A Syriac martyrdom text

Description

This very early Syriac manuscript is a collection of accounts of eleven Christian martyrs dating from the 5th or 6th century.

Syriac-speaking Christians in the Sasanian Empire

By the mid-3rd century CE, there were established communities of Syriac-speaking Christians throughout the Sasanian Empire. Their numbers were swelled by prisoners captured during the campaigns of Shapur I (r. 240–272) against Rome, culminating in the capture of the Emperor Valerian in 260 CE. However, widespread persecution of the Christians did not occur until the early 340s under Shapur II (r. 309–379), a period which coincided with renewed conflict against the Roman Empire.

Who was Lady Tarbo?

The story illustrated here describes in gory detail the fate of the martyrs Tarbo, her married sister and her maid. Tarbo’s brother Simeon, bishop of Seleucia-Ktesiphon, had been executed, probably in 341 CE, and the three women were subsequently arrested on the pretext that they had cast a spell on the queen in revenge for their brother’s death. Tarbo, whose ‘beautiful looks and fine appearance excelled that of all other women’, resisted the Zoroastrian mobed’s offer of freedom in exchange for marriage. The king intervened offering to spare them if they were prepared to worship the sun. Protesting ‘We will not worship the created sun in place of our Creator’ they willingly succumbed to the fate of being strung up naked, sawn in half, with their body parts being exhibited in baskets by the side of the road for all to see.

While one may question the historical significance of hagiographical accounts such as these, they nevertheless represent a literary tradition of the early Christian communities based on the realities of persecution under the Sasanians. The story of Tarbo was evidently very popular, with translations existing in Greek and also in Sogdian, as far afield as the monastery of Bulayiq in northern Xinjiang (China).

View images of the entire manuscripts via our Digitised Manuscripts website.

Full title:
The martyrdom of the Lady Tarbo, her sister, and her servant
Created:
5th or 6th century
Format:
Manuscript
Language:
Syriac
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library
Shelfmark:
Add MS 14654

Full catalogue details

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