Archive for April 2012

Ḥasan Pāšā’s commentary on Aḥmad b. ʿAlī b. Masʿūd’s Marāḥ al-arwāḥ   Leave a comment

The lion’s share of cataloging work I do at HMML is by means of high-quality digital images, the result of partnerships HMML maintains with the institutions and individuals that own the physical manuscripts themselves. HMML and Saint’ John’s University do, however, have a (physical) manuscript collection of their own, including Latin, French, Arabic, and Gǝʿǝz books (and scrolls). I’d like to share one such manuscript now, Or. A 11.

(Short) title of the book on front end-paper

This is a seventeenth-century copy of a commentary (šarḥ) on the important Arabic grammatical — specifically morphology (taṣrīf) — work by Aḥmad b. ʿAlī b. Masʿūd (probably fourteenth century), which has the title Marāḥ al-arwāḥ (The Resting Place of Spirits). Ibn Masʿūd’s book itself has been published together with an introduction, English translation, and commentary not long ago (2001) by J. Åkesson. As she mentions in her introduction, Ibn Masʿūd’s work was the object of more than one commentary, but that of Ḥasan Pāšā b. ʿAlāʾa ‘l-Dīn al-Aswad al-Niksārī (late fourteenth century), called Al-mifrāḥ fī šarḥ marāḥ al-arwāḥ (The Joy-giver, A Commentary on the Resting Place of Spirits), has the claim of earliest. This particular copy is the work of a scribe named Muṣṭafá b. Isḥāq, completed 25 Ṣafar 1079 AH (= 4 August, 1668 CE).

Final folio, with colophon

There are a few other manuscript copies of Ḥasan Pāšā’s commentary, including Wien A.F. 206 (no. 204 in Flügel’s catalog, vol. 1), which is available on microfilm at HMML. I do not know that there is a printed edition of it, but I will gladly learn to know that there is.

Some folios near the beginning

Some water damage can be seen in this image, and it is present on many folios, but very mild, the text thus still legible. The script is pleasant and mostly clear. As can be seen in this excerpt, the commentator cites the text commented upon, or at least the beginning of it, with the rubric qawluhu and then proceeds to offer his own remarks.

If the study of ancient and medieval grammatical works in any language (Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Hebrew, etc.) is an arcane and perhaps abstruse field, then inspecting commentaries on those works is even more so, but let this little notice serve at least as a gentle indication and reminder that such texts exist and that they are worth studying.


GAL II 21; GALS II 14 (the commentary is mentioned in the section on the Marāḥ)

Joyce Åkesson, Arabic Morphology and Phonology: Based on the Marāḥ Al-arwāḥ by Aḥmad B. ʻAlī B. Masʻūd (Leiden, 2001). Rev. by W. Smyth of her earlier edition of pt. 1 (the strong verb) in JAOS 112 (1992): 711-712.

Kees Versteegh, Landmarks in Linguistic Thought III: The Arabic Linguistic Tradition, Routledge History of Linguistic Thought (London and New York, 1997).

Labīd’s poem from the Muʿallaqāt   1 comment

A 16th/17th-century Arabic manuscript belonging to the Near East School of Theology in Beirut (on which see pp. 5-6 of Illuminations, Spring 2011) contains the old Arabic poems known as Al-Muʿallaqāt along with some brief commentary on individual words. The Muʿallaqāt, usually deemed to be seven in number but sometimes more, are the most famous collection of classical Arabic poems. They have, of course, long excited interest and enjoyment in arabophone and arabophile places, and 19th- and 20th-century European orientalists toiled over these long and often difficult poetic works with manuscript-hunting, editions, commentaries, and translations. An edition with Arabic commentary appeared in Leipzig in 1850 by F.A. Arnold (see the poem of Labīd, with commentary, beginning here).

The image below shows the end of the poem of Imruʾ al-Qays and the beginning of Labīd’s; the latter poem is actually the second poem in this copy, but it is often the fourth poem in others. A prose translation into English of Labīd’s poem survives from the hand of William Wright and it was published in 1961 (see reference below).

NEST AP 6, ff. 62v-63r

These opening lines of the poem in Wright’s translation are:

1. Effaced are the dwelling-places at Minā, whether temporary or permanent; desolate are their Ghaul and their Rijām,

2. and the slopes of ar-Raiyān; their traces are laid bare, but old and worn, just as the rocks retain the letters graven on them.

3. Sites of dwellings are these, over which, since they were last inhabited, many a long year has passed with its full tale of sacred and profane months.

4. They have been gifted with the showers of the constellations of spring, and the rains of the thunderclouds have fallen on them in torrents and in drizzle;

5. rains from every cloud of the night, and morning cloud that covers the sky, and evening cloud whose thunderpeals answer one another.

