Donation of microfilms gives new access to Syrian manuscripts
Due to the unrest in the Middle East, many ancient Syrian manuscripts are no longer available or have even been destroyed. Professor of Old Testament Bas ter Haar Romeny received 77 microfilms of Syrian manuscripts, enabling him and his PhD students to research these ‘lost’ manuscripts.
Romeny recently received the collection of microfilms from Gerrit Reinink, researcher from Groningen, who is now retired. The University of Groningen has discontinued their research group of Syrian language and culture, leaving only Leiden and Nijmegen universities as centres that facilitate this research. Syrian was the common language used by Christians in the Middle East. The 77 microfilms, which consist of slides on film sheets, comprise about 100 Syrian manuscripts, dating from the 6th to the 19th century, that come from Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Romeny believes this collection is unique for several reasons.
Due to the violent unrest in the Middle East, many Syrian manuscripts are not easily accessible for research. Romeny: ‘They have either been destroyed or are not available because it is too dangerous to study Christian sources in countries where Christians are oppressed. This collection comprises at least five manuscripts that have been lost in Irak.’ The manuscripts contain historical texts and commentaries on the Bible. ‘The Christians in the Middle East often wrote in a very encyclopedic manner. They used their commentaries on the Bible to show off their wide knowledge. They included facts on natural physics, biology and cultural practices, which have given us insight into their knowledge and traditions.’
Reinink had ordered the microfilms during his career and kept them in small containers and cigar boxes. Romeny: ‘Most of the microfilms are still of reasonably good quality. However, if used too often, the material starts to disintegrate. That is why we want to digitise the films as soon as possible.’ He picks up a cigar box containing microfilms of a 17th-century copy of a 9th-century manuscript of translations of the Greek work of Theodore of Mopsuestia. Theodore’s interpretation of the Bible was later denounced and his writings destroyed by Greek Christians. But many Syrian Christians remained loyal to him and copied his writings through the centuries, preserving them for posterity.
Romeny shows another box: it contains a 7th-century text about the origin of Islam. There are only a few of these types of ‘eye-witness reports’ dating from that period worldwide. Most of the historical texts on the origin of Islam date from later centuries.
Leiden more attractive
Romeny has had the collection for a month now and already two PhD students are using it for their research. Some of these texts are also available in libraries in London, Paris and St Petersburg. But their collections are not very extensive and have not yet been digitised. Romeny: ‘What is unique about this collection is that we can study all of these manuscripts in Leiden, whereas before you had to travel to Paris, London as well as St Petersburg to examine them. I expect that this material will make Leiden even more attractive to researchers of Middle Eastern Christianity.’
The collection is not only valuable to eager researchers exploring the history of ancient times. ‘Modern Middle-Eastern Christians who live in Europe still study and write commentaries on these old manuscripts today. It is a living heritage.’ The professor Old Testament and Eastern Christianity is currently looking for funding in order to digitise the collection and to make it accessible worldwide. ‘I hope that we can find some funds in the Netherlands. Foreign institutions are also interested in funding the project, but that would mean the collection might be moved elsewhere.’
(12 October 2013 - LvP)