Tag Archives: Syriac

Found: A Philological Detail and a Methodological Point

Recently I was translating a medieval Syriac poem lamenting a deacon who converted to Islam, and I got stuck on a single word.  Different manuscripts, as is often the case, contained different readings of that word, but the options were either nonsensical or not in the dictionaries.  The only other scholar to work with the text proposed an emendation which was semantically sensible but poetically impossible.  What’s a translator to do?  I found a way through, turning a philological detail into a methodological point about late medieval Syriac texts. Continue reading


A Brief Syriac Bio of an Arabic Poet

In the Chronicle of 1234, composed in Edessa in the mid-13th century, there is a brief notice of the poet al-Mutanabbi:

At this time a person named Mutanabbi was famous in poetry, and he had a book of poetry in Arabic writing, and he is greatly praised among the people of the Arabs.

It’s not much, and it does not tell us anything about the poet which we did not know from other, fuller sources.  But it does tell us a bit about the reception of the poet, namely that this Muslim poet and his work were known in Christian social circles in what is today eastern Turkey.  It is a further example that medieval Middle Eastern culture was not divided along religious lines.

Found: Ibn Taymiyya on Palm Sunday

Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) was a popular preacher and Muslim legal scholar in Damascus under Mamluk rule.  He is primarily remembered for writing polemics against almost everyone (Jews, Christians, Alawites, Twelver Shiites, wild Sufis, the Mongols who had recently converted to Islam, Persian speakers, Sunni Muslims who engage in popular practices such as shrine visitation and praying to saints), and the famous traveler Ibn Battuta described him as having “some kink in his brain” (Gibb trans.).  He is a leading authority cited by Wahhabis and other Salafis today.  So one does not expect him to be a main resource on the religion of his opponents.  But in reading this week from one of his polemics (against those Muslims who participate in non-Muslim festivals), I came across his account of what happened on Palm Sunday, a version of the events which I had never heard:

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Is ISIS Medieval?

A while ago I read a thought-provoking discussion of the goals of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and how that jihadist group draws from pre-modern Islamic religious texts in formulating its tactics and its appeal to violent extremist Muslims.  The author is at his provocative best in likening well-intentioned Western liberal attempts to define ISIS as un-Islamic as a kind of takfirism, or labeling certain Muslims as unbelievers.  I think he misses the point when he delegitimizes practicing Muslims for describing ISIS as un-Islamic, and indeed, his article provoked a firestorm of criticisms, refutations, and abuse over the use of the term “Islamic” for ISIS.  For practitioners, islam is submission to God’s will, and if ISIS is going against God’s will, then they are ipso facto not islam.  It does not require historical naivete (or, as Prof. Haykel evocatively termed it, “a cotton-candy view of their own religion,” although see his clarification here) to acknowledge that many things historically practiced by Muslims are inconsistent with what most modern Muslims understand to be God’s will.  However, the real bone I want to pick with the article is the way it simply accepts the Salafi account of what medieval Islam was, an account which is itself revisionist history.

Put simply, the “medieval Islam” to which ISIS and other Salafis appeal never existed as such.  Too many scholars play along with this modern chimera, though they know better, and thus are complicit in a cultural genocide which is reducing the fascinatingly diverse pre-modern Middle East to a one-dimensional textbook description of Sunni Arab Islam, complete with five pillars evidently erected by Muhammad himself. Continue reading

Found: 1918 List of Mosul Religious Buildings

An unnamed Chaldean scribe in the city of Mosul finished a Syriac manuscript (now in the Vatican) on “the middle day” (i.e. 16) of March, 1918, in the closing months of World War I on the Middle Eastern front.  The manuscript was paid for by “the priest Peter Hakim of Amid,” who had presumably fled his home city (now called Diyarbakır) during the massacres a few years before.  There are many Syriac manuscripts copied in the early 20th C, but this manuscript has a difference: after identifying Mosul as the place where the manuscript was copied, the scribe added a list of religious sites in Mosul, both Christian and Muslim.  In particular, he lists fifteen churches, four monasteries, and over fifty mosques in and around the city.

In light of the destruction of many religious sites in Mosul, both Christian and Muslim, by ISIS in the past two months, I thought it would be interesting to give some of the highlights of the list in my own translation from the Syriac and Garshuni list (which remains unpublished):

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Non-Muslim Significance? The Advantages of Marginalia

Religious minorities serve a valuable function in allowing scholars and careful thinkers to distinguish religious from social and environmental factors in their analysis.  If, to take a counter-factual, it were the case that all Muslims were Middle Eastern and all non-Muslims were not, then it would be unclear whether any given aspect of Middle Eastern society was related to Islam as a religion, or related to the type of government, or geographic factors, or anything else.  One could reason about the nature of the causes, of course, but in the absence of disjunctive populations (the non-overlapping lobes of a Venn diagram), it would not be possible to test these hypotheses.

