Introduction to Aramean and Syriac Studies: A manual 9781463238933

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Introduction to Aramean and Syriac Studies

Gorgias Handbooks

Gorgias Handbooks provides students and scholars with reference books, textbooks and introductions to different topics or fields of study. In this series, Gorgias welcomes books that are able to communicate information, ideas and concepts effectively and concisely, with useful reference bibliographies for further study.

Introduction to Aramean and Syriac Studies

A manual

By Arman Akopian

gp 2017

Gorgias Press LLC, 954 River Road, Piscataway, NJ, 08854, USA Copyright © 2017 by Gorgias Press LLC

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, scanning or otherwise without the prior written permission of Gorgias Press LLC.




ISBN 978-1-4632-0738-0

ISSN 1935-6838

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data A Cataloging-in-Publication Record is available from the Library of Congress. Printed in the United States of America

TABLE OF CONTENTS Table of Contents ................................................................................................................... v List of figures ......................................................................................................................... vii List of tables............................................................................................................................ xi List of maps .......................................................................................................................... xiii 1. Semitic languages and peoples .......................................................................................... 1 2. Arameans at the dawn of their history .......................................................................... 29 3. The religion of ancient Arameans .................................................................................. 51 4. The Aramaic language and its world ............................................................................. 57 Old Aramaic (10th – 8th centuries BC) ................................................................... 58 Imperial Aramaic (7th – 4th centuries BC) .............................................................. 66 Middle Aramaic (3rd cent. BC – 2nd centuries AD).............................................. 84 Late Aramaic (since the 3rd centuries AD) ...........................................................119 5. Osrhoene and the Aramean awakening ...................................................................... 149 6. The spread of Christianity in Osrhoene...................................................................... 161 7. Syriac Christianity under the rule of Iran .................................................................... 169 8. Syriaс thought and literature of the first centuries of Christianity ..........................179 9. The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church and its schisms ..........................189 10. The split of Syriac Christianity: “Nestorians” and “Jacobites” ............................199 11. Other branches of Syriac Christianity: Melkites and Maronites............................217 12. The writing and scribal traditions of the Syriacs ..................................................... 223 13. Translation activity of the Syriacs .............................................................................. 245 14. Syriac translations of the Holy Scriptures ................................................................. 255 15. Syriac system of education ..........................................................................................269 16. Syriac theology and philosophy .................................................................................. 277 17. Worldly sciences and secular literature of the Syriacs............................................. 285 18. Syriac historiography .................................................................................................... 297 19. Syriacs under Arab-Muslim domination ................................................................... 307 20. Commercial and missionary activity of the Syriacs ................................................. 315 Missionary activity of Syriacs among Arabs ..........................................................317 Missionary activity of Syriacs in Central Asia ........................................................ 322 Missionary activity of Syriacs among Mongols and their circumstances under Mongol rule ........................................................................................................ 329 “St. Thomas Christians” and Syriac Christianity in India .................................... 337 v



Missionary activity of Syriacs in China and Tibet ................................................. 348 21. Syriac rite Catholic Churches ...................................................................................... 357 22. The Syriacs between the Ottoman Empire, Iran, and Russia ...............................369 23. The “Assyrian idea” and the issue of self-identitification for Syriac Christians . 391 24. Syriacs in the 20th century and on the threshold of the third millennium ......... 401 25. Modern Aramaic dialects.............................................................................................427 26. The current state of the Classical Syriac Language ................................................. 447 27. The origins and development of modern Aramean and Syriac studies ............... 455 Appendix: Klaus Beyer’s classification of Aramaic dialects ......................................... 479 Select bibiliography ............................................................................................................. 495 Index ..................................................................................................................................... 503

LIST OF FIGURES Fig. 1. Sumerian inscription from Uruk (32nd cent. BC) .............................................................. 1 Fig. 2. An example of Akkadian cuneiform (the first lines of the Enuma Elish epic) ................ 5 Fig. 3. A sample of proto-Sinaitic script .......................................................................................... 8 Fig. 4. Some characters of the proto-Canaanite script ................................................................... 8 Fig. 5. Inscription in pseudo-hieroglyphic script of Byblos .......................................................... 9 Fig. 6. Phoenician inscription on the sarcophagus of King Eshmunazar II ............................. 11 Fig. 7. The Gezer calendar ............................................................................................................... 14 Fig. 8. The King Mesha stele ........................................................................................................... 15 Fig. 9. The Amman citadel inscription ........................................................................................... 16 Fig. 10. Characters of the Ugaritic script ....................................................................................... 18 Fig. 11. An Arabic inscription of the 4th century BC made in the Nabatean Aramaic script .......................................................................................................................................... 20 Fig. 12. Samples of Arabic calligraphy ........................................................................................... 22 Fig. 13. A fragment of an inscription in South Arabian script ................................................... 23 Fig. 14. An example of Ethiopian syllabary ................................................................................... 24 Fig. 15. A bas-relief from Gozan with a winged sun disk ........................................................... 33 Fig. 16. Citadel of Sam’al (reconstruction by German archeologist Robert Koldewey).......... 40 Fig. 17. King Bar Rakkab of Sam’al and his secretary .................................................................. 41 Fig. 18. Hadad riding a bull (a restored stele from Til Barsib) .................................................... 52 Fig. 19. The image of priest Abd-Hadad on a coin ...................................................................... 53 Fig. 20. Images of Hadad and Atargatis on a coin........................................................................ 53 Fig. 21. A Western Semitic “Baal” from Ugarit ............................................................................ 55 Fig. 22. Fragment of King Zakkur’s inscription ........................................................................... 58 Fig. 23. The Sefire treaty .................................................................................................................. 59 Fig. 24. Melqart’s stele ...................................................................................................................... 59 Fig. 25. Surviving fragments of the Tel Dan stele ........................................................................ 61 Fig. 26. King Kilammuwa’s inscription with his own image ....................................................... 62 Fig. 27. King Bar Rakkab’s inscription........................................................................................... 64 Fig. 28. Assyrian bas-relief depicting scribes writing in Akkadian and Aramaic ...................... 68 Fig. 29. Gem with the image of Nebuchadnezzar and an Akkadian inscription ...................... 69 Fig. 30. A Babylonian bas-relief depicting Nabonidus worshiping heavenly bodies ............... 70 Fig. 31. The script of the Elephantine archive .............................................................................. 73 Fig. 32. An Elephantine papyrus with Aramaic text..................................................................... 74 Fig. 33. A fragment of the demotic text on the Rosetta Stone ................................................... 77 Fig. 34. An Aramaic inscription from Tayma ............................................................................... 81 Fig. 35. The Aramaic part of a Greek-Aramaic inscription with Ashoka’s edict...................... 85




Fig. 36. A sample of Kharosthi script ............................................................................................ 86 Fig. 37. The Parthian script.............................................................................................................. 86 Fig. 38. A boundary stone-mark with an Aramaic inscription by Armenian King Artashes I ........................................................................................................................ 87 Fig. 39. A sample of the Armazi script........................................................................................... 89 Fig. 40. The supposed sarcophagus of Queen Helena with Aramaic inscriptions ................... 91 Fig. 41. The portrait of Queen Zenobia on a coin ....................................................................... 93 Fig. 42. The divine trinity of Palmyra: Aglibol, Baal-Shamayn, and Malakbel .......................... 95 Fig. 43. A Palmyrene inscription on an altar ................................................................................. 96 Fig. 44. A tombstone from Palmyra with Aramaic inscriptions ................................................. 96 Fig. 45. Aramaic inscription by Queen Zenobia on a column .................................................... 97 Fig. 46. An Aramaic inscription from Dura-Europos (32 BC) ................................................... 98 Fig. 47. Emperor Elagabalus ........................................................................................................... 99 Fig. 48. A Nabatean bethel with an Aramaic inscription .............................................................103 Fig. 49. A Nabatean inscription ....................................................................................................105 Fig. 50. The “square” script of the Dead Sea Scrolls .................................................................110 Fig. 51. A fragment of a Dead Sea Scroll .....................................................................................110 Fig. 52. A Palestinian ossuary ........................................................................................................115 Fig. 53. Inscriptions on the Palestinian ossuaries of the 1st century AD ................................116 Fig. 54. Albert Pike’s rendering of the Samaritan script ............................................................126 Fig. 55. A fragment of the Samaritan Torah ...............................................................................126 Fig. 56. A mosaic inscription in Palestinian Christian Aramaic on Mount Nebo in Jordan ......................................................................................................................................131 Fig. 57. A sample of Mandaic writing...........................................................................................136 Fig. 58. A Mandean magical disk with Aramaic inscription ......................................................137 Fig. 59. A text written in the “square” script with Masoretic vocalization (Aleppo Codex)......................................................................................................................143 Fig. 60. The title page of “Zohar” published in Cremona in 1558...........................................146 Fig. 61. The Aramaic-Hebrew “square” script in its modern variety .......................................147 Fig. 62. A traditional Jewish marriage contract (ketuba) in Aramaic .........................................148 Fig. 63. The Birecik inscription (6 AD)........................................................................................156 Fig. 64. The Serrin inscription (73 AD) .......................................................................................158 Fig. 65. A dedication to Queen Shalmat on “Nimrod’s column” in Edessa...........................158 Fig. 66. Edessan mosaic tombstones with Aramaic inscriptions ..............................................159 Fig. 67. A Syriac inscription in Estrangela on an Edessan mosaic presumably depicting King Abgar the Great ...........................................................................................................224 Fig. 68. The Lord’s Prayer in Estrangela script ...........................................................................224 Fig. 69. A page of an 11th-century Melkite manuscript .............................................................225 Fig. 70. The Lord’s Prayer in Nestorian script ............................................................................226 Fig. 71. A sample of Melkite Serto ...............................................................................................227 Fig. 72. The Lord’s Prayer in Serto script ....................................................................................228 Fig. 73. The letters for vowels suggested by Jacob of Edessa...................................................229 Fig. 74. A sample of the Pahlavi script.........................................................................................231 Fig. 75. A sample of the Avestan script .......................................................................................231 Fig. 76. A sample of the Manichean script ..................................................................................232 Fig. 77. Arabic text written in Syriac letters (Serto) ....................................................................233 Fig. 78. A page from Malke bar Nikodimos’ Syriac-Arabic-Armenian dictionary .................234 Fig. 79. The Church of the Mother of God in the village of Hah in Tur Abdin ...................235 Fig. 80. A 12th-century Syriac palimpsest with original Armenian 6th-century text .............236 Fig. 81. A fragment of a 9th-century Syriac papyrus manuscript .............................................237 Fig. 82. A miniature from “The Rabbula Gospels”....................................................................238



Fig. 83. A manuscript of 1205 with Hippocrates’ aphorisms in Arabic and Syriac translation by Hunain ibn Ishaq ..........................................................................................251 Fig. 84. A page from the Ambrosian Peshitta .............................................................................256 Fig. 85. An illustration from the Paris manuscript of the Old Testament ..............................258 Fig. 86. A page from the Ambrosian Syro-Hexapla ...................................................................259 Fig. 87. A page from the Curetonian manuscript .......................................................................261 Fig. 88. A sketch from a medieval Syriac manuscript with symbols and names of the signs of the Zodiac and the known planets, as well as the list of metals associated with each planet. ....................................................................................................................286 Fig. 89. A page from a 7th century manuscript with the text of the “Chronicle of Edessa” (Vatican Library).....................................................................................................299 Fig. 90. A fragment of a Sogdian manuscript ..............................................................................325 Fig. 91. A Nestorian cross..............................................................................................................328 Fig. 92. A tombstone from Zhetysu with an Armenian-Syriac inscription .............................328 Fig. 93. The modern Mongolian vertical script ...........................................................................331 Fig. 94. A fragment of a letter in Mongolian from Argun Khan to King Philip the Fair of France, confirming Rabban Sauma’s ambassadorial status .........................................334 Fig. 95. A tombstone with St. Thomas’ Cross and a Pahlavi inscription from the St. Thomas Mount near Chennai ........................................................................................342 Fig. 96. The Xi’an stele ...................................................................................................................350 Fig. 97. The Syriac inscription on the Xi’an stele .......................................................................350 Fig. 98. The upper part of the Xi’an stele with a Nestorian cross ............................................351 Fig. 99. A Chinese tombstone of 1314 with a Nestorian cross and inscription in Phags-pa script .......................................................................................................................353 Fig. 100. The Daqin Pagoda ..........................................................................................................354 Fig. 101. An altar-shaped Nestorian tombstone from China with vertical Syriac inscriptions .............................................................................................................................355 Fig. 102. The Hakkari mountains in the vicinity of Qudshanis (from “The Cradle of Mankind; the Life in Eastern Kurdistan” by William Wigram).......................................370 Fig. 103. The Catholicos of the Church of the East Shemon XVII Abraham (from “Nestorians and their Rituals” by George Percy Badger) ................................................371 Fig. 104. Yohannan, Bishop of Urmia (portrait by Justin Perkins) ..........................................373 Fig. 105. Sophonia Sokolsky ..........................................................................................................377 Fig. 106. Yawsep VI Audo, Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church ................................381 Fig. 107. Ashur Yusuf.....................................................................................................................386 Fig. 108. Naum Faiq .......................................................................................................................387 Fig. 109. The covers of the Armenian-language journals “Babylon” and “Nineveh” ...........388 Fig. 110. William Wigram...............................................................................................................394 Fig. 111. Map of Hakkari ornamented with Assyrian motifs ....................................................395 Fig. 112. Freydun Aturaya..............................................................................................................397 Fig. 113. Afram Barsoum (a portrait from “Assyrian Progress”) .............................................400 Fig. 114. The Catholicos of the Church of the East Shemon XIX Benyamin .......................402 Fig. 115. William Shedd..................................................................................................................402 Fig. 116. General Agha Petros ......................................................................................................403 Fig. 117. The Assyrian flag designed in 1968 ..............................................................................408 Fig. 118. The Chaldean flag designed in 1985 .............................................................................410 Fig. 119. The Syriac Orthodox church of Worcester on the cover of “Assyrian Progress” (California, 1933) .................................................................................................417 Fig. 120. Modern Syriac/Aramean symbols based on the Gozan bas-relief...........................422 Fig. 121. Justin Perkins ...................................................................................................................438 Fig. 122. The Zahrire d-Bahra magazine .....................................................................................441



Fig. 123. The Kokhva newspaper .................................................................................................442 Fig. 124. The Star of the East newspaper (Tbilisi) .....................................................................443 Fig. 125. A page of the Complutensian Polyglot with Aramaic original and Latin translation of the Targum Onkelos at the bottom ............................................................457 Fig. 126. A double-page spread of Teseo Ambrogio’s grammar showing the samples of the Syriac and Armenian languages ................................................................................460 Fig. 127. The title page of the printed edition of the Syriac New Testament of 1555 ..........461 Fig. 128. The title page of “The Main Characters of the Syriac Language” by Johann Widmannstetter ...............................................................................................................................462 Fig. 129. A page of the Antwerp Polyglot with the text of the Peshitta New Testament and its Latin translation ........................................................................................................465 Fig. 130. The title page of the London Polyglot .........................................................................468 Fig. 131. Josephus Simonius Assemanui ......................................................................................470 Fig. 132. The title page of the first volume of the Bibliotheca Orientalis Clementino-Vaticana.............................................................................................................470 Fig. 133. An East Syriac manuscript from the “Mingana collection” with the New Testament......................................................................................................................474

LIST OF TABLES Table 1. Phoenician (West Semitic) alphabet ................................................................................ 10 Table 2. Timeline of ancient Aramean kings relative to the kings of Assyria, Israel, and Judah .................................................................................................................................. 50 Table 3. A summary table of Aramaic-Syriac scripts..................................................................243 Table 4. The Churches of the St. Thomas Christians with approximate membership figures ......................................................................................................................................347 Table 5. The Syriac rite Catholic Churches with approximate membership figures ..............365 Table 6. Modern Aramaic dialects ................................................................................................434 Table 7. The Churches of the Syriac tradition today ..................................................................448


LIST OF MAPS Map 1. Ancient Aramean states of North Mesopotamia and Syria ............................................ 48 Map 2. North Mesopotamia in the first centuries AD...............................................................150 Map 3. South Mesopotamia in the first centuries AD ...............................................................170 Map 4. The main Syriac settlements at the turn of the 20th century .......................................383



SEMITIC LANGUAGES AND PEOPLES 1.1. “The Fertile Crescent.” Since ancient times, vast tracts of land covering the space between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (modern Iraq and southeastern Turkey), and the territories of modern Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, and the Nile river delta in Egypt were known for their fertile land, a consequence of the irrigation methods employed by ancient peoples. The American historian and archaeologist James Henry Breasted (1865–1935) dubbed this area the Fertile Crescent, not only for the abundance of agricultural products grown here, but also because it was where the first known civilizations and states of the Ancient World were born—the cradle of human civilization. The wheel, the potter’s wheel, the irrigation of arid lands, cuneiform, hieroglyphics, and alphabetic writing systems were all invented in the Fertile Crescent. It was here that scientific knowledge about man and the cosmos first accumulated, a place where philosophical and religious teachings were first created, where literary works that have influenced the entire world were first composed, and architectural gems that still amaze were first built. The earliest samples of material culture in the Fertile Crescent come from the area between the Tigris and Euphrates, a place called Mesopotamia, from the Greek “between the rivers,” and date back to the second half of the sixth millennium BC (the so-called “Ubaid culture”). Since this period of time is beyond historical visibility, we may never know the people who dug the first canal here, who painted the first simple ornamentations on pottery, and what language they spoke.

Fig. 1. Sumerian inscription from Uruk (32nd cent. BC)




The Sumerian language. The situation changed dramatically with the rise of the Sumerians in South Mesopotamia in the middle of the fourth millennium. Their language, which does not belong to any known language family, was the first written speech in the history of mankind. Evidence of this is seen in the inscription on the so-called “Kish tablet” (dating approximately to the 35th century BC). Sumerian script originally consisted of pictograms—schematic representations of objects and phenomena lined vertically from top to bottom. Near the 30th century, pictograms began to be written horizontally from left to right, simultaneously deployed at 90 degrees counter-clockwise. During the 25th century, when raw clay tablets and pointed wedge-shaped reeds and wooden sticks came into use as writing instruments, Sumerian pictographs developed into cuneiform (so-called “archaic cuneiform writing”), which over the subsequent millennium acquired its final appearance, quite different from the original prototypes. An impressive body of inscriptions allows us to create a fairly complete picture of the history and culture of the Sumerians. Sumerian writing and literature combined with developed material culture and well-organized social and political institutions concentrated around the Sumerian city-states, such as Eridu, Larsa, Ur, Uruk, Nippur, Lagash, and others, all provide good evidence for considering the Sumerians the creators of one of history’s first civilizations. Sumerians are also credited for the invention of the wheel, potter’s wheel, fired bricks, and irrigation systems, although many believe that all these accomplishments were inherited from the Ubaid culture that existed in Mesopotamia before the Sumerians. By the middle of the second millennium BC, Sumerians had been completely ousted by other peoples, although their language remained in use until the end of the first millennium BC. 1.2. Semito-Hamitic/Afro-Asiatic languages. At about the same time as the Sumerians, peoples whose languages belonged to the family of languages that until the mid-20th century was commonly referred to as “Semito-Hamitic,” appeared. They settled on the western tip of the Fertile Crescent, in Egypt, and in southern Mesopotamia. The term “Semitic” was coined by German historian August Ludwig von Schlözer (1735–1809), and the term “Semito-Hamitic” was coined by the German linguist Karl Richard Lepsius (1810–1884). The origins of these terms are found in the biblical genealogy of peoples, according to which two sons of Noah—Shem and Ham—were the progenitors of Asian and African peoples, respectively. The term “Semito-Hamitic” remains quite common outside the scholarly community, despite the fact that it does not reflect the number of language groups within the family. They are in reality five, as the term “Hamitic” actually unites four groups—Cushitic, Berber, Chadic, and Egyptian. 1 Egyptian was the next written language after Sumerian, and its first proto-hieroglyphic inscriptions are from the last third of the fourth millennium. Throughout its long history the Egyptian language has gone through several phases of development, the latest being known as “Coptic.” Coptic remained the spoken language of the Egyptian Coptic Christians 1

The Omotic languages of southwestern Ethiopia are also often classified as Hamitic.



up to the 17th century AD. It was then completely replaced by Arabic and is used today only as a liturgical language. In 1950, the American linguist Joseph Harold Greenberg (1915–2001) proposed the term “Afro-Asiatic,” and it was largely adopted by the scientific community. Russian linguist Igor Diakonoff (1915–1999) proposed renaming Greenberg’s term as “Afrasian,” but this term is used mostly in Russian terminology. 1.3. Semitic languages. Semitic languages, representing a separate group in the Afro-Asiatic family, descended from a common language called Proto-Semitic or Semitic proto-language. It was formed as a result of the division (presumably in East Africa) of the Afro-Asiatic proto-language, a common ancestor of all Afro-Asiatic languages, after which speakers of Proto-Semitic—Proto-Semites—migrated toward the Arabian Peninsula. The Proto-Semites underwent periodic fragmentations, resulting in new tribes migrating from Arabia to the north. Several such mass migrations are known in the history of the Semitic peoples; the earliest took place during the second half of the fourth millennium BC, and the latest in the 7th century AD. 2 The Semitic language group is represented by a large number of extinct and living languages. Because of the diversity of the Semitic languages, as well as their dispersion in time and territory, no universally accepted classification of this language group exists. The classification is also complicated by the fact that it is often difficult to distinguish between what should be classified as a “language” or “dialect.” Currently, there are several classifications, the most common being based on geographical criteria; it divides the Semitic language group into three subgroups— Northeastern, Northwestern, and Southern.

1.4. Akkadian language. The Northeastern (or East Semitic) subgroup includes the oldest recorded Semitic language called Akkadian, whose speakers made up the first wave of Semitic migration from Arabia in the second half of the fourth millennium BC. The name of the language comes from the Sumerian city of Akkad, which is located 50 km to the southeast of modern Baghdad. The Akkadian language was widespread in Mesopotamia and was the spoken as well as the official language of the first Semitic state in Mesopotamia founded by Sargon the Great (2316–2261) in Akkad. The language of this period is called “Old Akkadian.” Subsequently, Akkadian became the spoken and the official language of two other powerful states— Assyria (in North Mesopotamia) and Babylon (in South Mesopotamia); hence this period of history of the Akkadian language is called “Assyro-Babylonian.” Each of these states had its own dialect, with its own history of development. The Babyloni-

The supporters of the so-called “Nostratic hypothesis” (from the Latin noster, “our”) believe that the Afro-Asiatic languages, along with the Indo-European, Kartvelian, Uralic, Altaic, and Dravidian, belong to the same macrofamily of languages and originate from a single “Nostratic” proto-language. The first to assume the existence of such a language, in 1903, was Danish linguist Holger Pedersen (1867-1953). Russian linguist Vladislav IllichSvitych (1934-1966) further developed the hypothesis. 2



an dialect is divided into Old, Middle, New, and Late Babylonian, while Assyrian is split into Old, Middle, and New. The Akkadian language features a large number of Sumerian loanwords. Sumerian influence was so great that it even affected Akkadian syntax. For example, the Semitic syntactical norm demands that the predicate be placed at the beginning of the sentence, while in Akkadian, as in Sumerian, the predicate, except for poetic texts, appears at the end of the sentence.

The Akkadian cuneiforms. The earliest Akkadian inscriptions date to the middle of the third millennium and were made in cuneiform that had been borrowed from the Sumerians and subsequently underwent various changes. In particular, the “rebus” Sumerian writing system in the Akkadian language evolved into a simpler word-syllabic type. The cuneiform texts were written, or rather imprinted, with a pointed wooden stick or a cane on wet clay tablets that were then dried or fired. In addition to clay tablets, Akkadian cuneiform texts were also carved into rocks or engraved on metal and other materials. Cuneiform remained the only way to write in Akkadian throughout its existence. The Urartians 3 then borrowed Akkadian cuneiform writing and developed a somewhat different variety of it. The Akkadian language is preserved in an impressive number of multi-genre texts, the most famous of which are the Assyro-Babylonian epic of creation, “Enuma Elish,” the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is of Sumerian origin, and the Code of Hammurabi. Assyrian and Babylonian mythology inherited many Sumerian legends. It was widespread throughout the Middle East and is echoed in the Old Testament in stories like the story of the flood. Akkadian was in use far beyond Mesopotamia. It was the language of international communication (lingua franca) almost everywhere in the ancient Middle East, and the main language of diplomatic correspondence. It was, for example, the language in which the Egyptian pharaohs communicated with their vassal kinglets of Canaan 4 (“Amarna letters”). The Akkadian language was also used by the Hittites, 5 Urartians, Hurrians, 6 Elamites, 7 and other ancient peoples. Urartians were the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Ararat (Urartu), which existed around Lake Van between the 9th and 6th centuries BC. After the fall of their state, the Urartians were mostly assimilated into the Armenians. 4 Canaan is the ancient name of the combined territories of modern Israel and Lebanon. 5 The Hittites were an Indo-European people who inhabited the central areas of ancient Asia Minor. The powerful Hittite empire lasted from the 17th to 12th centuries BC, and then broke up into several Neo-Hittite city-states (Carchemish, Melid, Tabal, Quwe, Gurgum, Kummuh, and others), some of which lasted up to the 8th century BC. 6 The Hurrians were a people related to the Urartians who, from the middle of the third millennium BC, inhabited Northern Mesopotamia and the periphery of the Armenian Highlands. From the 16th–13th centuries BC the Hurrians had a state in North Mesopotamia called Mitanni (Hanigalbat), which exercised a strong influence on the Hittites. 3



After the end of the second millennium Akkadian was gradually replaced as a spoken language by Aramaic, which had begun spreading into Mesopotamia. From the 6th century BC onward Akkadian was used only for official inscriptions and occasional private correspondence and survived in that capacity up to the beginning of the 2nd century BC.

Fig. 2. An example of Akkadian cuneiform (the first lines of the Enuma Elish epic)

1.5. Eblaite language. Another language belonging to the Northeast subgroup is Eblaite, named after the ancient city of Ebla located 55 km southwest of Aleppo (the modern name of the area is Tel Mardikh). Ebla was a major city-state, and it flourished in the middle of the third millennium BC. It played an important role as a transit point for international trade, and it also exported its own agricultural and handicraft goods (mainly textiles and metal products). Ebla experienced periods of military and political power. It was able to subdue its main trading rival, the city of Mari, located 120 kilometers southeast of the modern Syrian city of Dayr al-Zor, with a Semitic population related to that of Ebla and Akkad. Around 2240 BC Ebla was conquered and destroyed by Akkad. At the end of the 19th century the city experienced another period of growth, but in the middle of the 17th century the Hittites finally destroyed it. In the mid-1960s the Italian archaeologist Paolo Matthiae unearthed in Tel Mardikh an archive of more than 20,000 clay tablets. They contained inscriptions made in Sumerian-Akkadian cuneiform in a hitherto unknown language. Some included translation into Sumerian, and that aided the decipherment of the language of Ebla, which turned out to belong to the Semitic language family. The Eblaite texts consist of economic, administrative, legal, diplomatic, historical, and religious content. Initially, Eblaite was classified as Northwestern Semitic because of the large number of features it shared with the languages of that subgroup; however, a more The Elamites were an ancient people of unknown origin who from the middle of the third millennium BC occupied a territory which roughly consisted of the modern Iranian provinces of Khuzestan and Lorestan. The Elamite kingdom, with its capital at Susa, was destroyed by Assyria in the 6th century BC. 7



detailed study placed it in the Northeastern subgroup. Neither of the two Northeastern languages has living descendants today.

1.6. The Canaanite languages. The Northwestern subgroup (West Semitic) includes the so-called “Canaanite” languages. Speakers of the common ancestor of these languages formed the second wave of Semitic migration from the Arabian Peninsula in the first half of the second millennium BC. The languages were spoken in the territory of Canaan—they included the Canaanite language proper, Phoenician, which is almost identical to Canaanite, and Hebrew, which originated from Canaanite. Closely related to the Canaanite languages were the languages of Transjordan of the first millennium BC (the territory east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, in other words western Jordan of today), Moabite, Ammonite, and Edomite.

The Canaanites and the Phoenicians. The Canaanites, who were the main population of Palestine before the invasion of the Hebrew tribes, and the Phoenicians were, in fact, the same people and spoke almost the same language. Assyrians, Babylonians, and, later, Hebrews called them collectively “Canaanites.” They never formed a centralized state, but were a conglomerate of independent city-states, such as Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, and others, with a culture purely urban in nature. They usually identified themselves by the names of their cities, but also called themselves ponnim and their country, Put. Nevertheless, there were significant differences between the Phoenicians and the Canaanites of Palestine. The Phoenicians were skilled shipbuilders and experienced sailors who traveled the entire Mediterranean, up to the Atlantic Ocean and the British Isles. They were also very well versed in commerce. The combined nautical and commercial skills gave rise to Phoenician colonies on all major Mediterranean islands (Cyprus, Crete, Sicily, Sardinia, Malta, Corsica) and around the Mediterranean coast up to Spain, the name of which has a Phoenician origin. The Phoenicians were first “distinguished” from the Canaanites by the Greeks who had intensive contact with them in the Mediterranean basin, particularly in the southern part of the Aegean Sea. They also introduced the terms “Phoenicia” (Φοινίκη) and “Phoenicians.” The word Φοινίκη is usually associated with the word φοινως (“purple,” which may originate from ponnim), as the purple dye, also known as Tyrian purple, was the main Phoenician export to Greece. According to Greek mythology, the founder of Phoenicia was Phoyniks, son of King Agenor and brother of Europe. The tradition to view the Phoenicians as a distinct people became widespread and was adopted by scholars.

The Punic language. The most renowned of all Phoenician colonies was Carthage (in Phoenician kart hadasht, or “new city”) founded by immigrants from Tyre on the territory of modern Tunisia. Carthage rivalled Rome for hegemony in the Mediterranean basin and was finally crushed by the Romans in 146 BC. The Romans called the Carthaginians “Punics” (from ponnim) and their language Punic (hence the famous “Punic Wars” between Rome and Carthage). Compared to Phoenician, the Punic language has some differences, mainly in pronunciation. This language underwent two major periods of development—Old Punic (9th to 2nd century BC), and New Punic (until the 8th century AD). The co-



medic play “Poenulus” (“The Little Carthaginian”) by the Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus (254–184) contains text in Punic (in Roman script) spoken by one of the characters. There is also a well-preserved Punic inscription made in Greek letters. Despite distortions and inaccuracies, these samples are very valuable as they give some idea as to how the Punic language actually sounded. The Punic language, which was quite common on the North African coast west of Egypt, for several centuries outlived Phoenician proper, which went extinct in the beginning of the first millennium AD. In its turn, Punic became extinct after the Arab conquest of North Africa. Unlike the Phoenicians, the Canaanites were strictly “land” people engaged in overland trade, although as commercial entrepreneurs they were not as successful as seafaring Phoenicians. This was nevertheless fully compensated by their artisan skills for which they were renowned throughout the Middle East.

1.7. The Phoenician script. However, the main contribution of the Canaanites and Phoenicians to civilization was not their seafaring, commercial, or artisan skills, but the first alphabetical script in the history of mankind. Although the Canaanites and Phoenicians were in reality the same people, Phoenicia is traditionally considered the birthplace of the alphabet and it is therefore called “Phoenician.” The Phoenicians spread their script all over the Mediterranean, where it was adopted and modified by the Greeks into Greek and eventually Latin scripts. In scholarly circles the Phoenician alphabet is also known as “West Semitic.” There is no consensus on the origin of the Phoenician script. Some have hypothesized on its Egyptian, Assyro-Babylonian, and Creto-Minoan origins. There is also an independent origin hypothesis; its proponents believe that the Phoenician script was created to facilitate trade and business records of Phoenician merchants, since the existing systems of writing were not suited for that purpose. The proto-Sinaitic script. There is a widespread theory that the Phoenician script was derived from an earlier primitive alphabetic writing system found in turquoise mines on the Sinai Peninsula which belonged to Egyptian pharaohs. This script is known as “proto-Sinaitic.” Many characters of this script, which number about 40, have similarities with the characters of the Egyptian hieratic script, which is a simplified form of the hieroglyphic writing system. Like Egyptian hieroglyphs, the protoSinaitic script was mostly pictographic, as the outline of a character schematically represented the object whose name’s first sound the character represented. The proto-Sinaitic inscriptions dating to the 18th–15th centuries were assumed to have been made in a West Semitic language by the slaves (presumably Canaanites) who worked in the mines and had dedicatory content. The script remains largely undecipherable; only one word is believed to have been read correctly in 1916 by English Egyptologist Alan Gardiner (1879–1963)—“to the Lady” (apparently Egyptian goddess Hathor, daughter of Ra). Two inscriptions discovered in the vicinity of the modern city of Qena in Middle Egypt bear certain similarities to the protoSinaitic script.



Fig. 3. A sample of proto-Sinaitic script

The proto-Canaanite script. Another script of about 40 characters known as “proto-Canaanite,” which belongs to the same period and is quite similar to protoSinaitic, was discovered in Palestine around the cities of Gezer, Lachish, and Shechem. It is now widely assumed that proto-Sinaitic and proto-Canaanite are two variations of the same system of writing. Both these scripts were imperfect and “spontaneous” in nature, with limited scope of use. The direction was not set, meaning that they could be written from right to left or from left to right, as well as on a so-called “boustrophedon” 8 principle, with rows running alternately from right to left and from left to right, as if imitating the movement of a plowing ox.

Fig. 4. Some characters of the proto-Canaanite script

The Byblos script. Another similar form of writing is the so-called “pseudohieroglyphic script of Byblos,” or Byblos syllabary, as the script was apparently mostly syllabic in nature (characters representing syllables rather than separate sounds). It is known from ten inscriptions on bronze plates and stone, discovered in 1928–1932 by French archeologist Maurice Dunand (1898–1987) in the ancient Phoenician city of Byblos. The script contains more than a hundred characters— stylized renderings of animals, plants, buildings, or geometric shapes. Many of the characters resemble Egyptian hieroglyphs, while others bear similarities with the characters of the Minoan writing system. The fact that the inscriptions were found only on the territory of Byblos suggests that the script was used to record the archaic language of Canaan. In the 1940s the French orientalist Édouard Paul Dhorme (1881–1966) made an attempt to decipher the Byblos syllabary, but the results of his 8

From the Old Greek βους, “ox” and στρέφω, “I turn.”



work were not widely accepted. More attempts at decipherment were made after Dhorme, yet the script remains undecipherable.

Fig. 5. Inscription in pseudo-hieroglyphic script of Byblos

1.8. The Phoenician letters and the alphabet. It is believed that the Phoenician script developed into its classical form by the 13th century. Like the Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian-Akkadian cuneiforms, Phoenician letters are pictographic in origin. For example, the letter alep represents a horned head of a bull, the letter bet a house, the letter gimel a camel, and so on. This is regarded as another argument in support of the theory that Phoenician letters originated from proto-Sinaitic and proto-Canaanite scripts, both pictographic, presumably inherited from the Egyptian writing system. However, there is a significant difference between Phoenician letters and their alleged source characters in that that they follow the principle of acrophony, when the character represents not the whole object but only the first sound of its name, like a letter. 9 At the same time, the name of the object that serves as a basis for the letter is used as the name of the letter itself (alep literally means “bull,” bet means “house,” gimel means “camel,” and so on). Compared with proto-Sinaitic and proto-Canaanite characters, the Phoenician letters are much further removed from their original pictograms, became simpler, more geometric in appearance, and look more established and uniform. Furthermore, there are only 22 Phoenician letters. The Phoenician script is an alphabet, i.e. a set of characters arranged in a certain order. The order of the Phoenician letters was established through Old Testament Hebrew acrostics 10 written in a variation of Phoenician script. The order of Acrophony to a lesser extent was a characteristic of Egyptian hieroglyphs and Akkadian cuneiforms, where a sign can represent not only the initial sound of an object, but also the initial syllable. Syllabic acrophony further developed in the Akkadian script, which is predominantly syllabic in nature. 10 Acrostic is a poetic text in which the first letters of each line follow in alphabetical order, or spell out a specific message. 9



the Phoenician and other West Semitic alphabets is commonly called “North Semitic order” as opposed to “South Semitic,” which the South Arabian alphabet follows (see below). Letter


Name alep





















Meaning ‘ox’

‘house’ ‘camel’ ‘door’

‘window?’ ‘hook’

‘weapon’ ‘courtyard?’ ‘wheel’ ‘hand’

‘palm of hand’





















ḥ (kh)












Name lamed

Meaning ‘goad’

‘water’ ‘fish’

‘support’ ‘eye’

‘mouth’ ‘hunt’

‘needle head’


Phoneme l m n s

ʿ p ṣ q r





Table 1. Phoenician (West Semitic) alphabet

Notes: 1. 2. 3.

The letter alep does not represent the vowel [a], but a specific guttural sound, called “glottal stop.” It is produced by obstructing airflow in the vocal cords, causing the vowels at the beginning of the word to be pronounced with certain tension. The letter ayin represents a guttural sound deeper than glottal stop. It is produced in the middle of the throat by straining the vocal cords and simultaneous articulating the next vowel, if any. The letters with dots underneath indicate emphatic consonants that are pronounced with a certain tension.

The Phoenician alphabet is consonantal in nature, represented only by consonants and semivowels [w] and [y]. 11 Vowels in Semitic languages have lesser importance and are not reflected in writing. The characters are arranged horizontally,

Consonantal alphabets are sometimes called abjad. The word is Arabic and is composed of the first four letters of the Arabic alphabet in its initial order, which is the same North Semitic order of the Phoenician and Aramaic languages. 11



from right to left. In the earliest texts the words were sometimes separated from each other with dots, but later this practice was abandoned and, as a rule, the words were not separated.

Fig. 6. Phoenician inscription on the sarcophagus of King Eshmunazar II

Phoenician inscriptions are found on the territory of Phoenicia proper and in Phoenician colonies in the Mediterranean (Southern Cyprus, Western Sicily, Southern Sardinia, Southern Spain, North Africa). The earliest date to the end of the second millennium BC, while the latest are from the 3rd–4th centuries AD (the last inscription from Phoenicia proper belongs to the 2nd century AD). The Russian orientalist Igor Shifman (1930–1990), author of the book “The Phoenician Language,” proposed the following classification of Phoenician inscriptions: a) building inscriptions, b) tombstone inscriptions, c) dedications, d) inscriptions on ostraca (pieces of pottery), e) lists of temple sacrifices, f) community regulations, and g) historical inscriptions. Among the most famous are the inscription on the sarcophagus of the King Eshmunazar II of Sidon, the inscription on the temple of the god Eshmun in Sidon, inscriptions of the Kings Ahiram and Yehawmelek of Byblos, and a list of sacrifices from Marseille.

The Punic script. In Carthage and other North African colonies, a local variety of the Phoenician script had developed known as “Punic.” It had a more cursive look, as the Carthaginians often wrote with ink on papyri and ostraca (although inscriptions on hard materials, like stone, also sometimes display cursive character). It has been suggested that the traditional Tifinagh script used by Berbers originates from the Punic script (there are also many words of Phoenician origin in the language of the Tuareg Berbers).

1.9. Phoenician script among other peoples. The Berbers were not the only people to have borrowed the Phoenician script. Simplicity and ease of use of the Phoenician alphabet contributed to its spread among other peoples. It was first adopted and developed by the Arameans at the beginning of the first millennium BC, who then spread it to the East. The vast majority of alphabets of the Middle East, as well as many alphabets used in Central Asia, India, Mongolia, and China, originate from different varieties of Aramaic script—in other words they have CanaanitePhoenician roots (more details about these scripts will be presented in subsequent chapters).



The Phoenician letters were adopted by the Greeks who, as mentioned, maintained active contacts with Phoenician colonies on the Aegean Sea’s southern islands. The adoption of the Phoenician letters is recorded in Greek mythology, which mentions the alphabet among the gifts brought to Greeks by Cadmus, the son of the Phoenician King Agenor. Herodotus, the Greek historian of the 5th century BC, attested to the same story. The earliest Greek inscriptions belong to the 8th–7th centuries. The shape of the letters of the Greek script of this period, called “archaic,” is still very similar to Phoenician prototypes. The direction of writing was from right to left, as in the Phoenician language. Later Greeks significantly improved the Phoenician alphabet, adapting it to the special features of their own language. They created new characters, Υ, Φ, Χ, Ψ, Ω, which were placed at the end of the Greek alphabet. However, a more important, revolutionary innovation was the addition of letters for vowels, for which Greeks used letters for the Phoenician sounds that did not exist in their language. For example, alep came to refer to the vowel [a], he and het – to [e], yod – [i], ayin – [o]. Later the direction of writing changed as well, first to boustrophedon, then finally from left to right, which also caused the reversal of some letters around one of their axes (‫ → ܐ‬A, ‫ → ܓ‬Γ, ‫ → ܪ‬P, and so on). Together with the letters, the Greeks also borrowed their Phoenician names, adapting them to the phonology of their language. Thus, the Phoenician alep became alpha, bet – beta, gimel – gamma, dalet – delta, and so on. The Archaic Greek script was divided into two branches, western and eastern. The former developed into Etruscan 12 script, which in turn gave birth to Latin characters. The latter transformed into the classical Greek script, used today, and into Cyrillic, created by St. Cyril (826–869) to facilitate the preaching of Christianity among the South Slavic peoples. Thus, all modern European alphabets descend from a common ancestor—the Phoenician script. The Greek letters with some modifications and borrowings from demotic script 13 were used by the Copts to write in their own Coptic language. Some characteristics of the Greek writing system, such as the direction from left to right, the introduction of vowel letters, and the order of the letters in the alphabet were used by the Armenian scholar of the 4th–5th centuries, Mesrop Mashtots, in the creation of the Armenian, Georgian, and Caucasian Albanian alphabets. Etruscans were the pre-Roman non-Indo-European people of central Italy who were later Romanized. They created an advanced civilization that had a great influence on Rome. There is a bilingual Etruscan-Phoenician inscription on gold plates dedicated to the Semitic goddess Astarte, which contributed significantly to the correct decipherment of the Etruscan language in general. 13 Demotic script (from Greek δημοτικός, “popular”) is a variety of Egyptian cursive writing, which was developed around the middle of 7th century BC from hieratic (simplified hieroglyphic) writing and was accessible to ordinary people. “Demotic” is also the name of the last phase of development of the Egyptian language immediately preceding Coptic. 12



1.10. Old Hebrew. The Old Hebrew language is known primarily from the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible or Old Testament) texts and a number of inscriptions. It had evolved from the Canaanite language of Palestine, or, more accurately, from one of its dialects. In the Old Testament the Hebrew language is called “Canaanite,” which is quite remarkable, given the adversarial nature of the relationship that existed between Hebrews and Canaanites. The history of the Hebrew migration toward Canaan is described in the Old Testament. According to the biblical legend, the God of Abraham commands him and his relatives to leave their ancestral town of Ur of the Chaldees in South Mesopotamia and head toward Canaan, “the promised land.” In a concentrated and mythologized form this legend reflects the actual migration processes that had taken place in the second-first millennia BC. It is known that a part of the Semitic Amorites (more on them below), who lived in South Mesopotamia, whether voluntarily or forcibly, left their homeland and migrated to Canaan. It is assumed that the reason for this withdrawal or expulsion could be the monotheistic beliefs of these tribes, as suggested by the Old Testament. The written sources of the period call these migrants ivri, a word derived from a common Semitic root meaning “to cross” or “to pass.” This designation reflects the fact that on their way from Mesopotamia to Canaan the migrants had to inevitably cross the Euphrates. Thus, the word ivri means “those who crossed [the river].” After settling in Canaan, Amorites-Ivri gradually established their political supremacy, but soon came under the influence of a much more developed Canaanite culture and switched to the Canaanite language, which was related to their own. Canaanized Amorites-Ivri later became the Old Testament Hebrews. 14 However, they preserved their monotheistic beliefs that later developed into their national religion—Judaism. In Canaan, a region with developed traditions of writing, the Hebrews almost simultaneously with the Arameans adopted the Phoenician script. A variation of it used by the Hebrews and the peoples of Transjordan, who were closely related to them, is called “Paleo-Hebrew script.” The main distinction from the Phoenician prototype is its more cursive look. For some time, the Hebrews also followed the early Phoenician practice of separating words with dots. The oldest examples of Hebrew. The oldest example of Hebrew written in PaleoHebrew script is the so-called “Gezer calendar” dating to the 10th century BC, which is, according to the Bible, the period of the united Kingdom of Israel under David and his son Solomon. It is a seven-line inscription on a limestone tablet that enumerates agricultural activities month by month. Another example of the Paleo-Hebrew script is the “Siloam inscription” in six lines, found on the wall of an ancient tunnel through which water was supplied to The old Jewish tradition associates the word ivri with Eber who was a great-grandson of Noah’s son Shem. Eber is associated by some scholars with Habiru, the ancient seminomadic people of Mesopotamia, who, among other things, were known for their raids on Canaan. 14



Jerusalem from the Gihon spring. The inscription, dated to the end of the 8th century BC, contains some details on the construction of the tunnel. Both the “Gezer calendar” and the “Siloam inscription” are exhibited at the Istanbul Archeological museum, as they were discovered before World War I, when Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire.

Fig. 7. The Gezer calendar

Of certain interest for the development of Paleo-Hebrew script are the ostraca found in the ancient city of Lachish dated to the beginning of the 6th century BC. They are distinguished by their pronounced cursive character. Old Hebrew was the official language of the Kingdom of Israel and then two separate kingdoms that were established after its fall—Israel (928–720) and Judah (928–586). It remained the spoken language of the Hebrews up to the 6th century BC, and then was almost completely ousted by Aramaic. It remained the language of a vast and diverse literature until its revival in Palestine in the second half of the 19th century as Modern Hebrew. Both Aramaic and Hebrew were written with varieties of the Phoenician script, but in the second half of the 1st millennium BC Hebrew began to be written with Aramaic script instead, and it is from this script that Modern Hebrew square script is descended. For some time the Paleo-Hebrew script coexisted with the Aramaic script although the scope of its use was very limited. Some Jewish sects, for example, used it to copy sacred texts, and it can also be found on the coins of the kings of Judah. After the 2nd century AD the PaleoHebrew script was completely abandoned.



1.11. The languages of Transjordan. Of the three other languages in the Canaanite subgroup—Moabite, Ammonite, and Edomite—Moabite is relatively well-known thanks to a 34-line triumphant inscription by the Moabite King Mesha, who is mentioned in the Old Testament. The inscription is made in Paleo-Hebrew script on a black basalt stele and dates to the 9th century BC (currently displayed in the Louvre). It revealed that the Moabite language was very closely related to Old Hebrew, yet had some common features with Aramaic. There is another Moabite inscription of three lines by King Mesha that is exhibited in the Jordanian Archaeological Museum.

Fig. 8. The King Mesha stele



The Old Testament refers to the Moabites as the descendants of Moab, son of Lot, who was Abraham’s nephew; Moab was also the name of the country to the east of the Dead Sea. This genealogy suggests that Hebrews considered the Moabites to be very closely related to Hebrews although their relationship, as attested by the Old Testament, was far from friendly. The supreme god of the Moabites was Kemosh, mentioned in the Mesha stele and the Old Testament. The Ammonites lived in Ammon, a country to the north of Moab, and were very closely related to the Moabites. According to the Old Testament, they were descendants of Ben-Ammi, Lot’s second son. This means that the Ammonites were considered to be closer to the Moabites than the Hebrews with whom they too were in constant confrontation. The enmity between the two peoples arose after the Hebrews seized territories in Transjordan that belonged to the Ammonites. Milcom, or Moloch, was the supreme god of the Ammonites who offered him human sacrifices. The main city of Ammon was Rabbah, modern Amman, capital of Jordan, whose name echoes the ancient Ammon (under Roman rule Rabbah was renamed Philadelphia).

Fig. 9. The Amman citadel inscription

There are only two inscriptions in the Ammonite language made in the Phoenician script. The most significant of them, the so-called “Amman citadel inscription,” dates to the end of the 9th century BC and is on display at the Jordanian Archaeological Museum. The inscription consists of eight lines and contains a construction dedication. The inscription suggests that the Ammonite language was almost identical with Moabite. Edomites lived in the country of Edom, between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea. Their main city was Sela (“rock”), located in mountains that



were difficult to access. The Edomites were also related to the Hebrews, as, according to the Old Testament, they descended from Esau, Isaac’s older son. According to the Old Testament, Esau sold his birthright to his twin brother Jacob for a bowl of red lentil stew; this earned him the nickname “Edom’’ which means “red.” It is also possible that the name “Edom” comes from the reddish cliffs that dominate the landscape of this region. The Edomites were belligerent and aggressive people, and their hatred of the Hebrews surpassed that of Moabites and Ammonites. The kings of the Hasmonean dynasty of Judah (140–37 BC) briefly established their rule over Edom and forced Judaism upon some of the Edomites. In the Seleucid period, Edom became part of the Nabatean kingdom, which also inherited the Edomite capital, now better known by the Greek translation of its name, Petra (Nabatea will be discussed in detail in subsequent chapters). There are very few brief inscriptions in the Edomite language, but it is clear that it was closely related to the languages of Moab and Ammon. It also bears some influence from Arabic, as Edom bordered the Arab tribes of North Arabia.

1.12. The Ugaritic language. The Ugaritic and the Amorite languages share many common features with the Canaanite languages, and are often combined with them in the same group. The speakers of these languages descended from the same migrant wave that brought the ancestors of the Canaanite peoples out of Arabia. In 1929–1930, the archaeological excavations of the ancient city-state of Ugarit, located near the modern city of Ras Shamra in northwest Syria, revealed a large number of clay tablets and stones with literary, mythological, historical, epic, and businessrelated texts written in a local Semitic language. The Ugaritic language, as this language was designated by scholars, shares many common features with Phoenician and Hebrew, and this helped the French scientists Édouard Paul Dhorme and Charles Virolleaud (1879–1968), as well as German Semitist Hans Bauer (1878– 1937), to decipher the discovered texts in 1930. Because of these linguistic similarities, Ugarit is often seen as the northernmost Phoenician city. At the same time, in comparison with the Phoenician and Hebrew languages, Ugaritic is more archaic and belongs to an earlier stage of development of the Semitic languages. In particular, it preserved the case system of the Proto-Semitic language, which is not attested in the Canaanite languages. There were three stylistic varieties of Ugaritic—archaic, classical, and “vulgar”—the main differences between them being mostly phonetic. Ugaritic also features numerous borrowings from the Hurrian and Akkadian languages. Most Ugaritic documents date to the 14th and 13th century BC, but there are also inscriptions from later periods. In addition to Ugaritic texts, many inscriptions in Akkadian, Sumerian, and Hurrian were unearthed in Ugarit. These texts, many of which have obvious literary merits, provide valuable information on the SyrianCanaanite and common Semitic mythology (“Legend of Keret,” “Epic of Dani-Ile and Akhate,” “Baal and Anat,” “Death of Baal,” and others) as well as on the nature of the local temple cults. Besides, Ugaritic texts are key to understanding many of the Old Testament stories, idioms, and figures of speech. Ugaritic poetry quite obviously influenced the Old Testament poetics and imagery.



Fig. 10. Characters of the Ugaritic script

The Ugaritic texts are written in an alphabetic writing, which was unknown before the excavations of 1929–1930. Like the Phoenician script, it is consonantal, but visually resembles Akkadian cuneiform. It is a kind of symbiosis of cuneiform and alphabetic writing systems. At the same time, all attempts to find a genetic link to Sumerian-Akkadian cuneiform have been unsuccessful. It was speculated that Ugaritic script is in fact a variety of West Semitic writing, whereas its resemblance to cuneiform is a result of writing with reed sticks on wet clay tablets in the Akkadian manner. Apparently, Ugaritic is the oldest alphabetic writing system in the world, yet traditionally Phoenician is considered as such. Unlike other West Semitic alphabets with their 22 letters and direction from right to left, the Ugaritic alphabet has 30 (initially, presumably, 27) characters, and like Akkadian cuneiform runs from left to right. Despite its consonantal nature common to all Semitic alphabets, the Ugaritic alphabet contains some vowels. Words were usually separated from each other by a vertical wedge. The order of the Ugaritic alphabet corresponds to Phoenician and is known from a clay tablet that contains an Ugaritic abecedarium. However, another order of letters is also attested, and it mostly follows the alphabetical order of the South Arabian script. 1.13. The Amorite language. Amorite is attested in northwest Syria and western Mesopotamia at the end of the third and the beginning of the second millennium BC. The word “Amorites” comes from the Akkadian word amurru—“Western people”—because they lived to the west of the Euphrates. The Amorites called themselves Suteans after their mythical progenitor Sutu. The origins of the Amorites remain unclear. It is assumed that they came out of Arabia in the middle of the third millennium BC and settled mainly in the Syrian steppe and Mesopotamia. They replaced Sumerians as the political elite of Mesopotamia and established their own states (Mari, Babylon, the kingdom of Shamshi-Adad I, and others). Another Amorite state, Yamhad, incorporated the ancient city of Alalakh in the vicinity of Antioch; it is famous for its archaeological findings, and, in particular, numerous clay tablets with cuneiform texts. The Amorites were in majority in Ebla during the city’s second rising.



The presence of Amorites in the Eastern Mediterranean led to a hypothesis that they may have been the ancestors or participated in one way or another in the ethnogenesis of the later Canaanites as well as the closely related Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites. Some scholars classify the Amorite language as “East Canaanite.” The tribes that invaded Canaan at the end of the second millennium and later became known as Hebrews, were of Mesopotamian Amorite origin. The Amorites are mentioned in the Old Testament among seven peoples who inhabited Canaan on both sides of the Jordan River before the arrival of the Hebrews. They are depicted as tall people and their king Og, who tried to resist the advancing Hebrews, is referred to as the last giant. However, at the time of the Hebrew invasion of Canaan, the local Amorites, if they did exist, hardly had much in common with their Mesopotamian brethren, and, most likely, were one of the Canaanite tribes, which preserved only vague memories of its Amorite origin. Thus, the newcomers and the locals could hardly admit any kinship, and the Old Testament does not contain any evidence thereof. This is further corroborated by the fact that the Amorite progenitor Sutu is identified in the Old Testament with Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, which confirmed the believed antiquity of the Amorites but excluded any close kinship with the Hebrews. The Amorite language is known only from proper names mentioned in Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform texts. These names, like many Akkadian proper names, consist of word combinations or short phrases.


Another branch of the Northwestern Semitic languages is represented by Aramaic with its numerous dialects. The Aramaic language will be discussed in separate chapters.


Unlike East Semitic languages, which left no living descendants, the West Semitic languages are represented today by the official language of the State of Israel, Modern Hebrew, as well as by modern Aramaic dialects, which will be discussed in a separate chapter.

1.14. Arabic language. The South subgroup of Semitic languages includes Arabic, the most widespread Semitic language today, with more than 295 million speakers. There are several different varieties of this language. Classical Arabic, which was formed in the central and northern parts of the Arabian Peninsula in the pre-Islamic period (before the 7th century AD), was the language of rich and elaborate, but oral poetry. This language is also called North Arabian as opposed to the ancient languages of the southern regions of the Arabian Peninsula, called “South Arabian languages.” With the rise of Islam at the beginning of the 7th century AD, the holy book of the Muslims, the Quran (literally “recitation”), was created. It is believed to be the first written monument of Classical Arabic, which had an enormous influence on the development of this language. Around the middle of the 7th century, Arabs



came out of Arabia under the banner of Islam and, in a relatively short time, conquered vast territories from India to Spain, and created the Arab Caliphate. It was the last wave of Semitic migration from the Arabian Peninsula.

The Arabic script. Attempts to reduce the Arabic language to writing were made long before the rise of Islam. For this purpose, the Nabatean Aramaic script was originally used (to be discussed in subsequent chapters). The earliest Arabic inscription in this script was discovered in the area of Ein Avdat (southern Israel) and dates to the end of the 1st and the beginning of the 2nd century AD. Around the 4th century, the Nabatean script acquired a shape similar to modern Arabic script, but without the diacritical dots. Approximately 10 inscriptions were made in this script, the latest dating to 568 AD; it is a Greek-Arabic bilingual inscription from Harran in North Mesopotamia. The small number of Arabic inscriptions suggests that writing in Arabic was random and non-consistent.

Fig. 11. An Arabic inscription of the 4th century BC made in the Nabatean Aramaic script

In the pre-Islamic period, the Arabs probably used to write on soft materials such as papyrus and leather. There is a legend among Arabs that the seven most famous poems—qasidas—of pre-Islamic Arab poets were written in gold on pieces of cloth and hung around the sacred Kaaba stone. These qasidas are referred to as “the suspended [qasidas]” (in Arabic al-mu‘allaqat). While scholars question the practice of hanging the qasidas around the Kaaba, it is known that orally transmitted almu‘allaqat were first recorded and combined into a single collection by Hammad, a scholar who lived in the 8th century. The need to write down the Quran turned Arabic into a consistently written language. The Nabatean-Arabic script became more cursive, and around the middle of the 7th century the Arabic script developed into its classical form still in use today. Since the 22 letters of the Nabatean alphabet were insufficient to reflect all the sounds of the Arabic language, which preserved most of the phonetic features of the Proto-Semitic language, diacritical marks were introduced in the form of subscript or superscript dots, raising the number of letters in the Arabic alphabet to 28. By the end of the 8th century, a system of special diacritics to denote vowels was created. The direction of the Arabic script as in most Semitic languages is from right to left. The Arabic alphabet originally followed the North Semitic (Phoenician-



Aramaic) order (the abjad order), but later a new one was introduced in which letters similar in shape follow each other. At the same time, the letters preserved their digital values according to the abjad order. It should be noted that in comparison with other Semitic languages, Arabic does not use letters as digits very often, as Arabs use numerals borrowed from the Indians. 15 The earliest written example of the Arabic language of the Islamic period is the so-called “Heracleopolis papyrus” of 642 AD, which is a receipt for a delivery of sheep. The Arabic text is followed by a Greek translation. The text contains diacritical dots, and begins with the basmalla, the ritualistic phrase b-ismi-llahi-r-rahmani-rrahim (“In the name of God the merciful, the compassionate”), which opens each surah (chapter) of the Quran, and which Muslims usually put in front of important texts or recite before delivering a speech or initiating something of importance. In time, several varieties of Arabic script were developed, such as kufi, naskh, ruqaa, nastaliq, sulus, and others. As Islam forbids the images of living creatures, the Arabs used their script for ornamental purposes, which contributed to the development of Arabic calligraphy and turned it into an independent art form. The spread of Islam in most of the countries conquered by the Arabs made it a world religion that in turn contributed to the spread of the Arabic language and script. The Arabic script was adopted by almost all peoples that converted to Islam, including the Persians, who previously had their own developed system of writing, also of Aramaic origin. In several centuries Arabic became the main spoken and written language not only in the traditional Semitic territory, but also outside it—in North Africa and Sudan. Becoming Arabic-speaking Muslims, the inhabitants of these countries in the course of time also embraced an Arab identity, and today the Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, and other Arabic-speaking peoples outside of the Arabian Peninsula in their vast majority consider themselves Arabs, although in genetic terms they are Arabs only to a certain degree. As the official language of Islam, Arabic was also the main language of scientific and literary activity in the Muslim world, playing the same role as Latin in medieval Europe. A large number of important historical, geographical, mathematical, astronomical, philosophical, legal, philological, and other works were created in this language. The main corpus of classical antique literature was translated into Arabic, and then from Arabic into Latin and other European languages.

Arabic dialects. At the beginning of the 19th century, a new literary standard based on Classical Arabic emerged, and it is currently shared by all Arab countries. Alongside this language, which is almost exclusively a written, non-vernacular language, numerous Arabic dialects exist, divided into two large groups: the eastern (mashriqi) with four sub-groups—Mesopotamian, Arabian, Levantine, and EgyptianSudanese—and the western (maghribi) comprising dialects of North Africa. The

The numerals used in the European languages originate from the same Indian numerals, but because Europeans received them via the Arabs, they are known as “Arabic numerals.” 15



most developed and significant among those is the Egyptian dialect. It is used widely in cinema, television, and literature and has, in reality, an unofficial status of a literary language intelligible to all Arabs.

Fig. 12. Samples of Arabic calligraphy

Maltese. The only Arabic dialect that developed into a separate language is Maltese on the island of Malta. It goes back to the medieval Arabic dialect of Sicily and has much in common with the modern Tunisian dialect. Since the 9th century BC Malta was a Phoenician and then a Carthaginian colony, and the Phoenician-Punic language was widely spoken there. In 870 AD, the island was conquered by the Arabs and Punic was replaced by Arabic. There are currently about 400,000 Maltese speakers; all of them are Catholics who do not consider themselves to be Arabs. The oldest known text in Maltese is the poem “Il Cantilena” by Pietru Caxaro who lived in the 15th century. Initially the Maltese used Arabic script, which was then replaced by Latin. This makes Maltese the only Semitic language written in the Latin alphabet (excluding the attempts to write some modern Aramaic dialects in the same script). The Maltese orthography was finally fixed in the 20th century. The language features a large number of Italian borrowings that comprise no more than one-third of the vocabulary. In the 20th century, many words were borrowed from English. In 1936, Maltese became the official language of Malta (along with English), and is today one of the official languages of the European Union.

1.15. South Arabian languages. The South Semitic group includes the so-called “South Arabian” languages that were spoken in ancient times in South Arabia, mainly in what is now Yemen. These are currently extinct, closely related Sabaic, Minaic, Qatabanic, and Hadramitic languages that were spoken in the ancient states of these names. The oldest were the kingdoms of Ma‘in and Saba. The latter is mentioned in the Old Testament, in the story of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. These states were known for their developed irrigation systems, notably the dam in the vicinity of Ma’rib, the capital of Saba.



Sabaic was also spoken in the Himyarite Kingdom, the youngest of all South Arabian states. It was established in the 2nd century BC, but soon became the dominant power in South Arabia. It subdued the kingdoms of Saba, Hadramaut, and Qataban, but at the same time succumbed to the strong influence of the Sabean culture and language. The last Himyarite king was Dhu Nuwas who converted to Judaism and persecuted his Christian subjects. His policies led to the invasion of the Christian kingdom of Aksum in Ethiopia (2nd to 11th centuries), which resulted in the fall of the Himyarite Kingdom. In 623, Himyar came under Arab rule, and became part of the Arab Caliphate. Because South Arabian languages are known exclusively from inscriptions on stones, they are also called “South Arabian epigraphic languages.” South-Arabian script. There are numerous inscriptions in South Arabian languages, all made in a consonantal script, with many varieties, related in nature to the Phoenician script. Like the languages they depict, this script is called “South Arabian” (an Arabic tern musnad is also used). The order of the letters in the South Arabian alphabet is different from Phoenician (North Semitic) and is called “South Semitic.” The origins of the South Arabian script are unclear. They are sometimes associated with the Proto-Canaanite script and traced back to the 13th century BC. Like Proto-Canaanite, South Arabian can run in either direction, including boustrophedon. The earliest South Arabian inscriptions date to the 9th century BC, while the latest date to the 7th century AD.

Fig. 13. A fragment of an inscription in South Arabian script

Modern South Arabian languages. Ancient South Arabian languages remained in use until the rise of Islam and the Arab Caliphate, and then were ousted by the Arabic language. Modern languages of this group include Mehri, with more than 135,000 speakers in Yemen and Oman, Soqotri, the language of the island of Soqotra (part of Yemen) with more than 60,000 speakers, 16 and Shehri (Jibbali) with about 25,000 speakers in Oman. There are three other living South Arabian languages—Bathari, Harsusi, and Hobyot—each with several hundred speakers. De16

Mehri and Soqotri are sometimes considered the same language.



spite their archaic nature, none of the modern South Arabian languages is a direct descendant of any of the ancient South Arabian languages.

1.16. Ethio-Semitic languages. Closely related to the South Arabian languages are the Semitic languages of Ethiopia, or Ethio-Semitic languages. The oldest of these is Ge‘ez, the official and spoken language of the Kingdom of Aksum. With the adoption of Christianity by the Kingdom of Aksum in the 4th century, Ge‘ez became the language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Up to the 16th century Ge‘ez remained the language of medieval Ethiopian Christian literature, but ceased to be spoken long before that. Currently Ge‘ez remains the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Ethiopian Catholic Churches in Ethiopia and Eritrea. As a written language Ge‘ez was also used by Ethiopian Jews, who emigrated to Israel in the middle of the 20th century. Like the Himyarite Kingdom, Aksum was under the strong influence of Sabean culture. One result of this was the use of the South Arabian script for writing in Ge‘ez. In Ethiopia, this script developed into a syllabary with 26 main characters with a direction from left to right.

Fig. 14. An example of Ethiopian syllabary

There are currently more than a dozen modern Ethio-Semitic languages in Ethiopia and Eritrea. The most important of those is Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. The language has the second largest number of speakers after Arabic among modern Semitic languages, as the Amhara ethnic group, inhabiting the central regions of the country, accounts for more than 30 percent of the nearly 80 million strong population of Ethiopia. The Amhara people come second in population after the Oroma people who speak a language of the Cushitic group with low social status. In addition, a significant part of the population of Ethiopia can converse in Amharic with various degrees of fluency. As Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia, it is the commonly spoken language in this country of more than 80 languages. The second most widespread modern Ethio-Semitic language is Tigrinya (Tigray); it is also the third language in Ethiopia spoken by 6 percent of the population. In Eritrea, it is spoken by more than half of its 6 million population. Of all modern Ethio-Semitic languages, Tigrinya is the closest to Ge‘ez and, unlike Amharic, is considered its direct descendant. About 30 percent of the population of Eritrea



speaks Tigre, a language closely related to Tigrinya. About 3,000 people in the coastal areas of Eritrea speak Dahalik, an idiom related to Tigrinya and Tigre. More than 90 percent of the Amhara people and speakers of Tigrinya in Ethiopia and Eritrea are Christians who belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox and Ethiopian Catholic Churches. The vast majority of Tigre speakers are nomadic or seminomadic Muslims. Amharic and Tigrinya use the Ge‘ez syllabary, while Tigre remains mostly unwritten. Attempts by the Eritrean government to adapt the Ethiopian syllabary to Tigre are not met with much enthusiasm among the Tigre Muslim speakers, who associate this script with Christianity. In addition to Amharic, Tigrinya, and Tigre, there are several other Semitic languages in Ethiopia and Eritrea (Agrobba, Harari, Gurage, and others), all with small numbers of speakers. It should be noted that modern Ethio-Semitic languages have significantly departed from the traditional Semitic grammatical structure.

1.17. Other systems of classification of Semitic languages. In the 1970s, the general territorial-geographical classification of Semitic languages was further developed by the American linguist Robert Hetzron (1938–1997), who based his system on phonological and morphological characteristics, common to the languages of a particular group. Hetzron identified four main groups: Eastern, Western, Southern, and Ethio-Semitic. The Eastern group included Akkadian and Eblaite. The Western group was divided into Central (Arabic) and Northwestern (Canaanite, Aramaic, and Ugaritic) subgroups, the Southern into Eastern (modern South Arabian) and Western (ancient South Arabian) subgroups. The Ethio-Semitic group was divided into Northern (Ge‘ez, Tigrinya, Tigre) and Southern (Amharic, Gurage, Argobba, and others) subgroups. Hetztron’s classification, supplemented and detailed by American semitologist John Huehnergard, was widely accepted, although many scholars have reservations, insisting that Arabic should be classified as South Semitic. There are other systems of classification of Semitic languages. Russian linguist Alexander Militarev proposed a “glottochronological” principle of classification, which is based on the chronology of separation of Semitic languages from ProtoSemitic and from each other. According to this classification, Proto-Semitic is divided into two branches—South Semitic and North Semitic. South Semitic developed into the modern South Arabian languages (Mehri, Soqotri, and Shehri), while North Semitic, which in turn was divided into two branches, developed into all other Semitic languages. According to another classification, Semitic languages are divided into Northern and Southern groups, each of which is in turn divided into “central” and “peripheral” subgroups. The north-central subgroup includes Canaanite languages, Ugaritic, Aramaic, and Amorite. The north-peripheral includes Akkadian and Eblaite. The south-central includes Arabic, while the south-peripheral includes South Arabian and Ethio-Semitic languages. The logic of such divisions is that the “central” languages have more in common between themselves, and are presumably closer to Proto-Semitic than the “peripheral” languages. Igor Diakonoff proposed a classification of Semitic languages based on the degree of archaism, in other words closeness to Proto-Semitic. According to this clas-



sification, Semitic languages are divided into three groups—ancient, middle, and late. The ancient group includes Classical Arabic, Akkadian, and ancient South Arabian (Sabaic, Minaic, and others). The middle group includes Ge‘ez, Canaanite languages, and Aramaic, and the late group includes Modern Ethio-Semitic, Modern Arabic dialects, Maltese, Modern Hebrew, and Modern Aramaic dialects.

1.18. Grammatical overview of the Semitic languages. All Semitic languages, to one degree or another, preserve the grammatical features of their common ancestor, Proto-Semitic. The largest number of these features were preserved in Akkadian and Classical Arabic. In phonetics, Semitic languages are characterized by the triple opposition of consonants—voiced, voiceless, and emphatic—and by the presence of guttural consonants. Initially, there were only three vowels—[a], [i], [u]—but over time some languages developed more vowels. Compared with the consonants, the vowels in Semitic languages have secondary, subordinate roles. Semitic syllable structure follows consonant-vowel (CV, open) or consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC, closed) patterns. Two or more consonants at the beginning of a syllable as well as combinations of vowels are not allowed. From a linguistic typology point of view, Semitic languages combine elements of both fusion, where a morpheme can denote more than one meaning, and agglutination, where each morpheme has a single meaning. A common feature of all Semitic languages and the basis of Semitic morphology is a stable three-consonant root (there is a small number of roots consisting of two or four consonants). The root has no independent function in the language, but is a grammatical abstraction, expressing the general meaning of an action or an object. By expanding the root by vowels, non-root consonants, or by the doubling (gemination) of a root consonant, various derivative forms may be produced belonging to different parts of speech. In particular, roots can be extended by special morphemes to produce several verb stems. Each stem has its own shade of meaning (causative, intensive, reflexive, and so on) based on a grammatical aspect or voice, that modifies the primary meaning of the verb. The number of verbal stems varies from language to language; Aramaic, for example, has six stems, and Arabic 15, of which only 10 are in active use. The Semitic verbal system is characterized by categories of person, number, and gender. In contrast to Indo-European languages, in which tense is the dominant verbal category, the Semitic verbal system is dominated by a grammatical aspect. There are two aspects—perfective, indicating an action completed in the past with consequences in the present, and imperfective, indicating ongoing or repetitive action without reference to the time of completion. This model, inherited from ProtoSemitic, remained unchanged at the early stages of the development of Semitic languages. Later, the aspect category in a certain way started to resemble the tense category. Accordingly, in almost all Semitic languages, perfective assumed the function of the past tense, while imperfective took either the present tense (Arabic) or future tense (Aramaic dialects, Modern Hebrew). Along with these basic forms, in a number of Semitic languages various analytical structures developed to indicate secondary temporal forms, like past continuous,



past perfect (pluperfect), future in the past, and others. These are usually constructed with various forms of the verb “to be” in combination with perfective or imperfective as well as participles. In modern Aramaic dialects that significantly departed from typical Semitic grammatical structure (not unlike Modern Ethio-Semitic), verbalization of participles became absolute and analytical temporal forms using such participles completely replaced the traditional types based on a grammatical aspect. A tendency toward analytism in general is characteristic of all living Semitic languages. A morphological characteristic common to all Semitic languages is the presence of two genders—masculine, which is not marked, and feminine, marked by special suffixes, as well as three numbers: singular, plural, and dual. The dual is fully preserved in Arabic and is rudimentary in other languages. Akkadian and Arabic also preserve the “broken plural” formed by internal inflection, i.e. changes in the internal structure of a word (somewhat similar to “tooth – teeth” in English). In other languages, the plural is formed by adding an appropriate suffix. A specific category of Semitic languages is the “state” (status), which is inherent to nouns, adjectives, and numerals. Common to all Semitic languages is the “construct state” (status constructus), in which words take on genitive constructions used to express a relation between nouns such as possession of one by another, or other types of connections, affiliations, or relationships. Aramaic, in addition to the construct, has two other states—absolute (status absolutus) and emphatic (status emphaticus). Initially, the absolute state gave the word a sense of indefiniteness, as if the word was used with an indefinite article. The emphatic state, on the other hand, was the definite state of the word; the ending –a of this state was, in fact, a postpositive definite article. In time, the emphatic state in Aramaic lost its sense of definiteness and became the “normal” form of a word, replacing in this role the absolute state. The latter became obsolete, surviving only in a few grammatical functions. The definite article exists only in Arabic and Hebrew (both Old and Modern). In the former it is al-, and in the latter ha-. Both forms are derived from the definite article hal- of Proto-Semitic. Characteristic features of all Semitic languages are the pronominal suffixes. Adjoining to nouns, they serve as the possessive pronouns “my,” “your,” “his,” and so on, and with verbs they act as the direct object, such as “I love you,” “kill him,” and so on. The case system of Proto-Semitic, which consisted of nominative, genitive, and accusative cases, was preserved only in Akkadian, Ugaritic, and Classical Arabic. In other languages, including modern Arabic dialects, there are either no cases or they exist only in a rudimentary form. Semitic syntax is based on a fixed word order in a sentence—verb, subject, object (VSO). This is still true for Classical and Modern Standard Arabic. Mandatory for all Semitic languages are the sequences “noun – adjective” and “possessed – possessor.” In the early Middle Ages, a tendency to “syntax liberalization” and the use of analytical syntax constructions both appeared. Of the old Semitic languages, Classical Syriac, the literary language of Christian Arameans, has the most free syntax. It is, among other factors, the result of the influence of the Greek language



from which numerous translations were made. Of the modern Semitic languages, the furthest from the Semitic syntactical norms are Amharic and Hebrew. The most important indicator of the close relationship between the Semitic languages is their huge number of common roots and words. It is safe to say that Semitic languages share a common basic vocabulary. Polysemy, multiple meanings of a word, is a common phenomenon. At the same time, the same root or word may mean different things in different languages. In terms of vocabulary, Semitic languages also differ from each other by different sets of borrowings. In Akkadian, for example, Sumerian borrowings prevail, while in early Aramaic dialects Old Iranian, and, to a lesser extent, Egyptian; in Syriac, Greek; in Maltese, Italian; in Modern Hebrew, English and Russian; in Modern Aramaic dialects, Kurdish, Persian, and Arabic; and in Ethio-Semitic, African. Arabic has the smallest number of borrowed words, while Maltese has the largest. Arabic is also known for the richness of its vocabulary and diversity of synonyms.


ARAMEANS AT THE DAWN OF THEIR HISTORY 2.1. Etymology of the word “Aram.” The etymology of the word “aram,” from which the name “Aramean” is derived, remains unclear. The Mesopotamian written sources from the end of the third millennium BC mention the word aramu, which stands for an area or a city, presumably somewhere in the middle course of the Tigris River. It may be assumed that in this case it is a word of Hurrian origin, not associated with Aramean tribes, which until the last quarter of the second millennium were nomads in Northern Arabia. Thus, the consonance of Hurrian “aram” with Semitic “aram” is nothing more than a coincidence. The same applies to the Luwian 1 moon god Arma, whose name sometimes evoked inappropriate associations with Arameans. The Hurrian origin of the word “aram” to some extent explains the presence of this word in Armenian onomastics. The first Aram, who is discussed in detail by the Armenian historian of the 5th century AD Movses Khorenatsi, was a sixth generation direct descendant of Hayk, the legendary progenitor of the Armenians. 2 Since Hayk himself is called the great-great-grandson of Japheth, son of Noah, it is obvious that Movses Khorenatsi’s “Aram” is not identical to any of the biblical “Arams,” believed to be descendants of another son of Noah, Shem. The most probable historical prototype of this mythical Aram is believed to be Aramu, or Arameh, the first king of Urartu (860–840 BC). Ara the Beautiful, who was the son of Aram, was another popular figure of Armenian mythology. His historical prototype is most probably another king of Urartu, Argishti I (785–763). The confrontation between Luwians were ancient people of Indo-European origin, related to Hittites and eventually Hellenized. They inhabited the western regions of Asia Minor and northern Syria in the first millennium BC. It is believed that the population of Troy was mostly of Luwian origin. 2 The component “Aram-” can also be isolated in the names of Aram’s predecessors, namely the son and grandson of Hayk, Aramaneak and Aramayis, but it is equally possible that the name-forming component in all these names is “Ar-” or “Ara-.” 1




Hayk and Bel 3 and between Ara the Beautiful and Semiramis is the mythologized reflection of the actual political and military confrontation between Urartu and Assyria. The Urartian and Hurrian languages were closely related and formed a single language group, so the first Urartian king bore the name of local, Hurrian-Urartian origin. It is highly unlikely that Aramu was of Aramean ancestry, as suggested by some scholars, because the Aramean presence in the Armenian Highlands at that time was negligible, and an Aramean could hardly have risen to power in Urartu with its overwhelmingly non-Semitic population. Interestingly, in South Mesopotamia, in Babylon, where an Aramean presence since the beginning of the first millennium BC was very noticeable, the first Aramean managed to usurp the kingship only almost a century after the reign of Aramu of Urartu (more on this below). After the legendary Aram, medieval Armenian historians sometimes called Armenia “the country of Aram,” and the Armenians “Aram’s tribe.” Movses Khorenatsi was of the opinion that the ethnonym “Armen” correlates with “Aram,” 4 and some scholars in modern times have agreed with him. This assumption seems unfounded as it ignores the root consonant “n” in the word “Armen.” It seems more likely that “Armen” is an Indo-European word and shares distant roots with the names “Armin” and “Herman,” popular to this day among Germans and Anglo-Saxons. As for the Semitic “aram,” the most accepted current interpretation of this word connects it with the common Semitic word “wild bull” in the “broken” plural. 5 Accordingly, it is assumed that among early nomadic Arameans the bull had some kind of totemic significance. The supreme Aramean god of thunder, Hadad, for example, was often depicted standing on the back of a bull.

2.2. Arameans at the Assyrian frontiers. The ancient history of the Arameans is known from ancient written sources, which can be divided into three main groups: a) Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and others; b) biblical; and c) Aramean proper (a few inscriptions discovered during archaeological excavations). In the last quarter of the second millennium BC, nomadic and semi-nomadic Aramean tribes occupied the northeastern edges of the Arabian Peninsula. From here they moved to the northwest, mainly along the Euphrates, and gradually established themselves on the Syrian steppe, on the right bank of the Middle Euphrates. This was another Semitic migration wave from Arabia, after the Akkadian, Amorite,

Bel (Akkadian belu, “lord”, “master”) was the title of the Mesopotamian supreme god Marduk and several other less significant Semitic gods. According to Armenian mythology, Hayk and Bel were competing brothers. 4 “It is said that Aram performed many brave deeds in battle and that he pushed the limits of Armenia in all directions. All the peoples call our country by his name, for example, the Greeks – Armenia, the Persians and Syriacs – Aramenik” (Movses Khorenatsi, History of Armenia, Book I). 5 In Arabic, aram means “white antelope.” 3



and Canaanite migrations. However, Arameans could have occupied the Syrian steppe much earlier, in the wave of the Canaanite migration from Arabia. Assyrian royal annals of the 13th century BC mention several tribes in North Mesopotamia that could have been Aramean. However, the Assyrians mention the “Arameans” for the first time at the end of the 12th century. In particular, TiglathPileser I (1114–1076) encountered the Arameans in the areas west of the Middle Euphrates, and tried to contain their advances, which were threatening to become a disaster for Assyria and all of Mesopotamia. In one of his inscriptions TiglathPileser reports that he had crossed the Euphrates 28 times in pursuit of Arameans. The inscriptions by Tiglath-Pileser’s son, Ashur-bel-kala (1073–1056), mention mat arimi, 6 “the country of Arameans,” which was the area between the rivers Euphrates and Khabur, the northeast of present-day Syria, known today as Jazeera (“Island”). In the Akkadian cuneiform inscriptions of the Assyrian kings the word “Aram” is often preceded by the word ahlamu, which is usually interpreted as “nomads.” According to another interpretation, the Ahlamu were one of the Aramean tribes, or tribal unions, which migrated from Arabia along with the bulk of the Arameans, but by different routes. In another inscription Tiglath-Pileser reports: “I set out against Ahlamu-Arameans, enemies of the god Ashur, I slaughtered them all.” One of the inscriptions by King Tukulti-Ninurta I (1244–1208) contains reference to “the mount Ahlamu.” It is presumably the modern area of Jabal-Bishri in the middle course of the Euphrates. The word ahlamu, without reference to the Arameans, is attested in several Babylonian inscriptions, the earliest of which dates to the second half of the 18th century. “Ahlamu” is also mentioned in the “Amarna letters,” dating to the 14th century, and containing correspondence in the Akkadian language between Egyptian pharaohs and their Canaanite vassals. Although the Assyrian kings claimed numerous victories over the Arameans, at a certain point it became impossible to contain their advances. During the reign of Tiglath-Pileser I, the Arameans managed to break through the Assyrian defensive positions along the Euphrates and started moving toward South Mesopotamia (Babylonia). At the same time, more and more Arameans were recruited by the Assyrian kings as mercenaries. They also became increasingly involved in the political life of Assyria and Babylonia. Aramean tribesmen supported a certain rebel in his attempt to seize power from the Babylonian king Adad-apla-iddina (1068–1047), the father-in-law and protégé of the Assyrian king Ashur-bel-kala, and apparently of Aramean ancestry himself. As they moved south, the Arameans sometimes managed to seize power in smaller cities. The interdynastic marriage of Ashur-bel-kala with the daughter of Adad-apla-iddina was, among other things, the result of a need to withstand the increasing Aramean threat. It is noteworthy that in the Akkadian sources of the period and, in particular, in the description of the rebellion against The Arims (Αρίμοι) mentioned in Homer’s “Iliad” are usually identified with the Arameans. 6



Adad-apla-iddina, there is a reference, along with Arameans, to the Suteans (Amorites) and sometimes the Arameans are called “Suteans” as well.

The Chaldeans. The Aramean tribes that settled in the extreme south of Babylonia, at the Persian Gulf, in the Akkadian annals of Assyrian and Babylonian kings were often called kashdu or kaldu. Kashdu is echoed in the Hebrew name of the Kasdim people, mentioned in the Old Testament, whereas kaldu subsequently transformed in Greek into Χαλδαίοι (“Chaldeans”). The latter became quite a common name, a synonym to the word “Arameans,” although the Chaldeans might be somewhat different from the Arameans. Interestingly, in medieval Christian writings in Aramaic there is a reference to the Beth Aramaye (“Home of Arameans”) region, which is the same territory occupied in the past by the Chaldeans of South Mesopotamia. Furthermore, in South Mesopotamia there were also some Arab tribes that were often perceived as being Aramean because of their nomadic or semi-nomadic way of life. The Assyrian and Babylonian sources preserved the names of five Chaldean tribes: Beth Dakkur, Beth Yakin, Beth Amukkani, Beth Sha’alli, and Beth Sillani. All these names are Aramaic and, just like the names of other Aramean tribes, they were composed by combining the word beth or bith (“house,” “home”) with the name of the tribe’s progenitor. The Beth Dakkur and Beth Yakin tribes established their own states with the same tribal names in South Mesopotamia. The increasing number of Chaldeans in the region is evidenced by the fact that in the chronicle of Shalmaneser III (859–824) the Persian Gulf is called “the sea of the Chaldeans.” While maintaining their tribal divisions and ethnic identity, the Chaldeans were under the strong cultural and religious influence of the Babylonians. This influence was much stronger than that of the Assyrians on the Arameans in the northern regions of Mesopotamia. The Chaldeans were well integrated into the social and political life of Babylonia, and in the 8th and 7th centuries some of them even managed to usurp the kingship. The Chaldean kings of Babylon included tribal natives of Beth Yakin, Eriba-Marduk (769–761) and Marduk-apla-iddina II (721–710, mentioned in the Old Testament as “Merodach-Baladan”); natives of Beth Dakkur, Nabu-shuma-ishkun (760–748) and Mushezib-Marduk (692–689); and a native of Beth Amukkani, Nabu-mukin-zeri (731–729). In the middle of the 7th century, an entire Chaldean dynasty established itself in Babylon (to be discussed in subsequent chapters). Thus, the Chaldeans were closely associated with Babylonia, which later was sometimes called “Chaldea.” 2.3. Beth Bahyan. The Aramean tribes that had established themselves in North and Central Mesopotamia as well as in Syria (on the periphery of Assyria) by the 10th century BC had more opportunities to develop their statehood than their brethren in Babylonia and in the central regions of Assyria. In these areas Aramean states, which arose in the 10th century, managed to survive for two centuries despite ongoing Assyrian expansion.



Fig. 15. A bas-relief from Gozan with a winged sun disk

In the 10th century, Bahyan, an Aramean tribal leader, established a small state in North Mesopotamia, named Beth Bahyan. The state’s rulers were collectively called by the Assyrians Mar Bahiani, or “Bahyan’s son.” The capital of this state was the city of Gozan (Gauzan, Guzana), located on the banks of the Khabur River (present-day Tel Halaf in northeastern Syria). In 1899, 1911–1913, and 1927–1929, German archaeologists carried out excavations on the territory of Gozan, and, among other things, discovered the remnants of the Beth Hilani palace, built in NeoHittite style and decorated with beautiful bas-reliefs, statues, ornaments, and cuneiform inscriptions. The palace was built by King Kapara, son of Hadyan, who left one Aramaic inscription as well as a large number in Akkadian. Another major city of Beth Bahyan was Sikkan, or Sikanu in Assyrian sources, located not far from Gozan (supposedly present-day Tel Fahiriya in Syria). Both cities are known as Assyrian city-states in earlier Assyrian inscriptions. Beth Bahyan was first mentioned by the Assyrian King Adad-nirari II (911– 891), whose reign is believed to have inaugurated the so-called “Neo-Assyrian period.” Adad-nirari reported successful military campaigns against Gozan and Sikkan in 894 and tribute from “Abishalam, son of Bahyan,” which included “numerous chariots, herds of horses, silver, gold, and the wealth of his palace.” It is also known that in the 870s, the rulers of Gozan twice sent tribute to Ashurnasirpal II (884– 859), who was infamous for his cruelty. The riches of the tribute, which also included chariots and horses, suggest that after 894 Beth Bahyan had actually become an Assyrian province, and that the “sons of Bahyan” participated in the wars of the Assyrian kings. However, the royal status of the rulers of Gozan was apparently recognized by the Assyrians.



In addition to Bahyan, Abishalam, Kapara, and Hadyan, the list of the local rulers includes Hadad-Yis‘i, son of Shamash-Nuri, who left his statue featuring an Akkadian-Aramaic inscription.

2.4. Beth Zammani. Another Aramean tribal state located in North Mesopotamia was Beth Zammani, called so by the Assyrians after its tribal ancestor, Zamman. The capital of Beth Zammani was Amid, located on the right bank of the Tigris (present-day Diyarbakir in Turkey), and the state itself occupied the area southeast of the city, including the plateau, which in medieval times was called “Tur Abdin,” or “Mountain of the servants [of God]” (today Tur Abdin is located within Turkish borders, to the east of Mardin, and is one of the few pockets where Aramaic is still spoken). Like other Aramean states, Beth Zammani was occasionally attacked by Assyria, but for the most part acted as an ally and vassal of Assyria during its confrontations with Nairi and Urartu. Thus, the Assyrian King Tukulti-Ninurta II (891–884), in preparation for the military campaign against Nairi, signed an agreement with Ammi-Baal, the first king of Beth Zammani known by name. This, however, did not prevent him from placing Beth Zammani under heavy tribute. Ammi-Baal was also heavily levied by Tukulti-Ninurta’s son, Ashurnasirpal II. In 879, Ammi-Baal was killed by his own mutinous courtiers, who were led by Bur Ramman. Ashurnasirpal II immediately set out against the rebels and reported in a lengthy inscription: “As for Ammi-Baal, son of Zamman, his elders rebelled and killed him. I set out to avenge him. They were frightened by the splendor of my arms, and the immensity of my power. I took 40 harnessed chariots, equipment for troops and horses, 460 trained and harnessed horses, two talents of silver, two talents of gold, 100 talents of tin, 200 talents of bronze, 300 talents of iron, 1000 bronze dishes, 2000 bronze vessels and bowls, 1000 embroidered robes, a couch of ivory decorated with gold, the treasure of his palace, 2000 oxen, 5000 sheep, his sister with her rich dowry, the daughters of his elders with their rich dowries. I flayed Bur Ramman, the instigator, and stretched his skin over the walls of Sinabu. I appointed his brother Ilan ruler and laid him under an annual tribute of 2 measures of gold, 13 measures of silver, 1000 sheep and 2000 measures of barley.” This impressive list, despite the exaggeration typical of Assyrian kings, is evidence of great wealth and the developed material culture of this Aramean state. After some time had passed, Ilan appears to have refused to recognize the authority of the Assyrian king, as in 869 Ashurnasirpal captured Damdamussa, Ilan’s fortified city. He then marched toward Amid, and by the city’s gate he built a mound of the heads of the Damdamussa captives and surrounded the city with impaled Aramean warriors. “I hung their heads on the trees around the city, I burned all their boys and girls,” boasted Ashurnasirpal in his victorious inscription. In the last third of the 9th century Beth Zammani was finally reduced to an Assyrian province. Until the end of the 7th century BC the Assyrian annals mention the names of local Assyrian governors, many of whom are referred to as “the ruler of Nairi, Amid, Sinab…”.

2.5. The Temanites of Nisibis. Next to Beth Zammani lay another small Aramean state with a capital in Nisibis (or Nasibina in the Assyrian sources, present-day



Nusaybin in southern Turkey, close to Qamishli, Syria). This statelet was populated by the Aramean tribe of Temanites (“Southerners”), who had settled in this region in the 10th century BC. They were known for their adamant resistance to the Assyrians, which reached its climax under Adad-nirari II (911–891). Thus, in 901 and 900 Adad-nirari tried to crush the Temanites but could not win a decisive victory over them. In 898, he once again attacked the Temanites, who courageously defended the city of Gidara, headed by Mukuru. Only by using redoubts did Assyrians manage to capture the city, after which Mukuru surrendered. Two years later, the Temanites headed by Nur-Hadad again offered stubborn resistance to Adad-nirari at Nisibis (it was during this march to Nisibis that Adad-nirari captured Gozan and Sikkan, as mentioned above). The Assyrians took Nisibis using redoubts once again, and NurHadad finally surrendered and was taken to the Assyrian capital Nineveh. After that, the Temanite territory was incorporated into the Assyrian state, and Nisibis came into historical prominence once more after a millennium and a half had passed as one of the major centers of Christian Aramean culture. Beth Yahiri. At the beginning of the 9th century, a dwarf Aramean state called Beth Yahiri was situated adjacent to Beth Zammani. It occupied the region of Izalla, in the western part of Tur Abdin. According to Assyrian sources, local rulers Ahiram, Hadad-Immi, and Yatti’a paid tribute to Ashurnasirpal II, when he passed with his army through their territory.

2.6. Laqe. At the confluence of the Euphrates and Khabur rivers, near the presentday Syrian city of Dayr al-Zor, lay an Aramean state that the Assyrians called “Laqe” or “Beth Halupe.” Unlike all the mono-tribal states mentioned above, Laqe was a kind of confederation of 12 Aramean and North Arabian tribes that settled in this area in the 12th–11th century BC. Each tribe had its own main town, but there was no common capital and no centralized royal power. Nevertheless, there are clear indications that the priestly clan acted as a royal dynasty. It was led by a priestess recognized by all tribes. Apart from purely religious functions, the priestess had some political power, as the Assyrian sources refer to her not only as “priestess” (kumirtu or apkallatu in Akkadian) but also as “queen” (sharratu). “Priestess-queens” also existed in the North Arabian tribes and survived in some form until modern times. It has been suggested that “Beth Halupe” was the name of the Laqe priestly clan. Assyrian sources of the 9th century BC preserve the names of some tribal chiefains of the confederation—Mudad, Haran, Ilaha, Hamdi-Il, Azzi-Il, Bar Attar, 7 and others. One inscription calls them “kings,” but more often they were designated by the Akkadian term nasiku, which is usually translated as “sheikh.” Some of them The Aramaic word bar, meaning “son of,” is common in Aramean names, forming patronymic names (“so-and-so, son of so-and-so”), as well as more abstract combinations indicating no direct relationship. 7



were protégés of Hamath, a much more powerful Aramean state in Syria, which exercised considerable influence over Laqe. Adad-nirari II, Tukulti-Ninurta II, and Ashurnasirpal II report receiving tribute from the Laqean chieftains consisting of gold, silver, lead, bronze vessels, sheep, bulls, wool, grain, hay, beer, and so on. As a tribute, Assyrians also took the daughters and sisters of the chieftains with their dowries. In 883, a mutiny occurred in Shur, a town in Laqe, similar to the insurgency of Bur Ramman in Beth Zammani. The elders of a local tribe killed their chieftain and put Ahi-Yababa in his place. Upon receiving this news, Ashurnasirpal II, who was nearby in a military campaign, changed his route and marched toward Shur. Frightened elders immediately handed Ahi-Yababa over to the Assyrians and he was later executed in Nineveh. As was the case in Beth Zammani, the rebellion gave Assyrians a reason to extort additional tribute from Laqe. Ashurnasirpal once again marched with his army through Laqe in 878, imposing a new tribute. During Ashurnasirpal’s third campaign through Laqe, between 877 and 867, local chieftains AzziIl and Ilaha offered him strong resistance, but without much success. After that campaign, Laqe was gradually reduced to an Assyrian province.

2.7. Beth Adini. The westernmost Aramean state of North Mesopotamia was Beth Adini, 8 first mentioned in the annals of Adad-nirari II (911–891), who in 899 took tribute from the ruler of this kingdom. It was suggested that the House of Eden (Beth Eden) mentioned in the Old Testament Book of Amos was in fact Beth Adini. The capital of this relatively strong kingdom was Til-Barsip, located on the left bank of the Middle Euphrates (present-day Tel Ahmar in Syria). Before the Arameans moved to these areas in the second half of the 10th century, Til-Barsip was a Luwian city called Masuvari. The Luwian hieroglyphic writing in Til-Barsip continued to be in use even after the emergence of Beth Adini. Til-Barsip was located near the strategically important crossings over the Euphrates that Assyria was constantly trying to control. Initially, Beth Adini occupied vast areas to the east of the Middle Euphrates. One of the cities here was Urhai, which later, better known as Edessa, became the cradle of Aramean Christian culture. Nevertheless, the rulers of Beth Adini from time to time managed to extend their control to the west of the Euphrates, over the northern part of Syria, including the Neo-Hittite city-state of Carchemish. Another notable city in this area was Manbog (or Manbig, Nappigi in Assyrian sources), which later, known as Mabbug (Manbij in present-day northern Syria), became a major center of Aramean paganism and Christianity. The only king of Beth Adini known by name (apart from Adini himself) was Ahuni, who became famous for his fierce resistance to Ashurnasirpal II (884–859) and his successor, Shalmaneser III (859–824). Nevertheless, the last of Shalmaneser’s four westbound military campaigns culminated in 856 with the seizure of Til-Barsip. Ahuni was captured, and “with his gods, chariots, horses, sons, and 8

An Aramean tribe named Beth Adini is also attributed to South Mesopotamia.



daughters” he was deported to the city of Ashur. Assyrian sources say nothing about his fate. After the fall of Beth Adini, Til-Barsip was renamed Kar Shalmaneser and became the center of an Assyrian province, where a big number of Assyrian colonists were settled. New Assyrian names were also given to Manbog-Nappigi and a number of other cities that previously were under Beth Adini’s rule. Together with Beth Adini, Assyrian sources occasionally mention a small Aramean kingdom of Til-Abni, located to the north of it. In particular, Ashurnasirpal II twice received tribute from Habinu, the ruler of Til-Abni.


A brief overview of the political history of the Aramean states of North and Central Mesopotamia reveals that from the end of the 10th century BC, namely since the reign of Adad-nirari II (911–891), and for the duration of nearly all of the 9th century, Assyria continuously raided Arameans, including those who were considered allies. As a result of Assyria’s rise in the 9th century during the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (884–859) and Shalmaneser III (859–824), virtually all the Aramean states of Mesopotamia were subdued and then destroyed. Large portions of the Aramean population were deported to Assyria, which further increased the number of Arameans there. In one of his inscriptions Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727) identified 35 Aramean tribes inhabiting Mesopotamia in the middle of the 7th century, but in reality this number could have been much higher.

2.8. Arameans in the Old Testament: Aram-Naharaim and Harran. Information on Arameans of North Mesopotamia and adjacent areas of Syria may also be found in the Old Testament sources, namely in the Book of Judges, Books of Kings, and Books of Chronicles. These sources, in particular, mention Aram-Naharaim, or “Aram of two rivers” (presumably, Khabur and Euphrates). In the Greek versions of the Old Testament “Aram Naharaim” is translated as “Mesopotamia.” The Hebrews also called the territory of Aram-Naharaim Paddan-Aram. The etymology of the word paddan is unclear; it is usually associated with either the Akkadian word paddanu, meaning “road” or “way,” or the Old Persian word apadana, or “palace.” According to indirect evidence from the Old Testament, some sort of an Aramean state or tribal alliance existed in Aram-Naharaim. The Book of Judges (3:8) informs us that for eight years the Israelites were ruled by Chushan-Rishathaim, king of Aram-Naharaim. In all probability, “Aram-Naharaim” was one of the Aramean states that existed in North Mesopotamia, but it is impossible to identify the biblical Chushan-Rishathaim with any of the historical Aramean kings. The Old Testament also confirms the historical fact that Arameans of Aram-Naharaim often sided with Assyria’s enemies, such as Mitanni, engaging as mercenaries in their armies. The most significant city of Aram-Naharaim known to biblical authors was Harran, located at the crossroads of important caravan routes. Around the end of the 12th century BC this city became a major Aramean center and continuously remained so for almost two millennia. Abraham and his family stayed in Harran on their way to Canaan from the Babylonian city Ur of the Chaldees (the very name suggests that this large city might have been mostly populated by ChaldoArameans). Subsequently, Harran became one of the main centers of interaction



between Israelites and Arameans, which sometimes turned into bloody skirmishes and at other times led to cross-cousin marriages. To the Old Testament sources, as well as to a lesser extent, Assyrian sources, the proper name “Aram” is also known as a personal name. At least four persons by that name are mentioned, including Shem’s younger son, that is, Noah’s grandson (Gen. 10:22 9, 1 Chron.1:17 10); Nahor’s grandson, who was Abraham’s brother (Gen. 22:20–21 11); Shemer’s son (1 Chron. 7:34 12); and Hezron’s son, mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Ruth 4:19 13, 1 Chr. 2:9 14, Matt. 1:3 15, 4, Lk. 3:33 16). The presence of “Arams” in Hebrew genealogies, particularly within the family of Abraham, is an important confirmation of the kinship between the Amorites and the Arameans. It seems logical to consider Aram, great-nephew of Abraham, the progenitor of Arameans, just as Abraham himself is considered the progenitor of the Hebrews. However, the biblical commentators name Abraham himself as the forefather of the Arameans, as well as Arabs and several other Semitic peoples. His name is also associated with three monotheistic religions that arose in the Semitic milieu— Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, sometimes referred to as “Abrahamic religions” or “religions of revelation.” It is obvious that the biblical authors tried to promote the idea of a close kinship between the Hebrews and Arameans. Not only did they keep Arams in their genealogies, but they also did not find it necessary to revise the story about how Abraham’s descendants in search of wives traveled from Canaan to their relatives in the areas inhabited by the Arameans. Isaac, for example, marries Rebecca, “the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-Aram” (Gen. 25:20), and Jacob marries Leah and Rachel, daughters of “Laban the Aramean” (Gen. 31:20). Moreover, Jacob, who was a patriarch of the twelve tribes of Israel, is called the “wandering Aramean” in the Old Testament (Deut. 26:5). There were both objective and subjective reasons for this. The former includes the obvious closeness of the languages of the Hebrews and Arameans, and the most important of the latter was the strengthThe children of Shem; Elam, and Asshur, and Arphaxad, and Lud, and Aram. The sons of Shem; Elam, and Asshur, and Arphaxad, and Lud, and Aram, and Uz, and Hul, and Gether, and Meshech. 11 And it came to pass after these things, that it was told Abraham, saying, Behold, Milcah, she hath also born children unto thy brother Nahor; Huz his firstborn, and Buz his brother, and Kemuel the father of Aram. 12 And the sons of Shamer; Ahi, and Rohgah, Jehubbah, and Aram. 13 And Hezron begat Aram, and Aram begat Amminadab. 14 The sons also of Hezron, that were born unto him; Jerahmeel, and Aram, and Chelubai. 15 And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram. And Aram begat Aminadab. 16 Which was the son of Aminadab, which was the son of Aram, which was the son of Esrom. 9




ening hand of the Arameans in the Middle Eastern geopolitics of the period, which made emphasizing the kinship with the Arameans very appropriate. Thus, the ancient epic period of Jewish history recorded in the Old Testament was very closely linked to the Arameans of North Mesopotamia and, more indirectly, to the Chaldeans of South Mesopotamia. The sections of the Old Testament concerning Canaan, which describe events that occurred later in history, mostly focus on the Arameans of Syria and their states that emerged alongside a Jewish state in the land of Canaan.

