The chronicler of Zuqnin continues…

The next passage of the anonymous 9th century Syriac chronicle is as follows.  After the widespread flooding, which of course polluted the water supply, the inevitable plague struck.  This is happening towards the end of the Ummayad caliphate, in the early 700’s.

It is interesting to note that, while the Arabs and Jews buried their dead in “innumerable” pits, both were clearly a very small minority.  The population of Syria was mainly Christian, almost a century after the Moslem conquest. 

Of the great plague which happened in that time.

Here the prophet Jeremiah comes to  help us, he who knows better than anyone lamenting over the miseries by which we are surrounded on all sides: “Who will give water to my head, and to my eyes a fountain of tears? and I shall weep day and night for the dead of the daughter of my people.” And again: “On the mountains I abandon myself to tears and lamentations, and in the desert to complaints because they are desolate and there is nobody there.  Let our eyes shed tears, let our eyelids flow with water. Therefore, listen, women, to the word of the Lord; let your ears capture the speech of his mouth, teach your daughters lamentations, and let each learn the plaintive chant of his neighbour; because death is come through our windows, it came into our homes to exterminate children in the streets and young men in public places. The bodies of men shall fall like manure upon the face of the earth, like the grass behind the mower, and there is no one who collects them!”

[36] Let him come now [the Prophet], and let him weep about, not one people, nor only the city of Jerusalem, but over all nations and many cities, that the plague has made like a press, trampling and crushing them underfoot and plucking without mercy their inhabitants like beautiful grapes; — over the whole earth, because the punishment, like the reaper in the middle of the ripe corn on foot, has threatened and cut off all ages, all conditions, all ranks, without distinction of persons;  — over decaying and mangled corpses [which lie] in the streets of the whole world: their fluids flow like water, and there is nobody to bury them; — over houses, large and small, beautiful and pleasant, which have suddenly become the graves of their inhabitants, in which suddenly servants fell with their masters, and no-one escaped to drag the corpses out of the interior; — over the roads, which are desolate; — over many villages, whose inhabitants have all perished at once; — over the palace where each trembles at the other; — over the nuptial chambers decorated for brides, who have there died suddenly; — over young virgins kept in the women’s quarters, awaiting the celebration of their wedding and who suddenly have been carried to the grave; — over many similar things that surpass speech and the narratives of all the rhetoricians; — over these things, I say, the prophet would have reason to weep and say: “Woe is me!” not because of “the defilement of the daughter of my people,” but because of the ruin of all the inhabited earth, and the world that the plague has completely destroyed because of its sins. It would be right to use the prophetic words of his colleagues: “Let him come and tell the rest of those who survived: Weep, mourn, you ministers of the altar; enter, spend the night in the hair shirt, ministers of my God,” not “because the offering has been removed [37] from the house of God,” but because of men, who have been cut off from the world; and again: “Let the earth live in mourning, let all its inhabitants lament. Call the mourners and let the chanters of lamentations all come to celebrate together, not over an only son,” nor a single corpse, but over peoples and kingdoms. “By the tearing the earth will be torn, by the breaking the earth will be broken, by the shaking the earth will be shaken, by the trembling the earth will tremble. It will be delivered to the fire like a terebinth lined with leaves, like an oak tree fallen from its base.”

All these things have been fulfilled in the present time: great disturbances and violent earthquakes; armies, wars, the enmities of the Arabs between themselves over power; the famine which so raged that in the southern and eastern region the entire population arose and spread themselves all over the countries of the north and west; discord with every misery.

“I will send after them,” says the prophet, “the sword and captivity, famine and plague too.”

All these things have happened today without exception. Here is the sword of the Arabs [turned] against themselves; here are depredations so that it was impossible to go out without being pillaged and robbed of one’s property; here is famine which rages within and without. If someone enters his house, there he finds famine and pestilence, if he goes outside, the sword and captivity run to meet him. On all sides there is nothing but cruel oppression and terrible pain, suffering and disturbance.

“They are drunk, but not on wine, and they stumble, but not from spirits.”

Men began to wander and to travel from city to city and place to place; they stumbled as if they were drunk; they asked for bread and there was none, just as the prophet said.

First, a large number of the heads of families began to sicken and die from a corruption of the blood and from ulcers. Things went thus [38] during the whole winter. They could not be buried. Men were lying in the streets, the porticos, towers, temples, in every home, tortured by the violence of the disease and the great strictness of the famine, so that the number of those who perished from starvation was greater than that of those who died from disease.  It was especially those who had eaten bread until they were full who were seized by the disease. When the days became warmer, tumours appeared on the sick, who began to fall dead in public places, like manure in the face of the earth, and there was no one to bury them!

