Post-classical history

Syrian Orthodox Church

The Syrian Orthodox Church was one of the Eastern churches the crusaders came into contact with when they arrived in the Near East. To Westerners, the Syrian Orthodox Church and community have often been known as Jacobites. The official English name of the church today (since 2000) is the Syriac Orthodox Church.


The dogmatic position of the Syrian Orthodox Church was (and is) that of the theological tradition of Severus, patriarch of Antioch (d. 538), who opposed the Christological dogma promulgated by the Council of Chalcedon (451). The Syrian Orthodox Church rejected the Monophysite Christology of Eutyches (d. after 454). It venerated Christ as truly man and truly God, the divine and the human neither being separated nor mixed. But, as the Aristotelian term nature could not be conceived in the plural, Christ’s nature was thought of as single (i.e., verbal monophysitism, or miaphysitism).

The Latin sources usually refer to the Syrian Orthodox as “Jacobites.” This name refers to Jacob Baradaeus (d. 578), who was instrumental in organizing the miaphysite resistance against the Chalcedonian imperial church in the decades following the expulsion of Patriarch Severus in the year 518. In the middle of the sixth century, a separate, non-Chalcedonian hierarchy was created with an independent patriarch of Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey), who, however, never resided in that city. Originating in the context of an inner-miaphysite schism, to distinguish Jacob’s adherents from those of Paul of Beth Ukkome (d. 581), the name Jacobites later came to be used by outsiders to designate miaphysite Christians in Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt.

By the time of the crusades, a second meaning had developed: The term “Jacobite” was used to designate the Syrian Orthodox to differentiate them from the Chalcedonian (Greek Orthodox) Christians of Syria and Palestine; these were called “Syrians” in Arabic and Latin, or “Melkites” and “Greeks” by the non-Chalcedonians. Often the term was used in a pejorative sense. By contrast, the combination of the term “orthodox” with “Syriac” was already in use by the church itself during the time of the crusades. Syriac, the classical Aramaic dialect of the school of Edessa (mod. Şanlıurfa, Turkey), was always the language of the theology and liturgy of the church, and in many of its communities Aramaic dialects were spoken.

Church Organization and Hierarchy

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the area called the “West” in Syriac sources, that is from Cappadocia in the north as far as Arabia in the south, was under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Syrian Orthodox patriarch of Antioch, and bordered on the Coptic patriarchate of Alexandria. The Syrian Orthodox and Coptic patriarchates recognized each other’s full authority as Orthodox sister churches. From 726 this was also usually the case with the Armenian Orthodox (Apostolic) Church. What was called the “East,” that is Mesopotamia, Assyria, Azerbaijan, and Iraq, was under the authority of the metropolitan of Tagrit (mod. Tikrit, Iraq), called the maphrian, who resided in the monastery of Mor Mattai near Mosul. During this time he always was a cleric from the “West” and acted as primate.

The Frankish states of Outremer included the Syrian Orthodox archdioceses of Edessa, Samosata (mod. Samsat, Turkey), Manbij, Tarsos (mod. Tarsus, Turkey), Antioch, and Jerusalem, and many bishoprics, such as Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel), Tripoli (mod. Trâblous, Lebanon), Cyprus, Marash (mod. Kahramanmaraş, Turkey), Raban, Kesoun (mod. Kaysun, Turkey), and Saruj (mod. Suruç, Turkey). The new political borders cut into the Syrian Orthodox administrative structures; for example, the important archdiocese of Melitene (mod. Malatya, Turkey) was split between the rule of theDānishmendid emirate and the Frankish county of Edessa. The communities in the Middle and Far East remained beyond Frankish rule.

The Syrian Orthodox communities played an active part in church politics along with the secular clergy: they proposed candidates for the bishoprics and opposed others successfully. Their elites, who were mainly occupied as physicians, scribes, courtiers, and merchants throughout the Middle East, supported the infrastructure of the church financially. The Syrian Orthodox are not normally considered to have held feudal estates of substantial size. The existence of estates is, however, detectable, especially in the north. Cenobites and anchorites, whose life was deeply rooted in the early Christian Syriac spirituality, were another important factor.

The patriarch usually sought formal recognition from the Frankish authorities, as he did with the Muslim governors in the area of his jurisdiction. During the twelfth century, the patriarchs were based mostly in Upper Mesopotamia and Syria. They resided partly in monasteries in Frankish territory and partly in Muslim areas. The monastery of Mor Barsaumo on the northern frontier in the archdiocese of Melitene was one of the favorite places. Insecurity in the Middle East on the one hand, and protection by the Rupenid dynasty on the other, made the kingdom of Armenia in Cilicia a favorite place of residence, notably at Hromgla (mod. Rumkale, Turkey) and Sis (mod. Kozan, Turkey) in the thirteenth century. The official residence of the patriarch remained beyond the borders of Outremer, first in Amida (mod. Diyarbakir, Turkey), and from 1166 in Mardin.

Ecclesiastical integration of the entire area of patriarchal jurisdiction was increasingly difficult. The hostility of secular powers and general insecurity were problems that the Syrian Orthodox authorities could do little about. Both the Mesopotamian and Cilician residences were occupied simultaneously during cases of schism, which occurred three times between 1180 and 1261 (1180-1193, 11991220, and 1253-1261), and as a result the regions drifted further apart. In 1292 a more serious schism in the Syrian Orthodox “West” began, which lasted until 1493. Several patriarchs, however, won the support of the greater part of the suffragans and the communities. They used their spiritual authority and central administrative position to improve the situation of the church according to Christian principles. Two of them, Michael I the Great (1166-1199) and Ignatius III David (1222-1252), are especially remembered as great patriarchs of that period, praised for their piety and their wisdom, their reform measures, and their generous support of the material infrastructure of the church.

