The Biography of Patriarch Severus of Antioch (512-538) Written by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Cyriacus of Tikrit (793-817)

Submitted by Iskandar Bcheiry, PhD, ATLA Metadata Analyst

During the spring of 2014, I had the opportunity to examine a particular Syriac manuscript (A. 12008) at the Oriental Museum in Chicago, which had not been fully described or published. Among the unpublished subjects that this manuscript contains, is a historical biography regarding the life of Severus of Antioch (d.536) composed by the Syriac orthodox patriarch Cyriacus of Takrit (d. 817). Severus, patriarch of Antioch, widely known as “crown of the Syrians,” has been hailed as one of the greatest orators of the early church. Actually, Severus of Antioch is by far the most prolific and well known theologian of the non-Chalcedonian churches. He spent most of his life defending the anti-Chalcedonian Christology and because of it endured difficulties and exile until his death in Egypt in 536. Although his life and writings came to our knowledge in Syriac, gaining him the title “Crown of the Syriac Literature,” many texts relating to his life and works survived in Coptic and Arabic as well. Severus’s life and deeds were narrated in a collection of Biographies composed by different authors. All these accounts were edited and translated, except his Biography written by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch, Cyriacus of Tikrit (817) in a form of ‘Tūrgomō’/discourse, which has been frequently mentioned; however, the text has never been published or translated.

The Syriac manuscript in the Oriental Institute, in Chicago, shelf marked A 12008 is a collection of homilies mainly by Jacob of Seruj. The manuscript was described by Vööbus as “a giant tome, a volume on parchment of enormous measurement as well as weight”. The text is written in Esţrangelō script in three columns per page, and an average of 51 lines per column. Originally the manuscript had at least 42 quires; however the first seven quires are lost. The date, origin and copyist are not provided since the colophon did not survive. However, based on paleographical consideration, the Esţrangelō script of the manuscript is of such a form that it can be assigned to the 12th or 13th century. Besides the homilies by Jacob of Serug, it also includes homilies by John Chrysostom, Severus of Antioch, Basil of Caesarea, Ephrem the Syrian, and George bishop of the Arabs. Among these homilies, you find Turgomo/discourse in the form of a biography which narrates the life of Severus of Antioch.  The work is titled: a discourse on the Saint and God-clad, patriarch Mor Severus which was composed by Cyriacus”.


Iskandar Bcheiry

The author of this account is patriarch Cyriacus who was born and raised in Tikrit. He became a monk at the monastery of the Pillar near al-Raqqa (Callinicus). He was elected a patriarch in 793 and administered the patriarchal See for twenty-four years, during which time he ordained eighty-six metropolitans and bishops. He died in Mosul in 817 and was buried in Tikrit. Patriarch Cyriacus produced many writings; among them is the discourse on the life of Severus of Antioch, which was composed probably at the end of the 8th century.

By the end of the 7th century, an interesting ethnic-cultural feature began to emerge in the writings of some local Christian Aramaic speakers in Syria and Mesopotamia, who took a stand against the Christological doctrine which was recognized by the Byzantine emperors. In this period, a sentiment of aversion against the Greeks was expressed by the local monks in Syria and Mesopotamia who protested against teaching Greek literature and language in their monastic circles. This sentiment of aversion against the Greeks and the emphasis on a local Syriac cultural-ethnic identity is expressed in the account of the life of Severus of Antioch by Cyriacus. In writing the life of Severus of Antioch, the author took into consideration the political, social, cultural, and ecclesiastic circumstances of his time. Patriarch Cyriacus expressed through the life of Severus his own Syriac ethno-cultural interest which emerged in a historical frame distinct from the political reality during the Byzantine rule. He reshaped the story of his church heroes in a form that matched the actual reality of the post-Byzantine era in the region. After the second half of the 7th century, and with the noticeable decrease of the Greek culture and demographic aspects within the anti-Chalcedonian church in Syria and Mesopotamia, the Chalcedonians were associated with the Greeks in the Syriac anti-Chalcedonian sources, who at the same time highlighted their Syriac cultural identity.

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