Sunday, February 20, 2011


From the voyages of Odysseus to those of Jason and the Argonauts and Alexander of Macedon’s demented attempts to rule the ends of the Earth, it cannot be disputed that ancient Greeks were afflicted with a great wanderlust, a burning desire to probe the very ends of the Cosmos and discover the ends of their world. It was this wanderlust, coupled with social and economic crisii that caused the Greeks to found colonies throughout Asia Minor and the Black Sea.
Pytheas, living in the fourth century BC, was a direct product of wanderlust. His was a world of commerce and the fringe, born and raised in Massalia, a Phocaean colony upon the borders of the ‘civilised’ world, nowadays the important French port of Marseilles. Today his bust is framed in a temple-like niche in the façade of the Marseilles Bourse, along with his compatriot Euthymenes, who is said to have explored the west coast of Africa as far as Senegal.
Pytheas on the other hand, is said to have sailed north, bringing back tales of the tin-producing lands (Britain?), islands where amber was washed up by the sea (the Baltic Coast?) and in the far, far north, Thule (Iceland?) where the ocean waters congealed. Where if anywhere Pytheas actually journeyed to, has been the subject of heated debate throughout the centuries. Later Greek commentators expressed incredulity at his claims, conflicting as they did with pre-existing notions of geography and natural phenomena.
Nevertheless, Pytheas occupies the place of honour high on the front of the Bourse, heavily cloaked against the northern cold, survey gear in his left hand and a beefy right arm folded across his body in a stance of aggressive protection as he stares steadfastly into the distance, out to sea. A charlatan or a heroic adventurer? A mere collector of anecdotes or an original observational scientist?
No one will ever no for sure. Pytheas documented his epic voyages in his lengthy tome «Περί του Ωκεανού,» (On the Ocean.) Unfortunately, this volume was destroyed with the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria This notwithstanding, it was quoted by at least eighteen other writers over the next 900 years. How many of them actually had access to the original text or were quoting from secondary sources is unknown. It is certain however, that like a game of Chinese whispers, Pytheas’ original observations appear to have become garbled and misunderstood, when viewed through the prism of modern science. Or such is the interpretation of those who believe.
At any rate, when On the Ocean was published about 320BC, it must have been a shocking book. The Greeks knew virtually nothing about what lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar). They knew that Europe faced the Ocean which circled the world. They also knew that from somewhere along these mysterious badlands came tin, amber and gold. Yet neither were most Greeks concerned about what lay beyond the boundaries of the Mediterranean world – the lands of the barbarians people so backward they could not even speak Greek but brayed like animals.
Pytheas may well have been the first Greek to be curious enough to travel among the ‘barbarians’ to the limits of the inhabitable world and to publish a description of what he saw. The scraps that survive of Pytheas’ account are the earliest descriptions we have of Brittany, the British Isles and the eastern coasts of the North Sea.
It is not difficult to speculate on what excited Pytheas’ interest in the north. In the fourth century, Massalia was not only a Mediterranean trading hub, but also a main artery of trade with the Celts of France. Greek amphorae and crafts have been found throughout the length of the River Garonne. In exchange, the Celts would have traded tin and mysterious amber, along with strange tales of the amber rich, tin producing northern isles. It was enough to tantalize any intreprid explorer.
Polybius, a Greek historian writing a century after Pytheas, noted that Pytheas, not a wealthy man, must have depended on the patronage of a wealthy Greek merchant to acquire, outfit and provision his ship. That merchant was undoubtedly interested in tin ("kassiteros" in Greek) which, when blended with copper, produced the highly prized and valuable bronze.
For centuries, the Kassiterides Islands (British Isles) were well known to the Phoenicians as a principal source of tin. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian (484-425BC) had reported that their boats sailed through the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar), then north along the coast of France to an area now known as Cornwall, England. Pytheas decided to find these islands on his own, to locate the fabled sources of tin and to search for new deposits. While, ostensibly, his purpose was to bring back a load of tin for profit, Pytheas had the heart and mind of a true explorer. He was curious to see and visit the islands, of which he had heard rumours, to explore what lay beyond and to return and tell the world of his findings.
