As in all Orthodox churches, the spiritual and theological life of the Syriac churches is centred on the liturgy. Although the two main liturgical traditions, i.e., that of the Church of the East ('the Persian' or 'East-Syrian' rite) and of the Syrian Orthodox Church (the 'West-Syrian' rite) have different origins and different focuses, they both represent ancient liturgical traditions that in form and content go back to the early days of Christianity. The Eucharistic rite of the Church of the East probably contains the most ancient elements, owing to the relative isolation of this church since its origins; it probably began in the Edessa or Nisibis region. The West Syrian rite is based on an Antiochene model, with influences from the Jerusalem rite. The Catholic counterparts of both churches have generally kept to their ancient rites and have not accepted a large amount of Latinization. Over the course of time, the rites have retained their basic forms, albeit variously adapted and added on by clerical authors.
In Syriac spirituality, the church buildings play an important role. These buildings reflect the Orthodox conception of the church as a representation of the whole cosmos, of heaven and earth, heaven being symbolized by the sanctuary (madbha, altar), the earth by the nave (haykla, temple) of the church, the two parts separated from each other by the choir. The oldest and often very beautiful examples of Syriac churches today are found in Tur cAbdin, in Hah, in Nusaybin (Nisibis), and in the monasteries of Mor Gabriel and Dayr az-Zafaran, which date from the sixth and seventh centuries. Not many church buildings of the Church of the East have survived the Mongol ravages, although many of those in northern Iraq and western Iran were probably built on earlier foundations. Most of these churches are simple one-nave structures, without any adornments. In Mosul and its surroundings some of the churches are larger and more extensively decorated; the best-preserved monastery is that of Rabban Hormizd near Alqosh.
The Syriac tradition has not allowed icons to have the same central function as in the Byzantine tradition, although in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries many icons and religious paintings found their way into Syriac churches. There are several indications that even the Church of the East, sometimes portrayed as staunchly antiimages, allowed pictures or statues in its churches in the Middle Ages. In the Syrian Orthodox Church, the equivalent of the iconostasis is a curtain that at certain moments of the Eucharistic liturgy is closed, whereas in the Church of the East the larger part of the sanctuary is often hidden behind a stone wall.
The Syriac churches have a long monastic history, during which monasteries were the prime guardians of the literary and theological tradition. A rich monastic literature was developed out of Greek, Egyptian and Mesopotamian influences, in which the boundary between the Church of the East and the Syrian Orthodox Church was easily crossed. Up till the eighth century, eastern authors were particularly productive, although little of their work survived within the Church of the East. In the thirteenth century, Muslim mystical traditions influenced authors such as Gregory Bar cEbroyo, whose works were appreciated in both churches and remained in circulation up till the present day.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, monasticism declined and especially in the Church of the East, scribal traditions were taken over by the priestly families of the villages of northern Mesopotamia. In the nineteenth century, the influence of Roman Catholic missions led to a revival of monasticism, this time based on western models such as the community in the monastery of Notre Dames des Semences, built in 1861 near the old Rabban Hormizd. The monasteries of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Tur cAbdin were never completely deserted and have become important centres of pilgrimage and learning for Syrian Orthodox believers from all over the world. In addition, Syrian Orthodox monasteries in Europe, such as the Mor Ephrem monastery in Glanerbrug, cater for the spiritual and educational needs of the diaspora.
Pilgrimage plays an important role for members of all Syriac churches. The most important of these is the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which throughout history was undertaken by members of all churches involved. It entitles the pilgrim to the epithet of maqdshaya (Syriac) or maqdasi (Arabic), 'holy one', often indicated by a cross tattooed on arm or hand; pilgrimages to a variety of other holy sites are popular. Such pilgrimages might consist of individual travel to some of the famous monasteries or churches of the tradition, but more often takes the form of visiting specific local monasteries or churches on the feast day, the dukhrana, of its saint. At such gatherings Holy Liturgy is celebrated or individual prayers at the shrine are said, and are followed by a communal meal and often by traditional dancing. These shahra-s, as they are called, are important communal gatherings where old friends and family meet and new ties are forged through friendship and courtship.
A large number of saints are venerated in the Syriac tradition; some of the most popular are Mar Giwargis (St George), Mar Sargis and Mart Shmuni (the mother of the seven Maccabee sons). Their stories are collected in a large variety of saints' lives and extolled in well-known hymns, which still play a role in popular Christian imagination, especially in connection to pilgrimage sites. The veneration of the Virgin Mary occupies a special position in all churches. This is partly due to strong Roman Catholic influence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which introduced western Marian customs to the Middle Eastern churches (for instance women wearing blue clothing in May), but also to the fact that these influences fell on the fruitful soil of a long Syriac tradition, already attested in Ephrem's poetry, of venerating Mary as the ultimate symbol of the multifaceted and intense relationship of the Church with Christ. Note that, contrary to common opinion, the Church of the East's consistent rejection of the title 'Mother of God' never prevented its theologians and believers from honouring her in the same way as the other churches of the Syriac tradition.
As in many other traditions, popular religion also comprises what is often described as 'magic'. In the Syriac churches, especially those in Mesopotamia, priests wrote miniature scrolls with protective prayers, which were then sewn into clothing or stored away in the house. A large variety of such texts have been transmitted, suggesting a sophisticated system in which certain evils, including all kinds of diseases and disabilities, required particular prayers. The basis of a particular charm is usually formed by familiar prayers such as the Lord's Prayer, in addition to which saints such as Mar Giwargis and Mar Sargis are often invoked. In many cases the curses and distinctive phrases reflect pre-Christian Mesopotamian models. The scrolls are often adorned with simple pictures. The influence of western missionaries in the nineteenth century caused these scrolls to disappear from the foreground, although rites and amulets of protection have probably survived in different ways until the present day.
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