The Syrian Orthodox Church

The Syrian churches are defined culturally as those sharing Syriac as the liturgical language. The Syrian Orthodox is the largest of these, interacting in the Middle Ages with the Melkite community and also with the Church of the East. The geographical area is centred on Syria, and also encompasses Iraq, Lebanon and Tur cAbdin in Eastern Turkey, as well as India, and in the earlier period central Asia and China, and the more recent diaspora communities in the USA and Australia.

Antioch, one of the great cities of the classical world alongside Rome and Alexandria, thrived in the early Christian period. Among its magnificent churches was that built by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century on an octagonal plan. Edessa (present day Urfa), on the other hand, was the Aramaic-Syriac, as opposed to Graeco-Roman, cultural centre. It was here that King Abgar (r. 4bce-7ce and 13-50) was converted to Christianity, giving rise to the famous story of the portrait of Christ sent to Edessa, the mandylion. Edessa became a major literary and theological centre, after the ceding of Nisibis in Mesopotamia as part of a peace treaty with Persia. This was when St Ephrem made his home in Edessa. Edessa was also famed as the burial site of St Thomas, in the so-called Ancient Church, rebuilt in the fourth century. This is not to say that links were cut with the Melkite Church. On the contrary, the cathedral, dedicated to St Sophia and consecrated in 345-6, was rebuilt as a Melkite place of worship in the 540 s by the Emperor Justinian. It vied with that emperor's great Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople in being a square, domed structure, with mosaics ornamenting its interior. But Edessene Christianity extended beyond the urban setting and was also famed for the numerous monasteries of the Holy Mountain near Edessa.

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