Archive for February 2012

A little Darwin in Syriac   3 comments

Recently I wrote a post on translating into ancient languages. Lest any of my dear and faithful readers think me merely a theorist, here is a translation of a famous paragraph from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species Syriac’d, complete with vocalization. Comments on any aspect of the document are welcome!


Two Jerusalem manuscripts of Bar ˤEbrāyā’s philosophical œuvre   Leave a comment

HMML’s partnership with Saint Mark’s Monastery, Jerusalem, to digitize their manuscript collection has yielded high-quality digital images of close to 300 manuscripts. A hard drive of the latest files arrived here last week and they have been uploaded to the server. The collection was cataloged in the early numbers of Oriens Christianus by G. Graf, A. Baumstark, and Ad. Rücker, and in the late 1980s thirty-one manuscripts from this collection were microfilmed by BYU and cataloged by William Macomber; scans of these microfilms have been graciously made available at the CPART site. Until the collection is again examined closely, it will not be certain how much the Saint Mark’s collection has changed from these earlier efforts at scrutiny and description, i.e. which manuscripts have been lost, and which have been gained.

SMMJ 232, f. 148v

As is relatively well known thanks to the work of the earlier German scholars and of BYU and Macomber, the Saint Mark’s collection has several notable manuscripts. I hope that I will be able to adequately highlight some of these in the future here, but today I share with you a bit of information (and images) of two manuscripts of Bar ˤEbrāyā’s philosophical work, each copy containing his Tēgrat Tēgrātā (The Treatise of Treatises), Ktābā da-Swād Sofia (The Conversation of Wisdom), and Ktābā d-Bābātā (The Pupils [of the Eye]). The manuscripts are numbered 231 and 232, with 232 being the older and dated 1878 AG (= 1566/7 CE) on f. 196r, but dated to the month of Āb (August) in 1885 AG (1574) on f. 148v; see the image to the right. The scribe of this is Tomā bar Murād bar Giwargis of Klibin, near Mardin, and “my teacher and our teacher Tomā” is named in the colophon on f. 197r, that part copied earlier is the work of another scribe. Completion dates this divergent for parts of one manuscript are not hard to fathom when we realize that they were apparently first not of the same manuscript. Near the beginning of The Book of the Pupils, ff. 163-172 are marked as the second quire (the first not explicitly marked), while the first text in the whole manuscript, The Treatise of Treatises, takes up sixteen quires, which are marked, itself. It seems that up to f. 152 was originally separate from the rest of the book, and the two parts were later joined together. The later manuscript is dated on f. 308r to Tāmuz (July) 9, 1882, and it was most probably copied from no. 232. It, too, begins with The Treatise of Treatises, which was copied (up to f. 139) in the way of some other works of Bar ˤEbrāyā’s, with Syriac and Arabic (Garšūnī) having been copied side-by-side, but here there is no full Arabic version of The Treatise, only select words and sentences. Some — probably most or all, but I have not studied the copies closely — of these translated bits also appear in the sixteenth-century manuscript, but they do not there have such a broad space; they are merely written in the margins. Images of corresponding parts near the beginning of the work are below, with the comments explaining in Arabic what “Peripatetic” means.

SMMJ 232, f. 2r

SMMJ 231, f. 9v


Abundant bibliographic and manuscript information on all three of these works by Bar ˤEbrāyā will be found in H. Takahashi, Barhebraeus: A Bio-Bibliography (Piscataway, 2005), 254-265, to which I would make the following additions based on my work in the Church of the Forty Martyrs collection:

  • The Conversation of Wisdom
  1. CFMM 548, dated 1891, has Syriac and Garšūnī versions of the work.
  • The Book of the Pupils
  1. CFMM 546, dated 1879 and copied in Edessa.
  2. CFMM 547, dated 1923 and also copied in Edessa.

Resources on Old Nubian   3 comments

Several weeks ago I had HMML order some more books with Old Nubian texts and they arrived last week. Like the bulk of scholarly work on this language and its literature, these books are from the pen of Gerald M. Browne (1943-2004),[1] who worked in the classics department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is best known for his work on Old Nubian, as well as on Coptic.

