Martyrs and persecutions

Times of persecution and of martyrdom fall into four main periods: 1. early 4th cent. (and again under Julian, 361–3), within the Roman Empire (i.e., approximately Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine); 2. mid-4th to mid-7th cent., in the Persian (Sasanian) Empire (approximately modern Iraq and Iran); 3. under Arab rule; and 4. under Ottoman rule and in modern times. It is only from the first two periods that sizeable collections of ‘Martyr Acts’ in Syriac are available. From both a literary and a historical point of view these works can vary enormously in character: a few are brief factual reports made more or less at the time; many more are later literary reworkings which, even though they may sometimes be based on reliable sources, have introduced imaginary dialogues between persecutor and persecuted whose aim is to edify and give encouragement to those who read or hear them; miraculous elements also tend to appear. In other martyr acts the miraculous takes over on a large scale and they take on an epic character.

Two groups of Syriac Martyr Acts from the Roman Empire are of especial importance: Eusebius’s Palestinian Martyrs, whose complete form survives only in Syriac translation, and the various martyrdoms associated with Edessa.

The Edessene martyrdoms fall into two distinct categories, historical and legendary. The former concern the deacon Ḥabib and the laymen Shmona and Gurya, who were martyred probably in 309 and 310; all three came from villages around Edessa, but met their death in Edessa. Although the accounts have been embellished with dialogues and miraculous elements, it is likely that the basic information given is reasonably reliable. This cannot be said concerning two other Edessan martyrdoms, the Acts of Sharbel and those of Barsamya, which purport to be contemporary accounts of events that took place under Trajan in 105: both can be shown to be fictional accounts put out in the first half of the 5th cent. by circles in Edessa which also produced the Teaching of Addai and the legend of the city’s conversion.

Outside the Roman Empire it appears that there was no persecution of Christians under the Parthian dynasty, which came to an end in 226. Under the Sasanians (224–651) serious persecution first arose only after Constantine and his successors had adopted Christianity; it is significant that most of the outbreaks in the 4th and 5th cent. were at times of war with the Roman Empire. The persecution of the 340s under Shapur II was the most widespread, and produced a large number of martyr acts, of varying historical reliability. Shemʿon bar Ṣabbaʿe, bp. of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (which was beginning to emerge as the patriarchal see) was one of the first to be put to death (probably in 344). The persecution extended to villages as well as to towns and included lay people as well as clergy. Knowledge of these Persian martyrdoms reached the Roman Empire by means of Greek translations and Sozomen’s account in his Ecclesiastical History (II.9–14), as well as by word of mouth. A list of these martyrs was given at the end of a ms. written in Edessa in November 411 (ms. Brit. Libr. Add. 12,150).

Subsequent persecutions again occurred in ca. 420 (at the end of the reign of Yazdgard I and beginning of that of Bahram V), and ca. 445 (under Yazdgard II), but on a much smaller scale; both were at times of hostilities with the Roman Empire. Several accounts of the martyrdoms during these persecutions survive, especially for the former (some of these are by a certain Abgar; there is also an account in Theodoret’s Ecclesiastical History, V, 39). Martyrdoms continue to occur down to the end of the Sasanian Empire, but after the middle of the 5th cent. they are almost all confined to isolated cases of converts from Zoroastrianism of noble birth. Several long accounts of these, often of great historical interest, survive in both Syriac and Greek; these include the Acts of Grigor (who managed to become a general after his conversion, but was eventually martyred in 542), the learned Cath. Aba (540–552), two women martyrs, Shirin (558/9) and Golindush/Mary (591), Giwargis (George) and his sister Mary (613), Ishoʿsabran (620), and Mogundat/Anastasius (628) whose martyr acts enjoyed great popularity in Greek and Latin.

The earliest and most detailed information about persecution and martyrdoms in Nagran, in the South Arabian kingdom of Ḥimyar, comes from three related Syriac texts, one of which is a Letter by Shemʿun of Beth Arsham written in 524, while subsequent Martyr Acts are in Greek, Ethiopic, and other languages. The date of the persecution is not certain: 518, 522, and 523 are the possibilities.

