A Tribute to Bishop Mor Gregorius Bulus Behnam
The first time I set my eyes on the young monk, Sarkis Behnam, later to be known as Bishop Gregorius Bulus Behnam, was on August 15, 1935 at the ancient Monastery of St. Matthew near Mosul, Iraq. On that day, Sarkis and three other students of the monastery’s seminary were ordained as monks. Many dignitaries from Mosul and the neighboring villages went up to the monastery to attend the ordination ceremony. I was only eleven years old when my father took me along with him to witness the ceremony. I vividly remember young Sarkis with the other three companions prostrating themselves outside the sanctuary of the ancient church of the monastery located not far from the Beth Qadishe (Mausoleum of Saints), where the celebrated Bar Hebraeus was buried. At the end of the celebration of the Eucharist, Dionysius Yuhanna Mansurati, metropolitan of the monastery, assisted by Athanasius Tuma Qasir, metropolitan of Mosul, vested Sarkis and his companions with the monastic habit, and changed Sarkis’ name into Bulus. When the service of ordination ended, those present began congratulating the newly ordained monks for assuming the monastic habit. As I look back on that ceremony, I can only remember the faces of these ordained monks, having had no personal contact with them, especially Bulus. The opportunity of meeting Bulus personally and becoming his close friend and admirer presented itself ten years later in 1945. Prior to that time, the only thing I recall about Bulus is that in 1938, he was appointed a teacher at St. Ephraim Seminary in Zahle, Lebanon, a position he took after spending three years as a monk in the monastery.
In 1945, the Patriarch Aphram I Barsoum (d. 1957) ordered the transference of St. Ephraim Seminary from Zahle, Lebanon to Mosul, Iraq. He chose as its principal the dynamic and learned young monk, Bulus Behnam, who presently became instrumental in the religious and cultural awakening of the Syrian Church in Mosul. Forceful, sincere and fully aware of the past glory of the Syrian Church of Antioch and its fathers, Bulus Behnam believed that some literature created for the propagation of the history and culture of his church would be necessary and indeed, indispensable. The idea of this publication was realized through the creation of al-Mashriq magazine, born in the spring of 1946. However, the birth of al-Mashriq was not without difficulty. It was only one year after the end of World War II, and Behnam found that acquiring paper for the publication of his magazine was truly difficult. The future Metropolitan had to travel to Baghdad in order to receive his rationing of paper, which he finally procured. It was on April, 11, 1946 during Lent that the young, erudite monk boarded a third class coach on the train that was to carry him and his rolls of paper to Mosul. This writer had the honor to be his friend and companion on that trip. Since then, these two traveling companions became bound with strong ties of friendship until the untimely and most lamentable death of Behnam in 1969. The archdeacon Ni’mat Allah Denno (d. 1951) was at the station to bid us farewell.
It was a moving sight to see this prominent clergyman wearing his monastic habit and squatting on the floor of a third class train coach with rolls of printing paper carefully piled next to him. As the train left the Baghdad railway station, this writer saw young monk Behnam take something out of a paper bag and spread it on a piece of cloth before him. After which, he invited this writer to join him for a dinner of bread and boiled truffles. The young monk was observing Lent and truffles were the only meal he could bring with him on the journey. Half-way between Baghdad and Mosul, near the city of Takrit, torrents of early spring rain washed out parts of the track making the journey any further impassable. The train was ordered to return to Baghdad.
Behnam with a group of passengers including this writer, decided to go to Takrit where they hoped to find a car to take them to Mosul. No one was as exhilarated and anxious to take advantage of this mishap and visit the city of Takrit as was Rev. Behnam. One could even detect the tears in his eyes at the prospect of gazing on the city that was once the center of Syrian Christianity in Mesopotamia and the seat of the Maphrianate (Prelacy). He and the group left the small and out of the way railway station to start an hour journey to Takrit. Behnam hired a donkey to carry his suitcase and valuable rolls of paper while the rest of the group hired donkeys to carry their luggage. When the group reached Takrit, they were unable to find lodging as there were no hotels. So, we sought rest in the sole public chai khana (tea house which is most referred to as coffee house by the inhabitants of Iraq). I was sitting next to Rev. Behnam sipping tea in the usual glass cup called (finjan or istikan), listening to Egyptian crooners on the radio. As we discussed our situation and lack of amenities, behold a man came and stood before Behnam saying, “Abouna, (father) Dr. Tuma Kafilmout (the city’s physician) invites you to be his guest in his house.” We heaved a true sigh of relief, and collecting our luggage, followed the man to the house of Dr. Tuma Kafilmout, the only physician in Takrit. On the morning of April 12, 1946, Rev. Behnam and I sought the help of some men of Takrit to find a car to take us to Mosul, but our efforts were in vain. The heavy downpour continued and the unpaved highway to Mosul was risky to traverse. So, we resigned to fate and stayed in Takrit waiting for a magic opportunity to find a car to transport us to Mosul. It was the evening of the same day that a group of school teachers and others paid us a visit.
