The present-day relevance of Byzantine history

A few months ago, an opportunity came up to pitch an essay explaining the relevance of my subject area to a public audience. I made a pitch about Byzantine history, the editors liked the pitch, and I wrote a draft. Two drafts later, even cutting the things they asked me to cut and changing the things they asked me to change, it became clear that what I was trying to say wasn’t working for the forum as the editors envisioned it; from my perspective, what they wanted was an apologia for Byzantine history that somehow strictly avoided any actual discussion of Byzantine history or the perspectives of current scholars in the field, and I rather feel like their objections to what I wrote only proved the point I was trying to make.

Oh well; the beauty of having a personal blog is I can put up whatever I like, so I’ve thrown back in a lot of the things they asked me to take out, updated it a little bit more, and I present it to you here. Doubtless the audience will be much smaller, but whatever. It’s Akathistos Saturday, and I discuss the modern significance of the events commemorated therein in this essay, so it seems appropriate to publish it today. Enjoy.

The word “Byzantine” is pejorative in the vast majority of English-language contexts. As a Byzantine historian, this always leaps off the page at me, and it strikes me that our conceptions and misconceptions about the distant past influence our attitudes towards present-day matters. Recent citations provides no shortage of examples.

  • Consider a 22 January 2015 headline from the Canadian newspaper National Post: “Shawn Rehn case shows Byzantine criminal justice ‘system’ built to avoid accountability.” In the body of the article itself one finds the declaration that “A lot of facts can’t be established in the… case because the paperwork… is Byzantine and emanates from multiple arms of the beast that pretends to be a system.”
  • For example, a 26 January 2015 Huffington Post piece by Rebecca Orchant on the settlement between The Hershey Company and an import company that effectively prohibits the import of several brands of chocolate made overseas, in which Orchant, a retailer, says that her choices now are to “turn to more Byzantine measures to get our British chocolate, or sell an inferior product.”
  • There is also a Heritage Foundation report from 26 January 2015 titled “Reforming DHS: Missed Opportunity calls for Congress to Intervene,” which calls the oversight of the Department of Homeland Security not just “byzantine” but “balkanized and dysfunctional”.

“Byzantine”, for these writers, means overly ornate, unnecessarily — but possibly intentionally — complicated, corrupt. The Heritage Foundation juxtaposes it with “balkanized”, another geographic term (describing a former portion of the Byzantine Empire) that has been turned into a pejorative, here meaning a whole divided into small, mutually-opposed parts.

“Byzantine”, in fact, is a word that the so-called “Byzantines” did not use to describe themselves; “Byzantium” was the old name of the port town on the Bosphorus at the intersection of eastern Europe and Asia Minor where the Roman emperor Constantine decided to establish his new capital city in 325. He called it “New Rome”, it came to be known as Constantinople, “Constantine’s City”, today known as Istanbul (probably from the Greek phrase eis tin poli — “to the city”). While Romulus Augustus, the last Roman emperor in the West, abdicated to Germanic forces in 476, by that point the Roman Empire had re-centered itself around Constantine’s capital. Eventually its borders began to shrink irrevocably, but nonetheless, the transplanted eastern empire survived in one form or another until 1453, when the city fell to the Ottomans.

For a Byzantine historian in the West, the pejorative use of “Byzantine” in our vernacular represents a never-ending series of “teachable moments”, opportunities to examine the myopic privileging of the immediate present by our media at the very least, but also to interrogate the way various fields reflexively treat that which is “Eastern” as something inherently “foreign”, “mysterious” – or worse, “mystical”. That Byzantine history is by definition a pre-modern subject already guarantees its marginalization by the mainstream, but even among medievalists, it is not sufficiently “Western” for a discipline that tends to privilege Latin and French subjects, being situated in the “Greek East”. At the same time, it is also not really sufficiently “Eastern” for most historians who work with Middle Eastern or Far Eastern topics; Edward Said, for example, sees Christianity, even that of the “Greek East”, as being fundamentally “Western”.[1] These barriers can tend to ghettoize Byzantine issues, placing them off to the side in survey courses and textbooks. To the extent that the Byzantine world is talked about in those contexts, they are largely informed by biased Western sources — such as the tenth century Liutprand of Cremona, who after an embassy to Constantinople described the Emperor Nicephorus Phocas as “a monstrosity of a man… [and] in color an Ethiopian” dressed in royal robes that were “old, foul smelling, and discolored by age” — resulting in an Orientalizing overemphasis on the perceived differences between the “Byzantine east” and the “Latin west”. The discourse emphasizes the tawdry excess of supposed cultural discontinuities – aesthetics, politics, art, religion, and so on – and discusses them as misunderstood, abstract distortions rather than as concrete realities. The picture of the Roman East that emerges is really a straw man, representing everything that the we Westerners pat ourselves as having left behind after the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment — ugly aesthetics that take the worst elements of the classical world and distort them, corrupt politics represented by the machinations of the monarchical emperors, a state-subject church that combines the most patriarchal and superstitious elements of paganism and Christianity. It is not a fully-qualified subject of interest in its own right; it is a gaudy red-headed stepchild of Western history cloaked in a cloud of incense.

Recent scholarship, thankfully, is showing that many of these characteristics, so distasteful to a Western intellectual ethos, are misunderstood and mischaracterized, such as the claim that Eastern Empire was an absolute imperial theocracy.[2] As well, an informed understanding of many of today’s pressing international issues — ISIS’ violence against religious minorities in Mosul and Libya, the civil war in Syria, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the complexity of Turkey’s application to the European Union, Greece’s economic woes, even elements of the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine — must acknowledge a sense of the sweep of history that includes, rather than dismisses, Byzantium.

To give but one example, the demonstration by tens of thousands of Muslims in front of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul on 31 May 2014 makes far more sense if you understand that what is today a museum was built by the emperor Justinian in the sixth century as the Empire’s largest church. This exemplar of Byzantine sacred architecture was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years; it was repurposed as a mosque by the sultan Mehmed II after 1453, inspired sultan Ahmet I to build the so-called Blue Mosque as a copy just a few hundred meters away in 1609, and then was decommissioned and turned into a secular museum by Ataturk in 1934. Today, besides the Muslims who hope to persuade the Turkish government to re-open the monument as a mosque, there are Greeks who want to see the monument returned to the Greek Orthodox Church. Hagia Sophia may be little more than a museum to some, but it is a Byzantine foundation that still has considerable discursive power in 2015, resonating for present-day adherents of Islam and Orthodox Christianity, as well as being a symbol of two past empires for their would-be inheritors. The discursive weight of such symbols stretches far beyond modern-day Turkey, extending throughout the Mediterranean, Asia Minor, the Middle East, the Balkans, and Russia.

