Thursday, September 22, 2011

Syriac Christianity and Western Civilization

The Key Role of Syriac Christianity in the History of Western Civilization
The eight centuries before the Common Era was the golden age of learning in ancient Greece. Once the Roman empire got divided into east and west, the various centers of learning were abandoned or destroyed, and thus Europe lost contact with its past. The Greek learning went East with the Syriac Christians, who taught it to the Persians, and from them the Muslim Arabs took it back to  Europe. Thus the Syriac Christians played a major role in preserving the western civilization. The details follow.
            Nisibis, a city that lay between the ancient Roman and Persian empires,  became a center of learning at the beginning of the fourth century CE. Bishop Jacob, who attended the council in Nicaea in 325 CE, founded a Syriac Christian academy at Nisibis. Ephrem became its head and most famous teacher. It is sometimes referred to as the first University. It had 3 primary departments: Theology, Philosophy, and Medicine.
            About 340 CE, the Persian ruler, Shapur II, founded a royal University at Gundishapur, with Syriac Christians as faculty, and Syriac may have been the official language. After the Chalcedon council of 451 CE the Syriac Christians in Persia became religiously & politically divorced from Rome. Emperor Justinian in 529 CE banished the Greek philosophers from Athens and they came to Gundishapur to research Medicine, Astronomy, and Mathematics.
            Gundishapur surrendered to a Muslim general 636 CE. The University continued to flourish under Islam, and the famous doctor Ibn Buktishu (Bukht Yishu = servant of Jesus) was head of the medical school until his death in 769 CE. Harun ar-Rashid, who became khalif in 768 CE, brought people from Gundishapur, and made Bagdad a place for the study and advance of Greek science. Syriac Christians were seen as the enemy of the Arab’s enemy Rome, and so became a protected minority under Islam.
            The Latin Crusades brought Europe into conflict with both Islam and the Eastern Roman empire. The 4th crusade in 1204 CE saw a horribly savage looting and pillage of Greek Constantinople. This weakened Constantinople and ultimately resulted in the victory of Islam. When Constantinople fell, many Greeks fled the city and migrated to other parts of Europe, Italy in particular. This brought Aristotelian scholars back into Europe with their science and philosophy texts.
            The presence and the contribution of Syriac Christianity remained unknown until recently. Church histories written until a couple of decades ago were euro-centric. Historians were unaware that Christianity existed outside Europe.


Eyland, Peter. (2010) . Syriac Christianity and the transmission of Greek science to the Arabs

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