These most recent acquisitions at HMML are Beihefte from the series Beiträge zur Sudanforschung: Literary Texts in Old Nubian (1989) and The Old Nubian Miracle of Saint Menas (1994). Each volume includes the Old Nubian text with accompanying English translation and grammatical commentary; the former volume includes an Old Nubian-English glossary, and the latter a Greek-Old Nubian index and (bitonal) facsimile of the manuscript. Among other resources, HMML (or Saint John’s itself) has Browne’s Old Nubian Dictionary, CSCO 556 / Subs. 90 (Louvain, 1996) and Old Nubian Grammar (Munich, 2002).

Old Nubian, of the Nilo-Saharan language family, was used in what is now Sudan and southern Egypt, and its descendant, Nobiin, is still spoken in the region today. It was written in an alphabet derived from Greek akin to Coptic, and, as in Coptic, there are a few extra letters, these from Coptic and Meroitic. Notable linguistic features include SOV (subject-object-verb) word order, the use of postpositions (as opposed to prepositions), the genitive noun coming first in genitive constructions, and adjectives following the nouns they modify. Browne produced a grammatical sketch in 1989 (Introduction to Old Nubian [Berlin]) that is rare these days, but his more complete Grammar referred to above is now the standard. His Dictionary was supplemented in 1997 by three appendices in a separate volume, also available at HMML: Old Nubian Dictionary: Appendices, CSCO 562 / Subs. 92 (Louvain, 1997).

Texts in Old Nubian survive from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries, with most from the tenth to the twelfth. Edited, these materials amount to under 100 pages of continuous text and include, among others, fragments from the Bible, some hagiography (the stories of St. Menas, St. George, and Epimachus), and the Nicene Canons. The longest continuous text is the Pseudo-Chrysostomian “Homily on the Venerable Cross”, the Greek original of which also survives. As is not surprising, there are connections between Old Nubian literature and that of Coptic and Ethiopian Christianity.

The study of Old Nubian is rather younger than that of most of its other eastern Christian neighbors. The British Egyptologist Francis Llewellyn Griffith (1862-1934) worked on the language in the early twentieth century: his Nubian Texts from the Christian Period (Berlin, 1913) contains some texts with English translation, a short description of the language, and a glossary. Werner Vycichl published some grammatical studies from 1956 to 1961 and, following Nubian excavations in the 1960s, F. Hintze did further work investigating the language. More recently, contemporaneous with Browne, the Russian scholar E.B. Smagina published some important works which, however, remain only in Russian.

There are, alas, no Old Nubian manuscripts available for research at HMML, but we can at least here study the language and its literature!


[1] See a brief obituary here. A partial bibliography of his Nubian studies will be found in his Grammar referred to later in this post.

Another means of cursing   2 comments

In a previous post[1] I highlighted the writing of someone’s name upside down to curse their memory. Another way is the deliberate alteration of someone’s name. Here is an example from CFMM 256: a short piece on Barṣawmā, bishop of Nisibis, (not to be confused with the roughly contemporaneous Syriac Orthodox monk Barṣawmā, whose many miracles are delineated in a lengthy text at the end of this very manuscript; see here).

CFMM 256, p. 362

In the manuscript, this work logically follows the preceding one, which is on Nestorios.

This is not the first time the distortion of Barṣawmā’s name has been noted. Stephen Gero collects the known evidence in his Barṣawma of Nisibis and Persian Christianity in the Fifth Century, CSCO 426 (Louvain, 1981), 25-26 n. 4. One distortion that occurs in west Syriac manuscripts is BarṢWL’ (= -ṣulā, -ṣulē, -ṣawlā, -ṣawlē?), which Gero cites from Bar ˤEbrāyā’s Chronicon Ecclesiasticum.[2] He points out, though, that this word form (he does not posit either of the two forms with the diphthong, which is how the example above is vocalized) makes little sense as it is, since it does not mean anything in Syriac. He offers as its origin the word ṣulāyā, which he claims means”perversion (of justice)”, a meaning apparently taken from the English Payne Smith (p. 475), but notably, the big Payne Smith (col. 3401) calls this word, for which only two occurrences seem to be known, a “vox incerta”![3] The appeal to Arabic ṣawla, which in any case does not always have negative connotations, does not strike me as well-founded. Could it be that the purposefully distorted name is simply that, a distorted form without actual semantic weight on its own? That is, the last syllable has been changed from -mā to -lā, -li, or -le, and we should give up looking for some proper meaning in a word with the consonants ṢWLY (as in this manuscript) or ṢWL’ (as in the passage from the Chronicon Ecclesiasticum)? Is it also not without significance that the handwritten combination of the Syriac letters WL, if the L is slightly short, is very close in appearance to M, which is the correct letter in the regular form of Barṣawmā’s name?

