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The Chronicle of SeertChristian Historical Imagination in Late Antique Iraq$

Philip Wood

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199670673

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199670673.001.0001

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(p.257) Conclusions
The Chronicle of Seert

Philip Wood

Oxford University Press

The Chronicle of Seert, as we have received it, is a product of the Abbasid period, and represents an ambitious attempt by one author to compose a universal history, focused on the deeds of the catholicoi of Ctesiphon and Baghdad that had formed the traditional core of Iraqi Christian historiography since the fifth century. Its compiler wrote in the environment of the recentralized catholicosate of Timothy’s successors, under whom the Church of the East reached new heights of power, in terms of both its missionary expansion and its relationship with lay authorities. A narrative of the development of the powers of Timothy’s predecessors and of the relations between catholicoi and earlier secular rulers represented an important means of justifying these new powers and this new centralization. The Abbasid period witnessed the consummation of trends seen deep into the pre-Islamic period, which predated the relatively anarchic situation of the Church of the East under Umayyad rule. Like the contemporaneous collection of law codes and synodica, the historical compilations represent an attempt by the catholicoi to articulate the identity and behaviour of (‘Nestorian’) Christians in Iraq and beyond.

I have argued that it is possible to date much of its Syriac raw material by reading the Chronicle together with the other medieval compilations and comparing its testimony to that of other late antique sources. This material suggests a gradual expansion in the awareness of alternative historical traditions, culminating in the importation of additional narratives into a tradition that began as a history of the catholicoi. At the end of the sixth century, new traditions from the Roman world, from Iranian secular traditions, and from Christian institutions in the north of Iraq came to be embedded into Iraqi historiography. In this era increasing numbers of men of learning in Sasanian Iraq turned their hand to the creation of ecclesiastical history.

For each stage of expansion in the historical tradition, we can see history-writing itself as a technology for articulating Christian identity and for defining the political stance of the catholicoi. Monastic histories and Iranian secular traditions embraced a new symbiosis between a developing class of Christian lay elites and the institutional church. And Roman ecclesiastical history provided a new narrative that explained theological differences with Miaphysite (p.258) ‘invaders’ and propagated a ‘Nestorian’ identity amongst members of the Church of the East, an idea that guarded against conversion across confessions and emphasized the role of the priests as theologians who provided necessary definition to the faith.

The addition of these new strands of history was not merely a feature of centralization. Lay sponsors such as Yazdin might seem to eclipse the role of the catholicos at the court of the shah, and the development of priests as theologians and monastic leaders periodically threatened to factionalize the clerical elites responsible for selecting a catholicos. So, we might also see the addition of these new narratives to an older patriarchal history as a means of normalizing a potentially disruptive shift in power from Ctesiphon to the aristocrats and monasteries of northern Iraq, and as a means of articulating a new broader relationship between institutions and regions in Christian Iraq.

In many cases, the various strands employed by this generation of Iraqi ecclesiastical historians can all be seen as borrowings from the Roman world. The very idea of a patriarchal history, linking the deeds of the catholicoi to the deeds of the martyrs, may itself show a debt to the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, with its own striking record of the Diocletianic martyrs, and which was probably one of the first Greek texts translated into Syriac. In the same vein, the monastic histories of Egypt, such as the Lausiac History of Palladius, stimulated the development of monastic histories focused on Izla. Thus, the continuators of Eusebius in the fifth and sixth centuries made possible the juxtaposition of the history of the catholicoi with the ecclesiastical history of the Roman world and the assertion of a Dyophysite identity in the Church of the East. It is here, in the transmission of the facts and ideas of Western history, that the School of Nisibis seems to have been especially important as a gateway for new information. Moreover, it was these historical ideas that facilitated the evolution of the Church of the East as an imagined community that claimed to encompass all of Iraq. Historians interwove the pasts of different Christian institutions into a single whole, set in a Dyophysite ‘East’ and led by a catholicos-patriarch in Ctesiphon, and placed it all into the context of a broader Christian world in the West.

If renewed contact with the West should be seen as the stimulus for a broader conception of the Church of the East as part of a universal church, then diplomatic contacts of catholicoi and bishops with Rome as representatives of the shah also show us how this conception came to pay political dividends for the catholicosate. Sasanian shahs had long sought to use the leaders of minority religions to ensure the legitimacy of their own rule or the effectiveness of their bureaucracy and taxation system, as the examples of Symeon bar Sebbaʿe and Ishaq remind us. However, the end of the sixth century witnessed a more dramatic attempt by the shah Khusrau II to co-opt Christian leaders, as Christians cooperated in propagating an image of the shah as the sponsor of a holy man revered across political borders. Sabrishoʿ’s death, however, left the Church without a suitable figurehead who was acceptable (p.259) both to the shah and to Christian elites. In this era of turmoil, the numerous distinct narratives preserved in the Chronicle of Seert testify to the importance that history-writing had acquired as a means of tracing connections to an orthodox golden age that gave the present its identity. The Chronicle also illustrates the many different ways of establishing these connections to the past in the confused period at the end of Sasanian rule, where no single narrative strand could be identified as legitimate by the later compiler.

