The Contributions of the Syriac-speaking Community to Human Culture.

Posted by on Sep 28, 2012 in Articles, Library | Comments Off on The Contributions of the Syriac-speaking Community to Human Culture.

The history of the Syriac speaking community is yet to be written, and most of the available historical facts dealing with Syrians and their culture are derived from sketchy historical accounts, some written by Syrian, Greek, Arab, and Western writers. However, whether Syrians are seen through the lenses of other people and cultures, most, if not all, historians have clearly referred to the important cultural roles they played during the middle ages on both regional and global planes.

From the first century A.D. through the Middle Ages, Syrians made immense contributions to the East and the West, especially during the Christian era. When Christianity was barely known in its region, Syrians who had just embraced the Christina faith took upon themselves spreading it in Syria, Arabia, Persia, India and China. Certainly other Christina communities have also contributed to the wide spread of Christianity in other parts of the world;

However, from a historical and cultural perspective, the importance of early Syriac Christianity, especially during the first four centuries, as some Western scholars still argue, lies in the fact that it preserved the originality of Christianity before it was relatively Hellenized in the fifth century.

Approaching the end of the fifth century, Syrians went through a period of accumulation as they began to integrate into the Byzantine Empire. Encountered with Greek philosophy and sciences, which constituted the backbone of Byzantine culture, Syrians embarked on translating the works of Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes, Pythagoras, Pultinus, Origen, Porphyry, Galen, Hippocrates and others into Syriac. Their initial interest in Greek philosophy was certainly triggered by an urgent need for philosophical presuppositions to consolidate their Christian position against their pagan opponents. However, gradually, after laying down the foundations for Christian theology, they proceeded to explore pure philosophical, logical, and scientific issues.

Syrian Christians, unlike their Greek or Armenian counterparts, did not form or develop any national or political entity. Though they had originated and settled permanently in Greater Syria, but because their country was occupied by Romans, Persians, Byzantines, they found themselves torn apart by the conflicting interest of Byzantium and Persia. In an attempt to survive the political and national pressures of the two bickering empires, they remained loyal to both empires but without giving up their active intellectual role. As a matter of fact, historians confirm that Syrian Christians, did not only tolerate the conflicting national, political, and cultural ideologies of Byzantium and Persia, but they even helped the two empires every time the stability of the region was threatened. It is noted that whenever political or military tension was building up in the region threatening Byzantium to break off its diplomatic relations with Persia, Syrian Christians, whether in Persia or Byzantium, were playing active and constructive political roles, negotiating between the two bickering empires, ironing out their differences, and bringing peace and stability to the region. Among Syrian Christian intellectuals who were instrumental in handling international diplomacy was Marotha, the bishop of Mifarqin who was also an outstanding physician, Socrates, the ancient historian, confirmed, that Marotha was Byzantium’s peace envoy. He was delegated twice to negotiate the terms of two peace treaties with Persian emperors, and the second peace treaty Marotha signed was with Shapur the Second (379A.D.), Persian emperor.

The social, political, and cultural roles of Syrian Christians grew even more powerful especially when a cultural-religious conflict occurred between the two superpowers – the Christian West and the Islamic East, following the rise of the Arab empire between the seventh and eighth centuries. For the first time, two totally different ideologies –Christianity and Islam- coexisted but also clashed, because each claimed to itself the whole truth and considered the other absolutely false.  Such extremism made communication and cultural exchange between the East and the West inconceivable difficult. However, the fact that Syrians were Christians living in an Islamic world and had already assimilated both Arabic and Greek cultures helped them emerge rapidly and prominently as indispensable mediators, shouldering the burden of exchanging information and cultural and scientific facts between the Moslem East and the Christina West. As exponents of Greek culture, Syrians not only introduced the Arabs to Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Gallen, Hippocrates Epicure, and Porphyry, but they were directly involved in teaching them how to use Greek philosophy and sciences to develop their own Arabic philosophy and science.