This form of the name (with -Y), as noted, too, by Gero, occurs also in Philoxenos’ “Letter to Abū Yaˤfūr”, at least in Paul Harb’s edition,[4] and apparently also in Mingana’s partial edition, which I do not have immediate access to. Harb remarks on the word,

Il s’agit, à notre sens, d’une calligraphie spéciale du nom de Barsauma, que les Jacobites avaient l’habitude d’employer pour marquer leur mépris ou leur désapprobation envers lui. On sait qu’ils conservent jusqu’à nos jours l’habitude d’écrire le nom de Satan à l’envers. D’ailleurs cette façon d’écrire le nom du Barsauma nestorien leur permettait de le distinguer de leur Saint Barsauma.

Vööbus once[5] referred offhand in a list of “vitae which no scholar has seen” to a “Bar Sūlā of Nisibis”. It is hard to imagine that the Estonian scholar would not have recognized this short text on Barṣawmā in CFMM 256 — and it is certain that he saw this manuscript; see this previous post — for being what it is, but the name he cites and the one used in the manuscript are strikingly close. I do not otherwise know the text discussed here, but it may be an extract from a larger work; I welcome any further information on it which the incipit given here may bring to mind to readers.

Finally, some relevant sociolinguistic discussion on names and naming will be found in chapter 2 (particularly the earlier parts) of Keith Allan and Kate Burridge’s excellent Euphemism & Dysphemism: Language Used as Shield and Weapon (New York, 1991), the rest of which is in many places good for an erudite laugh.


[1] Incidentally, from Gero’s note (cited later in this post) the following should be added to the bibliography given in the post on cursing upside down: G. Khoury-Sarkis in L’Orient syrien 12 (1967): 454 n. 89, as well as Harb’s note referred to later in this post.

[2] Ed. Lamy and Abbeloos. Gero only cites it as col. 71, line 22; it should be noted that this is in part II of the Chronicon, which is separately paginated from part I. The editors give the regular form of the name from two witnesses in the apparatus.

[3] Sokoloff, p. 1279, follows the root meaning and noun pattern and thus simply gives “inclining, bending”.

[4] See “Lettre de Philoxène de Mabbūg au Phylarque Abū Ya‘fūr de Hīrtā de Bētna‘mān (selon le manuscrit № 115 du fond patriarcal de Šarfet),” Melto 3 (1967): 183-222. The word in question occurs at 220, l. 16. I am told that a new edition of the letter is forthcoming. For the earlier partial edition, see Alphonse Mingana, “The Early Spread of Christianity in Central Asia and the Far East,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 9 (1925): 297-371.

[5] “Important Manuscript Discoveries in the Syrian Orient,” Symposium Syriacum 1976, OCA 206 (Rome, 1978), 16.

A letter of Severos of Antioch   2 comments

In a 17th-century manuscript made up mostly of hagiographic material (discussed briefly here) from the Church of the Forty Martyrs (Mardin, no. 256), I have come across a letter attributed to Severos of Antioch (d. 538), a well known figure in Syriac literature, especially to those interested in the theological literature of christological controversy. The letter is titled, The Letter Sent by Mar Severos, Patriarch of Antioch, when He Was Banished by the Wicked Chalcedonians. Severos wrote in Greek, in which language but little of his work survives, while a very notable corpus consisting of homilies, hymns, letters, and theological works survives in Syriac translation. Most of the letters surviving in Syriac — themselves still but a small part of Severos’ whole epistolary oeuvre of more than 3800 (!) letters — were published and translated by Brooks in the early twentieth century (see the bibliography). Arthur Vööbus in 1975 brought attention to another letter, the very one I have just met in the Mardin manuscript, two pages of which I supply below; Vööbus also points to a few other manuscripts with the letter (cf. plate 11 at the end of the Vööbus Festschrift, ed. R.H. Fischer [Chicago, 1977], for one from Damascus) and a brief discussion of the manuscript settings in which the letter has been transmitted. I point out this letter (and Vööbus’ article), not only because, as far as I know, the letter still remains unpublished and because of its uniqueness and significance, but also because subsequent scholarship on Severos seems to have taken little notice of it. Finally, it should be noted that there is an Arabic (Garšūnī) version of the letter in the big manuscript from Saint Mark’s Monastery, Jerusalem, no. 199 (ff. 524v-526v acc. to the foliation with Syriac letters); a scan of a microfilm of this manuscript — also chiefly of hagiographic content — is available here as SMC 3-2 and 3-3, but full-color images of the manuscript and the rest of the Saint Mark’s collection (about 300 mss) will soon be accessible through HMML.


