Thinking of Syria in Anglo-Saxon England

It was the summer of my first year as a PhD student.  I had just finished work on a chapter of my thesis, and was looking to move into another area of study; but I couldn’t really think where to go next, except that I wanted to look back to an earlier period of time and write something about the historical background to Anglo-Saxon prayer.  My supervisor and I were talking over the reading that I had done, and what might be suitable: the Carolingian period, perhaps, or the works of the church Fathers?  But we didn’t manage to come to any kind of agreement.  Finally, I tried:

‘Well, there was this interesting book I read about early Christian prayer in Syria …’

My supervisor’s face lit up.  ‘I’d really like to read about that!’ she said.

Together, we thrashed out a plan for me to spend the next two or three weeks writing a short piece about the influence of Syrian prayer in Anglo-Saxon England, and then decide afterwards where to take it.  I was just packing up my notebook and pen when she asked me:

‘Are you going anywhere on your holidays this year?’

I hadn’t made any plans.  I returned the question.

‘Actually,’ she replied, ‘I’m going to Syria.’  So she was looking for some pre-holiday reading!  I went back to that interesting book, Sebastian Brock’s reader The Syrian Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, plus some books on Theodore, the seventh-century Archbishop of Canterbury who transmitted Greek learning to England (and apparently had knowledge of Syriac), and some of the prayer collections that I was already working on.  I spent a couple of weeks enthusiastically researching and writing, and handed in a few thousand words to my supervisor.  In the end, we agreed that the Syrian influence on Anglo-Saxon prayer was probably not going to make it into my thesis, and I moved on to other things.

It’s a long time now since that conversation happened, and a lot of things have changed since then, the most important of which is that Syria is now a place one is more likely to flee from than to visit.  Even when it is constantly on the news, it can feel very far away.  But I’m still wondering what the Anglo-Saxons thought about Syria.  Did it feel distant to them?

An interpretation of the word 'Alleluia' according to the Syrians, in an eighth-century psalter. London, British Library Cotton Vespasian A. i, fol. 6r.
An interpretation of the word ‘Alleluia’ according to the Syrians, in an eighth-century psalter. London, British Library Cotton Vespasian A. i, fol. 6r.


Wisdom and learning

Let’s start with some poetry.  The wisdom poem Solomon and Saturn II begins by telling how Saturn has travelled all over the world, naming places around the Mediterranean and Asia: he has been to India, Persia and Nineveh, he knows the woods of Egypt and the knowledge of the Greeks, the people of Arabia and the land of Syria – amongst many others.  It is from these experiences that he has gained his great knowledge, sufficient to debate with the famously wise King Solomon.  All of these places must have implied wisdom and learning to the Anglo-Saxon readers, as well as sparking curiosity about other parts of the world.


Land of resurrection

We can also sense these overtones in the  Old English version of the phoenix legend, told in a poem in the tenth-century collection known as the Exeter Book.  This describes how the legendary bird surrounds himself with other kinds of birds before they fly westwards to Syria:

                                           Fuglas þringað

utan ymbe æþelne;         æghwylc wille

wesan þegn ond þeow         þeodne mærum,

oþþæt hy gesecað         Syrwara lond

corðra mæste.  (The Phoenix, ll. 163-7)

(Birds flock around the nobleman: each one wants to be the retainer and servant to the great lord, until they seek out the land of the Syrians in the greatest of multitudes.)

There, the phoenix retreats from his followers to a famous tree, where he builds his nest in preparation for the summer, when he is consumed by flames and is reborn.  The name of Syria, then, reached the ears of Anglo-Saxon audiences as somewhere associated with a supernatural bird who was a symbol of Christ himself.

