Syriac Scripts: Basics


With a growing number of high-quality digital images freely available online, even of a language and script so off the beaten path as Syriac, we now face an embarrassment of riches when it comes to paleographical guidance. Happily, the accessible material for paleographic inquiry has become rich and varied enough to form at the very least a preliminary understanding of how Syriac has been written. Hitherto, there have been at least four print resources for a paleographic introduction, with or without comment, to Syriac. Listed in chronological order of publication, they are:

For a start, we should note that it is generally not possible to say definitively, based merely on traditional paleography and codicology, that a manuscript without a dated colophon or similar exact indication of time is from, say, the sixth century and not the eighth. And as valuable as the older studies have been, especially for the earlier periods of Syriac writing, they have left many questions open or unaddressed. Among their shortcomings are: the lack of color images; an aversion to close-up inspection of individual letter-forms; and — a matter of great concern for those interested in a complete paleographic history — seemingly arbitrary cutoff dates for the “end” of certain scripts. This look at the history of Syriac paleography, surely not without its own limitations and faults of interpretation and presentation, seeks to address some of those shortcomings.

Before we begin, some additional points merit highlighting.

Syriac script has been used and is used for the writing of some Neo-Aramaic dialects: in other words, it is not only or purely an historical script. Syriac script has served not only for writing Syriac and Neo-Aramaic, but also for several non-Aramaic languages, including Armenian, Turkish, and Persian. Most non-Syriac manuscripts in Syriac script are in Arabic, a phenomenon called Garshuni. Given the very large number of Garshuni manuscripts, and the continuity of Syriac and Garshuni scribal patterns, there is a lesson in this course that briefly touches on Garshuni.

The earliest documents in Syriac script include the famous Dura Europos parchment from 243, which, even at this early date, shows some elements akin to Serto. More recently discovered are P. Euphrates 19 and 20, dated 240 and 242, respectively. (Some Greek papyri from this area also have parts of the text in Syriac.) All three of these early documents are on parchment. Syriac on papyrus survives in a few fifth- to ninth-century documents, some from the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai and from Dayr al-Suryān the Wadi al-Natrūn, ancient Scetis, in Egypt. From the finds at the Manichaean site of Kellis in Egypt, Syriac stands alone on some papyri, and in other documents appears alongside Coptic and Greek. As with the Dura Europos parchment, some of these documents exhibit a cursive hand with similarities to Serto. Since the focus of this course is manuscripts as commonly envisioned, i.e. codices, and since these texts lie beyond the pale of mainline Syriac manuscript production, this course does not include them. They are, however, of great importance for a broader history of Syriac script.

Those who are interested in the representational artwork of Syriac manuscripts still have a helpful guide in Jules Leroy’s Les manuscrits syriaques à peinture conservés dans les bibliothèques d'Europe et d'Orient. Contribution à l'étude et à l'iconographie des églises de langue syriaque (Paris, 1964). Although the plates are not in color, they nonetheless suggest the kinds of artwork featured in Syriac manuscripts. Happily, some of the manuscripts featured by Leroy have since been photographed in color by HMML. More recent studies include Reiner Sörries, Die syrische Bibel von Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, syr 341: Eine frühchristliche Bilderhandschrift aus dem 6. Jahrhundert (Wiesbaden, 1991), and Lucy-Anne Hunt, “Leaves from an Illustrated Syriac Lectionary of the Seventh/Thirteenth Century,” in D. Thomas, ed., Syrian Christians under Islam: The First Thousand Years (Leiden, 2001), pp. 185-202.

Syriac inscriptions, which differ from manuscripts both in their production (engraving) and their support (stone, etc.), naturally have much to offer in a consideration of how Syriac script has been used, but are not included in this basic course. Texts appearing on wall paintings or frescoes more closely approach the writing that we see in manuscripts, but because they are not on pages brought together in a codex, they, too, are excluded. A broader examination of Syriac script, rather than only of Syriac manuscripts — a desideratum that when fulfilled will be of value to many students of Syriac cultures — would rightly embrace all of these cognate fields.

Types of Syriac

In these lessons we will consider main script-types arranged according to rough chronological periods. These are: Estrangela, Serto, East Syriac, and Melkite. (There are others, too, such as the Syro-Malabar script, for which see F. Briquel-Chatonnet and A. Desreumaux, “A Study and Characterization of the Syro-Malabar Script,” Journal of Semitic Studies 55 [2010]: 407-421.) Because scholars have paid little paleographic and codicological attention to recent manuscripts, one lesson will touch on the writing of twentieth and twenty-first century manuscripts. Finally, even though students strictly interested in Syriac may skip it, a lesson on Garshuni (Arabic language in Syriac script) will conclude the course. As Syriac language is not in view for the Syriac parts of the course, neither is Arabic language in view in the Garshuni lesson. Rather, the lesson introduces some basic points about the adaptation of Syriac script for the writing of Arabic texts, such as diacritics or lack thereof.

