Posted by on Jul 21, 2016 in Library | Comments Off on SYRIAC CALLIGRAPHY

Translated : By Dr. Matti Moosa


Since the art of calligraphy is obviously connected with the language and literature, we have chosen to devote an earlier chapter to this question, which has been neglected by historians. Some scholars are of the opinion that Syriac calligraphy antedates that of the other peoples of the world, and that the Syrians taught mankind the early method of writing, from which the Phoenicians and other nations borrowed their scripts. Although we cannot positively assert such a belief, because of the seriousness of the question and the conflicting arguments of scholars, and because it is impossible to present a conclusive discussion, we can, however, briefly state that our Syriac calligraphy is one of the most ancient calligraphies. The form of the characters of our Syriac script has changed throughout the ages, and there are no vestiges of its existence in the pre-Christian era, except a few insignificant lines found inscribed on stones in Edessa and other places. They were published separately by J. B. Chabot and Henry Pognon .1
In the Christian era, we have the Estrangelo, which is the best and noblest of the Syriac scripts. Also called the “open” or the “heavy” or the “Ruhawi” (Edessene), it was invented by Paul bar Arqa or Anqa of Edessa at the beginning of the third century, as shall be seen later. The Estrangelo is considered the source of the Arabic Kufi script. Most of our oldest manuscripts surviving today are written in this script, which was in continuous use until the fourteenth century.
The second type is the Western Syriac script, devised in the ninth century and mixed with Estrangelo for the simplicity of its use. The Syrians kept modifying it until it became distinct from the Estrangelo during the twelfth century. I believe that it is the same script, called “Sarta,” which was used in writing prose and is still used for this purpose, while the Estrangelo was strictly used for decorating the title heads.2
Among us there flourished a great number of calligraphers that perfected and beautified their art. All of them were either monks, hermits or clerics whose works was an adornment of knowledge. They undertook the copying of the most voluminous works with great patience and perpetuated many types of sciences and arts in their works.
To be sure, ancient Syriac books preserved today in the libraries of the Orient and Europe are the oldest books in the world.3 We have personally seen and studied most of them. However, the quantity that has reached us is very little, in comparison with the great numbers that have been lost through time. Even among these surviving works, we have found a considerable number either mutilated or lacking the name of the scribe. We have counted nearly one hundred and thirty skillful scribes from 462 A.D. to 1264 A.D. who used three types of Estrangelo, the thick, the medium, and the fine, with slight difference of beauty among them. In many manuscripts that they copied, there is found a creative embellishment and elegance and an overwhelming degree of perfection and uniformity. They usually wrote on special glossy parchments and seldom on thick paper, whose manufacture began in Baghdad at the end of the eighth century, shortly after the establishment of this city; this process was introduced from China and spread to other countries. The last known manufacturing of paper was in Damascus in the middle of the sixteenth century.4

From these calligraphers we except a group mentioned in some of the biographies of the saints of Tur Abdin, none of whose works were found, due to the lapse of time, the successive tribulations which afflicted their countries, and catastrophes and destructive invasions. These scribes are Samuel and Jonathan, the ascetics, who flourished in the first quarter of the fifth century;5 Daniel the Kundayraybi, the Chief copyist of Tur Abdin, and his pupils in the middle of the ninth century; and a few others.
In his Ecclesiastical History, the most learned Bar Hebraeus stated that “John of Basibrina, metropolitan of the Monastery of Qartamin (998-1034), restored the use of the Estrangelo script in Tur Abdin and its neighborhood almost a hundred years after the destruction of the monastery. He taught this art to his nephews, the monks Emmanuel, Peter and Yaish, after he had learned it himself by careful study of books. The first of them, the deacon-monk Emmanuel, copied seventy volumes of both testaments according to the Pshitto, the Septuagint and the Harqalite versions. He also transcribed homilies in three columns and thus adorned the monastery of Qartamin with books which have no equal in the world.”6 A copy of one of the Gospels belonging to the patriarchal seat is preserved at our St. Mark’s library in Jerusalem, under number 1.
Also famous in the art of calligraphy was Patriarch Yuhanna (John) XII, known as Yeshu the scribe (d. 1220), who, during his monastic life, transcribed about eighteen books; one of these was a Gospel, decorated with aqua aurum which had been in the Monastery of the Cross. I have seen three copies of the gospels in Aleppo and in Paris (MS. 40). Of the more than fourteen fanqiths (service books of prayer) transcribed by the monk-priest Zebina the Shalibdini (d. 1227), only three survived at our Church of Diyarbakr. Also, a pictorial Bible is found in the Jerusalem library7 (MS. 28), and another copy of the Bible in Paris, transcribed by the monk-priest Bacchus of Beth Khudayda al-Tawwaf (“wanderer”), 1213-1257. Further, Patriarch Michael the Great (d. 1199) had beautifully transcribed a valuable copy of the Bible, adorned each page with gold and silver, and bound it with a silver cover. In the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, (MSS. 113 and 167) are also in Michael’s own handwriting.
Iyawannis Yeshu, metropolitan of Raban (1210), whose handwriting was extremely good, transcribed many books, of which a Bible is found at St. Thomas Catholic Church in Mosul. Also, Dioscorus Theodorus bar Basil, metropolitan of Hisn Ziyad (d. 1273), transcribed books which are now preserved at the libraries of al-Zafaran Monastery, Diyarbakr and Kharput. The deacon Abd Allah of Bartulli transcribed three books that are in the libraries of Jerusalem, Aleppo and al-Sharfa.8
Bar Hebraeus relates that “an Edessan monk-priest named Kasrun retreated to the town of Maragha, in Persia, together with people from al-Sham (Syria), who had been transported there by the Persians. He adorned our Church at Maragha with books in his own handwriting, which remain preserved until this time in Nineveh.9 He was a skillful calligrapher that spent most of his days at St. Behnam’s Monastery. He died in 1139.”10 The surviving work in his handwriting is the Book of Psalms in the Estrangelo and the Western script, copied according to the Pshitto version and the variant readings of the Septuagint, with his commentaries on it, which he finished at Maragha in 1127. This volume is preserved at the Chaldean Patriarchate in Mosul, under No. 4.

