Gregory Barhebraeus

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Bar Hebraeus, (1226-1286)

Maphrian Gregorius II Abû al-Faraĝ Bar ‘Ebroyo (Barhebraeus, Ibn al-‘Ibri), certainly the most prolific and arguably the greatest author in the Syriac Orthodox tradition, was born in the year 1537 of the Greeks (1225/6 A.D.) in Melitene (modern Malatya), the city which had given birth to the two leading figures in the Syriac literature of the preceding century, Patriarch Michael I and Dionysius Bar Salibi.

Of the various names associated with the maphrian, “Abû al-Faraĝ” and “Gregorius” are attested to in own writings; he refers to himself in his Chronicon ecclesiasticum as Abû al-Faraĝ of Melitene prior to his episcopal ordination and as Gregorius Abû al-Faraĝ subsequent to his elevation to the episcopate. The name John (Yuhanon), found in the inscription over his grave in the Monastery of Mor Mattay and often said to be his baptismal, may have come to be attached to him through confusion with Bishop Gregorius John of Mor Mattai and Azerbaijan, whose anaphora is often found attributed to Bar ‘Ebroyo in manuscripts, since this name is nowhere to be found applied to the maphrian in his own writings or in any early manuscripts of his works.

The byname Bar ‘Ebroyo, which has in the past been understood as an indication of his Jewish ancestry, is better understood as indicating the origin of his family from the village of ‘Ebro, which was located on the Euphrates to the east of Melitene and is probably to be identified with modern Izolu.

Hağği Ĥalifa gives the full name of Bar ‘Ebroyo, in Arabic, as Ğamal al-Din Abû al-Faraĝ Ġriġuriyus b. Tağ al-Din Harun b. Tuma al-Malaţi (Hağği Ĥalifa, Kaŝf al-zunun, ed. Fluegel, V.387.6).

It is known that Bar ‘Ebroyo’s father, Aaron (Ahrun) was a physician of some renown. According to the biography of Bar ‘Ebroyo composed by his disciple Dioscorus Gabriel of Gozarto d-Qardu, he was also a deacon. Bar ‘Ebroyo had a younger brother, Barsawmo Safi, who was later to succeed him in the maphrianate. Among Bar ‘Ebroyo’s poems are several dirges in which Bar ‘Ebroyo addresses the deceased as “my brother”. Whether the persons so addressed were his brothers in blood or only in Christ remains uncertain, but in the case of two of them, a Muwaffaq and a Michael, the headings of the poems in manuscripts lend some support to the view that they were his real brothers.

We know little about Bar ‘Ebroyo’s youth in Melitene, which was then under the rule of the Rum Seljuks. In the wake of an attack on Melitene by the Mongols in 640 A.H. (1243/4) Bar ‘Ebroyo fled with his family to Antioch, which was still in the hands of the Franks (Crusaders) at the time and where he is believed, on the basis of a heading given to one of his poems, to have taken the monastic habit. A little later, in 1246, we hear of him studying logic and medicine in Tripoli, another city ruled by the Franks, under an East Syrian teacher by the name of Jacob and in the company of Saliba b. Jacob Wağih of Edessa, the later Maphrian Ignatius IV (1253-58).

In 1246, at the age of twenty, Bar ‘Ebroyo was recalled by Patriarch Ignatius III David (1222-52) and was made bishop of Gubos, to the east of Melitene. A little later, he was transferred from there to the see of Laqabin, another bishopric in the neighborhood of Melitene.

In the schism that arose after the death of Ignatius III between the rival patriarchs Dionysius Angur (1252-61) and John b. Madani (1253-63), Bar ‘Ebroyo sided at first with Dionysius and was appointed by him to the see of Aleppo. He was briefly ousted from Aleppo by his former fellow-student Maphrian Ignatius IV Saliba, but was soon restored to that see with the help of the Ayyubids of Damascus, and witnessed there in 1260 the fall of the city to the Mongols under Hulagu.

The synod held after the death of John b. Madani in Cilicia in 1264 elected Ignatius IV Yešu (1264-83) to the patriarchate and Bar ‘Ebroyo to the maphrianate. As maphrian Bar ‘Ebroyo normally resided in the Monastery of Mor Mattai to the east of Mosul, but also spent much of his time visiting the different areas under his jurisdiction. Of particular significance are his sojourns in Maragha and Tabriz in Persian Azerbaijan, the new centres of power under the Mongol Ilkhans; for it was here and in particular in the newly-established library in Maragha that he probably found many of the books used as sources in his own works.

It was in Maragha that the great maphrian passed on to the Lord on 30th July 1286. His body was later transferred to the Monastery of Mor Mattai, where it rests to this day together with the body of his brother and successor, Maphrian Gregorius III Barsawmo.

Even if we allow for the fact that we know about Bar ‘Ebroyo’s maphrianate largely only through the records left by himself, there can be little doubt that he was a good and wise pastor of his flock, who worked assiduously for the restoration of churches and of the morale of his flock in the wake of the destruction wrought by the Mongol invasion.

Of significance also among his achievements is the relationships he fostered with the Christians of other denominations, and in particular with the Church of the East. There was rarely a time when the two churches which share the use of the Syriac language stood on more friendly terms than during Bar ‘Ebroyo’s maphrianate. The most dramatic witness for the maphrian’s “ecumenical” achievements is provided by the fact that, when he died in Maragha, it was the Church of the East Catholicos, Yahballaha III (1281-1317), who took the lead in making the arrangements for the funeral and that the funeral services were attended not only by the members of the two Syriac churches but also by Armenians and Greeks.

