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Posts Tagged 'Syriac'

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.)

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An itinerary and a couple of labors of love

I’ve got three things to pass along, and I suppose I should relate them in order of interest from least to greatest. Otherwise, you’ll just read the first item and skip the rest.

First — I’m going to be mildly peripatetic in the coming months. 9-12 February I will be in New Jersey to participate in the Georges Florovsky Patristic Symposium, and then 12-15 February I will be in Boston to spend a few days at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. 2-4 March I will be in Emmaus, PA to give a presentation on church music as part of a Lenten retreat at St. Paul Orthodox Church. Then, looking ahead a bit farther, 24-26 May I will be participating in the North American Patristics Society (NAPS) annual meeting in Chicago. I realize that maybe I’m up to three regular readers (counting my parakeet), but if you happen to be anywhere near any of those places when I’m there, by all means let me know. I had the odd experience at the Antiochian Sacred Music Institute last summer of meeting a couple of people who said upon meeting me, “Oh! I read your blog,” and then I also met this gentleman at the Byzantine Studies conference this last October (although neither of us realized whom the other was until after we were both back home). Anyway, I won’t look at you funny or hiss at you if you introduce yourself, promise.

Second — my first peer-reviewed article, “Sensory Experience and the Women Martyrs of Najran”, has been accepted by The Journal of Early Christian Studies. It’s been an interesting road with this project; five years ago, during my initial year of being a non-matriculated continuing student, I took my first graduate seminar, a course on the Middle East in late antiquity, taught by the professor who would later become my advisor. It was my first exposure to scholars like Peter Brown and Susan Ashbrook Harvey and so on, and was a significant broadening of my horizons. The student makeup of the class was very telling; it was a History course that had no History students in it but rather three Religious Studies kids and me.

Anyway, among other things, we read Sebastian Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey’s translation of the section of the Second Letter of Simeon of Beth-Arsham that deals with the martyrdoms of the women during the Himyarites’ sack of Najran, and the in-class discussion sparked something for me. Other students were focused on the gory nature of the martyrdom details for their own sake — I specifically remember one person commenting, “I never understood the connection people draw between martyrdom and sadomasochism before now” — but it was clear to me that there was something else governing how those details were conveyed, namely shared liturgical experience. I raised this point, and I still remember the look that I got as clear as day. Needless to say, it didn’t get a lot of traction in class, but when paper topics had to be proposed, I mentioned it to the professor as a possibility. “I can almost guarantee you I won’t buy your argument,” he said. “You’ll have to go a long way for me to see it as at all legitimate.” Well, that’s a challenge, now isn’t it? I wrote the paper, making what I saw as explicit as I could and relating it to known liturgical practices as clearly as I was able. I presented an overview in class, and the professor was quiet for a moment. “You know,” he said, “not only am I convinced, but now I can’t see it any other way. Good for you.”

Later, as I was applying for IU’s Religious Studies graduate program, the paper was used as my writing sample. At the same time, I was alerted to one of the big religious studies journals doing a themed issue on religious violence; I figured, hey, what the heck, if it gets in it can only help the application, and I sent them the paper. I also submitted it to Dorushe, a graduate conference on Syriac studies that was being held at Notre Dame. Well, the outcome of the Religious Studies application was detailed, if somewhat obscurely, here; as far as the paper went, it got into Dorushe, but the response from the journal was a little more ambivalent. The answer was ultimately no, but they included the reviewers’ comments, and said that if I were to revise it they would be willing to look at it again (while making it clear that this was not a “revise and resubmit”). Since at that point I didn’t think I was going to have the chance to go to grad school, publication didn’t really matter anymore, and I shoved the paper and the comments sheet in a drawer. The Dorushe experience was a little weird in some ways (maybe due more to some heightened self-consciousness on my part than anything), but I met some interesting people, and Sidney Griffith, at least, liked the paper, saying, “The way you lay it out, it’s obvious.”