Fortunately, this is a counter-factual, despite the sloppy thinking of many who simply equate “Middle Eastern” with “Muslim.”  In the first instance, it is a counter-factual because not all Muslims are Middle Eastern.  Something that is true of Moroccans and Indonesians, for example, is more likely to be due to a common Islamic understanding than due to environmental factors distinctive to the eastern Mediterranean basin.  Something thought to be “Islamic” but unique to the Middle East is less likely to be related to the religion.  But the other half of the conditional is equally false: not all Middle Easterners are Muslim.  If something is true only of the Sunnis and Shiʿites in the Middle East, then religion seems a more likely factor than if the same is true also for Jews and Christians in the Middle East.

For example, much of “Islamic” art is stylistically very similar to decorations in Christian manuscripts, which is not surprising since at least into the medieval period many of the workers producing “Islamic” art for elite Muslim patrons were themselves Christian.  It was not unusual for Syriac manuscripts into the 20th C to open with a textual decoration resembling a monumental doorway, and the architecture of many mosques shared features in common with Middle Eastern churches from late antiquity onward.  The distinctive Arabic calligraphic style, on the other hand, depended on the Arabic language and script, which most non-Muslim literate elites did not adopt until after the calligraphy had begun to develop in the medieval period.  Now, however, it has been adopted by Christians as well as Muslims.

(Parenthetically, the existence of Christian groups outside of Europe also provides an opportunity for European historians to distinguish which aspects of their medieval culture were due to Christianity and which were due to the fact that the medieval European nobility were a barely civilized thug-ocracy.  The Jewish population of medieval Europe can also play a disambiguating role analogous to the various non-Muslim groups of the Middle East.  But that is for European historians to benefit from.)

Another example, this time from women’s history, shows that not even aspects of religion can be safely assumed to be explainable by religion alone.  Women in medieval mosques were assigned to pray in the back, behind the men.  There is a hadith in which Muhammad reportedly said that the best rows for women to pray in are the back ones, and the best rows for men are the front ones.  Since these traditional sayings were considered normative in medieval Islam (or at least some of them, in certain ways), the case seems to be closed: the religion of Islam was the cause for women being relegated behind the men in religious services.  But before we leave the subject, we might observe that in Christian churches in Iraq until the early modern period women were also placed in the back of the sanctuary, and two doors in the side of the church provided separate entrances for men and women.  (Interestingly, the Bible was read from a platform on the gender line, while communion was consecrated at the front altar.  I haven’t yet figured out whether women went forward to receive communion or whether communion was brought to the women’s side.)  Now, these Christians were not likely reading the hadith collection, nor regarding it as normative.  Is the gender divide of medieval Middle Eastern religious architecture, Christian as well as Muslim, due to religion, or due to trans-religious cultural assumptions regarding gender and space?

Failure to pay attention to the disjunctions in the Venn diagram leads to a disproportionate tendency among scholars to explain aspects of Middle Eastern society with reference to Islam.  The result relegates non-Muslims to insignificance, but it does so due to an unarticulated circular argument.  Only closer attention to Middle Eastern non-Muslims would allow scholars to discern the true significance and social effects of Islam.

Who are the Chaldeans?

A friend of mine recently met some Chaldeans in Michigan, and as I am his go-to guy for all matters Middle Eastern and Christian, he asked me who they were.  Here is my response, lightly edited for broader publication:

The subject of Chaldean ethnicity is rather complicated.  Basically “Chaldeans” are Catholic Assyrians,” as these two terms get used in modern Iraq.  The connection with the “Assyrians” of the Old Testament (much less the astrologers of Daniel 2) is debatable.

