Manuscripts survive from as early as the 5th century with the fundamental handwritten form of Syriac script.
London, BL Add. 12150, f. 235v (dated 411)
Eusebius of Caesarea
Here we take a look at the earliest Syriac codices, beginning with the earliest dated Syriac manuscript, the famous BL Add. 12150, copied in the year 411, up to about the seventh century. The examples we consider here have similarities with each other as well as with some later Estrangela books, but there are, of course, also more particular characteristics for each scribe’s work. In addition, the assumed hallmarks of a particular letter and script-type may not show up where we expect them to. We see, for example, that the 411 manuscript does not usually have the sharp, angled form of dālat and rēš, but a shape we might describe as perfectly matching a Serto form. The rēš is written in the presumably later (Serto) shape; the dālat is written in both the assumed Estrangela form and in the Serto form. Here we have both dālat and rēš in one word, both in the Serto form.
No attempt will be made to provide a complete inventory of the least common denominators, or fundamental characteristics, for the examples of the handwriting of these manuscripts. But a few observations on letterforms in each manuscript may serve as an initial guide for a foray into these and similar manuscripts. For each chosen manuscript, a sample page in its entirety is included, and a few additional images show specific forms.
Note first of all that the text stands in three columns. Early Syriac manuscripts were mostly written in one or two, less often three, and later there are examples, although few, of four-column manuscripts.
Diyarbakir, Meryem Ana Syriac Orthodox Church, DIYR 339, f. 29v. All rights reserved. Image provided by HMML.
when connected and not, there is a serif on the right leg often sits a little below the line may have an almost upward-turning serif at the top
dālat / rēš
rather thick horizontal on top dot of dālat often sits well below
the center leg touches neither the left nor the right
not closed when preceding some letters (e.g. šin) may be connected (in Usual Estrangela not attached)
notably taller than the yod
when final, connected to previous letter or not, a right-pointing angle sitting on the line
much narrower and more rounded than bēt final kāp has a longish top-serif on the left side and ends with a sharp, narrow point on the right
thick at the top, slender at the bottom
the upper horizontal turns upward at the left when non-final, the bottom horizontal is close to the left upright, but the circle is not closed final mim, however, is closed, and has a long, thin, descending point
when final and unconnected to previous letter, more angled than when connected
both loops rounded, the left one taller does not join to following letter
similar in shape to gāmal, but shorter and without hanging below the line
the loop is quite open when final, the horizontal ends in a thick dot
narrow base at the line, then a thicker, slightly right angling descender, ending with a thin, upturning line
see dālat above
an upright base with a shallow bowl on top when initial, often with a long horizontal before the upright base (indistinguishable from the combination yod-šin)
the size of the opening in the loop varies from open to closed the vertical may only angle only slightly to the left
Diyarbakir, Meryem Ana Syriac Orthodox Church, DIYR 339, f. 62ra, l. 2. All rights reserved. Image provided by HMML.
f. 62r, with two tightly closed tāws, with only a slightly left-leaning vertical
Example of the unconnected, tightly looped, tāw, with only a slightly left-leaning vertical; even with these similar features, the tāw in this example and that of the previously noted DIYR 339 are quite distinct from each other: note the more spacious and sharply angled part to the right of the loop in the DIYR 339 tāw, and note the large dot at the top of the vertical in the example here:
Tell Kaif, QACCT 8 (7th C.?)
Tell Kaif, Qalb Al-Aqdas Chaldean Church, QACCT 8, f. 20r. All rights reserved. Image provided by HMML.
does not sit below the line
dālat / rēš
in general top line not much thicker than the vertical
sharper descent on the right side
when final may have a long extender on the right (at line-end, cf. f. 23va, l. 3)
Many characteristics in Tell Kaif, QACCT 8 are shared with DIYR 339, but the lines in this manuscript are overall thicker than the other manuscript.
Ready to transcribe?
Try your hand at transcribing Earliest Estrangela scripts