The Hans Sigrist Foundation

Prof. Dr. Heleen Murre-van den Berg, Radboud University, The Netherlands

An Interview with the 2017 Hans Sigrist Prize Winner

The 2017 Hans Sigrist Prize is awarded to Heleen Murre-van den Berg of Radboud Universeity for her innovative exploration in this year’s prize field, “Historical Research in Eastern Christianity”. Her works, focusing on Syriac Christianity in the Middle East from the 16th to 20th centuries, have enabled dialogue between different identities, churches, and cultures and between the East and West. She has shown particular excellence in combining philological, literary, historical, and theological methods and methods of cultural studies.

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  Congratulations on winning the 2017 Hans Sigrist Prize.  Were you surprised to find out that you had won it?

Murre-van den Berg:  I was very surprised.  I read the award letter three times, before it sunk in that it was real, and I was very excited.

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  What do you think the prize funds will do for you in terms of your research?  Are there things you are hoping to be able to accomplish with which it will help you?

Murre-van den Berg:  Yes, for me, it comes at a very timely point.  I have recently been finishing some older projects.  I would like to start a large new project, and I think this prize money will help me to make the transition from the old projects to the new one, so I can do some preparatory work before I go to the big funders, like the ERC.  It will likely also help me to fund a postdoc and to host a conference. 

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  What sparked your interest in the field you work in?  When you were thinking about going to university, what drew you to this area?

Murre-van den Berg:  I started with Hebrew and Jewish Studies, that was my initial interest – coming from a Protestant background, I was very interested in the Bible and the afterlife of the Bible.  Getting into university in a Semitic studies program, the program forced me to take another language, which happened to be Aramaic, and I really had no idea what Aramaic was when I agreed to take it.  I gradually took these courses, and it was the combination of the Professor for Aramaic, Lucas Van Rompay, who became my Ph.D. supervisor and who is here this weekend for the Symposium and to see me presented with the award, and the fact that Aramaic was the language of this group of Christians about which I had never heard that drew my attention. I also got the feeling that there were more people working in Jewish studies, but I was interested in going into a field where there were fewer people, so I gradually moved my interest towards Middle Eastern Christianity and especially Syriac Christianity, because they use Aramaic as their liturgical language.

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  Do Syriac Christians still speak Aramaic amongst themselves?

Murre-van den Berg:  Yes, they do, though not all of them.  The main churches use Classical Syriac in the liturgy, sometimes added to Arabic, or Turkish, or Dutch, or German, or whatever the local language is where they are.  There is also quite a big group among them who use various languages and dialects of Aramaic at home.  In Iraq, there is quite a big group who still speak Aramaic.  People still speak Aramaic in Turkey and in a few villages in Syria, although they have been badly hit by the war.  There are also people throughout the worldwide diaspora speaking Aramaic still, but that is complicated, because it is more likely that they will lose the language over time when they migrate.  People living in a close community in the Arab world are usually more likely to keep the language than those in Western countries.

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  Do you do a lot of travelling to the region?  Do you get a chance to reflect on the role of the research you are doing on modern geopolitics? 

Murre-van den Berg:  Yes, my latest project will also move into the contemporary period, because I am always interested in this exchange and interchange between the historical research and the current situation.  I think already, for my work on the 19th century, there is always a reflection on what happens now and vice versa.  So, the questions one asks about history come from the current day situation.  That is one of the reasons why I decided to work with my mentor, because he and his generation were the first to get in touch with the communities.  Before that, most people approached the field from a purely academic perspective.   In the 1970s and 1980s, people from this region started moving to Europe, so they were close by and open to speaking with us.  As a student, I already joined my mentor in going into the community and that, for me, was always one of the interesting parts of it, which brought it to life.  It also made me question my own perspective regarding the field, compared to that of people in the actual community and realize that my perspective as a Western woman may vary. 

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  Speaking of that, I note that you have written on the position of women in these communities historically, could you tell us a bit about that?  What are the more surprising things you have discovered?

Murre-van den Berg:  I wrote an article on that topic, specifically, regarding women in the Syriac churches.  There is some similarity to the Catholic church, in that women are not allowed to be priests or bishops.  From the outside, it can look like women only have subservient roles and do not have any agency within the church.  Of course, we know that in practice, there are all kinds of mechanisms which partly counterbalance that, for example, by women being on committees and contributing in other ways.  That is also the case in the Orthodox churches in the modern period.  In the earlier period where the churches were completely dominated by the ecclesial men, most of the laymen did not have much to say (except the rich and important ones), and neither did the laywomen.  However, these two groups, the laymen and the laywomen, were important in providing funding.  One of the things I found was that women were funding the production of manuscripts, as a sponsor or donor.  When I started listing the women among them, about 20% of the donors were women.  That was quite surprising to me then, but when you look into it further, it is not so surprising, because women had more rights to ownership in the Middle East than they did in Europe during the same period.  Women in the Middle East did not lose their property rights when they went into marriage, so they could keep their property in marriage, which they would also take with them if the marriage broke up.  Women in the Middle East had more independent money than similar women would have had in Europe at the time.  Of course, we are talking mostly about women who come from wealthy families.  They were able to sponsor manuscripts independently of men, either as an individual, sometimes as mother and a daughter, or in cases where they were not so wealthy, as a group of women, or as a few couples together.  So even within a male dominated structure, there were ways for women to make their mark, by sponsoring a manuscript. 

