The following is from a paper by Romanian scholar Ioana Feodorov, given this year at the 21st International Conference of Historical Sciences in Amsterdam. The full paper, with extensive footnotes is available as a pdf here.
Romanians and Near Eastern Arabs,
Connections through Christian Orthodoxy
Ioana Feodorov, Bucharest
At a time when Christians all over the Ottoman Empire were brought together by aspirations for freedom of belief, cultural progress and national identity, the Romanians shared with Arab Christians a special responsibility: that of being heirs of the Byzantine legacy, always present in the ritual and spiritual life of the Orthodox'. Near Eastern Churches differ in terms of their cultural features (Greek, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, and Arab) and their attachment to the resolutions of the Councils of Nikeia (325), Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) as to the nature of Christ. Of all Christian communities of Arabic expression, the Antiochian Orthodox Church, which uses the Byzantine liturgy and dates from apostolic times (alongside the other four that share this glory - Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome), is the one with which the Romanian Orthodox have had close ties since the 16th century.
Though considered by Muhammad, alike Muslims and Jews, 'People of the Book' (Ahl al-Kitab), Christians were persecuted since the first Islamic century, when the population of Nagran was banished to 'Iraq. After 1516, when the Ottomans conquered the Near East, building churches was repeatedly forbidden, Christians were often forced to live isolated in certain neighbourhoods of the main cities (Damascus, Aleppo, and Mossul) and to take refuge to Mt Lebanon or the Kurdistan, while the tax applied to non-Muslims, gizya, was accompanied by a humiliating status of 'second rank citizens'. Economic difficulties and the repeated vexations from the governors appointed by the High Porte made the Christian Arabs incapable of social and cultural progress, unable to defend their spiritual identity.
In these circumstances the Antiochian patriarchs Makarios III Ibn al-Za'im (1647-1672), Athanasios III Dabbas (1720-1724) and Sylvester of Cyprus (1724-1766) took upon themselves the difficult task of preserving the Christian spirituality in its Arabic expression. The special relationship that certain Eastern Churches had with the Holy See was not encouraging: the authority of the Roman institutions often manifested itself through constraints regarding the attachment to Catholic dogmas. Arabic books printed in Italy required many approvals, lest any "doctrinal error" crept in that would have reflected the creed of a Church other than the Maronite. Biblia arabica had been conceived by Near Eastern scholars based on old local translations, in order to preserve the liturgical traditions proper to Arab Christianity: nevertheless, the Roman theologians ruled for the printing of a new translation of the Vulgata. Liturgical books freely given to the Eastern churches by Catholic missionaries were meant to replace the old Arabic manuscripts that had been used by generations of priests.
The gloomy situation of their communities convinced the hierarchs of the Antiochian Church to look for help in Eastern Europe, where they travelled in search of financial and spiritual help, beginning in the 16th century. The favourable answer that they received from Romanian princes encouraged them to embark on long and perilous journeys. The expectations of these unusual travellers relied on the spiritual solidarity and the benevolence of the Romanian rulers, who had supported the Eastern patriarchates and monasteries since the 14th century." Although kept apart by wide stretches of land and sea, the Romanians and the Antiochian Arabs succeeded in establishing contacts that resulted in important cultural acts. The situation was comparable for the Romanians and the Levantines in many respects, although they were subjected to the Ottoman domination in rather different forms. In the 16th century, acknowledging their Arab identity, Christians of the Antiochian Church (the only Patriarchate were Arabic has been used continuously as official language) aspired to replace the traditional church language-- Greek with the Arabic vernacular". At the same time Romanians were striving to move from the old ritual language Slavonic to their spoken language, Romanian: here too the necessity emerged to spread Liturgical texts through books printed in the people's vernacular.
Moreover, the ties of the Oriental Churches with Eastern Europe helped Christian Arabs assert their role as part of a civilization deeply rooted in spirituality. Unsurprisingly, present-day Lebanon and Syria, lands of many creeds and ethnic groups (with 42% of the population registered as Christian in Lebanon in 1992) were in the front line of the 19th century Arab Renaissance, Al-Nahda, born in Aleppo. Consequently, the French, English and American missionaries found in these provinces the good ground where they set up schools and printing-shops, encouraging the emergence of modern political and cultural movements. The Romanians contributed to these changes readily and fair-mindedly, acting in the spirit of their self-ascribed mission of relief for the Eastern Christian communities.
