Images & Intersections / Libraries & Collections AboutImages & Intersections The Syriac Galen Palimpsest Digital Recovery of a Missing Link between Greek and Islamic Science March 3, 2016 Share An unbound folio (166v-171r) of a manuscript of Syriac hymns formerly referred to as Zürich Or. 77 and now called the Syriac Galen Palimpsest. It preserves an important witness to the sixth-century scholar Sergius of Reshʿayna’s translation of Galen’s treatise On Simple Drugs. The text of the hymnbook is readily observable to the naked eye, but it conceals the undertext of Sergius’ translation of Galen, the parchment originally written in the ninth century having been repurposed for the hymnbook in the eleventh century. Aileen Das, Ralph M. Rosen, and Michael B. Toth Collaboration in collecting, cataloging, and digitizing information from ancient manuscripts and codices is critical for the preservation of texts on early mathematics and science in Arabic and other languages. New developments in technology help to shed light on the complex and often obscure pathways along which the history of science developed from Late Antiquity through the Islamic Middle Ages. It is impossible to overestimate the significance of the role played by scholars and translators working in the Middle East during the centuries intervening between antiquity and modernity in not only transmitting Greek scientific texts, but also in offering commentary of their own on these texts, which in turn became part of the scientific tradition that was eventually translated into Latin and from there into various vernacular languages across Europe. Syriac intermediary translations played a crucial role in the transmission of Greek thought into Arabic, although very few of the translations from Greek into Syriac upon which Arabic translators depended have survived. A case in point is the work of the great Galen of Pergamum (second to third c. CE). Some of Galen’s works are no longer extant in the original Greek, or exist only in later Greek manuscripts that reflect inferior textual traditions. The accuracy of the Arabic translations produced by such major figures as Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq (d. 870s), which are often purported to be based on Syriac intermediaries, makes them more valuable as witnesses to the original Greek than the later Greek manuscripts themselves. But the history of translation and transmission of Galen’s works is often difficult to trace. Sergius of Reshʿaynā (d. 536 CE), a priest and doctor from Northern Syria, is a key figure in the translation of Galen’s works. Centuries before the famous Ḥunayn, Sergius rendered over thirty of Galen’s works from Greek into his native Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. Although critical of Sergius’ skills, Ḥunayn appears to have consulted and even revised his predecessor’s Syriac versions when preparing his own influential Arabic translations of Galen’s texts.1 The spectral imaging system used for digital photography of the SGP at the owner’s library following spectral imaging at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland in 2009 and 2010. The codex of the SGP is on the right side of the table. Exciting evidence of the role of Syriac intermediary translations in the transmission of Greek texts and the development of Arab-Islamic science is provided by a recently discovered Syriac manuscript. This manuscript, in which we can see the chronological layers of transmission at work before our eyes, contains a palimpsestic text of Galen’s pharmacological work On the Mixtures and Powers of Simple Drugs. This work was an extremely important treatise in antiquity, and was frequently translated and copied for its medicinal recipes and information about therapeutic herbs and plants. As it happens, however, the Greek manuscripts of this work exist only in much later versions that take us quite far from what must have been Galen’s original text. This new Syriac manuscript, referred to as the Syriac Galen Palimpsest (SGP), was probably written in the ninth century CE, which is quite early in our manuscript tradition of Classical authors. The text is a copy of a Syriac translation that was first made in the sixth century CE by Sergius, only a few centuries after Galen himself was writing, and is thus extremely valuable as a witness to the original version of Galen’s treatise. As a group of scholars collaborating on the SGP noted in 2013, with the discovery of this manuscript, “for the first time, one can compare the Greek source text of certain passages with the Syriac translations by Sergius and Ḥunayn, as well as the Arabic version by Ḥunayn.”2 Texts like the SGP demonstrate conclusively that a number of Arabic translations of Greek works from the Islamic Middle Ages built on an earlier Syriac textual tradition, and that “Syriac intermediary translations played a crucial role in the transmission of Greek thought into Arabic,” for example by helping to transfer the medical expertise of the ancient Greeks to Islamic culture, and ultimately to Europe. 