Inscriptions in a broad sense include texts written on any substrate other than ms. (which itself may be of parchment, papyrus, or paper) such as stone, pottery, plaster, mosaic, wood, metal, coins, liturgical objects and vestments, and paintings. The writing technique may also vary widely: from carving or punching into metal, chiseling in stone, to incising, embroidering, and painting, or simple writing. Similar to archeological artifacts, inscriptions reach us directly rather than at the end of a process of transmission.

The earliest, ‘Old Syriac’, inscriptions predate Syr. Christianity and reflect the pagan Aramaic civilization of Edessa and Osrhoene between the early 1st and the middle of the 3rd cent. (the earliest dated inscription is from 6 AD). The inscriptions are on stone, mosaic, pottery, and coins. Many have a funerary context. The script is close to the later Syriac Esṭrangela, with some evidence, especially in the mosaics, of a more cursive script. The inscriptions reflect an archaic and less standardized form of the Syriac language. An important morphological feature appears in the 3rd pers. masc. sing of the imperfect form of the verb, for which early inscriptions have a preformative yodh rather than nun, the latter being one of the hallmarks of later Syriac (there also is evidence that yodh and nun coexisted for some time). The recent collection by Drijvers and Healey (1999) contains ca. 100 items. A few new ones have been published in recent years (see esp. Healey 2006, dated 194). Three mid-3rd-cent. legal documents, written on parchment and discovered in or around Dura-Europos, reflect the same cultural milieu prior to, and outside of, Syr. Christianity, and are, therefore, often studied in conjunction with the Edessene inscriptions (see Old Syriac documents).

There is a hiatus between the pagan and the earliest Christian Syriac inscriptions. The earliest Christian inscriptions from the Syriac-speaking area are in Greek, for example the Greek inscription in the baptistery of Nisibis (dated 359/60), which Ephrem must have known. There is also a geographical shift. Whereas the ‘Old Syriac’ inscriptions are only found to the east of the Euphrates, Christian Syriac inscriptions appear west of the Euphrates from the late 4th cent. onwards. Among the earliest dated Christian Syriac inscriptions is a bilingual Greek-Syriac inscription from Babisqa, to the southwest of Aleppo, dated 389.

Christian Syriac inscriptions become more numerous in the 5th cent. and continue to the present day. Many have been unearthed starting in the 19th cent. Although some remained in situ, others were transferred to museums worldwide or ended up in private collections. For many inscriptions, in particular those that came to light outside regular excavations, the provenance and archeological context are not known. The main geographical areas will be briefly surveyed here, with special reference to the most recent publications (for basic references, see Briquel Chatonnet et al. 2004).

Many inscriptions are known from the hinterland of Antioch, from the Apamea and Aleppo region, and further east, from the Middle Euphrates. They include monumental inscriptions on stone and mosaic, which often refer to building activities and contain dates and names of bishops or other historical figures. Important examples of recently published mosaic inscriptions are: an inscription from Huweija Halawa, on the Euphrates, 471 (Donceel-Voûte 1988, 148–9); an inscription of unknown provenance, now in New Jersey, 504 (Steiner 1990); an inscription from Tall Biʿa, near Kallinikos, 509, mentioning Bp. Pawlos of Kallinikos (Krebernik 1991); and an inscription from Maʿar Zayta, 514/15, mentioning Bp. Peter of Apamea (Harrak 1995). From the northeast of the country, inscriptions from Tell Tuneinir (Fuller 1998) and Qasrok (Talay 2003) have been published in recent years.

The inscriptions from this region have been conveniently brought together by Palmer (1987). This publication includes improved editions of previously known inscriptions as well as a number of new ones. The earliest dated inscription is from the Monastery of Mor Gabriel, 534. A significant number of inscriptions are dated or datable to the 8th cent. In addition to building inscriptions, there are a number of funerary texts, often written in a literary, semi-formulaic language.

An edition by A. Harrak appeared in 2010. Although the earliest dated inscription is from 709/10, some undated inscriptions may be earlier. For the early period, inscriptions from Tagrit help to reconstruct the Christian history of that important city. An ostracon from the Ḥirta region, which came to light in the 1980s, contains quotations from the E.-Syr. Ḥudrā for the season of Epiphany (Brock 2004). The funerary inscriptions from the Monastery of Rabban Hormizd near Alqosh belong to the modern period (15th–19th cent.) (Harrak 2003).

In Central Mesopotamia, in the pre-Islamic and early-Islamic period a number of magical texts were written in Syriac (while similar texts from the same region exist in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and Mandaic). There are charms for the love-sick and prayers against illness or other misfortune. Many bowls have been unearthed on which the text is written in spiral fashion around the inside, while other texts are written on sheets of leather or metal. Syriac texts are written either in Esṭrangela or in a script that has been called ‘Proto-Manichean’. Moriggi (2004) recently studied the language of the bowls; three leather amulets were published by Gignoux (1987).

Syr. monks left traces of their presence in several of the early Egyptian monasteries. The most important collection of Syriac inscriptions is from Dayr al-Suryān, where painted inscriptions start appearing on the walls of the main church ca. 800. In addition to independent painted inscriptions recording building activities, visits, the passing away of monks, or other significant events, there are Syriac names and captions on wall paintings. Important inscriptions on the wooden doors of the church are from the period of abbot Mushe of Nisibis in the first half of the 10th cent., while a liturgical fan in bronze carries a beautiful inscription dated 1202/3.