The first Arab visitor was, presumably, Patriarch Yuwaklrn Ibn Da'wu who crossed the Romanian territory in 1581, heading for Poland, and reported his passage in a poem (unfortunately lost). From 1652 to 1658, Patriarch Makarios III Ibn al-Za'im and his son, Archdeacon Paul ('of Aleppo', Ar. Bulos al-Halabiyy) travelled to the Romanian Principalities, the Cossaks' land and Russia. Athanasius Dabbas, who had temporarily relinquished the Patriarchal see of Antioch to his competitor Cyril Ibn al- Za'rm, visited Wallachia and established durable ties with the local princes and hierarchs. His disciple and successor Sylvester of Cyprus repeatedly sojourned at the princely courts of Bucharest and Iasi, Resuming his forerunners' projects of printing and financial support for the Syrian Christians, he obtained in 1746 from Prince Constantin Mavrocordat the repair and re-consecration of the old church of St. Spyridon in Bucharest, a metochion of the Patriarchate of Antioch.
Following up the research carried out in the 20th century by scholars like Nicolae Iorga, Vasile Radu, Marcu Beza, Dan Simonescu, and Virgil Candea, the considerable crop of literary and historical texts generated by the above-mentioned connections requires further examination. After a long period of neglect, several projects are now promoted by a new generation of Romanian researchers, proficient in Arabic and Greek, aiming to shed more light on the rich information provided by Christian Arabic historical sources.
1. An up-to-date record of the Arabic texts that refer to the Romanians and the Balkan peoples in the 17th-18th centuries.
Considering the eagerness of the Arab hierarchs to bring home spiritually
useful texts, a careful search of Near Eastern libraries and archives (public,
ecclesiastic and private) for surviving copies of journals, letters and literary works will definitely result in interesting finds concerning the circulation of ideas from Europe to the Near East. Catalogues of manuscripts in major libraries of Lebanon have increasingly become available, while recent research focuses on cataloguing and describing documents that reflect the cultural exchanges between Europeans and Levantine Christians. The texts and correspondence that originate in the Arab provinces, dated in the 17th-18th centuries and preserved in Romanian collections, have not been properly investigated yet.
An interesting case is that of Demetrius Cantemir's work The Divan, translated into Arabic by Athanasius Dabbas in 1705, based on the Greek version enclosed in the edition of 1698 (Iasi). Identified in 1969 in Lebanon by the Romanian scholar Virgil Candea as an unknown translation of Cantemir's first printed book, this text has recently been edited and translated into English. Book III of Cantemir's work encloses an entire work written by the Polish Unitarian Andzrej Wiszovaty, Stimuli virtutum, fraena peccatorum, ut et alia eiusdem generis opuscula posthuma (Amsterdam, 1682), a rare example of a Protestant work that reached, via Greek, the Christian Arabic literature.
2. Editions and translations of Arabic works that refer to Romanian history.
During their visits to Eastern Europe Patriarch Makarios III and his son Paul spent nearly four years on Romanian territory. The journal that Paul kept with utmost care and detail survived in several copies of approx. 700 pages each, enclosing unique data on history, politics, society, religious life, personalities, traditions, architecture, etc. This is recognized as an outstanding source of information for the historical research on Romania, as well as Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria, the Ukraine, and Russia. Never edited and translated in its entirety, this text is the object of a research theme conducted at the Institute for South-East European Studies of the Romanian Academy in Bucharest. The end result of this theme will be a complete edition and English translation of the longest and richest manuscript, Ms. Arabe 6016 of BnF-- Paris, in cooperation with Russian researchers (Institutes for Oriental Studies in St. Petersburg and Moscow).
Makarios III also wrote notes and miscellanies that enclose texts on Romanian, Bulgarian, Georgian and Russian historical topics (Magmu' Latif, Magmu' mubarak, a.o.). Two chapters regarding the Romanians were edited and translated by this author, La Chronique de Valachie (J292-1664) and The Arabic Version of the Life of Saint Paraskevi the New. 16 The same collections enclose texts that were adapted from famous works by Paisios Ligarides, Dorotheos of Monembasia, Agapios Landos, Damaskinos Studites, etc., acquired or copied by Patriarch Makarios III durning hiS Journeys.
