Syriac Christian Interest in Late Medieval Alchemy: The Case of One Pseudo-Aristotelian Treatise on the Craft

By Salam Rassi
Submitted to Session P4878 (The Occult in Islamicate Society: The Cases of Magic and Alchemy, 2017 Annual Meeting
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Conventional narratives of the Baghdad Translation Movement (ca. 8th to 10th centuries) all too often exclude the role of the occult. Moreover, while they highlight the role of Christians as intermediaries in the translation of philosophical texts from Greek into Arabic (often via Syriac), little attention has been given to how Christian intellectuals continued to engage in such activities for the purposes of their own communities. This paper focuses on what purports to be a translation from Syriac to Arabic of a Pseudo-Aristotelian epistle on alchemy. Its translator and commentator is Abdisho bar Brikha (d. 1318), a Nestorian churchman active in northern Mesopotamia during the Ilkhanid period. Better known for his Syriac poetry, few have studied him in light of his many Arabic works. My contribution focuses on two salient features in Abdisho’s preface to this unedited text. Firstly, I discuss his reasons for embarking on the translation. Abdisho informs us that he chose to work on the epistle because it outlines the procedures and methods of alchemy in clear and accessible terms—unlike more conventional alchemical works, which often employ ciphers when describing the instruments and materials of the craft. Thus, I situate his activities within a broader intellectual context in which other alchemists of the thirteenth century sought to disclose the mysteries of the craft through systematic commentaries and primers. Secondly, I examine the quasi-historical narratives employed by Abdisho to explain the transmission of the epistle. In addition to mentioning various legendary authorities of Arabic alchemy (e.g. Hermes Trismegistus, 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, and Heraclius), our author emphasises the role of East Syriac Christians in passing down alchemical knowledge through the ages. In doing so, I argue, he engages in a form of communal narrativization and apologetics intended to place the Church of the East at the centre of alchemical production in the Islamicate world. Finally, I discuss the manuscript tradition of Abdisho’s translation. Though originally written in Garshuni (Arabic written in the Syriac script), presumably for a Christian readership, the work would later be copied in the Arabic script by Muslim scribes, appearing in manuscripts as widespread as northern India. The dissemination of this text, I contend, indicates how Christian translations of Syriac texts were still able to have an impact on the learned culture of the Islamicate world long after the Translation Movement—at least in the sphere of alchemy.