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Assyro-Chaldeans with their Syriac Churches formed a Civilization

by Prof. Joseph Yacoub.  Translation from French by Abdulmesih BarAbraham, Msc.

Posted: Friday, December 06, 2019 at 06:03 AM UT

Speech delivered at the Conference
«Le Moyen-Orient syriaque - La face méconnue des chrétiens d’Orient»
[The Syriac Middle East.
The Little-known Face of Eastern Christians]
Monday, November 18, 2019, 6 p.m.
at Dominican Convent, 93 Tête-d'Or Street, Lyon/France
Le Moyen-Orient Syriaque. La face méconnue des chrétiens d’Orient (The Syriac Middle East. The unknown face of the Oriental Christians), Ed. Salvator, September 2019, Paris.
Le Moyen-Orient Syriaque. La face méconnue des chrétiens d’Orient (The Syriac Middle East. The unknown face of the Oriental Christians), Ed. Salvator, September 2019, Paris.

Eastern Christians enjoy currently an increased visibility because of the sad situation they are experiencing in Syria and Iraq. Their drama provoked a warm outpouring of sympathy and solidarity, among other things, for the preservation of the wealth of their heritage and for safeguarding of their precious manuscripts.

But do we really know them? Are they reduced to a problem of a Christian rite and liturgy as we tend to believe?

When we dig into the cultural strata of the Middle East, we see that it is far from being a monolithic whole. It has been Arab-Muslim since the 7th century, and it has been equally Christian Syriac for more than 2,000 years.

Always defined as Oriental, the contribution of the Syriac Christians is considerable in all fields of knowledge. They have produced original religious and secular thoughts, thus helping to shape the Middle East, while they are actors in forming its present identity.

Let's have a closer look at them.

The Syriac Christians are distinguished by antiquity, language and culture, ecclesiology, liturgies, exegesis and dogmas, as well as the place they occupy in society including their openness to the universality.

Their country of origin is Syro-Mesopotamia, which is their frame of reference. We can estimate their number at over two million in the world, divided between Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, the Caucasus, Russia, with, of course, a Syrian-Iraqi dominance presence. The current tragedy has forced them into exile, where they reinforced an already existing diaspora in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and formerly in South America (Argentina, Brazil...). Today, their numbers are decreasing drastically in their homeland on the spot (probably more than by half); the majority live in the West, where they are experiencing a reconstruction of identity, while integrating peacefully into the host societies.

But what does it mean being Syriac Christian?

It is a generic term that encompasses several Christian communities, which, despite their differences, have a common heritage, linguistic and cultural foundation. They are named under different names: Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Nestorians, Jacobites, "Monophysites," Assyro-Chaldeans., or Arameans. Called Aissors or Assoris by the Armenians and the Russians, they are known under the name Süryani by the Turks, Assyrians by the Iranians and Syriane by the Arabs. They call themselves Surayé or Suroye/Suryoye.

On the religious level, the term Syriac covers several churches with ecclesial traditions, namely: the Chaldean Catholic Church of Babylon, the Assyrian Church of the East, which is autocephalous, both born of the ancient "Nestorian" Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch (also autocephalous, independent of Orthodoxy and the Latin Church) and the Syriac Catholic Church, which emerged from the latter. It should be added that among these Syriac Churches and since the 19th century, there have also been Protestants under different denominations.

The Syriac language, formed in Edessa, brings them together and derives from old Aramaic; its spoken dialects Sureth or Surayt are enriched by Akkadian and the Assyro-Babylonian idioms, even though it has split into two distinct forms. To this language is added a common cultural and historical source; the Syriac Christians consider themselves in close line with the peoples of ancient Syro-Mesopotamia, where they draw their deep roots.

Their language has had a definite impact on the language and the Arab-Muslim culture and its traces are inscribed in its literature. They have produced great and brilliant thinkers (like Bar Hebraeus and Abdisho Bar Brika of Nisibis) that can easily be compared to the great European figures. In terms of translations, we can easily speak of an epic. In contact with Greece, Persia and India, the Syriac Christians have repeatedly translated Greek authors, especially their works of philosophy and medicine, whose effects were great on the Arab-Muslim world, giving a place of honor to Galen and Aristotle. Thanks to their translations, they were able to save texts that would otherwise had disappeared, such as those of Nestorius and Severus of Antioch.

Similarly, they translated the Bible from the beginning (so-called Peshitta or Peshitto, meaning «simple version»). Tatian's Diatessaron (or Gospels in Harmony) is a Syriac original from the 2nd century.

