THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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2 posts categorized "Syriac"

06 April 2020

Qom mashiho! : Easter in the British Library's Syriac Manuscripts

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The Last Supper as imagined by a northern Syrian painter
The Last Supper as imagined by a 13th-century Syriac artist. (Syriac Lectionary. Northern Syria, 1216-1240. Add MS 7170)
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As a commemoration, Easter encapsulates the central miracle of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The focal point of all four Gospels is the story of Jesus’ execution by Roman soldiers, followed by His return to life. For millions of Christians around the world, the narrative of Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem, betrayal by Judas Iscariot, march through the streets of the city, and eventual crucifixion on Golgotha provide the framework for a week of prayer, meditation, fasting, and celebration. Key aspects of this saga have so permeated the cultures and traditions of predominantly Christian communities as to become cliché, handy for the description of the mundane and outlandish alike. To call someone a Judas is to highlight their propensity to betray friends; even Lady Gaga included this reference in her 2011 song of the same name. Judas’ thirty pieces of silver are a trope for the wages of treachery. Golgotha has been recycled by demagogues and ideologues of all stripes to designate the site of crushing defeats suffered by supposedly anointed nations and clans. And, of course, the Last Supper, Jesus’ final repast, has been used in countless iterations, stretching from the sombre to the satirical.

Such key events in the final days of Christ and His resurrection are also mirrored in artwork throughout the Christian world. For Western audiences, Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (L’Ultima Cena) is perhaps the most iconic rendering of these paschal scenes, but it is by no means the only one. Indeed, the story of Jesus’ persecution, execution and resurrection have long been favourite topics for Syriac painters, especially those tasked with the illumination and illustration of liturgical and theological texts. The British Library, which has one of the largest collections of Syriac manuscripts in the world, is fortunate enough to be the custodian of several volumes featuring exquisite illustrations of the Easter story. From December 2019 until March 2020, I benefitted from the opportunity of cataloguing a number of these, in preparation for their digitisation and publication on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts page. While this project is now delayed due to the COVID-19 shutdown, I feel it apt to provide a sneak preview of some of these fantastic works just in time for the celebration of Easter (April 12 according to the Gregorian calendar; April 19 on the Julian one).

Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem from Syriac manuscript
Jesus' entry to Jerusalem from a 13th-century Syriac Lectionary. (Syriac Lectionary. Northern Syria, 1216-1240. Add MS 7170)
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The four Gospels of the New Testament relate a host of encounters between Jesus and various historical figures. All of these provide the opportunity to demonstrate Jesus’ miraculous powers, as well as the wisdom embodied in both his earthly and divine beings. It is his entry into Jerusalem (commemorated on Palm Sunday), however, that marks the start of the Passion, the drama of Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection. Two manuscripts within the British Library collections contain wonderful renderings of Jesus’ arrival to the spiritual centre of Judea. The first, Add MS 7170, is a 13th-century lectionary, possibly from northern Syria. The image is a spectacular one, and if it looks familiar to you, it might be because it was featured as part of a 2016 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, entitled Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven. It’s not just the quantity of gold used by the illustrator that draws in the reader: the diversity of expression, ethnicity, and attire of the various individuals pictured, as well as the detail of the flora, fauna, and buildings make this image a true feast for the eye. It also betrays a certain level of Byzantine influence (according to Leroy) or possibly Armenian influence (in the estimation of Raby and Brock), marking the many different realms whose cultural sway impacted the development of art and literature among Syriac speakers. Further discussion of these influences, as well as the role of Islamic art in the evolution of Syriac iconography, can be found in this scholarly article by Bas Snelders.

