Monday, April 20, 2015

By the Waters of Babylon

Newsweek chronicles the ancient and timeless liturgical music of Christians fleeing ISIS.
The ancient cities of Nimrud and Nineveh that they visited proudly to show their children the glories of the Assyrian empire from which they claim descent – soon these will be bulldozed by ISIS. They leave behind the treasures of Assyria in the Mosul museum – ISIS will loot the smaller antiquities for the black market and smash the statues too big to sell. And on the way to Mar Mattai, they pass the monastery of Mar Behnam: its gates are already barred by ISIS. From the steeple flies the black flag. In a few months, it will be destroyed.

What they carry with them is their liturgical music. It preserves strains of the earliest religious chants of Mesopotamia and of court songs sung for Assyrian emperors 2,000 years before Christ. Its antiquity is matched by its simplicity: clergy and congregation sing together, dividing between boys with high voices and older, bigger men who sing more deeply. Beyond this there is no distinction of note or pitch, and no melody. The call and response format is thought to enact a conversation between man and God.

Tonight, they will again sing the old songs. They make for the inner rooms: the hermits’ cells burrowed into the cliff--face; the Saints’ Room, with its reliquaries set in niches in the rock; the chapels dug deep into the holy mountain. (more here)