Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

A Syriac report on the comet of 1577   Leave a comment

(Apologia: Some background on the writing of this post. I wrote most of this post and translated the text when under the impression that there was not yet any English translation of it. I had stumbled upon Nau’s article while perusing the Syriac contents of ROC at Aramaico.  But on the day I was finishing up the post, I happened to be looking at something completely unrelated in The Hidden Pearl, vol. 2, and I found to my surprise that there was a partial translation of this text in English! (If I had noticed it there before, I’d forgotten.) It will be found there on p. 258. Even though the translation below is not, then, the first English witness to this interesting text, it is, I think, the first complete English translation, and so I have decided to go ahead and share it. Being freely accessible online, it may also bring word of this text to a broader audience, and the other remarks and the vocabulary list will perhaps be of interest and use to some readers.)

Some time ago I published and translated two related notes in Syriac on some meteorological events from the sixteenth century (see also a later weather report in Syriac here). It happens that a more momentous sixteenth-century cosmic event, complete with a plague, was also recorded in Syriac: the Great Comet of 1577. The industrious François Nau first brought attention to the text with his publication and FT in his “Une description orientale de la comête de novembre de 1577,” ROC 27 (1929-1930): 212-214 (available here). Below I give the Syriac text, which is written in rhymed prose, followed by an English translation (which is not in rhymed prose!).

Comets are discussed here and there in Syriac cosmological literature. For example, in the Syriac version of the De Mundo, Sergius of Rēšʿaynā simply uses the Greek word (qwmṭʾ, qwmṭs; see McCollum, A Greek and Syriac Index to Sergius of Reshaina’s Version of the De Mundo, p. 104). Similar to the term below, Jacob bar Shakko has kawkbē ṣuṣyānāyē (see F. Nau, “Notice sur le livre des trésors de Jacques de Bartela, Évèque de Tagrit,” Journal Asiatique, 9th series, 7 (1896): 286-331, here 328). Similar is Bar ʿEbrāyā’s language in his “Book of Meteorology” in the Butyrum Sapientiae; see H. Takahashi, Aristotelian Meteorology in Syriac, pp. 148-149, 190-191. Via Bar ʿEbrāyā, too, we have the same terminology in a Syriac fragment based on “Ptolemy’s” Liber fructus; the fragment begins, āmar gēr Pṭolomos ba-ktābēh haw d-asṭrologia pērā qrāy(hy) (see F. Nau, “Un fragment syriaque de l’ouvrage astrologique de Claude Ptolémée intitulé le livre du fruit,” ROC 28 (1931-1932): 197-202, avail. here). (See further Payne Smith, Thes. Syr. col. 3382.)

Syriac text from ROC 27, p. 213

Syriac text from ROC 27, p. 213

The events here are dated beginning in Tišrin II, 1889 AG, which corresponds to November, 1577 CE. The plague at the end of the text is dated throughout the years 1890-1893 AG (= 1578/9-1581/2 CE).

In the year 1889 of Alexander, Greek king,
A marvelous comet appeared in the west.
On Friday, the 8th of the month Tišrin II,
We saw a wonder that we had never before heard of,
And its cometness was not like the light of stars,
[Nor] as the tails [of comets] that people had seen in various generations:
No, it was a marvel full of wonder and a marvel of marvels.
It lasted and continued about fifty days.
The size of its tail was undoubtedly thirty cubits,
And its width was surely about two of our spans.
The color of its tail was like the color of the sun, which crosses our houses.
From the windows praise the Lord forever!

And in the year 1890 [AG], in the next year, a plague occurred
In Gāzrat Zabday, and numberless people died,
Also in Amid, Mosul, and in every city and every province:
[It lasted] a year, two, three, and four, each and every year.

