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The Chronicle of SeertChristian Historical Imagination in Late Antique Iraq$

Philip Wood

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199670673

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199670673.001.0001

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Beyond Ctesiphon: Monasteries and Aristocrats in the Christian Histories

Beyond Ctesiphon: Monasteries and Aristocrats in the Christian Histories

(p.143) 6 Beyond Ctesiphon: Monasteries and Aristocrats in the Christian Histories
The Chronicle of Seert

Philip Wood

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter looks at the emergence of two ‘independent’ forms of Christian historical writing within Iraq and their eventual incorporation into the central, patriarchal tradition. The first of these is the genre of monastic history, which celebrated the foundation of a new generation of monasteries in the north of Iraq from the late sixth century into the seventh. In particular, the chapter examines the ambiguous reputation of the reformer Babai within monastic circles. The second half of the chapter examines the celebration of aristocratic lineage within the histories of the late sixth century, testimony to the increasingly complex relationship between Christian institutions and secular patrons. These stories attempt to establish paradigms of proper behaviour for potential patrons, especially in cultural and religious terms.

Keywords:   monasticism, monasteries, succession, Messalians, Babai, aristocracy

The massive expansion of ecclesiastical history writing at the end of the Sasanian period coincided with two major social changes, centred on northern Iraq, on Izla, Adiabene, and Beth Garmai in particular, which left an impression on the developing historiography of the church. The first of these was the rapid expansion of monasticism in Iraq from the 550s, chiefly at the hands of the disciples of Abraham of Kashkar. This movement attempted to recover the initiative from the Miaphysite rivals of the Church of the East, and was, at times, closely allied to catholicoi and to the system of religious schools based on the School of Nisibis. The founders of these monasteries in the late sixth and seventh century are recorded in a series of hagiographic collections, with final redactions in the ninth and tenth centuries, one of which is preserved in the Chronicle of Seert. The second of these social changes was the increasing prominence of a Christian elite, many of whom were from an Iranian cultural background and converts from Zoroastrianism. These men appear as the sponsors of the new monasticism and as dominating figures in episcopal elections. Some families especially, such as that of Khusrau II’s financier Yazdin of Karka de Beth Slouq, achieved impressive prominence at the court of the shah and are recognized in the sources as major protectors of the church.1 The prominence of these Christian elites occurred at the same time that other Iranian elites also sought to highlight their own distinctive histories and values as ‘Parthian’ lords, in a bid to oppose the centralizing reforms of the last shahs, especially those of Hormizd IV and Khusrau II.

The ecclesiastical histories that we examined in the last chapter represented novel versions of, or additions to, the accounts of the past that the Church of the East shared with other churches, the Jacobites and Melkites. These new histories established the prestige of the church using a theological and historical (p.144) vocabulary that would be understood by these rivals, that also sought to differentiate the Church of the East as ‘(more) orthodox’, often using shared criteria valued by all three churches. New histories were also produced in the late sixth and seventh century that recorded the monastic foundations of the Church of the East and the deeds of Sasanian shahs. Unlike the ecclesiastical material, these histories sought to integrate newly significant institutions and social classes into a framework that had previously privileged the succession of the catholicoi. As such, these new histories reflect both an expansion of the power base of the Church of the East, and of the allies and patrons of the catholicoi, and a threat to the catholicos’ dominance, as East Syrian influence at court and in society was no longer channelled through the catholicos alone.

The synods of the late sixth century reveal an institutional church that was increasingly closely administered and whose leaders took increasing interest in the ‘everyday’ morality of its members. Incestuous marriage, a custom associated with Zoroastrianism, was banned under Aba, and this was followed by Joseph’s ban on the marriage of priests to pagans and that of all sections of society to heretics under Ishoʿyahb.2 Joseph also legislated against pagan amulets, auguries, and divination, the kind of activity that is so well attested in the magic bowls found in Uruk and elsewhere, and insists that blessed oil, which may have been intended as a substitute for these amulets, should not be used to perform ordinations.3 These bans were reiterated under Ezekiel, who also banned ‘wild music and lamentation [by women]’ at funerals, and by Ishoʿyahb I, who adds bans against attending the feasts of ‘pagans, Jews and heretics’.4 The declarations of these synods reflect a greater concern for ‘popular’ religion. They may also imply that church leaders felt they had a greater capacity for these interventions to succeed, especially given the connections to the shah and to the school movement that also occurred at this time. The appearance of concern for religious boundaries and ‘pagan practice’ may reflect Christian communities that had recently expanded, to incorporate members who continued many older customs and still celebrated the festivals of their former religions. Indeed, we should not assume that amulet use or ‘pagan and Jewish festivals’ were seen as non-Christian by those who participated in them. Amulets often record prayers to Jesus and the angels alongside pagan gods5 and festivals, such as Nouroz and Mihragan, may have been seen as ‘cultural’ rather than religious continuations with the past.6 Thus, one way (p.145) of looking at the aspirations of the late sixth-century catholicoi is as an expression of the wish to regulate the boundaries of Christianity as an exclusive set of cultural practices, in a world where Christians did not all share the same cultural backgrounds and assumptions.

At the same time, church leaders were also increasingly concerned with the administration of the church as an institution. Joseph’s ban on priests and abbots abandoning the livings attached to their office shows us both the church’s need to safeguard its property through continued use, and the increased social status of certain priests, who might have preferred their own inherited dwellings to those attached to their position.7 Later demands that wills in support of churches, hospices, and monasteries be respected shows a parallel situation: the institutions of the church benefited from the donations of wealthy laymen, but also needed to defend this patrimony from the donors’ family members and ensure that donors gave enough for a lasting endowment: in essence, we see the catholicoi asserting a higher value for a privileged relationship with the church and setting conditions to the donations of aristocrats.8

These greater economic resources also required greater oversight at each level of the ecclesiastical hierarchy: bishops were banned from resisting the division of their sees (presumably the bishops did so to retain importance after a growth in the Christian population or church resources). Archdeacons were appointed to dioceses to oversee day-to-day administration, and bans were placed against priests alienating church property.9 We cannot gauge the success of these laws in achieving what they set out to do, but they do illustrate the accumulation of wealth in the church and its source in lay donations, and the increased will and capacity of the catholicoi to intervene in lay behaviour more generally.

The priorities of this legislation provide a lens through which we can read the histories of monastic foundations and of the Sasanian shahs produced by Christians in the late sixth and seventh centuries. As well as asserting the importance of their own office as catholicoi, Joseph, Ezekiel, and Ishoʿyahb I also set out the limits of acceptable behaviour for Christians, in terms of their cultural and economic activities. But they do not articulate a vision of Christians as constituting a complete society set apart: they are also concerned with banning extremes of Christian asceticism and confirming basic aspects of the empire’s social order.10 The canons show us that Christian elites and church institutions were increasingly significant features in the politics of the Sasanian world, where the catholicos was supported by and beholden to the shah, as (p.146) well as to Christian magnates. The new histories examined here show us stages in the negotiation of a series of compromises that set out the relationship between the secular clergy and monasticism.

Abrahamic Monasticism at Izla

The greater organization and wealth of the Church of the East is seen most visibly in the rapid expansion of monasticism in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Monasteries had, of course, existed in Iraq in the fifth century, and aroused controversy in the 486 synod of Acacius, which banned celibate monasticism as part of a wider reform of marriage practice in the Church of the East. Aba’s restoration of celibate asceticism was accompanied by a renewal of monasticism by the ascetic Abraham of Kashkar, who, like Aba, had travelled to the Pachomian cenobitic monasteries of Egypt and studied at the School of Nisibis, as well as acting as a missionary in Hira in south-west Iraq. Abraham is said to have reformed the customs and dress of his monks, who ‘had [formerly] been dressed like Egyptians’, ‘so that they could be distinguished from heretics [i.e. the Severans]’.11 The most noticeable of these reforms was the Abrahamic tonsure, in the form of a crown, recalling the connection between ascetics and the ‘crowned’ martyrs of an earlier era.12

Abrahamic monasticism seems to have been set apart by its focus on a cenobium, a shared walled living space on the Pachomian model, which was set alongside their own churches and cells for lone ascetics. These reformed monasteries were referred to in Syriac as ʿumrā, in distinction to the dayrā, which was employed for the ruined monasteries of earlier generations or the monasteries of the era of ʿAbda.13 Yet, it is noticeable that Abraham’s own monastic rules are not forthcoming on the significance of this new organization: instead they focus on the integration of fasting, prayer, and silence in monastic life and the importance of academic learning and physical labour.14 These sentiments certainly correspond to the hagiography’s report (p.147) that Abraham had been trained in Egypt: the rules mirror important features of Pachomian monasticism. But Abraham’s quotation from Antony, ‘a monk outside his cell is like a fish out of water’, does not sit well with the more public, urban monasticism that Joseph and his successors wished to promote.15

It is instructive to compare Abraham’s rules with the rules of his successors as abbots of his great monastery at Izla in the far north of Iraq. Dadishoʿ, his successor, wrote a series of rules that was much longer than Abraham’s. They were, he notes in his introduction, created ‘because communities are different from those who dwell alone’. Here, unlike in Abraham’s rules, the focus on the cenobium is specifically acknowledged. Dadishoʿ begins his rules with an assertion that his monks must be orthodox: they are to follow the faith of the orthodox fathers, Diodore, Theodore, and Nestorius; to avoid soothsayers and heretics; and to avoid going into towns or wandering the countryside.16 Here, Dadishoʿ added a creedal component to the division with the Severans that Abraham had established with his distinctive tonsure. Like the ecclesiastical historians of the same era, Dadishoʿ emphasizes the importance of the Dyophysite fathers in defining orthodoxy, and in practice this must have targeted any monks with Miaphysite sympathies or supporters of any intellectual compromise across Christological boundaries (such as that of Henana of Nisibis).

The third of Dadishoʿ’s prescriptions addresses the issue of Messalianism, the ‘heresy’ of the rejection of the efficacy of the church’s sacraments that was associated with ascetics wandering the countryside outside the formal jurisdiction of their bishops or of cenobitic monasteries. Ezekiel names this group explicitly at the beginning of his synod, accusing them of ‘dressing as ascetics and plunging women into sin, abusing the sacrament, seducing widows and separating wives from their husbands’.17 He immediately follows this with bans on self-castration and magic, which may have both been practices associated with extreme asceticism and heteropraxy.

