Al-Makin: Critical edition and English translation published!

Arabic Christian literature is little known to most of us.  It is the literature of the Christian communities of the Near East, the Syriac and Coptic worlds, after they were overrun by Islam, and their languages started to fade under the pressure of the dominant Arabic-speaking culture.  Naturally much of it begins with translations from the original languages, and consequently there is a strong connection to Greek and Byzantine literature.

Within Arabic Christian literature there are the five big histories: those of Agapius, Eutychius, Yahya ibn Said al-Antaki, Al-Makin, and Bar-Hebraeus.   All these need work, to make them accessible, and I have done things with Agapius and Eutychius.  But none has been neglected like al-Makin.  He wrote in the 13th century, but he is known in mainstream circles, if at all, today because of a 1971 article, Shlomo Pines, “An Arabic version of the Testimonium Flavianum and its implications.”  In this Pines gave a version of the Testimonium Flavianum from Agapius, which he mangled using the unpublished text of Al-Makin.

Like most such chronicles, Al-Makin divided his work into two halves; the first containing history until the appearance of Islam, and the second covering the Islamic period up to his own time.  The second half was printed back in 1625 with a Latin translation by Erpenius.  A French translation of part of this appeared in 1955.  I myself made attempts to create an Arabic text, which proved futile.  The first half was never even printed.

But… today I received an email from Dr Martino Diez, who has … produced a critical edition, with parallel English translation, of the opening section of the first half!

Martino Diez, al-Makīn Ǧirǧis Ibn al-ʿAmīd: Universal History. The Vulgate Recension. From Adam to the End of the Achaemenids.  Leiden: Brill (2024). Pages: xxii, 1115 pp. 

Dr Diez is professor of Arabic language and literature at the Catholic University of Milan, and has written a number of excellent papers on the subject.  Here’s what he says:

I am happy to announce that the first part of al-Makin Ibn al-Amid’s Universal History is now available in critical edition with parallel English translation.

This part covers from Adam to the end of the Achaemenids. Unfortunately this means that for the Testimonium Flavianum you will have to wait a little longer, but I am supervising a PhD student and we have already established the Arabic text.

In the introduction, apart from the Ibn al-‘Amid’s life and the different recensions in which his book has been handed down, I discuss the sources and the fortune of the work.

The link leads to the Brepols site, which has a PDF of the table of contents.  This indicates an extensive and very interesting-looking introduction.  There are two versions of the text in existence, as is also the case with other Arabic-laanguage histories, and he has rightly chosen to work with the most commonly encountered “vulgate” edition.

The Brepols site adds:

When the 13th-century Coptic official al-Makīn Ibn al-ʿAmīd was thrown into prison by Sultan Baybars, he set out to compile a summary of Biblical, Graeco-Roman, and Islamic history for his own consolation. His work, which drew from a vast array of sources, enjoyed enduring success among various readerships: Oriental Christians, in Arabic-speaking communities but also in Ethiopia; Mamluk historians, including Ibn Ḫaldūn and al-Maqrīzī; and early modern Europe.

Obviously I have not seen the book itself, but this is an enormously welcome volume.  It is very good news that Martino Diez has a second volume in progress!

It’s well worth reading these sorts of chronicles, to see what sort of things they contain.  After all, if you’re working with Byzantine histories, in Greek or Syriac, you are basically working with the same material which finds its way into the Arabic language.  You need to know what that material looks like, a century or two further down the line.  The pre-islamic half of Al-Makin is entirely derived from Byzantine and Syriac sources, and consequently of great interest to anyone looking into those sorts of Chronicles.



Materials for the study of the Ethiopian version of the history of al-Makin

The Arabic Christian historians are largely unknown.  Starting in the 9th century, the main ones are Agapius, Eutychius, al-Makin, Bar Hebraeus, and one whom I always forget [Yahya ibn Said al-Antaki].

Al-Makin wrote in the 13th century, and contains a version of the Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus, which appears in Shlomo Pines’ much-read but much-misunderstood paper on the subject.  But anyone wishing to consult the text of al-Makin, in Arabic, must find a manuscript; no printed edition exists.  I did attempt to do something about this, a few years ago, but in vain.

Al-Makin, like other Arabic texts, was translated into Ethiopian.  A correspondent writes to tell me about some sources for the Ethiopian version.