Syrian Orthodox Life in Outremer and Beyond

The Syriac narrative sources paint rather a bleak picture, underlining the hardship caused by war, bandits, and encroachments on the Syrian Orthodox Church and communities. They name numerous churches destroyed by or lost to the Muslims. Syrian Orthodox refugees were swept into Frankish territory after the conquest of Edessa in 1146 and again during the swift and deadly advance of the Mongols. A slow deterioration in relations between the Syrian Orthodox and the Muslim population can be detected. Neither Muslims nor Franks sufficiently protected the Syrian Orthodox population, and on occasion even turned violently against them. Authorities on both sides did not hesitate to put pressure on Syrian Orthodox prelates for their own ends. To find explanations for their experiences and their losses, the communities turned toward their own religious and ethical conduct. Their introspection resulted in the harsh moral selfcriticism reflected in the historical works of the time.

The reports in these works, however, have to be put into perspective. Scholars have even raised doubts as to the actual severity of the crisis. The situation under Muslim rule was often stable enough to allow for the construction of new churches, monasteries, and representative ecclesiastical buildings. The originality of twelfth-century artists is increasingly attracting scholarly interest. It is obvious that for literature and science this also was a period of consolidation as well as of new departures. The classical Syriac language was studied with renewed effort and used as a language of scholarship. The libraries and schools in the cathedrals and monasteries were actively sponsored by the higher clergy, and the entire traditions of church and community were gathered in encyclopedic works. At the same time, Syrian Orthodox scholars took notice of the latest developments in the philosophical and medical schools of the Middle East, shared by Muslims and Eastern Christians alike. Works by authors such as Dionysius bar Salibi or Bar Ebroyo (Bar Hebraeus) have remained standard points of reference in exegesis, theology, and legal decisions for the church and community to the present day.

A synthesis of Syrian Orthodox life in Outremer is a desideratum. In the city of Jerusalem the community had the representative monastery and church of St. Mary Magdalene, which also served as the residence of the metropolitan of Jerusalem. It was lost to the Muslims after the reconquest by Saladin in 1187. For its maintenance, the church possessed villages protected by Queen Melisende (d. 1161), while Patriarch Michael I regained a chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during his visit in 1169. The writings of James of Vitry suggest that the community of Acre was rather neglected at the beginning of the thirteenth century. However, an active scriptorium can be detected there, and a bishop was probably present throughout the time in question. In thirteenth-century Tripoli, an Eastern (Nestorian) rhetor named Jacob attracted several young men to undertake studies in medicine and rhetoric; it remains to be seen whether Tripoli was also an intellectual center for the Syrian Orthodox. The city of Antioch certainly was such a center in the thirteenth century, and Greek and Syriac as well as secular sciences were studied. Several churches and monasteries were maintained by the Syrian Orthodox in Antioch and environs, among them a Church of Our Lady and a new church of Mor Barsaumo, consecrated in 1156. In the mid thirteenth century, Ignatius III David even built a new patriarchal residence in Antioch.

The clerical hierarchy provided not only the religious infrastructure but also the framework for the cultural and social cohesion of the communities, and acted as political representatives in dealings with the Franks. In the county of Edessa, they also became involved in the Frankish administration and even in military activities to some extent. However, on several occasions the Franks are known to have intervened directly in the government of the church. Their interference undermined the central administration of the patriarch and consequently prolonged conflicts between him and the suffragans. In Cilicia, the Syrian Orthodox communities shared in the cultural and economic upswing of thirteenth-century Cilicia, and the patriarch occasionally joined the Armenian catholicos on diplomatic missions concerning the kingdom.

Some scholars consider relations between Franks and Syrian Orthodox in Outremer to have been cordial. This certainly holds true for some individual personal relationships, such as that between Patriarch Michael I and the Latin patriarch of Antioch, Aimery of Limoges (d. 1193). Yet neither the Latin nor the Syriac sources justify this as a general assessment. The Latin sources on the whole appear rather detached and incompetent in their reports on the Syrian Orthodox, exhibiting little interest in this section of their subject population. As the Syrian Orthodox were considered to be heretics, their hierarchy on the whole was left intact. The discriminatory poll tax that they had been required to pay under Muslim rule was lifted.

In theological terms, a mutual pragmatic recognition seems to have taken place, making practical cooperation on all levels easier: At a council held in Jerusalem in 1141, dogmatic differences were not perceived as being as serious as the Franks had previously believed. Friendly encounters, joint religious practices, and also theological disputations took place. Some Franks in the north venerated the Syrian Orthodox saint Mor Barsaumo, and they occasionally accepted the service of Syrian Orthodox priests in extraordinary situations, for example, in the cases of prisoners of war outside Outremer. The Syrian Orthodox were also able to improve their position by the circumstance that the Frankish governments were largely unsympathetic to the Greek Orthodox church. Their interpretation of what the Latin Church understood as achievements of a union in the time of patriarch Ignatius III David is, however, controversial.

As with the other powers in the Middle East under which their flock was dispersed, the Syrian Orthodox authorities had to seek a modus vivendi with the secular and religious hierarchy of the Frankish principalities. They also made ample use of the possibility of establishing themselves in Antioch. Bar Ebroyo reported that it became a custom to ritually enthrone the Syrian Orthodox patriarch after his election on St. Peter’s chair in the Latin-held cathedral of Antioch. Nevertheless, they avoided becoming too close to the Franks, and preferred to reside under Armenian protection. The complicated relations between Syrian Orthodox subjects and Frankish lords, the motives and interests of prelates, dignitaries, and populace, respectively, require differentiated and nuanced treatment.

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