CHAPTER 1 TO 4 (Kitab al-Lulu al-Manthur fi Tarikh al-Ulum wal-Adab al-Suryaniyya (History of Syriac Literature and Sciences) by Patriarch Ignatius Aphram Barsoum Translated By Dr. Matti Moosa

Posted by on Aug 28, 2015 in Articles, Library | Comments Off on CHAPTER 1 TO 4 (Kitab al-Lulu al-Manthur fi Tarikh al-Ulum wal-Adab al-Suryaniyya (History of Syriac Literature and Sciences) by Patriarch Ignatius Aphram Barsoum Translated By Dr. Matti Moosa




The Aramaic (Syriac) language is one of the Semitic tongues in which parts of the Holy Bible, such as the Prophecy of Daniel and the Gospel according to St. Matthew, were revealed.1 Some scholars consider it the most ancient of the languages of the world; even the more moderate ones consider it one of the oldest.2 The first established evidence of its ancient use is the passage in Genesis 37:47 about 1750 B.C.3 The Syriac language consists of twenty-two letters, six of which have double sounds, hard and soft,4 which according to our terminology, are identified by certain signs.

Syriac is a graceful and rich language. It is adequate for the expression of ideas and portrayal of feelings, besides the comprehension of all types of ancient knowledge. Syriac was the vernacular of the inhabitants if Iraq, the Jazira of Mesopotamia and Syria. It penetrated into inner Persia and spread among the peoples neighbouring the Syrians.5 For many years it remained the official language of the states that occupied the Near East. It also extended to Egypt, Asia Minor and northern Arabia,6 and reached southern China and the Malabar coast in India, where it is still used. It was still widely spoken until rivaled by Arabic at the end of the eighth and the beginning of the ninth century, at which time it retreated from the towns and found refuge in the villages and mountains. It was, nevertheless, still used by writers and scholars.
The homeland of the classical Syriac included al-Ruha (Edessa), Harran, Hims, Apamea and the rest of the country of al-Sham.7 The Sabeans of Harran used it in their writings until the end of the ninth century.8 The language also remained in this high state in many parts of the Jazira and Armenia until the end of the thirteenth century, and in some other places until the fifteenth century. This language may rightfully be considered superior to other languages of the world, as it was the spoken language of Our Lord Jesus Christ and his Holy Apostles. It was the first language in which the Christian Church celebrated the liturgy. Furthermore, the Syrians had great excellence in translating Greek writings into Syriac and in turn into Arabic. It has also become our ritual language to this day and, to a small extent, the means of communication among our clergy.
At the beginning of the sixth century A.D. Syriac was divided according to its pronunciation and script into two dialects, known as the Western and the Eastern “traditions”. Each of these traditions was attributed to the homeland of the people who spoke it, i.e., Western for those who inhabited al-Sham, and Eastern for those living in Mesopotamia, Iraq and Azerbayjan. However, the Syrian Orthodox community in Iraq is excluded from the Eastern part.

The most important writings in this language that reached us are the Old Testament and the New Testament in the Pshitto translation. If we accept some of the changes in the dialects into which it was subdivided, Syriac did not undergo change after it became settled. The Old Testament passages in this language and what remains of the poetry of the philosopher “Wafa” indicate that this language is the same that we use today. However, some of its terminology was forgotten through time and became unattractive to some, as observed by Anton of Takrit.9 On the other hand, others were lost through negligence, but were preserved in Arabic, as has been asserted by Jacob of Bartulli.10
Syriac had neither grammar nor philological books, because the native Syrians spoke it with instinctive eloquence as the Arabs spoke their tongue. The first grammatical rules for Syriac were set at the end of the seventh century, as shall be seen later.