The recent episodes of violence by ISIS against Christian minority groups in Mosul and Libya are also rooted in chapters of Byzantine history. Coptic Christians, like those beheaded in Libya in February 2015, are the modern Christian group that count themselves as the present-day successors of the historic Church in Alexandria, Egypt. They were part of the Roman Empire in the East only to be separated ecclesiastically by theological disputes. Assyrian Christians, like those kidnapped in Tal Tamer on 23 February 2015, are the modern Middle Eastern Christian group that claims continuity with the so-called Church of the East or Catholicosate of Seleucia-Ktesiphon of antiquity, a Christian group that straddled the frontier between the Roman and Persian empires. They were cut off more because of geography and political boundaries than because of theological disputes. In the seventh century, both groups were permanently separated from the Byzantine mainstream by Arab invaders.

To say the least, this background is not at all well-understood by our media; even well-intentioned pieces, like Graeme Wood’s recent “What ISIS Really Wants” for The Atlantic, demonstrate serious ignorance in passages such as this, where Byzantium is nothing more than a transitional stage between ancient Rome and present-day Turkey, not even worth mentioning by name:

Who “Rome” is, now that the pope has no army, remains a matter of debate. But Cerantonio makes a case that Rome meant the Eastern Roman empire, which had its capital in what is now Istanbul. We should think of Rome as the Republic of Turkey—the same republic that ended the last self-identified caliphate, 90 years ago.

In terms of my specific area of research — I am writing a dissertation on public devotions to the Virgin Mary in Constantinople between the fifth and seventh centuries. The Byzantine image of the Theotokos, the Mother of God, is another kind of symbol with powerful religious and political resonance, and the memory of seventh century events associated with the Virgin are still present in today’s discourse. For example, on 22 April 2013, The New York Times reported that the Syriac and Greek Orthodox bishops of Aleppo were kidnapped in the village of Kfar Dael.[3] As of this writing, that situation has not been resolved, and tensions and violence have, obviously, continued to escalate otherwise there. In response to the kidnapping as well as the overall time of hardship, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch John X gave a fascinating instruction in an encyclical for Orthodox Palm Sunday: “Let our [Palm Sunday] processions be this year with candles tied with black ribbons, chanting the hymn: ‘To Thee O Champion Leader…,’ instead of the hymn “Rejoice O Bethany…,” asking the Virgin Mary to keep our Church as a fortified city.”[4]

John’s instructions are rooted in matters of the Eastern Romans’ historical record. “To Thee O Champion Leader” refers to a seventh century hymn that was appended as a proemium to the beginning of a much longer hymn, a fifth century sung theological poem called the Akathistos (“not seated”, referring to the practice of standing while it is sung) hymn. The proemium was composed after Constantinople’s successful repulsion of the Avar attack in 626 with, according to some accounts, the Virgin Mary herself fighting on the walls of the city. It is a first-person statement of civic devotion and gratitude on the part of Constantinople itself to the Virgin:

To you, all-victorious general, I your city, O Mother of God, having been delivered from terrible things, ascribe to you thank-offerings of victory. But as you have invincible power, free me from all dangers, so that I may cry to you: rejoice, O bride unwedded.[5]

The entire text of the Akathistos has a particular liturgical relationship to the Lenten season that precedes Palm Sunday; during the five Sundays of Lent the proemium is sung during the Sunday Divine Liturgy (or Mass), and then the Akathistos hymn is sung three times in its entirety throughout the course of the Lenten season. However, by the time of Palm Sunday, the services are properly considered those of Holy Week rather than Lent, and the time for people to have “To Thee O Champion Leader” on their lips has passed.[6] Patriarch John’s instruction, then, is disregarding the liturgical season and instead looking back to the historical circumstances surrounding the proemium’s composition. Just as the Virgin was the defender of the City then, John is saying, Christians now in this time of crisis may make a point of singing this hymn to the Mother of God outside of its proper time to appeal to her as the defender of the Church, the heavenly city.

Late antique Constantinople’s explicit identification of itself as the Virgin’s city, then, is extended and repurposed for the present day in the context of a liturgical celebration of high solemnity,[7] with the population of Christians under Patriarch John now being the Virgin’s city. John is discursively engaging current circumstances through the liturgy, through music, through Orthodox Christianity’s own sense of late antique events as sacred history, and doing so in a way clearly focused on the person of the Mother of God and rooted in Constantinople’s devotion to her at the level of the city itself.

In conclusion, I would echo Dame Averil Cameron’s recent insistence that Byzantine history is in fact mainstream history, and that to treat it as otherwise is to treat it as “subaltern”.[8] I maintain that Byzantine history is not simply an irrelevant distorted mirror image of the West, a chapter best forgotten except when we need a pejorative to describe things that are helplessly tangled and complex, but in fact an area of inquiry that is vital to understanding the world in which we find ourselves today.

[1] E.g. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994; reprint, 2003), 59.

[2] Anthony Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[3] Hania Mourtada and Rick Gladstone, “Two Archbishops Abducted Outside Northern Syrian City,” The New York Times, 23 April 2013 2013.

[4] Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East John X, “Pastoral Letter,” (Our Lady of Balamand Monastery, Tripoli, Lebanon: The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, 2013).

[5] Akathistos, Prooemium II. Translation mine.

[6] For a discussion of the rubrics, see Archimandrite Job Getcha, The Typikon decoded: An explanation of Byzantine liturgical practice, ed. Paul Meyendorff, trans. Paul Meyendorff, Orthodox Liturgy Series (Yonkers: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012), 199-201.

[7] Ibid., 209-11.

[8] Averil Cameron, Byzantine Matters (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 115.

A brief update — anybody need, well, me?

So, the plan this year was always on the ambitious side — defend my dissertation by the end of the year, and hope that I would be able to make a strong enough case for that happening in my cover letter for jobs and postdocs — but it seemed possible, at least.

Well, without belaboring the point or going into unnecessary detail, the reality has turned out to be a bit different. At this stage of the game, the immediate objective is to keep a roof over the collective of Barrett heads following the end of this academic year, and then to make sufficient progress by the end of the summer so that, by the time the next round of academic job applications is due, I can at least say that I’ve got a defense date.

On the “keeping a roof over our heads” part — I’m barking up every tree I can. There are a number of irons I’ve put in the fire that have to do with different competencies I have, but my gut is that the main concrete things I’ve got to sell to the non-academic world are my writing ability, a certain technical ability, and the possession of a Masters degree. To that end I’ve been applying for editing jobs, nonprofit jobs, journalism jobs, other media jobs, and the like. Our default position is to remain in Boston, since we’re here; I’ve thrown my name into the hat for positions in other locations too, where there are concentrations of people we know. We’ll do what we have to do where that’s concerned, I suppose.

In any event, since I’m not leaving any stone unturned, I may as well put this here: if anybody happening upon this has a desperate need for a PhD candidate who studies and teaches Byzantine history (as well as medieval history more generally), has formal undergraduate education in music, 10+ years experience in church music, close to 20 years working with arts organizations on- and off-stage, 5 years as a software tester, 3 years in various higher ed administration offices, a natural gift for networking, a knack for creative public engagement on obscure topics and who founded a nonprofit arts organization four years ago as a vehicle for that knack, who puns relentlessly, doesn’t take himself too seriously if he doesn’t have to, loves public speaking, and in general goes after things without giving up (sometimes to his own detriment), I’d love to hear what you think I could do for you. E-mail me at rrbarret AT indiana DOT edu.

