31/05/2022

What’s in a name? Rethinking the names employed to describe Antakya’s Eastern Orthodox

This article was originally published March 23, 2022 by NEHNA. The original can be found here.

By Haris Theodorelis Rigas


We tend to think of nations and ethnic groups as homogenous communities, bound together by a uniformity of language, religion and customs. We have inherited this emphasis on religion as an identity marker from the pre-modern age of empires. Back then religious affiliation was used as an efficient mechanism of social organization, taxation and control in general. On the other hand, self-identification along linguistic categories gained primacy with the ascendancy of modern nation states, which had unprecedented capability for enforcement of a single national language and culture, through universal education, and mass media. And yet both our lived experience and any sober study of the past suggest that such rigid categories of ethnic distinction are at least misleading.

The history of ‘our geography’, here in post-Ottoman lands, is full of examples of what social scientists have called “liminal groups” (from Latin limen, meaning threshold), i.e. collectivities that stand at ‘border doors’ between different political, confessional or ethnic communities: the Turkish-speaking Eastern Orthodox (Karmanlılar), the Greek-speaking Muslims from Crete (Tourkokritiki), Macedonia (Vallahades) and the Black Sea, the Greek-speaking Jews (Romaniotes), the Bulgarian-speaking Muslims (Pomaks), and Armenian-speaking Eastern Orthodox (Hayhurum) are perhaps the best known examples.

Historically this position in between competing senses of belonging has proven to be both an advantage and a weakness when it came to issues of survival and cultural resilience. On the one hand it allowed the communities in question to function as intermediaries and transmitters of cultural production, economic activity and political influence. On the other the inherent ambiguity of being a “minority within a minority” often left their cultural heritage and well-being vulnerable to political manipulation, assimilation or even outright annihilation.

In 2018 I had the pleasure of editing a collective volume, on a particularly understudied “liminal” group of great antiquity and historical significance. Our book, entitled Üç Milliyetçiliğin Gölgesinde Kadim Bir Cemaat: Arapdilli Doğu Ortodoksları [The Arabic-speaking Eastern Orthodox: An Ancient Community in the Shadow of Three Nationalisms](Istanbul: istos yayın, 2018), brought together scholars from various disciplines, constituting the first academic publication in Turkish to focus on the community in question. Both the phrasing of the title and some of the authors’ findings seem to have caused passionate reactions from scholars and community members alike. In what follows, I will defend the carefully chosen phrasing of our title but also show that such passionate reactions are totally understandable.

But first I feel the need to make an important distinction. Any discourse on a liminal group is bound to encounter two distinct but interrelated lines of inquiry.

One relates to the past, and as such, should ideally be dealt with by trained historians after careful consideration of the available sources and data: were the Karamanlis ethnic Turks who were at some point Christianized by the Byzantines or rather Byzantines Greeks who were linguistically assimilated by their Turkish-speaking environment? Were the Hayhurums Hellenized Armenians or Armenianized Byzantines? Similarly, were the Eastern Orthodox of Antioch and Syria Christianized Arabs or linguistically assimilated Romans (Byzantine Greeks) or Syriacs? More often than not, such questions cannot be answered, simply because we lack the statistical and anthropological data necessary.

The other question, brilliantly explored by Özgür Kaymak and Anna Maria Beylunioğlu in our volume, relates to the present and its answers require no academic expertise: “what are we? Arab? Rum? Turkish? Christian?” This is a far more interesting question in my view and one that admits multiple and equally valid responses. What is more, it involves always-changing projections of our present stakes, agendas and claims to the past. But since neither nationalist historiography nor the oral history and family ‘culture’ transmitted intergenerationally share the methodological scruples of the science of history, such projections tend to be purposefully selective and pseudo-historical.

This does not change the fact that they are valid vis-à-vis the present or that they describe a genuine cultural experience and social reality. They form part of our inalienable right to determine where we culturally belong, our active role in self-identification, or what French historian Ernest Renan famously described as “a daily plebiscite”. Nor is this ambiguity the exclusive fate of minority or liminal groups. After all Renan originally coined his phrase in reference to French and German nationalisms, while a mere review of say Turkish nationalism and the different paths it has taken in the 20th century will show how different and dynamic our senses of belonging can be over time and space.

