The Challenges that confronted the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch in the Era of Mar Michael the Great 1126-1199 A.D. Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim Metropolitan of Aleppo

Posted by on Sep 6, 2022 in Articles, Library | Comments Off on The Challenges that confronted the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch in the Era of Mar Michael the Great 1126-1199 A.D. Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim Metropolitan of Aleppo


The Syrian Orthodox historians have all agreed in their eulogistic tributes to our revered Patriarch Mar Michael the Great. They have appreciated his gifts, struggles, sacrifices and services. Patriarch Ephrem I Barsoum described him thus: “One of the greatest prelates of God’s church, one of the finest patriarchs of Antioch, a famous intellectual historian, whose name is eternal, whose endeavors are beautiful, whose ways are praised, whose virtues are known, and whose deeds are righteous.”1

I would like to summarize in my paper the most important challenges that confronted the Syrian Church of Antioch in Mar Michael’s era, as well as the ways he dealt with these challenges for two reasons:

First: In the church’s long journey, some of these challenges continued to exist for along time after his death; in fact, some of them still interact with the church’s activities nowadays.

Second: As a patriarch who is well immersed in church law, aware of its history, caring for its matters, and who is aware of the role of responsibility in its management, strives for the progress of its development in its spiritual, religious” social and structural fields, this patriarch paid a big price in his lifetime. He was envied by the enemies of goodness and was also surrounded by conspiracies and riots that aimed at stopping the reform and development of the church.


Historical sources have assured us that Mar Michael was born in Malatya in 1126 to the Kundnassy family. His father was a priest called Eliya. His uncle was Bishop Athanasius Zakka of Ein Zorba in 11662 His brother was Bishop Athanasius appointed first to Jerusalem, then was moved to Antioch. Patriarch Michael the Great says of his brother: “After the destruction that came upon Jerusalem, my brother Bishop Athanasius left it and came to me in Mar Barsoum’s Monastery. Then I sent him as a patriarchal vicar to Antioch. There they received him as an angel and honored him greatly, not only our people who are few in number, but also the foreigners and the Armenians. On Thursday, October 21, 1193, he died of a disease after spending two years caring for the city. His holy body was placed in David’s Monastery next to Patriarch Mar Yuhanna’s tomb.”3

His nephew became Mapharin for the East under the name of Gregorious Jacob, and he wrote the following to him in his will: ”I- swear to you by the name of the living God not to disregard any of the matters I have written to you in this will. Instead manage the churches and the monasteries with integrity, and give to everyone according to my will. And if you were far away in the time of my death, here is an order and a firm command in my will forbidding the door of my cell to be opened until you come.”4

The biography of Mar Michael affirms that he belonged to the famous monastery of Mar Barsoum near Malatya, which became the Antiochan patriarchal seat for a while. This monastery witnessed a few historical events which have been analyzed by Mar Michael the Great in his History, especially when the tongues of fire ate the old church with its books, its silver and brassware, melted the iron, and turned the stones into lime; even the monastery’s metal doors melted and the walls fell. After he received his theological and philosophical formation in the monastery’s school, he was ordained a priest and elected abbot of the monastery , even though he was still shy of thirty. He trained himself to the monastic life and devoted himself to reading and studying, as if he were preparing himself for the highest religious post of his church.

After the death of Mar Athanasius, the patriarch of Antioch, on July 14, 1166, the archbishops met in Fesqeen Monastery on the banks of the Euphrates in a place not far from Malatya. After consultations and deliberation for the election of the new patriarch, they agreed to make a selection from three names after the Pentecost prayers. The three names were Abbot Ghalib EI-Sheikh, Abbot Suhda from Ruha Mountain, and Abbot Michael, the head of Mar Barsoum’s Monastery. Abbot Michael was elected. Despite his unanimous election as the patriarch for the apostalic seat of Antioch, he initially refused this grave post due to the difficult and complex problems engulfing the church. When he accepted, Mar Michael stipulated that the bishops vow to abide by the church laws, but not all the bishops accepted this. Some of them even opposed him. Then Mar Dionysious Ibn El-Saliiby, Archbishop of Amd (+ 1172), gave a sermon that moved the bishops deeply. He said: “Our fathers and we ourselves have long had uneasy consciences that have torn us for many years because we are not going by the councils’ laws which have been established to remove delusion and false practice, and to reform church matters. And now after God has moved, the best has been chosen to be our shepherd to reclaim the laws. Should we oppose his will? The truth, I tell you, everyone who does not obey him is Satan.”

The bishops agreed, and vowed to abide by the church laws. They celebrated his enthronement in 1166, in a rare church festival. Mar Michael recalls that 28 archbishops attended his consecration, but Ibn El-‘ Abry says they were 33. After his enthronement, Mar Michael sent a copy of his creed to the patriarch of Alexandria, his brother in the Orthodox belief, asking for his fellowship, according to the custom between the seats of Antioch and Alexandria. Afterwards he went to Ananius’ Monastery, Deirzaffaron, which he made the headquarters for the See of Antioch.”5

The patriarch explained in his history why he initially refused the patriarchal post, specifying as follows: “1 saw it right to respect the holy laws and defend them. And because I have defended since the beginning these laws which have been trampled on, I executed the law that forbids ordination on the basis of bribery and the law that forbids the seizure of a bishopric or church by the power of a king or ruler. I warned against ignoring the church regulations by moving any of them from one bishopric to another without legal permission.6

And perhaps this is a foreword to one of the most important challenges the patriarch faced upon receiving the highest and most important post in the church.