While some features of a particular script-type or period may be unique, others are more fluid. This is particularly the case with mixed Estrangela-Serto manuscripts and with late Estrangela and early East Syriac. (Studies on some of these relationships include F. Briquel-Chatonnet’s “De l’écriture édessenienne à l’estrangelâ et au sertô,” Semitica 50 [2000]: 81-90 and “Some Reflections about the Origin of the Serto Script,” The Harp 18 [2005]: 173-177.) In addition, while Syriac type as it appears in texts and grammars will give students a general sense of ductus, angles, roundness, etc., there is naturally a notable amount of variety in script-types. Scribal hands have less consistency than printed type, and the boundaries between script-types and time periods may be less pronounced in reality than they are in a convenient chart. This arrangement by script-types is more for convenience in pedagogical presentation than for any assumption that it is a comprehensively accurate paradigm of Syriac writing in manuscripts.

Dating Syriac Scripts

Because chronology will be a leitmotif within the arrangement of the presentation of script-types, a word about dates is required. Some manuscripts are reliably datable, others less so. When scribes provide a date in a colophon, we have the most certain basis. Even without a colophon, later readers and owners sometimes note the date of their reading or ownership, and we thus have a terminus ante quem for the production of the manuscript. Syriac manuscripts are most commonly dated Anno Graecorum, Anno Domini, Anno Martyrum, or Anno Hegirae; it is not uncommon for scribes to give the year according to more than one era. (For a study, see L. Bernhard, Die Chronologie der syrischen Handschriften, Verzeichnis der orientalischen Handschriften in Deutschland, Supplementband 14 [Wiesbaden: F. Steiner, 1971].)

Whatever the system of dating, without any such explicit dates, we have to rely on analysis of the script and on codicological indicators such as parchment vs. paper, etc. This kind of inference based on script, support, and other non-explicit data is naturally less reliable than a solid date from a scribe, and scholars accordingly put less confidence in it. It is safest to take all such estimations with caution, and never to grant them the kind of trust we would give to an explicit date. Given that Syriac scribes typically show a conservative approach to writing practice, possible date ranges of a couple of centuries or even a little more, are not unusual.

A caveat is in order, however, about attempting a chronological presentation. Some parts of this caveat have already been alluded to. As L. Van Rompay (foreword to Hatch, Album, 2d ed., v) has remarked,

"...we run the risk of using these witnesses as solid stepping-stones in our study and reconstructing the history of Syriac handwriting too much in terms of a linear development. The more evidence we take into account, the more it becomes clear how diversified and complex Syriac handwriting was throughout the ages, allowing the coexistence of different styles and always leaving room for local and personal idiosyncrasies."

We must, therefore, resist the temptation to make the history of Syriac paleography more tidy than it really is, despite certain core characteristics of given script-types in certain periods or places.


In what follows, the various letter shapes are presented descriptively with special attention to notable characteristics found in the examples chosen to illustrate the script. (Not every distinctive letter-form is necessarily highlighted for each manuscript!) These descriptions of particular kinds of writing are almost always presented in light of other ways of writing, that is, they are contrastive descriptions, even if the comparanda are not explicitly stated. The descriptions are from the point of view of the reader encountering Syriac manuscripts, not necessarily from the point of view of someone writing Syriac manuscripts. (For the latter case, see Alain A. Desreumaux, “Comment peut-on écrire en syriaque? ou des problèmes du scribe devant sa page blanche,” in C. Batsch, and M. Vârtejanu-Joubert, eds., Manières de penser dans l'Antiquité méditerranéenne et orientale. Mélanges offerts à Francis Schmidt par ses élèves, ses collègues et ses amis, Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 134 [Leiden / Boston: Brill, 2009], pp. 105-126.) Close familiarity with the examples and descriptions provided here, coupled with further attentive reading of other manuscripts, will bring one closer and closer to a comprehensive view. In addition to the descriptions of script-types, illustrated with examples from various manuscripts, transcription exercises are available to test your growing knowledge of Syriac paleography.

The following letter names are used in the descriptions. In the descriptions, the typical East Syriac names for the letter-forms are used. They are not necessarily more accurate than the typical West Syriac names, it is simply that one had to be chosen. (In informal practice, mixtures of the Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac names may be encountered, e.g. ʿayin or ʿayn instead of ʿē.)

It is assumed that users are familiar with the basic ductus of Syriac letter shapes, which is easily obtainable from Syriac grammars such as Theodor Nöldeke, Compendious Syriac Grammar, translated by J. Crichton (London: Williams and Norgate, 1904), or T. Muraoka, Classical Syriac: A Basic Grammar with a Chrestomathy, Porta Linguarum Orientalium, Neue Serie 19 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1997). Not every letter is always commented upon here. Other than this introduction, which should be considered necessary, users may in general study the lessons for any particular script-type independently of the other script-types. The descriptions sometimes refer to the Estrangela shape, Serto shape, or East Syriac shape; these are merely terms of convenience and make no necessary claim about origin.

As a final word, let me encourage users of this course not only to read, but to study carefully, as many manuscripts as possible. Those who closely trace with eyes or hand the lines that make up the mountain of Syriac manuscripts from many times and places that have survived, a growing number of which are immediately accessible online, will thus steadily earn an accurate grasp of what Syriac writing looks like. Users like you will yield their own riches to our understanding of Syriac script through the ages.