Distinguished for their art of engraving and decorating, apart from their calligraphy, were the deacon Joseph of Melitene (d. 997), the monk Yaish of Basibrina (formerly mentioned), the monk-priest Peter, son of the deacon Abu al-Faraj Saba of Basibrina, the monk-priest Sahdu Tuma of Tur Abdin (1241), the monk Mubarak bar Dawid of Bartulli (1239), the monk-priest Bacchus of Beth Khudayda (formerly mentioned), the monk-priest Joseph of Arnas (d. 1449), and the monk Daniel Qusuri (d. 1577). Of lesser talent was Dioscorus, metropolitan of Hisn Ziyad.
From the thirteenth century until our time, about one hundred and seventy calligraphers improved the Western script and used three types of it, the thick, the medium, and the fine. The latter is exceptionally elegant, especially the type known as the Karkari, after the town or the citadel of Karkar, situated between Diyarkakr and Edessa and their neighboring villages. From 1577 to 1820 the calligraphers of these districts developed a fine script of extreme beauty and brilliant lines.
Of those who perfected the Western script, we would like to mention specifically the monk Yeshu Shini of Bedlis (1298), the monk-priest Saliba bar Khayrun of Hah (1340), the monk-priest Jacob of Manimim (1404), the monk Joseph of the Natif Monastery (1443), the metropolitan Simon of Aynward (d. 1490), George bar Qurman, metropolitan of Mardin (1504), the metropolitan Sergius of Hah (1508), the patriarch Nuh the Lebanese (d. 1509), Musa Ubayd of Sadad, metropolitan of Hims (d. 1510), the monk-priest Ibrahim Zanbur of Basibrina, who transcribed nearly twenty volumes (d. 1512), Joseph, metropolitan of Kafr Hawwar (1513), the patriarch Jacob I (d. 1517), the maphrian Sulayman of Mardin (d. 1518), the priest Simon of Hirrin (d. 1523), Yusuf the Iberian, metropolitan of Jerusalem (d. 1537), the patriarch Pilate (d. 1597), the monk-priest Ibrahim bar Ghazwi the Qusuri (1607), Behnam of Arbu, metropolitan of Jerusalem (d. 1614), the monk-priest Abd al-Azim of Klaybin (1612), the metropolitan Dionysius Abd al-Hayy of Mardin(1621), the monk-priest Abd Allah al-Mashlul of Mardin (1621), the metropolitan Yuhanna of Beth Khudayda (d. 1625), the maphrian Isaiah of Inhil (d. 1635), the maphrian Behnam Bati (d. 1655), Aslam, metropolitan of Amid (d. 1741), the metropolitan John Shahin of Amid (d. 1755), the chorepiscopus Jacob of Qutrubul (d. 1783), Iliyya (Elijah) Shlah of Mardin, metropolitan of Bushayriyya (d. 1805), the metropolitan Abd al-Nur of Arbu (d. 1841), Metropolitan Saliba of Basibrina (d. 1885), George Kassab of Sadad, metropolitan of Jerusalem (d. 1896), the monk-priest Yeshu of Manimim (d. 1916), the deacon Matta Bulus (Paul) of Mosul, who transcribed more than forty volumes of different subjects, including commentaries on the Pentateuch, theology, ecclesiastical jurisprudence, history, literature and asceticism. They are preserved in different libraries. He is still living and has passed his eighty-sixth year of age.11 Moreover, a number of our clerics still perfect the Syriac calligraphy.
The first calligrapher known to have embellished the fine Karkari script was Gregory Vaness Najjar of Wank, metropolitan of Cappadocia and then Edessa (1577-1607). He transcribed about twenty volumes of different writings. He also transcribed with extreme precision several copies of the Gospels and the Psalms, in an extremely fine and compact handwriting. Each copy not more than seven centimeters long. Three of these copies are preserved – one in the library of St. Mark’s Monastery in Jerusalem, another in the Boston Library,12 and the third in the possession of one of the priests in Mosul. From the artistic point of view, these manuscripts are considered a marvel.
Other calligraphers are Michael Barsoum of Urbaysh, metropolitan of Karkar (1590-1630), who transcribed the history of Michael the Great; his uncle, the monk Pilate Mukhtar (1584); the two monks Sahdu of Karkar (1599) and Micha of Wank (1606).

At the end of this book the reader will find a chronological catalogue of the names of these excellent men that were extracted from the invaluable manuscripts they copied. These manuscripts that survived destruction attest to their excellence. We have arranged them according to their dates of transcription beginning with the oldest dates.