Fachbereich Geschichtswissenschaft

Crossing Mesopotamia on the Eve of Islam: Aristocratic and Ascetic Mobility in Sasanian Persia, as seen through the Life of John the Arab

The aim of my project is to put the aristocratic and ascetic circulations of the Christians of the Persian Empire as described in a hagiographic narrative into their historical context. The study focuses on Mesopotamia in Sasanian period and more particularly on the Roman-Persian border. I rely on the Syriac version of the Life of John the Arab (Yuḥanon Ṭayyaya) from a 15th-century manuscript; the date of the narrative’s elaboration remains unknown. The Life tells the story of a wealthy man from al-Ḥīra, who left his family to become an ascetic on Mount Izla and perform miracles while peregrinating in the Nisibis region. Such a story creates a link between the Arab-Christian circles of southern Mesopotamia and the monastic milieux of the Roman-Persian border. A comparison between the circulations described in the hagiographic narrative and the rest of the available documentation on the history of the Christians of Persia provides a measure of the likelihood of such mobility for the Sasanian period, and, on the contrary, of the distortions due to the late writing of the narrative. This may contribute to efforts to date hagiographical accounts, while material evidence from East Syrian sources is often very late. One of the objectives is also to gain a better understanding of the writing environments of Syriac hagiography in the Sasanian and post-Sasanian periods. Around the study of this hagiographic Life, three questions linked to the issue of Persian Christians’ portrait and memory have been the subject of articles currently under publication:

– Some outcomes of the research on names of Christians in the Sasanian Empire: in C. Barbati/V. Berti (Edd.), Iranianate and Syriac Christianity: 5th-11th Centuries (Veröffentlichungen zur Iranistik), Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, Vienna, forthcoming.

– Du refuge à l’hospice chrétien : accueillir et recevoir en milieu sassanide (iiie-viie siècles), Topoi, ed. C. Fauchon & M.-A. Le Guennec, forthcoming.


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