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A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SYRIANS
By. Very Rev. FR. YACOUP KARKENNY
The Syrian people are descendants of those ancient Arameans who were the original inhabitants of what is called the 'Fertile Crescent', later known as 'Great Syria'. The Fertile Crescent includes present Syria, Lebanon, part of Palestine, Jordan, Iraq and part of present Turkey. But the center of their concentration was Mesopotamia, situated between the two rivers Tigris and Euphrates.
Before the Arameans were knowen by their proper name and when they were still nomatic tribes, they were called 'Akhlami' or 'Akhlamo'. Even though this designation did not relate to their origin, all the Amorites, dwelling in Euphrates region, called them by this name when they were living as scattered tribes. In 1300 B.C. the Assyrian King Abd-Nirari tells us that his father had vanguished the tribes of Akhlamo in north of Mesopotamia. In a letter sent by this King around the year 1270 B.C. to one of the Babylonian kings, he refers to the aggressive Akhlamo who were living along the Euphrates river. Though the name was first mentioned in the akkadian writing around 2000 B.C., it seems that in the period which preceeded the seventeenth century B.C. they reached the climax in importance and prosperity. This is indicated in the texts Unearthed in the Aramean Kingdom Mari, in the writing of Auger, in the Augeritic Writings in the fourteenth century B.C. and the letters of Tel Amarna in Egypt.
Beside these reference, all the Historical documents assert that the name Akhlomo was used instead of the name Aramean, until the time when both of these designations integrated. This is referred to by the Assyrian king Teglathpeleser, who stated: "I have swept down into the midst of Akhlami, the Arameans, the enemies of god Assur, my master".
The Syrians, who are the descendants of the Aramean people and their first ancestor Aram son of Shem (Genesis 10:22) had given up their Aramean name and changed it into the Syrian namen (It was used before this time but the former one prevailing) in the time they embraced the Christian religion. The reason behind this change was, that the name Arameans started to give them an absolutely pagan connotation, while the name Syrian came to mean to them Christian. Keeping in mind that none of these designation has any relation with the facts of language and its etymologies whatsoever. The roots of the Syrian designation are complicated as well as confused, and it is the problem which I will try to analyze and deal with in the following chapter.
IDEAS ABOUT THE DESIGNATION 'SYRIAN':
Historians and writers in the field of history have numerous and yet contradictory ideas about the designation 'Syrian'. Therefore, for the sake of clarity, and in pursuit of historical fact, I put forward the following ideas:
1. There are some historians who refer it back to a Greek origin, among them is Herodotus.
2. The possiblity of its relation to 'Shryn' as mentioned in the Uguritic literature in 1400 B.C. (Hitti, History of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, Vol II).
3. The likelihood of its link with the Hebrew word 'Siryon' (Deuteronomy 3:9 a Psalm 6:29). This name was given to the eastern and northern regions of Syria.
4. There are some historians who attribute it to the name 'Suri', a name given by the Babylonians to the northern region of the Euphrates' river, as mentioned in a letter, number 108 in Knadtzon, which Rab Abdi sent to one of the princess of that region. He was complaining to Pharaoh and appealing for rescue. He adds that the sons of Abd-Asharta hat seized and arrested a number of people and officers and had given them away as hostages to Suri Country. (Al-Nahar Supplement, May 7, 1967, Beirut).
5. There is quite a number of historians who deduce that the word 'Syrian' is a distorted form of the word Tyre (Sour in Arabic), the ancient and glorious city olden times. They claim that the Greeks gave this designation to the people of the East, in view of the importance of the city of Tyre at that time. It was modified and reshaped until it became Syria and Syrian.
6. A certain number of Syrian historians believe that the words Syria and Syrian are derived from 'Surus' a name of Aramean origin who appeared before Moses and is said to have killed his brother Kilicus and built the city of Antioch. It seems that the country was first called Sursieen, then the forth letter of the word was amitted and became Surieen followed by Syria and Syrian.