2.9. Beth Gabbari (Sam’al). Arameans were simultaneously spreading out both in Syria and Mesopotamia, and the annals of Tiglath-Pileser I (1114–1076) shed some light on the events of this period. By the beginning of the first millennium BC, the central and southern parts of Syria were almost completely Aramean-populated, while in the north, in the towns of Yaudi (the present-day Kurdish village of Zinjirli in southern Turkey), and Arpad, which was mentioned in the Old Testament (today Tel Rifat in northwest Syria), late Hittite city-states remained in existence for some time. Several Hittite names of the rulers of Yaudi are known, like Sapalulme, Kalparunda, Lubarna, Surri, and Sasi. Soon, however, the power in these cities too passed to the Arameans, who created their own states around them. Under the Arameans, Yaudi was given the Aramean name Sam’al, and around 920 became the capital of a state, known as Yaudi, or Sam’al, as well as “Beth Gabbari,” after the first local king Gabbar. The history of this Aramean state is known relatively well from several valuable inscriptions left by its kings that were first discovered by German archaeologists in 1888–1902. The earliest of these inscriptions belongs to Kilammuwa and is decorated with the image of the king himself. In it, Kilammuwa calls himself “King of Yaudi,” using the old Hittite name, and mentions his predecessors on the throne of Sam’al and his dynastic gods. According to Kilammuwa’s inscription, the first king of Sam’al was Gabbar, who reigned during the first two decades of the 9th century. Assyrian sources sometimes call the other kings of Sam’al “sons of Gabbar.” Next, Kilammuwa mentions Bama (or Banihu), who reigned for ten years. The family affiliation of the second king of Sam’al with Gabbar remains unclear. After Bama, in the middle of the 9th century, Sam’al was ruled by Kilammuwa’s father Hayyan (or Hayya) who, along with Haiani, was mentioned in the annals of Shalmaneser III (859–824) as his tributary and by Kilammuwa’s brother, Shail. Of all these kings Kilammuwa, the fifth king of Sam’al, says that they “reigned over Yaudi, but did not achieve anything.” Unlike his father and brother, Kilammuwa, as well as some of his successors, bore a name of Anatolian, 17 not Semitic origin. This indicates a strong Hittite and Luwian influence on the Arameans of Sam’al, which also manifests itself in the dec-

The term “Anatolia” is used in this book in its scientific sense, without the inclusion of the Armenian Highlands and the adjacent areas of North Mesopotamia. 17



orative arts. 18 It was assumed that Kilammuwa’s mother could have been of Hittite or Luwian ancestry. During the reign of Kilammuwa, which lasted for most of the second half of the 9th century, Sam’al appears as a small state surrounded by more powerful enemies such as the Neo-Hittite kingdom of Quwe, with the capital on the territory of modern Adana. In his confrontation with Quwe, Kilammuwa managed to secure the support of an Assyrian king, presumably Shalmaneser III, who is known to have twice attacked Quwe.

Fig. 16. Citadel of Sam’al (reconstruction by German archeologist Robert Koldewey)

Kilammuwa’s successor on the throne of Sam’al was Karli (Kural). Nothing is known about his reign that lasted nearly two decades. The same is true about his relationship with Kilammuwa, but it is an established fact that Karli was succeeded by his son, Panammuwa I, whose name is also of Anatolian origin. A lengthy inIn 2008, archaeologists of the University of Chicago unearthed in Zinjirli a wellpreserved stele with Aramaic inscription on behalf of Kuttamuwa. According to the inscription, Kuttamuwa arranged for the stele during his lifetime because his soul was supposed to dwell in it after his death. This message, as well as the absence of graves in the vicinity, has led to a suggestion that the Arameans of Sam’al, under the influence of Hittites and Luwians, practiced cremation, a custom characteristic of Indo-European peoples. Semitic peoples who believed that the soul of the deceased dwells with his bones forbade cremation. 18



scription by Panammuwa survived, which describes his reign as long (about 790– 750) and serene. However, his son and successor, Bar Sur, fell victim to a bloody coup, and as a result power was seized by a nameless usurper for several years. Bar Sur’s son, Panammuwa II, managed to escape and found refuge in Assyria, and about 740 Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727) helped him regain the throne. The Assyrian king also transferred to Panammuwa II several cities of Gurgum, a neighboring Neo-Hittite state in Cilicia with the capital in Kahramanmarash. This made Sam’al a vassal state to Assyria, and Panammuwa “clung to the hem of the garment of the great King of Assyria, and ran next to his chariot,” which means that he participated in the wars of his overlord. The short reign of Panammuwa II ended when he was killed during the siege of Damascus by Tiglath-Pileser III in 733–732. Tiglath-Pileser and his vassal-kings attended Panammuwa’s solemn funeral in Ashur. After the death of Panammuwa II, Tiglath-Pileser III put on the throne of Sam’al his son, Bar Rakkab, who continued his father’s pro-Assyrian policy and remained “the servant of Tiglath-Pileser, who ran alongside his chariot.” As was the case with Panammuwa I, Bar Rakkab’s reign was marked with relative calm and prosperity. He adorned his capital with new buildings, statues, and bas-reliefs and also left some informative inscriptions that are the main source for the life of Panammuwa II. Bar Rakkab reigned almost 20 years, and around 710 Sam’al was apparently annexed by Assyria.

Fig. 17. King Bar Rakkab of Sam’al and his secretary

2.10. Beth Gush. As for Arpad, this Hittite city in Syria became the capital of another Aramean kingdom, where the first ruler was Gush. During the reign of the



Assyrian king Ashur-rabi II (1013–972) Gush’s tribe occupied the territory called Yahan, located within Assyria proper. The west Semitic origin of the word “Yahan” suggests that it was originally the ethnonym of this tribe. Another Assyrian king, Ashur-dan II (934–912), reported a successful campaign against Yahan, after which Gush’s tribe moved into northern Syria and occupied the territory around Lake Jabbul, 40 kilometers southeast of Aleppo. The Aramean kingdom that Gush established here around 890 initially bore the old name “Yahan,” and Ashurnasirpal II reported receiving tribute from “Gush of Yahan” around 870. Later, this state became known as “Beth Gush” (in Aramaic sources) or “Beth (A)gusi” in Akkadian. Arpad was not the first capital of Beth Gush. Under Gush and his son, Hadram, who inherited the throne around 860, the king’s city was Arne located east of Lake Jabbul (presumably modern Tel Aran). Shalmaneser III (859–824) captured the city in 849 after Hadram stopped sending him tribute. Arpad, which was located further north, apparently became the capital of Beth Gush after these events, and after his defeat by Shalmaneser III, Hadram focused his attention on his northern domains. Attarsamak I (“Attarsumki” in Akkadian sources) succeeded his father Hadram around 830. By the end of his reign, Attarsamak appeared in Assyrian sources as the head of a coalition of nine kings of Syria, which was confronted by King Adad-nirari III (810–782), son of renowned Semiramis (Shammuramat). In 805, Attarsamak was defeated by Adad-nirari, who captured all of Syria, including its main city Damascus. However, he managed to retain power and pass it to his son Bar Hadad around 800. Bar Hadad was mentioned in the Aramaic inscription on the famous “Melqart stele” as “the King of Aram.” Little is known about Bar Hadad’s son and successor, Attarsamak II, who came to power around 780. More information survived about his son Mati-Il, who ascended the throne of Beth Gush in the middle of the 8th century. In particular, he was mentioned in the treaty signed with the Assyrian king Ashur-nirari V (754–746), who defeated him after Mati-Il had supposedly broken his promise of loyalty and support. Mati-Il’s name also appears in a treaty signed with Bar Gay’a, ruler of Kittik, who exceeded Mati-Il in status (Kittik, or Beth Sallul, was presumably a small Aramean kingdom that existed in 8th century west of Carchemish). The weakness of Assyria and the rise of Urartu in this period allowed Mati-Il to break the treaty with Ashur-nirari V and even lead an anti-Assyrian coalition, which included north Syrian and south Anatolian kings Sulumal of Melid, Tarhulara of Gurgum, Kushtashpi of Kummuh, and some others. The coalition enjoyed the support of the King Sarduri II of Urartu, who tried to seize Syria and thereby cut off Assyria from the Mediterranean Sea and deprive it of valuable sources of minerals. In 740, Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727), under whom Assyria regained its strength, defeated the armies of Sarduri II near Arpad and the whole coalition, and he collected tribute from nearly all the kings of Syria, Phoenicia, Palestine, and southeast Asia Minor. Neverthless, the anti-Assyrian coalition survived and even managed to reestablish itself for some time in Arpad. However, in that same year Beth Gush was again occupied by the Assyrians, which marked the end of that Aramean state.



2.11. Hamath. The southernmost city of the Luwians in Syria was Hamath (present-day Hama in central Syria), which is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. The state that existed around this city occupied a vast territory that included, among other cities, Aleppo. The first known Luwian king of Hamath was Parita, who reigned in the first quarter of the 9th century BC. His son and successor Urhilina (“Uruleni” in Akkadian sources) is better known. He reigned nearly three decades in the middle of the 9th century and caused a lot of trouble for the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (859–824), who often mentions Urhilina in his annals. For most of the second half of the century Urhilina’s son, Uratami, ruled Hamath. Several Luwian hieroglyphic inscriptions survive from the Luwian dynasty of Hamath that contain evidence of significant Phoenician influence on this state. After Uratami, the power in Hamath passed to the Arameans, namely to the most renowned king of Hamath, Zakkur (Zakir), who reigned at the end of the 9th and into the first quarter of the 8th century. Zakkur is notable for his lengthy Aramaic inscription, in which he, being in reality a usurper, does not mention his father’s name but calls himself “a man from Ana,” a city on the Middle Euphrates. He then gives an account of his battle around 796 with the coalition of neighboring Aramean and Anatolian kings near the city of Hadarik in Hamath. The name of the immediate successor of Zakkur as well as the history of Hamath in the second quarter of the 8th century are not known, because the temporary weakening of Assyria during this period resulted, among other things, in a substantial reduction in the number of Assyrian inscriptions. Assyria regained its strength under Tiglath-Pileser III, who during his westbound campaign captured Arpad and defeated the coalition headed by Azriyahu, who ruled Hamath in the middle of the century and Tutammuwa, king of the Neo-Hittite state Umk (Unki), located near present-day Antakya (Antioch). As a result of this campaign, several provinces of Hamath were annexed to Assyria, and their population was deported to Mesopotamia. In 738, the Assyrians appointed Eni-Ilu as the next king of Hamath, and he was mentioned in Assyrian annals among western kings who paid tribute to Assyria. It is not known how long Eni-Ilu reigned, but when another dynastic crisis in Assyria brought Sargon II (722–705) to power, Hamath was ruled by Yahu-Bidi, whom Assyrians called Ilu-Bidi. Sargon declared Yahu-Bidi a rebel and an usurper, and during his western campaign of 720 captured Hamath and took Yahu-Bidi to Assyria, where he was flayed. Hamath was annexed and became the place of exile for several thousand Assyrians who in 722 opposed Sargon’s rise to power. The echoes of the fall of Arpad and Hamath are preserved in the Old Testament. In the second Book of Kings, Assyrian king Sennacherib (705–681) said to the messengers of King Hezekiah of Judah: “Has the god of any nation ever delivered his land from the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena and Ivvah? Have they rescued Samaria from my hand?” (18:33–34). In the next chapter, the Assyrian king addresses Hezekiah directly, saying, “Surely you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all the countries, destroying them completely. Where is the king of Hamath or the king of Arpad?” (19:11,13).



2.12. Arameans in South Syria and Transjordan. To a greater extent than the Arameans of northern and central Syria, the Arameans of southern Syria were in contact with the Israelites, and therefore they were mentioned more often in the Old Testament. By the beginning of the first millennium BC they were already in the majority here and had their own states. The southernmost of them were AramMaachah and Aram-Geshur in Transjordan, between Mount Hermon and the Yarmouk River. Some scholars believe that these two were in reality the same state, whose capital was called Geshur, and the ruling dynasty or dominant tribe—Beth Maachah. It was also assumed that the Aramean character of the Transjordanian states was not well prounounced, and they were under the strong influence of the Canaanites and Israelites. The daughter of King Talmay of Aram-Geshur was one of the wives of King David of Israel (1007–965, and the mother of his son, Absalom. The Aramean state known as Aram-Zobah, which was centered on the Bekaa Valley of present-day Lebanon, came into existence in the 10th century BC. It is also known as Aram-Beth-Rehob, the name of the local ruling dynasty. The best known king of Aram-Zobah is Hadad-Ezer bar Rehob. In alliance with Ammon and Edom, the states located in the central and southern parts of Transjordan, and the Arameans of Mesopotamia, he was defeated by King David. Then, a large Aramean territory, including the city of Damascus, was annexed by Israel. 19

2.13. Aram-Damascus. According to the Old Testament, a man named Rezon (the Hebrew version of the Aramaic name Ezron) once served Hadad-Ezer bar Rehob of Aram-Zobah. During the reign of King Solomon of Israel (965–928), Rezon left his master and at the head of a small detachment retook Damascus from the Israelites and declared it the capital of a new state, Aram-Damascus. 20 According to another interpretation of the early history of the Arameans of southern Syria, Rezon served an unknown Aramean king, who ruled in Damascus, and was toppled by Rezon in 950. Damascus, with its history of several thousand years, is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Yet it became prominent as an important political center alongside the rise of Aram-Damascus. Aram-Damascus was the largest of the Aramean states of Syria and Mesopotamia and the most powerful and important state that ever existed in the history of the Aramean people. Its military and political power was supported by a highly developed economy by the standards of that time, based on transit trade, cattle breeding, and production of

In the Middle Ages the Jews used the name “Aram-Zobah” for the whole of Syria, and specifically for the city of Aleppo, where a large Jewish community existed. One of the most valuable Hebrew manuscripts, the “Aleppo Codex,” which contains the text of Tanakh is known as Keter-Aram-Zobah, “the Crown of Aleppo,” or “the Crown of Syria.” 20 “And God raised up against Solomon another adversary, Rezon son of Eliada, who had fled from his master, Hadadezer king of Zobah. When David destroyed Zobah’s army, Rezon gathered a band of men around him and became their leader; they went to Damascus, where they settled and took control” (1 Kings, 11:23–24). 19



weapons. Arameans created a system of canals and tunnels in Damascus to maximize the efficient use of the Barada’s waters crossing the city. The large amount of information in the Old Testament about AramDamascus, which is often inadequate and biased, can be explained by its geographic proximity to and constant military and political confrontation with Israel. In Hebrew, the state is called Aram-Dameseq, or simply “Aram.” Not surprisingly, Assyrian sources also contain a lot of information on Aram-Damascus, which they call Emarishu. There are very few proper Aramaic sources about Aram-Damascus. Rezon’s successor was Hadyan I (Hezion), presumably his son, who reigned in the last quarter of the 10th century, after the kingdom of David and Solomon had broken up into two separate kingdoms, Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. The weakness of these two states allowed Aram-Damascus to make an impressive territorial expansion in all directions. Under Hadyan’s son, Tab-Ramman (TabRimmon), who reigned at the turn of the 9th century, Aram-Damascus extended from Hamath in the north to the kingdom of Israel in the south, and from the Syrian steppe in the east to Phoenicia in the west, claiming hegemony over all of Aramean Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean. At the beginning of the 9th century, Tab-Ramman’s son Bar Hadad I (ca. 900– 880, not to be confused with Bar Hadad of Arpad) was involved in a territorial dispute between Israel and Judah. Initially, he sided with King Bashi of Israel, but then King Asa of Judah managed to lure the Aramean king to his side with rich offerings. As a result, Aram-Damascus tore away north Galilee from Israel. Further consolidation of Aram-Damascus and the seemingly inevitable absorption of Israel were prevented by the new strengthening of Assyria, which having recovered from the Urartian strikes, resumed expansion toward the Eastern Mediterranean. Ashurnasirpal II (884–859) conquered the Arameans between the Euphrates and the Khabur reaching as far as Phoenicia and imposing a tribute upon it. Thus Assyria, for the second time after Tiglath-Pileser I (1114–1076), reached the Mediterranean Sea, and Ashurnasirpal symbolically washed his weapon in its waters. The common Assyrian threat forced Bar Hadad’s son, Hadad-Ezer (ca. 880– 843, called Adad-Idri in Akkadian sources, and erroneously Ben-Hadad in the Old Testament) to join forces with King Ahab of Israel and ten other kings, among them the aforementioned Luwian king Urhilina of Hamath. In 854, the antiAssyrian alliance battled with Shalmaneser III (859–824) at the city of Karkar on the Orontes River. According to Shalmaneser’s inscription, the coalition put 4000 chariots, 2000 horsemen, 1000 camels, and more than 50,000 infantrymen at Karkar. The battle of Karkar did not bring victory to either party, and Shalmaneser, despite his claims at victory, eventually withdrew his troops from Syria. In 849, 848, and 845, Shalmaneser met Hadad-Ezer’s coalition on the battlefield without much success each time. The Assyrian withdrawal from Syria led to the collapse of Hadad-Ezer’s coalition, and in 850 a war broke out between him and Ahab, resulting in Israel’s defeat



at Ramoth-Gilead and Ahab’s death. In 843, Hadad-Ezer was strangled by Hazael, a member of his entourage, who seized power in Damascus and founded a new dynasty. 21 Hazael’s long reign (843–804) marked Aram-Damascus’ height of power. In 842, at Ramoth-Gilead, the Arameans defeated King Jehoram of Israel and his nephew, King Ahaz of Judah, who jointly launched a campaign against Hazael. An Aramaic inscription on the stele from Tel Dan (Tel al-Qadi, the extreme north of modern Israel) attributed to Hazael claimed that both Hebrew kings were killed by the Arameans at Ramoth-Gilead. Yet, according to the Old Testament Jehoram was killed by Jehu, who was anointed king by the prophet Elisha, and Ahaz died while fleeing. It is believed that the Old Testament version could have been edited in favor of Jehu, while the Tel Dan inscription contains a more plausible account of events. In any case, after the victory at Ramoth-Gilead, Hazael seized a large portion of Israeli territory. The Old Testament gives the following account of these events: “Elisha went to Damascus, and Ben-Hadad king of Aram was ill. When the king was told, ‘The man of God has come all the way up here,’ he said to Hazael, ‘Take a gift with you and go to meet the man of God. Consult the Lord through him; ask him, ‘Will I recover from this illness?’” Hazael went to meet Elisha, taking with him as a gift forty camel-loads of all the finest wares of Damascus. He went in and stood before him, and said, “Your son Ben-Hadad king of Aram has sent me to ask, ‘Will I recover from this illness?’” Elisha answered, “Go and say to him, ‘You will certainly recover.’ Nevertheless, the Lord has revealed to me that he will in fact die.” He stared at him with a fixed gaze until Hazael was embarrassed. Then the man of God began to weep. “Why is my lord weeping?” asked Hazael. “Because I know the harm you will do to the Israelites,” he answered. “You will set fire to their fortified places, kill their young men with the sword, dash their little children to the ground, and rip open their pregnant women.” Hazael said, “How could your servant, a mere dog, accomplish such a feat?” “The Lord has shown me that you will become king of Aram,” answered Elisha. Then Hazael left Elisha and returned to his master. When Ben-Hadad asked, “What did Elisha say to you?” Hazael replied, “He told me that you would certainly recover.” But the next day he took a thick cloth, soaked it in water and spread it over the king’s face, so that he died. Then Hazael succeeded him as king. (2 Kings 8:7–15). According to the Old Testament, God instructed Elisha’s predecessor, the prophet Elijah, to anoint Hazael king: “The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.” (1 Kings 19:15). The Jewish historian of the 1st cent. AD, Josephus Flavius, retells this biblical passage, then adds: “He [Hazael] was an active man, and had the good-will of the Syrians, and of the people of Damascus, to a great degree; by whom both Benhadad himself, and Hazael, who ruled after him, are honored to this day as gods, by reason of their benefactions, and their building them temples by which they adorned the city of the Damascenes. They also every day do with great pomp pay their worship to these kings, and value themselves upon their antiquity, nor do they know that these kings are much later than they imagine, and that they are not yet eleven hundred years old” (Josephus Flavius, The Judean Antiquities, Book IX, Chapter IV, 6, translation by William Whiston). 21



In 841, taking advantage of the collapse of Hadad-Ezer’s anti-Assyrian coalition, Shalmaneser III launched a new campaign against Aram-Damascus, which had to withstand Assyria on its own. Initially, the campaign went well for the Assyrians; the Arameans retreated to the Lebanese mountains and Hazael himself was forced to flee to Damascus. However, despite a long siege, Shalmaneser failed to capture the Aramean capital and instead ravaged the city outskirts. He then collected tribute from the kings of the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon and from Jehu of Israel and withdrew to Assyria. The war exhausted Aram-Damascus, but Hazael managed to retain power. In 838, the Assyrians attacked Aram-Damascus again and took four fortified towns. Yet the Aramean state again managed to preserve its independence and even won a thirty-year respite. After this campaign the attention of Shalmaneser III was entirely concentrated on Urartu, and Assyria itself in the last years of Shalmaneser and the first years of his successor, Shamshi-Adad V (823–811), entered another period of internal turmoil. Hazael took advantage of his opportunity to restore the influence of AramDamascus in the central and northern parts of Syria, where he initiated at least two campaigns. He was probably trying to unite all of Aramean Syria under his rule, but he failed as the Aramean states to the north of Aram-Damascus continued to exist. Hazael also made several marches into Transjordan, annexing the Golan Heights and Gilead, and down the Mediterranean coast to the lands of the Philistines, where he took the city of Gath, a gateway to Jerusalem. King Jehoash prevented the capture of the Judean capital by sending Hazael the treasuries of the Jerusalem temple and the royal palace and apparently acknowledging his vassalage to the Aramean king. In 803, the Assyrians led by Adad-nirari III (811–783) again attacked Syria, and this time they were able to take and plunder Damascus. The Aramean king, who was not named by Assyrian sources, was forced to become a vassal of Assyria and pay tribute, and thus he managed to hold on to power. This king was either Hazael himself or his son Bar Hadad II, 22 who ascended the throne around this time and reigned for nearly the entire first quarter of the 8th century. Bar Hadad II almost immediately launched a campaign against Israel and laid siege to its capital, Samaria. However, the Assyrians who were still in the region, came to the aid of the Israelites, and the Arameans, according to the Old Testament, fled in panic from the walls of Samaria. As a result of this unsuccessful campaign, the Israelites managed to regain all of their lost cities and even take some Aramean territory. Despite this, Bar Hadad was able to maintain his hegemony in Syria for a while. An indirect evidence for this is the Hamath King Zakkur’s list of sixteen Aramean and Anatolian kings who, led by Bar Hadad II, besieged him around 796 at Hadarik. The Old Testament asserts that in his attack on Samaria, Bar Hadad was Since Hadad-Ezer often appears as Bar (Ben) Hadad, the son of Hazael is sometimes referred to as Bar Hadad III. 22



accompanied by 32 kings, which may be an exaggeration by the biblical editors who sought to portray a more grandiose Aramean defeat at the capital of Israel.

Map 1. Ancient Aramean states of North Mesopotamia and Syria

In 773, at the end of the reign of Shalmaneser IV (783–773), the powerful and influential Assyrian commander (turtanu in Akkadian) Shamshi-Ilu besieged Damascus and received tribute from the successor and alleged son of Bar Hadad II, Hadyan II, who reigned in the second quarter of the 8th century. A stele with an Akkadian inscription on behalf of Shamshi-Ilu says: “I received tribute from Hadyan of Damascus: silver, gold, copper, his royal couch, his daughter with her rich dowry, the immeasurable goods of his palace.” Scarce information in the Old Testament



suggests that during the reign of Hadyan II the Israelites managed to regain more of the territories seized from them by earlier Aramean kings. The last king of Aram-Damascus was Rasyan, better known by the biblical version of his name, Rezin (in Akkadian sources “Rahianu”); he reigned from the middle of the 8th century until 732. Assyria was ruled at that time by Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727), who seized Arpad in 740 and received tribute from Rezin. Then TiglathPileser was forced to confront Urartu for three years, and that allowed Rezin to make a new anti-Assyrian alliance with King Pekah of Israel and the kings of Gaza, Tyre, and Edom. Rezin and Pekah first attacked Judah, since King Ahaz, in all probability, had refused to join the new coalition. Faced with this threat, in 734 Ahaz called TiglathPileser for help, accompanying his request with rich offerings. The Assyrian king, who had already planned a new westbound campaign, captured Israel in the same year and in 732, after a 45-day siege, took and ravaged Damascus. During this siege, the Aramean king of Sam’al, Panammuwa II, who accompanied Tiglath-Pileser with his army, was killed. Rezin was captured and executed by the Assyrians, and AramDamascus was reduced to an Assyrian province. After the fall of Damascus, Aramean statehood survived for some time in Hamath and Sam’al. After the destruction of these two kingdoms by the Assyrians, it would be four centuries before an Aramean state would again appear on the map of the Middle East. With the elimination of Aramean statehood in Syria, many local Arameans, like their brethren in North Mesopotamia, were deported to the hinterland of Assyria. This, however, did not cause significant changes in the ethnic composition of Syria and North Mesopotamia, and these regions for more than one and a half millennia, until the Arab conquests, remained mostly Aramean. Forced relocations resulted in more serious consequences for Assyria itself, as the already very high share of Arameans in the overall population of Mesopotamia increased even more. This first led to the linguistic Aramaization of the Assyrians, and then to their gradual dissolution in the ever-growing masses of Arameans. This process was accelerated and became irreversible after the Babylonians and Medes destroyed the Assyrian state in 612 BC, and most of the Assyrian political and intellectual elite, the last guardians of the traditions of Assyrian national identity and statehood, was eliminated.



Table 2. Timeline of ancient Aramean kings relative to the kings of Assyria, Israel, and Judah


THE RELIGION OF ANCIENT ARAMEANS 3.1. Hadad. Records of the religion and worship habits among ancient Arameans are fairly scarce. The Aramean pagan pantheon mainly consisted of common Semitic gods who were also worshipped by other Semitic peoples kin to the Arameans. Their greatest god was Hadad, the god of thunderstorms and fertility. He was also known as Ramman (Rimmon in the Old Testament) meaning “thunderer.” Another widespread name for this deity was Rahmana (“merciful”). In the inscriptions left by Aramean kings this god is often referred to as their protector. Hadad’s name and mission are linked to those of Adad of Mesopotamia who was also worshipped in Aleppo. Hadad, under the name of Haddu, was also known since mid-second millennium BC in Ugarit and, apart from that, was often identified with the Hittite god Teshub. Hadad was usually depicted as a bearded soldier striking with thunder or holding a double-edged sword in his hand. The bull was the symbolic animal of Hadad as well as Teshub. Hadad was often depicted as standing on a bull’s back. The bull’s head that symbolizes Hadad can be seen on coins dating back to the 4th–3rd centuries BC, which were unearthed nearby the ancient Aramean city of Mabbug or Manbug, which the Greeks called Hierapolis (“sacred city”). The main temple built in Hadad’s name was located in Damascus. The fate of this temple is remarkable— under the Romans it was rebuilt as a Temple of Jupiter, during Byzantine times it was turned into a church, and after the Arab conquest of Syria it became the famed mosque of the Umayyads. The name Bar-Hadad, which several Aramean kings bore, literally means “son of Hadad.” It was a royal title, so no one else had the right to be called by that name. Eventually the name lost its distinction, and despite its pagan origins, the Arameans preserved the name after the adoption of Christianity—there was even a bishop called Bar-Hadad. Hadad is also found in the name of the kings of Aram-Damascus—HadadEzer (“Hadad is help”), and the king of Beth Bahyan, Hadad-Yis‘i (“Hadad my savior”). The image of a high priest named Abd-Hadad (“servant of Hadad”) is engraved on a coin from Mabbug. Hadad’s alternate name, Ramman, is found in the name of King Tab-Ramman of Aram-Damascus, which translates as “Ramman is 51



good.” Only the priests had the right to speak the sacred name of Hadad—others simply called the god baal, meaning “lord.” This word with its variations belu or bel also exists in Akkadian. The supreme deity Marduk of Babylon was commonly called Bel; under this name he is also mentioned in Armenian mythology.

Fig. 18. Hadad riding a bull (a restored stele from Til Barsib)



Fig. 19. The image of priest Abd-Hadad on a coin

3.2. Atargatis. Hadad’s divine consort was Atar‘atheh or Tar‘athe, better known by her Hellenized name Atargatis. She has numerous similarities to the Phoenician goddess Ashtoret (Ishtar in Mesopotamia, and Astarte in Greek pronunciation) and the Anatolian Cybele. Some say that Atargatis embodies two West Semitic goddesses, Ashtoret and Anat. Anat is known from an Ugaritic epic narrative dedicated to her. During the Hellenic era the worship of Atargatis was widespread outside Syria and Mesopotamia. Greek and Roman authors often called her the “Syrian goddess” (Dea Syria or Deasura), usually identifying her with Aphrodite (references to the worship of Atargatis in Hellenic times are found in subsequent chapters). Atargatis was initially the goddess of fertility, and was often pictured holding sheaves of wheat. On Mabbug coins, Atargatis is frequently seen wearing a tiara and sometimes on a throne resting upon a lion’s back. Mabbug was the center of Atargatis’ worship where a temple dedicated to her was located. Hadad and Atargatis dwelled on top of the sacred Mount Zaphon, not far from the mouth of the Orontes River (Tsapanu in Akkadian sources, modern Jebel al-Aqraa).

Fig. 20. Images of Hadad and Atargatis on a coin



3.3. El, Asherah, Yam, and Moth. Although Hadad was the most revered god of the Arameans and some West Semitic peoples, he was not, at least officially, the supreme deity. According to literary sources from Ugarit and Ebla, the honor was reserved for his father El 1 (literally “god,” ilu in Akkadian pronunciation), the father of all gods and the creator of everything. Ancient Greeks usually identified El with Chronos, father of Zeus and other Olympian gods. El’s consort was Asherah who was believed to have given birth to 70 sons. Presumably, Asherah, like Atargatis, could have had some correlation with Ashtoret-Ishtar-Astarte. Besides Hadad, the triad of El’s and Asherah’s senior sons included the god of seas and rivers Yam (or Yaan, literally “sea”), who was identified by the Greeks with Poseidon, and Moth (“death”), identified with Hades, the ruler of the underworld. According to the myths, Hadad periodically died in a battle with Moth and was resurrected. His death symbolized drought, and his resurrection meant the blooming of nature. Thus Hadad was yet another dying and resurrecting god widely known in the Ancient World.

3.4. Baals: Baal-Shamayn and others. Initially, the word baal (“lord” or baalat, meaning “mistress”) was a title meant not only for the supreme deity, but for any one of them. It existed in numerous West Semitic and, first and foremost, in Canaanite-Phoenician names of gods. The second component of those names usually indicated a city or other locality. Well-known names include Baal of Tyre (or Melqart), Baal of Sidon, Baalat of Byblos, and others. Among Aramean baals, the first to be mentioned is Baal-Shamayn (Baalshamin or Baalshamem, “the celestial lord”), who was worshiped in Hamath and elsewhere in Syria. In the inscription by King Zakkur of Hamath, Baal-Shamayn is mentioned in the same context as Hadad in other sources. This has led to the assumption that the name Baal-Shamayn referred to Hadad himself, although it is quite probable that other gods could also have been called so. The earliest reference to Baal-Shamayn can be found in the HittiteUgaritic treaty of the 15th century BC, and the followers of that deity among the Arameans of North Mesopotamia were last attested in the 5th century AD. At this time Baal-Shamayn was mainly identified with Zeus. There were also Baal-Samad, the protector of Gabbar and first king of Sam’al, and Baal-Haman, who protected Bama, a descendant of Gabbar. The name Bealiah, which is mentioned in the Old Testament First Book of Chronicles (12:5) and literally means “Yahweh is the Lord,” suggests that initially Hebrews also called their god Yahweh “baal.” Because of the radicalization of religious dogma by the prophets, as well as the deterioration of relations with Canaanites, who were notorious for their worship of miscellaneous baals, the Hebrews eventually gave up that sobriquet and introduced new ones particularly used to pronounce the Tetragrammaton. 2 Baals began to be perceived as mere idols, and to According to other myths, Hadad’s father was Dagon. Tetragrammaton (from the Greek τετρα, “four”, and γράμμα, “letter”) is Yahweh written with the Hebrew-Aramaic letters “iod”, “heh, “waw,” and “heh” (‫יהוה‬, in Latin tran1 2



worship them was considered shameful (which is clearly seen in Jeremiah 11:13). Hence in some names the component baal was replaced with the word bosheth meaning “shame.” King Saul’s youngest son’s name, for instance, was changed from Ishbaal (“man of Baal”) to Ishbosheth (“man of shame”).

Fig. 21. A Western Semitic “Baal” from Ugarit

West Semitic peoples also used to refer to minor deities, different idols, and demons as “baal.” Beelzebub (Baal-Zevuv or “lord of the flies” in Aramaic) is mentioned in the Bible. “Baal” is also found in the names of ordinary mortals, the most famous being the glorious Carthaginian military leader Hannibal (247–183), whose name in Phoenician (Hanni-Baal) means “beloved of Baal” and refers to BaalHammon, the supreme god of Carthage. “Baal,” as a honorific title, was also used to address high-ranking officials. 3.5. Rakkabel, Resheph, Sahar, and the Mesopotamian gods. Rakkabel is another Aramean god who, starting from Hayya, was the protector of the kings of Sam’al. The Arameans also worshiped Resheph (Rashap), the West Semitic god of fire and war; the Phoenician Melqart, the protector of the city of Tyre; Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon; the lunar god Sahar, who was also known as Sin in Babylon (Sahar was worshiped mainly in the Aramean city of Harran in North

scription – YHWH). Because Judaism forbids pronouncing the sacred name of God, the Tetragrammaton is voiced by various synonyms and epithets, such as Adonai (“My Lord”), Elohim (“God”), Ha-Shem (“the Name”), and others.



Mesopotamia, hence that deity is often mentioned as Baal-Harran); the sons of Sahar—Shamash, the god of Sun, and Nusku, the god of fire; the Sumerian lunar god Nanna and his consort Ningal (Niqqal); Nabu, protector of wisdom and education, who was often identified as Mercury, and others. Many Chaldeans who inhabited South Mesopotamia were influenced by Babylonian culture and religion, and during most of the pagan period they mainly worshiped the gods of the local pantheon, like Marduk. In Harran, the syncretic pagan cults that had risen from an amalgamation of Aramean-Chaldean paganism and old Mesopotamian beliefs, with a strongly pronounced cosmogonic and astrological nature, survived up to the end of the first millennium AD.

Yahweh. There is indirect evidence that among the ancient Arameans there could have been worshipers of the Hebrew god Yahweh. The component -ya(h)u in the names of kings of Hamath Azriyahu and Yahu-Bidi comes from the name “Yahweh” and makes them consonant with the names of some Hebrew kings. This is incidentally evidenced in some Assyrian sources where, as previously noted, YahuBidi is mentioned as Ilu-Bidi. In other words, the Assyrians replaced Yahweh’s name with the neutral word ilu (“god”). It should not be assumed that Aramean Yahweh worshipers were necessarily monotheists. For them, he was one of many gods who deserved to be feared and worshiped because of the unprecedented rise and power of Israel under the kings David and Solomon. These names can attest to Israel’s influence on the Arameans of Syria, which was considerable particularly under King Jeroboam, who expanded Israel’s domination over the southern regions of Hamath.

Prophets, oracles, and Chaldean priests. Among the Arameans, particularly the Chaldeans as well as the neighboring Semitic peoples, various prophets, oracles, and seers were held in great respect. The most famous among them was Balaam bar Beor, who is mentioned in an Aramean inscription discovered in Dayr Alla, Jordan. This same person is mentioned in the Old Testament Book of Numbers as well as in the biography of Moses written by the Hellenistic Jewish author Philo of Alexandria (20 BC–50 AD). Interestingly, Philo shows more respect for Balaam bar Beor than the author of the Book of Numbers. Prophets and oracles were mainly from the sacerdotal caste, which was so populous that throughout the Hellenic era “Chaldean” was usually understood to mean “Chaldean priest.” Since priests presumably possessed profound knowledge in mystical and esoteric sciences (astrology, cosmology, numerology, etc.), the word “Chaldean” became a synonym for “fortuneteller,” “astrologer,” “oracle,” “dream-reader,” and other similar words—evidence of this can be found in the Old Testament. Many wandering “Chaldeans” roved throughout the Roman Empire, where they at times enjoyed immense popularity and even founded schools of their own.


THE ARAMAIC LANGUAGE AND ITS WORLD 4.1. Attempts at periodizing the history of the Aramaic language. Throughout the 3,000 years of their history the Arameans remained a divided people, and as a consequence were unable to achieve any significant level of national and state unity. As a result, Aramaic manifested itself in numerous dialects, some of which have become full-fledged, well-developed literary languages. The large number of extant texts, their dialectal diversity, dispersion over territory and in time are the main obstacles in the way of creation of a generally accepted periodization of the history of the Aramaic language. Until the last third of the 20th century the most popular was the periodization proposed by the German-American semitologist Franz Rosenthal (1914–2003) who classified Aramaic texts before 200 AD as “Old Aramaic,” and after that year as “Middle Aramaic.” The majority of subsequent Aramaic scholars have also adopted 200 AD as a conventional dividing line. In 1966, American biblical scholar and semitologist Joseph Fitzmyer (1920– 2016) in his article “The Phases of the Aramaic Language” proposed a periodization that is based on a chronological approach and considers Aramaic in cultural, religious, socio-linguistic, and historical contexts. According to Fitzmyer, the history of Aramaic is divided into the following phases: Old Aramaic (also called “Archaic,” 925–700 BC), Official Aramaic (also called “Imperial” or “standard literary” (700– 200 BC), Middle Aramaic (200 BC–200 AD), Late Aramaic (200–700 AD), and Modern Aramaic (modern Aramaic dialects). Its somewhat simplified nature notwithstanding, Fitzmyer’s periodization remains the most common. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the German semitologist Klaus Beyer (1929– 2014) developed a new periodization, based on purely linguistic criteria, by considering the language in the context of comparative and historical linguistics. According to him, the history of the Aramaic language consists of three large periods: Old, Middle, and Modern. Dialects of each of these periods are genealogically divided into eastern and western groups, whereas in Fitzmyer’s classification such divisions are clearly fixed only for Late and Modern Aramaic. This book, given its propaedeutic nature, mainly follows Joseph Fitzmyer’s periodization, while Klaus Beyer’s periodization is presented as an annex. 57




4.1.1. The Aramaic script. In the late second to early first millennium BC, Arameans began using Phoenician letters alongside the Hebrews. It was the Arameans who preserved and developed this script after the demise of the Phoenicians and Canaanites. Later they spread various modifications of the script up to Central Asia and China, just as the Phoenicians had once spread it along the Mediterranean where it evolved into the Greek and Latin alphabets. The earliest Aramaic inscriptions of the 9th century BC do not differ much in the shape of the letters from contemporary Phoenician inscriptions. Deviations from the Phoenician prototype and the emergence of purely Aramaic versions are attested from the middle of the 8th century. An innovation by the Arameans, in particular, was to divide words in the text with spacing or special characters, whereas in Phoenician inscriptions the words were usually not separated from one another. The Aramaic script departed from the purely consonantal nature of the Phoenician script toward a partially consonantal one. Thus the letters of the alphabet that denoted semivowels and some guttural and aspirated sounds were used for the transmission of long vowels, which made reading much easier. This system was finally consolidated in subsequent forms of Aramaic as well as in Hebrew and eventually in Arabic. Medieval Jewish grammarians called the letters used for the transmission of vowels, “mothers of reading.” In the scholarly tradition, the Latin translation of this expression, matres lectionis, is used. In the Iranian writing systems, based on the Aramaic script, matres lectionis developed into letters, denoting vowels. Vowels in Greek, Latin, and Cyrillic alphabets also historically derive from matres lectionis.

Fig. 22. Fragment of King Zakkur’s inscription


Fig. 23. The Sefire treaty

Fig. 24. Melqart’s stele




4.1.2. Old Aramaic inscriptions of Aleppo and northern Israel. The earliest form of Aramaic, called Old or Archaic Aramaic, is known from the inscriptions found in various parts of the Middle East, especially in Syria. The oldest date to the 9th century BC. These are mainly royal inscriptions, gravestone epitaphs, various dedications, legal texts, and so forth. They all show that at the end of the second to the beginning of the first millennium BC Aramaic had several closely related dialects. The language of many inscriptions, regardless of the dialect, shows proximity, to one degree or another, to the Canaanite language, or the influence thereof, and is therefore sometimes considered an intermediate between Canaanite and Aramaic. In accordance with dialectal features, Old Aramaic inscriptions are divided into several groups. The first of these includes inscriptions found in the region of Aleppo and northern Israel and dated mostly to the middle of the 9th and the end of the 8th centuries. This group includes: • The inscription of Zakkur (Zakir), Aramean king of Hamath, in 35 rows. It was found 45 km southeast of Aleppo. It announces Zakkur’s victory over the coalition of neighboring Aramean and Anatolian kings. 1 • The inscription on three steles found in the town of Sefire, 25 km southeast of Aleppo. This area was part of the Aramean kingdom of Beth Gush with the capital in Arpad. The inscriptions contain a total of more than 170 lines and date to 750 BC. This is the text of the so-called “Sefire treaty” made between King Mati-Il of Arpad and Bar Gay’a of Kittik. The text is remarkable for stipulating that a curse be put on Mati-Il should he ever violate the treaty. 2 Two other Aramaic inscriptions with slightly different versions of the treaty have been preserved. “I am Zakkur, king of Hamath and Lugath. I am a man from Ana, but Baal-Shamayn called upon me and stood beside me, and Baal-Shamayn made me king in Hadarik. Then Bar Hadad, son of Hazael, king of Aram, led against me sixteen kings—Bar Hadad and his army, Bar Gush and his army, the king of Quwe and his army, the king of Umk and his army, the king of Gurgum and his army, the king of Sam’al and his army, the king of Melid and his army, the king of Tabal and his army, the king of Kittik and his army, seven Amorite kings and their armies. They besieged Hadarik and erected ramparts higher than the walls of Hadarik, and dug a moat deeper than its moat. But I raised my hands to Baal-Shamayn, and BaalShamayn answered me through seers and messengers, and Baal-Shamayn said to me: Fear not, for it was I who made you king, and I will stand beside you and deliver you from the kings who erected ramparts against you.” 2 “And if Mati-Il is treacherous toward Bar Gay’a and his son and his descendants, may his kingdom be like a kingdom of sand, as long as the kingdom of Ashur lasts. And may Hadad send him every evil that is on the earth and in the sky, and every misfortune. May locusts devour Arpad and may worms eat it for seven years. Let no grass grow, and no verdure be seen. And let no sound of lyre be heard in Arpad, and only sound of grief and sound of mourning come from its inhabitants. May the gods send all kinds of suffering to Arpad and its people.” 1



Fig. 25. Surviving fragments of the Tel Dan stele

A short inscription by Bar Hadad, king of Arpad, on a stele dedicated to the Phoenician god Melqart (the so-called “Melqart stele”). The inscription was found in 1939, 7 km north of Aleppo and dates to the end of the 9th century. It is assumed that Bar Hadad was the grandfather of the aforementioned MatiIl of Arpad. The inscription in 13 lines, in three fragments of a basalt stele, discovered in 1993–1994 on the hill of Tel Dan in northern Israel. The inscription dates to the end of 9th and beginning of the 8th century and presumably belongs to King Hazael of Aram-Damascus, heralding his victory over the kingdom of Israel. The ninth row of the Tel Dan inscription contains the word bytdwd, which many scholars read as “the house of David” and believe it to be the most ancient reference to King David in a non-biblical source. The Tel Dan stele is often compared to the famous stele of King Mesha of Moab, which is also written in a triumphant style and dates to the same period of time. Two short inscriptions from Tel Dan and Ein Gev (Israel), found in 1960 and 1961, dating to the first half of the 9th century BC.



Fig. 26. King Kilammuwa’s inscription with his own image

4.1.3. The Sam’al inscriptions from Zinjirli. The second group includes the inscriptions by the kings of Sam’al discovered near the Kurdish village of Zinjirli in southern Turkey. The oldest one is the inscription by King Kilammuwa composed around 825 BC. In it, Kilammuwa calls himself “King of Yaudi,” using the old Hittite name of Sam’al. Another clue to its age is the fact that its language is more “Canaanized” and can be considered Aramaic conditionally. Kilammuwa’s inscription is particularly valuable because he mentions his predecessors on the throne of Yaudi, and the dynastic gods, Baal-Samad, Baal-Haman, and Rakkabel, patrons of the Aramean kings of Sam’al. 3 The inscription is decorated with the traditional symbols of these gods—horns of a bull, waning moon against full moon, and a bridle, respectively. There is also the image of Kilammuwa himself holding a flower instead of a weapon, which symbolizes his vassalage to Assyria. Other inscriptions of the Sam’al group include: • An inscription of 23 lines, dating to the second half of the 8th century BC. It is inscribed on the bottom part of the impressive, 4-meter high statue of the god “I am Kilammuwa, son of Hayyan. Gabbar reigned over Yaudi, but he achieved nothing. Then there was Bama, but he achieved nothing. Then there was my father Hayyan, but he achieved nothing. Then came my brother Shail, but he achieved nothing. But I, Kilammuwa, achieved what none of my predecessors had achieved. My father’s house was surrounded by powerful kings, and each held out his hand to destroy it, but I was like a fire, devouring beard, fire that devoured these hands.” 3


• •


Hadad and belongs to King Panammuwa I of Sam’al. The inscription conveys gratitude to Hadad for answering Panammuwa’s prayers for years of plenty, and for the protection of the king’s house “from sword and evil tongue.” An inscription in 13 lines on a basalt slab on behalf of Kuttamuwa, the highranking official of Panammuwa II. It was discovered in 2008 by an archaeological expedition of the University of Chicago. It is assumed that Kuttamuwa’s inscription is the oldest evidence of the belief of West Semitic peoples in the posthumous survival of the soul. 4 An inscription in 20 lines by Bar Rakkab dedicated to his father, Panammuwa II. It is an account of allied relations between Panammuwa and the Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser III. Another inscription by Bar Rakkab that informs about the construction of a new palace. 5 The remains of the palace, including the inscription itself and the inscription by Panammuwa I, were discovered by German archaeologists in 1888–1902 near Zinjirli.

Several shorter inscriptions by Bar Rakkab have been preserved. A notable feature of the inscriptions by this king is that they, unlike earlier inscriptions from Sam’al, are written in less Canaanized, pure Aramaic. Chronologically Bar Rakkab’s language belongs to the Old Aramaic period, but at the same time it is a kind of transitional link to the next period of development of the Aramaic language. Similarly transitional may be considered the language of the inscriptions on the tombstones of two priests of the moon god Sahar, discovered in 1891 in the town of Nerab, 7 km south-east of Aleppo. Particularly noteworthy is the inscription on the tombstone of the priest Abgar, containing a curse against those who may disturb his rest. 6 These inscriptions are usually dated to the 7th century BC.

“I am Kuttamuwa, servant of Panammuwa, I made this slab during my life. I put it in my eternal hall and ordered a feast in the hall—a calf for Hadad a ram for Shamash a ram for my soul that is in this slab. Henceforth, let each of my sons, or the sons of others who will be in this room, take the best from the vineyard, and let them perform the slaughter next to my soul and give me a leg.” 5 “I am Bar Rakkab, son of Panammuwa, the king of Sam’al, a servant of TiglathPileser, the lord of the four parts of the world. Because of my father’s piety and my piety, I was put by my lord Rakkabel and my lord Tiglath-Pileser on the throne of my father. My father’s house was blessed more than everyone else’s, and I was running beside the chariot of my lord, the king of Assyria, among the mighty kings, owners of gold and owners of silver. I inherited my father’s house and made it more prosperous than those of the other mighty kings. My fellow kings are full of envy because of the prosperity of my house. My fathers, kings of Sam’al, did not have a good house. They had the house of Kilammuwa, which was their winter house and the summer house. But I built this house.” 6 “For my righteous life God gave me a good name and extended my life. On my death day my lips were not sealed and silent, and I saw with my own eyes my descendants down to the fourth generation, who mourned me. Their number reached a hundred. Neither silver nor brass vessels were buried with me. Only in my clothes they buried me, so that you do 4



Fig. 27. King Bar Rakkab’s inscription

not plunder my tomb. Whoever you may be, you who disturbed my rest, Sahar, Shamash, Niqqal, and Nusku will erase your name from existence and your descendants will die.”



4.1.4. An Aramaic inscription from Dayr Alla. The third group includes fragmentary Aramaic inscriptions discovered by Dutch archeologists in 1967 on the plastercovered walls of an ancient temple near the Jordanian village of Dayr Alla. The inscriptions, dating to the mid-8th century BC contain a vision of the prophet Balaam bar Beor, mentioned in the Old Testament Book of Numbers. The Aramaic dialect of this inscription shows similarities with the Canaanite language.

4.1.5. Inscriptions from Tel Fahiriya and Tel Halaf. The fourth group includes inscriptions discovered in Tel Fahiriya and Tel Halaf. In 1899, the German archaeologist Max von Oppenheim (1860–1946) discovered near the village of Tel Halaf in northeastern Syria the ruins of an ancient Aramean city of Gozan, capital of Beth Bahyan. In Tel Halaf, a pedestal of a statue with an Aramaic inscription was found, dating back to the 9th century (in 1943, the Berlin museum, where this artifact was on display, was destroyed in an air raid, and it survives only in photographs and drawings). In 1979, not far from Tel Halaf, in Tel Fahiriya, a bilingual, Aramaic-Akkadian inscription in 23 lines was discovered. It is inscribed on a well-preserved statue of the hitherto unknown Aramean King Hadad-Yis‘i, carved from black basalt at natural height. The Akkadian inscription is on the front of the statue, and Aramaic on the back, which indicates that the statue was erected after the conquest of Beth Bahyan by Assyria in 894 BC. According to the inscription, Hadad-Yis‘i was the king of Gozan (Tel Halaf) and Sikkan (presumably Tel Fahiriya), which means that he was the king of Beth Bahyan. The Akkadian version of the inscription calls him “ruler.” The inscription also informs us that the statue of Hadad-Yis‘i was placed in front of the statue of Hadad so that the merciful god would take him under his protection. The last seven lines of the inscription contain a curse for those who would dare to remove the name of Hadad-Yis‘i from the walls of the temple of Hadad in Sikkan. 7 The language of the Tel Halaf and Tel Fahiriya inscriptions bears traces of the apparent influence of the Akkadian language, which is explained by the proximity of this area to Assyria and the superpower’s wide cultural and linguistic influence. Kapara, another “king-ruler” of Beth Bahyan, left numerous statues and bas-reliefs with inscriptions written almost exclusively in Akkadian. In addition to these relatively lengthy inscriptions, a large number of shorter, fragmentary inscriptions survived on seals, gems, weights, cylinders, and so on. These inscriptions were discovered in the entire area of the spread of Aramaic at the beginning of the first millennium BC. On some Aramaic inscriptions on clay tablets found in Mesopotamia, a separate dialect group showing clear signs of Akkadian linguistic influence was identified. “Whoever erases my name from the objects in the temple of my Lord Hadad, may Hadad, my Lord, not accept bread and water out of his hands. Let him sow and not reap. Let him sow a hundred measures of barley, and reap only half a measure. Let his calf suck a hundred cows, and not be sated, let his child suck a hundred nurses and not be sated.” 7




4.2.1. Aramaic in the Neo-Assyrian Empire. After Old Aramaic, the next form of the language to appear is known as “Imperial,” “Official,” 8 or, less commonly, “Standard” Aramaic. As these names imply, this form of Aramaic was used as an official language by three consecutive empires—Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, and, mostly, Achaemenid. The period from the 8th to 6th centuries BC for the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Mesopotamia as a whole was a transitional period and tragic for Assyrians themselves. The mass deportation of Arameans to the Mesopotamian hinterland led to another abrupt increase in their numbers in the region, which had already been highly Aramaized. Politically and culturally, the Neo-Assyrian Empire remained Assyrian. Demographically, it was a mixture of Western Semitic (Chaldo-Aramean) and Eastern Semitic elements with a constant increase in the proportion of the former, and linguistically was steadily becoming Aramaicized. An increasing number of Arameans and the dissolution among them of non-Aramean peoples naturally led to the ousting of the Akkadian language, which had dominated Mesopotamia for one and a half thousand years, by Aramaic. Aramaic and Akkadian-Aramaic business and domestic records and letters on clay tablets found during archaeological excavations in Nineveh and other Assyrian cities provide evidence of this. One of the most famous samples of Aramaic from the Neo-Assyrian Empire period is the inscription on the so-called “Ashur ostracon.” It is a letter by an Assyrian official, referring to his slaves, who, judging by the context, were Arameans deported from Syria. The inscription dates back to the 8th century and contains Akkadian borrowings that are not attested in other Aramaic inscriptions. The blending of different Aramean tribes and their dialects led to some unification of Aramaic and the emergence in the territory of Assyria of a new written standard. It was apparently based on one of the Syrian dialects, possibly that of Sam’al, as the language of Bar Rakkab’s inscriptions is quite close to this new language. Aramaic vs. Akkadian. In the last centuries of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the Akkadian language was losing ground not only as a spoken, but also as the official written language of the state chancelleries, which were the strongholds of Assyrian conservatism and traditionalism. Initially, official Akkadian texts were merely duplicated in Aramaic, or supplemented by an Aramaic summary, but in time Aramaic became the main language of record management. This was the case not only in central and western provinces of Assyria, the most exposed to Aramaization, but also on northern and eastern fringes, where Aramaic became the main language of communication of the Assyrian administration with the local non-Semitic population. The ex-

The term “Imperial Aramaic” (Reichsaramäisch) was coined in 1927 by the prominent German Iranist and Armenologist Joseph Marquart (1864–1930), with reference only to the Achaemenid empire. The term “Official Aramaic” was proposed in 1934 by the Canadian Bible scholar Harold Louis Ginsberg (1903–1990). 8



tant Akkadian terminology suggests that the Assyrian chancelleries employed both translators and interpreters for Aramaic, and in time Aramaic-Akkadian bilingualism became a prerequisite for employment as a government official. At this stage, a significant number of Akkadian words must have penetrated Aramaic. The fundamental work “A Grammar of Egyptian Aramaic” by Takamitsu Muraoka and Bezalel Porten contains a list of 47 Akkadian borrowings, of which only a few are attested in the basic Aramaic vocabulary of subsequent periods. The Akkadian influence also led to the formation of a new Aramaic verb stem with prefix ša-. The ousting of the Akkadian language from record management to a large extent was facilitated by the kinship of Aramaic and Akkadian languages, which belong to the same language family and have much in common in both grammar and vocabulary. However, a more important factor was the greater flexibility and ease of Aramaic in comparison with Akkadian, and most importantly, its alphabetical 22letter script. It was much simpler and more convenient than Akkadian cuneiform, which had always remained the monopoly of the scribes and required many years to master. Literacy in Akkadian became even more problematic when in 612 BC the Babylonians and the Medes destroyed the Assyrian state and virtually eliminated the Assyrian aristocracy and intellectual elite, who were the custodians of the Akkadian cuneiform writing traditions. Nevertheless, even under these difficult conditions, certain types of texts continued to be written in Akkadian until the end of the first millennium BC. The life of the Akkadian language could have been, perhaps, extended, had it adopted the Phoenician alphabet, just as the Egyptian language made a transition from hieroglyphic writing first to demotic, and then to Greek script. However, no evidence exists that the Phoenician-Aramaic script was ever used for writing the Akkadian language, which is known exclusively from cuneiform inscriptions. Yet in Uruk (modern Warka in southern Iraq) an Aramaic inscription in Akkadian cuneiform on a clay tablet was discovered. The inscription contains two standard magical incantations and dates back to around the middle of the 2nd century BC. This inscription sheds some light on the Aramaic vowels, as the Akkadian cuneiform script is syllabic and reflects vowel sounds—its only advantage over the Aramaic script. Text analysis of the Uruk inscription revealed that it contains an Aramaic dialect different from the standard Aramaic of the Neo-Assyrian period. Another weakness of Assyrian cuneiform was that it could only be carved on solid materials or embossed by a wedge-shaped cane on a wet clay tablet, which in itself was a very laborious process. In contrast, the Aramaic text could be easily applied with ink on any suitable writing material, including both clay tablets and flexible materials such as leather and papyrus. Pieces of broken pottery lying in abundance under the feet of the people of the ancient Middle East provided the most accessible material for writing.



Fig. 28. Assyrian bas-relief depicting scribes writing in Akkadian and Aramaic

Several Assyrian bas-reliefs depicting battle scenes also show scribes standing to one side and chronicling the events. The older bas-reliefs usually depict a bearded scribe writing in Akkadian with a reed on a clay tablet, whereas on the Neo-Assyrian bas-reliefs a beardless scribe stands next to a bearded scribe writing with some sort of a pen on a flexible material. The scribe is chronicling the events in Aramaic. In Assyrian sources these scribes are called “scribes on the leather.” The depiction of the “scribes on the leather” on official Assyrian bas-reliefs testifies to the high status of Aramaic in the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The use of flexible materials provided Aramaic with an immediate advantage over Akkadian, but in the long run it played a negative role. As a result of the fragility of papyrus and leather, Aramaic writings of the first millennium BC, with rare exceptions, were irretrievably lost, while the Akkadian language is represented in a very impressive corpus of inscriptions.

Aramaic as the lingua franca . Having become the main language of the NeoAssyrian Empire, Aramaic also replaced Akkadian as the main language of international communication (lingua franca) throughout the Middle East, which for centuries was in the orbit of Assyrian influence. The Neo-Assyrian period provides the first evidence for the use of Aramaic for interstate communication and diplomatic negotiations. According to the Second Book of Kings (18:26), King Hezekiah of Judah (716–687) spoke with the messengers of the Assyrian king in Aramaic. Aramaic also served as the language of diplomatic correspondence outside the traditional Assyrian area. For example, the famous “Adon Papyrus,” found in the oasis of Saqqara in northern Egypt, contains a letter in Aramaic from the king of the Philistine city of Ekron to the Egyptian Pharaoh with a plea for help against the Babylonians.



4.2.2. The Chaldean Dynasty and the Neo-Babylonian Empire. In Mesopotamia, the Arameans carried out not only linguistic, but also, to a certain degree, a political expansion. In 627 BC, after the death of the last great Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (668–627), Nabu-apla-usur, better known as “Nabopolassar,” son of ShamashIbni, head of the Chaldean tribe Beth Dakkur, who was executed by the Assyrian king Esarhaddon 9 (680–669) on charges of mutiny, headed the revolt of the Babylonians against the Assyrians. Babylon had been under Assyrian control since 729, and at the end of that year Nabopolassar conquered Babylon and then the other cities of Southern Mesopotamia. Proclaiming himself king, Nabopolassar founded the 11th, “Chaldean” Dynasty and the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which is often referred to as “Chaldea.” In 614, Nabopolassar made an alliance with the Median King Cyaxares, and together they conquered and destroyed Nineveh in 612. Two years later, Nabopolassar defeated at Harran the remnants of the Assyrian army, which were backed by the Egyptians, after which Assyria vanished from the political map for good.

Fig. 29. Gem with the image of Nebuchadnezzar and an Akkadian inscription

On the throne of Neo-Babylonian Empire Nabopolassar was succeeded by his son Nabu-kudurri-usur II (605–562), the most famous king of the Chaldean dynasty. Under the name Nebuchadnezzar he appears in the Bible and in world history by capturing Jerusalem in 586, putting an end to the kingdom of Judah and exiling a large portion of its population to the “Babylonian captivity.” Nebuchadnezzar also brought fame to the legendary “Hanging Gardens,” which he planted on the terraces and roofs of Babylon for his wife, a Median princess (later, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were associated with the Assyrian queen Semiramis, and recognized as one of the seven wonders of the world.) Esarhaddon’s mother, king Sennacherib’s wife, was an Aramean with an Aramean name Naqia (“pure”), mentioned in the Assyrian inscriptions. This name is also mentioned in a literal translation into Akkadian as Zakutu. 9



Nabonidus. After Nebuchadnezzar, the Neo-Babylonian Empire entered a period of decline. Nebuchadnezzar was succeeded by his son, Amal-Marduk (562–560), son-in-law Nergal-sharr-usur (560–556), and then his son, Labashi-Marduk (556). In 556, the young Labashi-Marduk was overthrown by Nabu-Naid, better known as “Nabonidus,” who was not member of Nabopolassar’s Chaldean dynasty, but was married to Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter, Nergal-sharr-usur’s widow. His foreign, and especially internal, religious policies suggest that he was of Aramean origin. To counter the impending Persian threat, he largely relied on the Aramean tribes of Mesopotamia and Syria, attempting to unite them under his rule. At home, with the support of the Aramean priesthood, he tried to advance religious reform, consolidating the cult around the moon god Sin (Sahar), who was to replace the Babylonian Marduk. To this end, Nabonidus reconstructed ancient Mesopotamian temples, built new ones, and even for the first time in the history of mankind conducted archaeological excavations in search of ancient inscriptions that could back his promotion of the moon deity. In 553, he captured from Media the ancient Aramean city of Harran, which was the traditional center of the cult of the lunar deity Sahar/Sin. It is noteworthy that Nabonidus’ mother, Addagoppe, who greatly contributed to the rise of her son, was a priestess at the Harran temple of Sin. Nabonidus’ policies were in essence aimed at eliminating the last Akkadian elements in Chaldea and its total Aramaization. All this set against him the Babylonian priesthood, the remnants of the Akkadian-speaking population, and the non-Aramean peoples conquered by Chaldean kings, and it hindered the success of his religious reforms. In any case, after Nabonidus many of the Chaldeans themselves for several centuries continued to worship the old Mesopotamian gods, first of all, Marduk.

Fig. 30. A Babylonian bas-relief depicting Nabonidus worshiping heavenly bodies



In 553, Nabonidus embarked on a military campaign in Arabia, during which he captured the Tayma oasis in North Arabia, mentioned in the Bible, where he retired for a long time to devote himself to praying to Sin. The Arabian campaign lasted for a total of ten years, and on his behalf Babylon was ruled by his son, Bel-sharrusur, better known as “Belshazzar.” Although Belshazzar, compared with his father, was quite insignificant, he is mentioned in the Old Testament in connection with Daniel’s prophecy about the fall of his kingdom, though he is erroneously called the son of Nebuchadnezzar. The language situation in the Neo-Babylonian Empire, where most of the population consisted of Chaldo-Arameans and Aramaized Babylonians and Assyrians, did not differ much from the situation in the north of Mesopotamia, in former Assyria. Here too the Akkadian language had lost almost all of its functions to Aramaic and was used mainly for official records.

4.2.3. Cyrus the Great. Daniel’s prophecy had to do with real historical events, namely, the rise of Iran, which under Cyrus II the Great (590–560 BC) of the Achaemenid dynasty, was turning into a major threat to the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Trying to neutralize this threat, Nabonidus entered into a military alliance with Media, Lydia, and Egypt against Cyrus, which, however, did not bring about any result. In 550, Media fell under the blows of Cyrus, followed in 546 by the Lydian King Croesus, proverbial for his innumerable riches. As a result, much of Asia Minor as well as Syria and Palestine came under the power of Cyrus. In autumn 539, without encountering any resistance, Cyrus captured the Babylonian city of Sippar, where Nabonidus was, just after his urgent return from Arabia. Nabonidus managed to escape to Babylon, which after two days was besieged by the Persians. The Babylonian priesthood, and parts of the population dissatisfied with Nabonidus, viewed the Persian king as a liberator, and Nabonidus failed to organize any serious resistance. On the twelfth of October the city was captured, and two weeks later Cyrus the Great himself triumphantly entered Babylon, where he took the title of “the King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the four corners of the world.” Nabonidus was captured, but his fate is not clear. It is known that Cyrus showed mercy to the conquered kings, so Croesus apparently lived at his court as an adviser. Some ancient historians wrote that Nabonidus was executed, while others believed that he died of natural causes in captivity. Cyrus the Great was considered an ideal ruler by many peoples of antiquity. He was praised for fairness, generosity, and religious tolerance, for example by the ancient Greek historian of the 5th–4th centuries Xenophon in his “Cyropaedia” (“The Education of Cyrus”). Cyrus’ broad-mindedness, unusual for the ancient Middle East, can also be seen in the so-called “Cyrus Cylinder,” discovered in 1879. It contains a description of military victories of Cyrus and the mercy shown by him to the conquered peoples. In Iran, before the Islamic revolution of 1979, the text of the “Cyrus Cylinder” was called “the first declaration of human rights.” A copy of this artifact was presented by Iran to the UN Secretary General and is exhibited at the UN headquarters in New York (the original is displayed in the British Museum). The Achaemenid empire created by Cyrus the Great was one of the largest states in the history of humanity, spread across three continents, from India to



Thrace, and from Armenia to Upper Egypt. It included territories inhabited by dozens of multilingual peoples. At the same time, it had a very efficient system of administration. Very often the satrapies, into which the empire was divided, were headed not by Persians, but by representatives of the local population, thus reducing the risk of ethnic conflicts between the satraps and the locals, who preserved their language, religion, and laws.

The Aramaic language of the Achaemenid period. The Achaemenids initially used Elamite and Old Persian as official languages, but the predominance of Aramaic in Syria and Mesopotamia, established traditions of its use as an official language in the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Empires, as well as the presence of Aramaic-speaking communities in Egypt, did not leave them much choice but to make that language official in their western satrapies. Around 500 BC, Darius the Great (522–486) made Aramaic the official language throughout the empire, meaning it was the main language of correspondence between the capital Persepolis and satrapies with non-Iranian populations. In the Middle East no language at that time could compete with Aramaic as a spoken and most widely understood language, with a writing system which had no equal in simplicity and efficiency. The effectiveness of the Achaemenid system of territorial administration was largely predetermined by the use of Aramaic as the language of the state bureaucracy. Thus, the Achaemenids continued and developed the Neo-Assyrian and NeoBabylonian traditions of using Aramaic as an official language, and at the same time they significantly expanded the geographical area of its use. As previously mentioned, the term “Imperial Aramaic” was proposed because Aramaic was the official language of these three empires. Written monuments of Aramaic, related to the central administration of the Achaemenids and originating from Iran and Mesopotamia, are very few, since the Achaemenid chancelleries, like the Neo-Babylonians before them, preferred soft materials for writing to the traditional clay tablets. The shards, however, were the most accessible writing material for the lower classes and a few samples of everyday Mesopotamian Aramaic of the Achaemenid period are preserved on them. They include, in particular, the so-called “Murashu family archive” from Nippur (180 km south-west of Baghdad), which consists of business records on clay tablets, partially in Aramaic. A large number of clay tablets with Aramaic inscriptions of household contents were also discovered during excavations at Persepolis. Nevertheless, the main examples of Imperial Aramaic of the Achaemenid period come mainly from the peripheral regions of the empire, chiefly from Egypt and Palestine, where the dry climate was more suitable for preserving soft writing materials. 4.2.4. The Elephantine archive. At the end of the 19th century, on the Nile island of Elephantine (Yebu in Egyptian) near Aswan (ancient Swenett, or Syene), a papyrus archive was discovered with texts written in a variety of Aramaic script, later known as “square script” because many of its letters fit in the area of a square. The Elephantine papyri have been preserved relatively well because of the dry climate of Upper Egypt. In addition to papyri, numerous ostraca with Aramaic inscriptions were found. The archive belonged to the Aramaic-speaking Jewish mercenaries, who were on military service in the local Persian garrison, and to civilian Jews, who were



primarily engaged in real estate on the island or in trade with neighboring Nubia. The Jewish military contingent was called hila yehuda, or “Jewish power,” in Aramaic, although, as a rule, it was commanded by a Gentile. It should be noted that Egyptian pharaohs used to recruit Jewish mercenaries from Israeli and Judean kings long before the Achaemenid conquest of Egypt. The presence of Jewish mercenaries on Elephantine and in other areas of Egypt can be traced to the end of the rule of the Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty, around 30 BC.

Fig. 31. The script of the Elephantine archive

The surviving documents, mostly dating to the 5th century BC, include predominantly personal and business correspondence, marriage, divorce, and commercial contracts, accounting and donation records, manumission certificates, various lists, and other similar documents. Well-preserved family archives shed light on personal and social relations on Elephantine. One of the Elephantine papyri, known as “The Passover papyrus,” contains the earliest description of the Jewish Passover celebration of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt. A remarkable finding was a fragment of the translation of the famous trilingual (Old Persian, Elamite, Akkadian) Behistun inscription by the Persian King Darius I, which is the most extensive among extant Achaemenid documents. Apparently, it was the official translation into Aramaic made in Persepolis and sent out to all satrapies. Another copy of the Aramaic translation of the Behistun text was found in the oasis of Saqqara in northern Egypt among other Aramaic specimens found there. According to the papyri, on Elephantine the Jews had a temple dedicated to Yahweh, which was destroyed in 410 BC by the priests of the Egyptian deity Khnum, “the guardian of Nile,” with the support of local Persian administration. A papyrus, known as the “Letter to Bagoas” reveals that the Elephantine Jews appealed for help in the restoration of the temple to the Achaemenid governor of Judaea, Bagoas, but were not dignified with a response. 10 The Jews were able to re-

“To our lord Bagoas, governor of Judah, thy servants Hiedonia and his fellow priests in the fortress of Yebu… In the month of Tammuz of the 14th year of King Darius, when [the satrap of Egypt] Arsham left and went to the king, the priests of Khnum in the fortress of Yebu entered into a secret agreement with Vaydrang, who was the ruler here: ‘The temple of the god Yahu that in the fortress of Yebu should be removed from there.’ Then this cursed Vaydrang sent a letter to his son Nefayan, commander of the troops in the fortress of Syene, of this content: ‘The temple of the god Yahu that in the fortress of Yebu should be destroyed.’ Nefayan brought Egyptians and other soldiers, they came to the fortress of Yebu, entered the temple with the tools, destroyed it to the ground and broke the stone pillars that were there, as well as five stone gates that were in the temple they destroyed them, and 10



build their temple only eight years later, after they promised not to sacrifice lambs, since that provoked the worshippers of ram-headed Khnum, who maintained a burial ground of sacred rams on the island. At the same time, the Elephantine papyri indicate that despite strained Jewish-Egyptian relations, there were many mixed marriages on the island.

Fig. 32. An Elephantine papyrus with Aramaic text

The contact of the Elephantine Jews with Palestine was poor, and they were not very familiar with the requirements of the religious cult in the homeland, which, in fact, forbade construction of any temples other than the Temple of Jerusalem. On the other hand, they were strongly influenced by local Egyptian polytheism. As a result, they developed a unique cult with some elements of polytheism. In addition to Yahweh, the Elephantine Jews worshiped other gods, in particular, the Canaanite Anat. All this, apparently, forced the prophet Jeremiah to angrily rebuke the Egyptian Jews and threaten them with God’s punishment for “burning incense to other gods in Egypt” (Jer 44:8). wooden doors and metal corners of the doors and the roof, which consisted entirely of cedar beams… and everything else that was there, they burned with fire. And sacrificial bowls of gold and silver, and all the things that were in the temple, they took and appropriated. It was in the days of Egyptian kings that our fathers built this temple in the fortress of Yebu. When Cambyses came to Egypt, he found the temple already built. The temples of the Egyptian gods were all destroyed, but no one destroyed anything in this temple.”



4.2.5. “The Tale of Ahiqar the Sage.” The most valuable finding among the Elephantine papyri, discovered in 1907 by German archaeologists, is the oldest monument of Aramean folklore of Mesopotamian origin, known as “The Tale of Ahiqar the Sage.” It tells the story of how the childless Ahiqar, the wise secretary and adviser to the Assyrian kings Sennacherib and Esarhaddon, in his old age begins to contemplate who will inherit his wealth. By divine instigation, he adopts his sister’s son, Nadan, and using proverbs and short fables, passes his wisdom on to him, after which Nadan receives his uncle’s position at the royal court. Soon, however, Nadan begins to plot against his uncle. Using a false letter he accuses Ahiqar of treachery, and the irate Assyrian king orders that his former adviser be executed. The officer sent to kill Ahiqar happens to be someone Ahiqar had saved in the past, so he kills a slave instead and harbors Ahiqar at his house. At this point, the narrative of the Elephantine papyrus breaks off, but later versions of the story tell that the Egyptian Pharaoh, having heard about Ahiqar’s execution, offers Esarhaddon a bet on the construction of a palace in the air. Nadan says that such a palace is impossible to build, then Ahiqar appears, who the delighted Esarhaddon sends to Egypt. There, two eagles tamed by Ahiqar lift two boys into the air, and they ask for bricks for the palace’s construction. Since the Egyptians could not deliver the bricks, the Pharaoh admits losing the bet. As a reward, Esarhaddon hands over the treacherous Nadan to Ahiqar, who gives him a good beating and new lessons in wisdom, and then Nadan dies. “The Tale of Ahiqar the Sage” and especially the proverbs and fables 11 incorporated into the narrative were very popular among the Arameans until modern times. Ahiqar was something of a national hero for Arameans, even though the Christian clergy did not quite approve of this specimen of Aramean pagan folklore. “The Tale” enjoyed great popularity among other peoples as well and was translated into numerous languages, including Demotic Egyptian and Greek. Numerous variations of this work appear in Aesop’s fables and in the biblical Book of Tobit, where Ahiqar is present under the same name (in Latin and other European translations his name is translated “Achiacharus”). A lost Greek version was presumably used for several Slavic versions (with the traditional Russian title, “The Tale of Akira the Most Wise”). In the 5th century AD, “The Tale of Ahiqar the Sage” was translated into Armenian from a later Aramaic version as “The Story and Teachings of Khikar the Wise” and was very popular in medieval Armenia. The Armenian version was used later as a basis for Georgian and Old Ottoman translations. There are also Ethiopic and Arabic translations, presumably made from the later Aramaic version. 4.2.6. The archive of Aramean mercenaries in Egypt. In addition to Jews, on Elephantine there were also Aramean mercenaries who formed a whole division. Like the Jews, Arameans served as mercenaries to Egyptian Pharaohs during the

Initially the story of Ahiqar and proverbs and fables attributed to him were presumed to be separate specimens of Mesopotamian folklore that were later combined in a single narrative. 11



existence of Aramean states in Syria, several centuries before the Achaemenid conquest of Egypt. The colonies of Aramean mercenaries existed in Egypt also north of Elephantine, up to the Saqqara oasis in the north of the country, where in 1966– 1975 archaeologists discovered papyri with Aramaic texts, as well as in the Nile Delta, where there were many Persians garrisons. One such garrison was located on the island of Hermopolis, where in 1945 a large number of letters of Aramean mercenaries dating to the end of the 6th and beginning of the 5th centuries were found. The letters were mostly written on ostraca and papyri. The script is very similar to that of the Elephantine papyri. The majority of the letters are personal in nature and are addressed to relatives in Egypt, but for some reason they were not posted. The most famous letter from Hermopolis is that of brothers Nabushi and Makkibanita addressed to their sisters, Taru and Tabby, referred to as “Hermopolis V”. 12

4.2.7. Arsham’s archive. Another group of Aramaic documents from Egypt are thirteen letters written on skin on behalf of Arsham, the Achaemenid satrap of Egypt under Darius II (424–410). Arsham apparently spent most of his time outside Egypt, and many of his letters are addressed to the Egyptian Nekht-Gor, who was in charge on-site on behalf of the satrap. It becomes clear from Arsham’s letters that the primary responsibility of the Achaemenid satrap of Egypt was to ensure uninterrupted supply of the tribute, which amounted to 700 talents and twice exceeded the tribute imposed on Syria and Palestine together. Egypt, the traditional breadbasket of the ancient world, was the main supplier of food to the Achaemenid army. Despite Egypt’s wealth, this tribute was very heavy on the Egyptians, and from time to time they rebelled against the Persians. The fact that Arsham corresponded with Nekht-Gor and other Egyptians in Aramaic indicates that the Aramaic language in Egypt was widespread not only among the local Jews and Arameans, but was also understood by the caste of Egyptian bureaucrats. 4.2.8. Aramaic texts in demotic script. Quite notable are the samples of Aramaic language from Egypt, written in Egyptian demotic script. Demotic script emerged in Egypt in the middle of the 7th century BC. It was cursive and, in contrast to hieroglyphic and hieratic writing, was widely available. One of three versions of the text carved on the famous Rosetta Stone is in this script. In the 19th century near Thebes, 19 papyri dating back to the 8th century BC were found sealed in a jar. For several decades Egyptologists had unsuccessfully tried to read in Egyptian one of the papyri about three and a half meters in length with 422 lines, seven words per line. Finally, in 1944 Raymond Bowman of the University of Chicago guessed that the papyrus contained an Aramaic text, supposedly composed at the end of the 4th

“To my sisters Tara and Tubby from your brothers and Nabushi and Makkibanita. We asked for you the blessing of Ptah, so that he shows me your faces in peace. Now you know that nothing reached us from Son. And since I left Son, Shael did not send me a letter or something… And why did you not write me a letter? I was stung by a snake and was dying, and you did not inquire whether I am alive or dead. For your health did I send this letter.” 12



century. One of these texts is an Aramaic pagan hymn, similar to Psalm 20 from the Old Testament Book of Psalms. In the very first lines the hymn contains the names of the Egyptian god Horus, the Aramean lunar god Sahar, and the Hebrew epithet Adonai, “my Lord.” In addition, the hymn contains the first two letters of the Tetragrammaton, namely iod and heh, transcribed in Roman script as YH. Interestingly enough, this half-Tetragrammaton, as a ligature, entered the religious tradition of Christian Arameans.

Fig. 33. A fragment of the demotic text on the Rosetta Stone

Another, more extensive Aramaic text contains the story of the revolt of the Babylonian King Sarmanka against his brother, the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. This uprising did actually happen, although the historical king of Babylon, son of the Assyrian Esarhaddon, was called Shamash-shum-ukin (668–648). According to the Theban papyrus, Ashurbanipal sent their sister Sheru-Eterat to Sarmanka as a peacemaker. She returned unsuccessful to Nineveh, and then the Assyrian king sent his army against his rebel brother. At this point the narrative ends. The Theban papyrus with demotic Aramaic text survived in two fragments. The larger one, known as “Amherst 63” (named after the British collector of antiquities, Baron William Amherst, 1835–1909), is kept in the Morgan Library of New York, and the smaller (“Amherst 43b”), in the University of Michigan. In addition to the Amherst papyrus, there is another short Aramaic spell against scorpion stings written in demotic script. It was discovered on a rock in Wadi Hammamat of Upper Egypt. The Aramaic texts of Egypt contain borrowings from the Egyptian language. “A Grammar of Egyptian Aramaic” by Muraoka and Porten contains a list of 46 loanwords. Their use was almost exclusively local in nature, and they are not found in the standard, basic vocabulary of Aramaic.



4.2.9. Imperial Aramaic in Judah. The religious tolerance of Cyrus and his generosity toward conquered peoples most vividly manifested itself in his policy toward the descendants of Jews deported by Nebuchadnezzar, who were in Babylonian exile for seventy years. A year after his conquest of Babylon, Cyrus issued a decree allowing them to return to Judah, which under the name Yehud was part of the Achaemenid satrapy with the Aramaic name Avar-Nahara (“beyond the river”), and to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem. It seems that permission for repatriation was given to all peoples deported by the Babylonians, but apparently only the Jews used it. Excerpts from the decree of Cyrus are preserved in the Old Testament Book of Ezra in two versions, in Hebrew (1:2–3), and Aramaic (6:3–5). The Aramaic version contains the new temple’s dimensions and orders on covering the construction costs and on returning all temple utensils seized by Nebuchadnezzar. For Jews, the temple utensils were the equivalent of statues of pagan deities that the Persians returned to other peoples. The release of the Jews from Babylonian captivity earned Cyrus biblical epithets with which no other foreign ruler had ever been honored. In the Book of Isaiah he is even called “the Lord’s anointed” and “envoy of the God of Israel.” Before Cyrus the term “the Lord’s anointed” was applied exclusively to the kings of the dynasty of David and to the Messiah himself. The Jews respected the Achaemenids so highly that later editors of the canonical Tanakh left intact the words that the Temple of Jerusalem was rebuilt “according to the command of the God of Israel and the decrees of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes, Kings of Persia” (Ezra 6:14). The first group of Jewish repatriates—numbering several thousand people— left Mesopotamia for Palestine as early as 538 BC. They were followed by the bulk of the Jews headed by Ezra and Nehemiah. Some of the Jews did not wish to leave Mesopotamia and founded the Jewish diaspora in Babylonia, which later played an important role in the history of Jewish thought and literature. Upon their return to Palestine, the Jews discovered that the local population also spoke Aramaic. The same was true for Transjordan and, partially, Phoenicia. It may be deduced from the Old Testament that Aramaic was brought from Babylonia to Palestine by the new generation of Jews who knew no Hebrew and spoke the language of their Chaldean enslavers. However, the spread of Aramaic into Palestine is likely the result of the expansion of this language throughout the Middle East. Imperial Aramaic is represented by about a thousand ostraca, originating from the south of Palestine. They are mainly standard slips and receipts dating back to the 4th century. Papyri with Aramaic texts from the middle of the same century—which was the end of the Achaemenid period—were found in 1962–1964 in caves near the Palestinian locality of Wadi Daliyeh, 15 km north of Jericho. The overwhelming majority of these are legal documents, dating back to 375–335, and on many of them Achaemenid stamps can still be seen. There are also inscriptions on stone signets, one of which contains the name of the Achaemenid governor of Judaea, Elnatan. In the same caves some 200 skeletons of the residents of the Samaria area were found; apparently the remains of those who resisted the armies of Alexander the Great when he took Samaria in 331. Aramaic inscriptions from Palestine show that in the Achaemenid period Mesopotamian names of the months came into use and are still in use today in living Semitic languages. It was also during the Achaemenid



period that the Palestinian Jews switched from Paleo-Hebrew script to Aramaic scripts.

4.2.10. Aramaic in the Old Testament: Ezra and Daniel. In the Achaemenid period, Aramaic not only became the primary spoken language of the Jews, but also made its way into sacred literature, which had been exclusively written in the Hebrew language. Priests, when reading the Torah (Pentateuch) and other sacred texts to the Jews who had recently returned from Babylonian captivity, had to simultaneously translate the texts into Aramaic since Hebrew, in spite of its closeness to Aramaic, was poorly understood by the common people. The main specimens of the Imperial Aramaic of Palestine are found in the Hebrew Scriptures. These are the Aramaic parts of the Books of Ezra and Daniel. The Book of Ezra starts with the decree of Cyrus the Great, which gives Jews permission to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem. It then gives an account of two waves of Jewish repatriation from Babylon to Judaea, the construction of the second temple, the conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans and other neighboring nations, Darius’ consent to rebuild the temple, and, finally, the famous edict of Ezra on the prohibition of mixed marriages and the expulsion of nonJewish wives. From 4:8–6:18, and in 7:12–26, the Book of Ezra is written in pure and well-developed Imperial Aramaic. The first fragment retells the text of the Samaritans’ letter to Artaxerxes in which they complain about the restoration of the Temple. 4:7 clearly states that the letter was written in Aramaic with Aramaic characters. After the text of the letter, the narrative continues in Hebrew. The second fragment recounts the letter of Artaxerxes to Ezra, in which the king gives permission to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem and to reinstate the law of Moses. The original language of these messages was deliberately kept in order to give the narrative the air of historical authenticity. Daniel appears in the Bible as an offspring of a noble Judean family, who as a teenager was exiled by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon and brought up at the royal court, where he became famous for his wisdom during the last kings of the NeoBabylonian Empire. The Old Testament book associated with his name dates back to the 2nd century BC. 13 Of its twelve chapters, chapter 2 (starting with verse 4) to chapter 7 are exclusively in Aramaic. They contain, in particular, the well-known story of Belshazzar’s feast, during which he saw a hand writing the words meneh, tekel, peres on the wall. These are Aramaic measures of weight usually applied to the coins of various denominations. None of those present at the feast could interpret the meaning of these words, and only Daniel interpreted them in this way: “Here is what these words mean: Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians. That The Jewish tradition, unlike the Christian, does not recognize Daniel as a prophet, and his book in Tanakh is found in the “Scriptures” section, not in “Prophets,” as in the Bible. 13



very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom at the age of sixty-two” (Daniel, 5:26–31). It is widely believed that the Book of Daniel was originally written mostly in Aramaic and then translated into Hebrew. Late editorship of the Book explains why it lacks archaic forms and clichés associated with language standards of the royal Achaemenid chancellery and typical for the Books of Ezra. Generally, the Aramaic language of the Book of Daniel, as well as the Book of Ezra, is very close to the language of Aramaic texts from Egypt, which is why it belongs, despite its later origin, to the same Imperial period. An addition to the Book of Daniel containing the famous story of Susanna and the Elders, which inspired many artists and composers, was probably of Aramean origin and language. Susanna (in Aramaic “Shoshanna,” “lily”) was a married woman who was sexually abused by two lustful elders. When Susanna refused them, the elders accused her of adultery, and the court sentenced her to death. However, Daniel, who was still very young, revealed contradictions in the testimonies of the elders; Susanna was exonerated and the accusers were put to death. “The Narrative of Bel and the Dragon” and “The Song of the Three Holy Children,” both associated with Daniel, are also likely of Aramean origin. The Orthodox and Catholic churches include them in the Book of Daniel, while Jews and Protestants consider them apocryphal. 14 In the Book of Jeremiah, there is a line in Aramaic addressed to the false gods. It says: “Tell them this: ‘These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens’” (10:11). It is not quite clear why this particular line, which does not deviate from the general context, is in Aramaic. Most likely, it echoes the attempts by the Jews to preach monotheism to pagan Arameans. In the Book of Genesis (31:47), there is an Aramaic word yegar sahadutha, meaning “witness pile,” which Laban the Aramean called the heap of stones piled by Jacob’s order as a sign of his alliance with Laban. Jacob himself called the pile of stones by the Hebrew word, galeed. 15 This episode is believed to be an allegorical story of the settlement of some territorial dispute between the Hebrews and the Arameans. The Apocrypha are mostly late Jewish and early Christian anonymous writings of historical, esoteric, and didactic nature, which the Jews do not include in the canonical Tanakh and are not considered “divinely inspired” by the Christians. Nonetheless, each Christian church usually includes its own set of Apocrypha in its biblical canon as “good for the soul” readings. 15 “Come now, let’s make a covenant, you and I, and let it serve as a witness between us. So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. He said to his relatives, ‘Gather some stones.’ So they took stones and piled them in a heap, and they ate there by the heap. Laban called it yegar sahadutha, and Jacob called it Galeed. Laban said, ‘This heap is a witness between you and me today.’ That is why it was called Galeed” (Genesis 31:44-48). 14



4.2.11. Aramaic inscriptions from Arabia. Several samples of Imperial Aramaic come from another distant Achaemenid satrapy, Arabia, namely the Tayma oasis, where the Neo-Babylonian King Nabonidus resided in 553–543 BC. Tayma was located on the western fringes of the al-Nafud desert in Central Arabia and served as an important staging post on the caravan trade routes. Some scholars suggest that an Aramaic trading colony could have existed in Tayma before the Achaemenid era. Many short tombstone inscriptions in Imperial Aramaic were discovered in the oasis. The longest text of 23 lines was discovered in 1888 on a stele (currently in the Louvre). The stele is dedicated to the deity Salm—whose cult was present in these places—and was made in the 5th century BC by his priest Salmshezeb, son of Petosiri (interestingly, the priest has an Akkadian name, while his father is an Egyptian). Adjacent to the stele were two stone slabs, one of which depicts the traditional Aramean winged sun disk, and the other Salmshezeb himself presenting offerings to Salm. Around 1988, another stele was discovered nearby with an Aramaic inscription made by Pasigu Shahru, son of Melka. The inscription refers to the same deity Salm, as well as two other deities, Singala and Ashima. The former is apparently a variation of the moon god Sin as suggested by the image of a crescent on an adjacent bas-relief, and the latter is possibly a stellar deity as indicated by an eight-point star on the same bas-relief. Short Aramaic inscriptions from the Achaemenid period were also found in Bahrain and Kuwait.

Fig. 34. An Aramaic inscription from Tayma

4.2.12. Aramaic inscriptions from Anatolia and Central Asia. Anatolia was another peripheral region of the Achaemenid empire that provided samples of Aramaic. Unlike Egypt, Palestine, and Arabia, no significant Aramean or Aramaic-speaking Semitic population lived here, and Aramaic was used mainly as the official language of the domineering superpower. For example, a stele with an Aramaic funerary inscription was discovered in 1965 in the northwest of the peninsula, in the vicinity of the Lydian city of Daskyleion, the center of the Phrygian satrapy of the Achaeme-



nids. Another bilingual Aramaic-Lydian funerary inscription was discovered in the Lydian city of Sardis. The inscription, in particular, calls the anger of the Greek goddess Artemis of Ephesus on those who disturb the tomb, which indicates the prevalence of the Greek population in the western regions of Asia Minor. Aramaic inscriptions were also found in southwest Anatolia, ancient Lycia. In the mid-19th century, a short Aramaic epitaph was found, and in 1973, during the excavations of a Lycian temple in Letoon, a stele was unearthed with a longer trilingual, Greek-Aramaic-Lycian inscription announcing the establishment of a new deity’s cult. The inscription was presumably made in the first year of the reign of Artaxerxes III in 358 BC. The advancement of Aramaic under the Achaemenids into western Anatolia and its contact with the Greek world is also attested in the use of this language in diplomatic correspondence between the Persians and the Greeks. Testimonies to this can be found in ancient Greek historiography. Thus, Thucydides (5th–4th centuries BC) mentions that the Athenians had intercepted king Artaxerxes’ letter to the Spartans, which was written on leather in “Assyrian letters” (άσσύρια γράμματα), in other words, in Aramaic. Diodorus of Sicily (1st century BC) and Xenophon reported that the Achaemenids used “Syrian letters” (σύρια γράμματα), again referring to the Aramaic script. Several samples of Imperial Aramaic originate from the far side of the Achaemenid empire, namely from Bactria and Sogdiana (Central Asia and Afghanistan). In 2006, archeologists discovered thirty documents written on leather and approximately two dozen inscriptions on wooden plates that served as labels. These samples come from the local Achaemenid administration and date to the 4th century BC. The wooden labels are dated to the third year of the reign of Darius III, which is 377. Two of the documents on leather contain details on the fall of the Achaemenid Empire. 4.2.13. Interaction of Imperial Aramaic with local languages. Imperial Aramaic was a fairly well developed and standardized language. Its territorial varieties— Egyptian, Palestinian, Mesopotamian, Arabian, and others—basically follow the same grammar and spelling standards. The formation of these standards began, apparently, in the Neo-Assyrian Empire and was finally completed by the Achaemenid officials who spread them throughout the vast empire through official documents sent out from Persepolis. However, between territorial varieties of Imperial Aramaic there were some differences in vocabulary, syntax, and overall style (certainly there were significant differences in pronunciation), which are explained by the influence of local languages as well as by the degree to which the author of a particular text was fluent in Aramaic, given that the great majority of those authors were not native speakers. For that reason, the scholarly literature employs terms like “Egyptian Aramaic,” which is applied to the language of the Elephantine archive and other Aramaic texts from Egypt, and “Biblical Aramaic,” which refers to the language of the Books of Ezra and Daniel and later Jewish writings emulating that language. These terms are essentially synonymous with the term “Imperial Aramaic” and specify its territorial application.



Imperial Aramaic existed in close contact with local languages. Quite remarkable is the mutual influence of Aramaic and Persian, which began in the Achaemenid era and lasted into the Parthian and Sasanian periods. Aramaic influence on the Old Persian manifested itself primarily in ancient Persian cuneiform writing, the invention of which Darius the Great ascribes to himself. The Persians borrowed the graphic form of the cuneiform writing from the Elamites, who in turn borrowed it from the Assyrians and Babylonians, yet it reproduced the Aramaic writing system. There are no texts in Old Persian from the Achaemenid era written in Aramaic characters, although the scripts of the Middle Iranian languages—Parthian, Pahlavi, Sogdian, and others—descend directly from different varieties of the Aramaic script (more on this will be discussed in the following chapters). Aramaic also left some influence on the syntax and vocabulary of the Old Persian language. The Indo-European Old Persian influenced the syntax of Imperial Aramaic, which is more relaxed and flexible compared to Old Aramaic. However, a much more pronounced impact of Old Persian on Aramaic is in the large number of loanwords. They are mainly terms related to administration, law, army, and commerce (e.g., ganzabara “treasurer,” azdakara, “recorder,” fratama, “general,” framanakara, “commander,” databara, “judge,” and so on), but there are also Persian borrowings in basic vocabulary. In Muraoka and Porten’s “A Grammar of Egyptian Aramaic” they give a list of 75 Old Persian words attested in the Egyptian samples of Imperial Aramaic, although there were probably much more of them. Naturally, the texts associated with the central Achaemenid administration, such as, for example, Arsham’s letters, contain more Persian words than texts originating from the periphery. Some Persian borrowings found their permanent place in basic Aramaic vocabulary and are attested in the post-Achaemenid texts as well (as mentioned, only a few Akkadian borrowings but no Egyptian ones are present in Aramaic basic vocabulary). Aramaic was also the main medium through which Persian loanwords entered Hebrew, which after the spread of Aramaic into Palestine continued to function as a written language. Since the reign of Artaxerxes I (464–424) the use of Old Persian as the official language became more frequent, often at the expense of Aramaic. This long, evolutionary process began with an increase in the number of Persian terms and words in Aramaic texts as a natural consequence of the development of the Achaemenid system of administration, which constantly generated new concepts and terms with no equivalents in Aramaic. After this share exceeded a certain quantitative limit, a qualitative change followed, which was first the transition to Persian syntax and then to grammar. Nonetheless, under the Achaemenids and, later, the Parthian Arsacids, the Iranian languages could not fully replace Aramaic as the official language. It only happened under the Sasanians, whose official language was Middle Persian (Pahlavi); however, it contained a large number of Aramaic phrases and clichés as a reminder of the times when Aramaic dominated the royal Achaemenid chancelleries. 4.2.14. Greek vs. Aramaic. In 330 BC, Persepolis was captured by Alexander the Great, and the Achaemenid Empire fell. After Alexander’s death, his vast empire was divided between his generals (Diadochi), who created several independent states. The former Achaemenid possessions in Asia went to Seleucus I Nicator, who



founded the dynasty and the state of the Seleucids (312–63 BC). In Egypt, Ptolemy I Soter founded the dynasty and the state of the Ptolemies (323–30 BC). These states created opportunities for the migration of Greek settlers and culture into the East, which marked the beginning of the Hellenistic era. Under the Seleucids and the Ptolemies, the official language of administration in Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt gradually became Greek, and Imperial Aramaic eventually lost its official status. The Greek language almost completely replaced Aramaic in the state offices with the exception of the lowest, which dealt with the local population and had to use understandable languages, namely Egyptian and Aramaic. A notable and indicative figure of this period was the Chaldean priest of Marduk, Berossus, who lived in the second half of the 4th and the beginning of the 3rd centuries BC, when Mesopotamia was under Seleucid rule. Berossus was the author of a three-volume history of Babylonia and Chaldea written in Greek with traces of the influence of Greek historiography. Only a few fragments of this work have survived, incorporated in the works of other Greek-language historians. Some fragments are preserved in the Armenian translation, and Berossus is mentioned in the “History of Armenia” by Movses Khorenatsi. It seems certain that Berossus, who demonstrates deep knowledge of the history and mythology of Mesopotamia, while composing his history used the materials of ancient Mesopotamian archives. By his time, those archives had accumulated a large amount of documents in Aramaic, but it is also quite possible that Berossus was one of the last experts in Akkadian and used ancient clay tablets with cuneiform texts stored in the archives. More than a historian, Berossus is famed as a prominent astrologer, one of the first to acquaint the Greeks with rich traditions of Chaldean astrology and mathematics. The Roman architect Vitruvius attributed the invention of a cup-shaped sundial to him. Despite the conquests of Alexander the Great, for at least another century the imperial standard remained the main written form of Aramaic, and its influence on subsequent varieties of the language was quite palpable. Aramaic also maintained its position as the main spoken language and the lingua franca of the Middle East. As noted by Klaus Beyer, the adherence to Aramaic in Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia from time to time even became a symbol of the local resistance to political expansion of the Seleucids, and later of Rome, as well as cultural and linguistic expansion of Hellenism.


4.3.1. Aramaic in the early Hellenistic period. By the 3rd century BC Aramaic as a spoken language had almost completely replaced all Semitic languages of the Middle East, with the exception of Arabic in Arabia and some parts of Mesopotamia, and Phoenician, which resisted Aramaic until about the 2nd century AD. 16 Most The Punic language of Carthage by far outlived Phoenician proper, and lasted in North Africa until about the 8th century AD, and then was finally supplanted by Arabic and Berber. 16



Semitic peoples were either completely Aramaized, such as the peoples of Mesopotamia, or, while maintaining their national identity, were mostly Aramaic-speaking, like Jews and some Arab tribes of northern Arabia and Mesopotamia. Aramaic’s division into two big dialectal groups, East and West, became more pronounced in this period of the language’s history. The dialects of Mesopotamia belonged to the Eastern group, and those of Syria, Palestine, and Transjordan belonged to the Western. The differences between the two groups were particularly noticeable in comparison with Imperial Aramaic with its homogeneity and high degree of standardization. At the same time, many written dialects of the middle period tried to follow the grammatical and spelling standards of Imperial Aramaic. The final separation into the Eastern and Western groups took place in the “late” period of the history of Aramaic. Numerous Aramaic inscriptions from the Early Hellenistic period indicate that despite state support for the Greek language, Aramaic continued to hold some of the positions that it occupied under the Achaemenids in Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Arabia, and elsewhere in the Middle East. A characteristic feature of this period was Aramaic-Greek bilingualism, for which Syria and Palestine were particularly distinguished, with some notable Aramaic-Greek inscriptions of an everyday nature. Such inscriptions were also found in Arabia. Despite the fact that Alexander the Great’s conquests opened the Middle East to the Greek language, which became Aramaic’s main competitor, they also created conditions for some expansion of Aramaic’s area of usage. Aramaic, for instance, along with the local Indian Prakrit, was used as the official written language in the northwestern dominions (east of Bactria and Sogdiana) of the Indian Emperor Ashoka (273–232 BC). Together with Aramaic, Greek also began to spread into these areas, as attested by several bilingual, Greek-Aramaic inscriptions; the most famous of those contains the text of one of Ashoka’s edicts. Ashoka also left a remarkable inscription in Prakrit made in Aramaic script. It is widely believed that the Aramaic script is the basis of the local Indian Kharosthi script, which is half alphabetical, half syllabic in nature and is the only script in India with a direction from right to left. It was in use from the 3rd century BC until the 3rd century AD, and then was neglected and deciphered only in the 19th century by English orientalist James Prinsep (1799–1840).

Fig. 35. The Aramaic part of a Greek-Aramaic inscription with Ashoka’s edict



In Cappadocia, at the other end of the Hellenic world, an Aramaic inscription from the 2nd century BC proclaiming the cult of a local deity was found in Arabissus.

Fig. 36. A sample of Kharosthi script

4.3.2. The Arsacid Aramaic of Parthia. The Seleucids ruled the Iranian territories that previously formed the core of the Achaemenid state. Greco-Macedonian veterans and settlers brought Greek culture with them, and by mingling with local Iranian traditions it gave birth to a rich Hellenistic civilization that reached Central Asia, which was mostly Iranian-speaking at that period. Greek writing and literature also entered Iran, and familiarity with them for the local scribes eventually became mandatory. Nevertheless, under the Seleucids, the Aramaic language and script in Iran, unlike Syria and Egypt, still maintained their previous legal status. Greco-Macedonian rule in Iran ended with the rise of Parthia, the successor to the Achaemenid traditions of Iranian statehood. Those traditions included the use of Aramaic as the official language. The Aramaic language of the Parthian period largely continued to follow the standard of the Achaemenid Imperial Aramaic. It is usually called “Arsacid Aramaic,” after the dynasty that ruled Parthia from 250 BC to 224 AD, and distinguished itself by its high tolerance for religion and language. Parthian Aramaic inscriptions are found over the vast territory from southwestern Iran to Turkmenistan. In Turkmenistan, about 2,000 ostraca with inscriptions of administrative content were found. The numerous inscriptions in Parthia show that Greek was also widely used. Aramaic began to yield its position as the official language to the Parthian language by the end of the 2nd century AD, that is, at the end of the Parthian era itself. As was the case in the late Achaemenid period, the transition occurred through a gradual increase in the share of Iranian words in Aramaic texts with the subsequent transition to the Iranian grammar and syntax. At the same time, the most frequently used Aramaic words and expressions were preserved as heterograms, whereas a word or an expression written in Aramaic was read as its Iranian equivalent (more on the Aramaic heterograms is found in the following chapters).