The achievement, however, of the maphrian which is of the greatest significance for us is his literary work. The list of Bar ‘Ebroyo’s works found in the contination of his Chronicon ecclesiasticum by his younger brother, Barsawmo, includes 31 items. There are also a number of works which are not mentioned by Barsawmo but have come down to us under Bar ‘Ebroyo’s name. The subject matter covered in these works of Bar ‘Ebroyo ranges from biblical exegesis and dogmatic and mystical theology to jurisprudence, philosophy, historiography, belles lettres, grammar and lexicography, the exact sciences, medicine and liturgy.

A great part of what Bar ‘Ebroyo wrote consists of compilations from ealier works and a number of his works were written specifically as abridgements of works by other authors. Nevertheless, Bar ‘Ebroyo is never merely a slavish copier of the works of others but shows great skill and understanding in the use of his sources. He thus creates out of materials collected from different sources new works, in which the knowledge gathered from his sources are frequently presented in a much more succinct manner than in the sources and in a clear prose style for which it is difficult to find a match elsewhere in Syriac literature.

Another aspect of Bar ‘Ebroyo’s works which deserves attention is the extensive use he makes of Arabic and, occasionally, Persian sources. In the early days of Islam, the Syrian Christians had been the teachers of the Arabs and much literature had been translated from Syriac into Arabic. The rôles, however, had been reversed during the centuries of Arab ascendancy. Bar ‘Ebroyo was not the first Syriac writer to use Arabic sources (Severus Bar Šakku is particularly important as a precursor of Bar ‘Ebroyo in this respect), but the extent to which Bar ‘Ebroyo makes such borrowings is exceptional and credit is due to him for having had the courage to recognize the new situation and having made an attempt in this way to breathe new life into Syriac literature by composing works which matched the latest scientific standards of the day.


Historia Compendiosa Dynastiarum Authore Gregorio abul-Pharajio Malatiensi Medico, Historiam Complectens Universalem, a Mundo Condito, Usque Ad Tempora Authoris, Res Orientalium Accuratissime Describens Arabice Edita & Latine Versa Ab Edvardo Pocockio BAR HEBRAEUS (ABU'L FARAJ) (Translated Edward POCOCKE) Oxford: R. Hall & Ric. Davis(1663). Arabic text, Latin trans.

Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Gafiqi (d.1165), The abridged version of the book of simple drugs of Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Ghafiqi / by Gregorius Abu'l-Farag (Barhebraeus). Edited from the only two known manuscripts with an English translation, commentary and indices, by Max Mayerhof and G.P. Sobhy. Publisher: Cairo : al-Ettemad Printing Press (1932)

Bar Hebraeus's Book of the dove : together with some chapters from his Ethikon, translated by A. J. Wensinck ; with an introduction, notes and registers. Series: Publication of the De Goeje Fund; 4. Publisher: Leyden:E. J. Brill (1919). pp. cxxxvi, 151p.

Barhebraeus' scholia on the Old Testament, edited by Martin Sprengling ... and William Creighton Graham. Series: University of Chicago. Oriental Institute publications, v. 13. The University of Chicago press (1931) A facsimile reproduction of the Syriac manuscript, "Ausar raze," "Florence. Medicean lib. 230," copied by John of Sarw in 1278, with notes and collation, and a complete English translation.

Chronicon ecclesiasticum, quod e codice musei Britannici descriptum conjuncta opera ediderunt, Latinitate donarunt annotationibusque ... illustrarunt J.B. Abbeloos et T. Lamy. Publisher: Lovanii : Peeters, (1872-1877) 3 vols. Syriac and Latin.

The chronography of Gregory Abû'l Faraj the son of Aaron, the Hebrew physician, commonly known as Bar Hebraeus, being the first part of his political history of the world. Translated from the Syriac by Ernest A. Wallis Budge. London : OUP (1932) 2 vols. Vol.1 English translation, Vol. 2 Syriac.

Bar Hebraeus, tr. Ernest Wallis Budge, The Chronography of Abu'l-Faraj Bar Hebraeus. Oxford University Press, 1932; reprint APA - Philo Press, Amsterdam, 1976.

Bar Hebraeus, ed. B. Abbeloos & Th. I. Lamy, (Chron. Eccl). Gregorii Bar Hebraei Chronicon Ecclesiasticum. 3 vols. Louvain, 1872, 1877.

Bar Hebraeus, tr. A. J. Wensinck, Bar Hebraeus's Book of the Dove. E. J. Brill, Leyden, 1919.

Bar Hebraeus, Eng. tr. H. Teule, Gregory Bar Hebraeus' Ethicon, Memra I. Lovanii in Aedibus E. Peeters, 1993. CSCO vol. 534-535. Scriptores Syri t. 218-219. 2 vols.

Bar Hebraeus, tr. E.A. Wallis Budge, The Laughable Stories. Luzac & Co., London 1897; reprint AMS Press, New York, 1976.

Gregory Bar-Hebraeus's Commentary on the Book of Kings from His Storehouse of Mysteries: A Critical Edition With an English Translation, Introduction & Notes (Studia Semantica Upsaliensia, 20) tr. Assad Sauma. (2003), 390 pp. Publisher: Uppsala Universitet. ISBN: 9155456057

The Storehouse of Mysteries or Bar-Hebraeus: A Commentary on the Gospels from Horreum Mysteriorum, tr. Wilmot Eardley. (2003) Publisher: Trubner & Co. ISBN: 184453085X


  • E. W. BUDGE, The Life of Bar Hebraeus From Introduction to Budge, E.A.W. (1932). (Trans.) The Chronography of Gregory Abu'l Faraj, The Son of Aaron, The Hebrew Physician Commonly Known as Bar Hebraeus Being the First Part of His Political History of the World. London: Oxford University Press.