Page images



By Edward Robinson, D. D., Professor of Bib. Lit., Union Theol. Sem., New-York. ! !

The Nestorians, or the Lost Tribes; containing evidence of their

identity, etc. By Asahel Grant, M. D. New-York: Harper & Brothers. 1841. 12mo.



The remnant of the great Nestorian sect, which once extended over a large part of Asia, and pushed its missions and its churches unto the remotest east, to India and China, is now confined to the wild mountains of Kurdistan, lying between Mesopotamia and Persia, and blocking up the direct passage between those countries. In this almost inaccessible retreat, the Nestorians have for ages defied the storms of revolution and of desolation that have swept over the adjacent regions; and, in their character of bold and intrepid, though rude and fierce mountaineers, have so entirely maintained their independence unto the present day, as to bear among their neighbors the proud title of Ashiret, “the Tributeless. These mountains are their chief seat and home; but on the east, they have descended to occupy in part the fertile plains which border the Lake of Ooroomiah and surround the city of the same name,

the reputed birth-place of Zoroaster; while on the west they are also found in the cities and villages of the vast plains through which the Tigris rolls its course. Until quite recently, these mountain districts have remained unexplored and unvisited by Europeans; and travellers have come in contact with this people only at their extremities, upon the plains of the east and west. In the latter quarter, in the region of Mosul, the missionaries of the Romish church have for centuries assailed them with zeal and at last with success. In the seventeenth century, their western patriarch gave in his adhesion to the pope, who, in return, bestowed upon him and his followers the venerable but unmeaning name of Chaldeans.* The change indeed was hardly more than nominal; consisting merely in a few names of saints and the dropping of a few sentences of their creed and liturgy; and probably was adopted more in the hope of protection and aid from a supposed great occidental power, than from any definite conviction. The patriarch of the mountains still remains steadfast in his ancient faith ; and among his followers in the plain of Ooroomiah, within the last eight years, American missionaries have taken up their abode. They were received with unexampled kindness and respect, and have already met with a success which could never have been anticipated; and have brought out to view facts and information respecting the country and the people, which throw new light upon the history of that portion of the globe.

The Nestorians are remarkable for having preserved during the dark ages a purer faith and a brighter missionary zeal, than any

of the other churches of the east or west. In the west, indeed, amid all those centuries of superstition, papal domination, and fierce contention, the existence of the Nestorians appears almost to have been forgotten ; while at that very time their missionary efforts in the east were in a high degree enterprising and successful, stretching over the long interval from the seventh to the fourteenth century. Their churches in the remote east, however, mostly perished in the convulsions and revolutions brought about by the Muhammedan conquerors, Gengis Khan and Tamerlane; and the papal missionaries, who were sent not long after into China and the adjacent regions, profess to have found no traces of a former Christianity. The Nestorians of Mesopotamia having been themselves partially won over to the pope in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the materials for their ecclesiastical history became so far known, that the learned Assemani, more than a century ago, could occupy the whole third and fourth parts of his great work with treatises upon the religious literature, history, and polity of this interesting people.f In respect to their present character and

* A more appropriate name would have been papal Nestorians or Nestorian-Catholics; analogous to the Greek-Catholics, Armenian-Catholics, Syrian-Catholics, etc.

† Assemani Bibliotheca Orientalis, Tom. iii. Pars i, ii. Romae 1725–28. A brief but very complete abstract of the history of their missionary efforts was published in the Miscondition, at least that portion of them dwelling in the plain of Ooroomiah, we have full information in the Researches of Messrs. Smith and Dwight, the Reports of the Mission scattered through the volumes of the Missionary Herald since 1834, and especially in the valuable article from the pen of the Rev. J. Perkins, in the American Biblical Repository for January of the present year.

One important circumstance, first brought to light by Smith and Dwight, and substantiated by the subsequent labors of the Mission, is the fact, that the venerable Syriac, which has long been supposed by scholars to have become a dead language, * still exists in a corrupted form as the living vernacular tongue of the Nestorian Christians. Niebuhr, indeed, with his accustomed accuracy, relates the same fact as to the villages around Mosul ; but this was contradicted by Volney, and no traveller had since taken the trouble to inquire after the truth.t Messrs. Smith and Dwight found in the villages in the region of Ooroomiah the same vernacular unwritten language of the common people; while all the church books were in the ancient Syriac, written in a peculiar character varying slightly from the Estrangelo. În the village of Khosrova, inhabited by Chaldeans (i. e. Nestorian-Catholics), they met with a bishop and priest, both of whom had been educated at Rome, where the latter had spent twelve years in the College of the Propaganda. He had begun to write down the vulgar language, and had translated into it for the use of his pupils the Doctrina Christiana (a papa! catechism) and a few prayers. These were the only books then existing in the vulgar language of the Nestorians.Š The travellers obtained copies of them; and also a copy of the Nestotorian alphabet with the sounds exemplified. These tracts, sionary Herald for August 1838, drawn up by the Rev. Dr. Anderson, one of the secretaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

* Hoffmann Gramm. Syr. pp. 35, 36.

