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The Syriac Orthodox Church

Resilient best describes the Syriac Orthodox Church. Persecuted by Byzantines, murdered by Mongols, massacred by Ottoman Turks and caught in the Kurdish-Turkish crossfire, Syriac Orthodox Christians, nevertheless, have managed to endure, preserving their legacy while enriching the entire church.

Antioch and Edessa. The Syriac Orthodox Church shares in the heritage of ancient Antioch, the commercial, cultural and political center of Rome’s eastern Mediterranean provinces. (Now a provincial city in southern Turkey with just 145,000 people, Antioch’s population at its height in the first century A.D. totaled more than 500,000.)

Though inhabited by Greeks and Jews, Macedonians and Syrians, Nabateans and Romans, Antioch was culturally and linguistically Greek, the predominant culture of the Classical era. Those who lived in Syria’s rural interior, however, spoke Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic that developed in the city of Edessa (modern Urfa in southeastern Turkey).

Founded and nurtured by the apostles Peter and Paul, the Church of Antioch – where the followers of Jesus Christ first were called “Christian” (Acts 11:26) — emerged as the center of the church of the East. Though Antioch eventually served as the seat of the metropolitan bishop — who as patriarch presided over the entire church of the East, including those churches outside the Roman world — Edessa and nearby Nisibis became known as the cradle of the Syriac Christian community.

An ancient legend claims Christ personally responsible for Edessa’s evangelization, instructing the Apostle Thomas to send a disciple to cure Abgar, Edessa’s sickly king. Bearing a cloth featuring a miraculous image of Jesus, Addai (Syriac for Thaddeus, one of the 70 disciples of Jesus) and his assistant, Mari, cured the king, won disciples and established a church.

Christological controversies. The development of the Antiochene Church coincided with the confluence of cultures in the eastern Mediterranean world of late antiquity. As Christianity grew and embraced converts from the Greek, Roman and Semitic cultures, debate raged as to how to interpret and practice the teachings of Jesus. Even more divisively, Christians explored a number of concepts regarding the nature of Jesus and his relation to the Father (Christology).

Antiochene Christians cultivated contrasting schools of theology and philosophy, one cosmopolitan and Greek-speaking and the other provincial and Syriac-speaking. Yet, these schools did not develop in isolation — cross-pollination was the norm.

Ultimately, Antioch fashioned a particular image and understanding of Jesus (usually described as literal) that stressed his humanity. This countered the Christology developed by Christians in Alexandria, whose neo-Platonic theologians and philosophers utilized allegory to explain Jesus’ divinity and humanity.

Though now understood as complementary, these Christological approaches clashed as Alexandria and Antioch competed for preeminence.

After the Roman Emperor Constantine I (272-337) bestowed imperial favor on Christianity, uniting church and state in a commonwealth centered in a new capital later known as Constantinople, the empire took on a Christian character, while maintaining its Roman identity. The Christological debates of the early church — which had ethnic, linguistic and political overtones — threatened the unity of the Christianized empire.

In the interests of unity, the emperors convoked ecumenical councils (Nicea in 325, Constantinople in 381, Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon in 451), drawing bishops and theologians from throughout the empire and beyond. While these councils defined orthodoxy and condemned heresy, the heavy-handed methods employed by the emperors in implementing conciliar decrees divided the church further.

The Council of Chalcedon — which asserted that in Jesus there are two natures, “perfect in Godhead, perfect in humanity … like us in all things but sin” — proved contentious, though its Christological definition sought a middle way between the Antiochene and Alexandrian positions.

A minority of Christians in the Eastern provinces of the empire rallied around the council; most were Greek-speaking urbanites who supported the emperor. Their opponents called them “Melkites,” a term derived from the Syriac word malkaya, meaning “of the king.” Christians who opposed the decrees of Chalcedon, called Monophysites (Greek for those who believe in the oneness of Jesus’ humanity and divinity), were the non-Greek-speaking majority of rural Asia Minor, Egypt and Syria.

Those Christians who lived outside the empire and shared in the Syriac traditions of Edessa and Nisibis severed ties with the rest of the Christian world 20 years before Chalcedon. Though this “Church of the East” would develop independently, it would continue to play a role in the development of the Syriac Christian tradition.

Disintegration. For more than 50 years after the council, Syria’s Melkite and anti-Chalcedonian parties competed to elect patriarchs sympathetic to their cause or depose those who were not. Though the Byzantines controlled Antioch, the emperors themselves vacillated in their support of the council.

