A Syrian Awakening
Alqosh and Urmia as Centres of
Neo-Syriac Writing
H. L. Murre-van den Berg
In the course of the nineteenth century, European scholars gradually became aware of the fact that the Persian Church, the "Nestorian" Church of the East, was not dead, but still very much alive. And so was its literary tradition. Not only had Classical Syriac writing survived well into the nineteenth century, the activities of various missionary societies also brought to light the fact that a modern Aramaic, or "Neo-Syriac" language was in general use among the Christians of eastern Tur­key and northwestern Iran. The activities of the missionaries among the Christians in Iran not only initiated a new interest in this ancient Christian people among west­erners, but also played a significant role in the development of a new self-awareness among these Christians of Persia.

It is this Syrian "Awakening" which constitutes the starting point of the pres­ent article. However, a closer look at the history of these "East Syrian" or "Assyr­ian" Christians shows that the Awakening of the nineteenth century has an interest­ing precursor in the seventeenth and eigh­teenth centuries. Contrary to what most of the missionaries in the early nineteenth century thought, it was not in Urmia that the modern dialect was reduced to writ­ing for the first time. This took place in Alqosh, in the late sixteenth century. There are several indications that the close connection between vernacular writing and general cultural awakening which I assume existed in the nineteenth century existed in the earlier period also.

In the following I will present the out­lines of the developments in the two pe­riods, starting from a description of what happened to vernacular writing and pro­ceeding with the larger historical and cul­tural context.

After 1836, when American Protestant missionaries, with the help of local Chris­tians, had reduced the vernacular language to writing, it was the arrival of the print­ing press towards the end of the year 1840 which constituted the actual beginning of a new literary tradition. The first book­let in Neo-Syriac, which the missionaries worked on alongside an edition of the Psalms in Classical Syriac, was entitled Lessons from the Words of God. Edi­tions which were of greater importance for the development of the new literary language were the translation of the New Testament of 1846, that of the Old Testa­ment of 1852, and the monthly magazine Zahrire d-Bahm, "Rays of Light", which first appeared in 1849 and was continued till the first year of the war, 1915. Most productions of this press reflect a form of Protestant piety dominant in America at that time. Characteristic themes like "saving faith", "repentance", "new birth", "keeping of the sabbath", and the evil of "drunkenness", were explored in tracts, pious biographies, and catechisms. In schoolbooks and in the magazine Zah­rire d-Bahra the scientific and technical achievements of the "New World" were introduced to the Assyrian readers. In the first thirty years of the press, many books and tracts were translated from English, two of the most popular being translations of Leigh Richmond's The Dairyman's Daughter (1845) and of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1848). Many other books and tracts were composed by the missionaries themselves. They were assisted by some Assyrians who had mas­tered English, next to Classical Syriac, He­brew and even Greek. In this early period, Assyrians did not submit any substantial works to the press themselves.

It seems that from about 1870, Assyrians began to take part in the literary produc­tion. Most important were their contribu­tions to Zahrire d-Bahra. Towards the end of the century the magazine usually had an Assyrian editor. In the eighties a revi­sion of the Bible translation was under­taken. The working committee consisted of six Assyrians and only one American missionary. Their work resulted in the edi­tion of 1893, which was printed in New York and is in print up to the present day. In the last quarter of the nineteenth cen­tury, the Roman Catholic Lazarists, whose first production was a catechism printed in 1875, and the Anglicans, who started with a catechism in 1889, began contributing to book printing. These missions too em­ployed educated Assyrians for their activi­ties in the literary field. In 1906, a number of Assyrians started to publish a journal independently from the western missions, with the explicit object to unite Assyrians of all denominations. It was called Kokbü, "The Star", a name which from that time onwards in numerous variations would be used for Assyrian magazines.

