Sometimes the extra bits in a manuscript—such as colophons, marginal notes, ownership notes, etc.—are as interesting, or even more interesting than the distinct text(s) the manuscript contains. While studying manuscripts from Dayr al-Za`farān, the Monastery of Mor Gabriel, the Church of the Forty Martyrs, and elsewhere over the past year and a half, I have especially become enamored of colophons and I have collected several hundred lines of interest for various reasons, not least of which is the multitudinous ways in which scribes might underscore their worthlessness! In notes of various kinds scattered about a manuscript we sometimes run across names we know well.
Here, from the Monastery of Mor Gabriel, is an examination note (in French, not Arabic or Garšūnī!) from a young Afram Barsoum, author of a number of books still used by Syriac scholars and who would later on (1933) become Syriac Orthodox Patriarch.
Mor Gabriel ms 177, p. 819
At the time of this note in Oct 1909, Barsoum, born in 1887, had been a priest about one year, and had been a monk at Dayr al-Za`farān about two years. This thick 18th century manuscript contains part of Bar Bahlul’s Lexicon and Bar `Ebrāyā’s Ktābā d-ṣemḥē.
(These examination notes in the manuscripts I have read are usually Arabic or Garšūnī, with the main verb being naẓartu, but laḥaẓtu also occurs, as in Church of the Forty Martyrs ms 104.)
Notes such as this one, and even more so the lengthier colophons, give us an often unique snapshot of specific people, times, and places, and so they deserve attention alongside the texts they accompany.
 Notably his اللؤلؤ المنثور, English’d by Matti Moosa and published by Gorgias Press as The Scattered Pearls: A History of Syriac Literature and Sciences (2004). His History of the Za`faran Monastery and History of Tur Abdin are also very useful.
 See further the entry by G. Kiraz on Barsoum in the recently published The Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage, ed. S. Brock, A. Butts, G. Kiraz, and L. Van Rompay.
(This post originally appeared as a post in the HMML Chronicle on 3 Jan 2011. That forum will henceforth, for the most part at least, now be inactive, and new posts, hopefully more frequent, will appear here.)
This is the inaugural post in a series that will deal with manuscripts and the languages, literature, and history of Christianity in the Middle East. I serve as lead cataloger of Eastern Christian manuscripts at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML), Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota. HMML is a repository of microfilms and high-quality digital images of several thousands of manuscripts in—as far as Eastern Christianity is concerned—Arabic, Armenian, Syriac, and Ge`ez from collections in churches, monasteries, and libraries in Ethiopia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East, along with more in European languages from western collections. HMML has entered into agreements with the owners of these manuscripts 1. to preserve them against destruction, theft, etc., and 2. to make them more accessible for scholars to study.
In this first post, I’d like to talk briefly about an interesting phenomenon in Christian Arabic literature: Garšūnī, also known as Karšūnī (and in older publications even Carshun or Carshunic). Whatever it is called and however it is spelled, it refers to the writing of Arabic in Syriac letters. The earliest continuous examples of this kind of writing appear in the fourteenth century, but there are short notes and colophons dated before that time. It is, however, not a practice only of the past: HMML collections have a number of examples of Garšūnī from well into the 20th century.
Speaking from a broader linguistic angle, this phenomenon is not at all unknown. For example, Greek, German, Spanish, Persian, and Arabic have been written in Hebrew letters; an early form of Turkish had been written in the so-called Orkhon script, but it was then written in the Perso-Arabic script and in 1928 the switch was made to the Latin alphabet; Mongolian was initially written in a script ultimately derived from east Syriac writing, but has also been recorded using the Latin alphabet, and more commonly in Cyrillic script. As final examples, we may mention that the Syriac alphabet (or, better, abjad) has been used to write, among other languages, Turkish (also sometimes written with Armenian letters), Armenian, and Persian. There is no consensus on the origin of the name Garšūnī, but the proposals are listed in the few reference articles on the subject (see the bibliography below).
The phenomenon of Garšūnī has been known throughout the course of Syriac and Christian Arabic manuscript history, in the West especially since J.S. Assemani’s voluminous publications in the 18th century that made the history and literature of Syriac- and Arabic-speaking Christians more widely known.
But what is Garšūnī? A language, a script, both, something else?
