The Maphrian (Syriac: ܡܦܪܝܢܐ Maphryānā, also rendered as mafriano, etc.) was the prelate in the Syriac Orthodox Church who ranked second in the hierarchy after the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch. The Maphrian, originally acted as the head of the church, in a position similar to an exarch, within the Sassanian Empire and lands outside of the control of the Roman Empire. The title was abolished in 1860 as a result of a decreasing number of Jacobites outside of the Tur Abdin region, however was resurrected in 1964 to be used by the head of the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church as Catholicos of India, retaining the position as the second highest prelate of the wider Syriac Orthodox Church.
The title derives from the Syriac word 'afri', which means “to make fruitful’, or "one who gives fecundity", it may also come from the verb "aphri" which means "father" or "parent". It is a transliteration of the Greek καθολικός, pl. καθολικοί, meaning concerning the whole, universal or general. The title was used to distinguish the Miaphysites from the Nestorians who were headed by the Catholicos in Ctesiphon.
The ecclesiastical dignity dates back to the seventh century however its origins began with the instatement of the Catholicos of the East in the fifth century, which was made to unite Christians within the Sassanian Empire under a single ecclesiastical authority and act as a link with the Christians within the Roman Empire. However, after the Nestorian Schism in 431, the teachings of Nestorius were branded heretical at the First Council of Ephesus and Nestorians were forced to relocate to the Sassanian Empire. From this point on the catholicate became increasingly Nestorian, forcing the few remaining Persian Miaphysites, such as Philoxenus of Mabbug, into exile.
Despite this, within the Sassanian Empire, the Mesopotamian town of Tagrit alone did not adopt Nestorianism and would become the centre of Miaphysite missions. With the birth of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the late sixth century, the office of Metropolitan of the East was created by the energetic Jacob Baradaeus for the bishop Ahudemmeh, however he was executed by the Sassanians in 575. During this period, Miaphysites were subject to a great deal of persecution from the Sassanians, under suspicion that as they obeyed a spiritual head residing in Byzantine territory, they were therefore inclined to support the Byzantines. This was spurred on by accusations of favouring the Byzantines from Nestorians at the Shah's court at Ctesiphon; thus encouraging further persecution.
During this period, the Persians were known to enslave much of the Roman territory they conquered and return with a multitude of captives, including Byzantines, Egyptians and Syrians, increasing the number of Miaphysites within Persia. The Miaphysites were under the authority of the Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of the East until 624 when the seat was left empty for five years. So once the hostilities had drawn to a close at the end of the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628, in 629 the Syriac Orthodoc Patriarch Athanasius I Gammolo appointed Marutha of Tagrit as the first maphrian, with the task of organising the Miaphysites in the Sassanian Empire from the Miaphysite stronghold of Tagrit.
The efforts of Marutha of Tagrit were to be crowned with greater success than the previous metropolitans with the assistance of Chosroes II's physician, Gabriel de Shiggar, who had completely won the confidence of the Christian queen Shirin. This allowed him to rebuild churches and administer the church. He also undertook fruitful missionary work among the Arabs and throughout the valley of the Tigris, spreading the Syriac Orthodox faith. With the appointment of the maphrian came large ecclesiastical autonomy from the Church in Antioch. This was done to help improve the position of Miaphysites within the Persian Empire, refuting accusations of favouring the Byzantines.
Over time, the relations between the Maphrian and the Patriarch of Antioch became increasingly strained, and at times lead to schisms and interference into the election of both maphrian and patriarch. In 869, the Council of Capharthutha was held to regulate the relationship and resolve the differences between the two positions. The Council agreed that just as the patriarch consecrated the Maphrian, the consecration of a new Patriarch would be reserved to the Maphrian and that both would avoid interfering in the administration of the other.
However, the Maphrians often had disputes with bishops within his own administration, such as the metropolitan of the Monastery of Mar Mattai near Nineveh, who was jealous of the preponderating influence of Tagrit. The maphrianate was based in Tagrit until 1089 upon the destruction of the main cathedral, known as the "Green Church" and was relocated to Mosul. The maphrian returned to Tagrit where he united the two sees of Nineveh and Tagrit in 1152 before being forced to permanently move to the Monastery of Mar Mattai in 1155 whilst retaining an immediate jurisdiction over Tagrit and Nineveh.
From 1533, the title was changed to the Maphrian of Mosul to distinguish it from the new office of Maphrian of Tur Abdin. In time, the number of Syriac Orthodox Christians in Mesopotamia decreased, and the maphrianate lost its original significance. It became largely a titular designation for the Syriac Orthodox Church's second highest office until being abolished altogether in a synod of 1860.
In 1964, the title was resurrected for use by the head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in India, Jacobite Syrian Christian Church as the Catholicos of India. The current Catholicos is Baselios Thomas I.
The following dioceses were under the jurisdiction of the Maphrian of the East:
- Diocese of Maʿdan
- Diocese of Arzun
- Diocese of Segestan
- Diocese of Herat
- Diocese of Adarbaigan
- Diocese of Beth Nuhadra
- Diocese of Beth Ramman
- Diocese of Beth Waziq
- Diocese of Gazarta d'Beth Zabdai
- Diocese of Shahrzur
- Diocese of Karma
- Diocese of Gumal
- Diocese of Shigar
- Diocese of Peroz-Shabur
- Diocese of Mar Mattai
- Diocese of Beth Arbaye
- List of Maphrians/Catholicoses of the Syrian Church
- "Maphrian". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
- [cf. Cross. ODCC, 1963]