Gospel in Arabic, published in Aleppo, Syria in the early years of the 18th century. Photo: Mykhailo Shelest, Stanislav Lytvynov (RFE/RL)
Ivan Mazepa was born in Mazepyntsi, near Bila Tserkva on March 20, 1639, died October 2, 1709 in Bendery, Bessarabia. Hetman of the Cossack state, the Left Bank and the Dnipro Ukraine, he sought to establish the independence of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Moscow and wanted to gain the support of the Christian Arab world. Mazepa believed that a Gospel in Arabic would become a symbol and cement Ukraine’s union with the Orthodox Church of Antioch.
The precious Gospel, probably printed in Aleppo, Syria in early 1708, was recently discovered in a remote monastery in Lebanon. Here is the story…
The Hetmanate & the Oriental Orthodox Church
Relations between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church date back many centuries.
In 1656, the land of the Cossacks was visited by Antiochian Patriarch Macarius and his son, Archdeacon Paul of Aleppo, who described the features of church life of the Ukrainian people in his Journey of Patriarch Macarius to Rus.
In 1656, Patriarch Macarius of Antioch visited Kyiv, where Metropolitan Sylvester of Kyiv presented him with some relics of St. Barbara. Patriarch Macarius of Antioch also visited St. Sophia Cathedral and the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra. The Syrian chronicler wrote the following about the Lavra and about the Kyivan Rus lands in general:
“From the very moment when I saw the caves monastery, joy never left me. Our souls were filled with joy. The land of the Cossacks is, in a word, native unto us.”
Relations between the two churches strengthened during the time of Hetman Ivan Mazepa. As the Ukrainian Orthodox Church at the time was under the auspices of the Moscow Patriarchate, Mazepa’s strategy was aimed at establishing the Ukrainian Church as a state church of the Ukrainian Hetmanate. This could be done by proving to the Oriental patriarchs that the transition of the Metropolitanate of Kyiv to the supremacy of the Moscow Patriarch in 1686 was non-canonical.
To this end, Hetman Ivan Mazepa made great efforts to promote better relations with the Oriental Orthodox Church:
- He provided substantial support to the patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem;
- He donated 50,000 gold coins and 30,000 ducats for the restoration of the Holy Lavra of St. Sabbas the Sanctified in Jerusalem;
- He donated a gold cup, lamp and a silver altar to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Friendly relations between Hetman Mazepa, Patriarch Macarius of Antioch and Metropolitan Athanasius Dabbas of Aleppo were actually enhanced when Patriarch Macarius was conducting missions in Wallachia, Moldova and Ukraine in search of support for the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Ivan Mazepa was one of the few patrons who provided real assistance to Orthodox Christians living in the Arab world. One of his decisions included the publication of the Gospel in Arabic in Aleppo in 1708. Funds for the typeface were donated by Wallachian prince Constantin Brâncoveanu. Hetman Mazepa donated 3,000 gold coins for the publication of the Gospel, a gift to the Orthodox Church of Antioch, and he also donated another 3,000 to support Antioch.
Unfortunately, the story did not end well… Representatives of the Patriarchate of Antioch set out to Baturyn, Chernihiv Oblast, the capital of the Cossack Hetmanate, to present the Gospel to their patron Ivan Mazepa, but they never reached the settlement. On November 13, 1708, the Russian army, under the command of Alexander Menshikov, sacked and razed Baturyn, and slaughtered all of its inhabitants, with no mercy to women and children, or the elderly.
Searching for the Gospel
Scholars and historians have always known of the existence of the many copies of Mazepa’s Gospel:
- In 1942, in his essay Hetman Ivan Mazepa as a Cultural Worker, published in Prague, historian Mykola Andrusiak wrote: “Copies of the Arab Gospel published under the patronage of Mazepa at Aleppo in 1708 for liturgical use by Orthodox Syrians have survived to this day.”
- In 1993, a scientific expedition of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine set out in search of the Gospel via Baturyn-Kyiv-Bendery-Varnytsia- Iași- Galați. A copy of the Arab Gospel was discovered in Bucharest, Romania, the last destination of the expedition.
- In 2009, Ukrainian researcher and diplomat Theophil Rendiuk made a photocopy of the full text of Ivan Mazepa’s Arab Gospel in the library of the Romanian Academy, and brought the electronic version to Ukraine.
- It was also revealed that several editions of the Gospel were printed in Aleppo in the years 1706-1708, with the support of several sponsors, among whom Wallachian prince Constantin Brâncoveanu and Ukrainian Hetman Ivan Mazepa.
- A few years ago, leading a diplomatic mission to promote Ukrainian-Middle East relations, Ihor Ostash, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ukraine to Lebanon, began his search for the Arab copy of the Gospel in Lebanon, which also belongs to the Patriarchate of Antioch.
- At the end of 2019, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine received the Tomos of autocephaly and became independent of Moscow. Almost at the same time, during a visit to the Balamand Monastery in Lebanon, Ambassador Ostash came upon Mazepa’s Arab Gospel at the Centre for the Conservation of Antique Books.
Ambassador Ostash continued his search, which led him to Khenchara to the Monastery of St. John of Shuwayr, founded in 1696-97. In addition to its notable collection of icons and library, the monastery is also known as the site of a printing press, founded by Abdallah al-Zakher from Aleppo. Al-Zakher first established a printing operation in Aleppo, Syria for the Orthodox community, but moved to the mountain monastic community in al-Shuwayr, Lebanon after differences with the orthodox authorities in Aleppo.
Ambassador Ostash explains:
“During our search, we found several Gospels and, unfortunately, all of them were incomplete. Time has done its work. It should be understood that, unlike museum copies, these Gospels were used by the clergy almost daily until recently… and this is what makes them so precious! This means that Mazepa’s mission in establishing relations with the Oriental Church has succeeded. After 300 years, we can see the positive results of his noble cause.”
What we can say for sure today is that the Ivan Mazepa’s Gospel was printed by the Syrian Catholic Abdallah al-Zakher, an important figure in early Christian printing. Al-Zakher is another link between Lebanon and Ukraine. Most of these Gospels are missing a few pages, especially at the beginning and end of the books. We realized that it would be impossible to find two identical Bibles. At that time, it took almost a year to publish and disseminate one book, and during this period, new letters and typefaces were used.
However, I intend to persevere in my search and look for other copies of the Gospel here in the Middle East. I plan to visit another monastery, but I can’t tell you more due to the current political situation in the area. One thing I can say for sure: the results of our search and the Gospel will be published this year. As for the text, we’re conducting textual and graphic analyses. They will be published along with the final Bible.”
Ihor Ostash intends to investigate all the printed texts of the Gospel in Arabic, especially the edition stored in Bucharest, Romania, where Athanasius Dabbas of Aleppo expresses his gratitude to Hetman Ivan Mazepa, refers to him as “our beloved spiritual brother” and blesses him with his prayers:
“Through the Divine word of God, enlightenment has been granted to the Arab faithful of our country by the savior of many souls [Ivan Mazepa].”
In parallel with the investigation, Ambassador Ostash and director Stanislav Lytvynov have begun shooting a documentary about Mazepa’s Gospel, recounting the fascinating story of this publication throughout the centuries and the unique figure of printer Abdallah el-Zakher, and underlying the historical links between Ukraine and the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon).
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