Talk more soon.

Pastitsio and Byzantine chant: in which one finds, at the very least, the best pastitsio recipe ever (also the worst)

Some friends the other night made a Moroccan chickpea stew for us. One of them said that he had altered the recipe a little bit with what he’d had on hand; I turned to Flesh of My Flesh and said, “See? He makes stew with what he has.”

Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.

I didn’t come here to tell you that.

One of the topics I’m frequently musing about in this venue is, what does it mean to sing “Byzantine chant”, and how best to teach it to a variety of people? Specifically in terms of that variety — what might it mean to have a pedagogical approach that assumes some knowledge of how to do it, an approach that tries to convey best practices to a person knowledgeable about music, just not Byzantine music, and then, what would constitute a misguided approach that throws misunderstood elements together haphazardly? For illumination on this point, I turn to — strange as it may seem during the third week of Lent — pastitsio.

IMG_0359When Anna, Theodore’s nona, was first getting to know us back in fall of 2006, she asked us one day — “Can I come and make Greek food in your kitchen sometime?” Wow, twist our arms. What she made for us, and what she has made for us and others many times since, and what we also have learned how to make ourselves on a fairly regular basis, was pastitsio.

You can call it “Greek lasagna” if you like; many do, including Michael Psilakis. To do so is kind of like calling Syriac “the language of Jesus”, though; there’s a certain sense that it makes, but it’s kind of misleading, and it doesn’t acknowledge the dish on its own terms. Pastitsio has multiple layers of long, hollow noodles (ideally, Misko #2 Pastitsio Noodles) with a flour-based Béchamel-cheese sauce and a meat sauce. It’s a Greek comfort food to be sure; not exactly the dish one is talking about in a conversation about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. All the same, my goodness is it delicious when made right, and a pan of pastitsio on the table is, in my experience, one of the best signs of a hospitable house, Greek or otherwise.

classic pastitsio recipe

Classic Pastitsio

Like all dishes, there are regional, familial, and maybe even political differences. To the right is Anna’s foundational recipe, a pretty basic, classic version that allows for some variation based on what you have on hand and what you prefer. It’s nothing particularly fancy, and it doesn’t take that long to make. You could do this with beef, veal, or lamb; you could do it with whatever cheese you have handy (and it doesn’t make any particular suggestions where that’s concerned); and it’s not picky about pasta. Maybe it’s a recipe that assumes, if you’re a Greek person who already knows how to cook this, you’ll know how to take this and, mutatis mutandis, turn it into “the way YiaYia made it”. And, if you’re not, well, you’ll use what you have handy and you’ll make it work in your own way.

That’s one approach. There’s another way, somewhat more complicated, what we might call the “foodie” approach. Here is how Michael Psilakis frames the recipe in his cookbook, How to Roast a Lamb:

This is a classic Greek dish, which I often refer to as a Greek version of lasagna. You will need a deep, lasagna-style pan, and it may be hard to find the pastitsio noodles called for here. Try a Greek or Middle Eastern market or, of course, the Internet. The crucial thing is that the noodles be both hollow and straight, so you may substitute bucatini, perciatelli, ditali, or long, straight ziti laid end-to-end. This casserole, as with lasagna, must rest before serving to set, or it will be difficult to serve.

Okay, already there’s a different tone here. This is a recipe written for somebody who knows food, but maybe doesn’t know Greek food all that well (and there’s the “Greek version of lasagna” shorthand). He details the essentials, and tells you where you need to find them.

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons blended oil (90 percent canola, 10 percent extra-virgin olive)
  • 1 large Spanish or sweet onion, finely chopped
  • 3 fresh bay leaves or 6 dried leaves
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • Pinch ground nutmeg (optional)
  • Pinch ground cloves (optional)
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 2 1/4 quarts water
  • 1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes, crushed slightly, with all the juices
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
  • 1 (500-gram) package Misko Macaroni Pastitsio no. 2 (see above)
  • 1 3/4 quarts Greek Béchamel Sauce (page 274, with eggs)
  • 1 cup coarsely grated graviera cheese

And this is definitely a little different. Oil instead of butter (he goes into his reasons for cutting olive oil with canola oil earlier in the book; basically it’s a cost issue, and you can use all olive oil if you really want to), the seasoning is a little more robust (and more characteristic of a Constantinopolitan approach, perhaps), and he’s more specific about the meat, the noodles, and the cheese. Elsewhere he talks about possible substitutes for cheeses; gruyere is his principal recommendation. This is an ingredients list that wants to show an American cook how to be faithful to the model using the best of what’s available.

Going on:

Make the kima sauce: in a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat, add the oil and the onion with the bay leaves and cinnamon sticks for 3 to 5 minutes. Add the ground beef and brown thoroughly. Add all the spices and the tomato paste and stir for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the water, tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, about 2 tablespoons of kosher salt, and a generous grinding of pepper. Bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat, partially cover, and simmer for 65 to 75 minutes. Skim off the fat once or twice. Reduce until the sauce is almost completely dry. Proceed with the recipe, or cool and refrigerate.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a large pot of generously salted boiling water, cook the macaroni until almost tender, a minute or so before the al dente stage. Drain well. Spread 1 cup of the Greek Béchamel Sauce on the bottom of a deep roasting pan or lasagna pan, and sprinkle with 1/3 cup graviera. Lay half of the noodles out on top of the béchamel. You should have 2 to 3 layers of noodles. Spread another cup of the béchamel over the noodles, without disturbing the direction of the noodles, to bind them. Scatter with 1/3 cup of the graviera. Spoon all of the kima sauce over the top and smooth flat. Spread 1 more cup of the béchamel over the kima sauce, scatter with 1/3 cup graviera.

Layer remaining pasta noodles over the béchamel. Spoon on the remaining béchamel and scatter with the remaining 1/3 cup of graviera. Bake uncovered until crusty, golden, and set, about 1 hour. If you don’t have a convection oven, you may want to increase the heat to 400 degrees F at the end, to brown the top. Cool for at least 40 minutes, to allow the custard to set so that the squares will remain intact when you cut them. Or, cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight.

And since he gives it its own recipe, here’s the Béchamel sauce:

Greek béchamel differs from French béchamel or Italian besciamella due to the inclusion of whole eggs. When a dish is baked, the eggs in the sauce create a custard. This basic ingredient is what makes many Greek dishes so special. Because of the large quantity of flour and the resulting thickness of the roux, you really can’t step away from the stove while you are preparing the sauce. Plus, you’ll need muscle to stir it thoroughly.

