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Patriarchs of the Church of the East


Patriarchs of the Church of the East

Conventional lists of Patriarchs of the Church of the East include around 130 patriarchs. A number of these patriarchs are legendary, or invented, or have been included in the standard lists on dubious evidence. This article sets out the historical evidence for the patriarchal succession in the Church of the East and its successor churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, and the Ancient Church of the East.


  • Fictionalisation of the early history of the Church of the East 1
  • Uncertain patriarchal succession, 1318–1552 2
  • 'Shemon VIII Denha' and the schism of 1552 3
  • Patriarchal succession, 16th to 18th centuries 4
  • Patriarchal succession, 19th and 20th centuries 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8

Fictionalisation of the early history of the Church of the East

The Church of the East, although separated from the State church of the Roman Empire, was not immune to its fashions. One such fashion was to fill in the inevitable gaps in the historical record to trace a succession of bishops in individual dioceses right back to the 1st century, preferably to an apostolic founder. This fashion found particular favour in the case of the diocese of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. The first bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon for whom incontestable evidence exists was Papa, who was consecrated around 280. During the 6th century ingenious attempts were made to link Papa with Mari, the legendary apostle of Babylonia. The author of the 6th-century Acts of Mari simply ignored the gap of two and a half centuries that separated the two men and declared that Mari had founded the diocese of Seleucia-Ctesiphon shortly before his death and consecrated Papa as his successor. Later writers were more cunning with their inventions. Shahlufa and Ahadabui, two late-3rd-century bishops of Erbil who had played a notable part in the affairs of the church of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, were converted retrospectively into early patriarchs. Ahadabui was said to have governed the church of Seleucia-Ctesiphon from 204 to 220, and Shahlufa from 220 to 224. For the 2nd century, three patriarchs were frankly invented: Abris (121–37), Abraham (159–71) and Yaʿqob (190). All three men were declared to be relatives of Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, and given plausible backstories. These five phantom 'patriarchs' were included in all the later histories of the Church of the East, and by the 12th century their existence was an article of faith for the historian Mari bin Sulaiman. They are still included by courtesy in the traditional List of Patriarchs of the Church of the East, even though most scholars agree that they never existed.[1]

Uncertain patriarchal succession, 1318–1552

The patriarchal succession of the Church of the East between 1318 and 1552 cannot be satisfactorily determined. The conventional lists of its patriarchs given by Fiey and others rest on very dubious evidence, and the few known facts are set out here.

The patriarch Yahballaha III died in November 1317, probably on Saturday 12 November.[2]

His successor Timothy II, according to the acts of his synod, was consecrated in February 1318. He was still alive in 1328, but probably died two or three years later, to be succeeded after an uncertain interval by Denha II in 1336/7, who himself died in 1381/2.[3] Denha II is known to have been consecrated in Baghdad, thanks to the patronage of the Christian emir Haggi Togai, but may have been normally resident in the Mosul plain village of Karamlish. Three ceremonial contacts between Denha II and the Jacobite church are recorded by the continuator of Bar Hebraeus's Ecclesiastical Chronicle between 1358 and 1364, and on each occasion Denha was living in Karamlish.[4]

Denha II is conventionally believed to have been succeeded by the patriarchs Shemʿon I, Shemʿon II and Eliya IV, but a 15th-century list of patriarchs mentions only a single patriarch named Shemʿon between Denha II and Eliya IV, and is probably to be preferred.[5]

Eliya IV was succeeded by Shemʿon IV at an unknown date in the first half of the 15th century. Eliya’s death has conventionally been placed in 1437 but must have been earlier, as a patriarch named Shemʿon is mentioned in a colophon of 1429/30.[6]

Shemʿon IV died on 20 February 1497 and was buried in the monastery of Rabban Hormizd near the Mosul village of Alqosh.[7] He was succeeded by two short-reigned patriarchs: Shemʿon V, first mentioned in a colophon of 1500/1, who died in September 1502 and was buried in the monastery of Mar Awgin; and Eliya V, elected in 1503, who died in 1504 and was buried in the church of Mart Meskinta in Mosul.[8]

Eliya V was succeeded by the patriarch Shemʿon VI (1504–38), who died on 5 August 1538 and was buried in the monastery of Rabban Hormizd.[9] According to the colophon of a contemporary manuscript, the patriarchal throne was still vacant on 19 October 1538.[10]

Shemʿon’s brother the metropolitan Ishoʿyahb Bar Mama, who had been natar kursya throughout his reign, is first mentioned as patriarch in a colophon of 1539.[11] Shemʿon VII Ishoʿyahb died on 1 November 1558 and was buried, like his predecessor, in the monastery of Rabban Hormizd near Alqosh.[12] His reign saw the schism of 1552 that resulted in the creation of the Chaldean Catholic Church in 1553.

