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Origin of the Maphrianate of Tigrit - Fr. Dr. Baby Varghese

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Rev. Fr. Dr. Baby Varghese



Persian Church was not directly involved in the convocation and deliberations of the first four ecumenical councils. The Christological disputes that these councils discussed had their origin in the Roman Empire. In fact the Persian Church was ignorant of the Council of Nicea (325) and its Creed until the beginning of the fourth century[1]. The Council of Ephesus (431), which condemned Nestorianism, was a Roman Synod in which no Persian delegate was present. From about 420 to 457, the Persia Church was more concerned with its own survival under the Zoroastrian persecutions than with the doctrinal discussions. However, the impacts of Ephesus reached Persia soon through Edessa.


  Initial division in the Persian Church:


                   The Christological position of Rabbula, bishop of Edessa (412-436) caused an initial division in the Edessan Church. Rabbula, a Cyrillian from near Alleppo, became bishop of Edessa in 411 or 412. He was well known for his reforms in the Edessan Church, notably for the suppression of the Diatesaron and the introduction of the four ‘Separate Gospels’, as well for his adamant attitude towards heretics[2]. Edessa’s natural leaning in the controversy was toward the Antiochene Christology and therefore toward Nestorius. The works of Theodore of Mopsuestia were normative in the School of Edessa since the time of Qiore (436/7), who replaced the works of Saint Ephrem with those of Theodore. In 431, following the Council of Ephesus, Rabbula called a Synod in Edessa, and burned the writings of Theodore[3]. By 435 or 436, when Rabbula died, the Christians of Edessa were divided into two groups, one accepting and the other rejecting Nestorianism.


                   Rabbula was succeeded by a committed Nestorian named Ibas or Hibas (435/6-457). However, the Christians remained divided. One of the factors that deepened the division was the three theological schools that existed in Edessa by the middle of the fifth century: the school of the Persians (pro-nestorian), the school of the Syrians (probably anti-nestorian) and the school of the Armenians (perhaps also anti-nestorian)[4]. In 449, the anti-nestorians of Edessa demonstrated on the streets against Hibas. The governor of the city, alarmed for peace, imprisoned the bishop. In the same year, at the Council of Ephesus (449), Hibas was condemned and deposed. However, at the Council of Chalcedon (451), he was restored to his bishopric. Thus his adversaries must have adopted an anti-chalcedonian attitude. It should be noted that the Christological controversies caused divisions in Edessa in the same years in which the councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon were held.


                   In spite of the wars between Persia and Rome, large number of Persian students came to Edessa’s prestigious school of the Persians to study Bible and theology. They were naturally caught up in the defense of Nestorian Christology. The alumnae of Edessa were soon to rise to the leadership of the Persian Church. They included the Patriarch Acasius, Barsauma of Nisibis and Narsai, the head of the School of Nisibis.


                   Hibas died in 457 and was succeeded by an anti-nestorian named Nona. His successor Qura (or Cyril, 471-498) was strongly anti-chalcedonian, whom the Nestorians called “the Mad Dog”. In 489, at Qura’s urging, the emperor Zeno ordered to close down the School of the Persians. Narsai, the head of the school and the teachers fled the city and took refuge in Nisibis, where they opened a new school. During this time, the Persian Church was gradually adopting Nestorianism as its official creed. Syrian Orthodox historians like Simeon of Beit Arsham (6th century), Michel the Syrian and Bar Hebraeus say that Barsauma of Nisibis was responsible for the conversion of the Persian Church to Nestorianism. According to them, Barsauma, who was also a Persian military commander, misused his power to massacre the anti-nestorians and to force Nestorianism on the unwilling Patriarchs Babowai (450-484) and Acacius (485-496)[5].  Modern western scholarship, often too much sympathetic towards Nestorianism, does not take this story seriously[6]. Barsauma might have played the most decisive role in Babowai’s conversion, as the patriarch feared the powerful prelate of Nisibis. Acasius also was not probably a Nestorian in the strict sense, as he could satisfy his colleagues in Constantinople of his doctrinal position, during his diplomatic mission to the Roman capital[7].


                   The Synod of Acasius marks another step in the separation of the Persian Church from the West. One of the leading signatories of the Synod, Papa of Beit Lapat

 – second to the catholicos in rank – was an anti-chalcedonian in his sympathies[8]. It is surprising that Papa’s name figures after Acasius among the signatories of the Synod. It is unlikely that Papa had signed a Nestorian Christological statement found in the canons. This statement might have been added later when the nestorianisation became complete.


