"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).

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Syrian and Ottoman Saints

Emerging scholarship is helping (if I may be forgiven for an infelicitous bit of academic jargon) to "problematize" popular narratives of religious practice and conflict. We have seen this for more than a decade now as real historians finally, slowly, help us gradually overcome the almost entirely fallacious popular narrative about, e.g., the Crusades. We are seeing it more recently as scholars take a fresh look at late-Ottoman history, as I have noted several times on here, especially in places such as Anatolia as well as Crete, Palestine, Turkey, and Greece

The further we delve into the history of this fascinating but defunct empire, the more we realize that real lives of real people did not and do not divide nearly so neatly as many of us may like to think. Neat categories of tightly delimited and delineated "secular" and "sacred" did not exist then (and do not exist now if John Milbank and others are to be believed); nor did discrete departments of "religion" and "nation" or even of "Christian" and "Muslim." The boundaries between them were much blurrier and messier, and this seems especially evident when it comes to local festivals and heroes. In other words--then as now--if there's a block party or a neighborhood festival, or the local boy makes good in some form or other, everyone comes out to celebrate. 

A book just released this week gives us further details of this happening in Syria and Palestine: James Grehan, Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine (Oxford UP, 2014), 360pp.

About this book we are told:
In this study of everyday religious culture in early modern Syria and Palestine, James Grehan offers a social history that looks beyond conventional ways of thinking about religion in the Middle East. The most common narratives about the region introduce us to the separate traditions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, highlighting how each one has created its own distinctive traditions and communities. Twilight of the Saints offers a reinterpretation of religious and cultural history in a region which is today associated with division and violence. Exploring the religious habits of ordinary people, from the late seventeenth to the end of the nineteenth century, when the region was part of the Ottoman Empire, Grehan shows that members of different religious groups participated in a common, overarching religious culture that was still visible at the beginning of the twentieth century. 
Most evident in the countryside, though present everywhere, this religious mainstream thrived in a society in which few people had access to formal religious teachings. This older, folk religious culture was steeped in notions and rituals that the modern world, with its mainly theological conception of religion, has utterly repudiated. Indeed, the people of Syria and Palestine today would hardly recognize religion as it was experienced in the not-so-distant past. Only by uncovering this lost lived religion, argues Grehan, can we appreciate the largely unacknowledged revolution in religion that has taken place in the region over the last century.

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