Mar Michael bore the discomfort of travelling during his pastorate to various Syriani bishoprics. He talks about them in detail in his history; for example, his visits to Antioch, Jerusalem, Mardin, Amd and other cities. He also points to the necessity of studying the reasons for disagreement within the church and writing solutions for them in the general councils. We don’t know if the general council consisted only of bishops, or if laypeople representing bishoprics were present. His relationship with other churches also presented him with challenges. For example, the phenomenon of Morcos Bin Qonbar the Blind, who due to the sacrament of confession caused a split in the church. Patriarch Michael intervened and agreed to excommunicate Ibn Qonbar and later wrote a delightful article on the sacrament of confession and the excommunication of Ibn Qonbar. From this we see that Patriarch Michael’s relationship with his peers in the Orthodox faith, like the Armenian Catholicose, was not always good. Some of them supported the church enemies and encouraged them to rebel. As for his connection with the western and Byzantine patriarchs, rulers, princes, kings of Byzantium, these relationships all took place in the realm of the interior and exterior challenges. Mar Michael must have been proud that at age 73, he had been Patriarch of Antioch of 32 years and had ordained 55 bishops. He moved to the class of the fathers who strove well and left liturgy, laws, poems, articles, sermons, two pieces of church legislation, and finally his church history, which is considered the most important history of Syriani literature and church history. It was completed in 1195. Its importance lies in the sources he relied on which are not available today.


What were the challenges that confronted the era of Mar Michael the Great?

We do not read in the history of Mar Michael the details of his election as patriarch of Antioch, and we do not know anything about his first year as patriarch. That is because in the chapter where he writes about these matters, seven pages fell out of his history. These pages are between the years + 1165 -1171, which is one year before his ordination and five years after it.

In the six years he talks about an earthquake and describes the horror that engulfed people. He says: “We were in Ananius’ church [Deirzaffaron] and we threw ourselves in front of the table. We held on to it and swung right and left, praying heartily to God to bring us to a peaceful end.”7

    These were the first challenges that the church encountered in the era of the new patriarch. When he talks about natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, famines, all different kinds of hardships and fires, he connects them to people’s sins. For example, in Aleppo he talked about he earthquake: “It was destroyed due to an earthquake, the city ofBirwa, which is Aleppo, where sin had multiplied, like Sodom and Gomorrah. Some of them blasphemed upon seeing and hearing these acts, say, ‘God’s care has not come here, but it might be the justice that has had mercy on them through this discipline, since it stopped them from committing more sin, as in Noah’s days when the rain came.”8

We do not know how the patriarch faced this big challenge, since his group needed moral and material support. Sometimes we see him showing gratitude for God’s care, since his group was not hit by these calamities like the others. He says: “As for us God has supported this little flock in all the cities, maybe because there is no king or rich man among our people.

Our church in Aleppo is safe, and not even one stone has fallen. In Antioch, three of our churches are safe: St. Mary’s, St. George’s and St. Barsoum’s. Our small church in Jabula was also safe. Latakia and Tarablous are also safe. All of this happened to encourage our small Orthodox flock.”9

Whoever reads the history of Mar Michael sees that his complete reliance on God and his strong faith in God’s care are the most important ways of dealing with natural disasters. We do not read that he paid money or collected money or helped with the needed or supported the poor. Upon talking about money, we only see him giving to church construction or repair.


The second challenge comes from unlawful seizure and trespassing against the believers by idolaters and other religious groups that lived at the same time as our church. The church courtyard in Mardin, for example, was seized by Muslims who in turn added it to their mosque. Mar Michael says this touched our very souls. He attributes the reasons for this just plague to the sins of his people.10

In this framework he sees that it is Satan who instigates the rulers of an area to wipe out the Christians. In the incident with Nur Ed-Din who ruled Syria, Egypt and Athour, be burdened the Christians with taxes, increased the religious tax, ordered them to wear a band around their waists, and ordered them not to let their hair down in order to differentiate from the Muslims so the latter could mock them. Michael says Satan instigated Nur Ed-Din to abolish the Christians and thus Nur Ed-Din wrote to the caliph saying: “Mohamed’s sayings in the Qur’an say that Christians should not be harmed for 500 years. The effect of his sayings is expiring by the end of those years, and thus the Christians should be abolished in the places under Muslim rule; whoever does not become a Muslim is killed.”11

Fortunately at that time the caliph died and his son succeeded him and wrote and answer to Nur Ed-Din saying: “You ought not to claim prophecy and make laws as a God. You did not understand Mohamed’s sayings as to the true meaning of the years. God did not command us to kill people without guilt.12