Despite the changeable relationship between the Church and Khusrau, the Chronicle of Seert shows that, after the fall of the Sasanians, Christians continued to see their relationship with the fallen empire as an important part of their past. Alongside assertions of the Church as a community defined by its Dyophysitism or its episcopal succession, a major thrust of the narratives of catholicoi is their relations with the shah. The account of this relationship is supplemented by Iranian secular histories and by the monastic histories of a territory that closely matches that of the former Sasanian Empire. Like the preservation of Sasanian laws of inheritance within the Church of the East, the ecclesiastical histories provided a vehicle for Persian memory in a world where a Sasanian state no longer existed and where Zoroastrianism had thereby lost its former prestige and organization. This role for the Church as a refuge for these histories and identities may have been one factor in encouraging the conversion to Christianity of Iranian elites during the political anarchy of the Umayyad period.

The importance of Abbasid era compilations such as the Chronicle of Seert and the Haddad Chronicle for the times of their compilers is best illustrated by comparison to equivalent, contemporary compilations in other Christian communities. Robert Hoyland has grouped the Chronicle of Seert in particular with other Syrian and Egyptian compilations produced in Melkite and Miaphysite (‘Coptic’) circles in the end of the tenth century, the chronicles of Eutychius and Agapius and the History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria.1

All of these compilations are Arabic translations of older material in Coptic and Syriac: in no cases does there appear to have been direct translation from Greek. All four texts reflect an active scholarly culture in Syriac or Coptic where a variety of indigenous and foreign sources could be accessed in libraries and deployed in new compositions. Some of these texts already existed in Arabic translation, while others were translated by the compilers (though the history of this process of translation requires further investigation). All four histories reflect a universalizing ambition, which sought to describe the history of Christians and Christianity from Jesus (or from Creation, in the case of Agapius), even if this was done with a particular regional focus. In particular, all four follow Eusebius’ history for the early period, though sometimes only as a précis, (p.260) and the Diocletianic persecutions and the reign of Constantine form a common feature of all of the accounts, a historical identity which is still reflected in the liturgical commemoration of all the oriental churches.

These Christian compilations all therefore aim to preserve their churches’ historical identity in an era when lay, urban Christians at least were beginning to abandon their traditional languages in favour of Arabic. As Erica Degen has observed, the Chronicle of Seert and the Chronicles of ʿAmr and Mari all share enough important passages to indicate the use of a single translation from Syriac into Arabic, even though they all use a variety of other sources in both languages.2 This preservation of tradition can be seen as a bid for continued cultural independence in an Arabic-speaking environment, but we should note that it took very different forms in different regions. There is a particularly striking contrast between the constrained focus of The History of the Patriarchs, which rarely discusses events beyond Egypt, and the disparate sources of the Chronicle of Seert.

The History tends to emphasize the suffering of the Egyptian church as a church of the martyrs,3 whose subject matter is defined by the apostolic succession of its priesthood4 and their ability to decide who is worthy to receive communion.5 Indeed, for the author, all of the formative events of the church are persecutions, by the pagan Diocletian and by the Dyophysite ‘heretics’ Marcian, Justinian, and Heraclius.6 His focus is reminiscent of the histories of the martyrs and catholicoi that were used in the fifth century in Iraq, except that the theme of persecution is now continued into the Islamic period, where the Coptic church maintains an embattled boundary against its religious opponents.

The Chronicle, by contrast, describes much more than the relentless string of persecutions that characterizes the early sections of the History of the Patriarchs. Though it retains a core structure based on the succession of the catholicoi, it is based on a much greater variety of different historical traditions: secular, monastic, scholastic, and episcopal. And, though its fifth-century core has a geographical focus in southern Iraq, sections composed or incorporated in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries increasingly look beyond Ctesiphon, to the north of Iraq, to the Roman world and to the lands of the later missions such as Merv or Himyar. If the History of the Patriarchs represents a turning inwards of the Christian worldview of Eusebius, then the Chronicle of Seert (p.261) demonstrates its adaptation and expansion. Perhaps the greatest sign of the difference in attitudes between the two regions occurs in the pro-Christian image of Muhammad that is presented in the Chronicle of Seert. In this Chronicle the cultural independence of Iraqi Christians, magnified through their connections to the shahs of the past, and to the exotic Christian lands of the West, was to be deployed within the caliphate. The Chronicle, therefore, is both a record and a celebration of the prestigious culture of the ‘Nestorians’ at a time when they were active participants in the government, bureaucracy, and trade of the Abbasid world.


(1) Hoyland, Seeing Islam, 440–8.

(2) Degen, ‘Daniel bar Maryam’, esp. 67–80. See also C. F. Seybold, ‘Histoire nestorienne (Chronique de Séert) par Addai Scher’, ZDMG 66 (1912), 742–6 for his comments on the different terms for the Hepthalites in the Chronicle as indications of different translations into Arabic.

(3) History of the Patriarchs, II, 141–8 for martyrdom as a source of converts and VI, 390 for Diocletian.

(4) History of the Patriarchs, VI, 401–2.

(5) History of the Patriarchs, IV, 156.

(6) History of the Patriarchs, XIII, 451–2; XIV, 491.