Ingredients:

  • 5 ounces unsalted butter
  • 10 ounces all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 quarts whole milk, warm
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • Large pinch nutmeg, preferably freshly ground
  • 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • Cracked black pepper
  • 5 large eggs, lightly beaten

In a large heavy pot, melt the butter over low heat, whisking with a large balloon whisk. Add the flour and whisk to a very crumbly roux, not a smooth paste. Whisk constantly and energetically or about 5 minutes to cook off the raw flour taste, but do not allow to brown (slide the pot off and on the heat every now and then if you sense it is getting too hot).

Still whisking constantly, drizzle in the warm milk until smooth. Continue cooking, adjusting the heat as necessary to keep the mixture at a very low simmer, until very thick. Whisk in the cinnamon, nutmeg, kosher salt to taste, and a generous amount of pepper.

Scoop out about 1/4 cup of the warm sauce. In a bowl, whisk the sauce into the eggs to temper them. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk all the egg mixture back into the béchamel.

Dude. I’m hungry. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing this during Lent. Dang it all.

Anyway, some observations — first and foremost, this is not the quick ‘n dirty way to make pastitsio. The meat sauce, I can tell you from experience, takes more like 2-3 hours to reduce than the 65-75 minutes advertised, at least on the stoves I’ve used. At the same time — oh my goodness is the end result amazing and flavorful (such that Anna now uses Psilakis’ meat sauce in combination with her foundational recipe). Now, if you want to shave off time, just skip adding the water. With the basic recipe, if you know what you’re doing you might elaborate the bare bones instructions somewhat; by contrast, here, if you’re familiar with the dish, then you might simplify this version a bit. Both recipes, in the end, faithfully (I hate the word “authentically”) reproduce what is understood as “pastitsio”; one does so by presenting a basic, easy to reproduce (and vary) method, and the other does so by breaking the dish down and building it back up using the language and ingredients of American foodie culture.

Now, you can have an argument over just how “Greek” pastitsio is. Real Greeks didn’t use Béchamel sauce until a hundred, hundred and fifty years ago, one argument might go. There’s something there with the meat sauce and the cheese and the noodles, maybe, but Béchamel? That’s an Italian or French corruption, not Greek.

You might also have a conversation about some of the details. There are pastitsio recipes you can find that are adamant that no real pastitsio ever has had any kind of cinnamon or nutmeg or anything else in the meat sauce, because it doesn’t need it, period, and that’s not how YiaYia did it, dammit.

However, what you’re probably not going to have much of a disagreement about is whether or not this recipe is pastitsio:

  • 1 lb.  lean ground beef
  • 1 small  onion, chopped
  • 1 jar  (24 oz.) spaghetti sauce
  • 2 Tbsp.  red wine vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp.  butter
  • 1-1/2 cups  milk
  • 1 cup  plain nonfat Greek-style yogurt
  • 1/4 tsp.  ground nutmeg
  • 2 cups  elbow macaroni, cooked
  • 1/4 cup  DI GIORNO Grated Parmesan Cheese

BROWN meat with onions in large skillet; drain. Stir in spaghetti sauce and vinegar; simmer on low heat 15 min., stirring occasionally.

MEANWHILE, melt butter in large saucepan on low heat. Add milk; bring to boil on medium heat, stirring constantly. Simmer on low heat 3 to 5 min. or until thickened, stirring frequently. Remove from heat. Stir in yogurt and nutmeg. Add macaroni; mix lightly.

HEAT oven to 350ºF. Spread meat sauce onto bottom of 13×9-inch baking dish; top with macaroni mixture and cheese.

BAKE 45 to 50 min. or until macaroni mixture is heated through and top is lightly browned.

Um, no. No, no, no, no, no. You want to insult a Greek person? Put this in front of them and call it “pastitsio”. This is beyond parody, really. This is macaroni and spaghetti sauce layered with yogurt and had some cheese sprinkled on it; no Béchamel, no attention to cheese, no nothing. This is a clueless American who vaguely remembers that there was a dish he had at a Greek festival or something that had noodles, meat sauce, some white stuff, and maybe a pinch of spice in it, making something up that sort of fits the general description, and adding “Greek yogurt” (nonfat? That’s not Greek yogurt, folks) and nutmeg to justify claiming that it’s “Greek food”.

And, here’s the thing — by this point, pastitsio has been made at Chez Barrett a sufficient number of times that it isn’t really “Greek food”. It’s just “food you’re likely to eat when you’re a guest of the Barretts”. Or, for that matter, when we’re your guests; I made Psilakis’ recipe for Christmas Eve dinner one year at my mom’s house. Call it trying to pass on the tradition.

Okay, back to the question raised at the outset about Byzantine chant. How might the analogy of pastitsio be applicable here? What’s the equivalent of Anna’s foundational recipe, what’s the equivalent of Michael Psilakis’ recipe, and what’s the equivalent of the Kraft recipe?

Well, what are the fundamental ingredients of Byzantine chant, and what’s variable for, shall we say, ingredients that one has on hand? For present purposes, maybe we’ll say that the fundamental ingredients of Byzantine chant are:

  • it is a cappella,
  • it is monophonic (that is, not harmonized by multiple voices),
  • it employs drone that does not function as a harmonic bass line,
  • it employs a sacred text, drawn predominantly from the liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church,
  • it employs the system of Byzantine modes, a centuries-old musical system with which the modern theoretical understanding as described by Chrysanthos of Madytos and clarified/affirmed by the 1881 Musical Committee of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is in continuity,
  • the melodies are composed formulaically — that is, there is a vocabulary of musical phrases (theses) proper to each mode, and the composer formulates compositions according to this vocabulary of phrases so as to fit the accentuation and rhetoric of the sacred text appropriately and in the intended musical texture (fast, slow, syllabic, melismatic, etc.),
  • and the melodies are notated using psaltic, or Byzantine, notation, and the notation is meant to be interpreted via a layer of oral tradition absorbed from one’s teacher.

Now, I’ve phrased much of that carefully. Not all Byzantine chant necessarily employs a liturgical text; there are examples that set paraliturgical poetic texts. The description of Byzantine modes allows for some leeway depending on local tradition; Lebanese and Syrian cantors might do certain things differently, as might some Romanian cantors. It also allows for a way of talking about medieval repertoire that was composed before Chrysanthos or the 1881 Committee. The point about notation might perhaps be controversial to some, but I would leave it there, simply because, as a prosodic and musical system intended specifically for that purpose, psaltic notation is the symbolic system that best expresses the musical and hymnographic repertoire we call “Byzantine chant”.

So what are ingredients that might be variable? Language, certainly; there’s nothing in that list that says that anything has to be in Greek or Arabic. It might be a lone man’s voice singing; it might be a choir of women. The point about oral tradition suggests that there is some level of acceptable variation of interpretation in some cases. There are different genres of hymns you can compose and sing within this framework; anything from quick, short, declamatory, syllabic hymns to long, slow, drawn-out compositions.