A more detailed answer must be aware of the fact that Christianity in Iraq has almost disappeared as a result of a very difficult past century.  Widespread massacres in 1915 (better known in the West as the Armenian Genocide, although Armenians were not the only targets) killed large numbers and drove them south into the central Iraqi plain.  At the end of World War I, while the victorious Western powers were meeting in Paris, British officers in Iraq encouraged an Assyrian leader named Agha Petros to try to capture a territory for an Assyrian “homeland” and present the victors with a fait accompli; the attempt was disastrous.  The British Mandate government which subsequently ruled Iraq frequently used the Assyrian Christians as a paramilitary force, which made them deeply unpopular with other groups in the area.  After the British pulled out in 1932, the Simele massacres of 1933 further reduced Assyrian numbers and solidified Iraqi national sentiment against the Assyrians.  Many Assyrians emigrated from Iraq in this period.  Those who remained stabilized as a small minority within Iraq, and pressures to abandon the Assyrian neo-Aramaic language in favor of either Arabic or Kurdish have been intermittently very high.  Saddam Hussein was seen by a few (notably Jean-Maurice Fiey before 1973) as more friendly to Christians (his foreign minister Tariq Aziz is a Chaldean Catholic), though his Arab Nationalist Ba’ath party also discouraged the use of Assyrian neo-Aramaic in favor of Arabization.  Assyrians today speak not only of the genocide of 1915, but also of a cultural genocide.  So one must be careful how one addresses the history of an endangered minority.  Nevertheless, history cannot be written to serve present pain.

Most Assyrians emphasize that their ethnic identity has not changed since before the rise of Islam.  So I’ll give you three perspectives: the “traditional” Assyrian view (as forcefully expressed by various Assyrians I have met), the widely held scholarly view, and my compromise.

The “traditional” Assyrian view

Don’t be misled by the label “traditional”; one Orthodox priest used to say that unchanging tradition is whatever your grandmother did.  It need not be older than a century.  But this view says that the ancient Assyrians who ruled much of the Near East from their capital at Nineveh never died out.  Instead they were conquered by the Babylonians (in 612 BCE), the Achaemenid Persians (in the late 500s BCE), Alexander the Great (shortly before 300 BCE), the Parthians (in the 220s BCE), the Romans (briefly in the 110s CE), the Sasanian Persians (in the 230s CE), the Muslim Arabs (in the 630s and 640s), the Mongols (in the mid-13th C), and the Ottomans (in the 1530s).  In the meantime, the apostle Thomas had sent his disciple Addai to Edessa (modern Urfa in SE Turkey), and Addai in turn sent his disciple Mari to Seleucia and Ctesiphon, the capitals of the Persian Empire.  They converted the Assyrians among various other peoples, and although they used Syriac in the churches, they continued to speak Assyrian neo-Aramaic.  Assyrians practiced Christianity in large numbers and flourished in the plain around Mosul (founded across the Tigris river from ancient Nineveh), until at the end of the 14th C Timur Lenk (“Tamerlane”) conquered the region and slaughtered them, and many of them retreated to the mountains to the north.  (In the 16th C, many of those left in the plains adopted Catholicism and became “Chaldeans.”)  The “Mountain Nestorians” were the target of American and British missionary ventures in the 19th C, and during the sufferings of the twentieth century, those who could fled to the West (especially Chicago, Stockholm, and Melbourne, but also London, Detroit area, and other places).  Thus they are the ancient Assyrians, who recently have suffered genocide and cultural extermination.

The “standard” scholarly view

A few scholars accept the “traditional” Assyrian view, but most do not.  The skeptics point out that when the American missionaries traveled to the “Mountain Nestorians” in the 1830s and 1840s, they claimed to be the ten lost tribes of Israel!  On the most common view, the term “Chaldean” was not used within this community before the 1700s, being translated from the Latin.  The first use of the term “Chaldean” to refer to a contemporary community since antiquity was in 1445, when a branch of the Church of the East in Cyprus submitted to the Papacy and was called “Chaldean”.  The merger didn’t last long, but in 1553 a monk from northern Iraq traveled to Rome to ask to be appointed “Patriarch of Babylon,” and he and those who followed him were termed Chaldeans in Latin.  In Renaissance Europe, the main dialect of Aramaic which was studied was the one in Daniel 2 (and other biblical texts), which was termed “Chaldean” due to the fact that in the text it is the Chaldeans who first speak it to Nebuchadnezzar.  So when Christians from northern Iraq showed up speaking a (rather different) dialect of Aramaic, they were labeled “Chaldeans”.  The term “Assyrian,” it is claimed, was not used for a contemporary community until the English adventurer/archaeologist (Indiana Jones type) Henry Layard discovered the ruins of ancient Nineveh across from the city of Mosul.  In light of 19th C European theories of racial fixedness and physiognomy, Layard and other Brits after him declared that the Christians of the area were clearly “Assyrians,” from their facial resemblance to the stone reliefs which colonial antiquities collectors were busy bringing back to the British Museum in London.  In the second half of the 19th C, the term “Assyrian” was adopted by the community itself as an importation of European nationalism in order to argue for their right to political autonomy against the Ottoman Empire (just as the Greeks had done earlier).  With the genocide in the early 20th C and the 1933 massacres, ethnic identity assumed primacy over religious identity within this community, especially as they continued (whether still in Iraq or now in the West) to lobby for political autonomy using European terms.  Thus there is no continuity between the ancient Assyrians and the modern Assyrians.