For students of Syriac, here is a running list of vocabulary to the text:

ṣuṣyānāyā lock-like, having locks (of hair) < ṣuṣitā lock of hair (cf. “comet” κομήτης < κόμη)
dummārā marvel, wonder
sbh D to liken (here pass. ptcp)
ṣuṣyānutā cometness
dunbtā tail
te/ahrā wonder, miracle
puššākā uncertainty (d-lā puššākā certainly, undoubtedly)
ammtā cubit
zartā span (½ cubit)
ptāyā width
gawnā (cstr ES gon, WS gwan; see Nöldeke § 98) color, manner
bāttayn pl of baytā + 1cp
kawwtā window (in BibAram Dan 6:11)
hepktā d-ša(n)tā the following year
mawtānā plague, pestilence
Gāzrat Zabday cf. Payne Smith, Thesaurus Syriacus, cols. 702-703; Wright, Cat. Syr. Brit. Mus., vol. 3, p. 1339)
uḥdānā province
šnā abs of ša(n)tā

Islamkundliche Untersuchungen online   Leave a comment

Since this blog’s inception there has been in the list of links one to digital editions of ZDMG, etc. In the same collection there are now 196 title of the series Islamkundliche Untersuchungen (h/t Sabine Schmidtke), a series covering a range of studies historical, literary, textual, linguistic, and social in the Middle East, and despite its title, the series is not strictly confined to Islamica. Every reader will have his or her own favorites or titles of interest, but as a sampling of the long list of books from this series freely available, here are a few of my own, with direct links:

Galen: “Über die Anatomie der Nerven” : Originalschrift und alexandrinisches Kompendium in arabischer Überlieferung / Ahmad M. Al-Dubayan

The stories of the Prophets by Ibn Muṭarrif al-Ṭarafī / ed. with an introd. and notes by Roberto Tottoli

Studien zum ältesten alchemistischen Schrifttum : auf der Grundlage zweier erstmals edierter arabischer Hermetica / Ingolf Vereno

Die Kritik der Prosa bei den Arabern : (vom 3./9. Jahrhundert bis zum Ende des 5./11. Jahrhunderts) / Mahmoud Darabseh

Über die Steine : das 14. Kapitel aus dem “Kitāb al-Muršid” des Muḥammad Ibn Aḥmad at-Tamīmī, nach dem Pariser Manuskript herausgegeben, übersetzt und kommentiert / Jutta Schönfeld

Die Entstehung und Entwicklung der osmanisch-türkischen Paläographie und Diplomatik : mit einer Bibliographie / Valery Stojanow

Ibn ar-Rāhibs Leben und Werk : ein koptisch-arabischer Enzyklopädist des 7./13. Jahrhunderts / Adel Y. Sidarus

Der Orientalist Johann Gottfried Wetzstein als preussischer Konsul in Damaskus (1849 – 1861) : dargestellt nach seinen hinterlassenen Papieren / Ingeborg Huhn

Das Verhältnis von Poesie und Prosa in der arabischen Literaturtheorie des Mittelalters / Ziyad al-Ramadan az-Zuʿbī

Mädchennamen – verrätselt : 100 Rätsel-Epigramme aus d. adab-Werk Alf ǧāriya wa-ǧāriya (7./13. Jh.) / Jürgen W. Weil

Der arabische Dialekt von Mekka : Abriß der Grammatik mit Texten und Glossar / Giselher Schreiber

Das Kitāb ar-rauḍ al-ʿāṭir des Ibn-Aiyūb : Damaszener Biographien des 10./16. Jahrhunderts, Beschreibung und Edition / Ahmet Halil Güneş

Studien zur Grammatik des Osmanisch-Türkischen : unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des Vulgärosmanisch-Türkischen / von Erich Prokosch

Arabic literary works as a source of documentation for technical terms of the material culture / Dionisius A. Agius

Kritische Untersuchungen zum Diwan des Kumait b. Zaid / Kathrin Müller

Athanasius von Qūṣ Qilādat at-taḥrīr fī ʿilm at-tafsīr : eine koptische Grammatik in arabischer Sprache aus dem 13./14. Jh. / von Gertrud Bauer

Erziehung und Bildung im Schahname von Firdousi : eine Studie zur Geschichte der Erziehung im alten Iran / von Dariusch Bayat-Sarmadi

Happy reading.

