Syria: A Short History/7
BYZANTINES AND ARABS
On May 11, 330, the emperor Constantine dedicated as the new capital of the Roman empire the city of Constantinople, located on the site of ancient Byzantium on the European side of the Bosporus. Its strategic position, relatively secure against the barbarian bands which had made Rome untenable, gave the city economic and military advantages that made it a natural centre about which the eastern provinces could readily cluster. The shift itself indicates a recognition of the preponderance those provinces possessed in wealth and natural resources. The major civilized antagonist of the empire, Persia, lay to the east. The centre of gravity in world affairs was returning eastward after four centuries' sojourn in Italy.
Prior to his foundation of a new capital for the state Constantine gave recognition to a new official religion. Whether his own conversion to Christianity about 312 was one of convenience or of conviction is of no historical consequence. The fact remains that at his command this once persecuted and obscure cult now became the official religion of the empire. As Greece had conquered the minds of the Romans, Syria now conquered their souls. By this time the most influential men in the empire had become followers of Christ, though the majority of the population, including Constantine's foes, were still pagan. Discipline, organization, wealth and enthusiasm were on the side of the minority, to which the emperor now added the power of the state. In 325 he convened an ecumenical council of all the bishops of the empire at Nicaea, the first congress of its kind. In it Arianism was condemned and the Christian faith was definitely codified in what became the Nicene Creed. All but one of the successors of Constantine professed the Christian faith.
These two events in the reign of Constantine — the transference of the capital from Rome to Constantinople and the official recognition of Christianity — mark out that reign as one of the most significant in the long history of the Roman state. Christian in doctrine, Greek in language, eclectic in culture, the new empire inaugurated by Con- stantine was to endure, with many vicissitudes, for about eleven centuries and a quarter. From the seventh century on it served as a bulwark against Islam. Finally, in 1453, it succumbed under the onrush of the new champions of that religion, the Ottoman Turks.
For a few years after the establishment of Constantinople the external and theoretical unity of the empire was main- tained. In practice, however, the two halves of the empire were frequently separated and ruled by different emperors. The final division came in 395 when Theodosius died and his sons Honorius and Arcadius succeeded, the former ruling over the western portion and the latter over the eastern. At last, in 476, Rome fell to Germanic invaders.
Byzantine Syria presents a different picture from Roman Syria. It was, on the whole, a Christian land. In fact this is the only period in which Syria has been a fully Christian country. Sandwiched in between the pagan Roman and the Arab Moslem, the Byzantine period was therefore unique in Syrian annals. At the end of the fourth century the province was divided into seven districts, with their capitals at Antioch, Apamea, Tyre, Horns, Caesarea, Scythopolis and Petra. The first two were still called Syria, the next two Phoenicia (though including inland cities which had never belonged to either Phoenicia or Lebanon) and the last three Palaestina, including the former province of Arabia.
Not only was the country Christian but the age was an ecclesiastical age. The church was its greatest institution; saints were its most revered heroes. From the fourth to the sixth centuries monks, nuns, anchorites, priests and bishops flourished as never before or since. Churches, chapels, basilicas and monasteries — all with a new style of archi- tecture featuring domes, bell towers and prominent cruci- fixes — dotted the land. Hermit caves were excavated or enlarged. Pillars were erected on which curious ascetics called Stylites lived and died. Pilgrimage boomed. Vows and prayers at tombs of saints became standard remedies for ill health and misfortune. Monasticism was a favoured way of life. Its ideals of celibacy, poverty and obedience held wide appeal. The decline of population, the waning of prosperity and the civil disturbances that marked the late Roman and early Byzantine decades, had led to a widespread loss of confidence in secular institutions. Christianity pre- sented something supernatural and ultramundane, including a belief in spiritual values worth renouncing this world for and dying for.