The plague began to rage among the poor, who were abandoned in the streets. They buried them with honour, singing hymns, and they were buried properly, and when there were no more poor, mortality raged with such violence against the lords of the villages and the towns that, when the priests wanted to do a funeral, there were gathered in the morning at the same place fifty to seventy to eighty or a hundred coffins, in each of which there were two or three dead, or even four children. And so all day, without truce or rest, the corpses of men were buried.

The Arabs covered the earth with pits, and the Jews likewise. The tombs of the Christians were so full that they themselves were forced to dig holes in the earth. In a single day, over five hundred coffins came out by a single door. Throughout the day the doors were only used for the goings and comings of those who carried the corpses: they went out, deposited them, and returned to take others.

So, except for a few, there was no {burial} service, because of the swiftness of death, the small number [39] of priests and the innumerable multitude of buryings. In the morning, the priests prescribed that anyone who had a deceased should come to the nearest crossroads and the whole region or district would assemble in this place. The priests divided themselves up in the morning to go in all directions to perform the office of the dead and to put them in the ground in groups. It happened that one group was over a hundred coffins, in which there were more than two hundred or two hundred and fifty dead, because they were piled next to each other without pause throughout the day. Here there was no distinction between servant and master, between serving-girl and mistress, between the hired man and the hirer, but one storm of destruction and fury was prepared for them all: servants and masters were equally struck down without distinction of persons; the man of the people and the leaders fell, and were groaning next to one another.

Let everyone admire the divine decree and be filled with astonishment and stupour in presence of these judgments of God, unfathomable, incomprehensible, incommensurable for men. Certainly “a deep abyss is the judgments of the Lord!”

The plague spread its devastating hand over those who hold power, who enjoy opulence, or who revel in grandeur. The houses of many of them were left without an heir, because there remained in them neither servant nor master. Men suddenly abandoned to their companions their possessions, their riches, their crops, even their beautiful homes. How splendid and opulent mansions, how many families perished because there did not remain a single heir!

The human language is incapable of expressing the prodigious disasters [40] that occurred in the country which stretches from the Euphrates to the west, as well as in the other cities of Palestine, in the North and the South, as far as the Red Sea as well as in the rest of Cilicia, Lycaonia, Asia [Minor], Bithynia, Lysynie [Lydia?] Galatia, even in Cappadocia: because the oppression of this cruel suffering was felt throughout the world. As the rain descends upon the whole earth, or as the sun’s rays are spread equally in all places, the plague spread equally over the whole world. However it was prevalent more in the countries previously designated. In these regions, towns and numerous villages became suddenly deserted, and no-one stayed there or passed that way. They were filled with rotting dead bodies, lying on the ground like dung upon the face of the earth, with no one to bury them: because not one of their inhabitants remained; so that men lay in the middle of them, swollen, full of pus, and rotting. The houses were opened as tombs and their owners putrefied in the middle of them. Their furniture, their gold, their money, their possessions were scattered in the streets and there was nobody to collect them. Gold and silver were despised, and riches were abandoned everywhere and found no master. Old men and old women, adorned with white hair, who had hoped to be buried with honour by their heirs, lay open-mouthed in the streets, in houses, in public places, dying and putrefying. Pretty virgins, beautiful young girls who were waiting for their happy nuptials and the adornment of precious clothing were found lying and decomposing, and became an object of pity for those who saw them. Would to God that this was happening in the tombs! But it is in the houses in the streets [41] that charming and cheerful young people have become livid, deceased, and that their pus was mingled with that of their parents.

That is what happened in these countries.


7 thoughts on “The chronicler of Zuqnin continues…

  1. Thank you, Roger. Great piece.
    How bizarrely beautiful, and masterly, is the description of this plague. I enjoyed reading the whole thing. Very detailed description of the bubonic plague.

    My attention was drawn to the following: “Let everyone admire the divine decree and be filled with astonishment and stupor in presence of these judgments of God, unfathomable, incomprehensible, incommensurable for men. Certainly “a deep abyss is the judgments of the Lord!”

  2. Another matter which drew my attention is how organised the Church in the circumstances; also, the insistence on conducting the funeral services to their best efforts.

  3. Jona – thank you. It’s merely an English rendering of the French translation, but so many people do not know French and so few know Syriac that the exercise is worthwhile.

    Dioscorus – yes, the church was pretty organised. Although I imagine under the moslem system, the church and patriarch were effectively a branch of local government, as in the millet system.

  4. Roger, is there anywhere in the document (or the notes of the French translation)to date this plague? I think it might have occurred in the second half of the 740s AD, but I am not sure. This would have been after Hisham, and perhaps at the beginning of the reign of Marwan II, the last Umayyad caliph who was killed by the Abbasids in 750 AD.

  5. In the chronicle, the notice of the plague follows the events of 743-744 AD (1055 AG), the death of Hisham, and the short reigns of Walid II and Yezid III. A note on p.32 suggests 748 AD.

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