More on before


Traditionally, dissent within the Christian churches of the East had been expressed through doctrinal disputes. In the nineteenth century dissent took a new form, ethnic-linguistic division. In the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem and Antioch, the hierarchy, drawn from the monastic clergy, spoke Greek, while the parish priests and the parishioners spoke Arabic. The vast majority of the Orthodox were thus excluded from positions of leadership in the Church. Recognizing the sense of powerlessness felt by the Arab Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox took their side in disputes with the Greek. Eventually under Russian protection, elements of the Arabic-speaking Orthodox community gained influence in the Patriarchate of Antioch. From the late nineteenth century onward, even after the collapse of both the Romanov and Ottoman Empires, intimate ties developed between the see of Antioch and the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Arab Orthodox were among the first to call for revival — in words which were subsequently reinterpreted as a call for awakening of the Arab language, culture, and nation. Unlike their fellow Christians they bore a twofold psychic burden. The other Christians in the Arab provinces were inferior in status to the Muslims, but they were at least masters in their own churches. The Greek dominance of the patriarchates and the Ottoman Muslim dominance of the government denied them power and authority in both spheres. In the aftermath of the Greek War of Independence, with the gradual triumph of Hellenic ethnicity over Romaic communalism, a sense of alienation from their Greek Orthodox brethren grew. As strangers in both church and state, they, of all the communities in the Ottoman Empire, were the most in need of the new identity which nationalism offered. Not surprisingly, they were the earliest and most radical spokesmen for what became Arab nationalism.

From “Introduction” by Benjamin Braude in Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society, Vol. II: The Arabic-Speaking Lands, Braude and Lewis (Eds.). New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1982. p. 4

The Orthodox Christian Arabs (or simply the Rum in both contemporary Arabic and Ottoman Turkish texts), who comprised the largest single Christian community in the Arab provinces, were subsumed in the eighteenth century in a millet dominated by Greeks, who occasionally exercised linguistic imperialism over their non-Hellenic coreligionists. A subordination of the linguistic identity of the non-Greek communities within the Orthodox millet to a newly realized national identity, articulated in the language of the patriarchate, was possible in the Balkans where some Vlachs and Slavs apparently were willing to abandon their mother tongue for the Greek of the Mother Church. Such an option, however, does not seem to have been possible for Syria’s Orthodox Christians. Even if contemporary European and Ottoman sources referred to them as “Greeks.” their ties of language and culture to their Muslim Arab neighbors prevented easy assimilation into Hellas. A strong sense of localism and a reaction to Greek ecclesiastical hegemony, however, did eventually lead some of the Rum to lobby for their own separate millet to be articulated in Arabic (the so-called Greek Catholics, Melkit Katolikler in Ottoman Turkish, Rum kathulik in Arabic).

Language created barriers for the integration of Christian Arabs into a Hellenic ethnos, but Arabic did not necessarily serve as bedrock for an Arab national consciousness. The majority of the millet of the Rum in the Fertile Crescent did not choose to join the Melkite Catholic millet when that option became available and continued to be served by a predominantly Greek hierarchy until the start of the twentieth century. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of those who shared Arabic as a mother tongue were not Christians. Arabic-speaking peoples inhabited contiguous regions with a myriad of traditions and political histories. Even for those who lived within a common cultural zone such as the Bilad al-Sham (geographical Syria) or Egypt, their confessional allegiances might pit at times community against community — Orthodox versus Catholic, Sunni versus Shi’a. Nonetheless, the creation of the Melkite Catholic millet had unintentionally provided a locally based politics of identity expressed in Arabic. The implications of that for the further articulation of an ethnic identity based in language for all Arabic-speaking Christians reached far beyond the Melkites alone.

Masters, Bruce. Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. pg. 12-13.

Keeping on an old meme. Whereas the previous excerpts dealt more with observation, and a kind of vaguely culturalist analysis of Orthodox Arabism, the above quotation deal with a more structuralist outlook (with a hint of rationalism).

One thought on “More on before

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s