I’ve added a video to the Syriac Grammar page with a song video that will (hopefully!) make it easier to memorize the paradigm for the Pe’al, Pa”el, and Aph’el Perfect for regular verbs. It can also be found here below. Enjoy!
In this video we take a look at eight important things to know about the alphabet that is used in Classical Syriac:
1. It is descended from the alphabet used in Imperial Aramaic.
2. It is distantly related to the English alphabet.
3. It originally comes from in or around the city of Edessa.
4. It can be written in three different scripts.
5. It is written from right to left.
6. It is a semi-cursive script.
7. It was originally written without a full system of vowels.
8. It has twenty-two letters.
For my free online grammar of Classical Syriac, click here.
Mark Steven Francois (Ph.D.)
I have just posted chapter 2 of my free online grammar of Classical Syriac in the Estrangela Script (https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/syriac-grammar/). This chapter covers vowels in East Syriac, BeGaDKePhaT Letters, Consonant Clusters, Diphthongs, and when to pronounce Waw and Yodh as consonants. The most difficult part of learning classical Syriac is mastering how to pronounce and write words in Syriac. Make sure that you learn the material in this chapter well – it will pay dividends in the future.
The plan is to complete chapter 3 of the grammar in the Estrangela script and then go back and do chapters 1, 2, and 3 in the Serto script and then the East Syriac script.
Practice sheets for chapter 2 will be posted as they become available. Once again, feel free to download and print as many copies as you would like. However, please do not alter any of the material, post it to another website, or publish it in any other form. Thanks!
I have just uploaded tracing sheets for the Syriac alphabet (Estrangela) for chapter 1 of the online grammar I am writing and plan to post on this website as the work progresses. You can find the tracing sheets here under chapter 1: https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/syriac-grammar/. Feel free to use them but don’t alter them or republish them in any other format, including other websites. Enjoy!
Note: This post will form part of chapter 1 of a free online Syriac Grammar that I will be writing and posting in stages on Between the Perfect and the Doomed. Check out https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/syriac-grammar/ for practice sheets and chapters of the grammar as they become available.
What is Classical Syriac?
There are a number of different answers that can be given to the question, “What is Classical Syriac?” depending on the perspective of the person who is either asking or answering the question.
- For the person interested in ancient Semitic languages, Classical Syriac is a late dialect of Aramaic that was widely used in what is now Southeastern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran from the beginning of the common era all of the way into the medieval period and beyond.
- For the person interested in church history, especially in the patristic period, Classical Syriac is a welcome and, in some cases, even a surprising addition to the better known languages of the early church (i.e. Greek and Latin) that were used to produce material that was formative for the life and faith of the Christian church.
- For the person interested in the rise and spread of Islam or in the history of the Crusades, Classical Syriac is a language that opens up lesser-known resources that are of incredible value for understanding the people, beliefs, and events of these time periods.
- For members of the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church and others, Classical Syriac is the language used in their Bibles and in the liturgy of their church.
- For modern-day Assyrians in the Middle East and spread throughout the world through immigration and, in far too many cases, because of war, systematic persecution, and even genocide, Classical Syriac is the ancestral language of their people that, even though not always understood, helps to define them as a people.
Syriac is all of these things and more. But, for this chapter, our focus needs to be on Syriac as a language. What can be said about Syriac from a linguistic perspective?
Classical Syriac as a Language
As was mentioned earlier, Classical Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic. This means that Classical Syriac, along with Hebrew, Phoenician, and other Canaanite dialects, belongs to the northwest Semitic family of languages. This means that Syriac, like other dialects of Aramaic, shares a great deal in common with Hebrew, including cognate vocabulary, a similar manner of forming verbs, and other grammatical features. As part of the wider family of Semitic languages, Syriac also shares a great deal in common with Arabic and Akkadian (i.e. the various dialects of Assyrian and Babylonian). This means that Syriac is much easier to learn for someone who already knows the grammar of one of these other languages.
(For speakers of modern dialects of Syriac, it should be kept in mind that words in modern Syriac might not always have the same meaning as the same words in Classical Syriac. For those who know one of these other Semitic languages, it should be kept in mind that cognate words in these other languages do not always have the same meaning in Classical Syriac.)
As a dialect of Aramaic, Classical Syriac is quite similar to Imperial Aramaic (e.g. the Aramaic of Ezra, Daniel, and the Jewish papyri from the Egyptian fortress at Elephantine), both in its vocabulary and structure as a language. Students with a background in Classical Syriac will have a distinct advantage when learning Imperial Aramaic and vice versa. That being said, there was a significant amount of development between Imperial Aramaic and Classical Syriac so the differences between the two phases need to be studied carefully. The closest dialects to Classical Syriac in the Aramaic branch of the Northwest Semitic family are Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and Mandaic.