Behnam’s enthusiasm to visit Takrit was understandable. Takrit, after all, was the heart, indeed, the pride of his Church in the East. Here at Takrit the most exquisite rituals of the Syrian Church were composed. Takrit distinguished itself by developing and possessing a religious rite came to be known as the Rite of Takrit. Takrit also became a seat of the Maphrianate of the East in the sixth century when the original Maphryono, or Catholicos, defected to Nestorianism rejecting the authority of the Patriarch of Antioch, his ecclesiastical superior. During the two days the travel group spent in Takrit, Behnam lost no time visiting the historical sites of the city, especially the ancient Syrian churches. Standing side by side among the ruins of the once Church of St. John, I could see how Behnam was completely distracted by the ruins. He looked as if he was trying to reconstruct the history of this eminent city and relive the past glory of his church. He returned to reality when a teacher from the elementary school of the city, who was our guide, told him that many people of the city affirmed that on many occasions, they saw pillars of light rising from the ruins of St. John Church.
Behnam was so moved by this visit to Takrit that he wrote an article about it entitled “A Night in Takrit,” followed by another regarding the history of this city as the center of ancient Syriac Christianity. Both articles appeared in the first issue of his magazine al-Mashriq. The first article was preceded by a poem expressing Behnam’s nostalgia for the bygone glory of his church.
After visiting the ruins of the Syrian churches, we were invited to lunch by the principal of the elementary school. Later that afternoon, we visited Mahmud al-Thuwayni, a prominent dignitary of Takrit whose house overlooked the Tigris River and looked like a boat floating on the water. Along with us the judge from the local court and several school teachers were also visiting. Many of them were captivated by the historical narrative Rev. Bulus Behnam was presenting about Takrit. Suddenly, Mahmud al-Thuwayni interrupted Rev. Behnam. He stood up, looming like a giant over us since he was such a huge man, and placing his hand over his heart, said, “I bear testimony by Allah that my ancestors are Christians.” Deep silence followed his declaration and no one challenged his words. Evidently, his testimony corroborated Rev. Behrman’s assertion that until the thirteenth century the majority of the people of Takrit were Syrian Christians.
Shortly afterward we visited the ancient Citadel of Takrit, and continued in our search for way back to Mosul. However, it seems that the dignitaries of Takrit were so anxious to hear Rev. Behnam that they insisted that we stay for one or two more days. We submitted and thus, it was not until April 14 that we finally found a car and left for Mosul.
Rev. Bulus Behnam (later ordained a bishop in 1952, under the name of Gregorius), was a man of many talents. He was a proficient writer in both Syriac and Arabic, a poet, a scholar and dynamic orator. In the field of Syriac literature, his objective was to present a selection of the literary and philosophical writings of ancient Syrian fathers to his readers. His audience was mainly the Syrian people, having an intrinsic appreciation of their Syriac culture and heritage. Thus, it was Behnam’s duty to revive and inculcate them with their heritage. The pages of his bi-monthly magazine al-Mashriq (The East) are replete with his various articles on Syriac language and culture. In this endeavor, he may have been motivated by the exhortation of an eleventh-century anonymous Syrian philosopher from Edessa who wrote a unique book entitled The Cause of all Causes, or A Book for all Nations under Heaven. His primary objective was to teach people how to seek and find truth. In his introduction, the author, most likely a rationalist maintained that reason is virtually truth and knowledge and the center of philosophy. Above all it is the best link between God and man. Proud of the precious knowledge the book contained and the love it inculcated to mankind, he exhorted those who may read his book to translate it and publicize it in many languages in order that it may reach many people and benefit many nations. This was then the motivation of Bishop Bulus Behnam, which he made clear when he said:
For a time I cherished the idea of carrying this torch, but I was distracted by multiple chores. However, when I read the Introduction of the author of The Cause of all Causes, I determined to translate it as well as other books into Arabic to prove the greatness of the graceful Syriac legacy which I have the honor to be one of its faithful servants.
He then goes on to analyze the main ideas of the author. One concept which astonished him was that of “Superman,” which no ancient Syrian writer had since tackled and no modern writer detected. Immediately, this term reminded him of Nietzche’s Superman and will to power. But the Superman of the Syrian writer, says Behnam, is different from that of the German philosopher. His superiority does not derive from power or attainment of it; his superiority is simply manifested in perfection. Behnam goes on to compare the concept of the Syrian philosopher with that of Nietzche, which is unprecedented in Syriac writings.
Behnam follows with a significant subject on Syriac Culture. He says that he began writing it two years prior (1944) and published parts of it in several periodicals and newspapers of Syria and Lebanon. Under this topic, he discusses Syriac culture in particular; the sources of Syriac culture; the Syriac language, its ancient dialects and the present day Eastern and Western dialects; the consequences of Syriac culture; and the prominent Syriac writers and literary contemplations in the contributions of Syriac culture. His main intention was to convey that the Syrian people in pre-Christianity times had a thriving culture which greatly impacted the surrounding nations of the Middle East. It was not until the Arab invasion of the countries of the Middle East that the dominant Syriac language began to recede and be replaced by Arabic. Indeed, the language of Palestine in the time of Jesus Christ was not Hebrew but Aramaic (Syriac). He maintains that many Syriac terms remain until this day in the Arabic language. Also, many Greek terms found their way into Arabic via the Syriac language. However, vicissitudes of time, warfare and persecution caused the decline of Syriac culture, and as a result, only a few villages in Iraq and Syria still speak Syriac. He also discusses the different schools established by both Eastern and Syrian people and their impact on the culture of the Middle East. Unfortunately, Behnam left this significant subject unfinished.
1See “Min Uyun al-Adab al-Suryaniyya (Masterpieces of Syriac Literature), al-Mashriq (Mosul, June, 1946), 1: 25.