Pauline Allen and C.T.R. Hayward, Severus of Antioch (London and New York, 2004).

S.P. Brock, “Severos of Antioch,” in Sebastian Brock, Aaron Butts, George Kiraz, and Lucas Van Rompay, eds., Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage (Piscataway, 2011).

——–, “Some New Letters of the Patriarch Severos,” in Studia Patristica XII (Berlin, 1975), pp. 17-24.

E.W. Brooks, A Collection of Letters of Severus of Antioch, PO 12.2 (1915) and 14.1 (1920).

——–, The Sixth Book of the Select Letters of Severus Patriarch of Antioch in the Syriac Version of Athanasius of Nisibis, 2 vols. (London, 1902-1904).

CPG III, nos. 7022-7081, esp. 7070.11.

A. Vööbus, “Découverte d’une lettre de Sévère d’Antioche,” Revue des études byzantines 33 (1975): 295-298. (Available here.)

CFMM 256, p. 349

CFMM 256, p. 357

Héribert Rosweyde’s Vitae Patrum   Leave a comment

While studying William Wright’s description of a Syriac manuscript of saints’ lives (Add. 12174), I was impelled to see if Saint John’s had a copy of Héribert Rosweyde’s Vitae Patrum (Antwerp, 1615), and I was not disappointed. Upon request, my colleague kindly (on whose blog this post might fit well) brought the book up for my perusal, and here are a few photos of the pigskin-covered tome that show its size, fine typography, and maps.

Héribert Rosweyde (1569-1629) stands at the beginning of the work of the Bollandists, the society dedicated to the scientific study of saints’ lives, work well represented by the voluminous and ponderous Acta Sanctorum, the journal Analecta Bollandiana, and the Subsidia Hagiographica series, the latter two publications continuing to this day. In the words of the Bollandist Hippolyte Delehaye, “L’oeurve capitale de Rosweyde, le Vitae Patrum, parut en 1615. C’est véritablement la pierre fondamentale des Acta Sanctorum” (L’oeuvre des Bollandistes à travers trois siècles, 1615-1915, 2d ed. [Brussels, 1959], p. 17; ET pp. 16-17),[1] and again,

Le recueil que Rosweyde entreprenait de publier est un des plus considérables, un des plus célèbres aussi, de toute la littérature hagiographique. C’est l’épopée des origines du monachisme en Égypte et en Syrie, une des plus grandioses et des plus attachantes qui soient.

p. lxxvii

Rosweyde’s initial researches into hagiography appeared as a much smaller book: Fasti sanctorum quorum Vitae in belgicis bibliothecis manuscriptae (Antwerp, 1607). Both this and the later book were printed at the famous Plantin press in Antwerp. The notable aspects of Rosweyde’s approach are its breadth — his plan was regarded as very ambitious (in particular to Cardinal Robert Bellarmine), and with good reason, since it is still being followed and carried out by his successors now four centuries later — and its close and faithful reliance on complete manuscript sources. He was not working on untilled soil, just ground that had not been most properly worked. As Delehaye says (pp. 14-15; ET pp. 12-13),

Voici comment Rosweyde entende recuellir et préparer les matériaux.

Pour les Vie déja imprimées, par example dans Lippomano et Surius, ne pas se contenter du texte de ces éditions, mais le collationner sur les manuscrits. On sait que dans les recueils précédents les pièces ont été souvent retouchées pour le style. L’autorité du document s’en trouve diminuée et le sens fréquemment altéré. Des prologues, des miracles, des passages obscurs ont été supprimés. It faut rétablir les textes dans leur intégrité.