Perhaps you are already beginning to guess why we opted for the descriptive and inclusive term “Arabic-speaking” (Arapdilli), rather than national “Arab” in referring to a community as ancient as the Eastern Orthodox of Antakya. In order for my argument to become clearer, I will try to show that answering the first, historical question, is impossible.


Lucian of Samosata

“An Ancient Arabic-Speaking Community”

What was the linguistic landscape in the Byzantine provinces of Syria when the Muslim Arab armies conquered them in the 7th c? Fragmentary as our evidence may be, we can speak of three main cultural domains.

Predominant, especially in the countryside, were the native Aramean or Syriac-speaking populations, both of Jewish and polytheist origin, who provided the first converts to Christianity and eventually produced one of the oldest and most vibrant intellectual, theological and literary traditions of the Middle East.

Second, since the conquests of Alexander the Great a millennium earlier, Syria had been exposed to intensive Hellenization, especially centred around Hellenistic cities (poleis) such as Antioch and others on the coast. Their residents, regardless of ethnic origin would employ Koine Greek or at least be bilingual, hence the original need to translate Hebrew and Christian holy texts into Greek.

Less numerous but at times politically powerful were the superficially Hellenized Arabic-speakers of cities like Petra, Bosra, Hauran, Emesa (Homs), Aleppo, Edessa (Urfa) and Harran. The Arab tribe of the Ghassanids were originally from Yemen but settled in Syria in the early 3rd c. As a Roman vassal they protected Roman trade routes, provided soldiers and acted as a buffer state in the wars of the Romans/Byzantines against the Persians and the latter’s vassals, the rival Arab tribe of the Lakhmids. The Ghassanid’s conversion to Christianity made them perhaps the first Arabic-speaking Christians of Syria. Smaller linguistic groups included the isolated pocket of Latin speakers in Berytus (Beyrut), other Semitic language groups that were eventually absorbed by the Arameans as well Armenian- and Iranian-speakers.

One should not think of these cultural areas as robust, clearly defined blocks nor equate language with ethnic identity as we are prone to do today. Multilingualism had been extremely common in the Middle East for one and a half millennia, with Greek enjoying the position of an intellectual, liturgical, commercial and administrative lingua franca even after the Arab conquest, under the Ummayads. Some of the most esteemed scholars of the late Antique period, such as Lucian of Samosata or Iamblichos of Qinnasrin were ‘ethnic’ Arameans or Arabs that chose to write exclusively in Greek. Similarly, there were at least three Arabic-speaking Roman emperors (Elegabalus, Philippus I and Philippus II) and certainly one Byzantine emperor, Leon III the Isaurian, who ironically defended Constantinople against the Arab siege of 717 but also, perhaps under Islamic influence, initiated the iconoclastic prohibition of icons in Christian worship, leading a Byzantine source to call him “Saracen minded”. Kallinikos of Heliopolis, the engineer who invented the so-called Greek fire, the Byzantine superweapon that proved crucial in the defence of Constantinople, had also been a refugee from Baalbek, Lebanon.


A Byzantine ship using Greek Fire, the invention of Kallinikos from Lebanon – Source: Codex Skylitzes Matritensis, Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid.

The linguistic Arabization in Syria and its surrounding territories was a very long and gradual process that began with the Arabization of the Umayyad bureaucracy and coinage by Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan around 700 and was completed in the late Middle Ages. Evidently it went hand-in-hand with Islamization. Greek was the first language to suffer through its association with the caliphate’s political rival, Byzantium. It further retreated to urban centres and was eventually restricted to learned polyglot monastic communities of various denominations, where it was employed alongside Syriac, Georgian, Coptic, Armenian and, increasingly, Arabic.