Firstly, an article on translation technique from Arabic to Ethiopic,  “Arabisch-äthiopische Übersetzungstechnik am Beispiel der Zena Ayhud (Yosippon) und des Tarika Walda-‘Amid” (i.e. “Arabic-Ethiopian translation techniques using the example of Zena Ayhud (Yosippon) and Tarika Walda-Amid”) by Manfred Kropp, with al-Makin as one of the examples, in the ZDMG, is now online in high resolution here.  In Ethiopian chronicles Al-Makin is known as Giyorgis Walda-Amid (George, son of Amid) while Tarika Walda-Amid (Chronicle of Walda-Amid) is the title given to his “Blessed Collection”.

Kropp has also published a book, Zekra Nagar – Die universalhistorische Einleitung nach Giyorgis Wala-Amid in der Chronikensammlung des Haylu aka (The preface to the Universal History of Giyorgis Walda-Amid in the Chronicle Collection of Haylu” – Haylu was an 18th c. Ethiopian prince).  There is a Google Books preview here.

Modern Ethiopians speak Amharic, not Classical Ethiopic or Ge’ez.  I learn that Prof. Sirgiw Gelaw from Addis Ababa University has prepared a translation of the Ge’ez version of Al-Makin into Amharic.  The manuscript is 560 pages long and is still waiting publication.

A manuscript copy of the Ethiopian version of the first part of Al-Makin – he divides his work into two parts, pre-Islam and post – is actually online at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, here.  The catalogue entry is here.

My thanks to Ezio for all this material!


Uploading the remains of the failed al-Makin transcription project

If you wish to learn the literature of a people, a good place to start is their histories of themselves.  For Arabic Christian literature – the literature of the Christian peoples occupied by the Muslims in the 7th century, there are five such histories.  I have done some work on Agapius and Eutychius.

But the world history from the Creation to his own times of al-Makin, a 13th century writer, has remained outside the knowledge of most people.  It exists in two parts; the first part taking the story up to the Arab Invasions, and the second part to his own day.

The first part of al-Makin has never been printed, to my knowledge.  The second part was badly printed by Erpenius centuries ago from a manuscript which had lost the last section, with a Latin translation.  The missing text at the end was printed by Cahen in the 1950’s.

Foolishly, I decided that it ought to be possible to get the whole text transcribed from manuscripts.  If an electronic Arabic text existed, then at least we could all use machine translation on it or something.

Unfortunately the project went hopelessly awry, because I was dealing with people in other cultures, who proved intractable.  I ended up $600 out of pocket and with nothing that was usable.  Somehow my wish to transcribe part 1 became a transcription of part 2.  My wish to transcribe from manuscripts turned into a transcription from Erpenius.  Unfortunately the PDF of Erpenius was damaged; and getting it fixed was beyond my powers of communication or persuasion, even though the portion to fix was trivial, if you know Arabic letters.

In fact the psychological pain, caused by the stress and frustration in trying to get this done, became so acute that I was obliged to abandon the project.  I have never regretted that decision.  It was stupid for me to try to deal with foreigners on a text in a language which I do not know using an alphabet that I do not know.

I believe that someone with knowledge of Arabic might fix the transcription in an hour.  I could not do so.  If anyone would like to do this, I would be grateful.  So it seems to me that it might be useful to upload the mangled text, and the PDF, marked up with the fixes, in case anyone does feel like running with it.  So here it is:

  • Erpenius_with_fixes – small (PDF of the copy of Erpenius from which the transcription was made, with pages that should have been inserted marked in red, and duplicate pages that should not be in the transcription marked also).
  • complete Makin (PDF of transcription of Erpenius, complete with errors)
  • complete Makin (.doc of transcription)
  • cahen1 (PDF of part 1 of original article by Cahen)
  • cahen2 (PDF of part 2 of original article)
  • cahen1 (.doc) – transcription of Cahen)

I also have PDFs of various manuscripts, about which I have written in other posts (click on the tag for “Al-Makin” at the bottom of this post to see them).  Rubbish quality most of them are too!  But as more manuscripts come online, it may well be possible to attack this problem again.  And it should be done.


Abandoning the transcription of al-Makin project

In any language group the first literature that we read is usually the histories of themselves, by themselves.  In Arabic Christian literature there are five such histories: Agapius, Euthychius, Al-Makin, Bar Hebraeus, and one other whose name I can never remember.

