The Legend of Mar Qardagh: Narrative and Christian Heroism in Late Antique Iraq

The Legend of Mar Qardagh: Narrative and Christian Heroism in Late Antique Iraq

The Legend of Mar Qardagh: Narrative and Christian Heroism in Late Antique Iraq

The Legend of Mar Qardagh: Narrative and Christian Heroism in Late Antique Iraq

Synopsis

This pioneering study uses an early seventh-century Christian martyr legend to elucidate the culture and society of late antique Iraq. Translated from Syriac into English here for the first time, the legend of Mar Qardagh introduces a hero of epic proportions whose characteristics confound simple classification. During the several stages of his career, Mar Qardagh hunts like a Persian King, argues like a Greek philosopher, and renounces his Zoroastrian family to live with monks high in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Drawing on both literary and artistic sources, Joel Walker explores the convergence of these diverse themes in the Christian culture of the Sasanian Empire (224-642). Taking the Qardagh legend as its foundation, his study guides readers through the rich and complex world of late antique Iraq.

Excerpt

The Syriac Christian legend that lies at the heart of this book was composed during the final decades of the Sasanian Empire, which spanned the period 224-642. Its anonymous author was probably a contemporary of the late Sasanian ruler, Khusro II (590-628). The legend’s hero, Mar (i.e., “Saint”) Qardagh, was believed to have lived some two hundred and fifty years earlier, during the reign of Shapur II (309-379), who appointed Mar Qardagh to serve as the viceroy and margrave (paṭāḥšā and marzbān) of the region extending from the frontier city of Nisibis to the Diyala River in central Iraq. While the story of Mar Qardagh’s “heroic deeds” preserves few, if any, reliable details about the fourth century, the legend presents an extraordinary window into the cultural world of seventh-century Iraq. To adapt a phrase from Freya Stark, the story of Mar Qardagh enables one to “breathe” the climate of northern Iraq on the eve of the Islamic conquest. Translated from Syriac into English here for the first time, the History of Mar Qardagh presents a hero of epic proportions, whose characteristics confound simple classification. During the several stages of his career, Qardagh hunts like a Persian king, argues like a Greek philosopher, and renounces his Zoroastrian family to live with monks high in the mountains west of Lake Urmiye. His heroism thus encompasses and combines cultural traditions that modern scholars typically study in isolation. Taking the Qardagh legend as its foundation, this book explores the articulation and convergence of these diverse traditions in the Christian culture of the late Sasanian Empire.

The district of Arbela, where the Qardagh legend originated, lies in what

1. F. Stark, Letters, vol. 8, Traveller’s Epilogue, ed. C. Moorhead (Wilton, Salisbury, Wiltshire, England: Michael Russell Ltd., 1982), 45, where Stark draws a contrast between history that must be approached “from the outside” and literature that is “a sort of climate that one breathes.”

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