'Shemon VIII Denha' and the schism of 1552

In 1552 a section of the Church of the East, angered by the appointment of minors to important episcopal positions by the patriarch Shemʿon VII Ishoʿyahb, revolted against his authority. The rebels elected in his stead Sulaqa, the superior of the monastery of Rabban Hormizd near Alqosh, but were unable to consecrate him as no bishop of metropolitan rank was available, as canonically required. Franciscan missionaries were already at work among the Nestorians, and they persuaded Sulaqa's supporters to legitimize their position by seeking Sulaqa's consecration by Pope Julius III (1550–5). Sulaqa went to Rome, where he made a satisfactory Catholic profession of faith and presented a letter, drafted by his supporters in Mosul, which set out his claims to be recognized as patriarch. This letter, which has survived in the Vatican archives, grossly distorted the truth. The rebels claimed that the Nestorian patriarch Shemʿon VII Ishoʿyahb had died in 1551 and had been succeeded illegitimately by 'Shemʿon VIII Denha' (1551–8), a non-existent patriarch invented purely for the purpose of bolstering the legitimacy of Sulaqa's election. The Vatican was taken in by this fraud, and recognised Sulaqa as the founding patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church in April 1553, thereby creating a permanent schism in the Church of the East. It was only several years later that the Vatican discovered that Shemʿon VII Ishoʿyahb was still alive.[13]

Patriarchal succession, 16th to 18th centuries

The patriarchal succession after the schism of 1552 is certain in the case of the Mosul patriarchate, because up to the beginning of the 19th century all but one of its patriarchs were buried in the monastery of Rabban Hormizd and their epitaphs, which give the date of their deaths, have survived. Shemʿon VII’s successor Eliya VII died on 26 May 1591, after having been a metropolitan for 15 years and patriarch for 32 years; Eliya VIII on 26 May 1617; Eliya IX on 18 June 1660; Eliya X Yohannan Marogin on 17 May 1700; Eliya XI Marogin on 14 December 1722; and Eliya XIII Ishoʿyahb in 1804. Eliya XII Denha died of plague in Alqosh on 29 April 1778, and was exceptionally buried in the town rather than the monastery, which had been abandoned and locked up following a Persian attack in 1743.

The information available on Sulaqa and his successors is much less exact. The date of Sulaqa's election in 1552 is not known, but he was confirmed as 'patriarch of Mosul' by the Vatican on 28 April 1553, and was martyred at the beginning of 1555, probably (according to a contemporary poem of ʿAbdishoʿ IV) on 12 January. The date of ʿAbdishoʿ IV’s succession in 1555 is not known, but a colophon mentions that he died on 11 September 1570. The dates of Shemʿon VIII Yahballaha's succession and death (presumably in 1570 and 1580 respectively) are not known. Shemʿon IX Denha was elected patriarch in 1580 and (according to Assemani) died in 1600. Shemʿon X, elected in 1600, is said to have died in 1638, according to a letter of Eliya XIII cited by Tisserant.

Information on the patriarchal succession in the Qudshanis patriarchate for the remainder of the seventeenth and the whole of the 18th century is equally scanty. Several of the Qudshanis patriarchs who succeeded Shemʿon X corresponded with the Vatican, but the surviving correspondence does not enable individual patriarchs to be distinguished. The following list of 17th- and 18th-century Qudshanis patriarchs has conventionally been adopted, most recently by Fiey and (provisionally) by Wilmshurst: Shemʿon XI (1638–56), Shemʿon XII (1656–62), Shemʿon XIII Denha (1662–1700), Shemʿon XIV Shlemun (1700–40), Shemʿon XVI Mikhail Mukhtas (1740–80), and Shemʿon XVI Yohannan (1780–1820).[14]

These names and reign-dates were first given towards the end of the 19th century by the Anglican missionary William Ainger Wigram. A recently discovered list of Qudshanis patriarchs compiled after the First World War by the bishop Eliya of Alqosh, however, gives a completely different set of dates: Shemʿon X (1600–39); Shemʿon XI (1639–53); Shemʿon XII (1653–92); Shemʿon XIII Denha (1692–1700); and Shemʿon XIV Shlemun (1700–17). It is not yet clear whether either list is based on a reliable source, and the patriarchal succession must for the time being remain uncertain.

