Project description

The project aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of scribal habits and approaches as reflected in the Eastern-Christian Sogdian and Syriac manuscripts discovered in the early 20th century in the Turfan oasis (present-day Xinjiang, China). The existence of Christian communities in late antique and early medieval Central Asia was the result of missionary activities of the “Church of the East” since the 5th century. Along the Silk Road, Syriac speaking Christian monks and missionaries from the Mesopotamian Mother Church encountered peoples from different cultures, languages, and religions; among them were Sogdians, speakers of an eastern Middle Iranian language and the main caravan merchants of Central Asia. An important community of Christian Sogdians existed in the Turfan Oasis probably between the 9th – 11th centuries. It is attested mostly by a corpus of fragmentarily preserved manuscripts. This chronologically and geographically coherent corpus, which consists of nearly 500 fragments in Sogdian language in East Syriac script, circa 50 fragments in Sogdian language in Sogdian script and nearly 500 fragments in Syriac language in East Syriac script, form the basis for the present project. Most of them are now housed in the Berlin Turfan Collection.

The proposed project undertakes an innovative study of this corpus through a full and accurate investigation of elements that can be related to the scribal discourse in order to situate the community behind this manuscript corpus in its regional context and in the context of the Church of the East. Because of the fragmentarity of the preserved corpus, and in the total absence of any archaeological investigations so far that could relate possible Christian Sogdian sites with the production, storage and dissemination of manuscripts in Turfan, this is currently the only viable approach.

The methodology combines two main approaches: analysis of all different types of paratextual features, including textual as well as atextual forms of paratext, and of all elements that – according to well-established scientific literature – are due to or related to the scribal practices and palaeography. So far, no systematic study has been attempted for this material within these two fields of research. The acquired data will be contextualized by taking into account textual and material aspects, because only a pluridisciplinary approach can provide enhanced information on people who produced and used this material, i.e., on the social milieu from which this material arose.

The principal investigator of the proposed project has already carried out a research focused on the material aspects of the Christian Sogdian documentation. By undertaking this new study, the PI would be able to provide new tools for the understanding of a Christian medieval community in Central Asia that without this documentation would remain virtually unknown.

Project Leader

Dr. Chiara Barbati



FWF – der Wissenschaftsfonds

Projekt P30907-G25



01/2018 – 01/2022