Despite the mass of scholarship on twelfth- and thirteenth-century Syria, impressive both in size and quality, our understanding of many major problems remains very unsatisfactory. Foremost among these is surely the social and political life of the Christian communities in the Muslim-ruled parts of Syria and the Jazira. This situation stems in the first instance from our documentation, or more properly the lack of it. Very few directly relevant original documents survive, while medieval Muslim writers seem to work from inside the bubble of their own community, quite oblivious to their indigenous Christian neighbours. We do have the works of a number of well-informed and articulate Eastern Christian chroniclers, in both Syriac and Armenian. However, they are clerics, with the predictable perspectives and biases of their class. They have much to tell us about political and military events as well as ecclesiastical matters, but they devoted little attention to the secular institutions and everyday life of the laity. One might expect some interesting observations from the Latin writers residing in the Crusader principalities, but even a figure as deeply grounded in ‘Oriental’ affairs as William of Tyre has strikingly little to say about the Christian communities in Muslim territories, even when they are (as in Damascus) almost next door.
The lack of attention to the social life of ordinary Christians living under Muslim rule is not only an artifact of our sources, however. It also reflects the long-established preoccupations of Western scholarship on Eastern Christianity, going back to the seventeenth century, which have focused on ecclesiastical institutions, religious doctrine and practice, conflicts within and between the various Christians sects, and occasionally the broader currents of intellectual life.
Despite these problems, however, the age of the Crusades offers significant prospects for productive research, at least on the Christian populations of northern Syria and especially the Jazira. Despite their limitations, our sources for this region are more plentiful and represent a wider range of perspectives than at any time since the late tenth century. Moreover, both the Frankish settlements and (more recently) the Muslim polities of this area have been intensively studied, giving us a richly layered context in which to situate the information about Christian communities that we can glean or infer from our texts.