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Syriac Paleography: Earliest Estrangela

Section 1: London, BL Add. 12150, f. 235v (dated 411)

Eusebius of Caesarea

Here we take a look at the earliest Syriac codices, beginning with the earliest dated Syriac manuscript, the famous BL Add. 12150, copied in the year 411, up to about the seventh century. The examples we consider here have similarities with each other as well as with some later Estrangela books, but there are, of course, also more particular characteristics for each scribe’s work. In addition, the assumed hallmarks of a particular letter and script-type may not show up where we expect them to. We see, for example, that the 411 manuscript does not usually have the sharp, angled form of dālat and rēš, but a shape we might describe as perfectly matching a Serto form. The rēš is written in the presumably later (Serto) shape; the dālat is written in both the assumed Estrangela form and in the Serto form. Here we have both dālat and rēš in one word, both in the Serto form.

part of one line from column C of Syriac manuscript page from The British Library

© The British Library Board, Add. 12150, f. 235vc, l. 28.

No attempt will be made to provide a complete inventory of the least common denominators, or fundamental characteristics, for the examples of the handwriting of these manuscripts. But a few observations on letterforms in each manuscript may serve as an initial guide for a foray into these and similar manuscripts. For each chosen manuscript, a sample page in its entirety is included, and a few additional images show specific forms.

© The British Library Board, Add. 12150, f. 235v.

Note first of all that the text stands in three columns. Early Syriac manuscripts were mostly written in one or two, less often three, and later there are examples, although few, of four-column manuscripts.

Distinctive Letterforms
ālap
  • when connected and not, there is a serif on the right leg
  • left leg sits a little below the line
  • top part may have upward turn
  • height of top part varies
gāmal
  • ends well below line, but without the thick dot of some later examples
dālat
  • sometimes with Serto shape, but sometimes distinct from rēš in having usual Estrangela shape
  • center post angles to the left
wāw
  • quite round, but right side usually straighter
  • unclosed loop
ḥēt
  • about the same height as yod
ṭēt
  • very tall
yod
  • final, unconnected form of the angled type, almost like a comma
kāp
  • slightly more sharp than round on top, but not to a point
lāmad
  • very tall
  • notably thicker at the top
mim
  • top horizontal angles notably upward
  • loop open, or barely closed
nun
  • when final and unconnected to previous letter, very thick at the top, very thin thereafter, and sharply angled
semkat
  • very round loops, left one taller
  • does not join following letter
ʿē
  • thick top part
  • relatively narrow angle between top and lower part
qop
  • sharp on the left, more round on the right
rēš
  • typically with Serto shape, and thus often distinct from dālat
tāw
  • very tall
  • loop sometimes open, sometimes closed
Distinctive Letterforms
ālap
  • when connected and not, there is a serif on the right leg
  • left leg sits a little below the line
  • top part may have upward turn
  • height of top part varies

Example of the ālap with connector-serif

part of column A of Syriac manuscript page from The British Library
© The British Library Board, Add. 12150, f. 235va, ll. 20-22.

 

gāmal
  • ends well below line, but without the thick dot of some later examples
dālat
  • sometimes with Serto shape, but sometimes distinct from rēš in having usual Estrangela shape
  • center post angles to the left
wāw
  • quite round, but right side usually straighter
  • unclosed loop
ḥēt
  • about the same height as yod
ṭēt
  • very tall
yod
  • final, unconnected form of the angled type, almost like a comma
kāp
  • slightly more sharp than round on top, but not to a point
lāmad
  • very tall
  • notably thicker at the top
mim
  • top horizontal angles notably upward
  • loop open, or barely closed
nun
  • when final and unconnected to previous letter, very thick at the top, very thin thereafter, and sharply angled
semkat
  • very round loops, left one taller
  • does not join following letter
ʿē
  • thick top part
  • relatively narrow angle between top and lower part
qop
  • sharp on the left, more round on the right
rēš
  • typically with Serto shape, and thus often distinct from dālat
tāw
  • very tall
  • loop sometimes open, sometimes closed