BMCR 2016.08.23

L’écriture de l’histoire en Syriaque

, L'écriture de l'histoire en Syriaque: transmissions interculturelles et constructions identitaires entre hellénisme et Islam. Avec des répertoires des textes historiographiques en annexe. Late Antique History and Religion, 12​. Leuven; Paris; Bristol, CT: Peeters, 2015. xxxiv, 724. ISBN 9789042932371 €105,00.

Table of Contents

The aim of the book under review is to provide a tool to facilitate research on Christian historical narratives written in Syriac (p. xv). However, after a closer evaluation of its almost eight hundred pages, the reader discovers that it has a much broader scope. Beyond being a descriptive repertoire of texts and authors, this monumental and valuable volume thoroughly discusses significant issues concerning Syriac historical literature in particular and pre-modern historiography in general.

In L’écriture de l’histoire en Syriaque, Muriel Debié masterfully synthesizes the results of the last few decades of studies covering almost eight hundred years from Late Antiquity to the “Syriac Renaissance” of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the first of the two parts, she introduces the reader to the material, cultural and political contexts in which these histories were produced and circulated and situates historical writing at the centre of the process of Syriac identity formation. She finds it significant that, despite the hegemony of Greek and Arabic, Syriac became one of the major literary languages for Christian communities of the Near East for more than eight centuries. But, at the same time, Syriac historians were integrated within large multicultural empires (the Christian Hellenism of the Late Roman Empire, the Iranian culture of the Sasanian Empire, and, after their decline, the Islamic culture of the Caliphate), and their identity was a complex combination of social, geographical, linguistic and religious elements. Thus, for Christian historians living under Byzantine, Sasanian and Islamic authority, writing in Syriac implied a particular interpretation of their own place in history.

At the same time, the book analyzes another notable topic—the definition, characteristics and methods of pre-modern historical genres. Debié distinguishes history (as genre and as practice) from other forms of narratives about the past (namely biography) by identifying it with the Hellenistic and Eusebian traditions. These traditions encompass both the secular and ecclesiastical histories on the one hand, and universal—and to a lesser extent local—chronicles on the other.

The twelve thematically arranged chapters and conclusion deal with a wide range of historical, conceptual and methodological topics. The first chapter describes two interrelated subjects, namely the identity of the authors of Syriac historical writings and the notion of the text as a unique reality. In chapter two, the author turns to a more conceptual stance in order to discuss topics related to the classification of historical genres and their relevance in the Syriac historical tradition.

The next three chapters (three to five) are devoted to the description of the social, geographic and cultural contexts of Syriac histories, and in particular the material conditions in which Syriac histories were written. In chapter four, Debié gives a brief account of the social background of some of the most significant historians (John of Ephesus, Theophilus of Edessa, Dionysius of Tell Maḥre, Michael the Syrian, and Barhebraeus). Chapter five is devoted to the survey of the most important centers of literary production, both cities (Edessa, Melitene, Nisibis, Kirkuk, and Irbil) and monasteries (Qennešre and Mor Gabriel).

Chapters six and seven offer a detailed description of the chronological systems employed by Syriac historians and the underlying concept of time in their narratives. In chapters eight to eleven the author turns to the discussion of the Biblical, Greek and Islamic sources of the Syriac histories (chapters eight, nine and ten) and their relationship with other literary genres (chapter eleven). Finally, in chapter twelve, Debié returns to the topic of history and identity in the Miaphysite, East Syriac, and Melkite literary traditions. The author argues that the early extinction of a Miaphysite literature in Greek and the continuity in the use of Syriac in Melkite and Maronite circles of Mesopotamia until the end of the Middle Ages suggests that the use of Syriac may be interpreted as a geographical phenomenon. The last section of this chapter deals with the relation between language and identity and the role played by the Biblical past on its configuration.

The second part of the book is an annex with a comprehensive repertoire of historical texts written in Syriac from Late Antiquity to the Late Middle Ages. The criterion of classification of the texts is primarily chronological. However, Debié also maintains the traditional differentiation between Melkite, West and East Syriac traditions. By far the largest part is the catalogue dedicated to West Syriac authors. This feature may reflect the major impact of Eusebian models on West Syriac literature: as the author states (p. 107), East Syriac historical writing was dominated by a biographical dimension. Debié includes in her analysis not only works preserved in manuscripts but also narratives known to us only by references in other works. Each of these texts is provided with a brief summary and a valuable commentary with relevant information including a list of the available manuscripts, the most important editions and translations, and a bibliography. It should be noted that this catalog crosses the strict boundaries of Syriac language by including a section surveying significant Syro-Arab historians. This part ends with an extensive bibliography arranged by themes.

Throughout her study the author addresses a wide range of topics and it would be impossible to discuss all of them exhaustively. Nevertheless, two relevant issues are worthy of further comment. In the last decades, Syriac historiography has received increasing attention in a number of studies devoted to placing it in the context of Late Antique, Byzantine and (to a lesser extent) Islamic historical traditions. These studies have highlighted the need to address Syriac historians not only as complementary sources of Byzantine or Islamic History but also as resources for the study of the social and cultural history of the Near East.

Debié’s main purpose is to analyze the literary aspects of Syriac historical writing. By stressing its dialogue with Greek and Arabic literatures, she seeks to elucidate the materials incorporated (and eventually reworked) in Syriac histories. These materials encompass not only historical data or references to specific events but also the narrative (and typographic) features of the historical works written in Greek which influenced Syriac historical writing. In addition, Debié extensively analyses the complex process involving the circulation of texts, both the appropriation of Greek and Arabic historical texts by Syriac historians, and also the Syriac materials incorporated in Byzantine and Islamic histories. For example, in chapter ten, when commenting on recent studies regarding the presence of Oriental materials in Theophanes’ Chronography she extensively discusses how Syriac materials would be integrated in Byzantine chronicles (pp. 387-402), highlighting the diverse ways by which texts could be transmitted from one religious community to another. She concludes that distortions arising from such circulation should not be underestimated given that religious allegiances conditioned the way of writing (and reading) history.

In discussing the reception and influence of Greek models on Syriac historians, Debié analyzes the relationship between history writing and Syriac identity formation. This issue has a long and polemical history, and in recent times it has regained attention with the publication of the results of a multidisciplinary research project based at Leiden University.1 Debié views history as one of the key elements for understanding the formation of Syriac Christian identity. Thus, the production, circulation and reception of historical texts in Syriac are related to communal self-definition. Moreover, she shows that the traditional image of Syriac culture as a marginal phenomenon of Late Antique and Islamic cultural history should be replaced by a more dynamic picture in which dialogue and integration prevail. This emphasis on interaction and mutual influence is one of the key strengths of Debié’s point of view.

To conclude, this book is an important contribution to the comprehension of the development of Christian historiography. Any work of synthesis implies a selection and one may note two limitations in Debié’s approach. First there is little attention to the relation of Syriac histories to other Oriental literary traditions (Armenian, Coptic or Middle Persian to name a few). In addition, the focus on the influence of the Hellenistic (Eusebian) approach to Syriac historiography tends to set aside other forms of the discourse about the past—notably hagiography. This choice is fully justified by both stylistic criteria and content. However, considering the author’s insistence on the porous nature of the literary genres, other forms of historical narratives—such as Lives of Saints or Acts of the Martyrs—deserve more attention.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that Debié’s work is an essential resource for further research on pre-modern historical literature, not only for specialists in Syriac studies, but also for historians of the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires, and the Islamic Caliphate. ​


1. Bas Ter Haar Romeny (ed.), Religious Origins of Nations? The Christian Communities of the Middle East, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009.