6. And so the shoots of the wild rocket have sprung up over them, and the gazelle and the ostrich have their young on the two sides of the valley;

7. and the antelopes lie quietly by their young, to which they have newly given birth, while their fawns roam in flocks over the plain.

8. And the torrents have newly laid bare the marks of the tents, as if they were lines of writing whose text the pens retrace;

9. or the lines which a woman tattooing traces afresh, rubbing in her lampblack in circles, on which her pattern reappears.

A more thorough comparison would clarify the relationship, but it is notable that several of the explanatory words in the NEST manuscript agree exactly with the commentary published by Arnold, reflecting a tradition of comment on the poem(s).

Lamentation for the lost past, in particular as tied to a specific place, is a hallmark of old Arabic poetry, and these nine lines illustrate the theme well. This kind of writing can, to be sure, on occasion lean toward tedium, but the variety of similes, not to mention the language itself, can also to one in the right mood for it offer worthwhile evocative amusement. When reading these lines I thought of Aragorn’s mournful recitation of the lament for the old days of Rohan in chapter six of Book III of The Lord of the Rings (see The Two Towers [i.e. part two of the whole work], pp. 496-497) and beginning “in the Common Speech” — Legolas does not understand the language but knows that it is that of the Rohirrim and that the song “is laden with the sadness of Mortal Men” — with the words “Where now the horse and the rider? Where now the horn that was blowing?” It is widely known that Tolkien took as models for many aspects of The Lord of the Rings things literary, linguistic, and historical from Anglo-Saxon and other adjacent cultures, and this is the case with this piece of poetry, too. The source is the well-known Old English poem The Wanderer, beginning at line 92 (full text, with translation, available here, along with a note linking this part to Tolkien’s poem):

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago?

Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?

Hwær cwom symbla gesetu?

Hwær sindon seledreamas?

Eala beorht bune!

Eala byrnwiga!

Eala þeodnes þrym!

Hu seo þrag gewat,

genap under nihthelm,

swa heo no wære.

The “where? …where? …where?” (hwær) is in both the Old English poem and in Tolkien’s, with characteristic sound repetition, and in The Wanderer there is yet more repetition with eala (“alas”). There is sound repetition, too, in Labīd’s poem, but of a different kind: each line (bayt) ends in -hā (usually -āmuhā), and in some cases not only the second hemistich (called ʿaǧuz al-bayt, the back-end of the line), but also the first hemistich (ṣadr al-bayt, the front of the line). In all of these poems, whatever the language and whatever the sound repetition, the sadness they’re laden with is palpable, and when you’re in a melancholic mood, or some worse kind of temperament, it makes for something of a balm to hear and read yourself of the melancholic remembrances of others.


F.A. Arnold, Septem Mo‘allaḳât Carmina Antiquissima Arabum (Leipzig, 1850).

Carl Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Literatur I (Weimar, 1898), 17-19, with Supplementband I (Leiden, 1937), 34-36.

Ursula Schedler, “A Prose Translation of the Mo‘allaqah of Labid by William Wright,” Journal of Semitic Studies 6 (1961): 97-104.

Syriac, Arabic, and Turkish in a late copy of the Kitāb al-tarǧamān   1 comment

HMML's copy of the 1636 ed., open to the section corresponding to that shown from the manuscript below.

Church of the Forty Martyrs (Mardin) no. 492, dated Nov 8, 1906, is a late copy of Eliya of Nisibis’ Kitāb al-tarǧamān fī taʿlīm luġat al-suryān (that is, The Book of the Translator, for Instruction in Syriac), his very important Syriac-Arabic lexicon arranged by topic, rather than by the alphabet. The Kitāb al-tarǧamān was published in Rome in 1636 without attribution to Eliya (he is not named in several of the manuscripts either), almost 250 years later by Lagarde (with the Syriac in Hebrew script), and again recently in Iraq. There are a few brief studies on the work, and I discuss it more fully in a paper that has been accepted in the Journal of Semitic Studies, so I’ll not say much more about it generally. Here I only want to highlight the notable manuscript identified above. It is of interest especially for the fact that there is a dedicated slot on every page for Turkish words, even though in many places Syriac and Arabic is all that there is. I have said that there is a “dedicated slot” for Turkish; that is, these words are not merely added in the margin, as in some other manuscripts of Eliya’s book. (In addition to Turkish, Latin and Italian equivalents also show up in some manuscripts.) The image below has the manuscript open to §2.1, with some general vocabulary on humanity and its environment. Syriac is in the right column, Arabic in the center, and Turkish on the left, all written with Syriac letters. The usual arrangement in the manuscripts with only Syriac and Arabic is with the former on the right and the latter on the left (that is, opposite from Obicini’s and Lagarde’s presentations with Syriac following Arabic). It should be noted, too, that this manuscript dates to a time prior to that of the official adoption of a Latin-based alphabet for Turkish, which took place in 1928 as one of Atatürk’s reforms.

