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Syriac Paleography: Introduction

Section 2: Types of Syriac Scripts and Dating

Types of Syriac Script

In these lessons we will consider main script-types arranged according to rough chronological periods. These are: Estrangela, Serto, East Syriac, and Melkite. (There are others, too, such as the Syro-Malabar script, for which see F. Briquel-Chatonnet and A. Desreumaux, “A Study and Characterization of the Syro-Malabar Script,” Journal of Semitic Studies 55 [2010]: 407-421.) Because scholars have paid little paleographic and codicological attention to recent manuscripts, one lesson will touch on the writing of twentieth and twenty-first century manuscripts. Finally, even though students strictly interested in Syriac may skip it, a lesson on Garshuni (Arabic language in Syriac script) will conclude the course. As Syriac language is not in view for the Syriac parts of the course, neither is Arabic language in view in the Garshuni lesson. Rather, the lesson introduces some basic points about the adaptation of Syriac script for the writing of Arabic texts, such as diacritics or lack thereof.

While some features of a particular script-type or period may be unique, others are more fluid. This is particularly the case with mixed Estrangela-Serto manuscripts and with late Estrangela and early East Syriac. (Studies on some of these relationships include F. Briquel-Chatonnet’s “De l’écriture édessenienne à l’estrangelâ et au sertô,” Semitica 50 [2000]: 81-90 and “Some Reflections about the Origin of the Serto Script,” The Harp, 18 [2005]: 173-177.) In addition, while Syriac type as it appears in texts and grammars will give students a general sense of ductus, angles, roundness, etc., there is naturally a notable amount of variety in script-types. Scribal hands have less consistency than printed type, and the boundaries between script-types and time periods may be less pronounced in reality than they are in a convenient chart. This arrangement by script-types is more for convenience in pedagogical presentation than for any assumption that it is a comprehensively accurate paradigm of Syriac writing in manuscripts.



Because chronology will be a leitmotif within the arrangement of the presentation of script-types, a word about dates is required. Some manuscripts are reliably datable, others less so. When scribes provide a date in a colophon, we have the most certain basis. Even without a colophon, later readers and owners sometimes note the date of their reading or ownership, and we thus have a terminus ante quem for the production of the manuscript. Syriac manuscripts are most commonly dated Anno Graecorum, Anno Domini, Anno Martyrum, or Anno Hegirae; it is not uncommon for scribes to give the year according to more than one era. (For a study, see L. Bernhard, Die Chronologie der syrischen Handschriften, Verzeichnis der orientalischen Handschriften in Deutschland, Supplementband 14 [Wiesbaden: F. Steiner, 1971].)

Whatever the system of dating, without any such explicit dates, we have to rely on analysis of the script and on codicological indicators such as parchment vs. paper, etc. This kind of inference based on script, support, and other non-explicit data is naturally less reliable than a solid date from a scribe, and scholars accordingly put less confidence in it. It is safest to take all such estimations with caution, and never to grant them the kind of trust we would give to an explicit date. Given that Syriac scribes typically show a conservative approach to writing practice, possible date ranges of a couple of centuries or even a little more, are not unusual.

A caveat is in order, however, about attempting a chronological presentation. Some parts of this caveat have already been alluded to. As L. Van Rompay (foreword to Hatch, Album, 2d ed., v) has remarked,

...we run the risk of using these witnesses as solid stepping-stones in our study and reconstructing the history of Syriac handwriting too much in terms of a linear development. The more evidence we take into account, the more it becomes clear how diversified and complex Syriac handwriting was throughout the ages, allowing the coexistence of different styles and always leaving room for local and personal idiosyncrasies.

We must, therefore, resist the temptation to make the history of Syriac paleography more tidy than it really is, despite certain core characteristics of given script-types in certain periods or places.