At times Mar Michael saw that sin was behind the Christians’ difficulties with the Muslims. Other times it was Satan who instigated the rulers to kill the Christians. However, there are other reasons behind the Muslims seizing our churches. For example: “In July + 1172, the Muslims seized Mar Touma’s church in Mardin. The reason was because a man from Mardin called Barsoum committed adultery with a Muslim woman. He was arrested, tortured almost to death, and an edict was issued to have his property seized. Since Barsoum had renovated the church in the time of Hussam Ed-Din, the Muslims told the governor that the church was Barsoum’s, because it was built with his money. Thus they seized the church, destroyed it, and turned it into a mosque. The Christians were deeply grieved and cursed the judicial system. They tried to take the church back by force, which made the situation even worse for them. The people then decided to file a complaint with the governor, and since they did not turn to God, but forsook God and the saints, God hardened the governor’s heart and denied their appeal. The pressure increased on the Christians and the resentment against them mounted.”13

    This incident coincided with another one with Abbot Hassan Bin Komib, who had a conflict with two monks because he was stripped of the monastic office. In his rage, he converted to Islam. He then repented and fled to Jerusalem and converted to Christianity again. The governor arrested him, the two monks who had stripped him as well as other monks, and tortured them all to death.14

    The patriarch summarizes the idea of the assault on the Christians: “We should not forget that God has never deprived any form of mercy. Despite the fact that God lets us be subservient to the Muslim and Turks due to our sins, God always surrounds us with care and protects us from those who despise us, as part of his mercy on his church.15

    As the head of the church whose duty is to protect the faith and to look after the Orthodox creed, we see him rooted in his forefathers’ faith, strong in his hope in God, ready to defend his church’s creed without severity and fanaticism. In the case of Ibn Qonbar the Blind, for example, he deceived people with his eloquence and became arrogant from the praise of insignificant people to the extent that he thought highly of himself and spread heresies. He appeared to his listeners to be righteous and attracted them to him as the Apostle Paul has said: ” And no wonder! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his ministers also disguise themselves as ministers ofrighteousness.”16

He also criticized the Egyptians for their carelessness in confessing their sins. Ibn Qonbar contacted Patriarch Michael and the Coptic patriarch sent messages to the Syrian patriarch. After lengthy studies on the disagreement between Ibn Qonbar and his Coptic patriarch, Mar Michael writes that Ibn Qonbar leans towards talking about two natures, two wills and two works of Christ. He says: “When we smelled this rotten smell from Ibn Qonbar’s message, we sent him a lengthy letter scolding him. We bridled his violence with proofs from the Bible and proved that confessing sins is recommended, unlike his ugly opinion. We had a general declaration to all bishops and the lay people and excommunicated Ibn Qonbar justly. Patriarch Marcos excommunicated him as well.”17

In Mar Michael’s time a heresy surfaced among the foreigners. The patriarch says that Satan trapped them in a heresy: “It is impossible for the bread and wine to be transformed into God’s body and blood, and there is no virtue except in charity, compassion for the needy, loved and conciliation.18

It would have been possible for the patriarch to stay away from this charged atmosphere between the foreigners, especially since the number of those who followed this heresy reached thousands and thousands. They even had bishops and governors and leaders from other regions joined them. When Bishop Rome Iskander III (1159 -+ 1181) invited him to study this heresy, the patriarch apologized and wrote back explaining where and how the devil had stirred up this heresy and the names of the fathers who had been excommunicated. Stating his opinion towards this big challenge confronting the church in Rome, showed that despite the fact he was open-minded, he did not abstain from fighting against heretics and arch heretics who were leading the believers astray. In the meantime, we see him being easy on those who discard foreign heresies and come back to the church’s fold and enter again the fathers’ faith. Like those who wearied the church in the time of Patriarch Keryakos +871 because of the sentence ‘the heavenly bread’, and decided to come back to the church and ask the patriarch to come back to the church and ordain a bishop for them.

The church’s internal matters were the most significant challenges that faced the patriarch and the church. But they all crumbled. in front of his deep respect for the church laws. Disobedience of church laws caused a storm in the church which grieved him greatly. He considered his sin to be behind the riots, disorder and splintering. For example, he says: “In that time a considerable storm stirred against my weakness because of sins and due to the folly of the times.”19

In another place he says: “In the same year God abandoned me, as it appears, because of my sins.”20

He also says: “Hence I felt that my sins were the reason behind all that has happened, and that God justly abandoned me.”21

Due to this thinking, we sometimes see Mar Michael insisting on leaving the church leadership. He asks it of the fathers and the people, but his request is denied.

What are the challenges that confronted Mar Michael internally?

He considered every internal storm a new form of persecution. The movement of bishops between bishoprics without legal permission was the beginning of the challenges in the era of Mar Michael. This happened with the bishops of Damascus, Jihoun, Turabdin and Raqqa. The patriarch viewed it as impermissible for someone to ignore the laws, whatever their reasons might have been. Due to the rebellion of some of the bishops, we see the pain that the church and its leaders have gone through, since the matter did not remain between the holy synod and some regional Christian leaders, but reached rulers and governors who were impudent in their way of dealing with it. For example, in the case of Raqqa’s bishop who was suspended as a chastisement and was tolerated by Patriarch Michael for 8 years. This bishop promised a bribe to the governor if he killed the patriarch. Patriarch Michael says: “The Lord had compassion on me. No, not only on me, but the whole church. The governor sent soldiers to take me as one sentenced to death. I was present, and the governor talked to me angrily, but God who promised to give believers something to say in this hour, gave me the sinner, strength. Not for myself, not for the country, but for the church. And I defended myself with a few words that revealed the truth.”22

