UNCOVERING MENA’S LOST CHRISTIAN HISTORY

A new SAT-7 ARABIC discussion show will reveal the important role Christians have played in building Arab societies and culture. With the input of guests from across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), House of Wisdom will raise awareness of the region’s Christian past and key historical figures, including poets, physicians, and scientists.

The program’s title comes from the name of a landmark academic institution and library created by the eighth-century Abbasid caliphate. At the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, in what is now Iraq, Christian scholars translated many important texts into Arabic from Greek and other languages and engaged in exciting debates with their Muslim peers.

“As we will be discussing Christian heritage, which flourished under the Abbasids, the title House of Wisdom (“Beit al-Hikma” in Arabic) chimes well with what we want to produce,” explains Producer Sherif Wahba. The show will examine the roots of Christianity in the MENA and the Bible’s early history over 13 episodes, each 30 minutes long. Led by the presenter, Pastor Waguih Youssef, the speakers will discuss Christian themes in the context of historical events.

RESTORING A LOST PAST

The team hope that House of Wisdom will appeal not only to Arabic-speaking believers but also to other viewers of all backgrounds. Some may have very limited awareness of its topics, as Christians’ contributions to early Arab society are not well-known in the Middle East today.

Schoolchildren are often not taught a full picture of their region’s history that fully includes its Christian heritage, and many people believe the religion has been imported by recent Western powers. At the extreme end of the scale, so-called Islamic State militants destroyed Christian sites, artefacts, and books in an effort to erase the MENA’s Christian past.

Fr. Naji Edelbi, assistant director of the Eastern Christian Center for Research at St Joseph University with Pastor Waguih Youssef on set

In fact, the MENA is not only the birthplace of Christianity and the site of its early spread, it remains the home of some of the world’s oldest continuous Christian communities. Cities that now appear to be firmly rooted in other traditions, including in Egypt and Iraq, were once centres of Christianity. Later, in the early centuries of Arab rule, Christians continued to have a positive influence on many areas of academia and the arts.

INFLUENTIAL FROM THE START

At the House of Wisdom, Christian academics helped develop fields including medicine and philosophy, bringing the legacy of Greek thought into Arabic. Christians also worked as physicians, architects, clerks, advisors, and court poets for the early Arab leaders. For the first few centuries of their rule, Greek and Coptic remained administrative languages.

One prominent figure during this period was Hunayn ibn Ishaq, a Syriac Christian who ran the House of Wisdom. The physician and academic was involved in the translation of important Greek texts and wrote many books of his own, specialising in medicine. Between the eighth and eleventh centuries, eight generations of the Christian Bukhtishu family also served as personal doctors to the caliphs.

Over the following centuries, Christians began increasingly to be treated as second-class citizens. However, they have remained a continuous, contributing presence in MENA societies, with the region’s largest Christian populations living in Lebanon and Egypt. Several of the writers and thinkers who spearheaded the Nahda (Arabic cultural renaissance) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, including Khalil Gibran and Butrus al-Bustani, were from Christian backgrounds.

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