Introduction to the Anonymous Chronicle of Edessa Up to the Year 1234 AD (Part 1)

1. The Chronicle

     The Anonymous Chronicle Up to the Year 1234 A.D. is one of the most important Syriac chronicles in the tradition of Syriac historical chronicles.[1]  Although little is known about the author, it is likely that he was a Monophysite monk[2] from Edessa who completed his work in the second quarter of the thirteenth century C.E.[3]  The chronicle is divided into two volumes: one dealing with secular history and one dealing with church history.[4]  The chronicle is preserved  in a fourteenth century manuscript.  The Syriac text was edited by J. B. Chabot and is available in the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium series.[5]  The translation offered here – my own translation, which will appear in future posts – covers sections ninety-four to one hundred and ten of the secular history.  In this post I will begin to introduce the chronicle by summarizing the sections dealing with the rise of Islam.  Future posts will summarize other sections and a translation will eventually follow.  The translation in particular will be helpful because English translations of this text are not readily available.  Placing it online should prove helpful for those interested in this chronicle.

2. The Rise of Islam

      Sections ninety-four and ninety-five describe the rise of Muhammad, the initial spread of Islam, and the beliefs and practices of this newly-founded religion.  What is particularly interesting about this section is that it opens a window for the modern reader into how Islam was viewed by Syriac-speaking Christians living under Muslim rule when the Muslim kingdoms were first expanding.[6]  When viewed in this light, this section produces many significant insights.

     First, the chronicler attributes the early success of Islam not to the strength of its monotheistic beliefs but to the greed of its first adherents.  Muhammad promised his early followers that God would give them a land flowing with milk and honey, words that echo God’s promises to the people of Israel in the Hebrew Bible,[7] and he made good on this promise by leading small raiding parties into Palestine.  When these raiding parties returned to their homes in Yathrib the people, who had initially not followed Muhammad, converted to Islam because of the wealth they could secure.  Muslim raids expanded beyond Palestine, not because they wanted to spread the message of Islam, but because their lust for spoil could not be satiated by the wealth of Palestine alone.  Thus, for the chronicler, the root of Muslim success was much baser than Muslims themselves may have believed.

     Second, the chronicler attributes the ultimate success of the Muslim armies over the Byzantine Empire to the judgment of God.  In language reminiscent of the Deuteronomistic History, the chronicler states that the Muslim principality became an established kingdom because God wanted to chasten his people for their sins.  This theme is picked up again in section one hundred and two, which describes the wickedness of the Byzantine Emperor toward the Monophysites of Edessa.  The chronicler viewed the conquering of Edessa both as the judgment of God against the Byzantines and also the means by which God rescued the Monophysites from imperial persecution.  The details of this section will be discussed in a future post.

     Third, the chronicler is aware that Muslim and Christian beliefs are ultimately incompatible but is content to note the differences and remains surprisingly irenic in his tone.  In section ninety-five, the chronicler highlights several points of variance between Islam and Christianity including their beliefs about the Trinity, the crucifixion of Christ, the nature of Paradise,[8] and their views about marriage but stops short of caricature or prolonged censure.  Likewise, the chronicler does not explicitly call Muhammad a false prophet, which would have been imprudent for a Christian living under Muslim rule to assert, but formulates his descriptions of Muhammad’s revelations and status as a prophet in a way that casts doubt on their veracity.[9]  Perhaps the chronicler’s restraint in vilifying Muhammad and the beliefs of Islam is due to his belief that God sent the Muslims to punish the Byzantines and to rescue the Monophysites from persecution.  The chronicler’s descriptions of the beliefs and practices of Islam are quite accurate and no doubt reflect the reality of Christianity existing under Muslim rule.

The translation of this section will appear in a future post.

[1] S. Brock, A Brief Outline of Syriac Literature (Kerala, India: St Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute, 1997), 74.

[2] See below.

[3] Matti Moosa (“The Crusades: An Eastern Perspective, With Emphasis on Syriac Sources,” The Muslim World  93, 251) notes that the Patriarch Aphram Barsoum believed the author “was a monk from the Barsoum Monastery near Melitene, probably born at Edessa in 1160.”

[4] Ibid, 251.

[5] J. B. Chabot,  Anonymi auctoris Chronicon ad annum Christi 1234 pertinens (CSCO 109.  Syr. syri 36.  Louvain: Imprimerie Orientaliste L. Durbecq, 1952).

[6] Although this Chronicle was written around the year 1234 C.E., the views expressed in these sections are much earlier.  As was stated above, chroniclers incorporated previously written material and did not significantly alter or update the material.

[7] E.g. Exodus 3:8.

[8] Muslim views of Paradise would have been particularly incompatible to the ascetic form of Christianity practiced in the Middle East.

[9] The chronicler subtly  notes that Muslims call Muhammad a prophet and that Muhammad claimed to have received revelations from God.  Cf. the description of Muhammad in the Chronicle of Theophanes (Trans. Harry Turtledove; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 34-35.


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