Malta bound   3 comments

Last year about this time I participated in the North American Syriac Symposium at Duke University, and next week will take place on Malta the eleventh quadrennial international Symposium Syriacum and the ninth Conference on Christian Arabic Studies. I’ll be presenting a paper there on Job of Edessa’s Treatise on Rabies, and in another session I’ll participate in a presentation to give an update on some of HMML’s recent activities in the fields of Syriac and Arabic manuscripts. For anyone who cares, here’s the abstract for the paper on Job of Edessa’s work on rabies:

While the history and sources of the science of human medicine in Arabic and (to a lesser extent) Syriac literature have attracted a reasonable amount of scholarly attention, the same cannot be said for veterinary medicine, almost certainly due to the latter field’s greater paucity of sources. One such source, however — all the more important because there are not many of them — has been known in the west for almost a century now but has never been studied: a Syriac text entitled A Treatise on Rabies by Job (Iyob or Ayyūb) of Edessa (d. ca. 835). This work, which also deals with serpents and scorpions in addition to rabid canines, survives, as far as is known, in three late manuscripts, and it has never been edited or translated. Where the author is known, it is for his much longer and encyclopedic Book of Treasures (ed. and tr. 1935), the only other work of Job’s that survives, though a few other theological, medical, and philosophical titles are known. Both Job and his son Ibrāhīm served as physicians in the Abbasid entourage, and Job is mentioned in Arabic sources, including Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq’s Risālah, as a prolific translator of Galen’s works into Syriac. The work on rabies, an original composition divided into eight sections, deals with, among other things, the propensity of dogs to this affliction, the fear of water experienced by rabid dogs and people with rabies, a comparison of rabies with other animal stings and poisons, and the lethality of a rabid dog’s bite. The object of this paper is to make this interesting and thus far unstudied text better known. After some details on the life and work of Job of Edessa and on the history of veterinary medicine, especially in the Middle East, the subject turns to Job’s text itself by analyzing its contents, outlining the scientific vocabulary, investigating the author’s possible sources, and situating it within the history of science and veterinary medicine.

I’m looking forward to talking with colleagues and friends in Syriac and Arabic studies, and, of course, to seeing Malta, whither I’ve never been.

P.S. The title of this post was chosen with a full nod to Lead Belly’s “Alabama Bound” (my home state)!

On the nature of the seven planets (Syriac)   Leave a comment

The recent transit of Venus has been in the news for the past few days, so it’s a fine time to have another look at something astronomical-astrological (see here for a previous post on the theme). Below is an image from Syriac Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo (SOAA) ms 148, a manuscript from, at the earliest, the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, this terminus from the fact that, in addition to some of Bar ʿEbrāyā’s poems (mušḥātā, see Takahashi 2005: 313-346), it also contains texts from David Puniqāyā (d. ca. 1500) and Sergius of Ḥāḥ (d. 1508). The selection below is the beginning of a poem, Bar ʿEbrāyā’s “On the nature of the seven planets” in the heptasyllabic meter with rhyming lines, the seven planets being the “wandering — as opposed to fixed — stars” known in antiquity: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the sun, Venus, Mercury, and the moon.

SOAA 148, f. 58v

As you can see, someone has penciled the planet names in Arabic (Garšūnī) in the margins. The poem was published, without the use of this manuscript, in Dolabani’s edition of Bar ʿEbrāyā’s poetry (1929: 77-78, no. 6.3), but it’s not in Scebabi’s edition (Rome, 1877). Bar ʿEbrāyā lists those things or people associated with each planet in the order given above. A comparison between the printed edition, based on manuscripts in Jerusalem and Mosul, and the Aleppo manuscript yields a notable difference: Dolabani has only given the domiciles (baytā here in Syriac, as also οἶκος in Greek with this meaning) for Mercury and the moon, the last two planets, but the Aleppo manuscript gives domiciles for all seven of the planets, which means that the manuscript has ten more heptasyllabic lines than the printed text. In addition, the two-part little poem printed in Dolabani separately as 6.4 is clearly taken by the scribe of this manuscript as part of the poem on the planets, and the subject matter and phraseology indeed fits.