In the beginning, the Syrian-Aramaeans had a refined language adorned with literature comprising both prose and poetry. They were also concerned with the sciences. However, nothing of their literary works has reached us except the book of Ahiqar, the Minister of Sennacherib, King of Assyria, 681 B.C. This book, to which many other tales were added later, contains counsel and wisdom.1 It is presumed that the book of Ahiqar was composed either at this time or about the fifth century B.C., when the book of Tobiyya (Tobit) was written.2 There survived also a few lines of poetry by Wafa, the Aramaean philosopher and poet who lived long before the Christian era, together with a few legends inscribed on the tombs of some of the Abjarite kings of Edessa. To these should be added the fine and edifying letter of the philosopher Mara bar Saraphion to his son, written in the middle of the second century A.D. However, these surviving sources are too insignificant to be taken as a basis for evaluating pre-Christian Syriac literature.
The Syriac literature known to us, therefore, is of Christian and ecclesiastical origin. It is the intellectual product of Christian clerical authors and learned men. When embracing Christianity, our forefathers, inflamed by their ardent zeal for the new faith, burned all books and destroyed every trace of pagan scholarly works, least they entice their posterity back into the snares of heathenism. When most of their progeny embraced Christianity in the first and second centuries; followed by the rest at the close of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth, they pursued the path of their forefathers in their love for learning. They mastered the art of literature and produced magnificent literary masterpieces.
The Syrian scholars exerted their efforts in translating, punctuating and commenting on the Holy Bible. They concentrated their attention on the philological sciences such as morphology, grammar, rhetoric, speech and poetry. They also pursued logic, philosophy, natural science, mathematics, astronomy, geodesy and medicine. They immersed themselves deeply in theoretical theology, ethics, and ecclesiastical and civil jurisprudence. They dealt at great length with civil and religious history and church music and touched also upon geography and the art of storytelling. In general, they covered the commonly known fields of human learning without exception.
Among the Syrians flourished many savants and scholars who carried the torches of knowledge to the utmost parts of the Eastern world. They surpassed the learned men of most Christian nations in number as well as in output; their fame, as we shall see later, spread east and west. The Greek literary works, despite their abundance, excellence and precedence, and despite their being a model for Syriac and Latin literature, nevertheless, taken as a whole, did not excel over Syriac literature in its entirety. Despite the disparity between the Coptic, Armenian, Christian-Arabic, Georgian and Abyssinian literatures, meticulous scholars are aware of the limitations and narrow scope of these literatures. If the Greek culture is considered philosophical and that of the Arabs rhetorical, then the culture of the Syrians is considered religious.

The characteristics of the Syriac literature, therefore, are Biblical, ritualistic, polemical, theological, historical and traditional. The Syrians’ concern with producing translations and commentaries on the Scripture, as well as other related writings, speaks for their excellence in preserving and spreading the Holy Scriptures. Moreover, the books of religious services and prayers which they composed over many generations testify to their superior taste, high-mindedness and pre-eminence in the theological disputes, which long endured among the Christian sects.
Their deep penetration into the secrets of Christianity yielded many theological and polemical works that reveal their literary ability. Their histories encompassed the episodes of Christianity and the life stories of saints and martyrs, as well as the most accurate historical documents of Asia in the time of the Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Mongols and Turks. When the fourth century swelled with the writings of the Christian scholars who wrote in Greek, the school of Edessa spared no effort in translating the best of these writings into its language. The school of Edessa also initiated the teaching of Greek and was followed by most of our well-known schools until the end of the twelfth century.
On the other hand, the Syrian scholars devoted their efforts to translating the books of philosophy and science first into Syriac and then into Arabic, thus becoming the teachers of the Arabs.
In time matters took a different course, however, and the Greek philosophy was transmitted from the East to Europe through Arabic books of science whose influence began to appear in Spain in the Middle Ages.3