3 Manfred Ullmann previously demonstrated that Galen’s On Simple Drugs was translated twice into Arabic, first by al-Biṭrīq (fl. c. 754–775) and later by Ḥunayn.4 His comparison of the two versions revealed that Ḥunayn’s version is more linguistically sophisticated than al-Biṭrīq’s because Ḥunayn made significant advancements in developing an Arabic vocabulary for Greek medical terms. The SGP now allows us to assess similarly how Ḥunayn’s Syriac translation of Galen’s work represents a technical improvement over the older one by Sergius. Spectral imaging of the manuscript folio in multiple bands of visible and invisible light yields information that can be combined to reveal the undertext and make it legible to specialists. The overtext of the hymnbook is suppressed, while the text of Sergius’ translation of Galen appears as darker script (perpendicular to the overtext, the Galen translation having been written on larger leaves of parchment that were then scraped clean and folded to produce the bifolio pages used in production of the hymnbook). In their examination of the SGP in the context of a different Syriac translation of On Simple Drugs (BL Add 14661), the team of scholars collaborating on the study of the manuscript note: “The present study, however, has shown that SGP probably contains at least double the text contained in BL. Moreover, SGP offers important variant readings, some of which are superior to those contained in BL. Therefore, both in terms of scope and method, any critical edition of Sergius’ translation would need to take the evidence contained in SGP carefully into consideration. SGP also opens other doors for future studies. We were able to determine that the Syriac alchemical text described by Martelli drew on Sergius’ translation. And once we possess a critical edition of this translation, based on both BL and SGP, we will be able to study the impact of Sergius on Ḥunayn’s Syriac and Arabic translation technique; to date, this important question in the study of how Greek thought travelled into Arabic culture has largely been ignored.”5 What makes the study of this manuscript particularly challenging, however, is that the Syriac translation from the Greek by Sergius it contains is practically invisible to the naked eye, for the manuscript is a palimpsest. A palimpsest is a manuscript in which the original written text is erased so that the pages can be recycled and another text written in its stead; in this case, Sergius’ sixth-century Syriac translation of Galen was scraped off of the parchment in the eleventh century so it could be used for something else. The ‘undertext,’ (as the original, now largely effaced, text is called) is barely visible to the casual observer. The plain surface text (or ‘overtext’) of the SGP is a perfectly legible text of religious hymns in Syriac.6 However, the Syriac translation of Galen’s Greek medical material that we can still recover from the undertext is of much greater historical significance. The Syriac Galen Palimpsest was purchased in a private sale from Sotheby’s in 2002 by an owner who remains anonymous. It was previously owned by Arnold J. Mettler, who had stored it in Zurich with the title Zürich Or. 77. In 1922, an English pamphlet accompanying the Hiersemann auction catalog noted regarding the palimpsest and other Syriac works that they were “of the greatest value to the history of the medicine of the Syrians … none of these treasures have as yet been utilized by science.” 7 It was not until 87 years later, in 2009, that science was finally utilized to reveal the treasure hidden in the palimpsest. That year, an interdisciplinary team working at the Walters Art Museum used spectral imaging to reveal some of the scraped-off undertext in the Syriac Galen Palimpsest. In the following year, the team imaged the entire codex, using narrowband spectral illumination to reveal more of the Syriac undertext. The owner of the text has made all the images of the Syriac Galen Palimpsest available online for free global access and digital humanities research under a Creative Commons license. Spectral imaging is a method of photography that makes it possible to see things that are difficult to detect with the naked eye. This is done by illuminating an object with a series of specific bands of light to collect separate images, and then combining those images digitally to reveal underlying text and information. Spectral imaging is a method of photography that makes it possible to see things that are impossible to detect with the naked eye. This is done by illuminating an object with a series of specific bands of light to collect separate images, and then combining those images to reveal underlying text and information. In 2000, an integrated team of scientists, engineers, scholars, and technical experts began working with Mike Toth and Will Noel to use spectral imaging to reveal the undertext of another palimpsest, the Archimedes Palimpsest, which contains the earliest surviving copy of the work of the mathematician Archimedes (third century BCE). Since then, they have used innovative spectral imaging techniques to support the study, preservation, and display of cultural objects for museums, libraries, and private collections, including the Syriac Galen Palimpsest. The spectral imaging system they developed is capable of revealing texts and residue unseen by the human eye. It captures images illuminated by specific spectral bands of light from 365 to 940 nanometers – from ultraviolet to infrared light. This yields a stack of registered images that are digitally processed to reveal artifacts on the object that were previously unseen. In collaboration with scientists, information technology and data managers, and museum and library professionals, spectral imaging with advanced cameras and illumination systems can provide standardized images and data products for digital humanities research. In May 2012, a team of European scholars met at the University of Manchester for a workshop that began a collaborative initiative to transcribe the now-revealed undertext of the SGP, producing initial transcriptions of several leaves. This team confirmed that the palimpsest is an extremely important Syriac witness to the work of Galen that expands our knowledge of it significantly. With free access to the data, these scholars have continued their studies as part of broader research into herbals in ancient texts. Further study revealed that this manuscript came from the ancient library