History Reviews

Top 5 Books in Syriac

Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic. This makes it a close related to Arabic and Hebrew and similar to the language Jesus would have spoken. It is an important language for studying the period of history called Late Antiquity which saw a lot of change and transformation. It was a vital tool for translation of Greek classics into Arabic (and thence into Latin) and lay the framework for the burst in Arabic and Latin scholarship and culture.


5. Julian Romance

Julian the Apostate has been many things to many people. For many today he is a symbol of the old “tolerance” of the Roman world. To queer artists, free thinkers and others, he is something of a hero. Both Algernon Swinburne and Gore Vidal have written positive literary works based on his life. In late antiquity, he was reviled by some as the enemy of the true faith. The Julian Romance is a dramatic retelling of his life which focuses on the miraculous and holy interventions. Dating from the fifth century it is an interesting book for the insight it provides into the world view, historical understanding and oral traditions of the time.


4. Bar Hebraeus

Gregory Bar Hebraeus was a polymath from the Syriac Silver Age in the Thirteenth Century. The son of a Jewish doctor, he also mastered study of philosophy, grammar and history. A bishop in the Syriac Orthodox Church, he wrote a massive encyclopaedic work called the Creme of Science. He was also a major Biblical scholar, in many ways foreshadowing the source criticism of the Latin humanists (like Erasmus). He recognised that the main translation of the bible used in his church, the Peshitta, was not perfect and therefore compared it with other versions. He was also wrote a major history.

He is venerated as a saint in the Syriac Orthodox Church and his feast day is 30th July.


3. Life of Severus

Alexandria was a boisterous student city in late antiquity. Then like now, young students liked nothing better than getting riled on theological dispute and destroying ancient pagan temples. Zachariah and Severus were mates in Alexandria. They got involved in a situation which quickly escalated. A student colleague (who, you get the impression, was a bit of a longer) gets interested in pagan religion. The other students couldn’t be having this and so try to persuade him otherwise. It somehow leads from fisticuffs to the destruction of the last pagan temple in Alexandria and thousands of priceless artefacts by students and monks. Without a single surviving manuscript, the destruction of the temple at Menouthis would have been unknown and yet questions of just how true this account is linger. A great read for evoking the fervid atmosphere of late antique student life in Alexandria and Beirut.


2. Pseudo-Methodius 

An early medieval best seller, this book collects all the best of what went before in Syriac literature (bits of the Cave of Treasures, the Julian Romance, the Alexander Romance) and from the bible to create a startlingly original vision of a world hurtling to armageddon. Written around 690 CE, the book is part-history and part-prophecy. Most crucially it was credited to an earlier figure which means that when readers began reading the prophetic bits, they would recognise allusions to recent events adding credence to its truth. The text was copied and changed throughout much of the medieval period and was possibly more popular than Revelation as a vision of how the world would end during this period.


1. Monks of Kublai Khan

Rabban Bar Sauma was a Chinese Christian monk, who in the Thirteenth Century, travelled from Beijing to Rome and Paris, meeting the Pope and the Kings of England and France. Some have called it the alternative Marco Polo, filling in the details where Marco Polo offered broad views. A little known figure today, he wrote a first hand account of his travels (possibly) during his retirement in Baghdad. His book has only one accessible English translation which although from 1928 still races along at a good speed.


Feature photo references

The battle of David and Goliath taken from the David Plates. by Fordmadoxfraud is under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.


By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics