The Syriac World

Syriac (a literary dialect of Aramaic from Edessa, modern Urfa in south-eastern Turkey) was used as the primary language of liturgy and literature across a wide swathe of early Christendom, throughout the period we are considering, from the shores of the Mediterranean to India, and passing through Arabia and Iran on to Central Asia and China. Within the Persian Empire in particular there were periods of intense persecution which produced numerous well-documented martyrs, while a strong ascetic and monastic tradition within Syriac Christianity also generated a large number of saints. The written Lives of these holy men were translated from Syriac into Greek and Latin in the West, and into Sogdian and other Iranian languages in the East. Concurrently, the Lives of saints and martyrs composed in Greek were translated into Syriac, and are often preserved in very early manuscripts, and so entered Syriac calendars and developed local cults, although this phenomenon has been largely ignored by earlier scholarship.

The doctrinal controversies of the fifth century led to the formation of a rich variety of rival Syriac-using churches (Chalcedonian Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, Church of the East), some of which had their own internal divisions, and each of which had their own traditions and their own saints (while still maintaining the cults of the pre-division saints).  As elsewhere, many of these saints played only a very local role, but there were some who rose to international prominence: in particular, the soldier martyr Sergius whose shrine at Resapha eventually led to the town being renamed Sergiopolis, and who was revered by figures as disparate as Byzantine emperors, Arab tribal leaders, and even the Persian king of kings; and the fifth-century ascetic, Simeon the Stylite, who attracted considerable cult already during his lifetime, and whose pillar near Aleppo became the centre of a massive pilgrimage shrine after his death.

There is a rich quantity of hagiographical writing in Syriac about these saints, which is comparatively little known, because few texts have been translated into modern languages; and there is also a mass of incidental references to saints in other early sources: inscriptions, church and monastery dedications, liturgical calendars, manuscript colophons, and some remarkable magical texts and inscribed bowls.  Collecting these disparate pieces of evidence, and examining them, both with other material in Syriac and with comparable and overlapping material written in other languages, particularly Greek, is the primary aim of our project.  This will allow us to integrate the Syriac material into the wider history of the cult of saints, and to produce a history of how cult developed specifically within the Syriac church.

The Syriac evidence is being collected by Sergey Minov, with supervision from David Taylor.