These concerns broadly echo the accusations made against ‘Messalians’ in the synods of fourth-century Roman Syria and Anatolia and the heresiological tradition that grew from these declarations.18 These ‘Messalians’ did not generate a school or a defined canon of writings, but the name used in these early prosecutions was employed against various individuals who practiced extreme asceticism on behalf of a wider group of people and who challenged the primacy of the Eucharist.19 Dadishoʿ and Ezekiel’s legislation on orthopraxy (p.148) mirrors fairly closely that of the West Syrian Rabbula of Edessa in the mid-fifth-century, who had also banned ascetical wandering and extreme public mortification. Rabbula’s laws may have been caused by the increasing intensity of theological debate in his day, prompting bishops across the Christological spectrum to ‘put their house in order’ and ensure that ascetics in their dioceses corresponded to shared norms of orthopraxy. Essentially, conflict over orthodoxy in the fifth-century Roman world brought with it a wider concern to bring religious variation into line with a single orthopraxy, lest variations in religious practice provide a hostage to fortune that opponents might exploit.20 I suggest that the sixth-century Church of the East, like Roman Syria-Mesopotamia a century before, enjoyed international connections that brought greater awareness of the heresiological categories that had been employed further west.

The anxiety about Messalianism seen here may also reflect the political prominence of catholicoi in this era, when they were more heavily connected to the shah, but also supporting urban, celibate monasticism, reversing a policy of sixty years. Joseph decrees in his synod that ‘monasteries and martyria should be built again in cities and villages’ since the earlier ruling that had restricted them to the countryside, ‘had caused the Jews and pagans to rejoice’.21 Monasticism, then, was connected to the public prestige of the Church of the East. But a more visible, public monasticism also meant that Christian asceticism could not represent a threat to the mores of an Iranian society that valued lineage and familial inheritance very highly. Ezekiel accused ‘Messalians’ of sexual licence and this (and its effects on aristocratic lineage) had been the crux of Khusrau I’s attack on the millenarian Mazdakite movement, which he had purged towards the start of his reign. Christian bishops and abbots may have therefore been concerned that Christian ascetics were not branded as dangers to the Sasanian social order.22

Dadishoʿ was keen to stress norms of belief among his monks, but the majority of his rules actually concern the daily monastic life, most of all the way that power was distributed in his monastery. These rules assert that monks had to be literate, and govern the probationary time that any would-be hermits needed to spend in the cenobium, the communal part of the monastery. They also discuss the role of the abbot in spreading the peace within the monastery and the ban on bringing legal accusations against monks to the secular authorities.23 Some of these rulings may have been responses to actual disputes. Together, they show the working out of rules by a growing (p.149) community, and the wish of Dadishoʿ himself to regulate the behaviour of monks, ensuring that the monastery never became a source of political embarrassment, through the intervention of secular judges, or challenged the authority of its abbot. Under Dadishoʿ, the monastery was envisioned as a self-sufficient community, both in terms of its self-governance and its production of goods, where monks tending olive groves and the fields, teaching, and producing books were trained in a Pachomian system that taught through imitation.24

Monasticism after the Henanian Crisis

The monasteries of Dadishoʿ and Abraham existed in close symbiosis with the catholicosate and with the School of Nisibis. Joseph’s defence of urban monasticism and his regulation of the behaviour of abbots, and the connection of the catholicoi Ishoʿyahb I and Sabrishoʿ to Nisibis were accompanied by the close association of the abbots of Izla to the bishop of Nisibis and to the School. However, this early unity was ruptured with the Henanian crisis in the School of Nisibis, when Henana, the School’s director, fell out with Gregory, bishop of Nisibis, who was himself a pupil of the Schools of Ctesiphon and Nisibis. Henana stood accused of departing from the traditions of Theodore, but retained his position during the reign of Sabrishoʿ, who refused to expel him. This resulted in the departure of scholars from Nisibis, which the Chronicle of Seert depicts as a mass exodus, including the future catholicos Ishoʿyahb II.25

Camplani has suggested that this rupture with the School was the beginning of the independent power of the great monastery at Izla. He observes that Dadishoʿs successor Babai and his ascetic contemporaries, several of whom are connected to Izla, were also prominent interpreters in schools in the north of Iraq.26 In addition, the same era saw the temporary removal of the catholicosate, as the shah refused to make an appointment following the death of Sabrishoʿ’s nepotistic successor, Gregory of Pherat in 607. This era, then, saw the apogee of the power of the great monastery, when its abbot Babai was instrumental in the assertion of an extreme Dyophysite Christology and functioned as a monastic visitor in the north of Iraq, with the support of the bishops of Karka de Beth Slouq, Nisibis, and Arbela.

Camplani has characterized the period of Babai’s dominance as the victory of a ‘conservative’ approach to exegesis and Christology, ranged against the theological speculation encouraged by Henana. He argues that the transfer of (p.150) education to schools dominated by monks, where orthodoxy and learning by imitation were emphasized, aided this suppression of speculation at a time when the Church of the East was coming under heavy external pressure from the Jacobites and lacked coherent leadership.27

Still, there are also indications that several monasteries resented the centralization of Babai’s reign and the intellectual role that they were expected to play. Thomas of Marga’s Book of the Governors, a history of the monastery of Beth ʿAbe, records Babai’s visitation to the monastery, which accepted the monastery’s orthodoxy but sought to change its liturgical practice (until the healing of a paralytic during the service persuaded him otherwise).28 Similarly, later chapters record how the monks prevented the catholicos Ishoʿyahb III (649–59) from building a school in Beth ʿAbe, ‘so that school and monastery might become one’. Here too, the monks reject a change that ‘we have not found reported in any kind of writing’ and which is contrary to ‘what we have received from our father Mar Jacob’. In the face of Ishoʿyahb’s claims to rule over all monasteries as catholicos, and his personal claim as a major donor to Beth ʿAbe, the abbot Qamishoʿ leads the monks away from the monastery, together with Jacob’s relics, which finally causes Ishoʿyahb to back down.29

The monastic rules and the events that followed the Henanian crisis at Nisibis provide a skeleton for our understanding of the historiography of monasticism in the Church of the East. The emphasis on Pachomian cenobitism under Dadishoʿ and the dominant role of Babai during the breakdown in authority in Nisibis and Ctesiphon are both illuminated by a range of sources, some contemporary and some later in date. And it is against this backdrop that we must read the subsequent wealth of monastic history, written as hagiographic collections or as the histories of specific monasteries.

The Hagiographic Collections: The Book of Chastity

Three texts preserve hagiographic collections that record the deeds of Abraham and his disciples: Thomas of Marga’s Book of the Governors (composed in 840), the related accounts of Ishoʿdnah of Basra’s Book of Chastity (composed c.860) and in the Chronicle of Seert. In addition our knowledge of monastic culture and history-writing is enlarged by several Syriac saints’ lives, especially the lengthy Life of Rabban Bar ʿIdta (composed c.660), the Life of Rabban (p.151) Hormizd (composed before 1100), and the History of the Monastery of Beth Qoqa (composed c.850), which have a much closer focus on individual institutions than Thomas’s work. In all these cases, authors discussed a monastic movement that had expanded rapidly in the period following Abraham’s foundations at Izla, in the period c.580–660, but they described it through the lens of subsequent events and with different emphases depending on their position within the church.30

Abrahamic monasticism had become a prestigious aspect of the Church of the East in the Umayyad period and beyond, and there were clearly early efforts made to record the histories of the monks independently of the pre-existent histories of the catholicoi. But these histories were adapted and extended according to different motives in later centuries: like the medieval compilations of the ecclesiastical histories of Iraq, the hagiographic collections that are analysed here represent the tip of the iceberg of an extensive lost tradition

The simplest of the later collections is Ishoʿdnah’s Book of Chastity. This is a series of very brief notes on individual monastic founders, often grouped around a major figure and his disciples who went on to found smaller monasteries. Its sections are often limited to the name of the saint, his origin, and the place of his monastery, but more extensive entries include the fate of his relics, the saint’s miracles, his social origins and education, and his foundation of schools. A handful of sections stretch to a page or more and treat major figures in the movement, such as Abraham of Kashkar, Rabban Bar ʿIdta, and Jacob of Beth ʿAbe, as well as the controversial theologians Sahdona and Joseph Hazzaya.

Several different ways of organizing the entries on these monastic founders have been employed in the Book, which itself suggests that it is a compilation of several different lists of holy men (which may have also had a higher level of detail). Thus many biographies relate how the monk was connected to Abraham or another major figure: headings 14–29 contain figures directly trained by Abraham and many also conclude with a prayer formula, which may suggest that they once represented a shorter collection.31 Similarly, the section on Abraham (§14) himself concludes with a long, unadorned list of his disciples: the sections that follow may represent a more developed version of such a list where further details have been added. However, it is also worth noting that the unadorned list of disciples in Abraham’s section does not include the same names as the subsequent sections of the Book: this was a flexible format that could support additional ‘minor characters’.32

(p.152) As well as Abraham himself, other figures also receive clusters of followers and are seen as key points in the transmission of monastic authority, especially Sabrishoʿ of Beth Qoqa in the region of Marga in Beth Garmai (§59–64); Rabban Khoudawai in Khuzistan and central Mesopotamia (§78–82); and the followers of Babai the scribe at Hira (§72–4). These groups of disciples may have represented independent cycles that were added en masse to the hagiographic tradition surrounding Abraham, and may reflect the territorial histories of certain federations of monasteries with their own distinct identities.33

One feature of the Book of Chastity as a hagiographic collection is its interest in geography and ethnic origin: we are frequently told if a monk was a ‘Persian’34 (rather than ‘an Aramean’) and the personal history of his career before becoming a monk, focusing on his training in different places. The result of this accumulation of geographical detail is to present the monastic movement as corresponding to a specific territory that is internally interconnected by ties between monasteries, the birth places of monks and the places where they worked as missionaries. Thus, Abraham himself was born in Kashkar, a missionary in Hira and a monk at Izla; John of Me‘arre was born in Hira and a monk in Sinjar in the north; Job of Revardashir in Fars, who founded a monastery in Adiabene or Gregory, who was born at Kashkar, educated at Ctesiphon and became a monk at Nisibis.35

The overwhelming focus of the endeavours of the monks recorded here is the north of Iraq, in Nisibis, Izla, and Sinjar, as well as Beth Garmai and Adiabene. While the Book doesn’t keep a specific focus on Abraham’s own monastery, it does present the north of Iraq in general as the centre of Abrahamic monasticism. At the same time, the significance of the north is demonstrated by its role in uniting ascetics from all over the East, a broader territorial identity that is overlaid onto the regional cycles of Hira or Khuzistan. No specific geographical term is used for this wider territory, but it corresponds closely to the former Sasanian Empire, with monks coming from Fars, Khuzistan, and Merv.36 And this correspondence between the Sasanian Empire and Abrahamic monasticism is further reinforced by the record of the monks as missionaries to the different peoples of the empire, such as the Arabs of Hira and the Kurds,37 and by the Iranian origins of many of the monks themselves. The Book of Chastity creates a sense of a holy land that covers the same territory as the empire, whose (p.153) places are linked by the careers of the monks, who are drawn from and serve many races.38

This vision of ‘the East’ as a land made holy by the monks is explicitly connected to the models established in Egypt and Palestine. Abraham and Dadishoʿ consciously adopted Pachomian models at the great monastery at Izla. Abraham himself refers to the ‘pilgrim brothers of Izla’,39 comparing monastic life to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which he himself had made and which had increased in popularity in his lifetime.40 Indeed, several monks begin their careers by visiting Jerusalem and Scetis, or make Jerusalem pilgrimages as extensions of pilgrimages within Iraq, such as the westward voyage of Joseph of Merv.41

The monastic careers described in the Book mainly span the period 580–660, though certain observations and place names clearly date from the Abbasid period and Ishoʿdnah’s own lifetime.42 Given this clustering of the hagiographies, we can see the territorial identity of the text as a response to the increasing numbers of Persian Christians and to the disappearance of the Sasanian state in the early seventh century. The Church of the East, and, more specifically, its monasticism, is presented as the inheritor of the Sasanian world, seen here in terms of its geography and its component races, except that the focus of this monastic East is clearly on the north of Iraq rather than Ctesiphon or Fars. Moreover, this was a vision that remained relevant to Ishoʿdnah, who does not seem to have brought the earlier monastic collections that he used ‘up to date’ to his own day. Instead, the later editors of the Book added sections on monasticism before Abraham and on controversial theologians of the early seventh century: for later generations, the last generation of the Sasanian Empire, itself a great era of history writing, would be looked back on as another ‘golden age’, in which the nature of the Church of the East was defined.

