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The Syriac World, In Search of a Forgotten Christianity
By Alberto M. Fernandez
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A little over a century ago, in his 1920 encyclical Principi Apostolorum Petro, Pope Benedict XV declared the 4th century poet, theologian, and writer, Saint Ephrem the Syrian, the Deacon of Edessa, to be a Doctor of the Church, a high and rare honor of the universal church. The 24th person so recognized since the Middle Ages, Saint Ephrem, was the first who did not come from the Western (Latin) Church or Eastern (Greek) Church. He was a speaker of Syriac and wrote exclusively in that language. In his encyclical, the pope mentioned the many clerics and bishops who encouraged him to take this step, especially the patriarchs of the Maronite, Chaldean, and Syriac Catholic churches, all spiritual descendants of Saint Ephrem.

Ephrem and many others are the subject of a recent book, The Syriac World, by French researchers Francoise Briquel Chatonnet and Muriel Debie, both scholars of Syriac, as is Jeffrey Haines, who translated the book from French into English. It is an essential book, superbly researched and illustrated, introducing Western audiences to the ancient riches of the Syriac Christian heritage--a heritage that one great scholar has called "the third lung" of Christendom, after Greek and Latin.

Related: Assyrians: Frequently Asked Questions

The 'Syriac World' (some prefer the term Assyrian or Aramean) is the ethnic and religious community that grew out of the Syriac language and Christianity in Late Antiquity--Syriac being a branch of Aramaic, the lingua franca of most of the Middle East in the centuries before the coming of Christ. This status was retained for centuries, until Syriac was displaced by Arabic with the triumph of Islam. The roots of Syriac especially look to Edessa (the modern city of Urfa in Turkey), the city of Saint Ephrem. From there, as much as from nearby Antioch and more distant Jerusalem, and from the peregrinations of Saint Paul, "Christianity, an Asiatic religion," spread both east and west. The Syriac world became a largely Christian one, best understood in a group of often contending, fissiparous religious bodies, which were often in conflict with their counterparts in Constantinople and Rome: the (Assyrian) Church of the East (disparagingly called the Nestorian Church); the Syrian Orthodox Church (sometimes called the Jacobite Church); various Indian branches of these churches; and related church bodies using Syriac and in communion with the pope in Rome, such as the Maronite Catholic, Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Catholic, Syro-Malabar, and Syro-Malankaran churches. Today, all of these churches have diaspora communities in the West, which are sometimes larger and richer than the original communities from where they sprang in the East.

Related: Brief History of Assyrians

One of The Syriac World's many advantages is that it includes blocks of translated texts from many of the great Syriac writers, so that they can be read in their own voices as it were: Ephrem the Syrian, Patriarch Timothy I, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Jacob of Serugh, Theodore Abu Qurra, Bar Hebraeus, and many others. There are also the writings of others, from Marco Polo to 19th-century Protestant missionaries, commenting on what they saw among the Syriac Christians. It is a remarkable achievement to have been able to intelligibly condense more than two millennia of Syriac Christian civilization into 231 pages. A West that is often obsessed by Islam would do well to remember that "Syriac Christians played a central role in the translation movement" in Baghdad as part of what is called the Abbasid Renaissance. It is no surprise that such renowned scholars as Peter Brown, Philip Jenkins, and Sebastian Brock praised this book, for it is a much-needed improvement as a single-volume work, replacing Professor William Wright's 1894 Short History of Syriac Literature. The book's one failing is that there is only so much that can be squeezed into 231 pages, and the entire 20th and 21st centuries are covered in the last five pages of the book.

We are actually living through a renaissance in Syriac Christian studies. An amazing online reference portal ( provides access to all sorts of scholarly resources. Publishing houses like Gorgias Press have brought back into print a wealth of obscure and hard to find older works. And there have been many new works that treat some aspects of the story that the authors of The Syriac World seek to tell. In 2006, Gorgias Press published David Gaunt's Massacres, Resistance, Protectors: Muslim-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia During World War I, an important study of the Assyrian resistance to genocide in the Tur Abdin, Hakkari, and Urmia regions. Oxford University Press followed up in 2016 with Joseph Yacoub's Year of the Sword, a new history of the Assyrian Christian genocide. In 2016, Adam H. Becker wrote on the fateful encounter between American missionaries and the Eastern Syriac Christians in Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism. The long and complex history of the Assyrian Church of the East has been well served with two massive new volumes in recent years, David Wilmshurst's The Martyred Church (2011) and Christoph Baumer's lavish The Church of the East, an Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity (2016). The history of the Syrian Orthodox Church has been enriched by Philip Wood's The Imam of the Christians (2021), an excellent study of the 9th century Patriarch Dionysius of Tel-Mahre. And we must mention a different book with the same title as that under review here, The Syriac World from 2020, an outstanding, massive work edited by Daniel King of Cardiff University, which is much more comprehensive than the Briquel Chatonnet and Debie work under review--but, at 896 pages, more than four times as long.

Related: The Assyrian Genocide

As a student of the Christian East, I have followed this subject for decades, and I have tremendous respect for all of the aforementioned scholars. I also had the good fortune of doing research and documenting the Assyrian Christian communities along the Khabur River in northeast Syria when I served as an American diplomat in that unhappy country during the 1990s. Having no Syriac, I communicated with my interlocutors in Arabic. Little did I know that the bucolic farming communities that I visited would later be cruelly uprooted in a massive terrorist attack by the so-called Islamic State in February 2015.

These Assyrian Christians had lived for centuries in the Hakkari Mountains of what is now southeast Turkey. In 1915, they were massacred by the Turks and fought a fighting retreat to Urmia, in Iran, where they found momentary safety behind Tsarist Russian lines, only to have to flee once again after Russia's exit from the war. They eventually found sanctuary in British-ruled Iraq, but in 1933 they had to flee again, from the newly independent, nationalist Iraq to the safety of French Mandate Syria.

If I have any criticism of this new book and the other important works I've mentioned on Syriac Christians, it is that they have not yet mined the very real drama and contemporary history that these communities have lived in recent decades. The 1915 genocide has been documented, but the story of the surviving communities that were uprooted and driven into exile in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is still to be published. The story of Turkey's Tur Abdin region, heavily populated by Syriac Christians until the 1970s and caught between the twin fires of Kurdish rebels and Turkish counterinsurgency, is yet to be fully told. The same is true of the history of Syriac Christian fighters (many from Tur Abdin) fighting in the ranks of the Lebanese Forces during the Lebanese Civil War. Some of these men are still alive.

The past decade has been a true Calvary for Syriac Christians in their ancient homelands in the Middle East. In 2010, the Islamic State perpetrated one of its worst massacres in a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad, carried out during Holy Mass on All Saints' Eve. The American invasion of Iraq, in 2003, unleashed hell on the country's Christian community, most of whom were of Syriac (either Assyrian, Chaldean, Syrian Orthodox, or Syriac Catholic) origin. This targeting of Christians continued after the Americans left Iraq in 2011. In June 2014, the ancient Christian community in Mosul--most of whom belong to the Syriac churches--was expelled by the Islamic State. In August of that year, it was the turn of the Syriac Christian villages on the Nineveh Plain, as entire towns fled the onslaught of ISIS.

2015 began with an ISIS raid targeting Assyrian villagers on the Khabur in Syria. The raiders blew up churches, tore down crosses, and took hundreds of hostages who were eventually ransomed by the diaspora Assyrian community. In August of 2015, in southern Syria, ISIS succeeded in overrunning Al-Qaryatayn, a Sunni Muslim town with a significant Syrian Orthodox Christian community. The nearby Syriac Catholic shrine of Saint Elian of Emesa, a pilgrimage site for both Christians and Muslims going back more than a thousand years, was smashed to bits by ISIS, which, of course, filmed and disseminated their religious vandalism.

2016 saw ISIS pushed back from Mosul and from the Nineveh Plains. Mosul's Christian community does not seem to have recovered from its expulsion and may never come back. About half the population of the Syriac Christian villages of the Nineveh Plain have returned and have since struggled to rebuild their lives in the face of poverty, unemployment, and insecurity--the latter now caused by Iranian-backed Shia militias instead of Salafi Jihadists.

Small, striving Syriac communities struggle to survive in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Intolerance and instability in the Muslim East mean that it is often very tempting to flee to the West. The much more powerful and extensive (Syriac-adjacent) Maronite community in Lebanon--Lebanon's president and army commanders still have to be Maronites--is under unprecedented economic, political, and military pressure. Many Christians are fleeing. Lebanon seems like the last bastion of this ancient ethnic and religious polity, and it hangs by a thread. Larger communities flourish in India, but these are ethnic Indians who were historically products of the evangelization of Syriac Christians, not Syriac speakers themselves.

Lebanon aside, if survival is possible, it may be elsewhere. When two Syriac Christian fighters, allied to the Kurds, were killed in a Turkish drone strike in March 2024, memorial services for them were held in Syriac churches across Europe--in the transplanted Syriac communities that have developed in the diaspora. There are now more people in Europe who are of Syriac Christian origin with roots in Turkey's Tur Abdin than there are in Turkey itself. There are more Americans with roots in the Iraqi Chaldean village of Telkayf than there are inhabitants in that actual village. And in an exotic repeat of the Syriac churches' missionary past, thousands--some say several hundred thousand--of formerly Catholic Mayan Indian peasants in Guatemala are now members of the Archdiocese of Central America of the Syrian Orthodox Church. But this was less missionary work than the absorption of a charismatic community that had already split and been excommunicated from the Roman Church in 2006. Whatever these Europeans, Americans, or Guatemalans are or shall be, they will not be native speakers of Syriac. But they may be spiritual children of a rich--and all too often forgotten--heritage of the universal church.

The Syriac World introduces Western readers to the ancient riches of the Syriac Christian heritage.

Alberto M. Fernandez is a former U.S. diplomat and Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Washington, D.C.

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