English translation of Michael the Syrian by Matti Moosa now available

A very large and unexpected parcel arrived today.  In it was … the first published English translation of the world history of Michael the Syrian, or Michael Rabo, to give him his proper name.  Matti Moosa, who has translated a number of important Syriac texts, is the translator, and he has kindly sent me a copy, since I learned of his work a couple of years ago.

moosa_michael_raboIt’s a monster volume, not far short of some lectern bibles in size, and 827 pages.  The quality of manufacture of the volume is very high.  Note that the hardback cover is actually black – the picture to the left doesn’t give the correct colour balance – and very, very impressive looking.  The Syrian Orthodox diocese of Antioch have published it, and made a very splendid job of it.

I’ve had no time to read through it.  It is, in the main, the translation, with limited but useful footnotes.

The publisher’s site is here.  You can purchase a copy online here.  The price is $75, and that is actually entirely reasonable for a volume of this size and quality.  (International buyers may need to pay some extra postage – obviously they’re not quite sure what this should be).

This is a very important work indeed.  For a long time scholars have been dependent on Chabot’s French translation, made from an illicit copy of the manuscript.

Michael the Syrian was the patriarch of the monophysite Syrian Orthodox in Syria at the time of the crusades.  His picture of the period is very interesting indeed.  One of the problems that Michael faced was treacherous intrigues by the Byzantines.  The crusader patriarch of Jerusalem had precisely the same problem.  In consequence the two got on extremely well.

But the work is even more valuable to patristics and Syriac scholars.  It begins with a Syriac translation of the Chronicle of Eusebius of Caesarea, then with the continuation by the scholar-bishop, James of Edessa.  It goes on to give verbatim accounts from any number of now lost Syriac histories.

I don’t suppose that the publishers have a lot of contacts with university libraries.  But this book should be in them.  If you do have such a contact, please ask your university library to obtain a copy.


Do Syriac historians care about getting their dates right?

A correspondent points out some very different attitudes towards chronological accuracy between Greek and Syriac historians.

In his monster-sized world chronicle, Michael the Syrian (12th c.) quoted frequently from earlier historians.  I will let my correspondent describe what he found.

“One of the sources Michael used was Ignatius of Melitene, whose preface he reproduced in full (iii. 115).

“Ignatius of Melitene was charmingly offhand about dates and their importance:

If anyone finds that some of the dates in my chronicle are either slightly high or slightly low, he should not blame me. Sometimes, when a king died, his successor had to wait around six months or a year before he ascended the throne. Similarly, when a patriarch died, a year or thereabouts might elapse before his successor was ordained. As a result, some events have become confused with others. As a matter of fact, this kind of thing does no great harm, as all scholars will readily admit.

“Ignatius demonstrates his insouciance later in Michael’s narrative by giving a date for the accession of one of the Syrian Orthodox patriarchs that is six or seven years out.

“Michael himself, though I think he did his best, knew that some of his dates would be questioned, and wisely covered his back in his own preface (i. 2):

In my opinion, scholars should not waste their energy in trying to calculate dates with a greater or lesser degree of accuracy. As the Saviour truly said, ‘The Father has kept for himself the knowledge of times and dates.’ For example, there are many divergences between the Septuagint and the translation possessed by the Syrians, which was first made by King Abgar and was later revised by Ya‘qob of Edessa, who pretended to convert to Judaism so that the Jews would not hide the truth from him.

“When one thinks of how much care Thucydides took to get his dates right, and the stress that he rightly laid on accuracy (akribeia), the sloppiness of the Syriac writers is all the more remarkable.”

Interesting indeed.


Armenian version of Chronicle of Michael the Syrian now in English

This morning I received an email from Robert Bedrosian, the translator into English of a great number of Classical Armenian texts:

The English translation of Michael the Great’s Chronicle is now online.  It may be freely copied and distributed.


This is incredibly good news!

The Chronicle of Michael the Syrian is the largest medieval chronicle.  It was composed in Syriac, and has come down to us in a single Syriac manuscript, of which the beginning is lost; some abbreviated Arabic versions, and a condensed version in Armenian, which alone preserves the opening portions of the work.



