Manuscripts as Refugees

This article was originally published by The Digital Orientalist on 12 March 2021. The original can be found here.

By Ephrem A. Ishac Editor for Syriac Studies at The Digital Orientalist

Very recently we read news about Pope Francis presenting a restored Syriac liturgical manuscript to the Syriac Catholic Bishop of Qaraqosh (North Iraq).[1] The restoration team at the Vatican Library represented by Ivana Borsotto, head of the Federation of Christian Organizations in International Voluntary Service (FOCSIV), described the process of rescuing the manuscript thus “…we have saved and restored… this ‘refugee book’ — a sacred book of the Syriac-Christian Church of Iraq…” This statement reminded me of a paper I presented at Zadar University in 2016, where I suggested the existence of a phenomenon we could call “Manuscripts as Refugees.”[2] Today I will share some content based on that presentation in The Digital Orientalist.

Article about Pope Francis’s return of the “refugee” manuscript.

My Facebook post about the return of the manuscript.

In today’s post, I will discuss the migration of Syriac manuscripts (MSS) due to conflict, focusing particularly on MSS currently located in in Syria, Iraq and South East of Turkey. I refer to MSS as refugees in order to highlight issues pertaining to the migration and loss of historically significant documents – a theme that is often absent in Western media discourses, where human refugees are often the sole focus.

Introduction: Syriac culture as a refugee since the 4th Century

Migration has played an important role in the history of Syriac Christianity since the 4th century. For example, the Perso-Roman wars of 337–361 forced prominent Syriac speaking Christians such as St Ephrem the Syrian (+373) westward. Another example is the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Severus of Antioch (+538) who was forced to flee as a refugee to Egypt in 518.[3] The history of the Syriac Church is full of events, from which we know about frequent movements of her Church leaders, clerics and lay members.

Article on the symposium held at Salzburg University to celebrate the 1500 year anniversary of Mor Severus’ fleeing to Egypt.

Migration, often spurred by conflict, is a phenomenon that frequently appeared in the history of West and East Syriac communities, and Middle Eastern Christian communities more generally, and has formed an essential part of these communities’ identities. During many of these conflicts and persecutions, Syriac Christians migrated alongside their MSS.

I will now discuss some examples of the migration of Syriac Christians and their manuscripts, a phenomenon shaped by the contexts in which Middle Eastern Christians have found themselves and the expectations which have influenced their communities.

1) Migration of Historical Manuscript Libraries: Some Remarks

In The Scattered Pearls, Aphrem Barsoum provides a detailed description of manuscript libraries present in the regions of Tur Abdin and Mardin before and during the first decade of the 20th century. These libraries disappeared after First World War due to the effects of the Syriac genocides in 1915, known as Sayfo. Some MSS were destroyed alongside the Churches that housed them, whilst others survived after being moved to larger monasteries (Zafaran and Mor Gabriel) or the Patriarchate (Mardin Forty Martyrs’ Church) nearby. In his catalogue on the MSS of Tur Abdin, Barsoum writes about a unique manuscript containing rare canonical documents and the Acts of Synods, which he found in the village of Basebrin in 1910. He took some notes from the manuscript, but it was lost during the atrocities of the Sayfo.[4] Nevertheless, is not always the case that MSS are lost through conflict and persecutions, sometimes they become refugees and migrate.

Part of Barsoum’s catalouge of the MSS of Tur Abdin.

While studying the Aleppo MS collection of St George Church (the Edessa community library), I found that Patriarch Aphrem Barsoum had recorded some notes on many of the MSS in this library. The library includes collections from former libraries with many of its MSS coming from nearby monasteries that ceased to exist in the 19th Century. As such, we can notice the historical migration of MSS to new libraries. Colophons and notes are particularly important for identifying where MSS originally came from and often inform us how some monks brought and returned MSS to different locations.

The Chronicle of Michael the Great.

Unofficial processes of moving MSS as refugees during conflicts and returning them back to their original places after were well-known by the hierarchies of this Syriac community. An excellent example can be found in the famous manuscript of: The Chronicle of Michael the Great (from St George Church Collection). In an official Patriarchal letter appended to the manuscript we find the story of the manuscript’s rediscovery after it was stolen during a war, its subsequent purchase by a faithful member of the Syriac community of Mardin, and instructions for its return to its original location at the monastery of Mor Abḥai[5] to which the manuscript belonged. This monastery collapsed during the 19th century, so all the MSS were moved to the Church of St Peter and Paul in Edessa, and then to Aleppo in 1924 alongside the whole community.

Here is the text of the Patriarch’s letter [instrumental translation from Garshuni]:

“Ignatius, Patriarch of the Apostolic See of Antioch, who is Matthews:

<Patriarchal Official Seal of Mar Ignatius Matthews>

For the knowledge of every reader of this blessed [historical] record, that in the year 2102 Gr. [1791 Ad.] the Caliph of Baghdad [sic.] came to Mardin and some of his soldiers plundered Bogaq. One of them, brought this blessed book, which is known as The Chronicle. One of our spiritual children from the village of Qalʿet Mara checked it, an honorable blessed man, his name is Khawaja Ḥanna the son of the late Khawaja Elijah. He had bought it legally with his money. After his death, his blessed children gave this mentioned book as a waqf [endowment] for the rest of his soul to the monastery of the Apostolic See, Deir al-Zafaran.