Fig. 37. The Parthian script



The Parthian language used a script that originated from Aramaic despite the fact that the Greek alphabet was better suited to record the Indo-European Parthian language. Parthian-Aramaic script later developed into the scripts of other Iranian languages, namely Pahlavi (Middle Persian) and Sogdian. By the middle of the 3rd century AD, Pahlavi had become the sole official language of Sasanian Iran. 4.3.3. Hatra and its Aramaic language. In the context of Arsacid Aramaic, the city of Hatra should be mentioned. It was located in the northeast of present-day Iraq, in the middle flow of the Tigris, about 150 km southeast of Mosul. Hatra was the capital of a small kingdom, incorporated in Arsacid Parthia, and destroyed by the Sasanians in 240 AD. The names of some Hatran rulers have been preserved, like Neshrayav, Nasr, Sanatruk I, Avsamya, and Sanatruk II. Hatra was an important staging post on the crossroads of international trade routes, and this ensured its prosperity. Because of its beautiful architectural monuments, Hatra is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ethnic composition of Hatra was very colorful, but Arameans, apparently, were a very significant part of the population. It is noteworthy that one of the Hatran inscriptions distinguishes between “residents of Hatra” and the Arabs. These parts of Mesopotamia were indeed marked by the presence of Arab tribes. Hatra was a major center of worship of the sun god Shamash, “the great god” and patron of Hatra, who is often referred to by the Aramaic epithet Maran (“our Lord”). His consort is usually called Martan (“our Mistress”), who in all probability is Atargatis. The third member of the Hatran divine trinity was called Bar Maren, which in Aramaic means “the son of our Lords,” though the meaning of this epithet is not exactly clear. Among other deities worshiped at Hatra was the Arab goddess Allat, as evidenced by the dedicatory inscription of Sanatruk I. Another Hatran inscription contains references to Baalshamin and Atargatis. As a whole, the religious life of Hatra was a mosaic of Semitic, Iranian, and Greco-Roman elements.

Fig. 38. A boundary stone-mark with an Aramaic inscription by Armenian King Artashes I



In Hatra and its vicinities, including the ruins of the ancient Assyrian city of Ashur, more than 500 Aramaic inscriptions from the period between the middle of the 1st century BC and the middle of the 3rd century AD were found. Most of them are graffiti—inscriptions scratched or written by ordinary people on the walls of buildings, rocks, altars, statues, gravestones, metal objects, and vessels, with different kinds of vows, dedications, epitaphs, and so forth. The Aramaic inscriptions of Hatra contain a large number of proper names (Kayyamay, Abdsamya, Avsa, Ebu, Gabalu, Ana, Shamashtayyeb, Shamashbarak, and others). These are mainly names of Semitic (Aramaic and Arabic) and Iranian origin, and they reflect the ethnic diversity of the city and the whole kingdom.

4.3.4. Aramaic inscriptions in Armenia and Georgia. The earliest known Aramaic inscriptions from Armenia belong to the early Hellenistic period, although the Aramaic language was likely used in Armenia as far back as the Achaemenid domination. There are nine preserved inscriptions by the founder of the Artashesid dynasty, Artashes I (189–161 BC). Seven of them are inscribed on boundary stones, and the other two report fishing development in Lake Sevan by Artashes. There are Aramaic inscriptions from Armenia from a later period, when the country was part of the Parthian cultural area. One of these is a damaged inscription from Garni, which presumably belongs to the 2nd century AD, and by the appearance of its characters may be associated with Hatran Arsacid Aramaic. Aramaic remained in use in the Armenian state chancelleries until the creation of the Armenian alphabet at the beginning of the 5th century AD. From the beginning of the 2nd century AD, the use of Aramaic is attested in Georgia, along with other non-Semitic countries such as Armenia, Egypt, Cappadocia and northwestern India. Notable inscriptions are from Armazi, made in a variety of Aramaic script called “Armazi script.”

4.3.5. The Aramaic dialect of Edessa. The most notable representative of the Eastern Aramaic dialects is that of Edessa (Urhai), the capital of a small Aramean state of Osrhoene in North Mesopotamia. This dialect was also spoken in the Aramean cities of Harran, Nisibis, Mabbug (ancient Manbog), Amid, Reshayna, and Tella as well as in predominantly Greek-speaking Antioch, which was a place of confluence of different cultures, religions, and languages, and rivaled Alexandria for fame and influence. Edessa was destined to become the major center of Aramean Christianity and Aramaic Christian literature, but the Middle Aramaic period, when Osrhoene was still pagan, also provides a considerable number of epigraphic monuments of the Edessan dialect, made in a local variety of Aramaic cursive. The earliest of these inscriptions is dated 6 AD, and the latest comes from the middle of the 3rd century AD (more on Osrhoene and Edessa in a separate chapter).



Fig. 39. A sample of the Armazi script

4.3.6. Adiabene. In the northeastern periphery of the Eastern Aramaic area lay another small state incorporated into Parthia, Hedhayab, better known by the Greek version of its name, Adiabene. Adiabene was located to the east of Osrhoene and the ancient Aramean city of Nisibis, in the area between the tributaries of the Tigris, Great Zab and Little Zab (northeast of present-day Iraq). This is the area where Aramaic was attested in the old period of its history. Since it is the territory of the central provinces of Assyria, which included Nineveh, Adiabene was sometimes perceived as the guardian of the Assyrian traditions of statehood. In late antiquity and the early Christian period, Adiabene was often called “Assyria.” In this case, “Assyria” appears in a historical and geographical sense rather than ethnic, just as the historical area of the Balkans, a part of Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey, is still called Thrace today, even if the Thracians as a people do not exist for more than 2,000 years. It is quite feasible however that in the Late Antiquity, there still remained people in Adiabene who considered themselves the last remnants of ancient Assyrians. The capital of Adiabene was Arbela, whose name originates from Akkadian arba ilu, “four gods;” 17 it is today the city of Irbil in northern Iraq. The Akkadian origin of the name suggests that the city had existed since the days of Assyria. Arbela gained popularity after the battle nearby between the armies of Alexander the Great and Darius III in 331 BC. As a state entity Adiabene took shape in the second half of the 2nd century BC, and like Hatra became a vassal kingdom, incorporated into Parthia. Under the Armenian King Tigranes II (95–55 BC), Adiabene for a time became a part of Armenia, which was constantly striving for control over that country. The first known ruler of Adiabene was Izat I. Adiabene experienced a rise during the reign of Izat’s son, Monobaz I, who ruled in the 20–30s of the 1st century AD, and was married to his own sister, Helena. During the reign of their son, Izat II bar Monobaz (36–60), Adiabene gained even more strength. Izat II even helped the Parthian King Artabanus III to hold on to the throne when he was facing a palace coup. In return, to17


The most important of the four deities, whose worship was centered in Arbela, was



gether with some privileges, Izat was given the city of Nisibis, which before that was controlled by Armenia, yet Adiabene remained the vassal of Parthia. After the death of Izat II, the throne passed to his brother, Monobaz II, who was known for preventing Armenia’s seizure of Adiabene in 61 AD, the control of which was being contested with Rome. Adiabene was first conquered by Rome and included in the Roman province of “Assyria” in 116, during the reign of Emperor Trajan (98–117) and King Mehrashap of Adiabene. A year after Emperor Hadrian (117–138) came to power, the Romans retreated beyond the Euphrates, which served as a border between Rome and Parthia. The independence of Adiabene was restored, although its only known ruler was Narsai, who ruled in the last quarter of the 2nd century. In 193 AD Narsai, together with Abgar the Great, king of Osrhoene, attempted to capture Nisibis from the Romans, and that provoked the invasion of the army of the Emperor Septimius Severus (193–211), who captured Arbela and proclaimed himself “King of Adiabene,” but soon retreated to Nisibis. In 216, Caracalla (211–217) captured Arbela for the third time, but he also could not establish himself permanently in the city. As a state Adiabene, like the rest of Parthia, was finally destroyed by the Sasanians.

The ethnic and religious character of Adiabene. The population of Adiabene was a mixture of Arameans and Parthians, along with a large number of Armenians, Arabs, and other peoples. Of significant prominence was the very large and influential Jewish community, and it is known that Arbela had a yeshiva, a Jewish religious educational institution. Even though Aramaic was the lingua franca and the official language, Adiabene, unlike neighboring Osrhoene, can hardly be considered an Aramean state. Samples of Adiabene Aramaic have not survived, but it may be safely assumed that it was very close to Hatran Aramaic and used the same variety of script. The religion of the Iranian population of Adiabene was Zoroastrianism, while Arameans, Arabs, and Armenians followed their traditional pagan beliefs. The religion of the early kings of Adiabene is not quite clear; however, the Jewish historian of the 1st century AD Josephus Flavius and medieval Jewish sources report that Izat II converted to Judaism almost simultaneously with his mother, Queen Helena, yet independently from each other. The story of Izat’s conversion begins in another vassal state of Parthia called Characene, also known as Mesene (from the Aramaic Mayshan). This country, with the capital in Charax Spasinu (Aramaic Karka d-Mayshan), occupied a small area covering the northern tip of the Persian Gulf—the territory that in ancient times was inhabited by Chaldo-Arameans. As a state, Characene emerged after the collapse of the Seleucid Empire, and lasted until about the end of the first quarter of the 3rd century AD, mainly as a semi-independent kingdom within the Parthian Empire. Its population included Arabs, Arameans, and Parthians, and the official languages were Greek and Aramaic, as evidenced by the inscriptions on the coins of the local kings. Characene was mostly a Hellenistic state, although its cultural heritage still preserved residual traces of Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations. Young Izat II was sent to the court of king Abbinerigos (Abinergaos I) of Characene by his parents, who wanted to shield him from the jealousy of other numerous sons of Monobaz I. In



Characene Izat married Symacho, daughter of Abbinerigos, who had previously been converted to Judaism by a Jewish merchant, Ananias. Through the efforts of Ananias, Izat also converted to Judaism, and took the merchant with him to Arbela. Here he found out that his mother, Queen Helena, had also converted to Judaism, perhaps not without the influence of the local Jewish community. The Jewish sources further report that after their conversion Izat II and Queen Helena established ties with Judah and made rich offerings to the Temple of Jerusalem. Josephus Flavius also reports that Adiabene was the only country that came to the aid of Jews during the First Jewish-Roman War of 66–73 AD. There is evidence that King Monobaz II, who also professed Judaism, spent almost all the resources of Adiabene to help Jews in the lean years. He also sent to Judah the remains of his mother, Queen Helena, and brother, Izat II. A sarcophagus was discovered in Jerusalem, with the inscription “Queen Saddan” on it, made in Aramaic, in the Palestinian variety of the Aramaic “square” script, and in script resembling Aramaic cursive of Hatra and Edessa. It was assumed that the sarcophagus contained the remains of Queen Helena, as the Aramaic name “Saddan” was often used as the equivalent of the Greek name “Helena.” It is not known whether Ananias was successful in spreading Judaism among the pagans of Adiabene, but Christianity first took root here within the local Jewish community, as was the case in many other countries. By 104, an episcopal see had been established in Arbela, which with some interruptions lasted until the 6th century. Although, as noted above, the pre-Christian Adiabene could hardly be called an Aramean state, in the Christian era it became one of the leading centers of Aramean learning and culture. Tatian, a renowned Christian apologist of the 2nd century, was supposedly a native of Adiabene. He was nicknamed “Assyrian” and wrote of himself as being “from the land of the Assyrians.” Tatian was the author of the Diatessaron, the most famous Gospel harmony (a combination of four Gospels into a single narrative), which Christian Arameans actively used until the mid-5th century. Most scholars agree that the Diatessaron was composed in Aramaic, perhaps in the dialect of Adiabene, yet no textual evidence thereto exists, as in the 5th century the copies of this Gospel harmony were systematically destroyed and replaced with the canonical separate Gospels.

Fig. 40. The supposed sarcophagus of Queen Helena with Aramaic inscriptions



4.3.7. Palmyra. Bordering on the Aramaic dialects of Mesopotamia and sharing common features with them was the spoken and written language of the most famous of all the Aramean states—Palmyra. Palmyrene Aramaic occupies an intermediate position between the Aramaic dialects of Syria and Mesopotamia of the middle period. Palmyra (Aramaic Tadmor, “city of trees”) is located in Syria, 220 km northeast of Damascus. According to the Old Testament, Palmyra was founded by King Solomon as a stronghold against the nomads of northern Arabia. In fact, the city is much older; it is mentioned in a Babylonian clay tablet dating from the 19th century BC. Palmyra, being situated in an oasis at the crossroads of caravan routes, served as a major transit and storage point and earned considerable profit in taxes, fees, and charges for various services, such as supplying caravans with food and water, providing guides and guards, and so on. When Syria came under Seleucid rule in 323 BC, Palmyra remained outside the borders of their kingdom, and a small state emerged around it with Aramaic as its spoken and official language. Palmyra was the first Aramean state that rose four centuries after the fall of Aram-Damascus, Hamath, and Sam’al, the last of the ancient Aramean states. Palmyra was ruled by local kings that shared the power with the Senate. Nevertheless, despite their formal independence, the rulers of Palmyra were under the political influence of Parthia. The dangerous proximity to the borders of the Roman Empire posed a constant threat to Palmyra. In 41 BC, Marc Anthony attempted to capture it, but the inhabitants of the city were warned about the approaching Romans and quickly retreated beyond the Euphrates. Under the Emperor Trajan (98–117), Palmyra was destroyed by the Romans and came under their rule. Subsequently, the Emperor Hadrian (117–138) rebuilt Palmyra with the status of a free city, renamed it Adrianople, and with certain restrictions returned the power to the representatives of the local dynasty. In 194 AD, Palmyra became the center of the province of SyriaPhoenicia. In 217, Caracalla declared Palmyra a Roman colony, but granted it extensive trade privileges including exemption from certain taxes. Under the Romans, Palmyra’s significance as a major center of caravan trade, linking Rome with Iran, India, and China, grew even more. However, with the Sasanians coming to power in Iran (226 AD), who blocked the trade routes through Mesopotamia, Palmyra entered a period of economic recession. Palmyra’s rise began under Odaenathus, who in 258 was granted the title of Consul and was appointed governor of Syria by the Emperor Valerian (253–260) in gratitude for his support in the war against the Persians. In 260, after Valerian was captured by the Persians and died at Susa, Odaenathus proclaimed himself “King of Kings” and launched a successful campaign against the Persians, twice raiding their capital Ctesiphon.

Queen Zenobia. In 267 Odaenathus was killed, and the throne formally passed to his son, the young Vaballathus (Wahballat), but the real power was with Odaenathus’ wife, Zenobia (Aramaic Bat Zabbay), a woman with an exceptionally strong character. Her ethnic origin is not certain (possibly of mixed Aramean, Arab, and Greek ancestry), but she herself claimed to be descended from Queen Cleopatra of



Egypt. According to ancient historians, Zenobia was beautiful and smart. Historians report that Zenobia liked to appear in public in purple robes and a shiny helmet. Besides Aramaic, she knew Greek, Latin, and Egyptian and was a brilliant speaker. Her court attracted many scholars and philosophers, including the famous Greek rhetorician and critic Cassius Longinus, who became the closest adviser to the queen. Under Zenobia, Palmyra experienced unprecedented economic growth and became one of the most prominent cities of the Middle East, decorated with beautiful buildings in Corinthian style, with an admixture of Iranian and Mesopotamian influences. At the instigation of Cassius Longinus, Zenobia rebelled against the Romans, and in a relatively short time managed to capture vast territories that included Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and parts of Asia Minor. She was in control of almost all land and sea routes linking Rome with Egypt and the Middle East. The ambitious Zenobia even dreamed of the conquest of Rome itself. She titled herself “Augusta,” a privilege reserved exclusively for Roman emperors, and began minting coins with the images of herself and her son, but without the image of the Roman Emperor. Zenobia succeeded in her conquests, mainly because Rome at that time was engaged in wars with the Goths, Franks, Vandals, and Alemanns. Having suppressed these tribes, Emperor Aurelian (270–275) was finally able to turn his attention to the East. Initially, he tried to reason with Zenobia and sent her a letter with a promise to spare her life if she surrendered willingly. Zenobia replied defiantly, and in 273 Aurelian invaded. Zenobia’s 70,000-strong army could not withstand the pressure of the Roman legions and was forced to retreat. After losing the battles at Antioch and Emesa (modern-day Homs in Syria), Zenobia retreated and hid in Palmyra. Aurelian besieged the city, which fell in 274. Zenobia reached the Euphrates on a camel, intending to seek asylum from the Persians, but was captured by the Romans. Chained in gold, she was the highlight of Aurelian’s triumphant entry into Rome. There are two versions of her fate; according to one account, she ended her days in a villa provided by Aurelian in Tibur (modern Tivoli), while according to another, she died or was killed shortly after her arrival in Rome.

Fig. 41. The portrait of Queen Zenobia on a coin



After Aurelian took Zenobia to Rome, the people of Palmyra rebelled. The emperor returned, destroyed the city, and killed nearly all inhabitants. The most famous of all Aramean states became a Roman province. The Emperors Diocletian and Justinian I attempted to revive Palmyra and turn it into a walled military base, but failed to restore the city’s lost grandeur. Under the rule of the Byzantines and the Arabs, Palmyra turned into a miserable village under its original name, Tadmor. In 1678, the English merchant William Halifax discovered the magnificent ruins of the ancient city. After a series of archaeological excavations, which began in 1924, Palmyra appeared to the world in all its splendor and became a popular tourist destination. In 1980, the city was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. 18

4.3.8. Ethnic and religious character of Palmyra. The population of Palmyra was largely Aramean, but Arabs were a very significant part of it, as evidenced by a large number of Arabic names, including the names of gods as well as by a few Arabic words in Palmyrene Aramaic. The political elite of Palmyra was mostly of Arab descent. The local religious beliefs absorbed Semitic (Aramean, Canaanite, Babylonian, Arabic), as well as Parthian and Greek elements. The supreme deity was BaalShamayn (Belshamen), “Lord of Heaven,” often referred to simply as Baal or Bel, whom Arameans worshipped since ancient times. His symbols were an eagle and lightning. Baal-Shamayn formed a trinity with the lunar god Aglibol, portrayed with a crescent moon and rays of light behind his head, and the sun god Malakbel (“Messenger of Bel,” also called Yarhibol), who was also topped with a disk with rays. Other deities worshiped in Palmyra included Allat, Shamash, Ishtar-Astarte, Nanaya, Nergal, Hadad, Atargatis, Eshmun, Sama, Artsu, Azizu, and others. Next to the temple of Allat there was a sanctuary for animals, and one of the statues of the goddess bore this inscription: “May Allat bless those who do not shed blood in this sanctuary.” In total, the people of Palmyra worshiped more than 20 deities. Some of them are known only by theophoric names (personal names that embed a divine name). There were also anonymous deities. As elsewhere in the Middle East, in the Hellenistic period the local deities were identified with Greek or Roman gods. The deceased who were buried in majestic towers and mausoleums were also worshiped. As for religious rituals, the people of Palmyra made offerings of animals, birds, and fruits to their gods, burned incenses, and performed sacred libations. Some temples had special ponds for ritual ablutions. On certain days of the year solemn processions were made through the streets of the city, apparently during religious festivals. 4.3.9. The Aramaic language of Palmyra. The written language of Palmyra was based on the local Aramaic dialect; however, it tried to follow the standards of the Imperial Aramaic as much as possible. Archaeological excavations have revealed

In 2015, several monuments in Palmyra were destroyed or seriously damaged by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 18



about 3,000 dedicatory, funerary, household, and other kinds of Aramaic inscriptions. The Aramaic script used in Palmyra had two varieties—monumental, used in lapidary inscriptions, and cursive, known from graffiti inscribed or scratched by ordinary citizens on rocks or walls. 19 The latter employed connected letters and was more common in business and personal correspondence, as the surviving graffiti indicate.

Fig. 42. The divine trinity of Palmyra: Aglibol, Baal-Shamayn, and Malakbel

The obscure “Danielian script” that the creator of the Armenian alphabet Mesrop Mashtots unsuccessfully tried to adapt to the Armenian language could have been the Palmyrene script. This is indirectly confirmed by the words of Koriwn, disciple and biographer of Mesrop Mashtots, that “these letters are insufficient to express all the syllables of the Armenian language, especially that they were buried in the writing of another language, and [then] resurrected.” By Mesrop Mashtots’s lifetime the Palmyrene script had undoubtedly been “buried,” but from the historical perspective the fading of Palmyra was not yet that far away in time, and there could have been educated people, like the Syrian bishop Daniel, who were the last guardians of the writing traditions of Palmyra. 19



Fig. 43. A Palmyrene inscription on an altar

Fig. 44. A tombstone from Palmyra with Aramaic inscriptions



Fig. 45. Aramaic inscription by Queen Zenobia on a column

Many inscriptions were inscribed on statues, which enjoyed great popularity in Palmyra; this practice originates in the ancient Aramean states. Many Palmyrene tombstones feature, in addition to an Aramaic inscription, a bas-relief in the image of the deceased. Outside Palmyra, Palmyrene tombstone inscriptions were found in the area from the Arabian Peninsula to the British Isles. These inscriptions are mainly associated with individuals serving in the Roman army. The earliest of the inscriptions discovered in Palmyra dates back to the year 304 of the Seleucid era, or 9 AD, and the latest is dated 280 AD, a few years after the fall of Zenobia. About 200 Greek-Aramaic bilingual inscriptions are known to have originated in Palmyra, which means that Greek was widely used there. One worth mentioning is a list of tariffs for the year 137 AD discovered in 1882 by the Armenian nobleman Simon Abamelek-Lazarev (1851–1916), who was the honorary trustee of the Lazarev Armenian Institute of Moscow. He described the inscription in his study entitled “Palmyra.” The Aramaic text contains 163 lines and is currently the longest of the known epigraphic texts in any of the West Semitic languages. Remarkable bilingual inscriptions can be seen on the statues of Odaenathus and Zenobia. In epigraphic texts Greek almost completely replaced Aramaic in the areas more prone to Greek influence, such as to the west of Palmyra and in central and coastal Syria, like the city of Emesa, even though Arameans were still in the majority, especially outside the big cities.

4.3.10. Dura-Europos. On the high bank of the middle Euphrates, in what is now Syria, lay the city of Dura-Europos, which was closely linked with Palmyra and was its humble likeness. It was built about 300 BC by the founder of the Seleucid kingdom, Seleucus I Nicator, at the crossroads of important caravan routes. Originally it was called Europos, after a city in Macedonia. The word dura (“fortress” in Aramaic) was added to its name much later, probably because this was a walled city. In the 1st century AD, Dura-Europos was an important Parthian fortress, and in 165 the Romans conquered the city. In 256, the city was besieged by the Sasanians and then



finally abandoned, buried under sands until it was accidentally discovered in 1920 by a British Hindu soldier, who was digging a trench in the area. Dura-Europos was a multicultural, cosmopolitan city, which flourished under the rule of the local Macedonian aristocracy, known for its ethnic and religious tolerance. The city was informally subdivided into sectors: the Parthians lived in the east, the Armenians in the north, the Greeks in the west, and the Semites (Arameans, Jews, Arabs) in the south. The villages surrounding the city were overwhelmingly Aramean. Dura-Europos had municipal bodies based on ethnicity, but the real power belonged to the council and the city administration, composed only of Greeks and acting on Greek laws. The multi-ethnic character of the city is evident in numerous Greek, Latin, and Parthian inscriptions. There are also official Aramaic inscriptions of local and Palmyrene origin, including bilingual Greek-Aramaic ones, as well as numerous Aramaic graffiti. Some Aramaic inscriptions in their language and script display similarities with Hatran Aramaic. Dura-Europos is the home of the oldest synagogue ever discovered anywhere in the world. It is decorated with frescoes and features Aramaic inscriptions that date its foundation to 244 AD. There are also inscriptions in Greek, Hebrew, and Parthian, reflecting the multilingualism of the Jews of Dura-Europos and the linguistic diversity of the city in general. Apart from the synagogue, frescoes (currently on display at the Damascus Museum) also decorated an ancient Christian church and a temple of the Indo-Iranian deity Mithra. Dura-Europos was home to the temples of Baal-Hadad, Atargatis, and other Aramean and Greek gods. The archaeologists who excavated Dura-Europos called it “Pompeii of the desert.”

Fig. 46. An Aramaic inscription from Dura-Europos (32 BC)

4.3.11. Aramaic in other parts of Syria. Palmyrene Aramaic is the only Middle Aramaic dialect of Syria reduced to writing. Virtually nothing is known of other Syr-



ian dialects, namely those of Damascus and Aleppo. This is largely due to the fact that in central and western (coastal) Syria the position of the Greek language was very strong, and until the 4th century AD Aramaic was vary rarely used for official records. The Arameans who lived in these regions, like the Jews in Palestine, had been Hellenized since the time of the Seleucids. Nothing is known about the dialect of one of the main centers of Hellenized Arameans, the city of Emesa, where a local Aramean-Arab dynasty ruled from the 1st century BC until the middle of the 3rd century AD. Its representatives (Sampsiceramus I, Iamblichus I, Alexio I, and others), among other duties, served as the High Priests of the local Aramean sun deity El-Gabal, who was widely worshiped in Emesa and was represented in his temple by a black stone of conical shape, presumably a meteorite. The rulers of Emesa were bearers of Hellenistic culture, and in political terms, were in the orbit of Roman influence. They were deeply involved in the empire’s political and military affairs, both in the East and in Rome itself, where they often achieved the positions of senator, consul, and centurion. The Emesan Princess Julia Domna was the wife of Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus (146–211) and the mother of emperors Geta and Caracalla. In 218, the Roman legions stationed in Syria proclaimed emperor Julia Domna’s 14–year-old great-nephew, who at that time held in Emesa the hereditary position of the high priest of El-Gabal. His official name was “Marcus Aurelius Antoninus,” but he is better known as “Elagabalus” or “Heliogabalus.” He had a dissolute, eccentric lifestyle and tried to establish the worship of El-Gabal as a supreme deity in Rome. On the Palatine Hill he built a temple for El-Gabal, the Elagabalium, brought there from Emesa El-Gabal’s black stone and personally performed mysteries before it. In 222, Elagabalus was assassinated by the members of the Praetorian Guard, his own bodyguards. His cousin, Alexander Severus, also the former high priest of El-Gabal in Emesa, was proclaimed emperor. He, in turn, was killed by rebellious legionaries in 235.

Fig. 47. Emperor Elagabalus



Another representative of the Emesan dynasty, Sohaemus, with the support of Rome, was proclaimed King of Armenia in 144 and with a three-year break ruled until 186. At his court lived his relative, also a scion of the Emesan dynasty, Iamblichus, author of the Greek-language romance novel Babyloniaka (“Babylonian story”). To the south of Syria, in the central regions of Transjordan, a dialect similar to the Aramaic dialects of Palestine is attested. However, better known is the Aramaic dialect of the southern regions of Transjordan, part of the Nabatean Kingdom.

4.3.12. Nabatea. Nabatea was a small Hellenistic kingdom that, apart from Transjordan, occupied parts of the territories of modern Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt (northern Sinai). Its core was the territory of ancient Edom, and Nabatea can be seen as the historical successor to Edom. In contrast to Palmyra, the population of the Nabatean kingdom was mostly Arab, composed of the Nabatean Arab tribe, which was apparently related to the South Arabian Nabatu tribe. It has also been suggested that Nabateans were Arabized Edomites. In any case, Nabatea was not an Aramean state, although its northern region bordering Syria was populated mainly by Arameans. The Nabateans were first mentioned in the “Historical Library” of the ancient Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily (90–30 BC). He reported that in 312 BC, they refused to submit to the authority of the Seleucids. Strabo (64 BC–24 AD) also provided extensive information on the Nabateans. The Nabateans appear in history as nomads, but in a relatively short period of time they transitioned to a completely sedentary way of life and developed agriculture based on terracing and skillful use of rainwater. They were also actively engaged in international trade. Like Palmyra, Nabatea was located at the crossroads of international caravan routes and controlled a very important segment between Arabia and Syria, which meant control of trade in spices, including cinnamon, supplied by India. Nabatea also had a monopoly in the trade of asphalt extracted from the Dead Sea, which at that time was mainly used by the Egyptians for embalming. The trade relations of Nabatea were very extensive; Nabateans were well known in China, and in the west, their presence can be traced to Italy. Yet the true fame of the Nabateans was not in their trade and agricultural skills, but in their capital (and formerly the capital of Edom as well), located on the territory of modern Jordan between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. The original Semitic name of the city was Sela (“rock”), but it is better known by its Greek name with the same meaning, Petra. The city was named so because it was located in the crevices of rocky mountains and was mostly carved out of their slopes. Petra was an impregnable natural fortress, and it could be accessed only through a narrow passage in the mountains, called the Siq. Caravans could easily pass through this passage, but it was completely impassable for large military units. Petra was a city with beautiful architecture, combining Greco-Roman style with Egyptian elements. Its gem was the so-called “Treasury,” which is only a façade carved into a cliff. The treasury is directly opposite the Siq and is the first “building” seen upon entering the city. Petra was full of palaces, temples, mausoleums, and many other buildings carved out of rocks, many of which are still in good shape.



Besides architectural monuments, the city was renowned for its engineering facilities. The water supply and storage system of tanks, ceramic pipes, and siphons, virtually made Petra an artificial oasis. The second most important city of the Nabateans was Bosra (“Bostra” in Greco-Roman sources). Located in southern Syria, it was populated mainly by Arameans and served as an important staging post on the caravan trade routes. The city features a large number of Nabatean, Roman, Christian, and Muslim monuments. Especially famous is the Roman amphitheater of Bosra, considered one of the best preserved in the world. Of the other Nabatean cities, Avdat is worth mentioning, named after the Nabatean king Obodas I. It was located in the Negev desert, halfway between Petra and the port of Gaza, and also served as an important caravan staging post. Avdat was famous for its architecture, especially for its numerous temples, and an acropolis atop of a hill. After the decline of the caravan trade, Avdat switched to agriculture and acquired fame as a major center of winemaking. The city existed until the beginning of the 7th century AD, when it was destroyed by an earthquake and eventually abandoned. Currently, the ruins of Avdat are a major tourist attraction in southern Israel with a status of a national park. It gained popularity after the English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” rock opera was filmed there. 20 The Nabatean kingdom emerged with the accession of Aretas I (Haris, Haritat) in 169 BC, mentioned in Book 2 of Maccabees and nicknamed “Tiran of the Arabs” by his contemporaries. It was a time when the Seleucids of Syria and the Ptolemies of Egypt, who had been trying to establish their dominance over the region, were in political decline. At one time the Nabateans were in alliance with the Hasmonean dynasty of Judah, however, the situation changed when Alexander Jannaeus (103– 76) came to power in Jerusalem. Pursuing a policy of expansionism, Alexander Jannaeus invaded Nabatea, seized some of its cities, and forcibly converted a large number of their citizens to Judaism. All this ignited in the Nabateans the anti-Jewish sentiments inherited from the Edomites and triggered a series of Nabatean-Jewish clashes during the rule of Nabatean kings Aretas II, Obodas I (Avdat), and Aretas III. Under Aretas III, the Nabatean kingdom gained strength, and in 84 BC its forces captured Damascus and held on to it until 67 AD. In 67 BC, Aretas besieged Jerusalem for several months but had to withdraw under Roman pressure. Aretas III also minted the first Nabatean silver coins with his name in Greek rather than Aramaic. Nabatean-Jewish relations somewhat eased with the coming to power in Judaea of Herod the Great (37–4), who was a scion of a Nabatean family, forcibly converted to Judaism. Herod’s dynasty, whose founder is considered to be his father, the Nabatean Antipater, is known as “Herodian” or “Idumean” (“Edomite”) because the Jews traditionally identified the Nabateans with the Edomites. Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, even married the daughter of the Nabatean king Aretas IV Philo20

Petra, Bosra and Avdat are listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.



patris, but soon divorced her to marry his niece, Herodias. 21 Outraged, Aretas invaded Judah and defeated Herod, who pleaded with Rome for help. In Nabataean-Roman relations, shared anti-Jewish sentiments played a significant role. In 66 AD King Malichus II (40–70) sent 5,000 cavalry and 1,000 infantry to aid Titus, who was besieging Jerusalem. This, however, did not prevent the Emperor Trajan from annexing Nabatea after the death of King Rabbel II (70–105) and turning it into a Roman province called “Arabia Petraea.” Thus, the list of known Nabatean kings is as follows (according to the German archaeologist Robert Wenning): Aretas I (since 169 BC), Aretas II (120–96), Obodas I (Avdat, 96–87) Rabbel I (ca. 87 BC), Aretas III (87–65), Obodas II (65–62), Malichus I (62–30), Obodas III (30–9), Aretas IV (9 BC-40 AD), Malichus II (40–70, ruling jointly with his wife Shaqilath), and Rabbel II (70–105, the first years under the regency of Shaqilath). The fall of the Nabatean Kingdom did not result in the decline of Petra; in fact, the period of its greatest prosperity came under Roman rule. Its decline started with the rise of Palmyra, which was gradually becoming the major center on the caravan routes from Arabia, and with the discovery by the Romans of maritime trade routes. In 363, a strong earthquake destroyed Petra and all of its hydraulic facilities. In the 6th century, Petra was a place of exile for disgraced Byzantine church hierarchs. By the rise of Islam the city was abandoned and eventually buried under sand. The semi-legendary city was rediscovered in 1812 by the Swiss orientalist Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784–1817), who, disguised as a Muslim, managed to reach the city with the help of local Bedouins. After a series of archaeological excavations, Petra became the major tourist attraction of Jordan.

4.3.13. Religion of the Nabateans. The Nabatean pantheon consisted mainly of Arab gods, whose statues in the pre-Hellenistic period were simply blocks of stone, or stele, known as bethel (literally, “god’s house”). The chief deity was Dhu-l-Shara or Dushara (in Latin transliteration Dusares), who was the ruler of the mountains, and, in particular, the Shara mountain chain surrounding Petra. Dhu-l-Shara was a deity of the Edomites, from whom the Nabateans inherited his cult after they settled in Edom. Before that, in Arabia, their supreme deity was al-Qaum, god-warrior and protector of travelers and caravans. The cult of al-Qaum was not superseded by the cult of Dhu-l-Shara, and the two were likely equal antipodes, Dhu-l-Shara being the sun deity, and Al-Qaum the moon deity, guardian of the sleep of travelers and nightly passages of caravans. Next in importance came al-Uzza, who represented power and authority, and Allat (al-Lat), the goddess of spring and fertility, worshiped also in Palmyra. These two goddesses were often combined into one, and together with Dhu-l-Shara and al-Qaum formed a kind of divine trinity, like the one in Palmyra. The Nabateans

According to the Gospels, the marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias was strongly condemned by John the Baptist, and Herodias persuaded her daughter, Salome, to ask Herod for John’s head as a reward for her dance. 21



also worshiped al-Qutbay, the god of knowledge, writing, and trade, and Manat, the goddess of fate. The cult of the goddesses al-Uzza, Allat, and Manat was very common in Arabia up until the rise of Islam, and their idols in Mecca were worshiped by many Arab tribes, including the Quraysh, the tribe of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad. In the Hellenistic period the statues of Nabatean gods acquired more anthropomorphic characteristics, although the worship of old betels continued. At the same time, as elsewhere in the Hellenistic Orient, they were identified with GrecoRoman gods: Dhu-l-Shara with Zeus and Jupiter, al-Qaum with Ares and Mars, alUzza with Aphrodite and Venus, Allat with Athena and Minerva, Manat with Nemesis, al-Qutbay with Hermes and Mercury. After the fall of their kingdom, for more than 800 years the Nabateans continued to live in their ancestral lands. Around the end of the 2nd century AD they started adopting Christianity, and from the middle of the 7th century, Islam. Muslim historians last mention the Nabateans in the 10th century, and curiously, they spoke of them as a tribe of Aramean origin.

Fig. 48. A Nabatean bethel with an Aramaic inscription



4.3.14. The Aramaic language of the Nabateans and its script. Nabatea, in spite of its Arab population, fell within the area where Aramaic was spoken. The Nabateans inherited Aramaic as a written and, partly, a spoken language from the Edomites and used it until the adoption of Christianity, after which Greek appears to have been more favored by them. The Nabatean Aramaic of the early period, like the language of Palmyra, was quite pure and sought to imitate the Imperial standards. At the same time, Nabatean Aramaic was under the strong influence of Arabic, because Nabateans spoke an Arabic dialect and also because Nabatea neighbored the Arabicspeaking regions of the Arabian Peninsula. This influence became more pronounced after the fall of the Nabatean kingdom, when many Arabisms, used quite arbitrarily, appear in the language of Nabatean inscriptions. Arabic words were particularly numerous in the inscriptions originating from the southern, Arabian areas. Use of Arabic grammatical particles was not uncommon. Almost all known Nabatean personal names such as Vahaballa, Adnun (Adnan), Kalbu, and others were of Arabic origin, and many of them are recorded with specific Arabic endings. At the same time, many Arabic Nabateans names are not found in other Arab tribes. In the Hellenistic period the Nabateans widely adopted names of Greek origin. Nabatean inscriptions are made in a local variety of Aramaic script, which had, as in Palmyra, two varieties: monumental and cursive. The latter is believed to be the prototype of the Arabic Kufi script, from which the modern Arabic script evolved. In many regions of Nabatea and around it more than 4,000 Aramaic inscriptions were found, mostly tombstone epitaphs, memorial dedications, graffiti, and so on. There are also inscriptions of legal content. The earliest of these inscriptions belongs to the first half of the 2nd century BC and mentions King Aretas; the latest dates to 356 AD. A lot of graffiti of Nabatean origin, containing, as a rule, only a name and a brief dedication, have been found in the Sinai Peninsula; most of it belongs to the period between the years 150 and 267 AD, after the fall of the Nabatean kingdom. 22 Apart from Sinai, Nabatean inscriptions have also been found in other parts of Egypt as well as in Phoenicia and Italy. The significant number of Nabatean graffiti indicates a high level of literacy among ordinary Nabateans. Not one specimen of literature in the classical sense of the word survived from Nabatea, nor from Palmyra, and their languages are known almost exclusively from epigraphic material. Rare samples of Nabatean Aramaic, written on papyrus, were preserved in “Babatha’s archive,” discovered in 1960 by the Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin in the so-called “Cave of Letters” near the Dead Sea. The Jews of Alexandria, who knew about the Nabatean graffiti of Sinai, believed the Jews wrote them during the Exodus. Cosmas Indicopleustes (“Cosmas who sailed to India”), the Greek merchant and explorer from Alexandria who lived in the 6th century, agreed. At the end of his life he became a hermit in Sinai and wrote Christian Topography, a collection of essays on geography that became very popular in the Christian East. 22



Fig. 49. A Nabatean inscription

Babatha’s archive. Babatha was a Jewish woman, a native of the Nabatean city of Mahoza on the southeastern coast of the Dead Sea. The archive associated with her name consists of 35 legal family documents written on leather-wrapped papyri (marriage and lease contracts, financial receipts, documents on guardianship, bills of sale, deeds of gifts, and so on). Nine of these documents are written in Aramaic, including the marriage contract of Babatha and her second husband, Judah bar Eleazar. Of those nine, six documents are written in the Nabatean dialect and three in Palestinian. The remaining 26 are in Greek, nine of which contain signatures or summaries in Aramaic, such as the marriage contract of Babatha’s stepdaughter Shlamzion, or the receipt of Babatha’s second husband for 300 silver denarii received from her. According to these documents, for most of her life Babatha was under Nabatean jurisdiction. The earliest of the documents dates to 93 AD, and the latest to 132, which is called “the first year of the liberation of Israel,” as in this year the head of the Jewish anti-Roman rebellion, Shimon bar Koziba, better known by his Aramaic nickname Bar Kokhba (“son of the star”), announced the re-establishment of Jewish statehood. It is assumed that Babatha died that same year.

4.3.15. Aramaic in Palestine. In Palestine, the most Aramaized was its northern region of Galilee because of its contiguity with Aramean Syria and earlier penetration of the Aramaic language. This was in no small measure the result of the destruction by the Assyrians of the Kingdom of Israel and the deportation of its Jewish population to Assyria, after which Galilee was repopulated with mostly Aramaicspeaking people from Mesopotamia. Until about the 3rd century AD, the Aramaic dialect of Galilee remained unwritten. The situation began to change gradually, when in the middle of the 2nd century AD the leading scholars of Judah, known as the Tannaim (from the Aramaic word “to repeat,” “to study”), moved to Galilee to escape the Romans, where they reestablished their religious schools (yeshivas). The most influential of the Galilean yeshivas was the one in the city of Tiberias. The next generation of scholars—the Amoraim (“those who speak”)—from the beginning of the 3rd century not only spoke Galilean Aramaic, but also wrote in this dialect, turning it into a full-fledged literary language. Another Palestinian Aramaic dialect was spoken to the south of Galilee, in Judah and its capital, Jerusalem; for this reason it is called “Judean Aramaic.” During the reign of the local Hasmonean dynasty (147–34 BC) this dialect was not only the



spoken language of the Jews, but also the official language, which is why it is sometimes referred to as “Hasmonean Aramaic.” The Hasmonean adherence to Aramaic was a symbol of political resistance to the hegemony of the Seleucids, the cultural influence of Hellenism, and the spread of the Greek language, which was gradually becoming the main spoken language in the major cities of Syria and Palestine. The same commitment to Aramaic was demonstrated by the Jews of Mesopotamia, who lived there since Babylonian captivity. After the fall of the Hasmonean dynasty and the transition of Judah under the Roman protectorate, Greek became the official language of Judah, but Aramaic remained the language of daily communication and, along with Hebrew, the language of religious (“Rabbinic”) literature. Thus, Judean Aramaic has an older writing tradition than Galilean Aramaic. Until the middle of the 2nd century AD this dialect, along with Hebrew, was used by the Rabbinic scholars—the Tannaim of the Judean yeshivas. Even after moving to Galilee, they continued to use this dialect for a long time, and the transition to the Galilean dialect occurred only during the Amoraim period. Judean Aramaic was apparently the language of “The Jewish War” by Josephus Flavius, which tells the history of Judah since the capture of Jerusalem by the Seleucids in 164 BC until the defeat of the first anti-Roman Jewish revolt of 70 BC. This work survived only in the Greek version by the author, but Josephus himself informs us that it was originally written in his “paternal language,” which could only be Aramaic. The choice of language was determined by his desire to make his work available to the Parthians, Babylonians, Arabs, and Jews living beyond the Euphrates, in other words Mesopotamia, a region dominated by Aramaic. Josephus also admits that because of the influence of his native language he could not develop a correct Greek pronunciation despite his great efforts to master it. Both Aramaic dialects of Palestine were close to each other, and their speakers had no difficulty communicating with each other. Apparently, there were some differences in pronunciation, as evidenced by the words in the Gospel of Mark, addressed to the Apostle Peter: “You are a Galilean, and your speech agrees thereto” (14:70). Together, these dialects are referred to as “Palestinian Jewish Aramaic.” Unlike Aramaic of Mesopotamia, Palmyra, and Nabatea, Palestinian Jewish Aramaic is represented by a significant body of literature, mainly religious works, like the translations of biblical books and various Midrashim. 23 Some Jewish religious writings in Aramaic were composed in the Late Aramaic period (to be discussed in the next chapter). Despite continuing literary activity, no unified language standard had ever been developed in Palestine. Some writings in Palestinian Jewish Aramaic are more inclined to the Galilean dialect, others to the Judean, and some combine features of both. For grammar and spelling, authors tried to follow the standards of Imperial Aramaic, often imitating the language of the Book of Daniel. Due to the similarity Midrash (Midrashim in plural, “a study”) is a work of Jewish religious literature that contains exegesis (interpretation and explanation) of a sacred text. 23



of both dialects, the attribution of a concrete work to either one of them is often based not so much on the specifics of the language, but rather on territorial, historical, and communal circumstances surrounding its creation.

4.3.16. Targums. “The Jewish War” by Josephus Flavius is the only known secular work composed in Palestinian Aramaic. All other samples of this language, as noted above, are Jewish religious texts. Of those, the translations of the books of the Tanakh, the so-called Targums (Aramaic “translation”), go back to the oral interpretations and paraphrases in Aramaic used by the Jewish priesthood to convey the Hebrew Scriptures to the postexilic Aramaic-speaking Jews that did not understand Hebrew. Accordingly, from a practical point of view, Targums were no less important than their Hebrew originals. The connection with postexilic period is indirectly confirmed by the fact that the Jewish tradition names Ezra the first author of an Aramaic Targum. Targum Onkelos. The most famous and influential Targum is Targum Onkelos. It is the Aramaic translation of the Torah (the Pentateuch), which, according to legend, was created by Onkelos, a convert to Judaism (ca. 35–120 AD). According to early medieval Jewish sources, Onkelos was a Roman patrician and even a relative of the Emperor Titus. After he converted to Judaism, the emperor sent legionaries to arrest him, but Onkelos allegedly converted them all. Onkelos was known for zealous observance of the Jewish laws on ritual purity. He was a contemporary of the prominent Jewish scholar Rabban 24 Gamaliel and the organizer of his ceremonial funeral. He was also believed to be the disciple of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Joshua ben Hananiah, other notable Jewish scholars. Targum Onkelos, which was of Palestinian origin and written in Palestinian Jewish Aramaic, is the most literal of the early translations of the Torah. Nevertheless, it contains many deviations from the original, many of which are deliberate. Thus, with the utmost care it sought to avoid sensual imagery with which the biblical authors spoke of God. To this end, it eliminated anthropomorphisms (“hand of God,” “eye of God,” etc.), physiologisms (“God heard,” “God smelled,” “God walked,” etc.), and all kinds of emotional descriptions of God. In the early Middle Ages, Targum Onkelos became the official translation of Jewish yeshivas of Babylonia. In this period, the reading of Targum Onkelos in the synagogues, together with the reading of the Torah in Hebrew, was mandatory. After Aramaic was replaced with Arabic, this tradition was abandoned. Today, only the Yemenite Jews continue the practice of reading Targum Onkelos in synagogues. Some believe that they also preserved the Aramaic pronunciation once widespread in Babylonia. It is worth mentioning that the Yemenite Jews read not only the Ara-

Rabban (“our teacher” in Aramaic), the honorary title of senior Jewish Rabbis, and later of Aramean scholar-monks and heads of higher religious schools. 24



maic translation of the Torah, but also the Arabic translation by Saadia Gaon. 25 Thus the same passages they read in three languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. Coming out of liturgical use, Targum Onkelos remained an important source of Jewish theology and a mandatory subject of Jewish religious education. Because of this, in many editions of the Torah it is printed in a separate column, parallel to the Hebrew text. Aquila. Closely intertwined with Onkelos is Aquila, who translated the Torah into Greek. Aquila’s translation is included in the Hexapla 26 by Origen Adamantius (185– 254), an early Christian theologian. According to sources, Aquila, who was a native of Sinope of Pontus, was a convert to Judaism. He was said to be the relative of the emperor Hadrian, who in 128 AD put him in charge of rebuilding Jerusalem under the new name Aelia Capitolina. As details of their lives largely overlap, some believe Onkelos and Aquila to be the same person known by two different names.

4.3.17. Targum Jonathan. The next important Targum, “Targum Jonathan,” is attributed to the student of the prominent Jewish scholar Hilel, Jonathan ben Uzziel. Like Targum Onkelos, it originates from Palestine, but contains only the translation of the Books of Prophets. Jewish sources report that Jonathan formulated his Targum orally, and it was written no earlier than the 5th century AD. The peculiarity of this Targum is that in addition to the translation itself, it contains Midrashim. In comparison with Targum Onkelos it is a loose translation, particularly in the sections that have poetic form in the Hebrew original. Readings of Targum Jonathan in synagogues, once obligatory in Babylonia, today are practiced only by Yemenite Jews. Both Targum Onkelos and Targum Jonathan were originally written in Palestinian Jewish Aramaic in consonantal script. Their language, very close to Biblical Aramaic, is more inclined to the Judean dialect. The main differences in the language are to be found in later interpolations. Once they received official status in Babylonia, and even began to be called “Babylonian,” attempts were made to adjust the Western Aramaic dialect of the Targums to the Eastern dialect of Mesopotamia.

Gaons were the heads of prominent Jewish yeshivas in the Babylonian cities of Sura and Pumbeditha. They also acted as spiritual leaders of the Jews of Babylonia. Gaons were considered the highest authority in the interpretation of the sacred texts of Judaism and the application of the principles contained therein in dealing with everyday life. Saadia Gaon (882-942) was the leading representative of the Jewish religious and secular thought of the Gaons era. 26 Origen’s famous Hexapla (from the Greek Eξαπλα, “six columns”) was a critical compilation of the text of the Old Testament in six columns. The first column contained the Hebrew original, the second—the Hebrew text in Greek transliteration, the third—the Greek translation by Aquila, the fourth—the Greek translation of the Old Testament by Symmachus (2nd century AD), the fifth—the Septuagint (presumably a recension by Origen), and the sixth—the Greek translation by Theodotion (mid-2nd century AD). 25



However, the Western Aramaic substratum of both Targums remained largely unchanged.

4.3.18. Other Targums and Megillat Ta‘anit. In addition to Targum Onkelos and Targum Jonathan, there are several others, which are usually referred to as “Jerusalem Targums.” The most significant of them is a mostly complete, yet fairly free exposition of the Torah. At the end of the 16th century this Targum was erroneously attributed to Jonathan ben Uzziel, as the Venetian publisher of the text interpreted abbreviation TJ as “Targum Jonathan,” instead of “Jerusalem Targum.” For this reason, this Targum is usually referred to as “Targum Pseudo-Jonathan.” The Palestinian Jewish Aramaic of this work combines elements of both Galilean and Judean dialects with some use of the vocabulary and terminology of the Aramaic dialect of Mesopotamia, and also contains numerous borrowings from Greek, Latin, and Pahlavi languages. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan was finalized after the rise of Islam, as it mentions the Prophet Muhammad. Of a few other Targums included in the Jerusalem group, only separate fragments survive. In language and general style, they are very close to Targum PseudoJonathan. Finally, there is the “Targum Neofiti,” 27 which was discovered in 1956 in the Vatican Library. The date of creation and authorship of this Targum remains unknown, but it is clear that it follows the ancient traditions of interpreting biblical texts. In addition to Targums, the noteworthy Jewish writings in Palestinian Jewish Aramaic include Megillat Ta‘anit (“Scroll of Fasting”), which is a list of 36 days marked with glorious or joyful events during which fasting was forbidden. According to Jewish tradition, Megillat Ta‘anit was composed by the Jewish scholar Hananiah ben Hezekiah ben Garon and his disciples before the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD. However, this work, apparently, belongs to a later period, as it mentions the death of the Emperor Trajan, which happened in 117 AD. The language of Megillat Ta‘anit is close to the Judean dialect. 4.3.19. Dead Sea Scrolls. Targums were the translations of the canonical books of Tanakh—the sacred literature recognized by official Judaism. However, there are other texts in Palestinian Jewish Aramaic that go beyond the Jewish canon— Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha. These are the writings of the Jewish sect of the Essenes, who were mentioned by Josephus Flavius. The remnants of the Essene library were found in the 1940s in 11 caves northwest of the Dead Sea, near the ruins of the ancient settlement of Qumran, and are known as the “Dead Sea Scrolls.” There are more than 600 parchment manuscripts sealed in clay jars. The texts are

The “Neofiti” were a group of Jews of Southern Italy that was forced to convert to Christianity at the end of the 15th century. However, for several centuries they continued to secretly practice Judaism. “Neofiti” was also the name of the library where the manuscript with the text of the Targum Neofiti was stored before it was moved to the Vatican Library. 27



written in the Aramaic “square” script, which compared to its Elephantine prototype, has a more established shape. The Jews called it “Assyrian” (Ktav Ashuri), and believed it to have been brought to Palestine from Mesopotamia by Jews after Babylonian captivity. In post-Hasmonean Palestine the “square” script became the main script used by the Jews and remained so throughout their subsequent history. The Essenes believed that God assigned to each man two opposing spirits— spirit of righteousness and spirit of lawlessness, which are in constant struggle within the human soul. On this basis, the Essenes divided humanity into two groups— themselves as the “Sons of Light” and the “Sons of Darkness,” the rest of humanity. The Essenes believed in the imminent end of the world, after which only the Sons of Light could reach salvation. The community was headed by the “Teacher of Righteousness,” whose name was never mentioned. The structure of the community and the daily life of its members based on asceticism, shared meals, renunciation of personal property and sexual relations, and obedience to the Teacher of Righteousness anticipated Christian cenobitic monasteries of the later period. The Essene community of Qumran is sometimes seen as an intermediate link between Judaism and Christianity.

Fig. 50. The “square” script of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Fig. 51. A fragment of a Dead Sea Scroll



The Dead Sea Scrolls, written between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD, are of great historical, religious, and linguistic value, especially for understanding the ideology of early Christianity and of Judaism of the Second Temple period. The scrolls are also important for the textual analysis of the biblical books since they contain their most ancient redactions. In terms of content, they are usually divided into three main groups: the biblical texts, the Apocrypha, and the literature created by the Essenes themselves. Biblical texts include all the books of the Jewish canon, except Esther, often in multiple copies. Noteworthy original literature of the Essenes include the “Damascus Document,” which represents the ideology of a sect that had left Judah and moved to the “Land of Damascus;” “War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness,” which contains regulations concerning the coming war of forty years that would end in the victory of the Sons of Light; “Temple Scroll,” which is one of the longest of the Qumran manuscripts and is intended to supplement the Torah; “Copper Scroll,” written on copper plates bonded together and rolled in a scroll and containing a list of treasures and their locations; and numerous commentaries as well as hymns. The manuscripts discovered in the caves of Wadi Murabba‘at, 25 km southeast of Jerusalem, are also usually numbered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, although they belong to the Roman period. Most of the Qumran and Wadi Murabba‘at manuscripts are written in Hebrew (Biblical and Postbiblical), several are in Greek, and the rest are in Aramaic, which preserves similarities with Imperial Aramaic. Of the Aramaic manuscripts the most notable are the translations of the Book of Job and parts of the book of Leviticus. However, most of the Aramaic manuscripts contain Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, among which the Book of Enoch and the Book of Tobit are particularly interesting.

4.3.20. The Book of Enoch. Enoch, the seventh patriarch after Adam, was the father of biblical Methuselah, famous for his longevity. According to the Book of Genesis, Enoch “walked with God” and lived for 365 years, after which “he was not, for God took him.” Many understood this literally, that unlike other patriarchs, Enoch did not die, but as a reward for his religiousness, was taken by God to heaven in the flesh. Enoch’s unusual fate was the reason why his name was associated with a large number of non-biblical mystical traditions, including Muslim, as well as the apocryphal “Book of Enoch,” composed in the 2nd–1st centuries BC. The book tells the story of Enoch’s journey to heaven, where he learns about the mysteries of the cosmological history of the world and mankind from Adam to the “last days,” sees images of the coming end of the world, comprehends the laws of the course of the heavenly bodies, and acquires secret knowledge. His visions, parables, and prophecies form the core of the Book of Enoch. Prior to the final completion of the Old Testament canon, the Book of Enoch was quite influential and was referenced in the writings of many prominent early Church Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian. Among other things, this was due to the fact that the Book contains messianic prophecies about the coming of “the Son of Man” and examples of social accusation, like “Woe to you who are rich, for you put your hope in your wealth, but you will be deprived



of it, as you did not remember the Most High in the days of your wealth,” and so on in the same spirit. It was even suggested that Dante was familiar with Enoch’s description of heaven and hell and used it in his “Divine Comedy.” Later, the Book of Enoch was forgotten until its rediscovery at the end of the 18th century. It was fully translated into Ge‘ez, the classical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which is the only church that recognizes its canonicity. The Ethiopian version consists of five “Books” and 108 chapters: The Book of Watchers (chapters 1–36), The Book of Parables (chapters 37–71), The Astronomical Book (chapters 72–82), The Book of Visions (chapters 83–90), and the Epistle of Enoch (chapters 91–108). The Dead Sea Scrolls contain eleven fragmented manuscripts with the Aramaic text of the Book of Enoch. They are generally consistent with the Ethiopian version, but do not contain the Book of Parables, which gave scholars reason to assume that it is a separate text that was incorporated into the Book of Enoch in the Christian era. The Polish researcher of the Qumran manuscripts, Józef Tadeusz Milik (1922–2006), believed that, instead of the Book of Parables, the “Pentateuch” of Enoch originally contained the so-called “Book of the Giants,” which he partially reconstructed from the Qumran fragments. Before the Qumran discoveries, it was thought that the Book of Enoch was originally composed in Hebrew, but now scientists tend to agree that the original language of this valuable apocryphal work was Aramaic.

4.3.21. The Book of Tobit. The righteous Tobit was from the Jewish tribe of Naphtali, exiled by the Assyrians to Mesopotamia. The book named after him, in rather artistic language, describes some episodes of his life. The Book of Tobit, composed in the 2nd century BC, is not a part of the canonical Tanakh, and its full text in the Hebrew language does not exist. Two Greek versions of different lengths were used for translations into most languages, and for a long time the Book of Tobit was believed to have been originally written in Greek. Following the discovery at Qumran of four fragmented Aramaic-language manuscripts Aramaic was almost unanimously recognized as the language in which the work was originally written. This is also confirmed by the fact that Jerome (342–420), who translated the Bible into Latin, reported that someone, whom he did not identify, translated the Book of Tobit from Aramaic into Hebrew for him. The Book of Tobit shows clear signs of the influence of the “Tale of Ahiqar the Sage,” and even contains a character named Ahiqar, the nephew of Tobit. The popularity of the Book of Tobit among the Essenes is probably explained by the idea of dualism in the form of confrontation of the angel Raphael with the demon Asmodeus. 4.3.22. Other apocryphal writings from Qumran: The Genesis Apocryphon. In the well-preserved work known as the “Genesis Apocryphon,” the narrative is sometimes told in the first person from the point of view of Old Testament patriarchs, such as Abraham. It contains a large number of imaginary and folkloric elements that are absent from the canonical biblical text. A remarkable part of this work is the so-called “Praise of the beauty of Sarah,” a small poem in the spirit of the biblical Song of Songs, which gives an idea of the (almost completely lost) early Aramaic poetry. The Aramaic language of the “Genesis Apocryphon” is somewhat different from the language of other Qumran manuscripts and, apparently, reflects



the spoken language of Palestine from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD. It has also been suggested that the language of the “Genesis Apocryphon” represents a later stage of development of Imperial Aramaic, in particular, the language of the Book of Daniel.

The Prayer of Nabonidus. A remarkable Aramaic discovery in Qumran is the socalled “Prayer of Nabonidus,” recreated from four fragments. 28 It contains historically accurate details, such as references to Nabonidus himself, who is not mentioned in the Bible, his illness, and, presumably associated with it, a long stay in the Arabian oasis of Tayma. These data, with some discrepancies, were largely confirmed by Nabonidus himself on one of his Harran steles. Another interesting feature of the “Prayer of Nabonidus” is its plot similarities with the story of Daniel’s interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. It was assumed that initially Daniel’s story featured the same Nabonidus, subsequently replaced by the more wellknown Nebuchadnezzar, whose name was usually used to refer to any Babylonian king.

The Testament of Levi. Three fragmentary Aramaic texts of the so-called “Testament of Levi” were found in one of the Qumran caves. It is a part of the Greeklanguage Judeo-Christian apocryphal “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,” also extant in a complete Armenian version. It contains deathbed testaments of the twelve patriarchs of Israel, sons of Jacob. The current title was introduced in the Byzantine period, while the original one remains unknown. Before the discoveries at Qumran, two Aramaic fragments of the “Testament of Levi,” dating to the 11th century, were found in the Cairo Genizah. 29

The approximate translation: “The words of the prayer of Nabonidus, which said the king of Assyria and Babylon, the great king, when he was struck by evil leprosy at the command of the Most High God, in Teyman city. I, Nabonidus, was struck by evil leprosy, I was struck for seven years, and my sin was absolved by a seer, a Hebrew man from the children of the Babylonian exile, and he told me to write and pay great honor and glorify the name of Almighty God. And so he wrote: When you were struck by evil leprosy at the command of the Most High God, in Teyman city, for seven years you prayed to the gods of silver and gold, copper and iron, wood and stone and clay, because you believed that they were gods.” 29 A genizah (a Persian loanword into Hebrew meaning “hidden treasure”), is a special repository in a synagogue for storing old documents and books containing the name or epithets of God, and therefore prohibited from destruction by Jewish religious laws. The genizah in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo) is the most famous due to its antiquity (the synagogue dates to the 11th century but the oldest manuscripts in it are from the 6th century), and also because it preserved many documents of non-religious content. More than 300,000 fragments of historical, religious, and linguistic value were deposited in the “Cairo Genizah” during the course of a millennium. These documents came to the attention of Western scholars in the late 19th century and most are now housed in Cambridge University Library. 28



Close in genre to the “Testament of Levi” is the highly fragmented Aramaic text found among the Qumran scrolls, which contains deathbed testaments of Amram, father of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Amram tells his children about a vision in which he saw “the King of Wickedness” and its antipode, “the King of Righteousness,” which were characters fully answering to the dualistic beliefs of the members of the Qumran Essene community. There is also the Aramaic text, apocalyptic in nature, called “Description of the New Jerusalem.” The anonymous author visits Jerusalem, accompanied by an angel, who gives him a detailed description of the city. Another Aramaic short text, partially reconstructed from small fragments, is identified as a horoscope. 4.3.23. Samples of Palestinian Aramaic from the “Caves of letters” and Egypt. Several texts written in Palestinian Jewish Aramaic were found in another cave near the Dead Sea, the so-called “Cave of letters.” They date to the 2nd century AD and are divided into two groups. The first group is composed of nearly 10 letters related to Shimon bar Kokhba, the leader of the second anti-Roman Jewish war of 132–135 AD; they contain his instructions, or reports sent to him. In addition to letters in Aramaic, there are about the same number of letters written in Hebrew, which means that Hebrew might still have been spoken in some remote areas of southern Judah, or was used out of patriotic sentiments. There are also two letters written in Greek. The second group comprises “Babatha’s archive,” discovered by Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin in 1960. As noted above, the archive consists of 35 legal documents written on papyri. Of the nine Aramaic documents, three are written in Palestinian Jewish and the other six in Nabatean Aramaic. The Palestinian Aramaic dialects were the primary languages of the Jewish Diaspora, which grew significantly after the defeat of the second anti-Roman war (except for Mesopotamia, where Eastern Aramaic was spoken, and partly Egypt, where Hellenized Jews spoke mostly Greek). Despite the dominance of the Greek language in the major cities of Egypt, especially Alexandria where the majority of Jews were concentrated, Aramaic remained in use, and several fragmented papyri with samples of poetry and texts of trivial content from the Egyptian Jews have survived.

4.3.24. Aramaic inscriptions on the Palestinian ossuaries. Palestinian Jewish Aramaic is also represented in several epigraphic samples—inscriptions on ancient synagogues in En Gedi, Hammat-Gader, and Naaran, on the tombstones in areas adjacent to the southern tip of the Dead Sea, on ostraca and amulets discovered during archaeological excavations in Palestine, and in Transjordan, in the central areas where a dialect close to the Palestinian Jewish Aramaic was spoken. Several inscriptions on ossuaries—small limestone sarcophagi—in which the Jews buried their dead date from the 1st century AD. These inscriptions are generally very short and often limited only to the name of the deceased, “so-and-so, son of so-and-so,” “so-and-so, wife of so-and-so,” and the like. In some inscriptions the word “son” is represented by the Aramaic word bar, and in others with the Hebrew ben. Accordingly, the inscriptions with bar are considered Aramaic, and with ben, Hebrew. Many ossuaries display inscriptions in Greek. There are inscriptions pro-



hibiting opening or reusing the ossuary, which suggests the existence of such practices. All these inscriptions, including those considered Hebrew, are made in the standard Aramaic “square” script for that period, which had taken deep roots among the Jews since the reign of the Hasmonean dynasty. The only exception is the funerary inscription in Paleo-Hebrew script on behalf of “Abba, son of priest Eleazar” on an ossuary with the remains of “Mattathias, son of Judas.” The use of this archaic script is considered a manifestation of Jewish anti-Roman nationalism. Thus, Paleo-Hebrew script appears on the coins minted during the anti-Roman rebellion of the 1st century AD. Interest toward the ossuaries was provoked after the discovery in 1980 in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot of a rock-cut tomb with ten ossuaries, one of which, together with the bones in all of the ten ossuaries, later went missing. On six of the remaining nine ossuaries there were inscriptions, one of which read “Yeshu [Jesus], son of Joseph.” The other five ossuaries also displayed names of characters mentioned in the Gospels. In 2002, another ossuary came to public attention with the Aramaic inscription, “Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Yeshu,” which some believed to be the tenth, missing ossuary of Talpiot. Experts challenged the authenticity of the inscription, and in 2004 an Israeli engineer and collector of antiquities Oded Golan, the owner of the ossuary, was indicted in court for forging the inscription.

Fig. 52. A Palestinian ossuary

Although in the 1st century AD such names were very common among Jews, in 2007 the Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici together with Hollywood director James Cameron released a documentary called “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” which claims that the discovered ossuaries belonged to the family of Jesus Christ and contained his remains and those of his family members. Among those, Jacobovici included Mary Magdalene, to whom Jesus, in his opinion, was married and had a son named Judas, mentioned on one of the ossuaries as “Judas, son of Yeshu.” The film



provoked a lot of conflicting responses, including sharp criticism from the Christian clergy, and was the cause of a series of scientific conferences on Palestinian ossuaries.

Fig. 53. Inscriptions on the Palestinian ossuaries of the 1st century AD

4.3.25. Jesus and the Aramaic language. The excitement caused by the Talpiot ossuaries, regardless of who actually was buried in them, is based on the indisputable historical fact that Christianity was born in the linguistic environment of Palestinian Jewish Aramaic, a language supposedly spoken by Jesus and his Apostles. The Galilean dialect was spoken in the cities of Nazareth and Capernaum, where Jesus spent most of his life. He must have spoken with the same accent which betrayed the Galilean origin of Apostle Peter. According to the Gospel of Luke (4:16–17), in a synagogue at Nazareth Jesus was given the Book of the prophet Isaiah, from which he read an excerpt. If it was not an Aramaic Targum, then Jesus must have been well versed in the Hebrew language as well. He must have had some knowledge of Greek because in the Hellenistic period, Aramaic-Greek bilingualism was very common in Palestine and Syria, especially in large cities. The Koine 30 Greek in this region even challenged Aramaic as the lingua franca. Besides, Greek was the language of the local Roman administration, as Latin was not used in the Eastern Mediterranean outside Roman military garrisons. Aramaic in the New Testament. Koine Greek is also the language of the oldest extant New Testament books, and the New Testament was translated into other languages from the Greek. Nevertheless, an Aramaic linguistic substratum is quite

Koine, a linguistic term for the language of communication among speakers of closely related languages or dialects, based on the most widespread of them with the inclusion of some features of the rest. 30



visible in the New Testament through Aramaic words and proper names, and several whole phrases woven into the fabric of the Greek narrative. The longest of the Aramaic phrases in the New Testament is the famous Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”), the fourth of the seven “sayings of Jesus on the Cross,” cited in the Gospels of Matthew (27:46) and Mark (15:34). These words are the same as the first words of the Old Testament Psalm 21. The Greek transliteration of this phrase starts differently in both citations: in Matthew as ηλει ηλει λεμα σαβαχθανει, and in Mark, ελωι ελωι λεμα σαβαχθανει. It is believed that ηλει more correctly reproduces the original Hebrew of the psalm, whereas ελωι is closer to the spoken Palestinian Aramaic of the period. The words λεμα σαβαχθανει are a distorted transliteration, caused by the phonetic features of Greek and its alphabet. Later other languages inherited this distorted form as well. A more correct transliteration would be lma shvaktani. It is not clear why Jesus addresses God in Aramaic. The Aramaic-speaking Jews of that time continued to pray in Hebrew, and addressing God in any other language for them would be, if not sacrilegious, then at least very unusual. Similarly, addressing God, Jesus uses the Aramaic abba, “father,” ignoring the Hebrew equivalents. Another remarkable Aramaic phrase spoken by Jesus is cited in the Gospel of Mark (5:41), talitha qum (ταλιθα κουμ), which means “girl, stand up.” According to Mark, Jesus revived the dead daughter of the synagogue chief when speaking these words. The word qum is the form of masculine imperative; with the word talitha the feminine form qumi should have been used. However, spoken Aramaic rarely used the feminine imperative, and the combination talitha qum would have been quite acceptable. Curiously, one of the later copyists of the Greek text, who apparently had good knowledge of Aramaic grammar, reserved the right to “correct” the mistake and wrote κουμι. This form appears in some translations, in particular, in the Latin Vulgate, the Armenian translation, and the Russian Synodal edition. The Gospel of Mark (7:34) contains another Aramaic imperative, ephphatha (εφφαθα), which means “be opened.” This is an extremely distorted transliteration of the Aramaic form, ethptah. Having uttered this word, Jesus returned hearing to a deaf person who was brought to him to be healed. The First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (16:22) contains the word maranatha originating from Aramaic marana ta (“Our Lord, come!”), or maran atha (“our Lord came”). This word seems to have been used by early Christians as a liturgical exclamation, along with Hallelujah (Hebrew “Praise the Lord”) and Hosanna (Hebrew “Save, I pray”), but unlike these two, it went out of use. Along with a few instances of the use of the Hebrew word Rabbi (“teacher”) as a reference to Jesus, the Aramaic form of the same word, rabbuni (ραββουνει), is attested in the Gospel of John (20:16). Another Aramaic cultural and linguistic feature of the New Testament is the large number of names with the Aramaic patronym prefix bar (“son of”), like Bartholomew (from Bar Talmay), Barabbas, Bartimaeus, Barsabas, Barnabas, Bar-Jesus, and others. Interestingly, the names composed with the similar Hebrew prefix ben are not found in the New Testament. Another name of Aramaic origin is Thomas, derived from toma (“twin”). There are also several place names of Aramaic origin,



the most popular being Gethsemane (gath shmaneh, “oil press”) and Golgotha (gulgalta, “skull”).

4.3.26. The Aramaic primacy theory. Some New Testament scholars are inclined to the so-called “Aramaic primacy theory,” according to which the Gospels, or at least their earlier textual sources, such as the possible records of Jesus’ sayings (the so-called “Q source,” or “Q Gospel”), were originally written in Aramaic, and only later translated into Greek. The chief argument in support of this theory is that Jesus and his disciples were speakers of Aramaic, and that early Christianity was born in the Aramaic environment of the Middle East. Even in the Greco-Roman world the first followers of Jesus were mostly Aramaic-speaking Jews of the Diaspora, because the preachers, such as Apostle Paul, upon arriving in a new city, would first go to preach in the local synagogue. Proponents of the Aramaic primacy theory usually point to the many phrases and expressions that in the Greek narrative of the Gospels sound unnatural and could be the result of a literal translation from Aramaic. Possible errors in the Greek text are explained by similar forms of some Aramaic letters; the consonantal nature of the Aramaic script may lead to the distortion of the meaning of a word, even if only one letter is misread. The structure of the Semitic roots, consisting of three consonants, provides many opportunities for puns and alliterations. According to the supporters of the Aramaic primacy theory, Jesus, whose speech is full of vivid imagery and allegories, could not have avoided puns, as it was a required feature of public speaking in the Semitic world. The Greek text does not contain any wordplays, but the reverse translation into Aramaic supposedly allows for them to be revealed. Aramaic, like all Semitic languages, is notable for polysemy—multiple meanings of a word. Insufficient mastery of Aramaic could result in the inaccurate translation of a particular word. The most frequently cited example of such a possible error is the phrase “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Proponents of the Aramaic primacy theory believe that the original text speaks of a rope, not a camel, as both words in Aramaic sound the same, gamla. Another similar example is a phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, which in the Greek version of the Gospel of Matthew is “forgive us our debts,” but it is “forgive us our sins” in the Gospel of Luke. The Aramaic word khoba expresses both meanings, “debt” and “sin,” and these discrepancies resulting from polysemy indicate the existence of an original Aramaic prayer. The camp of the supporters of the Aramaic primacy theory is not uniform, and consists of several trends. Some claim that the Gospels of the Peshitta, the translation of Bible into Syriac (the literary language of Christian Arameans based on the Eastern Aramaic dialect of Edessa), still used by some Middle Eastern churches, is the closest to the original Aramaic Gospels. Others are inclined to a more thorough analysis of the Peshitta and its comparison with other extant Aramaic versions in an attempt to reconstruct the original Aramaic source. Their work is largely based on rich traditions of textual criticism of the Greek text, the purpose of which was the reconstruction of the original Greek text of the New Testament. Finally, there are



those who believe that attempts to link the original Aramaic version with the Peshitta are quasi-scientific in nature, because they have no historical or linguistic, but rather theological motivations. They point to the fact that the Peshitta is not in the Western Aramaic dialect of Galilee, which could only be the native tongue of Jesus, but in the Eastern Aramaic dialect of Edessa, and try to reconstruct the original Gospels on the basis of the Palestinian Jewish Aramaic of the 1st century AD. In various sources, for example, a reconstructed original of the Lord’s Prayer in Palestinian Aramaic may be found, and it is very similar to the Lord’s Prayer in the Peshitta. This confirms once again that all Aramaic dialects were very close to each other in terms of grammar and vocabulary with a high degree of mutual intelligibility. The Aramaic primacy theory gained in popularity after the 2004 release of Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ,” with dialogue in Aramaic and Latin. The Aramaic dialogue was written by the American scholar and Jesuit priest William Fulco, who based them on the language of the Book of Daniel with some admixture of Hebrew, rather than the Galilean dialect. However, despite the growing popularity of the Aramaic primacy theory, the dominating position within the academic community is that the original composition language of the Gospels was Greek (sometimes referred to as “Greek primacy”).


4.4.1. The Western and Eastern Aramaic dialects. In the late period the division of the Aramaic dialects into two large groups—Eastern and Western—became more pronounced. Western Aramaic dialects were spoken in Syria, Palestine, Transjordan and, partly, North Arabia and Egypt—the regions that were ruled by the Seleucids and Ptolemies, and then became part of the Roman Empire and its successor, the Byzantine Empire. The Eastern dialects were spoken in Mesopotamia, in the regions under Iranian control by the Parthian Arsacids and then the Sasanians. The main morphological feature that assigns Aramaic dialects to one of these groups is the preformative, which forms the third person masculine single of the imperfect form of the verb. In Western dialects, as in most other Semitic languages, this preformative is the letter yod (y qtl, “he will kill”), whereas in Eastern dialects it is the letter nun (n qtl). Another major difference between the two dialectal groups is in the category of definiteness. The ending –a, which is typical for nouns, adjectives and numerals, in Western dialects largely retained its original function as a suffixed definite article, while in the Eastern dialects the category of definiteness became obsolete, and the ending –a is perceived as an indicator of the main, “dictionary” form of the word.

4.4.2. The Jerusalem Talmud. The late West Aramaic dialects are mostly represented in the writings of three different religious groups—Jews, Samaritans, and Christians. A notable Jewish writing of this period is the Jerusalem Talmud (Hebrew “doctrine”), a major Rabbinic religious, philosophical, and legal treatise, with many sections written in Palestinian Aramaic. This is one of the two multi-volume Talmuds, composed by Jewish religious scholars during the first half of the first millennium



AD. The second is the Babylonian Talmud, which exceeds the Jerusalem Talmud in volume and authority. The Jerusalem Talmud was written in the 3rd–4th centuries by the Amoraim. Contrary to its name, it did not originate from Jerusalem, which at that time had almost no Jewish population, but from the yeshivas of Tiberias and Caesarea in the Galilee. Historically, the Amoraim, who are traditionally divided into seven generations, replaced the previous generation of Jewish sages—the Palestinian Tannaim of the 1st–3rd centuries AD. The Tannaim are known for the compilation of the Mishnah, which is the written redaction of the Jewish oral tradition, or oral law, also known as the “oral Torah,” as opposed to the “written law” of the Torah. The Mishnah, which was finalized at the turn of the 3rd century by Yehudah Ha-Nasi and then the Tannaim, consists of 63 volumes, divided into the following six parts, called seder (“order”): 1. Zera‘im (“Seeds”): 11 treatises of mostly agricultural content (Berakhot, Pe’ah, Demai, Kilyaim, Shevi‘it, Terumot, Ma‘aserot, Ma‘aser Sheni, Hallah, Orlah, Bikkurim); 2. Moed (“Festivals”): 12 treatises on the rules of Sabbath, religious festivals, fasting, mourning, sacrifices, and so on (Shabbat, Eruvin, Pesahim, Shekalim, Yoma, Sukkah, Beitza, Rosh Ha-Shanah, Ta‘anit, Megillah, Moed Katan, Hagigah); 3. Nashim (“Women”): 7 treatises on marriage, divorce, family life, and related issues (Yebamoth, Ketubot, Nedarim, Nazir, Sotah, Gittin, Kiddushin); 4. Nezikin (“Damages”): 10 treatises on criminal and civil law and the procedures of the courts (Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, Bava Batra, Sanhedrin, Makkot, Shevu‘ot, Eduyot, Avodah Zarah, Avot, Horayot). Avot, more commonly known as Pirkei Avot (“Chapters of the Fathers”), is a compilation of ethical maxims. 5. Kodashim (“Holy Things”): 11 treatises on rules of religious services in the Temple of Jerusalem, sacrificial offerings, and other related matters (Zevakhim, Menakhot, Khulin, Bekhorot, Arakhin, Temurah, Keritot, Me‘ilah, Tamid, Middot, Kinnim); 6. Tohorot (“Purities”): 12 treatises on ritualistic purity of the body and food (Keilim, Oholot, Nega‘im, Parah, Tohorot, Mikva’ot, Niddah, Makhshirin, Zavim, Tevul Yom, Yadayim, Uktzim).

The Mishnah is the core and most ancient part of the Talmud. The second important part is the Gemarah (Aramaic “study”), which is a set of discussions and commentaries on the treatises of the Mishnah. The Gemarah of the Jerusalem Talmud contains commentaries on 39 of these treatises. No commentaries are found on most sections of the Kodashim and Tohorot. In addition, the Jerusalem Talmud contains the 13 so-called “small” or “external” treatises, which are not part of the six seders listed above. The Aggadah, a compendium of folkloric and historical texts, anecdotes, parables, and various instructions that are considered “acceptable” by religious law, takes up approximately one-sixth of the Jerusalem Talmud. The Talmudic narrative has the following structure: first comes an excerpt from the Mishnah, followed by commentaries of various rabbis and sages, which constitute the Gemarah. Quite often opinions expressed in the Gemarah contradict each other. In such cases, according to tradition priority is given to the opinion of one particular person, or the opinion of the majority.



Of the two existing Talmuds, the Babylonian is considered much more authoritative. The only Jewish community to give priority to the Jerusalem Talmud was the Jewish community of Greece, known as the “Romaniots.” The Jerusalem Talmud is written in postbiblical Hebrew, called “Mishnaic” (mostly the Mishnah), and the Galilean dialect of the Palestinian Jewish Aramaic (mostly the Gemarah). The Aramaic language of the Jerusalem Talmud also contains a large number of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin words and whole phrases.

4.4.3. The Targums of the “Writings.” In addition to the Jerusalem Talmud, several new Targums were created in the Late Aramaic period. The Onkelos, Jonathan, Neofiti, and “Jerusalem” Targums were the Aramaic translations of the first two parts of the Tanakh—Torah and Prophets. The translation of the third part, the “Writings,” was not encouraged by the Jewish religious authorities, probably because they were mostly of historiographical content with little religious value. The Babylonian Talmud explicitly decrees that there are only two “official” Targums, Onkelos and Jonathan, and that the Writings have no Targum. The Talmud then informs that when Jonathan ben Uzziel set out to create a Targum of the Writings, a voice from heaven forbade him to do so. Nonetheless, the Targums created in the Late Aramaic period are translations of the Writings. In terms of language, style, and time of creation, from the 5th to 9th centuries, many of them are closer to the Jerusalem Targums, rather than to Onkelos and Jonathan. The language, in particular, combines elements of both Palestinian dialects, with the constant tendency to imitate the Biblical Aramaic. These Targums are usually divided into three groups: a) Targums of Proverbs, Psalms, and the Book of Job; b) Targums of Ruth, Esther, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (in the scholarly literature these works are sometimes referred to by the Hebrew term “Five megillot,” or “scrolls”); and c) Targums of the Chronicles. Of the first group the Targum of Job is particularly interesting. The earliest version, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, dates to around 50 AD, which means that this Targum can be attributed to the Middle Aramaic period. Forty fragments of the Targum of Job exist written in a language very similar to the Aramaic in the Book of Daniel. The Targum of Proverbs is remarkable for its many common features with the version of the Peshitta. As for the Targum of the Psalms, it is believed to be a compilation of two versions, as “another Targum” is often mentioned in its text. The Targums of the second group are notable for the strong influence and inclusion of the Aggadah, and are not so much translations as midrashim, or commentaries. Esther has two Targums; the first is more or less close to the original, while the second, which is called Targum Sheni, “Second Targum,” is replete with Aggadic material, such as the legend of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, apocryphal additions to the Book of Esther itself (“The Dream of Mordechai,” “The Prayer of Mordechai and Esther,” and others), and to the Book of Daniel (“The story of Bel, the idol of the Chaldeans,” “The story of the crocodile,” and others.) The Targum of Song of Songs created in the Islamic era, and the farthest from the original Targumic traditions of literal translation, is not even a free exposition. It contains the reasoning of the author, richly interspersed with Aggadic allegories, and



is in fact an independent work of literature. The closest to the Hebrew originals of the Targums of this group are the Targums of Ruth and Lamentations.

4.4.4. “The Scroll of Antiochus.” The Judean dialect of Palestinian Jewish Aramaic is the language of a small pseudo-historical essay of apocryphal nature, known as “The Scroll of Antiochus” or “The Scroll of the Hasmoneans.” It tells the story of the victorious war of the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) against the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164). The style of the language is very close to that of the Book of Daniel, which is the result of a deliberate imitation. The exact time of composition of this piece is unknown, but it is usually attributed to the early Middle Ages, as the description of events is more legendary in nature than historical, and mostly explains the Jewish customs and traditions associated with Hanukkah. 31 “The Scroll of Antiochus” most probably belongs to the same period of time as Megillat Ta‘anit and originates from the same Palestinian yeshiva. “The Scroll of Antiochus” was translated into Hebrew and Arabic and became very popular among Sephardic Jews. Yemenite Jews, who revered “The Scroll” the most, read it like the Torah in their synagogues, in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic. 4.4.5. The Samaritans. Late Western Aramaic is also represented in the literary heritage of the Samaritans. The Samaritans (shomronim) are an ethno-religious group that still exists today. The group received its name from the last capital of the Kingdom of Israel, Samaria. The name “Samaritan” is of Jewish origin, as the Samaritans prefer to call themselves shomerim, which literally means “Guardians (of the Covenant),” or simply “Israel” or “Sons of Israel.” After the conquest of the Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, the Assyrians deported the Jews living in Samaria and its environs to Mesopotamia and repopulated those areas with “people from Babylon, Kuthah, Avah, Hamath, and Sepharvaim.” The Samaritans were formed as a result of the mixture of these migrants, whom biblical tradition usually calls Kutheans, with the remnants of the local Jewish population. Assyrian sources, in particular the annals of King Sargon II, mention 27,290 deported Jews. Even if this figure is accurate, it could not be the presumed majority of the Jewish population of the former Israeli kingdom, but only the social elite. The Kutheans, who most likely spoke Aramaic and may have been Aramean, were eventually assimilated into the Jewish population. However, having replaced the local elite, they predetermined the subsequent unique development of Samaritan Jewry. Samaritans themselves also believe that the majority of Jews remained in their homeland, and consider themselves the direct descendants of the tribe of Joseph, who lived in the Kingdom of Israel and was then divided into the tribes of Ephraim

Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday, commemorating the purification and rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Maccabees after its desecration by the Seleucids. It is celebrated for eight days in December because, according to the legend, after the cleansing of the temple the sacred oil of the menorah (candelabrum) burned for eight days, although it should have lasted for just one. 31



and Manasseh. To this day, every Samaritan family ascribes itself to one of these two tribes. Before the fall of the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BC, the Samaritans quite peacefully coexisted with the Jews. The situation changed radically after the return of the Babylonian exiles. The Samaritans, whose leader at that time was Sanballat, offered their help in rebuilding the country and the construction of a new temple in Jerusalem, but the Jews, led by Ezra and Nehemiah, refused to recognize Samaritans as fellow tribesmen and co-religionists, and rejected their help. A ban on mixed marriages imposed by the Jewish leaders was extended to the Samaritans. This marked the beginning of a long feud, the echoes of which are preserved in the New Testament, and contributed to the eventual delimitation between the two nations, with the rise of Samaritans as a separate ethno-religious group. Both nations, however, continued to be bound by a number of common features, the most important of which was their language. They spoke the same Galilean dialect of Aramaic, and continued to use Hebrew as a sacred language. After the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great, who was supported by the Samaritans and showed them favor in return, they built a temple on Mount Gerizim, which they considered sacred, and started offering sacrifices there according to the commandments of the Torah. Thus, two temple cults were established in Palestine—that of Jerusalem and Mount Gerizim. Samaritans believe that Mount Gerizim, not Zion, is the same Mount Moriah atop of which Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac. During Alexander’s time the Samaritans also settled in the town of Shechem (today’s Nablus) in the vicinity of Mount Gerizim, which became their main center. In the Seleucid period the Samaritans were allies of the Greeks, and they eventually received a high degree of autonomy. According to Josephus Flavius, during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164) the Samaritans sent him a letter in which they completely dissociated themselves from the Jews, and even allegedly requested to rename their temple on Mount Gerizim after Zeus. In any case, during this period the Samaritans, as well as the Jews, were divided into two groups— “Hellenists,” who strove for the assimilation of Greek culture, and traditionalists, who continued to adhere to old traditions and beliefs. In 128–127 BC Yohannan Hyrcanus, the Hasmonean king of Judah, captured and destroyed Shechem and Samaria as well as the temple on Mount Gerizim. This instigated the Samaritans’ hatred of the Jews and deepened the chasm between them. The temple on Mount Gerizim was never restored, but later the Samaritans built an altar on the mountain and to this day offer their ritualistic sacrifices there. During the Roman era the Samaritans were included in the province of Judaea and were considered loyal subjects, unlike the Jews who were prone to constant agitations. This, however, did not prevent the procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilate (26– 36 AD), from massacring the Samaritans who were summoned to Mont Gerizim by one of many messiahs. At the same time the Romans gave the Samaritans considerable autonomy that contributed to their further political consolidation. In the period after the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Samaritans became the dominant group in Palestine, numbering more than one million people.



Some of them, apparently, shared the fate of the Jews and found themselves in the Diaspora, as Samaritan synagogues existed in Rome and other cities of the empire. The Samaritans are mentioned twice in the New Testament—in the parable of the Good Samaritan and in the episode at the well, when Jesus asks for water from a Samaritan woman. Given the centuries-old hatred between the two nations, representing the Samaritans in a positive light was a very bold and radical step, which emphasized Jesus’ ideas of love, forgiveness, and the futility of inter-ethnic strife. The “Golden Age” of Samaritan history came in the 4th century AD, when the high priest Baba Rabba (“Great Father”) ruled the Samaritans. Baba Rabba was one of the codifiers of the Samaritan liturgy and rituals as well as a reformer of the social structure of his community. He occupies a very significant place in Samaritan folklore. The 4th century was also the heyday of Samaritan literature, which produced the best examples of the Samaritan Aramaic language. Under Byzantine rule the Samaritans twice revolted in an attempt to gain independence, but each time they suffered a crushing defeat with mass extermination. With the spread of Christianity in Palestine, and later Islam, the Samaritan community steadily dwindled because of mass conversions to these religions. Less than 150 Samaritans were left at the turn of the 20th century. 4.4.6. The religion of the Samaritans. The Samaritans practice a unique form of Judaism, which has four main dogmas: one God—the God of Israel, with no anthropomorphic characteristics; one prophet—Moses; one holy book and one sacred law—the Torah; and one holy place—Mount Gerizim. The Samaritans, who recognize the Torah as the only sacred text, reject all the other books of the Tanakh and do not recognize the “oral law” of the Mishnah, as recorded in the Talmuds. Samaritans believe that by accepting the oral law, the Jews departed from the true Judaism, while they themselves remained faithful to it. They also believe in the Day of Judgment, the resurrection of the dead and the coming of the Messiah, whom they regard as the second Moses and call Taheb. The Samaritans have their own priesthood, and their community is headed by the high priest, who is believed to be a Kohen, or a descendant of Aaron, brother of Moses. The Samaritans have their own calendar that differs from the Jewish calendar. It starts at the time of Joshua’s entry into Canaan. According to this calendar, the new year comes in spring, unlike the Jewish Rosh Hashanah that is celebrated in autumn. As for the holidays, they only recognize those mentioned in the Torah and do not celebrate Purim, 32 Hanukkah, Tish‘a be-Av (the Ninth of Av), 33 and others.

Purim is a Jewish festive holiday that commemorates the rescue of Iranian Jews from Haman, a dignitary of the King Ahasuerus (Artaxerxes). The name of the holiday comes from the word pur, “lot”, because Haman tried to select a month for the extermination of Jews by casting lots. 33 According to Jewish tradition, the ninth day of the month of Av (roughly corresponding to July–August) is the day of destruction of both the first Temple of Jerusalem (by 32



Passover is celebrated on Mount Gerizim, where the Samaritans sacrifice and then eat seven lambs, because they preserved ritual sacrifices and other practices of the temple cult, which the Jews abandoned after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. Samaritans celebrate Sukkot, 34 but unlike the Jews, who put tabernacles in the open air, they suspend a “carpet” made of fruits from a ceiling. The Samaritans observe the Sabbath differently than Jews. They follow the basic Jewish dietary laws, but have their own rules for slaughter and do not always recognize Jewish kashrut. 35 During their rituals on Mount Gerizim, men wear white robes and red fezzes. The main object of worship is the medieval parchment Torah scroll stored in the Samaritan synagogue of Nablus. The Samaritans solemnly take it out of the synagogue and read from it on Mount Gerizim during their rituals. They believe that the scroll was written by the great-grandson of Aaron, Abishua Pinchas ben Ha-Kohen, in the thirteenth year of Canaan’s conquest by the Jews.

4.4.7. The writing traditions and the literary heritage of the Samaritans. The Samaritan literary heritage consists of works written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and to a much lesser extent, Greek. The separation of Samaritans from Jews, their unique cultural and religious life, and the use of a specific script justify the use of the term “Samaritan Aramaic” (sometimes they even speak of a “Samaritan language”), although in reality the Samaritans spoke the same Galilean dialect, probably with a light accent of their own. The fact that Jesus had no difficulty communicating with the Samaritan woman confirms the fact that both peoples spoke almost the same dialect of Aramaic. To write in Hebrew and Aramaic (sometimes also in Arabic), the Samaritans used their own script. It is different to other varieties of Aramaic script and constitutes a parallel branch of the Phoenician alphabet’s development. Samaritans believe their script is the authentic Hebrew one, descending directly from the letters in which the Torah was first written. The early, epigraphic variety of the Samaritan script does indeed resemble the Paleo-Hebrew script of the inscriptions on early coins and seals. In medieval manuscripts, the earliest of which date to the 13th century AD, the Samaritan letters have more sophisticated, ornate, and cursive look.

Babylonians in 586 BC), and the second (by Romans in 70 AD). Therefore, it is a day of mourning and fasting. 34 Sukkot (“Tabernacles”) is a seven-day Jewish festival celebrated in remembrance of the tents in which the Jews lived in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. During Sukkot, Jews temporarily move from their homes into specially prepared tents, or spend some time in them each day. 35 Kashrut refers to the permissibility of an object or phenomenon from the point of view of the Jewish religious law. In daily use it usually refers to the set of Jewish dietary laws.



t#rqcpCsnmlkyTxzwhdgb) Fig. 54. Albert Pike’s rendering of the Samaritan script

Fig. 55. A fragment of the Samaritan Torah

The somewhat mystical look of the Samaritan letters drew the attention of the Free Masons. Albert Pike (1809–1891), Sovereign Grand Commander of the Southern US Jurisdiction of the “Scottish Rite,” in his book Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry replaced the Aramaic “square” alphabet, traditionally used in Masonic symbolism, with Samaritan letters. He used the type common in European scientific journals, but not accepted by Samaritans themselves. Pike slightly modified it in order to emphasize the “esoteric” nature of the Samaritan letters. A peculiarity of the Samaritan alphabet was that in contrast to the later varieties of Aramaic and Hebrew scripts it remained largely consonantal and did not develop a system of vocalization. As a result, the rules of reading the Hebrew texts had to be transmitted orally from one generation to another without any major changes. Today, the way Samaritans read texts in Old Hebrew is very different to Jews. The Samaritan version of Old Hebrew is characterized, in particular, by the loss of guttural sounds and the stress on the penultimate syllable, whereas the Jews stress the last



syllable. It should be noted that after Arabic ousted Aramaic, Samaritan Hebrew gradually became the only language of Samaritan worship, and remains so up to this day. The most important work of literature is the Samaritan Torah, or the Samaritan Pentateuch, written in Hebrew in the Samaritan script. Unlike the Jews, Samaritans believe that the Torah was completed by Abishua on Mount Gerizim after Joshua’s entry into Canaan. The Samaritan Torah contains about 2,000 differences, mostly minor, from the canonical Jewish Torah. They are mainly linguistic in nature, determined by the peculiarities of the Samaritan letters. Between the two versions some differences also exist in the verb conjugations and use of pronouns, apparently due to the influence of different dialects. Furthermore, the Old Hebrew of the Samaritan Torah in stylistic terms belongs to a later period, and as a result it is clearer and contains fewer grammatical errors. The Samaritan Torah is also a more consistent and logically coherent narrative, which can be explained by editorial harmonization, traces of which can be found in some of the Qumran manuscripts. The most significant semantic differences are those changes and additions that were intended to bring the sacred text in line with Samaritan doctrine. Thus, the tenth commandment in the Samaritan version contains an order to build a temple on Mount Gerizim and to make sacrifices solely there. There are numerous differences in the names and genealogies. Interestingly, many fragments of the Samaritan Torah that are different from the canonical Jewish version coincide with similar fragments of the Septuagint. 36 This led many researchers to believe that the Samaritan Torah might have been used as an original for the Greek translation, or that both the Septuagint and Samaritan Torah originate from the same, more ancient version. In addition to the Torah in the original Hebrew, the Samaritans also used its very literal translation into Aramaic, known as the “Samaritan Targum.” This translation was made in the 3rd–4th centuries, about the same time as the Jewish Targums, and, in fact, marked the beginning of Samaritan literature in Aramaic. Samaritans believe their Targum to be much older and credit the priest Nathaniel, who died around 20 BC, with its creation. The Samaritans had similar reasons to translate the Torah into Aramaic as the Jews, as Aramaic was their only language, and very few of them had a sufficient command of Hebrew. The Aramaic of the Samaritan Targum, which originally should not have differed much from the language of Targum Onkelos, was subjected to numerous later

The Septuagint (from Latin Interpretatio Septuaginta Seniorum, “Translation of seventy elders,” or simply LXX), is the translation of the Old Testament into Greek, made in the 3rd–2nd centuries BC in Alexandria. According to legend, the Egyptian King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–246) ordered the Greek translation of the Jewish sacred books from the Jewish high priest Eleazar for the Library of Alexandria. The high priest sent to the king 72 translators, each of whom independently translated the Tanakh into Greek, and all 72 translations coincided word for word. 36



edits by people who did not have sufficient knowledge of Aramaic. Therefore, it survives in an extremely distorted redaction, which is difficult to understand. Because of the linguistic distortions, the language of the Samaritan Targum in its first European publication, in the Paris multilingual Bible of 1645, was called “Kuthean.” It was suggested that originally there were several versions of the Samaritan Targum, some of them related to Targum Onkelos in one way or another. Both the Samaritan Targum and Targum Onkelos may descend from the same tradition of oral paraphrases of the Torah into Aramaic, which arose in Palestine in the postexilic period. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the Aramaic language of the Samaritan Targum is another variety of the same Palestinian Jewish Aramaic. In terms of grammar it is not much different from, for example, the Aramaic language of the Jerusalem Talmud, Targum Onkelos, or the Dead Sea Scrolls, but the vocabulary contains more Greek and Hebrew borrowings. It should be noted that a stylistic feature of the Samaritan literary style was the tendency to imitate Hebrew idioms. The question remains as to how familiar the Samaritan authors were with the contemporary literary activity and scribal practices in the Galilean dialect in the Tiberias and other yeshivas, and to what extent they were subject to their influence. A Greek version of the Samaritan Targum was written by the Samaritan community of Egypt, which was formed after the resettlement of Jews and Samaritans under Ptolemy I Soter (305–282). This version, called Samaritikon, is often mentioned in the works of early Christian writers. Under Arab domination, the Samaritans also used the Arabic translation of the Samaritan Torah, which is traditionally associated with the name of Abu Said, who lived in the 13th century. The emergence of an “Arabic Targum” was apparently dictated by the need to give Arabic-speaking Samaritans the “true” version of the Torah, replacing it with the only available Arabic translation of Saadia Gaon (882– 942) with the canonical Jewish version. It is possible that Abu Said only edited Saadia Gaon’s translation, bringing it into conformity with the Samaritan Torah. Among the original works of Samaritan literature, the first to be mentioned is the six-part “Book of Miracles” by Marqa (4th cent. AD), which is a commentary on certain sections of the Torah written in good Aramaic. This work is also known as Memar Marqa, which can be translated from Aramaic as “The Teaching of Marqa.” The author was a contemporary of Baba Rabba, and like him was an important codifier of Samaritan doctrine and ritual. Marqa was also the author of religious hymns in Aramaic, some of which are included in the Defter, a collection of Samaritan prayers compiled between the 4th and 14th centuries. Other prominent Samaritan hymnographers were Amram Dara, sometimes called the father of Marqa, and Marqa’s son, Nana. The next prolific period of Samaritan literary activity came in the 11th–14th centuries and bore traces of the influence of the Jewish-Arab thought of Babylonia. The main written languages of this period were Arabic and Hebrew. The scope of the use of Aramaic was significantly narrowed, as by the 11th century Aramaic had ceased to be the spoken language of the Samaritans, and this in turn led to the weakening of its position in the field of literary activity. Simultaneously, the role of the Samaritan Targum in religious practices gradually diminished in favor of the Sa-



maritan Pentateuch in Hebrew. This explains the fact that very few manuscripts with the Samaritan Targum survive. The Aramaic language, in which only a few works were written in this period, is significantly inferior in quality, and is of no particular linguistic value, as the Samaritan authors who tried to uphold the old traditions of composing in Aramaic had a very poor command of that language. The same is true of Hebrew in later works. The most significant work in Aramaic of this period is a book with the Arabic title, Kitab al-Asatir (“The Book of Legends”), supposedly created in the second half of the 10th century; it consists of four parts, one of which contains the theological commentaries of Marqa. The most common works of the Arabic period of Samaritan literature are commentaries on the Torah and liturgical-hymnographic works. The Samaritans also wrote purely secular works, namely on grammar (mostly Hebrew), medicine, astronomy, and law, but of the majority of them only the titles survive. Samaritans also wrote several historical chronicles, the most famous being Tolidah (“Genealogy,” in Old Hebrew with literal Arabic translation), written in the middle of the 12th century by the high priest Eleazar ben Amram, and then supplemented by various authors until 1859; 37 the Chronicle of Abu-l-Fath ben Ali alHasan, written in Arabic in Samaritan script at the request of the high priest Pinchas; and the “The Book of Joshua,” written in Arabic in the 13th century based on the biblical Book of Joshua, with the inclusion of many later legends. Another anonymous Samaritan Chronicle, written in Hebrew and continued up to 1899, was published in 1903 by the English scholar Elkan Nathan Adler (1861–1946) and is known by his name. The Samaritans continued composing works of literature until the end of the 19th century, although it is difficult to name an author of any prominence during the last few centuries, with the exception, perhaps, of Ghazal bin Abu Surur, who lived in the 18th century and wrote a commentary on the Torah.

