Studium Generale: Identity in the Middle East

Vanavond (donderdag 1/4, 19.30, Lipsius 005) begint een nieuwe reeks in het Studium Generale, georganiseerd door prof. Petra Sijpestijn. Zij bracht docenten bijelkaar die allen aspecten zullen belichten van het gebruik van het verleden in de identiteitsvorming van huidige groepen in het Midden-Oosten. Volgende week (8/4) zal ik spreken over de christelijke Assyriers en hun omgang met het verleden. Iedereen is welkom!

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College Rituelen en symbolen van het christendom

Volgende week vrijdag (9/4, Lipsius 235c, 13.15) begint het college Rituelen en symbolen van het christendom, dit keer bij uitzondering als een blokcursus van 5 vrijdagmiddagen + verschillende kerkbezoeken. Keuzevakkers christendom, studenten wereldgodsdiensten en godgeleerdheid in Leiden zijn welkom, mits ze al minstens een college christendom met succes hebben afgerond (en hen wordt aangeraden zich snel in te schrijven in BB om de opgave voor het eerste college te vernemen!!). Nieuwe keuzevakkers (uit Leiden of van elders) wordt aangeraden in het najaar eerst Geschiedenis van het christendom te volgen. Binnenkort komen de nieuwe programma’s in de Leidse E-gids (zie boven), voor een eerste orientatie kunnen ook de vakken van dit jaar bekeken worden.

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One of the many Syriac pilgrimage inscriptions in the columns at the entrance of the Holy Sepulchre (and note also the piece of paper stuck in between the two columns – probably a prayer put in there by a recent pilgrim)

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The current Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of the Holy Land, Mar Severios Malki Murad, leading prayers in the Chapel of Joseph of Arimathea in the Holy Sepulchre, during the Saturdays of Lent.

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More on the Holy Sepulchre

For those whose appetites for the most important church of Christianity were not satisfied by the recent book by Cohen, the older overview by Jurgen Kruger might do the trick: Die Grabeskirche zu Jerusalem: Geschichte – Gestalt – Bedeutung (Regensburg: Schnell und Steiner, 2000). The beautiful photographs alone (for those not fluent in German) are worth a search for this book, whereas the text provides an exemplary overview of the history of this church. Many detailed groundplans are included – from the hypothetical ones trying to reconstruct how the church might have looked liked in earlier centuries to the more recent attempts to map exactly all the details of the both the material outlook of the church and the human occupancy of it – and help to understand the complicated situation in the church. Kruger pays much attention to the early stages of the church, the period of the Crusades, its copies elsewhere in the world and the ins and outs of pilgrimage. The 16th to early 19th century is not so well covered, and with that the history of the smaller communities in the church, starting with the Armenians, but also including the Copts, Ethiopians and Syrians (their chapel is only mentioned in passing), is treated much more superfically than that of the Latins and the Greeks – though Conrad Schick’s map (included on p. 163) neatly indicates all the locations of their chapels — for two photos of the Syrian presence – see above …

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Rival Christians and the Holy Sepulchre

For all who have wondered why Christians in the Middle East, more specifically those in Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre, cannot live without quarrelling, Raymond Cohen, professor at Hebrew University (Jerusalem), has written the perfect book. In a disinterested language, replete with technical, juridical and ecclesiological terms, he manages to present a clear picture of the difficult situation with which these Christians have to cope, a situation summarized in the universal language of the Status Quo, an international treaty dating back to Ottoman times, to 1852 – regulating the joint usage of the church whose ultimate ownership in Ottoman times laid, as with all religious foundations, with the Ottoman Sultan. Rather than taking the ideals of Christian cooperation and ecumenical unity as his starting point, Cohen describes the difficult reality of rivaling claims to the holiest ground of Christianity, with communities that eagerly guard their own interests because they remember times when other communities were having the upper hand (think of some major issues between the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic – the Holy Sepulchre being one of the places in Jerusalem where the Crusades are still casting long shadows), and of governments (Ottoman, British, Jordanian and Israeli) that desperately want things to be quiet and proceed without additional problems.