The Book of the Governors

Thomas of Marga’s ninth-century monastic history represents a very different approach to the structure of monastic hagiography, which reveals the priorities (p.154) in his vision of the Abrahamic movement as a whole and its relationship with other parts of the institutional church. His work was composed around the same time as Ishoʿdnah’s, but is much more extensive, both in terms of sheer length and because it provides a continuous narrative of the monastery of Beth ʿAbe and monasteries connected to it, right up to Thomas’s own day. From the second of five books, the focus is on Beth ʿAbe itself, but the first book covers the early period of the Abrahamic movement, tracing its Egyptian origins, the monks trained by Abraham at the Great monastery of Izla and Babai’s reform movement.

One of the most interesting features of the work for our purposes is Thomas’s concern for his sources, since it gives us some insight into Thomas’s attempts to reconcile his own local traditions with those that stress the coherence of the monastic movement as a whole, and with earlier trends in monastic history-writing in the late sixth and seventh centuries. We have seen how the structure of the Book of Chastity seems to have been influenced by various lists of monks, sometimes only with very sparse annotation and sometimes based on longer accounts. Thomas’s source lists likewise confirm the great variety of writing about monasticism even at an early stage in the movement. In his introduction he announces his intention to ‘spin a thread from the stories of the monks of Beth ʿAbe, formed from matters omitted by compilers of written and unwritten histories…that I should write down briefly the accounts scattered in the stories of others and in the ecclesiastical histories (eqlisyasṭiqās) of ancient authors…I will go into the gardens of their victorious acts and glean and gather chosen ears of wheat’.43

The Book of Governors is, therefore, a selection drawn from written and oral testimony, and the ‘histories’ that Thomas refers to may have been both ecclesiastical histories, of the kind employed in the medieval compilations, or hagiographies, referring to the careers of one or more saints. Thomas uses ‘histories’ of Abraham recorded by Rustam of Beth Qoqa (c.690) and Zkhaʿisho of Beth ʿAbe and the information contained in the Life of Rabban Bar ‘Idta by one John.44 For instance, for Jacob, founder of Beth ʿAbe and a disciple of Dadishoʿ, Thomas employs a ‘history of Mar Jacob’ written by Sahdona (later condemned for his compromises with the Melkites) to describe Jacob’s succession.45 But he also uses two other authors, Solomon of Bar Garaph (fl. 686–701) and Rabban Apnimaran (fl. 640s) to furnish details of Jacob’s exile into the wilderness after being expelled from Izla, and his encounters with lone ascetics on the mountain.46 Thomas treats the (p.155) compositions of these earlier monastic authors as part of their ascetic endeavours.47 For Thomas, a characteristic of monasticism is its sense of its own history, and the recording of this history is one of the duties of monks, to recall the pious deeds of forebears as part of a quest for perfection in the present.48

At one point, Thomas comments directly on the importance of this genre of monastic history. He devotes a section to the historian Sergius of Beth Rasthaq (near Marga), who wrote in the reign of Ishoʿyahb III.

At the request of Mar Jacob he wrote a book of the victorious deeds and eulogies of the holy men who lived in the land of Beth Garmai, and this book is found everywhere and…excites praises to God [in whoever reads it]. And he called it The Destroyer of the Mighty, since he did not write about the great men of the church but those who were victorious in the houses of their fathers or the churches of their own villages, who were men of simple manners and despised themselves.49

Thus the beginning of the seventh century witnessed the evolution of a monastic hagiographic collection self-conscious of its difference from the kind of history that had come before it.

Sergius’ history was imagined in contrast with the ecclesiastical histories that were produced under Ishoʿyahb I and afterwards. Notably, Sergius was writing at a time when Ishoʿyahb III was re-establishing the importance of the catholicosate after two decades without a catholicos, and when Babai, the most important abbot within the Church, had been its most important theologian and ruling spirit. Thomas does not quote directly from Sergius, but his description of his history suggests that it asserted the independence of the monastic movement by tracing a history independent of the catholicoi, reaching back to Abraham and the fathers of Scetis. Where the hagiographic collections that Ishoʿdnah used for his Book of Chastity presented monasticism as a phenomenon that bound together all the Sasanian realms after the end of the state, Sergius’ work highlighted the independent history of the monastic movement in reaction to the reassertion of power by Ishoʿyahb III.

However, while Thomas reports Sergius’ life sympathetically, he also used a wider variety of sources that had different emphases in the organization of their hagiographic material. We have already seen an illustration of this variation in the different sources for the life of Jacob: some focused on his relationship to the missionary Isho‘zkha, others on his personal miracles and his ascetic life during his exile, others on his connections to Dadishoʿ and the Great monastery of Izla. These different focuses in the narrative show different assessments of monastic values, but they also point to political differences, (p.156) over the relative importance of the great monastery within the monastic movement, or the importance of individual miracles or eremitic asceticism within Abrahamic monasticism.

Sergius had contrasted the mighty men of the church with his more humble, local heroes, but Thomas compiled his Book at a time when Beth ʿAbe, in spite of the chequered career of its founder, had become an important ally of and nursery for eighth-century metropolitans and catholicoi. He could not afford to adopt Sergius’ egalitarian approach to writing history.50 At several points in the Book, Thomas is forced to resolve tensions between his sources, where holy men came into conflict with one another or with the catholicoi and where different monastic ‘histories’ placed the focus on different figures or organized their material in different ways. An example of this is the contrasting treatment of Babai the Great, a leader of the Church of the East with a complex relationship to monasticism, and Mar Jacob, founder of Beth ʿAbe.

Authority and Conflict in the Accounts of Babai the Great

The first story of Babai that Thomas tells presents him both as a holy man and as a man ‘hasty in speech and harsh in command’, and he accommodates his impressive reputation with his opposition to Jacob. Thomas opens his Book by charting the training of Jacob by Dadishoʿ, but observes that he ‘was thought to be of no account, since he was a stranger to the honour of the world’.51 This account is immediately followed by Babai’s succession from Dadishoʿ, and Thomas’s source may imply a contrast between Babai and the unworldly Jacob.52 In the following scenes, Satan stirs up certain monks to evil deeds and inspires them to keep wives and children with them in the monastery (possibly following pre-Abrahamic custom). Next the famous Hiran ascetic Eliya visits the monastery and exposes the evil monks, ‘the thorns fit for the fiery furnace’ and laments that ‘the children of Israel have forsaken the covenant and left the fatherhood of Abraham for that of Satan’. Taking the place of the abbot, Eliya commands the sacristan to summon the congregation with the gong and denounces the monks. Eliya asks Babai: ‘How is it that those who are not under your headship tremble…yet Sodom is raised again in this divine inheritance?’53 While Babai was already famous for his leadership of the church, here Eliya charges him with failure in his primary role as abbot of Izla, when the monks’ ‘immorality’ is discovered.

(p.157) These monks are then expelled from the monastery, but Satan also causes Jacob to be accused, since his cell was near the houses of the guilty: ‘a tumult rose up against him, the most humble of men, who knew no sin existed beside his own in all creation…and he was driven out with tears in his eyes and penitence in his heart’, and Babai placed a ban on him. Thomas refuses to record this ban, directing the reader to a letter of Ishoʿyahb III (then bishop of Balad). He observes: ‘I do not record it out of respect for the holy man, who suffers defects like other men’. Babai is in turn chastised by other ‘holy men’ at Izla, who declare that Jacob was only a judge for himself and had left the monks for divine judgement. They also declare that the expelled monks should have been treated more leniently and ‘been sanctified with prayer and fasting’.54 The exile of Jacob and the sinful monks is then placed into a context of monastic expansion, with lists of the monasteries founded in this era. Exile is presented as an opportunity for repentance, vindicating Babai’s critics.55

The narrative that stretches from Abraham of Kashkar through to the expulsion of Jacob seems to be of one piece, roughly modelled on Old Testament paradigms: it progresses from reference to the many children of the patriarch Abraham, through the sin of the chosen people to their exile, along with their sinless leaders. It is a narrative that clearly identifies Babai as the source of Jacob’s expulsion, but cannot directly criticize the abbot or name those who opposed him in the monastery and allowed Jacob’s return because of Babai’s subsequent importance.

Thomas probably draws the account of Jacob’s return to the monastery from another source, probably the monastic historian Apnimaran. Here he relates how the holy man Mar Yahb met a prophetess and her daughter in the wilderness near Izla, before recording that the same prophetess met Jacob and foretold his importance as a monastic founder.56 Moved by the Holy Spirit, Jacob then returns to the Great monastery, and Babai, also moved by the Spirit, receives him. Here the author notes that ‘we are silent as to how Jacob left the monastery since we do not wish to bring the charge of strife against holy men’.57 It is this duplication of the earlier reluctance to criticize Babai that suggests that Thomas is using a different source here this time focused on Jacob’s ascetic trial in the wilderness before his return to the Great monastery and his foundation of Beth ʿAbe.58

The second group of stories relating to Babai is much more eulogistic in tone and represent him as the leader of the church while the catholicosate was in abeyance, though it still defends the independence of the monastery of Beth ʿAbe. At this point, Thomas apologizes to his friend ‘Abdishoʿ, who requested his work, for including descriptions of political events ‘so that the history will possess a continuous narrative’. His departure from Sergius’ ideal of monastic (p.158) history is caused by the prominence of Babai, a political actor on the same level as a shah or catholicos, and the controversy of his reign: could Babai be considered as catholicos and provide a prestigious history for monasticism vis à vis the later claims of catholicoi? This account of Babai as director of the church is split between asserting the independence of Beth ʿAbe and emphasizing Babai’s importance for the Abrahamic movement as a whole.