After actually getting in to grad school, I thought to myself a number of times, I should go back and look at those reviewers’ comments, and finally last June I spent a few days thoroughly reworking the paper. I transferred it from Word to Scrivener, I restructured it following the reviewers’ suggestions, and did what was nearly a page one-rewrite so that it reflected better what my scholarly voice (to the extent that I might pretentiously assert the existence of such a thing) actually sounds like these days. Part of this involved reducing block quotes of secondary literature (a bad habit of which I was cured by the wonderful Prof. Sarah Bassett over in Art History, who in the three years that she’s been here has really proven herself to be one of the great, if somewhat unsung, reasons to study Late Antiquity at Indiana University) down to footnotes and paraphrases, and it also involved an overall refinement of the writing style. Don’t worry, I’m still wordy as hell, but I’ve tried to make the wordiness a little more elegant. Also, there’s some additional literature on the Najran incident that’s come out in the intervening five years, and I had to make sure that all got referenced properly. Anyway, once it was done, I opted to not go back to the original publication, instead sending it off to The Journal of Early Christian Studies. In September, I got a note back from the editor telling me that the reviewers’ recommendation was “revise and resubmit”, saying that this was good news and if I took the feedback seriously, there was no reason I couldn’t have a publishable article. By November the revision was re-submitted, and I got word back this last Tuesday that it was in. Now, I have some style adjustments to make before it’s totally done, but at this stage of the game it looks like it will be appearing in the Spring 2013 issue.

So, that first seminar five years ago got me my advisor, my overall area of interest (the interaction of liturgy and history), and my first published article. (Although, while the Najran paper is related conceptually and methodologically to where I think my dissertation is going, it looks like a paper I wrote for a class I took the previous semester, fall of 2006, served as a first stab at the actual dissertation topic. I’ll have more to say after NAPS, I think.) It’s been the gift that’s kept on giving, to say the least.

Okay, on to the final, and most interesting, bit of news.

Third — on or around 26 June 2012, assuming all goes well and without incident, there will be another Barrett on the earth. Yes, be afraid, my genes are propagating, insanity, puns, tendencies towards a prolix approach of oversharing, and all. Thankfully, this child will also be carrying the genes of Flesh of My Flesh, and those characteristics involve practicality, common sense, order, and normality. (To say nothing of great beauty and brilliance.)

We had intended for the last couple of years that we would start trying once Megan got back from Germany, and we were told to prepare for it taking awhile. Well, apparently not. By the beginning of November we at least knew informally, and then our first OB appointment was Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, which confirmed matters and indicated we were nine weeks along. We spent most of the drive to our Thanksgiving destination on the phone with my mother and then Megan’s mother and stepmother; my mom got the first call, since she’s the one parent who doesn’t have any grandchildren already, and she burst into tears immediately.

We’ve been telling friends and family ever since, but a couple of things made it desirable that we wait a bit before making it “Facebook public”, as it were. Anyway, here we are, and I suppose it will be a source of reflection in the coming months/years/etc. If you’re on Facebook and want to be kept more or less up-to-date, you can join the group “Fans of Baby Barrett“; there’s not a lot to tell at this point except that we’re choosing to not find out whether it’s a boy or a girl. We’ve got some name ideas, yes, but it’s hardly practical to openly discuss those when you don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl, so I’m not going to go there except to say that there are some “legacy names”, as it were, that might make sense, and you know that we’re going to be getting one of these. We’ll see.

By the way, if you happen to be having a baby in or around Bloomington, Indiana, I really can’t recommend Bloomington Area Birth Services (AKA “BABS”) enough. We’re doing their eight-week birthing class (cue Bill Cosby: “Natural childbirth… intellectuals go to class to study how to do this”), and while, I must admit, it’s a little more of the NPR-listening “educated class” culture than I really expected, it’s a lot of excellent information that’s provided very sensitively and accessibly. I kind of surprise myself with my own reactions to some things; it should really be no surprise that “birth culture” a) exists b) is hyper-feminized, but I find a certain kind of stereotypical “maleness” emerging in how I’m processing some of the information, and it is very much out of character for me. It’s probably mostly a reflexive reaction to the explicit hyper-feminization of what’s being presented, which probably has everything to do with me and nothing to do with them, because they really are terrific at what they do. I’m just really not used to what they do. Anyway, I’ll have more to say about this as time goes on, I think.

So, there’s the news. Two different kinds of babies, I guess. There’s a third kind of baby on the way that I hope to be able to talk about more in depth soon, but it’s an outgrowth of some of the musical efforts I’ve had going here the last couple of years. For now, follow this, and I’ll be able to tell all in the next month or so, I think.

Prayers for all of these babies, please, and prayers most of all for Flesh of My Flesh. She’s got to carry our child in her womb and write a dissertation.

Notes on Arab Orthodoxy on The Antioch Centre

Samn! provides an interesting piece on The Antioch Centre, the project of an Oxford-based monk to catalog the manuscripts of the Patriarchate of Antioch. I found this part particularly interesting:

Another important aspect of his work is uncovering more information about how long the Syriac language remained in use Orthodox Christians in Syria and Lebanon– in some regions, the lectionary readings were only translated from Syriac into Arabic in the 17th century! Orthodox Antioch’s Syriac heritage has long been sadly neglected, but this is now starting to change…

So if the lectionary was in Syriac, what liturgy were they using? Archdale King’s The Rites of Eastern Christendom seems to indicate that the Divine Liturgy of St. James has always been the normative Syriac rite — so was the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom a later development for Syriac speakers in Syria and Lebanon?