Linguistically the church in Syria had developed along two lines : Greek on the coast and in the Hellenized cities, Syriac in the interior. The Syriac-using church had had its start as early as the second century. With the spread of Christianity in the third century Syriac had asserted itself against Greek. In the Byzantine period revulsion from Greek and reversion to Aramaic signalized the new awaken- ing among Syrians. The revived interest in the ancient Semitic tongue was an index of a revival of national con- sciousness as well as a reaction against paganism. Always polyglots, Syrians interested in the bar studied Latin; those addicted to philosophy took up Greek; but the rest, especially those outside of cosmopolitan centres, stuck to the native tongue. The Syriac literature extant is almost entirely Christian, but comprises also handbooks of science and philosophy translated from Greek. Its first great centre, away from the Greek-speaking cities, was Edessa, the Athens of the Aramaic world, where Syriac had first been used for literary purposes, in versions of the Bible.
Opposition to Christian thought as represented by Con- stantinople and Antioch resulted in schisms, 'heresies' from the orthodox viewpoint. As in the case of language these schisms were to a certain extent an expression of national awakening. After a submergence of centuries under a wave of Greek culture the Syrian spirit was at last asserting itself. The alienation of the people from their Byzantine rulers was due to ideological as well as to political and economic causes. The Byzantines were more autocratic in their rule than the Romans had been and more oppressive in their taxation. They disarmed the natives and had little regard for their feelings. Even in matters religious they displayed less tolerance than their pagan predecessors.
Theological controversy was the breath of life among the intelligentsia of the fourth and fifth centuries. It centred on the nature of Christ and kindred topics which no longer agitate Christian minds. The result was innumerable heresies and schools of thought, some of which reflect the exercise of Aristotelian logic and the application of Neo- Platonic principles. Meanwhile, cults akin to Zoroastrianism and to Buddhism were appearing amidst Christian com- munities. The patriarch John Chrysostom (d. 407) refers to a group in Antioch who believed in transmigration of souls and wore yellow robes. Most dangerous among the new religions spreading westward was Manichaeism, which combined Christian, Buddhist and Zoroastrian tenets in one syncretistic system. Its vigorous dualism and other 'errors' aroused the Syrian Fathers as no other 'errors' did.
Several protagonists of the so-called heresies were of Syrian nativity or education. The series began with the fourth-century Alius, whose system was condemned in the Council of Nicaea but retained great importance, both theological and political. As a reaction against Arianism, with its emphasis on the humanity of Christ and its implied denial of his divinity, Apollinaris of Latakia affirmed that while Christ had a true human body and soul, the Logos or Word occupied in him the place of the spirit, which is the highest part of man. Apollinarism links Arianism and Nestorianism by opposing the one and paving the way for the other.
Nestorius was born in eastern Cilicia and lived in a monastery near Antioch. In 428 he was elevated to the bishopric of Constantinople, but three years later his posi- tion was condemned by the Council of Ephesus. The objectionable view he held was that in Jesus a divine person (the Logos) and a human person were joined in perfect harmony of action but not in the unity of a single individual. Nestorius had many followers who constitute the real Nestorians. The so-called Nestorians of Persia, more properly the Church of the East, came later. Cut off from the Roman empire, its adherents evolved their local doctrines and ritual which still survive. Although some of its writers have used decidedly Nestorian language, the liturgical and synodical vocabulary of the church as a whole is remarkably free from it. This is the church which in later times had sufficient vitality to send missionaries as far as India and China.
Next to Nestorianism, Monophysitism was the greatest schism the oriental church suffered. Strictly the Mono- physites were those who did not accept the doctrine of the two natures (divine and human) in the one person of Jesus, formulated by the Council of Chalcedon (451). In the late fifth and early sixth centuries Monophysitism won to its doctrine the major part of northern Syria and fell heir to Apollinarism in the south. The Monophysite church in Syria was organized by Jacob Baradaeus, who was ordained bishop of Edessa about 543 and died in 578. In consequence the Syrian Monophysites came to be called Jacobites. The western part of the Syrian church thus became entirely separated from the eastern. From Syria the Monophysite doctrine spread into Armenia to the north and Egypt to the south. Armenians and Copts to this day adhere to the Monophysite theology. In Syria and Mesopotamia the number of its adherents has been on the decrease ever since Islam became the dominant power in those lands.