Origin of the Non-chalcedonian movement in Persia:


                   Besides Papa of Beit Lapat, the Christians of Tagrit and the monks of at least one major monastery (Mar Mathai, near Mosul) were anti-chalcedonians. Thus the canon  2 of the Synod of Acasisus forbade the monks wandering in the villages and organizing communities and disturbing the order in the Church. Most probably the anti-nestorians of Persia (who were sympathizers of the Alexandrian Christology) might have joined the anti-chalcedonian movement from its origin. As we shall see below, there were isolated communities and were visited by Syrian Orthodox missionaries coming from the other side of the border.


                   Simeon of Beit Arsham[9] (died about the year 533) was one of the earliest prominent Syrian Orthodox missionaries who worked in Persia. Simon was a Persian by birth. John of Ephesus gives a brief biography[10], according to which Simon worked among the Persians as well as among the Romans. Since Simon engaged in public debates with his opponents, he was known as the “Persian disputant”. Thanks to his works, the anti-nestorian ( and anti-chalcedonian) movement in Persia had a considerable growth. The Nestorians bishops complained to the Persian King that the anti-chalcedonians were traitors because their faith and practices agree with that of the Romans and the King ordered persecution. John of Ephesus writes: “ Then he (the king) issued an order that all the believing bishops should be arrested and all the chief archmandrites, and committed to prison in Nisibis”[11]. Simeon went to Constantinople and requested the emperor Anastasius to intercede in favour of the persecuted Christians. In response to Anastasius’ message, the Persian King ordered to end the persecution and the non-Chalcedonians enjoyed freedom. Simeon’s successful mission could convert the pagans and the Magians[12]. However, the anti-chalcedonian community was still a minority and without enough bishops. When Simeon died about the year 533, only one Syrian Orthodox bishop (Qaris of Singar, near Nisibis) was left in all Persia.


First Syrian Orthodox Ordinations in Persia


                   The ordinations for the anti-chalcedonian communities in Persia might have been performed by the Non-Chalcedonian bishops who were exiled under Justin I (518-27) and Justinian (527-565). At least 55 bishops were expelled by Justin, and some of them had crossed over into Persia. Severus of Antioch writes that there were only three places left in the world where “believing bishops could be ordained: Alexandria in Egypt, Mardin in northern Syria and across the border in Persia[13]” About 533 AD, John, bishop of Tella (or Constantina = Yohannan bar Qursus) began to ordain deacons, priests and bishops, including some “ for the Christians in Persia”[14]. They came from the coasts of Asia and Armenia to Arzun, which was across the border in Persia[15].


                   According to the Ecclesiastical History of Zachariah of Mitylene, after the death of John of Tella,  a certain Q’uiros (Cyrus) “believing bishop” ordained priests and bishops in Persia about 537 to 544 “on account of the death and scant members of the pastors among the Persians”[16]. Michel the Syrian (“ a certain Qiros”) and Bar Hebraeus (Qaris, bishop of Singar”) speak of the ordinations in Persia[17]. Bar Hebraeus adds that Qaris was the only (orthodox) bishop in the East and the “orthodox from different places received ordinations from him”.


                   As we have seen John of Tella had ordained pastors for the Armenian Church. Thus it was probable that the Syrian Orthodox Church naturally turned to the Armenians for ordination in case of emergency. Thus the Armenian catholicos Christophorus (539-545), during his visit to the region in 540 seems to have consecrated at least two bishops: Ahudemmeh, for Beit Arabaye (Northern Mesopotamia, known as Gazira) and  Garmai for the monastery of Mathai[18]. (On the consecration of Ahedemmeh, see below).


                   The first members of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Persia were probably the anti-nestorians. The missionaries were active to make new converts from the Nestorians as well as the pagans. Lay missionaries were also active in Persia. John of Ephesus narrates the story of two traders named Elijah and Theodore, from Amida in East Syria, “ who besides worldly trade engaged moreover in divine (trade) also”. They carried on their business for twenty years[19].


                   The incoming of the captives was an important factor for the numerical growth of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Persia. Following the invasions of the Roman territory by Chosroes I (531-579) and Chosroes II (589-628), hundreds of thousands of Christian prisoners were brought to Persia. There were priests and some bishops among them. Most of the prisoners were Chalcedonians. Antioch itself was taken and sacked twice, in 540 and in 611. The Persians built new cities for the large number of prisoners. The best known among the new cities was a second Gundeshapur near Seleucia-Ctesiphon, “the better Antioch of Chosroes”. Syrian Orthodox priest-missionaries might have worked among the Christian captives and some of them were probably converted[20].


                   However, in Persia, the non-chalcedonian community was a rather unorganized minority and in 559, Jacob Baradaeus attempted to give it a hierarchical structure.


