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Michael the Syrian

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Michael the Syrian

Michael the Syrian
Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church
See Diocese of Mardin
In office 1166–1199
Predecessor Athanasius VII bar Qutreh
Successor Athanasius VIII
Personal details
Born 1126
Melitene, Danishmend Kingdom
Died 1199 (aged 72–73)
Melitene, Sultanate of Rûm

Michael the Syrian (Classical Syriac: ܡܝܟܐܝܠ ܣܘܪܝܝܐ) (died 1199 AD), also known as Michael the Great (ܡܝܟܐܝܠ ܪܒܐ) or Michael Syrus or Michael the Elder, to distinguish him from his nephew,[1] was a patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church from 1166 to 1199. He is best known today as the author of the largest medieval Chronicle, which he composed in Syriac. Various other materials written in his own hand have survived.


The life of Michael is recorded by Bar Hebraeus.[2] He was born ca. 1126 in Melitene (today Malatya), the son of the Priest Eliya (Elias), of the Qindasi family.[3] His uncle, the monk Athanasius, became bishop of Anazarbus in Cilicia in 1136.

At that period Melitene was part of the kingdom of the Turcoman Danishmend dynasty, and, when that realm was divided in two in 1142, it became the capital of one principality. In 1178 it became part of the Sultanate of Rûm. The Jacobite monastery of Mar Bar Sauma was close to the town, and had been the patriarchal seat since the 11th century.

As a child, Michael entered the service of the monastery, and became archimandrite before the age of thirty. He made various improvements to the abbey fabric, including improving the water supply and the defences against raiders. On 18 October 1166 he was elected Patriarch of the Jacobite church, and consecrated in the presence of twenty-eight bishops.

In 1168 he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and then stayed for a year at Antioch. Both towns were at the time part of the Latin crusader states, and Michael established excellent relations with the crusader lords, especially with Amaury de Nesle, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. Returning to the monastery of Mar Bar Sauma in the summer of 1169, he held a synod and attempted to reform the church, then tainted with simony.

The Byzantine emperor Manual I Comnenos made approaches to him to negotiate a reunion of the churches. But Michael did not trust the Greeks. He refused to go to Constantinople when invited by the emperor, and even refused twice, in 1170 and 1172, to meet his envoy Theorianus, instead sending as his own representative bishop John of Kaishoum and then his disciple Theodore bar Wahbon. In three successive letters to the emperor, he replied with a simple statement of the miaphysite creed of the Jacobites.[4]

Around 1174 Michael had to contend with a revolt by a party of bishops. He himself was twice arrested at the instigation of the dissident bishops, so he says; once by the servants of the prefect of Mardin and the second time by those of the emir of Mosul. Also the monks of Bar Sauma rebelled against him in 1171 and 1176.

Between 1178 and 1180 he resided again in the crusader states, at Antioch and Jerusalem. He was invited by Pope Alexander III to attend the Third Council of the Lateran, but declined. However he did participate by letter, writing a long treatise on the Albigensians, based on the information he had been given.

In 1180 his former pupil Theodore Bar Wahbon had himself elected patriarch at Amida under the name of John by certain malcontent bishops, beginning a schism which lasted for thirteen years. Michael took energetic action, got hold of the anti-patriarch and locked him up at Bar Sauma and formally deposed him. Some of monks allowed Ibn Wahbon to escape, who fled to Damascus and tried in vain to appeal to Saladin. He then went to Jerusalem, and, after the fall of the city in 1187, went to Rumkale with the Armenian catholicos Gregory IV, who allowed him to obtain official recognition from Prince Leo II of Armenian Minor. Theodore had many supporters, and the schism did not end until the death of Theodore in the summer of 1193. According to Bar Hebraeus Theodore could write and speak in Syriac, Greek, Armenian and Arabic, and composed a statement of his case against Michael in Arabic.[5]

In 1182, Michael received the sultan Kilij Arslan II at Melitene, and held cordial talks with him.

He died at the monastery of Bar Sauma on 7 November 1199 at the age of sixty-three, having been patriarch for thirty-three years. His nephew, Michael the Younger, known as "Yeshu Sephethana" or "big lips", became anti-patriarch at Melitene from 1199-1215, in opposition to Athanasius IX and then John XIV.[1]


Michael was a profuse author. He wrote works on the liturgy, on the doctrine of the Jacobite church, and on canon law. Numerous sermons have also survived, mostly unpublished. But he is best known for the World Chronicle that he composed, the longest and richest surviving chronicle in the Syriac language.

The Chronicle

This Chronicle runs from Creation up to Michael's own times. It uses earlier Ecclesiastical Histories now lost; for instance, its coverage of the Late Antique period relies mainly upon Dionysius of Tel Mahre. It includes a version of the so-called Testimonium Flavianum.

The work is extant in a single manuscript written in 1598 in Syriac in a Gorgias Press in the first volume (edited by Mor Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim) of a series on the Chronicle of Michael the Great.

An abbreviated Armenian translation also exists, from which Victor Langlois published a French translation in 1868. This alone preserves the preface of the work. A shorter Armenian version also exists which has not been published.

