Flew under the Digital and non-Digital Scholarly Radars: Syriac Manuscripts and Fragments at Yale University (Part 1)

As you might expect, not all rare materials (manuscripts and their fragments) are yet digitized. Sometimes still more surprising (and even more interesting!) is finding rare materials that have been forgotten or cataloged incorrectly and then flown under the scholarly radar of those checking for manuscripts and fragments in catalogs and library checklists, whether digital or analogue. My plaidoyer in this and forthcoming posts is that although we live in a digital age (especially regarding the trendy movement of ‘Digital Humanities’), we should still remember that there is still a lot of work awaiting for us as researchers by going and checking MSS and fragments. It is not enough to rely on information of library-inventories or even published catalogues; we should try to access those rare objects by ourselves (if at all possible) to ensure the accuracy of our data, whether analogue or digital. I hope that my message reminds many people (especially young students who have essentially always lived in a digital age) that the ‘non-digital,’ analogue task in our research is always important, even to secure ‘a digital’ outcome. We should not accept even a minimal possibility to confuse or mislead those who trust our digital data. In the end, it is a responsibility to secure the results!

This and forthcoming posts are taken from my article: “Hidden Syriac Manuscripts at Yale,” published in: Tracing Written Heritage in a Digital Age, which you can find at the Harrassowitz Press here. In this post, I would like to share some parts, especially regarding the Syriac rare materials that have a direct or indirect connection with the American Oriental Society (AOS), that the Digital Orientalist is an arm of. AOS oriental manuscripts are housed today in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, and some of these materials have been already digitized and can be accessed here and here.


A good number of Syriac manuscripts and related archival materials had migrated to various libraries in the USA since the 19th century for different reasons, especially from the Protestant missionaries in the Middle East, such as the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. Copies of Syriac manuscripts located in the city of Urmia (in Iran) in Urmia American College were sent to scholars in the USA, which helped their missionaries financially. After the Sayfo genocide 1915, many of those manuscripts were taken to the American shores by the missionary members after they had been forced to close their college in Urmia. For some reason, many of these Syriac manuscripts located in the USA were moved and transferred to other libraries and universities, such as Yale University. 

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library – Yale University

Previous Descriptions of the Yale Syriac Manuscripts

J.T. Clemons was the first to attempt a description if the Syriac manuscripts at Yale in his comprehensive description of all the Syriac MSS in North America in 1966. His pioneering initiative is helpful to know about many MSS cited by the early American Orientalists, such as Isaac Hollister Hall. Hall had brought many of those manuscripts from Beirut to the USA by the late 19th century and then collected and cataloged them. 

L. Depuydt conducted the second attempt to describe some of the Yale Syriac manuscripts for a presentation to provide a general glimpse of the content of the Yale Syriac MSS. The later description by H. Takahashi has served as a very helpful guide to precisely identify the call numbers and to give a preliminary detailed inventory about many other Syriac manuscripts at Yale, especially those from the collection of the American Oriental Society (AOS). During my short-term fellowship at the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University in February 2020, I was privileged to conduct research at the Beinecke Library, where I even found a few more undescribed Syriac manuscripts and related materials (such as the personal notes by the American orientalist Isaac Hall).

Moving Syriac MSS to Yale 

There are four manuscripts which ended up at the Beinecke library – Yale from the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, whose manuscript library was sold to Yale University in 2005. There is a fifth manuscript which was mistakenly described as “Syriac” in the Preliminary Inventory, but it is an Indonesian manuscript and cataloged incorrectly as “Syriac.” 

The former Hartford collection at Beinecke also includes 15 notebooks by the orientalist Isaac H. Hall (d. 1896). He had mentioned in several articles how many manuscripts arrived in North America with Protestant missionaries returning from the Middle East. He himself was a member of the Protestant missionaries in Beirut, Lebanon (where he taught at the Protestant seminary and where he witnessed the project of the famous Van Dyke Arabic translation with Eli Smith). Most of his notebooks are drafts of articles that he published in different journals.  

One manuscript can be added to the previous collection, perhaps the first Syriac manuscript presented to Yale library. Prof. Edward Elbridge Salisbury donated it with Arabic manuscripts in 1870 . It is described as “a Nestorian Manuscript,” so it could be difficult to find while looking for “Syriac” or any other related terms in the library catalogs. 