The matter did not remain between the governor and the bishop, who was filled by Satan with envy for the patriarch, and the matter reached the king of Mosel who was promised a thousand dinars. When the soldiers led the patriarch to Nusaybin along with bishops and monks, he was commanded to appoint the bishop to Mesopotamia, Raqqa, Harran, Sorug and the Habura region, otherwise he would regret it. The patriarch says he received strength from God, and prepared himself to die, and answered courageously: “The laws are in three books: the Old Testament for the Jews, the Gospel for the Christians, and the Qur’an for the Muslims. Search in the three of them, and especially in your book, and see how God commanded the kings to manage the matters of their countries with authority. There is no compulsion in faith, but choice.”23

And after he explained that kings should not interfere in matters of faith, he said: “Know that what you are doing is not going to be against me, but against Moses, Jesus and Mohamed.”24

The patriarch was not satisfied with this strong testimony that demonstrated his faith in the holy church and its laws and his incomparable courage in maintaining the church laws, but he explained explicitly that background of the bishop’s envy. He explained to the prince’s deputy: “I prefer to have my head cut off to doing this. I exposed my neck and said here is my neck and you could slit it. I am not about to trespass against God’s will.”25

As in the case of Bishop Agnatious from Tur Abdin, who was murdered in the days of Patriarch Michael, we find it acceptable considering its background. The patriarch assures that this bishop was fond of money, which is idolatry. He tried to gather it in every and any way. Despite the fact that the patriarch reprimanded him, he did not stop, but added evil to his wrongdoing. He ignored trust in God and relied on the governor to make more money. God abandoned him. Later the patriarch explained how the murder took place: “Whatever the matter is, there is permission from God.”26

The patriarch did not care for such a weighty subject that might have negative consequences. He surrendered to God’s will and admitted the hard reality that some of the bishops lived.

These challenges did not always come from bishops and archbishops. The monks also created turbulence in the church. Their rebellion was considered a challenge to the patriarch’s authority and the church’s authority. The patriarch says this rebellion was “because of respect, love and intimacy.”27 The patriarch justifies the monks’ rebellion since the monks asked the council at the monastery after the death of Patriarch Yuhanna Bin Shushan (+ 1072) to elect them a president so that the patriarch would have no authority over the monks. These monks alluded to this in order to avoid the repetition of some problems coming from the patriarch’s followers who had come to the monastery, flee the harassment. They formed a burden on the monks by taking some of the silverware or by borrowing money that they never returned.

The bishops gave the monks a document explaining this matter. But the patriarchs who followed refused to accept it, because the patriarch at the time did not issue the document, thus rendering it invalid. The patriarch was convinced the monks’ attitude was challenging the law. The patriarch approved the document and pressured the bishops to sign to end the dispute between the patriarch and the rebellious monks at the monastery. However, the dispute grew and the monks were divided into two groups. Therefore when the patriarch talks about the challenge, he says that in 1175: “God abandoned me as it seems because of my sins and the monks in Mar Barsoum’ s Monastery rebelled against me. “

The church was not spared the disputes formed from the disputes between the patriarch and the maphrian. These differences in points of view always came from the relationship between the patriarchate the mapharinate of the East. In Mar Michael’s era the split in the church because of the sentence ‘the heavenly bread’ left over from Patriarch Karyacose’s time was still a living issue. The patriarch saw that the church should accept them, but the maphrian excommunicated them and those who accepted them. However, the patriarch with his patience accepted the challenge with the maphrian and wrote to him, reminding him in a kindred spirit of what our saintly fathers such as Patriarch Mar Karyacose ( +817) and Mar Dionysious (+845) bore. He also sent him a delegation of respected monks and relied on some intelligent and wise men, which made the maphrian apologize and promised in writing to submit to the law. The patriarch prayed for him, and peace came to the land.

The last case that formed a big challenge in the era in Mar Michael was that of Bin Wahboun. He was Thadoros the son of the priest Sahdo Ibn Wahboun el-Malty. He was very intelligent, fluent in Syriac, Greek, Arabic and Armenian and had a good background in history and theology. However, he had little modesty and righteousness. He was also fond of rioting and sedition. The church was weary of his schemes against the patriarch, and he took much time and energy from the patriarch’s pastoral life.

The patriarch writes that in (+ 1180) when he returned to Mar Barsoum’s Monastery from Antioch and was ready to build a new church: “The devil confronted us to make the work falter. He found a partner called Tadaros Bin Wahboun who took the opposition’s stand and concentrated all of his efforts for 13 years just for that. …We did not list all of his bad deeds, but limited them to what is necessary to illustrate how the satanic work started and end.”28

The patriarch goes listing the details concerning this case and confesses his carelessness in confronting it, since he thought he could fix the problem and make him a good person due to his knowledge. He allowed him to stay in the patriarchal cell, giving him advice, bearing his evil, but he overstepped the line and walked the path of deceit and defrauding. He sat in front of his cell like Ebyshalom to catch those he could deceive. Through this satanic behavior, he created conflicts that made the patriarch expel him from the patriarchate. Ibn Wahboun’s case shook the patriarchal entity, especially after he had been ordained a patriarch by some of the deceived bishops, which made Mar Michael insist on his stepping down.29

The patriarch says that all those present told him with tears in their eyes if you insist on doing this, God will take revenge on you from the blood of the people who will loose their faith. Here the patriarch writes: “The truth must be told. Fear crawled into my heart, my lips trembled, and I saw myself trapped between two choices.”30