Thomas sets the scene for Babai’s role as a monastic visitor and acting head of the church with a lengthy political account, detailing Khusrau II’s love for the Christians and his later volte-face, in which the catholicosate was suppressed following the deaths of the catholicoi Sabrishoʿ and Gregory of Pherat.59 In this chaotic atmosphere the northern metropolitans fear the appearance of Messalianism and heresy (probably Jacobitism) in the newly built monasteries and ask Babai to visit them and root out heresy, ‘since it was clear to all that he was a solitary and not a bishop’. The author also notes that ‘after the death of the wicked Khusrau, a catholicos was ordained and he [Babai] dwelt quietly in his cell’.60

The next scene breaks off from this narrative for a digression: ‘If anyone should ask “Didn’t these metropolitans have sufficient power to end this wickedness without Mar Babai”, I answer “Yes, but not all metropolitans are doctors, nor skilled in public disputation or able to argue against all the different false religions, but all these powers were found in Babai…as you may see from the eighty-four books he wrote.”’ The author goes on to address the specific concerns of the metropolitans: ‘Since Messalianism began with monks, it is also right that monks should detect it, since they receive both divine grace and the crafty workings of the Devil.’ Finally, the author also notes that several false accusations of Messalianism were made against the monasteries of Beth ʿAbe and Rabban Sliba at the end of the seventh century. These were dismissed, and this fact seems to justify the use of monks to judge other monks.61

The author of this section admits the problem of Messalianism, but is also keen to assert that accusations against his own monastery are false and that the investigation of the issue should not be a matter for the regular clergy. Though the rules of Dadishoʿ and Babai emphasized the importance of cenobitism and tried to regulate the monastic wandering that was associated with the Messalians, it is clear that ‘heroic eremeticism’ remained an attractive part of monastic biography and practice, as we see in the stories from Jacob’s exile and his meeting with the unnamed prophetess. Such controversial stories may have brought suspicion on their tellers, such as Apnimaran (himself accused of Messalianism), but it did not prevent their popularity.62

(p.159) This strand of the narrative defends Babai’s importance as a monastic visitor. The narrative adds the weight of his prestigious reputation to the claims of the Abrahamic monasteries to regulate themselves. The author does this without directly challenging the powers of the episcopate. Babai is an example of how an abbot might be qualified in ways that a bishop was not. At the same time, Babai is not presented as a catholicos: he is primarily an example of the capacity of monastic self-leadership independent of the catholicos and his bishops, which might be invoked against the interference of the catholicoi of future generations.63 However, while Babai’s investigation of Messalianism and his attempts to normalize monastic liturgy64 might be praiseworthy in themselves, these are only necessary for others, not the monks of Beth ʿAbe: for the author, Messalianism was a problem in other peoples’ monasteries.

The third and final narrative that Thomas centres around Babai is even more strongly linked to the political narrative of the shah and presents Babai as a catholicos. This political setting differs from the previous narrative: instead of charting the deaths of catholicoi, it focuses on the death of Yazdin, ‘prince of the believers’ and Khusrau’s murder by his son, Shamta: ‘[after Khusrau’s death] there was rest for all parts of the church and, at Shamta’s command, Shiroë’s troops proclaimed a good hope for men’. Next Shiroë, the new shah (628–9), assembles a synod, but Babai refuses the office of catholicos, despite being asked by all the bishops, and he prefers to end his days in his cell. After his refusal he is visited by an angel, the protector of the patriarchs of the East, who asks permission to accompany the new catholicos. Babai replies ‘If I had known you were with me, then I should have accepted the office’. The section concludes the first book of the collection with a prayer: ‘May Mar Babai’s prayers be a wall for the church and her children’.65

The last scene of this narrative recapitulates the political background already given with a new focus on Yazdin, which suggests it comes from a different source. This brief final section asserts Babai as catholicos and a defender of the church, in an unproblematic statement of his role as maintainer of orthodoxy that gives no space to the vicissitudes of his relationship with Beth ʿAbe and Mar Jacob. None of Thomas’s sources could resist Babai’s importance for the Church of the East, but they vary in their acceptance of his role as a force for centralization within the church, a variety of opinion that is (p.160) preserved in Thomas thanks to his interest in Jacob. Notably, the more localized the focus of these stories, the more ambiguous Babai’s role as a centralizer and reformer. We see a much more centralized image of the church, but with an emphasis on the continuing symbiosis of the catholicoi and Abrahamic monasticism in the final account of the movement, that of the Chronicle of Seert.

Monastic Hagiography in the Chronicle of Seert: The Catholicoi and the Jacobites

The Abrahamic movement receives a wide coverage in the Chronicle of Seert, extending from Abraham himself until the 660s. This chronological range is the same as the lists of monastic founders included in ʿAmr’s chronicle, so we probably have a relatively complete version of the monastic material used in the medieval compilations (i.e. it has not been cut short by the end of the Chronicle). This material is also similar in style to that used by the Book of Chastity, and occasionally sections mirror the wording closely, especially in the prayers that end some sections. However, there is also considerable divergence in the dramatis personae of the minor monks and in the much longer and more detailed sections in the Chronicle, supporting Fiey’s assessment that the authors of both hagiographic collections used the same sources rather than being products of the same author.66

The structure of the Chronicle’s material mirrors that found in the Book of Chastity, and a similar point can be made here about the sacred geography of the hagiographic collection incorporated into the Chronicle. But the more detailed sections of the Chronicle allow us to make additional observations about the prominence of other figures in these monastic texts, especially the catholicoi and aristocrats of different kinds. Likewise, just as in the Book of the Governors we saw how different monastic histories took different positions on the importance of the catholicos, on the nature of Abraham’s inheritance and the prominence of Yazdin and Babai. Here too, the process of collection allowed our compiler to produce a collage of sources, which depicted monasteries, catholicoi, and aristocrats existing in symbiosis.

(p.161) Several biographies are included in which the prominence of the saint’s life or the importance of his monastery was tied to the reputation of individual catholicoi. Jacob of Beth ʿAbe, the hero of the Book of the Governors, is remembered here for blessing Ishoʿyahb III whilst bishop of Adiabene, as well as for his birthplace at Lashom, former see of the catholicos Sabrishoʿ (596–604), and his family’s connections to the shah until they fell from favour. In addition, we are told of his education at the school of Marga, his role as a missionary among pagans and heretics, and his connection to Babai of Nisibis, Babai the Great, and Dadishoʿ.67 However, no special note is given on his convent: the broader lens of the Chronicle has sacrificed a lot of what made Jacob distinctive and problematic, and the story of the saint is transformed into how he is connected to external social systems: to the catholicoi and the shah, to the school system and to the acceptable, cenobitic tradition of Dadishoʿ and Babai.

The Chronicle’s treatment of two other major figures is similar to that of Jacob. Sabrishoʿ of Beth Qoqa and Rabban Shapur are both the centre of a cluster of hagiographies in the Book of Chastity, and many of their followers founded ‘related’ monasteries. But the Chronicle focuses instead on their relationships to catholicoi, to Ishoʿyahb III and John bar Marta (682–4), who were blessed by them or treated their relics with particular devotion.68 The chief reasons for the prominence of these saints are left unmentioned and are replaced by their posthumous importance as accessories to the prestige of seventh-century catholicoi.69

Aside from the connection of these biographies to individual catholicoi, they are also connected more generally to the interests of the Church of the East. The biographies provide examples of the symbiosis of schools and monasteries led by the catholicos. As we have seen, the close relationship between the School of Nisibis, the catholicoi, and the monasteries broke down during the reign of Khusrau II (this is one of the underlying reasons for the different images of Babai in the Book of the Governors). Many of the hagiographies used here are probably a product of the late seventh century, given their references to the Arab invasions and the catholicoi and monasteries they include. But the presentation of material in these slightly stereotyped biographies invite us to think that nothing has changed beyond the proliferation of the school system beyond Nisibis: these monks trace their ascetic lineage back to Abraham, and are solely defined by their education and their relationship to catholicoi and aristocrats.

A particular issue for the catholicoi of the Church of the East was the threat posed by the Jacobites: as we have seen, the synods of the late sixth century (p.162) adopted an anti-Theopaschite position, which became entrenched in the seventh century as the church became increasingly Dyophysite. And Babai’s theology and the expanded school system became an important means of defending this position.70 Yet at the same time, other celebrated figures in the monastic movement followed the more conciliatory position advocated by Henana, such as Sahdona, the prominent ascetic who proposed theological compromise, or Ishaq of Nineveh, whose mystical writings ask believers to abandon all literature that could divide Christians.71 These figures were also clearly popular in the monastic hagiographies: Thomas frequently uses Sahdona’s monastic biographies and Sahdona and Ishaq both receive lengthy entries in the Book of Chastity.72

In contrast with the attitude of the other hagiographic collections, the Chronicle of Seert highlights the anti-Jacobite stance of several of its saints.73 This coincides with its image of the symbiosis of the school system and monasticism with the catholicosate: both institutions are important pillars of orthodoxy in the redefinition of the church around Babai’s extreme Dyophysitism.74 This image of monasticism as anti-Jacobite was drawn from contemporary sources: it is a prominent feature of the Syriac Lives of Rabban Bar ʿIdta and Rabban Hormizd.75 But, given the absence of references to it in the other collections, it appears to be a feature of the careers of these monks that has been exaggerated by the author/compiler of the biographies used in the Chronicle of Seert, probably writing in the ninth or tenth century, but using seventh-century sources.76

This point is reinforced when we note the absence of anti-Jacobite references in Abraham’s Rules, in spite of the association of the reform of the tonsure with him in his Life and the account of the Chronicle of Seert.77 Indeed, the emphasis on a Dyophysite orthodoxy in Dadishoʿ’s Rules may suggest that the tonsure reform was his innovation, and reflects the closer monitoring of ideas in a cenobitic environment. Thus, it is possible that this reform had been (p.163) retrojected onto Abraham by the developing historical tradition, to unequivocally present the monastic movement as part of the struggle against the Jacobites and Abrahamic monasticism as a phenomenon closely associated with the defence of Dyophysite theology and missionary activity. In an environment where Jacobite missionaries were targeting a wide spectrum of un-Christianized groups, ranging from nomadic Arabs to members of the shah’s family, all missions to Kurds, Arabs, and Iranian aristocrats in the Seert biographies may have been seen as broadly anti-Jacobite, an attempt to convert all of the Sasanian world to Nestorianism.78

Monastic Foundations and Iranian Aristocracy

The monastic hagiographies used in the Chronicle of Seert and the Book of Chastity emphasize at several points the close relationship between Iranian aristocrats and monks. Several monks are converted members of this aristocracy, often from areas such as Merv and Nisibis that were both centres of Sasanian government and longstanding Christian bishoprics.79 And the Chronicle in particular celebrates the close relationships between monks and the powerful family of Yazdin, whose association with a saint, like that between a saint and a catholicos, may have influenced the inclusion of these saints’ lives in the collection: Yazdin appears receiving miracles of healing (in Izla and in Fars) and as a major donor to the church and intercessor on its behalf under Babai.80

This focus on the aristocratic connections and origins of monastic founders is an important change from the earlier presentation of the relationship between the Church of the East and the Sasanian Empire. In the fifth century, catholicoi from Fars such as Maʿna had been valued for their ability to acquire patronage for the church at the court of the shah. This relationship between shah and catholicos strengthened through the sixth century, as we have seen reflected in the historical tradition, and reached its apogee in the sponsorship of Sabrishoʿ by Khusrau II.81 But the greater focus on secular aristocrats who were also Christians in these hagiographic texts shows a broadening out of the interaction between the church and political leaders beyond the relationship of shah and catholicos.