In 1681 a Catholic line of patriarchs who took the name Joseph was founded at Amid (Diyarbakr). The reign dates of these patriarchs are not in doubt: Joseph I (1681–95); Joseph II (1696–1712); Joseph III (1713–57); Joseph IV (patriarch, 1757–80; patriarchal administrator, 1781–96); and Joseph V (1804–28). Strictly speaking, Augustine Hindi, who styled himself Joseph V, was merely the patriarchal administrator of the Amid and Mosul patriarchates, but he liked to think of himself as a patriarch and the Vatican found it politic to indulge him in this fantasy.

Patriarchal succession, 19th and 20th centuries

There were three Qudshanis patriarchs in the decades leading up to the First World War: Shemʿon XVII Abraham (1820–61), Shemʿon XVIII Rubil (1861–1903), and Shemʿon XIX Benjamin (1903–18), who was consecrated at an uncanonically early age. Shemʿon XIX Benjamin (1903–18) was murdered in the village of Kohnashahr in the Salmas district in 1918, and was succeeded by the feeble Shemʿon XX Paul (1918–20). Paul died only two years after taking office. As there were no other qualified members of the patriarchal family available, he was succeeded by his twelve-year-old nephew Eshai, who was consecrated patriarch on 20 June 1920 under the name Shemʿon XXI Eshai.

Shemʿon XXI Eshai (who arbitrarily added the apostle Simon Peter, Shemʿon Shliha, to the head of the list of patriarchs of the Church of the East and thereafter styled himself Shemʿon XXIII Eshai) was murdered in the United States in 1975 and succeeded in 1976 by Dinkha IV Hnanya, the first non-Catholic patriarch of the Church of the East to be appointed canonically (i.e., not by hereditary succession) since the 15th century. Dinkha IV was consecrated in the United Kingdom.

The recognition of the Mosul patriarch Yohannan VIII Hormizd by the Vatican in 1830 marked the birth of the modern Chaldean church. Yohannan Hormizd died in 1838, and was succeeded by Joseph VI Audo (1848–78), Nicholas I Zayʿa (1840–7), Eliya XII ʿAbulyonan (1879–94), ʿAbdishoʿ V Khayyat (1895–9), Emmanuel II Thomas (1900–47), Joseph VII Ghanima (1947–58), Paul II Cheikho (1958–89) and Raphael I Bidawid (1989–2003). The present Chaldean patriarch is Emmanuel III Delly, consecrated in 2003.

See also


  1. ^ Fiey, Jalons, 64–5
  2. ^ Wallis Budge, The Monks of Kublai Khan, 305–6; Gismondi, Maris Amri et Slibae de Patriarchis Nestorianorum Commentaria, ii. 97 and 99; and Moule, Christians in China Before the Year 1550, 126–7
  3. ^ MSS Diyarbakr (Scher) 70, Jerusalem Syr 10 and Mingana Syr 561 (folio 43a)
  4. ^ Wilmshurst, Ecclesiastical Organisation, 18–19
  5. ^ Wallis Budge, The Book of the Bee, 119
  6. ^ MS Paris BN Syr 184
  7. ^ Vosté, Inscriptions, 283–5
  8. ^ MSS Diyarbakr (Scher) 102, Paris BN Syr 25 and Vat Syr 204a
  9. ^ Vosté, Inscriptions, 286
  10. ^ MS Vat Syr 83
  11. ^ MS Vat Syr 339
  12. ^ Vosté, Inscriptions, 286
  13. ^ Wilmshurst, EOCE, 21–2
  14. ^ Fiey, POCN, 37; Wilmshurst, EOCE, 356–7


  • Fiey, J.M. (1979). Communautés syriaques en Iran et en Irak, des origines à 1552. London.  
  • Fiey, J.M. (1993). Pour un Oriens Christianus novus; répertoire des diocèses Syriaques orientaux et occidentaux. Beirut.  
  • Fiey, J. M., Jalons pour un histoire de l'Église en Iraq (Louvain, 1970)
  • The Patriarchs of the Church of the East from the Fifteenth to Eighteenth Centuries
  • Tfinkdji, J. (1914). "L’église chaldéenne catholique autrefois et aujourd’hui". Annuaire Pontifical Catholique (17): 449–525. 
  • Tisserant, E. "Église nestorienne". Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique 11. pp. 157–323. 
  • Vosté, J.-M (1930). "Les inscriptions de Rabban Hormizd et de N.-D. des Semences près d'Alqoš (Iraq)". Le Muséon (43): 263–316. 
  • Wilmshurst, David (2000). The Ecclesiastical Organisation of the Church of the East, 1318-1913. Peeters Publishers.  
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