For this traumatic incident, the patriarch formed a second general council and asked to be excused from the service, thinking that God had allowed that hypocrite to go far enough in meddling with God’s church, due to the patriarch’s own sins. God willed to save his church and listened to the cries of the patriarch and the bishops who were unified in prayer. The people who gathered for the feast of Mar Barsoum also joined them with flowing tears of repentance, and they all cried with one voice: “Oh, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on your church through your church through the prayers of St. Barsoum and reveal your might to the one who is the reason for this riot. If we were the reason, erase us from the earth. If it was another, erase him. ” And thus the troublemakers fell one after the other, each with a different plague. Lightning hit the seven Syrian monks who had followed Bin Wahboun, and they died. After 40 days, God’s rage was extended to Bin Wahboun, and he died. These events planted fear in everyone’s heart, and peace encompassed God’s everywhere.

These were the challenges that came in the history of Mar Michael the Great. They give a clear idea of the church’s march in this great patriarch’s era. Had it not been for these aforementioned challenges, the church would have lived in peace and tranquility, and he would have produced even more works.

The Crusades: How were they perceived by the native Christians?

In the British press this year a few details have been filtering through about a pilgrimage of apology and reconciliation traveling the length of the Holy Land. The newspapers recount tales of Christians apologizing to the Jews and Muslims for the horrors perpetrated by the crusaders, and praise a similar initiative that took place in Turkey. In the countdown to the millennium these professions of remorse for past injustice are laudable, but one group is notably absent from this process of apology and atonement. No commentator has seen fit to mention the fate of native Christians during the crusades and this accurately reflects the lack of knowledge in contemporary Western Christian societies on all matters concerning eastern Christianity. Very little has been written on this aspect of the crusades and indeed any investigation into this area must rely heavily on the contemporary sources due to the relative dearth of secondary commentaries on the subject. For the purposes of this paper the chronicles of Matthew of Edessa, Michael and Bar Hebraeus will be considered. This is by no means an exhaustive study of the subject, instead by scratching the surface of this interesting period I hope to generate debate in an area that has been hitherto largely overlooked.

When the Crusades are studied in British Universities students are directed to read the Gesta Francorum, Peter Tudebode or the chronicles of Joinville and Villehardouin. If they are curious about the “other side” at all then the Alexiad of Anna Comnena is mentioned. The struggle is invariably seen as a three way issue between Franks, Greeks and Muslims, with Turks and Arabs both included in the latter category. Christian Arabs and Armenians are not included in this list and eastern Christianity is equated with the Greek Orthodox tradition. General histories of the crusades make only passing reference to native Christians and seem to know little about their denominations, for example they often use the term “Jacobite” when discussing the Syrian Orthodox. In part at least we must ascribe this lack of knowledge to linguistic factors. The Syriac and Armenian sources have not been as well served as the Greek and Latin ones and are not available in easily accessible editions.

Analysing the chronicles of Matthew, Michael and Bar Hebraeus we can see how different emotions and opinions of the crusaders evolve as events unfold. This is an issue that was discussed by Fiey in his paper ‘Chretiens syriaques entre croises et mongols’. Discussing the authorship of an anonymous chronicle dated 1234, and published by Chabot in 1916, Fiey first attempts to discern the sympathies of the author. Unlike Grousset who argues that the author was a “Jacobite” with prejudices against the Franks and Armenians and a sympathy for the Turkish and Arab empires, Fiey argues that the author was at pains to remain neutral. Throughout the work no descriptive terms are applied to the relevant parties, Franks are simply Franks, Greeks are Greeks and Muslims are referred to as Turks, no ethnic stereotypes are applied to any of these groups. When the chronicler mentions the pillage of the monastery of Bar Sauma by Joscelyn of Edessa he is admirably restrained and says only that in due course Joscelyn was punished by God. However, according to Fiey, finally even a writer attempting to be even-handed became disillusioned by the excesses of men such as Joscelyn and Christian hopes in the east were slowly eroded by the looting, pillaging and other anti-social behaviour of the crusaders. Fiey concludes that:

“…les echecs politiques et militaires des croises devaient provoquer pour les chretiens orientaux non seulement de nombreux malheurs, mais surtout une grande desillusion.”1

Whereas for Matthew the Crusades were a new phenomenon which, at the outset at least, appeared to promise a new golden age of Christianity fighting back the advance of Islam and continuing the Roman Empire, for Michael the truth was less romantic. The First Crusade was initially preached in 1098 and by Michael’s death in 1199, a century later, the early ideals had evaporated and the movement was revealed as a Frankish land grab fulfilling the personal ambitions of a few. Bar Hebraeus wrote at the time when Crusader influence was restricted to only- a few areas along the coast and the exploits of the Crusaders were largely in the past, but for Michael these events had an immediate significance because he was living through them. Like the other two Michael emphasises the “them and us” elements of the events, and as with Matthew and Bar Hebraeus his solidarity with other Christians only remains as long as he does not feel that his church is being threatened by the others in any way. Ultimately Matthew and Michael have more in common with each other than with Bar Hebraeus in the respect that they lived through the events they are describing, unlike Bar Hebraeus who is reporting events in the recent past.

