The Library of Deir al-Surian.

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!)


  1. Test comment. (I can’t recall having so few comments since around 2003; it’s a little spooky.)

  2. J. W. Brewer says

    OK, well the moment may have passed, but just to humor you . . . The comment I was going to make earlier is that it was unclear to me why the fashion in which many of the manuscripts apparently first came to the location in question back in the 10th century (from their distant places of origin, with who knows what sort of military/political/economic stresses on their prior custodians) was any more praiseworthy or less imperialistic than the fashion in which some of them subsequently left that location in the 19th century.

  3. Oh, it’s not. History is a messy business.

  4. On the one hand, I share your outrage over Kulturraub, especially as practiced by colonial officers. On the other hand, I have to think of the Séert (Siirt) library destroyed in 1915 during the Armenian genocide. Had Addai Scher, the archbishop of Sért (who himself fell victim to the Genocide), not brought 13 manuscripts to Paris, the whole library would have been lost.

  5. Yup. Like I said, messy.

  6. J. W. Brewer says

    Curzon wasn’t a conventional “colonial officer” since none of the places he acquired manuscripts from were under British rule – they were under Ottoman rule, and Curzon first became interested in this sort of thing when he was a junior diplomat serving in the British Embassy to the Porte. Perhaps his hosts wanted to humor him and told their dhimmi subjects to cooperate; perhaps the monasteries had the fairly obvious motive of dhimmi subjects of the Caliph/Sultan in currying favor with seemingly well-connected representatives of the various outside Christian (if heterodox) powers who might have an episodic interest in whether the Ottomans’ were treating the Christians subject to their rule well or not. I wonder if by the early 19th C. there was anyone left at al-Surian who could read Syriac.

  7. John Emerson says

    When Stamford Raffles as shipwrecked on his return to Britain, he lost all his possessions, including a large number of irreplacable Malay manuscripts. I have read that a substantial proportion of the existing corpus was lost, but cannot find a link to that effect.

  8. John Emerson says

    Cultural looting is pretty integral to historical cultural traditions, though. Rome had plunder down to a routine. Sweden plundered Germany. Venice and Genoa were full of plundered art (in Genoa, some of it plundered from Venice). The horses of St. Mark in Venice came from Constantinople. The greatness of a state was in part the ability to strip lesser states of their treasures.

  9. 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.

    This I don’t understand. Sinaiticus is from the 4C and aren’t some of the Dead Sea copies of Isaiah &c dated to BCE?

  10. Sili, I am not sure, but I think it means manuscripts containing an explicit date in some form, rather than a date inferred indirectly.

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