Growing literacy in Neo-Syriac was ac­companied by growing literacy in Classical Syriac. Neither the missionaries nor the Assyrians wanted Neo-Syriac to replace Classical Syriac completely. Many mission schools, especially those which provided some kind of secondary education, paid extensive attention to Classical Syriac. Apart from a certain scientific interest in language history and in the heritage of the Syrian church, as well as in the practical use of the language in church, the Angli­can and American missionaries envisaged another function for Classical Syriac. Per­kins, in November 1846, gives as one of the main reasons for adding the Peshitta to their edition of the New Testament in the vernacular that "the educated of the Nestorians should continue to study it as their classical language, to enrich and mature their imperfect vernacular tongue, and to harmonize their various dialects". Much later, the Anglican missionary Ar­thur Maclean expressed himself in a simi­lar way, stressing even more strongly the potential interdialectal character of a lan­guage more influenced by Classical Syriac, both in orthography and in vocabulary. When Maclean was working in Urmia, in the eighties of the nineteenth century, the need for such an interdialectal language became more urgent than it had been when Perkins translated the New Testa­ment in the forties. Considerable numbers of Assyrians from the mountain tribes, speaking dialects quite different from that of the Urmia plain, joined the group of readers and writers. The standardized lan­guage of the American press, based as it was on the Urmia dialect, proved unable to meet the needs of the expanding literate community. In this period a "syriacized" and interdialectal form of the language was developed by those connected to the Protestant and Anglican presses. Even if the grammar of the written language was still very much based on the dialect of Urmia, its vocabulary and orthogra­phy were reshaped on the Classical Syriac model. In this form, the language was bet­ter equipped to serve as the literary dialect of the whole East-Syrian community.

More things changed in the second half of the nineteenth century. Western influ­ence in this part of the world continually increased. In Urmia this western influ­ence consisted in a growing number of missionaries. The American-Protestant and Lazarist missions grew in numbers, whereas new missions were added, like the Lutheran mission in 1881, the An­glican mission in 1886, and the Russian-Orthodox mission towards the end of the century. Diplomatic and commercial presence in Iran also grew considerably, in a time when the Iranian government was weak. British and Russian diplomats strove for political influence at the Shah's court, and meanwhile the French and Americans were working to expand their commercial influence.

In the nineteenth century, the Assyrians themselves also began to travel. Even be­fore the first missionaries arrived in the early thirties, Assyrians had been used to travelling to Armenia and Georgia in neighbouring Russia to earn some ad­ditional income during the cold winter months. After the missionaries had ar­rived, and especially in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Assyrians started to travel to Europe and America - to acquire a higher education, to find work, or to collect money from the Chris­tians in these countries.

There is another important event which has to be mentioned in connection with the "Syrian Awakening", this being the discovery of the remains of the ancient Assyrian civilization in the Mosul area. Dating to the earlier days of the excava­tions of Layard is the feeling among the Surayë, as they call themselves in Neo-Syriac, that there was some historical con­nection between them and this ancient people which lived in the area of ancient Nineveh, modern Mosul. Although it is unclear how exactly this identification came into existence, it certainly was stim­ulated by ancient traditions in Syriac liter­ature which linked the Syrians of present-day Iraq with the Chaldeans and Assyrians of biblical times.

The influence of western Christianity, which started already with the attempts to uniatism in the sixteenth century, but reached its full force in the latter part of the nineteenth century, had transformed the until then relatively homogeneous Syrian tradition into a diversity of con­fessional strands. People belonged to the "Old Church", Protestant, Anglican, Lu­theran, Russian Orthodox or Uniate (Ro­man Catholic) communion rather than to the Syrian tradition as such. At the same time, the literary language, also being in­troduced by the missionaries, made the East Syrians aware of the fact that they still had their language in common. How­ever, apparently a common language was not sufficient as the basis of a commu­nal identity. After the history of the Syr­ian Church had lost much of its cohesive force it was the theory of Assyrian lineage which was able to provide the common history the Christians of this area were looking for.