Forthcoming: an English translation of Michael the Syrian

The World Chronicle of the 12th century Syrian monophysite (or Syrian Orthodox) patriarch, Michael Rabo — aka Michael the Syrian — is the longest medieval chronicle that has survived.  It was composed in Syriac, making use of extensive earlier chronicle material, reaching all the way back to a now-lost Syriac translation of the Chronicle of Eusebius.  It is a major source for Syriac historical materials. 

It also is a major source for the crusader period.  For Michael the Syrian lived when the crusader kingdom of Outremer and the principality of Antioch were at their height. 

One problem is that no English translation exists.  A French translation was published by Chabot together with an awful transcription of the Syriac (unreadable, at least by me), back in 1906.[1]

Now Matti Mousa, the translator of various Syriac texts, and of The Scattered Pearls by Aphram Barsoum, has taken up the challenge.  The translation is complete, I understand, and he is revising it now.  Working mostly from the Syriac text, he is nevertheless comparing it with the Arabic translation, and also with some Garshuni versions.  He modestly says that this is to ensure that he hasn’t made any terrible mistake.  Dr. Mousa is himself a member of the Syrian Orthodox church, and the text will be published by his bishop, probably through Gorgias Press.

Let us hope that this is made available at a reasonable price.  It is such an important, and interesting work!

Michael was the head of the Syrian monophysites.  The Latin church — still united with the Greek orthodox — was Chalcedonian, and the rejection of the formula of Chalcedon (451AD) was the key demand of the monophysite party.  So Michael and his coreligionists were heretics, at least in theory.  But in practice Michael enjoyed excellent relations with the crusader clergy, and speaks of the tolerant attitude of the crusaders, who treated as Christians all who claimed to be so.   He even wrote an official letter, contributing to a Council in Rome, and supporting the Papal position.

One reason for this mutual good-feeling was the existence of a common enemy.  This was not the moslems, in this context, but rather the plottings of the Greek orthodox church, then firmly under the control of the Byzantine emperor. 

The crusader clergy got on rather badly with the Greeks, despite their supposed common doctrine.  The crusaders had liberated the churches of Palestine from Moslem rule, and naturally appointed their own clergy to the bishoprics and other posts.  But the Greek orthodox demanded to appoint Greeks to these posts, and schemed at Rome to get the Pope to override the appointments made by the crusader lords.  The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem found himself in a strange land, being stabbed in the back at home.

The monophysites, likewise, had a history.  A century earlier, Syria had fallen back under the control of a renascent Byzantine power, and the cities and churches had once again to deal with edicts made in Constantinople.  The Greek clergy had conducted a witchhunt, complete with heresy trials.  This was not politically very clever, and was long remembered even after the Moslems returned.  The Greeks then attempted to organise “reunion” conferences with the monophysites, and Michael himself was invited to one such.  Knowing that he was unlikely to return, whatever “safe-conduct” was promised, he wrote a letter declining in firm tones.

There is a reason why the phrase “Byzantine intrigues” has a very negative flavour, even today.  Faced with such plotting, by a weak and permanently treacherous power — described as “these European Chinese” in one pre-political correctness volume –, Michael and Amaury, the Latin patriarch, found that their mutual interest was far in excess of a minor doctrinal quibble.

In consequence Michael provides an interesting independent witness to the impact of the crusades on the local inhabitants of Syria and Palestine.  The Coptic source, the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, is generally negative, probably out of fear of Moslem reprisals; Michael feels no such hesitation to endorse the incomers.

I hope one day to read what he has to say!

  1. [1]The three volumes of the French translation are accessible on Archive.org, here.  I did hope to do the fourth volume also, containing the Syriac, but never had the time.

From my diary

This evening I had an email from Matti Mousa, who has translated the whole of Michael the Syrian’s enormous Chronicle from Syriac into English, and is now revising it.  He very kindly condescended to ask if I had any suggestions about what should go into the introduction.  Well, I always have opinions!  So I offered mine, and I hope that wasn’t far too much! 