Jesus' entry into Jerusalem from 10th century Syriac manuscript
Jesus and his Disciples enter Jerusalem, from a 13th-century manuscript. (Púrāš qeryānā d-ṭeṭrā ᵓewangelion qadišā. Turabdin?, 11-13th century?. Or. 3372)
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Compare this to the second image of Christ’s entry into the holy city, taken from Or. 3372. Originally thought to be a 12th- or 13th-century manuscript, Julian Raby and Sebastian Brock have argued that this Harklean gospel lectionary is actually from several centuries earlier. Copied in Turabdin (near Mardin, Turkey), its image of Jesus entering Jerusalem is remarkably different, but no less complex, than the one found in Add MS 7170. Despite the damage to the pigment and the fading of colours, it is easy to see a greater attention to depth, whether in the branches and leaves of the trees, or in the swirling and pleating of the holy men’s cloaks. The differences in architecture, too, beg the question of illustrators’ reliance on the dominant styles of buildings in their respective periods and places, and how much such visual cues seeped into their imagining of Roman Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Image of the Last Supper from 12th century Syriac manuscript
The Last Supper, and the unmasking of Judas, according to an enigmatic 12th-century artist. (Púrāš qeryānā d-ṭeṭrā ᵓewangelion qadišā. Turabdin?, 12th century. Add MS 7169)
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From the entry into Jerusalem, our next stop is the Last Supper, as popular among Syriac artists as it was with European painters and sculptors. The first manuscript illustration comes from Add MS 7169, a 12th-century Syriac lectionary. We are immediately faced with another style of representation, one that is flatter and more schematic than the images found in Or. 3372 or Add MS 7170. Discussed briefly in the Raby and Brock article (as well as in Jules Leroy’s 1964 monograph and a piece by Meyer Schapiro in The Art Bulletin behind JSTOR’s paywall), these two authors refer to the item as “problematic” and “enigmatic”. They speculate that it too might come from Turabdin, and cautiously reiterate Leroy’s hypothesis that it bears traces of very early Christian iconography, possibly even being part of the Melitene grouping of artworks. Whatever its origins and connections, Add MS 7169 bird’s-eye view of the table is beautiful. Jesus is standing in the bottom-left corner of the work, while His Disciples are seated around the table in a scene reminiscent more of a Chinese restaurant than Leonardo’s masterpiece. This is the big reveal: Jesus’ admission that he knows he has been betrayed; thrown under the bus, to use the modern parlance, by the man seated to his left, Judas Iscariot. Compare this to the far more detailed example from Add MS 7170 (at the start of the blog), in which Jesus’ likeness has now been defaced. Here, we are treated to an engrossing cross-section of the table with the diners all seated in a semicircle in what looks to be a well-appointed establishment, a lone cock parading before them.

Jesus on the Cross from a 10th century manuscript The Crucifixion from a 12th century manuscript
(Left) Jesus' crucifixion between two thieves. (Púrāš qeryānā d-ṭeṭrā ᵓewangelion qadišā. Turabdin?, 12th century. Add MS 7169)
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(Right) The Crucifixion, combined with various allegorical and didactic cues. (Syriac Lectionary. Northern Syria, 1216-1240. Add MS 7170)
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From the Last Supper, we pass over Jesus’ procession through the streets of Jerusalem (captured today in the Via Dolorosa), right to the nadir of His time on Earth: the Crucifixion. The two images above of the Son of God nailed to the Cross come from Add MS 7169 and Add MS 7170 respectively, demonstrating, once again, the artists’ differing views on both representation and content. This episode is both a reflection of humanity’s failings and a confirmation of Christ’s sacrifice. After having been betrayed by His Disciple Judas and condemned by His community and the authorities alike, the Son dies for humanity’s sins. It is the ultimate means of redemption and salvation, cementing two core themes of Christian faith. In Add MS 7169, we see two scenes: first Jesus’ seizure by the Romans, and then His execution. The latter incorporates the two thieves between which Christ was crucified, as well as two soldiers stabbing him, while two angels fly overhead. This is a more literal take on Christ’s death, a bluntness of approach that is reflected in the bold lines and flat plane of the image. Contrast it to the painting found in Add MS 7170, where delicate lines and complex patterns hold sway. The image is much more didactic in nature, replacing the two thieves with the likenesses of various supporting characters who appear throughout the Passion. Part of the image is also allegorical. In addition to the angels watching the Crucifixion, Add MS 7170 has two other sets of winged creatures. Those to the right of Jesus, flying away from Him, are identified as “the congregation who hated Him” (ܟܢܘܫܬܐ ܕܣܢܬܗ) while those on His left, looking at Him and collecting His blood in a cup, are labeled as “the church that received Him” (ܥܕܬܐ ܕܩܒܠܬܗ). In this case, the artist was especially keen on showing the direct descent of the church – probably his Church – from the blood and sanctity of Christ. Interesting too is the fact that, although both images contain text, they do not have the words uttered by Jesus himself while on the Cross: Eli, eli, lama sabachthani? (Lord, Lord, why have you forsaken me?; ܐܝܠ ܐܝܠ ܠܡܢܐ ܫܒܩܬܢܝ in Syriac).

