Sunday, January 24, 2010

Melkites by Ignatius Dick

It’s a shame, though a very understandable one, that most books on the history of Arab Christianity were written by Catholics, and often Eastern Catholics. This is especially true, of course, in western languages. Such works range widely in quality from the indespensible Histoire du Mouvement Litteraire dans l’Eglise Melkite by Fr. Joseph Nasrallah to the unbelievably shoddy and polemical History of the Melkite Patriarchates by Fr. Cyril Charon Korolevsky. Given that there is no book on the history of Arab Orthodoxy in a western language from an Orthodox source, probably the best book in English on the history of the Patriarchate of Antioch during the Arab period is Melkites: Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics of the Patriarchates of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem by Fr. Ignatius Dick, a Greek Catholic priest based in Aleppo. This English edition is a translation and update of a French edition and is published by the Melkite Greek Catholic eparchy in the US.

The 200-page book is divided into seven chapters—History, Doctrine, an Anthology of Melkite Literature, Sacred Art, Spiritual Life, Community Profile, and Ecclesial Organization. It is followed by statistical tables for the Orthdox and Greek Catholic populations of various Middle Eastern countries and a bibliography of related works in English. The original French edition had a much more extensive bibliography covering most modern languages, so it’s a serious loss that the English edition’s bibliography is so needlessly impoverished.

Fr. Dick is a competent scholar of Arab Christianity in the pre-modern period, and so his history, while brief, is generally quite accurate and informative given the current state of research in the field. The Orthodox reader, however, should be warned that because it was written specifically for a Catholic audience, it does write about events immediately before and after the schism of 1724 with a strongly Catholic bias. Also, its attempts at bolstering the Greek Catholic foundational myth by portraying Antioch as having always been pro-Roman to some degree are not as well-supported as the author imagines. However, non-polemical research on the Orthodox community in greater Syria in the Arab and Ottoman periods is still at best still in its infancy.

What makes this book really worthwhile, however, is the fifty-page anthology of Melkite* literature from St. Romanos the Melodist through the modern period. While the selections from Antiochene Greek literature can be found elsewhere, many of the selections from Arabic works are not available in English, sometimes not in any western language at all, and in a few cases were translated from unedited manuscripts unavailable to anyone except a few specialists. Thus, the translation from Ibrahim ibn Yuhanna the Protospatharos’s (fl. in the second half of the 10th century) life of the martyred Patriarch Christopher of Antioch (d. May 23, 967) is to my knowledge not available in English. His translation of the deacon Abdallah ibn al-Fadl al-Antaki’s (fl. ca. 1050) Kitab Bahjat al-Mu’min is a translation from an unedited manuscript. The extract from Nikon of the Black Mountain’s (d. very early 12th century) Pandektes is from an unedited Greek manuscript (the fact that this very influential work, originally written in Greek and immediately translated into Arabic, hasn’t been edited in any language save Slavonic is a travesty!). The translation from Paul of Antioch/Sidon’s (mid 12th century?) Letter to a Muslim Friend had previously only been translated into French, but I’m hoping a full English translation will come out in about a year and a half. The translations of Ottoman-era and early modern texts focus entirely on Orthodox-Catholic relations, from a strongly ecumenical Greek Catholic perspective and are only of marginal interest except to hobbyists of ecumenism.

The other chapters of the book, while well-informed, are all written from the perspective of Greek Catholics as ‘Orthodox in Communion with Rome’ and are only somewhat informative to those uninterested in that particular problematique. All that said, while this book has some serious drawbacks for an Orthodox readership, it contains the best presentation available in English of the History of Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christians and also presents an extremely valuable contribution in the form of the translated anthology. We can hope that in the not-terribly-distant future the groundwork laid by scholars such as Fr. Dick can be built upon in a way accessible to a broader audience.

*As discussed before on this blog, the term ‘Melkite’ was the term most often used in Arabic in the pre-modern period by Orthodox Christians to distinguish themselves from other Christian sects, who also all call themselves ‘Orthodox’. After the schism of 1724, this term fell out of favor with the Orthodox, but was kept by the Greek Catholics of Syria. Fr. Dick, in searching for an accurate term to use in his book, attempts to revive the broader application of ‘Melkite’.


stephkst said...

Please excuse this comment, which I find a bit polemical in tone. Archimandrite Ignatios Dick, Protosynkellos of the Melkite greek-cath. Metropolis of Aleppo, stemming from a respected melkite family of Aleppo, indeed a man of letters and intellect, is not German at all; to me he is a leading specialist in the history of xpctian Aleppo and a fine connesseur of melkite arab xpctian letters, of which an incredible wealth is preserved in the library of the melkite gr.-catholic Metropolis in ALeppo, such as the MS 37 containing Abdallah ibn al-Fadl's Kitab Bahjat al-Mu'min. Many a times I ssked him to collect his writungs, published in numerous arab and intl. scientific periodicals, until now to littel avail, as he is advanced in age by now. Another work of interest for the Antiochian Church, having availed itself on the litterary deposit of Manuscripts in Aleppo is the very fine doctoral thesis at the University of Vienna in 2010, by Fr. Hanna Ghoneim of the Melkite Greek-Catholic PAtriarchate in Damascus: Der byzantinische Bischofsweiheritus in der Melkitischen Kirche. Eine liturgiegeschichtliche und liturgievergleichende Untersuchung
cfr. = The Byzantine Rite of Episcopal Ordination in the Melkite Church (of Antioch). cfr: I would hope this important thesis, concerning the entire roum xpctianity of ANtioch, would see the light of the day in a good publication, hopefully in arabic as well, as it treats the arabic sources, starting with the earliest in the arab arkhieraticon with syriac parts, from the 15 century, preserved in the Library of the Université de Saint Joseph in Beirut, I think it is MS. arabe 15

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Philippe Gebara said...

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