A review of Takahashi’s bibliography for the poems will show that much work remains to be done on them, including not least a proper edition, which would be no small task given the plethora of known manuscripts. Till then, let this little notice stand as a harbinger of what else might be discovered.


Dolabani, Y., ed. 1929. Mušḥātā d-Mār Grigorios Yoḥannān Bar ʿEbrāyā mapryānā qaddišā d-madnḥā. Jerusalem. Reprint, Glane, 1983.

Takahashi, H. 2005. Barhebraeus: A Bio-Bibliography. Piscataway.

On cancer, from a Garšūnī medical text   2 comments

Siddhartha Mukherjeeh’s Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (New York, 2010), a 500-plus page popular level survey of cancer in human history, with the bulk of the period covered being the last hundred years or so, thanks especially to the substantial advancements achieved in that time, has received wide acclaim. One service the work performs is that it informs a general readership that cancer is nothing new. I’d like to point here to a recent identification of a short passage on cancer in an Arabic (Garšūnī) manuscript from Mardin, but before I do that, it will be worthwhile to highlight, without going into any great detail, some resources in Greek and Arabic that touch on cancer. (Jacob Wolff  — see the full reference below — at the beginning of the 20th century traced the history of the disease; I’ll not be surprised if there’s something comparable that is more recent, but I don’t know it offhand.)

The Ebers papyrus, in (hieratic) Egyptian, dated to the 16th century BCE, refers to a kind of tumor thought to have been cancer, but it’s not until much later that we get a name for cancer that sticks. Hippocrates (c. 450-c. 380 BCE) is given credit for naming the disease “crab” (καρκίνος = Latin cancer, Syriac sarṭānā, Arabic saraṭān). (Incidentally, this is one of many cases where English medical convention has opted for Greek or Latin words taken over wholesale instead of translations of those terms; German, by contrast, has Krebs.) A few centuries later, Galen (130-200 CE), too, discusses cancer (and other tumors). The Galenic emphasis and contribution for cancer is that it is caused by black bile. Some centuries after Galen, we have a focused description of cancer by Paul of Aegina (7th cent. CE) in his Medical Epitome (cf. also the passage on cancers in the womb from Ibn Sarābiyūn based on Paul in P. Pormann, Paul of Aegina, 27-28). I have collected a number of other notable passages, but I refer to just a few here. Photios in the 9th century had the following to say of cancer in his Lexicon (κ p. 132), “καρκίνος is a sensation [or “misfortune”] occurring in bodies, which is now called καρκίνωμα; it is often found.” The Suda s.v. is similar, as also Hesychios, Lex. κ no. 832; see Paul of Aegina, Epit. 6.45 for a longer description, and Oribasios, Coll. Med., quoting Xenophon (medicus), for some different types of cancer occurring in different parts of the body. The term καρκίνωμα is defined in the Definitiones medicae wrongly attributed to Galen (Kühn, vol. 19, 430.6 and 443.5). Again in another work of a pseudo-Galen we see that καρκινώματα are especially common in female breasts (Introductio, Kühn, vol. 14, 779.8-9, cf. 786.8; see also Hipp. Epid. 5.1.101).