Meanwhile I was wrestling with the British Museum database of objects, when I came across a set of wax tablets.  They were excavated at Hawara in Egypt in 1888, and date from the Graeco-Roman period.  The tablets are of wood, and have a recess into which wax was placed.  The wax was written on, with a hard point.  The other end of the stylus was flat, and could be used to erase the marks in the wax, so the tablet could be reused.  Careless users tended to scratch the wood, by writing too deeply in the wax.

Here’s the image.  What a pity that the catalogue does not mention what the inscription on the tablets is!

Graeco-Roman wax tablets



Armenian versions of Michael the Syrian

The massive world chronicle of Michael the Syrian, composed during the crusader period, survives in a single manuscript in a box in Aleppo.  The box has two locks, each held by a senior figure in two different churches.  Access is difficult.  

Making things worse is that J.-B. Chabot in the early 20th century somehow got access, and somehow surreptiously made a copy.  Quite how you can surreptiously make a copy of something the size of two telephone directories I don’t know, but he did.  He published it with French translation — we may all be grateful for this, since many Syriac books were destroyed in WW1 — but the owners still remember, and are still angry with him.

The opening portion of the chronicle is lost.  But an Armenian version preserves the preface, which Langlois’ edition of 1868 (French only) makes available online.

Few people seem to know much about the Armenian versions of Michael the Syrian.  But from Michael E. Stone, The Armenian texts of Epiphanius of Salamis De mensuris et ponderibus, CSCO 583, Subsidia 105 (2000) — an excellent text, fromwhat little I can see in the preview — on p.25, I learn this:

Vardan Arewelc’i translated Michael’s Chronicle into Armenian in the year 1246, with the assistance of the Syrian priest Ishox and at the request of the Armenian Catholicos Constantine.  See N. Bogharian, Armenian Writers, 296.

He also refers to an article by F. Haase, Die armenischen Rezensionen des syrischen Chronik Michael des Grossen, Oriens Christianus NS 5 (1915), 60-82, 211-284.  That ought to be online somewhere!  Apparently this indicates that more than one version exists or existed.  He also indicates that material from Moses of Chorene contaminates the translation of Vardan Arewelc’i.

 Another link indicates another article: Andrea Schmidt, Die zweifache armenische Rezension der syrischen Chronik Michaels des Grossen, Le Museon 109 (1996), p.299-319.  This seems to be inaccessible to proles like you and I, but searching around the web reveals that this has been mentioned to me before here in a useful set of comments.  Andrea Schmidt has a home page here, with a long bibliography.  I do wish that some of it was online.

I also find D. Weltecke’s article in English on the chronicle here in PDF form.  This useful introduction tells me that there are two versions, published in Jerusalem in 1870 and 1871 (but not what the titles etc are).  A book in German by Dorothea Weltecke, Die “Beschreibung der Zeiten” von Mōr Michael dem Grossen (1126-1199) is online in preview here, where on p.7 we read more about the history of these versions, and a review of previous research.

So … a rather inconclusive result.  I’ve gained a little impression of the subject, but not much.  I was hoping to locate an Armenian text online, although not with much hope.


Michael the Syrian, vol. 3 of the French translation now online

It’s here:


The PDF is searchable, and I’ve stuck the raw OCR output in .doc and .htm format there as well.

The other two parts of the French translation are also online (search for Michael the Syrian).

UPDATE: it turns out that pp.44 and 46 are upside down.  I’m reloading a corrected PDF.


Michael the Syrian part 3 – progress report

I’ve now scanned in images of all the pages (around 600) of this monstrously heavy volume — my forearms will never be the same — using Abbyy Finereader 8 to control the scanner.  I scanned in black-and-white at 400 dpi, which is the best for OCR.

I’ve gone through the batch, turning alternate pages the right way up.  I’m now importing it into Finereader 9, which has better OCR and produces smaller PDF’s.