A Garshuni version is also extant in British Library ms. Orient. 4402, and an Arabic version beginning with book 5 exists in a Vatican manuscript.[6]

As secondary witnesses: Bar Hebraeus, pseudo-Jacob, and Maribas the Chaldean all rely upon Michael's work.[7]

English pronunciation: ===Points of interest=== His work has been used by NASA scientists because of his record of climatic changes, now known to be linked to volcano eruptions. He records that in 536 AD:

The sun became dark and its darkness lasted for 18 months. Each day it shone for about 4 hours, and still this light was only a feeble shadow. Everyone declared that the sun would never recover its full light. The fruits did not ripen and the wine tasted like sour grapes.

And in 626 AD:

In the year A.D. 626, the light of half the sphere of the sun disappeared, and there was darkness from October to June. As a result people said that the sphere of the sun would never be restored to its original state.

He is a contemporary source for the Latin crusader states, and records the tolerance and liberalism of the Catholic Franks towards the miaphysites:[8]

The pontiffs of our Jacobite church lived in the middle of them without being persecuted or molested. In Palestine, as in Syria, they never raised any difficulty on account of their faith, nor insisted on a single formula for all the peoples and all the languages of the Christians. But they considered as Christian everyone who venerated the cross without enquiry or cross-examination.

He also praises the Templars and Hospitallers to his own people:[8]

When the Templars or Hospitallers have to occupy a military post, and hold it to the death, they die doing so. When a brother dies, they feed the poor on his behalf for forty days, and give lodgings to forty people. They consider those who die in combat as martyrs. They distribute to the poor a tenth part of their food and drink. Every time they bake bread in one of their houses, they reserve a tenth part for the poor. In spite of their great riches, they are charitable to all who venerate the cross. They founded everywhere hospitals, serving and helping strangers who had fallen sick.

He identifies the Syriac-speakers of his time with the ancient Arameans:[9]

...the kingdoms which have been established in antiquity by our race, (that of) the Arameans, namely the descendants of Aram, who were called Syriac.

He also mentions an earlier, 9th century dispute between Jacobite Syrians with Greek scholars, in which the Jacobites endorsed an Assyrian continuity:[10]

... That even if their name is "Syrian", they are originally "Assyrians" and they have had many honorable kings ... Syria is in the west of Euphrates, and its inhabitants who are talking our Aramaic language, and who are so-called "Syrians", are only a part of the "all", while the other part which was in the east of Euphrates, going to Persia, had many kings from Assyria and Babylon and Urhay. ... Assyrians, who were called "Syrians" by the Greeks, were also the same Assyrians, I mean "Assyrians" from "Assure" who built the city of Nineveh.


  1. ^ a b William Wright, A short history of Syriac literature, p.250, n.3.
  2. ^ Wright, Syriac Literature, p.250 f., referencing Bar Hebraeus, Chron. Eccl. vol. 1, p.575 f.
  3. ^ Wright, A short history of Syriac literature, p.250, n.4, referencing Bar Hebraeus, Chron. Eccles., vol. 1, 537.
  4. ^ Wright, Syriac Literature, p.252, n.3.
  5. ^ Wright, A short history p.254.
  6. ^ J.B.Chabot, Chronique... vol. 1, p. ii.
  7. ^ Robert Hoyland (1997). Seeing Islam as Others Saw It. Princeton: Darwin. p. 452. 
  8. ^ a b
  9. ^ J-B Chabot, Chronique de Michel le Syrien Patriarche Jacobite d'Antioche (1166-1199) Tome I-II-III (French) and Tome IV (Syriac), Paris, 1899, p. 748, appendix II
  10. ^ History of Mikhael The Great Chabot Edition p. 748, 750, quoted after Addai Scher, Hestorie De La Chaldee Et De "Assyrie"[1]


  • Sebastian Brock, A brief outline of Syriac literature. Moran Etho 9. Kottayam, India: SEERI (1997)
  • Jean-Baptiste Chabot, Chronique de Michel le Syrien, Patriarche Jacobite d'Antiche (1166-1199). Éditée pour la première fois et traduite en francais I-IV (1899;1901;1905;1910; a supplement to volume I containing an introduction to Michael and his work, corrections, and an index, was published in 1924. Reprinted in four volumes 1963, 2010).
  • F[rancois] Nau, Sur quelques autographes de Michel le Syrien, in: Revue de l'Orient Chrétien 19 (1914) 378-397.
  • Gregorios Y. Ibrahim (ed.), Text and Translations of the Chronicle of Michael the Great. The Edessa-Aleppo Syriac Codex of the Chronicle of Michael the Great, Vol. 1, Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press (2009).

External links

  • Michel le Syrien - First volume of French translation of Chronicle.
  • Second volume in French
  • Third and last volume in French
  • French translation of Armenian version of the Chronicle
  • English translation of preface to the Chronicle
  • Robert Bedrosian, Michael the Syrian - English translation of Armenian version of the Chronicle of Michael the Syrian.
  • Jürgen Tubach (1993). "Michael the Syrian". In Bautz, Traugott. Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German) 5. Herzberg: Bautz. cols. 1467–1471.  
  • NASA scientists and Michael the Syrian
Preceded by
Athanasius VII bar Qutreh
Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch
Succeeded by
Athanasius VIII
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