And, certainly, there are lots of arguments about some of the details. This, that, or the other musical development in the repertoire isn’t “really” Byzantine music, but rather a corruption arising from Turkish influence. No cantor who knows what they’re doing would ever sing this phrase the way you just did it. Some would argue that language actually isn’t an acceptable variable, at least not the way described above; it either has to be in Greek, or it has to adapt a Greek original in a way that favors the Greek version over the target language of the translated text at every point. Alternately, language may be generally variable to an extent, but there’s no way no how English is an acceptable language for this music. That kind of thing.

Whatever details one might argue about, however, here’s an indisputable example of a composition that is identifies itself as “Byzantine chant” but is, by any definition, the equivalent of the Kraft pastitsio recipe:

thy martyrs o lord, bad version

That’s from the pen of yours truly, written about ten years ago (do note that I do not credit a composer in the score, partially because even then I knew enough to know that I didn’t want to be blamed later). I cringe to show it to anybody because there is so much that it gets wrong, but in the spirit of being the chief of sinners, I’d rather hold up my own mistakes than point fingers at those of other people.

First, it’s the wrong mode. Yes, fine, fourth mode is the mode appointed for this apolytikion, but this is the wrong version of fourth mode — it is diatonic (legetos) rather than soft chromatic, because apolytikia in fourth mode use soft chromatic.

The second and third things wrong are related — this text actually is supposed to be metered for a model melody, usually known in English as “Be quick to anticipate”, which the melody I wrote doesn’t follow; alas, the text is not in fact metered, and the service book from which I got this translation doesn’t include a rubric for a model melody. You don’t know what you don’t know.

Fourth, if you look at the model melody (Byz notation version in English here, staff notation here, or get them from 27 September here if those links don’t work) it really is one note per syllable for the vast majority of the hymn. What I wrote isn’t obnoxiously melismatic, but neither is it sufficiently consistent in being syllabic.

Fifth, it’s not a terribly sensitive setting of the text. I have no idea what I was thinking on “our God”, for example.

Sixth, the use of drone is all over the place. It’s clear that this is by someone who has no idea what they’re doing on this point.

Seventh, my use of the theses bears basically no resemblance to the reality of how classical scores use them, and since at that point I was almost entirely influenced by Kazan, it is probably is more Sakellarides-esque (if we can even aim that high) than anything. You can sort of see what I thought I was doing, but I may as well be using yogurt instead of Béchamel.

Eighth, I made a deliberate choice to eliminate measures, partially because I felt that the “tyranny of the bar line” actually made Kazan much harder to use. This wound up obscuring the rhythmic structure that the piece should have had, and it had the technical effect, due to how Sibelius works, of obscuring how the accidentals function.

Ninth, because I was just writing note to note in staff notation, with no understanding of how the rhetoric of the theses was constructed in psaltic notation, it’s made an even lesser effort than it otherwise was. If I had had even some knowledge of the notation and the orthography, a few of the problems could have been minimized a bit.

In all of this, I was doing the best I could with what I knew, and I was doing so with foundational materials that were less than ideal but were what was available to me, to be sure, but that’s just the point — by way of comparison, I had had a taste of pastitsio at a Greek festival and thought, hey, I’m a good enough cook that I can replicate that — and I came up with a random combination of pasta, meat, cheese, and yogurt based on ingredients I had on hand. Yes, sometimes one makes stew with what one has (you knew I’d get back to that eventually), and one might argue that it’s not that bad on its on merits (if one were being maximally charitable), but you can’t really call it pastitsio, at least with no disclaimers or scare quotes.

Thankfully, these days there are more resources that allow one to go a route that is more along the lines of Michael Psilakis, taking apart the tradition and putting it back together for an Anglophone Orthodox audience that perhaps has decent musical sense but needs detailed help for Byzantine music. What is still needed is greater access to teachers who can provide enough of a living connection to the material, such that that one can manage with a more bare-bones set of resources, like the basic pastitsio recipe, but we’re getting there. In taking advantage of such resources, ideally we would produce a body of Anglophone repertoire that is both composed and sung knowledgeably and faithfully, and as a result, Byzantine chant would eventually become something that is no longer perceived as “Greek” or “Arab” or foreign in general, but simply “what we sing”.

We can apply this, really, to any Orthodox musical idiom, and even any element of Orthodox tradition; a confused jumble of ingredients put together out of a lack of understanding doesn’t actually cultivate a real “American” expression of anything. It’s exactly that — a confused jumble of ingredients. We’re far better off putting in the time and the humility to learn from people who know what they’re doing and have a living connection to the tradition. Yes, it will take longer, yes, it may take trying some things that don’t work the first time, yes, you may have to un-learn and re-learn some things.

Be that as it may — certainly, in the case of pastitsio, the end result tastes a heck of a lot better.

A pitch that never even got a rejection: Surprised By Nachos – Making Friends, Building Community, and Creating Family Through Food in Bloomington, Indiana

Last spring I proposed the following as a magazine article. It never even generated a “no”, alas, but it’s a piece that I still think could be worth writing, even though ten months later I’d have to re-think parts of it. Anybody want to read this story?

The reader of [MAGAZINE NAME REDACTED] will know that food culture is passed on by communities and families as a way of reinforcing bonds within those groups — but can it work the other way, where somebody builds family and community from scratch, in a place he was unlikely to end up at and where he knows nobody, with food?

In 2003, when we were in our mid-20s, my wife and I left busy, cosmopolitan Seattle — and all of our friends and family — for what we thought would be a brief stint in Bloomington, Indiana, a town most famous for a basketball coach who threw chairs into the court, so that I could finish a degree at Indiana University’s prestigious School of Music. Life took some unexpected directions, however (as well as added a few more university degrees) and Bloomington became home for over a decade. Far away from the people we knew, the strategy we stumbled upon for making friends was, put simply, “feed the neighborhood”. This helped make friends, yes, but the regular gathering of people around our dinner table, combined with at once a strong local food movement, a restaurant scene that’s expensive for small town Indiana, and a diverse, rotating company of omnivorous guests, turned those friends into family over the years, even as they moved away and we stayed behind.

My story starts with the world’s most awesome nachos being made once a week for what was ultimately 20-30 people, and this going on for a year and half; as our circle of friends grew, so did our repertoire (often inspired by a gift subscription to [MAGAZINE NAME REDACTED] my mother-in-law gave us). Dry-aged prime rib for a late winter dinner party and a Hungarian lamb stew for St. Patrick’s Day. An Italian Easter feast one year followed a Greek-style spit-roast lamb the following year. A standing commitment for a 3-day New Years celebration with a different themed menu every year. We made excursions into everything from butter-churning to home brewing to bread baking to coffee roasting to raw milk. Breakfast could be anything from eggs benedict with from-scratch Hollandaise and crumpets to the nothing-from-a-can biscuits and gravy a Kansas transplant taught us how to make when she moved here. People came to our table for celebratory nachos (and still do; there are people who have sung principal roles on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera who come back here and ask me to make nachos for them), for a convivial cocktail (usually something whiskey-based), and sometimes to cry in their soup (Tuscan kale and white bean). You don’t have to knock — the door is open, let me get you something. Are you hungry?