Luckily for us and for his future posterity, Pytheas was possessed of two attributes that allow us to verify his claims. First and foremost, because of his training as a mathematician and astronomer, Pytheas had acquired the important discipline of observing and recording his findings. Second, as a ships navigator, he had mastered the use of the "Gnomon," an instrument described by Herodotus, borrowed from the Phoenicians, and brought to Greece during the sixth century by Anaximander.
With the Gnomon, ancient navigators were able to navigate away from the sight of land and to perform astounding calculations. Pytheas was the first person we know by name to have used it to calculate the latitude of Massalia, which he found to be 43' 1 I' North, almost matching the true figure of 43' 18'North for modern day Marseilles. The ability to record the precise location of different sites along his travels proved invaluable to him, helped him to establish the accuracy of his log, and provided the proof needed for modern day historians to confirm his writings.
In order to avoid the Phoenicians who had blockaded the Mediterranean, Pytheas is held to have sailed, for five full days from Massalia to the Pillars of Hercules before turning north to the Kassiterides Isles. But did he. Why waste time circumnavigating the Iberian Peninsula in fear of a hostile force? Strabo, the ancient geographer records the scientist Eratosthenes as quoting Pytheas’ work in stating that the northern parts of Iberia (Spain) offer easier passage to Keltiki (France) than if you sail by the Ocean.” On the balance of probabilities., it would seem that Pytheas trekked across France.
Arriving at Burdigala, Pytheas is likely to have looked for native transport to take him northwards. For this next stage of his journey, we have some geographical precision, though in a garbled form, quoted by Strabo. The essence of what Pytheas seems to have recorded in his original book is the existence of a long westerly projection of the European mainland, a «κύρτωμα» or ‘hump’ “of length not less than 3,000 stades.” At its Atlantic extremity there were “various promontories, as well as islands of it, the farthest, Ouexisame, lying three days sailing away.” Strabo believing this not to conform with his preconception of European geography, dismissed these observations as fabrications. Yet the real geography is not is doubt. The ‘hump’ must be Brittany, in which case its westernmost island is likely to be Ushant, a vital marker for anyone navigating the dangerous coastline of the region. How long Pytheas stayed in Brittany is unknown. Greek-style columns have been found in the north of France and it is tempting to make a link…More likely, these are locally produced items, inspired by what Celtic traders would have seen in their contacts with the Masssaliot Greeks.
The journey from Brittany to Britain, a distance of some 95 nautical miles could have been accomplished within a twenty four hour sailing. Yet our sources for this voyage, Strabo and Diodoros Sicilus are silent on the actual Channel crossing. What we do get however from Sicilus, is Pytheas’ detailed account of tin-mining and the geography of western Britain. It deserves to be quoted in full:
"The inhabitants of Britain who live on the promontory called Belerion… work the tin, treating the layer which contains it in an ingenious way. This layer… contains earthy seams and in them workers quarry the ore which they then melt down to clean from its impurities. They then work the tin into pieces the size of knuckle-bones and convey it to an island that lies off Britain: Ictis; for at ebb-tide the space between this island and the mainland becomes dry and they can take the tin in large quantities over to the island in their wagons… On the island of Ictis, the merchants buy the tin from the natives and carry it from there across the Strait of Galatia (the English Channel)..”
Archaeological investigation has revealed intensive tin mining in ancient times on the promontory of Cornwall and especially on Mount Patten in Plymouth Sound. Joined to the mainland today by a low-lying narrow coastal strip, it appears to have been an island in ancient times and the range of Late Bronze Age artifacts found within it and the many artifacts of Aquitanian (southern France) leads many scholars to believe that it was Pytheas’ trading island, Ictis. It must have been a time of great excitement for Pytheas at last to arrive at the source where the tin he had heard so much about was extracted. If the Sicilus text is correct, it appears he obtained a detailed, firsthand knowledge of its processing.
Pytheas must have explored the coastline of Britain thoroughly. His observations, again quoted in the work of Sicilus, provide compelling evidence of his circumnavigation of Britain: “Britain is triangular in shape, like Sicily but its sides are not equal. Of the sides of Britain the shortest, which extends along Europe, is 7,500 stades [1,400km], the second, from the Strait to the tip is 15,000 stades [2,800km] and the last is 20,000 stades [2,800km] so that the entire circuit of the island amounts to 42,500 stades [7,900km].”