As is well known, Syriac scholars spent considerable efforts poring over and translating Greek scientific works, and in the ninth century some of them — Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq is the most famous — played the unimaginably important role of further translating some of such texts into Arabic, sometimes from Syriac, sometimes directly from Greek. There are in Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq’s Risāla on the translations of Galen’s works into Syriac and Arabic (ed. Bergsträsser, 1925) three references of possible relevance: on Galen’s Ad Glauconem de medendi methodo libri IIDe tumoribus praeter naturam, and De atra bile. The Risāla, a new edition of which with English translation by John Lamoreaux is thankfully soon to appear, is a well-known resource for our knowledge of Greek medical literature in both Syriac and Arabic. This work is well known as a resource for the history of Arabic medical literature, but it bears underlining that many of the translations Ḥunayn refers to are Syriac; even if these are not all known to have survived, it is at least a boon to our Syriac literary knowledge to know that such and such a Galenic text did exist in that language. In the second book of Ad Glauconem, Ḥunayn tells us (p. 7, ll. 10-11), Galen “describes the indicators of tumors and their treatments” (ويصف في المقالة الثانية دلائل الاورام ومداواتها); this term (waram pl. awrām) does not, however, necessarily mean a cancerous tumor. This work had been translated into Syriac by Sergius of Rēšʿainā († 536) — at a time, Ḥunayn says, when he was somewhat accomplished in translation but he was not yet at the peak of his skill — before Ḥunayn himself translated it into Syriac and then into Arabic for different patrons (p. 7, ll. 12-16: وقد كان سبقني الى ترحمة هذا الكتاب سرجس الى السريانيّة وقد كان قوويّ بعض القوّة في الترجمة ولم يبلغ غياته ثم ترجمته بعد الى السريانيّة لسلمويه…ثمّ ترجمته في هذا الايام الى العربيّة لابي جعفر محمّد بن موسى). The other two books (nos. 57 and 68 in the Risāla), which I do not quote here due to space, are discussed on p. 31.4-9, and p. 32.14-16. The medical bio-bibliographer Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa hardly mentions cancer: the only place I know of is at the end of ch. 8 (p. 255 in the Beirut ed. before me) for a physician called Al-Sāhir (“the sleepless”), also known as Yūsuf the Priest, and even there the reference to the disease is somewhat tangential:

 وقال عبيد الله بن جبرائيل عنه إنّه كان به سرطان في مقدم رأسه وكان يمنعه من النوم فلقب بالساهر من اجل مرضه قال وصنف كناشا يذكر فيه ادوية الامراض وذكر في كناشه اشياء تدلّ على أنّه كان به هذا المرض

ʿUbayd Allāh b. Jibrāʾīl said of him that he had cancer on his forehead and that it would prevent him from sleeping, and so he was nicknamed Al-Sāhir because of his disease. He also said that he had put together a compendium [kunnāš] in which he mentions the remedies of diseases, and he mentioned in his book certain things indicating that he did in fact have this disease.

Finally, the main cause inciting me to pen this post: I have recently discovered two copies — Church of the Forty Martyrs, Mardin, 555(2) and 556, the former very incomplete and less accurate in comparison with the latter—of a medical text in Garšūnī manuscripts, both undated but perhaps of the 16th or 17th century. This anonymous work consists of a catalog of illnesses with their descriptions and treatments. Each section generally consists of these four (rubricated) headings: al-maraḍ (the disease), al-sabab (its cause), al-ʿarḍ (its presentation, manifestation), al-tadbīr (its regulation, steps to be taken against it). At this point I have no further data to identify the text, whether for author, date, or possible other manuscripts, but I welcome any additional information. Here are just a few lines from this work on cancer. In this section — no. 56 in 556, but no. 55 in 555(2) — cancer is grouped with dubayla (a stomach disease) and kumna (black cataract), and the ailments are each discussed in turn.

With the parts on these other illnesses omitted, the text reads (ms. no. 556 with some variants from 555(2) in brackets):

Al-sabab. Wa-l-saraṭān ḫilṭ sawdāwī ḥādiṯ bi-l-qarnī [bi-l-qarānī, om. ḥādiṯ].

Al-ʿarḍ. Wa-ʿalāmat al-saraṭān ṣalābat al-ʿayn wa-tamaddud ʿurūqihā.

