Monastery of the Syrians

Project to Catalogue the Coptic and Arabic MSS in the Monastery of the Syrians


The Project to Catalogue the Coptic and Arabic Manuscripts in the Monastery of the Syrians grew out of conversations that took place in 2012 and 2013 between Professor Stephen J. Davis of Yale University and Father Bigoul, the Head Librarian at the Monastery of the Syrians. This initiative was conceived as an extension of Davis’ archaeological work in Wadi al-Natrun at the Monastery of John the Little, begun in 2006. The Monastery of the Syrians (along with the Monastery of St. Bishoi) had been instrumental to the success of that work since its inception in 2006, by offering various forms to hospitality to team members. From 2007 to 2012, the excavations at John the Little had focused primarily on a ninth- and tenth-century mud-brick monastic residence featuring an extensive program of wall paintings and dipinti (painted inscriptions). Study of the dipinti has suggested a connection with scribal training and manuscript hands and thus the opportunity to study medieval manuscript evidence in a local monastic library offered the potential for the integration of archaeological and codicological research.

Figure 1. Visitors inside the Monastery of the Syrians.

Seasons and Participating Team Members

Season One: December 2013

Davis formally began study of the manuscripts in the Monastery of the Syrians library in December 2013, when he came for an intensive week of solo reconnaissance research. His primary goal was to familiarize himself with the contents of the Coptic and Arabic holdings in the library and to begin establishing a methodology for collecting and presenting manuscript data for inclusion in a catalogue. During that week, he discovered the existence of two handwritten sources that functioned as internal catalogues for the monastic collection. The first (dubbed the Handbook) was written in eight small notebooks with over 559 manuscript entries organized by genre into eight categories: Bible (1–61), Commentary (62–99), Canons (110–111b), Theology (112–152), Ascetic Literature (153–196), Mayāmir (a combination of Saints’ Lives, Sermons, and Treatises) (in two notebooks, 197–250 and 251–321), and Liturgy (323–559). The second, a larger summary notebook, provided shorter entries and basic information relate to 788 manuscripts. These two catalogues proved invaluable for providing Davis’ with an orientation to the collection, and allowed him to begin sampling manuscripts to begin collecting data and to develop a working model — a template — for how to prioritize and organize the resulting information.

Figure 2. A thirteenth-century copy of the Gospels (Dayr al-Suryan Coptic MS 21, p. 296).

Season Two: March 2014

After his initial visit to the monastic library in December 2013, Davis began assembling a team and planning a three-week research visit in March 2014. Among the team members he recruited was Mark Swanson, Professor of Christian-Muslim Relations at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago and an expert in Christian Arabic Literature. Swanson spent all the full three weeks working with Davis and was an instrumental conversation partner as they developed and refined the template that Davis had originally begun to implement the previous December. Davis focused his attention on the biblical manuscripts (group 1), as this corpus required expertise in both Coptic and Arabic. Swanson focused his attention on the theological manuscripts (group 4), as he has special expertise in the Christian Arabic theological heritage. Also joining Davis during that May 2014 season were three other team members. Samuel Moawad, an Egyptian postdoctoral scholar at the University of Münster in Germany with expertise in Coptic and Christian Arabic literature, joined the team for one week and focused his attention on canonical literature (group 3). Finally, two of Davis’ graduate students — Thomas Schmidt and Ramy Nair Marcos — joined the team for two weeks and one week respectively, and together they focused their attention on the commentaries (group 2). By the end of the season, the team had produced initial entries for just over 40 biblical manuscripts, around 15 commentary manuscripts, over 10 canons manuscripts, and just under 20 theology manuscripts.