I suppose that the link with the an­cient Assyrians accounts for yet another element of the "Assyrian" identity as it emerged in the early twentieth century: it enabled the transformation of group identity into a kind of "national" identity. In the history of the Syrian Church there never had been a close connection with a certain geographically confined terri­tory or with some worldly power, as there was, e.g., in the history of the Armenian Church. In the case of the East Syrians, it was Ancient Assyrian history which was found suitable to provide such a political and "secular" history.

Summarizing, one can say that in the nineteenth century it was western presence which initiated the use of the modern lan­guage in writing. Whereas the activities of the western missions led to confessional diversity, the literary language as intro­duced by them at the same time became one of the vehicles of a development to­wards a new communal identity in a way the missionaries had never foreseen. This new self-awareness was transformed into a nationalistic identity through the identi­fication with the ancient Assyrians, whose material remains had been unearthed in their homelands in the middle of that cen­tury. In this way, the literary language of Urmia did indeed play a considerable role in the Awakening of the Syrian identity and in initiating its transformation into an Assyrian identity.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, it was in the area north of Mosul that people started to write the modern Syriac vernacular more than two hundred years before the American missionaries. The earliest dated text is a poem written in 1591. This makes early Neo-Syriac lit­erature a contemporary of Neo-Aramaic literature from roughly the same region, dating back to the mid-seventeenth cen­tury. The Neo-Syriac literature which ex­isted before the arrival of the American missionaries consisted mainly of poetry. This poetry can be divided into three cat­egories: stanzaic hymns, dispute poems, and drinking songs.

Of these three categories, only the hymns, which in Neo-Syriac are termed durikyätä (sg: durak or durikta) and which can be seen as the equivalent of the Clas­sical Syriac madrase, can usually be traced back to individual authors. Most durikyätä are dated, ranging from the late sixteenth to the late nineteenth century. Most man­uscripts come from the late nineteenth century, when Eduard Sachau had his copies made for the Berlin library." In 1882 a first specimen of this poetry was published by Albert Socin, transcribed on the basis of oral recitation, whereas Sachau himself in 1895 published the same poem by T'oma Singari from manu­script.This edition was soon followed by Lidzbarski's edition of a poem of Yosep Jemdani from Telkepe (Telkaif) and one of HnaniSo' from Rustaqa. Three other poems by Yosep from Telkepe were pub­lished by Bernard Vandenhoff. The most complete list of durikyätä is the one by Poizat, who published a critical edition of one of these poems, the "Plague of Pioz", a poem by priest Saumo from Pioz, dated to shortly after 1738. Poizat points to the fact that the Dominican Fathers in Mosul already had published an edition of this poem, in a collection of otherwise nine­teenth-century hymns.

Pennacchietti published two durikyätä to which parallels in Classical Syriac, Kurdish and Christian Arabic exist.An­other group of poems can be grouped to­gether as "dispute poems", in which two "persons" in turn are speaking. They of­ten also carry the epitheth dunk, probably due to the fact that they display the same poetical pattern of monorhyme strophes. Out of seven dispute poems, three are not explicitly religious whereas the others are. The hymn on the "Robber and the Cherub", which was edited by Pennacchi­etti, is based on a hymn by Narsai. The sources of the other poems have not been established with certainty. None of these poems are dated, whereas the one on the Robber and the Cherub certainly belongs to the second half of the nineteenth cen­tury. It is not to be excluded, therefore, that all these dispute poems date from the nineteenth century, even if some may have had an oral tradition which goes fur­ther back.

These uncertainties with respect to time of origin also account for the third group of Neo-Syriac poems, the zmiryate d-rawe. Here we are in the realm of popular songs, to be sung or recited at weddings and the like. These songs often have par­allels in Arabic and Kurdish and probably were transmitted orally for a long period before they were put into writing at the request of visiting scholars.

Two manuscripts of a Neo-Syriac translation of a Gospel lectionary from the Alqosh area, which are ascribed to a certain deacon Israel Alqoshaya, may per­haps represent a fourth category of Neo-Syriac texts originating in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. However, it is not certain when the translation was made and the work may as well belong to the nineteenth century.