(p.164) The Synodicon confirms the growing prominence of these Christian elites: when the catholicos Aba toured the province of Khuzistan in 544, the local synods he convened also include lists of lay elites, frequently with their Middle Persian titles from the Sasanian administration or their positions in a variety of artisanal ‘guilds’.82 Similarly, the seals collected by Rika Gyselen for the late Sasanian period show the prominence of Christians in the state administration. In some their names suggest their religious affiliation, while in others the cross or other Christian symbols display a public religious identity.83

However, this expansion in the prominence of Christian elites within the Sasanian Empire did not necessarily serve the purposes of a church centred on the catholicoi. Legislation against the involvement of lay elites in episcopal elections shows the difficulty of maintaining older rules about authority. But it does not follow that this involvement was resented at a local level, where the ‘bribery’ by elites condemned by the catholicos might have been seen as welcome sponsorship, and where it is possible that, as in the medieval West, bishops may have themselves been drawn from magnate families.84

Several literary phenomena of the late Sasanian period might similarly be associated with the development of local elites who were engaged in the patronage of the church. Local hagiographies in Karka de Beth Slouq and Arbela may have been composed as a result of aristocratic patronage, which sponsored texts that emphasized both the origins and antiquity of the cities’ Christianity and the Iranian and Assyrian origins of its aristocracy.85 The investment of these kinds of elites in monasticism, whether as independent funders or as monks themselves, represents an additional channel through which aristocrats could make prestigious investments that also publicized their (‘Nestorian’) Christian status.

Cynthia Villagomez has argued that the economy of late Sasanian and early Islamic monasticism was integrated into a wider monetary economy, where its products of wine and oil were sold. Monasteries, she argues, were very receptive to external donations, an activity that was not seen to conflict with the poverty of individual monks.86 She observes the use of monasteries as (p.165) ‘economic insurance’ by aristocrats and notes a shift away from Abraham’s insistence on monastic poverty within two generations of his foundation at Izla.87 This suggests that monasteries were closely tied to the aristocratic networks that could guarantee and protect their property, in terms of both land and labour. However, this relationship could also make monasteries more vulnerable to the changing attitudes of aristocratic patrons. These relationships were reflected in most of the monastic hagiographies, though they focus on different aristocratic patrons.

The late Sasanian period has been presented as one of intensive state investment, which saw a massive increase in the monetization of the economy; the expansion of foreign trade in glass and ceramics; the construction of great defensive walls, irrigation canals, and new cities; and the raising of armies to fight the Romans.88 The tradition of the Xwadāy-Nāmag, the Middle Persian Book of Kings, strongly associates this with royal reform of administration and taxation,89 but the archaeological evidence suggests that the intensification and extension of land use may have been a phenomenon that was not solely associated with the shah’s government. A survey of settlement patterns on the Deh Luran plain in south-western Iran may indicate that the late Sasanian period also saw the extension of settlement using the kind of irrigation technology employed for the large-scale hydraulic systems of Iraq, surface runoff regulators, deep wells, and underground qanats, on a much smaller scale in this peripheral highland area.90 The foundation of new monasteries might fit into the same pattern of agricultural expansion, and the Chronicle of Seert presents monks expelling wild beasts, performing agricultural miracles, and building canals to bring unused land under cultivation.91 The aristocratic sponsorship of these monasteries may then reflect another way in which the growing sophistication of the Sasanian world benefited not only the shah’s ‘government’, but also semi-independent actors, such as monastic founders and their aristocratic allies.

(p.166) Local Hagiographies and Iranian Patrons

If this model is correct, then the same social and economic changes that strengthened the Sasanian ‘state’ and the power of the shah against his Roman opponents could also be employed by other actors within Iran and Iraq, in this case aristocrats and the Abrahamic monastic system.92 But just as we have not treated the Sasanian polity or the Church of the East as homogenous systems, we should also be careful to note that the aristocracies of the Iranian world, while they may have shared certain cultural features, were also divided vertically by religious affiliation and horizontally by rank.93 And just as the late sixth and early seventh church saw different voices from the centralized image of the catholicos, such as Sergius of Rasthaq’s ‘Destroyer of the Mighty’, the same period also saw independent literary production by elite groups within the Sasanian Empire and their independent interaction with different actors within the Church of the East. Where the interaction between the Sasanian political system and the Church of the East had been limited to that between the catholicos and the shah in the fifth century (as far as we can tell), the relationship between the two systems becomes increasingly complex in the late sixth and seventh century, especially when the catholicosate was in abeyance or after the Arab conquest and the death of the last shah. We can acquire some sense of the diversity of these relationships between Sasanian elites and Christian religious institutions by contrasting the localized Syriac hagiographies composed in this era with the Iranian elite histories preserved in the Chronicle of Seert.

The relationship between political elites and the Church of the East was articulated at the most basic level between individual monasteries and individual local elites, where hagiographies asserted an ideal pattern for the relationship between donor and institution. The Life of Rabban Bar ʿIdta describes how a Christian lord, Malbed of Barzane, who lived near the saint’s monastery near Marga, was ruined in war and his house filled with demons. The saint exorcized the house and then installed Malbed as ‘head of Marga’ for many years.94 The original version of the life was written soon after the saint’s death, so this representation of Malbed owing his fortune to Bar ʿIdta may be a kind of contract: a public statement about the debt of honour held by Malbed’s family to the monastery that would have been recognized by all who heard the story.95

Another scene from the same life, dated after Khusrau II’s victory over the usurper Vahram Chobin in 592, presents the elite figure in a greater position (p.167) of power: here the saint is more of an equal intercessor between aristocrat and people. In this scene, the land of Marga is struck by a famine, and the saint requests for silver from the magnate Zandha-Farrokh to buy wheat from Nisibis, Media, and Khuzistan. He distributes this to the poor as famine relief, in spite of the complaints of his monks who fear there will not be enough for themselves.96 Zandha-Farrokh is a Middle Persian name, but he is explicitly said to be a ‘believer’ and he may have been a convert. As before, the story may be intended to maintain good relations with an established local family, but it also sets up the monastery as the distribution point for famine relief, establishing its importance to local villages (on whom the monastery itself might rely for labour and support in the future). Simultaneously, the dissemination of the story enabled a local noble to participate in a monastic exchange network at one remove, making use of Christian institutional structures to gain prestige while simultaneous endorsing the authority of Rabban Hormizd, who dispenses the food to the poor.97

However, monasteries also had to be able to control the patronage that they received, and be guaranteed a certain degree of independence from their donors. The Book of the Governors reports a scene from c.660 in which one Hugair wished to found a new monastery, ‘not for a religious intentions, but for boasting and pride. Acting as if he was a good man, he named it Hugair-Abad, in the style of the Magians from whose race he had come.’ However, Aha, metropolitan of Marga and former head of the monastery, refused to consecrate it and bring his monks and scribes there, saying ‘The house of Hugair-Abad is ruined while it is still new.’98

Maria Macuch notes that the Zoroastrian ‘church’ made no pious foundations of its own, and instead individuals made their own foundations, which provided ceremonies for the deceased, but also gave their founder inalienable rights of usufruct over their religiously dedicated estates. These estates would then grow cash crops, provide loans at interest, and be used for prestigious local ‘charity’, such as building bridges and canals.99 Hugair probably made similar assumptions about funding a monastery in his newly adopted religion, namely that he could enjoy a tax-protected investment as well as making a prestigious display of his wealth. The hagiography celebrates how a protégé of the monastery of Beth ʿAbe maintained the principles of monastic independence in the face of this offer of ‘tied funding’ and the story itself serves as a (p.168) parable for the dependence of donors on the approval of the institutional church, in spite of whatever material goods they might offer.

Saints’ lives set after the Arab conquest and the fall of the Sasanian Empire start to problematize the status of Iranians within Christianity to an even greater degree. These slightly later hagiographies go beyond the economic regulation of elite behaviour and address the cultural and linguistic differences of Iranian Christians. The Life of John of Daylam, set in the 710s during the reign of ʿAbd al Malik, describes how the saint builds numerous churches in Daylam, the subtropical mountainous region south of the Caspian, and in Fars, and constructs the first monastery to use Persian alongside Syriac, where the monks quarrelled over this linguistic difference.100 Middle Persian had in fact been used as a medium for Christian writings since the fifth century, and Job of Revardahsir, a companion of Abraham of Netpar, had prepared translations of the monastic Rules for use in Fars and among Christians in India.101 But for this hagiographer, the issue of language seems to have become a problem that needed to be addressed, as well as an indication of the church’s missionary success. This itself may indicate a faster conversion rate by Persian speakers in the seventh century, when the Arab conquests had stripped away much of the prestige of Zoroastrianism. Equally, this faster rate of change may have prompted missionaries like John to accommodate themselves to the expectations of new Christians, which accounts for the prominence of the Persian language in his community.

In Iraq, and even more in Fars, Daylam, or Central Asia, Persian language and culture occupied a ‘liminal’ state. It was the language of the other, whose absorption into Christianity was presented as sign of the religion’s strength, but whose speakers also brought alien practices, ranging from incestuous marriage and Zoroastrian foundation laws to myths of ancient times and the values of a martial aristocracy. Persian notables might become important donors to monasteries, but hagiographers might also imagine Persian as the language spoken by the Devil.102 The hagiographers and historians of the Church of the East treated these new phenomena in different ways, dependent on local conditions, and asserted the boundaries of what practices might be normalized and included within Christianity.103 Significantly, this period of (p.169) cultural syncretism and the elucidation of boundaries was the result both of Christians adopting the culture of Iranian elites and of the religious conversion of former Zoroastrians, who brought their own expectations of what their religion should provide, both in terms of its institutional forms, its cultural production, and the behaviours it endorsed.

