Arabic Christian Historians: Yahya ibn Sa`id al-Antaki

When the early Muslims conquered the Near East, they subjugated large areas populated by Christians, politically part of the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman empire, but speaking either Syriac or Coptic.  Over time these were forced to adopt Arabic, and to translate their literature into that language from the 9th century onwards.  This multi-lingual environment produced the Translation Movement, which translated Greek science into Arabic.  Arabic Christian literature is little known, but voluminous.

There are five major historians prior to 1500.  These are Agapius, Eutychius, Yahya ibn Sa’id al-Antaki, Al-Makin, and Bar Hebraeus.  I always find it hard to remember the barbarous-sounding Yahya ibn Sa’id al-Antaki – it means John, son of Said, of Antioch – and, having managed to remember, I thought I would say a few words about him.

TLDR: He was an Egyptian who went to Antioch and wrote a continuation of the Annals of Eutychius covering the years 938-1028.

I think we’d better start with the entry in Georg Graf’s Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Litteratur vol. 2 (1947), p.49 f.  (Written 76 years ago!)  I’m not bothering with the dots and accents here.

14.  Yahya (Yuhanna) ibn Said ibn Yahya al-Antaki.  According to Ibn Abi Usaibia, he was a relative of Eutychius, and composed his annals under the title “The Book of the Appendix” (Kitab ad-Dail) for the years 938-1027-8 AD.  He wrote the majority of the work before his move to Antioch in 1015, but then corrected, supplemented and expanded it based upon the archival documents which he found there. Apart from presenting Byzantine history, it is above all an important source for the history of Fatimid rule in Egypt and Syria. It is also rich in valuable details about ecclesiastical conditions and events in the eastern countries.

We then get some very elderly bibliography, which I will abbreviate a bit.

Ibn Abi Usaibia, vol. 2, 87.  Krumbacher 368.  … An excerpt on the seige and capture of Antioch by the Byzantines in 967-8 was printed in translation by Alfred von Kremer, Beiträge zur Geographie des nördlichen Syriens, Wien 1852, p. 4-6.  … (Russian publication) deals with, among other things, the Christianization of the Russians and the history of the Bulgarians at the end of the 10th and beginning of the 11th century, with a different perspective to that in Byzantine sources.  The first complete edition of the Arabic text was  part of the publication of Eutychius by L. Cheikho &c in CSCO, Scriptores Arabici, textus, series III, t. VII (Beirut 1909), p.89-273, and taken from Ms. Paris ar. 291 (17th century), folios 82v-137v, and a manuscript of the collection of excerpts by the deacon Paul az-Za`im of Aleppo (17th century), itself derived from a copy of Yahya ibn Said al-Antaki’s text made in Cairo in 1291.

A new edition with French translation was made in the Patrologia Orientalis series, volumes 18 pt 5 and 23 pt 3.  …. using various rather late manuscripts.

This is online so I will skip Graf’s remarks about it, and give links:

Three other works of the same author also exist, although I have no idea whether any have been printed, or even exist now.  These remarks are from 1947.

Three theological works by the same author, “Abu’l Farag Yahya ibn Sa`id ibn Yahya al-Antaki” are in manuscripts in a private collection in Aleppo:

  • Treatise (maqala) on the truth of the (Christian) religion, catalogued in Sbath, Fihris 2527 (13th c.)
  • Refutation of the Jews, 2528.
  • Refutation of the Muslims, 2529.

Some sources refer to a supposed English translation of the historical work:

J.H. Forsyth “The Chronicle of Yahya ibn Sa’id al-Antaki”, Univ. of Michigan Ph.D. thesis, 1977.

But this is now online here, and in fact is only a study.

An Italian translation does exist, and selections from this are available online at the publisher’s website!  I do approve of that practice.

Yaḥyā ibn Sa’ïd, al-Anṭākī, Cronache dell’Egitto fāṭimide e dell’impero bizantino : (937-1033) (PDF). Translated by Bartolomeo Pirone, (3rd ed. heavily revised and corrected), Milan: Jaca Book (1998).  Series: PCAC 3.  The publisher has a page for it here.

Since I don’t have the English translation, why don’t we let Google translate give us the first couple of sections of the Italian of Bartolomeo Pirone?  (Saʿīd Ibn Baṭrīq = Eutychius).

1.   In the name of God, the Merciful, the Merciful!  A book composed by Yaḥyā Ibn Saʿīd al-Anṭākī, a continuation of the Annals of Saʿīd Ibn Baṭrīq.  I propose, with this book, to narrate those past events and present events of which I have come to know, and which I believe to be true, starting from the time at which the Annals of Saʿīd Ibn Baṭrīq, patriarch of Alexandria, end, to the present day, thus taking care to oblige myself towards the one who asked me to compose and write it, encouraging me to draft it and arrange the parts in good order. May God guard him, and preserve him, too, from what he fears!

2.  Now Saʿīd Ibn Baṭrīq stops, in the Annals that he wrote, at the fifth year of the caliphate of al-Rāḍī, i.e. in the year 326 of the hegira, while he himself died in the year 328 of the hegira. The day and the month of the year in which he died, I will mention them at the right place in this book of mine. I will classify the material I have collected following the same classification criterion he adopted and, in doing so, I will stick to the methods he followed. For my part, I will add the names of all the caliphs and all the rulers that have come to me and I will define the period of government completed by each of them; to this I will add everything I have learned about their deeds, their lives and the events that took place in their days, avoiding, in doing so, giving in, at the same time, to verbosity of exposition and excessive conciseness, following, at the on the contrary, somewhere in between. Indeed the minds of men more often seek, and pursue with greater desire, knowledge of events close to their own time.

Few of us, perhaps, will ever have reason to venture into this book.  But it is useful to have some idea of what is out there, and how to find it.

Update (9 December 2023): The Forsyth “translation” does not exist; it is merely a study.


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