Classical Syriac, originally the Aramaic dialect of Edessa (mod. Şanlıurfa, Turkey) and adjacent regions of Mesopotamia, was a language widely used by Christians of the Near and Middle East during late antiquity and the early years of Muslim rule. Syriac lost its universal status gradually during the following centuries, being largely replaced by Arabic for everyday use. But it remained a sacred and venerated liturgical language in all the churches in the Syrian tradition: the Maronites, the Melkites, the Syrian Orthodox (Jacobites), and the Church of the East (Nestorians). During the age of the crusades, mainly scholars of the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Church of the East wrote nonliturgical texts in Syriac.
There is no work in Syriac exclusively devoted to the crusades or to Frankish rule in the Levant, and none of the extant narrative works originated in the states of Outremer. The most important narrative sources are three great world chronicles by Syrian Orthodox authors. Besides these works, lesser narratives, as well as fragments of correspondence, coins, and inscriptions, deserve interest. Of special note are colophons, that is, scribes’ notes in manuscripts on the date of their completion, which often contain historical information and comments. Important legal sources are also part of the heritage. Some of the thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century poetry of the Church of the East comments on historical events, expressing experiences of Christians under Mongol rule and describing religious changes in the region. Analysis of comments about historical and cultural matters in the theological literature of all the churches in the Syriac tradition during the time of the crusades is a desideratum.
Considering that the authors of the three Syriac universal chronicles were born in areas under Muslim rule, they appear extraordinarily well informed about the Franks, especially in comparison with the sketchy Latin reports about Syrian Christians in Outremer, let alone in the cities of the Middle East. This is partly explained by the fact that the writers took temporary residence in and traveled through territories occupied by the Franks. Two of them held the highest positions in the ecclesiastical hierarchy and thus were representatives of their communities to the Christian and Muslim authorities: Michael I the Great (1126-1199), patriarch of Antioch, and Gregory Bar Ebroyo (1226-1286), the maphrian (primate) of the eastern part of the Syrian Orthodox Church. The author of the third, the Anonymous Syriac Chronicle, is unknown; he was probably a member of the higher clergy who died after 1237. Of the three universal chronicles, only the history of the world by Bar Ebroyo is preserved in its entirety. The maphrian Gregory III (d. 1307), who was Bar Ebroyo’s own brother (and originally named Barsaumo), was one of the first to continue the chronicle of Bar Ebroyo.
Because of their different scope and perspective, the three chronicles complement one another. Source criticism has identified occasional misinformation and lack of detailed knowledge, for example, about the courts, social life, and economy of the Latins in Outremer. Yet it also values these works as the sole witnesses for some matters regarding the Franks, especially in eastern Anatolia and the northern states of Outremer, for which Latin sources are poor. Above all they are irreplaceable for the study of policies toward the Eastern Christian subjects of the Latins and for their perception of the crusades and Outremer, although this information is refracted through the viewpoint of clerics from outside the Frankish principalities. It is clear that the highly educated chroniclers felt equal to and even slightly superior to the culture of the Frankish conquerors. They have a tendency to portray actions of Greek Orthodox clerics in a negative light. Mostly they appear rather detached and remain distant observers, and none of them is particularly partial to the Latins. In this respect they differ from the Syrian subjects of the Franks, who took up more definite positions either for or against their particular government.Typically of a people with little interest in military action, the chroniclers do not share the ideas of warrior heroism or holy war, either of crusaders or Muslims, although they are aware of the Latins’ understanding of themselves as fighting on behalf of Christianity as a whole. Instead they judge each representative of secular rule by his ability to maintain peace and security, and especially by the effects of his government on their own church. Michael the Great and the Anonymous Chronicler criticize the lack of unity of the Latins at the time that they were losing ground to the Muslims in the second half of the twelfth century. They also reveal the slow deterioration of relations between indigenous Christians and the Muslim populace throughout the Middle East. Information about intellectual and cultural life as well as about mutual cultural contacts need further investigation.
The same holds true for the lesser sources. Colophons, fragments of historical narrative, and correspondence contain information about details of Latin rule in Jerusalem and its religious landscape. Other texts provide a rare witness to regret on the part of the Syrian Christians about the loss of the city to the Muslims in 1187 and again in 1244. Recently discovered Syriac and Arabic inscriptions in the context of art made by Christians, seals with names in Syriac letters, and other material give an idea of the normality of cultural exchange between the different Christian denominations, as well as between the religions in the Middle East at that time. Medieval inscriptions, for example, on graves and in churches, prove the existence of Syriac-speaking Christians of different denominations throughout the Middle East, along the Silk Road to China, and in the south of India.
A few years before the final loss of the last Frankish strongholds in Outremer and the Mongols’ adoption of Islam, mutual diplomatic contacts intensified. The Mongol Ilkhan sent a confidant of Yahballaha III (1244-1317), catholicos of the Church of the East, as ambassador to the Christian powers of Europe to seek support for the Ilkhan’s plan to conquer Syria and Jerusalem. The ambassador, Mar Bar Sauma, who like the catholicos was of Ongüt origin, met Byzantine and Western representatives with great openness and naively explored their cities, prepared to admire and entirely unconcerned with the long history of religious dispute. His report survives in a Syriac summary translation and gives an insight into the political constellations and sentiments of the time.