Iranian Histories and Christian Authors: The Acts of Mar Qardagh

Hagiographies rooted in individual monasteries illustrate how this process of accommodation was managed in relationships between individual lords and the communities near them. These texts, irrespective of how accurate they were as accounts of specific events, set out ideal patterns of behaviour between monasteries and their neighbours. Other hagiographies and local histories present their subjects within a wider context, emphasizing the connection between aristocratic subjects in their narratives and specific regions of Iraq and Iran (on a larger scale than individual monasteries), situating these aristocrats in relationships with the rest of the empire and with the Sasanian past and articulating more powerful fusions of local ancestry and Christian memory.

One good example of a text with this broader historical and geographical interest is the Acts of Mar Qardagh, the warrior saint of Melqi in Adiabene in northern Iraq. His Syriac Acts are set in the reign of Shapur II, and emphasizes his lineage, from the kings of Assyria, and his construction of a fire temple and fortress at the hilltop settlement of Melqi. The saint undergoes a vision of a mounted figure who foretells his martyrdom, and after this he is miraculously rendered unable to play polo or to hunt, the martial pursuits of an Iranian aristocrat.104 After consulting with a Christian holy man, he converts and gives all his money to Christian monasteries.105 He does, however, continue to fight against the Romans after his conversion: wearing a relic of the True Cross, he ‘triumphs over his enemies like the rising sun’.106 Following the war, he converts his fire temple into a church. At this the magi denounce him to the shah, who reluctantly requests that Qardagh perform Zoroastrian rituals to show that he is not a Christian.107 After his refusal, the shah fears rebellion and sends his armies against Qardagh, who defeats them, only to be stoned by his own father before a crowd of Jews, Christians and pagans.108 Later, the Acts (p.170) add, a great market was established at Melqi and a mighty church built at the same place.109

Joel Walker’s study of the Acts describes its connection to the neo-Assyrian site of Melqi, and its role in Christianizing the memory of this earlier site and its market.110 And, like the monastic texts, the Acts set out an ideal role for the Christian aristocrat as monastic patron. The difference is that this text has a much greater focus on the person of the aristocrat than the other hagiographies we have looked at: it is Qardagh’s deeds that mould Melqi, physically, through his fortifications and church building, and socially, through his acting as a fair judge. Instead of focusing on aristocratic duties and the limitations of the claims of patrons, the Acts set out a model of a society led by a Christian aristocrat and define Qardagh’s importance through traits common to all Iranian elites, to his descent and his martial prowess.111

Furthermore, it is significant that Qardagh is not only active at a local level. The saint acts as a hinge-point in the narrative between his home of Melqi, and the people he governs and protects, and the shah and his court. He uses the martial abilities that God has given him to fight for the shah against the Romans. A topos of the fifth-century martyr acts had been the suspicion that fell on Christians as co-religionists of the Romans: here the saint’s martial role can firmly rebut any accusations of disloyalty against the Christians. Similarly, those acts had emphasized the anger of the shah and his role as a persecutor and interrogator of the saints, but here the shah’s traditional role is muted (he said to be ‘sad rather than angry’) and the mobads are blamed for inciting Qardagh’s death and forcing the shah’s hand. The presentation of Qardagh as a loyal servant of the empire against the Romans and the alteration of the shah’s role suggest a positive relationship between the shah at the time of writing and an idealized Christian aristocracy. The text was probably composed under Khusrau II: its setting under Shapur II, famous for his persecutions and his wars against the Romans, distances the contemporary Sasanian ruler from the acts of his predecessor. Within the genre of the martyr act, the reader expects Shapur to be represented as a persecutor, but Qardagh’s participation in the war against the Romans shows that toleration will be rewarded with loyal service and that physical rebellion against the shah is only occasioned by the mobads’ demand that he choose between loyalty to the shah and to the true King of kings.112 Several earlier saints’ lives had, of course, sought to lay the (p.171) blame for persecution with the mobads. But the Acts of Qardagh is set apart by the military role of its aristocratic hero in the wars of the shah.

Iranian Histories in the Chronicle of Seert

The hagiography from northern Iraq shows a model of a powerful aristocrat, of trans-regional importance, converting to Christianity and helping the church. The text establishes the region of Arbela as a place of peculiar prestige within the Sasanian world, set apart by its history of Christian aristocratic sponsorship and the embedding of earlier legends and foundation stories into a Christian framework. But such stories of regional importance were also incorporated into the wider framework of the history of the Church of the East as a whole, and appear as sections in the Chronicle of Seert.113 Another regional history of this sort is found in the section devoted to the Life of Mar Shabbay, who converted a wife of Shapur II, and who went on to establish a cadet line of the Sasanian house in Merv and found many churches there. This Life celebrates Merv as a city founded by Alexander and traces its Greek community back to him. It recounts the succession of the princely house of Merv, which continued to sponsor Christianity in memory of their ancestor, in spite of their Zoroastrianism.114 Thus the Mervi story blends Iranian and Hellenistic memories of the past and places these in a Christian framework, which promotes a symbiosis of Iranian lordship and local Christianity.115

However, by placing Shabbay or Qardagh along with other Shapurian martyrs, the Chronicle of Seert emphasizes their place within the Church of the East as a whole, rather than their specific importance for Merv or Arbela. If these aristocratic hagiographies celebrate the Christian histories of specific regions, and the connection of aristocratic dynasties to these regions, then their inclusion in a universal history also subverts this regional emphasis and makes it part of the wider history of the Church of the East and its connection to various prestigious lay histories, whether Iranian, Assyrian, or Greek.116

(p.172) The local histories that were incorporated into the Chronicle all celebrate the Christianity of aristocrats alongside the relationship of these aristocrats to the Sasanian shah. Even though the texts were probably incorporated into ecclesiastical history after the end of the Sasanian Empire, this royal link is used to establish their prestige in a context where the Sasanians were still remembered with respect. Richard Payne has observed that the same era saw Christians adopting Sasanian laws of inheritance, preserving aspects of Sasanian culture at a time when formal Zoroastrian structures were withering away following the Muslim conquest.117 A parallel movement may be observed in ‘Nestorian’ historiography, whereby memories of the Sasanian past were included in Christian ecclesiastical histories, whether to be uncritically reused or adapted to suit their new context.

The chief example of this Christian deployment of the Sasanian past is the Chronicle of Seert’s inclusion of sections from the Xwadāy-Nāmag, the Sasanian book of kings. The Xwadāy-Nāmag, was already a multifaceted and complex cluster of texts by the end of the Sasanian period. It presented a variegated tradition, showing strong signs of central, legitimist editing in the reign of Khusrau I, but also incorporating local histories from the ‘Parthian’ aristocratic houses.118 This history is, in its turn, chiefly extant through tenth-century compilations that used different strands of the Middle Persian material, chief among them the works of al-Tabari, al-Dinnawari, and Ferdowsi.119

The use of Sasanian royal histories in the Chronicle of Seert can be grouped under two broad tendencies. The first is the straightforward transmission of material from the Middle Persian sources, which may contradict the Christian view of a shah. Thus, sections on the short-lived reigns of Ardashir II (379–83) and Shapur III (383–8), or the account of Yazdegard I’s murder, mirror the bias of al-Tabari’s redaction of the Xwadāy-Nāmag and describe their quarrels with the nobility and Yazdegard’s ‘sinful’ reputation (that, ironically, stems in (p.173) part from his favour to the Christians).120 Sometimes this material has been fleshed out with narratives that were readily available in other sources. Thus, the section on Shapur II, though it calls him Dhū al-Aktāf (‘he of the shoulders’) in accord with the other Arabic redactions of the Xwadāy-Nāmag, provides no explanation of his epithet and draws its narrative from Roman ecclesiastical history (his fear of Constantine and his attacks on Nisibis), supplemented by a list of the cities that Shapur founded in Khuzistan.121

Occasionally, the narrative of the shah’s deeds has been used to provide the chronological setting for events in church history, though the events of the shah’s reign and those in church history are often not related beyond a note to say that ‘the shah favoured the Christians/the catholicos’. This is especially noteworthy during the reigns of Kavad and the short-lived shah Valash who ruled while he was imprisoned. The fact that church politics in this decade was especially significant may have meant that the rapid change in the royal patrons whose record was preserved in the patriarchal history prompted later historians to explain these political events with what material they could quarry from translations from the Middle Persian.122 Similarly, Shapur I’s reign seems to have prompted great interest because of his role in the population exchanges that brought Demetrianus to Gundishapur during the reign of Papas, an event that was a major feature of the patriarchal history, and Shapur’s fame as the patron of Mani. The material available to the author of this scene was primarily a list of civic foundations and buildings and a brief legend attached to one of these foundations, Hasa Shapur near Kashkar, and seems to have been selected from a longer account of his reign (such as those preserved in Ferdowsi or al-Tabari) to highlight his role in the population transfers.123

The second tendency visible in the authors embedded in the Chronicle is to make causative associations between the behaviour of a shah and his attitude to the Christians or to events in the Christian histories. For instance, Vahram II in the third-century is said to have been favourable to the Christians, even learning Syriac, until he changes his attitude because of the Manichees, whose dreadful reputation unfairly rubs off on the Christians and leads him to persecute them.124 Opposition to the Manichees and Vahram’s persecution had both been important events in the patriarchal histories and in the fifth-century hagiographies: here the historian seems to have connected the two (p.174) events as part of a wider disassociation of Christianity from extremes of asceticism, which would have suited the more politically prominent and ‘anti-Messalian’ Christianity of the end of the sixth century and beyond.

This variety in the deployment of the royal histories within the Chronicle points, therefore, to the variety of agendas of the different historians who used the deeds of the Sasanian kings to elucidate Christian history: to set the deeds of churchmen against an indigenous secular chronology, to describe acts of royal foundation, or to lament persecution. And this variety also hints at the many different attempts to reconcile Sasanian history with that of the church, and the many levels on which the relationship between the church and its rulers could be read.


The growing importance of monasticism and of lay patronage in the late sixth century is clearly visible in the Chronicle of Seert. But its deployment of local historical traditions was not a naïve duplication. The competition between different monastic founders, and between the monasteries, the school system and the catholicos, have all been winnowed out in the Chronicle, in favour of an image of monks as servants of the catholicos, missionaries, and guardians of a Dyophysite orthodoxy, working towards the ‘Nestorianization’ of the former Sasanian world. The emphasis on the relationship between catholicoi and the monasteries has also meant that the patronage of monasteries by aristocrats has been obscured in the Chronicle. The hagiographic sources suggest a social reality where the points of contact between Christian institutions and Iranian political culture were both expanding and diversifying, but the Chronicle only registers the relationship with the shahs and some of his greatest magnates, retrojecting these relationships deep into the past to give these connections legitimacy and antiquity.