 Mary Magdalene discovers Jesus' empty tomb
The discovery of the empty tomb in Syriac Gospels from the region of Mosul, Iraq. (Iwangiliún. Mosul, Iraq, 1499 CE. Add MS 7174)
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The same day of Jesus’ death, He was taken down and buried, as befits Jewish custom, by a Jew identified as Joseph of Arimathea in the Gospel of Mark. This is marked on Good Friday, three days before Easter Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. While the Syriac manuscripts in the British Library’s holdings do not show Jesus in his tomb, they do show the revelation of His resurrection through imagery relating to the discovery of an empty burial chamber. In Add MS 7174, a Gospel copied in 1499 CE near Mosul, Iraq, Saint Mary Magdalene is portrayed as finding the empty tomb accompanied by Jesus Christ (who is partially effaced), two angels, and six “sinful Jews who gathered(?)” (ܝܗܘܕܝܐ ܚܛܝܐ ܩܒܘܐ). Among the most remarkable aspects of this particular illustration is the variation in attire between it and the miniatures found in the other manuscripts. Here, all the men are wearing turbans and something more akin to a cloak worn by a local cleric than the flowing robes found in the other texts.

Jesus' empty tomb from a 10th century manuscript
Mary Magdalene and another holy woman discovers the empty tomb, with Jesus to the right. (Púrāš qeryānā d-ṭeṭrā ᵓewangelion qadišā. Turabdin?, 12th century. Add MS 7169)
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The flattened plane in Add MS 7174 is also a noteworthy characteristic, one at odds with the imagery in Add MS 7169. Here, we have a frontal view of two women meeting the risen Christ, as well as cowering guards. The tomb is far more elaborate a structure, and if you look at the top of its arch, you can might spot a cross in the decoration; perhaps identifying it as a sacred space for contemporary Christians.

The Resurrection of Jesus from a 12th century manuscript
Jesus' resurrection from a 13th-century manuscript, including a detailed depiction of his burial shroud. (Syriac Lectionary. Northern Syria, 1216-1240. Add MS 7170)
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The most complex of the Resurrections, however, is the one found in Add MS 7170. Here, it is three women who find the empty tomb, this time with a clear image of Christ’s shroud inside the structure. Jesus and the holy women are also accompanied by an unidentified angel. The intricate detail on the various trees, and the embellishment on the tomb and in the border, are matched by the depth of emotion shown in the two weeping guards in the bottom left-hand corner of the painting. This image of the discovery of Christ’s empty tomb is also featured on the British Library’s Discovering Sacred Texts portal; an excellent tool for learning about religion and its influence on textual cultures the world over.

Multicolour and bejewelled mosaic cross from a 10th century manuscriptMulticolour mosaic cross from a Psalter
(Left) A multicoloured mosaic cross from an early 13th-century Psalter copied in Turabdin. (Ktābā Dawíd. Salah, Turabdin, 1203 CE. Add MS 7154)
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(Right) A rare multicoloured and bejewelled cross from a 12th-century lectionary. (Púrāš qeryānā d-ṭeṭrā ᵓewangelion qadišā. Turabdin?, 12th century. Add MS 7169)
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The final element of the Easter story that has produced a wide swathe of beautiful images in Syriac manuscripts is the Cross. With the spread and development of Christianity, the means of Jesus’ execution, the crucifix, become the most common and recognizable symbol of the faith. Many manuscripts from Christian cultures feature this visual cue. Syriac manuscripts occasionally have crosses embossed in their leather bindings or painted on the folios at the start or end of the text. Those that are illustrated in pigment are often composed of a mosaic of multicoloured squares. Add MS 7154, a Psalter copied in 1203 CE at Salah (also known as Barıştepe) near Turabdin, holds a faded but beautiful example, inked in six colours of the rainbow. Another cross is found at the end of Add MS 7169, one that includes a wider range of colours, as extra shades of pinks and white are also employed in the decoration of the crucifix. The border of dark red and blue swirling bands is a bold addition, but not bold enough to distract the viewer’s eye from the pencil lines indicating the artist’s process. Ewa Balicka-Witakowska has written about the methods of creating such works of art, but it was Raby and Brock who identified this particular example, as well as one from Or. 3372, as being unique for their inclusion of jewelled elements, visible here on the ends of the object.

The British Library’s holdings of Syriac manuscripts point to the rich and complex artistry of bookmaking among Syriac-speaking communities, as well as their traditions around the story of Easter. The items shown here, a small fraction of the Library’s collections, will soon be digitized and available for all to enjoy and study. Until then, we will have to be satisfied with the depiction of the Passion of Christ in this select group, and the simple Syriac greeting used at churches around the world on Easter Sunday: Qom mašiḥo! Šariro'ith qom! Christ is risen! Truly, he is risen!

