The foundation of Syriac studies is the ms. production of past ages. A body of perhaps ten thousand Syriac mss. survives today. But any discussion of Syriac literature must recall that whole categories of mss. (for example, those containing works on medicine and other secular subjects) have not been preserved, and even many religious works (e.g., doctrinally suspect works, and commentaries superseded by more comprehensive ones) perished because they were copied only rarely or not at all.

1. The oldest mss. Although Syriac is well attested in inscriptions in the 1st–4th cent., only three mss. are known, all legal documents from Osrhoene, with dates 240, 242, 243. These are written on parchment in a cursive script akin to the later Serṭo book-hand (see Old Syriac Documents).

2. 5th–10th cent. Surviving literary mss. go back to the 5th cent., including the earliest dated codex in any language, a large ms. of ecclesiastical texts translated from Greek, written in Edessa in 411 (ms. Brit. Lib. Add. 12,150). Generally, Syriac mss. at this period are codices (not rolls), written in quires of 10 leaves of parchment (not paper), with writing in 1, 2, or occasionally 3 columns, in the Esṭrangela script. Early mss. include many examples of fine professional calligraphy. The Serṭo script is found in a ms. dated 790 (Brit. Lib. Add. 14,158), and thereafter it gradually took over as the normal book-hand in W. Syr. mss. except in books used in churches for public reading and singing. Most of the mss. that survive from this period come from the library of Dayr al-Suryān in Egypt, where they were brought from Mesopotamia by the abbot Mushe of Nisibis in 931/2. Some of this collection was acquired by the Vatican Library in 1707 and 1715, and almost all the rest of it by the British Museum in 1841–51. The other significant old collection of mss., including Melk. ones, is at the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai.

3. Later W.-Syr. mss. The earliest known Syriac ms. on paper is dated 932. Paper mss. are the norm after the 10th cent., apart from a revival of Esṭrangela writing on parchment that was centered in Ṭur ʿAbdin in the 12th–13th cent. Mss. in the Serṭo script from the 13th to the 18th cent. are only rarely calligraphic. In modern times, fine writing in the Serṭo script has again been cultivated by such penmen as Mattai bar Pawlos of Mosul (d. 1947) and Mar Julius Çiçek (1941–2005), the latter of whom, however, wrote his mss. for reproduction in print as an alternative to typesetting.

4. E.-Syr. mss. The E.-Syr. church had no counterpart to Mushe of Nisibis. Consequently, early E.-Syr. mss. are rare, and often works of E.-Syr. authors are preserved in only a single old ms. or copy thereof. Palaeographically, E.-Syr. scribes were conservative, and a distinctive E.-Syr. script appears only in the ca. 14th cent. From the 16th cent. on, however, we have a large number of E.-Syr. mss. from N. Iraq, many the work of copyists from the Shikwānā and Nasro families of Alqosh. In the 19th cent. more mss. were copied in this area and in Urmia for western scholars and collectors.

5. Present-day collections. Besides the afore-mentioned ones in London, Rome, and Mt. Sinai, there are significant collections of medieval mss. in Europe at the Bibliothèque nationale de France; Oxford, Cambridge, and Birmingham Universities (the last of these deriving from Alphonse Mingana); the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (deriving from Eduard Sachau); and in the USA at Harvard University (deriving from J. R. Harris). These collections all have printed, and in some cases on-line, catalogues. In the Middle East, several important collections were destroyed or dislocated in the First World War. For the disposition of mss. today it is necessary to consult Desreumaux (1991), and even since that publication some movement has taken place. The largest collection of W.-Syr. mss. is at the Syr. Orth. seminary at Maʿarrat Ṣaydnāyā, Damascus, Syria. The Syr. Cath. Patriarchate in Sharfeh, Lebanon, also has a significant collection. Most E.-Syr. mss. in Iraq have been consolidated by the Chald. Church at the Patriarchate in Baghdad, a smaller number also by the Ch. of E. Archbishopric there. The richest library of Syriac mss. in India is at Pampakuda.

See Fig. 8, 12c, 18, 29, 30, 31 , 36, 44, 50, 54, 67c, 68, 71c, 75, 76c, 77c, 91, 94, 95, 96 , 119.


  • S. P.  Brock, ‘Early dated manuscripts of the Church of the East, 7th–13th cent.’, JAAS 21:2 (2007), 8–34
  • Brock and Taylor, Hidden Pearl, vol. 2, 242–62.
  • A.  Desreumaux, Répertoire des bibliothèques et des catalogues de manuscrits syriaques (1991).
  • Drijvers and Healey, The Old Syriac Inscriptions, 231–48. (‘the parchments’)
  • W. H. P.  Hatch, An album of dated Syriac manuscripts (1946; repr. 2002 with introduction by L. Van Rompay).
  • J. M. van der Ploeg, The Syriac manuscripts of St. Thomas Christians (1983).
  • Wilmshurst, Ecclesiastical organisation.
  • Wright, Catalogue … British Museum, esp. the Preface, vol. 3, i–xxxiv.

How to Cite This Entry

James F. Coakley, “Manuscripts,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay,

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

James F. Coakley, “Manuscripts,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018),

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Coakley, James F. “Manuscripts.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018.

A TEI-XML record with complete metadata is available at

Show more information...
URI   TEI/XML   Purchase  

Resources related to 14 other topics in this article.

See more ...
Show Other Resources