Syrian contribution to the West however was made indirectly through Syriac and Arabic translations of Greek texts and through perceptive and original commentaries on Greek philosophy and sciences by Syrian translators, scholars, philosophers, and theologians, such as Bard isan, St. Ephrem the Syrian, Hiba, Proba, Comi, Jacob of Edessa, Sarjius al Rasaini, Hunain ibn Ishaq, Ishaq ibn Hunain, and a host of others. Europe, in the dark ages, had lost contact with Greek though and sciences; therefore, the Europeans had no access to Greek culture except through Syrian and Arabic translations and commentaries that Syrian Christians had already made available from the third through the tenth centuries A.D.

Though there is a common belief that Syrians were primarily a community of ardent Christians, with no interest in secular sciences, but scholars and historians have proven that Syrians concern about Christianity did not keep them from founding academies dedicated to human and natural sciences. By the fifth century, there were several outstanding Syrian schools, such as Edessa, Ras-alain, Nussibeen, Qinnestin, Lafat and Jandi-sabour, in addition to the schools of Antioch and Baghdad. These academies were known for their developed departments of theology, philosophy, chemistry, physics, astrology, medicine, and agriculture. As a result, these schools, over a period of time, helped Syrians to develop themselves into an intellectual, political, social and economic force recognized regionally and internationally. Their advancement in human and natural sciences helped them hold high political and intellectual positions in Persia, Byzantium, and the Arab empire. For instance, when Bait al-Hikmah, the first Arab university, was founded by Al-Mamun in 830 AD, it was headed by Yuhanna ibn Masawayh, a noted Syrian physician and scholar, and later in 855 AD, when Bait al-Hikma was rejuvenated during the reign of Al-Mutawakil, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, the most renowned Syrian physician and translator, was designated as its president.

Another field in which Syrian Christians excelled and to which they contributed generously was medical science. It has been established that the rise and development of Syrian medicine can be attributed to the medical school of Alexandria in which Sergios al-Rasaini (d.A.D.536) had studied. Sergios translated 29 medical books of Galen, which were used by medical students in Alexandria. The process of translating, more of Galen and Hippocrates’ books continued until it reached its zenith around the ninth century when an entire school of Syrian translators and medical scholars headed by Hunai ibn Ishaq made all Greek medical books available both in Syrian and Arabic. Though historians often mention celebrated physicians like Georgios Bakhtisho and Hunain ibn Ishaq, but there were other important medical scholars such as Ayyub of Edessa, ibn Sahda, Yuhana ibn Bokhtisho, Hubaish, Yuhanna ibn Masawaih, Isho Bar Ah, Thabit ibn Qurra, Yusef al-Khuri, Mansur ibn Athanas, to name but a few. Some of these figures were not only translators but outstanding scholars. For instance, ibn Masawaih and ibn All composed brilliant medical treatises. Masawaih (d.857) was noted for his treatises on eye diseases, and so was Isho ibn All (1001 A.D.), who, as Meyerhof argues, composed the best Arabic treatise on ophthalmology, Meyerhof adds that Hunain ibn Shaq “distinguished the four forms of trachoma, using the Greek names with Arabic explanations. He also called pannus “varcos ophthalmia.” If the school of Alexandria provided the Syrians with a medical curriculum to use in their schools, Byzantium introduced the Syrians to the notion of medical services. Michael Dols argues that the prevalence of Syrians Christian doctors and medical services led also to the establishment of hospitals. “The most conspicuous sign of services was the hospital, a public charitable facility that was unknown in antiquity. Since the fourth century, however, Syriac Christians had promoted the charitable care of the sick and infirm in xenodocheia or hospitals.” Dols further explains that the first Syrian hospital was built in the mid-sixth century A.D.

Syrians scholars and scientists were not only theoreticians engaged in natural sciences. They also applied their scientific findings to agriculture and minerals, thereby developing strong economy whose impact was felt throughout Europe, especially in the Middle Ages. H. Pirenne, the French historian, states that the long distance trade conducted by Syrian merchants was the distinguishing characteristic of the Byzantine empire of the pre-Islamic era.

It is obvious that the issues discussed above, though quite important, they remain rather sketchy and broad, but hopefully in the neat future each and every aspect of Syriac culture will be adequately analyzed, carefully developed, and objectively discussed, in individual articles and essays written by Western and Oriental scholars and experts on Syriac literature and thought.