The durikyätä which can be dated with certainty to the seventeenth and eigh­teenth centuries constitute the starting point for our present research. The best overview of these texts, including most of their manuscript attestations, is the one by Poizat. His list consists of sixteen items, from ten different authors. The oldest poem dates from 1591, by Mar Hnaniso' of Bet Rustaqa, the youngest from 1744, by deacon (samasa) Toma, the son of Qasa 'Awdiso'. These are the poems which survived into nineteenth-century manuscripts and we may assume that, even if more poems existed, these probably were the most popular ones.

Poizat's list, in all its brevity, provides us with important information on the Neo-Syriac literature of this period. The first thing to note is the fact that more than half of the poems come from two authors only: priest (qasa) Israel from Alqosh (Alqoshaya), the son of priest Hormiz, who himself is known as the author of one poem (1608), and priest Yosep bar Jamaleddin (Jemdani) from Telkepe (Telkepnaya). Priest Israel's four poems date from around 1611, whereas Yosep wrote his five poems between 1662 and 1668. Of the remaining eight poems, two were written before 1611 (1591 and 1608), one in 1662, and four others were written between 1722 and 1744.

Although the small number of texts does not allow for any definite conclu­sions, this overview suggests that two of the three distinctive periods of Neo-Syriac literary activities were dominated by only one author, Israel Alqoshaya for the period up to 1612 and Yosep Telkep­naya for the period 1662-1668. As long as no other poems turn up, I prefer to think that this indicates that Neo-Syriac writing at that time was a matter of individuals rather than a large-scale movement. The fact that four different authors are known from the second quarter of the eighteenth century may indicate that in this later pe­riod Neo-Syriac writing had acquired a somewhat broader base.

The contents of these poems have not yet been the object of close study. At first glance, however, it is clear that all these poems are concerned with basic Christian themes. As their titles indicate, they deal with repentance, with the life and teach­ings of Christ and with Divine guidance. As to popular themes, it is remarkable that no less than three poems are concerned with an account of bubonic plagues and that three others are dedicated to the Vir­gin Mary. In nearly all poems, whatever the overall subject may be, the theme of sin and repentance constitutes a recurring element. These poems give the impres­sion of having been written to exhort the lay public to a more dedicated Christian life, a life characterized by confession of sins and repentance. This is further sug­gested by the fact that the authors do not go into theological detail, but rather seem to take their phraseology from popular religion. The very fact that these poems were written in the vernacular language is another indication of their lay rather than clerical public.

The language of these poems has not until now been the subject of a separate study, although both Pennacchietti and Poizat added some linguistic remarks to the poems they edited. The grammars by Sachau and Rhétoré are concerned mainly with the language as spoken and written at end of the nineteenth and the begin­ning of the twentieth century. Sachau, in his article on the poetry of the "Nestori­ans", suggests that the language of these poems does not represent the particular dialect of its single authors, but rather a standardized form in use in northern Iraq. Whether such forms of standardiza­tion should be attributed to some kind of common, formal education remains to be seen. If indeed some kind of vernacular writing was taught at schools in the early seventeenth century, one would expect more texts to have survived.

As to the influence of Classical Syriac writing on Neo-Syriac, the orthography of the early texts is less influenced by Classi­cal Syriac than is neo-Syriac from the late nineteenth century. However, as far as vocabulary is concerned, the language is perhaps closer to Classical Syriac than to the literary language of Urmia. One rea­son for this might be that the dialect of Alqosh had preserved more of its ancient Aramaic vocabulary, but another possibil­ity is that, since Classical Syriac writing was considerably stronger in the seven­teenth and eighteenth centuries than in the later period. Classical Syriac elements in vernacular writing should be attributed to influence from classical literature.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth cen­turies the so-called "School of Alqosh" became known for its Classical Syriac po­etry, apparently in much the same style as the Neo-Syriac poems. Israel Alqoshaya "the elder", the above-mentioned author of Neo-Syriac poetry, is considered to be the same person as the author of Classi­cal Syriac poetry in this period. The term "School of Alqosh" can also be used in connection with the remarkable increase in manuscript production in this town, which started in the sixteenth century and went on well into the nineteenth century. Most of the copying took place in the vil­lage of Alqosh, near the monastery of Rabban Hormizd, the residence of the Patriarchs of the Elia-line, before in the nineteenth century the Chaldean monas­tery of Our Lady of the Seeds, close to Rabban Hormuzd, in Alqosh took over.