Phoenix TibBv1.86v.PNG
The Phoenix, from the Marvels of the East, in an 11th-century manuscript.  London, British Library Cotton Tiberius V/1, fol. 186v


A letter from Christ

Syria, and the city of Edessa in particular, became renowned all over the Christian world, thanks to a letter to its King Abgar, supposedly from Christ himself, which is found in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History.  According to Eusebius Christ’s reputation reached Edessa within his own lifetime, and the king wrote a letter to him asking to be healed.  Eusebius assures the reader that

Written evidence of these things is available, taken from the Record Office at Edessa, at that time the royal capital.  In the public documents there, embracing early history and also the events of Abgar’s time, this record is found preserved from then till now; and the most satisfactory course is to listen to the actual letters, which I have extracted from the archives and translated word for word from the Syriac as follows

Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, tr. Williamson, p. 66

There follow the king’s letter and the response attributed to Christ.  This was evidently rather popular, as it continued to be copied across Europe over the centuries, in Rufinus’ Latin translation.  Rufinus’ work is known to have been available in Canterbury by the archiepiscopacy of Theodore, and in the eighth century it was copied into the Royal Prayerbook, which contains a number of medical cures and prayers for healing:

London, British Library Royal 2 A. xx, fol. 12v
London, British Library Royal 2 A. xx, fol. 12v

A few centuries later, it was copied into the Galba Prayerbook, which I introduced in an earlier post:

London, British Library Cotton Galba A. xiv, fol. 27v
London, British Library Cotton Galba A. xiv, fol. 27v

This letter, ‘which the Lord wrote with his own hand’, promises Abgar that he who has not seen and yet has believed is blessed and will be healed.  When Christ has returned to heaven, he will send an apostle to Edessa to cure the king’s sickness.  In the Royal Prayerbook, the letter is followed by a statement that whoever has it will be safe from the attacks of enemies and from all danger.


Prayers of a saint

Another famous inhabitant of Edessa was St Ephrem (d. 373), some of whose works on prayer are included in Brock’s collection.  He is mentioned in the Latin Life of St Basil as a Syrian who performs miracles in the desert; this  Life was translated into Old English by Ælfric of Eynsham, who does not mention that Ephrem was Syrian, but refers to him as an abbot whom Basil ordains, and to whom he sends a woman seeking intercessions.  The humble Ephrem, however, trusts the power of Basil’s prayers more than that of his own, and sends her back to him again.

While Ephrem might not have thought much of his own prayers, some Anglo-Saxons evidently disagreed.  As I have discussed in an earlier post,  some medieval prayers are attributed to saints who were considered authoritative and to have written prayers of great holiness and efficacy, even if the prayers were not actually by them.  Thomas Bestul has noted the presence of Ephrem’s name in Anglo-Saxon litanies, and the attribution of prayers to him in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.  One of these is in the Book of Cerne, a ninth-century Mercian prayerbook:

Incipit oratio ad dominum sancti effremis

Deus excelsissime · Deus misericordissime · susceptor animarum · salus infirmantium · qui es rerum conditor · uniuersorum creator · te oro te supplico · te depręcor in omni misericordia tua …

(Quoted from Kuypers, ed., The Prayerbook of Aedeluald the Bishop, p. 142.)

(Here begins the prayer of St Ephrem to the Lord.  God most high, God most merciful, guardian of souls, health of the weak, you who are the creator of things, the founder of all, I pray to you, I beg you, I entreat you in all your mercy …)

So this fourth-century Syrian saint inspired prayer several centuries later and at the other end of the Christian world.

For the Anglo-Saxons, Syria must have seemed like a far-off place, but through the intercessions of its saints, through the texts that were copied and re-copied across Europe, and through the authoritative prayers of an esteemed saint, they were linked together with the Syrians in faith.

I have made a donation to Save the Children’s Syria appeal.



Daniel Anlezark, ed., The Old English Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn, Anglo-Saxon Texts 7 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2009).

Thomas H. Bestul, ‘Ephraim the Syrian and Old English Poetry’, Anglia 99 (1981).

Sebastian Brock, trans., The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1987).

Gabriella Corona, ed., Ælfric’s Life of Saint Basil: Background and Context (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2006).

Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, trans. G. A. Williamson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965).

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Inspiring. It’s too easy to slip into a Eurocentric approach in these matters. Thanks.


  2. thijsporck says:

    Excellent. Very informative. I am intrigued by the reference to “Syrwara land” in The Phoenix, I always assumed it was a scribal mistake for “Sigelwara land” (Ethiopia).


    1. katehthomas says:

      I must now look up ‘Sigelwara’ and see where that appears!


  3. bookwormys says:

    That was really interesting! I just started my blog so it would be great if you could check it out


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