Syriac Scripts: East Syriac

Overview

East Syriac script aligns more closely with Estrangela than Serto, but of course the dividing lines are not quite as delimiting as might first seem. The characteristics that distinguish East Syriac from Estrangela (or Serto) are more pronounced in printed works than in manuscripts, but what about the latter? Letters that have especially typical East Syriac forms include:

  • ālap: this letter shows some variety: it may be similar to the Estrangela type, but generally with a shorter lower part; it consists on the left of a line coming only slightly up from the baseline, joins the long angled part and ends with a slight backturn at the bottom hanging below the line; alternatively, it is often merely a curved, roughly vertical line, with a large serif at the top and sometimes angling back to the right at the top

  • gāmal: shape may be similar to that of Estrangela, but often simply an angled stroke hanging well below the line; when joined to previous letter, the baseline often (not always) bisects the gāmal, unlike in Estrangela

  • dālat / rēš: round on top and with a horizontal bar sitting on the line

  • hē: the vertical on the right joins the loop from the top of that line, not lower down (as is typical in Serto)

  • zayn: a vertical line thicker at the top that reaches only slightly below the line, if at all

  • final kāp: may have an extended (compared with Estrangela) top part on the left; another type goes from the top right and down seemingly without lifting the pen

  • mim: is generally round, as in Serto, not the angled type more common in Estrangela manuscripts, except often in final form, where it is boxy

  • semkat: like a left-leaning θ (i.e. the left side sits notably higher than the right), also seen in some Estrangela manuscripts

  • tāw: a tall triangular shape, partly open or barely closed at the bottom right, but with a curved bottom line reaching back to the right from the left leg of the triangle (in some manuscripts, however, it is similar to an Estrangela form with a completely closed loop, or rather a mere line, at the bottom left)

 

In addition, there is a special tāw-ālap ligature (especially common, of course, at the end of feminine emphatic, singular and plural, forms) that is a particular East Syriac phenomenon. It is a short v shape that hangs below the line and then joins a straight ālap on the left. This ligature is, however, not always used. Here is an example from CCM 65, f. 50v (da-tlātā):

Mardin, Chaldean Cathedral, CCM 65, f. 50vb, l. 14. All rights reserved. Image provided by HMML.

But, as we have already emphasized, forms that may well especially typify East Syriac are not precluded from appearing in otherwise predominantly Estrangela manuscripts, just as forms that may be called typically Serto appear in Estrangela manuscripts.

Here follow several examples from the tenth century onward, with some notable characteristics of each indicated.

Example 1 - 10th/11th-century manuscripts

Alqosh, DCA 144, f. 11v (1273 AG = 961/2 CE)

Gospels

Mosul, CAM MIC 1, f. 8v (10th/11th century)

Ḥudrā

This heavily rubricated manuscript is difficult to read in places due to water damage, fading, or other marks of use and age.

Example 2 - 13th/14th-century manuscripts

Mardin, CCM 115, f. 7v (dated 1287/8)

Ḥudrā

Mardin, CCM 65, f. 50v (13th/14th century)

Gospel Lectionary with Commentary

This bilingual Syriac-Arabic manuscript is not easily classified according to a simple Estrangela-Serto-East Syriac paradigm. The only distinctive East Syriac forms are the gāmal, the semkat and the tāw-ālap ligature. (The vowels here are East Syriac.)

Mardin, CCM 419, f. 4v (dated 1395)

Gewargis Warda and Khamis bar Qardahe

This manuscript in general offers a very typical kind of East Syriac. It also shows both kinds of tāw : the form similar to the Estrangela-type (the more common here), and the triangular shaped tāw. Whether or not tāw is attached to the previous letter has no effect on the chosen shape. In addition, the ṭēt often has a sharp lower part, but with a preceding joined letter it sometimes appears with a round lower part, as in Serto.

Example 3 - 15th/16th-century manuscripts

Tell Kaif, QAACT 9, f. 2r (15th century)

Gospel Lectionary

Mosul, CAM 1, f. 3v (dated 1598)

Burial Rite for Priests and Deacons

Tell Kaif, QAACT 10, f. 4r (16th century)

Gospel Lectionary

Mardin, CCM 71, f. 59v (dated 1536)

Epistle Lectionary

This manuscript has a loose, more flowing character overall than is typical for East Syriac manuscripts. It shows a fluid, less calligraphic hand that is nevertheless quite legible.

Example 4 - 17th/18th-century manuscripts

Mosul, CAM 3, f. 2r (dated 1685)

Gazzā

This manuscript exemplifies the thick, angular script that is similar to common East Syriac typefaces, such as those in Paul Bedjan’s numerous text editions.

Mardin, CCM 23, f. 27r (dated 1796)

Eliya of Nisibis, Syriac Grammar

Mosul, DFM 13, f. 45r (dated 1723)

Gospel Lectionary