Archive for August, 2006

Programming Right-to-Left Syriac Unicode text on Windows

For some time I have been trying to write a program on Windows XP which would help me work with Syriac text.  It has been quite a dreadful experience, and I am barely started!  The problem is finding out how to get one text box in my application to handle text as Right-to-Left Syriac, both display and text entry, while allowing the rest of the application to work as normal.  In case anyone else out there is struggling, I have written some notes on how to do it, now I have finally worked out the problem!

The same would apply to any RTL language, such as Hebrew and Arabic.  Is Ethiopic RTL, I wonder?

No copyright on library-made photos of manuscripts

I was looking at Wikipedia and found there considerable numbers of colour photographs of pages from manuscripts, most apparently professionally produced and so probably done by in-house departments at major libraries.  

Among these was one from the British Library, whom I know to be bitterly hostile to anyone seeing or using their holdings:

This had a notice stating that such an image was public domain in the USA, and citing the following 1999 court case:

What this seems to mean is that you can buy a picture of any page in any ancient or medieval manuscript from any library you like and the image is public domain in the USA.  You can then upload it onto your website, or Wikipedia, or wherever.

This, if true, is revolutionary.  Libraries and museums have sought prevent the circulation of photographs of out of copyright material by claiming that the photograph is copyright.  The damage that this has done to public access to their holdings is incalculable.

The page also referred to UK law, which is generally drawn up without reference to the public interest. The article expressed an opinion that even UK law would not protect such images.  Well, I have been enquiring in the ABTAPL list of smaller theological libraries, and been told that no case law exists in the UK, but that the opinion of “copyright professionals” is that UK law does allow museums and libraries this dog-in-the-manger right.  Apparently no lawsuits have ever been brought, tho, but the “Museums Copyright Group” has made all sorts of very positive statements reiterating copyright.  That the public fund these museums so that the public can see these items does not trouble these bureaucrats at all, it seems.

I shall enquire further as to how this works, but I would encourage every US citizen interested in manuscripts to start uploading images.  We in the unfree world may not be able to do this; you can.

Postscript: I have written to this “Museums copyright group” and queried whether preventing public access was really what museums were for.  I await a reply full of bureacratic evasions!

A.G. still being used in 1900 in Iraq

I wonder how many people know that the Seleucid era (Anno Graecorum=Year of the Greeks) was still being used in 1900? I’m reading through the English translation of Nestorius, “The Bazaar of Heracleides“, at the moment, and came across this footnote on p.192: 

2 The Syriac copyist has here added a note to the following effect: ‘From here twelve pages have been torn out and lost from the original by the troops of Bedr Khan Bey, when they captured the district of Das in the year 2154 of the Greeks (= A. D. 1843).’

The Syriac copyist in question must be a modern scribe writing one of the handwritten copies made ca. 1900 of the unique 11th century manuscript, since the editor only had access to these copies. The 11th century ms. was damaged but fortunately not destroyed by the Kurds when they massacred 10,000 Nestorian Christians in 1843.  It appears to have been destroyed altogether during WW1.

Alqosh monastery bombed?

This link, written in 2004, describes damage to the Christian churches at Kurdish hands in Iraq.  It mentions “Rabban Hormizd, the ancient stone monastery outside Alqosh on the Nineveh plain which was bombed so severely that many of its magnificent epigraphic memorials, dating from a hundred centuries ago, have been shattered. These memorials were some of the most precious classical Syriac stone carvings in the world. They lie in a makeshift museum in Alqosh in desperate need of restoration.” Addai Scher catalogued the books at this monastery, also known as Notre-Dame des Semences.  Some at least of these were taken to Baghdad, to the Chaldean Patriarchate (since bombed by the insurgents).  Those are apparently safe.  It all highlights the need to photograph manuscripts urgently; no-one in 1950 would have expected that we would be losing manuscripts like this in 2006!

More on the lost library of Seert

Addai ScherI have referred before to the library at the Chaldean archbishop’s residence at Séert.  Even copies of the catalogue of manuscripts made by Addai Scher in 1905 seem scarce.  Here in the UK a copy is listed in the British Library, but this is useless to most people.  Yesterday I looked at the copy in Cambridge University Library, which turned out to be an incomplete and grotty photocopy of the BL one.  I admit that I mourned over codex 88, containing the only copy in the world of Theodore of Mopsuestia on the Incarnation.  J. Quasten in the third volume of his Patrology states that among his works, “no other work was so often referenced” during the 5th century disputes.

I’ve been trying to pin down data about the loss of the library.  I’ve found online a book from 1920 in English which gives eyewitness accounts of how the scholar Addai Scher (left) died, after fleeing his residence with the aid of a sympathetic Turkish officer, he was caught, “looking pale and emaciated”, beaten up by Kurdish irregulars, and then shot several times.  Elsewhere the account refers to books being looted from other sites.

This leads to an interesting question: do we know for a fact that these volumes are not to be found somewhere in Kurdistan?  A couple of weeks ago I heard from someone who named himself a Kurd, proferring a bible manuscript, “written on skin”.  The invitation sounded like a con.  George Kiraz recounts how a DVD of images of a manuscript, on black parchment (!) and containing a mixture of crude Syriac and Arabic lettering, was being touted around bishops in Eastern Turkey, so clearly someone has realised that there is a market. 

But who are these people?  And, more seriously: what books exist in Kurdistan?  Saddam Hussein had a collection of manuscripts before his fall, which included Arabic and Kurdish mss.  Is there work to be done, to determine what actually exists out there?