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Collections Curator, British Library
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24 December 2019

Christmas from Bethlehem to Bethnahrein

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On December 25, Christians around the world (except most Orthodox Christians) will mark the birth of Jesus Christ, whom they believe to be the son of God and the Messiah. Jesus, who was born in a manger in Bethlehem, grew up speaking a dialect of Aramaic, once the lingua franca of West Asia. The Gospels, which relate Jesus’ life and teachings, were written in Greek, but the language that Jesus spoke continued to be used long past his death. Aramaic gradually evolved into various languages, with different speech communities surviving to the present day, albeit none of them in the vicinity of Jesus’ birthplace. Linguistic retention has been most tenacious in Mesopotamia, known as Beth-Nahrein (ܒܝܬ ܢܗܪܝܢ; "Between the Rivers"). For those groups that still speak it, language and culture continue to be important aspects of identity, including in the birthday celebrations of the world’s most famous Aramaic speaker, Jesus of Nazareth.


A recording of a 2016 Assyrian Church of the East Christmas celebration in Baghdad. (YouTube, uploaded by Rev. Shmoel Maqdis)

From the 1st century CE, an Aramaic language, Syriac, rose to become an important vehicle for Christianity and Christian philosophy in the Middle East. Based on the dialect of Urfa (Edessa/Εδεσσα in Greek, Urhoi/ܐܘܪܗܝ in Syriac), it has been used continuously by Syriac Christians in their liturgy and theological writings, as well as their secular histories and literature, for over a millennium and a half. Syriac Christianity is a rich and varied collection of faith practices, one that incorporates some 11 different churches of various theological and cultural orientations. Some, such as the Syriac Orthodox Church, are in communion with the Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches. The Syriac Maronite Church and the Chaldean Catholic Church are in communion with the Catholic Church based in Rome. Other groups, such as the Assyrian Church of the East, are completely independent of broader structures, while the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Kerala, India is in communion with the Anglican Church. What they all have in common, however, is their use of one of two Syriac rites, continuing on the religious significance of this Aramaic dialect, even in communities where it was never spoken as a daily language.

The Nativity scene from Add MS 7170.
An illustration of the Nativity from a 13th century Syriac lectionary copied in Syria or northern Iraq. (Syriac Lectionary, Add MS 7170)
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It should be no surprise, then, that Christmas too is described and celebrated in this linguistic relative of Jesus’ speech, whether in India, Lebanon, Iraq, or among the diaspora. The story of Jesus’ birth is found in the Peshitta, or simplified Syriac translation of the Gospels. Just as in the King James Bible, the Peshitta version provides us with a description of the manger in Luke 2:1, while Matthew 2:11 tells of the visit of the Magi. The British Library holds one of the largest and richest – if not the largest and richest – collections of Syriac manuscripts in the world, which include many copies of the Peshitta. Given the importance of the birth of the Christian Messiah as a milestone in Christian history, some of the works within our collections contain beautifully illuminated and illustrated narrations of the Nativity. One of the most spectacular depictions of the event comes from the manuscript Add MS 7170, a 13th century Lectionary that was copied in northern Iraq near the city of Mosul. The painting shows the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus lying side by side and watched over by angels, while the Magi arrive bearing gifts. Their presence in a manger is noted by the fact that both a donkey and an ox look down upon the infant, just as enraptured by his being as the humans.

Header of the Gospel of John from Or. 14365. Story of the Nativity from Gospel of Luke in Or 14365.
The start of the Gospel of John, with instructions that it is to be read for Christmas, as well as the story of the Nativity in the Gospel of Matthew, from a 15th century Peshitta from Tur Abdin, Turkey (Peshiṭtā, Or. 14365). 
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The story of the Nativity appears in all of copies of the Peshitta that contain all four of the Gospels, just as it does in all versions of the New Testament copied or published in other languages. As time went on, not only the event but its commemoration too became an important part of organizing the teachings and life of the Church and its faithful. In addition to the passages in both Luke and Matthew, whole sections of the Gospels were assigned for reading during the Christmas season. Excerpts from Or. 14365, a 15th century manuscript produced in Tur Abdin, Turkey, show not only Luke 2:1-10, telling the story of the Nativity, but also the header of the Gospel of John, which is intended to be read at Christmas. It features an intricate geometrical pattern of interlacing red, green and yellow bands, and is accompanied by a cloth thumb-tab, indicating that this section was indeed meant to be found and actively read by literate believers.