The use of the Iranian royal tradition became important as the context for the history of the church, sometimes just as a chronological marker, but also because of the shahs’ role in creating the cities and villages of Iraq and Iran and their role in supporting the church. This interest must have been shared by many different historians, for the Chronicle of Seert includes sections that combine the Christian and Iranian historical traditions in many different ways. Some of these may predate the end of the Sasanian Empire and reflect the ever-closer relationship between shah and catholicos. In particular, stories that focus on the power of Christian prayer fit into this milieu, where the Church of the East represented itself as a pillar of the rule of Khusrau II and (p.175) his short-lived successor Shiroë.125 Other stories may have been composed in the aftermath of the fall of the Sasanians, when important men with a residual loyalty to the old dynasty converted to Christianity126 and brought their histories with them. Sometimes this process even resulted in histories that presented many of the great shahs as closet Christians, mimicking the rumours that had circulated around Khusrau II and Shiroë.127 Stories such as these, which set out an ever closer relationship between Christians and the shah, even hinting at the possibility of conversion, lie at the heart of the dense body of material that is preserved by the Chronicle of Seert for the reign of Khusrau II, a period that will form the core of the next chapter.


(1) Ishoʿyahb III, Letter B 8 (reflecting on the tribulation after Yazdin’s death); Thomas of Marga, Book of the Governors, I, xxiii (47/81–2) (for Yazdin’s family as monastic donors); Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXXXI (524–5) (for his prominence at court, alongside other secular figures).

(2) Synodicon, 82 and 102 (Joseph, canon 10).

(3) Synodicon, 106 (Joseph, canon 19).

(4) Synodicon, 116–17; 150; 157–8 (Ezekiel, canons 3 and 4 and Ishoʿyahb I, canons 14, 24, and 27).

(5) See S. Shaked and J. Naveh, Amulets and Magic Bowls: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity (Leiden, 1985).

(6) A. Taqiazdeh, ‘Iranian festivals adopted by Christians and condemned by Jews’, BSOAS 10 (1942), 632–53.

(7) Synodicon, 101 (Joseph, canon 8).

(8) Synodicon, 119 and 146–7 (Ezekiel, canon 11; Ishoʿyahb I, canons 10 and 11).

(9) Synodicon, 105 and 117–18 (Joseph, canon 18; Ishoʿyahb I, canons 6 and 19).

(10) E.g. Synodicon, 115–19 (Ezekiel, canons 1 and 2 on asceticism and 5 and 12, which ban Christians from fleeing local law or ordaining slaves).

(11) Life of Abraham of Kashkar (esp. 163 for the connection to Pachomius); Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XVIII (133–5); XXXI (172–3); Thomas of Marga, Book of the Governors, I, iv (23/40–1). Abraham’s contemporary, Abraham of Netpar also began his missions at Adiabene at this time. The image of Awgin as the first monk of the East is an anachronism that has been introduced later into the text.

(12) See Thomas of Marga, Book of the Governors, I, iv (23/40–1) for the contrast with the Severan tonsure. Syriac hagiographies often describe the act of martyrdom as ‘crowning’.

(13) G. Hoffmann, Auszüge aus Syrischen Akten Persischen Martyrer (Leipzig, 1880), 172, n. 1332. This distinction did not last beyond the ninth century, when the words seem to become synonyms.

(14) Rules of Abraham of Kashkar, 154–8.

(15) Rules of Abraham of Kashkar, 155.

(16) Rules of Dadishoʿ, 168–71 (canons 1, 2, 5, and 6).

(17) Synodicon, 115 (Ezekiel, canon 1). On the ‘Messalians’ in the East note Labourt, Le christianisme, 213.

(18) C. Stewart, Working the Earth of the Heart: The Language of Christian Experience in the Messalian Controversy, the Writings of Pseudo-Macarius and the Liber Graduum (Oxford, 1991), 53–68.

(19) Wood, We Have No King but Christ, 74.

(20) P. Wood, ‘Syriac and the “Syrians”’, in S. Johnson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2012), 170–95.

(21) Synodicon, 106 (Joseph canon 20).

(22) On Mazdak see T. Daryaee, Sasanian Iran: Portrait of a Late Antique Empire (Costa Mesa, 2008), 68–9.

(23) Rules of Dadishoʿ, 171–5 (canons 7, 13, 14, 26).

(24) See further M. Tamcke, ‘Theology and the practice of communal life according to Dadisho’, The Harp 4 (1999), 173–88, at 181–4.

(25) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXXIV (509).

(26) Book of Chastity, §39–42.

(27) A. Camplani, ‘The revival of Persian monasticism: church structures, theological academy and reformed monks’, in A. Camplani and G. Filoramo (eds.), Foundations of Power and Conflicts of Authority in Late Antique Monasticism (Louvain, 2007), 277–97.

(28) Book of the Governors, I, xxix (54–6/97–9).

(29) Book of the Governors, II, vii–ix (73–6/131–51). Quotations at 74–5/132 and 148.

(30) General accounts of the Abrahamic movement are provided by C. Jullien, Le monachisme en Perse: la réforme d’Abraham le Grand, père des moines de l’Orient (Louvain, 2008).

(31) On these formulae, see J.-M. Fiey, ‘Ishodnah, metropolitaine de Basra et son oeuvre’, OS 11 (1972), 433–50, at 449–50.

(32) A variant of these lists may be included in Book of the Governors, I, xiv (37/66–7).

(33) Monastic federation was a distinctive feature of Pachomian monasticism in Egypt. The History of the Monastery of Beth Qoqa might provide an example of this phenomenon, extended across several generations.

(34) Book of Chastity, §7, 21, 36, 86, 88, 100, 106. The text omits references to monks as ‘Arabs’, a term which could have used for monks from Hira (e.g. Book of the Governors, I, ix (28/51) for Mar Eliya, which is not mentioned in Book of Chastity, §19).

(35) Book of Chastity, §14, 43, 46, 56.

(36) Book of Chastity, e.g. §36–7, 87 (Merv); 43 and 100 (Revardashir and Istakhr); 78–82 (Khuzistan).

(37) Book of Chastity, §5, 17, 34, and 47.

(38) Compare Wood, We Have No King but Christ, chapters 6 and 7 for similar patterns in the Miaphysite movement in the sixth century.

(39) Rules of Abraham, 153.

(40) See L. Perrone, ‘Christian holy places and pilgrimage in an era of dogmatic conflict’, POC 48 (1998), 4–37.

(41) Book of Chastity, §23, 34, 36–7.

(42) Two saints (§124 and 140) date from the reign of Henanishoʿ I (690s). Ishoʿdnah also refers to anathemas pronounced by Timothy I (780s) (§125–6), which are seemingly ignored by the author, and to Baghdad, founded in 780 (§82–3). Sections 1–13 are late (possibly ninth-century) additions.

(43) Book of the Governors, I, ii (18/21).

(44) Book of the Governors, I, iv (23/38).

(45) Book of the Governors, I, vi (25/45).

(46) Book of the Governors, I, xviii–xix (42/73–4). He recommends Solomon’s account of the miracle performed by Jacob for the aristocrat Bastomagh, father of the future catholicos Ishoʿyahb III (I, xxiv) (48–9/83–5), as well as Apnimaran and Rustam’s accounts of Joseph and Abraham of Beth Qoqa (I, xxxii) (60/108–9).

(47) Note the sections on Apnimaran and Rustam of Beth Qoqa (II, iii (68–9/122) and xvii (89–90/209–10)).

(48) Book of the Governors, I, ii (18/22).

(49) Book of the Governors, I, xxxiii (61/110).

(50) E.g. Book of the Governors, IV, iii–iv (195–7/380–3) (on Timothy I); V, iv (257–61/478–81) (on Shubhalʿisho of Gilan).

(51) Book of the Governors, I, vi (25/45).

(52) Book of the Governors, I, vii (26/47).

(53) Book of the Governors, I, viii–x (26–31/47–57). Quotations at 29–30/55–7.

(54) Book of the Governors, I, xii–xiii (33–5/59–63).

(55) Book of the Governors, I, xvi–xvii (39–41/69–71).

(56) Book of the Governors, I, xviii–xix (41–3/72–5).

(57) Book of the Governors, I, xxi (45/77).

(58) Scenes that describe the aid given to Jacob by Rabban Barhadbeshaba are also duplicated (Book of the Governors, I, xv (38/68–9) and xxi (45–78)).

(59) Book of the Governors, I, xxiii–vi (46–51/79–90).

(60) Book of the Governors, I, xxvii (52/92).

(61) Book of the Governors, I, xxviii (52–3/93–5).

(62) Thomas tries to defend Apnimaran as a cenobitic founder, and therefore an anti-Messalian, which is probably a deliberate simplification of the accusation of heteropraxy: Book of the Governors, II, iii (68–9/122). See further P. Escolan, Monachisme et l’église: le monachisme syrien du IVe au VIIe siècle (Paris, 1994) for ideas associated with ‘Messalians’ in theologians of the Church of the East, esp. 94 on Narsai (the function of all prayer as exorcism); 98 on Abraham of Netpar (the importance of audible prayer) and 191 for Sahdona (the bipartite model for asceticism in society).

(63) E.g. Book of the Governors, II, vii–ix (73–6/131–51) for Ishoʿyahb III’s attempts to influence the election of an abbot and build a school at Beth ʿAbe or II, xxvii (102/229) for Sliba-zkha’s attempts to remove the monastery’s illustrated service book.

(64) Book of the Governors, I, xxix (55–6/98–9).

(65) Book of the Governors, I, xxxv (63–4/114–6).

(66) Fiey, ‘Ishodnah et la Chronique de Seert’, 450. He addresses the argument of P. Nautin, ‘L’auteur de la « Chronique de Seert »: Isho‘denaḥ de Basra’, RHR 186 (1974), 113–26. These monastic narratives are broadly similar in form to those describing great theologians in earlier generations, but they are linked by references to the geography of the monks’ foundations and their place of training, which implies that they have all been drawn from collections similar to those used by the Book of Chastity. The sections are Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XVIII, XXXI, XXXVI, XXXIX, LX; II/ii, XLIV–LVI, LXI, LXII, LXXIII, LXXVI, LXXVII, XC, XCV–XCIX, C, CXI.

(67) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LVI (462–3).

(68) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LIV (459–61) and XCVI (584–5).

(69) Contrast the section on Jacob of Beth Garmai in Book of Chastity, §140, where the saint embarrasses the catholicoi Henanishoʿ and Giwargis by refusing to be ordained.

