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 In this Pines gave a version of the Testimonium Flavianum from Agapius, which he mangled using the unpublished text of Al-Makin.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. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004549999
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.