4.4.8. The Samaritans today. Israel is now home to nearly 800 Samaritans. They are mainly concentrated in two major settlements—in the Neve Pinchas neighborhood of the city of Holon near Tel Aviv, created in 1954 on the initiative of the president of Israel Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and in Nablus. Until 1967, Nablus was under the jurisdiction of Jordan, and a state border divided both parts of the Samaritan community, but after the Six Day War they were reunited. Nearly all modern Samaritans belong to four clans, and because of the inevitable rate of intermarriage, they are prone to genetic diseases. The threat of genetic degeneration forces them to disregard the standing ban on mixed marriages, but women who are willing to marry into their community are required to convert to Samaritanism. Couples must also consult a geneticist before marriage. Tolidah is also known as the “Chronicle Neubauer” after Adolf Neubauer (1831– 1907) who translated and published it in 1869. 37



The spoken language of Samaritans is either Hebrew or Arabic, and for liturgical purposes they use Old Hebrew. The use of Aramaic is reduced to rare readings of some fragments of the Samaritan Targum. Despite their commitment to ancient traditions and strict observance of religious laws and rituals, Samaritans, unlike orthodox Jews or zealous Muslims, are noted for their secular way of life and are well integrated into Israeli society. Samaritans occupy a unique position between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which occasionally creates problems with both conflicting parties. There is some tension between them and the religious Sephardic Jews of Holon, for whom Samaritans are still pagan aliens. Despite the high level of integration, the status of Samaritans in Israel remains uncertain. The government does not officially recognize them as a religious community, but de facto recognizes the jurisdiction of the Samaritan high priest in civil matters, like marriage and divorce, which in Israel are not the prerogative of the state but rather the Chief Rabbinate, the supreme religious authority. The Israeli “Law of Return,” which gives every Jew the right to gain Israeli citizenship, is applicable to Samaritans. Like all Jews, Samaritans are conscripted into military service. As for the Palestinians, their moderate wing is quite tolerant of Samaritans. The Samaritans of Nablus were given one seat in the Palestinian Legislative Council of 1996, but not in the Council of 2006. 4.4.9. Palestinian Christian Aramaic. The Late Western Aramaic dialects also include the so-called “Palestinian Christian Aramaic.” This language was spoken by the Orthodox Christians of Palestine and Transjordan, called Melkites, beginning in the 3rd century AD (more about them in subsequent chapters). They wrote in a script closely resembling the Edessan cursive. In terms of grammar and vocabulary, this dialect is very close to the language of the Palestinian Jews and the Samaritans, even though since the middle of the millennium it has been greatly influenced by Syriac, the standard literary language of Christian Arameans. Palestinian Christian Aramaic survives in a number of fragmented manuscripts and short inscriptions, including mosaics. The literature in this dialect, mostly translated from Greek, is almost exclusively religious. A significant part of the literature was written in Jerusalem and in the Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, where the brethren included many monks who were speakers of this Aramaic dialect. The extant religious literature in Palestinian Christian Aramaic includes translations, mostly from Septuagint, of fragments of biblical texts, both canonical and apocryphal; hagiographic literature, in other words the lives of saints, such as the story of the Forty Martyrs of Sinai translated from Greek; homilies, including that of John Chrysostom on the prodigal son; a translation of the Catechesis 38 of Cyril of Jerusalem; texts of liturgical nature, including horologia (“Books of Hours”); and a

Catechesis is the process of oral instruction in the basics of faith, an also refers to the book containing those basics, often in the form of questions and answers. 38



remarkable blessing of the Nile water, which suggests a presence in Egypt of a community of Aramaic-speaking Orthodox Christians.

Fig. 56. A mosaic inscription in Palestinian Christian Aramaic on Mount Nebo in Jordan

Palestinian Christian Aramaic remained the spoken language of the Orthodox Christians of Palestine and Transjordan until the 9th century, and then was completely replaced by Arabic. As a written and liturgical language it lasted until the 13th century under the strong influence of Arabic. A dialect close to Palestinian Christian and Palestinian Jewish Aramaic was attested in the territory of modern Lebanon, ancient Phoenicia, where it was spoken by the descendants of Aramaized Phoenicians and Maronites, who moved there in the 5th century (more on Maronites in subsequent chapters).

4.4.10. The Mandeans. Late Eastern Aramaic dialects were spoken in Mesopotamia and, like the Western dialects, were the language of sacred texts of several religious communities, namely Mandeans, Manicheans, Jews, and Christians. Mandeism was a Gnostic 39 religious teaching widespread among the Arameans of Mesopotamia. Its name is derived from the Aramaic word manda, “knowledge,” which corresponds to Greek gnosis with the same meaning. Mandeism survived to this day, and, in fact, is the only Gnostic teaching existing today. It is thought to Gnosticism is a body of religious and philosophical doctrines of early Christianity, based on the gnosis—the knowledge—that reveals the secrets of life and shows the soul the path to salvation. It is a mixture of Christian religious dogma with Greek idealistic philosophy and elements of Eastern religions. 39



have originated in the 1st century AD in a merger of Chaldo-Aramean pagan beliefs derived from the ancient Mesopotamian religions with early Judeo-Christian concepts, under a strong influence from Iranian dualism. The most important figure in Mandeism is John the Baptist (Yahya Yuhanna), whom Mandeans call their last and supreme prophet. This status of John the Baptist was finally fixed in the Islamic period, when Mandeans needed a connection with some reputable prophet in order to dissociate themselves from the pagans and to receive from the Muslim authorities the status of the “People of the Book,” in other words, the protected religious minority (dhimmi), such as Christians and Jews. In Europe, the role of John the Baptist in Mandeism, and the overall connection of Mandeans with Christianity, were largely exaggerated. The Mandeans were sometimes called “St. John’s Christians” (the name was introduced by Portuguese monks, who “discovered” the Mandeans in the mid-16th century). In reality, Mandeism is very far from Christianity and even hostile toward it. Its followers consider Jesus Christ a false prophet, who distorted the teachings transmitted to him by John the Baptist. Mandean religious literature contains many attacks on the doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, the Messiah status of Jesus, and on the official Christian clergy and monks. Among other false prophets, Abraham, Moses, and Muhammad are named. Yet, the Mandeans revere Noah, his son Shem, and Shem’s son Aram, who are considered their direct ancestors. Also revered are Adam, as the first prophet and teacher, his sons Hibil (Abel) and Shitil (Seth), and grandson Anush (Enos). The Mandeans believe their religion to be that of Adam and his descendants. Many scholars trace the roots of Mandeism to Palestine, to the religious movements and baptismal sects opposed to the official cult of the Temple of Jerusalem. In their opinion, the relocation of the adherents of this teaching to South Mesopotamia took place in the 2nd–3rd centuries, and on this long path, which took them through Harran, the Mandeans came in contact with and integrated into their teaching elements of Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, and Aramean paganism. Mandeans also believe that their community arose in Palestine, which they had to leave after the execution of John the Baptist and their subsequent persecution by the Jews. The origin of Mandeism in Palestine is confirmed by a Mandean text entitled “Internal Harran.” The destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Romans is presented in the sacred books of the Mandeans as a retribution on Jews for crimes against the followers of John the Baptist. Thus, Mandeism is hostile not only to Christianity, but to Judaism as well. 4.4.11. The basic elements of Mandeism. The system of Mandean religious beliefs is very complicated and highly inconsistent, because of the large amount of non-processed additions from different periods. The Mandeans believe in a single, formless deity, known by different names: “Great Life,” “Lord of Powers,” “Great Spirit,” “Great King of the Light,” and “Lord of Greatness.” This deity has several emanations, called uthra (“wealth”), or malkiya (“kings”), which roughly correspond to Gnostic aeons. Uthras are similar to angels of the Judeo-Christian tradition because they inhabit the celestial spheres and glorify the supreme deity—the Lord of the Kingdom of Light, which is opposed to the Kingdom of Darkness ruled by the



“King of Darkness.” The confrontation of these two realms, embodying the eternal struggle between good and evil, forms the basis of the Mandean dualism. In addition to light, good in Mandeism is represented by running, “live” water, while evil is presented as salty, “dead” water. The global balance is sustained by mixture of the two waters in all things. The material world is believed to be the creation of dark forces, so it presents no value. The Mandean demiurge, creator of the physical universe, is the fallen, but capable of repentance and salvation angel Ptahil, who is related to the Egyptian demiurge Ptah. The first man, Adam, or rather his corporeal shell, is also the creation of dark forces (Ptahil and Ruha, the female evil essence), but the soul (neshemta) is bestowed on him by the Kingdom of Light. The human soul is considered a prisoner of the body and seeks reunification with the supreme deity to whom it belongs. It has a guardian spirit, “the Messenger of Light,” who accompanies it in the earthly life, and on the third day after death takes it to the “World of Light.” Caring for the salvation of one’s soul is of paramount importance in the religious life of the Mandeans. There is in Mandeism a concept of the Savior, called “Knowledge of Life” (manda d-hayye), who is one of the emanations of the supreme deity. This Savior is to descend into the Kingdom of Darkness and overthrow its king and Ruha, and to reveal to Adam his true destiny and the mysteries of the universe. Upon receipt of the hidden knowledge, Adam’s soul will return to the Kingdom of Light, passing on the way through purgatory, where the lords of the planets will ask it about its good deeds. Thus, Mandeism has its own version of the Christian idea of personal salvation, and something like the Day of Judgment, after which the souls of demons and planets will die a final death. Ptahil will be reincarnated as a radiant being, and peace will reign over the world. Important parts of the Mandean religious system are cosmology and astrology, sciences in which the Chaldo-Arameans of Mesopotamia had particularly excelled. The cosmological views of the Mandeans, like their religion as a whole, had a distinct dualistic nature, and were influenced by Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and other religions of the Ancient Middle East. It is perhaps because of diverse external influences that Mandean cosmology has several versions of the creation of the world. Mandeans believed that the heavenly bodies are the creation of evil forces and did not worship them. The seven planets known to Mandeans and collectively called in Aramaic shuva (“seven”), as well as and the twelve signs of the Zodiac (trisar, “twelve”) were considered attributes of the demonic creatures of the Kingdom of Darkness. Mandeans believed that planets had souls and considered them Ruha’s sons. The heavenly bodies predetermine people’s lives, and house their souls after death. A curious feature of the Mandean cosmology is the belief that life on Earth is but one manifestation of life in the universe. Different rituals and sacraments play an important role in the religion and everyday life of the Mandeans. Many of those are centered on running water, or a special reservoir connected to running water called jordan (Aramaic yardena). Near a jordan Mandean temples and mandi, small houses with sloping roofs enclosed by a fence, can be found. In a jordan the priests perform the rite of baptism (masbuta), during which they immerse the baptized three times in water and administer certain



ordinances—in particular, they give the baptized a drink of water and a piece of bread. Thus, the Mandean rite of baptism is a ritual ablution that exists in many religions, yet in essence it is closer to Christian communion, rather than baptism. Unlike Christian baptism, the Mandean ritual is performed periodically throughout one’s life, several times a year, on Sundays or during religious holidays, as well as at important stages of human life—after birth, before the marriage, and so forth. Baptism is also seen by Mandeans as an alternative to circumcision, which they reject and do not practice. A similar ritual is performed on the deceased, but instead of being immersed in running water, the body is washed and clothed in white. The ritualistic bread and water is consumed by the attending priest. Mandeans believe that the soul finally parts with the body on the third day after death and then makes a 45-day ascent to the Kingdom of Light, repeating the path of Adam’s soul. An important Mandean ritual, closely associated with astrology, was the choice of name for newborns. Mandean names, as a rule, have four components: an everyday name (currently, usually Arabic), a clan nickname, a surname, and a ritualistic name. To select the ritualistic name, they arrange the signs of the zodiac in a circle, and then calculate a particular sacred number. Then, from the list of names associated with that number in the “Book of the Zodiac,” the parents choose a name for the newborn. Mandeans also use astrology to cast the horoscope and predict the future. During prayers and religious ceremonies Mandeans put on white garments called rasta, and turn toward the north, facing the Pole star, because it is believed that the Kingdom of Light is in that direction. The Mandean religion prohibits the use of symbols and their worship. However, they have at least one religious symbol, a cross draped in a white cloth. It is sometimes interpreted as a kind of a holy banner, but its exact meaning remains unknown. The everyday life of Mandeans is tightly regulated by numerous religious rules, which include prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and so on. The laws on ritual purity and dietary restrictions are strictly observed. There is a system of “commandments,” which determine the “mortal sins,” such as blasphemy, murder, suicide, adultery, divorce, lust, stealing, lying, perjury, disobedience to authorities, usury, witchcraft, circumcision, alcohol, mourning the dead, abortion, self-mutilation, and others. Singing and dancing are also banned. Men can take as many wives as they can afford, but polygamy is more an exception than a rule. Mandeans have great respect for the institution of marriage and display a lot of affection for their young; the education of children is considered a religious duty of every believer. Another distinctive feature of Mandeism is pacifism, non-violence, and non-resistance to violence. Other religious holidays that deserve mention include the Mandean New Year, during which baptismal rites are performed; Dehva Hanina dedicated to the return of Hibil (Abel) from the Kingdom of Darkness to the Kingdom of Light; and Parvanaya (Panja), the main Mandean festival celebrated for five days during the maximum depth of the rivers due to melted snow in the Armenian Highlands. During Parvanaya, the Mandeans organize mass baptisms in rivers and feasts with special food offerings to the souls of the ancestors.



The social structure of the Mandean community is characterized by rigorous distinction between laity and priests. Lay people, who are simply referred to as “Mandeans,” do not have access to the vast majority of the sacred books and secret knowledge contained therein. They have a vague idea of the essence of their religion, and are completely dependent on the priestly caste in matters of faith and worship. Entry into priesthood means illumination, enlightenment, and a departure from the simple Mandeism of the laity. There are three ranks of Mandean priests. The initial rank consists of the tarmida (“disciples”), who have not yet attained full enlightenment and understanding of the teachings. Nevertheless, they perform religious ceremonies, such as weddings, give out magical amulets and charms, cast horoscopes, and predict the future. The middle rank is the ganzebra, with “higher religious education,” which means the ability to interpret the sacred texts. Tarmidas and ganzebras may have special assistants called shkanda or ashganda. They must be sons of the priests under the age of puberty. The functions of shkandas may be performed and are done so more and more often by lay youngsters, if they meet all standards of purity. At the head of all the priestly caste is the reshamma, the high priest, who is also considered the head (ethnarch) of all Mandeans. Above the reshamma are the prophets (rabbi), chosen by the Great Life. The last prophet, as mentioned, was John the Baptist. All categories of Mandean priests are allowed to marry. Early in the 21st century there were about 30 tarmidas and 4 ganzebras worldwide, while the position of reshamma remained vacant. Mandean priests are sometimes called Nazirites, 40 perhaps because John the Baptist himself was a Nazirite. Strictly speaking, only those priests were called Nazirites who have attained full enlightenment and true understanding of the fundamental teachings (this condition is called naziruta), but quite often all Mandean priests, regardless of rank, are referred to as Nazirites.

4.4.12. Writing and literary heritage of the Mandeans. From about the 3rd century AD the Mandeism produced an impressive body of literature, written in a special variety of Aramaic cursive of unclear origin. The Mandeans call their alphabet abagada, or abaga, after the names of its first letters. Unlike other varieties of Aramaic script with 22 letters, the Mandaic alphabet has 24. Two additional letters were introduced to coincide with the number of hours in the day. The 23rd letter is, in fact, a grammatical particle, and the 24th repeats the first letter of the alphabet, which reflects the Mandean belief that everything should eventually return to its source. Like the majority of Semitic writing systems, Mandaic script does not use special vocalization marks for vowels, but it does repurpose the letters for the guttural Nazirites (from Hebrew nazir, “consecrated”) in the old Jewish tradition were the people who temporarily or permanently dedicated themselves to God. They would vow not to eat grapes and drink substances made of grapes, not to cut hair, not to touch the dead, and not to approach cemeteries. The most famous Nazirites were Samson and John the Baptist. 40



sounds that went extinct in the Mandean pronunciation. The Mandeans attach mystical properties to their letters and believe that they have a hidden, secret meaning.

Fig. 57. A sample of Mandaic writing

The earliest examples of Mandaic writing, dating from the 3rd century AD, are incantation texts, written on bowls, clay and metal discs, cylinders, and other objects used as amulets and talismans. However, the larger part of Mandaic Aramaic literature consists of anonymous sacred texts preserved in manuscripts. The main holy text of the Mandeans, written in Aramaic, is the Ginza Rabba (“Great treasury”), also called Sidra Rabba (“Great Book”). It consists of 18 books, divided into 62 chapters, and contains about 700 pages. The compilation of this work was completed by the 7th century, although its constituent autonomous fragments were created much earlier. “The Book of the Lord of Greatness” (Sidra dmara d-rabbuta) starts the Ginza Rabba and contains revelations received by Adam. The pages on the right, called Ginza Yamina (“Right Ginza”), are intended for the living. They contain the basics of the faith, the history of the creation of the world, cosmological information, stories about the struggle between good and evil as well as light and darkness, and narratives of historical and mythological content. The left part is called Ginza Smala (“Left Ginza”); these pages are intended for the dead and relate to the afterlife. The book has to be turned around in order for the Ginza Smala to be read. Up to this day the Ginza Rabba exists only as a manuscript, and the Mandeans believe that the uninterrupted chain of its scribes started in the 3rd century AD. Another sacred book of Mandeism is Qolasta, a two-part liturgical compilation with more than 400 prayers, hymns, and poems, many of which date to the 3rd century and present significant literary value. In the early Islamic period, Sidra d-Yahya, or Drasha d-Yahya (“John’s Book”), was composed. It contains the polemic of John the Baptist with Jesus Christ, as well as stories about the creation of the world, the Savior of the world, and so on. Unlike the Ginza Rabba, Qolasta, and several other holy books, the Sidra d-Yahya is available for the lay believers uninitiated into the mysteries of the faith. In addition to these three fundamental writings of Mandeism are a number of minor works, intended mainly for the practical needs of the priests. These include works about the Great Shishlam, a mystical radiant being, such as “Commentary on



the Great Shishlam’s Wedding,” and “Commentary on the Great Shishlam’s Coronation.” Other important writings include “A Thousand and Twelve questions,” “The Big First World,” “The Small First World,” and several works, called diwans (Persian “collection”)—“Diwan Abatur,” “Diwan of Rivers,” “Diwan of the Great Revelation,” and several others. Finally, an important Mandean literary work is the aforementioned “Book of the Zodiac,” which contains horoscopes, omens, spells, and so on.

Fig. 58. A Mandean magical disk with Aramaic inscription

The Muslim Arabs, who established their rule over Mesopotamia in the 7th century, eventually placed the Mandeans among the “People of the Book” with the “dhimmi” status of a protected religious minority and did not treat them as pagans. Since then, the Mandeans were known as “Sabians” (subba in Arabic, “baptizers,” not to be confused with the Sabeans of ancient South Arabia). Arabs called “Sabians” the Aramean moon-worshippers of Harran as well, obviously not going too deep into the differences between them and the Mandeans. The Harranian pagans may have deliberately adopted the name “Sabians” in order to avoid accusations of paganism by Muslims and to obtain the dhimmi status.

4.4.13. Manichaeism. In addition to Mandeism, another dualistic doctrine emerged in the Eastern Aramaic linguistic environment, created by the Parthian Mani (216– 273). Mani was born and grew up in Mesopotamia. His parents were members of the Judeo-Christian Gnostic sect of Elkesaites. Initially, Mani was also a member of that sect, but at a young age he received a “revelation from above,” and began preaching his own syncretic views that combined elements of Judeo-Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Chaldo-Aramean paganism, and Mandeism. The new religion was



called “Manichaeism” from the Greek μανιχαιος, which originates from Aramaic mani hayya, or “living Mani.” The very name “Mani” is of Aramaic origin and was not uncommon among Arameans. It was also suggested that “Mani” was not so much a proper name as a form of respectful address. Since Aramaic at that time was the dominant language of Mesopotamia and all of the Middle East, it also became the language of Mani’s preaching and the original language of his doctrine. Of the seven books by Mani six were written in Aramaic (“The Living Gospel,” “Treasure of Life,” “Book of Giants,” 41 “Book of Shadows,” “The Treatise,” and “Epistles”). Of those, only several fragments survived in the “Book of Sects” by the Aramean Christian author of the 8th century Theodoros bar Koni and a few Muslim sources in translation. Mani’s doctrine had a distinct dualistic nature, also typical of Zoroastrianism. It speaks of two independent forces—the Light, or the spiritual world, and the Darkness, the material world. The Light is headed by the “Father of Greatness” (abba drabbuta), who is essentially the supreme deity, and the Darkness is led by the King of Darkness (malka d-khshukha). The whole time continuum of world history is divided into three periods. In the first, the past, Light, and Darkness existed independently of one other. In the second, the present, the Darkness encroached on the Light and the spiritual realm came into the fight with the material. In the third, the future, the Light will prevail over the Darkness, and they will once again exist independently from each other. Dualism is also inherent to man’s nature, which combines elements of Light and Darkness, and the human salvation was seen in the separation of the elements of Light from the elements of Darkness. At the head of the Manichean community, which is often called “church,” was the leader, accompanied by 12 “teachers” (the closest associate of Mani was an Aramean, Mar Ammo). Under them, the number of Manichean hierarchs, who lived in cenobies resembling Buddhist monasteries, grew exponentially. Absolute celibacy and vegetarianism for the priesthood were mandatory. Daily practice of Manichaeism for the laymen contained elements of Christian monastic asceticism and required constant physical labor and strict temperance in food and sex. For the rigorous observance of all the commandments the laymen were promised posthumous reincarnation at a higher, priestly degree of being. During Mani’s lifetime, his teaching went beyond the Aramaic-speaking world and began spreading rapidly among the Persians. Mani was even able to convert members of the ruling Sasanian dynasty, namely the brothers of King Shapur I (241–272). Upon receiving access to the king, Mani wrote his seventh and final book for him in the Pahlavi (Middle Persian) language, “Shabuhragan,” setting out the tenets of his teaching. Mani, having switched to Pahlavi, also tried to adapt Zoroastrian terminology to his preaching and started using the names of Ahura Mazda and Ahriman as well as other Zoroastrian terms and concepts. Manichaeism’s ability This was, apparently, the retelling of the “Book of Giants,” part of the apocryphal Book of Enoch, and, like the latter, contained stories about fallen angels. 41



to adapt itself to local religious traditions, whether Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, or Christianity, was an important feature that facilitated its spread among the peoples professing these religions. Thanks to Shapur I and his successor, Hormizd I (272–273), Manichaeism acquired a large number of adherents in Iran and began posing a threat to Zoroastrianism, the official religion of the Sasanians. Eventually Mani, who called himself a “Messenger of the True God” and the successor of Buddha, Zoroaster, and Jesus, earned the hatred of the Zoroastrian priesthood, especially the influential high priest Kartir. Under Hormizd’s successor, Bahram I (273–276), he was thrown in prison where he died in 277, or was executed, as Manicheans themselves believed. Once virtually ousted from Iran, Manichaeism gradually began expanding to the east and west. The eastward expansion was partially encouraged by the persecution of the Manicheans by the Abbasid Caliphs. Thus, in the 8th–9th centuries, Manichaeism penetrated into Central Asia and became widespread in Samarkand, the capital of Sogdiana. It even became and remained the official religion of the Uighur state and the Yenisey Khaganate until the 11th century. The Uighur capital of Turpan became one of the major centers of Manichean original literature, which was written in a variety of Aramaic cursive, called “Manichean script.” Its various modifications were used to write in Sogdian, Mongolian, and other languages of Central Asia and the Far East. The Uighur translation preserved some fragments of Mani’s “Living Gospel.” Further east, Manichaeism reached China, where its adherents could be found even at the imperial court. Mani’s Chinese followers considered him the reincarnation of the founder of Taoism, 42 Laozi, or even a new Buddha. Manichean literature was written in Chinese, with some fragments surviving to the present day. In the middle of the 9th century, Manichaeism, along with Christianity and other “alien” religions, was banned in China but persisted for a few more centuries. Chinese Manicheans were last mentioned in the 14th century. In the west, Manichean ideas penetrated into the Roman Empire, particularly Syria, Palestine, Asia Minor, Egypt and North Africa, and later Europe. Manichaeism was especially popular in Egypt, where some of its writings were translated into Coptic. The spread of this doctrine forced Roman emperors, pagans and Christians alike, to take strict measures against it, and for some time that hindered its expansion. Nevertheless, Manichean ideas spread throughout the Christian world, from Aramean North Mesopotamia to Spain and France. Evidence shows that among the Manicheans persecuted under Emperor Justinian there were many representatives of the Byzantine Empire’s higher circles. In the Christian milieu the doctrine of Mani sometimes took the form of a Christian heresy. Its followers believed Mani to be the

Taoism is a Chinese tradition that combines elements of religion, philosophy, ethics, mysticism, and meditation. Taoism produced a large corpus of philosophical literature. 42



“Paraclete,” the “advocate” or “helper” foretold by Jesus. 43 In Christian literature, both eastern and western, there are numerous writings denouncing the “heresy” of Manicheans. The last mention of the adherents of Manichaeism in Europe dates to the 10th century.

4.4.14. Babylonian Talmud. The Jewish community existed in Babylonia since the time of the Neo-Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, who had deported the majority of the population of Judah to Babylonia. The Persian Achaemenids allowed the Jews to return to Palestine, but some of them remained in Mesopotamia. Roman persecutions forced the Jews to leave Palestine and settle in other regions, and in the first centuries AD Mesopotamia was one of the most attractive destinations for them, largely due to the tolerance of the Parthian Arsacids. Under the Sasanians, the conditions for Jews in Mesopotamia became even more favorable and it turned into a major center of Jewish thought in the Diaspora. In the cities of Sura and Pumbeditha, Jewish yeshivas were established and functioned until the 11th century. In these academies, which competed with each other, numerous Amoraim worked and taught, including those who came from Palestine. These Amoraim created their own Babylonian Gemarah and combined it with the Mishnah into the Babylonian Talmud, which became one of the major works in the Eastern Aramaic language. The Babylonian Gemarah was created alongside the Jerusalem Gemarah and contains many references to and direct quotations from the Palestinian Amoraim. The Jerusalem Talmud also shows familiarity with the teachings of the Babylonian Amoraim, suggesting an active exchange of views between the yeshivas of Palestine and Mesopotamia. However, the Babylonian Talmud was completed around the 6th century, later than its Jerusalem counterpart. In volume, the Babylonian Talmud is several times larger than the Jerusalem Talmud, although it also does not contain commentaries on all the tractates of the Mishnah (37 out of 63). For example, the Zera‘im order is represented only by tractate Berakhot, because the Babylonian Jews, who were far from agriculture, did not find practical value in agricultural tractates written for Palestine. Tohorot is also represented by one tractate dealing with the physiological cycles of the female body. The rest contained rules on ritual purity and ritual ablutions associated with the cult of the Temple of Jerusalem, and had no practical value after the destruction of the Temple. The many differences between both Talmuds mostly have to do with the methodology of commenting on the Mishnaic tractates, which in the Babylonian Talmud is of more pedantic nature, often involving a purely linguistic aspect of a Mishnaic passage. Commentaries and discussions in the Babylonian Talmud are usually longer, but compared with more fragmented exposition of the Jerusalem “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John, 14:26). 43



Talmud, they are more logical and complete due to numerous later revisions of the text. However, the main difference between the two Talmuds is in various degrees of authority and influence on the daily lives of the Jews. In this respect, the Babylonian Talmud has had much more impact. When referring to “the Talmud,” Jews specifically mean the Babylonian Talmud. The constant presence of the Babylonian Talmud in everyday life, being a mandatory part of Jewish religious education, as well as the obscurity of many of its passages gave rise to several commentaries. The most valuable is that by Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhak (1040–1105), who lived in France and is better known by the acronym of his name, Rashi. His commentary covers almost the entire Talmud, explaining the logical structure of each passage and giving explanations of obscure words. It is seen as an integral part of the Talmud and accompanies it as a separate column in all publications. In the Middle Ages it became customary to print all editions of the Talmud with the same number of pages, with fixed text for each page. Therefore, any edition of the Talmud consists of 2,947 sheets, or 5,894 pages. After Rashi, some European rabbis made supplementary commentaries on the Talmud, which are collectively called Tosafot (“additions”). In contrast to Rashi’s commentary, the Tosafot is not a continuous, sequential commentary, but rather a collection of individual comments, analyzing and explaining the meaning of passages left out by Rashi, or not fully explained by him. One of the tasks of Tosafists, who were authors of the Tosafot, was to eliminate inconsistencies in comments of the Amoraim. Thus, Tosafists played an important role in the development of Jewish textual criticism. The Tosafot became very popular and, as a rule, it was included in the print editions of the Talmud, together with Rashi’s commentaries. The proportion of Aramaic in the Babylonian Talmud is much greater than in the Jerusalem Talmud, which is explained by the Gemarah’s lengthier commentaries. The Aramaic of the Talmud is practically the same as the language of Mandean literature, but for understandable reasons it contains a large number of Hebraisms. In the Babylonian Talmud many Persian loanwords are also found, which is likewise a feature of Mandean Aramaic. In addition to servicing the Talmudic tradition, Aramaic was actively used by Babylonian Gaons of the 7th–11th centuries to record their official resolutions and draw up the so-called responsa, or the responses to written inquiries from other Jewish communities or individuals on the matters of Jewish law. The practice of writing responsa, which continues to this day in new forms (including the use of the Internet) and new languages, evolved into an independent genre of rabbinical literature, and eventually exceeded all others in volume. Babylonian Talmud on the Aramaic language. Among many topics in the Babylonian Talmud, there are several statements about the Aramaic language. The Talmud divides the languages as follows: the sacred language (Hebrew), the language of the Targum (Aramaic), and the 70 languages of the world. Thus, Aramaic occupies



an intermediate position between Hebrew and other languages. It possesses greater sanctity than the 70, as it is the language of some of the Tanakh passages, but less than Hebrew. This provision received an interesting development in Hasidism, 44 as a belief that Aramaic is equivalent to the intermediate realm between holiness and impurity. Holiness can be transmitted to other languages, but impurity can also penetrate into the sphere of holiness. The tractate Sotah of the Nashim order contains the recommendation by Yehuda Ha-Nasi not to pray in Aramaic, because the angels do not understand it and do not help those who pray in it. Then the Talmud quotes different opinions as to whether the angels understand Aramaic. Some believe that angels do not know any language other than Hebrew, while others believe that they read people’s minds and, therefore, understand any language; however, they perceive Aramaic as distorted Hebrew. Closely related to the debate on Aramaic and angels was one concerning the original language of mankind. The majority of rabbis believed that Adam and Eve spoke Hebrew, but some of them, backed by the Christian Aramean Bible commentators, were in favor of Aramaic. The disputes on the Aramaic language and its position in relation to Hebrew reflect the desire of some rabbis of Babylonia to reduce as much as possible the degree of penetration of Aramaic into Jewish sacred life, something that was easier said than done. Given the monopoly of Aramaic in the daily lives of Mesopotamian Jews, that reduction required certain concessions and compromises. Not surprisingly, another Talmudic passage reads: “Let Aramaic not be lightweight in your eyes, as the Torah treated it with respect.” Despite counteraction, Aramaic remained the main written language of the Jews, a very important part of their spiritual and religious life. To this day, it is impossible to become a rabbi without knowing Aramaic, otherwise it would be impossible to grasp the innermost meaning of the Talmud and the other fundamental writings of Judaism written in Aramaic. Therefore, the study of Aramaic remains an important part of Jewish religious education.

4.4.15. Masorah and Masoretes. In the context of Jewish intellectual activities in the Late Aramaic Period, the so-called Masorah (Hebrew “tradition”) was an important system of knowledge that ensured the preservation of the canonical texts. After Hebrew ceased to be a living language, the proper reading of sacred texts written in an abjad-type consonantal script was orally passed down from one generation of learned men to another for more than a millennium, and that inevitably led to various distortions and misinterpretations. There was an urgent need to clarify and codify the spelling, pronunciation, syntactical division, stress, and cantillation (ritual chanting). Around the 7th century this laborious and time-consuming work was undertaken by the Masoretes, who worked and taught in the Palestinian and Babyloni-

Hasidism is a spiritual and mystical trend in Judaism that emerged in Poland in the 18th century. 44



an yeshivas. They created special signs to indicate vowel sounds and rules of pronunciation and introduced them into the biblical texts. The idea of vocalizing previously purely consonantal texts was borrowed from Christian Arameans, and later the Arabs also borrowed it. The Palestinian and Babylonian Masoretes created several different systems of vocalization. The one eventually adopted was created by several generations of the Ben Asher family of Tiberias and was completed in the 10th century by Aaron ben Asher. This system is still used in Modern Hebrew. The Masoretes supplied with vowel signs not only the canonical texts in Hebrew but also those in Aramaic. Hence the texts of the Jewish canon came to be known as “Masoretic.” The same system of vocalization was also applied to Targumic, Talmudic, and other important Jewish Aramaic texts. During the Masoretic period Aramaic remained a living, spoken language, and the task of vocalization of Aramaic texts, especially those of the Middle and Late periods, should not have been as challenging as the work in Hebrew. It may be safely assumed that Masoretic Aramaic reproduces living Aramaic speech with some accuracy.

Fig. 59. A text written in the “square” script with Masoretic vocalization (Aleppo Codex)

4.4.16. Karaites. One of the sects among Babylonian Jews who used Aramaic as a literary language were the Karaites, or Karaim (Hebrew qara’im, “readers”). The Karaites recognize only the written laws of Judaism, recorded in the Tanakh, and reject the entire body of the “oral law” of the Mishnah. Thus, the Karaites are opposed to the followers of the mainstream Rabbinic Judaism, who believe that the Jewish religious law (halakha) is contained both in written and oral laws. Karaites insist on a literal understanding of the sacred texts, unlike Rabbinic Jews, who assume a hidden, secret meaning in them, something that reached its extreme manifestation in the Jewish mystical teaching of Kabbalah. The prerequisites for the emergence of Karaism appeared in the 7th–8th centuries. The rise and spread of the new religion, Islam, caused intellectual ferment among the Babylonian Jews who still counted among themselves the sympathizers



of the Sadducees, who together with the Pharisees and the Essenes were the main Jewish religious sects at the end of the Second Temple era. Several groups arose in Mesopotamia questioning the authority of the Talmudic law. They were consolidated and institutionalized through the activities of Anan ben David (715–795), who presented his views in the Sefer Ha-Mitzvot (“Book of Precepts”) written in Aramaic around the year 770. The Aramaic language of the Karaites did not differ from the language of the Rabbinic Jews as it appears in the Talmud. It was suggested that Anan ben David might have been influenced by the views of Abu Hanifa (699–767), the founder of one of the four schools of Muslim jurisprudence. Some parallels can be drawn also with Shia Islam, which also appeals to a perceived “original” doctrine, and rejects later interpretations. Karaism gained more solid ground in the 9th century thanks to the works by Binyamin ben Moshe Nahavendi, who introduced the term “Karaites,” and Daniel ben Moses al-Kumisi. It was also strengthened by the constant polemics with representatives of Rabbinic Judaism, fueled by the active missionary activities of the Karaites. Among the Rabbinic Jews, Saadia Gaon was particularly opposed to the Karaism. Karaism flourished in the 10th–11th centuries. This period saw numerous Karaite theologians, commentators, and grammarians who already wrote mostly in Arabic, which gradually supplanted Aramaic as the spoken and written language of the Babylonian Jews. The gradual departure of the Karaites from the Aramaic language was to a certain extent a conscious choice, because this language was deeply associated with the Talmudic tradition and Rabbinic literature. So when throughout the Middle East Aramaic began to yield its position to Arabic, the Karaites took advantage and adopted it. Arabic was on its way to become an international language of science, a kind of Eastern analogue of Latin. The Karaites also began to write in Hebrew, which for them, the supporters of a literal understanding of the sacred texts, was of particular symbolic value. The Karaites tried to replace Aramaic with Hebrew wherever possible. For example, unlike the Rabbinic Jews, who even today draft their traditional marriage contracts—ketubas—in Aramaic, the Karaites write their contracts in Hebrew. The “anti-Aramaic” movement was headed by the Karaite intellectuals of Jerusalem, who created a vast literature in Arabic and Old Hebrew, which is recognized as the “Golden Age” of Karaite culture. The Crusaders, who captured Jerusalem in 1099 and massacred or captured all Jews living in the city, both Rabbinic and Karaite, dealt a serious blow to Karaite activity in the Middle East. After Babylonia and Jerusalem, the Karaites moved their activity for a while to Arab Spain, which at that time was the main center of Jewish intellectual life. At the beginning of the second millennium, the Karaites moved to Egypt, where the government tolerated their doctrine. Around the same time a Karaite community emerged in the Byzantine Empire and lasted until the 16th century, leaving behind quite extensive literature.



In the 13th century, some of the Byzantine Karaites settled in Crimea and adopted a local Turkic language of the Kipchak group that over time evolved into a separate “Karaim language.” Thus, in Crimea the Karaites formed a new ethnoreligious group that was called Karaylar. 45 In the 14th century, the Lithuanian Prince Vytautas relocated part of the Crimean Karaites to Trakai, where their small community exists to this day. From Lithuania, the Karaites subsequently moved to Poland and Ukraine. After the inclusion of Crimea and Lithuania into the Russian Empire, the Karaites were given some privileges, including the right to own land. In an effort to further improve their position, Karaites began to promote their fundamental differences from the majority of the Jews, emphasizing, in particular, their loyalty to the Russian crown. This eventually alienated the Karaites from the Rabbinic Jews with whom they had previously peacefully coexisted. The most prominent defender of Karaite rights was Abraham Firkovich (1786– 1874). He reinvented Karaite history, declaring Crimean Karaites descendants of the “lost tribes of Israel,” and connecting them to the Khazars of the Volga region. This would free his people from the responsibility for Jesus’ death. In 1863, the Karaites were given equal rights with the rest of the population and were no longer subject to the restrictions imposed by Tsarist Russia on the Jews. In 1939, on the initiative of the head of Polish and Lithuanian Karaites, Seraya Shapshal, an active proponent of “dejudaization” and “turkization” of the Crimean Karaims, the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Nazi Germany decreed that the Karaites were not part of the Jewish community and that their “racial psychology” was not Jewish. As a result, the Karaites were spared the horrors of the Holocaust, and only at Babi Yar shared the fate of other Jews. Up to this day there is no consensus, including among Karaites themselves, on whether the Crimean Karaylar are either part of the Jewish people or an independent Turkic ethnic group. Currently, Karaite communities exist in Israel, Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, and other countries. Their estimated number worldwide is about 50,000. Israel recognizes the Karaites as part of the Jewish people, and they are subject to the “Law of Return.” 4.4.17. Kabbalah and the book of “Zohar.” Since the days of the Babylonian captivity, Aramaic was the main language of the Jewish Diaspora. However, by the beginning of the second millennium only a small part of the Jews of Mesopotamia spoke Aramaic, while the rest adopted the languages of the surrounding peoples, like Arabic, Persian, and European languages. Nevertheless, even after the intellectual decline of Babylonian Jewry and the relocation of the centers of Jewish learning to Europe, most Jews preserved the centuries-long traditions of using Aramaic, and in the late Middle Ages religious and philosophical works were still composed in that language. The best-known medieval Jewish work in Aramaic is the “Zohar” (“Radiance”), which contains the fundamentals of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical 45

In this word the Hebrew plural suffix -im is replaced by the Turkic plural suffix -lar.



teaching. The Kabbalists claim that the “Zohar” was written by one of the Palestinian Tannaim, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (110–190), better known as Rashbi, and his son, Rabbi Eleazar. The book then allegedly went missing but was rediscovered in the Middle Ages. The “Zohar” first appeared in Spain and was popularized by Rabbi Moshe ben Shem Tov de Leon (1250–1305), who was the first to attribute the authorship to Rashbi. Disputes over the authorship of the “Zohar” continued throughout the Middle Ages, and up to this day there is no consensus on this issue. Most scholars agree that the “Zohar” was composed in Europe after the 13th century and its author, or at least the compiler or the editor, could have been Moshe ben Shem Tov himself. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that the language of the book combines elements of Aramaic dialects from different periods and regions and bears traces of the influence of Spanish vocabulary and syntax.

Fig. 60. The title page of “Zohar” published in Cremona in 1558



The “Zohar” consists of 27 chapters and is a commentary on the Torah. It contains extensive esoteric discourses on the nature of God and the human soul, the origins and structure of the universe, the nature of sin, and so on. It enjoyed great prestige that went beyond the Jewish communities. In medieval Europe there were even Christian Kabbalists.

4.4.18. Aramaic in modern Jewish usage. The Late Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era were marked by the intensification of literary activity in Hebrew. Jewish scholars were searching for a new literary standard and vocabulary that would better reflect the realities of contemporary life. The process of modernizing Hebrew and its revival as a spoken language began in Palestine in the second half of the 19th century. To some extent, Aramaic influenced this process, as the Aramaic material, especially the vocabulary of the Babylonian Talmud, was widely used in the creation of new Hebrew words, particularly scientific and legal terms. Modern Hebrew has naturally inherited the Aramaic “square” script, which Jews had been using for more than two millennia. It is also used in Yiddish, a Jewish language based on a medieval German dialect, and appears in scientific literature for recording samples of various Aramaic dialects.

‫א בג ד ה וז חטי כ ךל מ םנ ןס עפ ף צ ץק רש ת‬ Fig. 61. The Aramaic-Hebrew “square” script in its modern variety

Aramaic is still used by Jews as the language of marriage contracts, the ketubas, and some prayers, such as the memorial prayer “Kaddish,” 46 “Kol Nidrei” (a short prayer-statement recited on Yom Kippur 47), “Kol Hamira,” “Yekum Purkan,” and some others. Many Jewish communities have preserved the tradition of reading excerpts from Targums along with the readings of the Torah in Hebrew. A part of the traditional text recited during the Passover feast is in Aramaic: ha lahma anya di akhalu avahathana be-ar‘a de-mitsrayim (“Here is the meager bread that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt”). At the end of the Passover feast Jews sing an Aramaic song Khad gadya (“One kid”), a metaphorical representation of Jewish history. This song is “May His great name be exalted and sanctified in the world which He created according to His will! May He establish His kingdom, and may His salvation blossom and His anointed be near during your lifetime and during your days and during the lifetimes of all Israel, speedily and very soon! And say, Amen. May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity! Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, above and beyond all the blessings, hymns, praises and consolations that are uttered in the world! And say, Amen.” 47 Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”), is the holiest of all Jewish holidays, a day for atonement and repentance. 46



considered one of the few surviving examples of medieval Hebrew poetry in Aramaic, the traditions of which were lost after Aramaic ceased to be the spoken language of the Jews. Aramaic idioms and whole proverbs are often used by Modern Hebrew speakers. 48 Several Modern Aramaic dialects are still spoken by the so-called “Kurdish Jews,” the last remnants of the once-thriving Jewish community of Adiabene.

Fig. 62. A traditional Jewish marriage contract (ketuba) in Aramaic

At least one such idiom, the ancient magic spell Abra-Kadabra, roughly meaning “let the said be true,” is widely known to other peoples, although very few individuals are aware of its Aramaic origin. The idiom has gained new popularity through the Harry Potter series of books, in which, reinvented as avada-kedavra, it appears as a killing curse. In the fantasy genre, Aramaic is often presented as the language of ancient magic, esoteric texts, and supernatural beings. 48


OSRHOENE AND THE ARAMEAN AWAKENING 5.1. The House of the Abgarids. The most significant of the Late Eastern Aramaic dialects was that of Osrhoene, a small Aramean kingdom that emerged in North Mesopotamia in 132 BC after the fall of the Seleucid state. Osrhoene was the second Aramean state, after Palmyra, that was formed after the ancient Aramean kingdoms fell, and it ceased to exist three decades before Aurelian’s capture of Zenobia in 272 AD. Twenty-eight rulers of Osrhoene are known; many of them called themselves “kings,” wore a diadem, a tiara, and a scepter, and minted their own coins. The Roman sources usually referred to them as “phylarchs,” which means “tribal ruler.” Aryu (“Lion,” 132–127) was the first king of Osrhoene and the founder of its ruling dynasty. Virtually nothing is known of him and several kings who followed him, their names being shrouded in an aura of legend. The first historically authentic king of Osrhoene was Abgar I Piqa (94–68), the ally of the Armenian King Tigranes II. Nearly half of the subsequent kings also bore the name “Abgar,” and for this reason the ruling dynasty of Osrhoene is commonly referred to as “the Abgarids,” and occasionally, “the House of Aryu.” 1 The name “Abgar” is first mentioned on a tombstone from Nerab (7th cent. BC) and later in the Palmyrene inscriptions. It is traditionally interpreted as “lame,” and remains in use to this day. The second popular dynastic name of the Abgarids was “Manu.” Four of the twenty-eight of them were called Abgar bar Manu, another four were Manu bar Abgar, and three were Manu bar Manu. There are also kings with names of Parthian and Arab origin. The presence of Arabic names, in particular those ending in -u, like Nabatean names, led many scholars to believe that the ruling house of Osrhoene could have been of Nabatean or another Arab origin. Yet the Arab origin, except for the names, Abgar I may not have belonged to the family of Aryu, but was, in fact, the founder of the second (and last) dynasty of the kings of Osrhoene. 1




did not manifest itself in any other way, and many of the Abgarids proved to be proponents and protectors of local Aramean heritage and traditions. The natural boundaries of Osrhoene were the Euphrates to the west and Armenia to the north. Its territory was prone to constant changes from the other sides. To the east, the Abgarids were able to extend their power up to the ancient Aramean city of Nisibis, and sometimes as far as Adiabene, especially in the 1st century AD. Osrhoene maintained good relations with Adiabene, both states being part of the Parthian cultural and political world. Trade relations, in which Nisibis played an important role, were especially active. Family ties could have existed between the ruling dynasties of both kingdoms.

Map 2. North Mesopotamia in the first centuries AD

Edessa. The capital of Osrhoene was called Urhai or Orhai in Aramaic, which in Greek was transliterated Ορρα or Ορροα. In Armenian, it sounded almost the same, Urha, and in Arabic it was al-Ruha. Some scholars assume that this name originates from the name of an Aramean or North Arabian tribe that could have founded the city; according to Roman historian Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD), the tribe was called Orrhoei. The name “Osrhoene” also presumably comes from the same name. Under Seleucus I Nicator (358–281 BC), around 303, the city was rebuilt, populated by Greek colonists and veterans, and given the Greek name Edessa (Εδεσσα) after a city in Macedonia that exists today. It is under this name that the city later attained



its fame. 2 Under the Seleucid Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BC), the city for some time was called “Antioch by the Kallirhoe” (Αντιόχεια η επί Καλλιρρόης). The Byzantines tried to rename the city “Justinopolis,” but the name did not catch on.

5.2. The political history of Osrhoene. Osrhoene, which was a buffer state in a dangerous zone of contact between the Roman Empire and Parthia, managed to keep its shaky independence between the two superpowers for three and a half centuries. Formally, it was considered a vassal of Parthia, whose political and cultural influence was very strong. Among the many epithets of Edessa in Christian Aramaic poetry the expression “daughter of the Parthians” is found. The Parthian influence can be found in the designations of some of the state positions of Osrhoene, such as pasgriba (similar to prime minister, or crown-prince), nuhadra (head of the city administration of Edessa), geziraya (guard), and others. The personal secretary and archivist of the king was called tabulara (from Latin tabularius), while officials of middle and lower ranks were called by the Aramaic word sharrira. Local aristocracy played an important role in the political and social life of Osrhoene, and the king was advised by a council made up of its representatives. The emerging statehood of Osrhoene benefited greatly from the unsuccessful campaign by Roman general Crassus against the Parthian-Armenian coalition in which he was killed in 53 BC at the battle of Harran (and his head was thrown on the stage of a theater in the Armenian capital of Artashat during a performance). The Parthians also killed King Abgar II (68–52), who had assisted Pompey and thereby managed to maintain his relative independence. Having suffered such humiliation, Rome in the next century and a half preferred not to violate the border with Parthia along the Euphrates. At the same time, it was becoming increasingly difficult for Parthia to control Osrhoene on the very periphery of its reach. As a result of this favorable combination of circumstances, Osrhoene entered a period in which its statehood blossomed. The first to overcome the fear of the Parthians was the emperor Trajan, who launched a campaign beyond the Euphrates in 114 AD. During that campaign, Trajan’s commander Lucius Quietus seized and destroyed Edessa and killed King Abgar VII bar Ezad (109–116), who had at first taken a pro-Roman position but then leaned to the side of the Parthians. For the next two years Osrhoene was under direct Roman rule, then the Romans put the Parthian prince Parthamaspates on the throne. The Abgarids were restored to power in 123 with Manu VII bar Ezad, but Osrhoene remained as a Roman protectorate with nearly the same status as Judah under the Herodian dynasty, whose representatives were called Rex socius et amicus populi Romani, “king-ally and friend of the Roman people.” The Arameans themselves rarely called the city Edessa, preferring its original Aramaic name. The Armenians used both names. Edessa, for example, is used in the title of the famous poem, “Lament on Edessa” by the medieval Armenian poet Nerses Shnorhali (1102– 1173). 2



In 163, Parthia succeeded in overthrowing the son of Manu VII, Manu VIII bar Manu, bringing their own Abgarid protégé to power in Edessa, Wael bar Sahra. He minted coins with Aramaic inscriptions and the images of himself and his Parthian suzerain. However, in 165 Romans restored the status quo and returned Manu VIII to power. Osrhoene reached its heyday under Abgar VIII the Great (177–212), who during the first two decades of his reign tried to pursue an independent foreign policy. In 193, together with King Narsai of Adiabene, Abgar even attempted to win Nisibis over from the Romans. However, under the Emperor Septimius Severus (193– 211), who launched two campaigns against Parthia in 195 and 197, Abgar’s “greatness” came to an end. Like Herod the Great in Judah before him, he was reduced to “friend and ally” of Rome, took a Roman name “Lucius Aelius Aurelius Septimius Abgar,” which can be seen on his coins, and even had to send his sons to Rome as “honorary” hostages. On a part of Abgar’s territory, the Romans created a separate province of “Osrhoene” under a procurator. At the same time, the Romans recognized Abgar’s royal status and even honored him in Rome with a pompous reception. The true greatness of Abgar VIII was in his patronage of arts and sciences. His court was the gathering place of the intellectual elite of Osrhoene, led by the philosopher and writer Bardaisan. Under Abgar the Great, Edessa emerged as a major center of Aramaic-language Hellenism and was nicknamed “Athens of the East.” In several Aramaic texts relating to the pre-Christian period of the history of Osrhoene, Edessa is also called “the great city, the mother of the cities of Mesopotamia.” Edessa and other cities experienced a construction boom, but only two Corinthian columns of the famous Edessa citadel (“Nimrod’s columns”) survive from that period. Simultaneously Osrhoene experienced economic growth. Its prosperity was guaranteed by a favorable location on the Great Silk Road and the caravan routes linking Armenia with Syria, and like Palmyra, Osrhoene received considerable income from taxes and duties. Its leading role in the economy of North Mesopotamia is attested by a large number of Osrhoene coins found in Palmyra, DuraEuropos, and Adiabene. Emperor Caracalla struck the final blow on Osrhoene when in 214 he lured King Abgar IX and his sons to Rome and killed them. Osrhoene lost independence and was incorporated into the Roman Empire under the name “Colonia Marcia Edessenorum.” Ironically, Caracalla himself was killed in 217 at the walls of Edessa on the way to Harran, where he intended to visit the temple of the Aramean moon god Sahar. Up to 242, power in Edessa nominally belonged to two more Abgarids, but then Rome eliminated these last vestiges of Aramean statehood since the new Sasanian threat in Iran demanded from Rome maximum consolidation of its positions in Mesopotamia. The last ruler of Edessa, Abgar X, settled in Rome in 242, where the tomb of his wife Hodda still exists. According to a historical chronicle of the late 8th century, the list of the kings of Osrhoene is as follows:



Aryu (132–127 BC) Abdu bar Mazur (127–120) Fradhasht bar Gebaru (120–115) Bakru I bar Fradhasht (115–112) Bakru II bar Bakru (112–94) Manu I (94) Abgar I Piqa (94–68) Abgar II bar Abgar (68–52) Manu II (52–34) Pacorus (34–29) Abgar III (29–26) Abgar IV Summaqa (“Red,” 26–23) Manu III Saflul (23–4) Abgar V Ukkama (“Black”) bar Manu (4 BC–7 AD) Manu IV bar Manu (7–13) Abgar V bar Manu (13–50, second reign) Manu V bar Abgar (50–57) Manu VI bar Abgar (57–71) Abgar VI bar Manu (71–91) Sanatruk (91–109) Abgar VII bar Ezad (109–116) Roman rule (116–118) Yalur (118–122, together with Parthamaspates) Parthamaspates (122–123) Manu VII bar Ezad (123–139) Manu VIII bar Manu (139–163) Wael bar Sahra (163–165) Manu VIII bar Manu (165–177, second) Abgar VIII the Great (177–212) Abgar IX Severus bar Abgar (212–214) Manu IX bar Abgar (214–240) Abgar X Frahat bar Manu (240–242)

The territorial reform of the emperor Diocletian (284–305) made the province of Osrhoene part of the Roman diocese “Oriens” (“East”). After the fall of the Roman Empire, Osrhoene became part of the Byzantine Empire, but some of its territory was ceded to Iran. In 638, Edessa was conquered by the Arabs, but in 1031 was retaken by the Byzantines. Then, the city was alternately controlled by the Arabs and the Byzantines, the Seljuk Turks (1087), the Crusaders, who founded the County of Edessa (1099–1144), the Egyptian Mamluks, and finally the Ottoman Empire (since 1517). During the Ottoman period, the city became better known as Urfa, a phonetic variety of its original Aramaic name Urhai. Until 1915, Armenians constituted more than a third of its population of 60,000. Today, the city, officially called Şanlıurfa, is located in Turkey and is populated by Turks and Kurds.

5.3. Ethno-linguistic, social, and cultural outline of Osrhoene. Throughout its history, Edessa was a multiethnic city. According to the Roman historians Pliny the



Elder and Tacitus (56–117 AD), Arabs constituted the majority of its population. This, however, seems unlikely because not enough Arabs were present in North Mesopotamia to gain a majority in a prominent city like Edessa. Perhaps the Roman historians referred to as “Arabs” the Aramean semi-nomads who were still significant in numbers during the Late Antiquity and were attracted by Edessa. The Arabs densely populated a neighborhood to the east of Edessa and had their own Sheikh, called arabarchos in Greek, and shallita d-arav (“ruler of the Arabs”), in Aramaic. One of these Arab rulers was named Tirdat bar Adona. In addition to Arameans and Arabs, the city counted many Greeks, Parthians, Armenians, and Jews. Arameans were also in majority in other major cities of Osrhoene, such as Harran, 3 Mabbug (ancient Manbog), Serugh, Reshayna, Tella, Raqqa (Kallinikos), as well as most villages. Aramaic was the dominant spoken language in Edessa and all of Osrhoene, as well as the official one, as evidenced by Aramaic inscriptions on the bronze coins of the kings and administrative inscriptions carved on the fortress walls of Edessa and other cities. Osrhoene was a Hellenistic state that had experienced not only Parthian but also Seleucid Syria’s cultural influence. Many Greeks had lived in the city since the time of the Seleucids, and their impact was quite significant, especially on the system of administration, the architecture, the decorative arts, the social status of women and women’s fashion (interestingly, men’s fashion, especially the hats that served as indicators of the social status, were mostly influenced by the Parthian style). The Edessans were known for their pursuit of luxury, typical of the Hellenistic cities of Syria. The city had public baths and a hippodrome. Sports were quite popular, especially archery, in which the Edessans were very skillful. Hunting was a favorite pastime. Many mosaics were unearthed in Edessa, some containing the images of the characters of Greek mythology, such as Zeus and Hera, Andromeda and Perseus, holding the Gorgon’s head, Achilles and Patroclus, Orpheus, and others. Roman influence, which became more pronounced with the final inclusion of Osrhoene in the Roman Empire, spread through the practice of using a Roman name along with a name of local origin, for example, Aurelius Hafsay or Abgar Severus, by representatives of the royal family, aristocracy, and ordinary people. The Greek language, which dominated the region under the Seleucids, was spoken in Abgarid Edessa outside the Greek community, as many among the political and intellectual elite centered around the royal court knew Greek and were familiar with the literature. Interest in the Greek language increased from the end of the 2nd century under Abgar the Great, and many rich people sent their sons to study in the Greek schools of Syria. During the same period, Abgarid coins started displaying Greek inscriptions. Several bilingual, Aramaic-Greek inscriptions have also survived. In the early texts written in the Aramaic dialect of Edessa a number of Greek words can be found, which again indicates a certain degree of influence of the Greek lan-


Harran had a status of a Roman colonia and in Osrhoene was a kind of a “free city.”



guage. This is similar to the situation with the Aramaic dialects of Nabatea and Palmyra, which were also influenced by Greek. At the same time, some Edessan elites ostentatiously ignored the Greek language or did not acknowledge its importance, holding to their ancient native tongue. Many of the Abgarids, first of all, Abgar the Great, were seen as protectors of the local Aramean traditions. The rich cultural life of Osrhoene, with its emphasis on Aramaic-language philosophy and literature, was a kind of Aramean counteraction to Greek-language Hellenism. Edessa became the place where Arameans finally succeeded in depriving the Jews of their centuries-old domination in the literary activities in Aramaic and started a rich literature, which eventually exceeded in volume everything written in all other Aramaic dialects put together. The many cultures that flourished in Osrhoene—Aramean, Graeco-Roman, Parthian, Jewish, and Armenian—were not isolated from each other, but existed in various symbiotic combinations. To a certain degree, Edessa was a cosmopolitan city. Edessan Jews were highly integrated into society, being mainly engaged in trade and crafts, yet they rigorously preserved their ethnic and religious identity. Many had names of Parthian, Greek, and Roman origin, and it was not uncommon for them to bury their dead in cemeteries shared with Gentiles.

5.4. Religion in Osrhoene. The religious life in Osrhoene was also diverse and rich. Edessa was one of the centers of the worship of Hadad and Atargatis, and the city had sacred ponds dedicated to this divine couple. In Christian times, the ponds were associated with the patriarch Abraham, and the name of the city was connected with Ur of the Chaldees where Abraham was born. The legend of Abraham’s visit to the ponds lives on among the inhabitants of the city to this day. One legend spoke of Edessa being founded by Nimrod. The sources of the Daisan River (Greek “Skyrtos”) that flows through Edessa were considered sacred. As a center of worship, Edessa was rivaled, if not surpassed in importance, by Harran (Latin “Carrhae”), located 40 kilometers to the southeast. The city is mentioned in the inscriptions of Tiglath-Pileser I (1114–1076 BC) as a strategically important point at the intersection of roads that linked Damascus to Nineveh and Carchemish. Harran is also mentioned in the Old Testament in connection with Terah, the father of Abraham, and Laban, father of Leah and Rachel. Finally, the city gained fame thanks to the Battle of Carrhae of 53 BC, which cost Crassus his head. Harran, famous for the purity of its Aramaic language, was the traditional center of the worship of the Aramean moon-god Sahar (Sin), identical to SumerianMesopotamian Nanna. He was usually depicted as a bearded old man on a winged bull. His main symbols were a crescent moon, a bull, and a tripod. A crescent can also be seen on Abgarid coins and, surrounded by stars, on the tiaras of the kings of Osrhoene. Sahar, who was revered in Harran as the “father of the gods” and “creator of all things,” was the head of the local pantheon. It included Sahar’s wife, “Great Lady” Ningal (Niqqal), known in both Canaanite and Mesopotamian mythologies, his son Shamash, the sun-god, and daughter Bat Niqqal, who is related to the Sumerian Inanna, and later was associated with Ishtar-Astarte, and partly with Aphrodite.



The last Neo-Babylonian king, Nabonidus of the Chaldean dynasty (556–539 BC), who spent the last years of his life in Harran, proclaimed Sahar-Sin supreme deity instead of the Babylonian Marduk with the support of the Aramean priesthood and rebuilt its temple in Harran, which existed from time immemorial. In his inscriptions, Nabonidus calls the Harran temple of Sahar ehulhul, “the house of great joy.” Until the beginning of the Muslim era, Harran also housed temples dedicated to different planets. The worship of lunar deities and celestial bodies contributed to the development of astrology, for which Harran was particularly famous. The priests of Sahar and other deities of the Harran pantheon had a profound knowledge of the laws governing the course of the celestial bodies and were skillful in keeping calendars. The temple of Sahar in Harran, which was rebuilt dozens of times before and after Nabonidus, was closed at the end of the 4th century. However, Harran remained a major pagan center until the reign of the Abbasid caliphs. Despite periodic harassment by Muslim rulers, Harran’s citizens generally enjoyed freedom of religion, unheard of for a pagan cult, probably because under the Muslims they were usually identified with the Mandeans-Sabians, whom Muslims considered “People of the Book,” and did not persecute. The presence of a community of moonworshippers in Harran can be traced up to the 12th century, the time of Saladin, who leveled the remnants of the ancient temple of Sahar and built a mosque upon it. A small Turkish village exists now on the site of the ancient and glorious city of Harran.

Fig. 63. The Birecik inscription (6 AD)

Mabbug, called Hierapolis (“holy city”) by the Greeks, was another important city of Osrhoene located to the southwest of Edessa. Since ancient times Mabbug had been the main center of worship of Atargatis, Hadad’s consort, who was also considered the patroness of the city. In the Hellenistic era, the ancient cult of Atargatis experienced a new upsurge, and her popularity spread far beyond Aramean



Mesopotamia, reaching as far as Sicily. 4 Authors of Late Antiquity, who usually identified Atargatis with Aphrodite, even though by her functions she was closer to Hera, retell many legends associated with her. According to one legend, Atargatis was the mother of the Assyrian queen Semiramis. Another one tells how Atargatis was rescued from the river by a big fish, which explains why her worshippers did not eat fish and often depicted the goddess as a mermaid. As in Edessa, there was a pond in Mabbug with sacred fish dedicated to Atargatis. An altar at the center of the pond served as a place for sacred mysteries, which the worshipers would swim up to with their offerings. Valuable information on the cult of Atargatis in the Hellenistic period can be found in the work of the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata (ca. 120–180), “On the Syrian Goddess” (De Dea Syria). He writes that in the Mabbug temple of the “Syrian goddess,” which was built in the Ionic style with a gilded roof and doors, more than 300 priests performed sacred mysteries. According to Lucian, the cult of Atargatis had phallic features. Before the temple of the goddess phallus-like obelisks stood, and the people of Mabbug used to decorate them once a year during a festival. The mysteries were often accompanied by orgies and self-mutilations. 5 The temple of Atargatis in Mabbug had a shelter for animals, similar to the shelter at the temple of Allat in Palmyra. Lucian reports that there were free roaming bulls, horses, eagles, bears, and lions in it, which were considered sacred. In addition to these deities, the people of Osrhoene used to worship other Aramean and Semitic deities, such as Baal-Shamayn, Nebu, and Bel. The Jews were mostly Rabbinic and maintained close contacts with the large and influential Jewish communities of Nisibis and Adiabene. In Edessa, there were at least two synagogues. The Arabs worshiped an eagle, but it could be the same Baal-Shamayn, often depicted as an eagle. In the 2nd–6th centuries, the adherents of the traditional ancient beliefs in Osrhoene were joined by such new groups as the Manicheans, Gnostics, Elkesaites, and others (the spread of Christianity in Osrhoene will be discussed in detail in the next chapter). 5.5. Early samples of the Aramaic dialect of Edessa. Since the establishment of the Abgarid dynasty in Edessa, the Eastern Aramaic dialect of the city was used as the official written language, including for public administration and cult. A local variety of the Aramaic script, later known as Estrangela, was in use. It was an inter-

In the Graeco-Roman world, Atargatis was also called Derketo, or just “the Syrian Goddess” (Dea Syria). 5 Bardaisan writes in his “Book of the Laws of Countries”: “In Syria and in Edessa there was the custom of self-emasculation in honor of Tar’ata, but when King Abgar had come to the faith, he ordered that every man who emasculated himself should have his hand chopped off. And from that day to this no one emasculates himself in the territory of Edessa” (English translation from The Book of the laws of Countries: Dialogue on Fate of Bardaisan of Edessa by H.J.W. Drijvers.) 4



connected, cursive script that originated and developed in Edessa in pre-Christian times and had certain similarities with Palmyrene cursive. Over 100 Edessan inscriptions survive from the pagan period. The oldest is the funerary inscription from Birt (modern Birecik), dating from 6 AD. It was made on behalf of Zarbin, commandant of the local fortress. The second oldest (73 AD), is an inscription on behalf of Manu discovered in Serrin, southwest of Edessa. The latest inscription dates back to 243. Most samples of the Aramaic dialect of Edessa are short epigraphic inscriptions; as a rule, they include various types of dedications and epitaphs, such as “I, so and so, in a certain year made this gravestone for myself and my descendants.” There are fewer inscriptions with religious content. Some of these inscriptions are made on behalf of a particular Abgarid ruler, which confirms that Abgarids, or at least the earliest of them, preferred Aramaic over Greek. The most famous of the royal inscriptions is the dedication to the daughter of pasgriba, Queen Shalmat (presumably the wife of Abgar the Great), carved on one of two Corinthian columns of Edessa.

Fig. 64. The Serrin inscription (73 AD)

Fig. 65. A dedication to Queen Shalmat on “Nimrod’s column” in Edessa



Of particular interest are the mosaic tombstones of Edessa featuring the portraits of the deceased and short Aramaic inscriptions. During the 20th century, many such mosaics were discovered in Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Syria. Most of the mosaics were destroyed by local antique dealers who disassembled them and sold them in smaller parts. They are known today only from photographs and sketches. An inscription next to one of the mosaic portraits reads “Abgar bar Manu”; presumably, this is the image of Abgar the Great himself.

Fig. 66. Edessan mosaic tombstones with Aramaic inscriptions



Mara bar Serapion. Three legal texts written on leather in a kind of shorthand Estrangela are valuable specimens of the Aramaic language of Edessa. These texts belong to the middle of the 3rd century AD and contain legal terminology known from Aramaic inscriptions of the Achaemenid period. The only surviving example of pre-Christian fiction in the Edessan dialect was written in the period from the last third of the 1st century AD to the beginning of the 3rd century. It is a letter by Mara bar Serapion, a Stoic from Samosata, addressed to his son. Mara, separated from his son because of a war, receives news about him from his mentor. The mentor praises the young man’s zeal for sciences, his noble thoughts, and good character. The exiled Mare uses the opportunity to write a letter to his son. Realizing that he will not see his son again, Mara composes the letter as a spiritual testament, written with passionate and inspired language. The letter contains a reference to the execution by the Jews of their “wise king,” and some scholars consider this an indirect confirmation of the historicity of Jesus Christ. 6 A 7th century manuscript with the text of Mara bar Serapion’s letter is currently in the British Museum. There was a royal archive in Edessa, widely known outside Osrhoene, but historical-chronological Aramaic texts from the Abgarid period did not survive. It is believed that some parts of the “Chronicle of Edessa,” an anonymous historical work drawn up in the middle of the 6th century, originate from the records of the royal archive of Edessa. The most famous of these fragments is the description of the devastating floods in Edessa in 201 caused by the overflow of the Daisan River.

“What else can we say, when the wise are forcibly dragged off by tyrants, their wisdom is captured by insults, and their minds are oppressed and without defense? What advantage did the Athenians gain from murdering Socrates? Famine and plague came upon them as a punishment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates is not dead, because of Plato; neither is Pythagoras, because of the statue of Juno; nor is the wise king, because of the ‘new law’ he laid down.” (English translation from Jesus outside the New Testament: an introduction to the ancient evidence by Robert E. Van Voorst.) 6


THE SPREAD OF CHRISTIANITY IN OSRHOENE 6.1. The spread of Christianity among Arameans. The evolution of Christianity into a separate religion, distinct from Judaism, began in Antioch, largely thanks to the activities of the Apostle Paul. It was in this city that the words “Christians” and “Christianity” were first spoken. At that time Antioch was a Hellenistic city, where Greek was widely spoken and used. However, a large part of its inhabitants were Arameans, and Aramaic was also quite common, especially among the middle and lower strata of the population and in city environments. This suggests that the first Christian Arameans could have appeared in Antioch. Nevertheless, the spread of Christianity among the Arameans is traditionally associated with Edessa. Geographical proximity to Palestine and Antioch contributed to Osrhoene’s becoming one of the first countries where Christianity spread in the eastern direction. As was the case in many other countries, Christianity, more precisely, still Judeo-Christianity, initially spread among the Jews of Edessa, and only then among the Arameans and other ethnic groups. The Eastern Christian church tradition, including the Armenian, claims that King Abgar V Ukkama (“Black”), who ruled during Jesus’ lifetime, was among the converts to Christianity. Scholars who have tried to identify the historical basis of this tradition suggest that in reality it could be Abgar VIII the Great (177–212), but there is no historical evidence to support this theory. “The Teaching of Addai” and the legend of King Abgar and Jesus. The legend of King Abgar’s conversion is preserved in the Aramaic apocryphal text “Teaching of Addai,” which also exists in the Armenian version. It begins with the story of correspondence between Abgar and Jesus. The king, who suffered from an illness, writes a letter to Jesus asking him to come to Edessa and heal him. 1 In his reply Je-

“Abgar Ukkama, to Jesus, the Good Physician, who has appeared in the country of Jerusalem. My Lord: Peace. I have heard of Thee and of Thy healing, that it is not by medicines and roots Thou healest, but by Thy word Thou openest the eyes of the blind, Thou 1




sus rejects the invitation, but promises to send one of his disciples instead. 2 The emissaries sent by Abgar to Jerusalem bring back the image of Jesus drawn by Hannan (Ananias), and the king reverently places it in his palace. After the Resurrection of Jesus, the Apostle Thomas sends to Edessa its native Addai, a Jew by birth. In Edessa, Addai heals Abgar and converts him to Christianity together with the priests and the elders. He accompanies his preaching with many miracles, ordains priests, and establishes the Church of Edessa. Abgar wants to reward Addai with rich gifts, but Addai rejects them and continues to preach in other cities, converting many pagans to the Christian faith. He reaches the Phoenician city of Berit (today’s Beirut), where he founds a church and dies in the same city in the year 44. According to Armenian sources, Addai arrives in Armenia, where he dies a martyr’s death at the hand of the Armenian King Sanatruk, in the city of Shavarshavan in Armenia’s Artaz region. In addition to the story of correspondence of Abgar and Jesus and the image of Jesus, the “Teaching of Addai” also contains a few minor side storylines. Eusebius of Caesarea (263–340), the historian of early Christianity, a whole century before the estimated time of composition of the “Teaching” included the story of Jesus and Abgar, and the content of their letters, in his “Ecclesiastical History.” He also mentions that the original Aramaic letter of Abgar to Jesus was kept in the royal archive of Edessa and was used by him as a primary source. If such a document did exist, then it should have been some early version of the “Teaching of Addai,” or a brief archival record from which it descends. The texts of both letters in the “Teaching” and the “Ecclesiastical History” are more or less the same. The most significant difference is the final phrase promising Edessa safety, “Thy city makest the lame to walk, cleansest the lepers, and makest the deaf to hear. And unclean spirits and lunatics, and those tormented, them Thou healest by Thy word; Thou also raisest the dead. And when I heard of these great wonders which Thou doest, I decided in my mind that either Thou art God, who hast come down from heaven and doest these things, or Thou art the Son of God, who doest all these things. Therefore, I have written to request of Thee to come to me who adore Thee, and to heal the disease which I have, as I believe in Thee. This also I have heard, that the Jews murmur against Thee and persecute Thee, and even seek to crucify Thee, and contemplate treating Thee cruelly. I possess one small and beautiful city, and it is sufficient for both to dwell in it in quietness.” (English translation by George Phillips, 1876) 2 “Blessed art thou, who, although thou hast not seen Me, believest in Me, for it is written of Me, Those who see Me will not believe in Me, and those who see Me not, will believe in me. But as to that which thou hast written to Me, that I should come to thee, that for which I was sent here is now finished, and I am going up to my Father, who sent me, and when I have gone up to Him, I will send to thee one of my disciples, who will cure the disease which thou hast, and restore thee to health; and all who are with thee he will convert to everlasting life. Thy city shall be blessed, and no enemy shall again become master of it for ever.” (English translation by George Phillips, 1876)



shall be blessed, and no enemy shall again become master of it for ever,” which is not found in the “Ecclesiastical History.” Thanks to this phrase, which later was included in the Greek and other translations, the texts of the letters were considered guardian talismans for cities, including Edessa, and were often inscribed on the city walls or special steles. The story of Jesus’ image was also unknown to Eusebius. Instead of Addai, Eusebius’ narrative speaks of Thaddeus, one of the Seventy Disciples 3 mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. The historian apparently sought to make the story of Abgar’s conversion more believable, as no Addai is mentioned in the canonical Gospels. However, from the scientific and historical point of view Addai is a more authentic character than Thaddeus, because he might have well been a real missionary who lived and preached in Osrhoene. In any case, the identification of Addai with “Thaddeus of the Seventy” did not cause any doubts among subsequent Christian authors. There was also a tendency to identify Addai with “Thaddeus of the Twelve,” as evidenced by a short apocryphal “Acts of the Holy Apostle Thaddeus, one of the Twelve,” which informs that “Thaddeus went to Abgar and baptized him and his entire house.” Thanks to Eusebius of Caesarea the legend of Abgar spread throughout the Byzantine cultural area and became very popular among the Eastern Christians, manifesting itself in a wide variety of versions (Armenian, Georgian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Ethiopic, Coptic, and Slavonic), often very different from the original. The texts of the letters by Abgar and Jesus were believed to possess miraculous powers; they were transferred onto fabric, metal, and marble and used as talismans and amulets. During Lent, fragments of the letters were read during church services. The story of the correspondence between Abgar and Jesus, as well as the story of the image of Jesus, in one redaction or another were retold by the Armenian historian Movses Khorenatsi (5th century), the Byzantine author Evagrius Scholasticus (537–594), the Orthodox theologian John of Damascus (675–749), and many other Christian writers. Evagrius was the first to declare Jesus’ image to have been “miraculously made without hands” (acheiropoieton), and John of Damascus believed that Jesus himself made the image by wiping his face with a cloth. 4 However, despite the popularity of the legend of Abgar, many were critical of it. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and Jerome (342–420) believed that there was no response message from Jesus to Abgar. In 495, Pope Gelasius I and the Roman Synod went even further and declared the entire legend apocryphal. The same view The Seventy (or Seventy-Two) Disciples were the disciples of Jesus who set out to preach in pairs in various countries. 4 The image of Jesus imprinted on a cloth that came into King Abgar’s possession was one of the most revered Christian relics. Being “made without hands,” it was called “Miraculous Mandylion” (from the Greek μανδύη, “a cloak”). It was considered the first icon, and in 787 the Seventh Ecumenical Council referred to it as the most important evidence in favor of the veneration of icons. Up to 944 the image remained in Edessa, then the Byzantines purchased it from the city’s Muslim rulers and took it to Constantinople. In 1204, the relic was supposedly stolen from Constantinople by the Crusaders and then lost. 3



is shared by most modern scholars who believe that there were no Christians among the Abgarids of Edessa and that the legend was fabricated in the 3rd or 4th century. This was the period when Christianity gradually became the dominant religion in the major cities of the Middle East, which encouraged local clergy to claim apostolic origin for Christianity in their territories. In the timeframe of the “Teaching of Addai,” Christianity could not have been firmly established in Osrhoene, especially among the elite, as the work suggests. This is confirmed by the archaeological evidence, namely from the absence of Christian symbols on Edessan gravestones of the 1st and 2nd centuries.

6.2. Christianity in Osrhoene after Addai. It is quite possible that by the end of the 1st century there was a small Judeo-Christian community in Edessa guided by an episcopal see or some other early Christian Church institution, as was the case in Syria and other provinces of the Roman Empire. According to the “Teaching of Addai,” the first bishop of Edessa was Addai himself, who was succeeded by Aggai, “maker of chains and headbands of the king.” The first historically authentic bishop of Edessa was Palut, after whom the Christians of Osrhoene were for some time called “Palutians.” As according to the “Teaching of Addai,” Aggai was killed by a rebellious son of King Abgar and “was not able to place the hand upon Palut,” the latter had to be consecrated by Serapion, Patriarch of Antioch in 200. By the end of the 2nd century the number of Christians in Edessa was high enough to justify a local Church Council in 197, reported by Eusebius of Caesarea. At that time there was already a permanent church in Edessa, but it was destroyed during the famous floods of 201. Addai displayed all the features of a national saint, and his cult was very strong in Edessa and all of Osrhoene. After the final incorporation of Osrhoene into the Roman Empire, the Romans almost forcibly planted the cult of the Apostle Thomas in Edessa. “Thomas” in Aramaic means “twin;” according to legend, the Apostle was so nicknamed because of the resemblance with Jesus. He is revered as the illuminator and patron of Iran and India. Around 230, the Emperor Alexander Severus reclaimed the relics of Thomas from the Persians and presented them to Edessa, where they were placed in a newly built tomb. The Romans, in all probability, feared an uprising in Osrhoene similar to the Jewish wars, and by replacing the national saint by a common Christian one, sought to prevent the excessive fermentation of the Arameans’ national spirit. However, despite such obvious political reasons, the cult of the Apostle Thomas took root in Osrhoene. This caused a kind of collision of two apostolic traditions, and eventually the worship of Addai was replaced by the worship of Thomas. 5 This replacement was facilitated, apparently, by the fact that Thomas was not completely irrelevant to Edessa, since it was him who had sent Addai to Edessa. Evidence shows that in this period there was a tendency in Edessa to identify Addai with the apostle Thomas. The identification of Addai with another apostle, Thaddeus, was mentioned earlier in the text. 5



Furthermore, the Edessans had to be flattered that the Evangelization of their country and the establishment of their Church was to be henceforth associated with one of the Twelve Apostles. Subsequently, Edessa’s role as a major regional Christian center to a large extent was supported by the fact that it housed the remains of St. Thomas. Closely connected with the names of Addai and Aggai is the name of their disciple Mari (Mar 6 Mari). He is not mentioned in the “Teaching of Addai” but according to the Church tradition played a crucial role in the Christianization of territories to the east of Osrhoene, including Adiabene with its capital Arbela, and South Mesopotamia (more about Mari in the next chapter). Mari’s significance and high status is confirmed by the fact that along with Addai he is mentioned in the name of one of the most ancient liturgies still used by some Middle Eastern Churches. It is the “Liturgy of Addai and Mari,” the oldest part of which dates back to the time of these renowned saints of Edessa. As in many other countries, Roman rule in Osrhoene was marked by periodic persecutions and martyrdom of many Christians. The martyrs included the bishop of Edessa, Barsamya, his sister Babi, and the former pagan high priest of Edessa, Sharbel, baptized by Barsamya. The hagiographic work on these martyrs, composed probably in the first half of the 5th century, relates the described events to the reign of Trajan (98–117). Scholars consider this dating to be unlikely, as they believe that these particular martyrdoms were more of a legend, rather than historically established fact. Under the Emperor Diocletian (284–305), known for his harsh persecutions of Christians, the simple villagers Gurya, Shamona, and Habib were martyred in Edessa. The details are contained in a hagiographic work, written around the middle of the 4th century. However, the Roman persecutions were unable to stop the spread of Christianity in North Mesopotamia, and Edessa’s role as a regional center of Christianity became so important that in 325 its representative participated in the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea. Edessa became the source from which Christianity spread into the neighboring countries, particularly Armenia. Its significance is also confirmed by the fact that the Gallic pilgrim Egeria, who at the end of the 4th century visited the Holy Land, included Edessa in her itinerary and left descriptions of its Christian shrines, including the tomb of St. Thomas. 6.3. The new self-appellation of Christian Arameans. The spread of Christianity among the Arameans resulted in a remarkable phenomenon, namely the transition to a new self-appellation. This is usually explained by the fact that the word “Aramean” was gradually beginning to be perceived as synonymous with the word “pagan.” In the Aramaic translations of the New Testament the “Hellenes,” or pagans, opposed to the Jews, are called aramaye, “Arameans.” This semantic shift should have occurred within the early Judeo-Christian communities of North Mesopotamia,

Mar (or Mor, in Aramaic “my Lord”), an honorary title used with the names of saints and church hierarchs. 6



initially mostly composed of Jews, for whom, for many centuries, the main Gentiles were the surrounding Arameans. The first Aramaic translations of the Christian Holy Scriptures were made in these communities. As a result, the Christian Arameans of Osrhoene started designating themselves and their language suryaya—“Syrian.” 7 This was not an artificial innovation, since the words “Syria” and “Syrian” as synonyms of the words “Aram” and “Aramean” were widely used by Greek authors. For example, Diodorus of Sicily and Xenophon called the Aramaic script used by the Achaemenids “Syrian.” 8 This practice was entrenched in the Septuagint, as well as in translations of the Bible into other languages. Thus, the language in which the Chaldean soothsayers spoke to the Neo-Babylonian King Belshazzar is called “Aramaic” in some English translations and “Syrian” in others. As elsewhere in North Mesopotamia, the first Christians in Osrhoene were Jews. Their subsequent unification with the Arameans into a single Christian community made the issue of a new self-appellation even more urgent. The Jews could hardly call themselves “Arameans,” not only because this word had become a synonym for “pagan” but also out of purely ethnic considerations. Their common roots and close kinship notwithstanding, Jews and Arameans were two distinct peoples, after all. The term “Syrian,” despite the strong tradition of associating it with the In the terminological tradition of the English language, the Christian Arameans were called “Syrians” and their language and literature, “Syriac.” Since the word “Syrians” is almost exclusively perceived as “people of Syria,” in order to avoid confusion, in the late 20th century it became customary (and somewhat politically correct) to use the word “Syriacs” instead. “Syriac” and “Syriacs” will be used in this book from the next chapter throughout. 8 The Greeks, like the Egyptians, often collectively called the Semitic peoples of Western Asia, of whom they knew very little, “Assyrians,” since they were under Assyrian rule for a long time (not unlike the habit of calling all the peoples of the Soviet Union “Russians” regardless of ethnicity). For this reason, Thucydides called the same Aramaic script of the Achaemenids “Assyrian.” In Greek sources, Syria and Palestine are often referred to as “Assyria” because the Greeks first came into contact with the Assyrians when they conquered these countries (as for the relationship between the terms “Syria” and “Assyria,” the debates continue to this day). A similar situation can be observed among the Armenians who tended to identify Syro-Arameans with the Assyrians. This is probably due to the fact that Armenians came into contact with the Arameans of North Mesopotamia when the Arameans were under the political and cultural influence of Assyria, and with the Assyrians when they were already Aramaic-speaking. It would be very challenging for Armenians, who belonged to a completely different ethno-linguistic and cultural world, to correctly distinguish between two related Semitic peoples. At the same time, in Armenian terminology, starting from the Armenian translation of the Bible and throughout the classical Armenian literature up to the modern scholarly use, there is a clear distinction between Asorestantsi (“an Assyrian”) and Asori (“a Syrian/Aramean”). Accordingly, the renowned 7th century Armenian geographer, Ananias Shirakatsi, in his “World Exposition” distinguishes between Asorestan (“Assyria”) and Asorik (“Syria”). 7



word “Aramean,” in all probability looked like an acceptable compromise, justified therewith by the authority of the Septuagint. The name “Syrian” was gradually adopted by virtually all Christian Arameans, regardless of where they lived and which Aramaic dialect they used in everyday life. Despite the fact that the name suryaya became deeply rooted, and in several varieties remains in use to this day, the Syrian intellectual elite never repudiated their Aramean origin and stressed it on occasion. Out of respect for their Aramean heritage, the Syrians attempted to introduce the phonetic variation armaya for “pagan” and to continue to use aramaya in its original meaning as “Aramean” or “Aramaic.” The Jews also adopted this innovation, although a clear semantic distinction between the two options was never achieved and they were often seen as interchangeable. The 12th-century Bishop Dionysios bar Salibi in his polemic work “Against Armenians” wrote, “We are descended from Shem, and our father is Kemuel, the son of Aram, and after this Aram we are sometimes called Arameans in the books.” Bar Salibi’s contemporary, the greatest Syrian historian, Michael the Syrian, spoke of “our people, that is Arameans, the descendants of Aram, who were called Syrians.” In his genealogy of peoples he writes, “The sons of Shem are the Assyrians, the Chaldeans, the Arameans, that is the Syrians, the Jews, and the Persians.” Aram as the progenitor of the Syrians is also mentioned in other Syriac sources. The Syrian poet of the 5th–6th centuries, Jacob of Serugh, called the greatest Syrian poet of the early Middle Ages, Ephrem the Syrian, “the crown of all Arameandom” (klila dh-khullah aramayutha). The historian and church figure Dionysios of Tel Mahre (†845) in his “Chronicle” wrote, “We figuratively call Syrians those who speak Aramaic to the west and east of the Euphrates, that is, from the Mediterranean Sea to the borders of Persia. Edessa is the country of the Syro-Aramaic language and its foundation.” Virtually the same statement belongs to the most well-known medieval Syrian author, Grigorios bar Ebraya (1226–1286), who wrote, “The Aramaic language is the Syrian of Edessa.” Expressions such as “the Syrians, that is Arameans,” or “our language, that is Aramaic” can be found in the writings of many Syrian authors. Somewhat different was the fate of the word “Chaldean,” which remained in the active vocabulary of Christian authors in the Middle East and Europe, but with several different connotations. Pagan Arameans of Mesopotamia, in particular, were called “Chaldeans,” especially those who followed the ancient cults of celestial bodies and had Harran as their center. In a narrow sense, “Chaldean” was the common name for their priests, who had thorough knowledge of astrology and other occult sciences, and often earned a living by composing horoscopes and predicting the future. For this reason, various types of astrologers, oracles, soothsayers, and sorcerers were often collectively called “Chaldeans” as recorded in the Old Testament Book of Daniel. As according to this Book the “Chaldeans,” in this case, interpreters of dreams, spoke to Belshazzar in Aramaic, a tradition started in Europe (apparently from Jerome, translator of the Bible into Latin) and survived up to the 19th century, to call the Aramaic language “Chaldean.” In essence, this is an acknowledgement of the fact that Arameans and Chaldeans are the same people. While it is correct from a scholarly point of view to say that the language of the Chaldeans was Aramaic, it is



wrong to say that Arameans spoke “Chaldean,” since the modern Semitic linguistics does not recognize a “Chaldean” language. In the broadest sense the word “Chaldean” was synonymous with “Aramean” or “Aramaic.” In scholarly usage the words “Aramaic,” “Syriac,” and “Chaldean” often appeared side by side, and their interpretation could vary from author to author. 9 In the 16th century the term “Chaldeans” was used to designate the Syrians of Mesopotamia who entered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church (more on this in a separate chapter).

In 1854, a chair of “Hebrew, Chaldean and Syrian philology” was established in the University of St. Petersburg, Russia. “Chaldean” in this case was used to designate the “nonChristian” Aramaic dialects and their literatures, and “Syrian” for the language and literature of Christian Arameans. 9


SYRIAC CHRISTIANITY UNDER THE RULE OF IRAN 7.1. The spread of Christianity in Iran and the mission of Mar Mari. With the establishment of the Euphrates as the border between Rome and Parthia, then between Rome and Sasanian Iran, and, finally, between Byzantine Empire and Iran, the Syriacs found themselves divided into two parts under two conflicting superpowers. This situation left a very strong impact on their subsequent history, as their division into “western” and “eastern” Syriacs was thus institutionalized and continues to be today. This division did not run along the border between Eastern and Western Aramaic dialects but was a political and military fait accompli, which later acquired distinct cultural and religious features. Political and natural boundaries were unable to prevent the spread of Christianity to the east beyond the Roman Empire. The new religion was not confined to the territory of Syria and Osrhoene. It also encompassed Aramean territories that were part of Parthia and, later, Sasanian Iran. Christian communities could most certainly have existed under the Parthian Arsacids in Iran, considering their ethnic and religious tolerance. Adiabene had a large Jewish community. By 109, an episcopal see was established in Arbela occupied by Peqida, a disciple of Addai. Not surprisingly, the next few bishops of Arbela had Jewish names. According to the Syriac church tradition and some Syriac historians, the Apostle Thomas and Addai evangelized in the Iranian-ruled Aramean territories to the east of Osrhoene in the 1st century. Nevertheless, the spread of Christianity in the northeast and south of Mesopotamia is strongly associated with Mari, the disciple of Addai. Sent by Addai on an evangelical mission to the east, Mari brought the good news to the province of Beth Arbaye and its main city, Nisibis, and then to the neighboring province of Beth Zabdai. Moving further east, he reached Adiabene and then went south. After passing through Beth Garmai and its main city, Karka dBeth Slokh (“Citadel of the Seleucids,” modern Kirkuk), he arrived in Babylonia, namely a region called Beth Aramaye (“House of Arameans”) in the Syriac sources. The largest cities here were Seleucia and Ctesiphon facing each other on the opposite banks of the Tigris. They were later combined into one city, which became one of the Sasanian capitals. The Syriacs called Seleucia-Ctesiphon Mahoze, or “the cit169



ies,” and the Arabs later translated this name as “al-Mada’in.” In Mahoze, Syriacs usually included a small town of Kokhe (Syriac “shacks”) in the vicinity of Ctesiphon. According to the legend, in Kokhe Mari founded the first church of Beth Aramaye. Kokhe with its church was considered the cradle of East Syriac Christianity, and for a long time it served as a place of election and burial of local senior hierarchs.

Map 3. South Mesopotamia in the first centuries AD

Another important city in Beth Aramaye, where Mari preached, was Kashkar, which later became one of the largest centers of Syriac Christianity in South Mesopotamia. The southernmost regions, visited by Mari, were Mayshan (Mesene or Characene in Greek sources), the area covering the northern tip of the Persian Gulf, and the Persian-populated regions of Beth Huzaye (Khuzestan) and Beth Parsaye (Fars), to the east of the Tigris.



Mari died and was buried in Dayra d-Qunni of the province of Beth Daraye, on the eastern bank of the Tigris, about 90 km south of Baghdad. His mission is described in the anonymous “Acts of Mari,” written in the 6th–7th century. In the first lines of the “Acts” Mari is called “one of the Seventy,” like Addai. Even though this status is highly questionable, Mari later was traditionally titled “Apostle of Babylonia.” In addition to the original Syriac, there is also an Arabic summary of the last chapters of the “Acts of Mari,” which is a part of the Arab Christian writing of the 12th century known by a Latin name Liber Turris (“The Book of Tower”). In this version, Mari is called a Jew. Mari was venerated by the East Syriacs, or the Syriacs living under the rule of Parthian and Sasanian Iran, to the same extent as Addai was revered by the West Syriacs of the Roman and Byzantine Empires. In Syriac Christianity, Addai and Mari appear as almost equal figures, with some priority given to Addai as Mari’s mentor and the personal messenger of the Apostle Thomas. Mari’s significance for Syriac Christianity and his almost equal status with Addai is attested in the title of the “Liturgy of Addai and Mari.”

7.2. The Christians of Iran under the Sasanians. The “Acts of Mari” is a typical example of hagiographic literature. It largely follows the scheme of the New Testament “Acts of the Apostles” and contains very little information of historic value. Nevertheless, by the middle of the 3rd century a significant number of Christians indeed lived under the rule of Sasanian Iran. The vast majority of them were autochthonous Arameans of Mesopotamia, which was one of the western provinces of both Achaemenid and Sasanian Iran. By the time of the first Sasanians, most Arameans of North and South Mesopotamia were already Christianized, and the “Acts of Mari” calls them “Syriacs,” which indicates the spread of this endoethnonym from Edessa throughout all of Mesopotamia. At the same time, various pagan and Gnostic beliefs were still common among Arameans of Mesopotamia for several more centuries, and Mandeizm exists to this day. The number of Christians in Iran increased even more after the Sasanian Shapur I (241–272) relocated many Greeks and Arameans captured during a war with Rome to Iran. Among them were members of the clergy, such as Bishop Demetrius of Antioch, who was exiled to Iran in 257 with his entire flock. Even the Roman emperor Valerian (253–260) was among the deportees. Many of the displaced Christians were lodged in a special camp in Khuzestan, near Susa, called “Gundishapur” or “Shapur’s army.” Christian Arameans, who were a majority among the captives, called the camp “Beth Lapat,” which translates as “house of defeat.” Gundishapur/Beth Lapat soon grew into a city, and despite being located outside the traditional Aramean homeland in Mesopotamia, it became one of the main centers of Syriac Christianity in Iran. Many Christian captives, including Greeks, were settled in Kashkar. In addition to the natural increase of Syriacs and the influx of Christian captives from the West, the number of Christians in Iran was increasing at the expense of those who fled to this country voluntarily in order to escape the persecutions of the Romans, and later, the official Byzantine clergy. Finally, Christians grew in num-



bers also at the Persians’ expense, as conversion from Zoroastrianism to Christianity was becoming a common phenomenon. The increasing number of Christians in Iran demanded institutionalization of the Church. The first attempt at this was made by the first historically authentic Bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, Papa bar Aggai 1 (317–329), who sought to legalize his natural primacy over other bishops in Iran. This provoked opposition from many local bishops who gathered around Bishop Miles of Susa. One of the consequences of the constant increase in the number of Christians was their gradual rise to prominence, and at times, to leading positions in trade, crafts, and the financial system of Iran through their own trading corporations and craft guilds. The authorities were forced to reckon with this reality and sometimes even provided Christian merchants and craftsmen with certain privileges. Many Christian Arameans and Persians served as government officials, and some even managed to rise to high positions at the Sasanian court and use their influence for the benefit of their communities. Thus, Syriacs were the personal physicians of many Sasanian kings since they traditionally were advanced in medicine, and a significant number of them were among Iranian physicians. The practice of medicine among them was often hereditary, and there were Syriac families who distinguished themselves in this field for several generations. The tradition to have a Syriac court physician was later adopted by the Arab Caliphs and was even reflected in Arab folklore. Sasanians also used to send Christians, mostly members of the clergy, on various diplomatic missions to the Byzantine court as well as the Arabs. Nevertheless, the Sasanians, who proclaimed Zoroastrianism the state religion of Iran, did not have a clear code of conduct against Christians and applied a carrot and stick policy. The authorities, who provided Christian merchants and craftsmen with some benefits, were constantly tempted to fill up the state treasury at their expense and often imposed heavy taxes on the Christians or openly confiscated their property. After the Edict of Milan of 313, which legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, and with the advent of Christian emperors, Sasanians increasingly perceived Christians as fellow coreligionists of the Romans and their natural allies and subjected them to persecutions, which were as cruel as the persecutions inflicted by the Romans. The persecutions were often incited by the Zoroastrian priesthood, who were extremely dissatisfied with the spread of an “alien” religion in Iran, and with the growing political and economic influence of the Christians. Occasionally, the instigators were the Jews, whose influence at the royal court from time to time became very noticeable.

The Syriac church tradition places another five “Bishops of Seleucia-Ctesiphon” between Mari and Papa bar Aggai, namely Abris, Abraham, Jacob, Ahadabuy, and Shahlufa. These are undoubtedly fictional characters who were introduced to ensure the apostolic succession from Thomas. 1



7.3. Persecution of Christians and the “Acts of the Persian Martyrs” by Marutha of Maypherqat. The first major wave of persecutions of Iranian Christians occurred during the reign of Shapur II (309–379) and coincided with a new round of tension in relations between Iran and Rome. The atrocities began in 344 with the doubling of the tax levied on Christians and the subsequent execution of Papa bar Aggai’s successor as the bishop of the capital, Shimon bar Sabbae (“son of the dyers,” 329–341), who refused to cooperate with the authorities in the collection of new taxes. The persecutions lasted for nearly four decades resulting in executions of Christians, confiscation of their property, and destruction of churches. The main target was the Christians of Seleucia-Ctesiphon and Adiabene. According to the hagiographical writings, in addition to Shimon bar Sabbae, his sister Tarbo, who pledged virginity, her maid, and Shimon’s other married sister were martyred. The Jews accused all of them of practicing witchcraft and putting an evil curse on the queen. Dozens of members of clergy met their deaths under Shapur II, such as Shimon bar Sabbae’s two successors, Shahdost (341–343) and Barbashmin (343– 346, nephew of Shimon bar Sabbae), Bishop Miles of Susa, Bishops Amarya and Mukim of Beth Lapat, Bishop John of Arbela, Bishop Narsai of Shahrgerd, and many priests and deacons. Numerous laymen killed for their faith included the eunuch Gushtazad, the tutor of the Sasanian prince, Pusay, the “captive from the west,” who held a high position in the royal workshops, and his daughter Martha. The persecutions of Christians by Shapur II, which lasted until his death in 379, are recorded in a Syriac hagiographic cycle “Acts of the Persian Martyrs.” It is usually associated with the name of Bishop Marutha of Maypherqat (†420). Apart from being a clergyman, Marutha is one of the first Syriac physicians and diplomats known by name. At least twice, in 398 and 410, the Eastern Roman Emperors Arcadius (395–408) and Theodosius II (408–450) sent him on diplomatic missions to the Sasanian king Yazdegerd I (399–420) to normalize relations and gain protection for Iranian Christians. Yazdegerd himself was interested in improving relations with the Romans and, compared with Shapur II, seemed to be more favorable toward the Christians. During his second trip to Iran, Marutha managed to impress Yazdegerd with his medical skills, and the king issued a special decree that greatly eased the condition of his Christian subjects. Marutha also received permission to take the relics of the martyrs killed under Shapur II to Maypherqat. The city was nicknamed “Martyropolis” or “The city of the martyrs” in their honor. 7.4. The institutionalization of Iranian Christianity and the “Synod of Ishaq.” At the turn of the 5th century, Iranian Christian communities were the largest outside the Roman Empire. Their separation and sometimes the isolation from the main body of Christianity in many respects determined the further course of Christianity’s development in this region. Nominally, the Christians of Iran, like the Christians in Osrhoene, were under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Antioch, but due to political realities it was extremely difficult for the Patriarch to maintain contact with his flock under the Sasanian rule, and that made them—in practice— independent of Antioch. At the same time, Iran’s Christian communities were isolated and independent from one other, and until the 5th century they were not unified under an ecclesiastical structure; despite that, their presence in Seleucia-



Ctesiphon, Gundishapur (Beth Lapat), Kashkar, and Adiabene was tangible. The Bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon was the de facto head of Iranian Christians, although other bishops, especially in remote provinces outside of Mesopotamia, not always willingly obeyed him, as was the case with Papa bar Aggai and the supporters of Miles of Susa. Besides, the Greeks exiled to Iran by Shapur I, as a rule, formed separate communities with their own bishops. Despite the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Syriacs, Greek-speaking Christian communities continued to exist in remote parts of Iran until the first decades of the 5th century and only then gradually assimilated into the Syriac community. The Persians, in turn, also differentiated between “foreign” and “local” Christians, calling the former “Christians,” and the latter “Nazarenes.” 2 In 410, the Bishop Ishaq of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, while taking advantage of the presence of Marutha of Maypherqat, who enjoyed King Yazdegerd’s favors, convened in the capital a Synod of forty bishops of Iran, known as the “Synod of Ishaq.” The permission for such a gathering was given personally by the king, which meant some tacit agreement between the state and the Church. At the Synod, Marutha read the letter of the “Western bishops” of Antioch, Edessa, Aleppo, Amid, and Tella, in which the Iranian Christians were advised to accept the canons and the creed of the Council of Nicaea, establish a uniform calendar for the celebration of religious holidays and assign each diocese only one bishop to be ordained by three others and approved by the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (in some dioceses there were separate bishops for “Christians” and “Nazarenes”). The Synod formally approved the proposals and decreed new Church canons modeled after the Byzantine ones. In particular, the canonical territory of the Iranian Christians was divided into six metropolitanates (ecclesiastical provinces), namely Beth Huzaye (Khuzestan) with the center in Gundishapur, Beth Arbaye with the center in Nisibis, 3 Adiabene with the center in Arbela, Beth Garmai with the center in Karka d-Beth Slokh, Mayshan with the center in Prat d-Mayshan (near present-day Basra), and Beth Parsaye (Fars) with the center in Rev-Ardashir on the shore of the Persian Gulf. Metropolitanates, in turn, were subdivided into dioceses headed by bishops. The “Synod of Ishaq” also confirmed the primacy of the Bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon over all “Bishops of the East,” and he received a title of “Catholicos and the Head of the “Nazarenes” were Jesus’ first followers in Palestine named so after his hometown, Nazareth (not to be confused with the Nazirites). The name “Christians” was introduced later during the missions of Apostle Paul. The Persian practice of calling the Christians “Nazarenes” was later inherited by Muslim Arabs. 3 The jurisdiction of the Bishops of Nisibis extended to Syriacs living in the southern regions of Armenia, so they would be often titled “Metropolitan of Nisibis and Armenia.” From the 5th till the end of the 13th century, the Metropolitanate of Nisibis had a separate diocese, located in the territory of Armenia proper, in the area of Lake Van. It was centered on the city of Khlat (modern Ahlat) on the western shore of the lake. At the end of the 8th century, this diocese was for some time elevated to Metropolitanate but then was downgraded to its former status. 2



Bishops of the Whole of the East.” From that time onward the head of the Iranian Christians was titled exclusively “Catholicos.” Yazdegerd I officially approved the decisions of the Council, thus guaranteeing state protection for the Christian Church of Iran. The relative prosperity of the Iranian Christians in this period was also guaranteed by the peace between Iran and the Byzantine Empire. In 417, Yazdegerd sent envoys to Emperor Theodosius II headed by Catholicos Yahbalaha I (415–420). In response, Theodosius sent to the “glorious and peace-loving King of Kings” an embassy headed by the Syriac Bishop Aqaq of Amid. Thus, the Syriacs continued to use their diplomatic skills to advance the peace between the two powers, in which they were vitally interested. 4 In 419, taking advantage of the presence of Aqaq, Yahbalaha I convened a new council, which once again confirmed the canons of the Council of Nicaea and several other local councils. This finally brought the ecclesiastical laws of the Iranian Christians into conformity with those of the “Western” Christians. 7.5. New persecutions of Christians and the establishment of the Church of the East. Yazdegerd’s favorable attitude toward Christians was short-lived. Despite the brutal persecution of Shapur II, the number of Christians in Iran was growing steadily due to the Syriacs themselves and converting Persians. However, Syriacs continued to make up the vast majority of Iranian Christians, and Christianity in Iran was exclusively Syriac by language, except for a few small Greek communities that kept Greek as the liturgical language up to the first decades of the 5th century. In Fars, where there was a high number of Persians among Christians, Pahlavi (Middle Persian) was partly used alongside Syriac. The Persians who converted to Christianity would assimilate into the Syriac Christian community, since in the Middle Ages religious identity prevailed over ethnic divisions. To be Persian meant to be Zoroastrian, and to be Christian meant to be Syriac. Many of Persians who converted to Christianity, including former Zoroastrian priests whom Christians called Magi, became prominent figures in the Syriac Church and Syriac culture, and some even were elected Catholicoi. As was the case in the Roman Empire, Christianity gradually began spreading into the Iranian elite, which only increased the irritation of the Zoroastrian priesthood. At the same time, Christian clergy became increasingly militant and often engaged in open conflicts with the Magi. Christians even destroyed the temple of the sacred fire in Seleucia-Ctesiphon (Atur-Varahran), and the metropolitan bishop Abda declined the demand by the authorities to pay for its restoration. This forced Yazdegerd in the final year of his reign to drastically change his religious policies and Syriacs continued to provide diplomatic services to the Sasanians until the last decades of their rule. Thus, in 630 Queen Buran sent an embassy to Constantinople led by the Catholicos Ishoyahb II. The delegation included Bishop Paul of Nisibis and Bishop Gabriel of Arbela, as well as other senior representatives of the Syriaс clergy, including the future Catholicos Ishoyahb III. 4



resume the persecution of Christians. Bishop Abda himself became the first victim. The persecution continued under Yazdegerd’s son, Bahram V (421–438), whose mother was the daughter of the Exilarch (Aramaic resh galutha, “head of the exile”), the secular leader of the Babylonian Jews. The most famous martyr of this period was Jacob the Persian (James Intercisus), a high-ranking courtier to Yazdegerd who converted to Christianity. The resumed persecution of Christians became one of the factors that triggered the 421–422 war between Iran and the Empire. However, it ended with the return of the pre-existing status quo and confirmation of religious freedom in both empires. The last major persecutions of Christians in Iran occurred in 440–441, during the reign of the son of Bahram V, Yazdegerd II (438–457), and coincided with a new military conflict between Iran and the Byzantine Empire. The main targets were the Christians among the Iranian nobility and army officers, and the Syriacs were not affected. The restoration in 422 of the pre-war status quo between Iran and the Byzantine Empire allowed Catholicos Dadisho I (421–456) to convene a new Synod in 424. The Synod legalized the actual canonical independence of the Iranian Christians from Antioch and the “Western Bishops,” decreeing that the Catholicos should not be accountable to anyone but God and that the Eastern Bishops should have no right to complain to the Western Bishops about their Catholicos. Thus, the process of the canonical autonomy of the Syriac Church in Iran was completed and it was named the “Church of the East”. In fact, the Church of the East completely separated itself from the other Churches, and to the present day it does not belong to any of the existing main branches of Christianity or Church groups. In the scholarly literature, especially in the 19th century, the Church of the East was often called “Syro-Persian” or even “Persian.” Despite the prevalence of these terms, a Church, Persian by nature and language, never existed. It remains uncertain whether a full translation of the Scriptures in the Pahlavi language even existed, except for the “beginner’” texts, such as the Gospels and Psalms, given that the full integration of Christian Persians into the Syriac communities left no practical need for such a translation. The independence of the Church of the East from major Christian centers manifested itself in the fact that it did not adopt any of the existing liturgies, but instead developed its own, known as Qurbana Qaddisha (“Holy Offering”). The core of this liturgy is the Anaphora 5 attributed to Addai and Mari, but created in reality not earlier than the 3rd century, probably in Edessa. Along with the Anaphora of St. James, this is the oldest Anaphora still used today. One of its distinguishing features Anaphora (Greek αναφορά, “offering”), or the Eucharistic Prayer, is the most important part of the Liturgy during which bread and wine are consecrated and transubstantiated into the body and blood of Jesus. Numerous Anaphoras of different origin and authorship exist. 5



is the absence of the Words of Institution spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper when consecrating bread and wine: “This is my body, this is my blood.”