CFMM 492, p. 22

Here are the basic meanings listed in this part of the work, along with the Turkish words written according to standard orthography:

  • human being insan
  • human beings insanlar
  • person insan
  • people insanlar
  • elements aşraf [?!]
  • fire ateş
  • air, wind rüzgâr
  • water su
  • earth yer
  • mixture mizac
  • hot sıcak
  • cold soğuk
  • wet nem, yaş (note: two words in Turkish, the former really meaning “moisture”, for one in Syriac and Arabic)
  • dry kuru

Linguist R.M.W. Dixon has roundly criticized conventional dictionary arrangement, lamenting that, while grammar and other linguistic fields have advanced much in the past few centuries, dictionary-making has not. He recommends, rather than plain alphabetical arrangement, that the order for the lexicon be according to semantic types, and with a kind of index in alphabetical order that points back to this thesaurus. Ten centuries ago, Eliya of Nisibis thought along similar lines for Syriac and Arabic, and some subsequent copyists thought it prudent to tack on other languages (Turkish, Latin, Italian) while tracing this same arrangement.

[Thanks to Reyhan Durmaz for some comments on the Turkish words.]


R.M.W. Dixon, Basic Linguistic Theory, vol. 1, Methodology (Oxford, 2010). See chap. 8, esp. 8.2.

Paul de Lagarde, Praetermissorum libri duo (Göttingen, 1879).

Adam McCollum, “Prolegomena to a New Edition of Eliya of Nisibis’ Kitāb al-tarǧamān fī taʿlīm luġat al-suryān,” Journal of Semitic Studies, forthcoming.

Thomas a Novaria (Obicini), Thesaurus Arabico-Syro-Latinus (Rome, 1636).

Gérard Troupeau, “Le lexique arabe-syriaque d’Elie Bar Shinâyâ,” in J. Hamesse and D. Jacquart (eds.), Lexiques bilingues dans les domaines philosophique et scientifique (Moyen Âge – Renaissance) (Brepols, 2001), 25-30.

Stefan Weninger, “Das ‘Übersetzerbuch’ des Elias von Nisibis (10./11. Jh.) im Zusammenhang der syrischen und
arabischen Lexikographie,” in W. Hüllen, ed., The World in a List of Words (Tübingen: 1994), pp. 55-66.

A (slightly) hidden scribal name   3 comments

One of the unendingly amusing parts of colophons (at least those composed by Christians) are the almost grandiloquent means with which scribes tout their now trumpeted humility: gloomy and unfavorable adjective piled upon gloomy and unfavorable adjective, lexical competition with other monastic scribes to find the most picturesque expression for assumed wickedness, &c. A nearly ubiquitous topos goes something like, “…written by the hands of the lowliest of God’s servants, whose name is not worthy to be mentioned…” The scribe nevertheless in most cases goes on to mention his name “on account of the prayers of the brothers”, that is, so that his fellow monk-readers will be able to pray for him (and his family) by name. The scribe of Church of the Forty Martyrs (Mardin) no. 496 (olim Dayr Al-Zaʿfarān 142), an 18th century copy of Bar ʿEbrāyā’s grammatical work called The Book of Splendors (Ktābā d-ṣemḥē), was rather more inventive. In the course of the colophon, written in the dodecasyllabic meter of Jacob of Sarug and with almost every line concluding with the Syriac adverbial ending -āʾit, he says (text in the image below),

If you want to know my name, our brother, read and observe in enlightenment with your great intelligence: Pray to the Lord to grant sincerely in his mercy a good reward to the one who prays lovingly, on whom may the Lord’s mercy be continually.

CFMM 496, p 450

It doesn’t take “great intelligence” to note the rubricated letters in the scribe’s request for prayer. Taking these together, we have the name Ṣlibā, several other examples of which can be found in Wright’s “General Index” to his catalog of the Syriac manuscripts then at the British Museum (p. 1319). While we know no more of his name than Ṣlibā, and that he copied the book in 2026 AG,* we will probably not be mistaken to imagine his having smiled at this playful finishing of his work.

* Also given are 1717 AD and 1127 AH, but these don’t match the AG year exactly.