Along the Silk Road Syriac inscriptions are an important testimony to the mission work of the Ch. of E. in Central and East Asia. Many Syriac graffiti have come to light in Urgut, Uzbekistan, and numerous tombstones, inscribed with Syriac and dated or datable between the mid-13th and mid-14th cent. have been found in Kyrgyzstan, where the capital Bishkek must have had a sizable community. Further east, in China, the stele of Si-ngan-fou (in Xi’an), dated 781, is among the most well-known Syriac inscriptions. In addition to its long Chinese text, it has a Syriac list of bishops, monks, and other ecclesiastics. Many Syriac inscriptions from the 13th and 14th cent., mostly of funerary content, have been found near the city of Huocheng (in Xinjiang) as well as in inner Mongolia, near Beijing, and in the harbor towns of Yangzhou and Quanzhou. For preliminary assessments of these texts, see the publications by Klein (2001), Niu Ruji (2004, 2005), and Borbone (2005).

A smaller number of Syriac inscriptions exist in Iran. Many are from the region around Urmia and mostly belong to the modern period. The Syriac inscriptions in Kerala, India, are dated between the 16th cent. and the present day; a volume by F. Briquel Chatonnet, A. Desreumaux, and J. Thekeparampil has recently appeared. In Lebanon the situation is more complex. The earliest inscription, on a lintel, is dated 547/8; several 8th-cent. inscriptions of Kamid al-Loz reflect the presence of an E.-Syr. community; and many inscriptions are found on wall paintings in medieval and modern Maronite and Greek-Orthodox churches. Pilgrims and visitors from the Syriac homelands left Syriac inscriptions on the Sinai Peninsula, in Cyprus, and in Palestine/Israel. The Syriac inscriptions at the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem were recently published and studied by Brock, Goldfus, and Kofsky (2006–2007).

Syriac inscriptions reflect the linguistic and cultural complexities of the worlds in which Syriac Christians lived. Whereas in the earliest period Syriac inscriptions often show the coexistence of Syriac and Greek (and of Syriac, Greek, and Arabic in the famous inscription of Zebed, to the southeast of Aleppo, dated 511/2), many of the later inscriptions include, or are accompanied by, texts in Coptic, Arabic, Chinese, Uigur, Turkic, and Malayalam, or show interesting cases of Garshuni, i.e., the use of the Syriac script to write non-Syriac languages. A similar complexity is found in the use of different eras. Although in the early period local eras are occasionally used (esp. the ones of Antioch and Apamea), and the dating by ‘indiction’ (Syr. hndqṭywnʾ) is exceptionally found, the most common dating system throughout the centuries is the era of the Seleucids (known as ‘of Alexander’, ‘of the Macedonians’, or ‘of the Greeks’). The Hijra dating is found as early as the 8th cent., and for the later period many local eras are used as well as the common Christian era. Finally, it should be noted that inscriptions have contributed to our understanding of the writing direction in Syriac, as distinct from the reading direction. Most Syriac inscriptions are written vertically, inscribed downwards (Voigt 1997).

See Fig. 10, 11, 14, 20, 23, 28, 38, 58, 59, 60 , 62, 83, 87, 89, 97, 101, 104c, 105, 115, 123c, and 127.


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  • P. G.  Borbone, ‘Some aspects of Turco-Mongol Christianity in the light of literary and epigraphic Syriac sources’, JAAS 19.2 (2005), 5–20.
  • F.  Briquel Chatonnet, M.  Debié, and A.  Desreumaux, Les inscriptions syriaques (ÉtSyr 1; 2004). (includes essays by various authors on: Turkey and Syria, Lebanon, visitors and migrants, Egypt, Iraq, magic bowls, Iran, Central Asia, China, Kerala)
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  • S. P.  Brock, ‘Some early witnesses to the East Syriac liturgical tradition’, JAAS 18:1 (2004), esp. 11–3.
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  • A. Harrak   Syriac and Garshuni inscriptions of Iraq (2010).
  • J. F.  Healey, ‘A new Syriac mosaic inscription’, JSS 51 (2006), 313–27.
  • W.  Klein, ‘A Christian heritage on the northern Silk Road: Archaeological and epigraphic evidence of Christianity in Kyrgyzstan’, JCSSS 1 (2001), 85–97.
  • M.  Krebernik, ‘Schriftfunde aus Tall Biʿa 1990, I. Funde aus dem byzantinischen Kloster’, Mitteilungen der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft zu Berlin 123 (1991), 41–57.
  • M.  Moriggi, La lingua delle coppe magiche siriache (Quaderni di Semitistica 21; 2004).
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  • N. Ruji, ‘Nestorian grave inscriptions from Quanzhou (Zaitun), China’, JCSSS 5 (2005), 51–67.
  • N. Ruji, ‘A new Syriac-Uighur inscription from China (Quanzhou, Hujian province)’, JCSSS 4 (2004), 61–65.
  • R.  Steiner, ‘A Syriac church inscription from 504 CE’, JSS 35 (1990), 99–108.
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  • R.  Voigt, ‘Das Vokalsystem des Syrischen nach Barhebraeus’, OC 81 (1997), 36–72. (61–9: ‘Die Schreibrichtung in syrischen Inschriften’)

How to Cite This Entry

Lucas Van Rompay , “Inscriptions,” 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:

Lucas Van Rompay , “Inscriptions,” 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:

Van Rompay, Lucas. “Inscriptions.” 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.

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