Polybius, in his Geography quotes Pytheas as reckoning the perimeter of the island to be 40,000 stades. This would work out at 7,400km, remarkably close to the length of the British coastline given in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica as being 7,580km. This remarkable feat of calculation must certainly lend credence to Pytheas’ claim, dismissed so contemptuously by Polybius that he “traversed the whole of Britanniki by foot.” Furthermore, in order to take such accurate measurements Pyrtheas must have sailed around Britain. One of his calculations of latitude survives in the works of Hipparchus as 54˚ 14΄, roughly around Scarborough in northern Britain and another, around the island of Lewis in the extreme north of Scotland. Further, he records journeys to the Orkneys island where he records tidal waters swelling to a height of 35 metres, a phenomenon created by low barometric pressures that still exists today.
We have further evidence that Pytheas actually traversed Britain and lived among its inhabitants. He has left behind tantalizing snippets of anthropological information. Strabo scorned his description of the customs of those who lived in the ‘chilly zone’ and who made a drink from grain (beer?) and who threshed their grain in large storehouses, owing to the scarcity of sunlight in their lands. Sicilus’ quotations of Pytheas are even more telling:
“Britain… is inhabited by tribes who are indigenous and preserve in their way of life the ancient custom. They use chariots in their wars … and their houses are simple, of reeds and timbers. Their way of harvesting grain is to cut off only the heads and store them in roofed buildings and each day they select the ripened heads and grind them for food.. Their lifestyle is modest… the island is thickly populated and its climate is extremely cold… It is held by many kings and aristocrats who generally live at peace with each other.”
Excavations on Orkney and Stromness corroborate Pytheas’ descriptions of ancient British life. Julius Caesar centuries later was impressed at the versatility of British war chariots and the fragmentation of Britain into small kingdoms is well attested in Celtic mythology.
All types of events and strange stories were reported by Pytheas. One such "incredible" story, which he reported, told him by the inhabitants of northern Scotland, was about the presence of a place to the north where there were only two or three hours of night during parts of the year, and another place even further north where the sun shone all night long. This was at Thule, in the extreme north, which scholars conjecture must have been Iceland.
Before the readers makes glottal sounds of incredulity, it should be noted that Roman coins have been found in various parts of Iceland and that there are records and archaeological evidence of Irish monks travelling to Ireland before the seventh century AD. Their technology was of no greater sophistication than those of the Massaliot Greeks. Nevertheless, while stating that Pytheas believed Thule to be the last place on earth to be inhabited, Strabo categorically states in his Geography that he was a liar. Yet the evidence compellingly inclines to the opposite conclusion.
Travelling north from Scotland, Pytheas encountered a cluster of small islands where he reported seeing large, boat-size fish, lazily swimming on the surface and loudly blowing out sprays of water. Incredibly as this may have been to Pytheas and his crew, who had probably never seen a whale before, such pods of whales are common to those waters. He reported sailing six days northwest towards Iceland (Thule) where he encountered dense fog described as so thick and eerily quiet that the ship and the sea seemed suspended in a void. He recorded the presence of water and slush ice that "binds all together, and can be travelled neither on foot nor by boat". This condition would not permit him to go further and forced him to turn back. He also noted , as is recorded in Pliny’s Natural History, that the areas of the extreme north had protracted periods of light and darkness, being so near to the North Pole. This, not only tends to indicate Pytheas actually was in Iceland, but also an understanding that the world is spherical in shape, an idea developed by several Greeks at this time.
. On his return journey, Sicilus and Timaeus record Pytheas as having landed on a vast promontory- Abalus. Here “the sea throws up a quantity of amber that appears nowhere in the world.” Pliny also describes Pytheas as explaining how amber is formed. His highly detailed account could not have been made unless he had spoken with the natives and seen for himself how the substance was collected. On the basis of his observations, scholars speculate that he must have landed in Jutland, Denmark, a noted amber producing area.
No one will ever know what homecoming Pytheas received when he returned home. Did he launch on more epic voyages or remained at home, recounting his exploits in sailor’s taverns ad nauseum? What is known is that despite the incredulity of many scholars and geographers of the time, Pytheas’ On the Ocean soon became a classic, used by diverse authors, including Apollonius of Rhodes who used Pytheas’ account to write his epic poem Argonautika. His astronomical observations in the North Sea were quoted with approval by the father of heliocentric cosmology, Eratosthenes. The ancient authors record Pytheas as also having written a book on underwater activity in Sicily’s Aeolian Islands. An ancient Jacques Cousteau he must have been entranced and enthralled by the science of the Sea, the first of many who dared to be different and whose achievement was so vast that it could never lapse into obscurity.


