From Syria to Yerevan and from Egypt to London – an Interview with Ephrem Ishac

Recently  two Graz researchers made an amazing discovery. In this interview, Eprhem Ishac tells us how an orphan fragment could meet its mother manuscript after a separation of many centuries and how academic data sharing supported this.

Ephrem Ishac, tell us about your discovery.

A few weeks ago, Prof. Erich Renhart and I (Vestigia Manuscript Research Centre – Graz University) have noticed that the Syriac fragment N. 7 from Matenadaran – Yerevan, belongs to the Syriac manuscript at the British Library museum: BL 14,654. The content of this fragment is the Acta Martyrum of Bishop Alexander of Rome and Theodulus, who were martyred by Aurelian during the time of the Roman emperor Trajan (d. AD 117).

The Syriac manuscripts at the British Library came to London in the 19th century from the Syrian Monastery of Virgin Mary (Deir Al-Surian) at Wadi Al-Natrun in Egypt. Historically speaking, during the 10th century, Abbot Moses of Nisibis brought with him from Baghdad 250 Syriac manuscripts, such as the oldest dated codex in any language which is BL 12,150 (AD 411).

The marvelous part in our story, is to find for the first time a Syriac fragment in Armenia which belongs to a 5/6th of a former Deir Al-Surian manuscript.

What have you learned from the finding of this fragment?

Personally, I have learned many lessons in the process of this finding, such as the peculiar cultural exchange between different geographical regions. We live nowadays in a time, when we are challenged with the idea of migration, but we know from history how people were moving with their cultures to different places in the world. Our new fragment is just another piece of evidence to show such a movement. Indeed, it is fascinating to see the different roads which this manuscript with its fragment had crossed in two millennia: from Mesopotamia (North Iraq today), then to Baghdad, then to the Egyptian monastic desert of valley al-Natrun, then to London, and now we witness finding a fragment of this manuscript found in Yerevan (Armenia)! This can inform us about many interesting historical remarks; such as, how manuscripts with their people, have been travelling and migrating around the world since centuries.

What could a future research infrastructure on religious studies contribute to your research, you think?

Accessing various digital databases was surely essential in our new finding. Thanks to the digitization projects of many manuscript libraries which could allow us to study palaeographic characteristics, and so to reach other conclusions for our research. During the progress of our discovery, we have accessed as well other databases of Syriac Digital Humanities to identify the text and the manuscript. So, thanks to these digital possibilities which could enable us nowadays to find the manuscript of a hidden fragment. Finally, this can tell us of how important it is to share our knowledge and how fruitful is the cooperation with other academic networks. So, building a research infrastructure on religious studies would provide a wider access to other academic databases, and surely will help us to put other pieces of puzzle in their correct places.


Read here more about the discovery.