A Spear’s article by Teresa Levonian Cole describes the history of Deir al-Surian, ‘Monastery of the Syrians,’ and its remarkable library:
The tower, built around AD 850, contained the monastery’s original library. It might have remained a library like any other, had it not been for a decision by the new vizier to tax the monasteries in Egypt. To plead exemption for Deir al-Surian, Abbot Mushe of Nisibis made his way to the Abbasid capital of Baghdad in 927, and, while awaiting the Caliph’s decision (it was favourable), embarked on a five-year spree that would yield a cache of 250 manuscripts from Syria and Mesopotamia.
This would form the core of his monastery’s collection which, over the years, increased to number Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic and Christian-Arab texts, dating from the 5th to the 18th centuries. They would include biblical, Patristic and liturgical writings, as well as early translations of philosophy, medicine and science, many of whose original Greek texts have been lost.
Of these treasures, the most ancient are the writings in Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Christ), which include the earliest dated Old and New Testament manuscripts ever found in any language: part of the Book of Isaiah, dated AD 459/60, and a Gospel of AD 510.
A great many of its treasures were ripped off — excuse me, I mean “acquired” — by various minions of imperialism like the Egregious — excuse me, I mean Honourable — Robert Curzon, but quite a few remain, and they’re now being well taken care of thanks to the unstinting efforts of the monastery’s new librarian, Elizabeth Sobczynski. The whole thing is well worth a read. (Thanks, Paul!)