(70) The Miaphysite Life of Marutha of Takrit, 65, complains at ‘Nestorian’ schools and choirs in Beth Nuhadra winning over Miaphysite ‘widows and virgins’, prompting the saint to respond in kind and build his own schools.

(71) J.-M. Fiey, ‘Sahdona’, in DS.

(72) Book of Chastity, §124 and 127.

(73) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, XLVII, L, LVI, LXXXIV, XCIX. There is one direct reference in Book of Chastity, §32. Thomas omits the actions by Jacob of Beth ʿAbe against the Jacobites that are mentioned in the Chronicle.

(74) This is also a marked feature of Ishoʿyahb III’s recentralization of the institutional church, when his letters communicate the importance of Christological unity against dissidents such as Sahdona. R. Payne, ‘Persecuting heresy in early Islamic Iraq: the Catholicos Ishoʿyahb III and the elites of Nisibis’, in A. Cane and N. Lenski, The Power of Religion in Late Antiquity (Ashgate, 2009), 397–410.

(75) They focus especially on the denial of Miaphysite sacraments (e.g. Life of Rabban Hormizd, 69–70/102–3) and attacks against Miaphysite monasteries (Life of Rabban Hormizd, 92–104/138–52).

(76) The reference to John bar Marta (d.684) is a terminus a quo for the sources used here.

(77) Abraham’s Life may have been composed by Babai. Chronicle of Seert, LXXXIV (533).

(78) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, XLV, L, LIV, LXXVI. For Miaphysite missions see Life of Ahudemmeh, esp. 25–7 (the Jazira Arabs) and 33–5 (Khusrau I’s son).

(79) Book of Chastity, §36, 39, 54, 76; Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, XLIX, L, and LVI.

(80) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, XLVI (447–8); LIII (458), and LXXXIV (532).

(81) See especially the Syriac Life of Sabrishoʿ and Chronicle of Seert, LXV–LXVII (474–94). For the relationship between the shah and this catholicos see chapter 7.

(82) Synodicon, 79.

(83) R. Gyselen, ‘Les témoinages sigillographiques sur la présence chrétienne dans l’empire sasanide’, in R. Gyselen (ed.), Chrétiens en terre de l’Iran 1: implantation et acculturation (Paris, 2006), 17–78.

(84) Synodicon, 100 and 103 (Jospeh’s canons 4 and 13).

(85) J.-M. Fiey, ‘Vers la réhabilitation de l’Histoire de Karka de Beth Slouq’, AB 82 (1964), 199–222; J. Walker, The Legend of Mar Qardagh: Narrative and Christian Heroism in Late Antique Iraq (Berkeley, 2006).

(86) C. Villagomez, The Fields, Flocks and Finances of Monks: Economic Life at Nestorian Monasteries, 500850 (Los Angeles, 1998, unpublished PhD thesis, UCLA), esp. 173 for her observations on the money economy. Also compare L. Schachner, ‘ “I greet you and thy brethren. Here are fifteen šentaese of wine”: wine-production in the early monasteries of Egypt and the Levant’, Aram 17 (2005), 157–84.

(87) Villagomez, Fields and Flocks, 100–7 and 140–3. See also M. Morony, ‘Religious communities in late Sasanian and early Muslim Iraq’, JESHO 17 (1974), 113–35, esp. 126.

(88) Surveyed in J. Howard-Johnston, ‘The two great powers in late antiquity: a comparison’, in J. Howard-Johnston, East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity: Historical and Historiographical Studies (Ashgate, 2006), I. See further the Simpson, Mesopotamia, esp. 446–8, which emphasizes technological development.

(89) E.g. Al-Tabari, I, 896–8.

(90) J. Neely, ‘Sasanian and early Islamic water-control and irrigation systems on the Deh Luran plain’, in T. Downing and M. Gibson (eds.), Irrigation’s Impact on Society (Tucson, 1974), 21–41. Much of the Iranian plateau was unsuited to the scale of irrigation development seen in Iraq. See Naval Intelligence Report: Persia (Oxford, 1945), 423–9.

(91) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, XLIV (wild beasts), XLVI, XLVIII, LIV, CXI (building a canal near Gundishapur). Also see Life of Rabban Bar ʿIdta (148/221).

(92) For the economic and political advantage of the Sasanians under Khusrau II see M. Morony, ‘Economic boundaries? Late antiquity and early Islam’, JESHO 47 (2004), 166–94.

(93) See M. Zakeri, Sasanian Soldiers in Early Muslim Society: The Origins of ‘Ayyawan and Futtuwa (Wiesbaden, 1995) on the gradation of this hierarchy.

(94) Life of Rabban Bar ʿIdta (144–5/215–6).

(95) Sahdona’s text, which is the surviving version, is a 660s rewriting of an earlier life by ‘John’.

(96) Life of Rabban Bar ʿIdta (153/230).

(97) On these exchange networks and the prestige that accrued to their controllers in a late Roman context, see P. Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity (Madison, 1992).

(98) Book of the Governors, II, xliii (136–7/282–3). On Aha’s election see II, xxxvi (120/256–8).

(99) M. Macuch, ‘Pious foundations in Byzantine and Sasanian law’, in A. Carile, L. Ruggini, and G. Gnoli, La Persia e Bizansio (Rome, 2004), 181–95.

(100) Life of John of Daylam, 19, 25, and 39.

(101) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XXXI (173). N. Sims-Williams, ‘Christianity. iv. Christian literature in Middle Iranian languages’, in EIr notes the existence of a sixth-century Middle Persian psalm fragment in Central Asia as well as the use of Persian in Christian inscriptions in India.

(102) Life of Rabban Hormizd (25/38). Compare the suspicion directed against Syriac-speakers in the fifth-century Roman world, another era of Christian expansion into the countryside: Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Historia Religiosa 21.15 (ed. Canivet and Leroy-Molinghen, II, 94).

(103) Examples of this process of normalization include the Christianization of the figure of Zoroaster as a prophet of Christ, in the sixth-century Cave of Treasures, xxvii, 1–5 (ed. Su-Min-Ri), See further J. Neusner, ‘Note on Baruch ben Neriah and Zoroaster’, Numen 12 (1965), 66–9.

(104) Acts of Qardagh, 7–24 (tr. Walker).

(105) Acts of Qardagh, 34–6.

(106) Acts of Qardagh, 41–6.

(107) Acts of Qardagh, 47–51.

(108) Acts of Qardagh, 55–65.

(109) Acts of Qardagh, 68.

(110) Walker, The Legend of Mar Qardagh.

(111) These are the traits spelled out in the royal rock inscriptions of the third century and in Sasanian silver plate. P. Harper, In Search of a Cultural Identity: Monuments and Artefacts of the Sasanian Near East (Third to Seventh Centuries A.D.) (New York, 2006).

(112) Acts of Qardagh, 56: ‘What is more grievous? That I should revolt against a wretched man who blooms today and is full of pride, but for whom there is no tomorrow? Or to revolt against the heavenly king of kings, whose kingdom does not pass away?’

(113) Qardagh appears at Chronicle of Seert, I/ii, XXXII (225–8).

(114) Chronicle of Seert, I/ii, XL (253–8). A West Syrian version of the Life also survives, as do fragments in Sogdian from the Turfan oasis. See S. Brock, ‘The Life of Mar Shabbay’, in D. Burnazhov et al. (eds.), Bibel, Byzanz und Christlicher Orient: Festschrift für Stephen Gero zum 65 Geburtstag (Leuven, 2011), 259–81. Also note the connection between Alexander and Merv in Khuzistan Chronicle, 34. We have already seen the prominent role that ideas of Greek descent played for communities in Khuzistan in chapters 2 and 3.

(115) Compare similar features in the sixth-century History of Karka de Beth Slouq, 509–11.

(116) Walker, Mar Qardagh, 259 and 263 notes that Qardagh’s connection to an Assyrian past is de-emphasized in favour of his Iranian identity in the ninth- and tenth-century accounts.

(117) R. Payne, Christianity and Iranian Society (unpublished PhD thesis, Princeton, 2010), ch. 4.

(118) In a large literature, see P. Huyse, ‘Late Sasanian society between orality and literacy’, in Curtis and Stewart, The Idea of Iran, 140–53 and S. Shahbazi, ‘On the Xwadāy-Nāmag’, in D. Amin and M. Kasheef (eds.), Iranica Varia: Papers in Honor of Ehsan Yarshater (Brill, 1990), 208–29. On local histories and their significance, see T. Nöldeke, The Persian National Epic (tr. Bogdanov) (repr. Philadelphia, 1971), 12–19 and 66; C. E. Bosworth, ‘Sistan and its local histories’, Iranian Studies 33 (2000), 31–48; Z. Rubin, ‘Nobility, monarchy and legitimation under the later Sasanians’, in J. Haldon and L. Conrad (eds.), The Byzantine and Islamic Near East, Vol. 6: Elites Old and New (Princeton, 2004), 235–73, and Pourshariati, Decline and Fall, esp. 49–52 and 85–91. However, the aristocratic or ‘Parthian’ strands in these histories need not always represent active anti-state forces as many of these authors suppose: their incorporation into the Xwadāy-Nāmag tradition may indicate the subversion or annexation of non-Sasanian histories. I hope to discuss the tradition of the Book of Kings in future work.

(119) Z. Rubin, ‘Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ and the account of Sasanian history in the Arabic Codex Sprenger 30’, JSAI 30 (2005), 52–93; Z. Rubin, ‘The lost Sasanian Book of the Lords as known to the 10th century Arabic historiographers’ (unpublished paper, Oxford, 2008).

(120) Chronicle of Seert, I/ii, XLIII and LXV.

(121) Chronicle of Seert, I/ii, XXIII (287–8). Contrast the narrative in Ferdowsi, which devotes much more space to Shapur’s siege of Hatra and to explaining the shah’s nickname, (an issue on which classical authors give implausible and mutually contradictory suggestions). Shahnameh, V, 342–8.

(122) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XI–XII (122–5).

(123) Chronicle of Seert, I/i, II (221–3).

(124) Chronicle of Seert, I/i, IX (237–9).

(125) Solomon of Basra’s Sasanian king list is concluded in the fifteenth year of Khusrau II, which indicates the importance of his reign for the Christian incorporation of Iranian histories. Book of the Bee, LII (120–3).

(126) For instance, members of the noble house of Suren were Christian bishops who lived in exile in China into the eighth century. J. Harmatta, ‘The Middle Persian-Chinese bilingual inscription from Hsian and Sasanian–Chinese relations’, in E. Cerulli et al. (eds.), La Persia nel Medioevo (Rome, 1971), 363–76.

(127) E.g. Nihayat al ʿArab on Ardashir and Vahram II (tr. Browne, 219–22) and the suspicion of Khusrau II as a closet Christian (240). These stories may have influenced the image of Vahram II above.