7.6. Awgen, and the origins of Syriac monasticism. One of the features of early Syriac Christianity was asceticism, the traditions of which were laid by Addai, who rejected reward by King Abgar with the words: “Not in my life have I taken from thee anything, and I will not falsify in me the word of Christ, which he said to me, ‘Receive not anything from man, and acquire not anything in this world.’” Initially, Syriac asceticism manifested itself in the form of individual reclusion. The first Syriac hermit known by name was Yulyana Saba (†377), who lived in rigid austerity somewhere in the vicinity of Edessa. Parallel to individual reclusion, small groups of people who practiced austerity also existed. They were called in Syriac bnai qyama (sing. bar qyama), which is usually translated as “sons of the covenant,” or bnat qyama (sing. bat qyama), “daughters of the covenant.” These groups, which were a purely Syriac phenomenon, were essentially the forerunners of classic monasticism. Their members tried to follow the pious way of life of Jesus Christ, indulged in fervent prayer, fasted, engaged in charity, and sang in church choirs. Voluntary poverty was not required, nor was celibacy; the groups could include men and women, many of them openly cohabiting, or legally married. The formation of classic cenobitic (communal) monasticism in the Syriac milieu began in the second half of the 4th century and is traditionally associated with the name of the Egyptian Awgen (†363). Until well into adulthood, Awgen was a pearl fisher at the Red Sea. He then joined the emerging Egyptian monastic movement founded by St. Pachomius. After some time, he moved to Mesopotamia where he settled on the hillside of Mount Izla, northeast of Nisibis, and began accustoming the Syriacs to the basics of the Egyptian cenoby. According to tradition, Awgen himself founded a monastery on Izla, which was later named after him and eventually became one of the most important Syriac monasteries. His disciples, numbering seventy according to legend, also founded monasteries in North Mesopotamia. Awgen is still revered by adherents of all branches of Syriac Christianity, even though some scholars question the historical accuracy of his life and even his very existence. Unlike Egyptian monks, who preferred solitude in the desert, Syriac monks were notable for their social activity, mobility, and presence among people. They were engaged in preaching and charity and sometimes would teach and heal. Among the laity they usually enjoyed more respect than the members of the official clergy. As Syriac monasticism became more established and developed, the institute of bnai/bnat qyama fell into decline. In the 5th–6th centuries it transformed into a kind of novitiate, a rite of passage on the way to the holy orders or full monkhood, although not everyone would become a monk or a priest. Later, this unique form of proto-monasticism, particularly for males, almost completely faded away. As a living practice it was last mentioned in the 13th century.


SYRIAС THOUGHT AND LITERATURE OF THE FIRST CENTURIES OF CHRISTIANITY 8.1. Syriac language and Syriac literature. Christianity became a powerful stimulus for Arameans to repossess the ancient traditions of writing in Aramaic. Despite the fact that Babylonian Jews continued to actively use an Eastern Aramaic dialect resembling the dialect of Edessa, it was the Christian Arameans—the Syriacs—who from the end of the 2nd century AD achieved prominence in creating Aramaic literature. In the pre-Christian era, the dialect of Edessa was inferior to major Aramaic dialects in terms of scope of use and degree of development. The city’s rise as a major regional center of Christianity, from where it spread to neighboring regions and countries, significantly affected the status of its dialect, which very quickly developed into a full-fledged literary language. Christian Arameans extended their new endoethnonym to their language, which came to be known as leshshana suryaya, the Syriac language. There is a tradition in scholarly literature to call “Syriac” not only the literary language of the Christian period but also the written language of pagan Osrhoene, as recorded in the inscriptions, the letter of Mara bar Serapion, and the parchments with legal texts from the area of Dura-Europos. To distinguish between these two historical phases, the language of the pagan period is called “Old Syriac,” while the language of Christian literature is “Classical Syriac.” In a relatively short period of time, the Syriac language of Edessa became the written and canonical-liturgical language of almost all Christian Arameans, spreading across the vast area of their habitation. This spread was facilitated not only because Edessa was the leading religious and cultural center of Arameans, but also because of the flexibility of the Syriac language, its free syntax, an openness to borrowings, and the ability to express complex, abstract ideas. These qualities developed thanks to the numerous translations made from the Greek language, which required the creation of many new words and idioms that did not exist in Aramaic and a certain adaptation to Greek syntax. 179



The developed system of education, constant sectarian inner rivalries, close contacts with the neighboring peoples, and numerous translations contributed to the development of Syriac writing traditions. As a result, an extensive and diverse original and translated literature was created, which eventually surpassed in volume everything written in all other Aramaic dialects put together. Original Syriac literature can be divided into two main bodies—religious and secular—but the boundary between them is not always easily detectable. Religious literature includes the fundamental writings of the Syriac Church Fathers (so-called patristics), hagiographic works, or the description of lives and deeds of the saints, church statutes and canons, letters and messages of Church authorities, and so on. This layer of Syriac literature is invaluable, and because of it Syriac is considered the third most important language of early Christian thought after Latin and Greek and has a strong place not only in Oriental but also theological curricula. Syriac secular literature includes works of philosophical, historical, biographical, legal, medical, geographical, astrological, alchemical, agricultural, and general encyclopedic nature as well as some fiction. However, early medieval literature, including Syriac, knew no clear distinction between fiction and nonfiction, and many works of historical, theological, or other content could easily claim a certain artistic value. Furthermore, the division of literature into genres is quite arbitrary: a composition that began as geographical could gradually develop into historical, then continue as biographical, and end up as philosophical or theological. Moreover, it was not uncommon among Syriacs to compose works in verse that were far from poetry, for example, grammatical treatises. All this makes classification of Syriac authors by genre difficult and inappropriate, especially since many of them were talented polymaths who covered different branches of knowledge in their writings. The classical Syriac literature extends over the period between the 3rd and the 13th centuries and then almost completely fades away. This millennium of Syriac literature contains the names of more than 200 authors and about 10,000 extant manuscripts. Syriac culture, like Jewish culture, is not abundant in samples of material culture being primarily a culture of words, hence the importance of manuscripts that combine these two types of culture. As a language of Christian doctrine and preaching, Syriac was also used outside the Aramean and wider Semitic areas, of which more will be discussed in subsequent chapters. Suffice it to say that in Armenia, with its long tradition of using Aramaic as a written language, nearly the entire 4th century passed in attempts to preach Christianity in Greek and Syriac. The incomprehensibility of these languages for the common people was one of the reasons for the creation of the Armenian alphabet in the first years of the 5th century. Yet cultural and religious contacts and interaction between Armenians and Syriacs remained very intense and productive.

8.2. Bardaisan. The classical Syriac literature begins with Bardaisan (154–222), who was named after the river Daisan flowing through Edessa. He was born pagan and, according to the contemporary writers, was not of Aramean origin. Julius Africanus (160–240), who personally met Bardaisan in Edessa, calls him Parthian. Hippolytus of Rome (170–235) said he was Armenian. Bardaisan came from a noble family and received his primary education at the royal court of Edessa with the Crown Prince,



the future Abgar the Great, and then studied under the pagan priest Anuduzbar in Mabbug (Hierapolis), the main worship center of Atargatis. The foundation of the Aramean pagan education at that time was mostly Chaldean astrology, in which Bardaisan displayed extensive knowledge. He was also well versed in the Greek language and Greek philosophy, which made him different from most Syriac intellectuals of the next generation. At the age of twenty-five, under the influence of sermons of Bishop Hystaspes of Edessa, Bardaisan embraced Christianity, but later, without formally renouncing it, leaned toward Alexandrian Gnosticism, which was very popular at that time throughout North Mesopotamia and Syria. Bardaisan was particularly influenced by Valentinus, one of the leading representatives of Gnosticism. Later he largely moved away from Gnosticism and even denounced Valentinus and Marcionites, supporters of another prominent representative of Gnosticism, Marcion of Sinope. Nevertheless, his name remained closely associated with this doctrine, and he was often called “the last Gnostic.” Because of his inclination toward Gnosticism, during his lifetime and posthumously Bardaisan was often accused of heresy. The greatest Syriac poet, Ephrem the Syrian, wrote against him these words: “And if he thinks that he has spoken the ultimate truth, it is only that he has lapsed into paganism. O Bardaisan, son of Daisan, whose thoughts are as fluctuating as his name.” Bardaisan, nevertheless, had many followers, who as “Bardaisanites” comprised a separate sect. They lasted up to the 10th century and then mostly merged with the Manicheans. Most of Bardaisan’s productive years were spent in Edessa at the court of his patron king Abgar the Great. Bardaisan gained fame as a philosopher, astrologer, historian, and poet, surrounded by numerous disciples and followers. Thanks to Bardaisan, who helped shape Edessa’s intellectual life, the city under Abgar the Great earned the title “Athens of the East.” As a courtier, Bardaisan was far from the ideals of Christian asceticism, which seems to have been very popular at that time in Osrhoene. He led a secular life, never shying away from luxury, and was married with three sons—Avgarun, Hasda, and Harmonius. In 216, when the Roman emperor Caracalla seized Edessa and captured King Abgar IX, Bardaisan fled to Armenia where, according to Movses Khorenatsi, he wrote the “History of Armenia,” which did not survive. 1 Porphyry 2 mentions another lost work by Bardaisan dedicated to India known as “Hypomnemata Indica.” This is what Khorenatsi writes about Bardaisan: “He arrived here [in Armenia] to gain followers among our uncouth heathen, and because he was not recognized, he entered the fortress of Ani and having read the Temple history, which also contained the acts of kings, and having added what he knew and what he had witnessed, he translated it all into Syriac, from which it was later translated into Greek. From that history we have borrowed and retold you the events, starting with the reign of Artavazd and up to the pillar of Khosrov.” (History of Armenia, Book 2). Thus, according to Khorenatsi, Bardaisan’s “History of Armenia” was the main source of the first part of his own “History.” 2 Porphyry (233–305), the Neoplatonic philosopher, who was born in Tyre into a family of Hellenized Phoenicians. His birth name was Malka (Aramaic “king”). 1



“The Book of the Laws of Countries.” Bardaisan was the first major Syriac philosopher, and Ephrem the Syrian, in spite of his accusatory rhetoric, honored him with the title “Philosopher of Arameans.” His philosophical views, conveyed as a conversation with his disciples Avida, Philip, and Bar Yamma, are contained in the “Book of the Laws of Countries.” The authorship of this book, or more likely a compilation, is attributed to Philip. In their most general form, these views are a unique synthesis of Christianity and Chaldean astrology and demonstrate significant deviations from classical gnosis. Thus, Bardaisan displayed a common Christian perception of God but believed that the celestial bodies are living beings to which God has entrusted the task of managing earthly affairs. Furthermore, the human will is free, and each person is responsible for his or her actions, although the fate of humans is largely predetermined by their horoscope—in other words subject to the influence of external factors, such as the constellations. Everything in nature, including humans, consists of four main elements—light, wind, fire, and water. Above these four elements is God, and beneath them is darkness. God created the world out of the four elements through the Word of Thought, which brought order to primeval chaos. Bardaisan’s philosophical concept is marked with dualism, the belief in the confrontation between good and evil, light and darkness. Dualism was more pronounced among the Bardaisanites, and that gave reason to the representatives of the major Christian denominations to accuse them of heresy. Bardaisan’s position on Jesus Christ is uncertain. He seems to perceive Jesus mostly as a teacher and legislator. He also mentions the special nature of Jesus’ flesh but denies bodily resurrection. The second part of the “Book of the Laws of Countries” contains information on the customs and laws of different peoples, from the Chinese to the Britons, including the mythical Amazons. Its last pages contain valuable information on the spread of Christianity during Bardaisan’s time. The book also addresses purely astrological and cosmogonical issues, confirming Bardaisan’s reputation as an heir to the traditions and knowledge of Mesopotamian Chaldeans. Bardaisan’s profound influence on all subsequent Syriac astrological and cosmogonical ideas can be traced to the 13th century. Bardaisan was also famous for being a talented poet, who revitalized the traditions of ancient Aramaic poetry and greatly influenced the next generations of Syriac poets. His poetic legacy consisted of 150 hymns of religious and philosophical content, which imitated the biblical Psalms. The hymns were sung with the accompaniment of musical instruments, which was a common practice in Edessa under Abgar the Great. The collected hymns of Bardaisan have not survived, but the hymns contained in the Syriac apocryphal “Acts of Thomas,” especially the famous “Hymn of the Pearl,” are believed to belong to Bardaisan’s 150 hymns (see details below). The successor to Bardaisan’s poetic line was his son Harmonius, who was educated in Greece. According to contemporaries, he was no less talented, but none of his works survived. 8.3. Aphrahat, “the Persian sage.” The next prominent representative of early Syriac literature was Aphrahat (†350), nicknamed “the Persian sage” because his



parents were Zoroastrian Persians. In his adulthood he converted to Christianity under the name Jacob, assimilated into the Syriac community, and led an ascetic life. Aphrahat gained fame as a talented commentator of biblical texts. His personal understanding of religion was free from the influence of the Greek theology. He displayed a purely Semitic mentality and composed in a style reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets. Perhaps that is the reason why Aphrahat based his commentary on the New Testament on the Aramaic Diatessaron of Tatian rather than the canonical separate Gospels. In Aphrahat’s writings the deep connection between Syriac Christianity and the Jewish tradition, which he often made references to and challenged, is most fully reflected. His legacy consists of 23 sermons, or homilies, better known as “demonstrations” (Syriac tahwitha). They cover virtually all aspects of the Christian doctrine, as can be seen in their titles: “On faith,” “On love,” “On Lent,” “On prayer,” “On wars,” “On sons of the covenant,” “On the penitent,” “On the resurrection of the dead,” “On humility,” “On pastors,” “On circumcision,” “On Passover,” “On Sabbath,” “Encyclical epistle,” “On distinction of food,” “On election of the people,” “On Christ, the Son of God,” “On virginity,” “On the dispersion of Israel,” “On almsgiving,” “On persecution,” “On death and the latter times,” “On grapes.” The first ten demonstrations were written in 336, the next twelve in 344, and the last one, “On grapes,” in 345. The demonstrations also contain valuable factual material on early Syriac theology and Christology, on the state of Christians in Iran during the reign of Shapur II, on the Syriac ascetic tradition of bnai/bnat qyama, and so on. In the 5th century, the demonstrations of Aphrahat were translated into Armenian but were ascribed to Bishop Jacob of Nisibis (†338), whom Armenians believed to be the cousin of Gregory the Illuminator and held in great veneration. Some demonstrations were translated into Georgian, Arabic, and Ge‘ez.

8.4. Ephrem the Syrian. The fourth century was crucial in the history of Christianity. This was the period when classical philosophy and pagan gnosis were being reexamined, dogmas and tenets of Christianity formulated, Christological controversies hardened, and monasticism and asceticism emerging. In the second half of the century, Syriac Christianity which until then was of predominantly Semitic type (Tatian, Bardaisan, Aphrahat) began showing signs of convergence with the GreekByzantine church tradition. Among other things, this tendency manifested itself in the adoption of many decisions of the Ecumenical Councils and the transition from the Diatessaron to the four canonical separate Gospels. Ephrem the Syrian (Mar Aphrem, †373), whom Syriacs respectfully called “Prophet of the Syriacs” and the “Harp of the Holy Spirit,” best embodied all these tendencies and transitions. Much reliable information does not survive about the life of this extremely gifted person. Ephrem was born in Nisibis, ruled at that time by Rome, in a presumably Christian family, 3 and received his religious education from Bishop Jacob According to the “Life” of Ephrem the Syrian, his father was a pagan priest, which is not likely. 3



of Nisibis, who then put him in charge of a religious school that he founded in the city. Late into his adulthood, Ephrem supposedly entered the priesthood but did not rise high in the church hierarchy. In 363, the Romans were forced to cede Nisibis to the Persians, and Ephrem together with other Christians moved first to Amid and then to Edessa. Here, according to tradition, he became one of the founders of the school, known as the “School of Persians,” which continued and developed the traditions of the school of Nisibis. Ephrem spent the rest of his life in Edessa. His biography mentions his participation at the Council of Nicaea together with Jacob of Nisibis, a trip to Egypt, and meeting with Coptic hermits in the Nitrian Desert (Wadi al-Natrun), but these are later, legendary interpolations. Equally improbable is the story of his meeting with Basil the Great, 4 to whom Ephrem dedicated a laudatory poem. A Greek translation of this poem follows the poetic meter of the Syriac original, not typical of Greek poetry. Ephrem the Syrian is the recognized pinnacle of early Syriac literature, its most famous representative. His work is permeated with the symbolism inherent in the Eastern Christian thought, lyricism, emotionality, and vivid imagery. His writings are often linked to biblical subject matter, but he also drew inspiration from his own spiritual experiences, personal impressions, and feelings. He first and foremost became famous as a religious poet but also wrote prose. His writings in prose include the commentaries on the Scriptures in the spirit of the Antiochian school (in original Syriac only commentaries on Genesis and Exodus survived, and in Armenian translation only commentaries on the Acts of the Apostles and on the Epistles of St. Paul), a commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron, and polemical writings against Mani, Marcion, and Bardaisan. Unlike Bardaisan, but similar to Aphrahat, Ephrem was not influenced by Greek philosophy and the views of the Greek-speaking Church Fathers. Even in his theological works, he manifests himself mainly as a poet, without attaching particular importance to the philosophical and theological terminology or clear argumentation. He was especially close to Aphrahat on the ideas of monastic austerity, which for him meant renunciation of the worldly vanity and maximum possible abstinence. Ephrem’s poetic heritage is mainly expressed in the two most popular forms of Syriac poetry, which presumably go back to Bardaisan—memra (in plural memre) and madrasha (madrashe). A memra is a narrative poem, a speech or a homily, consisting of couplets with a certain number of syllables per line (the Syriac poetic meters are based on the number of syllables; rhyming initially was not widely used, and became more popular by the 9th century under the influence of Arab poetry). Ephrem used seven-syllable meter, which was later named after him. For this reason, many anonymous seven-syllable memre were ascribed to him (other popular meters were based Basil the Great (ca. 329-379) was bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, a distinguished theologian and church figure, and one of the Church Fathers of the “golden age.” 4



on five and twelve syllables). “On our Lord,” “Moses in Egypt,” “Jonah in Nineveh,” six memre “On faith,” and memra on Nicomedia are among the most famous memre by Ephrem. A madrasha (not to be confused with Jewish midrash) is a strophic poem or a liturgical hymn, often with a refrain called onitha, with lines of either a fixed number of syllables or various combinations thereof. About fifty syllabic combinations can be found in Ephrem’s madrashe. Often madrashe contain various forms of acrostics, which were very popular in the Syriac poetry. Unlike memre, which had to be recited, madrashe were intended to be sung accompanied by a female choir of bnat qyama, a tradition that existed in Osrhoene since the times of Bardaisan. Many madrashe include the name of the tune (qala, “voice”) to which they are to be sung. As a rule, it is the first line of Ephrem’s madrasha that is firmly associated with a particular tune. A variety of madrasha is soghitha (plural soghyatha), a madrasha of four-line stanzas in seven- or eight-syllable meter. Soghitha is often a polemic dialogue between two persons, which is a poetic form typical of Mesopotamia since ancient times; it is also found in modern Aramaic poetry. Other poetic forms originating from madrashe are bautha, a prayer-poem, and teshbokhta, a liturgical ode based on biblical verses or sacred texts. Ephrem the Syrian composed about 400 madrashe, of which “On Paradise,” “On faith,” “On Lent,” “Against Julian the Apostate,” “On the resurrection,” “On virginity,” and “On the unleavened bread” deserve mentioning. The madrashe “On the people of Nisibis” are of considerable historical interest. Together with some other anonymous madrashe they are combined in a collection known under a Latin title Carmina Nisibena (“Chants of Nisibis”). Many madrashe are polemical and are directed against the “heresies” of Bardaisan, Arius, Marcion, and Mani. Interestingly, Ephrem wrote several madrashe in imitation of Bardaisan, in the same meter and to the same tune. In doing so he eventually managed to deprive Bardaisan’s poetry of popularity and secure symbolical victory over his rival. Apart from being a gifted poet, Ephrem the Syrian also possessed a musical talent and set tunes to his madrashe himself. In the “School of Persians,” along with exegesis (interpretation of sacred texts), he apparently taught music and hymnology. In addition, he was in charge of a bnat qyama choir that performed his madrashe. Ephrem the Syrian influenced the religious thought and literature not only of Syriacs but also of other Christian peoples of the East and the West. During his lifetime, many of his works were translated into Greek, and from Greek into Latin. In various countries, others tried to imitate his poetic style. “Greek Ephrem” is an impressive body of works in Greek that is attributed to Ephrem. Prominent personalities like Jerome and the church historian of the 5th century Sozomen spoke of his talent with great respect. About fifty works by Ephrem were translated into Arabic and some of them, from Arabic into Ge‘ez. There are translations from Greek into Coptic and Georgian. There are also a number of Old Slavonic translations of the works attributed to Ephrem, made from Greek. Since the 5th century Ephrem’s works were actively translated into Armenian, and many of them, such as the commentaries on the Diatessaron and the Epistles of St. Paul, memre of Nicomedia, and a



large number of madrashe survived only in Armenian versions. They were published in Europe in different years and served as a basis for translations into Latin and other European languages. The Armenian Apostolic Church canonized Ephrem and commemorates him twice a year.


Songs and hymns of Ephrem’s contemporary, Aswana of Edessa, enjoyed some popularity and survived in Syriac liturgical practice until the 6th century. One the immediate successors to Ephrem is Balai, Bishop of Aleppo, who lived in the first half of the 5th century. His name is associated with the five-syllable meter, which was commonly used in bauthe, prayer-poems (as mentioned above, the seven-syllable meter was named after Ephrem the Syrian). He is known for a madrasha dedicated to the consecration of a church in the town of Qenneshrin (Chalcis, southwest of Aleppo), and partially preserved elegies, such as the elegy on the murder of Uriah by King David, and on Aaron’s death. Biblical themes (mostly from the Old Testament) were very popular among Syriac poets and often served an important source of inspiration for them.

8.5. “Odes of Solomon.” In addition to the works of known authors, early Syriac literature features a number of anonymous writings that echo the spread of Christianity in North Mesopotamia. The earliest is the so-called “Odes of Solomon,” which consists of 42 short poems. They were discovered in 1909 in a manuscript of the 16th century and published by English biblical scholar and expert on Oriental manuscripts James Rendel Harris (1852–1941). The author of the “Odes” remains unknown, and the discussions on the time of their composition and the original language still continue. Most scholars believe that they were written in Antioch or Edessa in the 2nd century AD and that their original language was Old Syriac, the Aramaic dialect of pre-Christian Osrhoene. The “Odes of Solomon” are considered the earliest example of Christian hymnography. On the one hand it displays a connection with the Judeo-Christian tradition and the biblical style of narration, and on the other it bears traces of Gnostic influence. As already mentioned, Gnosticism, which was in essence opposed to Christianity, had many followers among the Arameans of Syria and Mesopotamia, including those who, like Bardaisan, considered themselves Christians.

8.6. Syriac Apocrypha; “Acts of Thomas.” Early Syriac literature includes several books of the Apocrypha. Almost all of the Old and New Testament Apocrypha are in Greek, and those composed in Aramaic are very notable. The previous chapters mentioned the most famous of the Syriac Apocrypha, the “Teaching of Addai,” which deals with the spread of Christianity in Osrhoene. Another well-known Syriac apocryphal text, the most voluminous of all, is the “Acts of Thomas” (not to be confused with the non-canonical “Gospel of Thomas”). This narrative, which displays some similarities with a Hellenistic novel, but also contains a large number of components of different genres, especially prayers, tells the story of the mission and martyrdom of the Apostle Thomas in India. This text was translated into several languages, and traces of its influence, due to the Latin version, can be found even in



early medieval Europe. For a long time the original language of the “Acts of Thomas” was believed to be Greek, but a careful analysis of the text and cultural and historical realities therein left no doubt that it was composed in the 3rd–4th centuries in North Mesopotamia (presumably in Edessa) in Syriac. Its main purpose seems to be the strengthening of Thomas’ worship, which was introduced to Edessa by Emperor Alexander Severus to supplant the cult of Addai. Originally the “Acts of Thomas” was not free from the influence of Gnosticism, which was popular in Edessa, but the text was later edited in the spirit of mainstream Christianity. Interestingly, the surviving Syriac manuscripts contain the edited version, while the original Gnostic version is preserved in the Greek translation, made from the Syriac original. The “Acts” were also popular among the Manicheans. “Hymn of the Pearl.” Incorporated into the text of the “Acts of Thomas” is the “Hymn of the Pearl,” also known as the “Hymn of the Soul.” “Hymn of the Pearl” is a conventional name coined by modern scholars; in the original Syriac, as well as in the Greek translation, this passage is titled “Song of Judas Thomas, the Apostle.” The Hymn antedates the main narrative, displays some folkloric features, and is sometimes ascribed to Bardaisan. It is noteworthy that the scholars who lean toward the Greek origin of the “Acts of Thomas” recognize the Aramean origin of the “Hymn of the Pearl.” The content of the “Hymn of the Pearl” is as follows. The Prince (Apostle Thomas) arrives in Egypt to retrieve the pearl guarded by a giant serpent in the middle of the sea. In Egypt, the locals capture him, and he eventually forgets who he was and what his mission was, and falls into a deep sleep. Informed of the misadventures of their son, the parents send him a letter reminding him of his origin and mission. The letter arrives as a bird, falls to the Prince’s feet and becomes a living word, from the sound of which the Prince wakes up and recalls everything. He heads to the serpent, lulls it to sleep with a spell, and returns home with the pearl. Like all of the “Acts of Thomas,” the “Hymn of the Pearl” was very popular among Eastern Christians and Manicheans. In addition to the “Hymn of the Pearl,” the “Acts of Thomas” contains two other poetic pieces, “The Wedding Song” and “The Praise.” Interestingly, the Greek versions of this apocryphal work tend to partially or completely omit all three poetic fragments. Several other Syriac Apocryphal books were not widely known outside of the Syriac milieu, although Syriacs used them in their missionary activities. They include the “The Story of John the Apostle, son of Zebedee,” “The Teaching of Simon Cephas in the city of Rome,” “The History of Philip, the Apostle and Evangelist,” and several others.

8.7. Early Syriac hagiography and monastic literature. The harsh persecutions that Christians had to endure in the Roman Empire and the Sasanian Iran gave rise to a very rich hagiographic literature—biographies of martyrs and saints. The earliest example of Syriac hagiography written about the middle of the 4th century is the Lives of Gurya, Shamona, and Habib, who were martyred in Edessa during the persecution of Christians under the emperor Diocletian (284–305). Closely related are



the “Acts” containing the story of martyrdom of Barsamya, Bishop of Edessa, his sister Babi, and Sharbel, High Priest of Edessa, who was converted to Christianity by Barsamya. The most widely known piece of the early Syriac hagiography is the “Acts of the Persian Martyrs,” which contains the lives of persecuted Christians in Iran under Shapur II (309–379). As mentioned, these “Acts” are associated with the name of physician and diplomat Bishop Marutha of Maypherqat (†420), because according to later Syriac sources, he used to compile lives of saints. Marutha also authored a number of minor theological works, some of which were translated into Armenian. The earliest Syriac work that reflects the ideas of asceticism typical of the Syriac proto-monasticism comes from the same period. It is an anonymous collection of 30 memre, presumably originating from the area of the confluence of the Tigris and the river Little Zab. The European scholars called this collection Liber Graduum (“Book of Steps”), because it contains the idea of ascension up the steps to the “celestial city of Christ,” the dominant idea being the achievement of piety and moral excellence. Similar writings addressed to the monks later became one of the most popular genres of Syriac literature.


THE ONE, HOLY, CATHOLIC, AND APOSTOLIC CHURCH AND ITS SCHISMS 9.1. Early Christian Church and its five centers. The early church institutions of the Syriacs date back to the early Christian church, which was characterized as “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.” According to the ecclesiastical tradition, the Church of Christ was born at the moment when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles in the Cenacle. In the year 49 AD, an Apostolic Council was convened in Jerusalem under the chairmanship of the Apostle James, “Brother of the Lord.” The council decreed that in the interest of success of evangelization the converts from among the Gentiles should not be subject to the requirements of Jewish law, such as circumcision or dietary restrictions. Thus the Apostles, who continued to regard themselves as orthodox Jews, initiated the process of separation of Christianity from Judaism and its development into a religion in its own right. After the Council, the Apostles and their disciples headed to different countries to preach. Their missionary activity laid the foundation for the spread of Christianity far beyond the borders of Palestine. By the end of the 1st century, early Christianity had three major centers, namely the cities of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch. Later they were joined by Jerusalem and Constantinople. According to the church tradition, in these five cities the Apostles founded episcopal sees. In the 5th century, the metropolitan bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem were titled “Patriarchs,” and their sees became patriarchal sees of five independent churches, collectively referred to as the “Pentarchy” (in Greek “the rule of the five”). The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church was, in fact, the Pentarchy itself. Formally independent from each other, the Churches of the Pentarchy were listed in a strictly fixed order— Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, according to the “prerogative of honor” of their respective Patriarchs (in the Eastern Christian tradition this order is called the “diptych”). The first in importance in the Pentarchy was Rome, the capital of the Empire, in the territory of which Christianity emerged. As a major Christian center, Rome came forward due to the activities of the Apostle Peter, who, according to the 189



church tradition, became the first bishop of the city in the middle of the 1st century and held this position for 25 years. In the first centuries of Christianity, the primacy of Rome in the Pentarchy was not disputed, which to this day gives grounds to Roman Pontiffs to claim supremacy over all of Christendom. The Bishop of Rome in relation to other Patriarchs was the “first among equals.” In addition to other titles, he was called “Pope” (from the Greek παππας, “father”). Originally it was an informal honorific title, but since the 7th century it has been the official designation of the Roman Pontiff. Originally, any presbyter could be called “pope”—the first among the high hierarchs to take this title was Heraclius (231–246), Bishop of Alexandria, and up to the 7th century all subsequent patriarchs of Alexandria were called “Popes.” By the 9th century, this title became the prerogative of the head of the Roman Church. The next in importance was Constantinople, the capital of three consecutive empires—Eastern Roman (330–395), Byzantine (395–1453), and Ottoman (1453– 1922). The rise of Constantinople as a Christian center and its positioning immediately after Rome took place after it became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and the seat of the emperors. So the city’s political weight secured its second position in the list, as its apostolic status, associated with the name of the Apostle Andrew, was significantly inferior to the status of Christian centers associated with Peter and Paul. The artificial elevation of Constantinople in the church hierarchy was constantly contested by the Roman Pontiffs who questioned the apostolic origin of the city’s episcopal see. However, given the political weight of the Byzantine Empire and its emperors, the Pontiffs had no choice but to accept the existing state of affairs. With the rise of Constantinople, the weight of its Patriarchs increased accordingly. In the 6th century, they began titling themselves “Ecumenical Patriarch” (οίκουμενικοζ πατριάρχηζ), which again met the strong opposition of the Popes. The significance of the Patriarchs of Constantinople increased even more after the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem one after another fell under Muslim rule, and the Patriarchate of Constantinople remained the only one in the Byzantine Empire. After the “great schism” in 1054, which divided Christianity into two parts—Catholic (the Roman Church) and Orthodox (the Churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem)—a new Orthodox diptych was formed, and the status of “first among equals” passed to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. After the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks and the fall of the Byzantine Empire, all Orthodox Patriarchates in the territory of the Ottoman Empire were subordinated to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Today, the Patriarch’s ecclesiastical jurisdiction extends only to the Turkish Greeks, Crete, and several other Greek islands, Mount Athos in Greece, and the Greek diaspora. The third position in the Pentarchy was occupied by Alexandria. This city was associated with the name of the Apostle and Evangelist Mark, who brought Christianity to Africa. Before the rise of Constantinople, Alexandria was the second largest city after Rome and was considered the major Christian center in the Orient. Like the rest of the apostolic centers, Alexandria started as an episcopal see, which was then elevated to Patriarchate of the Church of Alexandria. This church was composed of Greeks, who mainly lived in the large cities, and Copts, descendants of



ancient Egyptians who were the vast majority in the provinces. The legacy and titles of the apostolic see of Alexandria are claimed today by three Churches: the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, and the Coptic Catholic Church of Alexandria. The Church of Alexandria is known for monasticism, which emerged in the Egyptian territories under its jurisdiction and developed into two main forms: anchoretic (individual reclusion) and cenobitic (communal). The anchoretic traditions were laid by Anthony the Great, who retired to the desert in 285. Cenobitic traditions are associated with the name of Pachomius the Great who established the first Egyptian monastery in 330. Antioch was the third largest city of the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria. In the Apostolic Age, it was the capital of the Roman province of Syria and was most closely associated with the earliest history of Christianity and its emergence as an independent religion. The Apostles Peter, Paul, and Barnabas were active in the city, and according to the New Testament, in Antioch “the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26). Peter founded the line of the Patriarchs of the Church of Antioch, the legacy of which is claimed today by five Churches. The ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Antioch covered Syria, Phoenicia, Palestine, Arabia, Cilicia, Cyprus, and Mesopotamia—the countries in which the Arameans traditionally lived. This explains why Aramean-Syriac Christianity was directly connected with the Church of Antioch. The fifth in the Pentarchy was Jerusalem, even though the Church established in the city by the Apostle James, “Brother of the Lord,” was considered the most ancient and the “mother” of all the Christian Churches. The Church of Jerusalem was the poorest because, unlike others, it was not based in a large city and had no significant territory under its jurisdiction. Its importance somewhat increased after Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, visited Palestine in 326 in search of the places related to the earthly life of Jesus and claimed to have discovered the True Cross. Following her visit churches were built on evangelical sites attracting numerous Christian pilgrims from different countries. 9.2. Philosophical and theological schools of Antioch and Alexandria. Antioch and Alexandria were major philosophical and theological centers, each adhering to its own understanding of exegesis (interpretation of sacred texts) and Christology (the study of the nature of Jesus). No established educational institution existed in Antioch initially. Individual philosophers and theologians, like Lucian (240–312), formed Antioch’s doctrine at the turn of the 4th century through public debates and discussions. In the middle of the 4th century, the philosopher and theologian Diodorus of Tarsus (†392) brought the Antiochian theologians together in a formal educational institution, which resembled a cloister. The School of Antioch followed the teachings of Aristotle and applied historical, philological, and logical analysis adhering to the maximum possible literal interpretation of sacred texts in a simple, comprehensible language. In Christology, the Antiochians believed in two natures of Jesus and developed the idea of “a Man who became God.” After Diodorus of Tarsus, the most famous representatives of the



School of Antioch were his disciples Theodore of Mopsuestia (350–428), John Chrysostom (347–407), and Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393–466). The rival School of Alexandria was founded around 190 AD and was open to Christians and pagans alike. It was dominated by the teachings of Plato and NeoPlatonism and applied the allegorical method of exegesis. In Christology, the Alexandrians believed in one nature of Jesus and developed the idea of “God who became a Man.” The most important representatives of the Alexandrian branch of theology were Clement of Alexandria (150–215), Origen (184–254), and Cyril of Alexandria (378–444). Various church liturgies were developed in the main centers of early Christianity. The central and most important part of a liturgy is the Anaphora, during which the offerings of bread and wine are consecrated as Christ’s body and blood. Several dozen Anaphoras exist, each associated with the name of a particular Church Father. The Antiochian liturgy, for example, is based on the Anaphora of James of Jerusalem, the Alexandrian on the Anaphora of Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Cyril of Alexandria, the Constantinopolitan on the Anaphora of Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and James of Jerusalem. The number of Anaphoras used in the liturgy of a particular Church can vary from one to several dozen, but only about ten are commonly used.

9.3. First Ecumenical Council. In the history of Christianity, an important role was played by Ecumenical Councils of the Church’s highest hierarchs and leading theologians gathered to develop Christian dogmas, approve various canons and rules, resolve theological disputes, and endorse or condemn new trends in theology. It was believed that the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils inspired by the Holy Spirit were the concrete expressions of the collective consciousness of the Church as the Body of Christ. In the period between the 4th and the 20th centuries, a large number of councils claiming ecumenical status were convened. Each Christian denomination recognizes a specific set of Ecumenical Councils and, accordingly, recognizes only their decisions. Nevertheless, the Catholics, the Orthodox, and the majority of Protestants implicitly recognize the first seven Councils that took place in Nicaea (325, 787), Constantinople (381, 553, 680), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451). The First Ecumenical Council (The First Council of Nicaea) was convened by Emperor Constantine the Great in 325, with the participation of 318 bishops and accompanying presbyters of lower ranks. The main issue on the agenda was the resolution of a dispute between Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, and Alexandrian presbyter Arius. Arius denied the divine nature of the Son of God and insisted that he did not always exist, but was created by God the Father. The Arian controversy became quite widespread and posed a serious threat to the unity of the Christian world. The Council condemned Arianism as heresy and decreed that “the Son of God is the true God, begotten of God the Father before all time, and as eternal as God the Father; He is born and not created, and consubstantial with the Father.” The debates resulted in the formulation of the Nicene Creed, a profession of faith in the



form of a short text that outlines the basic tenets of Christianity. It was based on an older version attributed to the Apostles and called the “Apostles’ Creed.”

9.4. Second Ecumenical Council. The Second Ecumenical Council was convened by Emperor Theodosius I the Great (378–395) in Constantinople in 381 with the participation of 150 bishops. It is also known as the “First Council of Constantinople.” The issues on its agenda were similar to those of the First Council. The participants once again repudiated Arianism and several other “heresies,” including that of Macedonius who insisted that the Holy Spirit was inferior to the Father and the Son, and served them like the angels. The Council confirmed the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son, thus completing the process of forming the so-called Trinitarian doctrine. The Second Council also amended the Nicene Creed, which then became known as the “Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.” The new version, with minor variations, is recognized by all major Christian denominations. 1 Another important decision by the Second Ecumenical Council concerned Constantinople. It was this Council that decreed that “the Bishop of Constantinople shall have the prerogative of honor after the Bishop of Rome because Constantinople is New Rome,” despite the fact that Constantinople had not even been mentioned in the list of apostolic sees. Rome, which was not represented at the Council, accepted the new redaction of the Creed but rejected the decision on Constantinople. The second position of the Byzantine capital was recognized by Rome only after the Fourth Crusade, which resulted in the creation of the Latin Empire (1204– 1261) on some Byzantine territories with Constantinople as its capital.

9.5. Third Ecumenical Council and the emergence of the Nestorianism. The Third Ecumenical Council was convened in 431 by Emperor Theodosius II (408– 450) in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor, with the participation of about 200 bishops representing all five major Christian centers. The Council was to address the dispute between the two leading Church authorities of the time—Cyril of AlexanThe current version used by the Roman Catholic Church is as follows: “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.” 1



dria, who presided over the council, and Nestorius, who became Patriarch of Constantinople in 428. Nestorius, under the influence of Diodorus of Tarsus, and his mentor, Theodore of Mopsuestia, claimed that the Virgin Mary gave birth to an ordinary man, Jesus, with whom God joined morally, and dwelt in him, like in a temple, just as he had dwelt in Moses and other prophets. Based on this, Nestorius called Jesus “God-bearer” and Virgin Mary not “Mother of God” (Θεοτόκος), but “Mother of Christ” (Χριστοτόκος). According to him, there are two natures in Jesus, the human and the divine, staying in relative unity and never fully merging. Accordingly, some of Jesus’ actions were determined by his human nature and others by the divine. The views of Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia were, in fact, the official doctrine of the Antiochian theological school, and at the Council, the main debate was between the delegations of Antioch and Alexandria. After they had both accused each other of heresy, the Emperor Theodosius II resolved the dispute in favor of the Alexandrians. Nestorius was anathematized by the Council and deposed. However, the thorny subject of the relationship between the two natures of Jesus remained essentially unresolved. Although Nestorius himself was not the actual originator of the “heresy,” it was nonetheless called “Nestorianism” and its supporters, “Nestorians.” The concept of “Nestorianism” at the Council of Ephesus, and in its aftermath, was interpreted too broadly. As such were labeled “heresies,” which had little in common with the views of Nestorius expressed in his main work, the “Book of Heraclides.” The persecutions that followed the Council of Ephesus forced many Nestorians to flee to Iran, where the Nestorian doctrine soon became dominant among the Christians who lived there and traditionally adhered to the theological traditions of Antioch. This was the first major schism of Christianity, which resulted in an emergence and ecclesiastical institutionalization of its branch that recognizes only the decisions of the first two Ecumenical Councils.

9.6. The rise of Monophysitism and the “Robber Council.” The next major Christian schism after the Nestorian occurred with the emergence of Monophysitism, a new Christological doctrine. Its founder was Eutyches, a respected Archimandrite of Constantinople (378–454). According to him, Jesus originally had two separate natures—divine and human—but after their unification, the human nature was absorbed by the divine. Eutyches considered himself a follower of Cyril of Alexandria and the Alexandrian school of theology, and he substantiated his viewpoint by the necessity to fight Nestorianism. Yet for the majority of church authorities of the time, who recognized the twofold nature of Jesus, his position was as extreme and heretical as Nestorianism. In 447, a Synod in Constantinople presided over by the metropolitan archbishop Flavian condemned Eutyches as a heretic, which was supported by Pope Leo I in a letter to Flavian (“Tomus Leonis ad Flavianum”). The Emperor Theodosius II and Patriarch of Alexandria Dioscorus refused to recognize the decisions of the Synod on the grounds that Eutyches allegedly repented and admitted being delusional. In order to resolve the crisis, in August 449 a new Council was convened in Ephesus chaired by Dioscorus. The Emperor deprived voting rights to those who



recognized Eutyches as a heretic and pressured the council to almost unanimously speak in his favor. Flavian was deposed and exiled. The Pope’s legates, who were supposed to present to the Council his message condemning Eutyches, left Ephesus without doing so. Leo I refused to accept the decisions of the Council of Ephesus and called it the “Robber Council” (Latin Latrocinium). The Council remained in history under that name. 9.7. Fourth Ecumenical Council. The popularity of Eutyches’ ideas in the East and their complete rejection in the West by Pope Leo I really threatened Christianity with a new schism. The Pope demanded a new Ecumenical Council, but Emperor Theodosius declined. Marcian, who became Emperor in 450, agreed to convene a new Council, not in Italy, as the Pope demanded, but somewhere not too far from Constantinople. The intention was to have the Council in Nicaea, but eventually, the Fourth Ecumenical Council was convened in October 451 in the town of Chalcedon (today one of the districts of Istanbul). It was attended by 636 bishops, most of whom were under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Antioch. The Council was convened to put an end to heated Christological disputes that had not been resolved at the Third Council and to produce a universally acceptable definition of the nature of Jesus. After three weeks of sessions, the Council decreed that the “one and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the Self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same coessential with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the Self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the Manhood; One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ.” This definition essentially repeated the main provisions contained in the “Tomus Leonis,” and it was, in essence, a denial of both Nestorianism and Monophysitism. The Council of Chalcedon condemned the “Robber Council” of Ephesus of 449, deposed and exiled Eutyches and Dioscorus, and decided to expel the Monophysites, burn their writings and execute the propagators of their doctrine. The entire course of the Council and its results were, in fact, a reflection of the struggle for political dominence in the Christian church, fought mainly between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Alexandria, and for ideological influence, between Alexandria and Antioch. By deposing Dioscorus, the Emperor and the bishops of Constantinople managed to undermine the influence of the Patriarchate of Alexandria in favor of Constantinople, thus securing its second position after Rome in the Christian hierarchy. Under Emperor Justinian I (527–565), known for his harsh policies toward pagans and heretics, Alexandria’s theological school virtually ceased to exist.



The vast majority of the bishops (454) who participated in the Council recognized the Chalcedonian definition on the two natures of Jesus and signed it in the presence of Emperor Marcian. As a result, the Christological position of the Council of Chalcedon, known as “diophysite” (Greek “two natures”), became the official doctrine supported by the state and the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, which completely separated from each other in 1054.

9.8. The institutionalization and politicization of Monophysitism. A small group of bishops at the Council of Chalcedon rejected its creed believeing it to be tantamount to Nestorianism. Most of these bishops represented the Church of Alexandria, which had suffered an internal crisis and factional splits due to these controversies. The majority of the laity, Copts by origin, who were subject to the oppression of the Byzantine authorities, together with the Coptic priests, rejected the official doctrine of Constantinople and adopted a non-Chalcedonian position. The high Church hierarchs of Greek origin, who did not want to lose the support of the Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople, eventually joined Chalcedonians. The split led to the election of two rival Patriarchs—Chalcedonian and nonChalcedonian—and then to the separation of the non-Chalcedonian Coptic Orthodox Church. Its head is still called the “Patriarch of Alexandria” but resides permanently in Cairo. The Coptic Orthodox Church considers itself the true heir to the ancient Church of Alexandria, as does the second Church that emerged after the schism, the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria, also known as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and of All Africa. Today, this Church serves the small Greek community of Egypt and performs missionary work in Africa. The non-Chalcedonian position was also adopted by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which traditionally maintains close links with the Coptic Church. In 506, at the First Council of Dvin, the Chalcedonian creed was rejected also by the Armenian Apostolic Church, which did not attend the Council of Chalcedon due to war with Iran. The adoption by Armenians of a non-Chalcedonian position had predominantly political reasons, but it was also suggested that the Armenian Church may have mistakenly rejected the Chalcedonian doctrine because of an inaccurate translation of the Council’s decisions. Thus, convened with the aim of preventing a split, the Council of Chalcedon actually resulted in the separation between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Churches. The non-Chalcedonian camp consisted of Churches of pronounced ethnic character (Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian), and the reasons for that were more political rather than theological. By disassociating themselves from the official Byzantine Church, they actually stood beside their flocks in their political struggle for independence from the Byzantine Empire. These Churches, five in number today, are traditionally called “Monophysite,” although they reject this definition because of their rejection of some of the provisions of Eutyches’ teaching. They consider Eutyches a heresiarch for bringing Alexandrian theological thought to the extreme. In the “Epistle to Vahan Mamikonian,” the Armenian historian of the 5th century Lazarus Parbetsi puts Eutyches in the same line as Arius, Nestorius, Mani, and other “heretics.” These Churches believe that the term “Miaphysitism” is a more appropriate definition for their Christological position. The term was inspired by the defi-



nition of Cyril of Alexandria that in Jesus the human and the divine are inseparably united in one nature (μία φύσις). 2 Collectively, the non-Chalcedonian Churches, which only recognize the decisions of the first three Ecumenical Councils (in Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus) and adhere to the Alexandrian approach in theology, are also called “Churches of Oriental Orthodoxy” (not to be confused with “Eastern Orthodoxy” that includes the official Church of the Byzantine Empire and several national Orthodox Churches historically associated with it). Sometimes Nestorians are classified as “Oriental Orthodox,” which is not appropriate because they were separated from mainstream Christianity before Chalcedon, recognize only the first two Ecumenical Councils, are not related to the School of Alexandria and Eutyches’ Monophysitism, and adhere to a Christological position that is completely opposite to Miaphysitism. However, being essentially non-Chalcedonian, Nestorianism is sometimes combined with the Oriental Orthodox Churches in a group referred to as “Ancient Oriental Churches.”

9.9. Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Ecumenical Councils. Three more Councils that followed the Council of Chalcedon and are recognized “Ecumenical” by the Chalcedonian Churches did not leave a significant impact on the subsequent history of Christianity. The Fifth Ecumenical Council (the Second Council of Constantinople) was convened by Emperor Justinian I in 553 to resolve the so-called “Three-chapter controversy.” The “Three Chapters” included some of the writings by Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Ibas of Edessa, which were clearly Nestorian. The previous Councils did not reject them, and Miaphysites used them to accuse Chalcedonians of latent Nestorianism. The Council, consisting of 165 bishops, rejected all “three chapters” and condemned Theodore of Mopsuestia for not having repented. As for Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Ibas of Edessa, the condemnation was limited only to their Nestorian writings, and they were pardoned since they renounced their views. In addition, the Council confirmed the anathema on the “heresies” of Nestorius and Eutyches. The reason for convening the Sixth Ecumenical Council (the Third Council of Constantinople), with two sessions in 680–681 and 692, was the emergence of Monothelitism (from the Greek “one will”). The Monothelites claimed that Jesus had two natures (human and divine), but one will, as his human will disappeared as a result of absorption by the divine will. Monothelites considered their teaching a compromise between Chalcedonian Diophysitism and non-Chalcedonian Miaphysitism. Initially, they enjoyed the support of Emperor Heraclius (613–641), Patriarch In the second half of the 20th century, Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Churches engaged in an active dialogue, both in bilateral and multilateral formats. A common position was reached that the schism of 451 was the result of failure to fully understand each other and the use of different terminology. An agreement was also reached on mutual renunciation of the terms “Diophisitism” as a synonym of “Nestorianism” and “Monophysitism” as a synonym of “Eutychianism.” 2



of Constantinople Sergius I (610–638), and the Pope Honorius I (625–638), who considered this doctrine a chance to restore the unity of the Christian Church. Nevertheless, the Sixth Ecumenical Council eventually declared Monothelitism a heresy and reaffirmed that Jesus Christ as a True God and a True Man has two wills, but his human will is not opposed to the divine, but obedient to it. The Seventh Ecumenical Council (the Second Council of Nicaea) was convoked in 787 to fight the “heresy of iconoclasm” (“icon-breaking”). Iconoclasm was associated with the name of Emperor Leo III the Isaurian (717–741), who banned the worship of images as idolatry in order to facilitate the conversion of Muslims to Christianity. The Council condemned the iconoclasm and restored the veneration of icons.


THE SPLIT OF SYRIAC CHRISTIANITY: “NESTORIANS” AND “JACOBITES” 10.1. Syriac Christianity and Antioch. Early Syriac Christianity was closely associated with Antioch, as the traditional Aramean territories—Syria and Mesopotamia— were part of the Dioceses of the Church of Antioch and were under the jurisdiction of its Patriarchs and bishops. The Syriac Christians followed the Antiochian rite, on which they later developed several secondary ones. From the Seleucid times, Antioch and other large cities of Syria were mostly populated by Greeks, who formed the political and cultural elite. However, the depths of the country were mainly Aramaic-speaking, and Arameans constituted the majority of the Syrian population. Among the presbyters and higher hierarchs of the Church of Antioch were many Syriacs and Aramaic-speaking Jews, despite the dominance of the Greek language and the strong influence of ancient Greek philosophy on the theological traditions of the School of Antioch. The Syriac Church tradition calls the Church of Antioch “mother” of all the subsequent Syriac Churches. Upon arriving in a new city, the Apostles and ordinary preachers headed to the local synagogue, so Christianity in the Roman Empire at first spread primarily among Jews who at that time had a vast, predominantly Aramaic-speaking Diaspora. The most notable exception was the Hellenized and mostly Greek-speaking community of Alexandria, the most well-known representative of which was the philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 BC – 50 AD). The adoption of Christianity by peoples who were not bound by the requirements of Jewish law, such as circumcision, led the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem to decide that the new converts were not required to follow those laws, and this decision marked the beginning of the separation between Judaism and Christianity. Nevertheless, a complete separation between the New Testament and the Old Testament traditions never happened. Moreover, the Antiochian church tradition that developed on the ancient Semitic territory and its offspring, Syriac Christianity, were much more closely related to the Jewish tradition and therefore appealed to it and argued with it more often and longer than Christianity in other regions of the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Contributing factors were the common Semitic origin of Jews and Arameans, their shared lan199



guage and similar mentality, and the long history of interaction and mutual influence. Hence the rich biblical imagery and style of narration close to the style of the Tanakh that were inherent in Syriac theological thought and Syriac religious literature, with less traces of influence of Greek philosophy and literature than one might have expected. Over time, the direct cultural, political, and church relations between the Syriacs and Antioch substantially weakened. The reason for that, on the one hand, was the struggle for the Patriarchal See of Antioch between Chalcedonians and nonChalcedonians, and on the other, the rise of the Aramean cities of North Mesopotamia, such as Edessa and Nisibis, as major Christian centers.

10.2. Nestorianism in Edessa. The traditional lack of unity and fragmentation of the Arameans continued after the adoption of Christianity, which was itself divided into different branches and was unable to guarantee the unity of a nation under the power, cultural and ideological influences of two completely different states. The Nestorian schism that followed the Third Ecumenical Council affected mostly the Syriacs. Theodore of Mopsuestia had many admirers among Syriacs who called him the “Ecumenical interpreter.” In 420, the commentaries by Theodore of Mopsuestia were introduced into the curriculum of the theological school of Edessa. The school was founded in the 4th century by the Syriacs who fled to Osrhoene from Iran and was called the “School of Persians.” The initiative came from the rector Qiyore, but the major promoter of Nestorianism among Syriacs was Ibas of Edessa (†457), who was a professor at the school and possibly one of its rectors. Ibas had switched from one Christological position to another several times, but he eventually adhered to the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia and together with his students translated most of his works into Syriac. Through the activities of Ibas and his followers, the Nestorian views began spreading rapidly not only in the “School of Persians” but throughout Edessa as well.

Bishop Rabbula. The spread of Nestorianism in Edessa met fierce resistance from the supporters of the official Byzantine Chalcedonian doctrine, primarily Rabbula, who was the bishop of Edessa from 412 to 435. Rabbula was born in the Syrian city of Qenneshrin to a pagan father and a Christian mother and remained pagan himself even after marrying a Christian woman. Under the influence of the Syriac bishops of Qenneshrin and Aleppo, Rabbula eventually converted to Christianity, left his wife and started an ascetic life in one of the Syriac monasteries. After the death of the Bishop of Edessa Diogenes, he was offered the position and eagerly accepted it, but continued to live an ascetic life. Rabbula was on friendly terms with Cyril of Alexandria, whose views he adopted at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus and, together with several other authors, translated his works into Syriac. His own literary heritage is very modest. Rabbula was also a professor at the “School of Persians” and as the Bishop of Edessa could act as its rector. Immediately after assuming the position of Bishop of Edessa, Rabbula entirely devoted himself to the eradication of “heresies,” starting with those of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius, as well as of Bardaisan, Arius, and Marcion. He burned “heretical” literature and several times expelled Nestorian sympathizers among the



professors of the “School of Persians” from Edessa, including Ibas of Edessa. Ibas himself described these events in a letter sent in 443 to Mari the Persian. It is his only surviving writing, which later became one of the “Three Chapters” condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553. The activities of Rabbula were also directed against the many Edessan Jews and pagans, despite the fact that by the 5th century Edessa had become a predominantly Christian city. Syriac sources mention “thousands” of Jews and pagans who adopted Christianity through Rabbula’s activities. He also destroyed four pagan temples in Edessa and converted one of the synagogues into a church. Rabbula is also known for his opposition to the Diatessaron, a Gospel Harmony composed by Tatian of Adiabene. As a result, in the religious practices of the Syriacs, the Diatessaron was replaced by four separate canonical Gospels.

Ibas of Edessa. In spite of Rabbula’s activities, the “School of Persians” remained a stronghold of the supporters of Nestorianism where the teachings of Diodorus of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Nestorius were openly taught. A sort of equilibrium was established in Edessa between Nestorians and Chalcedonians, and that allowed Ibas to assume the post of the Bishop of Edessa after the demise of Rabbula in 435. In this position, he especially distinguished himself with the construction of new churches. Unlike Rabbula, Ibas was far from ascetic; he was authoritarian in nature, treated the church property as his own, and was prone to nepotism. In predominantly pagan Harran he appointed his young nephew bishop, who openly cohabited with an Edessan woman, squandered church property, and accepted offerings from the local pagans. The representatives of the anti-Nestorian groups in 448 filed a complaint against Ibas to the Patriarch of Antioch Domnus, and Emperor Theodosius II. A committee that was established for the study of this case did not find Ibas guilty and enforced a formal reconciliation of the parties, although it was demanded that Ibas publicly renounce his Nestorian views. Nevertheless, Ibas’ opponents in Edessa continued to put pressure on the authorities, and in the spring of 449 the governor of Osrhoene Hareath upon the instruction of the imperial court announced that charges against Ibas remained in force and imprisoned him. The “Robber Council” in the same year condemned and deposed Ibas of Edessa in his absence, but two years later, the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, on the proposal of the Papal legates, unanimously acquitted him and reinstated him as Bishop of Edessa, the position he held until his death in 457. After Ibas’ death, Chalcedonian Nonnus became the Bishop of Edessa, a position he had already held during Ibas’ two-year deposition. Nonnus is known for the conversion of St. Pelagia of Antioch and he was later canonized. He started persecuting the Nestorians, especially the professors at the “School of Persians.” At the same time, Syriac Miaphysites, also hostile to Nestorianism, established a firm foothold in Edessa. All this forced the Nestorians to leave the city and seek refuge in Iran. In 471, another Chalcedonian, Cyrus I, became the Bishop of Edessa. On his instigation, Emperor Zeno ordered the closure of the “School of Persians” in 489 and expelled its remaining professorate from Edessa.



10.3. Barsauma’s activities in Iran and “Nestorianization” of the Church of the East. The Nestorians who fled from Edessa to Iran restored the “School of Persians” in Nisibis with the permission of the Iranian authorities. In Nisibis, the school entered a new period of growth and prosperity, becoming a powerful source for the dissemination of the ideas of Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia among Iranian Christians and preparing priests for the Church of the East. Because of its School, Nisibis became the second major center of Syriac Christianity after Edessa and the main cultural and spiritual center of Iran’s Christians. At first, the Sasanians favored the Nestorians as followers of a doctrine persecuted in the Byzantine Empire. The person who contributed most to the adoption of this policy was Barsauma, a former slave of Persian origin and Ibas’ student at the “School of Persians.” He quickly rose to prominence in the school thanks to his intellectual abilities. During the persecutions of the Nestorians in Edessa he returned to Iran, where he soon won the favor of King Peroz (457–484) and became the Bishop of Nisibis. He also performed various political and diplomatic tasks by the order of the Iranian authorities. He was involved in the Iranian-Byzantine negotiations to establish the boundaries between the two states and served as the inspector of Iranian military garrisons stationed along the Byzantine borders. Barsauma, in all probability, managed to convince the Iranian authorities that “Nestorianization” of Iranian Christians was in the interests of the Iranian state, since it contributed to their alienation from the Christian Byzantine Empire. As a result, in 462 Peroz announced his patronage of Nestorianism, and Barsauma started enforcing this doctrine upon Iranian Christians, sometimes resorting to violent means. Because of his personal relations with the king and his quarrelsome character, Barsauma disobeyed the Catholicoi of the Church of the East, Babowai (457–484) and Aqaq (484–496). Babowai, who was opposed to Nestorianism and is recognized by anti-Nestorians as the last “righteous” Catholicos, was executed per Peroz’s orders, probably not without Barsauma’s instigation. In 484, Barsauma convened his own Synod in Beth Lapat (Gundishapur), proclaiming the teachings of Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia official Church doctrine. In accordance with the views of Barsauma, who was married, monks and priests of all ranks were allowed to marry. The intention was to bring the lifestyle of the Christian clergy as close as possible to that of Zoroastrian priests, who constantly demanded harsh measures of the authorities against the Christians. The Catholicoi Babowai and Aqaq themselves were supporters of celibacy. Although Barsauma soon reconciled with the Catholicos Aqaq, who was his schoolmate in the “School of Persians,” acknowledged his supremacy, and even admitted that the Synod of Bath Lapat was a mistake, his Nestorian views, nevertheless, were officially adopted by the Church of the East at the Council of 486. A new Council, convoked by Catholicos Babai (497–503) in 497, two years after Barsauma’s death, confirmed the decisions of the Council of Beth Lapat of 484, including the permission to marry, and disassociated itself from mutual accusations exchanged between Barsauma and Aqaq. These actions by the Iranian Syriacs were largely predetermined by political considerations since by rejecting the official Byzantine



church doctrine, they indirectly confirmed their loyalty to the Sasanians, traditional rivals of the Byzantine Empire. Thus, after the Council of 424 the Church of the East acquired canonical independence, and after the Councils of 486 and 497, it secured its doctrinal independence. Officially adopting the teachings of Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, the Church of the East became in essence “Nestorian,” although its relation to Nestorius and Nestorianism as a whole is very ambiguous and indirect. Nestorius was not in any way involved in the emergence of the Church of the East and had nothing to do with it. In turn, the Church of the East was not in any way involved in the confrontation between Nestorius and Cyril of Alexandria and was not even aware of it. The Church of the East, in honoring Nestorius as a saint and confessor of the true faith—the “Greek Doctor of the Church”—does not call itself “Nestorian” and, moreover, does not recognize some of the theological views of the great heresiarch. Nevertheless, the designation “Nestorian” for the Church of the East and its followers became deeply rooted, despite some pejorative connotations that the followers of other Christian denominations assigned to that word.

10.4. Catholicos Aba I. After the death of Catholicos Babai in 503, the Church of the East entered a period of internal turmoil and conflicts that ended with the election to the Catholicosate of a prominent church figure, Aba I (Mar Aba, 540–552). Aba, who was a Persian and Zoroastrian by birth, was employed by the state chancellery in the province of Beth Garmai. He converted to Christianity at a mature age, amazed and inspired by a Christian monk who took with humility Aba’s insult. After leaving the chancellery, Aba received theological education at the School of Nisibis and then embarked on a journey to the “land of Romans.” He visited Edessa, Palestine, Egypt, and Constantinople, entering into disputes with Christian theologians and pagan philosophers. Back in Iran, he taught exegesis for several years at the School of Nisibis and the Syriac school of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, which he presumably founded himself. In 540, at the insistence of King Khosrow I Anushirwan (531– 579), Aba was elected Catholicos. In 544, Aba I convened a Council that reorganized the canonical territory of the Church in order to strengthen the Catholicos’ power and introduce a centralized system of management. The Council also banned marriages between blood relatives, which were common among Persians. Unlike Barsauma, Aba was an advocate of celibacy. He is known for his epistles, in which he interpreted the Nestorian doctrine and the decisions of the Council of 544. In the Syriac milieu Aba was the first after Bardaisan to have shown considerable interest in cosmography. He was opposed to the idea of sphericity of the Earth, proposed by Ptolemy, and believed it to be flat. In Constantinople, Aba met a Byzantine merchant and traveler Cosmas Indicopleustes (“Cosmas who sailed to India”), who was influenced by his cosmographical views and reflected them in his famous theological and cosmographical essay “Christian topography.” Aba’s active religious and social activities displeased the Zoroastrian priesthood, and at their instigation he was exiled to Atropatene and then imprisoned in the capital. Soon, however, he was released because the state needed his services. By the order of the king, he consecrated a bishop for Hephthalites, a people in Central



Asia, and then successfully mediated the resolution of a conflict in the Khuzestan province.

10.5. Abraham of Kashkar and East Syriac monasticism. Another prominent church figure during the Catholicosate of Aba I was Abraham of Kashkar (499– 588). Educated at the School of Nisibis, he was engaged in missionary activity in the small Arab kingdom of Lakhmids not far from South Mesopotamia, with its capital in al-Hira (“Hirta” in Syriac sources), and also made a pilgrimage to Sinai and Jerusalem. His disposition to asceticism brought him to Mount Izla where he lived in a cave as a recluse. Syriac monasticism, founded according to the Church tradition in the middle of the 4th century on Mount Izla by Egyptian Awgen, was in decline at the time of Aba I and Abraham of Kashkar and did not play a significant role in the life of the Church of the East. This was largely caused by the abolition of celibacy by Barsauma, followed by the general decline of spirituality, frustration, and confusion among clergy and monks, many of whom chose to join other denominations. About 570, Abraham of Kashkar founded a new monastery on Mount Izla, which was called “the Great,” and composed monastic regulations of 12 canons. The “Great Monastery” distinguished itself by a more strict discipline and more regulated life of the monks. Later, other monasteries of the Church of the East used the same model, especially those founded by the disciples of Abraham of Kashkar, of whom the most prominent was the second Abbot of the “Great Monastery,” Dadisho (†604) from the province of Beth Daraye. Thus, Abraham of Kashkar acted as the reformer of the East Syriac monasticism.

10.6. Church of the East in the second half of the 6th century. After the death of Aba I in 552, Khosrow I appointed his personal physician Yawsep (Joseph) as Catholicos. However, the clergy of the Church of the East were unhappy with him, and in 566 Yawsep was replaced by the disciple of Aba I, Hazkiel (566–581). This was the period when, on the one hand, the opponents of Nestorianism strengthened their position at the royal court, and on the other, the “heresy” of the Messalians (in Syriac, “the praying ones”) became widespread among the monks. The Messalians took to the extreme the call of the Apostle Paul to pray continuously, believing it to be the only way to defeat the evil demon that dwells in the soul of each person. This doctrine, which developed according to the Syriac traditions of austerity of the period before Abraham of Kashkar, was quite widespread also in Edessa. The first of the 39 canons adopted by the Council that Hazkiel convened in 576 was directed against the Messalians, and that indicates the degree to which this “heresy” had spread among Iranian Christians. The situation of Christians in Iran improved significantly with the accession to power in 579 of King Hormizd IV, who rejected calls for the persecution of Christians, claiming that the throne and the state could be stable only by relying on both dominant religions in Iran. In the last quarter of the 6th century, some opposition to the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia and a tendency to rapprochement with the official Byzantine Chalcedonian doctrine took shape within the Church of the East. The main propagator of these tendencies was Henana of Adiabene (†610), who as the rector of the School of Nisibis in 572–610 attempted to replace the commentaries on the



Scriptures by Theodore of Mopsuestia by those of John Chrysostom. The Councils of the Church of the East three times—in 585 under Catholicos Ishoyahb I (581– 596), in 596 under Sabrisho I (596–604), and in 605 under Grigor I (604–607)— condemned the views of Henana of Adiabene (the first time without mentioning his name). 1 The teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia and the Nestorian doctrine were never challenged again by anyone from the Church of the East.

10.7. Consolidation of Syriac Miaphysitism. The emergence and strengthening of Syriac Nestorianism provoked a counter reaction of its opponents among Syriacs. Since the rejecters of the Chalcedonian doctrine often identified it with Nestorianism, those opposed to Nestorianism eventually aligned themselves with Eutychianism and Miaphysitism, which were in fact opposite to Chalcedonian doctrine. These oppositionists were mostly Syriacs who lived in the Byzantine Empire, mainly in Syria, where, as in Egypt, the rejection of the Chalcedonian doctrine was rooted in the strained relations of the local Syriac population with Greek or Hellenized elites. The Byzantine Syriacs were particularly influenced by the views of the major ideologist and codifier of Miaphysitism, Severus of Antioch (465–538). As a result of the fierce struggle between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians for the Patriarchal see of Antioch, Severus was elected Patriarch in 512, but in 518, after Justin I (518–527) became the Emperor and started enforcing the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon, he was deposed and fled to Alexandria, the main stronghold of Miaphysitism at that time. The writings of Severus of Antioch were almost completely translated into Syriac and survive only in that language. After the expulsion of Nestorians from Edessa, Miaphysites remained in opposition to the supporters of Chalcedonian doctrine. So great was their number in the city that in 510, the Miaphysite Paul became the Bishop of Edessa. Under Justin I he was deposed and exiled, and the Episcopal see was transferred to the Chalcedonian Asclepius, who began persecuting the Miaphysite clergy and monks. The Miaphysites were also persecuted by Abraham bar Kilai, Bishop of Amid. After Asclepius’ death in 526, Paul formally adopted the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon and was reinstated as Bishop of Edessa, but he died a few months later. Philoxenos of Mabbug. The first major representative of Syriac Miaphysitism was not Paul, but his contemporary, Aksenaya, Bishop of Mabbug (†523), better known by his Greek name, Philoxenos. A native of the province of Beth Garmai in North Mesopotamia, Philoxenos received his elementary education at the monastery of Qartmin, in the territory of modern Tur Abdin, and continued it in the “School of Persians.” Philoxenos completed his education in one of the most important centers

The materials related to the sixteen Councils of the Church of the East in the period from 410 to 790 (reports, canons, letters, and so on) were combined in one collection, presumably at the end of the 8th century, and survived only in one manuscript from the 13th– 14th centuries. In European scholarly tradition this collection is known as “Synodicon Orientale.” 1



of Syriac Miaphysitism, the monastery of Tel Ada near Aleppo, where he was ordained bishop by the Miaphysite Patriarch of Antioch, Peter II. In 485, he assumed the position of the Bishop of Mabbug (Hierapolis), where the ancient cult of Atargatis still had numerous followers. Under Philoxenos, Mabbug became one of the leading centers of translation from Greek into Syriac. A staunch opponent of Nestorians and Chalcedonians and an active promoter of the Miaphysite doctrine among the Syriacs and Greeks, Philoxenos of Mabbug was personally involved in the struggle for the See of Antioch. In 499 and 506, he complained in Constantinople to Emperor Anastasius I (491–518), a Miaphysite sympathizer, about patriarch Flavian II, who, in his opinion, was not firm in the faith. In 512, Philoxenos of Mabbug presided over the Council that elected Severus Patriarch of Antioch. When Justin I started persecuting and expelling the Miaphysite clergy and laity, Philoxenos along with nearly fifty other Miaphysite bishops, such as Paul of Edessa, was driven out of his diocese and exiled to Thrace and then to Paphlagonia, a peninsula on the Black Sea in northwestern Anatolia. In 523, he fell victim to arson in the Paphlagonian city of Gangra. According to Syriac sources, Philoxenos of Mabbug wrote numerous theological and liturgical works, polemical treatises, and about thirty epistles and lengthy letters intended mainly for monks. From the literature that survived, his 13 memre on the Christian life, two treatises against Nestorians (of the six extant), and two treatises against Chalcedonians (of the thirteen extant) are particularly valuable. Also extant are his writings against Mani, Marcion, Eutyches, Nestorius, and Diodorus of Tarsus. Apart from their theological value, the writings of Philoxenos of Mabbug are considered fine examples of Syriac literary prose. Finally, Philoxenos of Mabbug is known for his revision of the Syriac translation of the New Testament, which will be discussed in a separate chapter. 10.8. Jacob of Serugh. Not all Syriacs opted for Miaphysitism in such a straightforward manner as Philoxenos of Mabbug. Many went along a long and winding path, preferring not to interfere openly in bitter Christological disputes and not to voice their preferences. One of those was the prominent Syriac poet-hymnographer, Jacob of Serugh (451–521), who was a contemporary of Philoxenos. He was born in the village of Kurtam located on the Euphrates and was educated at the “School of Persians.” He embarked on the path of priesthood, and in 518, near the end of his life, he became the Bishop of Serugh. Jacob of Serugh spent almost his entire life among Miaphysites, and even though he preferred to stay away from theological debates, his inclination to their position over the years became more and more pronounced. He was apparently involved in rivalry with the Nestorians over the minds of ordinary laymen. But he gained fame not for his priestly activity, but for his poetic talent. The Syriac Miaphysites considered him the poetic heir to Ephrem the Syrian and called him the “Flute of the Holy Spirit,” just as Ephrem was called the “Harp of the Holy Spirit.” A brilliant master of the Syriac language, Jacob of Serugh authored more than 800 works, including homilies, epistles, lives of saints, prayer-poems, and, above all, memre. He wrote his first memra on the chariot of Ezekiel when was 22 years old, and he started the last one, “Golgotha,” shortly before his death and left it unfin-



ished. Biblical, especially Old Testament, themes occupied an important place in his works. He wrote memre with commentaries on the creation of the world, on Cain and Abel, on Sodom, on Joseph in Egypt, on the life of Jonah, on the ascension of Elijah, and many more. He also wrote on such topics as faith, virtue, repentance, ascension, various religious festivals, and so on. Most of his memre were written in a twelve-syllable meter that he devised and that was subsequently named after him (incidentally, the seven-syllable meter is associated with the name of Ephrem the Syrian, and the five-syllable meter with the name of Balai). The hymnography of Jacob of Serugh, in general, does not reveal many traces of Miaphysite influence but had a significant impact on the development of the doctrine of Syriac Miaphysites, enriching it with new dogmatic and ethical provisions. Many poetic works of Jacob of Serugh later became part of the Syriac Miaphysite liturgy. Another Syriac Miaphysite poet who is sometimes mentioned together with Jacob of Serugh is Shemun Quqaya (†514). He was a simple potter in a village near Antioch who mainly composed soghyata, singing them to his own tunes. Jacob of Serugh, who accidentally discovered this amateur poet in 510, was so impressed with Shemun Quqaya’s talent that he began popularizing his works and even showed them in Greek translation to Patriarch Severus of Antioch. Although the poetic talent of Jacob of Serugh overshadowed that of the humble rustic potter, many of Quqaya’s poems were also incorporated into the liturgy of the Syriac Miaphysites.

10.9. Institutionalization of Syriac Miaphysitism. Initially, Syriac Miaphysites were closely associated with the like-minded Greeks who were grouped around Severus of Antioch. However, the persecution of Emperor Justin, which resulted in Severus’ exile, the increase in the numbers of Syriac Miaphysites, and the final “Nestorianization” of the Church of the East made the institutionalization of Syriac Miaphysitism all the more urgent. Yohannan (John), Bishop of Tella (483–538), made one of the first attempts. A native of the city of Raqqa (Kallinikos) in Osrhoene born into a wealthy family, John received a good Greek and Syriac education before serving in the Byzantine army. His inclination to asceticism brought him to the monastery of Mar Zakkay near his hometown, where he received a theological education. In 519, Jacob of Serugh ordained him Bishop of Tella, a town located to the east of Edessa. Emperor Justin’s persecution of Miaphysites forced him to flee to the city of Shingar (present-day Sinjar in northwest Iraq near the Syrian border). While living an ascetic life, Yohannan of Tella preached Miaphysitism for sixteen years and ordained many priests and bishops, laying the foundations of the Church of the Syriac Miaphysites. In 537, he was captured in Iranian territory, handed over to the Chalcedonian hierarchs, and a year later died of torture in a monastery around Antioch. His Life, written by his disciple monk Elijah, as well as several of his theological works, are extant. Jacob Baradaeus. The final formation of the Syriac Miaphysite Church is attributed to Bishop Jacob Baradeus (Yaqub Burdaya, †578). The biography of this outstanding Church personality is known mainly from the writings of the Syriac Miaphysite bishop and historian Yohannan (John) of Ephesus (507–586), and from his anonymous Life. Jacob was born in Tella into the family of priest Theophilus bar Manu and as a child was sent to the nearby monastery of Pesilta, where he received



Syriac and Greek education. He concluded his theological education with Severus of Antioch. Through piety and an ascetic lifestyle (his nickname “Baradaeus” is derived from the name of a rough hair shirt, which he always wore) Jacob gained popularity in Miaphysite circles and was eventually summoned to Constantinople by the Miaphysite sympathizer Empress Theodora, wife and actual co-ruler of Emperor Justinian (527–565). The fifteen years that Jacob Baradaeus spent in Constantinople were years of brutal persecution of non-Chalcedonians and pagans committed by Justinian. Syriac Miaphysitism, which after the death of Severus of Antioch passed through a period of internal turmoil, was even more weakened by Justinian’s persecutions and fell into disrepair. About 543, with the intervention of Theodora and al-Harith ibn Jabala (in Syrian sources “Harith bar Gabala,” 529–569), the ruler of a small Arab Christian principality of the Ghassanids in Transjordan and North Arabia and vassal of the Byzantine Empire, Jacob Baradaeus was appointed the second Miaphysite Bishop of Edessa after Paul and enthusiastically took up the restoration of the Syriac Miaphysitism. While passing on foot throughout almost all of Syria and North Mesopotamia, he preached among the laity and ordained so many priests and bishops that he eventually was reproached by the Patriarch of Constantinople. Thanks to the undertakings of Jacob Baradaeus, Edessa became the stronghold of Syriac Miaphysitism, which eventually was institutionalized as an independent Church called the “Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch.” After Jacob, this Church is sometimes called “Jacobite,” or “Syriac Jacobite,” and its followers, “Jacobites.” 2 The Church, however, does not use this appellation, as Jacob Baradaeus is not considered its founder. It claims to be the continuation of the ancient Church of Antioch, which is reflected in its official name, just as the Coptic Orthodox Church considers itself the continuation of the Church of Alexandria. The Antiochian liturgy is the official liturgy of the Syriac Orthodox Church, and to this day the Anaphora of Jacob of Jerusalem remains the most widely used, despite the fact that the Syriac Orthodox Church officially recognizes more than seventy different Anaphoras. Together with the Armenian Apostolic, Coptic Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, as well as its “branch” in India, the Syriac Orthodox Church belongs to the group of “Oriental Orthodox Churches” that are sometimes called “Monophysite.” 10.10. The Antiochian schism. The official list of Patriarchs of the Syriac Orthodox Church up to the year 518 (the year of deposition of Severus of Antioch) coincides with that of the Patriarchs of Antioch, starting with the Apostle Peter. This means that the Syriac Orthodox Church considers Apostle Peter its founder and

Since the word “Jacobite,” like the word “Nestorian,” was used by opponents with pejorative connotation, synonymous with the word “heretic,” for reasons of political correctness it is not recommended to use either designation. However, they are deeply rooted in the scholarly tradition as neutral terms, not related to Christological controversies. As such, they are also used in this book. 2



thereby holds him in great veneration. The Syriac Orthodox Church is the only Miaphysite Church that recognizes the supremacy of the Apostle Peter over all the other Apostles, but unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which claims supremacy of the Popes as successors to Peter over all of Christendom, Syriacs recognize Peter’s supremacy of honor rather than the supremacy of authority. Miaphysite Syriacs insist that Severus remained the legitimate Patriarch of Antioch until his death in 538 and that his rightful successor was Sergius of Tella, ordained patriarch by Jacob Baradaeus. Jacob Baradaeus himself, despite his crucial role in the formation of the Syriac Orthodox Church, has never officially been its head and does not appear in the list of its Patriarchs. Moreover, according to Yohannan of Ephesus, in his last years he had a strained relationship with some of the bishops he had consecrated. One of them was Paul II the Black (Pawlos d-Beth Ukkame), who became Patriarch after Sergius of Tella. At some point, he joined the Chalcedonians, but later repented of it. This period marked a time of unrest and disagreements within Miaphysite circles that were triggered, among other things, by the spread of Tritheism, a doctrine that claims that the divine Trinity is composed of three independent divine entities. Chalcedonians, however, believed that the Patriarchate of Severus of Antioch ended with his exile in 518, after which Emperor Justinian appointed Chalcedonian Paul as the Patriarch. Paul starts the line of the Chalcedonian Patriarchs of Antioch, parallel to the line of Syriac Miaphysite Patriarchs coming down from Sergius of Tella (from the times of Jacob Baradaeus there was also a parallel Chalcedonian bishop in Edessa). The Chalcedonian Patriarchs stood at the head of the second church that emerged from the Antiochian schism. It is called “Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch” or “Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East.” 3 Like the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Church considers itself the legitimate continuation of the ancient Church of Antioch, founded by the Apostle Peter. The full title of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch is “His Beatitude Patriarch of the Great Antioch, Syria, Cilicia, Iberia, Mesopotamia, and All the East” (“All the East” is also part of the full title of the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church). The support of the Byzantine authorities ensured the unhindered physical presence of the Chalcedonian Patriarchs of Antioch, whereas for the Syriac Patriarchs the city, with rare exceptions, 4 became out of limits. For several centuries their The “East” in this context usually meant the territory of the Roman province Oriens, which covered almost all of the Eastern Mediterranean. 4 Thus, in 721, the Arabs allowed the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church to visit the city and consecrate a newly built church. The Crusaders, who established themselves in Antioch in 1098 and maintained allied relations and dynastic marriages with the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, generally favored the Syriacs as belonging to the same branch of Christianity as the Armenians. During the 12th–13th centuries, they several times allowed the Syriac Patriarchs to visit the city, and even to sit on the throne of St. Peter. After that, the Patriarch 3



seat was transferred from one monastery to another until in 1160 when it was permanently established in the monastery of Mar Hananyo (St. Ananias) in Tur Abdin. The monastery was founded in 493 and was later named after Bishop Ananias, who restored it in 793. Because of the yellowish color of its walls, the monastery is better known by its Arabic name, Dayr al-Zaafaran (“Saffron Monastery”). Dayr alZaafaran served as a Patriarchal residence until 1932. During the Dayr al-Zaafaran period, it became customary for the Patriarchs of the Syriac Orthodox Church to take the second name “Ignatius” in honor of the third patriarch of Antioch (68–107).

10.11. Armenian-Syriac Church contacts. From the earliest period of its history, the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch maintained active contacts with the Armenian Apostolic Church. The relations between the two non-Chalcedonian Miaphysite Churches were particularly active in the 6th–8th centuries when the Armenian Church enjoyed great prestige and influence in the Miaphysite camp. In this period, the Armenian Catholicoi often ordained bishops for the Syriac Miaphysites, who frequently appealed to the Armenian Church for help and support, as was the case during the First Council of Dvin in 506, which will be discussed below. The Second Council of Dvin held in 554 was attended by Syriac Bishop Abdisho, who helped translate the works by Philoxenos of Mabbug into Armenian. In the subsequent period, there was some tension between the two Churches, especially after the Armenian Church favored the views of a major Miaphysite ideologist, Julian of Halicarnassus, who disagreed with Severus of Antioch on the issue of the nature of Jesus’ flesh. To overcome the disagreements the Armenian Catholicos Hovhan Odznetsi and the Syriac Patriarch Athanasius III in 726 a joint Church Council was convened in the Armenian city of Manazkert. From the Armenian side, 36 bishops and six scholar-monks attended the Council, and six Syriac bishops were present. According to the decisions by the Council of Manazkert, extant in Armenian and Syriac languages, both Churches resolved their differences on almost all issues. At the Council, the Patriarch Athanasius consented that three Armenian priests should be sent to North Mesopotamia to counter the Chalcedonian Armenians who were very active there. These priests were also actively engaged in translating from Syriac into Armenian. Both Churches experienced another period of tension and recriminations in the 13th century but again managed to overcome them. During the 2002 visit of the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church to Armenia and his meeting with the Catholicos of All Armenians, the dogmatic unity of the two Churches was once again confirmed. 10.12. The “Eastern Jacobites” of Iran. As “Jacobites” and “Nestorians” were on opposite Christological poles, they launched fierce religious and ideological camof the Syriac Orthodox Church next entered Antioch (present-day Antakya in Turkey) in 2000.



paign against each other that undermined their ethnic unity and made them vulnerable to common threats. Unity was also hard to achieve since the Syriacs separated by state borders became hostages of the political confrontation between the two superpowers of the time, the Byzantine Empire and Iran. However, the never-ending rivalry contributed to the development of Syriac culture and its spread far beyond the old Aramean homeland. The territorial delimitation between the two Syriac denominations was not clear-cut, as Miaphysite communities grown on the soil of local opposition to Nestorianism existed also in Iran, even though they were a clear minority. The main center of Iranian Miaphysites, or “Eastern Jacobites” as they were usually called, was the city of Tagrit. In the Sasanian domains there were entire Jacobite enclaves, the largest of which was at the confluence of the Tigris and Great Zab rivers. The number of Miaphysites in Iran increased at the expense of the Syriacs captured by the Persians on the Byzantine territories and resettled in Iran. There were also those among Miaphysites clergy and laity who fled from the Byzantine persecutions to Iran voluntarily. Finally, the Miaphysite communities absorbed Persians and Mesopotamian Arabs converted to Christianity by the Jacobites. The Jacobites frequently managed to establish their control over entire villages and monasteries in which they sought to open their own schools in order to counterbalance the Nestorians’ wellorganized and efficient system of education. The main spiritual center of the Eastern Jacobites became the Mar Mattay (St. Matthew) monastery, located 35 kilometers northeast of present-day Mosul and first mentioned at the turn of the 6th century. Later it served as the seat of very influential bishops 5 and was known for its rich library. The monastery still functions today as the main religious center of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Iraq. Simeon of Beth Arsham. The first notable Miaphysite, who was active mostly in Iranian Mesopotamia, was Bishop Simeon of Beth Arsham († ca. 540), a Persian by birth. His constant debates with the Nestorians, including Catholicos Babai, as well as with the Manicheans, Marcionites, and Bardaisanites, earned him the nickname of “Persian polemicist.” He was also engaged in active missionary work and, in particular, converted to Christianity, and by doing so doomed to martyrdom three senior Zoroastrian priests. Among other regions, he preached in the Arab kingdom of Lakhmids in the northeast of the Arabian Peninsula, even though the dominant denomination of Christianity in this Iranian-controlled statelet was Nestorianism. He visited the Lakhmid capital of al-Hira as a member of the delegation sent by Em-

It is noteworthy that in the titles of the bishops of the monastery of Mar Mattay there were references to Nineveh, the city that the Seleucids had built on the site of the ancient Assyrian capital. The new Nineveh was a quite prominent Christian center, and at times even had its own resident bishop. After the Arab conquest of Mesopotamia in the middle of the 7th century, on the opposite bank of the Tigris the Arabs founded the city of Mosul. Nineveh was abandoned and covered by earth. Subsequently, by saying “Nineveh,” the Syriacs usually meant Mosul. 5



peror Justin I to King al-Mundhir ibn al-Naaman after the latter captured two Byzantine generals. Simeon of Beth Arsham is known as the author of several works, of which two epistles survive. The first, written in 511, describes the activities of Barsauma in spreading Nestorianism in Iran and the closure of the “School of Persians” in Edessa. The second, dated 524, describes his journey to al-Hira with the Byzantine delegation of Justin I and also contains valuable information on the persecution of Christians by Dhu Nuwas, the Judaizing king of Himyar, in the city of Najran in Yemen. Simeon of Beth Arsham is known to have attended the First Council of Dvin of the Armenian Apostolic Church (506). He applied to the Council seeking protection for the Miaphysites who were persecuted by Iranian Nestorians. He asked the Armenian Catholicos Babken Votsmetsi to outline the doctrine of the Armenian Church. The reason for this request was that the Nestorians, in order to strengthen their position in Iran, tried to persuade the authorities that the Armenians, Byzantines, Georgians and Caucasian Albanians shared the same doctrine with them. Babken Votsmetsi on behalf of the Council of Dvin composed a message stating that the Armenian Church did not recognize and condemned the teachings of Nestorius. The message apparently made no special impact in Iran and Simeon of Beth Arsham returned to Armenia with several Syriac Miaphysite priests requesting support once again. In 509, Babken Votsmetsi on behalf of the Armenian bishops and nakharars (feudal lords) wrote another message which refuted Nestorianism and anathematized its supporters, including Catholicos Babai of the Church of the East. This message is very important for the history of the Armenian Apostolic Church, as it is the earliest extant Armenian document referring to and condemning the Council of Chalcedon as conniving with Nestorianism. Interestingly, among other heresiarchs it anathematized Eutyches as the one who took Monophysite ideas to the extreme. 10.13. The Church structures of the Jacobites in Iran; Metropolitans and Maphrians of the East. In the eyes of the Iranian Miaphysites, the last legitimate Catholicos of the Church of the East was Babowai, executed in 484 by the order of King Peroz, as his successor Aqaq adopted the Nestorian position of Barsauma. In the opinion of the opponents to Nestorianism, this was the usurpation of the See of the Catholicos by heretics. Therefore, they could not remain under the jurisdiction of the bishops of the Church of the East and tried to establish their own church structures in Iran. The issue grew urgent because the Nestorians used every opportunity to remind Iranian authorities that the Miaphysites were subordinate to the Patriarch who resided in hostile Byzantine territory, and could not be regarded as loyal subjects of Iran. The first successful attempt at consolidating the Iranian Jacobites was made in 559 when Jacob Baradaeus appointed Bishop Ahudemmeh (†575) “Metropolitan of the East,” in other words, the head of the Eastern Jacobites. Ahudemmeh was born in the town of Balad in the province of Beth Arbaye and apparently came from a Nestorian family. He was ordained bishop by the Armenian Catholicos Christophorus I (539–545), known for his activities against the Nestorians and Chalcedonians in Syria and Iran, and became the first Miaphysite bishop of Beth Arbaye.



Ahudemmeh was a prominent intellectual who left writings of philosophy, theology, and philology. He was particularly remembered for preaching Christianity among the nomadic Arabs of Beth Arbaye, for which he was titled “Apostle of the Arabs,” as well as among Zoroastrians. He was also known for his disputes with the Nestorians at the court of Khosrow I Anushirwan, and for converting one of the princes who fled the royal palace in search of the true God. Because of this, Khosrow ordered that Ahudemmeh be thrown in jail, from where the Arabs he baptized tried to free him. In addition to Ahudemmeh, Hamisa (578–609) and Samuel (614–624) occupied the position of the Metropolitan of the East, but nothing is known of them. In the 7th–8th centuries, the Jacobites managed to establish in Iran a more organized and effective church structure that extended to eastern Iran and western Afghanistan and also aimed at missionary work in Central Asia. Initially, the head of this structure, to be consecrated by the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, was supposed to be called the “Catholicos of the East,” but since the word “Catholicos” among Iranian Syriacs was already firmly associated with the Church of the East, the head of the Eastern Jacobites was given the title “Maphrian 6 of the East.” The first Maphrian, in 629, became Bishop Marutha of Tagrit (†649). Like Ahudemmeh, he was a native of Balad, and prior to his appointment he spent 10 years in the monastery of Mar Zakkay near Raqqa (Kallinikos) and the monastery of Mar Mattay. Initially, Marutha had 13 dioceses under his jurisdiction, to which another four were added later. The Maphrians enjoyed autonomy in all matters concerning the Iranian Miaphysites, including the consecration of bishops. As a rule, they were selected from among the Eastern Jacobites, but some appointments of “westerners” were made. In the hierarchy of the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Maphrian occupied the second position after the Patriarch, but there were periods when the Maphrians of the East enjoyed more authority than the Patriarchs and had under their jurisdiction a greater number of dioceses. After the death of the Patriarch the surviving Maphrian frequently assumed the position. At different periods the incumbent Maphrian traditionally consecrated the new Patriarch. Occasionally, the Maphrians had to share real authority with the influential bishops of the monastery of Mar Mattay, and that forced the Syriac Orthodox Church in the middle of the 9th century to confirm, through a special synodal canon, the subordination of the bishops of the monastery to the Maphrian. For the first five centuries the seat of the Maphrians was in Tagrit, but in the middle of the 12th century, it was relocated to the area of Mosul, moving from one monastery to another, but for the most part it stayed at the monastery of Mar Mattay. Mosul and its environs still remain the main areas of residence of the followers of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Iraq. Just as the full name of a Patriarch of the In Syriac mafreyana, which translates as “the one who makes fruitful.” In the Syriac tradition the word “Maphrian” is considered synonymous with the word “Catholicos.” 6



Syriac Orthodox Church contains the name “Ignatius,” the names of Maphrians since 1533 were amended by the name “Basilios.” With the demise in 1859 of Basilios Behnam IV, the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch abolished the position of Maphrian of the East.

Grigorios bar Ebraya. From the long line of Maphrians of the East, Grigorios bar Ebraya (1226–1286), better known to Arabs as “Abu-lFaraj” and to Europeans as “Abulfaragius” or “Bar Hebraeus,” deserves special mention. Bar Ebraya is famous not because he held that important position in the hierarchy of the Syriac Orthodox Church, but because he is, perhaps, the most well-known representative of Syriac science and literature and an outstanding figure of medieval Syriac culture. His rich heritage includes about forty theological, philosophical, legal, historical, medical, astronomical, philological, and literary works, many of which were strongly influenced by the works of contemporary Arab and Persian authors. Grigorios bar Ebraya was born in Malatya (Melitene) into the family of the physician Aaron. For a long time his name was interpreted as “son of a Jew,” and it was suggested that Aaron was of Jewish ancestry. The name is now believed to be derived from the village of Ebra near Malatya. He started his education by studying medicine with his father, but did not limit himself to it, and eventually amassed a truly encyclopedic knowledge. He then joined the Church and at a quite young age became Bishop. In 1264, in Sis, the capital of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, in the presence of the Armenian King Hethum I, Bar Ebraya was consecrated Maphrian of the East. He spent the next seven years in the monastery of Mar Mattay, then resided mostly in the Iranian cities of Tabriz and Maragha. A distinctive feature of Grigorios bar Ebraya was his extraordinary openmindedness, tolerance, and respect for the Nestorians, which was quite unusual for the tense interdenominational relations of the Syriacs. He maintained a friendship with the Catholicoi of the Church of the East Denha I (1265–1281) and Yahbalaha III (1281–1317). According to eyewitness reports, the death of Grigorios bar Ebraya in Maragha 7 was mourned not only by Jacobites but also by Nestorians and Armenians, even though, like some other prominent Syriac Miaphysites, such as Dionysios bar Salibi and Yohannan bar Andraos, Bar Ebraya was involved in the ArmenianSyriac dogmatic discords of the 13th century. This, however, did not prevent him, a master of the Armenian language, from maintaining friendly contacts with the Armenians and being received with honor at the Armenian royal court. 10.14. The Jacobite-Nestorian confrontation in Iran. The strengthening of the Jacobite positions in Iranian Mesopotamia became particularly noticeable during the reign of Khosrow II Parvez (590–628), who was inconsistent in the matters of faith. On the one hand, he was a staunch Zoroastrian and would sanction executions of The remains of Grigorios bar Ebraya were later transferred from Maragha to the monastery of Mar Mattay. Bar Ebraya’s younger brother, Grigorios Barsauma Safi, who succeeded him as the Maphrian, is also interred at Mar Mattay. 7



Christians. The most notable case was the martyrdom of Giwargis Mihramgushnasp, a noble Persian, who, according to Zoroastrian custom, was married to his own sister. After converting to Christianity, Giwargis was educated at the School of Nisibis and became a monk, but for renouncing Zoroastrianism he was arrested on the king’s orders and crucified. Khosrow’s reign, in general, was not favorable to the Church of the East, and due to his opposition, after the death of Grigor I around 610, the Church for more than twenty years could not elect a new Catholicos. Yet Khosrow occasionally would show religious tolerance, which allowed the Jacobites, during the temporary weakening of the Church of the East, to gain access to the royal court and establish some influence there. The main conduit of Jacobite influence was the personal physician of Khosrow, Gabriel of Shingar, who had two wives. He had significant influence on one of the two Christian wives of Khosrow, the Syriac Shirin (the other was Mary, daughter of the Byzantine emperor Mauritius). Shirin was Nestorian by birth but switched to Miaphysitism and provided secret protection to her co-religionists. The Nestorians, nevertheless, occasionally managed to reestablish their influence at the court of Khosrow II. Their answer to Gabriel of Shingar was the rich jeweler Yazdin, who periodically sent opulent offerings and money to the king. Under the influence of the opposing Syriac factions, Khosrow sometimes arranged disputes between them at his court. Giwargis Mihramgushnasp participated in one such dispute in which victory was awarded to the Nestorian side. 10.15. Babai the Great. Without a Catholicos, the affairs of the Church of the East were managed by one of its most prominent figures, Babai the Great (551–628). A native of the province of Beth Zabdai, Babai received his primary education at a Persian school before he entered the School of Nisibis. Upon graduation, he joined the “Great Monastery,” which was founded by Abraham of Kashkar on Mount Izla. Around 604, he became the third Abbot of that distinguished monastery. As Abbot, Babai proved himself a strict disciplinarian and upholder of the reforms of Abraham of Kashkar. A staunch advocate of celibacy, like Catholicos Aba I, Babai expelled all married monks and nuns from the “Great Monastery.” This caused discontent, and in protest, even some of the celibate monks left the monastery. Nevertheless, the Church hierarchy, in general, approved Babai’s actions. Khosrow’s opposition to the appointment of a new Catholicos forced the bishops of the Church of the East to find a way to bypass the royal veto. As a result, Babai the Great was appointed supervisor of the monasteries in North Mesopotamia with complete freedom of action in bringing them on the “true path.” He was assisted by archdeacon Aba in this mission. The result of their joint activity was the complete restoration of celibacy within the Church, together with some other reforms. Babai the Great wrote a large number of works in which he set out a coherent Christological position, and he was the first Nestorian to do so. Most of this work does not survive, but the extant seven-volume “Book of the Union,” which builds on the views of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodorus of Tarsus, sheds light on his Christological views, and to this day serves as the basis of the Christological doctrine of the Church of the East. Babai the Great acted as the main accuser of Henana of



Adiabene who was in favor of compromises with the imperial Chalcedonian Church. He also exposed the “heresies” of Manicheans, Marcionites, Messalians, Bardaisanites, and Miaphysites. He mainly did so through his commentaries on Evagrius of Pontus, one of the main ideologists of Christian mysticism and Origenism, 8 whose writings in Syriac translation were widely circulated in the monasteries on Mount Izla. Trying to minimize the harm caused by these translations, Babai attempted to present Evagrius as an opponent to the ideas of Origenism. He also authored the Life of Giwargis Mihramgushnasp, several essays intended for the monks, and liturgical hymns. Babai the Great unofficially headed the Church for nearly twenty years. After the assassination of Khosrow II in 628, the Church of the East was finally able to convene a Council, which offered the post of Catholicos to Babai. However, he declined the offer, and that same year he died in his cell. The elected Catholicos, Ishoyahb II (628–646), was another zealot of the purity of the Nestorian doctrine, who, as a student, left the School of Nisibis in protest against the “Chalcedonizer” Henana. Among other things, Ishoyahb II is known for the diplomatic mission to the Byzantine emperor Heraclius on behalf of the daughter of Khosrow II, Buran. Ishoyahb II was the Catholicos who saw the fall of Sasanian Iran in 637 under the blows of Muslim Arabs and to whom befell the heavy task of establishing relations with the new lords of the Middle East. This seems to be basis for the fictitious information in later Syriac sources about Ishoyahb’s correspondence with prophet Muhammad and his meeting with Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab.