Time has gone by — Bloomington is a university town, so people have moved on. My wife and I now have a son. And, eleven years after arriving, we’re finally leaving. The coming New Years theme menu celebration will be in Boston — but with the same people. It’s a destination now, it’s family, it’s not just a relationship of convenience. Unlikely as it would have seemed when we got here, it’s what wanting to make good food for the people who came through our door — even when we didn’t know them — allowed us to build during our time here. Probably, though, when we get settled in the new place, I’ll offer to make somebody nachos.

My name is Richard Barrett, and I want to tell this story for [MAGAZINE NAME REDACTED]. I have published magazine features, poetry, and academic articles on a range of topics from religion to technical theatre. Matthew Murray at PCMag can tell you what I’m like to work with on assignment.

Thanks very much for your consideration.

Richard

Vacant chairs

richard chairWhen I was about a year old to about four years old, we lived in a neighborhood of Anchorage called Geronimo Circle, near DeBarr Road in the northeast part of town. To our left was a neighbor lady named Nina, and to our right were the Slays — Larry, Bonnie, and their little kids, Ethan, who was my age, and Jenny, the baby. Ethan and I played together just about every day; he sent me to the ER with my first split lip for my first stitches (couldn’t tell you over what, except I remember something about a toy crane being involved); we built forts out of couch cushions; and so on. Bonnie and Larry were close to my parents, too, and I have a lot of happy memories of the bunch of us being at each other’s houses in those early years. Larry built me a few things in his woodshop that I remember fondly; there was a marble rack that I spent hours playing with, and then he also made me a chair when I was about three years old — carved my name in it, finished it, everything. My mom still has it, and I’d bring it home if it fit more easily in a suitcase.

We moved away, but about nine years later, the Slays joined us in Bothell, Washington, and it was like no time had passed. Our houses were open to each other again, even if they weren’t next door, and Ethan and I actually went through junior high and high school together. During my initial difficult years in college, the Slays opened their home to me when I needed a place to go, and always treated me as another son.

Larry passed away a couple of weeks ago. I hadn’t seen him or the other Slays in years — maybe since our wedding — but I had stayed apprised of what was going on with them via Facebook and through my mother. He was a good man, a good father, and a good husband, who did what he had to do for his family even when it wasn’t easy. They all had a lot of fun together, too, and even though they’re all a bit scattered to the four winds, they were one of the tightest-knit families I’ve ever seen. Larry lived a long life even with some complex health issues, and while I mourn his passing, I’m happy that he no longer has to be in pain. Memory eternal, my dear friend.

matthew bakerI must comment on another passing — not as close, but painful nonetheless. Three years ago, at the 2012 Florovsky Symposium, Fr. Andrew Damick introduced me to one Matthew Baker, saying, “Someday soon, you’re going to be reading books by him.” Turned out we knew many of the same people, and I’ll never forget his shock of red hair, thick beard, bow tie, and tweed jacket, or his way of disagreeing with people that suggested an internal amusement at just how wrong his interlocutors could be.

We never met again, but we encountered each other online multiple times, mostly because we had so many mutual friends. Last year, he was ordained as a priest in GOA, and he recently had been assigned a parish for the first time. Everything I ever experienced of him directly or was told about secondhand spoke to his character, his integrity, his very real brilliance, and his faithfulness, and I looked forward to when our paths would cross in person again.

Last night, Fr. Matthew was lost to us in a tragic car accident. He leaves behind his Presvytera Katherine and six children. They had just lost a seventh in stillbirth earlier in the month. By all accounts, this is a loss of the brightest of bright lights, and one that had only really started burning for real. So many people who are dear to me are weeping today, and I stand with them in mourning his loss; it is clear that we have lost one of the very, very best of us.

A fund has been established for Fr. Matthew’s family; they have raised over $200,000, but that is only a start of what they will need for a family of seven that just lost their only source of income. You can give online at GoFundMe, or you can send a check here:

Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston
c/o Fr. Matthew Baker Memorial Fund
162 Goddard Ave
Brookline, MA 02445

Please do what you are able, and please remember Fr. Matthew, Presvytera Katherine, and their children in your prayers.

Memory eternal, Larry and priest Matthew. May your souls dwell where the righteous repose.

Who are the Assyrian Christians?

(Once again, this post is intended for a more general audience than what I usually do. You can see yesterday’s post for some helpful background; unfortunately, current events dictated a more immediate followup than I really had in mind.)

CNN reports that ISIS militants are presently holding as many as 150 “Assyrian” Christians hostage and are threatening to kill them. Yesterday, there were news stories that ISIS militants took some 90 Assyrians in northeastern Syria as they retreated from Kurdish forces, but the number appears to have been underestimated. The BBC’s account says that the incident took place in a town called Tal Tamr, which it locates on a map as shown to the left.

The BBC describes the “Assyrian” Christians thusly:

Assyrians, of whom there were about 40,000 in Syria, are Nestorian Christians and speak Syriac, a form of Aramaic, the language of Christ.

The largest concentration of Assyrians in Syria is in Hassakeh province, but there are also smaller communities in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus.

Again, as I tried to explain in yesterday’s piece on Coptic Christians, this is not altogether wrong, but neither is it as clear as would be ideal about who they are or why they are considered a separate group. The short version is that the Assyrian Church of the East is the modern Middle Eastern Christian group that claims continuity with the so-called Church of the East or Catholicosate of Seleucia-Ktesiphon of antiquity, a Christian group that was isolated from the Roman mainstream by the seventh century, although more because of geography and political boundaries than because of theological disputes.

To recap a couple of things from yesterday: Christianity in the early centuries emerged in a Mediterranean, Roman context where two things mattered — what major city you were in or closest to, and how close to the sea that city was. Egypt’s Alexandria and Syria’s Antioch were cities that pretty much ruled the roost as far as intellectual culture and theological thought were concerned, and represented the major poles that governed the development of orthodox (intentional lower-case “o”) Christianity. The major common language of education in this period was Greek, a language that already had a well-developed vocabulary and rhetorical approach for talking about complicated and nuanced philosophical ideas. At the same time, Latin was the language of the state, and there were of course local languages. Semitic languages were the linguae francae in the eastern part of the empire with their own gravitational pull, including Aramaic (the so-called “language of Jesus”) and its dialects, like Syriac. These languages were often employed for monastic writing and other kinds of sacred literary production, although it was not at all uncommon for authors in these languages to borrow Greek theological terminology outright rather than attempt to translate them.

