As the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) swept through the Levant over the last year, reports began to trickle in of widespread discrimination against the longstanding, if dwindling, Christian communities in Northern Iraq and Syria. ISIS began marking Christian homes with the Arabic letter Nun, the first letter of the word Nasara, the name Muslims have called Christians since the earliest days of Islam (cf. Quran 5:82).
As Mark Movesian reported in First Things in July, Christians in Mosul, Iraq and in Raqqa, Syria faced the same three choices: “Islam; the dhimma contract—involving payment of jizya; [and] if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword.” In other words: convert, pay a tax and agree to life as second-class citizens, or be killed. By and large, the Christians fled. With the recent news of twenty-one Coptic Christians martyred in Libya, the ISIS threat toward Christians has now spread well beyond the Levant.
In addition to the human lives lost, ISIS has shown its determination not only to snuff out the existence of Christians and other groups that diverge from the ISIS brand of religious life, but also to erase evidence of pre-Islamic history through the destruction of historical artifacts and sites, including the oldest synagogue known in the world, and one of the oldest house churches at Dura Europos.
What is being lost? What impact does it have? Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams recently spoke to the BBC about the diversity of Eastern Christianity in the early centuries of the church. Much of the diversity of religious and liturgical practices has been silenced and is being lost.
In the mid-1990s, travel author William Dalrymple traveled from Mount Athos in Greece through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt, following the ancient journey of the monks John Moschos and Sophronius as portrayed in The Spiritual Meadow, moving from one religious community to another on a journey from Athos to Upper Egypt and the Libyan desert. His resulting work, From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East (1997, 1999), reads as a chillingly prescient chronicle of the slow death of these diverse Christian communities living in the shadow of Islam, when read in the present day. Dalrymple captures the burgeoning conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Copts fifteen years before it was making headlines in the Western world in recent years.
But one of the most stunning portraits Dalrymple captures is of a community of Syriac Orthodox Christians in central Aleppo who were using a style of chant whose structures reputedly date back to pre-Christian synagogue melodies. It is among the oldest Christian music known to the world, and the Syrian civil war threatens to silence it forever.
That is, until Jason Hammacher, a former punk rock drummer and head of Washington D.C.’s Lost Origins Productions, traveled to Aleppo in the days just before the Syrian civil war to record their chant for posterity. Hammacher’s interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air aired August 7, 2014, and it captures much of the story behind his project. The result is a stunning series of albums containing ancient Sufi and Christian chants called Sacred Voices of Syria. The first of these, Nawa: Ancient Sufi Invocations and Forgotten Songs, was released in 2010. The next installment, Forty Martyrs: Armenian Chanting from Aleppo, is available for preorder March 17, 2015, and includes the track “When:”
Many of the tracks from these recording sessions are available from Lost Origin’s Soundcloud page. May we, observing from afar, join with these Christians in prayer through these beautiful chants.
The featured image is Tony Rezk’s publicly available “Icon of the 21 Martyrs of Libya” (2015).