Antioch, the seat of the local Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate, was the only exception, where Greek continued to be spoken until the end of the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that as early as the 10th c. most non-clerical Christians in Antioch were already switching to Arabic. Immediately after the brief Byzantine reconquest of Antioch by Nikephoros II Phokas (another emperor who may have been of Arab if not Armenian origin) the local orthodox initiated a vast translation movement of religious texts from Greek to Arabic, which suggests their urgent need for religious texts in their new vernacular.

Aramean fared better, partly because it was not associated with any of the caliphate’s external enemies, and partly because of its high status as liturgical language of several emerging state-less, independent churches. Another reason for its survival has to do with its linguistic proximity to Arabic as fellow-Semitic languages and its usage as a valuable intermediary in translations of Ancient Greek texts into Arabic. Speakers of Aramaic, Greek or both, played a pivotal role in the Graeco-Arabic translation movement centred in Abbasid Baghdad in 8th – 10th c, without which a series of texts by the likes of Aristotle, Galen, Ptolemy, Euclid, etc. may have otherwise been lost forever.

“Eastern Orthodox”

Syria in the 7th c. was an overwhelmingly Christian land. And yet throughout the Byzantine Empire, heated theological debates over Christology, i.e., the divine and human natures of Christ, made Christianity an arena of contention rather than a cause for unity. Thus, three distinct theologies, and groups of followers emerged:

1. Radical’ dyophysites: These were influenced by the teaching of Nestorius, a representative of the theological school of Antioch and later Patriarch of Constantinople. They emphasized the distinctness of Christ’s two natures, a view that was declared heretical by the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Chalcedon (451). Due to intense Byzantine persecution, the group relocated en masse beyond Byzantium’s eastern borders, under the protection of Sassanid Persia. Originally active in both Greek and Aramean language areas, dyophysitism eventually flourished in an Eastern Syriac environment and served as the predecessor of the modern Assyrian Church of the East (whereby East denotes Mesopotamia and beyond all the way to China!) and the Chaldean Catholic Church.

2. Miaphysites: Following the teachings of the Alexandrian theological school and especially those of its patriarch Cyril, miaphysites emphasized the fullness and unity of Jesus’ nature. Their anti-Nestorianism led them to fully support Nestorius’s condemnation at the council Ephesus but reject the ‘milder’ emphasis placed at Chalkedon. They are therefore sometimes referred to as non-Chalkedonian or Oriental Orthodox. While several Byzantine Emperors, including Justinian’s wife Theodora, and Patriarchs of Constantinople were in fact miaphysites, this theology did not prevail in the Byzantine empire and eventually solidified in non-Greek-speaking cultural zones, resulting in today’s Armenian, (West) Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox churches. All of these may be collectively described as Oriental Orthodox Churches, in order to highlight their distinct theology from the Eastern Orthodox Churches (see below). Oriental Orthodox churches may be seen as “proto-national” since each developed its own liturgical language as opposed to the international languages of the time, i.e. Greek and Latin. 

3. Chalkedonian dyophysites: The Council of Chalkedon condemned Nestorius with a somewhat milder phrasing than miaphysites would have wanted: “two natures in one substance”. This reconciliatory phrasing became the official doctrine in the Byzantine Empire and is clearly reflected in depictions of Christ in Byzantine art. It is therefore endorsed by all Eastern Orthodox Churches, as well as Western Orthodox Christians (or Catholics in today’s parlance). Accordingly, Middle Eastern Christians of other denominations would historically refer to Aramean-, Arabic- or Greek-speaking Chalkedonian dyophysites as “Melchites” (from the semitic root m-l-k), i.e., followers of the doctrine of the “king”, i.e. the Byzantine Emperor. Similarly, Arabic sources would refer to such local Christians as “Rûm”, i.e. “Roman/Byzantine”, in the sense of “Chalkedonian Orthodox”, regardless of ethnicity or linguistic background. Today we call them, “Eastern Orthodox” in order to distinguish them, both from the Oriental Orthodox and Western Christians.


Icon of Christ Pantocrator. Difference in the left and right sides depict the dual nature of Christ, illustrating traits of both man and God. Mirrored composites of left and right sides of the image show what the image would have looked like if Christ was believed to be only god or only human.

