Al-Majdalus, “Commentary on the Nicene Creed”; the Bibliotheque orientale in Beirut, etc

I’ve mentioned before my investigation into Arabic witnesses to the idea that Zoroaster said “Whoever does not eat my body and drink my blood…”.  One of these may be the 9th century Melkite “Commentary on the Nicene creed” by the otherwise unknown Al-Majdalus. 

A little while ago, I experimented with getting a commercial translator in Beirut to have a go at this.  The text is unpublished, so I obtained monochrome images of the pages of two manuscripts from the Bibliotheque Orientale at Saint-Joseph’s University, and passed them to him.  Of course I asked for a sample, of the first page.  This has now arrived, and looks a bit inadequate.  But I’m passing it to a gentleman who has helped me in the past, and we’ll see.

The BO managed to put my images on a dodgy CDROM.  Two of the jpg files arrived being zero bytes long.  However there are other unpublished Arabic texts which might be relevant, so I’ve asked them for some of these.  This time they’ve invented some bureaucracy — a form full of talk about rights etc.  Quite how many people can read these mss, or care, I do not know — it seems to be a very small number! How they would enforce this does not seem to have occurred to them either.  I fear that this is merely officialdom protecting itself against criticism.  It’s a bit sad to see, really. 

But I’m looking forward to the images.  All I need now is someone who is competent in Christian Arabic of the medieval period, and willing to work for 10 cents a word.  There must be someone!  I can’t even find any email lists dedicated to scholars in this field; which is rather curious.


Colour photos of Mingana collection manuscripts

People may recall that I’m working on a Garshuni text preserved in Mingana Syr. 142, and that I got a PDF of some microfiche printouts a while back, which I sent to a translator.

This was a bit hard to read, but I found that the Mingana (well, Birmingham university special collections) would allow me to go and photograph it myself; or else they would charge 1 GBP ($2) a page and send me a CD.

The CD arrived today, and the results were spectacular.  They aren’t publication grade, but then I didn’t want that kind of photo. They are simply wonderfully clear.  For the first time the text is red is visible!

Seriously, the people at the Mingana have been amazingly helpful, the price is right, and the turnaround very quick.  My total heroes!


New English translations of untranslated ancient texts

As an experiment I have used my own heavily-taxed salary and commissioned a translation from Arabic of the Commentary on the Nicene Creed by the 9th century Melchite priest, al-Majdalus, using a commercial translator.  This is expensive, but I have read that this is how the Ante-Nicene Fathers translations were made.  It will be interesting to see what the quality is like.

Naturally I need to get the money back, if I am to do this again. So I will try to publish a printed version, and sell copies to institutions. Once the cost is covered, I’d want to get it online somehow in some manner that doesn’t preclude sales. But the markets are different; online is everyman, while the academic needs his page numbers and ISBN. 

If this could be made to work, then perhaps we might do some more.  Translators from Arabic seem fairly available.  None of the big histories in Arabic are in English; Agapius, Eutychius, Bar-Hebraeus, Al-Makin, etc, although French translations exist of most of them.  I estimate that Agapius is around 90,000 words, and it would cost about $10,000 dollars to have a translation made. Now that is more than most of us can spare (!). But it isn’t really such a huge sum of money, is it? It isn’t that long ago that a laptop cost $5,000, for instance. If one could sell the volume at $100 a go, and could sell 100 copies — I’ve no idea if one could! — the sum would come back there and then.

Is it possible?  Could we do an ANF for the new millennium?  Should I look for subscribers?  How do I market the volumes to the sort of institutions that might buy them?  Over what period do the sales come in?  There are a lot of questions here.  But I’m going to dip my toe in the water and see what happens.


Reader photography of manuscripts at the Mingana collection (Birmingham Special Collections)

Glasnost is spreading through UK manuscripts collections!  First the National Archives; now the Mingana! 

I wrote over the weekend to the Mingana collection of Syriac and Arabic manuscripts at Birmingham university.  Without much hope, I asked if I could bring my own digital camera; if not, what would they charge me for some images? Today I got a prompt and courteous reply:

You would be welcome to come to the Special Collections Department (4th floor, Main Library, Edgbaston campus) and make your own copies from Mingana manuscripts. We allow the use of hand held cameras (without flash) by researchers, subject to completion of a permission form. Any copies made are for personal research use only. We do not make a charge for this.

