Thursday, February 22, 2018

Sergei Brun on the Patriarchate of Antioch in Medieval Central Asia

Read the entire article here. It is an excerpt, translated by the author, from: The Byzantines and Franks in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia (11th-13th centuries). A study of the history of Latin and Byzantine Christians’ contacts and interaction in the East by S.P. Brun (Moscow, 2015).



The Catholicosate of Irinopolis, which united the „Rum‟ of Baghdad and the Melkites of the surrounding Mesopotamian region, survived either until the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258, or even until the early 15th century. The fact that an Orthodox Catholicos resided in Baghdad is attested to by such authors as Al-Biruni (11th century) and the Greek archimandrite Nilus Doxapatrius (12th century) . It is interesting to note that a part of Baghdad‟s Orthodox population consisted of Greek-speaking „Rum‟ Christians. The Orthodox community in Baghdad originally consisted of prisoners, taken to the Abbasid capital from the inner provinces of the Byzantine Empire, namely from the Greek-speaking regions of Asia Minor, which were regularly devastated by  Arab raids. It is quite possible that not all of the Orthodox in Baghdad were equally subject to ongoing arabization, and along with Arabic or Syriac-speaking Melkites there were families and communities that preserved Greek, at least as the liturgical language. Such co-existence of Arabic, Syriac and Greek-speaking communities was typical for Antioch itself and for other regions of the medieval Levant. The well-known ascetic author of the 11th century –  Nikon of the Black Mountain  –  mentions that Patriarch Theodosius III of Antioch wanted to ordain him and sent him off to serve  in Baghdad. It would be hard to believe that Patriarch Theodosius III would try to send a well-educated Constantinopolitan, Greek-speaking cleric, such as Nikon, to become as a parish priest, not a bishop, in Mesopotamia, if the communities of that region did not understand Greek services and pastors. Melkites also sustained a notable presence in other centers of Mesopotamia and Persia. For example, a rather numerous community of Melkites survived, until the late 13th century, in the Persian town of Tabriz.

The Catholicos of Romagira enjoyed a privileged place among the hierarchs of the Church of Antioch, spreading his pastoral jurisdiction over the Melkite communities in the vast regions of Persia and Central Asia. The heart of the Catholicosate of Romagira and the home of the majority of its flock lay in the rich merchant cities of the Khorasan, which included the above-mentioned region of Shash. Patriarch Peter III of Antioch, writing in the early 1050-s to Patriarch Dominic II of Grado (Venice), proudly mentions the fact that he and his predecessors ordain and send to Romagira and Khorasan “an archbishop-catholicos, who ordains metropolitans for that land, which, in turn, hold numerous bishops in their obedience”. The See of the Catholicos of Romagira was located either in the region of Shash, near Tashkent, or in Nishapur. The city of Merv was also a See of an Orthodox metropolitan, subject to the Catholicos of Romagira.

A highly-illustrative account of these long-gone Melkite communities in Central Asia can be found in the writings of the famous medieval scholar Al-Biruni, who dedicated an entire chapter of his Chronology of the Ancient Nations to the „Festivals and Memorial Days of the Syrian Calendar, celebrated by the Melkite Christians‟. Al-Biruni's work allows us to have at least a glimpse at the unique traditions of this distant group of Chalcedonian Orthodox Christians on the Great Silk Road. For example, he mentions the „Feast of Roses‟, when, in memory of the Meeting of the Theotokos and Saint Elizabeth, the Melkites of Khorezm would go in procession from church to church, bearing fresh blossoms of juri roses (red and white Persian roses, renowned for their beauty and  smell). Among other traditions and feasts, unique to the Catholicosate of Romagira, one can name the feasts of local saints (such as the Seven Martyrs of Nishapur), and the celebration of the Second Dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, when the Melkites of Persia and the Khorasan would ceremonially cleanse and wash their churches.

A significant part of the faithful in the Catholicosate of Romagira was comprised not only of Syriac and Arabic-speaking Melkites, but also of Sogdian Orthodox. The latter formed a unique part among the medieval „Rum‟, since they shared neither the Greek, nor the Syriac liturgical language of their Orthodox co-religionists. They served in Sogdian, but followed the Byzantine rite, and lived far beyond the easternmost borders of the historic Roman Empire. Their communities, spread from the banks of Syr Darya to Eastern Turkestan and the borders of the Chinese Empire, formed the most remote and unique part of the „Byzantine‟ world. Fragments of several manuscripts, found during the archaeological investigations in the library of an abandoned monastery in the village of Bulaik, near Turfan (1904-1907) –  namely a fragment of Psalm 32 from a 8th-9th century Greek manuscript, and a 10th century letter, written in Syriac but composed in a highly-recognizable Byzantine manner, addressing an official of the Roman Empire –  attest to Melkite presence on the Great Silk Road, up to the Turfan oasis. An Armenian author –  Hethum of Korikos (died ante 1307), writing his well-known Flowers of the Histories of the East , later presented to Pope Clement V and King Philip IV the Beautiful, mentions Orthodox Sogdian communities living in Khorasan, belonging to the Greek Church, but sustaining their own language, which was different to the Greek, Arabic and Syriac (the latter three were known to the Cilician monk). According to Hethum, Melkites of Khorasan, which he calls „Soldani‟, were obedient to the Patriarch of Antioch and “served as the Greeks, but their language is not Greek”.


Read the whole excerpt, with footnotes and bibliography, here.

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