By C10th, the Arabic language had supplanted both Aramaic – then the lingua franca of the Near East – and Greek, the tongue of poleis (esp coastal cities). Though in Antioch large Greek-speaking communities prevailed into C13th.
Abd al-Malik & Walid I made sure Arabic was the only administrative language & forbade use of Greek. This had its own difficulties, however, as people’s native tongues were rarely Arabic or – if they were – tended to be v. strong dialects.
The Umayyad governor of Iraq, al-Hajjaj, for example replaced the Arabic used in the chancellery with the Iraqi dialect so regional staff knew what the hell was going on.
It’s in this environment that the contours of the Melkites become clearer. They emerge as a people who are defined by their faith in Orthodoxy as defined by the Emperor in Ecumenical Councils – hence the name Mal(a)kiyyun/Milkiyyun/Malkaiyuun/Malkaniyyun = Royalist.
The terms (mainly derived from Aramaic “Malaki”) were first used in C5th by Syrian Monothelete Chalcedonians to distinguish themselves from Jacobites, though it later took on the meaning of those who accepted Constantinople III (681).
A common misunderstanding is that Melkite = a synonym for “Greek Orthodox.” More accurately it refers to those who stuck to the Syrian Christians who clung to the Chalcedonian faith. And the two weren’t ALWAYS coterminous re: imperial theological machinations.
If someone wanted to refer to the Orthodox, then they usually meant someone who professed their faith in Greek & these were always referred to as al-rum (pl. al-arwam) in other words Romans.
The best way to describe Melkites is as possessors of “Arab Orthodoxy.” Rum were the Greek-speaking holders of Orthodoxy, Melkites were those who professed the same orthodoxy (same liturgical corpus) in Arabic/Syriac.
Gets complex when the pre-Islamic Arabs (who took pride in ignoring the Councils) are taken into account. These were referred to as “Christians from the Arabs” (al-nasara min al-arab) & were different from those “those who fit the criteria of the Melkites (ra’y al-malakiyyah).
These early Arabs inhabited vast areas of the Near East before Islam. The kingdom of Hatra is the most famous example but Arabs were probably present at the founding of Edessa too. These shuyukh Arabs were loose cannonballs & independent of Rome & Parthia.
Pre-Islamic Arabia had an urban population that had Hellenised folk in the cities who were mostly chalcedonian while the rural folk (fallahuna) spoke a dialect Aramaic or Arabic and were anti-Chalcedonian.
While Islam is important then, the biggest rupture in Near East appears to be Chalcedon.
Northern Arabs (sedentary & nomadic) turned Monophysite under authority of Edessa. & these pitched themselves against Antioch, which the Syrian Aramaic communities considered remote (a bit like Canterbury & York might be close on a map but v. different in historical attitudes).
Islamic intellectuals would not be confronted in Greek only in Arabic, which is what really gave Melkites their edge.
Before that there seems to have been a bit of Byz-Arabic crossover in the Eastern Roman Army which employed Arabs as foederati. These were known in Syriac sources as “arab d’rehumiye” (Arabs of the Romans) or even “tayyaye d-rehumiye” (Muslims of Rome).
Then there are Christian (Syrian) Arabs who fled to the Roman Empire. These were mostly elites tho some did remain hence marriage of caliph Muawiyah to Christian Jacobite (Maysun) fr the Banu Kalb. Union brought useful alliances with the Christian tribes of Northern Arabia.
Among Melkite authors, a decline in the use of Greek was accompanied by an emphasis on their historical Hellenisation. Their main achievement??? NB Melkites grafted Greek and Syriac cultures onto Arabic and made sure they survived by doing so.
These qualities are most obvious in Theodore Abu Qurrah (750-825). An admirer of John of Damascus, he was an Arab-speaking Chalcedonian with a Greek cultural background. Conversant in the Christian Palestinian Aramaic script, which contained Arabisms & bits of old Syriac.
NB This hybridity was the essence of their identity as a people (shu’ubiyyah); an authentic yet distinct Arabhood (urubah), a Christian brotherhood.
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