Syriac Poetry of the Mongol Time: from Monasteries to the Royal Tents

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The Syriac Christian poetry of the Islamic time has not been studied in detail so far. The scholars used to treat it as secondary compared to the classical Syriac literature (4th-7th centuries). Nevertheless, a number of great poets lived at that time, who enriched the Syriac literary tradition with new motives and poetic forms. This second heyday of the poetry coincided with the Mongol rule. The most important hymn collection of the East Syriac Church is one ascribed to Gīwargīs Wardā, who lived in the first half of the 13th century, i.e. at the time of the first Mongol invasion. Only several of more than 150 hymns have been published. His poems, still in use in the Church of the East (East Syriac Church), describe in detail the plague pandemic, the massacres caused by Mongols, and other calamities of that period.

In the second half on the 13th century the situation vastly changed. The new Mongol dynasty of Ilkhans, founded in 1258 after the capture of Baghdad and killing the last Caliph, tolerated different confessions. This period (60-90s of the 13th century) can be treated as an experience or religious tolerance, unique for the middle ages. As the wives of many khans were Christian Nestorian, it is quite natural that Christian Churches got access to the royal court. This change of the Churches’ social position found its reflection in the Christian spiritual poetry.

The objective of the project is to study the literary heritage of the of the Syriac Christian poets of the 13th-14th centuries, to reconstruct its main stages and stiles, and to set this picture into political and historical background of the epoch. Another goal is to form a critical edition of unpublished texts. Although this period of the Syriac poetry has been almost not studied so far, it represents a unique experience of long coexistence of Christian and Islamic communities in the Near East area. The research is based on comparative textual analysis of the existing manuscripts, mostly digitalized by HMML.

Anton Pritula, PhD, lives in St. Petersburg, Russia. He studied Iranian Philology at St. Petersburg University and is currently a curator and head of the Near East section at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. His main focus of study is the culture of Christian communities in the medieval Islamic Near East. He has authored the books Christianity and the Persian Manuscript Tradition in the 13th through 17th Centuries and The Warda East Syriac Hymnologic Collection. Dr. Pritula is also curator and co-author of numerous exhibition projects and catalogs dealing with the history of Islamic art and its relations with other cultures. He is a recipient of the Dietrich Reinhart, OSB, Fellowship for Eastern Christian Manuscript Studies at HMML, and is also a resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical & Cultural Research at Saint John’s University.

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