of St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert, where it had been protected by monks over the centuries with support from the bedouin tribe of Jabalayah, who have long had a symbiotic relationship with St. Catherine’s Monastery and its monks. Subsequently, one of the scholars from the team discovered a missing leaf from the SGP at the Harvard University Library, which was also spectrally imaged. Amidst the ongoing violence in Egypt, yet another missing leaf has been discovered still remaining in the St. Catherine’s Monastery Library, where it was spectrally imaged in 2013. Additional leaves were found and imaged in the Vatican Library in July 2014, and the final missing leaf held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in May 2015. All 226 pages, except the Vatican leaves, have been made available for free access at http://digitalgalen.net/. There has been significant debate over the origins and sources of the Arab-Islamic scientific renaissance of high ʿAbbāsid times. On the one hand, Raymond Le Coz has argued that the transmission of Greek science into Arabic in this period was essentially an enterprise instigated and accomplished by Syriac-speaking Christians.8 On the other hand, scholars like Dimitri Gutas have devoted years to the study of the ‘Graeco-Arabic’ translation movement, relegating Syriac translations of scientific works to the status of mere stepping stones between the primary Greek texts and their Arabic translations, diminishing the quality and historical role played by these Syriac works, as well as pointing to the significance of other channels of transmission of Greek learning.9 Discoveries such as the SGP appear particularly valuable for resolving such debates, providing as it does clear proof of the contribution Syriac scholars such as Sergius made in not only translating Galen’s work but expanding upon it significantly. Another folio of the SGP with the results of spectral imaging revealed. First, folio 88v as it appears to the naked eye (L); folio 88v with spectral imaging rendering both the overtext and the undertext visible (C); and the final computer processed image that suppresses the overtext and makes the undertext legible (R). Scholars stand to gain tremendously from breakthroughs in spectral imaging. The collaborative team of scholars working on the SGP note: “Last, but not least, we should stress that we could only offer a few glimpses into what SGP has to offer. If the Archimedes Palimpsest is anything to go by, we might find other hitherto lost Syriac texts in SGP, just as the Archimedes Palimpsest contains more than one work. At present, the Syriac Galen Palimpsest represents largely virgin territory. We hope to be able to attract the necessary resources to fund its study and thus to venture beyond this unknown frontier.”10 This collaborative digitization and research effort by an international team of scholars and scientists will be the subject of an interdisciplinary conference at the University of Pennsylvania Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies on April 30. Registration is at http://www.library.upenn.edu/exhibits/galen.html. AILEEN DAS is Assistant Professor Classical Studies at the University of Michigan. She specializes in ancient medicine, the Graeco-Arabic translation movement, and classical traditions in the medieval Islamicate world. RALPH M. ROSEN is Vartan Gregorian Professor of the Humanities and Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests and publications focus on ancient Greek literature, Greek intellectual history and aesthetics, and ancient medicine, especially Galen. MICHAEL B. TOTH, President of R.B. Toth Associates, is the program manager of the Syriac Galen Palimpsest Project. He leads and manages advanced digitization projects to provide data and images for global access. His pioneering work includes supporting teams in the digitization of Islamic and Western Manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum; manuscripts at the Library of Congress and The British Library; and palimpsests of St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai.  See for example, Ḥunain ibn Isḥāq, Über die syrischen und arabischen Galen-Übersetzungen, ed. Gotthelf Bergsträsser (Lessing-Druckerei, 1925), 17–18.  Siam Bhayro, Robert Hawley, Grigory Kessel, and Peter E. Pormann, “The Syriac Galen Palimpsest: Progress, Prospects and Problems,” Journal of Semitic Studies 58 (2013): 131–148, 131.  Siam Bhayro, Robert Hawley, Grigory Kessel, and Peter E. Pormann, “Collaborative research on the Digital Syriac Galen Palimpsest,” Semitica et Classica 5 (2012): 261-264, 264. It has sometimes been suggested that translation of Greek works into Syriac greatly facilitated their transmission to Arab-Islamic scholars because Syriac is more easily rendered into Arabic than Greek, but this is debated.  Manfred Ullmann, Wörterbuch zu den griechisch-arabischen Übersetzungen des 9. Jahrhunderts (Harrassowitz Verlag, 2002), 32–48.  Bhayro et al., “The Syriac Galen Palimpsest”, 146.  More specifically, the eleventh-century overtext consists of a collection of Syriac troparia (a type of hymn) written in single columns of very beautiful archaic Melkite script in dark brown ink with red headings. See Sebastian Brock, Catalogue of Syriac Fragments (New Finds) in the Library of the Monastery of Saint Catherine, Mount Sinai (Mount Sinai Foundation, 1995), 63–64 (description), 265–266 (black and white reproductions).  K.W. Hiersemann, Katalog 500: Orientalische Manuskripte (Hiersemann, 1922).  See, e.g., Raymond Le Coz, Les chrétiens dans la médicine Arabe (L’Harmattan, 2006).  See, e.g., Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ʿAbbāsid Society (Routledge, 1998).  Bhayro et al., “The Syriac Galen Palimpsest,” 146.