Syriac Christianity

Jesus and many early Christians spoke a dialect of Aramaic and within one century Christianity had spread across the Middle East and into Asia via Aramaic-speaking missionaries. Syriac Churches continue to thrive today in India, but in most regions of the Middle East (especially Syria and Iraq) the Syriac Christian communities have faced genocide and cultural destruction.

[St. Thomas Cross]

[St. Thomas Cross]. Traditional East Syriac design. Kerala, India. circa 2006. Private Collection

At the core of Syriac culture in India is the tradition that Christianity was first brought to the subcontinent by the Apostle Thomas. Today, the “St. Thomas Cross” is a symbol of that shared heritage among the many Syriac denominations in India. The modern wooden cross on display here is from the south Indian state of Kerala where a Syriac Christian presence can be traced for over 1500 years. The symbols of this cross (a dove, a lotus blossom, and pearl) reflect its cultural context. The dove is a reference to the role of the Holy Spirit in the rebirth of the Christian through the waters of baptism. A similar symbolism may also be invoked by the placement of the cross as the flower of lotus blossom, a Buddhist symbol of rebirth or enlightenment. Finally, the pearl was a frequent Syriac Christian motif based on Jesus’ comparison of the kingdom of heaven to a “pearl of great price.”

[St. Thomas Cross]. Traditional East Syriac design. Kerala, India. circa 2006. Private Collection

[Brass Liturgical Lamp]

[Brass Liturgical Lamp]

This modern brass oil lamp from Kerala, India is used for light during celebration of the “Divine Mysteries” (the Sunday Eucharistic worship service). Similar oil lamps can be traced back to the Syriac churches of Late Antiquity. Fire holds deep symbolic meaning in the liturgical worship of the Syriac Christians. The presence of the Holy Spirit in the individual Christian was often described in terms of divine fire by Syriac theologians. One 5th century poet, Jacob of Serugh, wrote: “Let the fire of love burn in you like a furnace/ so that through your love the Living Fire may be honoured within you/ Let the soul be enflamed with divine love/ so that in holy fashion it may receive the Fire of Divinity.” -translated by S. Brock in Fire from Heaven (2006), 236.

[Brass Liturgical Lamp]. Kerala, India. circa 2006. Private Collection

[Family Making Butter, Mawana, Persia]

[Christian Family Making Butter, Mawana, Persia]

This photograph shows a Syriac Christian family from Persia (modern Iran), perhaps at the end of the 19th century. In this period, Syriac communities (under a variety of names including Assyrian, Aramean, and Chaldean) were widespread across the lands of the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately the vast majority of these communities have since been destroyed by catastrophic violence and genocide over the past century. As much as 70% of the Syriac population was massacred, alongside Greeks and Armenians, in the genocides of 1915. Further ethnic and sectarian violence followed as Syriac populations were marginalized during the formation of modern nation states in the Middle East. Yet another wave of violence came after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the genocidal rise of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in 2014. Although there are Syriac diaspora communities around the globe, the tragic reality is that the survival of Syriac culture and populations in the Middle East is gravely endangered today.

[Christian Family Making Butter, Mawana, Persia]. date unknown. photograph, reproduction. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

[Crowning in Syro-Malabar Nasrani Wedding by Mar Gregory Karotemprel]

Crowning in Syro-Malabar Nasrani Wedding by Mar Gregory Karotemprel

Crowning is a symbolic marriage custom in a number Eastern Christian traditions, including in the Syriac churches. In a Syriac wedding liturgy, the couple are crowned by the priest, representing their share in Christ’s kingship and victory over evil, sin, and death. Additionally, the crowns also symbolize giving up of one’s life, even to martyrdom. According to biblical tradition, the earliest Christian martyr was St. Stephen (whose name in Greek means “crown”). From Stephen onward, crowns have been a symbol for martyrs in both art and text. This photograph depicts the crowning ceremony according to the rite of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. The Syro-Malabar church preserves the liturgical heritage of the East Syriac tradition in an Indian context while also being in full communion with the Roman Catholic church.

Mathen Payyappilly Palakkappilly. Crowning in Syro-Malabar Nasrani Wedding by Mar Gregory Karotemprel. Photograph, reproduction. 2014. Wikimedia Commons

[Priest and His Prized Manuscript Bible]

[Priest and His Prized Manuscript Bible], Diary in Photos, Vol. IV.

Considered by Christians to be a divinely inspired set of books, the Bible has held a central place of authority in Syriac Christianity. In turn, the Syriac tradition’s engagement with Scripture has produced several unique moments in the history of the Bible. Syriac copies of the Bible are among the earliest illuminated (illustrated) Bible manuscripts and are also among the earliest biblical manuscripts whose copying can be precisely dated. Another unique aspect of Syriac encounter with the Bible is a long tradition of poetic interpretation. Syriac clergy delivered sermons in verse which sought to explore and explain the Scriptures. To the present, the Bible retains a place of importance in the Syriac churches. In this photograph from 1938, a priest from the Church of the East displays a Bible manuscript in the Syrian village of Tell Tamr. This priest may have been among refugees fleeing religious and ethnic violence in Iraq.

John David Whiting. [Priest and His Prized Manuscript Bible], Diary in Photos, Vol. IV. 1938. photograph, reproduction. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division