Saturday,18 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)
Saturday,18 November, 2017
Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Christians of the Orient

           A new Paris exhibition recounts the history and present circumstances of the Christian communities of the Arab world, writes David Tresilian

Christians of the Orient

“Christians of the Orient”, this autumn’s major exhibition at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris, opened amid much fanfare last week with a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron accompanied by Lebanese President Michel Aoun. During the visit Macron identified French support for the Christians of the Middle East as lying at the heart of his country’s policies in the region. 

His words set the tone for the exhibition, since as well as recounting 2,000 years of Christianity in the Middle East, the region that saw the religion’s birth and the one where it has had the longest history, it also reflects upon the challenges that have confronted the region’s Christian communities in recent years. Since particularly the turmoil associated with the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions, Christians in some Arab countries have faced discrimination or even persecution.

The exhibition focuses on the Christian communities of six countries in the Arab world, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. The recent conflicts in two of these, Iraq and Syria, have seen Christian places of worship or monuments targeted by terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and others. Elsewhere, Christians have also come under attack by terrorists, not least in Egypt in the turmoil following the 25 January Revolution, and there has been a widespread sense that threats may be mounting to Christians in the region.

The exhibition treats such threats in its final section, entitled “Being Christian in the Arab World Today”, but before it does so it presents a rich and visually well-illustrated historical account of the region’s main Christian communities. Entering the exhibition, visitors find a map marking the approximate locations of these, and later a timeline of some of the sometimes rather baffling early Christian Councils and other events is given.


Christians of the Orient

The decision by the Roman emperor Constantine to make Christianity an official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 CE, ending centuries of persecution, is marked, as is the later decision by his successor Theodosius to outlaw paganism across the Empire in 392 CE, eventually ending, among other things, several thousand years of ancient Egyptian religion. Empire-wide councils, among them at Nicaea and Chalcedon in what is now modern Turkey, led to agreement on the theological issues dividing the early Christians, including vexed issues of Christology, even as some Christian communities refused to accept the growing Byzantine orthodoxy.

Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, founded by Saint Mark the Evangelist in Alexandria in 49 CE, was one of those that refused to accept Byzantine hegemony, rejecting in particular the Byzantine emphasis on the double nature, human and divine, of Christ. Elsewhere in the region, communities such as the Syriac Orthodox, Melkites, Maronites, Nestorians and others grew up, each having its own founding figure and various points of doctrine. The latter were often enough to divide the Christian communities from each other and from the largest Eastern Church centred on the formerly Roman and later Byzantine emperor in Constantinople / Byzantium.

They also divided the Eastern Churches from the Western Church, which, founded by Saint Peter and based in Rome, focused on spreading westwards and apparently forgot its Eastern peers. As the exhibition explains, it was only later with the unity imposed on the Eastern Mediterranean by the later Egyptian Mamelukes in Egypt and Syria and then especially by the Ottoman Empire that the Roman Catholic Church in Rome began efforts to re-establish connections with the Eastern Churches. These were part of a bid to reassert Roman Catholic doctrine in the wake of the European Reformation.

Before this happened, however, the Eastern Churches were introduced to a new status quo in the eastern and southern Mediterranean brought about by the Arab conquests and the Islamisation of the region after the seventh century CE. Earlier centuries had also seen the development of characteristically Eastern Christian practices such as monasticism and the pilgrimages that grew up around Eastern Christian saints who in some cases are little known in the West. 

Among these are the Egyptian martyr Saint Menas, commemorated at the monastery complex of Abu Mina near Alexandria, and Saint Maron, a fourth-century Syriac hermit and founder of the Maronite Christian community in Lebanon.

Perhaps the oddest of all the early Eastern Christian holy men was the ascetic Saint Simon Stylites (390-459 CE), so-called because he perched for 37 years on the top of a 50-foot column near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. This remarkable sign of religious devotion attracted many followers, and a martyrium church was built around Simon’s column (the Qalaat Siman or “fortress of Simon”), the remains of which can be seen today. Meanwhile, in the Egyptian deserts early Christian monks set up monasteries sometimes closely connected to the surrounding communities and sometimes deliberately set apart from them.

The spread of Islam across the region and the assumption of political authority by the Muslim caliphs ruling from first Damascus and then Baghdad meant that the region’s Christians became protected persons owing their allegiance to rulers of a different faith. This arrangement worked well, the exhibition says, with Christian artisans across the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond producing the distinctive objects and patterns later associated with Islamic art. 

Under particularly the Abbasid caliphate that flourished from its capital Baghdad from the eighth century CE, Christians worked as advisors and translators, with many of the early figures associated with the translation movement of the Greek and Roman classics into Arabic in the ninth century CE being followers of the Christian religion. Some years before this the Christian Saint John of Damascus (676-749 CE) worked as an advisor to the Umayyad caliph Abdel-Malik in the caliphal capital of Damascus.

The exhibition necessarily skips over much of the detailed history of the Christian communities of the Arab world (for reasons of space), presenting visitors instead with an illustrated narrative that stretches from the earliest Christian Churches to the 21st century CE. The liturgical languages used by the Eastern Churches — far more various than the Latin adopted by the Western Church — receive attention, these including at various times Aramaic, Greek, Coptic, Syriac and Arabic, among others, as does the development of monasticism and of Christian iconography and architecture in the region.

As early as 1397, a decree issued by the Mameluke sultan Al-Dhahir Seifeddin Barqouq (reigned 1382-1389 and 1390-1399) had recognised the Franciscan Order as having custody over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. A later firman (decree) issued by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and sent to the French king François I in 1528 promised to keep the Christian communities of the empire under his protection. These documents, included in the exhibition, draw attention to the exchanges that took place between the East and West of the Mediterranean under first Mameluke and then Ottoman rule and the place of the Eastern Christians within them.

Some Christians began to thrive in trade, perhaps especially in Lebanon, and during the 18th and 19th centuries some acted more and more as commercial and intellectual middlemen. The first Arabic printing presses came to Lebanon at the beginning of the 18th century, used at first to print Christian religious books in Arabic. From the mid-19th century onwards, Arab Christian men of letters began to play important roles both in the renaissance of Arabic literature (the Nahda) and in Arab nationalism. Jirgi Zaydan (1861-1914), founder of the Egyptian magazine Al-Hilal, Yaacub Sarrouf (1852-1927), founder of the journal Al-Muqtataf, Faris Nimr (1854-1951), founder of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Muqattam, and the brothers Selim (1842-1892) and Beshara Takla, the founders of Al-Ahram, were all originally Lebanese Christians. 

The final section of the exhibition, dedicated to Christianity in the Arab world today, begins by citing figures that seem to indicate a process of decline, with Christians making up some 20 per cent of the population of the region at the beginning of the last century but only around three per cent today. Add to this the attacks that have taken place on Christian religious monuments in Iraq and Syria, including a bombing raid on the Martyrium Church of Saint Simon Stylites in 2015, and there are reasons to be concerned for continuing religious pluralism. 

However, the picture is complex, the exhibition suggests, and while Christian communities in some Arab countries have shrunk in recent years, often as a result of emigration, in others there have been powerful movements towards religious revivalism, notably in Egypt and Lebanon. 


Chrétiens d’Orient, 2,000 ans d’histoire, Institut du monde arabe, Paris, until 14 January 2018.

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