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Cambridge University Library

Throwback Thursday: A surprise in Syriac script

T-S AS 213.20
T-S AS 213.20 (recto): a Christian hymnary for a Feast of Mary
Author: 
Melonie Schmierer-Lee
Thu 19 Aug 2021

Our Throwback Thursday this week is taken from issue 6 of the printed edition of Genizah Fragments, published in October 1983, by Sebastian Brock:

That the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection contains a smattering of Christian texts has long been known. Written mainly in Christian Palestinian Aramaic but also in Coptic, Georgian, Greek, Latin and Syriac, these are all to be found in manuscripts technically known as palimpsests. Such manuscripts consist of parchment leaves whose original writing (in this case containing the Christian texts) was at some stage erased so that the writing material could be re-cycled and used for copying out new texts.
What came as something of a surprise was the discovery of some small paper fragments in Syriac script where the original writing had been left untouched (T-S NS 306.224, 227, 228–229 and AS 213.18–20). These had evidently been subjected to a different form of re-cycling, having perhaps been used for packing inside the bindings of later volumes.
Belonging to the Aramaic branch of the Semitic languages, Syriac was the language of three oriental Churches, including the Church of the East, in the Middle Ages, while the dominant language of the Christian community in Egypt was Coptic.
Credit for the discovery of these new Syriac fragments goes to Professors Israel Yeivin and Ezra Fleischer and to the Director of the Genizah Research Unit, who came across them in 1974 while sorting out the Additional Series fragments. Some years later, Professor Simon Hopkins, then Research Assistant in the Genizah Research Unit (now Professor of Hebrew at the University of Cape Town) drew my attention to their existence.
Once I had examined the manuscripts, it did not take me long to identify them as fragments from a liturgical book, or hymnary, of the Church of the East (the so-called “Nestorian” Church), most of them belonging to a feast of the Virgin Mary. With some help from modern printed editions and more extensive guidance from manuscripts of the East Syrian hymnaries, it proved possible to fill out and reconstruct the text of a number of these very fragmentary pieces.
The fact that I have been unable, after long searches, to find parallels for some of the contents is in itself interesting, for it indicates that the surviving liturgical manuscripts (usually sixteenth century or later) and, above all, the printed editions have preserved only part of the much larger repertory that must once have been current. Full details of my work will shortly appear in Oriens Christianus (Munich).
In all probability, the Taylor-Schechter fragments belong to the thirteenth or fourteenth century, and they represent some of the earliest extant fragments of this type of liturgical book. It so happens that the Freer Gallery in Washington has a diminutive fragment in an almost identical hand; it is possible that this may once have formed part of the Freer Gallery’s Genizah collection, but, unfortunately, no documentary evidence for this now survives.
If the Freer Gallery’s fragment does indeed belong to their Genizah collection, then it is conceivable that it actually once formed part of the same manuscript in which the Cambridge fragments originate.
Very little is known of the dwindling “Nestorian” community in Cairo after the end of the twelfth century, and so these small fragments provide tangible evidence for its continuing existence into the thirteenth or even fourteenth century; perhaps the manuscript was sold as scrap when the community finally faded out of existence.
It is a remarkable coincidence that one of the fragments contains a text which overlaps with one that occurs in an even earlier Syriac liturgical fragment – found in Chinese Turkestan! These two identical liturgical fragments thus provide unexpected testimony to the far-flung geographical extension of the Church of the East in the Middle Ages.

What happened next? Brock's article ‘East Syrian Liturgical Fragments from the Cairo Genizah’ appeared in Oriens Christianus 68 (1984): 58–79, and soon more fragments from the same hymnary (and indeed the same quire) were discovered (T-S AS 204.351–6), published by Brock as ‘Some Further East Syrian Liturgical Fragments from the Cairo Genizah’, Oriens Christianus 74 (1990): 44–61.

Comments

You mention "credit is due" and mention two people by name. The third is named as the "Director of the Taylor Schechter collection". If you are giving credit surely it is usual to refer to people by their name and not their title? In this case "Professor Stefan Reif" would have been appropriate.

Hi Barry, this is a 'throwback' post reprinted from its original publication in 1983, so we have not changed the text of the original article. Yes, of course Stefan is the person referred to here. 

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