One of the most fascinating things about Syriac as a language is the influence that Greek has had on the language. The traditional areas where Syriac was spoken were taken over by the Macedonian and Greek armies of Alexander the Great and were ruled for centuries by the Greek-speaking Seleucid Empire and the Greek-speaking portion of the Roman Empire. While the dominance of Greek on an everyday level was largely isolated to the Greek-speaking cities of these empires, the Greek language left an incredible mark on the development of Syriac as a language. This can be seen especially in the vocabulary of Syriac, which has many words that are simply taken over directly from Greek (e.g. ܦܪܘܿܠܘܿܓܼܝܲܐ [prōlōgyā’] = προλογία [prologia] = prologue; ܐܲܩܘܼܠܘܼܬܼܝܲܐ [’aqūlūtiyā’] = ἀκολουθία [akolouthia] = order, sequence).
Thus, in many ways, Syriac is a fusion of several different worlds: the ancient with the classical; the near eastern with the Mediterranean; the Christian with the pre-Christian (both Jewish and pagan); and the Christian with the Islamic. The traces of this fusion have left an unmistakable and indelible mark on both the language and literature of Classical Syriac, which is part of the excitement of studying this language.
Mark Francois, Ph.D. Graduand, The University of St. Michael’s College
 For a concise description of the various churches from the Syriac tradition see Sebastian Brock, An Introduction to Syriac Studies (Gorgias Handbooks 4; 2nd ed.; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2006), 67-78.
 Note that Steven C. Hallam, in a recent grammar of classical Syriac, confusedly classifies Classical Syriac as an East Semitic Language (Basics of Classical Syriac [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016],13). While Classical Syriac certainly was used in the eastern part of what is now known as the Middle East and falls under the category of Eastern Aramaic, as a dialect of Aramaic it clearly belongs to the northwest Semitic family of languages. At present there are only two languages that are classified as East Semitic: Akkadian and Eblaite. For a discussion of Aramaic in the context of Northwest Semitic languages, see Joseph Fitzmyer, The Semitic Background of the New Testament, Volume 2: A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 63-74.
 See Takamitsu Muraoka, Classical Syriac: A Basic Grammar with a Chrestomathy (2nd ed.; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2005), §1.
 It should be kept in mind that Greek was the common language for culture and administration in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Even in the western part of the Empire, where Latin predominated, Greek was still used by a sizeable portion of the population and even came to have an impact on the development of Latin itself. See Geoffrey Horrocks, Greek: A History of the Language and Its Speakers (2nd ed.; Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 125-6.
 J. N. D. Kelly, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom – Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 2.
3. The Plight of Edessa Under the Persians
Sections ninety-six and ninety-seven describe plight of the Edessans living under Persian rule. Khusro, the Persian king, plundered the churches of Edessa because the people slandered Cyrus, the governor whom he had appointed over the city when he captured it in 609 C.E. Next Khusro decided to send the people to exile in Persia. He ordered the Marzban, the military governor of the region, to evacuate the city immediately. But the Marzban, hoping that the king would rescind his order, evacuated the city little by little. When Herakleios, the Byzantine emperor, heard the news he mounted an offensive against the Persians and liberated the city around 628 C.E. The events recorded in section ninety-seven took place after the siege of Constantinople in 626 C.E. In this instance the sequence of events is thematic rather than chronological.
4. The Siege of Constantinople
Section ninety-eight describes the siege of Constantinople by the Persians in 626 C.E.  Khusro sent his armies, under Shahrbaraz and Kardigan, to wage war against the Byzantines. The account of the siege given in the chronicle varies significantly from other accounts of the siege. According to the chronicle, the Persian army besieged Constantinople for nine months. The siege was finally lifted when Shahrbaraz revolted against Khusro through Byzantine subterfuge. In reality, Constantinople was under siege for ten days, the Persians were not even involved, and Herakleios was not even in the city. The siege was undertaken by the Avars, Persia’s allies, while the Persian armies attacked Herakleios in the north-eastern part of Asia Minor, preventing him from relieving the capital. Herakleios defeated the Persian army under Shahrbaraz and the balance of power shifted in his favour, which enabled him to launch a counter-offensive into Persian-held territories. The chronicle is correct, however, in noting that Shahrbaraz did make a treaty with the Byzantines, but this was only after the death of Khusro in 628 C.E.