Funny but true story — somebody at All Saints suggested to me that it might be nice to include a round of “Lord, have mercy” in Aramaic. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea, but the suggestion was made in a very public forum by somebody who made it clear they didn’t want to be ignored. Syriac being a dialect of Aramaic, I figured, I dutifully added the Syriac translation (“Marya rahem”) to our list. Because there are already five different languages represented (English, Arabic, Greek, Romanian, and Slavonic), it was rare we would ever get to it, but I could go back to the person who suggested it and say, “Look, I heard your request and responded to it.”

Then I found out that in an actual Syriac language liturgy, for the petition responses they just say “Kyrie eleison” (and there’s a good chunk of their liturgy which is in borrowed Greek). As it works out, it looks like the same thing happens in Coptic too. The Syriac rendering was quietly removed from use at All Saints.

Draw your own conclusions about the pitfalls represented here.

(Thanks to Lucas Christensen for bringing this to my attention!)

Dead Language Geek Photo Contest ends at midnight tonight

So far I’m the only entrant. I guess that means I’ll just have to keep the prizes…

Metropolitan Jonah is contra den Zeitgeist

“Only the Orthodox Church is most firmly opposed to the spirit of this world.”

Now, if I could only get him to say that in an overly-pretentious mix of Greek, Syriac, Latin and German…

(Hat tip to the American Orthodox Institute.)

Official “Dead Language Geek Photo Contest” entry post

And here… we… go.

From top to bottom:

Bantam New College Latin & English Dictionary, Smythe Greek Grammar, Middle Liddell, Payne Smith Compendious Syriac Dictionary, BDAG, Sophocles Glossary of Later and Byzantine Greek, Great Scott, OLD.

Refresher on the plan:

Find a creative way to picture yourselves with your ginormous dead language reference materials. If that’s a photo, great. If that’s a video, great. Just come up with something. Mine’s pretty obvious; you can do better than that.

Post it on Flickr or Twitpic or YouTube or wherever, and then leave a link as a comment on this post.

You have until 22 May 2009 to take your picture and post your link (which means I also have that long to come up with a prize or prizes).

Multiple entries are fine.

Tweet this, Facebook it, e-mail it around, put it up in skywriting — but I want to see as many entries as possible. I’m quite serious about this. Let’s show the world we’ve got big, heavy, obscure books, and we’re not ashamed of that.

Get ready, get set — go! Have fun!

Price comparison shopping for Greek textbooks

So, as it works out, I’m taking Modern Greek this fall, and that’s it. I’ve canned further Syriac for the time being — frankly, it’s just tough to justify the time commitment at this point, since I was doing it to prepare for the path of further graduate study, and now that hardly seems likely to come to fruition. I’ve got enough Syriac at this point to be able to bash through texts I’m likely to run into with a dictionary and a grammar; for what I’m likely to need it for going forward — which is what, exactly? — that ought to be fine.

Modern Greek is a little easier to justify. There are people I know now with whom I could speak it. I still very much want to travel in that region, even if it probably isn’t going to be for the purpose of grant-funded research, and there are other reasons it could be useful — such as finding myself someplace where the only church is a Greek-language parish, maybe. (Using that as justification, I acknowledge that Russian, Arabic, and Romanian would also be a good plan from here.)

It also might make asking questions of His All-Holiness about his book a bit easier. (I still have never talked much about that, have I? I’ll have to get around to that someday.)

Anyway — today I ordered my Greek textbooks. The course is using Communicate in Greek by Kleanthis Arvanitakis and Froso Arvanitaki. Rather than just snatch them on a whim from the campus bookstore, I decided to do a little poking around online to see if that was actually going to be the best way to go. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Campus bookstore — $103.75 for the first year textbook, workbooks, and CD
  • Amazon.com — unavailable, for some unknown reason
  • Greece In Print — with shipping, $105.21 for the set
  • Direct from the Communicate in Greek website — $99.08 (approximately, since it’s actually priced in euros)

All more or less comparable. At this point it seemed like going direct from the website would be the best way to go — hey, four bucks is four bucks — but the tradeoff was going to be that they were shipping from Greece, and it would be difficult to know for sure that they’d arrive before 2 September.

Then I checked one more place — and as it worked out, Orthodox Marketplace had the whole set, with shipping, for $72.63.

That’s probably the one time it will ever cost less to order from there, but I’ll take it.


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