Narrating religious change: Christianity in Ottoman Mardin and the Life of Eliya the Priest
In around 1700 CE, in the town of Mardin (current-day southeast Turkey), a priest decided to abandon his Syriac Orthodox faith and embrace Catholicism. Though little else can be gathered about this priest, a remarkably detailed autobiographical account in Arabic of his religious conversion has survived. Like its author, however, the account appears to have largely escaped the notice of modern scholarship.
Entitled The Life of Eliya the Priest and what befell him, the text is set in Ottoman-governed Mardin at the turn of the eighteenth century. A strategically important location in the eastern Ottoman Empire, Mardin was home to a religiously and culturally diverse population, including Muslims, Jews, Yazidis and Eastern Christians of multiple denominations (Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, East Syriac and Chaldean). The account opens with the conversion of the author, Eliya, to the Catholic faith under the guidance of a local Armenian convert. This results in a bitter and protracted struggle against the head of Eliya’s church, the Syriac Orthodox patriarch, who repeatedly tries to have him punished by the Ottoman authorities for renouncing his beliefs. After a short-lived exile and several spells in prison, the account culminates in Eliya’s long-awaited ordainment as a Catholic priest.
Despite its rootedness in the Mardin context, the text itself is actually preserved in two manuscripts in Beirut, Lebanon: MSS 30 and 31 from the Bibliothèque Orientale collection at the Université Saint-Joseph. Both manuscripts are undated, though they likely date to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries respectively. They were acquired in the early twentieth century through the efforts of Louis Cheikho (1859-1927), a Jesuit priest originally from Mardin and a founding figure of the Bibliothèque Orientale collection. Cheikho would go on to publish an edition of the text in 1909 in the Eastern Catholic journal that he established, al-Machriq. Since then, however, the account does not appear to have been the focus of any critical scholarly works.
Stretching over fifty-six folia and a timeframe of twenty years, the Life of Eliya is a rare example of extended self-narrative works by Arabic-speaking Christians during this period. But it is also an invaluable resource for historians of Christian communities – or, more broadly, of religious movements – in the early modern Ottoman world. Since the early seventeenth century and the intensification of Catholic missionary activity in parts of the Middle East, the Catholic faith had begun to spread amongst local Eastern Christian communities. As my doctoral research explores the emergence of Catholicism among the Christians of Mardin during this period, the significance of a source like the Life of Eliya cannot be overstated.
Trying to define the textual genre of the Life of Eliya is tricky. At times the account showers the protagonist with hagiographical tropes, and at times it reads like a chronicle of Mardin, or even a work of epic literature. In the context of emergent Catholicism, moreover, the account often evokes themes in pro- and anti-Catholic apologetic literature circulating in contemporary Eastern Christian scholarly milieux. Through Eliya’s regular debates with the Syriac Orthodox patriarch, or else the Ottoman governor of Mardin, the account raises key issues found in these apologies, for example Christological concepts or the validity of particular Catholic sacraments.
But the Life of Eliya is not simply a reiteration of contemporary intellectual discourse surrounding Catholicism. Rather, the account’s detailed observations of everyday scenarios and social and religious customs offer a compelling window into Christian society in eighteenth-century Mardin and – as is key to Eliya’s story – how Catholicism interacted with it. Regardless of their separate confessional belongings, Mardin’s local Christian communities are depicted without flourish as drinking coffee and exchanging gossip in the market, attending religious feasts and sermons together, and even intermarrying. Reactions to the spread of Catholicism within local Christian society – targeted not only at Eliya, but also at other suspected converts – do not only materialise in theological debates. Scenes in the account relay shouting matches between churchgoers and the division of congregations, the circulation of incriminating rumours, whistleblowing on tax evasion among church hierarchies, and countless attempts to bribe Ottoman officials to support or quash the spread of the Catholic faith. Taken together, these snapshots are a rare and powerful expression of the social, cultural, and even political dimensions to this moment of religious change in Mardin. The close-up focus of the account on this geographical context also reminds us of how important local conditions could be in shaping these processes.
Though the Life of Eliya initially appears to be an account of an individual religious conversion, it is much more than this. Not only can it deepen our understanding of Mardin’s Christian history, but it also embodies the diverse and multifaceted nature of the Catholic movement across the early modern Ottoman Empire. Of course, more information as to the provenance and transmission of the two extant copies of the account could further enhance these areas of research. But perhaps the most potentially revealing matter of all remains the most elusive: who really was Eliya the priest, and why did his story survive?
 Syriac Orthodox: an Oriental Orthodox church, also known as the West Syriac or ‘Jacobite’ Church, which uses the West Syriac rite.
 Louis Cheikho. ‘Al-Kathlaka fī Mārdīn’ (‘The Catholics of Mardin’). Al-Machriq 12 (1909), pp. 591-604, 665-673, 732-748, 836-846, 890-897.