The luminaries of Syrian culture, both the ones of the first class and those of the second, shone in the long period between the fourth century and the end of the thirteenth. The centers of learning were on the whole theological, although some of them were distinguished for the teaching of philosophy and other sciences. The most famous of these schools were the following:
l. The theological school of Edessa, which most likely was established in the middle of the third century, but flourished and became very popular in 363 A.D. through the care of Saint Ephraim, the Syrian. It was closed down in 489 A. D. after it had survived for 126 years .l
2. The Monastery of Zuqnin, known as St. John’s Monastery, was established in the fourth century near Diyarbakr. It became a center of learning in the middle of the same century and existed until the tenth century. It had skillful teachers on its staff.
3. Dayr al-Umr, or Qartamin, properly known as the Monastery of St. Gabriel, in Tur Abdin. It was established in 397 and became the goal of the seekers of knowledge and asceticism from the middle of the fifth century onwards. Scholars continued graduating from it until the eleventh or twelfth century.
4. The Monastery of Eusebuna in the province of Antioch.
5. The great Monastery of Talada, near Eusebuna. These two monasteries were established in the middle of the fourth century, when they became centers of learning. They achieved more fame, however, in the last decade of the seventh century, through the excellence of Jacob of Edessa. Benjamin, Metropolitan of Edessa, also taught in Talada shortly before 837 A.D. Both monasteries were still populated in the middle, or possibly the end of the tenth century.
6. the Monastery of Mar Zakka, near al-Raqqa (Callinicus), established in the fifth century. Teaching did not start there, however, until the beginning of the sixth century, and it remained until the tenth century.
7. Qinnesrin (The Eagle’s Nest) stands on the right bank of the Euphrates opposite what is now Jarabulus. Established around 530, it indulged more actively in learning than the rest of the monasteries and thus achieved a wide fame. It remained the greatest school of theology and science until the beginning of the ninth century. Then, however, it suffered a period of decline, but was soon revived until the middle of the eleventh century and was probably maintained to the middle of the thirteenth.
8. The outer Jubb Monastery (Gubba Baraya), between Aleppo and Samosata, which became known in the sixth century, but achieved broader fame in the ninth century.
9. The Monastery of Mar Matta, east of Mosul, built in the mountain of Alphaph (the thousands), established in the late fourth century. Teaching did not begin in it before the third decade of the seventh century and remained until the end of the thirteenth century.
10. Al-Amud (the Pillar) Monastery, near Ras al-Ayn in al-Jazira, the center of study from the seventh to the ninth centuries.

11. The Monastery of Qarqafta (the Skull), between Ras al-Ayn and Hasaka near the village of Magdal, was famous for philological studies in the beginning of the ninth century.
12. The Monastery of Mar Hananya, properly known as Dayr al-Zafaran, near Mardin. Built in the last decade of the ninth century, it became the center of learning for a long time. After a period of decline, teaching was resumed there in later times, though in a primitive method.
13. The Monastery of Mar Sergius, in the Qahil (barren) mountain between Sinjar and Balad. Learning is presumed to have begun in it in the eighth century; however, it became famous in the ninth century.
14. The Sacred mountain of al-Ruha (Edessa), which was crowded with monasteries from the fifth and sixth centuries onwards. Some of these monasteries existed as centers of learning up to the beginning of the thirteenth century.
15. The Monastery of Mar Barsoum, near Melitene. Built in the middle of the fifth century, it was a center of learning from the ninth century to the middle of the fourteenth.
16. The Monastery of Mar John Qurdis, in the city of Dara, a great and well-known monastery. We have its history from 800 to 1002. Among its scholars was the Metropolitan Lazarus bar Subto.
17. The Monastery of Elijah bar Jaji in the province of Melitene, which was established around 960 and became a center of studies.
18. Al-Barid Monastery, in the province of Melitene and Anazete; built in 969, it became a center of learning until 1243. The Turkmans killed fifteen of its monks, most of whom were men of learning.
19. The Monastery of Sergiusia, in the same province, founded about 980, when it began to breathe the perfume of knowledge. This monastery and that of al-Barid remained as centers of knowledge to the twelfth century.
20. The Cathedral of the City of Melitene, known as the Church of al-Sa’i, a center of religion and philological studies in the beginning of the eleventh century. Its importance declined at the end of the thirteenth century.
21. The Monastery of Mar Aaron al-Shaghr, in Qallisurah, an ancient monastery, presumably established in the fifth century. It became a center of learning in the eleventh century; from it graduated Ignatius III, Metropolitan of Melitene.
We have overlooked mentioning the patriarchal and episcopal seats, in which great numbers of the clergy were educated.