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  So, sponsoring a manuscript would mean paying for the time and labor it took to copy a religious document by hand?  So, one would be paying for the scribe and the materials?

Murre-van den Berg:  Yes, and then the person paying could actually buy the manuscript and then donate it to a certain church.   

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  Similar to donating a painting to a museum?

Murre-van den Berg:  Yes, and of course for these people, donating a manuscript would be a religious act, giving you credit points for heaven, so to speak.  It has this transcendental economy, but it also has a very local feeling, showing the relations within and between villages.  Looking at these donations can reveal the social relations in a certain community. 

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  What topics do these manuscripts address? 

Murre-van den Berg:  They are mostly liturgical manuscripts that would be used in the church to read the service or manuscripts of the gospel itself.  Those who had more money could also sponsor an illustrated version, with images included.    

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  Are there other surprising findings?

Murre-van den Berg:  When one travels in the Middle East, at least until the recent periods of war, one can see that the Middle East is (and has been since Byzantine times) very much organized into religious communities.  There are Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Druze, and that is one of the basic ways of organizing society.  We have tended to think that from a political view, that this is the only way in which society was organized.  However, that is not true, once you are in the Middle East, you realize that in practice that in a particular village or city that the lives of different communities are much more mixed and that they interact much more than one would think on the basis of reading about them.  These communities, known as millets, are important, but that is only one aspect.  While they have enabled ideologies to be used for struggles between communities, in practice, society is much more complex, and things were actually much easier between Muslims and Christians, who tended to be more ecumenical in how they dealt with each other than one would think.  Most people do not realize that.

In the current situation, people tend to fall back on religion.  For example, in Lebanon, after the war, religious divisions were stronger than they were before the war.  So, the war, in fact, created and hardened these divisions, rather than the war being the automatic outcome of the earlier existing divisions.  The crisis enhances it, and it becomes stronger, for example, in Lebanon, after the civil war, many more people live in mono-religious areas, whereas before the war, all these areas would have been much more mixed, and of course, I fear that will also be the case in Syria.  I have heard stories of people saying that before the war, they lived in mixed neighborhoods, but now they do not trust anyone except for those of their own religion. 

Hans Sigrist Foundation:   What does the current situation in Syria mean for your research?  Are important documents and manuscripts being destroyed?

Murre-van den Berg:  Lots of things have been destroyed.  Churches have been destroyed, but I am mostly worried about the people.  My research is something I can change, but I am really, really worried about these communities.  The most difficult thing is that many of these communities were Armenians or Syriac Christians whose (great-) grandparents were pushed out of what is today Turkey and resettled in Lebanon and Syria after 1915.  Many resettled in the northern areas of Syria, including in the city of Aleppo.  These are exactly the areas in which the war has been the most destructive.  So, many of these people have been, a century later, pushed out of their homes again.  However, I think for the Christians there, this is not a sudden thing.  From 1915 onwards, although Christians still grew in actual numbers and although some flourished in the Middle East in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, there was still a general trend where Christians became more isolated and culturally marginalized, which pushed them out of the Middle East and made them migrate, also in times where there was no immediate threat.  However, although communities will still exist, many have become so small that they are not as culturally significant as they used to be, except maybe in Lebanon, Egypt, and North Iraq.  In fact, you see some non-Christians in the Middle East who are saying “please come back, we need you”, because Christians had an important role in the local community.  It looks like they will lose that role because they are just too small.

In Aleppo, for example, the Armenians had a thriving culture, with their own publications and music, but those who are ambitious and skilled have moved abroad, to Europe, to the U.S., or to Australia, and those who are left are either the very young or the very old.  Even if Aleppo recovers, only very few of those who left will return.

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  So what you are most worried about is the destruction of the communities themselves?

Murre-van den Berg:   There is a destruction of heritage, but I am very concerned with the loss of the community.  Some of the manuscripts can be replaced, for example, the Benedictines of Saint John's Abbey (Minnesota; HMML) have done an enormous amount of work in digitizing Syriac manuscripts over the past ten years.  They have been able to save so many manuscripts from completely disappearing.   Also, Shabo Talay, who spoke at the 2017 Hans Sigrist Symposium, is an expert on Aramaic dialects, and he and a few other colleagues have been doing so much work in registering all the modern languages they speak, to assure they are not lost.

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  Changing topics, if you could give one piece of advice to a young woman in academia, what would it be?

Murre-van den Berg:  It would always be more than one piece of advice.  The first thing is follow your heart and your instincts regarding what you find interesting.  The other thing is, at the same time, you need to think strategically and politically.  That is, of course, true for both women and for men, but it may be more important for women in the current situation.  You have to think, what do I need to do to get there, what things do I need to publish, what kind of work do I need to do, and where do I have to be in order to be seen?