Considering the orthographical variety of Middle Arabic (whatever the religious affiliation of the author or scribe), in which the norms of Classical Arabic may be somewhat relaxed, it is going too far to refer to Garšūnī as a language separate from Arabic, and, as the examples brought forth in the previous paragraph make clear, script does not necessarily make a language, although there are certainly sociolinguistic causes and effects in play in such multi-script situations. With regard to this question, it is worth pointing out that colophons (notes often found at the ends of manuscripts indicating the manuscript’s date and provenance) do occasionally mention that such and such a work was translated from Syriac “into Garšūnī” alongside other instances elsewhere of “into Arabic”. In addition, another point to consider, one that gives evidence of how Garšūnī has been classified, is that Garšūnī manuscripts have very often been included in catalogs of Syriac, not Arabic, manuscripts. Surely one reason for this is that manuscripts with both Syriac & Garšūnī—whether for different works or for the same work with each language in separate columns—are not uncommon, and, in addition, the languages would have looked the same to a western cataloger unfamiliar with the languages. In any case, at least as a handy means to quickly identify the script in which a particular text is written, keeping the label “Garšūnī” in regular use seems advisable, and such manuscripts are given this label (spelled “Garshuni”) in the language field of the HMML catalogs; see here for the search page for Oliver, HMML’s online manuscript catalog, where you can browse for manuscripts and texts using “Garshuni” as the language criterion.
Colophons and marginal notes call for some comment as well. As mentioned above, early examples of Garšūnī are colophons and other notes to Syriac manuscripts. Interestingly, this arrangement would flip-flop in more recent manuscript history; that is, there are late examples of Garšūnī manuscripts with colophons and notes in Syriac. Marginal notes to Syriac or Garšūnī texts are also commonly found in Syriac, Arabic, and Garšūnī.
Also, catchwords (the first word of a folio written at the bottom of the previous folio to assure proper folio arrangement) in Arabic-script manuscripts are sometimes written in Garšūnī, and, conversely, catchwords in Garšūnī manuscripts are sometimes written in Arabic script.
Now let’s consider the potential limitations of using the Syriac inventory of letters to write a language regularly written with a larger alphabet (or rather, abjad). The Arabic alphabet/abjad consists of twenty-eight letters, while the Syriac only has twenty-two, although the latter can be expanded and brought more in line with the former by means of the diacritical marks used in Syriac and known as rukkāḵā & quššāyā (like the dageš forte or its absence in Tiberian Hebrew). For example, when this system is used—and it is not always used—the Syriac soft kāf (with under-dot) represents Arabic خ (kh or ḫ), while the hard kāf (with over-dot) simply represents Arabic ك (k); incidentally, Arabic ح is written with Syriac ḥēṯ. When this system with the Syriac rukkāḵā and quššāyā is not used, a Syriac kāf may be either خ or ك, and the reader’s immediate knowledge of the language or recourse to an Arabic dictionary is necessary. The case is similar with this system and the Syriac gāmal and the Arabic ج (j or ǧ) and غ (gh or ġ), while the situation is rather less consistent (even in one and the same manuscript) and more complicated in the representation of ض (ḍ) and ظ (ẓ). Another interesting variation we sometimes meet in the manuscripts is that ت (t), since the tā’ marbūṭa (ة) is pronounced in the same way, is sometimes represented by the Garšūnī version of the tā’ marbūṭa, that is, the Syriac hē with two dots (like Syriac syāmē) above it. For example, the verb نزلت (nazalat), “she/it (fem.) fell”, can be written as نزلة (as in Syr. Orth. Archd. Aleppo 52, 279r, col. 2, l. 7 [with tā’ marbūṭa written as expected in the previous line]). Of course, the more directly corresponding writing, with Syriac tāv for Arabic tā’, is also found very commonly.
Syriac Orthodox Archdiocese, Aleppo Mss 52 (K), 279r detail
Similarly, but rather more striking, is an example (Dayr Al-Za’faran 215, table of contents) of tā’ and tā’ marbūṭa written with ṭēṯ!
Dayr Al-Za'faran Mss 215 table of contents detail
While a great portion of certain manuscript collections of Syriac heritage (for example, Dayr Al-Za`faran) consists of Garšūnī manuscripts, and while every serious student of Christian Arabic manuscripts must be familiar with it in addition to Arabic script itself, it has only relatively recently begun to attract the attention of researchers as a linguistic phenomenon in its own right. Hopefully this short treatment of some of its features will go some way toward furthering this interest.
Julius Assfalg, “Arabische Handschriften in syrischer Schrift (Karšūnī),” in W. Fischer, ed., Grundriss der arabischen Philologie, Bd. I: Sprachwissenschaft (Wiesbaden: Ludwig Reichert, 1982), pp. 297-302.
Alessandro Mengozzi, “The History of Garshuni as a Writing System: Evidence from the Rabbula Codex,” in Frederick Mario Fales and Giulia Francesca Grassi, eds., CAMSEMUD 2007. Proceedings of the 13th Italian Meeting of Afro-Asiatic Linguistics, Held in Udine, May 21st-24th, 2007 (Padua: S.A.R.G.O.N. Editrice e Libreria, 2010), pp. 297-304.
________, “Garshuni,” in S. Brock, A. Butts, G. Kiraz, and L. Van Rompay, eds., The Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage (Gorgias, 2011).
Joseph Moukarzel, “Remarques sur une note Garshouni du ms. BL Add. 14644,” in Mélanges offerts au Père Abbé Paul Naaman (Publications de l’Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik, Institut d’Histoire 14, 2008), pp. 81-100.