A Syriac martyrdom text


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
5th or 6th century
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library
Add MS 14654

Full catalogue details

Related articles

Zoroastrianism from the early modern period

Article by:
Jenny Rose
Zoroastrianism, Sacred texts

Professor Jenny Rose discusses the development of the Zoroastrian religion in the early modern period, exploring the migration of the religion to India and the development of distinctive regional traditions and texts.

Zoroastrianism in late antiquity

Article by:
Ursula Sims-Williams
Zoroastrianism, Sacred texts

Dr Ursula Sims-Williams describes the history of the Zoroastrian religion during the Sasanian Empire, its interaction with the Judeo-Christian world and the development of its sacred texts into a written corpus from an oral tradition.

An introduction to Zoroastrianism

Article by:
Almut Hintze

Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest living world-religions. Professor Almut Hintze explores its history and some of the key components of the religion: its beliefs, sacred texts and rituals.

Related collection items