Following are the most famous Syrian libraries known to us:
1. The library of the monastery of Qartamin. This library contained many books, to which mar Simon Zaytuni (d. 734) added one hundred and eighty volumes.1 Following his steps, his nephew David and John, the metropolitan of Qartamin’s Monastery (998-1034), as well as his nephew, the monk Immanuel, adorned it with seventy volumes of parchments written in his own hand. In 1169 two monks, Gabriel bar Batriq and his brother Elisha, together with Moses of Kafr Salt, restored two hundred and seventy volumes.2
2. The library of Zuqnin Monastery. This contained many valuable books, as has been mentioned in the life story of Matta the ascetic.
3. The library of the Church of Amid. Mar Mari III, metropolitan of Amid, collected significant volumes which were moved to Amid after his death in 529.3
4. The library of Talada’s Monastery. Some of its books are preserved in the British Museum numbering 740 books, including the selected hymns of Mar Isaac, transcribed about 570. The monks of this monastery took possession of the books of Jacob of Edessa after his death in 708.
5. The library of Mar Dawud (David) Monastery. We had two monasteries of this name, one situated south of Damascus near Busra, also called the Monastery of Hina, the second, in the city of Qinnesrin, mentioned in the second half of the sixth century. Both monasteries are mentioned in the Syriac Documents4 (pp. 164, 171 and 440). The library in question belongs to one of them. Among its books, it contained the book of Philalethes, by St. Severus of Antioch, finished in the time of its Abbot Daniel in the sixth or the seventh century. This work is preserved in the Vatican Library (MS. 139).
6. The library of St. John’s Monastery in Beth Zaghba, mentioned three times in the Syriac Documents (pp. 163, 171 and 182) in the time of Paul the Abbot. Of its books only an old copy of the New Testament, written in 586, survives, at the Bibliotheca Laurenziana.
7. The library of St. John of Nayrab, believed to be one of the monasteries near Aleppo. One of its volumes, in the British Museum (MS. 730), contains the letters and discourses of Mar Philoxenus of Mabug; their transcription was finished in 569.
8. The library of St. Moses in al-Nabk’s mountain. British Museum MS. 585 contains the last volume of the writings of John Chrysostom, finished in the middle of the sixth century.
9. The library of Mar Daniel in Kafrbil, in the province of Antioch; the transcription of its works, done by a priest named Moses in 599, is preserved in the British Museum (MS 71).
10. The library of Mar Cyriacus near Tal al-Maqlub. Of its manuscripts only three survived, two in the British Museum (MSS. 52 and 53), transcribed in 616 and 617, and the third in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, MS. 72, finished in 720.

