Michael the Syrian

Michael the Syrian
Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church
SeeDiocese of Mardin
In office1166–1199
PredecessorAthanasius VII bar Qatra
SuccessorAthanasius VIII
Personal details
Melitene, Danishmend Kingdom
Died1199 (aged 72–73)
Melitene, Sultanate of Rûm

Michael the Syrian (Classical Syriac: ܡܝܟܐܝܠ ܣܘܪܝܝܐ‎; died 1199 AD), also known as Michael the Great (ܡܝܟܐܝܠ ܪܒܐ) or Michael Syrus or Michael the Elder, to distinguish him from his nephew,[1] was a patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church from 1166 to 1199. He is best known today as the author of the largest medieval Chronicle, which he composed in Syriac. Various other materials written in his own hand have survived.


The life of Michael is recorded by Bar Hebraeus.[2] He was born ca. 1126 in Melitene (today Malatya), the son of the Priest Eliya (Elias), of the Qindasi family.[3] His uncle, the monk Athanasius, became bishop of Anazarbus in Cilicia in 1136.

At that period Melitene was part of the kingdom of the Turcoman Danishmend dynasty, and, when that realm was divided in two in 1142, it became the capital of one principality. In 1178 it became part of the Sultanate of Rûm. The Jacobite monastery of Mar Bar Sauma was close to the town, and had been the patriarchal seat since the 11th century.

As a child, Michael entered the service of the monastery, and became archimandrite before the age of thirty. He made various improvements to the abbey fabric, including improving the water supply and the defences against raiders. On 18 October 1166 he was elected Patriarch of the Jacobite church, and consecrated in the presence of twenty-eight bishops.

In 1168 he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and then stayed for a year at Antioch. Both towns were at the time part of the Latin crusader states, and Michael established excellent relations with the crusader lords, especially with Amaury de Nesle, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. Returning to the monastery of Mar Bar Sauma in the summer of 1169, he held a synod and attempted to reform the church, then tainted with simony.

The Byzantine emperor Manual I Comnenos made approaches to him to negotiate a reunion of the churches. But Michael did not trust the Greeks. He refused to go to Constantinople when invited by the emperor, and even refused twice, in 1170 and 1172, to meet his envoy Theorianus, instead sending as his own representative bishop John of Kaishoum and then his disciple Theodore bar Wahbon. In three successive letters to the emperor, he replied with a simple statement of the miaphysite creed of the Jacobites.[4]

Around 1174 Michael had to contend with a revolt by a party of bishops. He himself was twice arrested at the instigation of the dissident bishops, so he says; once by the servants of the prefect of Mardin and the second time by those of the emir of Mosul. Also the monks of Bar Sauma rebelled against him in 1171 and 1176.

Between 1178 and 1180 he resided again in the crusader states, at Antioch and Jerusalem. He was invited by Pope Alexander III to attend the Third Council of the Lateran, but declined. However he did participate by letter, writing a long treatise on the Albigensians, based on the information he had been given.

In 1180 his former pupil Theodore Bar Wahbon had himself elected patriarch at Amida under the name of John by certain malcontent bishops, beginning a schism which lasted for thirteen years. Michael took energetic action, got hold of the anti-patriarch and locked him up at Bar Sauma and formally deposed him. Some of monks allowed Ibn Wahbon to escape, who fled to Damascus and tried in vain to appeal to Saladin. He then went to Jerusalem, and, after the fall of the city in 1187, went to Rumkale with the Armenian catholicos Gregory IV, who allowed him to obtain official recognition from Prince Leo II of Armenian Minor. Theodore had many supporters, and the schism did not end until the death of Theodore in the summer of 1193. According to Bar Hebraeus Theodore could write and speak in Syriac, Greek, Armenian and Arabic, and composed a statement of his case against Michael in Arabic.[5]

In 1182, Michael received the sultan Kilij Arslan II at Melitene, and held cordial talks with him.

He died at the monastery of Bar Sauma on 7 November 1199 at the age of sixty-three, having been patriarch for thirty-three years. His nephew, Michael the Younger, known as Yeshti' Sephethana [Syriac ܝܸܫܬ݂' ܣܸܦܗܸܬܗܲܢܲ] or "Big-lips",[6] became anti-patriarch at Melitene from 1199-1215, in opposition to Athanasius IX and then John XIV.[1]

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