5. The Fall of Khusro and the Expulsion of the Persians from Byzantine Territory
Sections ninety-nine to one hundred and one describe the fall of Khusro and the expulsion of the Persians from Byzantine territory. After making an agreement with Shahrbaraz, Herakleios marched from Constantinople and raided Media and Azerbaijan from his sanctuary in Armenia. The Persian Army, led by Ruzbihan, attacked Herakleios but was defeated. Khusro fled but was killed by his son Shiroe. Shiroe made a treaty with Herakleios and agreed to return all of the territory that had once belonged to the Romans and that all of the Persians living in Byzantine territory should return to Persia, an agreement which he had already made with Shahrbaraz. Unbeknownst to him, Herakleios’ defeat of the Persians created a vacuum that would soon be filled by the Arab Muslims and would ultimately lead to the loss of Byzantine hegemony over that entire region.
Herakleios sent his brother Theodore to Syria in order to expel the Persians who were living in his territory. When he came to Edessa the Persians would not surrender the city. The Jews of the city joined the Persians in rejecting Theodore’s demands. The Jews of the city were most likely in sympathy with the Persians because of their strong religious ties to Nisibis, which was then in Persian territory. When the city capitulated to the Byzantines, Theodore planned to exterminate the Jews because of the insults they hurled at him from the wall. Theodore was stopped when a Jew named Joseph, who had escaped from the city and pleaded with Herakleios to spare the Jews, arrived with a letter commanding Theodore not to molest the Jews.
6. Herakleios’ Persecution of the Monophysites of Edessa
Section one hundred and two describes Herakleios’ persecution of the Monophysites of Edessa. The Monophysites believed that the human and divine natures of Christ were undivided and that they were united in one person during the incarnation. The Dyophysites, also known as Nestorians, believed that the human and divine nature of Christ, though present in one person, were divided. The Council of Chalcedon formulated a compromise between these two positions and stated that the two natures of Christ were both distinguishable and inseparable. Those who held to the ruling of the Council of Chalcedon were called Chalcedonians.
The Chalcedonians and the Monophysites were bitter opponents in Edessa. Section one hundred and two describes an incident that was typical of this animosity. When Herakleios came to the Cathedral to take the Eucharist, the Metropolitan of the city, a Monophysite, foolishly refused to give it to him unless he condemned the Council of Chalcedon and the Tome of Leo, which formed the basis of the Council’s decision. Herakleios was filled with rage and handed over the cathedral to the Chalcedonians. The conquest of Edessa by the Arab Muslims brought an end to Herakleios’ oppression but the cathedral remained in the hands of the Chalecedonians because the Muslims wished to maintain the status quo. Nonetheless, the Monophysites attributed the Muslim victories to the judgment of God, who was punishing the Byzantines for persecuting them.
7. The Victories of Abu Bakr
The remainder of the chronicle being dealt with here describes the defeat of the Byzantine army by Abu Bakr, the successor of Muhammad and leader of the Muslim armies. The chronicler again expresses the belief that the Byzantines were defeated because of their persecution of the Monophysites. There is a telling incident in section one hundred and ten involving three people: Theodore, a Chalcedonian stylite, and a Monophysite servant. Theodore, the brother of Herakleios encountered the stylite standing on a pillar, who asked Theodore to promise to persecute the Monophysites when he returned victoriously from battle against the Muslims. Theodore was more than willing to acquiesce to the stylite’s request. Meanwhile, the Monophysite servant overheard this conversation but was too afraid to say anything. When Theodore returned from battle in defeat, this same servant mocked him for failing to defeat the Muslim armies and, as a result, the promises he made to persecute the Monophysites upon his victory.
The sections of the chronicle translated in my next post give a fascinating glimpse into how the fall of the Persian and Byzantine Empires were viewed by the Monphysite Christians of Syria. For them, the Muslims were sent by God to punish the Byzantines for their wickedness. Although the Monophysites had much more in common with the Byzantines than the Muslims in terms of beliefs and practices, the Monophysites welcomed the Muslims as liberators from an oppressive empire and, with it, an oppressive church.
 Segal, Edessa, 114.
 Beae Dignas and Engelbert Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbours and Rival (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 186 n. 60. Marzban was the “the title of the governor of a border province and military commander of the Sasanian border troops.”
 Segal, Edessa, 114.
 For a full account of the siege see Cyril Mango and Gilbert Dargon, eds., “The siege of Constantinople in 626” in James Howard-Johnston, ed., East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity: Historiographical and Historical Studies (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2006), VII 131-142.
 G. Gnoli, ed., “Pride and fall: Khusro II and his regime, 626-628,” in James Howard-Johnston, ed., East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity: Historiographical and Historical Studies, IX 106, n. 29.
 Mango and Dargon, eds., “The siege of Constantinople in 626,” VII 133-134.
 Tourjai Daryaee, Sasanian Iran (224-651 CE): Portrait of a Late Antique Empire (Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 2008), 90-91.
 Segal, Edessa, 101.
 Cf. Ibid, 104.
 Dignas and Winder, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity, 274.