But the success of the anti-Chalcedonian cause in Syria waned as emperors loyal to Chalcedon flexed Byzantium’s muscle, reinvigorating the Melkites, who persecuted their opponents. In 518, Melkites forced into exile the empire’s most prominent anti-Chalcedonian, Patriarch Severus of Antioch, replacing him with a Jewish convert named Paul.

Severus’ removal and Paul’s election divided the Antiochene Patriarchate. Rivals no longer in full communion with each other concurrently claimed the patriarchal throne, forming the nucleus of two churches, Melkite and Syriac.

From his exile in Egypt — where the reach of the emperor was weak — Severus tried to consolidate the position of his Syriac anti-Chalcedonian followers. Though summoned to Constantinople in 533 by Emperor Justinian I, who hoped to restore ecclesial unity with an iron hand, Severus eventually died in exile. He was repudiated by Justinian and the ascendant Melkites, who imprisoned or exiled their opponents throughout the empire.

Resurgence. In his Ecclesiastical History, John of Ephesus, a sixth-century Syriac historian, records how the monumental efforts of a simple mendicant saved the anti-Chalcedonian Syriac Orthodox Church.

Jacob Baradai, a priest well schooled in Greek and Syriac with a reputation for austerity and discipline, secluded himself in a monastery in Constantinople. Though an opponent of Chalcedonian Christology, Jacob had been summoned to the city by Theodora, the wife of the Emperor Justinian, who sympathized with the priest and his party.

Eventually cajoled by the empress to leave his monastic cell, Jacob was ordained to the episcopacy by prelates imprisoned by Justinian. With Theodora’s secret support, they commissioned Jacob to restore the Syriac Orthodox Church throughout the East. For over 30 years, the prelate traveled through Byzantium’s eastern provinces eluding the authorities and restoring sacramental life in Syriac Orthodox communities.

According to John of Ephesus, Jacob ordained some 100,000 priests, 89 bishops and 2 patriarchs, regularizing the ecclesial life of the Syriac Orthodox Church.

For the next seven centuries, the seat of the Syriac Orthodox patriarch of Antioch, which Jacob Baradai had restored in 544 with the consecration of Sergius of Tella, moved from monastery to monastery, usually in Mesopotamia and always beyond the grasp of Byzantium. It settled in 1293 in Kurkmo Dayro, where it remained until 1933. This late fifth-century monastery, located in southeastern Turkey near the town of Mardin, remains an active Syriac Orthodox community.

Byzantine Antioch’s role as a cultural, economic and political center had begun to decline long before its conquest by Muslim Arabs in 638. Earthquakes in the fifth and sixth centuries devastated the city, killing many and driving others away. However, after the Arabs took the city, its surviving Syriac Orthodox community prospered.

Meanwhile, the Melkites, closely identified with imperial Byzantium, lost all influence, their patriarchs exiled to Constantinople.

Golden age. Syriac Christians generally welcomed the Muslim Arabs, who accepted them as “People of the Book.“ Syriac Orthodox scholars, no longer hounded by the Byzantine authorities, settled down and flourished. Poets fashioned hymns that simplified complex ideas. Scholars translated ancient Greek texts and wrote biblical commentaries. Monks explored grammar, medicine, philosophy, rhetoric and science. Theologians and poets continued the tradition of composing liturgies, borrowing elements from the Byzantine, Church of the East and Maronite traditions. Schools multiplied, their masters competing for prizes and pupils.

Drawn by this erudition, the Arabs employed Syriac scholars, who are largely responsible for the Arab world’s familiarity with ancient Greek astronomy, chemistry, mathematics and philosophy — disciplines that eventually reached Europe via Arab Sicily and Spain.

At its height in the mid-14th century, the Syriac Orthodox Church, which stretched from the Mediterranean to modern Afghanistan, included 20 metropolitan sees and more than a 100 eparchies.

Near annihilation. This golden age ended quickly and violently. At the beginning of the 15th century, Timur the Lame and his central Asian army invaded the Middle East, sacking its cities, massacring their occupants and leveling what remained. Timur did not single out the region’s Christians, who were nearly annihilated. A Muslim, Timur’s bloodthirsty devastation of Damascus also earned him condemnation as an enemy of Islam.

