The Chronicle of Zuqnin (ps.Dionysius of Tell-Mahre)

In the Vatican library there is a manuscript written in Syriac containing a world chronicle in four parts, ending in 775 AD.  The shelfmark of the volume is Vatican Syriac manuscript number 162.  The manuscript contains 173 leaves or ‘folios’ in manuscript-speak, each with two sides, the front (‘recto’) and the reverse (‘verso’).  The manuscript seems to have been written in the early 9th century, if we look at the letter-forms in use.

On folio 66v at the bottom there is a scribal note or colophon.  The leaf seems to have been lost and recopied.  It reads:

Pray for the wretched Elisha of the monastery of Zuqnin, who copied this leaf, that he might obtain mercy like the robber on the right hand (of Jesus).  Amen and amen.  1

Another British Library manuscript (Oriental ms. 5021) mentions a scribe, Elisha of Zuqnin.  A colophon dated to 903 says that he lived in Egypt as an anchorite.  Presumably he wrote the Vatican ms. while at Zuqnin, and moved to Egypt later.

The manuscript was found in Egypt at the monastery of Deir el-Suryani (Monastery of the Syrians) in the Nitrian desert in Egypt.  This  monastery acquired a very rich collection of Syriac manuscripts.  In 926-932 AD the Archimandrite Moses of Nisibis collected manuscripts from monasteries in Syria and Iraq and transported them to Egypt, forming the basis of the collection.

One of the early Syriac scholars, J. S. Assemani, brought a bunch of Syriac manuscripts to the Vatican library in 1715.   One of these was the manuscript of the chronicle.  He didn’t get the whole manuscript, tho; a century later Henry Tattam bought nearly all the remaining manuscripts at the monastery and donated them to the British Museum, in 1842.  Among the piles of parchment are some leaves missing from Vatican Syr. 162.  These are today in the British Library, bound under the shelfmark Additional Ms. 14,665, folios 1-7.

The chronicle used old parchment.  Underneath the Syriac text are Greek letters of the 7-8th century, containing excerpts from the Old Testament.  123 folios of the Vatican manuscript and all the London folios are from this old manuscript.

The text has deteriorated since the 18th century.  A copy was made by Paulin Martin in 1867, which is in the French National Library (shelfmark Syr. Ms. 284 and 285).  The copy contains errors, but is valuable since the original can no longer be read in various passages.  Chabot, the editor of the text in the CSCO edition — the only one — was forced to rely on the copy at various points.  It would be interesting to see what modern technology could do to improve this edition!

Partial publication of chronicles is the curse of Syriac studies.  This chronicle is not immune.  There were two partial editions in the 19th century.  Fortunately the CSCO text is complete, but only the first half received a Latin translation!  The second half was not translated until 1990, when R. Hespel translated it into French.

Earlier, the fourth part was also edited and translated into French by Chabot in 1895.2 This portion (from fol. 121 to the end) is of interest for Islamic history.  Parts 3 and 4 were translated into English by Amir Harrak in 1999.

Would that this was online!

1. Incerti auctoris Chronicon Pseudo-Dionysianum vulgo dictum, ed. J.-B. Chabot, CSCO 91 and 104 (S.Syr. 43 and 53), Paris 1927, 1933.  Vol. 1, p. 241, note 6.
2. Chronique de Denys de Tell-Mahre; quatrieme partie, publ. et trad. par J.-B. Chabot, Bibliotheque de l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes: sciences philologiques et historiques 112), Paris, 1895.  Online here and here.
3. Amir Harrak, Chronicle of Zuqnin: A.D. 488-775. Mediaeval sources in translation 36. Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1999.  A limited edition preview is in Google books here.  Harrak also collated the whole CSCO text against the manuscript and gives critical apparatus omitted by Chabot.