We would need advance notice of your visit (ideally 7 days) as we will need to transfer the manuscript from a store on another campus to our reading room here in the Main Library. We would need full details of the manuscript… you will need to bring a letter of introduction…

Alternatively you can place an order for digital images. You should complete the appropriate form (available from printing on our website at – click on the image to enlarge to a format suitable for printing) and return to the Special Collections Department, Main Library, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT. There is a minimum charge of £10.

The images are £1 ($2) each, which is a perfectly reasonable price.  On a visit there you can also print off monochrome images from the microfiches of the whole collection (probably get them by mail also).

Birmingham has suddenly catapulted itself into the major league, I  think.  Someone needs to scan the catalogues of the Mingana collection and get them online!


Mss from the Bibliothèque Orientale, Université Saint-Joseph, Beirut

A couple of weeks ago I decided that I needed to get reproductions of a few pages from some manuscripts which Georg Graf in Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur mentions.  These were in Beirut; i.e. at the Université Saint-Joseph, in the Bibliothèque Orientale.  So I emailed them on in English, apologised for my inability to write French and asked.

I got emails back very promptly from Dr May Semaan Seigneurie, the director of the library, first in French (which could easily read) then in perfect English.  The pages were available in PDF form if you want it (I did!).  You had to pay in US dollars, either by bank-to-bank transfer (they supply a SWIFT code and an account number) or by a cheque that can be cashed in Lebanon. 

I chose the former.  I found that HSBC bank (who have branches in Lebanon) were particularly good for this transfer (although they charged me $42 for the privilege!)  The money went through in 6 days, and I got an email telling me the CDROM will be in the post — sent by DHL, in fact.

I may draw up a list of manuscripts that I want and do a further order.  It really is not too difficult to do, and the service is first-rate.  Recommended.


Getting reproductions of Mss — the fight goes on

I feel like a challenge.  So I’ve just emailed the Biblioteca Apostolica (or Vatican Library to you and me) and asked how I can get a print-off of some pages from one of their Arabic mss — Vat. ar. 158 (1357 AD), ff. 148r-157v. — containing the unpublished Explanation of the Nicene Creed by Abu al’Majd.  That’s 18 bits of paper.  I can’t see how that should cost more than a few dollars, even with postage.  I’d prefer them to produce a PDF and email it, of course.

Their web page seems claustrophobic with talk of ‘rights’ and ‘fees’.  It will be interesting to see how this enquiry is treated; as a chance to promote scholarship, or an opportunity to screw the stranger.  Let’s hope the former!


Graf’s Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Litteratur — where to get it

Georg Graf, Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Litteratur is the main handbook of Arabic Christian literature.  Rather to my surprise I found it offered for sale by an Italian bookdealer,  The first volume, which deals with all the translations into Arabic, is only available on CDROM; the other four in book form at around 20 euros a shot.  I ordered all these; the CDROM proved unavailable, but the books arrived today.  Interestingly for a book published in the 50’s they were new (anastatic reprints, tho), unbound, with uncut pages.  They were despatched by Federal Express, so arrived very quickly indeed once the order was ready.  Recommended.

I did find reference online to a possible English translation of Graf, but the supposed publisher (now defunct) was prosecuted for fraud for taking money for non-existent books.  I think we can take it that none ever existed.  This is a pity, for what else is there in English?

Later: I have now skimmed through vol.2, covering writers to 1450 AD.  My German is nothing special, but it is remarkable how much information one can pick up even so.  The limited number of Maronite authors, the scope and kinds of works.  It is actually a useful exercise in self-education!

I hope to post online the table of contents of vol.2, perhaps with a note or two which at least should allow people to get some idea of who wrote when for whom on what.  Mind you, this leads to the question of what languages include horizontal lines above the vowels, opening and closing apostrophes, and the ‘s’ with a hat on it?  My OCR tends to strip these out!

Later still: the table of contents is 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.