Mission of Jacob Baradaeus and the consecration of Ahudemmeh:


                   About 542, Al Harith ibn Jabadah, king of the Ghassanid Arabs and a former Roman military governeor of the provinces of Eastern Syria, requested the Empress Theodora to send two non-chalcedonian missionary bishops. She took the initiative in the election of Jacob Baradaeus and Theodore. Theodosius, the exiled patriarch of Alexandria, living in Constantinople, consecrated Jacob for Edessa and Theodore for Bostra in Roman Arabia. The later worked among the Ghassanid Arabs and Jacob organized the non-chalcedonian communities from Constantinople to the Persian border. Jacob never really lived in Edessa, his Episcopal seat[21]. The Syrian Orthodox sources claim that he had ordained 100,000 priests, 27 bishops and two patriarchs. In 559, Jacob consecrated Ahudemmeh, as metropolitan[22]. It seems that he was already consecrated bishop of Beit Arbaye by the Armenian Catholicos Christophorus (in 540). Regarding his consecration Bar Hebraeus writes: “ He was ordained by Jacob (Baradaeus) in the year 870 of the Greeks (559 A.D.). It is said that he was consecrated bishop of Beit Arabaye by Christophorus, catholicos of the Armenians and metropolitan of the East by Jacob”[23].

But earlier sources are silent about his ordination by the Armenian catholicos. The Ecclesiastical History  of John of Ephesus (died.c.585) records a discussion between Ahudeemmeh and the Nestorian Catholicos, that took place before the Persian King Chosroes I (531-579). John introduces him as follows: “ The chief of the Orthodox being a certain holy bishop, named Achedemmeh”[24]. John of Ephesus, the biography of Ahudemmeh and the Chronicle of Michel the Syrian do not mention the names of the bishops who consecrated him[25].  However, Ahudemmeh evangelized among the Arab tribes and revived the Syrian Orthodox monasticism in Persia[26].


                   Some Syrian Orthodox sources associate the name of Ahoudemmeh with the see of Tagrit. Thus an eighth or ninth century list of the bishops of Tagrit, discovered by I.Rahmani, begins with the name of Ahudemmeh[27]. However, it is not clear whether he had ever occupied the see of Tagrit. John of Ephesus refers to him as “ chief of the orthodox”[28],  Michel the Syrian as “ bishop in the land of the Persians”[29], and Bar Hebraeus as “ Metropolitan of the East”[30]. Even his biography (published by F.Nau), does not associate his name with Tagrit, but simply say: “ he was made bishop in the land of the Arabs and at the same time metropolitan”[31]. It is not clear whether he was ordained directly for the Beit Arabaye[32]. However, he had played an important role in the re-organization of the Syrian Orthodox communities in Persia.


Revival of the Syrian Orthodox Church under Chosroes II


                   During the reign of Chosroes II (589-629), the Syrian Orthodox Church made attempts to assert itself. It was because the royal physician Gabriel of Singar, known usually by his official title of “Drustbedh” and the Queen Sirin were non-chalcedonians[33].

The Nestorian historians say that Gabriel became a non-chalcedonian, because the Catholicos Sabr-Ishu excommunicated him for bigamy, and refused to restore to communion even at the request of the King. But as Wigram has pointed out, accusations against an opponent’s morality are common in the East and they may not be taken seriously[34]. Nestorian Patriarchate was left vacant for twenty years (608-628), until the death of Chosroes II. Historians accuse that Gabriel used his influence with the King against granting the permission to elect a new patriarch.


                   In Persia, all the Christian melet[35] were under the jurisdiction of the Nestorian patriarch, whether they acknowledged his authority or not. The Nestorians naturally feared that the physician Gabriel and queen Sirin were manoeuvring the Shah to appoint a non-chalcedonian patriarch. This would mean a legal take over of the whole Persian Church by the non-chalcedonians.  The Nestorian bishops met and a delegation consisting of Metropolitan Jonadab of Adiabene, Shubkhal l’Maran of Beit Garmai and Rabban George, was sent to the court. The Nestorian nobles of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, who had some access in the court, were consulted and they did not favour the move. However, the petition of the election was sent to the Shah by the hand of a courtier named Farukan. The Shah replied: “Before allowing you to make any choice, we must see whether your faith is the correct Christianity or no”. The Shah ordered a religious debate between the two groups[36]. The debate was inconclusive, probably because the Shah intended to keep it that way. However, after the debate, it had become obvious to the Persian court that the Persian Christians were no longer one unified melet, but two[37].