Al-tadbīr. Wa-ammā al-saraṭān lā burū lahu [lā budd wa-lahu] ġayr an al-ṭabīb yajtahidu fī taskīn alamihi wa-taḫfīf aḏīyatihi bi-stifrāġ al-badan wa-bi-l-aġdiya [om. wa-] al-muʿtadila wa-bi-an yaḍaʿa ʿalá l-ʿayn ṣufrat al-bayḍ maḍrūba maʿa kaṯīra wa-bi-laban al-nisā wa-bayāḍ al-bayḍ maʿa šay yasīr min [maʿa] iklīl al-malik fa-iḏā sakana al-wajaʿ fa-yajibu an yukḥala al-ʿayn bi-l-tūtiyā [om. -l-] wa-l-šādanaj [wa-l-sādanaj] wa-l-luʾluʾ wa-l-našā taduqq [yaduqq] al-adwiya wa-tanḫul [wa-yanḫul] wa-yattaḫiḏ kuḥlan wa-yaktaḥil bihi.

And here is an admittedly rough translation:

The cause: Cancer is black bile occurring on the side of the head.

Its manifestation: The mark of cancer is a hardening of the eye and the stretching out of its veins.

Its regulation: As for cancer, there is no recovery for it, even though the physician may make efforts to placate the patient’s suffering and to reduce his pain by evacuating the body, by balanced nutrition, or by putting the well-beaten yellow of an egg with women’s milk and egg-white with a little melilot on the eye. If the pain lessens, then it is necessary that zinc, lentil-stone, pearls, and starch be applied to the eye. Crush the medicinal ingredients and strain them; let the patient take it and apply it to his eye.

The remark, “there is no recovery for it,” a prognosis unfortunately still all too true for many, is reminiscent of other remarks about cancer in ancient and medieval medical literature. The command in the Egyptian Ebers papyrus has “do nothing against it”. More generally, Hippocrates in Aphorisms 7.87 counsels, “Diseases that medicines don’t heal, the knife heals; those that the knife doesn’t heal, fire heals; those that fire doesn’t heal we have to consider incurable” (Ὁκόσα φάρμακα οὐκ ἰῆται, σίδηρος ἰῆται· ὅσα σίδηρος οὐκ ἰῆται, πῦρ ἰῆται· ὅσα δὲ πῦρ οὐκ ἰῆται, ταῦτα χρὴ νομίζειν ἀνίατα), and in 6.38 (6.37 in the Syriac version) he recommends leaving “hidden cancers” (κρυπτοὶ καρκίνοι) untreated, since treating them will only cause a quick death, and presumably the cancer itself will still kill the patient, just not as quickly. See P. Pormann and E. Savage-Smith, Medieval Islamic Medicine 130 for a similarly bleak prognosis from 14th-century Spain.


Suplementary note: I don’t know the source of the sentence, but H. Fähnrich (in his chapter in A. Harris, ed., Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus, vol. 1, p. 202) cites in Georgian the line ძუძუსა ჩემსა მჯდომი მაზის “a cancer is on my breast.”



Peter Pormann, The Oriental Tradition of Paul of Aegina’s Pragmateia (Leiden, 2004).

——– and Emilie Savage-Smith, Medieval Islamic Medicine (Washington, D.C., 2007).

Jacob Wolff, Die Lehre von der Krebskrankheit. Four volumes. Gustav Fischer: Jena, 1907. In English see The Science of Cancerous Disease from Earliest Times to the Present, trans. Barbara Ayoub.