Another point is that from the standpoint of this Mediterranean, Roman world, the other major player of importance was the Persian Empire. Maps are always tricky, and the nature of frontier borders is that they’re contested and always moving, but here’s a broad — if simplified — sense of the parameters of the Roman Mediterranean in the first part of the fourth century:

Basically, in terms of present-day national identities, it was England, Spain, and North Africa on the Western side to Egypt, and Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria on the Eastern side, with the Mediterranean Sea smack dab in the middle — “frogs around a pond”, as Plato put it. To the north were various Germanic tribes; to the south was desert; to the East were a handful of small kingdoms, and then Persia. Again, maps are tricky, but here’s a pretty good one showing what the Roman-Persian frontier looked like over time:

Based on what I said earlier about proximity to major cities and proximity to the sea, it should be evident that, while the Roman/Persian frontier was of strategic importance, it wasn’t really anyplace anybody from the big cities would have been excited about being in, it was pretty far removed from the Greco-Roman culture of the area more central to the Mediterranean, and local languages like Syriac were far more prevalent than Greek. And, despite its strategic importance, it was at times a hard place for emperors to justify the cost of defending; Arab the sixth century saw the frontier left to its own devices on more than one occasion when Justinian was too busy trying to reclaim the Italian peninsula. It fell to allied Arab tribes and border kingdoms to defend Roman territories in the frontier.

Christianity on the frontier was intellectually and spiritually vibrant nonetheless, even if life on the border was uncertain. The fourth century produced one of the greatest Christian poets in history, Ephrem the Syrian, who worked first in the border town of Nisibis and then moved to the somewhat more centralized Syriac city of Edessa when Nisibis was surrendered to the Persians in 363 and the Christian communities expelled.

At the same time, there were Christian communities that emerged in Persia in antiquity, and the Persian capital of Seleucia-Ktesiphon was home to its own bishopric starting in the third century. This church was obviously isolated, and while Christian communities appear to have formed there in the first couple of centuries AD, it doesn’t seem to have been until 280 that visiting bishops were able to establish a working ecclesiastical structure there. Still, they were isolated, and tended be focused further East than towards the Mediterranean centers of ecclesial activity. (How far East? They sent missionaries to the Mongols in Central Asia and to China starting in the sixth and seventh centuries.) As such, many of the theological arguments swirling around Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch simply weren’t terribly relevant to the churches on the border or in Persia, and the remained loyal to what they saw as their own tradition. They identified with the Council of Nicea, perhaps, since that was everybody’s major point of reference following Constantine’s legalization of Christianity, but beyond that it got a little obscure.

There was a thread of intellectual continuity that made it from Byzantium to Ktesiphon, to be sure, but the supply lines were a bit tangled and on the thin side. A major theological figure of the Syrian East, the fourth/early fifth century Theodore of Mopsuestia (close to the southeastern border of modern-day Turkey), had been the student of Libanius, a major teacher of rhetoric in Antioch. Theodore appears to have had significant influence on the thought of Nestorius, whom you may recall from yesterday’s post as the Constantinopolitan bishop on the losing side at the Council of Ephesus in 431. In the aftermath of the Christological disputes of the fifth century, Nestorius’ followers relocated to Persia; the Persians perceived in their position a fundamental continuity with Theodore and their own strongly Antiochene perspective, and they welcomed the Nestorians with open arms.

There continued to be some awareness and mutual sympathy between Persian and Roman Christianity; as late as 614, the Persian Emperor Khosroes appears to have had a Christian wife (“but after the heresy of Nestorius”, the witness is clear to specify) who did much to aid Christian prisoners of war after Khosroes’ sack of Jerusalem. The writings of the seventh century Christian ascetic figure Isaac of Nineveh (modern Mosul, in Iraq), despite Isaac formally being a part of the Persian church, were nonetheless eagerly received in Byzantium and translated into Greek. (And, as the best sign of admiration, Greek authors wrote spurious works under Isaac’s name.)

Still, in 644, the Arab invaders under Umar overthrew — or perhaps subsumed — the Persian Empire, and the church under Seleucia-Ktesiphon was permanently isolated. Over time the Persian church came to be known variously as the Nestorian Church, the Church of the East, and the Assyrian Church of the East. Syriac (more about which in a moment) remains their predominant liturgical language, and like the Copts, they have a distinctive liturgical tradition. You can get a sense of it from this video (which is in English):

From the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, the Church of the East was at the center of the intellectual life in the Islamic world and played an important role in the translation of Greek texts into Arabic. Following the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1258, they retreated to the relative safety of the mountains of Northern Iraq. Their period of flourishing and expansion was over, and they were isolated again in northern Mesopotamia. Since then, their relatively small size, internal divisions, shifting ecclesial ties, and political instability in the region have meant that they’ve been forced to move around a lot over the last several centuries, and they have been largely concentrated in pockets of Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Their patriarch, or chief bishop, is at present in exile in Chicago.

A last point for the moment. Concerning language: Syriac is often referred to in Western media as “the language of Christ”. This is fundamentally misleading, but it also reveals a certain myopia of our media outlets and worldview. Jesus, as a Jew in Roman Judea, probably spoke the Galilean dialect of Aramaic as his native language, a Semitic language related to Hebrew and modern Arabic. More than likely, he spoke some Greek as well, since that was the common language of business and society for a Roman province. Classical Syriac began as the dialect of Aramaic of the city of Edessa, and it developed into a key literary and liturgical language perhaps in the second century; certainly the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew to Syriac in the second century (although a complete New Testament has murkier origins, without a clear appearance until the fifth century). It should be clear, however, that a form of Syriac remains a living, albeit endangered, language in some Assyrian communities, which means that it has developed and evolved from its classical iteration. Much as calling Modern Greek “the language of Homer”, or modern Italian “the language of Virgil”, or modern English “the language of Beowulf” misleadingly elides centuries of language change, calling Syriac “the language of Christ” does the same. It also ignores the far more interesting linguistic relationship between ancient Aramaic, classical Syriac, and the modern language known by its speakers as Assyrian, and also implies that these people, their culture, their history, and their language are only of secondary interest to an imaginary reconstruction of the world of the New Testament. That is to do sufficient justice neither to the Syriac/Assyrian people and heritage, which are under significant and immediate attack now (besides the kidnapping, there’s also Sunday’s burning of Mosul’s library), nor to Christianity and its history, nor to the history of the Roman East and the Roman/Persian frontier in antiquity as its own fully-qualified subject of interest. There is far more going on in current events with far deeper roots than these one-paragraph summaries would have you believe, and pithy statements like “Syriac is the language of Christ” do nothing to illuminate that.

Lord have mercy on the Assyrian Christians!

(I am grateful to Sam Noble, Eric Jobe, David Maldonado-Rivera, Fr. Andrew Damick, and Lucas Christensen for their helpful comments on yesterday’s piece as well as today’s. Any errors that remain are, of course, my own.)

Who are the Copts?

Icon the 21 Coptic New Martyrs of Libya, painted by Tony Rezk.(Note: this piece is intended for a general audience, not necessarily my normal two readers, whom I would expect would be familiar with at least some of the issues discussed here.)

