Flew under the Digital and non-Digital Scholarly Radars: A Mysterious Box of Syriac Fragments at Yale University (Part 2)

This is part 2 of my posts on the Syriac materials that I have found in Yale: The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Special Collections of Yale Divinity School Library. The first part is available here.

Here I want to share an interesting story about what I will call ‘A Mysterious Box of Syriac Fragments’ because this box was not found when I was looking for it around two years ago during my short-term fellowship at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music (ISM – February 2020) and the Beinecke Library. I knew about the existence of the Hartford Syriac fragments from the short notes in the checklist of J.T. Clemons, but the staff at the Beinecke were not able to find them. This was due to a simple reason: when the rare materials were moved from the Hartford Seminary (as described in my previous post), they were placed in boxes until they could be cataloged. This year, in my current one-year-fellowship at ISM, I was able to pay a visit to the Beinecke Library, and when I asked for a certain Syriac MS from the Hartford collection, a librarian brought me a gray box that I had not seen two years ago. Surprisingly, it included the ancient fragments that I was looking for in 2020! 

The gray box includes the following information on its label “Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Hartford Seminary Collection, Box 86.” On its side, the following is written in pencil “Syriac Parchment.” When I opened the box, I found some Qur’anic fragments on top. So I initially thought that the box has been miscataloged, as might sometimes happen when librarians cannot distinguish between Arabic and Syriac (or even describe an Indonesian manuscript as a Syriac manuscript; you can read about such a story in my previous post)!

But I did find a note inside the box saying: “Syriac Lectionary Fragment, This leaf from a lectionary includes a reading from the Gospel of Mark. The accompanying miniature, from the same manuscript, depicts the Harrowing of Hell. Hartford Seminary, Syriac 6.” This note encouraged me to check carefully the rare materials beneath the Arabic fragments, where I found an envelope entitled “A Koranic verse (the Throne Verse) written in Kufic and Modern Arabic in the late 19th or early 20th C. The verse is found in surat al Bakara verse 255.”

But the biggest surprise appeared in the folder beneath it: when I opened it, I found the following library card which includes: “Fragment of a Syriac Christian book on canon law dealing with the status of Christian communities within Islamic societies.  9  10th century.” In this folder I found some archival letters exchanged between Prof. Hubert Kaufhold and the librarian of Hartford Seminary between 1968 and 1973, during the process of his studying this important ancient canonical fragment. In fact, Prof. Kaufhold included studying this ancient fragment in his dissertation, which he published in 1976: Die Rechtssammlung Des Gabriel von Basra Und Ihr Verhältnis Zu Den Anderen Juristischen Sammelwerken Der Nestorianer. Münchener Universitätsschriften – Juristische Fakultät, Abhandlungen Zur Rechtswissenschaftlichen Grundlagenforschung 21. Berlin: J. Schweitzer, 1976. Next to the envelope, there is a note explaining the fragment: “Syriac Canon Law Fragment: A fragment from a ninth-century canon law collection, dealing with the status of Christian communities within Islamic societies. Hartford Seminary, Syriac 7”. 

Further digging enabled me to find other Syriac fragments, but from a clearly later period (around the 19th cent.), such as an East Syriac fragment with saying about wisdom ܥܠ ܚܲܝܠܗ ܕܐܒܐ ܥܠܬܐ ܘܥܘܕܪܢܗ ܕܒܪܐ ܡܠܬܐ ܘܪܘܚ ܩܘܕܫܐ ܚܕܐ ܐܝܬܘܬܐ ܡܫܪܐ ܕܘܝܐ ܡܠܐ ܚܛܝܐ ܠܡܟܬܒ ܡܐܡܪ̈ܐ ܕܚܟܡܬܐ ܐܠܗܝܬܐ ܕܐܡܝܪ ܠܚܲܕ ܡ̣ܢ ܦܝܠܣ̈ܘܦܐ ܕܣܘܪܝܵܝܘܬܐ..

The folder beneath it is labeled with the following title: “Syriac MS. Illuminated 4 pages.” When I opened the folder, I was totally impressed to see a spectacular miniature of Christ’s resurrection, with marvelous colors and golden ink! The illumination is placed as a separate piece next to four other parchment fragments from the Ḥarqlean Version of the Syriac Biblical, or, to be more precise, these fragments are pieces from a Lectionary (a liturgical book that includes the assigned biblical readings for several liturgical days).

The olim Hartford fragments include readings such as those for the Eucharistic Liturgy in the first week of the Great Lent with an interesting rubrical note in Syriac denoting that it should (also) be read on the morning of the Thursday of Mysteries (Holy Thursday). Another marginal note in rubrum (red ink) reads: “and for <the feast of> Basil <of Caesarea>.” The fragment includes a beautiful Syriac decorated letter of “ܙ” as the quire number. The fragments show some damage and holes in several places, but they are in very good condition, generally speaking,  written in clear Estrangelo script with some beautiful miniatures. On page 4 of the fragment at the right top corner where the two diamond-shaped crosses are located (usually these are used by the scribes for the final control process), the following English words are written by pencil: “Hartford Seminary Syriac”. 

The story continues, since I had quickly checked this rare box in September 2022, believing that accessing it later would be an easy task. In fact, when I wanted to access it after two months, the librarians could not find it! I am grateful to the wonderful staff at Beinecke who permitted me to take photos during my visit in September 2022. When I showed those images to the librarians, they informed me after two days that the box had been moved to another department in the library. 

This story serves as a good example of how rare materials could be missed even by librarians. I witnessed a similar story when I wanted to access a certain fragment at the Vatican manuscript library a few weeks ago! In fact, these kinds of stories remind us of how accessing the original documents (manuscripts and fragments or other kinds of objects that we study in our research) is crucially important to ensure the precision of our results. Another lesson that we can learn here by sharing this story is the great help of the digital images that I was able to take with my camera (even though they were not professional). This even helped the librarians to know what I was talking about when I wanted to access the “Mysterious Box.” So, one point for the manual detection work, and another point for the digitization effort! 

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