Several Martyr Acts survive from the early centuries of Arab rule, though only a very few are written in Syriac, and these are incorporated into Chronicles. Under the Umayyads there were only isolated martyrdoms and the majority of martyrdoms took place under the early Abbasids, in particular during the caliphates of al-Manṣūr (754–75) and al-Mahdī (775–85). Those martyred fall into a number of different categories. Christian Arabs in particular were under considerable pressure to convert to Islam, and a number of those who resisted were put to death. Muslim converts to Christianity, and Christians who had converted to Islam and then returned to Christianity were in especial danger of martyrdom, and among the latter category there are cases of Christians who had been captured as children and then been brought up as Muslims, but who subsequently decided to return to their original faith. Prisoners of war were sometimes forced to apostasize, and those who refused were put to death (in some cases this was a matter of reprisals). Non-Arab Christians living under Arab rule were (at least in the earlier period) in less danger of suffering persecution and martyrdom unless they openly provoked the authorities. In the following centuries persecution tended to be intermittent and local, though none the less dire; this was especially the case under the Mongol ruler Timur Lang (Timurlane) in the 14th cent.

Although later centuries (both under Ottoman rule and more recently, in the 20th and 21st cent.) have witnessed periods of persecution with many martyrdoms in the Syriac and other Churches of the Middle East, the genre of Martyr Acts seems to have largely died out in languages other than in Greek (for which the Neon Martyrologion provides many examples from the Ottoman period). A notable martyr of this period was Shemʿun II, Mafryono of Ṭur ʿAbdin (1740). Records, if they exist, of massacres and martyrdoms are primarily to be found in the course of historical accounts and in poetry; this applies in particular to the appalling massacres of 1895/6 and 1915 (Sayfo, the year of the ‘Sword’), when all the Syriac communities suffered immense losses, as well as the Armenians. Many of the victims were killed specifically because they refused to deny their faith.

See Fig. 70.

    Primary Sources

      First Period

      • F. C.  Burkitt, Euphemia and the Goth (1913). (Shmona, Gurya, Ḥabib)
      • W.  Cureton, History of the Martyrs of Palestine (1861).
      • W.  Cureton, Ancient Syriac Documents (1864). (Barsamya, Sharbel)

      Second Period

      • Most of the Persian Martyr Acts were published by P. Bedjan in his Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum (II and IV), and his Histoire de Mar Jab-Alaha, de trois autres Patriarches... (1895; repr. 2007). Selected translations in O. Braun, Ausgewählte Akten persischer Märtyrer (1915), and selected summaries in G.  Hoffmann, Auszüge aus syrischen Akten persischer Märtyrer (1880). A guide to the 64 different texts, and to translations (where available) and further bibliography is given in the Appendix to S. P. Brock, The history of Mar Maʿin, with a guide to the Persian Martyr Acts (2008).

      Third Period

      • Accounts of persecutions and martyrdoms are to be found here and there in the various chronicles, notably the Zuqnin Chronicle (late 8th cent.; see Harrak, under Secondary Sources) and that of Michael Rabo.

      Fourth Period

      • Mor Julius Çiçek, Mimre d-ʿal Sayfe (1981). (covering 1714–1914)
      • Shlemun Henno, Gunḥe d-Suryoye d-Ṭur ʿAbdin (1987).
      • ʿAbdmshiḥo Naʿman d-Qarahbash, Dmo zliḥo (1987, 1989; GT 2002).
      • Naʿman Aydin, Gedše w-šabṭe d-Ṭur ʿAbdin (1997).
      • Asmar al-Khoury, Ṣulfoto qašyoto d-ʿal Suryoye (1998).

    Secondary Sources

    • J. Bet-Şawoce, Sayfo b-Ţurʿabdin 1914–1915 (2006).
    • S. P. Brock, ‘Christians in the Sasanid Empire: a case of divided loyalties’, in Syriac Perspectives on Late Antiquity (1984), ch. 6.
    • P. Devos, ‘Les martyrs persans à travers leurs actes syriaques’, in La Persia e il mondo Greco-Romano (1966), 213–25.
    • J.-M.  Fiey, ‘Martyrs sous les Ottomans’, LM 101 (1983), 387–406.
    • J.-M.  Fiey, Saints syriaques.
    • D. Gaunt, Massacres, resistance, protectors. Muslim-Christian relations in Eastern Anatolia during World War I (2006). (with further bibliography)
    • A.  Harrak, ‘Piecing together the fragmentary account of the martyrdom of Cyrus of Harran’ [in the Zuqnin Chronicle], AB 121 (2003), 297–328.
    • J. Walker, The Legend of Mar Qardagh (2006).
    • G.  Wiessner, Zur Märtyrerüberlieferung aus der Christenverfolgung Schapurs II (1967).
    • G.  Yonan, Ein vergessener Holocaust. Die Vernichtung der christlichen Assyrer in der Turkei (1989).

How to Cite This Entry

Sebastian P. Brock, “Martyrs and persecutions,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay,

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Sebastian P. Brock, “Martyrs and persecutions,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018),

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Brock, Sebastian P. “Martyrs and persecutions.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018.

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