Origenism is a conventional name for the doctrine based on the idea of apocatastasis, or the return of everything to its original condition. In Christian theology it was understood as a possibility for eventual salvation for every sinful soul, including Satan himself. 8


OTHER BRANCHES OF SYRIAC CHRISTIANITY: MELKITES AND MARONITES 11.1. Syriac Melkites and their main communities. In contrast to the Nestorians and Jacobites, a small group of Syriacs accepted the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon. Non-Chalcedonian Syriacs called them “Melkites,” or “Royalists” (from Aramaic malka, or “king”), thereby connecting them to the Byzantine Emperor’s denomination. This designation became widespread, and all Chalcedonians under the jurisdiction of the Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem Patriarchates became known as “Melkites.” The Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch (Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East) that emerged after the Antiochian schism also was sometimes called the “Melkite Church.” The main center of Aramaic-speaking Melkites was Palestine. During the 5th– 6th centuries, they were engaged in literary, mainly translation work in the local Western Aramaic dialect, known as “Palestinian Christian Aramaic,” using a script closely resembling the cursive Estrangela of Osrhoene. Palestinian Melkites were mostly Jewish converts to Christianity, who had a long tradition of using Palestinian Aramaic dialects as literary languages. Closely associated with the Palestinian Melkites were the Melkites of Transjordan, who also used Palestinian Christian Aramaic. Another community of Aramaic-speaking Melkites existed in the vicinity of Antioch and parts of Syria. These Melkites used Classical Syriac as a written language, the common literary language of the overwhelming majority of Christian Arameans. A mosaic inscription in Syriac, dating to the 8th century, of the Melkites of Syria announcing the establishment of a small monastery near Homs has survived. Stylitism. The traditions of asceticism and monasticism, which originally were more inherent to Western, rather than East Syriac Christianity, were also widespread among the Melkites. In the 5th century, West Syriac monasticism was on the rise and produced a number of notable personalities. A unique form of reclusion at that time was stylitism, standing or dwelling on a “pillar,” which was usually a small tower, or a platform. Stylitism had been known from the days of Awgen, but the true growth of this particular form of asceticism began with the Syrian hermit Shemun (Simeon) the Stylite (390–459). According to his “Life” and the “History of the 217



Monks of Syria” by Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393–466), as a boy, Shemun experienced a vision in the church and joined the hermits who lived in the vicinity of his native village. He then entered the monastery Tel Ada near Aleppo where he spent ten years but was requested to leave because of his extreme austerity. Around 423 he went into reclusion and ascended a pillar, on which he stood day and night, praying continually. His pillar was initially low but was constantly built higher, and it eventually reached a height of 20 meters. Shimun the Stylite enjoyed a great reputation throughout the Christian world. His pillar was always surrounded with pilgrims from different countries, and even Byzantine emperors sought his advice. He spent at least 40 years on the pillar, and during his lifetime he was considered a saint by his fellow Syriacs and Christian Arabs. After his death his body was interred in Antioch. Stylitism in Syria was practiced up to the 10th century and was common in Russia until the 15th century.

11.2. The Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch. Unlike Nestorians and Jacobites, Chalcedonian Syriacs did not form an independent church of their own but were under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch. However, the visible Syriac presence among the flock forced the Greek Orthodox Church to use Palestinian Christian Aramaic and Syriac, along with the Greek language, for liturgical purposes. A significant number of Greek liturgical texts and hymns were translated into these languages, including several hymns by the prominent theologian and Church Father, John of Damascus. Some of them, under the name “Greek Canon,” even found their way into the liturgical practice of the Syriac Orthodox Church, which was in constant contact with the Melkites. The tradition of using Palestinian Christian Aramaic and Syriac continued even after most of the Aramaic-speaking Melkites were dissolved among the Greeks, and largely lost their Syriac-Aramean identity and language. Thus, the active use of the word “Melkites” was discontinued for a few centuries. Under Arab rule, the Byzantine Orthodox of the Eastern Mediterranean gradually became Arabic-speaking, and Arabic became dominant in their liturgy. However, the Church also continued to use Greek and Syriac. The last known manuscript with texts of liturgical content, with a small part written in Syriac, belongs to the first half of the 17th century. The connection of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch with Syriac Christianity manifested in the fact that for several centuries it continued to use the Antiochian liturgy, common with the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch. However, in the 10th century, it switched to the Constantinople liturgy, which was the official liturgy in the Byzantine Empire, and it is still used in Arabic translation. The seat of the Patriarchs of the Greek Orthodox Church was in Antioch until the Crusaders conquered the city in 1098 and the Principality of Antioch and the Latin Patriarchate of Antioch was established. After that, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchs were forced to dwell in Constantinople (as mentioned in the previous chapter, the Crusaders would occasionally allow the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchs to visit the city). After the expulsion of the Crusaders from Antioch in 1268, Greek Orthodox Patriarchs returned to the city, but in 1342 their seat was transferred to Damascus, where it remains to this day. Currently, the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox



Church of Antioch covers mainly the Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christians of Syria and Lebanon. In addition, there are several dioceses in Europe, North and South America, and Australia. Up to the end of the 19th century, the highest hierarchs of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch were ethnic Greeks, but in 1899 the first Arab Patriarch, Meletios II Doumani, was elected. The Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch is by far the most Arabized of all modern Eastern Orthodox churches of the Middle East. Its main liturgical language is Arabic, although it has not completely abandoned the Greek language, even though it is difficult to find anyone among the clergy and the laity who maintains Greek identity. In the current official list (diptych) of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch is the third after the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Alexandria.

11.3. The Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. Unlike the Churches of Alexandria and Antioch, the Church of Jerusalem escaped the schism between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians. It always remained faithful to the Chalcedonian creed and Imperial Church and had no connection to Syriac Christianity. Currently, it is known as the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem or the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The jurisdiction of this Church, which enjoys the active support of the Government of Greece, covers the Orthodox Arabs of Palestine and Jordan. Together with the Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic Churches, the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem is a custodian of the Christian holy sites of Palestine, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. In contrast to the Arabized Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, the highest clergy of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem almost entirely consists of ethnic Greeks, who are natives of Greece, and its liturgy is mostly celebrated in Greek. This creates tension and certain alienation in the relationship of the Church with the laity, the vast majority of whom are Palestinian Arabs. The Church has also experienced several scandals caused by the sale of its property to Israelis, one of which resulted in the deposition of the Patriarch.

11.4. Maron and the emergence of the Maronite community. Another religious community that originated in the Syriac milieu were the Maronites. Their early history remains obscure and is mainly preserved as semi-legendary tales. The Maronites believe that their community was established by a Chalcedonian Syriac monk named Maron (Mar Maron), who lived in the 4th–5th centuries and was a recluse in the Taurus Mountains near Antioch. His piety earned him a name and it is said that John Chrysostom himself sent him a letter. In his “History of the Monks of Syria,” Theodoret of Cyrrhus mentioned in particular that Maron “hallowed a pagan place of sacrifice, and made it a place of worship of God,” which means that he converted a pagan sanctuary into a church. Maron did not preach anything different from the official doctrine of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, yet his personality attracted a lot of followers who laid the foundation of a new community under his name. Of Maron’s disciples and followers, the best known is Abraham of Cyrrhus (350–422). During Maron’s lifetime, Abraham of Cyrrhus actively preached in the Lebanese mountains and eventually earned the title “Apostle of Lebanon.” Later he



became the Bishop of Harran, the city that preserved the ancient Aramean worship of celestial bodies up to the beginning of the second millennium. The main target of Abraham of Cyrrhus’ missionary work was the loose association of people living in the Lebanese mountains, known collectively as “Mardaites” (derived from the Aramaic word for “rebel”). This nickname is explained by the fact that the mountain ranges of the Eastern Mediterranean for centuries served as a refuge for different folk, hiding from the persecution of the secular and religious authorities. Mardaites were also in the mountains of the Cilician Taurus, neighboring on the province of Isauria, hence the name “Isaurians” by which the Mardaites were known in the Byzantine Empire. Mardaites were mostly Christians, at least nominally. However, they were bellicose, well versed in military art, did not shun piracy, and often enlisted as mercenaries in the Byzantine army. The apparent lack of faith of the Lebanese Mardaites and the presence of pagans among them always attracted the Maronites, whose entire subsequent history became closely intertwined with these mountaineers. According to the “Life” of Abraham of Cyrrhus, he converted a whole village of pagan Mardaites to Christianity and lived among them for three years. Many of Maron’s followers, and perhaps he himself, could have been of Mardaite ancestry. After Maron’s death, his followers moved their activity further south, to the right bank of the Orontes River, in the area between the present-day Syrian cities of Homs and Hama. Here they founded the monastery of Beth Maron and transferred Maron’s remains there. The monastery, which was under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Antioch, in its heyday housed up to a thousand monks and nuns and became the center of the Maronite community. The significant role of the Beth Maron monastery in the Maronites’ history explains their inclination to monasticism, which persists to this day. The monastery was located not far from the Lebanese mountains, which stimulated their activity among the Mardaites and along the ancient Phoenician coasts as well as in the Bekaa Valley, the territory of the ancient Aramean kingdom of Aram-Zobah. The Maronites accepted the Council of Chalcedon’s decisions and remained faithful to them for a long time. They also expressed their loyalty to the Imperial Church by widely using Greek, alongside Syriac, in their monastery. Being in essence Melkites, the Maronites were persecuted by Miaphysite Syriacs who inhabited the areas surrounding the Beth Maron monastery. Their persecution, which sometimes developed into brutal massacres, forced large groups of Maronites to seek refuge in the Lebanese mountains. They significantly increased their numbers and influence in that area as a result. 11.5. Yohannan Maron. The next major figure in the history of the Maronites and the first official head of their community was Yohannan Maron, who lived in the second half of the 7th century. According to information in his official “Life,” which is not confirmed in any way by other sources, Yohannan was first educated in the Beth Maron monastery and then continued his education in Constantinople. In 676, the representative of Pope in the East, John of Philadelphia, consecrated him as a bishop and sent him to the Lebanese mountains. There, like Abraham of



Cyrrhus, he preached to the Mardaites and fought the heresies that had spread among them. Yohannan Maron is said to have authored several theological works, but most scholars consider this unlikely and believe that these works belong to other, mostly Syriac Miaphysite authors. Yohannan Maron lived in the period of Arab-Byzantine wars. The establishment of Muslim control over the lowland Syria provoked another wave of Maronite migration to the Lebanese mountains. Here the Mardaites for quite a long time managed to deter the onslaught of the Arabs, who did not have warfare skills in mountainous terrain and did not see particular strategic value in this region. Under the control of the Maronites, the Lebanese Mardaites were actually independent of both the Arabs and the Byzantines. Nevertheless, the Byzantines from time to time would use the Mardaites for guerrilla attacks on the Arabs, sometimes very successfully. Because of that, the Mardaites were deemed the “copper wall” that protected the Byzantines from the Arabs. The Mardaites caused trouble for Muawiya, the Arab governor of Syria, who later became the first Caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. Forced by the Shiites to wage war on two fronts, the Umayyads even tried to buy off the Mardaites by paying them some kind of a tribute. In 690, Emperor Justinian II signed a deal with the Umayyad Caliph Abd alMalik ibn Marwan, under which more than 12,000 Mardaites were resettled from the Lebanese mountains in the interior regions of the Empire, as far as the Peloponnese, as well as in Armenia. The chroniclers of the time described this event as “the destruction of the copper wall.” In the Byzantine Empire, the Mardaites were once again engaged in military service, mostly in the navy. The Maronites claim that in 685, thanks to the support of influential Mardaite veterans, Yohannan Maron was elected Chalcedonian Patriarch of Antioch but was soon forcibly deposed by Emperor Justinian, who apparently was unhappy with the support given to Yohannan by the Pope, and by the fact that his opinion in the election of a Patriarch was ignored. By order of the Emperor, hundreds of monks of the Beth Maron monastery were allegedly massacred, and Yohannan Maron fled to Lebanon with many of his followers. There, the Mardaites headed by Yohannan’s nephew Abraham managed to stop the Byzantine onslaught and even put them to flight. In 707, Yohannan Maron died peacefully and was buried in the Rish Moran monastery, which he founded in Lebanon. Many scholars question the traditional Maronite “Life” of Yohannan Maron and even the very existence of this person. The election of Yohannan Maron as Patriarch of Antioch seems especially unlikely, as throughout the 7th century (except for the first decade), when the city was in the hands of the Arabs, there were only titular Patriarchs of Antioch, who resided in Constantinople; Yohannan Maron does not appear in any of their official lists. Nevertheless, the Maronites revere him no less than Maron, the founder of the community. 11.6. The Maronites and the Monothelitism. Doubts on the historicity of Yohannan Maron and his commitment to Chalcedonian doctrine are largely grounded, among other things, in the relations of Maronites with Monothelitism. In the middle of the 7th century they accepted this teaching, which was seen by some as a com-



promise between Chalcedonian and Miaphysite doctrines, and actively disseminated it among Syriac Melkites. In doing so they once again confirmed their traditional loyalty to the Empire, in this case, to Heraclius (610–641), who supported Monothelitism as a way to restore the unity of the Christian church and his Empire. Nevertheless, the Sixth Ecumenical Council (680–692) declared Monothelitism heresy. It lost the support of the Emperors and the higher clergy and soon almost disappeared. Oddly enough, Monothelitism survived among the Maronites, who apparently decided to depart from their traditional policy of loyalism. However, this may have been caused by other reasons. By the beginning of the 8th century, most Maronites were concentrated in the Lebanese mountains, isolated from the Byzantine Empire both geographically and, because of the Arab domination over the region, politically, and that prevented them from following the ongoing political and religious processes in Constantinople. The rapprochement of the Miaphysite Syriacs, the traditional rivals of the Maronites, with the Arab authorities forced the Maronites to adhere to the doctrine that they used to associate with the imperial power of the time of Heraclius, the last emperor to whom they had a chance to express their loyalty. Thus, the Maronites preserved Monothelitism until the middle of the 16th century. Although today the Maronites deny any connection with Monothelitism and insist on their perpetual adherence to the Chalcedonian doctrine, it is a fact that for several centuries Melkites, Jacobites, and Nestorians perceived the word “Maronite” as a synonym for “Monothelite,” as confirmed by numerous examples in their writings. The most authoritative confirmation of Maronite Monothelitism can be found in the writings of John of Damascus, who directly accused the Maronites of the Monothelite heresy. Thus, in the 8th century, Maronites were finally separated from the Melkites, and that resulted in the actual emergence of an independent Maronite Syriac Church, which was opposed both to Chalcedonians and Miaphysites. Around the same time, the process of merging the Maronites and Mardaites was finalized, after which the mention of Mardaites in historical sources gradually tapered off.


THE WRITING AND SCRIBAL TRADITIONS OF THE SYRIACS 12.1. Estrangela. The pre-Christian examples of the Aramaic dialect of Edessa, or the Old Syriac language, were written in the local variety of the Aramaic script, known as Estrangela. There are two explanations for the origins of this word— either it is derived from the Greek στρογγύλη, “roundish,” or it is a combination of the Aramaic words serta ewwanegelaya (“Evangelic script”). Like other varieties of the Phoenician-Aramaic script (except the Mandean), Estrangela has 22 letters that are not capitalized and even its earliest examples are of cursive character. Estrangela may originate from the cursive script of Palmyra. Another proposal is that both scripts may not be directly connected with each other but descend from a common prototype. The Palmyrene script is sometimes considered a transitional variety between Estrangela and the Aramaic “square” script. As in most Semitic writing systems, the Syriac letters are written from right to left, although some epigraphic samples are vertical. Initially, Estrangela had a somewhat angular appearance because of the predominance of straight lines, which is explained by its mostly epigraphic application. After the adoption of Christianity, the Arameans started using soft materials for writing more frequently. As a result, Estrangela developed into a full-fledged cursive and acquired a more rounded, elegant look. In cursive scripts characters are usually connected with each other. In Estrangela, all 22 letters connect with the preceding one, but only 14 connect with the following character. The shape of a letter may vary depending on its position in the word and connection with other letters. In non-cursive varieties of the Aramaic script, such as the “square,” the letters do not connect with each other, or else the connection is random. Accordingly, each letter is represented by only one graphical form, although in the same “square” script five letters appear in a different shape at the end of a word.




Fig. 67. A Syriac inscription in Estrangela on an Edessan mosaic presumably depicting King Abgar the Great

Fig. 68. The Lord’s Prayer in Estrangela script

Like all other Aramaic scripts, Estrangela is a typical consonantal abjad, which means that it reflects mostly consonant sounds. However, it has preserved and developed the traditional Aramean practice of using matres lectionis to denote some vowel sounds. In the Hellenistic period, and with the spread of Christianity, Syriacs’ use of the Greek language and its script featuring a developed system of reflecting the vowel sounds intensified. That made the imperfections of the traditional Semitic



writing system increasingly evident, and the Syriacs themselves openly admitted it. Hence, of all the Semitic scripts, Syriac was the first to develop a fundamentally new, albeit far from perfect, system of vocalization. In Estrangela, the system of vocalization was quite primitive and consisted of dots under or above the words. They identified different meanings of the words similar in writing, indicated temporal or aspectual characteristics of the verb, and so on. By the 5th century, several combinations of dots were developed to reflect the vowel sounds. This system was not well-ordered and widely adopted, and its use remained arbitrary. Because of the instability of its vocalization system, Estrangela is commonly used without vowel signs, and the correct reading of texts written or printed in this script requires a good command of the Syriac language. Up until the 7th century, Estrangela remained the only form of recording the Syriac language, which by that time had long become the common literary and liturgical language of almost all Christian Arameans of Mesopotamia and Syria. Until the late Middle Ages, a special variety of Estrangela was used by Melkites, whose main written language in Palestine, Transjordan, and Egypt was Palestinian Christian Aramaic, a Western Aramaic dialect. The “Melkite Estrangela” looks more angular and geometric, and some of its letters have a slightly different shape. It also features an additional letter to reflect the letter π of the Greek loanwords. A unique characteristic of Melkite Estrangela is that all its letters, except two, connect with each other in both directions, whereas in the Edessan Estrangela eight letters do not connect with the following one. Finally, in contrast to Edessan Estrangela, which had a simple system of vocalization, Melkite did not use any auxiliary signs.

Fig. 69. A page of an 11th-century Melkite manuscript



Due to the territorial and denominational division of the Syriacs, at the end of the 6th century the Nestorians and the Jacobites created their own distinct varieties of script based on Estrangela. Nevertheless, Estrangela, as a common, nondenominational script, to one extent or another remained in use within all Syriac communities. In the first centuries of Arab rule, Estrangela was mainly used in the Syriac monasteries of Egypt in liturgical texts. In the 12th–13th centuries, it was often used in the monasteries of Tur Abdin. Currently, Estrangela-based types and fonts are widely used in the scholarly publications of classical Syriac texts as well as in dictionaries and textbooks.

Fig. 70. The Lord’s Prayer in Nestorian script

12.2. The Nestorian script. The script based on Estrangela developed by the Nestorians is called “Nestorian,” or “Eastern.” It is closer to Estrangela in shape than the Jacobite script. It has also inherited the simple system of vocalization of Estrangela, which then developed into a rather cumbersome system of dots and short dashes added above or under the letters. The Nestorian vowel signs represent not only the qualitative but also some quantitative characteristics of the vowels, albeit inconsistently. Unlike Estrangela, which is usually used without vowel signs, the Nestorian script is almost always supplemented with them. The creation of the Nestorian system of vocalization is traditionally attributed to the 6th-century philologist Yawsep (Joseph) Huzaya. He is also believed to be the author of the Syriac translation of the “Art of Grammar” by Dionysius Thrax, which for centuries served as a model grammar for different languages. It is worth



mentioning here that Syriac philology, which will be discussed in details in later chapters, developed from and for a long time was represented mainly by treatises on vocalization. In addition to its liturgical application, the Nestorian script with vowel signs is used today as the script of the Modern Eastern Aramaic language. Thus, of all the varieties of the Syriac script, the Nestorian is currently the most widely used.

Serto. The script developed by the Jacobites by the end of the 8th century is called Serto, which means “line” in Syriac. Compared with Estrangela it has a more cursive look, and it descends from cursives used in business and administrative correspondence. Serto’s system of vocalization is simpler than that of the Nestorian script. Its vowel signs mimic the shape of the corresponding letters of the Greek alphabet. They reflect the qualitative and quantitative characteristics of vowels even less than the Nestorian signs. The prominent scholar Jacob of Edessa (†708) was believed to be the creator of this vocalization system.

Fig. 71. A sample of Melkite Serto



Fig. 72. The Lord’s Prayer in Serto script

Serto is also used by the Maronites, and in the European scholarly tradition this script is often called “Maronite” because Maronites played a very important role in the development of Syriac studies in Europe. From the 12th century, a variety of Serto was also used for some time by the Melkites of Syria, who, in contrast to the Melkites of Palestine, Transjordan, and Egypt, used Syriac as a literary and liturgical language. The Jacobites and Maronites still use Serto, but the scope of its nonreligious application, compared with the Nestorian script, is rather limited. Until the end of the 20th century, Serto prevailed in Syriac grammars and dictionaries, which was a tradition of European Syrology, but then Estrangela gradually became the preferred script. The Syriac system of vocalization, punctuation, and accentuation and its modifications. Despite the fact that the Nestorians, Jacobites, Maronites, and other Syriac Christians, as a rule, strictly adhered to their respective traditions of writing and vocalization, some manuscripts use both systems of vocalization or else one that combines Nestorian and Jacobite elements. Such a combined system may also be found in some European and American grammars and dictionaries of the Syriac language. In addition to vowel signs, the Syriac script had its own system of punctuation, as well as special accents for cantillation, which is the ritual chanting with voice, tone, and speed modulations. In the period of the most active use of accents, in the 7th–10th centuries, the Nestorians used seventeen accents, and the Jacobites nine; the Jacobite accents basically imitated the Byzantine system of cantillation. In the



10th century, the accentuation system was less and less used in manuscripts, mainly due to the gradual fading of the Syriac language and its displacement by Arabic. The system of vocalization of consonant texts created by Syriacs, with all its diversity, could not satisfy the Syriac intellectuals, who were well acquainted with other writing systems. Eventually, Jacob of Edessa suggested introducing additional letters for vowels into the Syriac alphabet, but the letters that he created did not catch on, and the Syriac vocalization system continued to be based on vowel signs. Nevertheless, despite all its faults, the Syriac system of vocalization, especially the Nestorian, was appreciated by the speakers of other Semitic languages. It was imitated by the Jewish Masoretes of Babylonia and Palestine in the creation of similar systems for the Aramaic “square” script (one of these systems is still used in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish). Later, a vocalization system similar to Syriac was developed by the Arabs.

Fig. 73. The letters for vowels suggested by Jacob of Edessa

As in many other writing systems, the Syriac letters were used as numerals. The first nine letters represent the numbers from 1 to 9, the following nine represent tens from 10 to 90, and the last four represent hundreds from 100 to 400. By combining the letters it was possible to indicate almost any number. Parallel to this system, up to the 8th century, the Syriacs also used special signs for numbers inherited from the Phoenicians and used in ancient Aramaic inscriptions, as well as in Palmyra, Nabatea, and Hatra. The Syriacs, in particular, used special signs for the numbers 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 100 and applied their different combinations to represent all other numbers.

12.3. “Eastern” Syriac and “Western” Syriac. Because of the denominational and territorial division of the Syriacs, their language never developed a unified standard for spelling, punctuation, and vocalization, even within the same variety of script. In addition, the inevitable impact of local eastern and western Aramaic dialects on the literary Syriac led to the development of two systems of pronunciation: eastern (“Nestorian”) and western (“Jacobite”). Although the differences between them are almost negligible, it is believed that the Eastern pronunciation more faithfully reproduces the dialect of Edessa, which is the basis of the standard Classical Syriac. Thus, the eastern pronunciation preserves the original Edessan long [a] (for example, shlama, “peace”), whereas in western pronunciation it is reduced to long [o]— shlomo. The long Edessan [o] survived in the eastern variety but became [u] in the western—Maron/Marun. In addition, there is vowel interchange between eastern [e] and western [i], as well as some other minor differences. The name “Jesus” is pronounced differently—Eesho (eastern) and Yeshu (western). The differences in pronunciation between Nestorians and Jacobites persisted after the Aramaic dialects



ceased, with few exceptions, to be spoken languages, and they survive today in two traditional ways of reading the classical and liturgical texts by Jacobites/Maronites and Nestorians. As for the basic vocabulary, grammar, and general style, Classical Syriac, as Imperial Aramaic before it, always remained a highly unified language.

12.4. The Pahlavi script. Aramaic cursives, such as Palmyrene proto-cursive and Estrangela, like the earlier varieties of the Phoenician/Aramaic script, served as a basis for the writing systems of other languages. The Pahlavi (Middle Persian) language continued the Parthian traditions of using the Aramaic script. The Pahlavi script existed in two main forms—early epigraphic known since the end of the 2nd century BC from rock inscriptions and inscriptions on the coins of the Parthian Arsacids and early Sasanians, and late, so-called “book script” that developed in the final period of Sasanian Iran and lasted until about the beginning of the 10th century. The “book script” had only 13 graphemes to represent 24 phonemes. There was also a third variety of the Pahlavi script, known as “Psalter Pahlavi.” This name comes from the “Pahlavi Psalter,” which is a translation from Syriac of the Old Testament Psalms. The “Psalter,” which is 12 pages long, was discovered by German archaeologists in 1905 in Turpan (today in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China). It dates from the 6th–7th centuries and is considered the earliest surviving example of Pahlavi literature. Compared with “Book Pahlavi,” the “Psalter Pahlavi” has five more letters and represents a more archaic writing system. It is assumed that this script was used by the Iranian Nestorians when translating Christian literature into Pahlavi for new converts from among the Persians, who were not yet fluent in the Syriac language. After the 10th century, the Pahlavi script was finally supplanted by Arabic and was only occasionally used as cryptography by the remaining Zoroastrian priesthood. The use of a Semitic alphabet for an Iranian language made the Pahlavi script imperfect. Reading it was complicated by a large number of Aramaic heterograms. For example, the title “king of kings” was written in Aramaic as malkan malka, but was voiced in Pahlavi as shahan shah. The words “there is” and “there is not” were written in Aramaic as ith and layt, but were read in Pahlavi as hast and nest. Quite often Aramaic words were turned into heterograms in their derivative forms, most commonly used in official and business texts, such as “his son” or “my father,” but in Pahlavi, they were read “son” and “father.” Occasionally, Aramaic heterograms were used with Pahlavi grammatical particles, such as the plural ending. In Pahlavi, the reading of Aramaic heterograms was called hezvareshn, “disclosure.” There were special dictionaries of Aramaic heterograms, the most famous of which was the Frahang-i-Pahlavig. The Avestan script and other Iranian scripts of Syriac origin. A peculiar form of the Pahlavi script was the Avestan script, also known as Pazend. It was created in the 3rd century AD to document the “Avesta,” the collection of Zoroastrian sacred texts and hymns orally transmitted from one generation of priests to another. The language of the “Avesta”, called Avestan, was of Iranian origin and the contemporary of the Old Persian language, but it shared similarities with Sanskrit, the classical language of India. In the Sasanian era, this language became difficult to comprehend



for the speakers of the Pahlavi language, which threatened ancient sacred texts with distortion. The Avestan script was created to preserve the correct reading. Unlike the consonantal Pahlavi script, the Avestan script with its 37 graphemes for consonants also had 15 for vowels. Some of the Avestan letters are descended from the ligatures of the Pahlavi script. Another difference from the Pahlavi script was the absence of heterograms. The nearly perfect rendition of Avestan phonetics gave prominent English Iranist Mary Boyce (1920–2006) a reason to compare the Avestan script with international phonetic transcription.

Fig. 74. A sample of the Pahlavi script

In addition to the Persians and the Parthians, attempts to adapt the AramaicSyriac script to their languages were also made by other Iranian-speaking peoples or the Syriac missionaries who preached Christianity among them. After Parthian, Pahlavi, and Avestan, the most important Iranian script of Aramaic-Syriac origin is Sogdian, which is close to the Pahlavi script. The Sogdian alphabet was used between the 5th–13th centuries and is known from several Buddhist, Manichean, and Christian manuscripts created both in Sogdiana (modern Uzbekistan) and other places, mainly Turpan (the Sogdians and their script will be discussed in more details in subsequent chapters).

Fig. 75. A sample of the Avestan script



Fig. 76. A sample of the Manichean script

A few inscriptions in other Iranian dialects of Central Asia also exist, made in a script not associated directly with Sogdian, yet resembling Nestorian writing.

The Manichean script. Another variety of Aramaic cursive writing was the Manichean script, which originates directly from Estrangela and has some similarities with the Mandean alphabet. This script, which according to tradition was created by Mani himself, was used in Manichean writings in the Pahlavi and Parthian languages (there are also Manichean texts written in the Pahlavi and Avestan scripts). Manichean script was also used in Central Asia, where numerous Manichean texts in Sogdian, Uighur, Pahlavi, Parthian, and Modern Persian languages were found, some of them being imported from Iran. There is also one page of Manichean text written in the Bactrian language. Manichean literature in this area was also written in Sogdian and Uighur scripts. Manichean texts in significant quantities were found in Turpan, which in the Middle Ages was a major center of Manichaeism. In contrast to Pahlavi, the Manichean script contains no Aramaic heterograms and more accurately reflects the sound of the language. In addition to religious texts, it is also found on amulets and other mystical artifacts. It was hardly used in everyday life and was more of a cryptography known to a few initiates. This explains the conservatism of Manichean writing, which remained virtually unchanged over the centuries.

The Uighur script. Aramaic-Syriac cursives form the basis of the writing of some Turkic peoples of Central Asia and Eastern Turkestan. Among them, the Uighurs had the longest tradition of writing. Initially, they used the letters known as “Orkhon runes” (named after the Orkhon river valley in Mongolia, where the inscriptions in this script were first discovered). Later they switched to a writing based on Sogdian script. It was used by Christians, Buddhists, and Manicheans alike. Numerous extant secular records indicate that the Uighurs were highly literate. The Uighur script was borrowed by the Mongols and passed down to several other related peoples. The Mongolian vertical script still remains in use today (more on the Uighurs and Mongols and their scripts in subsequent chapters). 12.5. Garshuni. After the Arab conquest of the Middle East in the 7th century and the creation of the vast Arab Caliphate, Arab-Muslim civilization began to form, reaching its peak during the reign of the Caliphs of the Abbasid dynasty (750–1258).



Syriac intellectual circles were very actively involved in this process and played a key role in acquainting the Arabs with the achievements of ancient and early medieval thought. At the same time, Arabic began to gradually replace the Aramaic dialects of Syria and Mesopotamia as a spoken language, which in turn led to a decline in the use of Classical Syriac. Many Syriac authors of the Abbasid era wrote both in Syriac and Arabic and quite often translated their writings themselves from one language to another. When writing in Arabic the Syriacs often used Syriac script, either to limit the number of people able to utilize the text or for other reasons. This system of writing Arabic in Syriac script, which influenced the process of perfection of the Arabic script itself, is known as Garshuni (or Karshuni in Arabic pronunciation). Apart from Syriacs, Garshuni was sometimes used by Christian Arabs. Since the Arabic alphabet contains six letters more than Syriac, in Garshuni some Syriac letters were used with diacritical marks. Apart from that, the common origins of the Syriac and Arabic languages and their related consonantal writing systems allowed for an easy rendition of Arabic in Syriac script.

Fig. 77. Arabic text written in Syriac letters (Serto)



The traditions of Garshuni continued in the Ottoman Empire for writing in Ottoman Turkish, which to some extent was spoken by almost all Syriacs of Eastern Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Syria (Ottoman Garshuni for official purposes was used even by the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch). Since Ottoman Turkish was written in Arabic script, the rich traditions of Arabic Garshuni allowed for easy adjustment of Syriac letters to this language. The use of Arabic and Turkish Garshuni continued through the first third of the 20th century. In the 1910–1930s several Arabic- and Turkish-language newspapers and magazines were published in Syriac script in the Ottoman Empire, in Lebanon, and in the United States.

Fig. 78. A page from Malke bar Nikodimos’ Syriac-Arabic-Armenian dictionary

In addition to these two languages, Kurdish, Persian, Greek, and other languages were occasionally written in Syriac script. The emergence in the Ottoman period of Armenian-speaking Miaphysite Syriac communities, originally in the regions of Malatya and Kharberd (Kharput), gave rise to Armenian Garshuni, of which several samples are extant, mainly dictionaries or glossaries. A manuscript containing an extensive Syriac-Arabic-Armenian dictionary was copied in Amid in 1665 by Malke bar Nikodimos. The Arabic and Armenian words in this dictionary are written in Serto. There are reports about an Armenian-language Gospel in Syriac



script used by the Armenian-speaking Syriacs of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th– 20th centuries. An interesting example of multilingual Garshuni is a 19th-century collection of hymns in Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Turkish, and Persian languages, written exclusively in Syriac letters.

Fig. 79. The Church of the Mother of God in the village of Hah in Tur Abdin

12.6. Syriac scribal traditions. Syriac Christian culture, like the Jewish, was mainly a culture of words, and its material component is rather small. Thus, the Syriacs did not achieve significant heights in architecture and fine arts, although in Tur Abdin, in the Kadisha Valley of Lebanon and several other areas, there are churches and monasteries of significant architectural value. Hence, manuscripts are the most valuable samples of Syriac material culture and the main medium of the intellectual and spiritual heritage of the Syriacs. The Syriac Christian manuscript tradition has its roots in pagan Osrhoene. In Edessa, there was a royal archive known to many authors, including Eusebius of Caesarea and Movses Khorenatsi. In late antiquity, the main material used for writing was Egyptian papyrus, and the manuscripts were rolled up in scrolls. The text was written in columns, and that allowed for reading the scroll without opening it too widely. Unlike the dry climate of Egypt, which contributed to the preservation of papyrus scrolls, the more humid climate of Mesopotamia was less suitable, and that explains the small number of extant papyri with Syriac texts.



Although the latest extant papyri with Syriac texts date to the 9th century, 1 by the 5th century papyrus was mostly replaced by parchment made from the skin of young farm animals. Arameans were among the first people to use skins for writing, but in ancient times the processing methods were not properly developed and the skins were nondurable. Parchment, which became widespread in the Byzantine cultural world, was also widely used in the Middle East and Europe as an easy-to-use, durable material. Its best, most expensive varieties were thin, with a smooth white surface, yet Syriac manuscripts suggest that the scribes used any suitable parchment.

Fig. 80. A 12th-century Syriac palimpsest with original Armenian 6th-century text In the Byzantine Empire and Europe papyrus remained in use until at least the 12th century. 1



Parchment was difficult to roll up, but its several pieces could be folded together and sewn in the form of a codex. That is why, unlike papyrus scrolls, parchment manuscripts look like modern books. Most Syriac manuscripts have simple wooden covers, sometimes draped in leather, but some, especially those intended for use in churches, have rich covers of ivory, silver, or copper with engraved ornaments or evangelical scenes. Due to complex production and high costs, the same parchment could be used more than once; the existing text would be scraped or washed off and a new one applied. It was not always possible to erase the original text completely and it could be visible under the new one. Manuscripts with more than one visible text are called palimpsests. Palimpsests, particularly Syriac palimpsests, are very important, as their lower layers often contain either discernable texts that were considered lost or destroyed for ideological reasons or earlier versions of well-known texts. The active interaction of Syriacs with neighboring peoples led to the use of “foreign” manuscripts, and in such cases, under a Syriac text another one in a different language can be found, or vice versa.

Fig. 81. A fragment of a 9th-century Syriac papyrus manuscript

Syriacs continued to use parchment for the most valuable manuscripts until the middle of the 16th century, although in the last quarter of the first millennium they started using paper, the Chinese technology of which reached the Middle East from Central Asia. For several centuries the Syriacs had been using different varieties of



locally produced paper, but in the 16th century, they almost completely switched to paper imported from Europe. The watermarks of paper manufactured in Europe quite often allow for pinpointing when undated manuscripts were written. The paper manuscripts retained the form of books-codices. However, certain types of texts were written on parchment or paper that the Syriacs continued to roll up into scrolls. These are mainly mystical texts, like spells, charms, amulets, and so on, because according to ancient popular belief in the Middle East the scrolls better preserved the magical power of a text. Such scrolls were particularly common among the East Syriacs until the 19th century.

Fig. 82. A miniature from “The Rabbula Gospels”



The Syriacs applied the text on parchment or paper in one, two or, rarely, three columns aligned on both sides. The choice of the number of columns depended on the personal preferences of a scribe or the local tradition. A reed pen (qalam), which was traditional for the Middle East, or feather were used as writing instruments. Several colors of ink made of soot, plants, minerals, and chemical elements were used by the Syriacs. For Gospels, the Syriacs sometimes used liquid silver or gold, the manufacturing technology of which, together with the methods of producing regular inks and paints, are described in Syriac alchemical treatises. The text in gold or silver was often applied against the background of a certain color, such as blue, or multiple colors. Syriac scribes often wrote the letters in one color and the vowel signs in another, usually red, which also provided additional decoration for the manuscript. Quite often the vowel, punctuation, and other signs were added not by the scribe himself, but by an assistant specialized in that area.

12.7. Manuscript ornaments and illustrations. Unlike their Armenian and Byzantine neighbors, the Syriacs were not very advanced in manuscript illumination and did not develop strong traditions thereof. The vast majority of ornaments in Syriac manuscripts are simple drawings or geometric shapes made by the scribe, as professional illuminators and miniaturists among the Syriacs were very rare. The number of such drawings increased after the 13th century when the Syriac culture entered a period of continuous decline. The absence of capital letters deprived Syriac manuscripts of ornamental initials, which richly decorate Armenian, Byzantine, and European manuscripts. This was partially compensated by decorated images of the cross and the so-called Eusebian Canon Tables, which contain cross-references between the four Gospels. A few notable samples of Syriac manuscript illumination suggest that in this area the Syriacs were influenced by either the Byzantine or Arab-Persian tradition. The best of these samples is the “Rabbula Gospels,” named after the scribe who copied the manuscript in 586 in the Mor Yohannan monastery at Beth Zagba, about 100 km north of modern Hama in Syria. Illustrations of this manuscript, which imitate the Byzantine samples, are spread over 14 pages and represent different scenes from the Gospels. These illustrations are unique for the Syriac culture, as they did not serve as a model for later imitations. The “Rabbula Gospels,” which is today in the Laurentian Library of Florence, appears to be the oldest dated illustrated manuscript from the Byzantine cultural area. 12.8. Colophons. Colophons are very important parts of Syriac manuscripts. A colophon is a special addendum in which the scribe might include some personal information, usually describing himself as “miserable,” “unworthy,” and so on, or about the person who paid for the manuscript. The place and the date of commencement and completion of the work might also be written, often using several chronologies, but usually according to a dating system popular among Arameans, that of the “Seleucid era,” starting on October 1, 311 BC. The scribe also might summarize the important events that occurred during the copying of the manuscript. Interestingly, scribes sometimes preferred to encrypt their names using various types of cryptography. The most popular was the so-called “Bardaisan’s alphabet,” in which the Syriac letters substituted each other so that the sum of the numer-



ic values of the two letters was equal to ten, a hundred, or a thousand. Many colophons contain blessings for the persons involved in the creation of the manuscript and curses or threats against those who would damage or steal it. This is because manuscripts were valued very highly and were often used as offerings, donations, or parts of dowry. Later the names of the new owners of the manuscript, information on its restoration, or other relevant data would be added to the colophon, which allows us to trace the fate of many manuscripts quite accurately. Very often people would visit a monastery or other location in order to see a remarkable manuscript stored there; in such cases, the colophons might record the names of the most important visitors, such as high church hierarchs.

12.9. Production of manuscripts. According to the colophons, monasteries were the main centers of manuscript production, many of which were famous for their rich libraries. Sometimes the manuscripts were also restored in monasteries. Larger monasteries usually had a scriptorium, a special facility for professional scribes, called beth maktevane (“scribes’ house”) in Syriac. Monasteries were particularly important for the Miaphysites, who, unlike the Nestorians, did not have non-monastic high schools with scriptoria. It was obligatory for Syriac students to copy manuscripts; on the one hand, it was a part of the learning process, and on the other, it helped satisfy the demand for a particular work. Students of the School of Nisibis who were accused of embezzling a library manuscript were immediately expelled from the school and even banished from the city. Syriacs considered copying manuscripts an honorable and respected occupation, so it was not limited to humble monastic scribes and students. It quite often involved bishops, and even a few Patriarchs and Catholicoi, like the great historian Michael the Syrian, who was the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church in 1166– 1199. In the early period of the history of Syriac manuscripts, when Syriac was still a fully functioning language, there must have been many secular scribes. Many colophons refer to “Edessan scribes.” Apparently, they were representatives of the laity, even if they did not live and work in Edessa. The Syriac manuscript tradition also knew several female copyists. 12.10. Medieval and modern collections of Syriac manuscripts. There are about 10,000 extant Syriac manuscripts. Six manuscripts survive from the 5th century; the oldest, according to its colophon, was written in 411. More than 40 manuscripts were created in the 6th century, which is believed to be the “golden age” of Syriac literature. The number of extant manuscripts from subsequent centuries is fewer because of the general decline of Syriac culture caused by the Arab conquest. Major cities where the manuscripts were created include Edessa, Mabbug, Amid, Reshayna, and, from the beginning of the 7th century, Nisibis. More than 200 manuscripts created in a more spread-out geographical area survived from the 13th century when the Syriac culture experienced its last revival (the so-called “Syriac Renaissance”). However, in the next century, the disastrous invasion of Tamerlane put an end to any significant creative activity in the Syriac language. The Syriacs were then faced with the urgency of saving and preserving their deep spiritual heritage, and that in turn contributed to the continuation of the rich scribal traditions. Most of the extant



Syriac manuscripts were created in the 16th–19th centuries. During this period, manuscripts were mainly produced in the monasteries of Tur Abdin and in the small town of Alkosh, 40 km north of Mosul. The introduction of printing to the Middle East made manual copying of manuscripts almost unnecessary, although to this day one can find calligraphers and miniaturists engaged in copying ancient manuscripts in Syriac monasteries. The vast majority of manuscripts belonging to the first millennium come from the Egyptian monasteries, the inaccessibility of which, together with the dry climate of Egypt, contributed to their preservation. The most famous of these is the St. Catherine monastery in Sinai founded in the 6th century. Prior to its becoming a Greek Orthodox monastery, St. Catherine for several centuries had a multinational and multidenominational brethren, which included Syriac monks. In addition, the monastery attracted many pilgrims from all over the Middle East, many of whom made manuscript donations. Because of this, the famous library of the St. Catherine monastery was constantly replenished with valuable Syriac manuscripts, most of them Melkite. However, when it comes to Syriac manuscripts, the St. Catherine monastery could hardly compete with another ancient Egyptian monastery, Dayr al-Suryan (“Monastery of the Syriacs”), located in the Nitrian Desert (Wadi al-Natrun), halfway between Cairo and Alexandria. The monastery was founded in 536. At the beginning of the 8th century, according to a legend, it was purchased by Syriac merchants from Tagrit and donated to Syriac Orthodox monks, who had first settled in Egypt in the 6th century. It was also suggested that the Syriacs had established themselves in Dayr al-Suryan no earlier than the 9th century. In 1636, the monastery passed to the Coptic Orthodox Church and remains under its jurisdiction to this day. 2 The rich collection of Syriac manuscripts at Dayr al-Suryan was significantly expanded in the 10th century through the activities of its Abbot Mushe (Moses) of Nisibis, a former manuscript copyist. According to Arab historians, in 931 Mushe visited Baghdad to ease the tax burden of his monastery. He returned from the capital of the Caliphate with 250 Syriac manuscripts, some written in the 5th century in Edessa, including the above-mentioned manuscript of 411. The Syriac collection was constantly growing because many manuscripts were produced in the scriptorium of the monastery itself; the earliest dated manuscript from this scriptorium is from 927, and the latest is from 1631. At the end of the 16th century, the number of Syriac manuscripts in Dayr al-Suryan reached 1,000. In this collection, the manuscripts containing the works of Ephrem the Syrian, Aphrahat, and Philoxenos of In addition to Dayr al-Suryan, in Egypt there was at least one other monastery belonging to the Syriac Orthodox Church, namely the St. Paul monastery in the Eastern Desert. This monastery, currently under the jurisdiction of the Coptic Orthodox Church, also had a collection of Syriac manuscripts. 2



Mabbug, as well as Syriac translations of various works by Cyril of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, and other Christian and pagan Greek authors, were preserved. In the 18th century the Vatican Library acquired numerous Syriac manuscripts of Dayr al-Suryan, and the British Library obtained additional ones in the 19th century. These two institutions are currently in possession of the most valuable collections of Syriac manuscripts. Manuscripts originating from Dayr al-Suryan can also be found in the libraries of St. Petersburg, New York, Milan, and other cities, and a small collection is still stored in the monastery itself. Significant Syriac manuscript collections from the late Middle Ages are preserved in Birmingham (“The Mingana collection”), Berlin, Paris, Florence, Milan, Boston (Harvard University), St. Petersburg, and several other cities. There are valuable collections of manuscripts in the Middle East, mainly in various patriarchal and monastic libraries. Compared with the European collections, they are not completely catalogued and remain poorly studied. Significant work in this regard was done by American-Estonian orientalist Arthur Vööbus (1909–1988), who researched libraries and private collections in Beirut, Aleppo, Baghdad, Mosul, and elsewhere and discovered many valuable works of Syriac literature believed to have been lost.


Table 3. A summary table of Aramaic-Syriac scripts



TRANSLATION ACTIVITY OF THE SYRIACS 13.1. Overview. Translation occupied a very important place in the spiritual life of the Syriacs and began almost simultaneously with the spread of Christianity. The near total Christianization of Arameans and the emergence of the priestly class demanded the translation of basic Christian texts. It is no surprise, therefore, that the first significant work translated into the new Aramaic literary language was the Bible (the Syriac translations of the Bible will be discussed in the next chapter). However, the overall development of Syriac theology, interdenominational rivalry, and the need to protect Christianity against other religions (apologetics) demanded good knowledge of Greek-language patristic literature and secular disciplines, such as philosophy, logic, and historiography, which were necessary for the proper understanding of Christianity and other faiths. The process of translation from the Greek language was continuous and intense until the end of the 9th century and eventually covered almost all important works of Greek-language authors of antiquity and the Byzantine period that were of interest to the Syriacs, such as the treatises of Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen as well as various patristic writings. From Greek works of fiction apparently only Homer’s “Iliad” and Aesop’s fables were translated, although Abgarid Osrhoene was well acquainted with ancient Greek mythology, as Orpheus, Andromeda, Perseus, and other characters often appear in Edessan mosaics. Many Greek-language works survive only in Syriac translation due to vigorous translation activity and the fact that many works were translated into Syriac more than once. These include, for example, the “Theophany” by Eusebius of Caesarea, “Commentary on the Gospel of Luke” by Cyril of Alexandria, and many others. Syriac translations preserved many Miaphysite and Nestorian writings, the Greek originals of which were destroyed by the Byzantine clergy. Among those, the works by Severus of Antioch and Theodore of Mopsuestia deserve special mention, as they had a profound influence on the development of the official doctrine of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Church of the East, respectively. In many cases, the Syriac translation is contained in a manuscript that is much older than the manuscript with the original Greek text. In such cases, the Syriac translation gains importance from the point of view of textual analysis, as it allows 245



detection of deliberate or accidental distortions of the original. The same is true in cases where translation into Syriac is literal, transmitting all the nuances of the source language. Word-for-word translations, typical of the first generation of Syriac translators, usually led to a loss of quality of the Syriac language, which was very different in grammatical structure from the Greek, yet they allowed the reader to obtain a fairly accurate idea of a lost Greek original. At the same time, the early translators often went to the other extreme and produced loose paraphrases, as if trying to help the reader to understand the obscure meaning of the text. Since translations became an integral part of the Syriac literature, a large number of Greek words, mostly philosophical and religious terms, made their way into the Syriac language. Initially those appeared as transliterations of Greek words that had no analogs in Syriac, but eventually, they became a natural component of the Syriac lexicon. Active translations from Greek also influenced Syriac syntax, which is the most flexible and free among all Semitic languages. Together with the perfection of translation techniques this eventually facilitated the transition from a literal to a more subtle semantic translation that did not violate the stylistic integrity of the Syriac language yet preserved the authenticity of the Greek original.

13.2. The first translators. Most Syriac translators were anonymous enthusiasts, mostly monks and clerics. History does not preserve the names of those who translated the books of the Old and New Testaments, the writings of John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and other Greek Fathers of the Church of the 2nd–4th centuries, numerous Lives of martyrs and saints, historical works of Eusebius of Caesarea, the “Introduction to Arithmetic” by Nicomachus of Gerasa, and dozens of other works. Among those who are known by name are not only humble monks who devoted their lives to translation but also many church hierarchs who were prominent representatives of Syriac science and literature; for them translation was an important and integral part of their intellectual activity. The earliest known translators were associated with Edessa and its “School of Persians,” where translation activity occupied a very important place. These include, in particular, Rabbula, Bishop of Edessa in 411–435, who translated anti-Nestorian works of Cyril of Alexandria, his successor Ibas, who translated the writings of Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Kumi, of whom nothing is known. The archiatrus (chief physician) of Antioch, archdeacon Proba, is sometimes mentioned among these early translators, although some scholars believe that he lived no earlier than the 6th century. Not only did he translate a part of Aristotle’s “Organon,” and supposedly the famous “Introduction to Aristotle’s categories,” better known as “Isagoge,” by the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry (233–305), but also wrote his own commentaries on “Isagoge” and two treatises of “Organon” (“On Interpretation” and “Prior Analytics”), thus becoming the first significant Syriac philosopher after Bardaisan. “Organon” and “Isagoge” were the main sources from which the Syriacs drew their knowledge of Aristotelian logic. In 645, “Isagoge” was translated anew by the prolific translator Athanasios of Balad (†687), who during the last three years of his life was the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church. The need for a new translation of this important text for the Syriacs was probably



dictated by the development of translation techniques and Syriac philosophical terminology. Translation activity was also important in the School of Nisibis. Of its professors known for their translations, special mention goes to Catholicos Aba I (540– 552), to whom the translation of the earliest Nestorian liturgy is attributed.

13.3. Sergios of Reshayna. Syriac translations from the Greek language were not confined to religious and philosophical works, but they also included purely secular and practical fields of knowledge, such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, geography, agronomy, and so on. Syriac Miaphysites distinguished themselves in this field, mainly because, compared with the Nestorians, they maintained much more active contacts with the Byzantines and had better access to their literature and culture. The first to be mentioned is Sergios of Reshayna (†536), who received his higher education in Alexandria, where he arrived already possessing good knowledge of the Greek language and medicine. Back in his native Mesopotamia, he became the archiatrus of Reshayna, a city located on the Khabur River between Edessa and Nisibis. Thanks to his extensive knowledge of medicine, Sergios of Reshayna became the most prominent figure in early Syriac medicine. Like Nestorian Proba, also an archiatrus, he successfully combined medical practice with translation. He was the first to translate into Syriac the Greek medical treatises, including 26 treatises by Galen (129–200), such as “On the Art of Medicine,” “On the Causes of Symptoms,” “On the Use of the Pulse,” and others. These treatises were part of the famous “Galenic corpus,” the main teaching aid of the Alexandrian medical school. Most of Sergios’ translations are known because they are mentioned by Hunain ibn Ishaq, a 9th-century Nestorian physician and translator, but only three translations survive. Hunain ibn Ishaq was very critical of the quality of many translations by Sergios, who was a proponent of literal translation, often detrimental to the quality of the Syriac text. Apparently, Sergios too was not always satisfied with his own translations, as he translated some treatises of Galen twice. In any case, his translations of Galen for centuries remained the main textbooks in medical schools throughout the Middle East, including the Syriac medical school in Gundishapur. Sergios of Reshayna also translated the aphorisms of Hippocrates and created a large number of Syriac medical terms, proving himself a gifted linguist. Sergios of Reshayna was a highly educated man, one of the first Syriac polymaths. His knowledge and interests went far beyond medicine, covering, in particular, philosophy and natural sciences. In his philosophical views, he was a devout Peripatetic, a supporter of Aristotle’s views, and translated some of his works. He is credited with the translation of “Categories,” the first treatise of “Organon,” and Porphyry’s “Isagoge,” first translated into Syriac by Proba. Sergios’ commitment to Aristotelian logic did not prevent him from being interested in other philosophical doctrines. Thus, he studied the works of Neoplatonic philosopher Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and translated some of them into Syriac. Unlike previous generations of Syriac translators who were interested almost exclusively in Aristotelian logic, Sergios of Reshayna also had deep knowledge of the



physics and metaphysics of the great Greek thinker. He translated Aristotle’s treatise “On the Soul,” dedicated to the nature of all living creatures, and wrote a treatise on ethics, which did survive and is only known because Sergios himself mentioned it elsewhere. He also showed interest in astronomy and cosmogony and translated an anonymous treatise “To Alexander on Cosmos.” He also wrote the treatises “On the Causes of Cosmos,” “On the Moon,” and “On the Motion of the Sun,” based on Aristotle’s writings “On Cosmos” and “On the Heavens” and on some writings by Galen. Accordingly, he shared the views of Aristotle on geocentricism, the spherical shape of the universe and the circular motion of the sky resulting in the movement of the seven planets. Sergios of Reshayna also showed interest in astrology and wrote a short treatise on the Zodiac in accordance with the teachings of Bardaisan, who, in turn, relied on the ancient astrological knowledge of Mesopotamian Chaldeans. Sergios also mentions Bardaisan in his treatise on logic. It is noteworthy that a 7th-century Syriac manuscript with the translations and treatises by Sergios of Reshayna also contains Bardaisan’s “Book of the Laws of Countries.” The interest of Sergios of Reshayna in metaphysics and natural philosophy included alchemy, which he practiced both for the production of gold and as a pharmacologist. As a Peripatetic, he was a supporter of the doctrine of the four elements and denied Democritus’ atomism. According to Sergios, the healing power of drugs was in their possession of the basic properties of the four elements: heat, cold, dryness, and humidity. Sergios of Reshayna presumably translated the agricultural works that were later included in “Geoponika,” a Byzantine compilation of agricultural treatises.

Severos Sebokht and Jacob of Edessa. The translation traditions of Sergios of Reshayna were continued by Severos Sebokht (†647), famous for his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. He was educated at the Qenneshre (“Eagles’ Nest”) monastery, one of the leading centers of higher education of Syriac Miaphysites, and later became its Bishop. He translated the mathematical treatises of Ptolemy from Greek and the commentaries by the Nestorian philosopher Pawlos the Persian on Aristotle’s “On Interpretation” from Pahlavi. Severos Sebokht also wrote his own small commentaries on Aristotle’s “Posterior Analytics” and “On Interpretation,” thus securing himself a modest place among Syriac philosophers. The student of Severos Sebokht, Jacob of Edessa (†708), who mostly distinguished himself in the field of philology, is known for his translations of the sermons by Severus of Antioch. He also wrote several theological essays and “Enchiridion,” a treatise on philosophical terms.

13.4. Syriac translations from Pahlavi. Pawlos the Persian’s commentary on Aristotle’s “On Interpretation” was not the only work translated into Syriac from Pahlavi. Living in Sasanian Iran, the Nestorians, many of whom were ethnic Persians assimilated into the Syriac cultural and religious circles, were well acquainted with its rich literature and translated some of its works into Syriac. The first to be mentioned is the “Romance of Alexander” (7th century), which contains parts not found in the Greek text of Pseudo-Callisthenes (the killing of the dragon, Alexander’s stay in China, and others). Another major piece of Pahlavi literature, translated into Syriac in the 6th century by the translator Bud, was a collection of animal fables “Kalilag



and Damnag,” which goes back to the Sanskrit “Panchatantra.” In the 9th century, this work was translated into Arabic by Ibn al-Muqaffa and is better known under the Arabized name of “Kalila and Dimna.” Translations into Greek, Modern Persian, Hebrew, and Spanish were made from the Arabic version, and in the 10th– 11th centuries another translation was made into Syriac (“Kalila and Dimna” was once again translated from Arabic into Syriac in the 19th century). Other popular works of the late Sasanian Pahlavi literature were stories on Sindbad the Wise (not to be confused with Sinbad the Sailor). The originals, as well as the early Arabic translations, are lost, but the Syriac translation made from Arabic in the 9th century was widely circulated in the Middle East and served as the basis for the Greek translation made in the 11th century. Among the translations from Pahlavi into Syriac is a collection of legal regulations drawn up on the model of the Iranian “Book of a Thousand Court Rulings.” As the author of this collection was a Nestorian Syriac, Ishobokht of Rev Ardashir, a contemporary of the Catholicos of the Church of the East Henanisho II (774– 780), and the legal regulations were intended for the Syriac community, this collection should be considered a sample of Syriac thought and literature. The Syriac translation of Ishobokht’s work was made by the order of Catholicos Timotheos I (780–823). Pahlavi, like the Greek language, though not to the same extent, left its mark on the Syriac language through numerous borrowings, adding to the list of Iranian loans in Aramaic, which goes back to the Achaemenid and Parthian periods.

13.5. The translation activity of the Syriacs under the Arabs. In the middle of the 7th century, the Syriacs found themselves under the rule of the Arab Caliphate. The new reality did not affect their traditionally active engagement in translation work. However, being speakers of a language related to Arabic, and having lost the opportunity to maintain close cultural contacts with the Byzantines, they concentrated mostly on translations from Syriac into Arabic. This work was not spontaneous but quite organized and encouraged by Abbasid caliphs, such as al-Mansur (754–775), al-Mahdi (775–785), and al-Mamun (813–833), who often commissioned translations themselves. Thus, for example, by the order of Caliph al-Mahdi, the Catholicos Timotheos I translated Aristotle’s “Topics” (a treatise of “Organon”) from Syriac into Arabic. The translation work of the Syriacs became more organized after the Caliph alMamun founded the “House of Wisdom” in Baghdad, which was a major translation center with a library that later developed into the first Muslim institution of higher education. The Syriacs associated with the medical school of Gundishapur, including the representatives of the Bahtisho family of physicians, played an important role in the formation of these prominent scientific and educational institutions. Thanks to them the “House of Wisdom” in many aspects became the successor to the traditions of the Gundishapur school. The Abbasid caliphs, who sought to ensure the continuity of the cultural heritage of Sasanian Iran, perceived the Gundishapur school as a symbol of Iran’s higher educational system and the Sasanian precursor to the “House of Wisdom.” The engagement of its mostly Syriac teaching staff was particularly important for them.



The Syriacs who cooperated with the “House of Wisdom” acted as an important inter-civilizational link. They were the first to introduce the Arabs to the achievements of ancient and Byzantine thought and gave impetus to the development of Arab science. The role of Syriacs in the history of cross-cultural contacts appears even more significant when considering that the achievements of ancient thought “returned” to medieval Europe through their Arabic translations, a significant portion of which was produced by the Syriacs. The Syriacs made their translations in three different formats. In the first case, the Arabic translation was made from the existing Syriac version, so the knowledge of Greek was not required. In the second, the translator would make an “intermediate” translation from Greek into Syriac, and then from Syriac into Arabic. In this case, he would obviously contribute not only to the Arabic but also to his own Syriac literature. The third format, which emerged later, included direct translations from Greek into Arabic, without a Syriac medium. In time this format became prevalent, as emerging Arab Muslim civilization produced more and more Arab translators, not related to the Syriac cultural circles. It should be noted that the existence of Syriac and Arabic versions of the same text, in the long run, left a negative impact on Syriac culture. The prevalence and far more active use of Arabic on the one hand, and the gradual fading out of Syriac and its replacement with Arabic on the other, left the Syriac versions, especially texts of applied nature, such as medical works, in less demand. The old manuscripts with Syriac translations eventually decayed and fell into disrepair, while new ones appeared very rarely. The clergy and monastic circles, who actually held a monopoly on copying manuscripts, were primarily interested in reproducing and preserving sacred literature. Under Muslim domination, they never had sufficient resources to reproduce purely secular works. That is the reason why numerous Syriac translations of such works have not survived, despite the fact that their existence, and in many cases the names of translators, are well documented. 13.6. Hunain ibn Ishaq and his successors. The Nestorian physician Hunain ibn Ishaq (808–873), a son of a pharmacist from Hirta, was one of the Syriacs who under the Abbasids acquired fame as skilled translators. Thus, he belonged to the Syriac intellectual circle. His descent, however, remains uncertain, as some sources refer to him as Arab. In any case, Hunain ibn Ishaq was Nestorian by birth and remained so his whole life. He began studying medicine in Baghdad under the renowned Nestorian physician Yuhanna ibn Masawayh (777–857) and continued his education in the Byzantine Empire. Back in Baghdad, he started his own medical practice (he was the personal physician of the Caliph al-Mutawakkil) and engaged in translation work. Subsequently, the Caliph al-Mamun put him in charge of translations in the “House of Wisdom.” Despite the gap of three centuries and adherence to rivaling Syriac denominations, Hunain ibn Ishaq in many respects appears as the guardian and the successor to the medical and translation traditions of Sergios of Reshayna. Translations earned him much more fame than his medical knowledge, even though many of his works, such as “The Book of Medical Issues,” were known even in Europe. His translations from Greek into Syriac and from Syriac into Arabic included the treatise “De



Materia Medica” by the Greek physician of the 1st century AD Dioscorides, and 20 works by Galen and his students, many of which survived only in his translations. One of his letters contains a catalogue of Galen’s works, which also includes a list of translations into Syriac. This list shows that Sergios of Reshayna had translated 26 works from the “Galenic Corpus.” Hunain ibn Ishaq also translated many works by Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Proclus, and others unrelated directly to medicine. Apparently, he translated the Septuagint into Arabic, but that translation did not survive. He was also engaged in a laborious work of comparing and correcting the existing Syriac translations against the Greek originals, which he himself used to procure in different countries, and even translating them anew. These included some of the translations by Sergios of Reshayna that Hunain found unsatisfactory or believed to have been translated from corrupt Greek originals. In doing so, Hunain ibn Ishaq proved himself not only as an outstanding master of semantic translation but also as one of the most prominent Syriaс textual analysts.

Fig. 83. A manuscript of 1205 with Hippocrates’ aphorisms in Arabic and Syriac translation by Hunain ibn Ishaq

Hunain’s son, Ishaq ibn Hunain, and nephew, Hubaysh ibn al-Hasan, assisted him in his work and became successors to his translation traditions. Hubaysh ibn alHasan translated the writings of Hippocrates and works on botany by Dioscorides. He also translated into Arabic the translations into Syriac made by Hunain ibn Ishaq. Another disciple of Hunain, Istefan ibn Basil, also made intermediate translations of Dioscorides into Syriac to be used for translation into Arabic. Another



member of Hunain’s entourage, Isa ibn Ali al-Mutatabbib, was also indirectly related to translation activity—his Syriac copy of Tatian’s Diatessaron served as a basis for the Arabic version of that Gospel harmony.

Thabit ibn Qurra. Another prominent scholar and translator of the Abbasid period was Thabit ibn Qurra (836–901), a pagan from Harran, who also was closely associated with the “House of Wisdom.” He is best known as the author of more than a hundred treatises on mathematics, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, philosophy, medicine, engineering, and especially on astronomy and astrology. Most of these works are in Arabic and only fifteen are in Syriac. In addition to composing his own works, Thabit ibn Qurra translated the works of ancient authors such as Archimedes, Euclid, and Ptolemy into Arabic. Syriacs would occasionally translate from Arabic into Syriac. Thus, the second translation of “Kalila and Dimna” was made from the Arabic version by Ibn alMuqaffa. The Syriac version of the “Book of Sindbad” descends from the Arabic translation made in the second half of the 8th century from Pahlavi. The Syriac translations from Arabic also included the lives of Coptic saints. Translations from Arabic into Syriac were also made in the 17th–18th centuries. These were mainly Catholic theological works translated from European languages into Arabic because at that period Catholicism was already quite widespread among the Syriacs. Bar Ebraya and Dionysios bar Salibi, who lived in the 12th century, in their writings cite Quranic surahs (chapters), but it is still unclear whether there was a complete translation of the Quran into Syriac.

Grigorios bar Ebraya. The greatest Syriac encyclopedist and polymath Grigorios bar Ebraya (1226–1286), who wrote about forty treatises in almost all fields of knowledge, also left several translations because like other prominent Syriac scholars he considered translation work an integral part of intellectual activity. His most significant surviving translation from Arabic is Avicenna’s philosophical treatise “Book of Indications and Prognostications.” Another philosophical work translated by Bar Ebraya from Arabic into Syriac was the “Book of the Cream of Secrets” by the Arab philosopher Athir al-Din al-Abhari (†1262); both the original and the Syriac translation of this work are lost. Other lost translations by Bar Ebraya include a treatise on drugs by Dioscorides and unfinished translation of the “Canon of Medicine” by Avicenna.

13.7. The Syriacs and the Armenian language. Many Syriac intellectuals and clerics had a good command of the Armenian language. Quite remarkable, albeit not very well studied, is the activity of Syriac translators who lived in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia (11th–14th centuries) and translated into Armenian. Basic information about them is found in the colophons of the manuscripts with their translations. According to the colophons, the Syriacs actively collaborated with the Armenians on translations into Armenian. They would provide a word-for-word translation from Greek or Syriac to Armenian editors who then finalized the translation. Among the Armenian editors who worked with the Syriacs were prominent authors such as Nerses Shnorhali, famous for his “Lament on Edessa,” Nerses Lambronatsi, and Vardan Areveltsi. The latter, in particular, edited the Armenian translation of



the Chronicle of Michael the Syrian made by his friend Ishokh, a Syriac priest and physician. Vardan Areveltsi left a short notice to this translation which reads: “In the year 1248 of the coming of the Son of God, and in the year 697 of the Armenian era, this book was translated from Syriac into Armenian by a man of holy life, priest Ishokh, who has studied the art of healing, and whom Jesus will reward for his efforts.” Ishokh was apparently the author of an Armenian-language treatise on natural philosophy entitled “The Book of Nature,” which contains a lot of information on natural sciences. The textual analysis of this work, particularly its vocabulary and syntax, confirmed the Syriac origin of its author. The Syriac priest Shmuni, who lived in the 13th century, translated into Armenian at least one work by Jacob of Serugh (Jacob’s works were also translated into Armenian by Vardan Areveltsi). One of the best experts on Armenian among the Syriacs was the Metropolitan of Mabbug, Yohannan bar Andraos (†1156), whose prime coincided with a new round of Armenian-Syriac theological discords. He is known for his translation into Syriac of a refutation by the Armenian Catholicos Gregory II (1066–1105), written in response to the anti-Armenian and anti-Melkite epistle of the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Yohannan bar Shushan (1063–1073). Yohannan bar Andraos is also known for a memra written in Armenian against the Armenian Catholicos Gregory III (1113–1166). The same theological dispute involved another Syriac master of the Armenian language, Gregorios bar Ebraya. It is assumed that he translated from Armenian an Arab manual on the medical treatment of horses. Of the Syriacs who translated into Armenian, mention should be made of the anonymous translator from Gerger, near Malatya, who made the Armenian version of Bar Bahlul’s dictionary (10th century), the most important example of medieval Syriac lexicography. The region of Gerger with the Mor Abhay monastery later became the center of intellectual activity of Armenian-speaking Jacobites; almost all extant examples of the Armenian Garshuni, or the Armenian language written in Syriac characters, originate from this region.


SYRIAC TRANSLATIONS OF THE HOLY SCRIPTURES 14.1. The Peshitta and its relation to the Targums. The Bible was the first major literary work translated into Syriac. Many books of the Bible were translated into Syriac several times, which puts Syriac ahead of all other classical languages when it comes to the number of translations of biblical texts. These translations had a great influence on the development of the literary Syriac language and the Syriac literature, particularly religious poetry. Despite the denominational fragmentation of the Syriacs, a full canonical translation of the Bible exists that is recognized and used by all of them. This translation is known as the “Peshitta” (“Simple”). This name was suggested by the Bishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Moshe bar Kepha (†903), known for his works in the field of theology—one of them was published in Europe in 1569 in Latin translation. In its current form, with both Testaments, the Peshitta had developed by the beginning of the 5th century, before the ecclesiastical schisms of the Syriacs, which explains its recognition by all denominations. The Syriac tradition has not preserved any information about the history of the Peshitta, except that which is purely legend. Scholars almost unanimously agree that the Old Testament of the Peshitta was translated in the second half of the 2nd century AD and that the translation was not made from the Septuagint, as the majority of early translations, but from the Hebrew original. By the 2nd century AD, the canonical text of the Tanakh had been already established, and it was used as a basis for the Syriac translation. The visible differences in style and vocabulary between separate books suggest that the task was carried out by several people. The earliest translations were supposedly made by Mesopotamian Jews and the latest by Christians of Jewish origin who knew Hebrew. Edessa is usually named as the place where these translations were made. However, because of its significantly high Aramaic-speaking Jewish population, Nisibis and Arbela are also mentioned as possible locations for the first translations of the Old Testament.




Fig. 84. A page from the Ambrosian Peshitta

The Peshitta may be associated in some way with the Aramaic Targums. One of the books of its Old Testament, the Proverbs, is almost completely identical with the corresponding Targum. Another feature that connects Peshitta with the Targums is the shared story of the Flood, which mentions Mount Qardu in North Mesopotamia instead of Mount Ararat (Mount Qardu in the same context is also



found in Jewish historian Josephus Flavius). The possible relation of the Peshitta Old Testament to the Palestinian Targums is also corroborated by some features of the translation that are typical of Western Aramaic dialects. Despite the traditionally held belief that the Peshitta supposedly originated from the Targums, some scholars believe that a number of medieval Targums may have descended from the relevant books of the Peshitta. In any case, the relationship between the Peshitta and the Targums to this day remains largely unexplored.

14.2. The manuscripts of the Peshitta Old Testament. There are more than 200 manuscripts containing the books of the Peshitta Old Testament in various combinations; most of them were copied between the 6th–10th and 16th–19th centuries. There are only four manuscripts containing the entire text of the Old Testament since the production of such a manuscript required a lot of resources and effort, and the size made it extremely difficult to use. The earliest of the four dates back to the 6th–7th centuries, and it is stored in the Ambrosian Library in Milan, originating from the Egyptian Dayr al-Suryan monastery (the so-called “Codex Ambrosianus”). Three other manuscripts with a full set of the Old Testament books are kept in the National Library of Paris (7th century, illustrated), in the Laurentian Library of Florence (9th century), and in Cambridge University Library (“The Buchanan Bible,” 1 12th century). The semantic differences between all four manuscripts are negligible, while purely textual differences reflect the process of perfection of translation techniques. The composition of the Peshitta Old Testament. The extant manuscripts with the entire text of the Old Testament have different sets of books and their different sequence. It is not clear which Old Testament books the Peshitta considers canonical and which apocryphal. The earliest, the Codex Ambrosianus, has the following composition and sequence: Pentateuch, Job, Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, Psalms, 1– 2 Kings, Proverbs, Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Letter of Jeremiah, Letter of Baruch, Baruch, Ezekiel, 12 “minor” prophets, Daniel, Bel, Ruth, Susanna, Esther, Judith, Bar Sira, 1–2 Chronicles, Apocalypse of Baruch, IV Ezra, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1–4 Maccabees. The books are grouped by their supposed authorship and arranged in corresponding chronological order. Thus, the Book of Job is placed after the Pentateuch because there was a tradition to ascribe its authorship to Moses. Another one identified Job with Jobab, who is mentioned in the Book of Genesis as Noah’s direct descendant in the sixth generation. Psalms, attributed to King David, follow 1–2 Samuel, which tells about his reign. The books attributed to David’s son, Solomon (Proverbs, Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs), are grouped together and placed after 1–2 Kings. Another group consists of books with the names of women— Ruth, Susanna, Judith, and Esther. It is interesting that the books that other church-

Named after the Scottish missionary Claudius Buchanan (1766–1815), who brought the manuscript in 1806 from India to Great Britain. 1



es do not include in the biblical canon, such as Jewish pseudepigrapha “Apocalypse of Baruch” and “Apocalypse of Ezra,” not only are included in the Ambrosian Peshitta, but are also interspersed with generally accepted canonical books. The Peshitta contains the only set with the “Apocalypse of Baruch,” but lacks the Book of Tobit, which is very common in other sets of the Old Testament. Except for Bar Sira, translated directly from Hebrew, all other Apocrypha are translated into Syriac from Greek.

Fig. 85. An illustration from the Paris manuscript of the Old Testament



14.3. Syro-Hexapla. In addition to the canonical text of the Peshitta, another Syriac translation of the Old Testament is a literal translation of the Septuagint from Origen’s Hexapla made by Bishop Pawlos of Tella about 615–617. Pawlos made his translation in the Egyptian non-Chalcedonian Ennaton monastery, located nine miles from Alexandria (hence the name of the monastery, which means “ninth” in Greek). In the European scholarly tradition, this translation is known as “SyroHexapla,” while the Syriacs called it simply “Seventy.”

Fig. 86. A page from the Ambrosian Syro-Hexapla



The reason for the translation of the Old Testament from Greek could be the increasing prestige of that language and the Greek-language patristics in the heyday of the Byzantine Empire. However, the active translation activity of the Syriacs from Greek by the 7th century resulted in significantly improved translation techniques— the discovery of the “golden mean” between the literal and semantic translations— which allowed for accurate reproduction of all the nuances of the Greek original in Syriac. Pawlos of Tella introduced some elements of textual analysis into the SyroHexapla, particularly textual varieties of the same passage from other versions found in the Hexapla, which were included in the margins or the main text marked with a special sign (÷). The Syro-Hexapla has not survived in its entirety, yet it exists in more extant fragments than the Hexapla and therefore is very important for the study of Origen’s outstanding work and the Septuagint itself. In the early Middle Ages, the Syro-Hexapla was held in high regard within the Syriac Orthodox Church; its lectionaries 2 were based mostly on the Syro-Hexapla, rather than the Peshitta. The Syro-Hexapla is also mentioned in the biblical commentaries by the Nestorians but had no liturgical application in the Church of the East. Of the several manuscripts with the text of the Syro-Hexapla, the most valuable and well-known one is a very large manuscript of the 8th–9th centuries written in Estrangela (currently in the Ambrosian Library in Milan). Despite its impressive size, it contains only the second half of the text of the Syro-Hexapla. The manuscript with the first half was last seen by European scholars in the 16th century and then inexplicably disappeared.

14.4. Tatian and his Diatessaron. As for the New Testament, the first known attempt to translate it into Aramaic was made in the 2nd century by the early Christian apologist Tatian (120–185). According to his own account, he was born in the “land of Assyrians,” which means that he was a native of Adiabene, often called “Assyria” because of its location on the former territory of that ancient country. He was pagan by birth and in his own words, “participated in the mysteries, and tried all worships.” The path of a God-seeker brought him to Rome, where he was baptized and became the disciple of Justin Martyr. After the martyrdom of his master, Tatian assumed the responsibility for his school and acquired fame for his Oratio ad Graecos. Back in his native Mesopotamia, he combined the four Gospels into a single, chronologically coherent narrative of 55 chapters, a Gospel harmony, known as the “Diatessaron” (from the Greek δια τέσσαρον, “through four ”). When creating his work, Tatian used both the canonical Gospels and, to a lesser extent, the Apocrypha, in particular, the “Gospel of the Hebrews.” Tatian’s followers and supporters argued that in the Diatessaron he eliminated the contradictions in the narratives of the four Evangelists. A lectionary is a collection of excerpts of biblical texts read throughout the year during the church services. 2



The original text of the Diatessaron has not survived, but the commentaries by Ephrem the Syrian, fully extant in an Armenian translation, give some idea of that compilation. In addition, the excavations at Dura-Europos revealed 14 lines of the Diatessaron in Greek. For a long time, scholars were in disagreement on the original language of Tatian’s creation. Some believed that it was written in Greek and then translated into Aramaic by the author himself, while others claimed the opposite. Eventually, the majority agreed that the original language was Aramaic, but as a basis for his narrative, Tatian used the original Greek texts of the Gospels. Assuming that Tatian wrote in his native Eastern Aramaic dialect of Adiabene, the language of the Diatessaron had to be very close to the dialect of Edessa, on which Classical Syriac is based.

Fig. 87. A page from the Curetonian manuscript



The Diatessaron enjoyed great popularity among Syriacs in the early Christian period and survived in their religious practice up to the 5th century. The Syriacs called it the “Mixed Gospel” (ewwangelion da-mehallete). However, after Tatian was accused of the heresy of the Encratites, 3 his work was replaced by the canonical, separate versions of the Gospels. Bishop Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393–457) alone destroyed in his Syriac-speaking parishes more than 200 copies of the Diatessaron, which he declared heretical. Rabbula, Bishop of Edessa displayed the same attitude. Nevertheless, Syriaс authors until the beginning of the second millennium spoke respectfully of the Diatessaron and it continued to occupy the minds of the early medieval theologians of different nationalities, resulting in a number of adaptations in various languages, such as Armenian, Pahlavi, Arabic, Latin, Dutch, German, and others.

14.5. The New Testament of the Peshitta and its manuscripts. No reliable data exists on the origins of the New Testament of the Peshitta. After the Diatessaron, the next translation was apparently made in the 3rd century. There are two manuscripts, presumably of the 5th century, that contain these translations; they are also the oldest extant manuscripts with a New Testament text in general. The first is a palimpsest from Dayr al-Suryan, which in 1842 was purchased by the British Museum, and in 1858 it was published by its employee, a renowned English Orientalist named William Cureton (1808–1864). These Gospels are called “Curetonian” and referred to by scholars as Syrc, or Syrcur. The Curetonian Gospels have the following sequence: Matthew, Mark, John, Luke. The second manuscript, a 358–page palimpsest with the Syriac translation of the four Gospels, was discovered in 1892 in the monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula by the British Semitist Agnes Smith Lewis (1843–1926), who was on expedition there with her twin sister, also a Semitist, Margaret Gibson (1843–1920). This translation is known as the “Codex Sinaiticus Syriacus” (Syrs). The hard to read Syriac text of the Gospels is visible under a text with the lives of saintly nuns written on a parchment in 778. In the European scholarly tradition, the Curetonian and the Sinaitic versions of the Gospels are known as “Old Syriac” (Vetus Syra), while in the Syriac tradition they are usually referred to as ewwangelion da-mefarreshe, or “Gospel of separate .” This name emphasizes the fact that these are separate canonical Gospels, not Tatian’s Diatessaron. Both versions, though not identical, are very close to each other, which suggests that they might have been translated from the same Greek original, possibly in Antioch or Edessa. It is also believed that some fragments of these texts can be

The Encratites (from the Greek ενκρατεια, “abstention”) were a 2nd century movement that preached extreme forms of abstinence as a necessary condition for salvation and membership in the Church. Encratites forbade marriage and abstained from consuming meat and wine, replacing wine with water even in the Eucharist. The author of “Ecclesiastical History,” Eusebius of Caesarea, named Tatian as the founder of this sect. 3



traced to the Diatessaron. A distinct feature of both versions is the presence of linguistic archaisms, typical of the Syriac language of the early period. The proponents of the theory of Aramaic primacy believe them to be the remnants of the Western Aramaic original of the Gospels. Another feature of the Old Syriac Gospels is that their Old Testament quotations are not translated from the Greek language, but are directly borrowed from the Peshitta Old Testament, even if they differ from the Greek text. This practice was maintained by Syriac authors until the middle of the first millennium in their translations of the Greek-language commentaries on the Holy Scriptures. It is quite possible that during the 4th century both Old Syriac versions of the Gospels were subjected to revisions and eventually developed into the Peshitta version, which is closer to the canonical Greek text. For a long time, it was thought that Bishop Rabbula might have been somehow associated with the revisions of the Old Syriac versions and the final redaction of the Peshitta New Testament, but historical evidence to support this assumption has never been discovered. The Peshitta New Testament eventually replaced all previous translations, although for several centuries expressions and phrases resembling those in the Old Syriac versions and possibly the Diatessaron continued to surface in manuscripts. It should be noted that the original Peshitta New Testament did not contain the Second Epistle of Peter, the Second and Third Epistles of John, the Epistle of Jude, and Revelation (the Apocalypse); all these books were translated and included in the Peshitta in the 6th century. There are numerous extant manuscripts with the text of the Peshitta New Testament or of the Gospels alone. As is the case with the Old Testament, textual differences between these manuscripts are negligible. The oldest manuscripts belong to the 5th–6th centuries, and one of the most famous is the richly illustrated “Rabbula Gospels,” mentioned in previous chapters. Syriac translations of the New Testament are highly valuable, as they are, in reality, translations into Aramaic, which was the language of the milieu in which the New Testament tradition emerged. Syriac translations provide much material for textual analysis. They are also used by the supporters of the theory of Aramaic primacy in their efforts to restore the presumptive original Aramaic nucleus of the Gospels.

14.6. Attempts to revise the text of the Peshitta. Despite the mutually recognized authority of the Peshitta, during the 6th–8th centuries, Syriacs made several attempts to revise its text, mainly the New Testament. There were several reasons for that. First of all, the Greek text of the New Testament had undergone changes and corrections, and the Syriac translations made from the earlier versions began to look outdated. No less important was the continuing perfection of translation techniques. Finally, the denominational split of the Syriacs on the ground of disagreements on the matters of Christology forced them, again and again, to go back to those portions of the original text of the Scriptures, different interpretations of which appeared to be the main reasons for the split. In this context, it was necessary to address the issue of translating into Syriac the biblical quotations in Greek-language commentaries on the Scriptures, which Syriacs translated very actively. Until the end



of the 5th century, the Syriacs used to include those quotations exactly as they appear in the Peshitta, and quite often that distorted the logical and semantic consistency of the commentary together with the nuances, important from the point of view of theology. Among the Miaphysites, the first major attempt to revise the text of the New Testament was initiated by Bishop Philoxenos of Mabbug (†523). In 508, he charged a chorbishop, Polycarp, with the task of re-editing the text of the Peshitta. His intention was to bring the translation as close as possible to the Greek original and “fix” those portions that, in his opinion, could lead to a Nestorian interpretation. This redaction, known as the “Philoxenian” (Syrph), has not survived, except for a few quotations in the writings of Philoxenos. It was assumed that the Second Epistle of Peter, the Second and Third Epistles of John, the Epistle of Jude, and Revelation, initially missing in the Peshitta and added in the 6th century, might have been borrowed from the Philoxenian version. In 616, another Bishop of Mabbug, Toma of Harkel, on the basis of the Philoxenian version made a new, even closer to the Greek original translation of the New Testament (the “Harklean version,” Syrh). Toma was educated in the Syriac monastery of Qenneshre, and because of his excellent command of the Greek language played an important role in the dealings of the Syriac Orthodox Church with the Chalcedonians and Copts. He made his translation in the same Ennaton monastery in Egypt, where Pawlos of Tella produced the Syro-Hexapla, almost at the same time. Unlike Philoxenos of Mabbug, who initiated the revision of the Syriac translation for purely theological reasons, Toma’s motivation was mostly linguistic in nature. Working on a concrete Greek text, he, like Pawlos of Tella, included in the margins and in the text itself different wordings of the same passage from other Greek texts, marking them with special signs. 4 The Harklean version included the New Testament parts initially missing from the Peshitta, and like the Syro-Hexapla was often used in the lectionaries of the Syriac Orthodox Church. The majority of the manuscripts with the Harklean version contain only the Gospels. The oldest of them dates back to 756 and comes from Edessa. Another ancient manuscript with this version dates from 936 and originates from Dayr alSuryan. Later manuscripts, as a rule, do not contain notes in the margins and special signs, and in many of them textual varieties were removed and only the text faithful to the official Byzantine canonical text was preserved. The last major attempt to revise the text of the Peshitta was undertaken by Jacob of Edessa (†708), who in 704–705 corrected the translation of the Old Testament against the Septuagint. This redaction, of which only a few books of the Old The Irish Syriacist John Gwynn (1827–1917) suggested that the Syro-Hexapla and the Harklean version were parts of the same project to harmonize on the basis of concrete Greek texts the biblical translations used by Syriac and Coptic Miaphysites. For several decades, up to 616, relations between the Syriac and Coptic Orthodox Churches were quite tense because of different interpretations of biblical texts, among other things. 4



Testament survive, was apparently an attempt to bring the canonical text of the Peshitta closer to the Syro-Hexapla. The Nestorians have shown greater reverence to the original version of the Peshitta. Among them, the only known attempt to revise the translation in the 6th century was made by Catholicos Aba I, but there are no extant manuscripts with this version. All these attempts to produce more accurate versions of biblical texts were very important in terms of theology and perfection of translation and textual analysis techniques. However, none of them eventually led to any significant change in the canonical text of the Peshitta, which had been finalized by the 5th century and remains accepted by all Syriac denominations. 14.7. Lectionaries. A peculiar form of preservation and transmission of biblical texts were lectionaries. Initially, the biblical passages intended to be read during the church services were specially marked in the manuscript that contained the entire text of a biblical book. For example, in some early Syriac manuscripts these passages are preceded by a separate heading, written in red ink. In other manuscripts, the beginning and the end of the passage are marked with the initial letters of the Syriac words “reading” and “end.” It is hard to determine when the idea of lectionaries was conceived. The first lectionaries are believed to have emerged in the Byzantine Empire in the 5th century. The earliest extant Syriac lectionaries date back to the 9th century, but the majority of them were compiled and copied during the next two centuries. As a rule, there were separate lectionaries for the Old and New Testament texts, but there are also “combined” versions. Lectionaries mostly used the texts from the Syro-Hexapla and the Harklean version. Lectionaries were used by all major Syriac Churches and denominations—the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Church of the East, the Maronite Church, and the Syriac Melkites. Lectionaries constituted a very substantial part of Melkite literature. Most of the extant Melkite lectionaries were written in the monasteries of St. Panteleimon and St. Elijah on the Black Mountain near Antioch—the oldest of them dates to 1023. The Church of the East had separate lectionaries for parish churches and monasteries.

14.8. The biblical Polyglots. Another form of presenting biblical texts were “polyglots,” manuscripts containing the same text in two or more languages. There are numerous bilingual manuscripts, mostly Syriac-Arabic. The earliest trilingual polyglot with a Syriac text (fragments of the Syro-Hexapla) dates from the 9th century and also contains parallel columns with Greek and Arabic texts. The most famous polyglot in four languages was compiled in the 14th century, presumably in Egypt, by an anonymous Jacobite monk; it contains the Psalms in Hebrew, Syriac (Syro-Hexapla), Greek, and Arabic. This manuscript (currently in Cambridge University Library) is older by a century than the first European polyglot, published in Genoa in 1516, with the text of the Psalms in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, and Aramaic (Targum). The Psalms in five languages (“pentaglot”)—Syriac, Armenian, Bohairic Coptic, Arabic, and Ge‘ez—roughly belong to the same period. There is another pentag-



lot in the same languages containing the text of a Pauline epistle (currently in the Ambrosian Library in Milan). Both pentaglots are apparently parts of polyglot lectionaries produced in Egypt, where in the Nitrian Desert, in addition to Dayr alSuryan, there were also Miaphysite monasteries with multinational brethren. The Syriac text of the Ambrosian pentaglot was written by Yuhanna from Amid.

14.9. Translations of Peshitta into other languages. The Peshitta itself was translated into several other languages, the first of which, apparently, being Armenian. In 301, Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity as the state religion and during almost all of the 4th century it was preached to ordinary people in Greek or Syriac with oral interpretation into Armenian. The inefficiency of this way of preaching made it necessary to create a national alphabet and translate the Scriptures into Armenian. The alphabet was created in 405–406 by Mesrop Mashtots, who spent some time during this period in Edessa. Almost immediately after the alphabet’s creation, the Peshitta was translated into Armenian. The translation was made hastily and was considered a failure, and therefore, it did not survive. After the Council of Ephesus (431), the Greek texts of the Old and New Testaments were brought to Armenia and translated anew. The perfection of this translation earned it the title “Queen of Translations.” 5 By the 6th century, several books of the Peshitta had been translated into Pahlavi, the official language of Sasanian Iran. Only a few brief fragments of this translation survive. With the penetration of the missionaries of the Church of the East into Central Asia, the Peshitta was translated into the main literary language of that region, Sogdian, which belongs to the Iranian group. Sogdian was used by both Muslims and Christians of Central Asia, including the Nestorian monks of the Bulayiq monastery in what is now the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. This monastery was one of the main centers of Christian literature in the Sogdian language, including translations from Syriac. Some fragments of Psalms survive from the Sogdian translation of the Peshitta as well as several lectionaries. By the 11th century, Sogdian as a literary language was replaced by Modern Persian. It is assumed that the Peshitta was translated into that language in the same Bulayiq monastery. In the 13th century, in Tabriz, a translation of the Diatessaron into Modern Persian was made, or rather, its general structure was used, while the text itself was translated from the Peshitta. Thus, this translation hardly enlightens us as to Tatian’s original version. In the 8th century, the Peshitta was first translated into Arabic, but later the Arabic translations of the Scriptures were usually made from Greek. The SyroHexapla was also translated into Arabic. An Arabic version of the Diatessaron also uses the Peshitta texts, just as the Persian one did. It was made by a Nestorian priest and physician from Baghdad, Abdullah ibn al-Tayyib (†1043), who used a Syriac text copied by Isa ibn Ali al-Mutatabbib, Hunain ibn Ishaq’s disciple. The Canadian biblical scholar Claude Cox in a number of his works revealed a residual “Syriac presence” in the canonical Armenian translation of the Bible. 5



In the second half of the 16th century, increased European interest in the spiritual heritage of Syriac Christianity produced the first translations of the Peshitta and other versions into Latin. These translations were directly associated with the first printed editions of the biblical texts in Syriac. Later, translations into modern European languages appeared. Thus, the Peshitta New Testament was published in 1851 in Boston in English translation by James Murdock (1776–1856) for the needs of the American missionaries. William Cureton, who in 1858 published the Old Syriac version of the Gospels, included his own English translation of the Syriac text in the publication. The first English translation of the entire Peshitta, published in 1957, was made by Nestorian George Lamsa (1891–1975). Lamsa was an ardent proponent of the theory of Aramaic primacy, believing that the Peshitta New Testament contained the original language of the Gospels. His translations of the Gospels (1933) and all of the New Testament (1940) include a significant number of interpretations made in order to support this theory, but most scholars do not take them seriously. Since a large number of Syriac church followers live in the Indian state of Kerala (to be discussed in detail in a separate chapter), the Peshitta was translated into Malayalam, their spoken language. The first translation of the Gospels was published in Mumbai in 1811, and the latest, containing the entire Bible, was published in 1997 in Kottayam, Kerala. In the 19th century, the Peshitta was also translated into Modern Aramaic dialects; these translations will be presented in subsequent chapters.


SYRIAC SYSTEM OF EDUCATION 15.1. Primary education of the Syriacs. The constant intellectual rivalry between Syriac denominations contributed to the development of an educational system that for several centuries was the best in the Middle East. A good education was required for trade, particularly international trade, and crafts, in which the Syriacs traditionally were very skilful. The heyday of the Syriac educational system was in the 6th–7th centuries, then during Arab domination, it began to gradually decline. The Syriacs had a large number of primary schools, which were first mentioned in the 4th century. These were predominantly parish or monastic schools. They could be found not only in the cities but in almost every village with a big church, not to mention a monastery. There were also many secular schools where teachers were laymen. This extensive network guaranteed a high level of literacy and knowledge of the Scriptures among the common people. The schools were accessible mostly for boys, but some schools would accept girls as well; a literate woman, in any case, was not unusual for Syriacs. A large number of literate laymen with a good knowledge of the Scriptures and their active involvement in church affairs were a distinctive characteristic of Syriac churches and one of the main keys to the success of their missionary activity. The first and main goal of primary education was to teach reading and writing. The emphasis on these skills gave the Syriac system of education a tangible advantage over the Iranian system, which put emphasis on memorization and required a lot of mechanical reiteration of Zoroastrian sacred texts read by teachers. A good memory was required also in Syriac education, in particular during the next stage after learning the alphabet, when students began to learn the Psalms. Students were required to know all the Psalms and basic hymns by heart. The curriculum could also include the study of the Scriptures and, in the most advanced Nestorian schools, the commentaries by Theodore of Mopsuestia. A high level of general education put Syriacs in high demand in the slave markets. Wealthy Persians, Byzantines, and Arabs considered having a personal Syriac physician, secretary, or tutor to be prestigious. Syriacs were known for their multilingualism. Bilingualism was common for ordinary Syriacs who lived under alien 269



domination, and those who received a good education usually knew more than two languages. A good command of different languages, particularly Greek and Pahlavi, unofficially made the position of interpreters in Iranian and Byzantine diplomatic missions a Syriac prerogative. The Syriac language itself rather quickly regained the traditional role that Imperial Aramaic had held as the language of international communication, becoming a language of diplomatic correspondence between Sasanian Iran and the Byzantine Empire, as well as the language of communication of these two superpowers with the Arab tribes and principalities of the Arabian Peninsula. Persians and Byzantines used Syriacs not only as interpreters but also often charged them with diplomatic missions between themselves and with third parties.

15.2. Babai of Gebilta and the Nestorian schools. The Nestorians were particularly known for their well-developed and extensive system of education. Many of their high church hierarchs, such as Catholicos Ishoyahb III (649–659), paid much attention to elementary schools. The most famous Syriac professional educator and organizer of education was Babai of Gebilta (not to be confused with Babai the Great). He was active during the Catholicosate of Slibhazkha (714–728), with whom he maintained personal correspondence. Babai’s biography is included in the “Book of Governors” by Bishop Toma of Marga (9th century), which is mostly dedicated to the history of the Beth Abe monastery in Adiabene, but also contains a lot of valuable information on the history of East Syriac monasticism and on clergy in general. Assisted by his disciple Maranammeh, who later became the Metropolitan of Adiabene, Babai founded many new schools, restored and renovated those in dilapidation, strengthened the discipline, and ensured an adequate level of teaching and learning. According to Toma of Marga, Babai founded and restored 24 schools in the province of Marga, where there were numerous schools not related to him. Of the schools founded by Babai, the school in a large and wealthy village of Kfar Uzzel in Adiabene was particularly well known. It provided education far beyond the elementary and also served a kind of head office for Babai, who oversaw other schools in the area. Babai also paid special attention to the training of teachers for primary schools. Toma of Marga reported that he had 60 students who became teachers in 60 schools that he had founded. Babai, having a special affection for music and hymnology, standardized the system of school chanting and introduced in all Nestorian schools the unified chanting system that he created himself. The “Book of Governors” also contains much information on the Nestorian schools that operated during Toma of Marga’s lifetime in the 9th century. Toma’s contemporary, Ishodnah, Metropolitan of Prat d-Mayshan (near modern Basra), in his “Book of Chastity” mentions 30 schools in Beth Zabdai, Beth Qardu, Beth Arbaye, Beth Garmai, Beth Aramaye, Adiabene, Tirhan, and other areas of Mesopotamia. It should be noted that by the 9th century the Arab domination and pressure of Islam had caused a noticeable decline in the Syriac system of education, although the rich traditions in this field provided for a fairly decent level of education for several more centuries. The Jacobites, who were in sharp competition with the Nestorians to influence the minds of ordinary Syriacs, could not afford yielding the field of elementary edu-



cation without a fight and sought to open their own schools wherever possible, mostly monastic. One of their most famous elementary schools operated at the Beth Qoqa monastery in the Beth Nuhadra province, in the area of Zakho and Dohuk of modern Iraq. Jacobites often opened their schools in villages that already had Nestorian schools.

15.3. Jacob of Nisibis and his school. After graduating from primary schools, young men could continue their education in higher schools, several of which the Syriacs operated. The treatise “Cause of the Founding of the Schools” by Barhadbshabba Arbaya, Bishop of Hulwan (northeast of Seleucia-Ctesiphon) provides basic information on the Syriac system of higher education. The treatise begins with fictional “schools” of Noah, Abraham, Moses, Solomon, and other biblical patriarchs, then moves to the schools of Greeks and Persians and then proceeds to the “School of Persians” of Edessa. Some interesting information can be found in the “History of the Holy Fathers, Persecuted for the Truth,” 1 attributed to Barhadbshabba Arbaya, as well as in the biographies of prominent Syriacs who graduated from high schools. According to the Syriac tradition, the first Syriac high school was founded at Nisibis in the early 4th century by Bishop Jacob of Nisibis (†338), who was a participant at the Nicene Ecumenical Council of 325. Nisibis was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in North Mesopotamia and a quite famous Jewish yeshiva. Jacob of Nisibis, who was canonized and revered by many Christian churches, enjoyed particular veneration among Armenians who believed him to be the cousin of Gregory the Illuminator. He is credited with the first attempt to climb Mount Ararat in search of Noah’s ark. According to legend, halfway to the top, the elderly Jacob was visited by an angel who ordered him to stop climbing and left him a piece of the ark. Jacob of Nisibis is believed to have put his disciple, Ephrem the Syrian (306– 373) in charge of his school, where he remained for 38 years. According to the Byzantine-Iranian treaty of 363, Nisibis was handed over to Iran and almost all the students and teachers of the school, including Ephrem, fled to Edessa. There the school was apparently re-established, probably not without the involvement of Ephrem the Syrian, who lived in Edessa during the last 10 years of his life. The new school became known as the “School of Persians.” Modern scholars tend to believe that the school was named so because many of its teachers and students had come from territories under Iranian domination. 15.4. “School of Persians.” The “School of Persians” rather quickly received fame and recognition throughout the Middle East and even in the Byzantine Empire and

The “Cause of the Founding of the Schools” and “History of the Holy Fathers, Persecuted for the Truth” may have been written by two different authors with the same name, Barhadbshabba (see Ignatius Ortis de Urbina, “Patrologia Syriaca.” Rome: Pontificio istituto per gli studi orientali, 1958, pp. 122–124). 1



had many students. Its structure and the organization of teaching had similarities with both antique and Hellenistic schools and traditional Semitic schools, the typical representatives of which were Jewish yeshivas. Like in primary schools, the teaching process in the “School of Persians” was centered on the Holy Scriptures. However, the emphasis was not on the study of the Scriptures themselves, but rather on their interpretation (exegesis) in which the Syriacs followed the traditions of the School of Antioch. Initially, the exegesis was based on the commentaries of Ephrem the Syrian, but in 420 the headmaster Qiyore introduced into the curriculum the commentaries by Theodore of Mopsuestia, whom the Syriacs called the “Universal Interpreter.” Since these commentaries covered almost all of the Scriptures, they soon ousted works by other commentators from the curriculum. The “School of Persians,” in the center of bitter Christological controversies, thus evolved into a powerful stronghold of Nestorianism, which had developed on the teachings of Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia. After the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431) condemned the Nestorian “heresy,” teaching and studying in the “School of Persians” became unsafe. Ostracism and persecution only contributed to the radicalization of Nestorian ideas in the school and aggravated the dispute between the supporters and opponents of Nestorianism. Rabbula, the Bishop of Edessa from 412–435, was particularly famous for his fight against the Nestorians within the School and outside it. Despite persecution, Nestorianism had no fewer supporters in Edessa than opponents. Because of that, Rabbula was succeeded by Ibas of Edessa who was a prominent supporter of Nestorianism and was once persecuted by Rabbula. He remained Bishop until 457. Closely associated with Ibas was his student and supporter, Barsauma. For his commitment to Nestorianism, Barsauma received a special condemnation at the Council of Ephesus, but after the Council of Chalcedon discharged Ibas of Edessa, Barsauma avoided further persecution. After the death of Ibas in 457, Chalcedonian Nonnus became the next Bishop and started persecuting the Nestorian professors of the “School of Persians.” With the strengthening of Miaphysites in Edessa, Barsauma was forced to finally move to Nisibis in 457. He enjoyed the favors of the Sasanian king Peroz (457–484) who sent him on purely secular errands. Barsauma eventually became the Bishop of Nisibis and played a crucial key role in spreading Nestorianism among Iranian Christians. Under Nonnus, the headmaster of the “School of Persians” was Narsai (†501), one of the most prominent Syriac intellectuals who had begun teaching there while it was run by Ibas. Like most of the headmasters, Narsai taught exegesis, but because of his inclination toward Nestorianism, which was rapidly yielding its position in Edessa, he was constantly accused by Nonnus of heresy. Besides, being an ethnic Persian like Barsauma, he was always suspected of being sympathetic to Iran. Narsai’s rivals eventually succeeded in inciting the Edessan mob against him, but he managed to escape with the help of the city’s Christian Persians, taking only his library with him. In 471, another Chalcedonian, Qiyore, became the new Bishop of Edessa and the “School of Persians,” which by that time had already lost the best of its faculty,



came to a complete standstill. In 489, on the order of the Byzantine Emperor Zeno, the “School of Persians” was closed for good.