Another offshoot of the ancient Syrian church was the Maronite, named after its patron saint, an ascetic monk who lived east of Antioch, where he died in 410. Maron's disciples erected a monastery on the Orontes in his memory. In the early sixth century, after clashing with their Jacobite neighbours, they sought and found in northern Lebanon a safer refuge. Thence they spread to become the largest and most influential sect in Lebanon.
Even aside from the struggle against heresy and schism, confusion marked the intellectual life of Byzantine Syria in its early period. Polemics between Christian and non- Christian Greek and Latin writers were carried on for years after Constantine's profession of the Christian faith. Neo- Platonism was far from dead, though its great century had been the third. Church Fathers were inching their way to the front as leaders of thought. Sophists and rhetoricians were retreating though not quite disappearing.
The writings of a fourth-century Syrian rhetorician named Libanius, who was educated at Antioch and Athens and taught at Constantinople, give a vivid picture of the times and places in which he lived. They also open before us a small window through which we may gain a glimpse of the educational methods of the day. At Antioch courses extended over the winter and spring months; summer was taken up with festive activities. Classes began early and lasted till noon. Some students were as young as sixteen. Higher education was in the hands of rhetoricians, who were elected in the cities by the local senate, in the small towns by the communities at large. The rhetors taught, declaimed by way of example and were responsible for discipline. For their services they received pay from the cities and the students. Greek classics formed the core of the curriculum. Latin was patronized only by those intent upon a govern- ment career. Logic was emphasized. Aristotle enjoyed a renaissance consequent upon his rediscovery by Porphyry.
Due to the productive efforts of such pagan authors as Libanius, Antioch became the intellectual capital of northern Syria. Among the eminent Christians educated there was his pupil, the brilliant John Chrysostom, whose eloquent preaching was marked by a denunciation of laxity in morals and luxury in living. The rich were condemned for acquir- ing their riches by violence, deceit, monopoly and usury and for their attitude of indifference to the sufferings of the poor. His was a social message in an age of ecclesiasticism and theology. So celebrated did he become as a preacher that in 398 he was chosen patriarch of Constantinople, where he sold for the benefit of the needy the treasures collected by his predecessor and uncompromisingly insisted on moral and social reform. He was twice banished and died on his way to exile near the Caucasus. Altogether he was one of the most eloquent preachers and most remarkable teachers of Christian ethics that the church has ever pro- duced.
Two distinguished historians were born at Caesarea in Palestine, Eusebius and Procopius. Eusebius (264-about 349) became bishop of his native city and at the Council of Nicaea delivered an opening address condemning the heresiarch Arius, but his enduring reputation rests on his Ecclesiastical History, in which he narrates in detail the rise of Christianity and its relation to the empire. Procopius pro- vided a valuable contemporary account of the eventful reign of Justinian (527-565).
Several Christian notables not of Syrian nativity are associated with southern Syria. Outstanding among them was Jerome (345-420), whose ascetic temperament led him to a monastery in Bethlehem and thence to five years of solitary life among the hermits of the Syrian Desert. His translation of the Bible into Latin, called the Vulgate, has ever since been the standard version for services in the Roman Catholic church.
Early Christian art had been chiefly indebted to the mediocre Jewish art, just as the primitive churches had been merely elongated rooms modelled on Jewish synagogues. In freeing themselves from the limitations of this naive and rigidly restricted source. Christian artists in Syria and else- where drew increasingly upon pagan Hellenistic formulas. These were modified from time to time and place to place until in the fourth and fifth centuries there emerged a standardized Byzantine style, within which there was ample scope for individual talents to find expression. In archi- tecture, painting, sculpture and other fields of visual ex- pression, this new style aimed resolutely at realism, and this paved the way for Christian medieval art as well as for Moslem art.
