How to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before

Ever wanted to learn about Syriac literature?  Or Persian?  Or Chinese? Or whatever?  It can be a daunting prospect, can’t it?  Why would we want to, anyway?

Well, the need to do so comes about like this; during an interesting discussion, on an interesting subject, someone refers to some geezer from some other language group whom no-one has ever heard of.  And everyone thinks, “What? Who?”.  People who talk about the Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus will be familiar with this; people start talking about “Agapius”, and everyone wonders who this might be.  Someone says “Arabic Christian”, everyone nods, and tries to get on without taking things further.

But really, what we want then is to get some kind of overview of that branch of literature.  How much of it is there?  What sorts of writing?  Starting and ending when?  How much published?  Who are the big names?  What did they write?  When did they live?

If we’re lucky, there are handbooks that list all the authors and their works.  For the Fathers, you start with Quasten’s Patrology.  For Arabic Christian literature, with Graf’s Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur (and curse the lack of an English version).  And so on.  For Islamic literature one would start with Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Literatur (if one can get access to it; and curse the lack of an English version).  But how does one explore these massive multi-volume tomes? 

It’s like entering an unknown country, through a pass in the mountains.  How do we move forward, and get an idea of the whole country?

What I tend to do is to look for the histories.  By this I mean the works in which authors of the new land write about their own people, and times, and past.  These seem to me like the backbone of the literature.  They will mention all the people whom the author thinks are important, and why, and when, and thereby act as a guide to the world of that language group.

For instance, once you know that there are five Arabic Christian histories, to 1500, the mass of literature in which to take an interest reduces to manageable proportions.  Once you know that Eusebius of Caesarea’s Church History is the key text for early Christian literature, plus continuators such as Socrates and Sozomen and Evagrius Scholasticus, you have something manageable, which will put all the rest in context.

This is how I do it. If I ever read up on Persian literature, I will find a handbook, and go through it and mark out the histories.

The other works of interest are things like a catalogue of writers; something like Ebedjesu’s 13th century catalogue of Syriac writers known to him, what existed, who wrote what.  (I’ve made sure that an English version of this is online)

For Arabic Christian literature there is a similar list, by Abu-l Barakat, and I’m taking an interest in that again.  There is an old edition and German translation by Riedel.  Apparently Samir Khalil Samir has made an edition also.  And someone tells me that a French version exists in the Patrologia Orentalis 20, although I’m not sure about that.

These are the planks from which we will build our wagon; the materials with which to make our star-map; the tools whereby we can go where no-one ever seems to  go very often!


Leave a Reply