† Niebuhr Reisebeschr. II. p. 352, "Die allgemeine Sprache auf den christlichen Dörfern dieser Gegend (Mosul) ist noch auf diesen Tag Syrianisch. Das jetzige Syrische oder Chaldäische aber soll wenigstens eben so sehr von der Sprache verschieden sein, worinn die Kirchenbücher geschrieben sind, als das neu Arabische vom alten.” Comp. Hoffmann, l. c. Volney, Voyage en Syrie, I. p. 331.

# Researches, II. p. 212. § Ibid. p. 192.

through the kindness of Mr. Smith and Dr. Anderson, came afterwards into the possession of the writer of this article; but the entire want of all the necessary literary helps in this country, precluded the possibility of making any use of them. In 1837 he put them into the hands of the distinguished orientalist, Prof. Roediger of Halle ; who by a singular concurrence was at the same time, in connection with Pott of Halle, investigating the neighboring language of the Kurds.* Partly at his request, a letter to Mr. Perkins was afterwards sent by the writer from Constantinople, requesting further information as to the language, and also such other specimens of it as could be obtained. An answer to this letter was received some months later in Berlin, with a package of tracts both in the modern and ancient language. As the letter of Mr. Perkins presents a more full and distinct account of the language and literature of the Nestorians than has yet been given to the public, no apology is necessary for inserting it here.

Ooroomiah, Nov. 14th, 1838. MY VERY DEAR SIR :

A short time since, I had the sincere gratification of receiving your kind letter, dated Constantinople, Aug. 11th. It gives me great pleasure to comply with your request so far as I am able, in communicating to you information respecting the language of the Nestorians.

The ancient language of the Nestorians of Persia and of the Kurdish mountains is the ancient Syriac ;t and this is still their book-language. Not only their liturgy, but all their books are written in the Syriac. And their ecclesiastics, who are but very imperfectly instructed, conduct their written correspondence in Syriac, and are able to converse in it with each other. The common written character of the Nestorians resembles the Estrangelo. They still have some few ancient books written in the Estrangelo; and they now use the Estrangelo for their capital letters.

* Kurdische Studien, in Zeitschrift zur Kunde des Morgenlandes, III. p. 1.

† By the term Syriac, I intend the ancient Syriac, whether the signification "ancient” be supplied or not; save where the term “modern” is prefixed in one instance.



The so-called “ Chaldeans” of Mesopotamia received that title, as you know, from the pope, on their becoming Catholics. Their ancient language is also the Syriac, and their written character was the same with that of the Nestorians; except among that portion of them who were converted from the Jacobite sect, who, I believe, use the common Syriac character familiar to European scholars. These “Chaldeans" all used the ancient Syriac as their written language, until their modern conversion to popery. Since that event, some of their books have been prepared in the Arabic tongue; in order, as is supposed, that the people, having abandoned their own ancient language and literature, may be the more easily induced to embrace all the peculiarities of the papal church. I am informed, however, that their liturgy is still in the ancient Syriac, among many of the Chaldean villages of Mesopotamia.

The above statements in reference to the language of the Chaldeans of Mesopotamia have been repeatedly made to me by individuals of their own people. They have also just been confirmed by a Chaldean deacon from the region of Mosul, who recently arrived here, and has spent a considerable part of his time, during the past week, in my study.

The spoken language of the Nestorians of Persia and of the Kurdish mountains is derived directly from the ancient Syriac. It differs somewhat in different regions. According as a given district is situated in the vicinity of the Turks, Kurds, or Persians, the language has become corrupted by the introduction of a great number of words and phrases, borrowed from the languages of those nations respectively; and thus differs much more widely from the ancient Syriac, than the dialects spoken by some of the independent Nestorians of the Kurdish mountains, who have come less in contact with these barbarizing influences. In all these regions, however, the body of the spoken language of the Nestorians comes from the ancient Syriac, as obviously and directly as the modern Greek comes from the ancient Greek.

The“ Chaldeans" of Mesopotamia are also said to have formerly spoken a corruption of the Syriac. At present most of them are said to use Arabic, particularly in and about the city of Mosul. In some of the villages, however, they still speak. a corrupted Syriac,—the same that is spoken by the Nestorians of Ooroomiah, save that it approaches nearer to the ancient language. It was undoubtedly this language which Niebuhr

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »