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Françoise Briquel Chatonnet & Muriel Debié, Le monde syriaque. Sur les routes d’un christianisme ignoré

Sebastian Brock
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Françoise Briquel Chatonnet & Muriel Debié, Le monde syriaque. Sur les routes d’un christianisme ignoré , Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2017, 15 × 21,5, 272 p., 140 ill. coul. et 11 cartes, ISBN : 978-2-251-44715-5.

Texte intégral

1At a time when a considerable amount of the material heritage of the Middle Eastern Churches of Syriac tradition has been, and is still being, destroyed in the turmoil of current strife in Syria and Iraq, this is a most opportune book, for it provides an excellent overview of the Syriac Christian tradition, generously accompanied by helpful maps and well-chosen illustrations (mostly inset with the text) at least some of which are of artefacts now destroyed. Although a number of helpful guides to the Syriac literary tradition are available, there is very little of a more general nature on the material culture, an aspect which is admirably covered by Le monde syriaque.

2Within the limits of eight chapters the reader is taken on a journey in time spanning nearly three millennia, commencing with the Aramaic language and the Arameans of the first millennium BC, and continuing through up to the present day, with coverage too of the modern diaspora. The journey in space is equally extensive, south to Arabia (in the sixth century) and east to India and to China. Organising such a vast range of materials is no easy matter, but the solution reached by the authors would seem to be a very successful one, providing the uninformed reader with an excellent and readable overview, while for the more specialised one there are many valuable insights, as well as illustrations of objects that are little known or hard of access (such as the detail of the capture of Edessa from the Arch of Septimius Severus, p. 27).

3Following the initial chapter on the Aramaean and Aramaic background, the second chapter covers the apostolic origins and the fourth-century developments in both the Roman and the Persian Empires. The following two chapters are thematic in character, first dealing with the monastic traditions, and then with the Syriac Bible and a quick overview of the main literary genres (curiously poésie is not listed). The importance of monastery libraries for our knowledge of the (probably) small part of Syriac literature to survive is well brought out. Yet more of the literary heritage in manuscript form would have been lost in recent years but for the foresight and action of P. Najeeb Michaeel and of the earlier extensive digitizing of many Middle Eastern manuscripts by the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library under the skilled direction of Columba Stewart. Reasonably enough, since there is access to the literary heritage elsewhere, the reader is only provided with ‘quelques perles de la couronne des lettres’.

4The missionary expansion of Syriac Christianity southwards and especially eastwards is the subject of the fifth chapter. Recent archaeological finds and a conference in Doha on the Syriac presence in Beth Qatraye (comprising much more than just modern Qatar) in the seventh century have done much to bring out the importance of this region for the Syriac tradition at that time. It was along the Silk Road that Syriac Christianity travelled eastwards, to China, where the arrival of its first missionaries in 635 is recorded in the famous Xi’an stele, set up in 781. It is, however, the remarkable narrative of the travels, starting out from Beijing, of two Uighur monks, Rabban Sauma and Rabban Marqos in the late 13th century, which receives particular attention, appropriately so since they reached as far as Paris, with its ‘20,000 students’.

5Moving back in time, the sixth chapter covers the traumatic period between the fifth and ninth centuries: first came the three-way split in Eastern Christianity, with the emergence by the end of the sixth century of three separate ecclesial bodies: following on a few years after the failure of a final effort by the emperor Heraclius to bring unity, came the Arab invasions which effectively fossilized the divisions. The complicated theological issues at stake are probably wisely confined to a table; instead attention is focussed on some key figures and institutions, notably the monastery of Qenneshre on the Euphrates: almost all the Syrian Orthodox figures of the seventh century associated with the transmission of Greek learning and translation into Syriac seem to have had an association at some time with this monastery. It was this tradition of learning that provided many of the translators for the ‘translation movement’ under the Abbasids. It was in the late eighth and ninth centuries that Arabic began to be used, especially in Melkite circles, as a literary language, replacing Syriac and Greek; the most famous of these innovators, Theodore Abu Qurra, features among the group of important (but still little studied) authors selected for mention at the end of this chapter.

6The remaining two chapters lead the reader on in time, first to the end of the fourteenth century, and then continuing on to the present day. The earlier period opens with a renewed encounter with the Greek world, with the Byzantine reconquest of NW Syria, which affected especially the Melkite community and led to their abandonment of the liturgical rite of Antioch for that of Constantinople. Other cultural interaction, literary and especially artistic, with the Byzantine world took place notably in the region of Melitene, where a number of important Syrian Orthodox monasteries were located. The Seljuk incursions, and in particular the capture of Edessa in 1144, affected the West Syriac communities badly; nevertheless the latter part of the twelfth century produced some notable writers, including Patriarch Michael whose World Chronicle is the crowning achievement of the Syriac chronographical tradition (a page from the Aleppo manuscript, fortunately digitized in 2008, is illustrated on p. 191). The following century, despite the turmoil caused by the Mongol invasions, saw the production of a series of remarkable illuminated Gospel manuscripts, often showing links with either Byzantine or Islamic artistic tradition (examples are to be found on p. 228 and 176). While the thirteenth century culminated with two major writers, the polymath Barhebraeus, and ʿAbdishoʿ of Nisibis, author of the first history of Syriac literature (in verse), the following one witnessed the destruction and devastation brought about by Timur Leng and the Black Death.

7The final chapter concentrates on the discovery of le monde syriaque by the West, starting out as learners (largely from Maronite scholars), but ending up as teachers, with the Catholic and (from the 19th century) Protestant missions. Although Western involvement with the various Syriac communities in the Middle East and in South India brought a number of benefits, it also brought new divisions, and sometimes had dire political consequences, some of which we are witnessing today. Especially the genocide of 1915 and following years (involving Syriac Christians as well as Armenians) and the American and British invasion of Iraq in 2003 have resulted in large-scale emigration, with the result that far more people of Syriac tradition now live outside their homelands than within them. This leaves an enormous challenge for the scattered diaspora communities of how best to preserve their distinctive Syriac culture.

8Throughout these chapters the authors, both eminent Syriacists, have very successfully managed to incorporate a great deal of well-chosen information into a very readable narrative text. They are also admirably well informed about recent finds, such as the Aramaic dockets on wood from the time of Darius III (illustrated on p. 21), or the propagandist mosaic from the region of Idlib portraying David slaying Goliath, reflecting Heraclius’ defeat of Khosroes (p. 160). A glossary, table of the different Churches of Syriac tradition, a helpful time-line and a good series of maps (beyond those already to be found within the text) complete this excellent volume, which deserves to be widely read (and indeed, translated into other languages).

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Sebastian Brock, « Françoise Briquel Chatonnet & Muriel Debié, Le monde syriaque. Sur les routes d’un christianisme ignoré », Syria [En ligne], Recensions, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2018, consulté le 21 août 2019. URL :

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