15.5. The School of Nisibis. In Nisibis, Narsai was immediately engaged by Barsauma who convinced him to establish a school in the city. Thanks to their efforts, the new school attracted many of the former professors and students of the “School of Persians” and essentially continued its traditions. The School of Nisibis lasted more than 200 years and became the most prominent Syriac institution of higher education, supplying Syriac culture with numerous prominent personalities. One of Narsai’s main merits as the school’s headmaster was the adoption of its famous statutes. “The Rules of the Holy School of the City of Nisibis” not only presents the structure and activities of the school and the daily lives of its teachers and students, but is also a remarkable piece of Syriac literature. The statutes, consisting of a lengthy introduction and 22 chapters, were adopted in 496 on the basis of Barsauma’s earlier regulations, which were considered lost but eventually were found in a single copy. The text of the statutes was read aloud at the annual general gathering of professors and students at the beginning of the school year. Narsai was a prolific author who wrote a large number of works on exegesis and pieces of religious poetry. His 360 memre, of which only 81 survive, enjoyed great popularity among the Nestorians and were often cited in their works on exegesis. Narsai was in a literary and religious competition with Miaphysite Jacob of Serugh (451–521) for the influence over the minds of ordinary Syriacs. Both of them, each in his own camp, claimed the honorary title of poetic heir to Ephrem the Syrian. According to Barhadbshabba Arbaya, a graduate of the School of Nisibis, as headmaster Narsai was succeeded by Elisha bar Kozbaye, who is known for his apologetic work in defense of Christianity against Zoroastrianism and commentaries on some books of the Old and New Testaments. Then for nearly 60 years, this position was held by Narsai’s relative, Abraham d-Beth Rabban 2 (†570), who was assisted in his duties by his other relative, Yohannan d-Beth Rabban, author of works on exegesis and apologetics. Abraham d-Beth Rabban himself is known to have written a teaching aid on the commentaries by Theodore of Mopsuestia. During his tenure, the school expanded considerably, and the number of students reached almost a thousand. Despite the fact that in Nisibis Abraham was loved and respected, many bore him ill will, mainly among Jews and Chalcedonians. Because of their intrigues, the school in Abraham’s last years faced the threat of closure. Abraham personally went to the royal court to deal with the situation and managed to avert the threat. After Abraham d-Beth Rabban the School of Nisibis was headed by future Catholicos Ishoyahb I (581–596) for two years, and then in 572, this position went to the most famous headmaster after Narsai, Henana of Adiabene (†610). According to another testimony, Abraham d-Beth Rabban was the immediate successor to Narsai, while Elisha bar Kozbaye for a few years in the 520s interrupted his long tenure as the headmaster. 2



Henana was a student at the school under Abraham d-Beth Rabban, then stayed as a lecturer in exegesis. In the history of the Church of the East, he made the only attempt at rapprochement with the official Byzantine Church, trying to gradually replace the commentaries of Theodore of Mopsuestia in the curriculum with commentaries by John Chrysostom as well as his own commentaries that were strongly influenced by Origenism. Such an attitude toward the works of the Nestorian mastermind irked the Church of the East, which by that time had finally made Nestorianism its de facto official doctrine. The Councils of the Church of the East condemned the views of Henana of Adiabene three times and confirmed the official status of the doctrine of Theodore of Mopsuestia. Henana was also accused of “Chaldeanism,” an inclination toward the astrology-based doctrines that remained strong in Harran. In the ideological confrontation with Henana, the key role was played by the major reformer of the Church of the East, Babai the Great, another graduate of the School of Nisibis. All this turmoil notwithstanding, Henana continued to remain the headmaster, although in protest against his views about 300 students and several teachers left the school. As headmaster Henana, for the first time since Narsai, turned his attention to the school’s statutes. In 590, he amended them with 21 new chapters, and this new section was called “Other Canons of the Same School.” It is noteworthy that Henana’s name, and, most importantly, praise for him, were preserved in the afterword to the amended statutes, which proves once again that despite all accusations of the deviation from the official doctrine of the Church, Henana of Adiabene continued to command respect and authority. Unlike the “School of Persians,” which had much in common with ancient and Hellenistic schools and Jewish yeshivas, grouped around a prominent philosopher or scholar, the School of Nisibis with its structure, the organization of educational process, the daily life of students, and the role and status in the city resembled a medieval European university. It was a self-governing community, or “assembly” (knushya), consisting of teachers and students, whose numbers some years reached a thousand. The school compound included buildings with auditoria, dormitories for students and teachers, a library, a scriptorium, a hospital, baths, and other facilities. The school was a legal entity with the right of ownership; it owned land and entire villages, which generated considerable income. Like monasteries, the School of Nisibis received substantial donations from private individuals. According to the statutes, the school was headed by a headmaster, called respectfully Rabban (“our teacher”). He was in charge of teaching and research. Administrative and economic issues were supervised by a superintendent (rabbayta), who was elected by the annual assembly and also acted as the librarian and supervisor over the students. The hospital—the xenodocheion—was headed by a xenodarch, whose duties also included providing hospitality to visitors. Student life was strictly regulated by the statutes on the basis of communal life and mutual assistance. On arrival, the new students were briefed by the rabbayta, who informed them that, for example, bedtime and wake up hours were strictly fixed, that classes could be missed only in case of emergency, that care for a sick student was the responsibility of his roommates, and so on. Students were not allowed to have parties, to live outside the school compound, to visit the city without



a good reason, to visit the houses of the residents of Nisibis, to have relations with women, to cut hair too close to the skin or grow it too long. There were severe punishments, up to exclusion from the school and banishment from the city, for damage or theft of manuscripts. It was also forbidden for the students to visit the “land of the Romans,” i.e., the Byzantine Empire, out of fear that the young minds could easily succumb to Chalcedonian or Miaphysite influences. The school was engaged in three main areas of activity—teaching, research, and translations, the latter being almost compulsory for both teachers and students. Training lasted three years, and each school year was divided into summer and winter semesters. During their free time, students were allowed to engage in crafts, trade, agriculture, and private tutoring to earn their livelihoods. Some types of income, such as usury, were banned. The curriculum of the School of Nisibis was dominated by exegesis, as was the case in the “School of Persians.” Accordingly, the most respected professor was the teacher of that particular subject, the exegete (mefashkana). Very often, in both the “School of Persians” and the School of Nisibis, the exegete and the headmaster was the same person. Much attention was paid to philosophy and logic, subjects closely related but subordinate to exegesis, taught by badoka. The main manuals were Aristotle’s “Organon” and Porphyry’s “Isagoge.” A considerable place in the school was reserved for philological subjects— grammar and reading (including recitation), taught by the makreyana (“reader”), and rhetoric, taught by the mehagyana (“rhetorician”). The safra (“scribe”) taught calligraphy classes. At the turn of the 5th and 6th centuries, grammar and reading in the school were taught by the first known Syriac linguist, Yawsep Huzaya, who is credited with the creation of the Nestorian system of vocalization and the Syriac translation of Dionysius Thrax’s “Art of Grammar.” The School of Nisibis lasted until the 8th century, although its last decades were a period of steady decline. The main reason for that was the Arab conquest under the banner of Islam, which put an end to Sasanian Iran and laid the foundation of a new, Arabic-Muslim system of education. Under the Arabs, another institution of higher education run mostly by Syriacs, the medical school of Gundishapur, lasted a little longer (this school will be discussed in subsequent chapters). A higher Syriac theological school also existed in Seleucia-Ctesiphon, but almost nothing is known about it except that the Catholicos Aba I (540–552) might have been one of the founders. 15.6. The monasteries as institutions of higher education. The rich educational traditions of the Syriacs were also preserved in numerous monasteries scattered throughout the Middle East. In the context of the Syriac educational system, they deserve special mention. Virtually every major Syriac monastery to one degree or another functioned as a center of education. Very often a monastery would be specialized in a concrete branch of knowledge or would train personnel for a particular purpose. For example, a monastery on the island of Kharg in the Persian Gulf trained missionaries for the Church of the East. However, a more prominent education center was the theological school at the “Great Monastery” on Mount Izla, northeast of Nisibis (not to



be confused with the Mar Awgen monastery, also located on the same mountain). Abraham of Kashkar founded this school in the 6th century, and it became a major center of theological thought during the time of the School of Nisibis. After the closure of the School of Nisibis it remained the main theological center of the Church of the East. The students and teachers who walked out of the School of Nisibis in protest against Henana’s innovations relocated to another theological school at the Beth Sahde monastery in Nisibis. For Miaphysites, who had no high schools like the School of Nisibis, the monasteries played an even more important role. The most renowned was the Qenneshre (“Eagles’ Nest”) monastery located on the left bank of the Euphrates, halfway between Aleppo and Edessa (not to be confused with the town of Qenneshrin southwest of Aleppo). The monastery was founded around 530 by Yohannan bar Aphtonia (†537), the leader of Miaphysite monks of the St. Thomas monastery near Antioch who had fled persecution by Byzantine Emperor Justin I (518–527). One of the leading centers of Syriac Miaphysitism, the Qenneshre monastery was also a prestigious Syriac institution for studying the Greek language and a conduit of Byzantine influence on the Syriacs. Many prominent representatives of Syriac culture were educated in the monastery at different times, including Severos Sebokht, who later in life became the Abbot of the monastery; Toma of Harkel, the editor of the Syriac translation of the New Testament; the renowned philologist Jacob of Edessa; and the historian Dionysios of Tel Mahre. Some of the monks and students of the monastery, such as Dionysios of Tel Mahre, later became Patriarchs of the Syriac Orthodox Church. During his Patriarchate (817–845) the monastery was renovated and continued to function until the beginning of the 13th century. Qarqafta (“Scull”) near Reshayna was another important Miaphysite monastery; it was the major Syriac center for philological studies (more on Qarqafta in subsequent chapters).


SYRIAC THEOLOGY AND PHILOSOPHY 16.1. Early Syriac theology and exegesis. The fragmentation of Syriacs into several denominations became a powerful stimulus for the development of their theological thought. Almost all major Syriac authors addressed matters of theology, such as exegesis (interpretation of Holy Scriptures), apologetics (defense of Christianity against other religions), homiletics (the theory and practice of delivering homilies and sermons), Christology (the study of the nature of Jesus Christ), and others. In their entirety, the theological and philosophical writings of Syriacs make up the extensive body of Syriac patristics, the literature created by Church Fathers on various issues of Christian doctrine and philosophy. Due to the importance of Syriac patristic literature, the Syriac language is studied today not only at Oriental Studies departments but also at many theological departments and seminaries. The first in the row of Syriac Church Fathers is the most significant early Syriac author, Ephrem the Syrian (306–373). His commentary on the Diatessaron is fully preserved only in the Armenian translation; this is the main source giving some idea of Tatian’s creation. Ephrem also authored commentaries on the Old Testament books of Genesis and Exodus, extant in the Syriac original, and commentaries on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of St. Paul, extant in the Armenian translation. Due to Ephrem’s high authority, many anonymous biblical commentaries, especially those preserved only in Armenian translations, were attributed to him. Ephrem did not experience any significant Greek influence and is considered the bearer of Aramean and common Semitic religious and philosophical traditions. It is not by coincidence that his commentaries display a certain connection to the traditions of Jewish exegesis. Starting from the 5th century, the influence of Byzantine and common Christian religious and philosophical thought on Syriacs significantly increased, which was inevitably reflected in their commentaries on the Scriptures. As was the case with Christology, in the field of biblical exegesis there were two approaches, Antiochian and Alexandrian. The former advocated the principle of critical historicism, whereas the latter was largely based on the principle of allegorical interpretation. This, however, does not mean that it was impossible to combine the differing Antiochian and Alexandrian positions on Christology and exegesis. The main representative of the 277



Antiochian orientation, who had the greatest influence on Syriacs, was Theodore of Mopsuestia. Almost all Greek originals of his works on Christology and biblical commentaries, such as the “Commentary on the Gospel of John” and the “Commentary on the Psalms,” are lost. These writings survive only in Syriac versions, which formed the basis of curricula of higher schools of Edessa and Nisibis. Theodore’s schoolmate, John Chrysostom (347–407), was another major Antiochian author whose works were translated into Syriac and left an impact on Syriac exegetes.

Theology and exegesis of the Syriac Miaphysites. Jacob of Serugh (451–521) was a prominent representative of Antiochian Syriac exegesis. He was inclined to it while studying at the “School of Persians.” He was primarily a religious poet, and Syriac Miaphysites considered him to be Ephrem’s successor. Many of Jacob of Serugh’s memre written on the Old Testament themes are, in fact, biblical commentaries. It is noteworthy that in matters of Christology Jacob of Serugh, who was inclined toward Miaphysitism, did not share the approach of the school of Antioch. Jacob’s views on Christology and exegesis were largely shared by Philoxenos of Mabbug (†523). Educated at Edessa, he was influenced by Antiochian traditions of exegesis, although, being a more pronounced supporter of Miaphysitism, he did not share the Antiochian approach to Christology. His works on exegesis include commentaries on the Prologue to the Gospel of John as well as on the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Next in importance among the Miaphysite exegetes was Jacob of Edessa (†708). His main area of interest was philology. His work on the revision of the Old Testament books was at the junction of philology and exegesis. In addition, Jacob was a Scholiast, author of scholia, brief interpretations and explanations of certain passages of the Scriptures, written in the margins or between the lines of manuscripts. However, Jacob of Edessa’s most significant work of exegesis was the “Commentary on Hexameron (Six Days of Creation),” which was completed by Jacob of Edessa’s disciple, Giwargi (†724). Giwargi himself was associated with one of the major Jacobite intellectual centers, the Qenneshre monastery, and because of his missionary activity among the Arabs, he was nicknamed “Bishop of the Arabs.” He was quite a prolific author, known mainly for his epistles, which deal with the matters of exegesis, dogma, and liturgy as well as Church history (one of the epistles contains an account of acts by Gregory the Illuminator of Armenia). His commentary on the liturgy of the Syriac Orthodox Church was also popular. The largest Jacobite exegete of the 9th century was bishop Moshe bar Kepha (†903), who introduced the term “Peshitta.” He wrote commentaries on the Six Days of Creation, the Psalms, all Gospels except Mark, the Acts, and Paul’s Epistles. He is also known for his works in the fields of liturgy and Church canon. Many of his works, including the Bible commentaries, have not survived, but they are known due to their mention by other authors. One of the writings by Moshe bar Kepha, “Commentary on Paradise,” in 1596 was published in Europe in Latin translation. The next major exegete among the Jacobites who appeared only in the 12th century was Dionysios bar Salibi, Bishop of Amid (†1171). The greatest Syriac historian Michael the Syrian called him the “star of his generation.” Dionysios bar Salibi was the first among the Syriacs to write commentaries on almost all the Scriptures.



He was also engaged in polemics with the Armenians, which found expression in his treatise “Against Armenians” and was involved in the Armenian-Syriac theological discords of the 12th century. He wrote similar treatises against Nestorians, Melkites, Muslims (the most extensive anti-Muslim piece in Syriac), and Jews as well as three anaphoras. The last notable Jacobite exegete was Grigorios bar Ebraya. The rich heritage of this outstanding polymath includes the treatise “Vault of Mysteries,” which is a commentary on the entire Bible, based primarily on the exegesis of Dionysios bar Salibi.

16.2. Theology and exegesis of the Nestorians. The first major exegete among the Nestorians was Narsai (†501), the graduate, lecturer, and eventual headmaster of the “School of Persians.” He was the actual founder of the School of Nisibis, where for many years he was the head lecturer in exegesis, which attests to his authority in this area. He was also a religious poet; his interpretations of the Holy Scriptures are mostly in the form of memre, of which only 81 are extant. This is something he had in common with Jacob of Serugh, with whom he competed for the honor to be named the poetic successor to Ephrem the Syrian. The next prominent exegete was the headmaster of the School of Nisibis, Henana of Adiabene, known for his attempt to replace in the school’s curriculum the commentaries by Theodore of Mopsuestia with those of John Chrysostom. None of his writings are extant, but several quotes are preserved in the works of other authors. The first East Syriac exegete in the full sense of the word was probably Theodoros bar Koni, who lived in the 8th century. His only extant work is the “Book of Scholia,” which consists of 11 memre, written in the form of questions and answers—the dialogue form popular among East Syriacs. The first five are commentaries on the books of the Old Testament, and the last four are on the books of the New Testament. The tenth is addressed to Muslims and is written in defense of Christianity. The eleventh memra is a refutation of heresies, and it contains valuable quotes from the writings attributed to Mani. A similar commentary in structure on the Bible, in the form of questions and answers entitled “Selected Issues,” was written by Catholicos Isho bar Nun (823–828), a former monk and the lecturer in exegesis at the “Great Monastery” on Mount Izla. The most prolific interpreter of the Scriptures among the Nestorians was Ishodad of Merv (9th century), Bishop of Hadassah, who wrote extensive commentaries on the 22 books of the New Testament and on some books of the Old Testament. It is interesting that he relied not only on the works of those who followed the traditions of exegesis of Theodore of Mopsuestia but also on the works of major Miaphysite interpreters, such as Severus of Antioch and Cyril of Alexandria. In his writings, he also used biblical quotations from the Syro-Hexapla of Pawlos of Tella. Among the leading Nestorian exegetes a priest and physician Abdullah ibn alTayyib (†1043) has to be mentioned. He wrote in Arabic the “Paradise of Christianity”, which was a commentary on all the books of the Bible, fully preserved in two manuscripts of the Vatican Library. According to the German orientalist Georg Graf (1875–1955), who was a major authority on Arabic Christian literature, this is



the most comprehensive commentary on the Holy Scriptures written in Arabic. “Paradise of Christianity,” which is to a large extent based on the writings of Theodoros bar Koni, Isho bar Nun, Ishodad of Merv, and other East Syriac authors, was the main source through which the Arabs, Copts, and Ethiopians were acquainted with the traditions of exegesis descending from Theodore of Mopsuestia. There is evidence that Abdullah ibn al-Tayyib was also the author of the Arabic version of the Diatessaron. A significant example of East Syriac theology is the anonymous “Garden of Delights,” a compilation of commentaries on the lectionaries of the Church of the East created in the 11th–12th centuries. The value of the compilation is in extensive fragments of the commentaries in the form of memre by Catholicos Aba II (741– 751), which contain some of the earliest examples of Syriac polemics and apologetics in defense of Christianity against Islam, as well as in the fragments of commentaries by the physician and professor of the School of Gundishapur, Sharbokht bar Msargis (9th century), who viewed theological issues through the prism of medicine. The last among the East Syriac theologians to be mentioned is Solomon, Bishop of Basra (12th–13th century), a native of the city of Khlat in Western Armenia. His most famous work, “The Book of the Bee,” consists of 60 sections on events and phenomena described in the Bible and on the role of Divine Providence in them.

16.3. The Syriac “monastic” literature. An important component of Syriaс patristics, especially East Syriac, was “monastic” literature, which was composed of writings addressed to monks covering issues of spiritual perfection and asceticism. The anonymous “Book of Steps,” written in the 4th century, is the earliest example of Syriac “monastic” literature. The first known author in this genre was Yohannan the Hermit (Yohannan of Apamea), who lived in the first half of the 5th century. In his writings, he developed a system of “spiritual ascension,” highlighting the main phases of the perfection of the body, soul, and spirit. The denomination to which Yohannan belonged is not clear, and he, apparently, managed to maintain neutrality between the competing Syriac fractions, and therefore made a significant impact on both the Miaphysites and Nestorians. The next major representative of the monastic trend in Syriac literature was Shubhalmaran, Metropolitan of Beth Garmai. His prime coincided with the reign of the Sasanian King Khosrow II Parvez (590–628), and he was one of those Nestorians who tried to counterbalance the increasing influence of Eastern Jacobites at the royal court. Shubhalmaran’s most important work is “The Book of Gifts,” which is dedicated to the virtues of asceticism and to a certain extent echoes the works of Aphrahat. Asceticism was the dominant theme in the writings of another Nestorian author, monk Dadisho Qatraya, who lived in the 7th century. He was particularly known for the treatise “Retreat of the Seven Weeks” and commentaries on the sayings attributed to the “Desert Fathers,” Egyptian hermits of the Nitrian Desert. The monk and hermit Yohannan of Dalyatha (690–780), also known as Yohannan Saba (the “Elder”), acquired fame for his letters covering such topics as self-denial, abstinence, fasting, prayer, contemplation, resistance to evil spirits, spiritual rebirth, reli-



ance on divine forces and so on. Because some of Yohannan’s ideas called up associations with Messalianism and similar “heresies”, the Church of the East posthumously condemned his writings but later he was cleared of all accusations. The most renowned author of monastic literature was Isaac of Nineveh, better known as Isaac the Syrian, who lived in the 7th century during the transition period between the Sasanian Iran and the Arab Caliphate. He was born in Beth Qatraye, in the east of the Arabian Peninsula. Together with his brother, he joined Mar Mattay monastery and later Catholicos Giwargis (661–680) appointed him Bishop of Nineveh. However, after five months Isaac voluntarily left this position to pursue an ascetic life in the Rabban Shabur monastery in Iranian Khuzestan, where he lived until his death. According to a medieval Syriac source, the literary heritage of Isaac the Syrian consisted of seven volumes, but only a part of this extensive body survives. Of his extant works, the short sermons addressed to monks, known as the “Monastic Rule,” were especially popular. The main themes of these sermons are the issues relating to the spiritual path and spiritual deeds of monks, acquisition of the Holy Spirit, the prayerful contemplation of God, sin and repentance, and so on. In the 9th century, in the Palestinian monastery of Mar Saba, the writings of Isaac the Syrian were translated into Greek. From the Greek versions, translations into other languages were made, including Latin, Arabic, and Old Church Slavonic. Isaac the Syrian was very popular among Eastern Christians, including Orthodox theologians, who very often quoted him. To this day he remains one of the most popular and widely read Christian authors. Another prominent representative of East Syriac monastic literature was Shemon d-Taybutheh, who was a younger contemporary of Isaac the Syrian and was associated with the Rabban Shabur monastery. It is believed that prior to his monastic vows he was a physician named Luke. His most important work is the “Book of Grace,” which contains instructions for the monks imbued with mystical spirit. Apart from the Nestorians, the “Book of Grace” was also popular among Jacobites and Melkites; virtually all extant manuscripts of this work are of West Syriac origin. It is noteworthy that in the Middle Ages, the “Book of Grace” was attributed to Isaac the Syrian, and until the 1980s modern scholars shared this opinion. Shemon’s other popular works include a memra on a monk’s cell and another mystical composition on the art of healing.

16.4. Syriac philosophy. The first representative of Syriac philosophy was Bardaisan, whose views combined elements of Christianity, Gnosticism, and paganism. Around the 5th century, the Syriacs started translating Greek-language philosophical works. Quite often, the translators would write their own commentaries on these works. Thus, the Syriac philosophy as a whole took a form of commentaries of the Greek, mainly Aristotelian philosophy and did not produce any significant independent philosophical concepts of its own. It should be noted that Syriacs, in general, followed the principle formulated in medieval Europe, Philosophia est ancilla theologiae, or “Philosophy is the servant of theology,” and their philosophical utterances were usually interwoven with the works on exegesis, homiletics, apologetics, and other theological disciplines. Nevertheless, there were treatises that can be character-



ized as purely philosophical, such as the commentaries on Aristotle’s “Organon” and Porphyry’s “Isagoge” by Proba, who actually became the first Syriac philosopher since Bardaisan. Sergios of Reshayna, in addition to his translations of Greek philosophical writings, wrote several works of his own. One of them was a treatise on logic (in long and short redactions), in which he used the commentaries on Aristotle’s “Categories” by his Alexandrian mentor, John Philoponus. Grigorios bar Ebraya also wrote several philosophical works, proving himself a peripatetic and a staunch follower of Avicenna. The most significant of these works is “Book of the Cream of Wisdom,” a voluminous, near thousand-page work that imitated the “Book of Healing” by Avicenna and some other Arabic books. This work is divided into two volumes: the first contains nine “books” dedicated to Porphyry’s “Isagoge,” six treatises of Aristotle’s “Organon,” and Aristotle’s “Poetics” and “Rhetoric.” The second volume is divided into two parts. The first contains eight “books” on natural philosophy (physics, botany, zoology, mineralogy, etc.). The second part includes two “books” on metaphysics and three on “practical philosophy” (ethics, economics, politics). Thus, the “Book of the Cream of Wisdom” in total contains 22 “books.” More modest in volume is the “Commerce of Commerces,” which consists of three parts on logic, natural philosophy, and metaphysics. This work is sometimes viewed as a short version of the “Book of the Cream of Wisdom,” but it also demonstrates a strong influence of the “Intentions of the Philosophers” by Persian Muslim philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058–1111), which outlines the philosophical views of Avicenna. Even more concise is the philosophical work by Grigorios bar Ebraya entitled “Book of the Utterances of Wisdom,” consisting of four sections on logic (8 chapters), on natural sciences (32 chapters), on metaphysics (34 chapters), and on dialectics (30 chapters). Finally, Bar Ebraya wrote a brief, forty-page treatise on logic entitled “The Book of the Pupils of the Eye.” Seven chapters of this work address Porphyry’s “Isagoge” and the main Aristotelian treatises on logic. Among the Nestorians, the first major philosopher was Aba I, who prior to his election to the Catholicosate of the Church of the East visited Edessa, Palestine, Egypt, and Constantinople, engaging in debates with local Christian theologians and pagan philosophers. Another noteworthy East Syriac philosopher was the Persianborn Pawlos of Dershahr, Bishop of Nisibis, better known as Pawlos the Persian (†571). Byzantine sources report that he participated in a dispute with Manichean Photinus in Constantinople. However, scholars have expressed doubt that Pawlos the Persian did indeed participate in that debate. According to the Syriac anonymous “Chronicle of Siirt” (in Arabic), which contains information on the Catholicoi of the Church of the East and events of ecclesiastical and secular history from the middle of 3rd to the middle of the 7th centuries, at the end of his life Pawlos converted to Zoroastrianism, although this report has been questioned. Pawlos the Persian wrote several works on philosophy. Particularly popular was his “Treatise on the Logic of the Philosopher Aristotle,” written for the Sasanian King Khosrow I Anushirwan (531–579). The treatise contains a general introduction to philosophy and then presents in detail Aristotle’s concept of logic. Also



belonging to Pawlos is a short commentary in Pahlavi on Aristotle’s “On Interpretation,” a part of “Organon.” Severos Sebokht translated this work into Syriac in the 7th century.

16.5. “Corpus Areopagiticum” and the Syriacs. The interest of the Syriacs was not limited solely to the philosophy and logic of Aristotle. For a long time, their minds were agitated by various Gnostic and Manichean ideas that attracted the criticism of the supporters of the mainstream philosophical and religious doctrines. In the 6th century, many Syriacs were attracted to philosophical concepts of mystical, pantheistic nature, which sought to reconcile Christianity with Neo-Platonism and shared common features with Origenism, also popular among Syriacs. The fundamental writing of this philosophical trend was “Corpus Areopagiticum,” a collection of four treatises (“Divine Names,” “Mystical theology,” “Celestial Hierarchy,” and “Ecclesiastical Hierarchy”) attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, an Athenian who was converted to Christianity by Apostle Paul and became the first bishop of Athens. Since there is no doubt that the “Corpus Areopagiticum” was composed at the turn of the 5th and 6th centuries, its unknown author is conventionally called “Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.” Despite its mystical nature, the work of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite became increasingly popular among advocates of official Christianity. It was incorporated into its body and affected the views of many Christian thinkers in the East and West, including philosophers and theologians of the 13th century, such as Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure. “Corpus Areopagiticum” was also popular among Syriacs, both Western and Eastern. It was translated into Syriac by Sergios of Reshayna, despite his being a devoted Aristotelian. He also wrote a commentary on the “Corpus” in the form of scholia. Other Syriac authors who wrote commentaries on the “Corpus Areopagiticum” include Yawsep Huzaya (5th–6th century), layman Phocas bar Sergios of Edessa (first half of the 8th century), Iwannis (John) of Dara (first half of the 9th century), and Theodore bar Zarudi (8th–9th century).

Stephanos bar Sudayli. The most notable follower of the mystical teachings of Pseudo-Dionysius among Syriacs was Stephanos bar Sudayli, who lived in the 6th century. A native of Edessa, he joined a Miaphysite monastery in his youth and then moved to Egypt, where he became influenced by mystical and pantheistic teachings widespread in that country. Upon his return to Edessa, Stephanos bar Sudayli attempted to preach his teaching, which was, in essence, an extreme pantheism, and apparently attracted some disciples and followers. Stephanos bar Sudayli was well known among Syriacs and both Jacob of Serugh and Philoxenos of Mabbug corresponded with him. Philoxenos also mentions Stephanos bar Sudayli in his epistles. Nevertheless, because of its pantheistic views, Stephanos bar Sudayli eventually had to leave Edessa and settle in the more tolerant Palestine, in a monastery in the vicinity of Jerusalem known for its commitment to Origenism. He expounded his doctrine in the “Book of Hierotheos,” named after the person whom Pseudo-Dionysius calls his teacher and mentor. In this book, which displays the influence of the main ideologist of the Christian mysticism, Evagrius of Pontus, Stephanos bar Sudayli describes the mystical visions he received



on the way to the Creator through the heavenly spheres and expresses the idea of reuniting all beings with God at the end of time. Despite its pantheistic nature, the book for a long time enjoyed popularity among West Syriacs and was commented on at least twice. According to Philoxenos of Mabbug, Stephanos bar Sudayli authored other books, commentaries, and epistles that have not survived.

16.6. Hesychasm among Syriacs. Another philosophical and religious mystical doctrine with numerous adherents among Syriacs was hesychasm (from Greek ἡσυχία, “peace of mind,” “silence”), which is a theory and practice of prayerful introspection with the aim of achieving the contemplation of God. To achieve inner enlightenment and contemplation of divine light, hesychasm called for zealous and deep prayer, along with abandonment of sensual impressions and “excessive” mental activity. Because of that, it was often associated with reclusion and asceticism popular among Syriacs. Hesychasm was closely connected to the doctrine of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and shared common features with Messalianism, which at one time gained a strong foothold among Syriacs. Unlike Messalianism, however, hesychasm was not considered heretical and was officially recognized by the Byzantine Church. Hesychast elements are inherent in the writings of many Syriac Church Fathers, including Ephrem the Syrian, Aphrahat, and Yohannan the Hermit, as well as Nestorian “monastic” authors of the 7th–8th centuries, such as Isaac the Syrian, Dadisho Qatraya, Shemon d-Taybutheh, Yohannan bar Penkaye, Yohannan of Dalyatha, and others.


WORLDLY SCIENCES AND SECULAR LITERATURE OF THE SYRIACS 17.1. Syriac astronomy, cosmography, and mathematics. The School of Nisibis, the most significant Syriac institution of higher education, was not specialized exclusively in theological sciences. It also provided courses in history, geography, and natural sciences, which, as a rule, were incorporated into theological disciplines. As for exact sciences, which Syriacs called “worldly” or even “pagan,” opposing them to theological disciplines, they were generally not studied at the “School of Persians,” nor in the School of Nisibis. The nineteenth rule introduced by Henana of Adiabene into the statutes of the School of Nisibis strongly prohibited reading “the books of the worldly arts with the holy books in the same place.” Thus, the secular sciences were mainly developed outside the Syriac high schools. Syriacs had good knowledge of mathematics as well as astronomy, a discipline for which the Mesopotamian Chaldo-Arameans have traditionally been famous since ancient times. Bardaisan proved himself to be a major guardian of Mesopotamian traditions in astronomy, cosmography, and astrology, but he was also the first Syriac scholar acquainted with Greek astronomy, and he managed to create a kind of symbiosis of these two different systems. After Bardaisan, the renowned physician and translator Sergios of Reshayna (†536) distinguished himself in astronomy. He wrote treatises “On the Causes of Cosmos,” “On the Moon,” and “On the Motion of the Sun,” based on Aristotle’s works “On the Cosmos” and “On the Heaven,” and on some works by Galen. Accordingly, he shared Aristotle’s views on geocentrism, the spherical form of the universe, and the circular motion of heaven, resulting in the movement of the seven planets. He also translated several astronomical treatises from Greek into Syriac. Sergios of Reshayna was also interested in astrology and wrote a short treatise on the Zodiac in accordance with Bardaisan’s teachings. In one of his writings, Sergios of Reshayna mentions his treatise on physics but this work has not survived. In the field of astronomy and cosmography, Sergios of Reshayna was nevertheless surpassed by another Miaphysite, Severos Sebokht (†667). Sebokht was educat285



ed at the Qenneshre monastery, the major Jacobite institution of higher education, and later in life became the Abbot of that monastery. His most important work is dedicated to the use of the astrolabe, an astronomical angular device widely used in the Middle Ages for determining geographical coordinates. A detailed description of the device and precise instructions for its use, as well as his familiarity with Ptolemy’s astronomical tables, leave no doubt that Sebokht was engaged in practical astronomy. It is worth noting that the Europeans got the astrolabe from the Arabs, who in turn obtained it from the Syriacs. Other known astronomical treatises by Severos Sebokht deal with the constellations and the “eclipse of the celestial bodies.” Besides astronomy, Severos Sebokht was interested in mathematics. In one of his works he specifically mentions the Indian digit system, which included zero; it is believed that this is the earliest mention of this system outside of India. Interestingly, in the same work Sebokht reproves the Greeks for their claims to a monopoly in the sciences and reminds that Ptolemy received his knowledge from the Babylonians, whom Sebokht identified with Syriacs. Among the Nestorians, the first to display interest in cosmography was Catholicos Aba I (540–552), who was opposed to the idea of Earth’s sphericity. Aba’s cosmographical views influenced the Byzantine merchant and traveler of the 6th century, Cosmas Indicopleustes, who developed them in his famous theological and cosmographical essay, “Christian topography.”

Fig. 88. A sketch from a medieval Syriac manuscript with symbols and names of the signs of the Zodiac and the known planets, as well as the list of metals associated with each planet.



In the era of Arab domination, the most notable scholar in the field of exact sciences was a pagan from Harran, Thabit ibn Qurra (836–901). As a young man, he settled in Baghdad and started translating the works of ancient authors, including Archimedes, Euclid, and Ptolemy, into Arabic. He also wrote his own treatises on philosophy, medicine, mathematics, and mechanics (16 in Syriac and about 150 in Arabic). Thabit ibn Qurra made significant contributions in mathematics, proposing several theories and ideas about non-Euclidean geometry, spherical trigonometry, integral calculus, and geometric algebra. He is considered the founder of the theory of “amicable numbers.” Thabit ibn Qurra is most renowned for his works and translations in the field of astronomy and astrology. He was the bearer of the ancient astrological traditions and knowledge of Mesopotamia. His significant astrological works include “An assembly of Ptolemy’s sayings on the subdivision of inhabited parts of earth by the signs of the Zodiac and the planets,” “Book on the tracks that appear on the Moon during eclipses, and their meaning,” “Book on the art of stargazing,” and “Briefly about the science of stars.” His works on astronomy include the interpretation of Ptolemy’s “Almagest” as well as the treatise “On the motion of the eighth sphere,” which presents an original theory on the precession, or the change in the orientation of the rotational axis of a rotating body under the influence of external factors. Grigorios bar Ebraya also showed an interest in the exact sciences. It is evident from his writings that he was familiar with Ptolemy’s “Almagest” and Euclid’s “Elements” and he apparently wrote commentaries on these works. His library included manuscripts with Arabic translations of the works by Archimedes, Euclid, Theodosius of Bithynia, Autolycus, and other Greek authors. Bar Ebraya was very interested in astronomy and maintained contacts with the observatory of the Persian scholar Nasir al-Din al-Tusi in Maragha. Astronomy is the subject of his treatise “The ascent of the mind,” which is influenced by the works of al-Tusi. The treatise consists of two parts, the first of which (8 chapters) is dedicated to astronomy itself, and the second (7 chapters), to geography. Besides, Bar Ebraya produced astronomical tables “for beginners,” which were intended to determine the dates of religious holidays (as previously mentioned, Grigorios bar Ebraya held the position of Maphrian of the East, the spiritual leader of Eastern Jacobites). 17.2. The Syriac philological thought. Among the secular sciences, which were developed among the Syriacs, an important place was occupied by philology. The Syriacs developed their philological thought out of practical needs for vocalization, punctuation, and accentuation of their consonantal script, and philology initially served primarily that particular area. Further development of Syriac philology was influenced by Greek writings in this area, most notably by “The Art of Grammar” by Dionysius Thrax as well as “Organon,” “Rhetoric,” and especially “Poetics” of Aristotle, with many chapters dedicated to grammar. The earliest known Syriac grammarian was a native of Khuzestan, Nestorian Yawsep Huzaya (6th century), who taught philological disciplines at the School of Nisibis. His main area of interest was vocalization, and he is credited with the creation of the Nestorian vocalization system. Besides, Yawsep Huzaya is believed to be the author of the anonymous Syriac translation of Dionysius Thrax’s “The Art of



Grammar,” because he interpreted the grammatical rules of the Syriac language according to the canons of Dionysius Thrax, despite fundamental differences between the grammatical structures of the Greek and Syriac languages. Jacob of Edessa (†708) was another outstanding representative of Syriac linguistics. A native of Antioch, he was educated at the Qenneshre monastery headed at that time by Severos Sebokht and then continued his education in Alexandria. For several years in the 680s he was the Bishop of Edessa, then voluntarily left this position and spent the rest of his life in several Miaphysite monasteries. He authored liturgical, canonical, philosophical, theological, and historical works and numerous translations, including the revision of the Syriac translation of the Old Testament. Most notable, however, are his works on philology (spelling, vocalization, and punctuation), most of which are written in the form of epistles. He also wrote a partially preserved grammar of the Syriac language in which he tried to reform the Syriac script by introducing letters for vowels, but this innovation was not accepted. Jacob of Edessa was one of the few Syriac philologists who knew Hebrew and one of very few Syriacs who believed that the original language of mankind was Hebrew, not Aramaic. He was also one of those authors who described their language as “Syriac, that is Aramaic” (suryaya awket aramaya). Fluent in Greek and Hellenist by culture, Jacob of Edessa was nevertheless a prominent advocate of Syriac-Aramean identity. However, like the vast majority of Syriac authors, he does not display any acquaintance with contemporary non-Syriac Aramaic literature, such as Samaritan or Mandean writings; for him, Aramaic-language literature was limited only to Syriac literature. At the same time, he attributes to Syriac literature the works of Greeklanguage authors, such as John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Severus of Antioch, which were well known to his compatriots in Syriac translation. The same applies to the Syriac translation of the Bible, which was perceived by the Syriacs as an integral part of their own literature. The philological traditions of Jacob of Edessa were further developed in the 8th–9th centuries in the Miaphysite Qarqafta (“Skull”) monastery, in the vicinity of Reshayna. Scholar monks worked here on the clarification and codification of Syriac spelling, vocalization, and pronunciation. They also compiled collections of normative texts and glosses based on the Peshitta and Harklean versions of the Old and New Testaments as well as the Greek patristic literature. In some cases, these collections included grammatical writings of Jacob of Edessa. The texts were supplied by a complete set of vocalization and additional diacritical marks, such as, for example, kushaya and rukakha, which distinguish between occlusive and spirant pronunciation of a consonant. More than a dozen manuscripts containing such collections have been preserved. The Syriacs called the standards elaborated at Qarqafta mashlemanutha qarqefayta (“the Qarqafta tradition”), or simply mashlemanutha. French scholar and abbot Jean-Pierre Paulin Martin (1840–1890) coined the term “Syriac Masorah” which, despite the differences between the Jewish Masorah and Syriac mashlemanutha, became very common. According to Grigorios bar Ebraya, the Western system of vocalization with five main marks imitating Greek letters took final shape at Qarqafta on the basis of Jacob of Edessa’s proposals. “Masorah” also existed among East Syriacs, but was based only on biblical texts.



The era of Arab domination, in general, was a period of growth for Syriac philological science. After the Jews, the Syriac system of vocalization was imitated by the Arabs. However, it was philology in which the Arabs surpassed the Syriacs most of all. This was largely due to the Arabic language’s more complex grammatical structure and its need for more sophisticated mental applications for its description and interpretation. Impressive achievements of Arabs in philology provided Jews and Syriacs models for imitation. The Syriacs eventually departed from the tradition of describing their language in accordance with the canons of the Greek grammar and successfully adapted the best Arabic grammars to Syriac, something which was facilitated by the close kinship of both Semitic languages. The first to do so was Eliya of Tirhan (†1049), who during the last twenty years of his life was the Catholicos of the Church of the East. In the 12th–13th centuries, grammatical treatises were written by Ishoyahb bar Malkon, Metropolitan of Nisibis, by monk Yohannan bar Zobi, and by his Miaphysite disciple Jacob (Severos) bar Shakko (†1241), the Abbot of the Mar Mattay monastery. The last major Syriac grammarian was Grigorios bar Ebraya. He wrote a grammatical treatise “The Book of Rays,” using as a model the Arabic grammar by Zamakhshari, which was very popular among the Syriacs. In “The Book of Rays,” Bar Ebraya attempted to summarize and synthesize the achievements of West and East Syriac philologists, from Jacob of Edessa to Eliya of Tirhan. This work retains its value to this day. The Arab period also produced the best works in Syriac lexicography, namely, the composition of dictionaries. One of the first to distinguish himself in this area was the renowned physician and translator, Nestorian Hunain ibn Ishaq (805–873), who wrote three works on Syriac lexicography (“The book of the similar words,” “Interpretation of the Greek words in Syriac,” and “Short lexicon”). Based on these works, his disciple, Isa ibn Ali al-Mutatabbib, also a physician and author of two books on medicine, compiled a dictionary in which the Syriac words were accompanied by their Arabic equivalents or explanations. Hunain ibn Ishaq also wrote at least three treatises on Syriac grammar and punctuation. The best Syriac dictionary is believed to be the one compiled in the 10th century by Abul-Hassan bar Bahlul. It combines a Syriac-Arabic dictionary and a Syriac thesaurus in which the words are explained in Syriac and Arabic. Among other sources, Bar Bahlul used the works on lexicography by Hunain ibn Ishaq and the now lost dictionary of Henanisho bar Seroshway, Bishop of Hirta. The dictionary focuses on difficult words and terminology, while many of the most commonly used Syriac words are missing. It also preserves many words from Late Aramaic dialects which are different from the corresponding forms used in Syriac. Bar Bahlul’s dictionary was widely used not only by Nestorians but also by Miaphysites, who produced a version supplemented with Armenian written in Syriac script. A SyriacArabic dictionary was also compiled by a contemporary of Eliya of Tirhan, Eliya bar Shinaya, Metropolitan of Nisibis (975–1046), who also authored a Syriac grammar. The rise of Syriac philology under Arab domination occurred not only because of the positive influence of Arab philology but also because in that period, Arabic had started to gradually oust the Aramaic dialects. This in turn negatively affected literary Syriac, which required a solid base of spoken Aramaic for its normal func-



tion. The threat of deterioration of the quality of the Syriac language, the lack of demand for its rich vocabulary, and the loss of skills of proper spelling and pronunciation forced the Syriacs to place special emphasis on the study and description of Syriac grammar and to deal with the issues of lexicography and codification of the rules of spelling and pronunciation.

17.3. The School of Gundishapur and Syriac medicine. Of all the “worldly” sciences, medicine was perhaps the one in which the Syriacs excelled most of all. The first known Syriac physicians were Bishop Bar Shabba (4th century) who was engaged in missionary activity in Central Asia, Bishop Marutha of Maypherqat (†421), and Proba, archiatrus (chief physician) of Antioch, better known as a teacher at the “School of Persians” and translator. In Sasanian Iran and in the Arab Caliphate, Syriacs were close to complete monopolization of the craft of medicine, and that despite the fact that the above-mentioned rule of Henana of Adiabene concerned first of all the books on healing, and the next, the twentieth, clearly stated that “the brothers who leave the studies and go to physicians for the sake of healing should not attend the lectures at the school.” In any case, the third largest Syriac high school, which was located in the Iranian city of Gundishapur (Beth Lapat), was specialized mostly (but not exclusively) in medicine. Initially, it appeared to be the branch of the School of Nisibis. As an independent educational institution, it emerged thanks to the Sasanian King Khosrow I Anushirwan (521–579), who has attracted to Gundishapur Greek and Syriac doctors and scholars, persecuted in the Byzantine Empire, and encouraged translation of scientific literature into Pahlavi. He also showed interest in Indian and Chinese medicine. On his behalf, the famous Persian physician Burzoy established contacts with colleagues in these countries and invited them to teach at the School of Gundishapur and translate Indian and Chinese medical treatises. 1 Nevertheless, the School owed its fame and prestige to the Syriacs who were skilled in medicine long before the rise of that institution. Training at the School of Gundishapur was mainly practical in nature, and students spent most of their time in the school’s hospital. The school reached the peak of its glory in the 7th century, becoming one of the most advanced medical centers in the world and continued to function successfully during the onset of Arab rule. Its decline began after the Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun (813–833) founded in Baghdad the “House of Wisdom,” the first Islamic university that was essentially the analog of the School of Gundishapur. By the 10th century, the school had ceased to exist. During several centuries of its existence, the School of Gundishapur produced several generations of highly qualified physicians, including whole family dynasties of doctors. Of those, special mention should be made of the Bakhtisho Nestorian Burzoy, who is often identified with Bozorgmehr, the famous vizier of Khosrow I, made the lost Pahlavi translation of “Panchatantra,” the collection of Indian animal fables. From Burzoy’s translation, a Syriac version was made in the 6th century and an Arabic one in the 9th century, widely known as “Kalila and Dimna.” 1



family, which over the 7th–11th centuries produced at least 10 prominent physicians. Members of the family, such as Jibril ibn Bakhtisho, Yuhanna ibn Bakhtisho (mentioned in the tales of “The Thousand and One Nights”), Ubaidullah ibn Bakhtisho, and others were headmasters of the School of Gundishapur, served as court physicians of the Abbasid Caliphs, and wrote and translated numerous works on medicine. Jibril ibn Bakhtisho proved himself useful to al-Mamun in organizing training and translation activity at the “House of Wisdom” and served as a link between the School of Gundishapur and the “House.” A skillful Nestorian physician, not related directly to the Bakhtisho family, was a disciple of Jibril ibn Bakhtisho, Yuhanna ibn Masawayh (777–857), a son of a physician and pharmacist. He wrote a number of medical treatises in Syriac and Arabic, the most famous of which deal with ophthalmology. He headed one of the hospitals in Baghdad and served as the personal physician to four Abbasid Caliphs. The most renowned Syriac physician of the Abbasid period was Hunain ibn Ishaq. He started studying medicine in Baghdad under Yuhanna ibn Masawayh and then continued his medical education in the Byzantine Empire. Hunain ibn Ishaq wrote dozens of medical treatises, many of which are expositions of Greek works. Of his original writings, particularly important are “The introduction to healing” and “The book of the medical issues.” The latter was translated from Arabic into Latin and enjoyed great popularity in medieval Europe, where the author was known by Latinized name Johannitius. His works on ophthalmology were also widely known. Among the medieval Arab physicians, Hunain ibn Ishaq was viewed as the personification of medical ethics. One legendary story tells how he refused, even under the threat of execution, to prepare poison on the orders of the Caliph al-Mutawakkil, whom he served as personal physician, referring to the moral principles of both his profession and faith. As mentioned in previous chapters, Hunain ibn Ishaq was one of the leading translators from Greek and Syriac into Arabic of the early Abbasid period and owes his fame mostly to his translation work. Of all Nestorian physicians known in medieval Europe, Hunain’s contemporary, Yuhanna ibn Serapion, author of the 12-volume “Big Collection” and 7volume “Small Collection,” should be recognized. Both works were translated from the lost original Syriac into Arabic, and the “Small Collection” was twice translated into Latin. Another impressive work of Syriac medical literature in terms of volume was the so-called “Syriac book of healing,” which contains expositions of Galen’s works, treatises on the influence of celestial bodies on human health, many recipes, and information about drugs. The author of the collection is unknown and one can only make assumptions on his relation to the School of Gundishapur, the Bakhtisho family, or Hunain ibn Ishaq’s circle. The last important representative of the Syriac medical thought was Grigorios bar Ebraya. Being the son of a physician, he started his education by studying medicine and practiced this craft throughout his entire life. About a quarter, namely eight, of all his extant works were dedicated to medicine and pharmacology. Almost all of them are written in Arabic, which Bar Ebraya spoke fluently. These works include an exposition of the pharmacological treatise by Arab-Spanish author, Abu Jafar al-Gafiki; a summary of the “Book of medical issues” by Hunain ibn Ishaq; “The book of the benefits for the members of the body,” also containing pharmaco-



logical information; a treatise in which an attempt was made to generalize the entire medical experience accumulated by the 13th century; and commentaries on Hippocrates’ “Aphorisms.” Apart from the first two, the rest of these works have been lost, except for the titles. Two translations made by Bar Ebraya are also lost—a treatise on drugs by the Greek physician of the 1st century AD Dioscorides and the unfinished translation of Avicenna’s “The canon of medicine.”

17.4. Alchemy and natural philosophy. Alchemy was a discipline closely related to medicine that was taught at the School of Gundishapur. The alchemical knowledge of the Syriacs went back to the Chaldeans and Mandeans, and unlike European alchemy, which was mostly preoccupied with the production of gold, it had a pronounced applied character. In addition to medicine and pharmacology, the Syriacs used alchemy in various crafts, such as for the dyeing of fabrics and glass, production of color inks, metallurgy, production of weapons, jewelry, including the manufacturing of artificial gems and false gilding, winemaking, and so on. In general, the Syriacs were very skillful in various crafts, and professional secrets and technologies were usually kept within families and transmitted from father to son. Several notable Syriac alchemical treatises survived, some of which are translations from Greek originals derived from the ancient Greeks’ alchemical knowledge. They are, in particular, Syriac versions of the works by Zosimos, a Greek alchemist of the 4th century AD, and of Byzantine alchemical compilations entitled “The doctrine of Democritus.” The Syriacs were also familiar with Egyptian alchemy. Some of the treatises contain sketches of alchemical apparatuses. It is noteworthy that under Arab domination the Syriacs often wrote their alchemical treatises and recipes in Garshuni, Arabic written in Syriac script. Apparently, this was done in order to limit the number of people who could gain access to closely guarded secrets. However, the Syriacs transmitted most of their alchemical knowledge to the Arabs, who developed and completed it and then passed it on to the Europeans. Hunain ibn Ishaq showed considerable interest in alchemy and mineralogy. He is credited, in particular, with the authorship of the Arabic “Book of Stones,” which was translated from a lost Syriac original. This book, considered a work by Aristotle in the Middle Ages, was very popular in the Middle East and Europe, where a Latin translation was in circulation. Purely practical recommendations, such as the production of dyes from minerals, coexist in the “Book of Stones” with descriptions of “magical” properties of certain stones and obviously useless alchemical recipes. Many Syriac authors, including Grigorios bar Ebraya, addressed the issues of natural philosophy and metaphysics, probably because these disciplines occupied a considerable place in Aristotle’s works. Job of Edessa (second half of the 8th–early 9th century), who was known to the Arabs as Ayyub al-Abrash al-Ruhavi, deserves special mention. It is believed that he might have been a Jacobite or Melkite who later in life joined the Church of the East. Job of Edessa was a physician, an author of three medical treatises, and a translator, who according to Hunain ibn Ishaq translated 36 treatises of Galen from Greek into Syriac. His most important work, “The book of treasures,” is dedicated to natural philosophy. It consists of six treatises that address alchemy, mineralogy, zoology, anatomy, astronomy, and other disciplines. In addition to “The book of treasures,” several other works by Job of



Edessa, judging by their titles, dealt with natural philosophy and metaphysics (“On the Soul,” “On the five senses,” “On the causes of the origin of Cosmos out of elements,” and others). Those are not extant but are mentioned by Job himself. Some of these works may have been written in Arabic.

17.5. The musical culture of the Syriacs. The musical culture of the Syriacs, particularly church hymnology, which goes back to Bardaisan and Ephrem the Syrian, was quite advanced in the early Middle Ages. The previous chapters mention the great importance that Babai of Gebilta attached to hymnology in education, introducing a unified singing system into the schools under his supervision. The Syriacs produced a collection called Beth Gazza (“Treasury”), which consisted of various hymns, each identified with a specific melody (qala, “voice”). Over the centuries, the collection has been constantly modified—the current one, used by the Syriac Orthodox Church, was published in 1913 by Bishop Yuhanon Dolabani (1885–1969). The Syriacs had no system of musical notation, so the liturgical melodies were passed down orally from one generation of clergy to the other. For this reason, most of the tunes were irretrievably lost. The surviving ones are divided into a few traditional “schools” (of Mardin, of Tur Abdin, of Tagrit, and others). It should be noted that many of the surviving Syriac liturgical chants were influenced by Arabic and Turkish music. Today, the Maronite Syriac Church assigns special importance to church hymnology.

17.6. Syriac fiction. Secular fiction occupies an insignificant place in the impressive volume of Syriac literature. A part of it consists of translations from Pahlavi, such as the tales of Sinbad and “Kalilag and Damnag.” The Syriac version of PseudoCallisthenes’ “Romance of Alexander” is also believed to be a translation from Pahlavi. The fragments on Alexander the Great in the Quran may go back to this translation. In the 4th–6th centuries, anonymous authors wrote Syriac “narratives and novels,” which, despite the abundance of fictional elements, can be to some extent regarded as hagiographic and historical. One of them is the “Tale of Euphemia and the Goth,” which takes place at the end of the 4th century. A Roman Goth soldier stationed in the widowed Sophia’s house in Edessa forces her to give him her daughter Euphemia in marriage. Sofia makes the Goth take an oath at the tombs of the Edessan martyrs Gurya, Habib, and Shamona that he would treat her daughter well. Later, it turns out that the Goth was already married and Euphemia finds herself a concubine. The Goth’s wife, in a fit of jealousy, poisons Euphemia’s newborn son, but Euphemia manages to poison her with the same potion. The wife’s relatives put Euphemia in jail, intending to execute her the next morning. Euphemia prays to Gurya, Habib, and Shamona, and waking up in the morning, finds herself at their tombs in Edessa. The Goth comes back to Edessa for Euphemia but Sophia, with the help of Eulogius, Bishop of Edessa, manages to solicit the Governor of Osrhoene Addai for a death sentence for the Goth (both Eulogius and Addai are historic figures). Another valuable example of Syriac secular literature is a series of stories about the Emperor Julian II the Apostate (360–363) created in Edessa during the period from the last third of the 4th century to the mid-6th century. The German Semitist



Theodor Nöldeke called this series the “Julian Romance.” It tells the story of Julian’s persecution of Christians, his campaign in Iran, his death at the walls of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the rise of his successor Jovian, and other real and fictional events. In contrast to the “Tale of Euphemia and the Goth” and the “Julian Romance,” the Syriac origin of which is undoubted, the “Tale of the Seven Youths of Ephesus,” very popular among Syriacs, is of Greek origin. It tells the story of seven young Christians who were walled up by Emperor Decius in a cave, where they fell asleep and woke up two centuries later during the reign of a Christian Emperor. The legend of the “seven sleepers of Ephesus” was very popular among the Eastern and Western Christians (Jacob of Serugh dedicated a whole memra to it) as well as Muslims, being briefly outlined in the Quran. Syriac secular literature also includes the so-called “Sentences of Menander,” which is a collection of various instructions and maxims of everyday nature fully preserved in a 7th-century manuscript. There is no consensus on the origin of the “Sentences.” Some believe that they were translated from a lost Greek original of the 3rd century AD, while others associate it with typologically similar Jewish Pseudepigrapha. Some even suggest that it is generally an original Syriac work created in Edessa in line with the genre of edifying conversation, popular in the ancient and medieval world. Also unclear is the connection of the “Sentences” with Menander himself, a Greek comedy playwright of 4th–3rd centuries BC, the bulk of whose literary heritage has not survived. Apart from the “Sentences of Menander,” there are other “sentences” attributed to ancient Greek philosophers as well as several redactions of the tale of Ahiqar the Sage. Hunain ibn Ishaq compiled a collection of quotations from Greek and Persian philosophers and sages in Arabic. Samples of Aramean-Syriac folklore, especially fairy tales and folk songs, survive, but they are not part of Syriac classical literature.

The “Book of laughable stories.” Some folkloric features may be traced in the most significant work of Syriac secular literature, the famous “Book of laughable stories” by Grigorios bar Ebraya. It is the most frivolous creation of this outstanding polymath scholar. Nevertheless, the work brought him more fame than all his scientific works put together. Translated into many languages, the “Book of laughable stories” is the most well-known piece of Syriac literature in the world. It consists of 727 anecdotes and aphorisms, grouped by several thematic subjects. They are usually didactic in nature and often quite daring for a person who held the second position in the hierarchy of the Syriac Orthodox Church. In the mouths of philosophers, sages, monks, physicians, artisans, jesters, thieves, ordinary city-dwellers, and villagers, Bar Ebraya placed not particularly harmless jokes and witticisms castigating greed, avarice, envy, cowardice, stupidity, and ignorance, frequently aimed at men in power. Some pieces are obviously folkloric and some resonate with the maxims of Ahiqar the Sage. Many more were created by Bar Ebraya himself who apparently tried to avoid accusations of free-thinking and following the traditions of “sentences” assigned them to different personalities of the past. For example, “Certain men asked another philosopher, ‘What thing would benefit the majority of mankind?’ And he replied, ‘The death of a wicked governor.’” Or, “A certain man saw Socrates gnawing the root of a tree, and he said to him, ‘If thou wert a servant of the king



thou wouldst have no need to eat such food as this.’ And Socrates replied, saying, ‘If thou also didst eat such food as this thou wouldst have no need to serve the king.’” 2 In the introduction to the “Book of laughable stories” Grigorios bar Ebraya writes: “Sustain [O Lord] my feeble speech, for Thou art the Cause of all blessings, so that it may gather together in a little book the narratives which refresh the mind and which wash away from the heart every grief and care. And let this book be a consolation to those who are sad, and a binding up of the spirit to those who are broken, and an instructive teacher to those who love amusement, for no matter worthy of being recorded is omitted therefrom. And let this book be a religious friend to the reader, whether he be Muslim, or Hebrew, or Aramean, or a man belonging to a foreign country and nation. And let the man who is learned, I mean to say the man who hath a bright understanding, and the man that babbleth conceitedly, even though he drive every man mad, and every other man choose what is best for himself, and let each pluck the flowers which please him, for in this way the book will succeed in bringing together the things which are alike, each to the other.” The “Book of laughable stories” is also valuable because some of its portions are influenced by spoken Late Aramaic, which continued to exist in some areas despite the expansion of Arabic. Bar Ebraya was also known as a talented poet. He wrote didactic poems, a polemical message to the Catholicos of the Church of the East, and epigrams. His talent manifested itself in a poetic transcription of one piece in the “Book of laughable stories” as well as in a brief poetic grammar of the Syriac language.



All quotations are from the “Book of laughable stories” translated by E.A.W. Budge


SYRIAC HISTORIOGRAPHY 18.1. General overview. Within Syriac secular literature, historical writings occupy a very significant place. The historical genre existed almost continuously in classical Syriac literature between the 3rd and 13th centuries. It is quite meaningful that the two major figures with whom Syriac classical literature begins and ends, Bardaisan and Grigorios bar Ebraya, both left historical accounts. Between these two authors, for whom historiography was not the main genre of literary activity, an impressive number of historians, often anonymous, may be found. It is worth mentioning that Jacobites particularly distinguished themselves in the field of historiography. The surviving references to the Edessan royal archives suggest that in preChristian Osrhoene, and possibly in Palmyra, a practice of storing and processing official records existed and perhaps of compiling official chronicles or similar documents. No document from these archives, nor the names of their compilers, have been preserved, although later historical works, such as the 6th century “Chronicle of Edessa,” contain references to and quotations from much earlier sources. Like other genres of Syriac literature, historiography was not free of influences, particularly by the Byzantine historiographical tradition. Syriacs, like the Byzantine historians, attached importance to eyewitness reports, and sometimes they themselves were the eyewitnesses to the events they described, giving the narrative a somewhat emotional but reliable and factographic perception, occasionally with some autobiographical connotation. Syriac historians often took a didactic tone, displaying, like the Byzantines, the tendency to draw conclusions and lessons from the described events. Syriac and Byzantine accounts often complement each other, but the Syriac ones are frequently unique in that they cover events that remained neglected by sources in other languages. There were also many differences between the two traditions. The Syriacs were much more scrupulous toward the dating of events. They used several parallel chronologies, although preference was traditionally given to the Seleucid era. Some Syriac historical works include chronological tables, the most comprehensive of which is contained in the bilingual Syriac-Arabic “Chronicle” by Eliya bar Shinaya (975– 1046), Metropolitan of Nisibis. The 12th-century historian Shemon Shanqlawi dedicated a whole work to different systems of chronology. 297



Compared to their Byzantine colleagues, the Syriac historians were not official, meaning that they had no affiliation with a particular capital or royal court. That freedom allowed them to substantially expand the circle of described events and their own outlook. Not having to pander to the authorities and being representatives of an oppressed people, the Syriac chroniclers often covered events from beneath, paying more attention to the life of ordinary people and giving a more objective interpretation of various social phenomena. Syriac authors had higher mobility, which allowed them to be in the center of events and interpret them according to their own political and moral imperatives. However, mobility, a notable feature of the Syriacs in general, could also be a result of political or religious persecution. Compared with the Byzantines, Syriac historians showed greater interest in the histories of other nations, including those not neighboring their own. Syrian historiography covered a vast territory from Gaul to China and from the Slavic lands to Ethiopia and preserved valuable information on the history, culture, and daily lives of the peoples who inhabited these territories. Yet, total impartiality was hardly a characteristic of Syriac historians. The lack or insignificance of their own political history kept them away from excessive officiousness but a visible role in the Syriac historiography was played by the author’s religious affiliation. Miaphysite, Nestorian or other views might leave an impact on the interpretation and evaluation of events, forcing the author to sacrifice objectivity for the sake of religious corporatism. It was a common practice of Syriac, Byzantine, and Arab historians to fully or partially incorporate in their narratives the works of other authors. The texts of many medieval chroniclers have been preserved in this manner. The borrowed text would usually be absorbed without changes, but sometimes the compiler might reserve the right to edit, abridge, or even supplement it. There have been cases where a historian referred to or mentioned another author but did not incorporate anything from his writings. The works of a number of Syriac historians did not survive, but their names are well-known thanks to this particular practice.

18.2. The “urban” and “universal” chronicles. The “Chronicle of Edessa” belongs to the “urban chronicles,” dedicated to the history of a specific city or the events that had happened therein. Many such works were likely written, but only a few survived and some are known only by title name. The chronicle of Yeshu the Stylite is believed to be the oldest among the surviving works. It was written at the beginning of the 6th century and covers events in and around Edessa during Byzantine-Iranian wars of that period. The “universal” chronicles constitute a more common, better-preserved genre that developed under the direct influence of Greek-language historiography. They contain geographical, historical (as a rule, from the creation of the world, the Flood, or a biblical personality), linguistic, and ethnographic information about many countries and peoples. The tradition of compiling such works emerged in the Syriac milieu after the translation of similar writings by Hippolytus of Rome (2nd–3rd centuries) and especially the “Chronicle” of Eusebius of Caesarea, fully preserved only in the 6th-century Armenian translation, as well as several Byzantine chronicles written in its continuation. A feature of the “Chronicle” of Eusebius of Caesarea is that it is



presented in the form of synchronic tables or parallel columns, through which the author sought to put the historical events in chronological order. The earliest Syriac universal chronicle, based on the work of Eusebius of Caesarea, is the anonymous “Maronite Chronicle,” written about the year 665. Among other events, it describes the relations of the Syriacs with the first Arab Caliphs. The renowned philologist Jacob of Edessa (†708) continued the “Chronicle” of Eusebius of Caesarea up to 692, using the same format of columns, but most of this work did not survive.

Fig. 89. A page from a 7th century manuscript with the text of the “Chronicle of Edessa” (Vatican Library)



One of the most famous Syriac universal chronicles is the compilation “The Chronicle of Zuqnin,” named after a monastery in the vicinity of Amid, where it was allegedly collated. At one time, it was mistakenly attributed to the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Dionysios of Tel Mahre (818–845), which is the reason why it is known as “The Chronicle of Pseudo-Dionysios of Tel Mahre.” Yeshu the Stylite, whose above-mentioned work is fully incorporated into “The Chronicle of Zuqnin,” is believed to be the author of the compilation’s main sections. The four parts of the “Chronicle,” which are based on material from the Bible, along with the works of Eusebius of Caesarea, Socrates of Constantinople, and others, cover the events from the world’s creation up to the year 775, and notably describe the events in South Arabia and Ethiopia accompanying the spread of Miaphysitism there. They also contain valuable information on Avars, Slavs, and other remote peoples, the history of the Syriac Orthodox Church, and the lives of saints. Almost entirely incorporated in the narrative is the Epistle of Simeon of Beth Arsham (524), which relates to the events in the Himyarite Kingdom in South Arabia.

18.3. “Ecclesiastical histories.” Another genre of Syriac historiography are the “ecclesiastical histories,” which use as a prototype another famous writing of Eusebius, the “Ecclesiastical History” translated into Syriac in the 5th century. Unlike universal chronicles, which describe events in a concise manner, the ecclesiastical histories contain more extensive narratives. In Syriac literature, the most important is the “Ecclesiastical History” by Yohannan of Ephesus (507–589), which consists of three parts—only the third part, dedicated to the era of the Byzantine Emperors Justinian I and Justin II, has survived. The information provided by Yohannan of Ephesus is considered reliable, since despite being a Miaphysite, he lived in Constantinople for a long time, had access to the imperial court, and was in the very center of the events he described. He also wrote “The lives of the holy men and women of the East,” which contains biographies of the most famous Syriac ascetics, most of whom were his contemporaries. Another Syriac ecclesiastical historical work was written by Patriarch Dionysios of Tel Mahre; some of its fragments are preserved in the writings of later authors. Also significant is the ecclesiastical history by “Pseudo-Zachariah of Amid,” which is essentially an abridged and modified Syriac translation of the ecclesiastical history of the Miaphysite Zachariah Rhetor, Bishop of Mytilene (465–536), the Greek original of which is lost. Zachariah Rhetor mostly covered the events of the middle and second half of the 5th century, and Pseudo-Zachariah continued the narrative up to the year 569, supplementing it with material from the city archive of Amid and some local stories. Pseudo-Zachariah also quotes the Epistle of Simeon of Beth Arsham. The work contains a large amount of ethnic and geographical information, including references to the peoples of the Caucasus. 1 Some of the information is borrowed

This is what Pseudo-Zachariah has to say about the peoples of the South Caucasus: “In these northern region are five believing nations, who have 24 bishops, and a Catholicos in Dvin, a large city in Persian Armenia. The name of their Catholicos was Gregory, a right1



from the writings of Ptolemy, whose “Geography” in translation is partially included in Pseudo-Zachariah’s narrative. Besides, the work of the Amid anonym contains valuable information on the institutionalization of the Syriac Orthodox Church. A number of anonymous Syriac chronicles exist conventionally denoted by the year at which the narrative ends, such as “The Chronicle of the year 724,” “The Chronicle of the year 846,” and others. Some of these works resemble universal chronicles, while others are ecclesiastical histories. Others combine features of both genres. The most significant of these works is the extensive “Chronicle of the year 1234,” supposedly written at the Mor Barsauma monastery (southeast of Malatya). It contains valuable information on the history of Edessa. The work begins as a typical universal chronicle, but from the reign of Emperor Constantine, it divides into two parts: a secular (up to 1234) and ecclesiastical (up to 1207). The sources of this work include writings by Eusebius of Caesarea, Pseudo-Zachariah, Yohannan of Ephesus, Dionysios of Tel Mahre, and other historians. Syriac historiography also features works completely set in two or more parallel columns, which separately contain the events of secular and ecclesiastical history. Among those is the “Chronicle” by the greatest Syriac historian, Michael the Syrian.

18.4. Michael the Syrian and his “Chronicle.” Michael the Syrian (1126–1199), also known as Michael the Great, was a native of Malatya and a fellow townsman of Grigorios bar Ebraya. The city’s Syriac population grew rapidly in the second half of the 10th century with the encouragement of the Byzantines, and in the 12th–13th centuries Malatya found itself at the center of the last heyday of Syriac culture—the “Syriac Renaissance.” During this period the Patriarchs of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch resided in the Mor Barsauma monastery. Michael the Syrian was educated in that monastery, and later in life he became its monk and the Abbot in 1156. 2 In 1166, he was elected Patriarch, but from 1180 to 1193 he had to confront his former secretary, Theodore bar Wahbun. Theodore was proclaimed patriarch by the bishops opposed to Michael, and for some time he was recognized as such by the Armenian Catholicos and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

eous and renowned man. Gurzan [Georgia] is a country in Armenia, and its language is like Greek, and they have a Christian prince, who is subject to the king of Persia. Arran [Caucasian Albania] is a country in the territory of Armenia, with its own language, a believing and baptized people, and they have a prince who is subject to the king of Persia. Sisagan [Syunik, a province of Armenia] is a country with its own language and a believing people, and pagans dwell in it. Balasagan [Abkhazia] is a country with its own language that extends and reaches to the Caspian Gates and the sea.” (English translation from The Chronicle of Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor: Church and War in Late Antoquity, ed. by G. Greatrex, Liverpool, 2011). 2 The Mor Barsauma monastery lasted until the middle of the 17th century, but yet in the 15th century the role of the main intellectual center of the Jacobites of the Malatya region was taken over by the Mor Abhay monastery in the region of Gerger, which functioned until the beginning of the 18th century.



Michael the Syrian traveled frequently—he was involved in many political and ecclesiastical events of his time and often acted as a mediator and diplomat. He had met with the head of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum and the crusader King Baldwin of Jerusalem, and a year before his death he was present at the coronation of the Armenian King Levon II of Cilicia. He was the first acting Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church allowed by Crusaders to enter Antioch, where he symbolically ordained several bishops. Michael the Syrian wrote several historical works. The most famous of these, the “Chronicle,” is the most extensive Syriac historical writing. It consists of an introduction, 21 books, and six appendices. The narrative starts with the creation of the world and continues until the end of the 12th century. Chronologically, this work precedes the “Chronicle of the year 1234.” The text is set in three columns, two of which contain the synchronized presentation of the military-political and ecclesiastical history. The third contains various types of documents, such as letters, epistles, texts of Church Council regulations, and so on. For his work, Michael the Syrian used or fully incorporated the writings of his numerous Byzantine and Syriac predecessors, like Eusebius of Caesarea, Socrates of Constantinople, PseudoZachariah, Yohannan of Ephesus, Jacob of Edessa, Dionysios of Tel Mahre, and others. Many of the works, used by Michael the Syrian are currently lost, such as the Chronicle by the Metropolitan of Edessa, Basil bar Shumana (†1171), the works of Ignatius of Melitene, Cyrus of Batna, Iwannis of Kaysum, Dionysios bar Salibi, and others. A special feature of the “Chronicle” is the author’s implementation of the works of Arab historians, such as Ibn al-Athir. The “Chronicle” of Michael the Syrian is a highly valuable source on the history of the Middle East. Particularly interesting is the second part in which the author presents the events of the second half of the 11th, and all of the 12th century, many of which he had witnessed himself. The “Chronicle” contains a wealth of factual material on the history of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, and in 1248 it was unsurprisingly translated into Armenian from the author’s original manuscript. There were several more Armenian translations, many of which contain a continuation of the historical narrative or editorial cuts. European Orientalists were first acquainted with Michael the Syrian’s “Chronicle” through the French translation of the Armenian version. 3 There is also an almost literal Arabic translation that was made in 1759. As for the Syriac original, it was discovered in 1887 in a 1598 manuscript stored in one of the Syriac Orthodox churches of Urfa (Edessa). It was published in four volumes in 1899–1910 by the French Orientalist Jean-Baptiste Chabot (1860– 1947). Extrait de la Chronique de Michel le Syrien, traduite de l’arménien par Ed. Dulaurier // Journal Asiatique. Tome XIII. Paris, 1848; Chronique de Michel le Grand, patriarche des Syriens Jacobites; traduite pour la première fois sur la version arménienne par V. Langlois, Venise. 1868. 3



18.5. Historical writings of Grigorios bar Ebraya. The next important historian after Michael the Syrian was Grigorios bar Ebraya. He wrote a universal history from Adam up to the Mongol invasion, which he had witnessed himself. In European scholarly literature, this work is known as “Chronicon Syriacum.” For this work, Bar Ebraya used Michael the Syrian’s “Chronicle” and some of his sources. Another historical work by Bar Ebraya is an ecclesiastical history known as “Chronicon Ecclesiasticum.” It includes the list of high priests starting from Aaron, brother of Moses, to Caiaphas and Annas of the Gospels and then from the Apostle Peter to the Patriarchs of the Syriac Orthodox Church. Also included are the Maphrians of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Catholicoi of the Church of the East. It has been suggested that both books of Grigorios bar Ebraya might have been conceived as parts of a single work. However, there are no manuscripts containing both of them, and that despite the fact that Bar Ebraya’s historical writings survive in more copies than the works of other Syriac historians, including Michael the Syrian. This is because Grigorios bar Ebraya was the last significant Syriac historian and the last major Syriac author of the classical period in general, which made interest in his heritage particularly great. Grigorios bar Ebraya’s historical works enjoyed popularity during his lifetime, and after numerous requests he made an Arabic translation of his universal history. In Europe, Bar Ebraya first became known thanks to this Arabic version published in 1663 in a Latin translation by English orientalist Edward Pococke (1604–1691) under the name “Abulfaragii historia compendiosa dynastiarum” (“General history of dynasties by Abul-Faraj”).

18.6. East Syriac historiography. The historiography of the Nestorians appears more modest, yet includes works in all genres of Syriac historiography. Their urban chronicles include the “Chronicle of Karka d-Beth Slokh,” which mainly focuses on the martyrdom of the city’s Christians during the reign of the Sasanian King Yazdegerd I (399–420). The “Chronicle of Arbela” contains information on nearly 20 local bishops of the 2nd–6th centuries. The earliest and most significant of the Nestorian ecclesiastical histories belongs to the graduate and teacher of the School of Nisibis, Barhadbshabba Arbaya (6th century). He covered the activities of the Church Fathers, including Diodorus of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Nestorius, and various “heretics.” The first significant work in the genre of universal history was written by the monk Yohannan bar Penkaye, who lived in the 7th century. His work concludes with the description of the Arab invasion, which he had witnessed himself. A more significant figure was the above-mentioned Eliya bar Shinaya, Metropolitan of Nisibis, who wrote a universal history up to the year 1018 in the spirit of Eusebius of Caesarea. This work contains a chronological part, which lists the biblical patriarchs, kings, and rulers of various countries, and Catholicoi of the Church of the East. Then the text divides into three columns, the first of which contains the date, the second contains the source of information (very often, a work by a Jacobite historian), and the third includes the description of the historical event in Syriac and Arabic.



In addition to the bilingual work by Eliya bar Shinaya, the East Syriac historians also composed several works in Arabic. The most valuable is the “Chronicle of Siirt”—its author and the exact date of creation remain unknown (presumably, the first half of the 11th century). The work contains information on the Catholicoi of the Church of the East and on the events of secular and ecclesiastical history from the middle of the 3rd to the mid-7th centuries, including the Arab conquest. Another significant East Syriac work in Arabic is a theological treatise, known by the Latin name, “Liber Turris” (“The Book of Tower”). It includes a very valuable historical part, which contains the lives of the Catholicoi of the Church of the East from Addai to Abdisho III (†1147), including Mari, “Apostle of Babylonia.” Mare bar Shlemon (12th century), better known under the Arabized version of his name, Mari ibn Suleyman, was believed to be the author, but it has been suggested that the real author was Amr ibn Matta (14th century), who was known for continuing the historical part up to the time of Catholicos Yahbalaha III (†1317). Some changes and additions to “The Book of Tower” were made by Amr ibn Matta’s contemporary, Salib bar Yuhanna. 18.7. Monastic, hagiographic literature, and fiction as sources of historical information. The writings dedicated to the issues of monasticism display common features with historical works, particularly ecclesiastical histories. Nestorians showed more interest in this area despite the fact that the monasteries played a more important role for Jacobites. Nestorians composed works on the history of certain monasteries, lives of saints, and paterica, that is collections of lives and sayings of saints of didactic nature. Thus, Toma of Marga (9th century) wrote the six-volume “Book of Governors,” dedicated to the Beth Abe monastery, which also contains valuable information on the history of the Church of the East from the 6th to the 9th centuries. A lot of information on monasteries, as well as biographical data about nearly 150 Nestorian monks and nuns, may be found in “The Book of Chastity” by Toma of Marga’s contemporary, Ishodnah, Metropolitan of Basra. In addition to “The Book of Chastity,” Ishodnah wrote a standard ecclesiastical history, which is lost. Among the hagiographic writings, the “Acts of the Persian Martyrs,” usually associated with Marutha of Maypherqat (4th–5th centuries), are of certain historical interest. This hagiographic cycle includes the lives of the martyrs who were killed during the persecution of Christians by the Sasanian Kings Shapur II (309–379), Yazdegerd I (399–420), and Bahram V (420–438). Syriac historiography existed at the very junction with fiction and contains numerous artistic descriptions, parables, legends, and stories, just as the works of other genres of Syriac literature often contain valuable historical information. The presence of travelogues in Syriac literature is explained by the high mobility and activity of the Syriacs and their zeal for trade and missionary activities in regions far away from their homeland. Of the Syriac travelogues, particularly abundant in historical and ethnographic material related to the turn of the 14th century is the “History of Mar Yahbalaha III and Rabban Sauma,” which tells about the journey of two Nestorians monks from Beijing to Baghdad, and of Rabban Sauma’s journey to Europe on a diplomatic mission on behalf of the Mongolian Khan.



Some historical interest, despite the abundance of fictional details, is presented in the Syriac “novels” mentioned in the previous chapter—“The Tale of Euphemia and the Goth,” the “Julian Romance,” and “The Tale of the Seven Youths of Ephesus”—as well as the ecclesiastical prose, the most important example of which is the apocryphal “Teaching of Addai.”


SYRIACS UNDER ARAB-MUSLIM DOMINATION 19.1. Syriac-Arab contacts. In the 7th century, 2,000 years after the Arameans, another Semitic people came out in masses from the Arabian Peninsula—the Arabs. Under the banner of a new monotheistic religion, Islam, they conquered the entire Middle East and North Africa and created the vast Arab Caliphate. Sasanian Iran was unable to withstand the onslaught of the Arabs, and in 652 it fell under their blows, losing its role as the Caliphate’s rival to the Byzantine Empire. In Syria and Mesopotamia, sedentary and nomadic Arab tribes have been attested since at least the end of the second millennium BC. In these regions, there was a long tradition of Aramean-Arab coexistence and interaction. The political inertness of the Arameans sometimes allowed the Arabs to come to power in Aramean territories, as was the case in Palmyra and Osrhoene, although in such situations, the Arabs would usually be quickly Aramaized or even Hellenized. Both peoples spoke related languages. Many Arab tribes were bilingual and, like the Nabateans, widely used Aramaic, and some were mainly Aramaic-speaking. In some locations, Arameans and Arabs worshiped the same gods. By the time Islam emerged, most Syro-Mesopotamian Arabs, like the Arameans, were Christians, quite often inclining to Miaphysitism or Nestorianism under Syriac influence. Some scholars, like Nina Pigulevskaya (1894–1970), believed that in the areas of Syriac-Arab cohabitation a Syriac-Arabic Koine could have existed, which facilitated Syriac religious and cultural influence on the Arabs.

The Lakhmids and the Ghassanids. In the context of Syriac-Arab relationships, especially religious, two Arab principalities in North Arabia—the Lakhmids (Banu Lakhm) and Ghassanids (Banu Ghassan)—should be mentioned. Banu Lakhm, which was adjacent to South Mesopotamia, was under Sasanian influence and was sometimes able to influence political developments in Iran. The Lakhmid capital was in Hirta (al-Hira in Arabic), one of the important Arab centers in the preIslamic period. The most prominent Lakhmid ruler was al-Mundhir ibn al-Naaman (505–554), who irritated the Byzantines with his raids during Iranian-Byzantine wars, and once even captured two Byzantine generals. This forced Emperor Justin I to send an embassy to Hirta, which included two Jacobites—Sergios, Bishop of 307



Rusafa, and Simeon of Beth Arsham, who joined the embassy in Hirta. The Jacobites, including Simeon of Beth Arsham, were engaged in active and rather successful missionary activity among the Lakhmids, but Nestorianism was much more widespread thanks to the same Syriacs. Hirta was considered one of the major centers of this branch of Christianity. The rival kingdom of the Ghassanids neighbored Southern Syria and included former Nabatean territory. Its capital was in Jabiyah in the Golan Heights. The Ghassanids were allied with the Byzantine Empire and participated in its wars with Iran. The kingdom reached its heyday during the reign of al-Harith ibn Jabala (529– 569, in Syriac sources “Bar Gabbala”). For his military accomplishments, including a victory over the Lakhmid ruler al-Mundhir ibn al-Naaman, Constantinople placed al-Harith ibn Jabala over all Arabs of Syria, honoring him with the titles of phylarch (tribal ruler) and patrician. Miaphysitism was quite widespread among the Ghassanids. Al-Harith ibn Jabala himself was its ardent follower, and his patronage of Jacob Baradaeus was quite instrumental for the institutionalization of the Syriac Orthodox Church.

19.2. Syriacs at the start of Arab rule. All this gave Syriacs hope that Arab rule would deliver them from persecution at the hands of the Byzantines and Sasanians, even though the conquerors who came from Arabia’s depths were quite different from the Arabs with whom Syriacs interacted in Syria and Mesopotamia. However, at first, these hopes seemed to have come true. Of all the Christians under Arab rule the Syriacs, especially the Nestorians, found themselves in the most privileged positions. To a large extent, this was due to their developed educational system, thanks to which they were able to provide Arabs with valuable intellectual and professional services. The renowned Persian scholar Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973–1048) considered the Syriacs the most civilized of all the Christians under the rule of the Caliphate. After the Abbasid Caliphs moved their capital from Damascus to Baghdad in 762, the Catholicos of the Church of the East Henanisho II (774–780) followed suit, and in 775 he also moved his residence from the former Sasanian capital SeleuciaCtesiphon to Baghdad. This relocation indicates that the Nestorians sought to prove their loyalty to the Arab authorities, hoping to receive more privileges from them. Thus, the initial period of Arab domination proved to be more bearable for Syriacs than Byzantine and Persian rule. They were not persecuted and, together with the followers of Judaism, and later other religions, were considered “People of the Book,” or holders of divine revelation contained in sacred scriptures. “People of the Book” enjoyed the status of dhimmi, or “protected,” which guaranteed physical security and relative freedom of religion but at the same time imposed certain discriminatory restrictions. As mentioned above, at first the Arabs’ favorable attitude toward the Syriacs was determined by their increasing need for public administration, education, and culture, which these recent Bedouins were still unable to satisfy on their own and had to rely on the services of conquered civilized peoples. The Syriacs, who spoke a language related to Arabic and knew the Arabs well, had an obvious advantage in this respect and did not fail to use it. Under the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphs, the Syriacs maintained a very high percentage among public officials of all ranks. They



also preserved their dominance in medicine, as was the case in Sasanian times, and were very close to monopolizing the position of court physician.

Arab-Syriac cultural interaction. Syriacs played a significant role in the development of Arab culture. As already mentioned, they were prolific translators and they virtually translated anew, from Syriac into Arabic, the bulk of the Greek-language works on philosophy, medicine, and other branches of knowledge. Entire disciplines, such as historiography, were developed in the Caliphate under their direct influence and involvement. Syriacs maintained a visible presence, if not the majority, in the “House of Wisdom” founded by al-Mamun in 830, which apart from being an educational institution, was a major center of translations into Arabic and production of scientific manuscripts. The first centuries of the Muslim era witnessed an active process of interaction and mutual enrichment of Syriac and Arab cultures, a kind of Arab-Syriac cultural convergence. Until about the 9th century, Syriacs acted as mentors to the Arabs, passing ancient, Byzantine, and Iranian knowledge on to them. Later, however, the Arabs in many respects surpassed them, especially in the field of philology, providing the Syriacs and Jews with numerous examples for imitation. Under Arab domination the Syriacs began to display a tendency toward encyclopedic knowledge, which in the Arab milieu had become a standard for intellectual activity.

19.3. Islamization and Arabization of the Syriacs. With the growth in the number of Muslims, development of the Arab Muslim state institutions, and emergence of proper Arab or Arabic-speaking intellectual elite, the attitudes of the ruling Islam toward religious minorities began to deteriorate. Positive aspects of the dhimmi status, such as guaranteed security and relative freedom of religion, acquired an increasingly declarative nature. Discriminatory restrictions, such as the ban on saddles, on building houses higher than those of Muslim neighbors, on wearing crosses in public, on the construction of new churches and bells, on preaching Christianity to Muslims, on crying and wailing at the funerals, on marrying Muslim women, and many other bans became tougher and more sophisticated. Christians were required to wear special blue decals and pay additional taxes. The situation became even worse at the start of the Crusades. The policy of discrimination against religious minorities was formalized in Islamic law and eventually became oppressive, most ferociously under Tamerlane and in the Ottoman Empire. Muslim domination eventually resulted in very dire consequences for the Syriacs. The growing sense of religious, legal, social, and economic discrimination and insecurity, as well as numerous benefits for new converts, made more and more Syriacs convert to Islam. Cases of forced Islamization on the principle of “Islam or death” became frequent. The confiscation of churches and their conversion into mosques became a common phenomenon. The practice began in 705 with the church of John the Baptist in Damascus, and it continues to this day in Turkey and other Muslim countries. Syriacs were the main victims of the “voluntary” and forced Islamization of Christians. Unlike the Persians, for example, who because of their large numbers, well-defined area of habitation, rich traditions of statehood, economic selfsufficiency, and other factors, did not compromise their national identity and lan-



guage when adopting Islam, the second generation of converted Syriacs, as a rule, would become Arabic-speaking, and the third would be fully Arabized, losing their last traits of Syriac identity. Because of that, in the Middle East, “Muslim Aramean” or “Muslim Syriac” communities have never existed. The Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula conquered the countries of the Fertile Crescent but did not form a majority of the population, even when counting the Arab tribes that lived there in the pre-Islamic period. However, political, military, economic, and social realities together with the domineering official status of Islam and the Arabic language eventually resulted in Islamization and Arabization of most of the local non-Arab population, which in turn produced a significant share of Aramean traits in the genetic profile of the population of today’s Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. The same was the case in North Africa where in Egypt, for example, the Muslim population, especially in southern rural areas of the country, is of obvious Coptic origin and is visually indistinguishable from Coptic Christians. Further west, a Berber genetic substratum is quite visible. Hence, different genetic substrata explain conspicuous anthropological differences between the inhabitants of different Arab countries, despite the fact that they are all considered Arabs. The Aramean substratum can be traced not only in the genetic profile of the population but also in the Arabic dialects of the above-mentioned countries, especially in their vocabulary and toponymy. Of interest is the conjugation of verbs in the present tense with prefix bi- common to many Eastern Arabic and some modern Aramaic dialects. The Arabic language became dominant also among those Syriacs who managed to preserve their Christian faith, such as the Syriac Melkites. Together with their Greek co-religionists, the Syriac Melkites completely switched to Arabic and even adopted Arab identity. Thus, followers of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, together with those among them who adopted Catholicism, are considered Christian Arabs today, although historically they were ethnically Greeks and Syriacs. Most Jacobites who lived in large cities, such as Damascus, Aleppo, and Beirut, also became overwhelmingly Arabic-speaking, while rural residents in several areas continued to speak modern Aramaic dialects. Of those areas, the most significant was the region of Tur Abdin in Northern Mesopotamia, and the area around Mosul, which in the Middle Ages was the stronghold of Eastern Jacobites, and still includes many followers of the Syriac Orthodox Church and its Catholic offspring. Tur Abdin was famous for numerous Syriac Orthodox churches and monasteries, and modern Aramaic dialects continue to be spoken in the region around Mosul today. Among the Syriacs, the least Arabized were the Nestorians, who lived under the watchful eye of the Church of the East in the remote mountainous Hakkari enclave (extreme southeast of modern-day Turkey), adjacent territories of the Van region to the north, and areas west of Lake Urmia, to the east, as well as in the territory known today as Iraqi Kurdistan. With the exception of Melkites, who lost their Syriac-Aramean identity, all other Syriacs, including those Arabic-speaking, continued to use Classical Syriac, to one degree or another, as a liturgical, and occasionally, a literary language.



19.4. The decline of Classical Syriac culture. Arab rule left a negative impact on the Syriac system of education, once the most advanced in the Middle East. The number of primary schools decreased dramatically, and those still functioning were in stagnation. Under the Arabs, the Syriac “mother of learning,” the School of Nisibis, went into decline and finally ceased to exist, followed soon after by the School of Gundishapur. The sharp decline in the number of speakers of Aramaic dialects and the narrowing scope of their use triggered the gradual decline of Syriac literature starting from the 8th century. Nevertheless, literary undertakings in Syriac continued until the 13th century. Moreover, in the 12th–13th centuries, Syriac literature experienced its last revival (the “Syriac Renaissance”) producing brilliant authors like Michael the Syrian, Grigorios bar Ebraya, and Dionysios bar Salibi. The 13th century is considered the last century of Syriac classical literature, followed by its rapid decline. It was a period of general cultural decline throughout the Middle East that reached catastrophic dimensions during Tamerlane’s invasion in the 14th century. After Grigorios bar Ebraya, there are only a few authors worth mentioning, among them Isaiah of Beth Sbirina (14th–15th century), who wrote a soghitha about Tamerlane’s invasion. Abdisho bar Brikha, Bishop of Nisibis (†1318), wrote a collection of 50 memre entitled “Paradise of Eden” with their commentaries, a brief theological treatise “The Pearl” on the doctrine of the Church of the East, and a collection of church rules and canons entitled the “Nomocanon.” His most important work, however, is a highly valuable catalogue of writings by Syriac authors, predominantly Nestorian, which mentions numerous lost works. Literary activity in the Syriac language never completely ceased, although after Abdisho bar Brikha no author wrote anything worth mentioning. As a result of the Tamerlane’s invasion, the number of Aramaic-speaking Christians decreased even more and they could be found only in several isolated enclaves. From this period onward, Classical Syriac, deprived of its feeding soil of living Aramaic dialects, was used primarily as a liturgical language of the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Church of the East, the Maronite Church, and several other churches, which will be discussed in subsequent chapters. All these Churches are collectively referred to as the “Churches of the Syriac tradition.”

19.5. Maronites under Arab-Muslim rule. The Maronites had a very active political history in the Arab-Muslim period. At the turn of the 11th century, under pressure from the Byzantines, who had managed to temporarily recapture Syria from the Arabs, the remaining Maronites left their original territory in the Orontes Valley and moved to the mountains of Lebanon. A small number found refuge in Cyprus, where Maronites can be found even today. Around the same time, the Beth Maron monastery was destroyed as it was considered a stronghold of Monothelitism, which had been a dominating doctrine among the Maronites. The destruction of the only Maronite monastery marked the final expulsion of Maronites from the Syrian plains.



In the mountains of Lebanon, the Maronites settled mainly in the valley of Kadisha (Aramaic “saint”), one of the oldest monastic centers of the Middle East. It was a place ideally suited for the preservation and development of the rich Maronite monastic traditions. 1 The most famous monasteries here were Mar Elisha, Mar Antonios Kozhaya, and Kannubin, which for some time served as the residence of the Maronite Patriarch. In Kadisha, the Maronites built new monasteries that also served, one after another, as patriarchal residences. Despite the fact that the Maronites start the continuous line of their patriarchs from Maron, the first historically authentic patriarch, Butros I, was elected in 1121 in Lebanon, and this occasion essentially marked the founding of the independent Maronite Church. The Maronites, isolating themselves from other Christians in the Lebanese mountains, finally merged with the Mardaites, forming a separate ethnicconfessional subgroup, with a distinct ethnographic profile and unique social and religious community structure. Until about the end of the 17th century, Maronites spoke the local Western Aramaic dialect and used only Syriac as a liturgical language, having given up Greek completely. However, the isolation of the Maronites in the Lebanese mountains and their defensive mentality did not protect them from full Arabization by language, although it significantly slowed down this process. Today, the Maronites are entirely Arabic-speaking and most of their liturgy is performed in Arabic. However, Syriac is considered the main liturgical language of the Maronite Church, which officially calls itself “the Syriac Maronite Church.” A new page in the history of the Maronites was opened with the arrival of the Crusaders, who created in the Middle East several states of their own. Maronites established close contacts with the newcomers, which resulted in the spread of Catholicism among them. Cooperation between the Maronites and the Crusaders provided an excuse for the Muslims to massacre them, especially after Sultan Saladin (1138–1193) put an end to the Crusaders’ presence in the Middle East a few years before his death. The Druze also created new political realities for the Maronites. They were an offshoot of a Shia Ismaili sect that originated in Egypt during the reign of the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim (996–1021), who was an incarnation of God for the Druze. Their designation was derived from the name of the preacher Darazi, an active proponent of al-Hakim’s worship. The Druze consider themselves Muslims, but their religion contains a number of dogmas, such as reincarnation, the divinity of alHakim, and the belief in his second coming, which official Islam considers totally unacceptable. The Druze doctrine was unable to establish itself in Egypt and its followers had to move to the Eastern Mediterranean territories, including Lebanon. Today, besides Lebanon, the Druze live in Syria and Israel. In Israel, they are the most inteIn 1998, UNESCO included the Kadisha valley in the World Heritage List as one of the most important early Christian monastic settlements and home of a relict cedar grove. 1



grated and privileged part of the Arab population, serving on their own initiative in the Israeli army. In Lebanon, the Druze formed a class of land aristocracy and even established their own dynasty of Emirs. This was one of the reasons for antagonism and constant clashes between the Druze and the Maronite peasants, who were in feudal dependence on the Druze. This antagonism at times escalated into Maronite massacres, the most bloody of which occurred in 1860. Until 1516, the Maronites were ruled by the Egyptian Mamluks, after which Lebanon became part of the Ottoman Empire.


COMMERCIAL AND MISSIONARY ACTIVITY OF THE SYRIACS 20.1. Syriac commerce. Some of the most distinguishing features of Syriacs were their high mobility, enterprise, and propensity to commerce. Like the ancient Phoenicians, they (especially the Nestorians) were active in commerce throughout a vast territory from Gaul to China and from the southern Russian steppes to Yemen and Ethiopia. It is noteworthy that Syriacs, without any state patronage, controlled the commercial activity of entire regions, such as the Eastern Mediterranean. Until the middle of the 7th century, Syriac traders traveled mostly to the Byzantine Empire and Europe, exporting goods from Mesopotamia, Iran, Central Asia, India, and China. Nestorian traders, having lost access to the Byzantine market and transit due to religious persecution, focused on Iran, where they soon established a very strong presence in the local market, forcing the Sasanian authorities to take them seriously. Yet in the 6th century, the Nestorians began penetrating markets to the east of Iran, and by the 8th century, they had firmly established themselves on the territories extending to China and the eastbound caravan routes, most importantly the Great Silk Road. The trans-Eurasian commercial activity of the Syriacs was lasting and well-organized as evidenced by their many trading posts and entire communities, the existence of which is confirmed not only by eyewitness reports but also by numerous tombstones and other epigraphic monuments found both in Europe and China.

20.2. General characteristics of Syriac missionary activity. Numerous Syriac preachers rushed to the East along with the merchants. The propensity for missionary work was, from the beginning, a feature inherent in Syriac Christianity, especially for the Church of the East. Although some Syriac monasteries specialized in training professional missionaries, missionary work was not the prerogative or monopoly of the Church. Nestorian laymen, who were well educated with a deep knowledge of the Scriptures, were traditionally actively involved in the affairs of their Church. The preaching and spreading of their faith was a natural, self-evident activity, and it was even perceived as a kind of moral and religious obligation. This was particularly true for the merchants who established contacts with many foreigners of different faiths 315



in their travels. They perceived preaching as an integral part of commercial activity, and very often the merchant and the missionary were one and the same person. An analogy may be drawn with the Arab traders, who contributed greatly to the spread of Islam from the West African coast to Indonesia and Malaysia. Missionary activity was also not unusual for Syriac craftsmen, physicians, and representatives of other professions, whom fate took to places far from home. The missionary zeal of the Syriacs was so strong that even those in captivity preached. An anonymous Syriac chronicle contains a story of two Jacobites, Yohannan and Toma, who were captured by the Persians during one of the IranianByzantine wars and were sold into slavery to Huns living in the southern Russian steppes and the Caspian region. Yohannan and Toma lived among the Huns for 34 years, and all that time they preached Christianity. 1 The missionary activity of the Syriacs also influenced the old Georgian Church tradition. The “thirteen holy Syrian fathers,” who arrived in Georgia in the 6th century from Antioch (in another account, from Cappadocia), were engaged in strengthening the Christian faith in that country. Those fathers were Ioane Zedazneli and his twelve disciples—Aviv, Antonios, David, Zenon, Thaddeus, Ise, Joseph, Jesse, Michael, Pyrrhus, Stephen, and Shio. Lives of the saints do not mention their ethnic origin, but judging by their names, most of them were Greeks. Some, like Aviv, Ise, and Shio, could have been Syriacs. These saints are considered the founders of Georgian monasticism and their names are associated with some existing monasteries in the Georgian regions of Kartli and Kakheti, including the famous David Gareja monastery. In the 10th–11th centuries, the Church of the East had a diocese that covered the territory of former Caucasian Albania, with its center in Barda (the Diocese of Arran). Since there was no significant Syriac presence in that region, the diocese may have been created mostly for the missionary activity in the Caucasus region. However, Syriac missionary activity in the northern direction (the Caucasus and the western shores of the Caspian Sea) was occasional or incidental. Their main activities unfolded in the south (Arabian Peninsula), in the northeast (Central Asia, East Turkestan, Mongolia), and in the East (India and China). Not only were Nestorians and Jacobites evangelizing in the vast territories of Asia, but they also established dioceses of their Churches there. Under Catholicos Timotheos I (780–823), The missionary work among the Huns was the undeclared prerogative of the Armenians. In the middle of the 6th century, in areas north of the Derbent passage, the mission of the Catholicosate of Aghvank was active. It was initially headed by Bishop Kardost, who spent 14 years among the Huns, and then by a professional missionary, Bishop Makarios. At least seven Armenian priests not only preached Christianity but also translated the Holy Scriptures into the language of the Huns. They also introduced the Huns to agriculture and taught them to build stone houses. The Armenian missionary activity among the Huns and other nomadic tribes, despite confessional differences, enjoyed the support of the Byzantine Empire, which sought to neutralize the threat posed by the nomads in every possible way. On the orders of the Emperor, Armenian missionaries were sent food and gifts. 1



who made missionary work one of his priorities, the Church of the East had the largest canonical territory of all the Christian Churches of the world and held this primacy for several centuries. The Roman Catholic Church managed to extend its jurisdiction over a territory greater than that of the Church of the East only with the spread of Christianity in the Western Hemisphere.