The following quotations have been taken from the three chronicles in an attempt to understand contemporary perceptions of events. The selection concentrates on religious issues and how they are explained by the chroniclers. In Matthew’s case orthodoxy was represented by the Armenian Orthodox Church and in the cases of Michael and Bar Hebraeus it was, naturally, the Syrian Orthodox Church.

To begin with a well-known example, in 1101 the Holy Fire did not appear in the Holy Sepulchre on Easter Saturday as usual and this was widely attributed to the Frankish expulsion of the Orthodox clergy from the church and the introduction of deaconesses, Matthew of Edessa described the events in his chronicle of the First Crusade:

“Ce phenomene plongea dans la stupeux tous les fideles. Ce qui l’occasionna, c’est qu’ils avaient devien vers la gauche de la route at abandonne la voie legitime, qui est a’ la droite du chemin des peches. Il gouterent au calice rempli d’une lie amere. Les ministres meme de la sainte oglise se voutraient dans la fange avec une ardeur qui n’etait jamais satisfaite. Au milieu de pareils desordres, ils avaient cesse de detester le peche-, quelque e norme qu’il fut. Mais, ce qui est pire encore, ils avaient prepose des fammes au service du Saint Sepulchre et de tous les couvents de Jerusalem. Les crimes les plus abominables s’accumulaient devant Dien. Ila chasserent des monasteres les Armenies, les Romains et les Georgiens. Lorsque les Franks eurent vu ce prodige, qui etait un indice accusateur contre eux, ils eloignerent les femmes du service des couvents et retablirent chaque nation dans ceux qui lui appartenaient. En meme temps, le cinq nations fedeles se mirent addresser leurs priers a Dieu. Le Seigneur les exaucas, et la lampe du Saint Sepulchre prit feule Dimanche, ce qui ne s’etait jamais vu auparavant; car cette lumiere commencait toujours a briller a point nomme le Samedi, a la onzieme heure de jour.”2

In fact Matthew appears to have been ambivalent towards all other Christian parties. To begin with he is lavish in his praise of the Franks who have arrived with armies “innombrables comme les etoiles du firmament”3, and in listing the main protagonists he also catalogue their virtues, for example count Joscelyn was “distingue par sa bravoure et sa force”4. However this enthusiasm wanes in the face of doctrinal differences as in 1102 when Matthew describes a theological dispute in which the Armenians and the Syrians broke with the other Churches over the computation of the Easter festival:

“L’ annee 551 de l’ere armenienne fut marquee par une violente peturbation de la foi religieuse, dont la celebration de la Paque devint l’occasion. Dix nations chretiennes tomberent a ce sujet dans l’erreur, a l’exception des Armeniens et des Syriens, qui maintinrent la veritable tradition. Les Romains et les Franks recurrent la mauvaise semance repandue par l’ infame heretique Iridon, qui etablissait l’ere de la paque au 5 avril, et faisait coincider la pleine lune avec la fete de Saint Lazare, en fixant cette ere au Samedi, tandis wue pour les Armeniens, les Syryiens et les Hebreux, elle tombait au 6 avril. Lui fit cadrer avec le Dimanche des Rameaux. Ce philosophe Iridon, qui etait Romain d’origine, avait ainsi fausse l’ordre du calendrier …’5

On this occasion the Greeks are perceived as the main enemy in terms of doctrine rather than the Franks:

“Les habitants d’ Antioche, de toute la Cilicie et d’Edesse eurent des discussions sans fin a soutenir avec eux sur ce point de theologie, parce que les Grecs s’efforcaient d’imposer aux Armenians leur calendrier vicieux. Par ces luttes, ils susciterent des desagrements a notre nation, sans toutefois reussir a l’ebranler. Les Syriens d’Edesse, cedant a la crainte, embrasserent le parti des Grecs, et renoncerent a l’alliance qu’ils avaient formee avec les Armeniens. Precedemment les Grecs etaient tombes dans une erreur semblable, et les lampes [ du Saint Sepulchre] ne s’allumerent pas. Dans cette occasion, les infideles massacrerent les pelerins accourus pour visiter les saints lieux.”6

Michael has especial reason to take inter-christian rivalry seriously. The pillaging of the monastery of Mar Bar Sauma in the year 1148 was particularly close to his heart as this was his monastery before he was appointed Patriarch, he describes this incident as follows:

” …il en fit sortir les moines le lundi 20 du meme mois, et le mardi ils arriverent a Hesn Mancour. Le fait fut divulgue et tout le peuple fut dans la stupeur et l’epouvante. Deux (des ses compagnons) lui dirent: “Ne laissons pas le couvents sans moines, de peur que les Turcsn’y entrent”. C’est pourquoi il decreta que les moines lui donneraient dix mille dinars, et qu’ensuite il leur rendrait leur couvent.”7

Michael also recounts how Joscelyn pillages the monastery:

“Josselin etablit dans la forteresse superieure 20 soldats armeniens et avec eux d’autres qui, sans pitie, pillaient tout ce qui se trouvait dans notre couvent en fait de ble, de vin, d’huile, de miel, de vetements et d’autres objets. Il emmena le saint [the casket containing the reliquary of Bar Sauma] et les moines jusqu ‘a Tell Ba’er31”.