3. Catalogues of the Oriental manuscripts preserved in Romanian libraries.
After a first step towards a catalogue of the Oriental manuscripts was taken in 1946, the Iranian researcher Mohammad Ali Sowti recorded thirty years later in a catalogue (never published) 721 Oriental manuscripts, including Arabic, preserved in the largest collections in Bucharest and Cluj. The author's hope was that his efforts would be continued: "I have tried to help future research into Turkish and Arabic manuscripts, to the extent that the data I present herewith encloses previously unpublished clarifications and information. In the absence of specialists in Oriental codicology and cataloguing, the record was not brought to completion". The Library of the Romanian Academy is preparing a project concerning the description and online catalogue of its Oriental collections. This requires the cooperation of foreign specialists in codicology, cataloguing and specialized software, alongside support for European funds dedicated to increasing the accessibility of Oriental collections. Completing this record will help both the Romanian research community and the progress of world surveys of Islamic and Christian Arabic manuscripts, which have been under special focus in the last decades.
4. Defining the Romanians' contribution to the beginnings of printing in the Near East.
Around 1700, Athanasios Dabbas travelled to Wallachia several times and was hosted by Prince Constantin Brancoveanu (1688-1714). The Romanian ruler helped him print the first church-books in Arabic script, asking the scholar and master engraver Antim Ivireanul ('the Iberian') to carve a set of Arabic types. Two books were printed in Wallachia in Greek and Arabic: a Liturgikon (Al-Qondaq al-falahi, 252 pp.) in 1701 (Snagov), and a Book of Hours Kitab al-Sa 'at, 711 p.) in 1702 (Bucharest). When leaving the Wallachian capital in 1705, Dabbas received from Brancoveanu the Arabic types and printing implements, installing them at the Metropolitan residence of Aleppo. Eleven books were printed there between 1706 and 1711: the first was the Psalter (Kitiib al-Zabiir al-sarifi, showing on the first page Brancoveanu's coat of arms. Then followed the Gospels (Kitab al-Ingil al-Sarif alTahir wa-l-misbdh al-munir al-lahiry, the Book of the Chosen Pearls (Kitab al-durr al-muntahab) enclosing 34 homilies by St. John the Golden Mouth, and in 1708 a second edition of the Gospels, the Book ofProphecies, the Apostle, a.s.o. These books were later edited again and again in the printing-shops of Lebanese Christians.
In 1745-1747 Patriarch Silvester of Antioch addressed the Prince of Moldavia Ioan Mavrocordat for help in printing books for the Christian Arabs: the Liturgikon, the Aleppo Psalter and several polemical works (among them, The Proof of Truth and Transmission of Justice by Patriarch Nectarios of Jerusalem that Sylvester had translated in 1733 as Qadii al-haqq wa-naql al-sidq). In a recent book devoted to the life and works of Patriarch Athanasios III Dabbas, A. C. Dabbas stated that Patriarch Sylvester re-installed in 1747 at the Metropolitan residence of Aleppo the old press brought by his ancestor. A fourth episode, less documented, is the establishment by the Christian Arabs of the first press in Beirut after 1750, transferring the old one from Aleppo. A symposium held in Bucharest last year addressed the issue of the Romanians' contribution to printing in the Balkans and the Near East, including a paper, by this author, about the Arabic books printed in Wallachia and Syria before the middle of the 18th century. Whatever the particulars of these events (still under scrutiny), they resulted in a transfer of printing technology and know-how from Wallachia and Moldavia to Aleppo and neighbouring areas. Thus, European culture, in its Romanian forms, was "imported" in the Near East in order to fulfill the Christian Arabs' needs, similar to those of all the Sultan's subjects.
At the present time, the model of living together that Christian Arabs and Muslims of the Near East have provided for centuries is becoming increasingly interesting. Long before it was promoted by missionaries sent from Rome, the dialogue between Christianity and Islam was lived effectively, on a daily basis, by the multi-confessional Arab communities of the Eastern Mediterranean lands. Nowadays when attitudes towards Near Eastern peoples are constantly reappraised, the progress of this research is encouraged by an increased interest of the scholarly circles for the Christian Arabs, a diverse but neglected community, spread all over the world. By completing the projects that I have mentioned, Romanian researchers have the opportunity to participate in a truthful and more detailed definition of the Christian Arab civilization in its relationship with South-East Europe.