17 thoughts on “The Chronicle of Zuqnin (ps.Dionysius of Tell-Mahre)

  1. The lack of scholarly publication of post ancient texts is a general problem. When in the second half of the 19th century the Germans were on the forefront of textual scholarship they published a large number of medieval and Byzantine texts but unfortunately not all. At BMCR there is a review of the editio princeps of Psellos’ commentary on Aristotle that was published in 2008 by the Academy of Athens. In many cases as I’ve discovered cruising the web these old editions are the only critical editions available of those text. Considering that Oriental languages are less known than Greek or English and that the process of manuscript discoveries for texts of those languages has not ended, I am not surprised by this cronicle’s publication status…

  2. The process is also hampered by the limited number of people who have the necessary language skills, and this is limited by the limited number of teaching posts for such people to hold!

  3. Since your blog is such a resource for all sorts of people searching for information, you might want to add to this entry that there are other translations of parts of The Chronicle of Zuqnin.

    The Chronicle of Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite is contained in folios 65r to 86v of the Vatican manuscript. You, of course, included Wright’s translation of Pseudo-Joshua at As you note in your introduction there, there is a newer translation by Frank R. Trombley and John W. Watt in volume 32 of the Translated Texts for Historians series (2000). There is also a 2007 translation by Dale A. Johnson (, which I have not seen.

    Two other Translated Texts for Historians volumes contain translations of parts of the Chronicle of Zuqnin: volume 22 by Witold Witakowski (1996) is a translation of Part III, and Andrew Palmer’s volume 15 (1993) includes a translation of a portion of Part IV. (The series is published by Liverpool University Press, but it’s easier to look up volumes on the website of the American distributor, the University of Chicago Press, at

    By the way, both on page 32 of his translation and on his website, Amir Harrak says he is collating and translating Parts I and II. I look forward to its publication.

  4. Many thanks indeed for these notes, which as you rightly say complement what I had.

    Amir Harrak has a website?

    It’s good if he is working on parts 1 and 2; except that none of us will ever see any of this stuff, since it’s offline.

  5. Whoever works or talks about the Zuqnin Chronicle has to read Witold Witakowski, Syriac Chronicle of Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre: A Study in the History of Historiography. Uppsala, 1987 (Studia Semitica Upsaliensia).
    It kind of restarted the study of Syriac Historiography and it also contains a lot on this particular work.

    PS: love the blog!

  6. Thank you! And thank you for indicating the importance of his work — that I had not known.

    The work that I have seen by Witold Witakowski all seems really first-class. If only it was more accessible! — all that marvellous work being buried in limited run monographs is a right royal pain.

  7. Hello.
    I’m really out of my element when it comes to researching medieval texts and I’m hoping someone may be able to help me. The Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology (Michael Newton 2005) has an article “The Assyrian Monster Invasion” that alleges an outbreak of attacks from unidentified canids in year 774AD.
    The article cites the record coming from “Denys of Tell-Mahre’s Chronicles,” which I’m under the impression is the same thing as the Chronicles of Zuqnin. Is there a resource you know of where I can read year 774 without purchasing the whole chronicle part 3 & 4?
    Any help is most appreciated.

  8. I don’t see any reference to what edition the book is. The article is on page 29 and says:

    “Assyrian Monster Invasion – In A.D. 774 the Assyrian empire (spanning portions of present day Jordan, Syria, and Iraq) suffered a frightening invasion of man-eating creatures as yet unidentified. The events were recorded by Denys of Tell-Mahre, a leader of the Syrian Jacobites, in his Chronicles.