In the parallel commentary given alongside these events Michael attempts to explain the significance of these happenings:

“. …a l’epoque presente, nous pouvons comprende qu’outre les raisons insaisissables pour nous, il y a deux faciles a concevoir, et qui montrent pour ainsi dire du doigt pouquoi le pillage eut lieu a cette époque dans ce saint lieu. La premiere vient des peches de ses habitans; David, abandonna le Dieu des chretiens ses peres, et s’adonna au culte des demons par les passions hanteuses …”32

Throughout the hardships inflicted on the monestary of Mar Bar Sauma Michael continues to compare Joscelyn to a succession of Biblical tyrants, for example he describes the “tyrarmy” of Joscelyn in the following terms:

“…car de meme qu’autrefois le tyran paien Baltasar profana les vases sacre.s et fut frappe. Par la main qui apparut miraculeusement, de meme celui-ci pe.rit justement par un chatiment terrible, comme le montrera le discours lorsque, avec l’aide de Dieu, il poussera en avant.”10

Michael continues to list the iniquities of the evil Joscelyn and at one point even compares him to a dog returning to his own vomit in his eagerness to perpetrate evil deeds11. He finally describes Joscelyn’s punishment when he is captured and imprisoned in Aleppo for nine years and after many torments he confesses to a Syrian bishop and dies12. The influence of the Franks is felt far more keenly in the work of Michael than in the other two Chronicles and this is perhaps unsurprising when we realise how closely these events impinged on his own life and the lives of those around him.

When the threat comes from a non-Christian source then the Christians are presented as a united front, as in 1195 when the bells of Edessa were silenced and Michael comments:

“…sur l’ordre du seigneur d’odesse, qui est Malik’ Adil, le son des cloches cessa dans les eglises d’ odesse, et ce fut une grande affliction pour tous les Chretiens. Que Dieu ait pitie d’eux!”13

The same sectarian view of these disputes is highlighted in the Chronography of Bar Hebraeus:

“In this year (1134) the locusts came in great swarms in the country of Edessa. And the Christians took asylum with the chosen man Mar bar Sawma, and they sent and brought the coffin wherein was the right hand of the saint. And with its arrival a miracle took place, and the locusts removed themselves without having done any harm whatsoever in any part of the country. Then the Greeks, who were burning with jealousy, stirred up Papyas, the Metropolitan of the Franks, to open the coffin so that the right hand might be visible. And when the monks were unwilling to do this, the Greeks burst out laughing and said, ‘They have nothing in the coffin’. And the monks being thus forced to do so, opened the coffin in the church of the Franks. Then suddenly there was a terrifying peal of thunder, and dark clouds obscured the sky, and heavy hailstones smote the ground, and the bazars were filled therewith. And all the people began crying out ‘Kuryalaison’, ie. ‘Have mercy upon us, O chosen one of God’. Then the Greeks fled and hid themselves. And when the hail ceased, all the people gathered together, and made prayer for three days’.”14

Bar Hebraeus continues that when the Arabs of Harran heard this tale they came to request the hand but it was returned to the convent in Melitene, so in this case the Greeks are perceived as the enemy who incite the Franks against the Syrians. The Franks are welcomed in other sections of the text as instruments of mercy who avenge the wrongs done to the Christian community as a whole, for example as in this passage chronicling the events of 1140/1141:

” the Turks of Melitene attacked the monasteries of Beth Zabar, that is of BethHanya, and they lotted them and went away. And in the month of May the Franks came to take vengeance, and they came to Zobara and to Aria, and they carried off the passeions of the Christians, and they killed many Turks and took their cheldern and women prisoners. And the Turks went forth with great haste from the country of Hanazi to invade the country of the Franks. And they met a holy man of Halisura as he was crossing the mountains of’ Abhdahar, and they seized him and those who were with him and tied them up to kill them. And suddenly there fell upon them the terrifying sound of the Franks, and they left the monks and fled. And the Franks came and unbound their fetters.”15

Nevertheless Bar Hebraeus makes clear that this solidarity between Christians quickly melts away when circumstances suggest a link with the Franks may not be prudent. This is illustrated by his account of the taking of Edessa in 1145. While Joscelyn was in Antioch Zangi of Mosul took the city. While lamenting the fall of the city Bar Hebraeus also emphasises the humanity of Zangi:

“…. Then the holy man Basilius was found naked and shoeless, and he was dragged along by the Turks with a rope. And when Zangi saw him he recognized the graciousness which was in his face and he asked who he was. And when he knew that he was the Metropolitan, he commanded and [his servants] clothed him, and he had him brought into his tent. And he began to chide the holy man because he had not surrendered the city and spared the wretched people from being killed. And the holy man replied: ‘Divine Providence wished this to take place -that such a victory as this should be thine, and a great and splendid name among thy fellow kings. And there is openness of face with us poor folk (i.e. we are innocent) towards the Lord, for we have neither acted treacherously nor broken our oaths. ‘ And his words pleased the ‘tabag, and he said unto him, ‘Thou speakest truth, O Metropolitan, for those who keep their oaths are honoured by God and by men, and especially those who endure to the death. ‘ As for those who were in the Citadel, after two days they received the promise that their lives should be spared, and they surrendered it. Now wherever the Turks found a Frank they killed him; but they left alive our people and the Armenians that were left.”16