Les pièces dont on ne trouve pas de manuscrits ne seront admises que si l’on a l’assurance qu’elles n’ont pas été retouchées. Quant aux Vies inédites, elles doivent être cherchées partout et insérées, à leur rang, parmi les autres. Les passages obscurs ne doivent pas être laissés sans explication ; ils seront éclaircis selon le programme des Illustrationes [in Vitas sanctorum].

Finally, while Rosweyde’s work does not yet fully exemplify the critical attitude of the following centuries, it is nevertheless a remarkable step forward from his predecessors, and one that is hardly without value even today.

Les méthodes minutieuses et précises appliquées de nos jours à l’établissement des textes n’étaient point créées à l’époque de Rosweyde, et il ne faut point chercher dans son édition les résultats qui supposent un travail de ce genre. Mais en dehors de cela, il a abordé tous les problèmes ; son intelligence claire les a nettement posés et résolus avec les ressources d’une érudition solide, sobre et élégante. Si l’on tient compte de l’étendue et de la variété des écrits qui forment le recueil, de l’imperfection des instruments de travail d’alors, des difficultés de l’exécution, on n’exagérera guère en qualifiant de chef-d’oeurve le Vitae Patrum de Rosweyde. (Delehaye, pp. 19-20; ET p. 20)

p. 812

Rosweyde laid the groundwork with his plan, his purposeful approach to the texts, and his industry, but his death came before much of the task was realized. His work would continue in the hands of Jean Bollandus, from whom, of course, the society takes its name.


[1] Yes, I know there is an English translation of Delehaye’s history of the first three centuries of the Bollandists, and that the first edition is available here, but I am too fond of French not to quote it. I have used the second French edition, but the first (1920) is available here. The corresponding pages in the first edition of the English translation are given for those who want or need them. In Latin, cf. also the proemium to Acta Sanctorum, Oct., vol. 7, pt. 1, available here (and, if you’re lucky, in your library: these magnificent volumes deserve to be read and touched directly.) More recent perspectives on Rosweyde and the subsequent work of the Bollandists will be found in R. Godding, B. Joassart, X. Lequeux, and F. De Vriendt, De Rosweyde aux Acta Sanctorum: La recherche hagiographique des Bollandistes à travers quatre siècles. Actes du Colloques international (Bruxelles, 5 octobre 2007) (Brussels, 2009).

Sindbad in Garšūnī   2 comments

The story of Sin(d)bad the Sailor, in Arabic Sindbād al-baḥrī, is known, at least nominally, in various incarnations (such as this 1958 film), but it was especially the French adaptation of The Thousand and One Nights (Alf layla wa-layla) by Antoine Galland, into which the story of Sindbad had been inserted, that first made the series of his seven voyages familiar in Europe. Recently, while looking over a Garšūnī manuscript from the Syriac Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo containing The Colloquy of Moses, a text that survives in a few languages and on which I have been collecting some evidence, followed by a short, as yet unidentified, religious text, I came to the next work, the beginning of which was missing. The first rubric I found, a few folios into this new text, was simply “The third story [ḥikāya]”, but upon reading a bit of it, it was immediately clear that the text was The Seven Voyages of Sindbad. I had no Arabic text to check it against, and I still do not have one, but the text here is most certainly the same collection known from European versions of The Thousand and One Nights. The text in the folio images below corresponds, for example, to vol. 6, pp. 37-38, of the first edition of Richard Burton’s version of the stories. The text in this manuscript, SOAA 124(m), goes from ff. 98r-165v, and brings the codex to an end. The beginning, as intimated above, is missing: the story is extant from partway into the second voyage to the end. Some folios are missing elsewhere in the text, in addition to the initial lacuna. There are at least two scribes for the manuscript, in this text and the rest of the book, neither of whom recorded a date, but it is not, I think, particularly young.

Unexpected finds such as this make cataloging and manuscript-rummaging delightful work, and they also serve, especially in their accumulation, to remind us of the multifarious quality of a people’s literary (and thus, cultural) corpus.


U. Marzolph, “Sindbād (the sailor),” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 9, pp. 638-640.

Ff. 117v-118r

Ff. 118v-119r

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