Syriac literature in the 14th to 19th centuries

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Syriac did not cease to be written at the death of the Nestorian Catholicos Timothy II. In fact there is a considerable amount of prose and poetry from this period, but little has been published or studied.

15th century writers

  • The priest Isaiah of Bet Sbirina (=Tur 'Abdin) and his son Yeshu (West Syriac/Monophysite; died. 1492). Some of the poems of Isaiah describe contemporary events, including the devastations of Timur Leng who died in 1407.
  • Ishaq Qardahe Sbadnaya (East Syriac/Nestorian) wrote in the middle of the 15th century. His works include several acrostic 'Onyata, a 12-syllable poem on the Divine Economy, together with a prose commentary containing many quotations from earlier writers.
  • Mas'ud of Tur 'Abdin (West Syriac/Monophysite) wrote a theological poem The Spiritual Ship at the end of the 15th century. The work is a collection of lectures, written so that the monks "should arrive safely in the port ... of heaven." (A Latin translation exists of this).
  • There are three important poets at the end of the 15th/start of the 16th century: the Patriarch Nuh (West Syriac/Monophysite; d. 1509), David 'the Phoenician' (West Syriac/Monophysite), and Sargis bar Wahle (East Syriac/Nestorian). Sargis wrote a verse life of Rabban Hormizd, of which an English translation exists.

Late 16th - early 17th century writers

Modern Syriac writing begins in this period. Several poems written in the dialect of Alqosh are extant today. But otherwise there is little original writing again until the 19th century.

17th-18th centuries

In this period there were two outstanding writers, and also some translations from western texts into Syriac.

  • The Chaldaean patriarch Joseph II (East Syriac/Nestorian; d. 1731) resided in Amida(=Diarbekir) and wrote The Magnet and The Shining Mirror which both circulated widely in manuscript.
  • Metropolitan Basileios Shem'un of Tur 'Abdin (West Syriac/Monophysite; martyred in 1740) wrote a Book of Theology in 1714; a verse work on theological topics called The Ship of Mysteries in 1727/9; The Armour of Thanksgiving and Hope of Faith in 1723, which was translated into Arabic; and many homilies and poems. He also compiled a Syriac dictionary based on the late 10th century one by Bar Bahlul.

Several western texts were translated into Syriac in this period.

19th century

American missionaries arrived at Urmiah and set up a press there, printing Syriac texts. This led to a revival of Modern Syriac, and it became quite widely used as a written language.


This page is derived from Brock's Brief Outline.


  • Sebastian Brock, [ Tur Abdin - a Homeland of Ancient Syro-Aramaean Culture]
  • Karl Pinggéra, Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon article on Mas'ud of Tur Abdin, 2003. In German. This tells us that Mas'ud's biography is known to us from a note inserted by his pupil Aziz into the copy he made of the works of his teacher: Ms. Notre-Dame des Semences 256 (Vosté 1929, 97 = cod. 130 in Scher 1906, 71 and repeated by Baumstark, 327); - edited by Vosté (1936), pp. 5-17 (with French translation) and van Helmond (1942), 73*-86* (with a Latin translation).
From this we learn that Mas'ud was born in 1430/31. In 1452/3 he entered the Holy Cross monastery in Tur Abdin (today in SE Turkey). After two years as a novice and three as a monk, he became a hermit in a cave. He was appointed head of the convent in 1462/3, but maintained his way of life as a recluse. Nevertheless he initiated a programme of monastic reform, which led to the re-establishment or creation of many new monasteries and churches in the region. In 1480/81, he was finally appointed as bishop of Zargel, Arzun, Se'ert and ????, under the name of Basileios, and took up residence in the Cyriacus-Abbey of Zargel. At this point the biographical note ends. However it is possible that he is identical with Mas'ud of Zoz, who became the schismatical Patriarch Ignatius Mas'ud II in 1491, and died in 1512. The remainder of Aziz's note concerns the work in the manuscript, a collection of lectures given and written at the request of his spiritual father Dionysius outside his hermitage.
A portion of Mas'ud's collection, on the Prologue of John and Holy Joy, was edited with a French translation by Vosté (1936), pp.20-30; another, on the Peace of the Spirit, was edited with a Latin translation by van Helmond (1946), pp.356-365. The long treatise "de Trinitate et de distinctione atque unitate, et de oeconomia Domini nostri, et de muneribus et donis et virtutibus divinis, quae traditi sunt per ipsam creaturis omnibus, angelicis et humanis" was edited with a Latin translation by van Helmond (1942), pp.3*-70*.
Mas'ud represents the Severianist monophysitism of his church in his teachings on God and Christology. He also shows the influence of the works of Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite, while his statements on Adam, his imprisonment and release show the influence of apocryphal works. His compositions show a certain originality and mental depth, and thereby refute the generalisation that the intellectual life of the Syriac-speaking churches was destroyed by the Mongol devastations.
The article gives a useful bibliography:
  • Addaï Scher, Notice sur les manuscrits syriaques conservés dans la bibliothèque du couvent des Chaldéens de Notre-Dame-des-Semences, JA 10/8 (1906), 55-82.
  • Jacques Vosté, Catalogue de la bibliothèque syro-chaldéenne du couvent de Notre-Dame des Semences près d'Alqoè (Iraq), Rom-Paris 1929.
  • Jacques Vosté, Mas`oud de Tour e siècle, Muséon 49 (1936) 1-30
  • B. L. van Helmond, Mas`oud du Tour `Abdin. Un mystique syrien du XVe siècle, Étude et texte (Bibliothèque du Muséon 14), Louvain 1942
  • B. L. van Helmond, Une conférence inédite de Mas`oud du Tour `Abdin sur le recueillement, Muséon 59 (1946) 353-365
  • Ignatius Aphram I. Barsaum, Histoire des sciences et de la littérature syriaque, Aleppo 19562 [= Glane/Losser 1987], 42. 93. 109. 124. [arab.]
  • Rudolf Macuch, Geschichte der spät- und neusyrischen Literatur, Berlin-New York 1976, 16 f. 22
  • Jean-Maurice Fiey, Diocèses et évêques syriaques occidentaux du Tùr `Abdin après le XIIIe siècle, PdO 10 (1982) 257-284 (bes. 261. 265. 277);
  • Helga Anschütz, Die syrischen Christen vom Tur `Abdin. Eine altchristliche Bevölkerungsgruppe zwischen Beharrung, Stagnation und Auflösung (Das östliche Christentum N. F. 34), Würzburg 1984, 121.