11. The library of al-Amud’s Monastery, mentioned in 638 in the Book of the Maymars (Hymns) of Mar Jacob of Saruj, in the time of Abbot Simon. Its contents survive in the Vatican (MS. 251).
12. The library of the Monastery of Mar Matta. Its manuscripts were increased in the seventh century, particularly the valuable ones which gained fame around the year 800. One of these manuscripts contained the Book of the Six Days, written in 822 by Jacob of Edessa, now extant at the Chaldean library in Mosul, transferred from the library at Diyarbakr. In 1298 this library contained the complete writings of Bar Hebraeus, as is mentioned in the Berlin MS. 326. But it was pillaged by the Kurds in the middle of the fourteenth century. Only a portion of it remained in the middle of the sixteenth century, and its contents were again scattered in 1845; after that date it possessed only about sixty manuscripts.
13. The library of the Monastery of the Syrians in Egypt. This monastery, which became widely famous in the seventh century, harbored a library to which its Abbot Father, Moses of Nisibin (907-944), added two hundred and fifty of the most valuable books and the rarest and oldest manuscripts after his trip from Egypt to Baghdad, which took six years and ended in 932. Among those who took care of the arrangements of this library and the binding of its books was the eminently learned monk Barsoum of Marash, some time after 1084. Barsoum was still living as a priest in 1122 (cf. British Museum MS. 323, Bibliotheque Nationale, MS. 27). I have read in some commentaries that fifteen camel-loads of books were found in this monastery after the pillage of Edessa, Amid, Melitene and other cities. In 1624 the priest Tuma (Thomas) of Mardin counted the books of this Monastery, which amounted to four hundred and three volumes (cf. British Museum MS. 374). So this was the most famous of all the Syrian libraries, as well as the most ancient of the libraries of the world.5 From the middle of the seventeenth century to the middle of the nineteenth, its books found their way into the libraries of the Vatican, Paris, Petersburg, and especially London, which was enriched by these books and so vaunted its stock of Syriac manuscripts over that of the other libraries.6 Also, there was a library of Syriac books in the Monastery of Anba Bula, mentioned after the time when Constantine I was the Abbot of Dayr al-Suryan in the eleventh century (cf. book of Isaac of Nineveh, British Museum MS. 695).
14. The library of the Monastery of Aspholis in Ras al-Ayn, to which Constantine, the bishop of this monastery, as well as the city of Mardin, donated books in the year 724 (British Museum MS. 24).
15. The library of the Monastery of Mar Barsoum, collected after the monastery became a patriarchal seat at the end of the eighth century. Athanasius VI (1129), a collector of the most valuable books, used to carry with him loads of them wherever he traveled. Michael the Great adorned this library with his numerous and magnificent manuscripts. Further, Joseph of Amid, metropolitan of Hims, mentioned in the Lives of Saints, which he finished in 1196, that this library lacked nothing except this book (British Museum MS. 960).
16. The library of the Monastery of Atanos; this monastery was established by Athanasius al-Naal (the cobbler), metropolitan of Miyafarqin, near Talbsam in the province of Ras al-Ayn in the middle of the eighth century. This monastery produced fifteen bishops from 740 to 1042. A certain Anastas has been mentioned as its librarian (British Museum MS. 943).

17. The Library of the Monastery of St. John Qurdis, in the city of Dara. To this library Lazarus, Bishop of Baghdad, donated the book attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, shortly after the year 824 (British Museum MS. 625).
18. The library of Mar Hananya (known as Dayr al-Zafaran) Monastery, situated east of Mardin. Its books were collected by Mar Hananya, metropolitan of Mardin in the last decade of the eighth century. It was renewed and reorganized by Yuhanna (John), bishop of Mardin (d. 1165). After the Monastery became a patriarchal seat, its books were increased to over three hundred in number.
19. The library of the Monastery of Bar Jaji. Since its establishment the Anba Yuhanna, disciple of Marun, undertook to have many of its books transcribed by skillful scribes and monks, and thus enriched this library from 990 onwards.
20. The library of the Cathedral of Melitene. To this library John X, Bar Shushan (d. 1072), added his valuable manuscripts.
21. The library of St. Mark’s Monastery, known as Dayr al-Suryan, in Jerusalem. Its books were collected at the end of the fifteenth century. A good number of them are remnants of the library of the Monastery of Magdalene (which existed from the eleventh through the fourteenth centuries). The number of its Syriac manuscripts was increased to more than three hundred and fifty volumes.
22. The Library of Qanqart’s Monastery, near Diyarbakr, collected in the second half of the twelfth century. Its books were increased by Bishop John of Amid in 1203 (cf. The Churches of Basibrina and St. Thomas in Mosul).
23.The library of the Church of the Two Apostles in Edessa was collected in later times and contained a group of the books which had belonged to the Monastery of Mar Abhai in Karkar, after it was deserted. These books, which are presently at Aleppo, number about one hundred and thirty.