The views expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.
I would not be exaggerating if I state that the last 30 centuries constituted a “Great Cultural Cycle” in which Syriac culture, Persian culture, and ancient Greek culture passed the baton to Arab culture and the prosperous period of its first Islamic era and from there to the culture of the European Renaissance during and after the Industrial Revolution.
Syriac intellectuals were and stayed the pivotal link between these civilizations. The Syriacs formed the bridge between the ancient civilization of Greece in retreat, to which the Syriacs were linked by Christianity, and the emerging Arab civilization, with which Syriacs were linked through ethnic, historical and linguistic kinship and the evidence retained by the Syriac Church that cut the Zionist call in its alleged right to this land.
This pivotal role of Syriac intellectuals, writers, theologians, and scientists has begun to decline and may very well lead to atrophy in the diaspora with the ongoing migration to Western Europe. The speed of Syriac migration is at an unfortunately high level and very alarming. The East is losing its precious necklace, the Syriac language. In the words of late Archbishop Bulus Behnam (1914-1969): “I fear the loss of this necklace by hands that try to grab it from behind the darkness.”
Syriac culture interacted with Arab culture and remained at odds with it due to tendencies of convergence and difference; convergence in terms of its roots, history and belonging to one cultural basin, and difference in terms of the adoption of Islam by Arab culture while the Syriac culture kept its affiliation with Christianity.
The Arabs and Islam emerged from the same region. Syriac and Christian culture remained the dominant one among Syriacs until the advent of the Arab-Islamic conquests. But it was not until several centuries after the emergence of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula that the majority of Syriacs had converted to Islam and adopted Arab culture.
Many of the former occupiers of Beth Nahrin such as the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans, were unable to significantly change and influence the Syriacs neither culturally nor linguistically, but now the majority of Syriacs gradually adopted Islam and Arab culture. The silent and bloodless conflict had slowly begun to make way in favour of the Arabic language and use of the Syriac language began to decline.
With this decline of the use of the Syriac language, it is not surprising that the majority of the pioneers of the modern Arab Renaissance were Arabized Syriacs who identified with the Arab national culture in search of building blocks to establish a civil state with Muslim Arabs.
However, it looks like the intended Arabized Syriacs’ inclusive civil Arab state and national culture reached its end with the armed conflict in Syria and Iraq. This became evident in the destruction by Islamic armed groups of symbols of Syriac culture, mainly churches, and the forced displacement of the most authentic indigenous components of the region – unprecedented in the history of the region. And no Islamic or Arab cultural religious institution has issued condemnations of these destructive racist infringements and tendencies afflicted on such an important and deep-rooted part of the heritage and culture of the region.
The evolution and maturation of contemporary Syriac identity, awareness, and awakening has been accompanied by tendencies to return to the great historical heritage of Syriac culture and to revive its uniqueness. This regained awareness and these revival attempts deserve contemplation and study as the national culture in Syria was only able to develop through the historical opportunity and acceptance of the multiplicity of tongues – as it once was in past periods of cultural prosperity. It gave a human and moral dimension to Syria’s culture. And Syriac language, science, and culture played a central and important role in this development. Unfortunately, in the end, destructive tendencies and powers have been instrumental in the ongoing destruction of non-Arab cultures.
Ever since Syriac awakening got a heavy existential beating in World War I, wounds have not healed and bleeding has not stopped for a moment since. On the contrary, it has increased at a painfully slow and silent pace by migration to the European West. This silent, hidden, and painful atrophy of the last couple of decades, a Syriac linguistic and cultural decline without wars or massacres, has increased the tears in the Syriac fabric in the Gozarto region (al-Jazira) and the Mesopotamian homeland in general.
If we divide Syriac intellectuals into two categories, as I tried to line out above, i.e. the category of wanting to fuse into Arabism versus the category of Syriacs wanting to return to authentic Syriac culture, we can only conclude that these two categories are now also exposed to a new dichotomy. It is divided in two currents. One current moves towards a new fusion with Western culture versus one that moves to clamp to Syriac authenticity and script, albeit in Arabic language. Plus a contrast between the religious current and the secular current in the Syriac cultural spectrum.
Since the second century AD until today, a complex phenomenon has emerged: the emergence of the phenomenon of the educated monk and priest. This in turn led to a sharp division between the religious current and the secular current, along with the waste of hereditary materials and genetic energies by the non-procreation of monks. And this phenomenon of hereditary loss has had consequences visible today: in all nations intellectuals are the leaders of the people. This is what we Syriacs miss today.
Also, the ancient clash between the religious and secular currents from the time of Bardaisan (ܒܪܕܝܨܢ) and Mor Afrem the Syriac (ܡܪܝ ܐܦܪܝܡ ܣܘܪܝܝܐ) has continued until it reached a stage where Syriacs did not really distinguish anymore between their national self and their religious self. This was not limited to Syriacs only. The Arabs also suffered from their inability to separate their national and religious selves i.e. until Arabized Syriacs raised the flag of Arabism. Without the Arabized Syriacs carrying and praising the banner of Arabism there was no real Arab awakening.
Cooperation and consensus among all Syriac currents must now be built on solid and effective foundations. The first of these foundations is the importance of Syriac culture and the Syriac people, especially in the homeland. This must be put above all other considerations because the epidemic of migration to the West has begun to divide and threaten all contemporary currents – without exception – and threaten the future of Syriacs in their geographical homeland of Beth Nahrin, especially in the Syrian Gozarto region in Syria.
Syriac awakening is divided in currents that differ in everything. Unfortunately, the Syriac awakening is moving forward with it eyes pointed at its glorious past. This does not serve the future! Salvation does not come from the theological unseen or from the historical unrevealed. It can only be reached by eyes looking forward. They need to look for obstacles that could make your feet trip and the Syriac awakening must adopt realistic ways to give Syriacs clarity about the future. Sense and pride of Syriacs taking root in the Mesopotamian homeland still exists but it is greatly threatened by extinction due to the continued migration to Western Europe.
In spite of all these repercussions, I do not doubt, not for a moment, that there is a contemporary generation of intellectuals who have been and continue to seek to live in the present and who seek survival here in the homeland of Beth Nahrin… not in history and not in the European future.
For the article in Arabic: Here