Yet another copy of the exemplar of Mingana Syriac 559?   1 comment

Church of the Forty Martyrs (Mardin) manuscript no. 555, copied in 1963-64 by Malki Gülçe for Yuḥanon Dolabani at the Church of Mary in Elâzığ, contains the same texts in the same order as Mingana Syriac 559 (see Mingana’s Catalogue, vol. 1, cols. 1034-1039). This Mingana manuscript—a welcome break from the almost ubiquitous theology, liturgy, and the like—is well-known for containing Job of Edessa’s very interesting Book of Treasures, a facsimile of which was published with an English translation by Mingana himself in 1935. But this is not the only notable text in the manuscript; in addition, there is:

  • a series of questions and answers attributed to Alexander Aphrodisias
  • selected questions and answers from the books of Galen
  • Job of Edessa’s short Treatise on Rabies (on which I have sent a proposal for this summer’s international Symposium Syriacum)
  • a brief work attributed to Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq on the fact that there are four elements and not more or less
  • a short text on dreams
  • a short text on the heart and the brain attributed to a nameless monk

Mingana’s manuscript was copied for him in 1930 on the basis of an exemplar copied in 1532 AG (= 1220/21 CE). Another manuscript, also copied, it seems, from this 13th century manuscript, is Harvard Syr 132 (Goshen-Gottstein’s Catalogue, pp. 90-91).

The Mardin manuscript at the beginning, before the Alexander Aphrodisias text, has the end of a work (only one folio) that I have thus far not identified, a philosophical text that deals (at least in this fragment) with the soul. This work is completely unmentioned by Mingana and Goshen-Gottstein. While the Mardin manuscript is some decades younger than the Mingana or Harvard copies, there is neither clear evidence, nor, as far as I know, even likelihood, considering the time and place of its copying, that it was copied from either of these manuscripts rather than from the thirteenth-century exemplar itself, the colophonic parts of which are included in the Mardin copy, as in Mingana’s (I don’t know about the Harvard manuscript in this regard). Late manuscripts such as the Mardin copy, and even earlier ones, are known sometimes to derive from printed editions, but the only text in this group that has been published is the Book of Treasures, mentioned above. On a quick perusal of this newly identified manuscript, I observed that the text is often not always the same orthographically and lexically as the Mingana copy. Witness, for example, that the second adjective describing Alexander’s questions, both in the title and in the table of contents at the beginning of the volume, is not asyāyē “medical” (as in Mingana’s text), but usyāyē “essential”, which, it bears emphasizing, requires the writing of an extra letter in Syriac.

These questions of textual derivation would be moot if the thirteenth-century exemplar were discovered, and it may yet show up, perhaps even in one of the collections digitized or being digitized by HMML, but for the time being scholars interested in Syriac scientific and philosophical literature will welcome another witness thereto, even one as late as this one.

The circle of the Zodiac, planetary signs, and metals   1 comment

Dayr al-Za`farān ms. no. 197, f. 71r

In Dayr al-Za`farān ms. no. 197—quite a motley arrangement of texts, fragments, and notes—after a fragment from the Syriac Cause of All Causes,[1] and before a short commentary in Garšūnī on the Nicene Creed, there is this page that concisely presents some basic astrological and alchemical data. On the right of the page (the picture here [click to enlarge] has been rotated 90º to the right) is the zodiacal circle: names of the signs in Syriac on the outside, the sign itself, and the number of the sign on the inside.[2] The list on the left is in two parts: first come the signs for each of the seven planets[3] (i.e. as then conceived: sun, moon, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury), and secondly the metals that are associated with each of these seven planets (now listed in the correct order) in alchemy.[4]

It’s not clear why this page, which fits incongruously with its surroundings, is here. The Nicene Creed commentary is on the verso side of the folio; there is no blank page intervening. While there is material in The Cause of All Causes related to the planets, etc., this diagram is not part of the work (there are other diagrams in it), and the included fragment of the work in this manuscript has nothing whatsoever to do with the planets or astrology. For whatever reason it is here, it’s a diverting find.

[1] Ed. C. Kayser, Leipzig, 1889; German trans., 1893.

[2] Cf. James Evans, The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy (New York and Oxford, 1998), p. 76.

[3] Ibid., pp. 350-351.

[4] For the most comprehensive resource for the little studied subfield of Syriac alchemy (some Arabic sources are included, too), see Marcellin Pierre Eugene Berthelot and Rubens Duval, Histoire des sciences: La chimie au moyen âge. Tome 2: L’alchimie syriaque. Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1893.

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