Of all of these, the 13th century history of al-Makin has attracted my attention for a while.  The first half has never been printed.  The second half was printed in the 17th century, but the editor died before finishing it.  The remainder of the second half was printed recently.  I felt that I would like to make it all more accessible, so I obtained – with difficulty – some PDF’s of microfilms of manuscripts.  I decided that the first thing to do was simply transcribe one of these, and create an electronic text.  This would make the text accessible, and it would be possible for non-Arabists like me to read it using Google Translate.  A transcriber in Syria was engaged, via a French lady, and off we went.

Unfortunately the project simply will not make progress.  I have so far spent $600, but I have nothing to show for it beyond chunks of text, pages in the wrong order, and so forth.  Small problems become large problems.  Trivial issues block all progress.  Things simply do not get sorted out – things that, in Roman script, would be the work of half an hour to remedy.

I have decided, reluctantly, to do something that I never do.  I am going to abandon the project.  Situated as I am, I have no power to make anything happen.  So I am simply eating my heart out in vain.

I will lose the money, of course.  But I will get my life back.

My life, in the end, is worth much more.

Why, precisely, it is impossible to work with people in the middle east, to do even the simplest tasks, I do not know.   I suppose that this is why those countries are poor, and will always remain poor.

I apologise to anyone who was hoping to see this.  But unless I actually learn Arabic myself and do the job myself, it seems that nothing will be done.


Google books lets me down badly

I’ve just had a very bad experience, because I relied rather uncritically on a volume that I found on Google books.  It’s a warning, and I doubt I shall forget it in a hurry.

I have someone out in the Middle East transcribing the Arabic from Erpenius’ 1625 edition of the 13th century Coptic historian, al-Makin.  Of course I got a copy from google books and sent it off, and thought no more about it.

The text is 300 pages.  It turns out that various pages are missing, others appear out of order, or several times.  Of course the transcriber was chosen for their Arabic skills, and, although they’ve done their best, have been utterly confused by this.  Worse yet, they live in a region where internet access is poor, so downloads are very slow.

I have had to spend the entire evening working on the Erpenius PDF in Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro; indicating, page by page, whether the page should be included or not; marking up individual pages with red crossings out; inserting missing pages from another copy.

I’ve had to do this so that the transcribe can go through their transcription, in the order of the original defective PDF, and find the material in the right places.

It’s a hideous job.

Moral: never rely on a Google books PDF.  Take the time and just go through it and collate it.  It will take 15 minutes at most, and it will save you a world of frustration.


Erpenius’ al-Makin arrives in Word format

An email brings the text of the Erpenius (1625) edition of al-Makin.  The typist has done a good job.

She’s also indicated that some words – especially names – seem to be corrupt.  These will need to be fixed by comparison against a manuscript.

Erpenius was a very early editor indeed, and his edition is probably very faulty.  I don’t see it as my job to produce a satisfactory critical edition – I leave that to the professional scholars.  What I want to do is get something that we can work with (while the professional scholars sit on their hands, as, since Erpenius, they have done).

Erpenius also died before he finished.  His text only runs as far as 525/1130.  The remainder of his second part (which is all that Erpenius edited) was published by C. Cahen, in “La Chronique Ayyoubides’ d’al-Makin b. al-`Amid.” Bulletin d’Etudes Orientale, 15 (1955-7): 109-84.

It turns out that I don’t have any decent images of manuscripts of that part of the work.  So I have today ventured across to Cambridge University Library and photocopied Cahen’s publication.  We’ll stick that on the end of Erpenius.  I do wish, however, that CUL would buy some new photocopiers!  Theirs are worn out.

Then we can venture onto the really interesting stuff – part 1!  This contains the narrative from the creation down to the 11th year of Heraclius.  I think we may start with Constantine, and do the section to Heraclius first.  The opening material will undoubtedly be very tedious – at least, it was for Agapius, and, if I hadn’t done all the rest of him, I’d have abandoned it there!


From my diary

Regular readers will know that through an intermediary I have commissioned a lady in Syria to type up the Arabic text of Erpenius’ 1625 edition of the second part of al-Makin.  Al-Makin was a 13th century Coptic writer.  The first part runs from the creation to the 11th year of Heraclius; the second part (which alone has been printed) is abbreviated from the Islamic writer al-Tabari and runs down to his own time.

Today a further 8 chunks of transcription appeared – 80 pages of the Erpenius edition, which is 300 pages in all.  I now have 190 pages of text in electronic form!  Only 110 to go.

This transcriber is really good and swift and efficient.

I’ve also received a bunch of rather excellent photographs of the Barberini Mithraeum in Rome from a correspondent.  The basic versions can be found here, but the photographer has kindly sent me the high resolution copies.  I shall incorporate them into the Mithras site in due time.