20.1.1. Christianity among the Arabs of Syria and Mesopotamia. The Arameans had a long history of coexistence with the Arabs and had a deep inner knowledge of that people, who spoke a language related to Aramaic. It is not surprising, therefore, that Syriac historiography preserved a lot of valuable information on the Arabs of the pre-Islamic period. Christianity spread amongst the sedentary Arabs of Syrian and Mesopotamian cities and the surrounding Arameans simultaneously. Arab bishops had been known since the middle of the 3rd century because of their participation in various Church councils. All three major branches of Christianity— Chalcedonian, Miaphysite, and Nestorian—had followers among the Arabs, though very few of them had a clear idea of the Christological differences. The Arabs who lived under Sasanian domination were naturally influenced by Nestorianism, although there were examples of effective missionary activity among them by the Miaphysites. In the Byzantine domains, the choice between the official Chalcedonian doctrine and Miaphysitism might have been determined for subjective reasons, such as personal preference of a local ruler, authority of a church figure, or a simple monk or hermit (for example, the Arabs greatly revered Shemun the Stylite, who baptized them by the hundreds), or due to politics or purposeful missionary activity. Among the Arabs of Palestine, Transjordan, and the southern areas of Syria (these territories were included in the Byzantine province of “Arabia” centered on the city of Bosra in the Golan Heights), both Greeks and Syriacs were engaged in missionary activity, but missionary outreach further east was the natural prerogative of the Syriacs. They also had access to the northern areas of the Arabian Peninsula, adjacent to Syria and Mesopotamia, as well as to relatively accessible parts of the Arabian hinterland, where they traveled both on their own initiative and on various missions on behalf of Persians or Byzantines. Missionary work became another arena for competition between Nestorians and Jacobites, and they often engaged in religious debates with one another in the presence of Arab rulers and sheikhs, as they did in the courts of Iranian kings and Byzantine emperors.

Arab Miaphysites. The main stronghold of Miaphysitism among the Arabs was the Ghassanid principality in northwestern Arabia and Transjordan, allied with the Byzantine Empire. This branch of Christianity was followed and defended by the most prominent Ghassanid ruler, al-Harith ibn Jabala (529–569), who the Byzantines placed above all the Arabs of Syria, with the titles of phylarch and patrician. In 563, during an audience with Emperor Justinian, al-Harith, backed by Empress Theodora, patron of the Miaphysites, managed to secure the appointment of Jacob Baradaeus as Bishop of Edessa, and of Theodore as Bishop of Bosra, a city with which Arabs maintained close contact. Ibn Jabala’s patronage of Jacob Baradaeus on the one hand strengthened the ties of Arab Miaphysites with their Syriac co-religionists,



and on the other hand, contributed to the institutionalization and strengthening of the emerging Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch. It should be noted that Aramaic was in some use alongside Arabic in the Ghassanid realm, as was the case with their historical predecessors, the Nabateans. Syriac was used as a written language. Staunch supporters of Miaphysitism also included Ibn Jabala’s son, al-Mundhir ibn al-Harith (569–581), known for his patronage of Patriarch Paul II the Black, and grandson, al-Naaman ibn al-Mundhir (581–583). However, their relations with the Byzantine Empire, which was becoming more and more hostile toward Miaphysitism, were quite uneasy. Among the Arab tribes of Mesopotamia, the Banu Taghlib tribe (the Taghlibites), which migrated to Mesopotamia from Central Arabia, was almost completely Christian. They may have professed Miaphysitism, which could have been “borrowed” from the Syriacs, but there is no evidence to support this. According to Arab sources, the tribe remained Christian until its assimilation among Iraq’s urban population in the Abbasid period. The most famous of the Taghlibites were one of the seven major pre-Islamic Arab poets, Amr ibn Kulthum (†584), and the most renowned poet of the Umayyad period, al-Akhtal (640–710). Among the Jacobites, Ahudemmeh (†575), who Jacob Baradaeus appointed as the first head of the Eastern (Iranian) Jacobites, was particularly distinguished for his missionary work among the Arabs. He was born in the province of Beth Arbaye, neighboring the Byzantine Empire, where many nomadic Arabs lived (hence the province’s name). According to Ahudemmeh’s Life, these Arabs were “barbarians,” “murderers,” “dark,” and “evil,” but even though he preached in the Sasanian territories, in the midst of Nestorian majority, Ahudemmeh managed to convert many of them, including the tribal and clan elite, and even established basic ecclesiastical institutions. Because of this, Ahudemmeh was nicknamed the “Apostle of the Arabs.” It is told that when King Khosrow Anushirwan put Ahudemmeh in jail for baptizing his son, the Arabs tried to rescue him, offering the king gold in the amount equal to three times the weight of the “Apostle,” or twenty hostages. Ahudemmeh himself categorically rejected the idea of such a deal, preferring to endure the trial that befell him with Christian humility.

Arab Nestorians. Because of the political realities, Nestorianism could find ground only among Arabs within Sasanian domains. The main stronghold of this branch of Christianity among Arabs was the Lakhmid kingdom with the capital in Hirta, a major center of pre-Islamic Arab culture. Most of the local Arabs remained pagans until the rise of Islam and even practiced human sacrifice, but several influential families, as well as many commoners, converted to Nestorian Christianity. The Bishops of Hirta participated at the Church Councils of 410, 424, 486, and 497, which played an important role in the formation of the Church of the East and are mentioned up to the beginning of the 11th century. There are reports that the city was home to a Syriac theological high school as well as several monasteries. The Catholicos of the Church of the East, Aba I (540–552), who actively and successfully preached among the Lakhmids, was buried in Hirta, and a monastery was built upon his grave. Another Catholicos, Ishoyahb I, fled the Sasanian persecution to Hirta and died there in 595. He was buried by Hind, daughter of al-Naaman ibn al-Mundhir (580–602,



not to be confused with Ghassanid al-Naaman ibn al-Mundhir, grandson of alHarith ibn Jabala), the last Lakhmid king and the only Nestorian Christian in the ruling dynasty. Another two Catholicoi of the Church of the East might have been buried in Hirta. Nestorian influence spread far to the south of Hirta. There was an episcopal see on the territory of modern Qatar, called Beth Qatraye in Syriac sources, and a Nestorian monastery in Bahrain. As mentioned in previous chapters, one of several monasteries specialized in training missionaries for the Church of the East was located on the island of Kharg in the Persian Gulf. The ordinary Christians of Hirta, like other Christian Arabs, did not preoccupy themselves much with the matters of Christology and did not persist in their nominal religious affiliation. Many of them went on pilgrimages to the pillar of Shemun the Stylite, a Chalcedonian. The Miaphysites who frequented the Lakhmids, especially in the first half of the 6th century, included Simeon of Beth Arsham and personal emissaries of Severus of Antioch and Julian of Halicarnassus. In the 7th century, the Lakhmids were visited by Marutha of Tagrit as well as the associate and possible disciple of Jacob of Edessa, Giwargi (640–724), nicknamed “Bishop of the Arabs.” Giwargi, who lived after the conquest of the Lakhmid territory by Muslim Arabs in 633 and authored a number of theological and other works, was mostly active among nomadic Arab tribes as well as sedentary Arabs in the town of Aqola to the north of Hirta, which later became Kufa.

20.1.2. Christianity in inner Arabia and Yemen. Christianity penetrated deeper into Arabia mainly along the trade routes that linked the peninsula with the Fertile Crescent and were explored by the Arameans since time immemorial. Syriac traders and preachers often settled along these caravan routes, forming small communities and trading posts. These would also accommodate the Syriacs, who fled religious persecution in Iran and the Byzantine Empire. In all likelihood, Christianity was first brought into inner Arabia by the Syriacs. There are also several semilegendary accounts on concrete individuals who preached Christianity in Arabia, such as the Yemeni merchant Hayyan, who was converted to Christianity by the Nestorians of Hirta and preached in Yemen at the beginning of the 5th century, or Byzantine Deacon Theophilus, who was sent to the Himyarite Kingdom by Emperor Constantius II (337–361) as a member of a Byzantine embassy. The Tayy tribe was one of the most Christianized in Arabia. Its most famous representative was the Christian poet Hatim al-Tayyi, who lived in the pre-Islamic era. Even today, the Arabs revere him as the personification of generosity and hospitality. Syriac often called all Arabs “Tayyites” (Tayyaye). The main Christian center in Arabia was the Himyarite Kingdom, namely the city of Najran, where a large Christian community existed. It originated in the 4th– 5th centuries and later gained fame because of its stubborn resistance to advancing



Islam. 2 Jacobites were particularly influential here, but instead of Nestorians, they had to confront the Jews. The Jews had considerable political weight, and some of the Himyarite rulers, such as Dhu Nuwas, even professed Judaism and persecuted Christians, as testified by Jacob of Serugh, among others. In 523, Dhu Nuwas massacred thousands of Christians in Najran and then sent messages to the King of Iran Kavadh I and the ruler of Hirta, al-Mundhir ibn al-Naaman, advising them to do the same with the Christians under their rule. Al-Mundhir showed the message to the members of the Byzantine delegation sent to Hirta by Emperor Justin I, which included Simeon of Beth Arsham, who described the massacre of Christians by Dhu Nuwas in one of his epistles. At Justin’s request, and with his military support, in 525 Kaleb, king of the Ethiopian Christian kingdom of Aksum, invaded South Arabia. Dhu Nuwas was killed in a battle. The Ethiopians were Miaphysites, and they contributed to the overall strengthening of the Miaphysite influence in Yemen. Ethiopian rule lasted until 598, then Yemen was captured by the Sasanians and 30 years later became part of the Arab Caliphate. Cosmas Indicopleustes, who lived in the 6th century, reported a large number of Christians on the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean. According to him, the locals, being the descendants of the colonists sent by the Egyptian Ptolemies, spoke Greek but were attended by clergy that “received orders from Persia”—in other words, they were Nestorian. In the 9th century, Socotra was assigned a resident Nestorian Bishop, which means that the Nestorian population on the island had grown significantly. In the 14th century, the Venetian merchant and traveler, Marco Polo (1254–1324), witnessed Nestorian presence on Socotra.

20.1.3. The Prophet Muhammad and Christianity. The Syriacs were undoubtedly very familiar with the birthplace of Prophet Muhammad, Mecca, which was a major trading center. Here, in contrast to the northern parts of Arabia and Yemen, there were very few Christians but Muhammad maintained contacts with them. According to a hadith (a brief report on Muhammad’s life and activity), the first Christian, whom he met in his youth, was a Syriac monk called Bahira of Bosra. Bahira once saw a caravan in Bosra, with which Muhammad was on route to Damascus, and reading some signs, recognized him as a future prophet. Another hadith stated that many years later, Muhammad discussed the Old Testament and the Gospels with a Christian monk, and it is believed that it was the same Bahira, although the hadith refers to the monk as “Nestorius.” A more believable Christian in Muhammad’s life was Waraka ibn Nawfal, the cousin of his first wife, Khadija. When the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad and ordered him to start preaching, he told his wife about this vision and she, Valuable information on the spread of Christianity in South Arabia is found in the Syriac “Book of the Himyarites,” usually attributed to Simeon of Beth Arsham, or Bishop Sergios of Rusafa, a member of the Embassy sent by Emperor Justin I to the King of Hirta, al-Mundhir ibn al-Naaman. 2



in turn, her cousin. Waraka, confirming that it was the same Archangel who God had sent to Moses, recognized Muhammad as a prophet. Hadiths on Muhammad’s meetings and discussions with Christian monks were often quoted in the early Islam period as evidence that the sacred texts of Jews and Christians contained prophecies about Muhammad and his mission. In MuslimChristian polemics, which were particularly active in the 8th–9th centuries, Muslims used these hadiths as a weighty argument in favor of the true nature of their religion and incontestable status of Muhammad as a prophet. From a historical point of view, the hadiths confirm that the future founder of Islam had contacts with Christians, learning the basics of the Christian faith from them. The Quran leaves no doubt that Muhammad was very well versed in biblical tradition, including apocryphal interpretations. It is also assumed that he knew various Christological theories and that Syriac Miaphysitism could have influenced the development of his extreme monotheistic concept. Interestingly, both East and West Syriacs have their own versions of the Bahira hadith, conventionally called “The Legend of Sargis Bhira.” According to the legend, the protagonist, a Syriac monk, receives revelation on Mount Sinai of the coming rule of the Arabs. Pursued by the official clergy, he withdraws to the desert, where he meets Muhammad, teaches him the basics of Christianity and sends him to preach monotheism to his fellow tribesmen. The legend thus implies that the Quran contains a simplified summary of the basics of Christianity as presented by Sargis Bhira. 3 It is obvious that the Syriacs created the legend based on the Bahira hadith in the 8th–9th centuries for the needs of Muslim-Christian polemics. It should be noted that numerous Syriac works on apologetics were produced in this period, many of which are in the form of a dialogue between a Christian priest or a monk and a noble Muslim. This format was based on the Bahira hadith and was easily absorbed by Muslims. The vast majority of such “dialogues” are fictional, although some, such as the one between the Catholicos of the Church of the East, Timotheos I, and Caliph al-Mahdi (775–785), extant in Arabic and Syriac versions, is based on historical accounts.

The German Semitologist Christoph Luxenberg, in his book The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran (Berlin: Hans Schiler Publishers, 2000), suggested that the Muslim holy book is based on Syriac Christian texts, namely the lectionaries that Syriacs orally translated into Syriac-Arabic Koine, and used in their missionary work among the Arabs (the existence of such a Koine was corroborated by the Russian scholar Nina Pigulevskaya). According to Luxenberg, the incomprehensibility of the Koine to the subsequent generations of Muslim Arabs resulted in many distortions and unclear fragments in the final version of the Quran. He also suggested that the very word “Quran” originates from the Syriac word qeryana, which means “reading” or “lectionary.” Most scholars do not accept this peculiar version of the Aramaic primacy theory. 3




20.2.1. The penetration of Nestorians into Central Asia. Nestorians—mainly refugees fleeing religious persecution by the Sasanians—first appeared in the regions of Central Asia near Iran in the 4th century. At that time, the most common religions there were Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Buddhism, various forms of animism, and shamanism. By the 6th century, Syriac merchants had settled in Central Asia and formed trading posts and entire communities. Syriacs were well integrated into local societies and in addition to trade, distinguished themselves in education, medicine, and public service. As in other regions, Syriac laymen in Central Asia were ardent champions of Christianity; professional missionaries following them had to deal mostly with the establishment of the local church structure. The eastward expansion of the Nestorians was largely the result of severe restrictions on missionary activity imposed by the Arabs on the territories under their rule. Catholicos Timotheos I (780–823) gave particular importance to missionary activity, and his personal role in spreading Christianity in Central Asia was quite significant. He sent dozens of missionaries there, among them the famous Shubhalisho, who preached Christianity in the vast territory extending from the Caspian Sea to China. Marco Polo reported seeing many Nestorian churches along the trade route linking Baghdad to Beijing through Central Asia. Syriac activity in the region was not confined solely to preaching Christianity but also included valuable contributions to writing and literacy in local languages to which the Syriacs adapted their own script. In addition to Nestorians, the Central Asian region attracted Jacobite, Melkite, and Armenian missionaries, although they never achieved equally impressive results. There is also evidence of the Gnostic Marcionites’ presence in Central Asia. Nevertheless, despite the influx of missionaries, Christianity has always remained a minority religion in Central Asia.

20.2.2. Merv. Syriac missionaries started in Central Asia with the Amu Darya River basin. The most important center of the region was the oasis city of Merv (modern Mary in Turkmenistan). It possessed significant geostrategic importance and was the capital of the Achaemenid province of Margiana and the Sasanian of Khorasan. Under the Sasanians, a royal mint existed in the city. Merv served as a link between Iran and Central Asia and was a conduit of Iranian political and cultural influence in the region. When Nestorians first arrived here, the city was the center of Manichean and Buddhist missionary activity, while the dominant religion was Zoroastrianism, the official religion of Sasanian Iran. According to the Syriac Arabic-language “Chronicle of Siirt,” in the 4th century, Bishop Bar Shabba, who was also a physician, preached Christianity in Merv. Later, the Episcopal See of Merv was transformed into a Metropolitan See and played a visible role in the affairs of the Church of the East. The Metropolitan of Merv held the seventh position in the official listings of the Metropolitans. The most well known Metropolitan of Merv was Elijah (7th century), who was engaged in active missionary outreach in the region. His name is associated with the last Sasanian King Yazdegerd III (632–651), who had fled from the advancing Arabs



to Central Asia and was killed in Merv by a common miller. According to the Syriac tradition, Metropolitan Elijah interred the king’s body. In Merv, Nestorians established schools, monasteries, and hospitals, which were the traditional attributes of their missionary presence. The Syriac education system in the city was focused primarily on missionary work. Merv also produced several prominent Syriac writers and scholars. The most renowned of them was Ishodad of Merv (9th century), known for his commentaries on all 22 books of the New Testament. Through the activities of the Nestorians, Christianity quickly established itself in Merv. Its influence in the city is evident from the fact that the reverses of the Sasanian coins minted in the city sometimes depicted a cross. Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973–1048) reported that during his lifetime, most people in Merv were Christian. He also mentioned the presence of a Melkite Metropolitan of “Khorezm and Khorasan” in the city. He then added that he had not seen any Jacobites in those parts, although in the 7th century, a Jacobite Metropolitan See existed in Herat (northwest of present-day Afghanistan). Marco Polo mentioned numerous Jacobite Churches in East Turkestan.

20.2.3. Sogdiana and Sogdians. Merv served as a base for Syriac missionaries, from which they spread Christianity further east, to the right bank of Amu Darya 4 and the territory of Sogdiana. Sogdiana (the Greek form of the Iranian Sugada) was once a province of Achaemenid Iran, mentioned in Darius’ Behistun inscription. This area, with the core between the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya, including the valley of Zarafshan River, occupies the territory of modern Tajikistan (except for the Pamirs), southern Uzbekistan (including Samarkand, the capital of Sogdiana and Bukhara), and northern Afghanistan. Under Alexander the Great, Sogdiana was merged into single satrapy with Bactria (Tocharistan) further south, known as the largest center of Hellenism in Central Asia. In 250 BC, under the Seleucid satrap Diodotus, the satrapy became essentially independent, and under his son, Diodotus II, it was officially transformed into a Greco-Bactrian kingdom, which lasted until 125 BC. The Sogdians were a people of Eastern Iranian origin. They spoke a language related to Parthian and Pahlavi, which served as a lingua franca within Central Asia itself and in its dealings with China and India. It is noteworthy that the first samples of the Modern Persian language were recorded in Sogdiana in the 9th–10th centuries and may have been influenced by the Sogdian language, still alive at that time. The Yaghnobi language, spoken in today’s Tajikistan, is believed to be the descendant of one of the Sogdian dialects. The Sogdians played a key role in the international transit trade as the main caravan routes, including the Great Silk Road, passed through their territory. Before Medieval Arabic sources called the right bank of Amu Darya up to Syr Darya Mawarannahr (“what is beyond the river [Amu Darya].” The analogous term in European languages is “Transoxiana.” 4



the advent of Christianity, their main religion was Zoroastrianism. Manichaeism and Buddhism also had a large number of followers. Sogdians were quite tolerant in religious affairs and open to cultural and ideological influences, which greatly facilitated the spread of Christianity among them. Christianity was known in Sogdiana before the Syriacs’ arrival to the region, but mass conversions took place thanks to Syriac efforts. The Nestorians established and institutionalized themselves in Samarkand in the 5th century and from the 7th to the 15th century they had their own Metropolitan there. The establishment of the Metropolitan See of Samarkand is attributed to Catholicos Ishoyahb II (628–644), although some Syriac sources attribute this to the Catholicos Ahai (410–415). It seems likely that an earlier Episcopal See was merely transformed into the Metropolitan See under Ishoyahb II. Other major centers of Christianity were Herat, where an Episcopal See existed since 424 and was transformed into a Metropolitan in 585, and Bukhara. The year of the establishment of the Episcopal See of Bukhara is unknown but by the beginning of the 8th century, it was already a Metropolitan See. The spread of Christianity in Sogdiana is evident from the fact that some villages around Samarkand were populated almost entirely by Nestorians. Christianity survived in this country for several centuries, yet it never became the religion of the majority of the Sogdian people. According to Marco Polo, during whose lifetime Islam had already become the dominant religion in Central Asia, every tenth resident of Samarkand was Christian and new churches were under construction in the city.

Sogdian script and literature. Sogdians had ancient cultural traditions, including in written form, and they played an important role in the history of Christianity in Central Asia. They became another Iranian-speaking people who successfully adapted the Aramaic-Syriac script (in this case Estrangela) to their language, probably with the help of Syriac missionaries. It is necessary to recall here that the use of earlier forms of Aramaic script was recorded in Central Asia in the first centuries AD. After Parthian, Pahlavi, and Avestan scripts, the Christian Sogdian script, which is close to Pahlavi, is the next important Iranian script of Aramaic-Syriac origin. The Sogdian alphabet consisted of 20 letters and passed through two stages of development: early, in which the letters were not connected to each other or were connected without changes in their shape, and late—cursive—in which the shape of the letters varied according to their position in the word. The direction of writing was from right to left, although since the 8th century the letters would sometimes run from top down, forming vertical columns running from left to right. In such instances, the letters were turned 90 degrees counter-clockwise. The vertical direction is usually explained by the influence of the Chinese writing system. The main body of the extant Sogdian literature is Buddhist and Manichean by origin. Christian literature, which is fairly well preserved, is mostly translated from the Syriac language (collections of hymns, prayers, psalms, lectionaries, lives of saints, and different commentaries). Nothing is known about the original Christian literature in the Sogdian language. The extant Christian literature was mostly created in the 9th–10th centuries in the Nestorian Bulayiq monastery, located north of Tur-



pan, in what is now the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. It should be noted that the language and style of Sogdian literature, regardless of the religious affiliation of a text, were generally the same, but Christian texts featured many words of Syriac origin. The high status of the Sogdian language is confirmed by its use in liturgy and that despite the fact that the Church of the East, unlike other Syriac Churches, to this day does not use any language other than Syriac in the liturgy. This reality, however, did not diminish the importance of the Syriac language in Central Asia, knowledge of which was compulsory for Sogdian clergy and was also widely studied by the laymen.

Fig. 90. A fragment of a Sogdian manuscript

20.2.4. Syriac missionaries in Bactria and Sakastan. In Bactria, as in Sogdiana, ancient historians, including Armenian, attested to the presence of Christians before the first Syriac missionaries arrived. Christians were mainly mentioned among Kushans, an Indo-European people who spoke the language of the Tocharian group, the easternmost in the Indo-European language family. In the first centuries AD, Kushan domination extended over the whole of Bactria and southern regions of Sogdiana. It is assumed that Iranian Christians, who fled to their lands from the persecution of the Sasanian kings Shapur II (309–379) and Yazdegerd II (438–457), could have introduced Christianity to the Kushans. Of all the peoples who at different times inhabited Bactria, Syriac missionary activity was particularly successful among the Ephtalites, a Central Asian sedentary



people of Eastern Iranian origin. Because of the light color of their skin, the Ephtalites were also called “White Huns,” although they were not related to the Huns. The first to preach Christianity to them were the Christians exiled from Iran by the Sasanians, which means that the Ephtalites and Kushans could have been introduced to Christianity almost simultaneously. When the temporarily deposed Sasanian King Kavadh I (488–531) found refuge among the Ephtalites in 496, he was accompanied by a Bishop and four priests of the Church of the East, who successfully preached among the locals. After that, Ephtalite territories started attracting Syriac laymen as well, who also were engaged in missionary outreach. As a result, Nestorianism among Ephtalites became so widespread that in 549 Catholicos Aba I (540–552), at the request of the Ephtalites themselves, ordained a bishop for them, whom the Ephtalites had sent to Seleucia-Ctesiphon specifically for that purpose. Syriac clergy and laity not only preached to Ephtalites but also contributed to the development of local writing and literature, crafts, and agriculture and also worked as physicians. Alongside the Syriacs, Armenians were also engaged in similar activity among the Ephtalites. The major Christian center in Bactria was Herat, where both Nestorian (from the 5th century) and Jacobite (from the 7th century) Bishoprics existed and were later upgraded to Metropolitan Sees. There are reports on theological debates in Herat between the representatives of the two rival branches of Syriac Christianity. There was also a Nestorian Bishopric in a small town of Pushang, south of Herat. A strong Syriac presence also existed to the south of Bactria, in Sakastan (Sistan), a region in the southeast of present-day Iran and southwest of Afghanistan. The Jacobites dominated the western regions of Sakastan, settling there at the beginning of the 7th century and had their Bishopric until the beginning of the Mongol conquest. Nestorians were the majority in eastern Sakastan; their Bishoprics there are last mentioned in the 8th century. 20.2.5. Christianity among the Turkic tribes of Zhetysu. Moving along the ancient caravan routes, Christianity penetrated into the vast regions to the east of Syr Darya where, thanks to Syriac missionary activity, it became widespread among the nomadic and semi-nomadic Turkic tribes of Central Asia and Eastern Turkestan. Merv and Samarkand played important roles in the Christianization of these tribes. The Life of Elijah, Metropolitan of Merv, informs us that in the middle of the 7th century he baptized a Turkic Khagan (ruler) with all his army. Christianity was very common in Zhetysu, or Seven Rivers, an area formed by the valleys of rivers flowing down from the Tien Shan to the north, including Lakes Balkhash and Issyk-Kul. Of the Turkic tribes of Zhetysu, the Karluks of Taraz were the most advanced. Together with Basmyls and some other Turkic tribes, they were members of the alliance headed by the Uighurs, which in 745 crushed the Turkic Khaganate, a quasi-state entity, unifying the Turkic peoples of Central Asia and Eastern Turkestan. After this victory, the Uighurs turned their weapons against their former allies, forcing the Karluks to move to Zhetysu and establish their own Khaganate in 766. Before the advent of Christianity, the dominant religions among the Turkic tribes of Zhetysu were Manichaeism and Buddhism. The Sogdians, who had a sig-



nificant cultural influence in the region, largely contributed to the spread of Christianity in Zhetysu. Numerous fragments of Christian texts in the Sogdian language found in Zhetysu confirm the presence of many Christian Sogdians in the region, as well as the use of that language by Christian Turks as a literary and liturgical language, alongside Syriac. In the land of Seven Rivers, remains of Nestorian churches and a cemetery were found, indicating the practice of traditional Christian burial alongside traditional burial in ossuaries. In the 8th century, the number of Christians among the Karluks and other Turkic tribes in Zhetysu was so large that Catholicos Timotheos I ordained a separate bishop for them, laying down the foundation of local church institutions. In addition to the Nestorians, Armenian missionaries also visited the Seven Rivers. They founded a monastery on the shores of Issyk-Kul (shown in the famous Catalan Atlas of 1375), where, according to the legend, the relics of the Evangelist Matthew were kept. Armenian activity in East Turkestan was also reported by European travelers, such as the Flemish Franciscan, William of Rubruck (1220–1270), whom King Louis IX sent to the Mongols and who left an account of his journey. Christianity existed in Zhetysu until the 14th century, to which the latest of the numerous local Christian tombstones are dated.

20.2.6. Christianity among the Uighurs. As for the Uighurs, after the defeat of the Turkic Khaganate in 745, they established their own extensive Khaganate. They were very strongly influenced by Manichaeism, which became the official religion in 764. Uighur Manicheans were particularly intolerant of other religions, which forced smaller Turkic tribes under their rule to seek an alliance with the Karluks. To achieve this goal, the elites of these tribes turned to Christianity, as was the case, for example, with the Yenisei Kyrgyz. 5 After the fall of the Uighur Khanate in 840, a large part of the Uighurs migrated to the southwest, to the Tarim River basin in East Turkestan. There, Buddhism and Nestorian Christianity gradually replaced Manichaeism, which no longer enjoyed state protection. In the 10th century, Islam began spreading among Uighurs; however, the number of Christians was large enough to justify the establishment of the Metropolitan See of the Church of the East in Kashgar in 1180, which also covered Zhetysu. Up until the 8th century, the Uighurs, like many other Turkic peoples, used the so-called “Orkhon” or “Orkhon-Yenisey” script, which, because of the similarity with Germanic Runes is often referred to as “Runic.” Orkhon Runes had 38 nonconnecting letters written from right to left. Many scholars believe that they are descended from earlier, non-connecting Sogdian letters, which suggests an indirect

In the Kyrgyz epic “Manas,” the Nestorians are called Tarsa. This word, which is of Pahlavi origin, means “fearing [God],” or simply “believer.” This is also attested in other written sources from Central Asia. There was also a city in the territory of modern Kyrgyzstan called Tarsakend, which was presumably populated mostly by Christians. 5



Aramaic origin. Others theorize that Orkhon Runes could have somehow originated directly from Phoenician letters. In the 8th century, the Uighurs created their own script based on Sogdian letters. Today it is called “Old Uighur” to distinguish it from the modern script based on Arabic letters, which is used in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. The Old Uighur script was created in Turpan, a major center of literature in the Sogdian language.

Fig. 91. A Nestorian cross

Fig. 92. A tombstone from Zhetysu with an Armenian-Syriac inscription



Unlike Sogdian script, which was written horizontally from right to left, the Old Uighur script ran top down in vertical columns lining up from left to right, although there are also examples of horizontal writing. The alphabet consisted of 20 letters (15 consonants and 5 vowels) for a total of 30 phonemes. As in other cursives of Aramaic origin, the shape of the letters varied depending on the position in the word. Old Uighur script remained in active use until about the 16th century, and then it was replaced by the Arabic script. The last manuscript in this script was written in the 18th century. The Uighur Christian literature, like the Sogdian, consisted mainly of translations from Syriac and survives in a large number of texts, although fewer than the Sogdian literature. The main centers of literary activity in the Uighur language were Turpan and the neighboring Nestorian Bulayiq monastery. Samples of Uighur Christian literature were also found in Hara-Hoto, the capital of Xi Xia, a state that existed on the territory of northern China in the 10th–13th centuries. They confirm reports by Syriac sources on the existence in Hara-Hoto of a large and influential Nestorian community.

20.2.7. Samples of Christian material culture in Central Asia. The presence of Christians in the Central Asian region is echoed in an extensive material culture. These samples include the remains of numerous churches, such as the church of the 8th century in Ak-Beshim (Zhetysu), another church with traces of frescoes in the city of Kocho near Turpan, tombstones with Christian symbols, and artifacts of obvious Christian origin. Many of these artifacts, such as seals, gems, medallions, pottery, and utensils, display equilateral crosses with expanding wings or non-expanding wings with trefoils on the ends. This type of cross is conventionally called “Nestorian.” However, not all artifacts with the images of the cross have Christian origin. Non-Christians, including those in Central Asia, often depicted the cross as a magical symbol on amulets, talismans, and other similar items. As for tombstones, they are particularly numerous in Zhetysu, especially in the Chu Valley. Several hundred tombstones with Nestorian crosses and Syriac and Turkic inscriptions, including vertical, were discovered here. They are dated from 858 to 1342. Russian scholar Nicolai Marr (1865–1934) described a tombstone in the Chu valley with an Armenian inscription. According to the inscription, the tomb belongs to Armenian bishop John, which is another indication of the presence of Armenian clergy in the Seven Rivers area. Duplication of the same inscription in Syriac confirms, however, the dominance of the Syriac Christian tradition in this region.


20.3.1. Christianity in Mongol tribes. Around the end of the 10th century, Nestorians reached the Gobi Desert and the areas near Lake Baikal. Here their missionary work focused on the Mongol and Turkic-Mongol tribes of Merkits, Onguds, Naimans, and Keraites, who at that time practiced Buddhism, Manichaeism, and various forms of shamanism. By the beginning of the 11th century, Christianity was quite widespread among these tribes and, to some extent, contributed to the devel-



opment of their literary tradition. This is particularly true regarding the Naimans, who were the most advanced among the mentioned tribes. Of the Mongol tribes, the Keraites were the most Christianized. Grigorios bar Ebraya mentions 1008 as the exact year of the conversion of Keraites and Naimans and retells the legend of the baptism of the Keraite Khan and his tribe. The Khan, lost in the mountains, met a certain saint, who promised to show him the way if he believed in Christ. Having returned safely home, the Khan sent people to the Metropolitan of the Church of the East in Merv with a request to send preachers for the conversion of his tribe. According to the legend, together with the Khan, who received a new name, Marguz (Mark), 200,000 Keraites were baptized. Keraite Khans resided in the settlement, which later grew into Karakorum, the first capital of the Great Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan (1155–1227). 6 Genghis Khan (whose real name was Temujin) enjoyed the patronage of his father’s sworn brother, a Keraite Khan, Nestorian Toghrul (Tooril), better known under the Chinese title Wang Khan (“king”). With the support of Wang Khan’s military and political power, in 1202–1204 Genghis Khan subjugated the three main tribes of Mongolia: Turks in the east, Keraites in Central Mongolia, and Naimans in the west, and in 1206 he was proclaimed the supreme Khan of all Mongols. Wang Khan, who tried to resist him, was killed. The Mongolian script. The Mongols extended their rule over the Uighurs, who were considerably more culturally developed. Uighurs were directly involved in the creation of the Mongol script. According to Mongol sources, among the Naimans captured by Genghis Khan in 1204 was an Uighur scribe named Tatar-Tonga, who adapted the Uighur vertical script for writing in the Mongolian language. This script remained in use in Mongolia until 1931 and then was replaced by Latin, and finally the Cyrillic alphabet. In Inner Mongolia, which is a part of China, Mongolian vertical writing was preserved, and its use remains mandatory. Since the end of the 20th century, there have been Mongolian attempts to revive traditional vertical writing; it is often used for ornamental purposes, on signs, book covers, seals, coins, and so on. The Cyrillic alphabet, however, still remains dominant. The Mongolian script, in turn, served as a basis for several other writing systems used by different peoples, such as Manchus, Oirats, Buryats, Kalmyks, and Chinese Evenks.

20.3.2. Mongol Khans and Nestorianism. Keraites and Naimans, most of whom were Nestorian Christians, were integrated into the Mongol Empire, playing a prominent role and contributing to its elevation. The Mongol state was tolerant in religious affairs and some Khans particularly favored Christians. As in Sasanian Iran and the Abbasid Caliphate, there were many Nestorians among Mongol officials, local administrators, clerks, and physicians. European ambassadors and travelers in their reports and travel records note a significant presence of Nestorians in the Khans’ court, alongside Buddhists, Muslims, and shamanists. 6

The capital of today’s Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, is also in the former Keraite territory.



Fig. 93. The modern Mongolian vertical script

Particularly noteworthy is the presence of Christians among the family members of the Mongol rulers. The niece of Wang Khan, the devout Nestorian Sorghaghtani-Beki (†1252), was the wife of Genghis Khan’s youngest son Tolui, with whom she had four sons—Mongke, Hulagu, Ariq Boke, and Kublai—all brought up to respect Christianity. Mongke and Kublai were respectively the fourth and the fifth (after Ogedei and Guyuk) Great Khans during the period from 1251 to 1294. Kublai Khan moved the capital of the Mongol Empire from Karakorum to Khanbaliq (Beijing) and became the founder of the Yuan Dynasty, which ruled China from 1271 to 1368 after the collapse of the unified Mongol Empire. After Mongke Khan’s death, Ariq Boke with active Nestorian support attempted to seize power from Kublai Khan. However, he was captured and died in custody. Another close relative of Kublai Khan, who in 1287 unsuccessfully attempted to seize power, was his uncle, Nestorian Nayan, who set out against his nephew under banners with Nestorian crosses. It is assumed that Kublai Khan refused to be baptized due to Nestorian support for Ariq Boke and Nayan. Marco Polo, who enjoyed Kublai’s great favor and along with his father and uncle spent 17 years at his court, reported that during his first meeting with the senior Polo, the Khan asked for his assistance in receiving missionaries from Europe, who were to baptize him and his entourage.



20.3.3. Hulagu Khan and his successors. Of all the sons of Tolui and Sorghaghtani-Beki, Hulagu Khan (1217–1265) was the one who dealt with Christians most often. A Buddhist himself, he was married to Nestorian Doquz Khatun, who persuaded him to treat Christians favorably and exerted a great influence on his religious policy. Hulagu Khan is best remembered for his campaigns in the Middle East that led to the conquest of Iran, Iraq, and Syria, the defeat of the Abbasid Caliphate, and the establishment of the dynasty of Iranian Ilkhans. In Hulagu’s Middle East affairs, his friend and confidant, a Nestorian Naiman named Kitbuqa Noyan, who considered himself a descendant of one of the Gospel Magi and surrounded himself with Nestorians, played an important role. Many Nestorians also served as soldiers in Hulagu’s army. In 1258, the Mongols captured and ravaged Baghdad, destroyed the House of Wisdom, dumping its rich library in the Tigris, and massacred thousands of Muslims but spared the Christians. Hulagu Khan even suggested the Catholicos of the Church of the East Makkika II (1257–1265) move into the Abbasid Caliphs’ palace. Under the influence of Doquz Khatun and Kitbuqa-Noyan, Hulagu Khan adopted a pronounced anti-Muslim, pro-Christian policy. This allowed the King of Armenian Cilicia, Hethum I, who already had diplomatic contacts with Mongke Khan, to form an alliance with Hulagu. Hethum’s son-in-law, Bohemond VI, Prince of the Latin Principality of Antioch also joined the alliance. In 1259, the allied Mongol-Armenian-Latin army led by Hulagu Khan set out for Palestine in order to liberate the Holy Sepulcher and on the way seized Amid, Nisibis, Edessa, Harran, Aleppo, and Damascus. This unusual campaign is remembered in history as the “Yellow Crusade” or “the Crusade of the Mongols.” Expectations of a restoration of Christianity in the Middle East made Hulagu Khan and his Christian wife very popular in Europe. They were even compared with Constantine the Great and Helena despite the fact that the Mongols demanded vassal subordination from the Pope and European monarchs. However, many Middle Eastern Crusaders were not happy with the role of “heretic” Nestorians and Armenians in the “Yellow Crusade.” They even formed alliances with Muslims against the Mongols. The death of Mongke Khan forced Hulagu to hastily return to Iran, which in 1260 resulted in Kitbuqa-Noyan’s defeat, capture, and execution at the hands of Egyptian Mamluks in the battle of Ain Jalut in Palestine. The subsequent withdrawal of the Mongols allowed the Egyptian Mamluks to completely expel the Crusaders from the Middle East by the end of the 13th century. With the death of Mongke Khan, the Mongol Empire’s disintegration, the first signs of which emerged after the death in 1241 of Genghis Khan’s son, Ogedei, became irreversible. The Mongol state, like Alexander the Great’s Empire, was divided into four states—Hulagu Khan’s Ilkhanate centered on Iran, the Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia, the Golden Horde founded by Batu Khan in 1243 with the center in



the Lower Volga, 7 and China under the rule of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, founded by Kublai. With the exception of China, the other three states eventually adopted Islam as their official religion. The fall of a unified Mongol state put an end to the so-called Pax Mongolica, or “The Mongol peace,” which provided for peace and security in the vast expanses of Eurasia and guaranteed unimpeded trade along the Silk Road. For the Nestorians, the end of the “Mongol Peace,” an important component of which was the Mongols’ religious tolerance, marked the beginning of the end of their privileged position and active missionary work in Central Asia, which was entering a period of intense Islamization. The Nestorians only received some respite under the rule of the first Ilkhans. The pro-Christian policy of Hulagu Khan was already mentioned. Noteworthy in this respect was his son, Abaqa Khan, the second Ilkhan of Iran (1265–1282). A Buddhist, he had two Christian wives, one of whom was the illegitimate daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Palaeologus, Maria Despina Paleologina. Abaqa Khan pursued a policy of forced Christianization of Muslims, which provoked many attempts on his life, ending in his eventual assassination. His brother, Nikola Tekuder, who was baptized in childhood according to the Nestorian rite, succeeded Abaqa. As an adult, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Ahmad Tekuder. He pursued a policy completely opposite to Abaqa’s, trying to cut back on the rights of Christians and Buddhists and even persecuting them. After two years in power, Ahmad Tekuder was deposed by his nephew, Abaqa Khan’s son, Argun Khan (1284–1291), who, being a Buddhist, nevertheless revived his father’s pro-Christian, anti-Muslim policies. It is interesting that some coins minted by Abaqa and Argun featured the Christian formula “In the name of the Father, the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” 20.3.4. Rabban Sauma and Yahbalaha III. Argun Khan’s name is associated with the diplomatic mission to Europe by a Nestorian monk from Beijing, Rabban Bar Sauma, or just Rabban Sauma (1230–1293), who was an ethnic Uighur (according to Bar Ebraya) or Ongud (according to Chinese sources). He left Beijing with his disciple, an Uighur named Rabban Markos (1244–1317), also a native of China, for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. After reaching the territory under the Ilkhans’ rule, they discovered that due to political and military circumstances they could not proceed toward the Holy Land. Instead, they visited the region’s Christian centers, including the former capital of Armenia, Ani. During their stay in Baghdad, the Catholicos of the Church of the East Denha I (1265–1281) asked the pilgrims to obtain Abaqa Khan’s letter that confirmed his patriarchal status. Denha also ordained Rabban Markos Metropolitan of China and a year later, after the death of Denha, Rabban Markos was elected Catholicos under the name of Yahbalaha III bar Turkaye, or “the son of the Turks” (1283–1317). He was one of the very few non-Syriacs to be

Among the Khans of the Golden Horde there was one Nestorian Christian, Sartaq Khan (1255–1256), son of Batu Khan. 7



elected Catholicos of the Church of the East. Enthronement of a person from the depths of Asia was dictated by a desire to strengthen the position and influence of the Church of the East at the court of Mongol Ilkhans. The enthronement also objectively reflected the dramatic changes in the ethnic composition of the flock and the clergy of the Church of the East, which with its unprecedented territorial expansion had absorbed a large number of non-Syriacs. For several centuries the Church of the East ceased to be a Syriac national church, becoming a supranational Church instead, nourishing many nations.

Fig. 94. A fragment of a letter in Mongolian from Argun Khan to King Philip the Fair of France, confirming Rabban Sauma’s ambassadorial status

It was Yahbalaha III who recommended that Argun Khan, who sought an alliance with the Europeans against Muslims, send Rabban Sauma on a diplomatic mission to the European monarchs. Rabban Sauma, who set off in 1287, met in Constantinople with the Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus, in Paris with the King of France Philip the Fair, in Aquitaine (southwest France) with King Edward I of England, and in Rome with the newly elected Pope Nicholas IV. The Pope allowed him to serve a Church of the East liturgy in St. Peter’s Cathedral and sent with him a ring, a crown, and other gifts for Catholicos Yahbalaha III, as well as the papal bull recognizing Yahbalaha’s patriarchal authority. In 1304, Yahbalaha bar Turkaye made the first attempt in the history of the Church of the East to enter into union with the Vatican, but his Bishops were opposed to this idea. Argun was very pleased with the results of Rabban Sauma’s mission and sent another two embassies to Europe, one of which was headed by a Nestorian highranking army officer. Nevertheless, in spite of Ilkhan’s diplomatic activity and the response missions from France and the Vatican, an alliance with European powers was never achieved.



The story of Rabban Markos’ and Rabban Sauma’s journey from Beijing to the Middle East and Rabban Sauma’s European mission is described in the “History of Mar Yahbalaha III and Rabban Sauma” (also known as “The Monks of Kublai Khan” in English-language literature), presumably written by Rabban Sauma, who spent his last years in Baghdad. 8 This is one of the most remarkable examples of Syriac travelogue literature, notable for its credibility and lack of fictional elements inherent to this genre. The “History of Mar Yahbalaha III and Rabban Sauma” is a kind of oriental analogue of Marco Polo’s famous book, which describes his journey to the East.

20.3.5. Syriacs under last Ilkhans and Tamerlane. The period of Hulagu Khan and his successors was the last short-lived favorable period for the Syriacs and their Churches. It was during this time, that the Church of the East reached its greatest territorial expansion. By the end of the 13th century, it had 30 Metropolitan Sees and 200 dioceses, which covered a vast territory from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Far East. The Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch also experienced a period of prosperity and greatest territorial expansion. Like the Church of the East, although not as successfully, it was actively involved in missionary outreach in Central Asia, and by the end of the 13th century it had 20 Metropolitan Sees and 103 dioceses. The situation began to deteriorate rapidly when Ghazan, one of Argun’s sons, became the seventh Ilkhan in 1295. Three years before that, he had converted to Islam under the name of Mahmoud and once in power proclaimed Islam as the state religion of the Ilkhanate. The Syriacs were subjected to persecution and their Christian heritage came under constant threat of destruction. The sharp decline in the number of Jacobite and Nestorian monasteries, which were the centers of Syriac intellectual life, resulted in the decay of active scientific and literary activity in the Syriac language. Kublai Khan, the Mongol founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China who patronized Christians, also died in 1295. Syriacs received an even more severe blow in the 1390s when Iran and Iraq suffered an invasion by Tamerlane (1336–1405), catastrophic in terms of its consequences. The number of Syriacs, which had fallen due to invaders and epidemics, and claimed in masses by Islam, was once again rapidly decreasing. The Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church lost, one after the other, numerous dioceses throughout Asia, and were no longer in a position to initiate ambitious missionary projects. Reduced eventually to their original Syro-Mesopotamian homeland, they were now preoccupied only with matters of their own survival. The last remnants of Nestorians, Jacobites, and Armenians, whose presence in Tamerlane’s capital of Samarkand and in some other regions of Central Asia was attested by Europe-

It was suggested that Rabban Sauma might have written his travel notes in Persian, and later they were compiled into the Syriac-language “History of Mar Yahbalaha III and Rabban Sauma.” 8



ans, were completely destroyed during the reign of Tamerlane’s grandson, Ulugbek (1393–1449).

20.3.6. The legend of Prester John. The spread of Christianity among Mongol tribes is believed to be the basis of the legend of Prester John, a powerful king and patriarch of a large Christian state, supposedly located somewhere in Asia. The Keraite tribal lord Wang Khan, Hulagu Khan, who had numerous Nestorian soldiers, and even Genghis Khan are mentioned among the suggested prototypes of Prester John. Some believed him to be the descendant of one of the Magi mentioned in the New Testament, while others identified Prester John with the Catholicos of the Church of the East and even with the Dalai Lama. The Russian historian Lev Gumilyov (1912–1992), who dedicated a special study to Prester John, suggested as a prototype Yelu Dashi (1087–1143), founder and gurkhan (ruler) of the Mongol tribe of Khitans, which was later incorporated into Genghis Khan’s Empire. In 1141, at the Battle of Qatwan near Samarkand, Yelu Dashi defeated the army of the Seljuk Turk Sultan Ahmad Sanjar, which became a cause for great rejoicing and enthusiasm among the Christians of the East and Europeans. During the Crusades and Mongol conquests, the legend of Pester John was very popular in the vast area stretching from China and India to Europe. Many European knights set out for the Middle East counting on his support. Lev Gumilyov even suggested that the legend was fabricated by the European knights of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099–1291) in preparation for the Second Crusade of 1145. In the second half of the 12th century, a letter allegedly written by Prester John to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Comnenus (1143–1180), with information on the Nestorians living far in Asia, was widely circulated. It was translated into many languages and captured public imagination until the invention of printing, which gave it a new life. The letter was so influential that Pope Alexander III (1159–1181) tried to establish contact with the legendary king and even sent his personal envoy, Philip, who never returned from his mission. Nevertheless, the Vatican’s instructions given to its ambassadors to the Mongol Khans invariably referred to the search for Prester John. Prester John was a supra-temporal character, as he was considered alive and searched for throughout almost the whole existence of the legend. An insatiable desire to find the king forced people to identify him with nearly every Asian potentate or ruler that professed Christianity. After the fall of the Mongol Empire, the legendary Christian kingdom of Asia was moved to India and Prester John became somehow associated with the Apostle Thomas, who had preached in that country. It has also been suggested that one of the earliest causes of the legend may have been the spread of Christianity in India. In the 15th century, the most unusual “discovery” was made by the Portuguese, who found Prester John in Negus, the Christian king of Ethiopia, which in Europe was often considered one of the “Three Indias,” located on the shores of the Indian Ocean. This impressed Europeans so much that for a long time they also called the Ethiopian Negus “Prester John,” which sometimes caused confusion. Thus, in 1441, the envoys of Negus Zara Jacob, who were present at the FerraraFlorence Ecumenical Council of 1438–1445, were greatly surprised when they were



introduced as the envoys of Prester John. Without much success, they tried to explain that the titles of their monarch did not contain any “Prester John.” The German orientalist Hiob Ludolf (1624–1704) in the 17th century finally proved the baselessness of identifying Prester John with Negus. After that, the ancient legend gradually faded away.


20.4.1. Apostle Thomas and Jews and Christians of the Malabar Coast. In no other country was Syriac missionary activity as successful as in India. It was focused on the coastal area of the modern Indian southwestern state of Kerala, known as Malabar or the Malabar Coast, where a Christian community had existed from the first centuries AD. There is no reliable historical documentation on the spread of Christianity in India and the first centuries of its history here but according to the ancient local Church tradition, recognized by all Christian Churches, Apostle Thomas was the first to have preached in Malabar in 52 AD. Under his name, the Malabar Christians are known as “St. Thomas Christians.” The Greco-Roman world was quite familiar with India. The Roman Empire and India had established an active trade in spices, ivory, and other commodities, and the Malabar Coast, facing the Middle East, played an important role in it. There were three routes linking India with the Roman Empire. The oldest of them was overland, an offshoot of the Great Silk Road. The other two were sea routes: one connected the ports of the Malabar Coast with the Persian Gulf, and the other, which was established with the discovery of the monsoon winds, with the Red Sea and then with Alexandria. The sea routes to India were considered safer and more reliable since the hostile Iranian and unpredictable Central Asian territories could be bypassed. It is believed that the origins of Malabar’s Christian community were connected with the Jews, who appeared here as a result of the active trade between the Roman Empire and India. The Jews themselves link their Indian communities to the time of Kings David and Solomon, who supposedly maintained trade contacts with this country. In the Kerala port city of Kochi (or Cochin) a small Jewish community still exists that is historically associated with the St. Thomas Christians. Its members trace their origin to the trade emissaries of the Israeli kings. Another Jewish community, “Bene Israel” (“Sons of Israel”), exists in the state of Maharashtra with the capital in Mumbai. They claim descent from the Jews, who migrated from Galilee to India in the 2nd century BC. As in the Roman Empire and Iran, the main target of Christian preachers in India was the Jewish community. The everyday life and religious practices of St. Thomas Christians to this day preserve many Jewish elements and this community, until the arrival of Europeans in India, was, in fact, a kind of a relic of the JudeoChristian tradition. It is noteworthy that the St. Thomas Christians are known in India as Nasrani, or “Nazarenes,” as the early followers of Jesus among Palestinian Jews were called. The Syriac church tradition confirms Apostle Thomas’ missionary outreach in India and does not question the apostolic origin of the Church of Malabar. Howev-



er, the Syriac-language “Acts of Thomas”—the earliest, but improbable, with an admixture of Gnostic beliefs, chronicle of Thomas’ activities in India written at the beginning of the 3rd century, presumably in Edessa—describes the Apostle’s overland journey to the northwest of the country. Other Syriac authors mention that on the way to India, Thomas preached in Parthia and Iran. However, no historically reliable data exists about evangelization activity in North India, which during St. Thomas’ lifetime was under Parthian rule. Syriac missionaries began penetrating this region, which was within reach of their main missionary centers in Central Asia, only a few centuries after St. Thomas. Today there is no significant Christian presence in this region of India. In any case, historians are inclined to consider Apostle Thomas a real person, who stood at the origins of Christianity in India, and it is believed that he used the southern sea route to reach this country. It was also suggested that Thomas could have visited India twice, by different routes. According to local oral accounts, St. Thomas, after having founded “seven and a half” churches in Malabar, went to preach along the east coast of India, where in 72 AD he was martyred in the area known today as St. Thomas Mount and was buried in Madras (Chennai). Syriac tradition, going back to the “Acts of Thomas,” claims that a Syriac merchant brought the remains of the Apostle to Edessa, where they were reburied. This momentous event found its way into the Syriac church calendar, and it is celebrated annually on the third of July. Some of the writings by Ephrem the Syrian refer to Thomas’ missionary work in India and his reburial in Edessa. The Syriacs showed special reverence for Apostle Thomas because, due to his instructions, Addai had visited Osrhoene and then sent his own disciples, Aggai and Mari, to preach in Iran. 20.4.2. Apostle Bartholomew and India. There is a parallel tradition relating to St. Bartholomew’s missionary activity in India. Bartholomew is believed to have brought an apocryphal version of the Gospel of Matthew in Aramaic, known as the “Gospel of the Nasoreans,” with him to India. According to St. Jerome, this Gospel was attested in India by the founder of the School of Alexandria, Pantaenus, who visited India in 189 AD at the request of the Malabar Christians. Pantaenus’ visit to India, Bartholomew’s activity there, and the Gospel of Matthew written in “Jewish” letters are also mentioned by Eusebius of Caesarea. This evidence is quite valuable because of its direct indication of the presence of Christian communities in the south of India in the 2nd century. References to the use in India of an Aramaiclanguage Gospel confirm that Christianity in India originated within Jewish communities because it could be preached in Aramaic only to them. Pantaenus’ visit also confirms that South Indian Christianity was not completely isolated from the major Christian centers and communicated at least with Alexandria. The local Malabar tradition does not refer to St. Bartholomew’s activities in India. Some scholars find it possible that, along with the St. Thomas Christians, a smaller community of “St. Bartholomew Christians” could also have existed that was later absorbed either by St. Thomas Christians or another Indian Christian community. It should be noted that the history of Christianity contains other traditions of the activity of two Apostles in the same country. Thus, in Armenia, the



same Bartholomew preached alongside Thaddeus and apostolic status of the Armenian Church goes back to both of them.

20.4.3. Syriac settlers in Malabar. The tradition of linking Christianity in India with St. Thomas has many opponents. Since there is a lack of reliable information about the history of Malabar Christianity of the first three centuries and its close relations with the Church of the East, they deduce that Christian communities in South India appeared no earlier than the 3rd century and only with the Syriac migration to Malabar. The earliest documented contact of the Syriacs with St. Thomas Christians comes from the end of the 3rd century. According to Syriac sources, in 296–297 Bishop David of Prat d-Mayshan (near modern Basra) visited Malabar, but details of his visit are unknown. Syriac migrants to Malabar played a central role in bringing St. Thomas Christians closer to Syriac Christianity. According to local tradition, the first settlers appeared in Malabar in 345 as a result of the persecution of Christians in Iran under Shapur II (309–379). They were merchants, artisans, and priests, 400 in total, led by Thomas of Cana from Edessa. St. Thomas Christians enthusiastically welcomed the newcomers and by their request, the local Raja presented the Syriacs with “72 honors” recorded on special copper plates that existed until the 16th century, and also gave them land for settlement and construction of a church. It is believed that this settlement survived to this day as the Christian quarter of the city of Kodungallur (former Cranganore). Some Syriacs apparently settled later in Sri Lanka. Cosmas Indicopleustes (6th century) in book XI of his “Christian topography” refers to “Persian Christians” living on the island, who had a priest from Iran and a deacon. He adds that the local population and their rulers were pagans, which confirms the outsider origin of the Christians. The emergence of Syriac communities in Malabar and Sri Lanka was, in all probability, the reason that Synod of Ishaq of 410 extended the jurisdiction of the newly established Archdiocese of Fars, centered on Rev-Ardashir, to India (Beth Hindaye). Rev-Ardashir was located on the north coast of the Persian Gulf, from where merchant ships departed to South India. This suggests that the jurisdiction of the Rev-Ardashir Metropolitan covered the south of India. Under Catholicos Ishoyahb II (628–644), as a result of a long confrontation between the Rev-Ardashir Metropolitans and the Catholicoi, India was separated from the Archdiocese of Fars and transformed into an independent Metropolitan Archdiocese. This event indicates the presence of a significant number of Syriacs in India during this period and the existence of their own church infrastructure. Later, Malabar apparently came under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitans of Rev-Ardashir once again, as Catholicos Timotheos I (780–823), under whom the Church of the East’s missionary work became very active and resulted in the establishment of many new Dioceses and Archdioceses to the east of Iran, granted India a Metropolitan status for the second time. In 823, during the Catholicosate of Timotheos I, the second known large Syriac migration to Malabar took place. The number of settlers is unknown but the names of their leaders are: Sabor, Proth, and Sabrisho. It was suggested that Sabri-



sho might have been the Metropolitan appointed by Timotheos I. Like their predecessors of the 4th century, these settlers received rights and honors from the local Raja recorded on copper plates that are still kept in the churches of Malabar. These Syriacs founded a settlement near the port city of Kollam, where they played an important role in restoring the city in 825, according to local oral accounts. Some scholars believe that the arrival of the second group of Syriacs was the occasion that marked the beginning of the local Malayalam calendar with the year 825.

St. Thomas Christians and the Church of the East. The influx of Syriacs to Malabar meant the strengthening of the Christians’ presence in the region and contributed to the renewal and revitalization of their spiritual and religious life. There is little doubt that Syriacs, who had successfully spread Christianity among Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Manicheans, and shamanists, very easily managed to extend their influence to Indian Christians. The shared apostolic tradition related to St. Thomas contributed to the Syriac-Malabar rapprochement. No wonder that the Malabar Christians, while retaining their own apostolic tradition and the unique features of their religious practices, ended up under the jurisdiction of the Church of the East and embraced its doctrine and the Syriac-language liturgy of Addai and Mari. Their bishops—from around the 6th century until the end of the 16th century, as confirmed by Cosmas Indicopleustes—received consecration exclusively from the Catholicoi of the Church of the East. Thus, the St. Thomas Christians became and remain to this day an integral and inalienable part of Syriac Christianity. The Syriac Orthodox Church, which was not as successful as the Church of the East in the evangelization of peoples to the east of Iran, apparently could not make concessions when it came to the ancient, apostolic Church of India. According to its own version, not confirmed by historical data, the Malabar Christians were originally linked with the Syriac Orthodox Church but, since it was much more difficult for the Jacobites to maintain contacts with the St. Thomas Christians, they eventually came under the influence of the Church of the East. Despite the relatively consistent navigation between the Persian Gulf and the Malabar coast, the Church of the East, for various reasons, did not always manage to stay in touch with its Indian flock and ensure the continuous presence of Metropolitans. This led to the emergence of a local head of the church structures in Malabar, whom the European colonizers later called the “Archdeacon.” The Archdeacon presided over the local Bishops and served as the secular head of the Christians, being, in reality, an ethnarch. There are indications that this position was hereditary. The Archdeacon’s authority was so great that the Metropolitans of the Church of the East, who managed to reach Malabar, apparently had to exert themselves in order to establish their primacy over the local church structure. 20.4.4. Ethno-social characteristics of St. Thomas Christians. The transfer of the Malabar Christians under the jurisdiction of the Church of the East was one of the major factors that contributed to the assimilation of Syriacs among them. Currently, the St. Thomas Christians are a fairly homogeneous community. They belong to the Malayali people and speak Malayalam, a language of the southern group of the Dravidian language family. Standing somewhat apart is a subgroup whose members consider themselves direct descendants of Thomas of Cana and are thus called



Knanaya, and also “southerners.” They are known for their strict observance of endogamy, or the practice of marrying only within their own community. Besides, the Knanaya preserve more elements of Jewish religious practice than other Malabar Christians and are sometimes viewed as descendants of the Malabar Jews. The Knanaya are not a distinct ethnic or religious community different from other St. Thomas Christians, although in some localities they have their own churches. The bulk of the St. Thomas Christians are referred to as “northerners.” They consider themselves descendants of the Malabar autochthons, converted to Christianity by Apostle Thomas, although there is also a belief that they descend from the second wife of Thomas of Cana, an Indian. Quite remarkable is the position of the St. Thomas Christians within the local Indian social structure, based on the caste principle. There are four main castes (varnas): Brahmins (priests, scholars, teachers), Kshatriyas (warriors, rulers, officials), Vaishyas (farmers, artisans, merchants), and Shudras (laborers and servicemen). Each caste is subdivided into several sub-castes. A lot of people were excluded from the caste system, comprising the lowest strata of society. They were considered “untouchables”—any physical contact with them would defile the representatives of the four traditional castes. In modern India, the caste system is officially abolished but it continues to influence social life. It would seem that the St. Thomas Christians should have rejected the caste system for contradicting the basic tenets of Christianity. In reality, they became a part of it, which was inevitable because in India, no organized social community could escape being ranked by status. Moreover, with time, the Christians achieved a very high social position, to which the privileges granted by the Malabar Rajas to both groups of Syriac immigrants significantly contributed. St. Thomas Christians were usually equated with Nairs, a caste of military aristocracy specific to Kerala, a local analogue of the Kshatriya caste. Like the Kshatriyas, the Nairs came second only to Brahmins in social status. The Malabar Christians sometimes claimed even higher status, because of the alleged Brahmin blood in their community. This claim was based on the belief among the Christians that Apostle Thomas, who initially preached to the Jews, later preached to the Indians and even managed to convert many Brahmins. In particular, the Apostle supposedly ordained members from four well-known Brahmin families as priests. It is believed that the legend of the Brahmin conversion was fabricated by the Malabar Christians to ensure their community’s higher status in India’s caste system. This is backed by the fact that the Brahmins were displeased with the spread of Christianity as threatening the very foundations of the caste system and, like the Zoroastrian priests in Iran, they encouraged the authorities to persecute Christians. Some scholars also indicate that in the 1st century, during St. Thomas’ lifetime, the Brahmin caste did not exist in South India and the caste system as a whole was still rudimentary. The Malabar Christians, following the generally accepted standards of social and domestic behavior and abiding by the rules of caste differentiation, treated the untouchables the same way as the representatives of other higher castes and did not try to evangelize them. Missionary outreach, in general, was not very typical of the St. Thomas Christians despite their actual membership in the Church of the East, whose missionary zeal was unequaled among all Christian churches. Nevertheless,



some Malabar Christians were in fact engaged in missionary work, both in India and abroad, including China.

Fig. 95. A tombstone with St. Thomas’ Cross and a Pahlavi inscription from the St. Thomas Mount near Chennai

St. Thomas Christians were mainly engaged in farming, the spice trade, tax collection, and military service. They had a reputation for being good warriors and were highly valued by local Rajas. In everyday life, they were not very different from their Indian neighbors, especially the Nairs, with whom they often married and shared Hindu traditions, including religious traditions. Churches could be distinguished from Hindu temples only by massive granite crosses erected in front of them. The inherently syncretic culture of the St. Thomas Christians, which organically combines the local Indian traditions with Syriac Christianity and elements of Jewish religious and domestic practices, is best displayed in their traditional symbol known as the “Nasrani Menorah,” or the “Cross of St. Thomas.” It is a Nestorian cross standing on a three-stage pedestal symbolizing Golgotha. On top it is crowned with a dove with its head facing down, a symbol of the Holy Spirit, while the bottom is framed by a lotus, a traditional symbol of India.

20.4.5. St. Thomas Christians under Portuguese rule. Of crucial importance for the history of Malabar Christianity was the arrival of the Portuguese led by Vasco da Gama in 1498 to the west coast of India. Portuguese colonization was accompanied by aggressive missionary activity of various Catholic orders, especially in the areas north of Malabar, in the modern state of Goa. By the end of the 16th century, the Portuguese had completely severed the St. Thomas Christians from the Church of the East and placed the Archdeacon under their control. In 1599, the Synod of Di-



amper presided over by the Archbishop of Goa, Aleixo de Menezes, forcefully subjected the local Christians to the Roman Catholic Church. The Portuguese pursued a policy of forced Romanization of the local church structures by replacing local bishops with Portuguese ones, making changes to the traditional liturgy of the Church of the East, confiscating Syriac manuscripts, forbidding Hindu and Jewish elements in religious practice, imposing celibacy on the clergy, and even trying to establish a local inquisition. The Portuguese notably preached to the untouchables but did not make any serious attempt to fight the existing caste system. Currently, the great majority of Christians in India, including those living outside the state of Kerala and unrelated to the St. Thomas Christians, descend from the untouchables, although the clergy is mostly composed of representatives of upper castes. The Christians of Goa even had their own caste system based on the common Indian one that discriminates against untouchables. The Malabar Christians were clearly aware of the uniqueness and independence of their Church tradition, which goes back to Apostle Thomas and is different from the tradition associated with Apostle Peter. In their milieu there was even a legend, often staged in churches, on the confrontation between both Apostles, with Thomas’ eventual victory. Therefore, the Pope’s claims to primacy over all Christendom, the forceful subjection to the Vatican, and Portuguese missionary activity displeased the St. Thomas Christians, who were proud of their Church’s apostolic status, despite its subordination to the Church of the East. They became especially agitated with the arrival in India in 1652 of the former Syriac Orthodox Bishop, Ahatalla (1590–1655), a recent convert to Catholicism who alleged that Pope Innocent X had appointed him “Patriarch of All India and China.” Since Ahatalla could not produce official documents from the Vatican confirming his status, the Portuguese declared him an impostor and expelled him from India. The Malabar Christians, including Archdeacon Thoma, who hoped that Ahatalla would help him revive the local church structures, were convinced that the Portuguese had killed the “Patriarch.”

The Coonan Cross Oath and the return to the Syriac tradition. Growing tensions resulted in a special ceremony, convened by a group of St. Thomas Christians in January 1653, during which they solemnly vowed to break away from the Roman Catholic Church. This event is known as the “Coonan Cross Oath” (“Coonan” means “inclined” since the participants of the ceremony held on to ropes thrown over the cross, which made it lean). A few months later Archdeacon Thoma was consecrated Bishop by twelve priests and became known as “Mar Thoma.” The St. Thomas Christians who had broken away from Catholicism appealed to Syriac Churches for help in rebuilding their ecclesiastical life. The Church of the East, which was in deep decline after Tamerlane’s invasion, was unable to reclaim its former position in India or anywhere else. The Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch intercepted the initiative, although they were also not living in the best of times. In 1665, the Metropolitan of Jerusalem, former Bishop of Amid, Gregorios Abdul Jaleel (†1681) arrived in India from Jerusalem. He approved the consecration of Mar



Thoma and appointed him Metropolitan of the new ecclesial community, which became known as the “Malankara 9 Church.” With that, the ancient institution of Archdeacon of Malabar ceased to exist. Thus, a part of the St. Thomas Christians, who before the arrival of the Portuguese were under the Church of the East’s jurisdiction, now came within the orbit of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, recognized the supremacy of its Patriarch, and eventually adopted its doctrine, liturgy, and language.

20.4.6. The Malankara Church and its schisms. For more than a century, the Malankara Church maintained its integrity under the rule of Malankara Metropolitans. They all were called “Mar Thoma,” which became a kind of title. The first schism of this Church took place in 1772 after a high-ranking representative of the Syriac Orthodox Church, dissatisfied with Metropolitan Dionysios (Mar Thoma VI, 1765–1808), consecrated one of the local monks opposed to the Metropolitan as Bishop, under the name Mar Koorilose. Dionysius, with the support of the local Raja and the British colonial administration, had Koorilose expelled, but Koorilose managed to establish control over several parishes, which became the nucleus of a new Church. In 1862, the Madras Court confirmed the independent status of that Church, which is Jacobite by doctrine and ritual. Today it is called the “Malabar Independent Syrian Church” and has about 40,000 parishioners. In the second half of the 19th century, as a result of contacts with British missionaries, the Malankara Church experienced a period of “reformation,” which in 1876 produced the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church. It follows the West Syriac rite but is in ecclesiastical communion with the Anglican Church. It also maintains close contacts with the Malabar Independent Syrian Church, which is expressed by mutual ordination of clergy, despite the fact that there are doctrinal differences between the two Churches. Currently, the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church has more than a half million members. In 1961, the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church experienced its own schism, which produced the St. Thomas Evangelical Church of India, currently including about 50,000 members. The most serious schism to split the Malankara Church in two was caused after some of its hierarchs remained faithful to the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, Ignatius Abdulmasih II, who was deposed in 1905, while the others recognized the new Patriarch, Ignatius Abdullah Sattuf II (1906–1915). The former became known as the “Metropolitan faction,” and the latter as the “Patriarch faction.” In 1912, Ignatius Abdulmasih II arrived in India and appointed Bishop Iwanios “Catholicos of the East” under the name of Baselios Pawlos I. The new Church was called the “Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church” but it is more commonly known as the “Indian Orthodox Church.” All subsequent Catholicoi of the East had names composed with “Baselios,” as was the case with the Maphrians of

According to church tradition, Malankara island off the Malabar coast was the place where St. Thomas first set foot upon arriving in India. 9



the East of the Syriac Orthodox Church from 1533 to 1859. 10 In 1934, the title “Catholicos of the East” was supplemented with “Malankara Metropolitan.” In 1958, both factions restored the unity of the Malankara Church, and the acting Catholicos of the East, Baselios Geevarghese II, was recognized by the Syriac Orthodox Church. In 1964, Baselios Augen I was approved by the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church Ignatius Yaqub III as the Catholicos of the East. Nevertheless, in 1975, the old contradictions between the factions surfaced, and they parted ways again. Currently, the Indian Orthodox Church is independent from the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, although it shares the same doctrine and ritual and along with Malayalam uses Syriac as a liturgical language. It is noteworthy that since 1975, the Catholicoi of the East of this Church include in their full name, after “Baselios,” the historical title “Mar Thoma.” The Syriac Orthodox Church does not recognize the autonomous status of the Indian Orthodox Church. The same position was taken in 1995 by the Supreme Court of India, which ruled that the Catholicosate of the Indian Orthodox Church is an integral part of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch and does not enjoy autonomous status in India. This ruling, however, did not affect in any way the de facto independent status of the Indian Orthodox Church. The “Patriarch faction,” which remained loyal to the Syriac Orthodox Church and recognizes the supremacy of its patriarchs, was institutionalized as the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, or the Jacobite Syrian Church. It is an integral part of the Syriac Orthodox Church, its “branch” in India, with the same doctrine and ritual and the use of the Syriac, along with Malayalam, as a liturgical language. The word “Jacobite” in the official name of the Church is quite remarkable, as the Syriac Orthodox Church usually dissociates itself from such a designation. In 2002, the title of the head of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church was changed from “Catholicos of the East” to “Catholicos of India.” In the hierarchy of the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Catholicos of India, like the medieval Maphrians, occupies the second position after the Patriarch and enjoys respect and authority among all Jacobites of the world. Interestingly, Baselios Pawlos II, who after the second schism of 1975 was ordained Catholicos by the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Ignatius Yaqub III, in his turn ordained the next Patriarch, Ignatius Zakka I, in 1980. Thus, the practice that existed during the lifetime of the medieval Maphrianate was revived. Both the Indian Orthodox Church and the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church together have about 2 million parishioners, of which the former claims about two thirds. As already mentioned, originally, the head of the Jacobites living in the Sasanian domains was intended to be called “Catholicos,” but because the word had already been firmly associated with the Church of the East, it was replaced by “Maphrian.” In current usage, these two words are synonymous. 10



20.4.7. The Catholic and the “Chaldean” Churches of the St. Thomas Christians. The St. Thomas Christians who did not take the Coonan Cross Oath and did not break off with Catholicism and the Vatican (those were, actually, in majority— 84 out of 116 communities), formed two Catholic Churches. The first was the SyroMalabar Catholic Church, which follows the East Syriac rite of the Church of the East. It began to take shape after the Coonan Cross Oath and currently has a status of a Major Archbishopric. With approximately 4 million followers, this is the largest Church of the St. Thomas Christians. The second, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, was only established in 1930, after the schism of the Malankara Church of 1912, which was caused by the transition of two Bishops under the jurisdiction of the Vatican. It is, therefore, another Church of the West Syriac Rite that emerged as a result of the division of the Malankara Church. Currently, it has about half a million followers (more on these two Churches in the forthcoming chapter on the Eastern Catholic Churches). The Church of the East also managed to get its share of post-Portuguese Malabar Christianity. The Church believes that after the arrival of the Portuguese it still had a large number of followers in India that preserved the continuity of the ancient local church structures. In reality, the tradition of the Church of the East in Malabar was completely disrupted by the Portuguese (not counting the East Syriac rite preserved by the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church) and was reintroduced to India only in the beginning of the 20th century. The “return” of the Church of the East started with the Malabar city of Trichur (modern Thrissur), where the local Catholic community wanted more autonomy with its own Bishop. The Syro-Malabar and other Catholic Churches remained indifferent or unable to respond, so the people of Trichur eventually turned to non-Catholic Churches, including the Church of the East. In 1862, Malabar priest Antony Thondanatta was consecrated by the Catholicos of the Church of the East, Shemon XVIII Rubel, as Bishop Mar Abdisho, but returned to India in 1882 and died there a few years later. The appointment of the Syriac Bishop Abimalek Timotheos (1878–1945) as Metropolitan of India in 1907 was more successful. Under him, a part of the Trichur community took shape as the “Chaldean Syrian Church,” which became an integral part of the Church of the East. In 1964, as a result of a conflict with Catholicos Eshai Shemon on the issues of patriarchal succession and calendar, the Chaldean Syrian Church of India headed by Mar Thoma Darmo moved away from the Church of the East, but in 1995 the two Churches reunited. Currently, the Chaldean Syrian Church has more than 25,000 followers in India (the smallest number of all the Churches of the St. Thomas Christians). It is especially known for its productive publishing activity. Thus, the St. Thomas Christians are divided today between eight Churches of both traditional Syriac rites. All these Churches name Apostle Thomas as their founder and claim apostolic origin. Currently, most of the followers of Syriac Christianity in the world are St. Thomas Christians, who exceed the Christians of Middle Eastern origin in number.

ARMAN AKOPIAN EAST SYRIAC RITE “Nestorians” Catholics Chaldean Syrian Church (25,000)

Syro-Malabar Catholic Church (4 mln.)




Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church (500,000)

St. Thomas Evangelical Church (50,000)

Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church (700,000) Indian Orthodox Church (1.3 mln.) Malabar Independent Syrian Church (40,000)

Catholics Syro-Malankara Catholic Church (420,000)

Table 4. The Churches of the St. Thomas Christians with approximate membership figures

20.4.8. Translation of the Peshitta into Malayalam. As previously mentioned, all modern Churches of the St. Thomas Christians, along with Malayalam, continue to use Syriac as a liturgical language, and it enjoys great prestige among the laity. Before the arrival of the Portuguese Syriac dominated in liturgical practice, and it is difficult to say to what extent Malayalam and other local languages were involved and whether original or translated literature in these languages even existed. Moreover, very little is known about the Malabar theological thought expressed in Syriac. The Malabar Christians were assumedly quite satisfied with the literature supplied by the Church of the East and felt no need to create their own. 11 This is indirectly confirmed by the fact that the Syriacs in India in contrast to Central Asia, for example, were not engaged in public education and did not create scripts for local languages. Despite the hypotheses about the influence of the Syriac script on some Indian script varieties, Kharosthi is the only Indian script directly derived from Aramaic and the only one written from right to left. In spite of the Syriac language’s great prestige among the St. Thomas Christians, it was not known universally and they still required Holy Scriptures in their native tongue. Who translated the Bible into Malayalam and when remain unknown, but the four Gospels translated from the Peshitta into Malayalam were first published in 1811 in Mumbai. The next edition of the Gospels in Malayalam was published in Kottayam nearly a century later in 1908. From 1926 to 1941, St. Joseph’s Press released several biblical books translated from Peshitta into Malayalam. In 1987, the Seminary of St. Thomas in Kottayam released a new translation of the Peshitta New Testament, and in 1997 in Kottayam the entire Peshitta was published for the first time, translated into Malayalam by the priest Matthew Uppani. The paucity of the literary tradition of St. Thomas Christians is to some extent compensated by the fact that their religious practice preserves more ancient liturgical chants than the Middle Eastern Syriac Churches. 11




20.5.1. The penetration of Nestorianism in China and the Xi’an Stele. According to the St. Thomas Christians’ oral account, the first to preach Christianity in China was Apostle Thomas, who visited the country during his missionary work in India. One of the Taoist treatises contains a legend, according to which the Emperor of the Han Dynasty, Ming Di (58–75), a few nights in a row saw in his dreams an archer dressed in gold, who was pointing to the west. The intrigued emperor sent people to the west in order to find the mysterious archer. On the road, his people met two monks, who were transporting some sacred texts on a white horse, and they brought the monks to the Emperor. Some scholars suggested that the monks may have been the Indian disciples of Apostle Thomas. The suggestion that Christianity was first brought to China by Nestorian merchants, who entered the Chinese market at the end of the 5th century from Central Asia, seems more probable. The Syriacs played a significant role in trade between Sasanian Iran and China, where they maintained their trading posts. In accordance with traditional Nestorian practice, they may have also been engaged in missionary work. The missionary activity of the Syriacs in China was the logical continuation of their work in Central Asia and among the Mongols. In 635, Catholicos Ishoyahb II (628–644) sent the first of the known Nestorian missions to China along the Great Silk Road. It was the era of the Tang Dynasty (618–907), under which China reached its highest power and became the most developed country in the world. The dominant religions in China at that time were Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, all of which existed autonomously and in various syncretic combinations. The details of the first Nestorian mission in China are contained in a SyriacChinese bilingual inscription on a limestone stele, discovered in 1625 by Jesuits in the city of Xi’an (present-day Shaanxi Province). During the reign of the Tang Dynasty, the city, then called Chang’an, was the capital of China. The stele, 279 cm in height, was erected in 781 and contains 1756 Chinese hieroglyphs. It is commonly called “Nestorian” or “Xia’an Stele.” The inscription entitled “Memorial of the Propagation in China of the Luminous Religion from Daqin 12” informs us that the Nestorian mission from Iran led by one Aloben (Abraham) received a warm reception from Emperor Taizong (627–649). The Emperor had the sacred texts brought by Aloben translated into Chinese and in 638, in a special edict that is quoted in the inscription, he allowed the preaching of the new religion in his Empire. 13 Taizong, Daqin was the term for the westernmost limits of the world known to the Chinese. Depending on the context, it may stand for Syria, the Middle East, or the eastern parts of the Roman Empire. 13 The full text of the edict: “Right principles have no invariable name, holy men have no invariable station; instruction is established in accordance with the locality, with the object of benefiting the people at large. The greatly virtuous Alapen, of the kingdom of Syria, has brought his sacred books and images from that distant part, and has presented them at 12



in general, was known for his open-mindedness and tolerance and his edict was also applied to Zoroastrians, Manicheans, and eventually Muslims. The Emperor sought to attract foreigners to the country and develop China’s international ties, which at that time covered a vast territory from Japan and Korea to Iran and Arabia. According to some Syriac sources, Taizong’s mother was a Nestorian Mongol, but Chinese official sources do not confirm this. Also in 638, a Nestorian monastery and a church were built in Chang’an, paid for by state funds. The church displayed the Emperor’s portrait, which he had presented as a sign of a special favor to Christianity. The Xi’an Stele was discovered on the grounds of the Chang’an Nestorian church, which remained intact until the 11th century. In addition to the historical part, the inscription on the Xi’an Stele contains a summary of the basic tenets of Christianity in Nestorian interpretation. It presents in detail the act of creation, the fall of Adam and Eve, the sacrament of baptism, and the meaning of the Cross. More concisely, it speaks of the birth of Jesus Christ. It is interesting that the narrative is written in an elegant, allegorical style typical of the Taoist religious and philosophical treatises, with the use of their terminology and conceptual apparatus, including the very term Tao (“way”). Thus, God is called the “True Lord with no beginning,” Jesus Christ is the “shining and revered Messiah,” and Christianity itself, as used in the title, is the “luminous religion.” The text also contains expressions like “true silence,” “primordial wind,” and the like. The text of the Xi’an Stele is a perfect example of the adaptation of Christian thought to the non-Christian religious culture (Manichaeism was another religion that provides good examples of adapting to local religious concepts and traditions). The lower part of the stele contains a list of 74 names of Syriac clergy of various ranks, written in Estrangela in the vertical direction. The ornaments of the stele are syncretic. It is crowned with a Nestorian cross on a lotus, which is a Buddhist symbol framed by swirling clouds, typical of the Taoist symbolism. To some extent, this cross is an analogue of the Indian “Nasrani Menorah.”

our chief capital. Having examined the principles of this religion, we find them to be purely excellent and natural; investigating its originating source, we find it has taken its rise from the establishment of important truths; its ritual is free from perplexing expressions, its principles will survive when the framework is forgot; it is beneficial to all creatures; it is advantageous to mankind. Let it be published throughout the Empire, and let the proper authority build a Syrian church in the capital, which shall be governed by twenty-one priests.” (English translation from: Charles F. Horne, ed., The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, Vol. XII, New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917, pp. 381–382).



Fig. 96. The Xi’an stele

Fig. 97. The Syriac inscription on the Xi’an stele



Fig. 98. The upper part of the Xi’an stele with a Nestorian cross

Taizong’s successor, Gaozong (650–683), continued his father’s favorable policy toward Christians and during his reign, the “luminous religion” spread far beyond Chang’an. The Xi’an Stele mentions the construction of Nestorian churches and monasteries in many Chinese cities. Nestorian clergy of Chinese origin emerged, although the highest positions in the Church hierarchy remained in the Syriacs’ hands. There is indirect evidence that Nestorian missionaries penetrated into Japan and Korea, which were then under strong cultural and religious influence of the Celestial Empire. After Gaozong’s death, one of his concubines, Wu Zetian, seized power in China. She became the first and last empress in Chinese history. For some time, she interrupted the reign of the Tang dynasty founding her own—the Zhou. The Empress declared Buddhism the state religion of China and persecuted Christians. However, in 705 the Tang dynasty was restored to power. Under Emperor Xuanzong I (712–756), the Nestorians not only reclaimed their positions but also significantly strengthened them. Nestorian Christianity in China entered the period of its greatest prosperity. Numerous Syriac church figures appeared at this time, who spoke not only Syriac, but also Chinese, and skillfully used Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian symbolism in their work, making the preaching of Christianity more understandable to the locals. Particular mention should be made of Adam (Jing Jing), author of the text on the Xi’an Stele, supposedly Metropolitan of China, who was actively engaged in translation from Syriac into Chinese.

20.5.2. Chinese Christianity and its “sutras.” 14 Of all the countries in which the Syriacs were engaged in missionary activity, China was the most advanced. Moreover, in the era of the Tang Dynasty this country, as mentioned above, had the most

Sutra (Sanskrit for “thread”), in classic Indian literature, is a saying or aphorism of religious or philosophical content, or a collection of such statements. Sutras were especially common among Buddhists, often taking a form of a dialogue, conversation, or parable. 14



developed civilization in the world. It is not surprising, therefore, that in China Nestorian Christian thought was strongly influenced by local doctrines and eventually gave birth to a unique Chinese Christianity with its own developed theology, something that did not happen, for example, in India. There are nine major extant Nestorian works in Chinese, sometimes collectively called “The Lost Sutras of Jesus,” or simply “Jesus’ Sutras.” They deal mainly with doctrinal and liturgical issues and make up two groups: early ones, attributed to Aloben (30–40s of the 7th century), and late, attributed to Jing Jing (70–80s of the 8th century). The inscription on the Xi’an Stele, authored by Jing Jing, is sometimes considered a separated sutra. The early sutras were mostly influenced by Buddhist terminology, whereas the later ones display Taoist influence. This implies that the initial interest of Syriacs in Buddhism was eventually replaced by an interest in Taoism. The later sutras, in contrast to the earlier ones, do not usually contain Chinese transliterations of Syriac Christian terms. They were replaced with approximate analogues of the Chinese religious and philosophical conceptual apparatus. The early sutras in varying degrees are paraphrases of the Gospel texts and one of them is presumably a rendition of Tatian’s Diatessaron. The sutras by Jing Jing do not display any affiliation with Evangelical and other classic Christian texts, being independent theological works of Chinese Nestorianism. In the early 11th century, the “Lost Sutras of Jesus” were sealed in a cave in western China and were discovered by a Taoist monk in 1900.

20.5.3. Persecution of Christians in China. Radical Chinese Taoists, who were hostile toward all foreign religions, perceived the unique Chinese Christianity that developed as a result of the activity of Adam/Jing Jing and his colleagues as a heretical form of Buddhism, which Taoists also considered an alien doctrine. They seemed to be bothered little by the reality that Buddhist monks themselves were very dissatisfied with the activities of the Nestorians, which was giving rise to a kind of Buddhist-Christian convergence. The foreign nature of Christianity, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and later Islam was constantly accented by the fact that in China, these religions were traditionally called “Persian.” However, in 754, a more appropriate term for Christianity, “Syrian (Daqin) religion,” came into use per an official imperial edict. The Syriacs themselves in all probability initiated the renaming, as they wanted to dispel the aura of foreignness and avoid unwanted associations with Zoroastrians, Manicheans, and Muslims. In the 9th century, the persecution of Christians in China resumed. It was directly related to the decline of the Uighurs’ power, which had a significant impact on the internal situation in the country. The official religion of the Uighurs was Manichaeism and nationalist Taoists used their weakening in China to fight this and other “alien” religions, including Buddhism. According to official statistics of the Chinese imperial office, in 845, there were 4,600 Christian monasteries, 40,000 hermitages, and 260,500 monks and nuns in the country. In the same year, by a special edict, the majority of monasteries and churches were closed, their property confiscated, and the monks forcibly returned to secular life. Foreign missionaries were ordered to return immediately to their home countries. Buddhists were similarly harassed dur-



ing the same period. The persecution lasted about two years until 846, when Emperor Xuanzong II (846–859), in the best traditions of the Tang Dynasty, issued a new edict on religious tolerance. However, Christianity had already suffered irreparable damage and by the end of the century, it survived only in the western peripheral areas of the country.

Fig. 99. A Chinese tombstone of 1314 with a Nestorian cross and inscription in Phags-pa script

20.5.4. Nestorianism in China under Mongol rule. A new revival of Nestorianism in China came with the conquest of the country by the Mongols headed by Kublai Khan, who founded the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1215–1368). As a son of a Christian mother, Kublai favored the Christians. In his court at the new capital Khanbaliq (Beijing), there were many Christians and some were appointed to high public offices, including provincial governors. During the Yuan Dynasty, Chinese Nestorians were mostly ethnic Mongols, who widely used Uighur as a written language. Furthermore, many of the Christians were likely Syriac in origin. On Kublai’s order, a high-ranking Tibetan monk in his service, Drogön Chögyal Phagpa (1235– 1280), in 1268 used the Tibetan script to create a unified writing system for the lan-



guages officially used in China during the Yuan Dynasty (Chinese, Mongolian, Uighur, Tibetan, and others). This script, known as Phags-pa, or the “Mongolian square script,” was used for about a century, including by Chinese Nestorians. In 1248, the Church of the East appointed a Metropolitan for Khanbaliq, who ranked 25th among Nestorian Metropolitans of the time. The jurisdiction of the Metropolitan, who held the 26th position, included much of the territory of modern Gansu province, the northern part of which is located between the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and Inner Mongolia.

Fig. 100. The Daqin Pagoda

Marco Polo, who traveled extensively in China and even served as an advisor to Kublai Khan and a governor of one of the provinces, wrote about numerous Nestorian churches that he had seen in many cities of the country, especially in the regions adjacent to the Great Silk Road. Many Nestorians lived also in the east of China, in the area between Shanghai and Nanjing, where there were seven Nestorian monasteries founded in the last quarter of the 13th century by the local governor, Nestorian Sargis. Marco Polo also described a Nestorian community that, according to him, continuously existed for 700 years, which means that it had been founded in Aloben’s time. The favorable attitude of Kublai Khan toward Christians notwithstanding, it was him who created the prerequisites for the final elimination of Nestorianism in China. Being an ardent Buddhist, who persecuted Taoists, but used the political and management skills of the Confucians, he revived the positions of his religion in China, ignoring the fact that the Buddhists had always been spiteful toward Christians. After Kublai’s death, Buddhists put strong pressure on the imperial court and managed to seize all Nestorian monasteries founded by Sargis. Yet, Kublai Khan and his



successors opened China to Catholic Franciscan missionaries, who entered into an intense rivalry with the Nestorians and lured many of them, including some members of the imperial family, to Catholicism. Finally, the patronage by the Mongol dynasty of the Nestorian Mongols constantly reminded the Chinese of the alien origin of Christianity. In 1368, as a result of an anti-Mongol uprising the Yuan Dynasty was overthrown, and the Chinese Ming Dynasty came to power and ruled the country until 1644. The policy of Sinicization in the spirit of orthodox Confucianism, accompanied by destruction of everything that brought to mind Mongol rule, resulted in the de facto self-isolation of China and led to the final eradication of Nestorianism in that country. 15

20.5.5. Samples of the material culture of Chinese Nestorianism. Material evidence of the centuries-old presence of Christians still survives in China, including a Nestorian church, located in the central Chinese province of Shaanxi. It is the most well-preserved monument of Chinese Christian architecture. The church with its underground rooms was built around 640, approximately the same time as the church of Chang’an. It resembles a Chinese pagoda, and it is today called Daqin Pagoda. The church was closed in 845, during the period of persecution of Christians. Since the beginning of the 14th century, it served as a Buddhist monastery, but in the middle of the 16th century, it was badly damaged by an earthquake and eventually was abandoned. Nevertheless, frescoes of biblical scenes as well as Syriac graffiti can still be seen in the church. 16

Fig. 101. An altar-shaped Nestorian tombstone from China with vertical Syriac inscriptions It was during the reign of the Ming Dynasty that the surviving portions of the Great Wall of China were built in order to protect the country from periodic Mongol invasions. 16 Some scholars dispute the Christian origin of the Daqin Pagoda, suggesting that its frescoes are consistent with the traditions of Buddhist iconography. 15



Numerous Nestorian tombstones also survived in China. Most of them have a ridged shape resembling traditional medieval Armenian tombstones, and the rest are small steles or altar-like structures with flat tops. It is interesting that many Muslim tombstones of China have the similar altar-like shape. Most of the tombstones display the image of the Nestorian cross in combination with lotuses, angels, and swirling clouds. Almost every tombstone contains Syriac inscriptions, mostly vertical, due to the influence of Chinese writing.

20.5.6. Church of the East and Tibet. Nestorian missionary work in Tibet remains obscure. An inscription was found in Tibet written in the Sogdian and Tibetan languages and decorated with three Nestorian crosses. It tells about a man who left Samarkand to meet with the Tibetan ruler in Lhasa. It is quite likely that this man was a Nestorian missionary. One of the letters by Catholicos Timotheos I mentions his intention to appoint a Bishop for Tibet. Some lists of the Bishops and Metropolitans of the Church of the East contain references to the establishment of a bishopric to Tibet in 781, presumably on the territory of Tanguts, a Tibeto-Burman speaking people, in the modern Gansu province. The same Catholicos is reported to have stated that the jurisdiction of the Church of the East covers Indians, the Chinese, Tibetans, and Turkic peoples. During the reign of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, Tibet could have been included in the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan appointed during that period in the province of Gansu. It has been suggested that the use of holy water and incense in the rituals of Tibetan Lamaism is a relic of Nestorian Christianity, which once existed in Tibet.


SYRIAC RITE CATHOLIC CHURCHES 21.1. The Vatican and the Eastern Christians. The 11th–12th century Crusades opened the way to the Middle East for the Catholic clergy and members of various Catholic orders (Jesuits, Capuchins, Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans, and others). Since they were unable to evangelize Muslims, who would face the death penalty for renouncing Islam, they focused their activities mainly on the local Christians. The activity of Catholic missionaries in the Middle East significantly intensified after Pope Gregory XV established in 1622 the “Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith” (Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide), which since 1627 had a separate commission for the Eastern rites. 1 The main centers where Catholic missionaries worked among the Syriacs were Mosul, Diyarbakir (Amid), and Aleppo. Their work eventually resulted in the separation of the “old” Eastern Churches from the “new” ones, which entered into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. In the past, these churches were called “Uniate” and their followers, “Uniates,” but over time these words acquired some pejorative connotations and the more common designation is now “Eastern Rite Catholic Churches” or “Eastern Catholic Churches.” These Churches acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope but are autonomous, which is indicated by the Latin term sui iuris (“of one’s own right”). They retain their original rituals and language in varying degrees. Currently, there are 22 Eastern Catholic Churches—14 follow the Byzantine rite, 3 follow the Antiochian rite, 2 follow the Alexandrian rite, 2 follow the rite of the Church of the East, and 1 follows the Armenian rite. Six Eastern Catholic Churches are headed by Patriarchs who in the Catholic hierarchy stand between the

In 1982, Pope John Paul II renamed “Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith” into “Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples” (Congregatio pro Gentium Evangelisatione). 1




Pope and the Cardinals. 2 The others are headed by Major Archbishops, Metropolitans, and other senior church hierarchs. To coordinate the activities of the Eastern Catholic Churches, in 1862, the Commission for the Eastern rites of the Sacred Congregation for the dissemination of the faith was transformed into the “Congregation for the Eastern Churches” (Congregatio pro Ecclesiis Orientalibus). In 1917, Pope Benedict XV gave it a status of a separate Congregation and in 1967, separate departments were formed within it for the Alexandrian, Antiochian, Byzantine, and Armenian rites. The congregation is headed by a Cardinal Prefect and it is guided by the “Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches,” adopted in 1991. Of particular importance for the Eastern Catholic Churches was the decree Orientalium Ecclesiarum (“On the Eastern Churches”), adopted by the Second Vatican Council in November 1964. It encouraged the Eastern Catholic Churches to restore their ancient liturgical and ritual practices, which for centuries had been subjected to Romanization. The preamble of the decree stated: “The Catholic Church holds in high esteem the institutions, liturgical rites, ecclesiastical traditions, and the established standards of the Christian life of the Eastern Churches, for in them, distinguished as they are for their venerable antiquity, there remains conspicuous the tradition that has been handed down from the Apostles through the Fathers and that forms part of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal Church.” And then in the fifth section: “History, tradition and abundant ecclesiastical institutions bear outstanding witness to the great merit owing to the Eastern Churches by the universal Church. The Sacred Council, therefore, not only accords to this ecclesiastical and spiritual heritage the high regard which is its due and rightful praise, but also unhesitatingly looks on it as the heritage of the universal Church. For this reason it solemnly declares that the Churches of the East, as much as those of the West, have a full right and are in duty bound to rule themselves, each in accordance with its own established disciplines, since all these are praiseworthy by reason of their venerable antiquity, more harmonious with the character of their faithful and more suited to the promotion of the good of souls. 3” Of the Eastern Catholic Churches associated with Syriac Christianity, the Syriac Catholic, Maronite, and Syro-Malankara Churches follow the West Syriac Antiochian rite, and the Chaldean and Syro-Malabar Churches follow the East Syriac rite of the Church of the East. 21.2. The Syriac Catholic Church of Antioch. The 1620s were years of intense activity for the Jesuits and Capuchins among the Jacobites of Aleppo, many of whom eventually adopted Catholicism. In 1662, after the death of the Syriac OrthoThere are Patriarchs also within the Roman Catholic Church, but with the exception of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who is the head of the Roman Catholics of Palestine, the others are titular Patriarchs, who do not have any jurisdiction. The Pope also holds a title of Patriarch. 3 Source: 2



dox Patriarch Ignatius Yeshu II, the pro-Vatican Jacobites, who were already quite numerous, managed to put Andrew Akhijan (†1677) on the patriarchal throne, who became the first Patriarch of the breakaway Uniate Syriac Catholic Church of Antioch. The Syriac Catholic Church is another Church that claims legitimate succession to the ancient Church of Antioch and its See. After the death of Andrew Akhijan, the two factions elected two rival Patriarchs, a Catholic and a Jacobite, who were an uncle and a nephew of the Shahbadin family. With the death in 1702 of the Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Petros Shahbadin, the line of Catholic Patriarchs was interrupted, and the Syriac Catholic community entered a period of persecution by the Ottoman authorities that recognized only the Syriac Orthodox Church. In 1782, the Archbishop of Aleppo, Mikhail Jarveh (†1800), became the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church and after a while declared a union with the Roman Catholic Church. In 1786, he was forced to flee to Lebanon, where, 20 km north of Beirut, he founded the Sharfeh Monastery with a seminary that is still functioning today. 4 After the restoration of the Syriac Catholic Patriarchs, bearing the title “Patriarch of Antioch and all the East,” and a steady increase in the number of followers of the Syriac Catholic Church, the Ottoman authorities were forced to officially recognize the Church in 1829. The Jacobites in the Ottoman Empire were later usually called süryeni qadim or “old Syriacs.” In 1831, the Patriarchal seat of the Syriac Catholics was transferred from Sharfeh to Aleppo, and in 1852, to the city of Mardin (southeast of modern-day Turkey). After the Second World War, the residence was moved to Beirut, where it remains today. The Syriac Catholic Church of Antioch, in spite of a full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, retained the West Syriac Antiochian rite of St. James of Jerusalem, Syriac as the liturgical language (along with Arabic), and an optional observance of celibacy for the low-rank priests. Other traditions and practices of the Syriac Orthodox Church were also kept, including adding the name “Ignatius” in the full name of their Patriarch—this was first done by Andrew Akhijan and then all subsequent Patriarchs. There are more than 205,000 Syriac Catholics in the world, most of them living in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon as well as in Europe and America. 5 The Syriac Catholics are mostly Arabic-speaking, but some of their communities in the Middle East continue to use various modern Aramaic dialects in everyday life. Particularly remarkable is the Iraqi town of Qaraqosh (or Bakhdida, 15 km east of Mosul), where almost the entire population is composed of Aramaic-speaking Syriac Catholics. In the early Middle Ages, the population of Qaraqosh was Nestorian, but the monks of the nearby Syriac Orthodox Mar Mattay monastery managed to bring The Sharfeh monastery was renovated in the early 1950s during the Patriarchate of Gabriel Tappuni (1929–1968), the first Syriac who became Cardinal and participated in three Vatican conclaves. 5 Data on the membership of the Eastern Catholic Churches according to Annuario Pontificio 2016. 4



them under the jurisdiction of the Maphrian of the East. In the 18th century, Catholicism became dominant in the area.

21.3. The Maronite Church. After the Melkite and Monothelite eras, the Crusades marked the third period in the Maronite Church’s history. Active contacts with the Crusaders and particularly with the Latin Principality of Antioch (1098–1268) resulted in the spread of Catholicism among the Maronites. In 1182, the Maronite Church entered into full communion with the Roman Catholic, accepting its supremacy and doctrine. In 1215, the Maronite Patriarch Jeremias I al-Amshitti visited Rome for the first time and took part in the Lateran Council. In 1254, the Pope officially confirmed the Patriarchal status of the head of the Maronite Church, which initiated the process of its partial Romanization. The final institutionalization of the Maronite Catholic Church took place in 1736 at a Synod, which adopted a set of the Church canons and divided the canonical territory into dioceses for the first time. Of the Syriac rite Eastern Catholic Churches, the Maronite is one of only two that have no “mother” church. It also does not consider itself Uniate, denies its Monothelite past, and claims to have always been in communion with Rome, although the Maronites observed Monothelitism in varying degrees until the end of the 16th century. In 1587, two Papal legates censored Maronite books and burned many of them as heretical, which angered the Maronites. Like other Eastern Catholic Churches, the Maronite Church is autonomous, but the Patriarch-elect is subject to the Vatican’s approval. The Patriarch is titled “Patriarch of Antioch and all the East,” making this Church another contender for the heritage of the ancient Church of Antioch and its See. The Maronite Patriarch resides in the Lebanese town of Bkerke, near Beirut. The Maronites retained their traditional West Syriac Antiochian rite. After the decree “On the Eastern Churches,” many Romanized elements in the ecclesiastical practice were replaced by the native Syriac, which mostly coincide with the Syriac Orthodox ones. Along with the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Maronite Church recognizes 70 Anaphoras, which is the greatest number, but only six are in active use. Five of them, including the most used Anaphora of St. James of Jerusalem, are shared with the Jacobites. The sixth, the so-called “St. Peter’s Third Anaphora,” better known as Sharrar by the first words of its Syriac text, is not used by the Jacobites. Its notable feature is the presence of common fragments with the Anaphora of Addai and Mari, used in the liturgy of the Church of the East. In addition, the Maronite liturgy contains a few prayers common with the Church of the East, which is usually explained by common roots leading to Edessa. The Maronite Church is officially called the “Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch.” When Greek was rejected, its official language became Syriac. However, Arabic eventually became the main language of worship as it gradually replaced Aramaic as the Maronites’ spoken language. Nevertheless, Syriac remains an official language of the Maronite Church. It is used in the liturgy and it is mandatory for clergy to know it