Those Christians who escaped death or enslavement retreated into the mountains near Edessa, huddling in fortresslike monasteries and villages. Though scholarship did not vanish completely, isolation intensified, poverty set in and generation after generation of Syriac Orthodox families abjured their Christian faith, embracing Islam.

Scholars estimate that by the beginning of the 20th century, just 270,000 Syriac Orthodox Christians in a handful of eparchies remained in Mesopotamia, most of them impoverished subjects of the Ottoman Turkish sultan.

Europe’s colonial quests and the gradual decline of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which intensified in the late 19th century, coincided with the rise of nationalism among its peoples.

In 1895-96, some 25,000 Syriac Orthodox Christians, suspected of harboring separatist sentiments, were murdered. Armenians, Assyrians and Chaldeans also perished. During World War I, the sultan’s Christian subjects found themselves caught between two opposing cultures at war — their Sunni Muslim superiors and the Allied “Christian” powers of Great Britain, France and Russia. Encouraged by the Allies, who promised them independence, Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire turned on the sultan’s government. The consequences were grave.

According to records compiled by Patriarch Ephrem I (1887-1957), one-third of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the Middle East perished in 1915, the “Year of the Sword.” His list cites the deaths of more than 13,000 families and 150 priests. Those not killed either were deported or fled, many seeking refuge in Beirut, Damascus and Mosul. Many of these families later settled in North America’s burgeoning industrial cities.

Despite the community’s setbacks, there were isolated signs of hope. In the mid-17th century, a large number of southern India’s ancient Thomas Christian community sought and established communion with the Syriac Orthodox patriarch of Antioch. Their descendants, who now number 3.7 million people, adhere to the rites and traditions of the Syriac Orthodox Church but are divided into two factions.

A minority of these Indian Syriac Orthodox Christians, an estimated 1.2 million people, accept the authority of Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I and constitute 10 eparchies in India and one each in Europe and the United States. The majority, however, reject the patriarch and form the autocephalous Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, led by Baselios Mar Thoma Didimos I, Catholicos of the Apostolic Throne of St. Thomas and Malankara Metropolitan.

Revival. The 20th and 21st centuries have not been kind to the Middle East’s Syriac Orthodox community, which now includes more than 500,000 people of Middle Eastern descent scattered worldwide.

Once considered the heartland of the church, Tur Abdin (Syriac for the Mountain of the Servants of God) in southeastern Turkey is largely depopulated. Its ancient villages — clustered around churches that date to the sixth century — stand empty, save for wandering sheep. Remains of monasteries, once centers of culture, scholarship and spirituality, dot the countryside, vulnerable to scavengers.

After the church was denied legal personality in post-Ottoman Turkey by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the dynamic Patriarch Ephrem I moved his patriarchal seat from Tur Abdin to the Syrian city of Homs, where it remained until his successor moved it to Damascus in 1957. A scholar worthy of his predecessors, Patriarch Ephrem also established a seminary and theologate in Lebanon in 1939, dedicating it to the poet St. Ephrem the Syrian.

Now located since 1996 in a new facility in Sayyidnaya, some 18 miles from Damascus, St. Ephrem the Syrian Seminary is flourishing, serving the spiritual and academic needs of its people and as a worldwide center of Syriac culture and scholarship.

The Syriac Orthodox families who fled to Baghdad, Beirut and Mosul as provincial peasants in the last century are now leaving, as professionals, for Western Europe, North America and Oceania. Once the core of the Middle East’s middle classes, particularly in Iraq, the emigration of the Syriac Orthodox community has created a regional vacuum, a “brain drain.”

Since the late 1960’s, Syriac Christians have established parishes and monasteries in Europe, often securing former Catholic churches and monastic houses. In Europe, two eparchies have been erected (Sweden and the Netherlands) and three patriarchal vicariates (Germany and Sweden). Vicariates have been established in Argentina, Brazil, Canada and the United States.

There are even signs of hope in Tur Abdin, reports Anglican Father Stephen Griffith, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s delegate to the Caucasus, a Syriac scholar and a frequent visitor to the region. “The governor of Mardin and wider authorities,” he said, “have been encouraging the Syriac-speaking community to restore their villages and monasteries.

“The diaspora is also supportive, whether by financial support or by [its] return. Villages, farms and Christian businesses in the towns seem to be doing well and contributing to the attempt to improve the economy of a very backward area.

“Even the pessimists,” he concluded, “seem to think that in this area of the Middle East the trend of Christian depopulation is being reversed.”

Michael La Civita is the executive editor of ONE magazine.

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