However the mercy of Zangi was not to be relied upon, as many Christians in other areas, including a bishop were sold as slaves. When in 1147 Joscelyn returned to reclaim the city the native people population suffered at the hands of both the Franks and the Turks:

“ …And during the night the Frankish footsoldiers ascended by ladder the two towers through the plan which they had made with certain Armenians who were guarding the walls, and the Turks fled to the citadel. And the morning the Water Gate opened and Joscelyn went in. And when the Franks had remained in Edessa six days, Nw Ad-D”‘m, with ten thousand Turks, burst out upon them. Then Joscelyn harassed the wretched people of Edessa, and he seized men, and women, and youths, and maidens, and expelled them with violence at the second hour of the night.And when the day broke the Turks overtook them, at the same time raining upon them arrows like hailstones, and wounding them seriously.”17

Bar Hebraeus then laments the fate of the Edessenes who were caught in the middle and finally massacred by the Turks.

” And those who escaped with the foot-soldiers of the Franks into the ruined fortress were one thousand men. Not a single woman or child was saved, and those who did not perish were sold into slavery in foreign countries. And Edessa remained a waste place, and saturated with blood, and filled with the limbs of her sons and daughters …. “18

He continues that the “accursed” Joscelyn escaped to Samosata and that Basil also managed to flee. However the Armenian bishop was seized with a number of other prisoners. These are a small selection of extracts from the Chronography and they clearly illustrate the confusion of the time. Alliances were changing all the time and the only party that each group consistently relied on was their own denomination. The Syrians and Armenians perhaps perceived themselves as the closest allies, which was a natural alliance of the native ethnic groups in the face of the invasions by wave after wave of foreign invaders who included the Turks, Arabs, Franks and Mongols. However even this closeness between the Syrians and Armenians was sometimes tested when doctrinal matters were disputed, as illustrated by Matthew of Edessa’s irritation when he felt the Syrians had joined the Greeks in the dispute over the calculation of Easter.

Interpreting Bar Hebraeus is complicated by the fact that he wrote his chronicles in both Syriac and Arabic and, although there is a lot of shared material between the two the Arabic chronicle is not simply a simple translation of the earlier Syriac version. In his article ‘The Crusaders in Barhebraeus’ Syriac and Arabic Secular Chronicles’ Teule discusses the various arguments posited as to the target audience for the Arabic chronicle. He dismisses both Luders’ hypothesis that the material was slightly altered for a potential Muslim audience and the opposite view put forward by Conrad that a Christian audience was the intended readership for the work. Teule’s suggestion is that Bar Hebraeus used differing sources for the two works, concentrating on Arabic sources, particularly the K’amil fi-l-ta ‘rikh of b. al-Athir, for the Arabic chronicle and the work of Michael for the Syriac version. Whether or not this is accepted the fact remains that Bar Hebraeus felt it necessary to compose two varying chronicles in two languages. In one case, the Syriac chronicle, the readership is clear; the chronicle was clearly written for fellow Syrian Christians. In the case of the Arabic work the intended readership of the work is less clearly defined.

This has been only a short paper scratching the surface of a complex and emotive issue. But if a conclusion has to be drawn it seems that earlier writers, Matthew and Michael attempt to give both sides a fair hearing but their position as the “meat in the sandwich” meant that the eastern Christians were mistrusted and mistreated by Franks, Greeks and Muslims alike. This situation is clearly illustrated by both writers, who were presumably chronicling events for their own parties. Bar Hebraeus avoided the worst excesses of the crusades by being born a century later when the Franks were present only in coastal states and although his Syriac chronicle must have been written largely for the benefit of the Syrian Orthodox, his Arabic work would have reached a wider audience possibly encompassing both Christians and Muslims alike. No one is the clear winner in these events but the native Arab Christians appear to have been the losers, especially those resident in Edessa.

Unfortunately this situation is unlikely to be widely acknowledged until the sources discussed above and others like them are made more widely available and historians look further than merely the Greek and Latin sources.


-Budge, E. A. W., The Chronography of Bar Hebraeus (Oxford, 1930).

-Chabot, J. B. (Ed), Chronique de Michel le Syrien, tom. 3, fasc. II (1906) & III (1910), Paris.

-Dulaurier, E., Recit de premiere croisade, extrait de la chronique de Matthieu d’Odesse (Paris, 1850).

Secondary Literature.

-Fiey, J- M., Chretiens Syriaques entre croises et mongols’ , (Symposium Syriacum 1972), Orientalia   Christiana Analecta 197 (1974), pp. 327-341.

-Hage, W., ‘Michael der Syrer’ in Theologische Realenzyklopodie, 22 (1992), (W. DeGruyter & Co, Berlin),  pp. 710-712.

-Mayer, H. E., The Crusades, 2nd Ed. (Oxford University Press, 1972, 1988).

-Runciman, S., The Eastern Schism. A Study of the Papacy and Eastern Churches During the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1955).

-Teule, H., ‘The Crusaders in Barhebraeus. Syriac and Arabic Seculer Chronicles, A Different Approch’, in East and West in the Crusader States, Context-Contacts-Confrontation, Ed. K. Ciggaar, A. Davids & H. Teule,Orientalia lovaniensia Analecta 75 (1996), pp. 39-49.

-Ye’or, B., The Dhimmi. Jews and Christians under Islam (Associated University Press, London & Toronto, 1985).