The 16th-century scribe ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz from Mardin   1 comment

CFMM 466, f. 296v

Church of the Forty Martyrs (Mardin) ms 466 is a copy of Išoʿ bar ʿAli’s Syriac-Arabic lexicon dated 1857 AG (= 1545/6 CE). The script is a very fine Serṭo — descriptions of scribal hands can tend to sound like you’re talking about wine! — with just the right amount of flourishes for the scribe to show some uniqueness while still making his text simply legible. After the lexicon proper ends, there is a short list (see the image above) of words that have šīn in Syriac but sīn in Arabic, and vice versa; note that a later reader has marked the pair sahrā and šahr with an X, and rightly given the Arabic meaning of sahrā as qamar (“moon”) rather than, strictly speaking, šahr (“month”), although the two sibilant words are surely related, just as “moon” and “month” are in English and other Germanic languages (but not Indo-European more generally).

On the same page as this little comparative list comes the colophon, written sideways, from which we learn both the scribe’s name and the date of copying. Aside from the frequently found terms of scribal self-deprecation, the colophon informs us that ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz completed the work “in a small amount of time in the year 1857 AG in the monastery of the see of Antioch, Dayr Al-Zaʿfarān”, and some of this information is repeated again in a Garšūnī colophon on ff. 300v-301r. This scribe, whose hand penned these lovely letters, was from Mardin, he tells us, specifically the part known as Qāṣur or Qāṣrā (see Payne Smith col. 3708 for references to these toponyms). I was so inspired by the work of ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, that I composed a few humble lines in his honor, to be sung to the tune of Abdul Abulbul Amir:

Of the sons of Mardin there’s scribes and there’s monks,

And many who write in Serṭo.

But of all of those writers, there’s none, I believe,

So precious as ʿAbdulʿazīz!

The note above the colophon is a purchase note in Garšūnī, where we learn that the scribe’s own son, Rabbān Pawlos of Al-Manṣūrīya (from which place we also know a female scribe named Maryam from about the same time period as ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz), bought the book in February of 1886 AG (= 1575 CE) from a certain Rabbān Šemʿon known as Ibn Al-Qarya (?).

A curse in Arabic against book thieves (in a copy of Dāʾūd Al-Anṭākī’s Taḏkirat)   5 comments

Saint Mark’s Monastery, Jerusalem, 235 is a thick tome containing Dāʾūd Al-Anṭākī’s (d. 1599) Taḏkirat ulī ‘l-albāb wa-‘l-ǧāmiʿ li-‘l-ʿaǧab al-ʿuǧāb (The Reminder for Those with Understanding, and the Collector of Prodigious Wonders), a lengthy and thorough medical work divided into four sections with an introduction and epilogue, in Garšūnī; there are a number of manuscripts of the work known, but as far as I am aware, other than this copy they are all in Arabic script. This Jerusalem manuscript is dated 1757 AD and 1171 AH. In the margin of the next-to-last page someone has written (in Arabic script, unlike the text in the manuscript itself) the following:

SMMJ 235, f. 491v


Property of the monastery of the Syrians in honorable Jerusalem. Anyone who steals or removes [it] from its place of donation will be cursed from the mouth of God! God (may he be exalted) will be angry with him! Amen.

This curse against would-be book robbers is hardly unique in Arabic — I have seen a number in the collections at HMML in both Arabic and Garšūnī — and similar warnings are well known in other traditions, too. From Paris Gr 301, for example, Elpidio Mioni (Introduzione alla paleografia greca [Padua, 1973], 85) cites Εἴ τις δὲ βουληθῇ ἆραι τοῦτον κρυφίως ἢ καὶ φανερῶς, ἔχῃ τὰς ἀρὰς τῶν ιβʹ ἀποστόλων καὶ κατάραν εὕρῃ κακίστην πάντων μοναχῶν, “Should anyone wish to take this [book] secretly, or even openly, he will get the curses of the twelve apostles and find the worst anathema of all the monks!” Interested readers will find a wealth of (mostly Latin) examples in Marc Drogin’s delightful work Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses (Totowa and Montclair, New Jersey, 1983).

Any other such gems, in any language, you’re aware of?


On Dāʾūd Al-Anṭākī see GAL II 364 and GALS II 491-492. Wüstenfeld (Gesch. der Arabischen Aerzte [Göttingen, 1840], 158) calls the Taḏkirat “ein grosses Werk über die gesammte theoretische und practische Medicin” and Leclerc (Hist. de la médecine arabe, vol. 2 [Paris, 1876], 304) says it “embrasse la majeure partie de la science”. Much more recent, there is an entry on Dāʾūd by Raphaela Veit in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, 3d ed. (available online by subscription), with bibliography.

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