Re-Discovering MS Zafaran N. 12: A story of the power of social media and on finding lost materials in digital archives

For two years now, I have searched for a manuscript on the Synod of Hattackh of 1576. In the 1956, Patriarch Aphrem Barsoum wrote of the Synod of Hattackh of 1576 in his The Scattered Pearls: A History of Syriac Literature and Sciences (2003: 134) recording in his footnotes that it can be found in the manuscripts of a collection (also known as Dayr Al-Za‘farān or ZFRN) as MS Zafaran N. 12. After a long search, I have discovered that it exists under another number and in a different library! Today, I would like to inform you all of how I rediscovered the text.

The numbers of the Zafaran manuscripts were changed with the work of Mor Philexinos Yuhanon Dolabani and again when they were catalogued as part of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML). Indeed, Adam C. McCollum notes that the Zafaran manuscripts:

…are brimming with identification numbers from various periods and by various custodians, some manuscripts having as many as five different numbers!

McCollum, “Remarks on Recent Cataloging Efforts Among Syriac Manuscripts Preserved at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library,” 355.

One of the reasons for this is that the Zafaran manuscripts were frequently moved to different collections and re-numbered throughout the 20th Century. In any case, there was very little chance of finding it through HMML’s digital portal, vHMML, when searching for manuscripts numbered MS Zafaran N. 12 or even Church of the Forty Martyrs (CFMM) MS N. 12.

A screenshot of vHMML’s interface.

I contacted Rev. Fr Dr. Roger-Youssef Akhrass, who apologized for not having a list suitable to compare the old numbers to the new ones, but whose conversation inspired me to turn to Barsoum’s Arabic catalogue of the Zafaran manuscript library in order to read how Barsoum described MS Zafaran N. 12 and use that knowledge to conjecture where we might be able to look for it in our digitized collections. While reading Barsoum’s description, I noticed that the manuscript he catalogued as N.12 contains a miniature featuring two angels holding fans. Then, I remembered something that Akhrass had recently posted on Facebook, a marvelous Syriac manuscript miniature of Jesus giving communion to his disciples in hands with two angels with liturgical fans standing behind him. So I contacted Akhrass again asking him for the reference for his Facebook post. He kindly informed me that it was from CFMM MS 41 and that I can check it as well as other manuscript miniatures in his excellent online database of Syriac Icons.

Fr. Akhrass’s Facebook Post which helped me to identify the mansucript.

So, I went to vHMML to look at CFMM MS 41 (also known as CFMM 00041) and found that the Synod was at the beginning of the manuscript. The manuscript is a liturgical lectionary with very beautiful miniatures and is known as the Lectionary of Dioscorus Theodoros (a bishop of Hoson Zaid in the 13th Century) or according to Barsoum, the Lectionary of Malaha. HMML refers to it as the “Evangelion.” In 1895, during the first Sayfo against Christians, the manuscript was thrown into a water well in the village of Malaha. Patriarch Ignatius Abdulmassih took it afterwards and tried to restore it by cleaning it and giving it a new binding. Afterward, he took it with him to the Zafaran monastery. The village of Mallaha is also known as Mlahso and was located nearby Diarbaker. Its population was completely massacred in the Sayfo of 1915. So it seems that this manuscript survived the genocide of 1895, became a refugee in the collection of the Zafaran monastery where it was numbered MS N. 12, was later renumbered by Dolabani as MS 41/2 (the number 39 also appears in the back binding in blue pen], and was then renumbered again as CFMM MS 41 in HMML. 

A screenshot from Akhrass’s database of Syriac Icons.

We are so lucky that it could survive, since we have already lost four highly important manuscripts for the East and West Syriac Synods during the Sayfo genocides. Now with this manuscript CFMM 00041 [olim. Zafaran N.12] we have a rescued manuscript from the Sayfo of 1895. If it had not been taken to the Zafaran monastery by the Patriarch, it would most probably not have survived the Sayfo of 1915 since the village of Malaha/Mlahso and the surrounding area were massacred. This might indicate how much these Syriac Churches lost during many of the conflicts in their history. It also shows us the potential of rediscovering texts in the present through our access to digital archives and their contents, and more importantly the power of social media for connecting us and leading us to such discoveries. It is interesting and surprising to think how a monk’s post on Facebook made for a liturgical purpose could help me to identify this manuscript!

I am preparing a forthcoming piece on the Synod of Hattackh and the above described manuscript in the Corpus Christianorum Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Generaliumque Decreta. See the References section of this piece for bibliographical details.


Ignatius Aphrem I Barsoum, The Scattered Pearls: A History of Syriac Literature and Sciences, translated by Matti Moosa(Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2003).

Ephrem A. Ishac, ‘Synod of Hattackh – Mallaha 1576,’ in: A. Melloni (ed.), Corpus Christianorum Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Generaliumque Decreta (COGD V.1) (Turnhout: Brepols, forthcoming).

Adam C. McCollum, “Remarks on Recent Cataloging Efforts Among Syriac Manuscripts Preserved at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library,” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 15, No. 2 (2012): 353-373.

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