The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Shards of the Arabika

As of the late fourth-century AD, many west Syrians were conversant in Arabic and Greek as well as in Syriac. Enough locals grew curious about the Arabian wilderness that Uranius / Ouranios of Apamea wrote an ethnologue, Arabika. This survives in fragments, which Stephen the grammarian of Byzantium collected and published in his Ethnika. I have not, however, found any other Byzantine quotes from the Arabika; by contrast the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, which preceded it, got copied and may be read in full today. It has puzzled me that a book on Arabs already of note in fifth- and sixth-century Constantinople was not directly available when Arabs were encamped outside its very wall in the middle seventh. Uranius can't have been more heretical than Philostorgius.

Toward solving that, I have today found a summary of a 1973 Harvard dissertation from one James Eric Guttman Zetzel. Zetzel proposed that Stephen might not have had the Arabika directly. I wish someone had published Zetzel's thesis properly, but c’est la vie. Maybe Hoyland could have a whack at it.

Stephen in lieu of the full Arabika used “lexica” or “grammars” (Zetzel cited fragment 4) – which would have been Greek / Arabic. Such textbooks would have dispersed widely around fifth-century administrative circles, decades after the Arabika itself had fallen out of regular use. Since Stephen gives us the volume-numbers for several entries here, the textbooks must have done the same – they behaved like Stephen himself would. (So these were not casual phrasebooks or primers.) The textbooks assuredly would have eased Stephen’s task; the hard work of excerpting and indexing this stuff was already done.

The Arabika-derivative textbooks went the way of their source, but there it’s easier to see why. The conversion of many Arabs to Islam and the recruitment of other Arabophones to the futûh served to alter the Arabic language, sharply. Islam also altered the Arabic historical memory. Which meant that Greeks and Syrians needed updated manuals.

But I suspect that a part of the Arabika survived. Although languages change and peoples change, valleys and mountains endure. So at least the Arabika’s geographical excerpts would have remained evergreen; especially where such built upon and corrected the Periplus. We know of several texts from antiquity copied only in part; Stephen’s own Ethnika would get repeatedly epitomised. Perhaps – to pick one – Ananias of Shirak used such a selective copy, of the Arabika.

The bad news is that we have even more separation from the core Arabika than we thought. Now I must wonder if the Arabika was composed in Greek, or in Syriac…


posted by Zimri on 17:00 | link | 0 comments

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