The city of Jerusalem has a 16th century Ottoman wall surrounding its Old City. The area within these walls is allotted into four sections: the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter. Although Armenians are Christian, they were the first country to nationally convert to Christianity, so they have kept a presence in Jerusalem for centuries. That is why they have their own quarter. Despite the name, none of the quarters are solely made up of one group of people. In fact, hidden away in a narrow street of the Armenian Quarter is St. Mark’s Monastery.
St. Mark’s Monastery is not Armenian but Syriac Orthodox. When people hear of the Syriac Orthodox Church, they assume that it is connected with the country of Syria. However, that is not the case. Syria gained independence from France in 1946, but the Syriac Orthodox Church is one of the oldest churches in the world. According to an article (“National and Ethnic Identity in the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Assyrian Identity in Post-Empire Times.” Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies 18, no. 2 (2004): 5-22) by the Finnish Assyriologist, Simo Parpola, the words “Assyrian,” “Syriac,” and “Syrian” all derive from the word Ashur, the name of the Ancient Assyrian Empire. Since the Assyrian Empire once dominated the Middle East, its name influenced the region.
During the first few hundred years of Christianity, before the Catholic and Orthodox churches even split, churches from across the globe held ecumenical councils. During the fourth ecumenical council in A.D. 451, called the Council of Chalcedon, the churches excommunicated those adhering to monophysitism, which states that Jesus only had a divine, not human, nature. Those expelled included the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church, and the Syriac Orthodox Church. Today, these latter churches claim that their theology was misrepresented at the Council, and that they did still believe in Jesus’ humanity. Regardless, because of this early split, these Eastern Churches developed on their own.
Most people from the Syriac Orthodox Church (also known as the Jacobite Church, because of one of their bishops, Jacob Barradaeus) lived in what is present-day Turkey. They built a church in Jerusalem in the sixth century A.D., which became St. Mark’s Monastery. According to Syriac Orthodox tradition, it was built over the Upper Room where Jesus had his last supper. Today, anyone can visit the church and have a tour with the caretaker. Fortunately, when I visited the church, the caretaker allowed me to go downstairs to the site of the earliest church. The current church was built on top of it. Archaeologists did not discover this earlier church until 1940.
The Syriac Orthodox Church’s liturgy is in a modern dialect of Aramaic. That is because, prior to the Islamic invasion of the Middle East in the seventh century A.D., the Middle East’s lingua franca was Aramaic. After the Islamic invastion, those who did not convert to Christianity kept their Aramaic language and did not replace it with Arabic. The modern Aramaic script is called Syriac. If you attend a service at St. Mark’s Monastery, you can hear the Aramaic liturgy and see the Syriac prayer books used.
If the Syriac Orthodox Church is not confusing enough, I would like to add one more confusing element to it. Today, many adherents of the Syriac Orthodox Church consider themselves ethnically Aramean, because they speak the Aramaic language. Since they lived in the Middle East before the Islamic conquest, they are certainly not Arab, even if most of them can speak Arabic today. However, it is only in the 20th century that the Syriac Orthodox Church adopted the Aramean identity.
The identity of the Syriac Orthodox Church remains a controversial topic today. Whereas some, but not all, from the Syriac Orthodox Church consider themselves Aramean, others call themselves Assyrian. In fact, one of the founders of Assyrian Nationalism in the early twentieth century, Naum Faiq, was born into a Syriac Orthodox family. Assyrian nationalists claim that they are descended from the ancient Assyrians and want to build an Assyrian homeland.
Members of the Assyrian Church of the East also believe that the Syriac Orthodox Church is descended from the ancient Assyrians. Similar to the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Assyrian Church of the East is an ancient Middle Eastern church that speaks Aramaic (although an Eastern dialect, unlike the Syriac Orthodox Church’s western dialect). It was excommunicated from the mainstream church at the third ecumenical council in A.D. 431 (the Council of Ephesus), because its members were associated with the heretic Nestorius. According to those from the Assyrian Church of the East, who also identify themselves as descendants of the ancient Assyrians, the reason why the Syriac Orthodox Church stopped calling itself Assyrian in the twentieth century was because it wanted to distance itself from the Assyrian Church of the East. This was not only for religious reasons, but primarily because they did not want to experience the same fate as the Assyrians, who were massacred in Simele, Iraq in 1933. At Simele, between 3,000 to 6,000 Assyrians were killed by the Iraqi government, both for political and religious reasons.
Although the Syriac Orthodox did avoid its own massacre, it did not escape massacre earlier in the 20th century. Approximately 200,000 members of both the Assyrian and Syriac Orthodox churches were massacred during WWI, along with the one million Armenians murdered during the Armenian Genocide. Many Syriac Orthodox people moved to Israel after that, and still live there today. Throughout the 20th century, many others moved to Sweden and the United States. If you are interested, a Syriac Orthodox Group in New Jersey has recently uploaded over 2,000 Syriac Orthodox and Assyrian books online here: https://archive.org/details/bethmardutho.
St. Mark’s Monastery has a connection with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. I plan to write about that soon. (September 20 Update: Here is the Post about the Dead Sea Scrolls.)
Sources and Further Reading
“Dayro d-Mor Marqos.” Syriac Orthodox Resources. http://syriacorthodoxresources.org/ChMon/HLand/YerusalemSMark.html (accessed September 13, 2020).
Donabed, Sargon and Ninos Donabed. Assyrians of Eastern Massachusetts. Charleston: Arcadia, 2006.
Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Monophysite.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/monophysite (accessed September 13, 2020).
Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Nestorianism.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Nestorianism (accessed September 13, 2020).
Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Syriac-Orthodox-Patriarchate-of-Antioch-and-All-the-East (accessed September 13, 2020).
Parpola, Simo. “National and Ethnic Identity in the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Assyrian Identity in Post-Empire Times.” Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies 18, no. 2 (2004): 5-22. http://www.jaas.org/edocs/v18n2/Parpola-identity_Article%20-Final.pdf (accessed September 13, 2020).