In many other places, e.g., in Gazarta, Karka d-Bet Slok (Kirkuk), Diyarbakir (Amida), Telkepe, and Mosul, people were active in literary matters. They too concentrated on poetry in Classical Syri­ac, often for liturgical use. Further, some historical and theological prose was pro­duced. It may have become clear from this short survey that the period from the second half of the sixteenth century on­wards should indeed be considered as a period of revival for literary activities in Syriac - especially so, when its literature is compared to the small amount of lit­erature from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The increasing production of poetry in Classical and Neo-Syriac was ac­companied by a remarkable resurgence of copyist activities.

What factors can possibly have stimu­lated this revival of Syriac literature in this early period? There are several indications that some of the authors of Neo-Syriac poetry in some way or another had Ro­man Catholic sympathies. Even if no definite proof of Israel Alqoshaya's Ro­man Catholic affiliation has been given so far, it certainly is possible that Israel was sympathetic towards Roman Catholic pi­ety. Yosep Telkepnaya, the author of five durikyätä, might well be the same person as "a priest named Joseph" who agreed to argue in favor of some Carmelite mis­sionaries with the Patriarch in Telkepe in 1653-4. If he is, this might be interpreted as an indication of his Roman Catholic sympathies, although he certainly was not considered to be actually a Roman Catho­lic. Most clearly committed to Roman Ca­tholicism probably was Saumo from Pioz, whom we know also as the translator into Classical Syriac of the Apocalypse as well as of the commentary of Jean Etienne Menochius SJ. on the Apocalypse, from an Arabic translation of the Latin.
It awaits further research to discover to what extent the poetry of these writ­ers was explictly aiming at propagating the union between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of the East. In the poems studied thus far, "Nestorianism" is not explicitly condemned and sometimes even "Nestorian" phrases occur. It is a penitent attitude rather than being part of one church or another which seems to be the main interest of its writers. However, it is possible that this renewed focus on "sin and repentance" is a result of western theological influence.

Among those who wrote Classical Syri­ac, some of the most prolific writers were officially connected to the Roman Catho­lic Church, like 'Abdiso' from Gazarta, the second Chaldean patriarch (1555-1570), Adam 'Aqraya, who negotiated with Rome on behalf of Elia VTTT (1591-1617), the Chaldean patriarch Yosep II (1667-1731), and priest Kidr from Mosul (1679-1751), who spent much of his life in Rome.

These Roman Catholic sympathies among the writers of Modern and Classi­cal Syriac are not as obvious as one might think. Whereas in the nineteenth century most of the villages of northern Iraq, including Alqosh and Telkepe, professed obedience to the uniate, Chaldean patri­archate, this certainly was not the case in the seventeenth and early eighteenth cen­turies.

The first to go to Rome was Yohannan Sulaqa, the superior of Rabban Hormuzd who had been elected patriarch by a num­ber of bishops in opposition to Shimun VTI Bar-Mama. After Sulaqa received his Episcopal ordination, he returned to Diyarbakir (Amida) in 1553, only to die in a Turkish prison within less than two years, probably at the instigation of the Old Church patriarch. In this period, Ro­man Catholicism affected a minority of the East Syrian population only, many of whom lived in the citadel of Diyarbakir. After Yohannan Sulaqa's first two suc­cessors had been in full communion with Rome, his successors in the seventeenth century no longer succeeded in meeting with Rome's demands. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, formal ties with Rome were severed and from then on the late successors of Sulaqa, now carrying the name Shimun, considered themselves to be "Nestorian" again.

