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The Legend of Mar Qardagh

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

Joel Thomas Walker
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    The Legend of Mar Qardagh
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93219-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. INTRODUCTION: Christianity in Late Antique Iraq and the Legend of Mar Qardagh
    (pp. 1-14)

    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(paṭāḥšāandmarzbān)of the region extending from the frontier city of Nisibis to the Diyala River in...

  7. PART I. The History of Mar Qardagh in English Translation, with Commentary

    • Introduction to the Text
      (pp. 17-18)

      In 1890 two scholars, working independently of one another, each published an edition and translation of theHistory of Mar Qardagh. The Belgian Bollandist J.-B. Abbeloos based his edition on a copy (made in Mosul in 1869) of an East-Syrian manuscript sent to him by the Chaldean archbishop of Diyarbakir, E. G. Khayyath. The original manuscript (MS Diyarbakir syr. 96), which Khayyath dated rather optimistically to the “seventh or eighth century,” contained theActsorHistoriesof martyrs from every phase of Sasanian persecution between the fourth and the seventh centuries c.e.¹ Sadly, this medieval manuscript, which had been stored...

    • The History of the Heroic Deeds of Mar Qardagh the Victorious Martyr
      (pp. 19-70)

      1. Dearly beloved, the histories of the martyrs and saints of our Lord Christ are banquets(būsāmē)for the holy church! They are spiritual nourishment for the holy congregations of the Cross. They are an ornament to the lofty beauty of Christianity that is bespattered with the blood of the Son of God. They are a heavenly treasure for all the generations who enter the holy church through the spiritual birth of baptism.¹ They are a polished mirror in which discerning men see the ineffable beauty of Christ.² They are the possessions of righteousness for the children of the church who...

      (pp. 71-72)
      (pp. 73-84)
  8. PART II. Narrative and Christian Heroism in Late Antique Iraq

    • ONE The Church of the East and the Hagiography of the Persian Martyrs
      (pp. 87-120)

      In early spring of the year 605, the metropolitan bishop of Adiabene instructed his staff to prepare for a journey. The Sasanian King of kings Khusro II (590–628) had summoned all of the bishops of his domain to Ctesiphon to elect a new patriarch of the Church of the East. Yonadab of Arbela, metropolitan bishop of Adiabene, was among those summoned to the synod. Accompanied by four of his suffragan bishops, Yonadab and his staff set out for Ctesiphon during the month of Nisan (April), a good season for travel along the royal road that linked Arbela to the...

    • TWO “We Rejoice in Your Heroic Deeds!” Christian Heroism and Sasanian Epic Tradition
      (pp. 121-163)

      In the opening scenes of theHistory of Mar Qardagh, the legend’s hero distinguishes himself before the Persian King of kings through a series of remarkable athletic feats. First, in an archery performance at the royal court, he successfully shoots five arrows into a small target attached to the top of a high pole, a deed for which he is praised “by the king and his nobles.”¹ The next day, King Shapur orders Qardagh to enter the stadium and play on the polo ground(ʾasprā)together with the rest of the nobles. The king and his nobles “marvel”(thar)at...

    • THREE Refuting the Eternity of the Stars: Philosophy between Byzantium and Late Antique Iraq
      (pp. 164-205)

      The “heroic deeds” of Mar Qardagh examined in the previous chapter provide memorable evidence for what one might describe as the Persian-Sasanian component of Christian culture in late antique Iraq. These scenes of the Qardagh legend prove that the ideals and imagery of Sasanian epic traditions were not unknown to the Christians of late antique Iraq. The philosophical debate between the legend’s hero, Mar Qardagh, and his Christian mentor, the hermit Abdišo, reveals a very different side of Sasanian Christian culture.¹ In this debate, the hermit Abdišo proves first that the luminaries—the sun, the moon, and the stars—have...

    • FOUR Conversion and the Family in the Acts of the Persian Martyrs
      (pp. 206-245)

      In the final triumphant scenes of theHistory of Mar Qardagh, the legend’s hero, besieged in his fortress outside Arbela, rejects a series of supplicants who plead with him to “obey the order of the king” and “worship the fire, the sun, and the moon.”¹ Among these supplicants is Qardagh’s own father, a Sasanian nobleman named Gušnōy. “Weeping with many (tears),” Gušnōy stands beneath the walls of Qardagh’s fortress and entreats his son to heed his last plea. Qardagh sends one of his servants to communicate the following reply:

      Our Lord Christ calls out to us in His Gospel that...

    • FIVE Remembering Mar Qardagh: The Origins and Evolution of an East-Syrian Martyr Cult
      (pp. 246-280)

      At a village named Melqi on the outskirts of late antique Arbela, Christians gathered at the end of each summer for a six-day trading fair. The fair was convened at the base of an ancient tell crowned by the ruins of a Sasanian fortress. The origin of both the fortress and the annual fair were described in the story of Mar Qardagh, the Sasanian viceroy and Christian convert, executed at Melqi late in the reign of Shapur II (309–379). Writing ca. 600–630, some two and a half centuries after the events in question, Qardagh’s hagiographer explained the annual...

  9. EPILOGUE: The Festival of Mar Qardagh at Melqi
    (pp. 281-286)

    At the end of each summer in late Sasanian Adiabene, farmers and merchants from various districts of northern Iraq congregated at the shrine of Melqi near the city of Arbela. The market or “souk” of Melqi lasted six days, with three days dedicated to the commemoration of Mar Qardagh, the Christian martyr alleged to have built the fortress overlooking the site. Mar Qardagh’s hagiographer offers few details about what happened during this annual festival, although analogy with neighboring regions gives some idea of the probable atmosphere. The feasts of the martyrs were joyous, sometimes even raucous gatherings that brought together...

  10. APPENDIX. The Qardagh Legend and the Chronicle of Arbela
    (pp. 287-290)
    (pp. 291-332)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 333-345)