Introduction: Visitors at Balamand
If you were to visit today the web site of the St John of Damascus School of Theology in Balamand, Lebanon you might not be surprised to find a news item about a group of English businessmen visiting the Institute and attending a vespers service. After all, people travel much more widely in our times than in the past, and it’s not that long a journey on a plane from London to Beirut, followed by a couple of hours or less in a car from the airport to Balamand. But you will not find such a report on the Balamand web site. That’s because the visit I am about to describe took place on March 12, 1697, almost eighty years before the United States gained its independence from Great Britain.
The visitors to Balamand that day were all merchants of the Levant Company, founded more than a hundred years earlier to foster trade between England and the Ottoman Empire. They were all based at the company’s factory (trading colony) in the city of Aleppo, now part of Syria. They decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, with a view to spending Holy Week and Pascha there. As Protestant Englishmen of their time it has to be said that they were less than impressed by what they experienced during there one night stay in the Orthodox monastery of Bell-Mount. (Balamand is derived from the French for ‘beautiful mountain’.) The man who wrote the narrative of their trip, the company chaplain Henry Maundrell, describes the vespers service they attended as
very irreverent chattering of certain prayers and hymns to our blessed Savior, and to the blessed Virgin; and in some dark ceremonies, the priest that officiated spent at least one third part of his time, in compassing the altar, and perfuming it with a pot of incense, and then going all round the congregation flinging his incense-pot backward and forward, and tendering its smoke with three repeated vibrations to every person present. (A Journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem: at Easter, A.D. 1697)
Maundrell’s travelogue was first printed in Oxford in 1703 and in a further three editions in Britain before a first American edition was published in Boston in 1836. The American editor, F.W.P. Greenwood, wrote of it ‘It will commend itself to the general reader; and no minister of the Gospel, or Sunday School teacher should be without it’.
This 1836 publication of Maundrell’s writing was not, however, America’s first encounter with the Christian world of the Ottoman Levant or of the Greek Church of Antioch. For that we must go back more than two hundred years earlier, to the founding of the first permanent English settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. This was the work of the Virginia Company, another English merchant enterprise, many of whose founders and Directors were also involved in the earlier Levant Company. One of these Directors was Sir Edwin Sandys. His work A Relation of the State of Religion, printed in London in 1605, devotes some eleven pages to the faith and worship of the Orthodox Churches of the East. In similar vein Sir Edwin’s younger brother George would publish in 1627 his account of his 1610 travels in the Ottoman near east. George became the Treasurer of the Virginia Company in 1621 and sailed in that year to settle land there. This interchange between the Levant and Virginia continued in the ensuing decades in the persons of such divers characters as Sir Henry Timberlake, Lawrence Greene and Sir William Berkeley. The potential significance for Orthodox history can be understood when we read the words of the contemporary American historian Alison Games: ‘The Levant Company seems to have been uniquely attractive in the seventeenth century to those with scholarly inclinations, especially men with linguistic facility and an interest in the early church’.
The Study of Arabic and the Work of Translation
Edward Pocock, who served the Levant Company in Aleppo in the 1630′s, was one such scholar. He went on to become the first lecturer in Arabic at Oxford University. Prior to his time in Aleppo he had studied Semitic languages at Oxford and he went on to produce a translation and commentary of the Syriac New Testament. After some time teaching at Oxford he was persuaded to move to Constantinople. Pocock’s biographers tell us that ‘among the christians of those parts, there were several with whom he had been very intimate…’ The most notable of these friends was the Patriarch of Antioch. Pocock’s biographers tell us that ‘The Patriarch had that regard for Mr. Pocock, that he undertook to procure for him as many of the books of Ephraem, in the original Syriac, as were to be had in that country, in order to their being transcribed’. Books were also obtained through another of Pocock’s friends, the Syrian Christian Abdel Messiah. Abdel travelled regularly between Aleppo and Constantinople and was described as ‘a person very fit and willing to be employed, on his return, in buying books’ Pocock eventually returned to Oxford and resumed his teaching of Arabic.
Pocock also corresponded with the Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, who offered assistance in obtaining Greek manuscripts from Mount Athos. It was the Patriarchate of Alexandria, that in 1712, with the assistance of Levant company agents, sent a delegation headed by Archbishop Arsenios of Thebes, to England. Other members included an Archimandrite Gennadios and his young nephew, Bartholomew Cassano. Some 35 years later, in 1738, it was to be the by then Hieromonk Bartholomew who was to receive the young Philip Ludwell III of Virginia into the Orthodox Church.
