Syriac Studies

At the moment I’m doing things with Syriac. Since this is obscure, perhaps a few words of introduction would be appropriate.

The Syriac language is a late dialect of Aramaic originating in the city of Edessa. It became the common tongue throughout the ancient near-east and literature exists written in Syriac from the 2nd to 13th centuries AD. Even today the language is understood in the mountains of Kurdistan, and also in Kerala in India, where Syriac-speaking Christians brought it. The same missionaries also travelled the Silk Road to China, although the only trace of their presence is an inscription, some texts, and the fact that modern Mongolian is still written in Syriac characters.

Why is Syriac interesting? — Because a lot of Greek literature was translated into it, and often a Syriac translation will exist where the original is lost. This is how the Arabs came into possession of Greek science, and so it was transmitted to us. The entire works of Aristotle were translated into Syriac, not once but twice (by different factions) so that Syriac-speakers could take part in the theological arguments which dominated the eastern Roman empire and were all phrased in Aristotelean dialectic.

Sebastian Brock’s Introduction to Syriac Studies is a relatively short overview of the subject.

In the 1900’s, the then Chaldean Archbishop of Seert, Addai Scher, toured around the monasteries of his region and published brief catalogues of the contents of their libraries, often as articles in the Journal Asiatique. This is now online at Gallica. So I have PDF’s of these catalogues of Notre-Dame des Semences at Alqos, the Borgia collection in Rome, and the Jerusalem Patriarchate, and each has a list of names in an index at the back.

I have been attempting to track down information about Syriac authors and their works. Last night I made a rather surprising discovery. I was compiling some information about John bar Penkaye. I could only find information on one of his works, the Rish Melle or Historical Summary. Book 15 of this is a contemporary record of events after the Arab invasion, including the death of Mohammed’s grandson Hassan. But I knew other works existed.

In the indices, I found works listed! I then repeated this for others that I am interested in — the 7th century astronomer Severus Sebokht, and the obscure Thomas of Edessa of the 6th century. In both cases there were manuscripts of works whose existence was quite unknown to me.

Of course I have only a few catalogues here. The catalogue of Seert itself was published as a book of ca. 100 pages, of which I will try to obtain a photocopy (only 2 copies here in the UK!).

I fear that the catalogue of the library at Seert will make mournful reading — it was burned by the Turks in 1915, and Addai Scher himself was martyred. It contained the only copy in the world of Theodore of Mopsuestia De incarnatione. Scher had discovered it in 1905 — only fragments were known before then — and brought it to Seert for safekeeping. But it was never published, and no man living now knows what that work said.