First published in NKEE in two parts on Saturday 20 February 2011 and 27 February 2011

Saturday, February 12, 2011


"What I want to do, is to show how ένα τόσο δα σκατουλάκι όργανο, can have applications beyond our wildest dreams." When Doctor Matthaios Tsahouridis speaks about his Pontian lyra, known in Turkish as kemence, his brilliant blue eyes become remarkably keen and his mouth remains half open in ecstasy, as he strokes the strings of his instrument with the sensitivity and possessiveness of an impassioned lover.
There are two types of musician - the failures, like me, for whom the instrument is an opponent and a foe, a wild beast that must be vanquished and coerced into making sounds that are akin to a cross between the violin stylings of Colonel Klink and the screams of a constipated Harpy - and those, like Matthaios, for whom their instrument is an extension of themselves, a natural sounding post from which the melody of the beauty of their souls can resonate within the wider world. In Matthaios' case, the observation is an apt one, since his latest project, a fusion of musical inspirations, with his equally talented brother Konstantinos, is entitled «Ψυχή και Σώμα.» As the name denotes, he gives his music at all and it is carefully calculated to wring those hidden heartstrings hidden under the layers of bitterness, guilt, anger and frustration that silt up one's soul during the drudgery of everyday existence, conferring musical absolution upon us all. And all this, mind you, on the most unlikely of instruments: the Pontian Lyra.
For unlike most interpreters of the Lyra, who seek merely to mechanically parrot traditional tunes and keep them in suspended animation in a time prior to the Genocide, Matthaios, deeply infused with all the manifold aspects of the music of the Black Sea, has absorbed it, understood it and remoulded it into something strikingly new and contemporary. His remarkable exploration of the tributaries and unknown paths of Pontian music, coupled with an eagerness to test its versatility, rather than preserving it, as most Pontians tend to do, in the vacuum of a ghetto culture, of marginal relevance to the rest of the world, have been the yardstick by which his luminous musical career has developed. Born in Veroia, he displayed his musical promise early, winning the First Prize in a Pan-Hellenic Music Competition, organized by the Greek Ministry of Education at the Athens Concert Hall in May 1996. In June 1997 he was awarded a scholarship by the Bishop of Veroia, in order to continue his music studies in London. The generosity of this gesture is something that Matthaios has never forgotten. Upon arriving in Adelaide this month and unpacking his suitcase, the first thing he did was to place a photograph of his mentor, the Bishop, on his bedside table.
After successfully completing his Bachelor Degree in Music Studies and his Masters in Ethnomusicology, in 2003 he was awarded a scholarship by the 'Michael Marks Charitable Trust' for his doctoral research in the field of Performance Practice. Since December 2007, Matthaios holds a PhD in Performance Practice titled 'The Pontic Lyra in Contemporary Greece', one of the first PhD theses in the UK referring to the performance practice of non-western traditional musical instruments and the first PhD worldwide about the Pontic lyra, its origin, music, repertory, performance techniques and musical possibilities. Here then is the magic and grandeur of Pontic music made accessible to a world stage.
Proof of the pudding is Matthaios' unlikely rendition of Greek folk songs on the lyra. His performance is low key, yet eminently subversive. One gets the feeling that he is merely toying with his audience, sounding them out in order to draw out their preconceived assumptions and musical prejudices, before exploding them with three strokes of his bow, as with a wry smile, he turns to playing laika, songs by the Turkish singer Ibrahim Tatlises (you thought no one would notice, didn't you?) and then culminates in an amazing rendition of Bolero, followed by some free-styling jazz. Truly then, this instrument in his hands, is a universal one.
Given then his global outlook, it is fitting then that Matthaios should also turn his virtuosity to instruments that belong to the same family as his weapon of choice. He has mastered the violin, laouto, oud, bouzouki, guitar, Persian kamancheh, Afghan rubab, as well as the Afghan and the Uzbek ghichaks. Now, after a particularly sordid and musically excruciating encounter with yours truly, he is turning his mind further east, to the Chinese erhu.