The purpose of the following lines is to provide preliminary notes from a general description to assist the readers in knowing about these manuscripts and fragments with their overall contents. 

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

I. Hartford Theological Seminary 

As mentioned above, the MSS of this collection originally came to the Beinecke Library from the Case Memorial Library  of Hartford Seminary when they were bought by Yale in 2005. Clemons’ checklist had given these MSS a general description when they were still at Hartford Seminary. But Clemons had gathered his information from curators and librarians, who did not necessarily know Syriac. Perhaps they had depended on English archival notes attached to these MSS. Thus, each description was not only very general (mostly just providing a title), but also avoided many significant remarks that could offer helpful data. The Preliminary Inventory, which was possibly prepared when the Hartford Seminary collection was transferred to the Beinecke Library, documents the existence of some Syriac items as the following:

“Hartford Seminary Collection Additional Material

Syriac 1
Syriac +1
Syriac 2, 3 ‘Verses in Ekosh Dialect’ (2 vols.)
Syriac3 Duplicate number?
Syriac fragments 1 box
Syriac and Latin fragments 1 box”. 

Apparently, this Preliminary Inventory was prepared rapidly while moving the collection to Yale, and this may explain the reason it does not mention items {5–20} in my list below. Here I present some details about these Syriac items from the Hartford Seminary collection at Beinecke. 

A. Manuscripts 

{1}.  [I. A. 1] Hartford Theological Seminary 1 (Clemons 209): Life of Christ, The Book Paradise or Maqamat [by ʿAbdishoʿ], Some East Syriac Prayers
160 x 110 mm; 162 folios (papers); 1 column; 15 lines; East Syriac (Neo Aramaic dialect). 

{2}.  [I. A. 2] Hartford Theological Seminary 2 (Clemons 210): Works by Barhebraeus, Elia Bar Shina, Elia of Nisibis, Shlemon of Baṣra and Others.
180 x 125 mm; 115 folios (papers); 1 column; 18–19 lines. East Syriac and some words in Arabic; written by various scribes; dated approximately between 14–17th cent. (according to the English note inside the volume, written by Moses Bailey, S.T.M.).

{3}.  [I. A. 3] Hartford Theological Seminary 3 (Clemons 211): Syriac Amulet [title on the binding is written: “Syriac Astrology and Magic”]
110 x 80 mm; 41 folios (paper); 1 column; 14 lines; East Syriac; 18–19th cent.
Not bound correctly (f. 41r is in the opposite direction)
Illustrations: many of them are like what we often find in this genre of Syriac amulets MSS: in f. 3, 5, 6, 7, 10, 13, 16, 18, 19, 20, 22, 25, 28, 30, 37, 39, 41. 

{4}.  [I. A. 4] Hartford Theological Seminary 4 The Book of Paradise by ʿAbdishoʿ
[olim. H. S. Syr. 3?] (This MS is not included in the Clemons checklist, possibly because it was not yet in the collection of the Hartford Seminary):
180 x 130 mm; 277 pages; 18–19 lines. East Syriac around 18th cent.

{5}. [I. A. 5] Hartford Theological Seminary Miscellaneous ms#50 (Clemons 212): 
Syriac-English Dictionary 
English and Syriac (East script) with some Persian and Kurdish words
304 x 195 mm; II + p 515 + one free leaf blank + 5 folios (unnumbered); 2 columns; 22 lines.
Written in 1857 in Urmia at the village of Geog-Tapa (or Geogtapa; Gūgtāpāh; Göktepe) by Deacon Moses/Mushe Geog-Tapa.
Date: between 1857–1874 [according to English note in p. 466] 
 [Cf. Wilmshurst, Ecclesiastical Organisation, 338 esp. in ft 217: cf. “MSS Leningrad Syr 51, Berlin Syr 76, Ormi 76, 89, 158, 161, and 227, and Athens Syr 1805.”]
Also cf. Beinecke: A.O.S. MSS Rn M86 (Takahashi 9; Clemons 231) which is written by the same scribe, who had copied several other MSS such as: “Leningrad Syr 51, Berlin Syr 76, Ormi 76, 89, 158, 161, and 227, and Athens Syr 1805”].

{*}. [I. A. *] Syriac +1: In the Preliminary Inventory, there is another item in Hartford Seminary collection that holds the name “Syriac +1” but it is not Syriac, rather it is Indonesian.  

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