The Syriac Christians have produced many exegete, theologians and mystics of world reputation, such as Narsai (399-503), Yacoub of Sarug (6th century), and Isaac of Nineveh (7th century), whose works have widely been translated. Cultivating the love of knowledge, Isaac of Antioch wrote in the 5th century: "Knowledge is the salt of the mind."

Women were numerous in their monasteries, which held important positions, while some nuns suffered martyrdom. It is important to note that the term [gender] equality appears in their literature from the beginning.

Concerned with their ecclesiological autonomy, they never forget the importance they attach to Babylon, Nineveh and Antioch.

They produced a significant number of grammarians, lexicographers and encyclopaedists, philosophers and moralists. Extraordinarily, Hassan bar Bahloul, a Syriac Christian, published a type of encyclopaedic lexicon in the 10th century.

In the field of history, their contribution is crucial too. They have their own narratives of the Crusades, which differs from those of the Latins and Arabs, as well as from that of Arab-Muslim history. It should be remembered that a council of the Church of the East ("Nestorian") took place in Beth Qatrayé (present-day Qatar) in 676, the country of origin of Isaac of Nineveh, whose works are preserved in Syriac idiom and translated into several languages.

Regarding the schism of Christianity separating Rome and Constantinople (1045), it is wrong to say that this is the first of its kind. In fact, it was the 5th century, a period very troubled by the Christological quarrels (see Councils of Ephesus, 431, and Chalcedon, 451), which saw the first fissure of Christianity, whose victims were precisely the Syriac-speaking Churches. Under Byzantium the Syriac Christians ("Nestorians" as well as "Monophysites") were accused of being heretics and schismatics and hence persecuted.

Present on the Asian continent, well before the Latin missionaries, much has been written about their apostolate inside and outside of Syro-Mesopotamia. Their presence is attested without interruption in India since the Apostle Thomas. Importantly, a Syriac text from India, dated 1502, evokes the beginning of Portuguese colonialism in that country.

This heritage is so important that it gave birth, from the 16th century on, under the influence of the Renaissance in Europe, to what we call Syriac Orientalism. In this field, distinguished Western Orientalists have contributed much by scholars known beyond their disciplines: Ernest Renan, Rubens Duval, François Nau, Cardinal Eugene Tisserant, Father Jean-Baptiste Chabot, William Cureton, William Wright, Theodor Nöldeke, Anton Baumstark, Eduard Sachau, Jean-Maurice Fiey.

Thus, it is appropriate to say that the Syriac Christians have shaped the Middle East; that is, they are at the very heart of their history.

Joseph Yacoub is an honorary professor in political science of the Catholic University of Lyon, first holder of the UNESCO Chair "Memory, cultures and inter-culturality." Yacoub is a specialist focused on minority issues worldwide with special attention to the Christians in the Middle East. He is the author of many books among which: Qui s’en souviendra ? 1915: le génocide assyro-chaldéo-syriaque, Cerf, 2014, translated into English: Year of the Sword. The Assyrian Christian Genocide, a History, Hurst Publishers, London, 2016; Une diversité menacée. Les Chrétiens d'Orient face au nationalisme arabe et à l'islamisme (A diversity threatened. Christians of the East facing Arab nationalism and Islamism), Ed. Salvator, 2018, Paris. Latest book published is: Le Moyen-Orient Syriaque. La face méconnue des chrétiens d’Orient (The Syriac Middle East. The unknown face of the Oriental Christians), Ed. Salvator, September 2019, Paris.

Le Moyen-Orient Syriaque. La face méconnue des chrétiens d’Orient (The Syriac Middle East. The unknown face of the Oriental Christians), Ed. Salvator, September 2019, Paris.
Le Moyen-Orient Syriaque. La face méconnue des chrétiens d’Orient (The Syriac Middle East. The unknown face of the Oriental Christians), Ed. Salvator, September 2019, Paris.

How is it possible not to share with Joseph Yacoub the fascination with one of the most prestigious civilizations of our humanity? The Middle East is Arab-Muslim as it is usually said, but it is just as Christian and Syriac too. Seven centuries prior to Islam, the Syriac Middle East had been fully effective in many areas of religious and secular knowledge. In addition, its language and culture have had a significant impact on the Arabic language and culture, a fact which is generally put forward. By making known this "unknown face" of Eastern Christians, Joseph Yacoub shakes several certainties about this reality. He broadens our view by showing how humanism and progress are not peculiar to a particular culture.

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