Aramaic language of the Urmia region. Later missions, among which the French Lazarists and the British Anglicans were the most important, also began printing in the vernacular and contributed to the general acceptance of this modern Aramaic language as the written language of educated men and women. Even though the American missionaries succeeded in establishing small Protestant congregations in Urmia among the followers of the Church of the East and in Tur cAbdin among the Syrian Orthodox, their contributions to the field of literacy and education proved to be more influential. Their network of primary schools, complemented by a number of high schools that later developed into colleges (Urmia, Kharput), spurred other missions and the Syriac Christians themselves into action as regards the field of education. These colleges grew into breeding grounds of young intellectuals from the different Christian minorities in Persia and in Turkey, among which the Armenians were very important. It is from these centres that nationalism, which had already started to influence Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul at an earlier date, became an important force among the Syriac communities.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, circumstances in the Ottoman regions were not favourable to such types of nationalism. Political and military pressure from its powerful Eastern neighbour Russia, complemented by ongoing political pressure from European states that was aimed, among other things, at negotiating more rights for the Christian minorities, made the Ottomans very suspicious of any form of nationalism that could be explained as disloyalty to the Ottoman state. In the years 1894 to 1896 the first organized massacres of the Armenian population of Eastern Anatolia took place, because Armenians were suspected of supporting Christian Russia in its aims to occupy that region. In the First World War the Syrian communities, together with the Armenians, carried the heavy burden of the generally accepted idea that the Christians were disloyal to the Ottoman state. The Church of the East communities of Hakkari fled to Persia en masse, where those who survived the arduous trip and the attacks during the journey found temporary safety in the compounds of the American and French missions. In 1918, Turkish and Kurdish pressure made all Christians flee Urmia to British-occupied Baquba near Baghdad, losing many lives on the way. In northern Iraq, the Church of the East and the Chaldean Church had lived through the war relatively unharmed, being somewhat further away from the sensitive border regions with Russia. The Syrian Orthodox in Tur cAbdin and the larger eastern Anatolian region suffered greatly; many of the inhabitants of the Christian villages and small towns were massacred and many of those who tried to flee to the Syrian provinces did not survive the hardships of the road.

The horrors of this war gave the final impetus to a migration movement that had already started on a small scale at the end of the nineteenth century. Many Christians from the Syriac churches chose to leave the Middle East and find a new home elsewhere in the world, especially in the United States. Large Church of the East communities were formed in Chicago and in California, whereas Detroit became a centre of the Chaldean Church. Syrian Orthodox communities found homes in New Jersey and New England. France became another centre for Chaldeans from Iraq, whereas many Syrian Orthodox from Syria and Palestine settled in South America. In the second half of the twentieth century, Syrian Orthodox believers from Tur cAbdin and northern Syria moved to north-western Europe, to Germany, Sweden an d the Netherlands, in combination with the labour migration of the early seventies and also because of an unstable political situation; later it was because conditions in Tur cAbdin worsened during the war between the Turkish army and the Kurdish PKK. The Arab-Israeli wars, the Lebanese Civil War and Gulf War of 1991 induced Syriac Christians from Israel, Lebanon and Iraq to find a home elsewhere in world: in the United States, in Australia and several European countries.

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