Arabic Christian Publishing
In 1720 the young Fr Bartholomew became involved in a project to print and distribute a New Testament and Psalms in Arabic ‘for the benefit of the poor Christians in Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Arabia, Egypt and other Eastern Countries’. His co-workers included Mr. Salomon Negri of Damascus, who wrote to communicate his thoughts on the value of ‘a new edition of the New Testament in Arabic, for the use of the Eastern Churches…’ and the Rev. Samuel Lisle, Chaplain of the Levant Company in Aleppo who explained:
Even the Greek clergy themselves in Syria and in Palestine (some of the Bishops excepted who were born and educated on the coast of Asia Minor, or in Europe) understand no other language (i.e. than Arabic), having quite lost the Greek, so that they for the most part read the Scripture and the offices of the Church in Arabic. And the Christians in Aleppo only, are reckoned to be no less than fifteen thousand of the Greek Church, besides those of other Communions; and in every considerable city of Syria their numbers are proportionable.
The project was managed and funded by the young Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) founded by the Rev. Thomas Bray in 1698. Bray served briefly as representative of the Anglican Bishop of London in the colony of Maryland. His original intention for the SPCK was to supply books for parish libraries in the American colonies. The project to publish the Arabic New Testament and Psalms may well have been its first that did conform to this intention.
The Levant in Early American Newspapers
Continuing contact between the Levant Company and America is evinced by a major piece in the New York Gazette of February 25, 1765, introduced as ‘An account of the plaque at Aleppo, in the year 1761, by the Rev. Mr Dawes, chaplain to our factory’. It is interesting to note that a traveller to Aleppo in the 1760′s notes that many of the Englishmen there were intermarrying with local Greek women. I think it is reasonable to assume that this is a reference to the language the women spoke and to their Orthodox faith, rather than to Greek ethnicity as it might be understood today.
Perhaps all of this gives some context to a most intriguing letter published in the United States Chronicle of Providence, Rhode Island in its issue of April 10, 1787. The writer who uses the pseudo name of Oligonous refers to a previously published letter signed by ‘An old disciple from Antioch’. Oligonous then writes ‘If he is a member of the Greek church, it would afford some amusement to be informed of the situation of religion in those parts. However, it seems, he professes friendship to that religion…’
What I find remarkable about this passage is that this most probably New England based correspondent seems to allow for at least the possibility of a member of the Greek Church of Antioch to be living in America at this time (over seven years before the Russian missionary clergy landed in Alaska,) or at the very least to be a person of some knowledge of and/or friendship with that church.
Dr. Ezra Stiles
An example of such a person in New England at that time would be the great Congregationalist Minister, Dr Ezra Stiles (1727 – 1795.) Stiles served as President of Yale and delivered his 1781 commencement address in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic. He also actively promoted the study of these languages. Some twenty-two years earlier, when ministering in Newport, Rhode Island, Stiles had become acquainted with a visiting Jewish rabbi Mosheh Malki. Through Malki Stiles addressed ‘a letter in Latin to some Greek priest of bishop living in the Holy Land, or in Syria’. He specifically inquired regarding ‘the state of the Oriental Christians, and especially those of the Greek communion’. Even more precisely he asked about ‘the number of bishops, and their clergy, under the patriarchs of Antioch or Damascus…’ With regard to the Greek church in general he asked ‘What are the peculiar ceremonies and tenets of that church?’
Ezra also corresponded with many of the Founding Fathers of the United States. One of these, Thomas Jefferson, clearly shared Stiles interest in Arabic. Whilst Jefferson served as the American minister in Paris in the 1780′s he employed Lucy Paradise to acquire books for his library. Lucy was the daughter of the aforementioned Philip Ludwell III and herself an Orthodox Christian. Her husband, John Paradise, was also an Orthodox Christian. Paradise spoke Arabic and perhaps also taught this to Jefferson whom he is recorded as instructing in Greek. Jefferson’s 1789 catalog of books from his European years include a parallel Arabic Latin infancy Gospel as well as several Eastern Church histories in Greek and Latin.
The world of the Greek Church in the Middle East was not as far from the minds or experience of early Americans as we might be inclined to think. Lacking so many of the advantages we now possess in travel and communications technology, they nevertheless possessed a thirst for knowledge that led them to journey great distances, correspond at length and read in depth to further their understanding. In our age of constant distractions are we capable of following their example, with the even greater goal of actualising the unity we have in the Church of Christ, through the action of the Holy Spirit in our midst?
Nicholas Chapman, Herkimer, New York , May 4 2014