For many centuries these confessional differences did not coincide with ethnic or linguistic distinctions. All three groups contained large numbers of Aramaic-, Greek-, Armenian- and Arabic-speakers, not to mention bilinguals, before being consolidated in linguistically uniform zones. Take for example, Romanos the Melodist (late 5th c. — mid-6th c.), the father of Byzantine hymnography and music. Originally from a family of Jewish converts from Homs or Damascus, Romanos moved to Constantinople, where his poetic genius truly flourished. The language of his hymns, which are still sung in Christian churches around the world today, is a remarkably elegant Koine Greek, but full of Semitisms, i.e. phrases and expressions translated directly from his native Aramaic. Romanos was a Chalkedonian dyophysite (i.e. Eastern Orthodox) but because of his immense influence on Armenian religious music he is also acknowledged as a saint by the miaphysite Armenian Apostolic Church. On linguistic grounds, he is also ‘claimed’ by Syriac Christians today.

Furthermore, confessional belonging, ethnic origin and linguistic background did not necessarily translate into political loyalty (do they do so even today?). Of course, conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy was a prerequisite for admission into the highest echelons of the Byzantine state, which means that the countless Byzantine emperors, generals, administrators, clerics and scholars of Armenian origin that we know of were asked to formally denounce their miaphysitism. Does this make them less Byzantine or less Armenian, I wonder?

Elsewhere, and especially in the army, the Byzantines were more flexible. The Ghassanids, for example, whom we saw earlier as the first Arabic-speaking Christians of Syria and Byzantium’s most loyal clients in the area, were actually miaphysites, i.e. heterodox by Byzantine standards. And yet, geostrategic reasons led Byzantium to tolerate their heterodoxy. After spilling much blood in defending Syria against the Arab caliphate, the Ghassanids were eventually scattered and assimilated into both miaphysite and dyophysite Christian communities.

But if there is one person that best embodies the story of Eastern Christianity in Syria, it is the extraordinary theologian and hymnographer St John of Damascus (675-749), acknowledged as the last of the Great Fathers of the Church by Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans alike. John was born as Mansûr ibn Sarjûn to an aristocratic family of Arab-Byzantine officials, perhaps hailing from the Banu Taghlib, another Arab tribe that had adopted Christianity.

His grandfather by the same name had been a senior financial administrator of Syria during the destructive Byzantino-Sassanian wars (572–591 and 602–628) under emperors Maurikios and Heraklios I. Mansûr the Elder seems to have resisted both Heraklios’ and the Sassanids’ efforts to financially squeeze the province to support the war effort. In fact, the heavy taxation imposed by both Sassanids and Byzantines every time Syria changed hands must have greatly alienated local Christians. This, coupled by the military exhaustion of the two rival superpowers, paved the way for the rapid expansion of the nascent Islamic Caliphate. According to Byzantine and Arabic sources, either Mansûr or his son Sarjûn eventually negotiated the surrender of Damascus to the caliphate in 635, in exchange for more favourable terms for the local Eastern Orthodox.

John’s father Sarjûn (Gr. Sergios) served as public and private secretary (Arab. mawla) to the first Ummayad Caliph Mu’awiya I (r. 661–680) and perhaps as fiscal governor of Syria for him and several of his successors. His fall from favour around 700 seems to be related to Abd al-Malik program of centralizing and Arabizing Umayyad bureaucracy. One particular Arabic source that describes Sarjûn as “Rûm” claims that the caliph repeatedly asked him totranslatethe diwan (fiscal administration) from Greek into Arabic. Sarjûn’s refusal led to his replacement by Sulayman ibn Sa’d al-Khushani who happily complied to the caliph’s request. Sarjûn is said to have used his wealth and influence to ransom Christians from slavery, one of whom, St Kosmas of Maiouma, would become his adopted son and life-long companion of his biological son, John.

