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Syriac Paleography: Introduction

Section 1: A Tutorial in Syriac Paleography

With a growing number of high-quality digital images freely available online, even of a language and script so off the beaten path as Syriac, we now face an embarrassment of riches when it comes to paleographical guidance. Happily, the accessible material for paleographic inquiry has become rich and varied enough to form at the very least a preliminary understanding of how Syriac has been written.

Hitherto, there have been at least four print resources for a paleographic introduction, with or without comment, to Syriac. Listed in chronological order of publication, they are:

For a start, we should note that it is generally not possible to say definitively, based merely on traditional paleography and codicology, that a manuscript without a dated colophon or similar exact indication of time is from, say, the sixth century and not the eighth. And as valuable as the older studies have been, especially for the earlier periods of Syriac writing, they have left many questions open or unaddressed. Among their shortcomings are: the lack of color images; an aversion to close-up inspection of individual letter-forms; and — a matter of great concern for those interested in a complete paleographic history — seemingly arbitrary cutoff dates for the “end” of certain scripts. This look at the history of Syriac paleography, surely not without its own limitations and faults of interpretation and presentation, seeks to address some of those shortcomings.

Before we begin, some additional points merit highlighting.

Syriac script has been used and is used for the writing of some Neo-Aramaic dialects: in other words, it is not only or purely an historical script.

Syriac script has served not only for writing Syriac and Neo-Aramaic, but also for several non-Aramaic languages, including Armenian, Turkish, and Persian. Most non-Syriac manuscripts in Syriac script are in Arabic, a phenomenon called Garshuni. Given the very large number of Garshuni manuscripts, and the continuity of Syriac and Garshuni scribal patterns, there is a lesson in this course that briefly touches on Garshuni.

The earliest documents in Syriac script include the famous Dura Europos parchment from 243, which, even at this early date, shows some elements akin to Serto. More recently discovered are P. Euphrates 19 and 20, dated 240 and 242, respectively. (Some Greek papyri from this area also have parts of the text in Syriac.) All three of these early documents are on parchment. Syriac on papyrus survives in a few fifth- to ninth-century documents, some from the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai and from Dayr al-Suryān the Wadi al-Natrūn, ancient Scetis, in Egypt. From the finds at the Manichaean site of Kellis in Egypt, Syriac stands alone on some papyri, and in other documents appears alongside Coptic and Greek. As with the Dura Europos parchment, some of these documents exhibit a cursive hand with similarities to Serto. Since the focus of this course is manuscripts as commonly envisioned, i.e. codices, and since these texts lie beyond the pale of mainline Syriac manuscript production, this course does not include them. They are, however, of great importance for a broader history of Syriac script.

Those who are interested in the representational artwork of Syriac manuscripts still have a helpful guide in Jules Leroy’s Les manuscrits syriaques à peinture conservés dans les bibliothèques d'Europe et d'Orient. Contribution à l'étude et à l'iconographie des églises de langue syriaque (Paris, 1964). Although the plates are not in color, they nonetheless suggest the kinds of artwork featured in Syriac manuscripts. Happily, some of the manuscripts featured by Leroy have since been photographed in color by HMML. More recent studies include Reiner Sörries, Die syrische Bibel von Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, syr 341: Eine frühchristliche Bilderhandschrift aus dem 6. Jahrhundert (Wiesbaden, 1991), and Lucy-Anne Hunt, “Leaves from an Illustrated Syriac Lectionary of the Seventh/Thirteenth Century,” in D. Thomas, ed., Syrian Christians under Islam: The First Thousand Years (Leiden, 2001), pp. 185-202.

Syriac inscriptions, which differ from manuscripts both in their production (engraving) and their support (stone, etc.), naturally have much to offer in a consideration of how Syriac script has been used, but are not included in this basic course. Texts appearing on wall paintings or frescoes more closely approach the writing that we see in manuscripts, but because they are not on pages brought together in a codex, they, too, are excluded. A broader examination of Syriac script, rather than only of Syriac manuscripts — a desideratum that when fulfilled will be of value to many students of Syriac cultures — would rightly embrace all of these cognate fields.