 Segal, Edessa, 99. “The refusal of the intolerant Bishop Isaiah to give the sacrament to Heraclius at the Cathedral of Edessa and the harsh reaction of the Emperor was not an isolate incident.
1. The Chronicle
The Anonymous Chronicle Up to the Year 1234 A.D. is one of the most important Syriac chronicles in the tradition of Syriac historical chronicles. Although little is known about the author, it is likely that he was a Monophysite monk from Edessa who completed his work in the second quarter of the thirteenth century C.E. The chronicle is divided into two volumes: one dealing with secular history and one dealing with church history. The chronicle is preserved in a fourteenth century manuscript. The Syriac text was edited by J. B. Chabot and is available in the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium series. The translation offered here – my own translation, which will appear in future posts – covers sections ninety-four to one hundred and ten of the secular history. In this post I will begin to introduce the chronicle by summarizing the sections dealing with the rise of Islam. Future posts will summarize other sections and a translation will eventually follow. The translation in particular will be helpful because English translations of this text are not readily available. Placing it online should prove helpful for those interested in this chronicle.
2. The Rise of Islam
Sections ninety-four and ninety-five describe the rise of Muhammad, the initial spread of Islam, and the beliefs and practices of this newly-founded religion. What is particularly interesting about this section is that it opens a window for the modern reader into how Islam was viewed by Syriac-speaking Christians living under Muslim rule when the Muslim kingdoms were first expanding. When viewed in this light, this section produces many significant insights.
First, the chronicler attributes the early success of Islam not to the strength of its monotheistic beliefs but to the greed of its first adherents. Muhammad promised his early followers that God would give them a land flowing with milk and honey, words that echo God’s promises to the people of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, and he made good on this promise by leading small raiding parties into Palestine. When these raiding parties returned to their homes in Yathrib the people, who had initially not followed Muhammad, converted to Islam because of the wealth they could secure. Muslim raids expanded beyond Palestine, not because they wanted to spread the message of Islam, but because their lust for spoil could not be satiated by the wealth of Palestine alone. Thus, for the chronicler, the root of Muslim success was much baser than Muslims themselves may have believed.
Second, the chronicler attributes the ultimate success of the Muslim armies over the Byzantine Empire to the judgment of God. In language reminiscent of the Deuteronomistic History, the chronicler states that the Muslim principality became an established kingdom because God wanted to chasten his people for their sins. This theme is picked up again in section one hundred and two, which describes the wickedness of the Byzantine Emperor toward the Monophysites of Edessa. The chronicler viewed the conquering of Edessa both as the judgment of God against the Byzantines and also the means by which God rescued the Monophysites from imperial persecution. The details of this section will be discussed in a future post.
Third, the chronicler is aware that Muslim and Christian beliefs are ultimately incompatible but is content to note the differences and remains surprisingly irenic in his tone. In section ninety-five, the chronicler highlights several points of variance between Islam and Christianity including their beliefs about the Trinity, the crucifixion of Christ, the nature of Paradise, and their views about marriage but stops short of caricature or prolonged censure. Likewise, the chronicler does not explicitly call Muhammad a false prophet, which would have been imprudent for a Christian living under Muslim rule to assert, but formulates his descriptions of Muhammad’s revelations and status as a prophet in a way that casts doubt on their veracity. Perhaps the chronicler’s restraint in vilifying Muhammad and the beliefs of Islam is due to his belief that God sent the Muslims to punish the Byzantines and to rescue the Monophysites from persecution. The chronicler’s descriptions of the beliefs and practices of Islam are quite accurate and no doubt reflect the reality of Christianity existing under Muslim rule.
 S. Brock, A Brief Outline of Syriac Literature (Kerala, India: St Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute, 1997), 74.
 See below.
 Matti Moosa (“The Crusades: An Eastern Perspective, With Emphasis on Syriac Sources,” The Muslim World 93, 251) notes that the Patriarch Aphram Barsoum believed the author “was a monk from the Barsoum Monastery near Melitene, probably born at Edessa in 1160.”
 Ibid, 251.
 J. B. Chabot, Anonymi auctoris Chronicon ad annum Christi 1234 pertinens (CSCO 109. Syr. syri 36. Louvain: Imprimerie Orientaliste L. Durbecq, 1952).
 Although this Chronicle was written around the year 1234 C.E., the views expressed in these sections are much earlier. As was stated above, chroniclers incorporated previously written material and did not significantly alter or update the material.
 E.g. Exodus 3:8.
 Muslim views of Paradise would have been particularly incompatible to the ascetic form of Christianity practiced in the Middle East.
 The chronicler subtly notes that Muslims call Muhammad a prophet and that Muhammad claimed to have received revelations from God. Cf. the description of Muhammad in the Chronicle of Theophanes (Trans. Harry Turtledove; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 34-35.