7. His Holiness Mar Ignatios Yacub III. the Syrian orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, has brought a new notion concerning this term. He says that the word Syrianieen means Christian owing to the fact that the converted Jews regarded Jesus Christ as Saviour and Redeamer from the spiritual aspect, as Cyrus the king of Persia and Medes in 538 B.C. was their deliverer on the human level from their exile. This connection between the two events led them to a belief that this king was but a symbol of Jesus Christ. When the gentiles in Antioch heared this, they called them Surieen, Sursieen or Cyrusieen which means Christian, which is derived from Cyrus. Since then, this Syrian designation spread among the Christians of Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, India and China until it became the distinguishing characteristic between the Christian Aramean and the Aramean who has not yet adopted Christianity, and that is why the word Aramean became synonymous with the word pagan while the word Syrian became synonymous with the word Christian. According to the same pattern, the Aramaic Language was called 'Syriac'. The Christians who still speak the Syriac Language nowadays are called Surioiee, or Suroiee. As for the name Christian, it was spread in western Christianity.
8. It is historically evident that Aramean people were subjected to Assyrian sovereignty in the same manner as all the other nations which existed in Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Lebanon. This amalgamation of nation under the Assyrian banner enabled them to form a strong, invicible and united nation which was to be later as the Assyrian Empire. Hence when the Greeks invaded this countries, they called that nation of various and different ethnic gods Assyrians, as they were not able to distinguish between those nation and their names. As the time went by, the name Assyrian was slightly modified omitting the first two letters, thus accordingly taking its present form Syria and Syrian.
After close examination of the word and the difficulties involved in it, I may say here that the word Syrian can be put in parallel to word 'Copt' with its related word 'Egypt' and also the word 'Persia' with 'Iran'. The same thing happened when the Arabs cam to Egypt, they called it in Arabic 'Dar al Copt', home of he Copts, since the original natives of the land were Christians though the original connotation of the word Copt is not religious but synonymous with the word 'Egyptian'. In view of this the Coptic Church should be called the Egypt, are derived from the Greek word 'Aigyptos'. The same thing happens to the word Persia and Iran which are at the present time used alternatively without knowing which one is the original derivative.
THE SYRIANS' CONVERSION TO CHRISTIANITY
As the historians generally assert the Syrians did not became Christian all at once, but it took them the first and the second centuries A.D. to do so. They started to be converted first in Jerusalem thus becoming the first people to adopt Christianity: first, by reason of their Aramaic Language which was the Language of the people of palestine at that time and secondly because they were the original natives of the country. After that the Christians reached the city of Antioch, the Capital of Syria at that time and the future centre of Christianity, where the belivers were first called Christians (Acts 2:26). In addition to this, it is ultinately considered the place where St. Peter established his Seat, and from him the succession of the Patriarchs of Antioch commenced.
But Christian religion did not stop there, but spread far and wide until it reched Edessa, the Capital of the Syrian Abgar kings who had a great share in consolidating and solidifying the steady foundation of the Syrian Church. Inside the walls of that ancient and magnificent city, which became in the long run the source and fountainhead of Syrian culture, emerged the famous and reputed fathers and missionaries who filled and overwhelmed the wordly by the echo of their influence and scholarship.
The countries which were evangelized by the Syrian fathers were: Asia Minor, Turkey, Persia, Iraq, India and some parts of China, (by the fathers of the Syrian Church of the East) as we understand from the great monument which was discovered in the Chinese territory, and now is placed in Peking museum. Apart from these countries, the Syrian Orthodox Church is now present in Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Skandinavian countries, Germany, Swiss, Austria, Belgium, France, Amerika, both North and South, Australia, Turkey, Iraq, India. The headquarters is now in Damascus, and Supreme head of the Church is His Holiness Yacoub III. who bears the title of "The Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East".
Kolo Suryoyo Magazine Vol. 2, P. 2-4, Hengelo/NL 1979
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