Byzantine, but not Arabic, sources claim that John, fluent in Arabic, Syriac and Greek, followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and began a career in the Umayyad administration before becoming a monk. In any case, from his monastery of Mar Saba near Jerusalem, John rose to become perhaps the first great systematizer of Eastern Orthodox theology. His apologetic treatises clearly defined Chalkedonian dogma by opposition to miaphysites and radical dyophysites alike. But above all his Treatise Against Those Decrying the Holy Images remains the archetypal theological defence of the use of icons in Orthodox worship.

And here is the irony: at a time when the Arab Caliphate was besieging Constantinople, an Arabic-speaking, heterodox Emperor Leo III was defending Byzantium against the invaders while attacking the use of icons in Christian worship, under Islamic influence. Meanwhile, in Arab-held Syria and Palestine an ethnically Arab Christian theologian was writing, in the most elegant Greek, a philosophically profound defense of icons that would define Eastern Orthodoxy to this day.


The Arabic-speaking Byzantine Emperor Leo III.

Let us now return to the historical question about the origin of the Arabic-speaking Eastern Orthodox. Consider on the one hand the great complexity of ethnic identities in the Late-Antique and Medieval world as outlined above; add to the mix the scarcity and fragmentation of reliable contemporary sources and demographic data; what you have before you is the utter helplessness of the historian when asked to credibly answer this chicken-and-egg question. How and with what evidence can anyone responsibly argue that the Byzantine Greeks or Arameans who switched to Arabic a thousand years ago were more numerous than the Arabs who adopted Christianity or vice versa? How can anyone claim to know with certainty the multi-layered sense of belonging experienced by the likes of Leo III, the Ghassanids or St John of Damascus?

“In the Shade of Three Nationalisms”

Having survived one empire after the other, Arabic-speaking Christians, increasingly since the 19th century have found themselves in the shadow of competing nationalisms. While the three nationalisms mentioned in the title of our publication and explored in its pages are the Arab, Greek and Turkish ones, respectively, several others may be added to the list, such as the Syrian and Assyrian national movements. Whether focusing on the 4 millennia of Aramean cultural presence, the almost two millennia of Hellenistic and Byzantine influence, the so-called Syrian Synthesis thesis, or the role of Arab Christians in the Arab Awakening, all nationalist narratives share a selective approach to the past, that invents and conceals more than it reveals, in order to claim the community in question in the present. Proponents of Turkish nationalism, on the other hand, tend to highlight the issue of citizenship and the fact that at least the younger generation of Antiochian Christians have already been linguistically ‘assimilated’ into Turkish. Of course, an important issue that our volume explores is that such approaches tend to conceal the historical role of state-sponsored minority policies in this process of assimilation.

In this light, it is not surprising that the title of our book received its fair share of criticism. People who identified as “Arab” felt that the title was purposefully evasive, negating a passionately felt identity that was obvious and unproblematic to them. Yet others felt strongly against associating themselves with Arab culture, to begin with. Is this a case of “failing to please anyone while trying to please everyone”? Not at all. These reactions are not just understandable, but in fact further support and corroborate many of the findings of the research presented in our volume.

With this in mind, let us finally return to the identity question: “what are the Eastern Orthodox of Antakya? Arab? Rum? Turkish? Christian?” The only answer I could possibly offer with a clear conscience is that “they know best”. And I would add that one should be especially suspicious of anyone who tries to tell them otherwise. One thing is certain, however: whether you speak it or not, whether you know it passively from songs, proverbs or recipes, Antiochian Arabic deeply matters. It invites affection and is worthy of pride, because it tells a millennia-old story of both resilience and cultural interconnections that extend far beyond the church we go to and the country we live in.


Haris Theodorelis Rigas teaches Latin and Classical Greek at Koç University Archeology and Art History Department. He is co-founder, partner and editor at Istos Publishing House (Istanbul), Turkey’s first publishing house and film producers, specializing in Anatolian Greek history and literature. Rigas holds a PhD in Identity Theory, Minority Policies in the Balkans and the Middle East from Boğaziçi University, Department of Political Science and International Relations. The title of his thesis was: “Minority politics as a three-level negotiation: identification, institutions and collective action in Istanbul’s Rum community.”

For the article in Turkish see www.nehna.org