A list of some ethnic stereotypes in Syriac   16 comments

I was recently going through a manuscript that belongs to the Syriac Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo to hunt down a text for someone and I came across a very short, but interesting, piece, an image of which, with translation, I give below. It is a list of several people-groups or nations with their supposedly characteristic faults, and while, of course, this kind of thinking is eschewed today (at least in most public conversation), it offers a unique picture of how these nations were viewed. I am not aware of another witness to the text beyond this manuscript, in which, however, it is copied twice (ff. 191v and 193v), but it is unlikely that it was composed on the spot for this manuscript. Aside from knowledge of the existence of the named peoples, there are no indications of date of composition, but the list is relatively far-reaching, although one omission that comes to mind is the Chinese (ṣināyē; cf. Payne Smith, Thesaurus Syriacus, col. 3395).

Syr. Orth. Archd. Aleppo 61(m), f. 191v

Here is a rough first translation, not without some uncertainties. I have numbered each segment.

That you might know the bad characteristics that exist among the peoples of all the earth.

1. Hebrews: the characteristic of importunity, disobedience, and deceit.

2. Greeks and Romans: greed, pride, arrogance, and haughtiness.

3. Syrians: envy, hatred, disorderliness, and ???

4. Persians: shamelessness and lasciviousness.

5. Armenians: hiddenness, hypocrisy, lying, thievery, ignorance, and tyranny.

6. Egyptians: angry, zealous, roving (?), and low in skill.

7. Arabs (Ṭayyāyē): shedders of blood, lovers of killing, badness of desire, and irascibility.

8. Barbarians: ignorance and disorderliness.

9. Pagans: fraudulent, making nature a liar by altering [ways of] worship.

10. Indians: pride that comes with the wisdom of this world and healing through drugs and arrows.

11. Elamites: [overly?] loving modesty.

12. Brahmins: pure, holy, and perfect.

13. Iberians, i.e. Georgians: simple and lovers of flesh.

14. Russians: deprived of mercy toward people.

15. Nubians and Ethiopians: haters of clothing.

And a common [bad characteristic] for all humans is mortality.

Notes keyed to each segment:

1. The root ṭlm is known but the form as here is not in the lexica. Perhaps read ṭālomutā.

2. The last three words are synonyms for “pride.”

3. I’m not sure what ša/āwyutā da-l-rēšē means exactly.

5. Maṭšyutā: again, the root is known but the form, I think, unattested.

6. Up to this point only abstract nouns have been used, but beginning here there are also adjectives, plural to match the gentilic nouns.

9. Perhaps Romans 1 in view here.

10. On later meanings of “Elamite,” see Payne Smith, cols. 2866-2867. It probably means here some inhabitants of Mesopotamia.

12. For the proper name, see Payne Smith, col. 615.

I welcome comments, especially any remarks on the questions and improvements to the translation. Does anyone know of some other text like this, Syriac or otherwise?

UPDATE (Nov. 26, 2012): I have just come across another witness to the same text: CFMM 386, p. 279. There are no notable variants to speak of except for the lack of “i.e. Georgians” after “Iberians”. The main part of CFMM 386 is dated 1890 AG (= 1578/9 CE), but the part with the ethnic stereotypes is in a later hand at the end.

16 responses to “A list of some ethnic stereotypes in Syriac

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  1. This immediately reminded me of BarDaisan’s Dialogue on Fate where the author describes laws and marriage customs of various nationalities, some of which are obvious stereotypes. It would be interesting to compare the two.

  2. Pingback: They’re all like that « Pileus Quadratus

  3. °v. interesting. On Russia, however, a colleague pointed out perhaps it is Sythians, since ‘Russia’ would not have been extant at the time of the writing? What is the date of the ms.?

    Thanks for intersting entry.


    • Thanks for the comment. The manuscript is undated, as I recall (I don’t have immediate access to it at the moment), but it’s not very old. Ethnonyms of course often have their own unique histories, and different histories among different speakers! In my translation here I generally just used the same term in English as in Syriac if such a term existed. Here we have Rusāyē, so I used “Russians”. Syriac does have a term for Scythians (Squṯāyē) quite distinct from this one.

  4. It reminds me of Ptolemy´s second book of his Tetrabiblos, a standard text in many vernacular languages of the Middle Ages, where you can find some of the ethnic stereotypes mentioned in that text. Klaus

  5. Hi Adam,
    Thank you for this great post. I am reading and translating it for my facebook post.The second characteristics is not “msha’liuta” but I would read it as “msaqluta”, which means sloth or laziness. What do you think of that?
    I am still working on this text.


  6. Well, the right column, line 8, second word.

    • Yes, I read it as mšaqlutā and I translated it as “pride”, which you will find in the dictionaries (e.g. Audo 1085. Payne Smith, Thes. col. 4292 [“superbia”]. Payne-Smith English 309. Sokoloff 853). I have no evidence anywhere of the word meaning “sloth” or “laziness”. Can you offer some?

      I glad that the text continues to keep your interest!

  7. Ah! Sorry, Adam, I just checked it again on those references you mentioned and some other. I had mistaken it with mšaflutā which means feebleness ( my stricky mind changed it to sloth!). Thank God I consulted it with you, and you kindly rechecked it.

    Apart from that, there seems a typo in your translation on 3, where I think you meant hatred not hated.

  8. You are welcome. Adam, you have mentioned in the description that there is another copy of this page. Do you have access to that copy? Maybe it can be helpful in reading some ambiguous parts, like those of describing Syrians and Egyptians.

  9. In line 20 and 21 of the right column, I guess you have missed two words. I think it should be “travelling and roving place [to place]”. The rest of the description shows the alleged nomadic characteristics of Egyptians. In my opinion, it can also figuratively, based on Payne, be rendered “transgressing” everywhere.

  10. Tayyaye (Taye) means Muslims. Yes it’s a Arab tribe, but the scriber may have meant Muslims, because that is how we call them (in the shorter form Taye). As you see, the scriber didn’t wrote Turkish, Kurdish or Arabs. I think Tayyaye refer to them all.

    Suroyo from Turabdin

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