                   At Beit Lapat, the Shah had built a monastery in honour of St.Sergius to please his queen Sirin. Since the queen was originally Nestorian, the monastery remained in Nestorian hands. Gabriel demanded to hand it over to the non-chalcedonians. When he came to take it, an angry crowd of Nestorians prevented him. Gabriel complained to the Shah that the Nestorians were trying to kill him. He denounced the Nestorian leader Giwergis the monk as an apostate from Zoroastrianism. He was arrested and he admitted his conversion. Giwergis was crucified in 615 in the suburbs of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. The non-chalcedonians realized that the Shah was not very much in favour of the election of a new patriarch and did not press their demand. The Nestorians feared the outbreak of a persecution and waited patiently. A Syrian Orthodox metropolitan Samuel (614-624) was consecrated at Seleucia-Ctesiphon. The Syrian Orthodox Church was thenceforward practically organized as a distinct melet.[38] Up to then the bishop of Tagrit, Qam Ishu (578-609), had been acting as the leader of the Syrian Orthodox Christians in Persia. He ordained bishops, notably one named Tubana of the Monastery of Mar Mathai. According to Bar Hebraeus, after the death of Samuel in 624, the Syrian Orthodox community had no head for five years. His successor Marouta was consecrated in 629.


                   The first decades of the seventh century were comparatively peaceful time for the Syrian Orthodox Church in Persia. The royal physician Gabriel and the queen Sirin were powerful protectors. Chosroes II tolerated his non-chalcedonian subjects who were persecuted in the Roman empire. In 602, the Roman emperor Maurice was murdered by Phocas. Chosroes II, under the pretext of taking revenge for the murder of his friend invaded the Roman territory. He could conquer Dara (604), then Edessa (609), Caesarea in Cappadocia (611), Damascus (613), Jerusalem (614) and even Alexandria. But in 610, Heraclius succeeded the inefficient Phocas and re-conquered lost territories and entered the Tigris valley  and in 627/8 occupied Adiabene and Beit Garmai on the left bank of Tigris and finally Dastgerd, the favorite residence of Chosroes II.


                   It was during this time that Marouta, the future bishop of Tagrit and the head of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Persia entered the scene. He was from Surzaq, near Balad (in the vicinity of Nineveh)[39].  He had his education in the monastery of Mar Samuel Turaya on the left bank of Tagrit and later became a monk of the monastery of Mardas. Taking advantage of the peace that existed at the time of Chosroes II and the Emperor Maurice, Marouta spent a few years in the Roman territory to continue his studies. Around the year 605 he returned to Persia and took his residence in the monastery of Mar Mathai and taught there for sometime.  He reorganized the life of the monastic community. We can rightly assume that he had prepared the background for the re-union of the monks of Mar Mathai with the Syrian Orthodox patriarchate of Antioch which took place in 629.  About the year 615 (?), Marouta took over the charge of the monastery in Seleucia-Ctesiphion founded by the queen Sirin.  In fact she had founded it for the Nestorians about the year 598. When she was converted to the Syrian Orthodox Church, under the influence of the physician Gabriel, the monastery was taken away from the Nestorians. However, the Nestorians, probably with the knowledge of the Syrian Orthodox bishop Samuel (614-24) continued to receive communion in the monastery. Marouta put an end to this abuse[40]. Samuel wished to make him bishop of Tagrit, but he refused[41]. However, it may be noted that Marouta was a prominent non-chalcedonian monk in Persia and this explains why he was appointed the primate (‘metropolitan of Tagrit and the East’) of the Syrian Orthodox in Persia and why the monastery of Mar Mathai accepted his primacy.


                   With the death of the physician Gabriel, the Syrian Orthodox lost a powerful protector and Chosroes II changed his attitude towards the Christians. During his victories against the Romans, he had protected the Nestorians and the Syrian Orthodox. He had given to the Syrian Orthodox some of the churches that Domitianus of Melitene had confiscated from them. After the death of Gabriel, Chosroes persecuted the Christians, both Nestorians and the Syrian Orthodox. Marouta had to leave Tagrit and he took refuge near Aqoula and remained there until the death of Chosroes II (628).

[1] It was at the Synod of Mar Issac (410) that the Persian Church officially accepeted the Creed and canons of Nicea. See the acts of the Synod in: J.B.Chabot (ed &tr.) Synodicon Orientale ou Recueil de synods Nestoriens, (Paris, 1902), 253-75 (French and notes).

[2] On Rabbula, see, G.G.Blum, Rabbula von Edessa, der Bischof, der Theolog, CSCO 300, sub.34.

[3] see, Michel the Syrian: J.B.Chabot (ed), Chronique de Michel le Syrien, (Paris,