Considering Matthaios globe-trotting career, we are privileged to have had the rapture of his performance in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney this month. When juxtaposed against his peripatetic mission to gain worldwide appreciation for the capabilities of the Pontic lyra, the various unfortunate attempts by certain local compatriots to employ his visit as a means for furthering endo-tribal strife are sad to say the least and have not left, in this world famous virtuoso, an impression of ourselves, that we would have found flattering.
Truly, the scope of his vision is breathtaking. In January 2005 Matthaios won the British Arts Foundation Fellowship Award 2005 as the best UK performer-instrumentalist, working in a non-western musical tradition. He has performed at WOMAD Music Festival in Reading, WOMEX World Music Expo in Rotterdam (Holland 2001), Roskilder Rock festival (Denmark 2002), Teatro Massimo for UNESCO (Palermo Opera House, Italy 2002), Royal Albert Hall (charity concert for the Children of Afghanistan, London 2002) and at the Royal Festival Hall at London's Southbank Arts Centre. In August 2004, he also performed the main music theme of the BBC television for the coverage of the Olympic Games of Athens 2004.
In the same year, Matthaios collaborated with Ostad Ardeshir Kamkar on the Persian kamancheh in Tehran. In May 2005 he performed at Herodus Atticus Theatre in Acropolis, Athens, accompanied by ERT Contemporary Symphony Orchestra for the opening ceremony of the Athens Festival.In 2006, Matthaios was the co-artistic director for the opening ceremony of the International Byzantine Congress of London with Prince Charles as Patron. In March 2007 he performed at the Porchester Hall (Bayswater, London) with Cat Stevens, a man he describes as humble and throroughly inspiring. In March 2008, he performed the lyra as a solo artist at the Royal Albert Hall with one of his most successful projects called 'Journey Beyond Borders', with Hussein Zahawy and Yusuf Mahmoud while in July 2008 he performed at the Athens and Epidaurus Festival with Ostad Shahram Nazeri and Ostad Ali Akbar Moradi. In October 2008 he was a soloist with the ERT Symphony Orchestra of Contemporary Music at Thessaloniki's Song Festival Context with Classical Greek music composer Mimis Plessas and his brother Konstantinos on vocals. Further, in November 2008 he performed with Swiss singer Yasmin Tamara well-known Hollywood Melodies accompanied by Ukraine Symphony Orchestra at Victoria Hall, Geneva. His appearance as a solo artist at the Art Palace Centre of Suleimaniye in Iraq in February 2009, a comman performance for the Iraqi president makes him the first Greek musician to visit and perform in Iraq after the war. And all this, mind you, at thirty three years of age.
It takes a certain amount of courage and purity of soul to expose and not conceal one's internal world. It takes a great deal of intelligence and understanding to synthesize and tie that internal world to a corpus of a tradition. In just three decades, Doctor Matthaios Tsahouridis has become the leading world exponent of a hitherto obscure musical medium. To these visionaries, whose conception of their art (not to mention Greek culture) is so generous in scope that they would have the entire globe rejoice in it as much as they do, that we should ascribe glory, for they will ensure that the wealth of our tradition, presented in such a way as to guarantee a positive reception, will enthral audiences and instil in them, an understanding of us that only comes from the musical dissolution of linguistic and other barriers.
The kemence rumour mill alludes to a command performance by the languid lyrist for Prince William and his bride to be. Nonetheless, in the immediate future, his is departing Antipodean climes for an Iranian fusion performance at the Casa dela Cultura Iraniana, Venice, Italy. Diatribe wishes Matthaios well, for in his brief sojourn in Melbourne, he has permitted us to catch a fleeting glimpse at the divine, pausing only to point out that while ruminating over things musical, he mentioned: "I need a new act name. What would you suggest." Without hesitation, I reposted: "Lord of the Lyra," conjuring up images of Pontian-clad clones of Michael Flatley pounding and gyrating around him on stage. "I like it," he smiled, "I may use it." Little does he know that in a Pontian cave, far far away, a solitary, wizened and long bearded Pontian is gloating over his instruments, cackling: "One Lyra to rule them all, One Lyra to find them, One Lyra to bring them all and in the darkness bind them, In the Land of Melbourne where the Pontians lie." Of course, royalities for the use of the name, will be gratefully accepted.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 12 February 2011.

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