    Before the reign of the Emperor Leo IV there raged a plague that was followed by the appearance of frightening and terrifying animals who feared nothing and no one. They fled from no man and, indeed, killed many people. A very little were they like wolves, but their face was small and long…and they had great ears. The skin on their spines resembled that of a pig.
    These mysterious animals committed great ravages on the people of the Abdin Rock region, near Hoh. In some villages they devoured more than one hundred people, and in many others from twenty, to forty or fifty. Nothing could be done to them because they were fearless of man. If a man did pursue them, in no ways did the monsters become scared or flee. Instead, they turned on the man. If men loosed their weapons on a monster, it leaped on the men and tore them to bits.
    These monsters entered houses and yards, and seized and kidnapped children and left, no one daring to offer resistance. They climbed in the night onto terraces, stole children from their beds and went off without opposition. When they appeared, dogs were afraid to bark.
    For these reasons, the country suffered a more terrible experience than it had ever known before. Two or three men were frightened to move around together. Cattle disappeared from the field because all of the livestock had been devoured by these dreadful monsters. Indeed, when one of these creatures attacked a heard of goats, or a flock of sheep, they took away several at a time.
    These monsters passed from the land and went into Arzanene [Southern Armenia] and ravaged every village there. They also aged the country of Maipherk and along Mt. Cahai and caused great damage at Amida.

  9. The book is Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology: A Global Guide. By Michael Newton, Macfarland & Company 2005.

    He bibliography cites his source as Norman, Eric. The Abominable Snowman. New York: Award, 1969.

  10. Thank you. It was very hard to find this passage, but the keyword “Arzanene” was the charm. The passage you seek is on p.312-3 of Amir Harrak’s translation of the “Chronicle of Zuqnin, parts III and IV (A.D. 488-775)”. Series: “Mediaeval sources in translation ; 36”. Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies(1999). (ISBN 0-88844-286-6).

    Here is Amir Harrak’s translation from the Syriac (I wonder where yours comes from? Perhaps via the old French translation) The / are the pages in the sole manuscript(Ms. Vatican Syriac. 162, 8th century, found in the Nitrian desert). His note says that this is a hyena.

    The author of this work is unknown, but Assemani in the 18th century supposed that it was Dionysius of Tell-Mahre. It is today referred to simply as the Chronicle of Zuqnin, after the monastery in which it was written.

    Here’s the text:

    Moreover, frightful and dreadful animals appeared after this pestilence. They did not fear anything, nor did they run away from or were scared of people, but killed a countless number of them. They looked somehow like wolves, although they were a bit different from wolves in that the muzzle of each one of them was narrow and long. They had big ears, like those of a horse, and the hair, long and raised skyward, that covered their dorsal ridge looked like pig’s hair.[3] They caused great harm to the people in Tur-‘Abdin. People said that they devoured more than one hundred men in one village, and in many others, twenty men in some, forty or fifty in others. People were not able to hurt any of them, /p.369/ nor did these flee from people. And if there were people who chased one of them with weapons, they were unable to do any harm to it. Nor did it run away from them but returned against them; and as their hands let loose their weapons, it jumped on them and tore them into pieces. They used to break into houses and courtyards, snatching children and leaving, and there was no one to oppose them. Some of them climbed up high roofs during the night, snatching children from their houses, and then came down, and there was no one to oppose them. Not even dogs barked at any one of them! Because of this, this region suffered a more cruel and harsh calamity than all the ones which it had experienced before. Two or three persons were not able to walk together. Nor were cattle seen anywhere, because they were devoured by one of the animals; for if one of them went among goats or sheep, it snatched some of them.

    How can we explain this cruel scourge except to say that these animals were sent against us by God? It became clear to everyone that they received this power from God, because neither dogs nor people were able to do any of them any harm. It is said: I will gather evils against them. Behold the punishments of the merciless tribute and the flight from one place to another! Behold famine, pestilence and various diseases! Behold the rapine and plundering of each other and of one district by its neighbour! Not only did all the cattle of the country perish during this year, but the birds of prey tore apart the unburied human corpses everywhere. In addition to this, behold the rapacious animals! These animals crossed over to the land of Arzanene and caused great harm /p.370/ in one village, as well as in the region of Maipharqat and in the Sahia mountain. The damage in Amida was little.

    3. The description of the animal is no doubt that of the hyena, a Greek name derived from “pig” because of the animal’s bristly mane.

    It is great that Amir Harrak translated all this. Well done that man!

  11. Such an unusual event. Many many thanks to you Roger, this is exactly what I needed to find.

Leave a Reply