My views

There are various mediating positions which scholars adopt between the extreme view just summarized and the “traditional” view.  A few details: the term “Assyrian” was known and used before 1840, in various centuries.  For example, the 2nd C Christian author Tatian identified himself in Greek as “Assyrios.”  The Armenians used “Asoristan” (the “land of the Assyrians”) straight through the medieval period, and also (though less commonly, perhaps) used the group name “Asorik’.”  The Syriac terms “Athor” (a place) and “Athoraya” (a person from that place) were very rarely used from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century.  Additional citations can be found on the Wikipedia page “Assyrian Continuity“.

The difficulty is that proponents of Assyrian continuity typically fail to ask the question what “Assyrian” means in different contexts, but assume its meaning is unchanging.  What Tatian meant, I am not sure, but probably appealed to a Mesopotamian birth (and not all Mesopotamians are or were “Assyrians” in the modern sense).  The eleventh-century Greek historian Michael Attaleiates termed one person an “Assyrios” on account of his having been born in Antioch in Syria, not in Mesopotamia at all.  The Armenian “Asuristan” is clearly a designation for Iraqi Mesopotamia as distinct from “Mijaget” (“Mesopotamia”), which was used for upper Mesopotamia in what is now Syria and Turkey, and “Sham” (Syria southwest of the Euphrates).  The Syriac “Athor” refers to the region around Mosul in northern Iraq, and “Athoraya” refers exclusively to someone from that small region, not to any of the people in other regions (such as the mountains of Kurdistan or Hakkari, or the plain west of the Lake Urmia in NW Iran) whose descendants now call themselves “Assyrians.”  So some memory of Mosul as the capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire seems to have survived.

But pre-modern Middle Easterners did not use ethnic names for enduring descent groups, as became popular in modern Europe.  So “ethnic” labels such as “Assyrian” should be understood with reference to places, languages, or religious groups.  (Indeed, the “ethnic” term preferred by 17th C poets who would later be called “Assyrians” was not “Athoraye” but “Suraye” – i.e. Syriac speakers.)  Given the American missionaries’ reports that the “Mountain Nestorians” in the 1830s believed they were the ten lost tribes of Israel, it seems likely that leaders in the community were willing to adopt whatever “ethnic” label would be most advantageous, and one can hardly blame them in light of their subsequent sufferings.  Thus it is simply false to say that there has always been a well-defined ethnic group known as the “Assyrians” to themselves and to others, who preserved the cultural identity of Sargon and Sennacherib and the ancient Assyrian Empire.

On the other hand, it is certainly true that the ancient Assyrians were not exterminated, so the modern Assyrians are probably descendants of the ancient Assyrians.  But the ancient Assyrians are not known to have practiced strict endogamy, so they certainly intermarried with newcomers in the form of Israelite captives, Kurds, Persian conquerors, a small group of Greek invaders, Armenians, Arabs, and finally Turks.  Just as my own “northwestern European” cocktail of ancestry is not distinctively French, English, German, or Irish, much less any specific tribe in any of these areas, so modern Assyrians can count their ancestors from many different groups.  Modern Assyrian culture is probably also a continuous development from ancient Assyrian culture, but again not exclusively, as their Aramaic dialects absorbed words of Persian (in at least two waves), Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkish.  So ancient Assyrian culture would be as unrecognizable to modern Assyrians as painting oneself blue is to modern Brits.  In the 15th C, the Church of the East still thought of itself as a universal church, and identified several ethnic labels within its ranks.

But as Christians in the Hakkari Mountains and Iraq encountered European ideas of ethnic persistence and self-determination, they cast about for which ethnicity they could claim, and “Assyrian” seemed a sensible choice which was close to hand.  The problem is that those European ideas of ethnic persistence and physiognomy are demonstrably wrong, and yet ethnic essentialism persists among Middle Eastern Christians still hoping in vain for Western world leadership to live up to Western political ideals of national autonomy and self-determination.

You can see why it’s a sensitive topic.  But the short answer is that “Chaldeans” are Catholic “Assyrians.”