The most surprising conclusion of Cohen’s book is that, precisely because of the common interest in the place and the building, the twentieth century, amidst ongoing boundary quarrels, also witnessed the communal work on the restoration of the church that now has almost been finished (with a with outstanding issues still pending, among others between the Syrian Orthodox and the Armenians). The book, therefore, can be read as a perfect illustration of what Christianity in the Middle East is all about – the ever-present rivalries, the ethnic components of many of the discussions, the complicated power balance within the churches, the weighty symbolic of the holy places, the tedious negotiations, the complicated relationships with the government and the international background against which these discussions play themselves out – and hopefully also of the positive outcome of at least some of the common projects that are taken on.

My review of Saving the Holy Sepulchre: How Rival Christians Came Together to Rescue Their Holiest Shrine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) will appear in the Journal of Religion – since published: The Journal of Religion (2010) 90/3, 410-12.


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Mary at school with the nuns – Modern Aramaic texts from the Khabur

Last year, Shabo Talay published a study of the Neo-Aramaic dialects that today are spoken in northeast Syria, in the Jazira region. Its speakers are Assyrians that originally come from the Hakkari region in southeastern Turkey. Whereas last year’s volume is a grammatical analysis mainly of interest for those studying the Neo-Aramaic dialects, the volume that came from the press this year is also interesting for a wider group of readers. This time Talay published a wide selection of the texts upon which he based his grammatical study, in modern Aramaic and in German. These texts tell us about the eventful history of the Assyrians in the late Ottoman Empire, their lives in the villages along the river Khabur in Syria in the twentieth century and the intricate tribal system and religious landscapes of which they formed and still form an integral part. Many of the stories recount stories from the bible and hagiography, including a Life of the Virgin Mary, who according to this version, was given to the church soon after her birth and was raised and educated by the nuns before she was married to Joseph (17.3). It is the interplay of elements from traditional Lives with modern interpretations that make this collection such fascinating reading – even more so because so little is known about this community.

Shabo Talay, Neuaramäische Texte in den Dialekten der Khabur-Assyrer in Nordostsyrien (Semitica Viva, 41; Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz Verlag, 2009). My review of the two volumes has been published in Aramaic Studies 7.2 (2009) 208-212.

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Langue française, identité(s) et école, le cas de la minorité catholique au Levant (milieu du XIXe- milieu du XXe siècles)

Friday Dec. 11 Dr. Karene Sanchez organizes a small symposium in Leiden (Lipsius 148, starting at 9.30) on the subject of French language and identity in the Middle East – in which of course French missions as well as Middle Eastern Christianities play an important role. For the programme, contact Heleen Murre-van den Berg or Karene Sanchez:

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eredoctoraat voor prof. Susan Ashbrook Harvey

Op 5 december heeft prof. Susan Ashbrook Harvey (Brown University, Providence) een eredoctoraat gekregen van de Universiteit van Bern (Zwitserland). Van haar werk lijkt me vooral Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) bijgedragen te hebben aan deze onderscheiding: een innovatieve studie naar de rol van geur in vroege-christelijke theologie en ritueel. Hierbij maakt ze ook dankbaar gebruik van vele Syrische teksten die hieraan refereren. Op het moment doet ze onderzoek naar de rol van de vrouwenkoren in de Syrische traditie, een onderwerp waarover ze op het kleine symposium ter ere van het doctoraat heeft gesproken.

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Books Etc.: Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009)

No need to add anything to the lavish praises for Hilary Mantel’s historical novel on Tudor England, starting in the mud with Thomas Cromwell trying to survive his father´s violence, ending more than thirty years later with Cromwell overseeing Thomas More´s execution. However, in addition to being well-researched and beautifully written, full of sparkling and painfully precise dialogues, it is also a novel telling us about the writing of the history, about seeing the reflections of the early twenty-first century in the imaginary early sixteenth century, in the intricate interplay of politics and religion, the violent clashes of hierarchical and sacramental versus subjective and individual forms of religion, and the often conflicting pursuits of personal happiness and political gain — as in one of the few passages where Cromwell looses his usual restraint (566):

‘Oh, for Christ’s sake!’ he says. ‘A lie is no less a lie because it is a thousand years old. Your undivided church has liked nothing better than persecuting its own members, burning them and hacking them apart when they stood by their own conscience, slashing their bellies open and feeding their guts to dogs. You call history to your aid, but what is history to you? It is a mirror that flatters Thomas More. But I have another mirror, I hold it up and it shows a vain and dangerous man, …..

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