I am still working on the Mithras materials from time to time.  It’s the only way to attack such a vast catalogue of material.  I daresay I shall still be working on it in a few years time.  But that doesn’t matter.  Whatever I put online is useful, and whatever I never get to … well, we’re no worse off.

A bunch of errata have been sent to the typesetter for the Origen book who, it turns out, has been in hospital.

I’m still full of cold, so not doing much on any of my projects however.


From my diary

The transcription of part 2 of al-Makin (from the Erpenius edition of 1625) is going well.  It’s arriving in 10-page chunks, and there are 300 pages in all so that will make 30 chunks.  Chunk 11 arrived today.

I was reflecting at the weekend on our lack of knowledge of Arabic literature, including Arabic Christian literature.  There is no handbook of this in English.

Yet to create one would merely take time, no more.  It could be done.  Even I could do it.  A single volume, using Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur and Graf’s Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Litteratur as a basis could be compiled relatively easily by any interested amateur, and then brought up to date by a literature search.

And what a difference it would make to our understanding of the subject!  How it would revolutionise our access to this area of knowledge!

I wonder how it might be done …  Perhaps find someone — or better, several someones — with time who knows basic German and has the right mindset.  Just compile a list of authors and works – not very taxing – and then write entries.  Then compile a short bibliography of published editions, translations, and studies in western languages… hmm.  For the latter, one would need to know where bibliographies of Arabic literature may be found.

It could be done.  Whether I can do it, well, I don’t know.  But it could be done.


From my diary

Another chunk of the transcription of al-Makin has arrived, making 70 pages in all, or around a quarter of Erpenius’ edition.  This is going swimmingly!

One of the reasons why I wanted an electronic transcription of the text is so that I — as a non-Arabic speaker — can use Google Translate on it.  Today I pasted the first chunk into it, to see what happened.  Alas Google Translate for Arabic still has quite a way to go; but I got something.  One interesting bit was the use of “Peace be upon him” at various points.  This is, of course, the section of al-Makin devoted to Islamic rulers, and epitomised from al-Tabari; but it’s still unnerving.

A correspondent sent me a link to another collection of online books: the Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten – Netherlands Institute for the Near East.  Most exciting of these — for me — was J.P.A. van der Vin –   Travellers to Greece and Constantinople. Ancient Monuments and Old Traditions  in Medieval Travellers’ Tales (PIHANS 49), 1980. [27 cm, softcover; IX, 751].  ISBN: 90-6258-049-1.

Unfortunately the PDF was incomplete.  It omitted the notes (all placed at the end — aargh!) and indeed about half the book.  I have written to the site, however, and already received a very kind reply, so I have hopes that it is merely a glitch.

Even so I found many statements of interest in it.  Most notably, after 1204, nobody describes Constantinople as a “rich” city any more.  The looting by the Latins clearly beggared the town.  Likewise the population declined so that wide areas of the city were turned into farmland.  I’d like to see the references for this; but I recall that Mesariotes in his very late Description of the Church of the Holy Apostles describes it as lying in the middle of farmland.  Doubtless it was so.  But I shall look into this once I can see the rest of the book.

UPDATE: The site fixed the book within 48 hours! Wow!


From my diary

2014 has certainly started with a bang!  Here I am, on the Friday of the first week back, and it seems as if I was never on holiday!

The two monochrome microfilm-PDF’s of the unpublished history by the 13th century Arabic Christian writer al-Makin, from the Bibliothèque Nationale Français are now on my hard disk.  Obtaining them cost over 200 euros, which I grudge greatly.  On the other hand I do like the BNF’s new website and system of ordering online!  This works very well.  Now if only we could get colour pictures of manuscripts at a reasonable price!!

The microfilms are at least clear and easily readable, which is more than the last ones obtained from the BnF were.

A week or two back Amazon (US) sent me a gift card.  This allowed me to buy the new translation of the patrialogical texts on Constantinople, about which I wrote a while back.  It was on the door mat this evening when I arrived home.  It’s a useful item to have, that’s for sure, although fairly elementary.  One thing that I did not like: all footnotes are at the end.  I had forgotten how annoying that is.

I’ve also signed up for the 5th British Patristics conference, to be held at Kings College London on 3-5th September, 2014.  I have attended two of these conferences, and they were both superior to the international patristics conference in Oxford.  The reason for this is that the time allowed for papers is longer, and so the papers contain more.

On a personal note, I’ve decided to make another effort to see the Northern Lights this year.