"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Christian Iraq

For more than a decade now, Christians in Iraq have continued to be killed or be forced to flee lands they have inhabited in some cases for the better part of two millennia. This has only gotten worse in the last many week thanks to a fresh outbreak of barbarism at the hands of ISIS. It is heartbreaking to watch, and of course the US, whose invasion in 2003 set this off, has done damn all to fix the problem--an entirely typical pattern for a country that wants all the benefits of being an "empire" but none of the responsibilities. What a disgrace.

This Christian history of Iraq remains little understood even today. A recent study takes us back to its earliest centuries, showing just how venerable a community this is--or, rather, was: Philip Wood, The Chronicle of Seert: Christian Historical Imagination in Late Antique Iraq (Oxford UP),320pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
This monograph uses a medieval Arabic chronicle, The Chronicle of Seert, as a window into the Christian history of Iraq. The Chronicle describes events that are unknown from other sources, but it is most useful for what it tells us about the changes agendas of those who wrote history and their audiences in the period c.400-800.

By splitting the Chronicle into its constituent layers, Philip Wood presents a rich cultural history of Iraq. He examines the Christians' self-presentation as a church of the martyrs and the uncomfortable reality of close engagement with the Sasanian state. The history of the past was used as a source of solidarity in the present, to draw together disparate Christian communities. But it also represented a means of criticising figures in the present, whether these be secular rulers or over-mighty bishops and abbots.

The Chronicle gives us an insight into the development of an international awareness within the church in Iraq. Christians increasingly raised their horizons to the Roman Empire in the West, which offered a model of Christian statehood, while also being the source of resented theological innovation or heresy. It also shows us the competing strands of patronage within the church: between laymen and clergy; church and state; centre and periphery. Building on earlier scholarship rooted in the contemporary Syriac sources, Wood complements that picture with the testimony of this later witness.

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