Clarifications Regarding the Chaldean Patriarchal Seal!

The Chaldean Patriarchal Seal was a brass device commonly used by prelates of the Chaldean Catholic Church to officiate ecclesiastical and diplomatic documents during the Ottoman Empire. The seal depicts an East-Syriac inscription which reads Mḥēlā Shemʿōn, Paṭriarʿka d’Kaldāyē (lit. Humbled Shemʿōn, Patriarch of the Chaldeans). The seal-making device is impressed directly onto either a sealing wax or ink then pressed onto a document thus resulting in a relief reproducing the said inscription.

In recent years, the Patriarchal Seal has been the subject of much controversy with some authors speculating that the device is an evident indication that the name Chaldean held national implications among prelates of both the Church of the East (so-called “Nestorian”) and its Catholic off-shoot— the so-called "Chaldean" Catholic Church.

This notion, as controversial as it may be, is challenged due to conflicting historical narratives.

Nineteenth-Century Account
In the Nestorians and their Rituals (1852), George Percy Badger, an Orientalist and scholar who made a career as a delegate to the Christians of the Church of the East observed “It is true indeed, that the present Mār Shemʿōn (Mār Shemʿōn XVII Abraham, Patriarch of the Church of the East) styles himself in his official documents ‘Patriarch of the East,’ and ‘Patriarch of the Chaldeans.’” However [emphasises Badger], the latter title, he or his predecessors assumed “to put themselves on an equality with the Patriarchs of the plains, after they had joined the Church of Rome and taken that appellation, and as a stratagem to repel the name of ‘Nestorians,' which then more especially began to be regarded as a reproachful epithet through the aspersions cast upon it by the Latin missionaries.”

In the Nineveh and its Remains (1850), Austen Henry Layard, an English archaeologist who drew fame from his remarkable excavations at Nineveh points out "the seal used by Mār Shemʿōn bears the same title (i.e Patriarch of the Chaldeans), and the Patriarch so styles himself in all public documents." The distinction, explains Layard, became important "as the see of Rome and the Catholics have endeavoured, with considerable success, to fix the title of Chaldeans upon the converted," with that of Nestorian as "one of contempt and reproach," in speaking of those who have retained their ancient faith. Remarkably, Layard's counterpart Hormuzd Rassam, a Chaldean Catholic himself  noted "there is another fact connected with the nationality of the Chaldeans which goes far to show they are as much entitled to Assyrian descent as any other community which boasts of ancient origin."

Shemʿōn, "Patriarch of the Chaldeans"
Historically, the venerated name Shemʿōn (lit. Simon), honouring Saint Peter, was assumed by various prelates of the Church of the East throughout its long history as their Patriarchal name. The earliest reference can be traced to the fourth-century CE— Mār Shemʿōn Bar Sabbaʿe, Bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. It wasn't until the schism of 1552 that a Catholic prelate, Mār Yōḥannān Sulaqa (d’Bēth Bello), and his successors would too assume the venerated name Shemʿōn in an effort to assert their legitimacy. It was in this context that the Mār Sulaqa branch of Catholic patriarchs bore the title Simeonem Chaldaeorum Patriarcham (lit. Shemʿōn, Patriarch of the Chaldeans) in their official documents. Despite these formal appellations, it must be noted that the Mār Sulaqa branch of Catholic patriarchs also bore the title Patriarchae Assyriorum (lit. Patriarch of the Assyrians) presiding over the Ecclesia Orientalis Assyrie (lit. Church of Eastern Assyria). This would suggest that the Patriarchal Seal's provenance derives from the schism of 1552 and was employed to represent the newly formed denominational group (i.e. Chaldean) in opposition to that of Nestorians. For a detailed research article regarding the origin and usage of the name "Chaldean", please click here.

Catholic Protectorate in the Ottoman Empire
In an agreement concluded between the kings of France and the Ottoman sultans, the French Government established a 'Catholic Protectorate' during the sixteenth-century which rendered immense services to Catholic communities throughout the Ottoman Empire including to converts from the Church of the East. The Roman Catholic Church was the most authoritative body vying for supremacy in the region. Its presence served two purposes; first, to convert the Nestorians by any means, including bribery and preferential treatment for converts, as seen in the relatively poor treatment of the local Nestorians and Jacobites; and second, the Catholic missionaries endeavoured to further French imperial interests in the region in order to offset growing British authority. In a less-than-cordial reaction of the Patriarch of the Church of the East, Mār Shemʿōn XVII Abraham, to a bribe and promise to make him head of all Christians of the East should be embrace Catholicism "tell your master that I shall never become a Catholic." Remarkably, this was the same Mār Shemʿōn whom styled himself in his "official documents ‘Patriarch of the East,’ and ‘Patriarch of the Chaldeans.’”

The name "Chaldean"
"When the Latin missionaries had succeeded in forming a schism among the Nestorians of Diarbekir, they wanted a name whereby to designate the proselytes (converts). Thus, A difficulty now arose; the new converts styled themselves 'Soorâyé' and 'Nestorayé.' The Romanists could not call them 'Catholic Syrians' or 'Syrian Catholics,' for this appellation they had already given to their proselytes from the Jacobites, who also called themselves "Syrians." They could not term them "Catholic Nestorians," as Mr. Justin Perkins, the Independent American missionary does, for this would involve a contradiction... There can be no doubt but that the Chaldeans were of the same family with the Assyrians, who were also called Syrians, by which name, as we have seen, the mountain Nestorians, and the Papal Chaldeans of the plains, who speak the vulgar Syriac, still designate themselves. This, however, is not the subject of dispute; but whether the term "Chaldeans: was or is used of the Nestorians themselves or others. I have provided that it is not. They call themselves Soorâyé, Nestorayé, and sometimes Christiané and Meshihâyé, but never Chaldâyé or Chaldâni."
- George Percy Badger, The Nestorians & Their Rituals (London: Joseph Masters, 1852), 180.

With the incontrovertible evidences at hand, we can safely venture to state that politically charged statements suggesting that prelates of the Church of the East employed the Chaldean Patriarchal Seal to assert their Chaldean national identity must be rejected. Furthermore, Badger, having analysed and documented the East-Syriac community of Northern Mesopotamia in great detail explains that the title was employed as a stratagem to repel the name of ‘Nestorians.

Learn More:
  1. (English) Click here to learn about the history and identity of the Chaldean Catholic Church.
  2. (Arabic) .انقر هنا للتعرف على تاريخ وهوية الكنيسة الكلدانية الكاثوليكية
  3. (English/ Arabic) Historical Documents الوثائق التاريخية


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