UPDATE (16:30): I’ve created a searchable PDF, which is about 33Mb.  Now starting to upload it to Archive.org.  This can be slow and frustrating, and will probably take all evening.  I’ve also exported the text as .htm and .doc, which I’ll probably place there also.  I haven’t proofed any of the OCR output, but FR9 gives rather better results than FR8, which is what the automatic processes at Archive.org use.

UPDATE (16:36): Good grief.  It uploaded first time.  It’s here: http://www.archive.org/details/MichelLeSyrien3  I’d better add the other formats, then (if it will let me).  It’s not in the searches yet, tho.

UPDATE (16:39): Hmm.  The interface for uploads of extra files has changed.  Somewhat better than it was.  Still very slow, it seems, and not that intuitive.  You can tell it was tested by someone local to the server, and not someone far away from it.


Discussion on Armenian version of Michael the Syrian

I note that the comments on this post of mine have wandered into the very interesting area of Armenian versions of Michael the Syrian, Armenians in Egypt, and related issues, and are well worth a read.


Michael the Syrian, book 12, chapter 1 — have a quick translation!

Today is pretty much done, but since I read the first chapter of book 12 of Michael the Syrian, perhaps I could give a quick translation of it here.

Book 12.

With the aid of the divine power that perfected the twelve holy apostles, we shall commence the twelfth book of the chronicle, which begins in the year 1088 of the Greeks, which is the year 157 of the empire of the Arabs, who are the Taiyaye, the year 6260 from Adam, i.e. since the beginning of the world, and the year 758 from our Lord.

Chapter 1. — Of the era from the beginning of the reign of Leo, (emperor) of the Romans, and of Mahdi, (king) of the Taiyaye, when the holy patriarch and martyr Mar Georgius came out of prison.

In the year 1088 Leo son of Constantine began to reign over the Romans.  In the same year, 25 days later, Mahdi, son of Abu Jafar, began to reign over the Taiyaye.  Both set free all the prisoners who had been imprisoned by their fathers.

Mahdi opened the treasuries of his father and gave away his riches, as with the van, not only to his soldiers but also to women, his concubines; because he was debauched and addicted to pleasures.  He was also interested in magic, divination, sortileges, and he collected books of magic and divination.  This is why Leo, emperor of the Romans, sent him the book entitled Janes and Jambres, which contains all the magic of the Egyptians, and all that they did when they encountered Moses.

In the year 1090 Mahdi went to Aleppo, and the Tanoukaye came out to meet him; [479] they lived in tents in the surroundings of Aleppo.  He saw that they were mounted on Arab horses, and were richly dressed.  Then someone said to him, “All these people are Christians.”  He was inflamed with rage and ordered them to become Moslems.  He forced them to do this by tortures, and the men apostasised, to the number of five thousand; the women were saved and to the present day are found in the churches of the west.  A venerable man among them, named Leith, suffered martyrdom.

Mahdi invaded the territory of the Romans and fixed his camp on the river Pyramus, in the region of the town of Arabissus.

He sent his son Haroun to ransack Beit Roumaye; himself he captured Syria and returned to Jerusalem to pray; his son, after capturing a fortress called Semalus, finished pillaging and moved off.

In the year 1092 of the Greeks, the Taiyaye penetrated into the region of Ephesus and made captive around seven thousand men.  The emperor Leo, on his side, sent an army which took into captivity the orthodox Syrians and settled them in Thrace.

One of the Chalcedonian writers says that this emperor Leo detested images and wouldn’t allow anyone to venerate them, and that he adhered to the Orthodox, like his father.

In the year 1092 Leo died, and his son Constantine [Porphyrogentius] began to reign.  Since he was a child of 12, his mother Irene governed and was proclaimed as ruler with him.