It is probable that artistic craftsmen from Syria were summoned to embellish the new capital, Ravenna, to which Honorius (395-423) removed his court to escape the dangers of the Germanic invasions. They remained there to teach their craft to native artists, introducing mosaic techniques and Syrian decorative motifs. In the fifth century Ravenna became the artistic capital of northern Italy. Its school of art and architecture has been termed half-Syrian; the city itself could also be thus characterized. Venice, too, was an outpost of eastern culture on Italian soil.
Although some Syriac-speaking emigrants were artists and many were soldiers, monks or slaves, the majority were merchants and other men of affairs. The division of the empire and the fragmentation of its Syrian province do not seem to have affected the domestic and foreign trade rela- tions of Syria adversely. In the Byzantine period as in the earlier one Mediterranean trade was almost entirely in Syrian and Greek hands. Syriac-speaking merchants con- tinued traversing the entire Roman world in the fourth century, prompted by their love of lucrative trade and defying all dangers. They had flourishing settlements at Rome, Naples and Venice in Italy, Marseilles, Bordeaux and Paris in France, Carthage and the Spanish and Sicilian ports. They imported wines from Ascalon and Gaza, purple from Caesarea, woven fabrics from Tyre and Beirut, pistachio nuts and sword blades from Damascus and embroidered stuffs from several towns. Embroidery was especially in demand for ecclesiastical use. An old commodity which now assumed new importance was silk, the entire trade being in Syrian hands. Imported from China through Arabia, the silk was dyed and rewoven in Phoenicia. Both dyeing and silk-trading soon became monopolies of the Byzantine state. From Arabia and India, Syria continued to import spices and other tropical products. In exchange Syria exported to these lands — as well as to China — glass, enamels and fine textiles.
As it was in the Roman period, Beirut remained the only city of the Phoenician coast famous for intellectual rather than commercial and industrial activity. It still housed the academy of law, a science more assiduously cultivated than any other in the Byzantine era. This institution reached its greatest development in the fifth century, when it attracted some of the finest young minds in the Byzantine empire. The curriculum included science, geometry, rhetoric, Greek and Latin. It covered four years, but Justinian added a fifth year. Some students diverted themselves at horse races and theatres or by drinking and gambling, while others were passionately addicted to theological disputation, asceticism and occultism. Earthquakes between 551 and 555 and a disastrous fire in 560 brought the university to a tragic end.
Throughout the Byzantine period, the aggressive Sasanid dynasty of Persia posed a constant threat to the Syrian pro- vince. One incursion between 527 and 532 was checked by Justinian's able general Belisarius. Procopius of Caesarea, the historian of this war, accompanied Belisarius as an adviser. In 540 the Persians appeared again under Chosroes I. At the head of 30,000 men this energetic monarch descended on Syria, exacting 2000 pounds of silver from Hierapolis as the price of immunity. He demanded double this sum from Aleppo, and set fire to the city when it failed to raise the amount specified.
From Aleppo Chosroes proceeded to Antioch, which was weakly garrisoned, as most of Justinian's army was in Europe attempting to reassemble the ancient Roman empire. A last-minute reinforcement of 6000 soldiers from the district of Horns proved no match for the Persian invader. The city was sacked. Its cathedral was stripped of its gold and silver treasures and of its splendid marbles. The whole town was completely destroyed. Its inhabitants were carried away as captives. The career of the city as an intellectual centre thus after eight centuries came to an end. In its last days Antioch was a prominent Christian city, ranking with Con- stantinople and Alexandria as a patriarchal see. The economic and human consequences of the Persian sack, following catastrophic earthquakes in 526 and 528, were permanently disastrous.
From Antioch Chosroes moved on to Apamea, another flourishing Christian centre. Its church claimed the pos- session of a piece of the true cross, which was reverently preserved in a jewelled casket and displayed annually as the whole population worshipped. This casket, together with all the gold and silver in the town, was taken by the invader, but the relic itself was spared, being devoid of value to him. The natives ascribed the deliverance of their city from destruction to the efficacy of the holy relic.