When our spiritual Father, our spiritual Son, the most blessed [one] among the blessed [ones], the honorable Bishop ʿAbd Allah came to us, he told us that this mentioned book is a waqf [which belongs] to the monastery of Mor Abḥai. When we heard these words from him, with the knowledge of the late Khawaja Ḥanna’s children, we handed it to our spiritual Father the honorable Bishop ʿAbd Allah, to place it back in the monastery of Mor Abḥai, as an eternal waqf for the second time. We have returned it [back] to the monastery of the Holy Mor Abḥai, because there is no difference between the monastery of the blessed Mar Awgen and its [neighboring monastery] which is known as Deir Al-Zafaran and the monastery of Mor Abḥai.

May God reward everyone who has labored in [protecting] this book, and may he deserve the partaking in God’s grace as a reward. The one who takes out this book from its waqf [property], out of greediness or for the purpose of stealing it or anything like this, will be under the curse of God’s anger, and he will deserve the curse of the fig tree; may the cord of Judas be around his neck. The one who reads this book and returns it back, may be blessed with the mouth of the Lord and from the mouth of our weakness. Amen, Amen ܀”

The Edessa – Aleppo Facsimile of the Chronicle of Michael the Great, p. 21. [6]


Historical migrartion of The Chronicle of Michael the Great.

The Manuscript Library of St Ephrem Cathedral in Aleppo presents another good example of a refugee manuscript as indicated by a 16th century Arabic colophon that records the rediscovery, purchase, and return of the looted manuscript to its legitimate owner. The colophon reads “This blessed book, is the book of St Ephrem the Syrian, and it is all about his poems [mimre]. Its owner is rabban monk Youssef, the poor [one] from the blessed city of Ḥesn. This book was stolen during the destruction of Ḥesn, when Muhammed Bek the Invader destroyed it [Ḥesn] in the year of 1820 of Greek [1820 Gr: 1509 Ad]. I have found it, and I am its owner, the mentioned monk, and I bought it for a second time in Mardin, the protected city.” [SOAA_00182 B_336v][7]

Colophon in SOAA_00182.

In addition to these notes and in summary, it is important to record that:

  • Systems to protect Syriac heritage have long been in place. In fact, it is one of the Bishop’s duties to protect and preserve the MSS in his diocese since they belong to the Church, as is clear in the constitution of the Syriac Orthodox Church (Articles 68 and 155).[8]
  • Syriac MSS often contain curses those who might try to steal them from monasteries and churches, as we saw in the official Patriarchal letter appended to The Chronicle of Michael the Great.
  • Like human refugees, refugee MSS have found new and final homes, but simultaneously have been able to keep their own identity.

2) Survived Identity

Many old Syriac liturgical MSS, such as those of the Syriac Liturgical Anaphoras, have been poorly protected and preserved, not due to conflict, but because of accessibility and heavy usage. Nevertheless, it is sometimes possible to find traces of these old liturgical MSS in the bindings of other MSS. These refugee MSS are not the refugees of conflict but are ‘refugees’ that have migrated to the bindings of other manuscripts after their original codices were damaged because of daily use. Nevertheless, conflict also threatens their existence. The inclusion of liturgical and other heavily used MSS in other bindings potentially indicates that the binders wanted to preserve the identity of these liturgical MSS. A good example is the binding of a Syriac Anaphora manuscript (written in Syriac and in Turkish-Garshuni) from the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo Collection (St Ephrem Cathedral) which is itself made from different fragments. The cover binding of SOAA 0232 (Z),[9] includes a text which I could identify as coming from the Syriac Anaphora of Bar Salibi – one of the famous texts included in most of the Syriac Anaphoras manuscripts.

The cover binding of SOAA 0232(Z).

Another case concerning the themes of identity and authority in Syriac liturgical MSS is associated with the frequent deletion of names. This might involve destroying the paper or obscuring the name with a writing implement. Names were deleted for many reasons, but usually due to community splits. Sometimes, the identity of the liturgical text is also deleted for theological reasons (anathematized). This happened when the liturgical manuscript found itself on the shelves of another library and under the ownership of a new authority. Or for some confessional conflicts as was the case with the Syriac Anaphoras MS from the collection of Al-Tahira Syriac Catholic Church in Qaraqosh (DSCQ T 00104), where we see a deletion to the title after the name of Patriarch Mor Quryaqos.

Deleting the title after the name of Mor Quryaqos.

The example of the Anaphora of Basilius Abd Al-Ghani in the Mosul manuscript libraries also shines light on the phenomenon of MSS as refugees. I was surprised when I discovered this text since it was not mentioned in the HMML catalog. I had several questions then: Where is it now? Was it destroyed by ISIS? Moved somewhere else?

