Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Muriel Debié (ed.), L'historiographie syriaque. Études syriaques. Paris: Geuthner, 2009. Pp. 219. ISBN 9782705338213. €35.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Daniel King, Cardiff University

[Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The Société des Études syriaques (Paris) are producing, year-on-year, a wonderful set of volumes on key themes in Syriac studies, each including articles on the latest state of research based on 'tables rondes' held in Paris each year. This latest instalment, on Syriac historiography, succeeds in bringing together some of the foremost scholars in the field, often writing on the very texts they themselves have edited or translated. Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.

The extent to which literature written in Syriac partook of the Hellenic cultural baggage of late antiquity is still only faintly understood, and even less appreciated, by historians of the Eastern Mediterranean. It is the principal achievement of this excellent and useful volume not only to have provided students and specialists alike with an overview of the subject at the current state of research, but also to have highlighted the lines of transmission that carried Greek historiography into Syriac (and thence Arabic). The point is both to indicate how well integrated was the latter within the cultures of the late antique Empire, and moreover to describe the transformation these forms underwent in their 'Oriental' afterlives.

The first chapter (Muriel Debié) raises the question of the extent and manner of Hellenic influence in Syriac historiography. The earliest Syriac 'history' (ps-Joshua the Stylite) is of a type with its Hellenic partners among late antique Byzantine histories, and is best treated as an example of that genre ('les frontiers sont poreuses'). Thereafter the influence of the Chronicle of Eusebius became fundamental to all West Syrian chronography, which should be viewed as an offshoot of the Classical tradition, but one which developed its own format of separating civil and ecclesiastical history in response to the emergence of a politically independent anti-Chalcedonian church in the sixth century. Debié shows how the historiographical tradition within the (Persian) Church of the East was rather more the successor of hagiography and martyr narrative than of classical literary types. Collections of lives began to be gathered together to illustrate the histories of towns or monasteries, often on the model of the histories of philosophical schools. There is in fact a suggestive parallel between these Syriac productions and the pagan institutional (philosophical) histories of the same period – in both cases a sort of extended martyr narrative written under threat of religiously-motivated shut-down.

Geoffrey Greatrex previews his forthcoming translation and study of pseudo Zechariah's Ecclesiastical History, summarizing the state of research on this important text in the light of the many debates that converged upon it a century ago. Greatrex defends the identity of the historian Zechariah with the lawyer, friend and biographer of Severus of Antioch. This reviewer remains not quite convinced. Honigmann successfully identified the author of the Vita Severi with the author of the anti-Manichaean Antirrhesis, but evidence suggesting that the historian was the same man and indeed that either should be one and the same as an otherwise attested bishop of Mytilene appears in fact to rest upon two or three scribal attributions/guesses, taken up by later collectors and made part of the reception of the Ecclesiastical History. Greatrex (and most modern scholars with him) may be right, but a surer foundation could be laid upon a thorough internal analysis of all the texts and avoiding becoming caught up in the complexities of the ms traditions. This apart, however, the chapter provides a 'spot-on' overview of the text, disentangling its transmission history, enumerating its sources, and most importantly interpreting its historiographical significance by suggesting that ps-Zechariah's optimistic views on the possibility of rapprochement between the Miaphysite church and the Empire were replaced within twenty years by John of Ephesus' more resigned vision.

Andrew Palmer provides an in-depth overview of fourteen short (mostly West) Syriac chronicles from the sixth-ninth centuries. The focus again is on historiography rather than factual reliability. Palmer notes the changes effected by the church's forsaking the dream of universal empire and instead assimilating itself to Abbasid society. Dionysius of Tell Mahre's lost chronicle was the key to rescuing the historiographical tradition from the brink of apocalyptic anarchy. We are rightly warned of too easily viewing the Miaphysite (West Syriac) historiography as the expression of a will to ecclesiastical independence – as late as Jacob of Edessa (d.710) the (Greek) universal ecclesia remained the dream of these historians. Yet around 720 a major break seems to have occurred and here, at the moment when Syriac historians cease to note the names of Emperors and Patriarchs and begin to date events according to caliphal years, we can glimpse that self-conscious break from the Hellenic tradition that constitutes the final fracture between East and West. Up to this point, the Fertile Crescent had remained part of a classical (Mediterranean) world.

An example of just this process, the Chronicle of Zuqnin (written in 775), is the subject of the next chapter, again written by the text's most recent translator. This contributor helpfully surveys the arguments surrounding the authorship and sources of the chronicle, reaffirming his judgment that Joshua the Stylite was its author. At greater length Harrak treats of the chronicler's attitude to the Islamic empire. He takes a far more negative position than many of his co-religionists of a century earlier and, partly in response to recent abuses by local governors, envisages the caliphs as a temporary scourge that the Church must suffer before the coming of a new Christian world-empire. From an historiographical angle, the most interesting point is that inner Christian sectarianism is sunk in favor of a simple Christian/Muslim dichotomy whenever the chronicler is contributing his own accounts of events. All this is instructive and excellently presented, although a more generic treatment of the text as a whole would have been desirable and perhaps more in line with the volume's purpose.

