Light on text and heavier on pictures, this post offers three memorable pieces of art from an eighteenth-century Syriac Gospel lectionary. The manuscript comes from the collection of the Dominican Friars of Mosul (DFM), no. 13, which was completed in August of 1723 in Alqosh. The DFM collection is one of several digitized recently by the Centre numérique des manuscrits orientaux (Mosul) and available for study at HMML. This is all of the representational artwork in the book, but there are also several title decorations and some decorative crosses.
The entry into Jerusalem:
DFM 13, f. 43v
Thomas touching the wounds of Jesus, with Simon Peter looking on:
DFM 13, f. 60r
And finally, Saint George ramming a spear through the head of the dragon:
DFM 13, f. 61r
François Fénelon‘s book Les aventures de Télémaque first appeared in 1699, anonymously, and while it exercises little influence and excites little interest on a broad scale today, it holds a firm place in the canon of eighteenth-century literature. French works from the end of the seventeenth century do not typically feature here, but there is legitimate cause for it today, thanks to a manuscript of the Syriac Catholic Archdiocese of Baghdad. Here is the title page of no. 63:
The Meetings of Telemachus, translated from French into Syriac by the priest Petrus Sābā of Barṭelle, according to the edition printed by Albert Cahen, 1920 AD. [This manuscript] was written and copied, based on the original copy of its translator, by the priest Quriaqos bar Yaʿqob Lallo of Barṭelle, the nephew of the priest Petrus, in the year 1949.
(The verbs are active, but I have translated them with verbs in the passive voice, more in keeping with English title-page style.) I have divined, rather than transl[iter]ated the editor’s name; the very edition that Petrus Sābā used for his translation is available here, where we see Albert Cahen named. Returning to the Syriac manuscript, on the verso of the title page comes a note by the translator:
Know, O reader, that, insofar as it was possible for me and [insofar as the ability] came into my hands, I have translated and carried over this book word for word from French into Syriac, with no adding or taking away, and without changing the words, so that the meaning and force that the book’s author intended might be preserved wholly and completely.
Petrus Sābā of Barṭelle
Finally, I give the first paragraph of the work, following Cahen’s edition, to allow a minimal comparison between it and the translation of Petrus Sābā.
Calypso ne pouvoit se consoler du départ d’Ulysse. Dans sa douleur, elle se trouvoit malheureuse d’être immortelle. Sa grotte ne résonnoit plus de son chant; les nymphes qui la servoient n’osoient lui parler. Elle se promenoit souvent seule sur les gazons fleuris dont un printemps éternel bordoit son île: mais ces beaux lieux, loin de modérer sa douleur, ne faisoient que lui rappeler le triste souvenir d’Ulysse, qu’elle y avoit vu tant de fois auprès d’elle. Souvent elle demeuroit immobile sur le rivage de la mer, qu’elle arrosoit de ses larmes, et elle étoit sans cesse tournée vers le côté où le vaisseau d’Ulysse, fendant les ondes, avoit disparu à ses yeux.
Those who are interested in Syriac language and literature merely as an expression of Christianity, often with a focus on earlier texts and authors, will probably find nothing of interest in a text like this, aside from its novelty, but for those who especially study Syriac language (from whatever time period), and for those who have an eye toward later history and culture in communities that use Syriac, this text will serve as an opportunity to see the language in use in and of itself and, in connection with French, as a target translation language, and it also shows what at least some people in Barṭelle were reading around the mid-twentieth century. For people with such interests, not only biblical texts or liturgy and not only earlier authors hold their attention and attract their efforts, but even recent textual products like this translation from French are worthy of study. For them, this manuscript lies ready to read.
