The Syriac Galen Palimpsest: Galen's On Simple Drugs and the Recovery of Lost Texts through Sophisticated Imaging Techniques.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Arts Languages and Cultures


The Graeco-Arabic translation movement has been well studied, but Syriac, the vital connection between these two languages, is often ignored. This is partly the result of a lack of surviving Syriac texts. One such text, a sixth-century translation of Galen's On Simple Drugs by Sergius of Resh 'Ayna, exists in the undertext of an eleventh-century liturgical work, known as the Syriac Galen Palimpsest. This palimpsest potentially contains the whole of Sergius' translation, but it has remained for the most part unreadable. Now, using pioneering philological and imaging techniques, Professor Peter E. Pormann and Drs Siam Bhayro and Bill Sellers (in collaboration with other colleagues) have begun to decipher the undertext, and have determined that the palimpsest contains parts - if not all - of books 2, 4, 6, 8, and 9 of On Simple Drugs. This is an important discovery, with great research potential, since until now, the only known surviving Syriac translations of Galen were books 6-8 of On Simple Drugs, contained in a manuscript in the British Library. Furthermore, the Syriac Galen Palimpsest could also contain entirely new text, hitherto unknown, which will only come to light through systematic study of this document. Galen was the dominant medical writer in antiquity, and his system prevailed in Europe until the early modern period. The role of Syriac in the preservation and transmission of Galenic traditions has been discussed, but the true extent of its significance has not been properly ascertained, on account of the Syriac sources remaining largely unpublished. We are proposing to produce the first transcription, translation and analysis of this manuscript, which, initial studies suggest, may be the most significant Syriac medical manuscript thus far discovered. In order to do this, we will develop imaging tools that will allow us to obtain optimum readings of the undertext. These tools will be made available under a Creative Commons license, meaning that any individual or institution wishing to work on other palimpsests will be able to do so at no cost. It is believed that shedding light on this critical stage in medical history will also draw attention to the multiculturalism and inter-faith discourse that made the transmission and improvement of such texts possible.

Planned Impact

We have identified three main areas of impact, all of which encompass academic and non-academic groups.

1) Based on the excitement generated by the imaging of the Archimedes Palimpsest (1999-2008), we predict that the Syriac Galen Palimpsest, which appears to contain several of the lost books of Sergius of Resh 'Ayna, and possibly some of the lost translations of Joseph the Priest, will similarly stimulate the imagination of the public. We will ensure that the Syriac Galen Palimpsest receives adequate coverage, publicising it by holding an exhibition at The John Rylands Library, and garnering media attention (an area in which Pormann has considerable experience).

2) The project, by highlighting the contribution of Syriac-speaking Christians to the Greek-Arabic-Latin transmission process (and, therefore, to western medical tradition), will also draw attention to the plight of Christians in the Middle East. The same tools used to enhance public awareness of the project (e.g. exhibitions, media appearances) will also be used to enhance public awareness of the vibrancy of this culture, and of its contribution both to Arabic and, consequently, to western medical tradition. The Syriac Galen Palimpsest encapsulates the plight of this culture: literally erased and almost lost to us forever, it is a metaphor for a society that is threatened with extinction, and it will serve to stimulate public engagement with a very important issue.

3) Libraries, institutions and individuals will be able to use the imaging tools developed as part of the project to improve the legibility of other documents, regardless of their level of technical expertise. It is hoped that this will lead to further study in this and in other areas, as long-held but under-utilised materials are brought into the light. The tools will be developed under a Creative Commons license, meaning that anyone will be able to use them.


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