Illustrated cover page of Children's Christmas stories in Swadaya.
The cover of a collection of Christmas stories for children translated from English into Swadaya (neo-Aramic from northwestern Iran). (Lilā Abrāhaām Taymúrāzi, Ilānā qaṣomā d-'i'dā za'orā (Ṭahran : Ṭabíʿā b-Maṭbāʿtā d-síʿtā sefrāytā d-ʿālíme atúrāye b-ziqtā minyānā d-trín, 1959) (YP.2018.a.1677).
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Christianity has been a cornerstone of Aramaic-speakers’ identities right up to the present. As Adam H. Becker has explored in his book Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism, the 19th century brought an onslaught of American and British Protestant missionaries to northern Iraq and western Iran. This added a new layer to the relationship between history, language, religion and ethnicity in the region. European and American insistence on linking the ancient Assyrian Empire with contemporary Aramaic speakers, as well as the importation of European Christmas traditions, allowed for new means of celebrating the holiday alongside traditional ones. The British Library holds small but notable collections of contemporary poetry and prose works in Classical Syriac as well as the neo-Aramaic languages Turoyo and Swadaya. Within these, some include works dedicated to the celebration of Christmas. Writing targeted at children is especially rich with examples, as the holiday – beloved by children – also provides a good opportunity to teach these endangered languages to future generations. Some poems come with imagery that is clearly influenced by Western European symbolism, including Christmas trees and a portly, jolly and bearded Santa Claus. In mid-20th century works, such as the pamphlet above produced in Tehran, this is a reflection of the influence of British and American missionaries in the homeland of many neo-Aramaic speakers. Christmas stories were translated from English into the Swadaya dialect of the Urmia Region, ensuring a transfer of Euro-American Christmas traditions and symbols to a part of the Assyrian people.

A poem in Turoyo about Father Christmas including illustrations.
A song about Father Christmas in from an anthology of children's verse in Classical Syriac published in the Netherlands. (Murat Can, Zmiroṯo d šabre men Beṯ-nahrin : 41 zmiroṯo lan nacime b Surayt (Enschede : Ganaṯ Šarwoye, 1998). (YP.2018.b.125)
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The gradual infiltration of European ideas about Christmas also occurred because of the geography of Syriac Christian communities. Although originally from West Asia, more people who identify as Assyrians or Syriacs might live in the diaspora than do in the homeland. Conservative guesses are that half the community live outside of West Asia, with the United States and Sweden the largest populations. The British Library’s collections feature numerous works published by authors or community groups in Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany, many of them focused on the preservation and promulgation of culture and language. The example above, sourced from the Netherlands, shows the use of images familiar to anyone who might have grown up in Western Europe or North America, alongside a Turoyo song about Father Christmas.

News from Baghdad's Assyrian community including the 1973 Christmas party.
News from Baghdad's Assyrian community, including a piece on female students' Christmas party in December 1973. ("Akhbar al-mujtama'at al-āthūrī", Múrdinā Atúrāyā, Issue 3-4 (Baghdād : al-Nādī al-Thaqāfī al-Āthūrī, April 1974). (ZP.9.b.189)
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In the homeland, Christmas continues to be celebrated and woven into contemporary culture, despite the numerous pressures exerted on Aramaic speakers to go into hiding or depart. In the 1970s, the Assyrians of Baghdad openly celebrated Christmas as a group event, as seen in the community news section of the periodical Múrdinā Aturāyā (The Educated Assyrian). In December 1973, female Assyrian students marked the occasion with a party that included dance and song, among other entertainment. Christmas was not only a chance to mark the passage of time and to celebrate the birth of Christ, but also an opportunity to take stock and look towards the community's future. 

The Iran-Iraq War, decades of sanctions, unrest in the south-east of Turkey, and, eventually, the rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have all led to a drastic reduction in the presence of Syriac Christians in their homeland, as well as the celebration of Christian festivities there. Nonetheless, communities remain, and occasionally grow, allowing for Christmas Mass to be sung across the region. This year, too, the Nativity will be celebrated, in Syriac, in churches from Ainkawa to Adelaide, Mardin to Malmö, and Qamishlo to Kerala. Neither time nor distance can erase the sense of hope and yearning for peace represented by the celebration of Christmas.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Collections Curator, British Library
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