Dorothea Weltecke offers just that desired overview for the rather later chronicles of Michael (s.12), Barhebraeus (s.13), and the anonymous of 1234, providing the state of research for each, together with an overview of the structure, historiographical method adopted, and some additional comments. The developing tradition that lies behind each one is stressed, going back ultimately to classical models. Their achievement was to have combined Eusebius' model of ecclesiastical history with that of the annalistic chronicle, although the precise reconstruction of their systems from extant mss is not a straightforward task. None of the three is overpowered by a theological agenda, and Barhebraeus in particular is seen in the context of the Arabic 'adab' literature of the cultured elite.

A particularly instructive piece is offered by Antoine Borrut on the little known work of Elias of Nisibis. Borrut attempts to lift Elias (s.11) out of his relative obscurity as a chronicler of the Church of the East on the basis of his use of early ninth century Islamic sources and especially his account of the rise of the Abbasid dynasty. Borrut rightly argues that a more sensitive understanding of the forms of Syriac historiography would assist the ongoing debate about the relative value of Christian vs Muslim sources for the early history of Islam. In any case, a careful reading of Elias' chronicle will offer a window onto the historical work of al-Hwarizmi (better known in the west as Mr Algorithm!) and hence an alternative tradition for an important period.

The Syriac and Arabic literature of the Eastern Churches remains one of those disciplines in which ancient and mediaeval texts, sometimes of some importance, are still regularly found in previously unexplored manuscript libraries. The next chronicle to be considered is just such a case. The Muhtasar al-Ahbar al-Bi'iyya was first identified in Iraq in the 1980s, one of many Arabic manuscripts from the monastery of Notre Dame des Semences (Alqosh) later transferred to the Chaldaean monastery in Baghdad. They are now, since 2008, back in Alqosh for safe keeping. Hermann Teule provides an overview of this as yet little considered work which bares a close resemblance to the better known Chronicle of Seert but which is also an independent witness to the events it describes. Among the sources explicitly mentioned by the writer are a number known from catalogues of Syriac authors but whose work has hitherto been unknown.

The book moves many centuries forward with an article by Karam Rizk on the Lebanese historian Stephen Douaihi, Maronite Patriarch 1670-1704. Douaihi wrote a lengthy history of his church and his country which remains of fundamental importance for the modern history of the Lebanon, although his work does not offer us access to sources otherwise unknown, and in many cases he used existing printed materials. The lack of widespread printing in the Near East in the eighteenth century meant that Douahi's work circulated in manuscript form until recent times and no good critical edition exists. Indeed one may wonder whether such a thing is really possible for a work that seems to have been produced in different forms and editions throughout the author's own life time. Nevertheless its historiographical interest remains significant and modern historians of Lebanon or the Maronite church should take notice.

The book is rounded off by a typically fine summary of Armenian history writing by the doyen of Armenian studies, Robert Thomson. The close relationship that pertained throughout Late Antiquity between the Syriac-speaking and Armenian spheres means that no overview of Syriac literature should be without a glance, preferably a prolonged one, at the Armenian tradition. Thomson therefore provides Syriac scholars and those interested more generally in the historiographical traditions of the east, with a well-rounded examination of the dates, structure, and contents of the main exemplars of the Armenian tradition.

The book is rounded off with a bibliography of editions and translations of all Syriac chronicles, organized by type and tradition (East or West), making the whole a handy instrumentum for the student or non-specialist. To summarize, the book has succeeded admirably in pursuing its aim of providing a way in to a sometimes daunting subject area. Not all the ground is covered within the volume – chapters on Jacob of Edessa and John of Ephesus would perhaps have given the work more comprehensive coverage, and the student would benefit from a summary account of the historiographical genres available to Syriac writers across the period (Chronicle, Ecclesiastical History, Monastic History, Vita etc.), all of which are mentioned but not clearly defined. However, anybody who knows little or nothing of the subject will certainly find no end of fascinating insights and gain new understandings of the multifarious ways in which classical literary traditions could be received into different cultures and made to work for their new masters.



M. Debié, L'héritage de l'historiographie grecque

G. Greatrex, Le pseudo-Zacharie de Mytilène et l'historiographie syriaque au VIe s.

A. Palmer, Les chroniques brèves syriaques

A. Harrak, La victoire arabo-musulmane selon le chroniqueur de Zuqnin (VIIIe siècle)

D. Weltecke, Les trois grandes chroniques syro-orthodoxes des XIIe et XIIIe siècles

A. Borrut, La circulation de l'information historique entre les sources arabo-musulmanes et syriaques: Élie de Nisibe et ses sources

H. Teule, L'abrégé de la chronique ecclésiastique Muhtasar al-ahbar al-bi'iyya et la chronique de Séert. Quelques sondages

K. Rizk, Pour une édition des Annales de Douaihi

R. Thomson, L'historiographie arménienne


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