Season Three: December­ 2014–January 2015

In December 2014, Davis and Swanson returned for another two weeks of work at the Monastery of the Syrians library. Joining them this time was another graduate student, Cyril (C.J.) Uy. Davis and Swanson continued to focus on the biblical and theological manuscripts, respectively. Uy worked on the commentaries, picking up where Schmidt and Marcos had left off the previous March. By the end of the season, Davis had completed initial entries for the entire biblical category (around 65 manuscripts), Swanson had completed approximately 33 (out of a total of 40+) theology manuscripts, and Uy added another 15 commentary manuscripts (for a total of around 30). At the end the season, Davis also managed to complete the remaining entries for the canons section, and worked extensively on an important pair of Coptic manuscripts that had once been two halves of the same codes: MS 11 (Biblical) and MS 383 (Liturgy). This thirteenth century manuscript is of considerable historical importance, as it was sponsored by one of the al-`Assāl brothers, an important family from Cairo who played a major role in the Copto-Arabic Golden Age, and it was written by the family’s personal scribe, a man named Gabriel, who would go on to become the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church later in his life. The first half of the manuscript (MS 11) contains the Psalms. In addition to liturgical texts, the second half (MS 383) includes a bilingual (Coptic and Arabic) version of the apocryphal early Christian correspondence between Jesus and Abgar (a Syrian king). The Arabic version in this manuscript is the second oldest extant copy in that language. One other result of the work in December was the recruitment of another member to join the team — Youhanna Nessim Youssef, an Egyptian scholar who works at the University of Melbourne in Australia and an expert in Coptic liturgical sources. After a Skype conversation with Davis while he was still on site, Youssef arranged to come to the monastery for a couple of weeks in January to begin working on the liturgical texts in the collection. Focusing on the Kihak Psalmodia, Youssef completed entries for nine manuscripts in the Liturgy section.

 Figure 3. Cataloguing team, December 2014. From left to right, Mark Swanson, Father Azer, C.J. Uy, Stephen Davis, and Father Bigoul.

Season Four, Part One (on site): March 2015

In March 2015, Davis came back to the Monastery of the Syrians for a 10-day solo research season. During this intensive period, he completed entries for the remaining commentary manuscripts, and then did a thorough review of all entries in the first three groups (Bible, Commentary, and Canon). This review process involved examining all of the manuscripts in these categories — over 110 in total. Davis corrected, supplemented and expanded, and regularized the entries for these manuscripts, with the result that by the end of the season, he had, for all intents and purposes, finished the collection and formatting of data for these genres, with the exception of a single biblical manuscript (MS 22) that is currently inaccessible because it is in the process of conservation. During the season, Davis also followed up on discussions begun the previous December with Father Bigoul regarding plans for publication. The current plan is to publish four or five volumes, organized by genre groupings.

Season Four, Part Two (off site): April–May 2015

From April 27 to May 1, Father Bigoul paid a visit to Yale University in New Haven, CT, for consultations related to the monastery’s plans to digitize its manuscript collection. The morning of Tuesday, April 28, Davis and Father Bigoul met with Beth Beaudin, a librarian with extensive experience in the digitization of Middle Eastern library collections, including prior work with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. That afternoon, they consulted with librarians from Yale Divinity School. On Wednesday, April 29, they paid visits to the photography lab at Yale and to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. On Thursday, April 30, they visited Sterling Memorial Library, including consultations with librarians in Manuscripts and Archives and with Robin Dougherty, the curator for the Arabic language collection. The result of these appointments was deeper knowledge of the different methodologies and equipment utilized for digitization projects, as well as of possible avenues for funding. In the end, it was determined that a high-level scanner with an adjustable cradle for manuscripts was the best option for the digitization project at Dayr al-Suryān.

Season Five: June 2015

Following up on his work in March, Davis made plans for a fifth season of work in June 2015. Joining him in the cataloguing work was Mark Swanson and Youhanna Nessim Youssef. From June 1 to 13 the cataloguers focused their energies on two areas of the collection: Theology and Liturgy. Swanson and Davis worked together complete the catalogue entries for the Theology section, and Swanson then went back and made revisions to his earlier entries to conform to the standard template developed over the course of the first several seasons. Youssef continued his work on the Psalmodias of Kihak in the library collection, and Davis also began to work on the first set of manuscripts from the Ascetic Discourses (Nuskiyāt) section, including a volume containing the writings of Evagrius Ponticus (MS 174) and two volumes containing the work, The Garden of the Hermit and the Consolation of the Solitary (Rawḍat al-farīd wa salwat al-waḥīd) by Sim‘ān ibn Kalīl, an early thirteenth-century resident of the Monastery of St. John the Little. The cataloguers’ season of work coincided with that of Elizabeth Sobczynski and her team of conservators, who (apart from final binding) completed the conservation of MS 22, an important thirteenth-century Coptic biblical manuscript containing the four gospels. This conservation work allowed Davis to catalogue the text (the final one to be catalogued in the Biblical Texts section) on Friday, June 12.

