Saturday, February 05, 2011


One of the major motifs of my poetry, is the exploration of the historical evolution, adoption and transformation of elements of Hellenic culture in literary traditions of non-Hellenic areas that have been touched somehow by Greek civilization. For while it is often claimed that ours is the parent of Western civilization, I would argue that in fact it is the Middle Eastern civilizations that are united closer to us in kinship and which have drawn more heavily on the corpus of our tradition, whereas with the West, it is more precise to refer to an adoptive, rather than a sanguinary relationship. Indeed, various Middle Eastern cultures including the Jewish, Syriac and Arabic exist in a historic dialectic and continuous process of emancipation from Greek culture.
The process through which elements of Greek civilization are adopted by, inform and ultimately are subsumed into other cultures on the margins of the Greek world is instructive and act as a parallel and commentary to similar processes unfolding here in Australia. Furthermore, the fact that a good number of the Western oriented first generation fail to identify or understand the inferences to Middle Eastern acculturation in my poems provides a most telling and satisfying parallel to the phenomenon of a large number of the first generation failing to see the level of assimilation and/or acculturation of the latter generations is Australia.
If there is one historical persona who inspires me in my delusion of poetical aspiration, then undoubtedly that is Grigorios Bar Ebroyo, known as Bar Hebraeus, an Assyrian bishop, philosopher, poet, grammarian, physician, biblical commentator, historian, and theologian, who lived in Melitene, in Arab territory, on the borders of Byzantine territory in the thirteenth century. A polymath, and scholar, through his works addressing philosophy, poetry, language, history, and theology, he has been called "one of the most learned and versatile of men.” It is through his Syriac translations and discussions of ancient and contemporary Greek writings, real or imagined, that one can gauge the permeation and high esteem of Greek culture into the Middle East.
Born in the village of Ebro in 1226, he began as a boy the study of medicine at the great centre of Hellenic knowledge at Antioch and Tripoli. In 1246 he was consecrated bishop and finally was made primate, or maphrian, of the East in 1264. In this task, he was responsible for keeping alive a millenium old Christian tradition in the face of Muslim intolerance, engaging in a dangerous and delicate balancing act between the Byzantines and the Caliphs. His episcopal duties however did not interfere with his studies. He took advantage of the numerous visitations, which he had to make throughout his vast province, to consult the libraries and converse with the learned men whom he happened to meet. Thus he gradually accumulated an immense erudition, became familiar with almost all branches of secular and religious knowledge, and in many cases thoroughly mastered the bibliography of the various subjects which he undertook to treat.
Just how erudite and all pervasive he cast his eye in search of intellectual stimulation can be evidenced by a perusal of my favourite of his works, the Kethabha dhe-Thunnaye Mighaizjzikhanl, or Book of Entertaining Stories. This is in effect a joke book, something quite surprising for a clergyman. One chapter, proving how important Greece and Greek philosophy is to the Easter world, is entitled “Profitable Sayings of the Greek philosophers,” lists reputed sayings that are profound, such as this attributed to Socrates: “A certain disciple of Socrates said unto him, "How is it that I see in thee no sign of sorrow?" Socrates replied, "Because I possess nothing for which I should sorrow if it perished. " It also is a repository of sayings that are rather wicked, such as: “Diogenes saw a harlot's child throwing stones at people, and he said to him, "Throw not stones, lest thou smite thine own father without knowing it." In the authoritative English translation by Wallis Budge in 1897, some of the more racier stories, are rendered in Latin for the sake of offending readers’ tender morals. His legacy today survives in the equally compendious and prolific prelate of the Church of the East in India, Mar Aprem, who has also published a joke book among his many writings.
Bar Hebraeus’ love of Greek philosophy led him also to write the Kethabha dhe-Bhabhatha or Book of the Pupils of the Eyes, a treatise on logic or dialectics based on the writings of Greek philosophers, which he comments on extensively. This was at a time when the West, in the form of refugees fleeing Byzantium, was only just experiencing a taste of long lost Greek works. In Syria however, these works had been adopted wholesale into the local Aramaic and Arabic cultures for generations. Thus, the prolific prelate continued with his Hewath Hekmetha or Butter of Wisdom, an exposition of the whole philosophy of Aristotle, Sullarat Haunãnãyã or Ascent of the Mind, a treatise on astronomy and cosmography, various commentaries on the medical works of the ancient Greek Galen, explaining how medicine had advanced since his time, as well as a collection of quite remarkable Syriac poems.As if this were not enough, his great encyclopedic work Hewath Hekhmetha, "The Cream of Science", deals with almost every branch of human knowledge, and comprises the whole Aristotelian discipline, after Avicenna and other Arabian writers – a remarkable synthesis which shows the permeation and interpretation of Greek philosophy throughout the East. A further work Teghrath Teghratha, or "Commerce of Commerces", also revisits similar themes, while the Kethabha dhe-Bhabhatha, or Book of the Pupils of the Eyes is an amazing compendium of Greek philosophic thought on logic and dialectics and the Kethabha dhe-Sewadh Sophia, or Book of Speech of Wisdom, a compendium of Greek thought on physics and metaphysics. Bar Hebraeus’ theological works are also significant, coming at a time when the Christians of the Arab world were largely cut off from Byzantium. His Aucar Raze, or "Storehouse of Secrets", is a vast commentary on the entire Bible, both doctrinal and critical. Before giving his doctrinal exposition of a passage, he first considers its critical state. Although he uses the Syriac Peshitta, as a basis, he knows that it is not perfect, and therefore controls it by the Hebrew, the Septuagint, the Greek versions of Symmachus, Theodotion, Aquila, by Oriental versions, Armenian and Coptic, and finally by the other Syriac translations, Heraclean, Philoxenian and especially the Syro-Hexapla. The work of Bar Hebraeus is of prime importance for the recovery of these versions and more specifically for the Hexapla of the great theologian Origen. His exegetical and doctrinal portions are taken from the Greek Fathers and previous Syrian Jacobite theologians, preserving works that would otherwise have been lost to us.
How he could have devoted so much time to such a systematic study of the Greek world, in spite of all the vicissitudes incident to the ensuing Mongol invasion, an extemely traumatic event for the Middle East, is almost beyond comprehension. The main claim of Bar Hebraeus to my admiration is not, in his original productions, but rather in his having preserved and systematized the work of his Greek predecessors, either by way of condensation of by way of direct reproduction. The obscurity that writers of his ilk have endured by a Greek nation obsessed with establishing or ‘proving’ western roots in its vain attempt to obtain legitimacy is decidedly underserved. Give me a prelate who writes jokes such as “Another fool...when his son was being circumcised said to him that was making the cutting, "Cut him little by little, for he hath never before been circumcised," compared to a stuffy Korais any day.
Bar Hebraeus’ remains lie today in Mar Mattai monastery in Northern Iraq, a most ancient place that has been virtually abandoned due to the dangerous conditions existing in that country for its native Christians. I should feel my debt to him as one of my personal heroes to be partially discharged, should I be able to discover a Greek rendering of his title, maphrian. Μαφριανός, to my taste, sounds decidedly cool.

First published in NKEE on Saturday, 5 February 2011