In the year 1094 Mahdi sent his son [480] Haroun, with two generals, into the land of the Romans.  `Adb el-Malik beseiged Nacolaea; his army was shattered in pieces and he returned covered in shame.  Bournike gave battle and killed ten thousand Romans.  Haroun advanced towards the imperial city.  The Romans made use of a ruse, and encircled the Taiyaye near the river Sangarius between the mountain on one side and the sea on the other.  The Taiyaye were in great straits.  They asked for peace; Irene, following the feminine spirit, agreed.  A truce of three years was made, and the Taiyaye emerged from their difficulty.

In the following year `Ali built the town of Hadeth.

In the year 1095, Mahdi died.  His son Mousa [began to reign], for two years.

In the year 1097 the Romans advanced with a considerable army and reached the town of Hadeth, which had been newly built by the Taiyaye, on the frontier.  The inhabitants fled and it was deserted.  The Romans then destroyed the walls completely and demolished all that had been constructed.

In the month of Tammuz [July] Mousa, [king] of the Taiyaye died; and after him reigned his brother Haroun, surnamed Rashid [=the Just, a name given by his father].

At the time when Mahdi began to reign over the Taiyaye, he sent a man named Mohtasib to destroy the churches which had been built in the times of the Taiyaye, and he ordered that the Christian slaves should be sold.  Many churches were demolished, and the slaves fled.

The church of the Chalcedonians at Aleppo was destroyed.

He also stirred up a persecution against the Manichaeans everywhere.  Many of the Taiyaye were convinced of this heresy and were put to death because they would not renounce it.

A place called Padana Rabta was destroyed, which was quite filled with Manichaeans.  Some Christians were arrested because they were unjustly accused of being of this heresy.  A Persian also denounced some women of the family of the Goumaye, and they were arrested.  The motive (for this) of this Persian was that they had not given him lodging in their house situated in the town of Hinan.  He was annoyed at this, and when he saw at Baghdad [479] that (a persecution) was being stirred up against the Manichaeans, he denounced the people of the Goumaye as being Manichaeans.  Eight of the principal men among them were seized and thrown in prison.  After many torments, three died in prison and the other five were delivered and came out, thanks to the Saviour who saves.

[A long passage on a locust plague in 1095 follows]

After nine years of the imprisonment of the patriarch Georgius at Baghdad, Mahdi, son of Abu Jafar, began to reign and released the prisoners.  The patriarch came out with them.  Mahdi banned him from exercising the patriarchate, and from calling himself Patriarch.  The blessed man went back to Tikrit, and was received there like an angel of God.  He was received the same way in going through Mosul and all the towns of Jezira [=Iraq], and was treated everywhere with honour.  He came to Antioch.  There he ordained ten bishops in that year; he deposed those of David, and created others in their place.  However he left some of them, making the concessions which the situation of the moment demanded.

He excommunicated and deposed Plotinus, who had been installed by Sandalaya, and made Constantinus return to Samosata.  Some time later, when Constantinus died, the inhabitants of Samosata asked him for Plotinus [479], and he sent him back to them.

After the patriarch had spent two years in travelling around and supporting the churches, some calumniators accused him to `Ali, emir of Jezira, of using the orders of the king to clean his feet.  Annoyed, (`Ali) had him brought from Harran to Callinice.  Before he appeared in the presence of the emir, Theodosius, the bishop whom Sandalaya had deposed, went in and calmed the heat and anger of the emir.  He demonstrated to him that the patriarch had been accused falsely.  When the blessed man went in, and when the emir set forth the accusations against him, he made his apology admirably, and was very well received, above all because Theodosius who interpreted his words into Arabic, and who was well thought of by the emir, made a eulogy of the patriarch, saying that he was a good and holy man and that those who accused him of having imposed charges and tributes on the church were not truthful.  The emir was appeased by this acceptable discourse, and the patriarch retired victorious, and after that he governed the church of God without fear until the end of his life.

At Alexandria the patriarch was Maiana for 9 years; then Iwannis [=John].

In the year 1095 the Edessans fell out with Zacharias their metropolitan for various reasons, but principally because they told him to bring back his brother Simeon, because of his bad conduct, and because he never did anything.  This is why the patriarch Georgius ordered him to leave the town, and he was no longer received there.

 And so on it goes.