In 542 a truce was concluded and thereafter renewed several times until 562, when a fifty-year treaty was signed binding Justinian to pay tribute to the c great king' and to refrain from any religious propaganda in Persian territory. In the early seventh century hostilities were renewed by Chosroes II, who swept over Syria from 611 to 614, carrying plunder and destruction wherever he passed. He pillaged Damascus and decimated its people by murder and captivity. In Jerusalem he left the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in ruins, and carried its treasures — including the bulk of the true cross — off as booty. The Byzantine emperor Heraclius, after six years of war with several reverses, in 628 succeeded in recovering the battered Syrian province, in 629 restored the cross to Jerusalem and was hailed as the deliverer of Christendom and the restorer of the unity of the empire.
One of the tactics used by both Greeks and Persians in this prolonged and mutually exhausting warfare was the maintaining of subsidized Arab kingdoms as allies and buffer states along the northern borders of Arabia. Against the Persian puppet monarchy — the Lakhmids of al-Hirah on the Euphrates — the Byzantines backed the Ghassanids, a South Arabian tribe which had settled in the Hawran plateau in the third century and been converted to Chris- tianity in the fourth. Its history is obscure, as Arabic chronicles are contradictory and vague, while Byzantine authors record only contacts with Constantinople. Only the last few monarchs, whose reigns cover the century pre- ceding the birth of Islam, are fairly well known.
First and greatest among these was al-Harith ibn- Jabalah, who makes his debut in 528 battling against the Lakhmids. In recognition of his services the emperor Justinian in the following year appointed al-Harith lord over all the Arab tribes of Syria. Loyal to the Byzantine crown, al-Harith continued his struggles against the Lakh- mids, contributed to the suppression of the Samaritan rebellion and fought in the Byzantine army under Belisarius in Mesopotamia. He killed his Lakhmid rival in a decisive battle (554), and in 563 visited Justinian's court, where the imposing bedouin sheikh made a profound impression on the courtiers. While in Constantinople al-Harith secured the appointment of Jacob Baradaeus of Edessa as prelate of the Syrian Monophysite Church. During his and his son's reigns the new doctrine spread all over Syria.
Al-Harith was succeeded about 569 by his son al- Mundhir. The son followed in the footsteps of the father. He promoted the cause of Monophysitism and battled against the Lakhmid vassals of Persia. His zeal for the rite con- sidered unorthodox by Byzantium, however, alienated him from Justin, who even suspected his political loyalty. The emperor therefore tried to dispose of him by treachery, but he survived to receive a crown from a later emperor and burn the Lakhmid capital in 580. Two years later he was apprehended and sent with his wife and three children to Constantinople and thence to Sicily. The annual subsidy from Byzantium was cut off and all friendly relations were terminated.
Under the leadership of al-Numan, al-Mundhir's eldest son, several raids were directed from the desert against Roman Syria. About 584 he was himself tricked and carried to Constantinople. The Ghassanid nation was thereby broken up. The kingdom was split into several sections, each with a princeling of its own. Some princes allied themselves with Persia ; others maintained their indepen- dence ; still others remained on the side of Byzantium. At this point the Greek chroniclers lose all interest in the subject; the Arab chronicles remain confused. Anarchy prevailed until Persia conquered Syria in 61 1-6 14. When Heraclius regained Syria in 628, he may have restored the old dynasty, as at the time of the Moslem conquest the tribes of the former state of Ghassan were reported fighting on the Byzantine side.
The glowing splendour of the court of the Ghassanid kings has been immortalized in the anthologies of several pre- Islamic poets who found in its princes munificent patrons. Their military prowess, lavish hospitality and fabulous generosity were effusively extolled, but rested in fact on a flourishing economy. Like their Nabataean predecessors, they transmitted vital elements of Syrian culture to their kinsmen in Arabia, making possible the germination of Islam.