The story started when I was searching for manuscripts which might include the liturgical text of Maphrian Abd Al-Ghani’s Anaphora. I read in Barsoum’s The Scattered Pearls that this anaphora can be found in Cam. 2887 and in the collection of the Al-Tahira Church in Mosul. I felt somehow lucky to know that HMML had digitized the Al-Tahira Church collection, so I contacted them after determining that the MS was in this collection. I received images of 5 digitized MSS of Anaphoras from HMML, and I was in full of optimism that I would find amongst these images the anaphora that I was looking for. However, to my dismay it wasn’t there! So, I called a deacon from Mosul who now lives in Vienna to enquire about the anaphora and was surprised when he asked me: “Which Al-Tahira Church? The Syriac Orthodox or the Catholic one?” In the time of Barsoum, there was only one Church, but this had subsequently split into two. There was a chance that Al-Tahira Church MS collection had been split alongside the Churches. I searched for the Syriac Catholic Church MSS, but again I found nothing. I then contacted a priest from HMML’s digitizing team in Iraq who was unable to confirm if the piece had been digitized. As such I concluded that, the MS either had not yet been digitized or had been moved to another place at some point in the past. In order to investigate this, I checked the collection of the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese of Mosul (ASOM), but again found nothing about the anaphora that I was looking for. Then I noticed that the HMML cataloguers depended on a previous Arabic catalogue for the Syriac Orthodox collection of Mosul. So, I decided to compare the catalogues and noticed that the numbering was different. First, I matched the old numbering system with the new one, and then I turned to the Arabic catalogue, which describes one Anaphora which was not catalogued calling it as “an unidentified Anaphora.” So, I requested the digital images of this MS (ASOM 00072)[10], which I discovered was the former manuscript of Mosul N. 50 [olim Syrian Orthodox of Mosul 50]. I was extremely happy to find that this “unidentified Anaphora” was the one which I had been looking for (or maybe another one!?). Perhaps, the Arabic catalogue could not identify it simply because the title was not in red ink!</

Ephrem Ishac is a specialist in Syriac Studies focusing on East and West Syriac General Councils, Syriac Anaphoras, the History of Ecumenism in the Middle East, and Syriac Manuscripts.

He serves as a Senior Postdoctoral Fellow at FSCIRE Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna (Italy), Lecturer in Syriac Liturgical Theology at Salzburg University, and a Postdoctoral Researcher at VESTIGIA Manuscript Research Center, Graz University.


[1] On the presentation of the manuscript, see: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pope-francis-presented-with-historic-prayer-manuscript-saved-from-isis-67382. See photograph in my posts on social media (FB and Twitter) of Pope Francis’s visit to Qaraqosh on Sunday 7 March 2021. For the full story of how this MS was rescued, see: https://www.thenationalnews.com/mena/iraq/pope-francis-to-return-rare-500-year-old-refugee-christian-prayer-book-to-iraq-1.1177534

[2] The paper was entitled “Manuscripts as Refugees: Losing Identity?” and was presented on October 27, 2016 at APAE, Conference and School on Authority, Provenance, Authenticity, Evidence held at the University of Zadar, Croatia. See: http://apae.unizd.hr/?session=libraries-in-times-of-war-the-syrian-iraqi-case

[3] In February 2018, Dr. Aho Shemunkasho and I co-organized an international and ecumenical symposium held at Salzburg University to celebrate the 1500 year anniversary of Mor Severus’ fleeing to Egypt. During the symposium, Sebastian P. Brock referred to Mor Severus as “a refugee Patriarch.” For more details about the symposium, see the Salzburg Syriac Theology Newsletter: http://plusnews.sbg.ac.at/inxmail/syrischetheologie/mailarchiv_syrische_theologie.jsp?mail=16244&c=display On the inauguration of the symposium by Patrach Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, see: https://syriacpatriarchate.org/2018/02/inauguration-of-conference-on-mor-severus-of-antioch-salzburg/

[4] I. A. Barsoum, makhTuTat Ṭur ʿAbdin [Manuscripts of Ṭur ʿAbdin], Damascus 2008, p. 244–249.

[5] Or the Monastery of the Ladders, is on the right bank of the Euphrates, a half-hour journey from the village of ʿUrbīsh, near Karkar. It was established sometime after the fifth century and was first mentioned by historians in the beginning of the ninth century. It produced one Patriarch and fourteen bishops. It was inhabited until the beginning of the eighteenth century. Some of its ruins are still standing.” Ignatius Afram Barsoum, The Scattered Pearls: A History of Syriac Literature and Sciences, trans. Matti Moosa, 2nd rev. ed. (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2003), p. 560.

[6]The Edessa – Aleppo Syriac Codex of the Chronicle of Michael the Great, ed. G. Kiraz and G. Y. Ibrahim, 2009.

[7] Permeant link to access it: https://www.vhmml.org/readingRoom/view/508585

[8] For a full access to the constitution (English translation from the original Arabic), see: https://dss-syriacpatriarchate.org/canon-law/constitution/?lang=en

[9] Permanent link: https://www.vhmml.org/readingRoom/view/508643, accessed 24 January 2021.

[10] Permanent link: https://www.vhmml.org/readingRoom/view/136311</