On or before 14 Feburary, an “affiliate” of ISIS beheaded 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians on a beach in Libya, as depicted in a video the ISIS affiliate released to the public. The story made international news, and the Coptic Pope Tawadros (Theodore) II declared that they were to remembered as martyr saints and added them to the Coptic Synaxarion, the book that lists the saints commemorated by calendar day. Their future commemoration will be on 15 February.

CNN’s story on the beheading had this brief statement explaining Coptic Christian identity:

Coptic Christians are part of the Orthodox Christian tradition, one of three main traditions under the Christian umbrella, alongside Catholicism and Protestantism. Copts split from other Christians in the fifth century over the definition of the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Well, that’s not entirely wrong, but it could do with some unpacking. The short version is that Copts are the modern Christian group that count themselves as the present-day successors of the historic Church in Alexandria, Egypt, one of the five major episcopates in late antiquity, the others being Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Copts are generally understood as belonging to the so-called Oriental Orthodox tradition, as opposed to the Greek or Eastern Orthodox tradition; The Oriental Orthodox communion includes the Syriac, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Armenian, and Indian Orthodox Churches. Oriental Orthodox recognize the first three Ecumenical Councils — Nicea, Constantinople, and Ephesus; by contrast, the Greek Orthodox are normally said to recognize the first seven, and Roman Catholics recognize twenty-one, up to Vatican II in the 20th century. Copts remain principally Egyptian in terms of modern national heritage. They have their own distinctive liturgical tradition that is separate from the Byzantine and Roman/Frankish rites., and you can get a sense of the current practice of it here.

Why do the Copts exist as a separate group? To make a complicated story a little shorter, Christianity in the early centuries emerged in a Mediterranean, Roman context where two things mattered — what major city you were in or closest to, and how close to the sea that city was. Egypt’s Alexandria and Syria’s Antioch were cities that pretty much ruled the roost as far as intellectual culture and theological thought were concerned, and represented the major poles that governed the development of orthodox (intentional lower-case “o”) Christianity. The major common language of education in this period was Greek, a language that already had a well-developed vocabulary and rhetorical approach for talking about complicated and nuanced philosophical ideas. At the same time, Latin was the language of the state, and there were of course local languages. Semitic languages were common in the eastern part of the empire, including Aramaic (the so-called “language of Jesus”) and its dialects, like Syriac. Egypt still spoke Egyptian, with a major literary dialect known as Bohairic, commonly known as “Coptic”. This dialect had been used continuously going back to the pharaohs, and for historical reasons, it adopted the Greek alphabet and some Greek vocabulary. These local languages were often employed for monastic writing and other kinds of sacred literary production, although it was not at all uncommon for authors in these languages to borrow Greek theological terminology outright rather than attempt to translate them.

In 325, Constantine started to build his New Rome at the site of Byzantium, a port town that straddled the western edge of Europe and the eastern edge of Asia Minor. Constantinople may have been the new capital by fiat, but it had to earn its intellectual credibility, and while the first two ecumenical councils were held in or near Constantinople, the theological and ecclesial powers at play were Antiochene and Alexandrian. The arguments were certainly about the nature of Christ in content; inter-city Roman politics were part of the context nonetheless.

In the early decades of the 400s, Constantinople was ready to try its hand at theology, and it was a disaster. Nestorius, the capital’s archbishop, got involved in a Christological argument, and in 431 at the Council of Ephesus (the third Ecumenical Council) he got his head handed to him by Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria and heavyweight champion of theological disputes. Incidentally, it is because of the Council of Ephesus that the Virgin Mary’s status as “Mother of God” is a dogmatic point for Oriental and Greek Orthodox, as well as for Roman Catholics; the base question, despite an awkward appellation in English (the Greek word, Theotokos, is more literally, if woodenly, rendered as “One who carried God in her womb”), is strictly whether the child to whom Mary gave birth was God from conception or not, not a matter of Mary as the source of Christ’s divinity.

In any event, the memory of Cyril as the voice of authority at Ephesus was powerful, and over the next twenty years there was jockeying for control of his memory amongst successors and putative successors in Constantinople, Rome, and Alexandria. In addition, there were residual issues left over from Ephesus, as Cyril’s Christological formulations that dogmatized the Virgin Mary as Theotokos also raised new questions. A council in 449 convened by Emperor Theodosius II to address the new theological disputes seemed inclined to favor Dioscorus, Cyril’s successor as Patriarch of Alexandria, and to do at the expense of Flavian, Constantinople’s own patriarch. Then Theodosius died, and his successor, Marcian, convened a council in Chalcedon (modern-day Kadıköy in Turkey) that favored Rome and Constantinople at Dioscorus’ expense. Dioscorus was exiled, and Constantinople appointed their own Patriarch of Alexandria. He didn’t last long; the Alexandrians forced him out to elect whom they wanted as Dioscorus’ successor.

The disputes were made worse by the linguistic issues; the Christological formulations relied on specific vocabulary in Greek that was difficult to render in other languages. Monks in Palestine, Egypt, and Syria felt that the faith of their beloved Cyril was being sacrificed at the altar of politics in favor of settled heresy being rehabilitated by sophistry. The so-called Tome of Pope Leo I, a sort of “friend of the court” briefing for the Second Council of Ephesus (although not read until Chalcedon) that was written in Latin, only made things worse in its (possibly deliberately) clumsy approximation of Greek theological vocabulary. Imperial fiat did not fix the problem either; a compromise decree by the Emperor Zeno in 482 made nobody happy, and hardened the division between those who adhered to Chalcedon and those who were, by now, fairly described as anti-Chalcedonian.

Emperors and bishops continued waging these internal battles for another century before the non-Chalcedonians became a separate ecclesial entity; the sixth century emperor Justinian held several “heretical” bishops from Alexandria and Syria under house arrest in Constantinople, and they consecrated a monk named Jacob as a bishop. Jacob traveled in rags throughout the regions sympathetic to Alexandria, consecrating close to a hundred bishops and perhaps thousands of priests. An ecclesial structure parallel to, but separate from, the Church of the Roman Empire had been established.

Whatever hope there may have been at reunification and reconciliation was lost in the seventh century, when the Rashidun Caliphate captured Alexandria, Antioch, and other major regions in the East where there had been anti-Chalcedonian sentiment and a non-Chalcedonian church structure. Egypt remained predominantly Christian for some time, but by the 12th century the Christian community was a minority.

The Oriental and Greek Orthodox remain separated and “out of communion” in the present day; there have been theological discussions in the last several decades to attempt to resolve the issues once and for all, but the division remains an official reality. In the Middle East, however, there is a great deal of practical cooperation between Christian groups, regardless of official structural division.

In modern Egypt, Coptic Orthodox make up perhaps 7-10% of the country’s population, and in recent years there have been a number of reports of violent attacks in Alexandria. A bomb at the Coptic church of Al-Qiddissin on New Year’s Day 2011 killed twenty-one people, for example, and there have been additional attacks throughout the cities and countryside.

In Libya, where the beheadings took place, Copts are the largest Christian group.

Coptic New Martyrs of Libya, pray for us!


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