Day by day, we hear new horrors about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Now, believers living under ISIS control in northern Iraq must choose between conversion to Islam, payment of protection money, or death. Ancient churches and shrines are already in flames.
I want to concentrate on a unexamined aspect of this problem, one that has done much to shape what we know about the history and nature of early Christianity. In one particular historical era, anti-Christian violence did irreparable damage to our historical sources.
The story goes back to the dual origins of monasticism, which began more or less simultaneously in Egypt and Syria. From the fourth century, very large monastic settlements were beginning in both regions, and those houses became the homes of rich libraries. St. Catherine’s in Sinai is the best-known Egyptian example, while the Syriac world had one concentration of houses around Mosul, in Iraq, and another to the northwest, near the present Turkish-Syrian border. Here we find the Tur Abdin plateau, the Mountain of the Servants of God. Near the cities of Nisibis and Mardin, there stood a group of perhaps a hundred monasteries that have been described as the Mount Athos of the East.
Nineteenth century scholars made dazzling finds of ancient books and manuscripts in both regions. At St. Catherine’s in 1844, Constantin Tischendorf found the fourth century Bible that we call Codex Sinaiticus. Around the same time, a Syriac monastery produced the Bazaar of Heracleides, a contemporary history of the fifth century Christological controversies written by none other than the arch-heretic Nestorius himself.
Spectacular finds were however far more common in Egypt than in the Syriac world, which is startling when we consider the massive outpouring of writing and scholarship in that culture from the fourth century onwards. One great textual find in the 1840s was the Curetonian gospels, the most ancient testimony to the Old Syriac Bible text, probably written down in the fifth century — but these came from a Syriac monastery in Egypt itself.
The more you look at the Syriac world in this era the easier it is to understand the lack of manuscript finds. Through the centuries, both Egypt and Syria/Mesopotamia were subject to various wars and raids, which had devastated particular monasteries. The earlier these occurred, though, the more likely it was that losses could be made up by copying items found in other collections. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, moreover, such random violence was rare in Egypt, which had an active state mechanism.
Utterly different was the position of the Syriac houses. Ottoman authority was weak in the eastern regions of the empire, which was a contested borderland between the Turkish and Persian realms. Public order was very weak, with local warlords regularly rebelling against central authority. Christian communities found themselves the targets of raids by neighboring peoples, especially the Kurds. Although these neighbors were Muslim, the attacks were usually not religiously directed. They were rather profit-seeking ventures against easy targets, like the Viking raids in medieval Europe. And in both eras, monasteries proved to be low-hanging fruit.
Whatever the causes, the old Syriac monastic world suffered dreadfully from violence. In the 1730s, this region became a battlefront during the invasion by Persian ruler Nader Shah. Nader’s forces directed their fury at the monasteries around Mosul, and slaughtered monks en masse. The monasteries subsequently rebuilt, but repeatedly through the nineteenth century, we hear of Kurdish raids inflicting terrible damage on the houses, and their libraries. Mar Mattai, one of the greatest houses, was hit numerous times in the nineteenth century, and we know of spectacular horrors like the 1828 destruction of the manuscripts at the monastery of Rabban Hormizd.