The Syriac script owes its origin to the Aramaic script of the Achaemenid Persian period (539–330 BC) attested to in many documents, especially from Egypt and Palestine (Elephantine, Samaria, etc.). Adopted originally from the Arameans of Syria (who borrowed it from the Phoenicians), the script became the vehicle for writing Aramaic as a lingua franca used throughout the Persian Empire.
After the fall of the Persian Empire, local variants of the script began to develop, in centers such as Jerusalem, Petra and Palmyra. One such center was Edessa (modern Urfa) in northern Mesopotamia. Its local kings, whose dynastic line appears to go back to about 130 BC (see Abgarids of Edessa), used a version of the script which by the 1st cent. had developed its own characteristics. The first dated inscription in this local script, now called ‘Syriac’, dates to 6 AD and comes from Birecik west of Edessa (Syriac Birtā, Greek Makedonopolis). From the 1st cent., and then increasingly in the 2nd and 3rd, there have survived pre-Christian Syriac inscriptions in stone and mosaic, many from tombs, in Urfa and its region. From the 3rd cent., we also have legal texts written on parchment (see Old Syriac Documents). There were at least two forms of the early Syriac script, a monumental script used for public inscriptions and a cursive script used for everyday purposes such as the writing of legal texts on soft materials.
From the monumental form of the script there developed in the early Christian period an elegant ‘book-hand’ used especially in the copying of biblical and theological texts. The first dated literary ms. of this kind is dated 411, but this ms. shows a maturity and elegance which suggests that the scribal tradition was already well established. This formal script came to be known as Esṭrangela, a word probably of Greek origin (strongulos) meaning ‘rounded’.
Alongside this, there existed a cursive script, which is rarely attested, but is found occasionally in papyri and in colophons of mss. This cursive script continued the cursive script tradition found in the early legal parchments. Later it came to be used more widely and appears to be the basis of one of the later variants of the Syriac script, the one called Serṭo ‘script’. This form of script was used for literary texts from the 8th cent. and is especially associated with the W.-Syr. tradition.
A third variant of the Syriac script developed in the East. It is an angular version of Esṭrangela and, because of its association with the Ch. of E., is often called ‘Nestorian’. It is known from about 600, but became very distinctive much later (13th cent.).
Throughout the early history of the Syriac script, vowels were not fully represented in writing, though some diacritical dots were used to distinguish words otherwise identical in consonantal form. Eventually Syriac (like Hebrew and Arabic) developed vowel signs which were placed above and below the consonants. Two systems emerged, probably in the 8th cent., a western system based on adaptations of Greek vowels and, apparently a little later, an eastern system consisting of dots.
- Drijvers and Healey, The Old Syriac inscriptions.
- W. H. P. Hatch, An album of dated Syriac manuscripts (1946; repr. 2002).
- J. F. Healey, ‘The early history of the Syriac script: a reassessment’, JSS 45 (2000), 55–67.
- A. Kaplan, Paléographie syriaque. Développemment d’une méthode d’expertise sur base des manuscrits syriaques de la British Library (Ve–Xe siècles) (Ph.D. Diss., Louvain-la-Neuve; 2008).
How to Cite This Entry
Footnote Style Citation with Date:
John F. Healey, “Script, Syriac,” 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), https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Script-Syriac.
Bibliography Entry Citation:
Healey, John F. “Script, Syriac.” 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. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Script-Syriac.
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