Will JSTOR kill the web?

I don’t belong to any academic institution, so like most people I have no access to the electronic resources now becoming available unless they happen to be accessible from somewhere that I can visit. But today I had the chance to use JSTOR. It contained complete runs of mostly anglophone-centred journals. Frankly, after seeing it, I see no reason to ever scan another academic article myself.

Indeed it contained all the articles from Vigiliae Christianae from the 1950′s which I was myself refused permission to scan! Amusingly it discusses a time ‘wall’ after which articles won’t appear, so that it doesn’t interfere with publishers’ revenue streams — of about 10 years before the present! This makes ironic reading for those of us afflicted by the copyright law: only material 70+ years old may appear. But of course it is good that they have found a way around that. It also highlights that the material protected by copyright law really is nearly all commercially worthless.

Clearly this system must have a huge impact on how people access information, if you can access it. It’s accurate, it’s searchable, the articles can be exported to PDF, and it’s fast. I did searches on “Severus Sebokht” (who gets relatively few mentions on google) and came up with a mass of recent and not-so-recent scholarly articles about him.

There are still limitations. The coverage of French and German serials was negligible; but I think that this will change, such is the obvious benefit to all of the system. Likewise I think that access will be broadened as time goes by, probably as central institutions buy access for all colleges in a country or something like that. It was interesting to learn that all educational establishments in Africa will be given free access. But I don’t think that the general public will ever get access, and I think that the period of non-inclusion will remain or extend. This allows publishers to sell their CDROMs.

So what will be the impact on the web? Why would anyone use amateur sites, when this is available? Likewise, what is the point of Project Gutenberg, the CCEL, indeed my own collection, if instead the books can all be downloaded in PDF? Well, this last is not yet the case. But the success of the Early English Books Online project (likewise inaccessible to the public, but free to all educational institutions in the UK at least) which does just this for all English printed books to 1700 means that the writing must be on the wall. A project to do the books to 1900 must be in proposal somewhere already, I would imagine.

As these sorts of projects become more mature, I think that we will see more attempts by publishers to push sites like my own offline using copyright law, so as to bring the whole dissemination of data under commercial control again. After all, all these projects involve fees, payments, revenue streams. They have completeness, and state-funding, so they are far more desirable than some amateur site full of typos. The publishers profit, the average student doesn’t care. But the publisher has thus a financial interest to ensure that only the approved site is used.

One thing is for sure, in 10 years time the internet will be a very different beast for people with our interests. We may all be much better informed (if we belong to one of the favoured groups with access). But the “Wild west” days of the internet will be over.

Getting a copy of a Syriac scientific manuscript

I have found that the French National Library want $130 for a duplicate of a monochrome microfilm and putting it onto CDROM.  Am I the only one rather astonished at the prices that are being charged these days for low quality stuff?

New issue of Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies has appeared

The new issue of the online peer-reviewed journal of Syriac studies Hugoye has appeared.  It contains a review of Aphrem Barsoum’s “Scattered Pearls”, on which I wrote a few posts back; a travelogue of a journey of 15 scholars last year into the regions in Eastern Turkey around Tur Abdin, Edessa and Nisibis, where there is still a Syriac-speaking population; a catalogue of Syriac Mss. at Yale, which includes a modern copy with unpublished translation of 5th century writer Marutha of Maiperkat on the Council of Nicaea (I have already asked for a copy!); and a discussion of the form of the letter of Mara bar Serapion with reference to the Second Sophistic.  The new issue can be found here:

Arabic Christian manuscripts at the BNF

I have been reading through the catalogue of Arabic Christian manuscripts from the French National Library, to get an idea of the contents. Curiously this was published without an index of authors, which makes it hard to gain such an overview. This is what I found.

The majority of the collection contains saints’ lives and homilies. None of the lives seem likely to be of interest, but include a life of Alexander the Great, and, interestingly, a version of the “Dialogues” of Gregory the Great (11th century, ms. 276). The sermons are clearly translated from coptic, and include sermons by John Chrysostom (in great quantity), Ephrem Syrus, Jacob of Serugh, Isaac the Syrian, John Climacus, John Saba and Severus of Antioch.

There are various works by Severus of al’Ashmuneim (=Hermopolis, a.k.a. Severus Ibn al’Muqaffa), who is also represented by a copy of his monster “History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria” (ms. 301), almost the only historical text included.

A couple of bestiaries (“physiologus”) are present, and a couple of texts by Ps.Aristotle. The life and questions of Secundus the Philosopher is present at least twice. There are seven copies of the “Barlaam and Joasaph” romance, sometimes attributed to John Damascene (mss. 268-274), who is also present in a few sermons.

There is a manuscript of the “Protevangelium of James” (ms. 147, #16). There did not seem to be other apocrypha. There were various apologetical dialogues with Moslems and Jews. There are also some texts translated in modern times from French or Italian literature.

BNF catalogues of manuscripts all online

I find that the Bibliotheque Nationale Francaise (French National Library) in Paris have scanned most of their catalogues in PDF form and made them available for free download.  The intention, clearly, is to do the lot.  Thus Zotenberg’s catalogue of Syriac and Mandean mss is online, as is the more recent supplement.  The catalogues can be found at:

I’ve been browsing through the catalogue of Arabic mss.  As one might expect, the contents are mainly derived from Coptic or Maronite texts.  But what a treasure!  Sadly we need not ask whether other major libraries have done the same.