Saint Mark’s Monastery, Jerusalem, 48 is a big manuscript — 26.1x18x13.5 cm and about 600 folios — containing Dionysios bar Ṣalibi’s commentary on the Gospels, and a notable copy because it comes from only a century after the author’s death: the colophon (f. 588v) has the date Nisan 23, 1582 AG (= 1271 CE). Before the text itself begins on f. 1v, there is on the previous page a note in Garšūnī:
SMMJ 41, f. 1r
The note is not in the same hand of the manuscript’s scribe, and there is no explicit indication of its date, but it bears no marks of being recent. Here is a quickly done translation into English:
We found the date of this holy, venerated father, Mār Dionysios (that is Yaʿqub) bar Ṣalibi, recorded in the Chronicon [Ecclesiasticum] of St. Gregory Bar ʿEbrāyā, the fact that he was ordained bishop over Marʿaš by Athanasios the patriarch (that is, Yešuʿ b. Qaṭra). The ordination of Patriarch Athanasios was in the year 1450 AG (1138/9 CE), and the ordination of St. Dionysios bar Ṣalibi as bishop was in the year 1462 [AG, = 1150/1 CE]. This St. Dionysios was present at the ordination of St. Mār Michael the Great, Patriarch of Antioch, whose ordination was in the year 1478 AG [1166/7 CE] in the Monastery of Mār Barṣawmā. The eternal rest of St. Dionysios bar Ṣalibi was in Tešrin II [November] 1483 AG [= 1171 CE], and he was buried in the Church of the Virgin in Diyarbakır.
If you wish, you can read more about Dionysios bar Ṣalibi in:
- Michael the Great’s Chronicle, Edessa-Aleppo Codex, ff. 349v-350v (outer columns; = pp. 701-703 in the Gorgias Press facsimile)
- Bar ʿEbrāyā’s Chronicon [Ecclesiasticum] I 511-513, 559-561
- Assemani, Bibliotheca Orientalis II 156-211
- S.P. Brock, in GEDSH 126-127
The note above, which acknowledges Bar ʿEbrāyā as a source, apparently by an early reader, is a good example showing how manuscripts are not static objects serving merely as text-receptacles, but unique witnesses not only to this or that version of a particular text, but also to the scribes who copied them, their readers from generation to generation, and the communities that have curated them.
UPDATE: Thanks to Gabriel Rabo for pointing out a mistake in my translation due to eyeskip. It has now been corrected.
A particular advantage that the student of modern spoken languages has over the student of languages only studied from texts, so-called dead languages, is that of having hour upon hour of spoken samples, whether conversational or simple reading (as at Librivox, where you can search here
by language), scripted or ex tempore, of the languages in question. At least in some settings of instruction and reading in ancient languages, those languages are treated as living, and efforts are made to do lots of reading aloud with practiced fluency. My own experience in learning ancient languages fits this picture, for which I am grateful. (There are also some teachers and students who attempt to use the ancient languages in an even more living way, as I mentioned in the third paragraph of this post
.) In countries and communities where there is some continuous reading tradition (e.g. Old Georgian in Georgia, Gǝʿǝz in Ethiopia), even where the form of the language has changed, reading is very often still an oral practice, and even elsewhere students who happen to read ancient languages with a professor who sees value in reading aloud will naturally have plenty of opportunity to exercise their ears with the language as heard, but not every student has that advantage, especially not autodidacts. Where, for example, can students of classical Armenian hear samples of Movsēs Xorenac‘i or the Yaysmawurk’
? Where can students of Coptic hear some homilies? And so on.
There is a potential means to remedy this lack, as Akkadian students may know: hosted here
at the SOAS, London, are several Akkadian texts (given normalized and translated) read by different readers. Why not do the same thing for other languages? The focus of the blog and of my work at HMML is the (particularly pre-modern) languages of the Christian east, but a venture of this kind need not necessarily bow to such limits. Even so, those limits contain no small collection of languages or of literature from which texts might be chosen: Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Gǝʿǝz, Old Nubian, Georgian, Syriac, Old Church Slavonic, Persian, Sogdian (perhaps even more lately attested texts in Malayāḷam, Kurdish, Turkish?). Texts read might run the gamut of literary genres in these languages: biblical, theological, liturgical, polemic, hagiographic, etc. The particular texts selected should be some kind of logical unit and not too long, the reading being perhaps not more than five or six minutes. Ideally, speakers would indicate the following information, too:
- Native language
- Language in which the read language was learned (e.g. learned classical Armenian in French, learned Old Nubian in English)
- Text (edition or manuscript)
So, dear readers, I would like to gauge potential interest in such a Repertorium lectionum vivarum orientalium. Would you, as students and instructors, find something along these lines useful? Do you have any other remarks on the prospect? I would also be glad to hear about the practical settings of your language learning experiences: was your reading usually viva voce, did you typically translate into another language, etc.
Until next time, πρόσεχε τῇ ἀναγνώσει, μακάριος γὰρ ὁ ἀναγινώσκων!