In addition to his team of cataloguers, Davis was joined on site by team photographer Rofy Samuel Rozfy, who spent four days taking digital photographs of selected folia in the manuscripts belonging to the Biblical Texts section. He was assisted in this work by Davis’ son Harrison. From June 3 to 6, Rozfy produced an archive of approximately 250 images from 60 manuscripts, designed for possible inclusion in the first catalogue volume. On June 9, 11, and 12, Davis took additional photographs of MSS 21 and 22 in the Biblical Texts section, and of five MSS in the Coptic Language section (MSS 667–670, 672). In the end, Rozfy and Davis produced an archive of around 300 photographs.

Finally, conversations between Davis and Father Bigoul led to greater clarity regarding publication plans for a catalogue to be divided into multiple volumes. Davis also attended a consultation with Father Bigoul, Elizabeth Sobczynski, and representatives from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina regarding further plans for digitization, which built on Father Bigoul’s visit to Yale earlier in the spring.

Figure 5. Youhanna Nessim Youssef cataloguing a Psalmodia.

Season Six: February-March 2016

In our sixth season of work, three team members continued the work started in previous campaigns. Project direct Stephen Davis was joined by Youhanna Nessim Youssef and Mary Farag, who both concentrated on the monastery’s collection of Coptic liturgical manuscripts. Youssef spent one week in February and then another six days in March completing his documentation on the Psalmodia of Kihak, and then beginning work on the Psalis and Difnar. During the first week of March, Farag started cataloguing the Euchologia and Diakonika. For his part, Davis resumed his work on the section of ascetic literature that he had commenced in season five. During the first week of March, he catalogued six Arabic manuscripts containing the works of Isaac the Syrian, and five others containing the writings of Evagrius Ponticus. By the end of the season, the total of manuscripts catalogued reached 229.

Figure 5. Yale graduate student Mary Farag enjoying her work on a liturgical manuscript.

Plans for Future Work

Research Priorities

In November 2015, at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, Davis met the editors for Peeters Press, which published the catalogue for the library’s Syriac collection, and arranged a verbal agreement to publish the Coptic and Arabic catalogues in multiple volumes of their CSCO Subsidia series. Upcoming work on the collection will be pursued with this publication goal in mind. During the remainder of the year, Davis will prioritize time for offsite research into the history of the Monastery of the Syrians and its library, for deepening his knowledge of the bibliography associated with the works in sections completed already, and for determining the kind of technical apparatus and indexing system he will be using for these CSCO Subsidia volumes. It is also hoped that our photographer Rofy Samuel Rozfy will be able to make a couple of return visits to the monastery to continue his photo-documentation, with the goal of completing an archive of selected images from manuscripts in the Commentary section.

Plans for Season Seven: December 2016

The next season is planned for December 2016, when Davis plans to be on site for 10 to 14 days of cataloguing work. He will be accompanied by Mark Swanson, and the two of them will focus their attention on the Ascetic Literature section of the collection. Youhanna Nessim Youssef and Mary Farag will continue to make progress on the Liturgical section. Finally, Davis has also recruited Dexter Brown, a graduate student at Yale University, to begin work on the Ethiopic manuscripts in the library at Dayr al-Suryān.

A Final Word of Thanks

We would like thank Bishop Mattā’us and the community of monks at the Monastery of the Syrians, whose hospitality and support have been indispensable over our first four seasons working in the library. We would also like to extend special thanks to Father Bigoul and Father Azar, who accompany us on a daily basis in our work, not only providing important linguistic, cultural, and academic expertise, but also lifting our spirits and inspiring us through their conversation, humor, and personal warmth. We look forward to many more seasons of productive and mutually enriching collaboration!