It took till 1681 before a stable uniate patriarchate was established, with its see again in Diyarbakir. However, as was the case with the earlier attempts, the authori­ty of the Chaldean patriarch was acknowl­edged only within a rather limited geo­graphical area. Neither Mosul, nor Alqosh or Telkepe belonged to his jurisdiction.

In the same period, also the patriarchs of the Elia-line residing in Rabban Hormizd near Alqosh, the successors of Shimun Bar-Mama, tried to establish closer ties with Rome. None of them, however, suc­ceeded in acquiring full recognition. They, as much as Sulaqa's successors, were un­able to satisfy Rome's conditions. After the short-lived activities of two Maltese Dominicans who had accompanied Su­laqa to Diyarbakir, it was only after 1622, when the Sacra Institutio de Propaganda Fide was established in Rome, that a more active policy towards the oriental churches was pursued. With respect to the Church of the East, one of the first activities of the Propaganda was to send two Fran­ciscans to Diyarbakir in 1629. After the Franciscans, it was the Conventuals who tried to establish a union, but it was only after the establishment of a Capucin mis­sion in Diyarbakir in 1667, following an earlier mission in Mosul around 1663, that the Chaldean patriarchate was renewed. In the same period, Carmelite missionaries working in Persia had contacts with the Syrian Christians in that country. In 1750, the Dominican order established itself in Mosul.

Although these Latin missionaries reached only a minority of the popula­tion, they played an important role in in­troducing Roman Catholicism among the East Syrians. In addition to the increasing Roman Catholic presence in this part of the world, the West was present in other ways too. In the sixteenth century, the area around Mosul had been incorporated into the Ottoman Empire, after a period of uncertain alliances. This provided not only for a more stable social and political situation, but also for increasing contacts with representatives of western powers who extended their influence into the Ot­toman Empire and often were very much interested in the situation of the oriental Christians. Travel in both directions be­came easier and it was not only westerners who made it to the east, but also eastern­ers who were able to travel to Europe.

We now can point to some important similarities between the two periods under discussion. Although there is no evidence that it was Roman Catholic missionaries who initiated writing in Neo-Syriac, it is remarkable that, as much as in the nine­teenth century, popular religious literature in the vernacular emerged in a period when western missionaries extended their activities into the region of the East Syr­ian Christians. Whether the poetry of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was indeed meant to propagate a western type of piety remains to be seen, but I do be­lieve that it represents an answer to the Roman Catholic challenge at the very least.

Another parallel between the two pe­riods is the fact that through, as well as apart from, missionary presence, western culture in general became more accessible to the Christians of this region. This cer­tainly can be seen as another factor which may have stimulated cultural development and the acceptance of vernacular writing.

A factor that needs closer consideration is the political and social environment of the Christians in both periods. In the nineteenth century, the presence of the missionaries gave greater stability for the Christian minority. It is unlikely that the presence of Latin missionaries had the same effect in the seventeenth and eigh­teenth centuries. If there was any influ­ence, it varied greatly during the period under discussion. The incorporation into the Ottoman Empire and the greater sta­bility which resulted from this may have provided better living circumstances for the Christians and in this way have stimu­lated cultural awakening.

The outcome of the cultural develop­ments in the two periods at first sight seems different too. In the late nineteenth century, vernacular writing, in its inter­dialectal form, became an important ele­ment of the new nationalistic identity of the "Assyrians". Such a nationalistic ten­dency is totally absent in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. However, it is very well possible that the literary awakening of this early period played a significant role in the development of a communal identity of the "Chaldean" party. Further research certainly is needed, but for now the parallellism between the two develop­ments is striking: at the end of the eigh­teenth century, the Chaldean community had emerged in northern Iraq and at the end of the nineteenth century, the Assyr­ian community had taken shape. In both cases a literary Awakening came first.

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