Recently I wrote a review of a recent study of Arab Christianity: Constantin A. Panchenko, Arab Orthodox Christians under the Ottomans: 1516-1831 (Jordanville NY: Holy Trinity Seminary Press, 2016). The full review will be published later this year in our Journal of Eastern Christian Studies (2018, 1-4).
For everyone who is interested in the history of Christians in the Middle East, this should be essential reading, for at least three reasons.
The first of these is that Panchenko provides a fairly complete overview of the history of what he calls the Arab Orthodox Church, the church which others have called the ‘Rum’ or ‘Greek’ Orthodox Church of the patriarchates of Antioch (today located in Damascus), Jerusalem and Alexandria – that is, in the ‘Arab’ provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Not only does he bring together disparate materials on the history of these churches in a period that despite a lot of recent work still is under-researched, by doing so he also makes clear the possibilities and limits of speaking about ‘Arab’ Orthodoxy. While on the one hand he clearly distinguishes the Arab nationalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (outside the timeframe of this book) that found much support in Orthodox circles, from the use of ‘Arab’ and ‘Arabic’ in the earlier period, on the other he sometimes appears to take those arguing for Arabic against attempts at Hellenization of the church as representing an older, more local and more authentic form of an Arab ‘ethnos’ that preceded various kinds of Hellenization. While the work would have gained by making a clearer distinction between pre-modern, early modern and modern conceptions of community, ethnicity and nationalism, the author puts on the table all the material to understand the complex developments of the early Ottoman period, discarding any easy notions of an ‘Arab’ faction over and against a ‘Greek’ one.
The second reasons is the fact that it was originally written in Russian and is grounded in the Russian academic tradition. This means that in some respects one notes the limited exchange of the Russian scholarship with the Anglo-Saxon world (as concerning the above issues of ethnicity and nationalism), but it also means that he brings a wealth of so far underexplored Russian sources into the debate. These include important work by Russian scholars on the history of the Ottoman Empire and its Orthodox Church, but also a number of primary sources originally written in Russian or kept in Russian libraries, reflecting the longstanding connections of Russia with the region, especially from the eighteenth century onwards. For those of us who do not read Russian, Panchenko’s monograph is an excellent way to get acquainted with this scholarly tradition and its sources.
Third, and lastly, the history of the Arab Orthodox Church is put in a broad context of relationships with other churches, the state and society as a whole, with due attention to its ongoing relationship with the newly emerging Melkite or Greek Catholic Church (in which Arabic also played an important role), with the other Orthodox patriarchates outside the Arabic Middle East, especially Constantinople but also in Russia, and with the Georgian Church in particular. Other important topics that are discussed concern the relationships with the state and external actors (most important with Russia), the importance of pilgrimage and pilgrimage revenues for the churches, monastic life more generally, the cultural life of manuscripts, printing, literature and education, and the tensions between urban and rural communities. While I disagree with some of his conclusions (e.g., as to the ‘tribalization’ and accompanying de-literarization of the rural populations, buying into a narrative of decline that I think is unwarranted), it is exactly these themes that are important for the further study not just of the patriarchates of the Rum Orthodox Church, but also of the Catholic churches, the miaphysite group (Armenian, Syriac, Coptic) and the (Assyrian) Church of the East.