Ask Language Log: Syriac Christian tombstone inscription from Mongol period East Asia

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The photograph has to be rotated 90º counterclockwise to be read.

Iskandar Ding describes himself as a PhD candidate in Yaghnbobi and Sogdian linguistics @SOAS and a devotee of the Iranian and Persianate world.  Here's a note on his given name

Iskandar, Iskander, Skander, Askander, Eskinder, or Scandar (Arabic: إسكندر (Persian: اسکندر Eskandar or سکندر Skandar), is a variant of the given name Alexander in cultures such as Iran (Persia), Arabia and others throughout the Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia. In Egypt, its bearers are mostly of Christian (Coptic) descent. Originally referring to Alexander the Great, it was transmitted through works such as the Iskandarnamah and the Sirr al-Asrar, and became a popular name for rulers in the medieval period.

The Arabic version may also add the definite-article prefix al-, giving al-ʾiskandar (Arabic: الاسكندر,الإِسْكَنْدَر). al-Iskandarīyah ("of Alexander") is the Arabic name of the Egyptian city of Alexandria.



Selected readings

[h.t. Geoff Wade]



  1. Jason BeDuhn said,

    February 11, 2024 @ 3:09 pm

    This tombstone inscription is published in Samuel Lieu et al., Medieval Christian and Manichaean Remains from Quanzhou (Zayton). Turnhout: Brepols, 2012, pp. 199-204 (actually two rival transcriptions and translations are given). It commemorates the death in 1349 of Wang Fudao, son of Wang son of George, a local government official of Turkic heritage and member of the Church of the East. The inscription begins in Syriac: "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen" (bshma aba wbra wrwha dqwdsha amyn), and the rest of the text is in Turkic. According to this publication, the tombstone on display in the museum is a modern copy, not the original.

  2. Frédéric Grosshans said,

    February 11, 2024 @ 3:47 pm

    Even if I can’t read Syriac, I don’t think the photograph has to be turned 90° to be read: Syriac was originally a right-to-left script, like Arabic and many other Abjad, and is still written and read right-to-left in all living traditions still using it. Being used for centuries by christian communities in East-Asia, its orientation changed in this community, as seen on this tombstone, the text being rotated clockwise and becoming a vertical script, like traditionnal Chinese. Its local descendents (Mongol, Manchu) kept this vertical orientation.

    I guess the original poster voluntarily rotated his picture, to makes the reading easier to modern users of the Syriac script.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    February 11, 2024 @ 4:37 pm

    Being used for centuries by christian communities in East-Asia, its orientation changed in this community, as seen on this tombstone, the text being rotated clockwise and becoming a vertical script, like traditionnal Chinese.

    From what I've read, that's not it; the columns follow each other left-to-right as is still the case in Mongolian and Manchu, not right-to-left as in traditional Chinese. Rather, Syriac and its Central Asian descendants were routinely written top-to-bottom, and then the papyrus or parchment was turned clockwise 90° to be read. You just can't turn a stele/tombstone.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    February 11, 2024 @ 4:47 pm

    bshma aba wbra wrwha dqwdsha amyn

    ܒܫܡܐ ܐܒܐ ܘܒܪܐ ܘܪܘܗܐ ܖܩܘܖܫܐ ܐܡܝܢ? (Just copying letters from the character map.)

  5. Martin Schwatz said,

    February 11, 2024 @ 10:20 pm

    The Syriac preface the Old Turlish in Syriac script are written and read as in the photo provided by Mr. Ding. For the linguistically fussy, Jason BeDuhn's transliteration will be improved by š for sh, raised comma for āleph instead of a, and in the 4th word underdotted h and not plain h, i.e.the eighth letter of the Syr.alphabet and not the fifth. There's a good chance that the turcophone author of the inscription could have learned his Syriac better; one woud expect d-, the relative pronoun used as 'of' in connecting nouns, to occur before the second word (the father) and after thew- 'and' of the next two words, and w- 'and' should occur before the rel. ('of') d- of the fifth word 'spirit'. As for the origin of the Mongolian > Manchu scripts, they are not from Syriac script, but from the "Uyghur" i.e. Old Turkish alphabetic script, which is from the Sogdian script which had latterly become written in columns probably under Chinese influence, and the Sogdian script is an evolute of the Achaemenid Imperial Aramaic script. Re the name Iskandar etc., Greek Aleksandros became MPers. Aleksandar, after metathesis of ks to sk, Arabic interpretd the name as having al- 'the',so '(the) Iskandar > Skandar, etc. Persian then typically changed Isk- (Sk-) to Sik-, giving the variant Sikandar. Turkish does not in this case inherit the latter Persian form, since in Turkish sik as noun = vulgar 'penis; and as verb stem the vulgar word for 'f-ck', so Iskander yes, Sikander no.

  6. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 12, 2024 @ 1:41 am

    the Arabic name of the Egyptian city of Alexandria

    The name of the city of Kandahar in Afghanistan also derives from Alexander. Amazing that he got so far east, and beyond.

  7. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    February 12, 2024 @ 2:12 am

    @Peter Grubtal

    Further east than Tajikistan, probably not, but his successors, yes, they did.

    For the stele, I remember that it was the Syrians who had a large community in Balkh, and a smaller one in Xi'an under the Tang around a cathedral when they translated the texts of Nestorios (Νεστόριος; 386 -451), or Jingjiao jingdian (景教經典).

  8. Victor Mair said,

    February 12, 2024 @ 10:07 am

    As for the design, construction, and orientation of the Quanzhou stele, I've seen hundreds of similar monuments in situ and in museums, temples, etc. in different parts of China. Note the placement of the cross in the lunette at the top, the rough hewn projection at the bottom, which is for insertion into the pedestal / plinth, and so forth.

    Some references and illustrations may be found here, here (see especially the section on China), here, here, etc.

  9. ohwilleke said,

    February 12, 2024 @ 5:54 pm

    "You just can't turn a stele/tombstone."

    I am imagining a "hold my beer" moment in response to this statement.

  10. Martin Schwartz said,

    February 13, 2024 @ 6:46 pm

    @ Peter Grubtal: "No importance should be attached to popular etymoglogies which derive the name fron Eskandar…" is correctly said by
    Javier de Planhol in the 9th ¶ of his excellent Encyclopaedia Iranicaa"Kandahar i." (online), before his detailing other etymologies,
    none completely satisfactory. I can add, without much conviction
    as to the origin of the toponym, my observation that Kand- is reminiscent of East Iranian kant, kand etc.
    'city', cf. Samarkand among many other exx.

  11. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 14, 2024 @ 5:13 pm

    Martin Schwartz

    Yes, it only occurred to me to check after I'd posted – sorry! and I saw as well that the derivation from Alexander is doubted by authorities.

    I would guess I got my belief from a Lonely Planet when I was there many, many years ago.

  12. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    February 14, 2024 @ 6:21 pm

    For Iskander in that region
    Check directly the Iskanderkul (Lake of Alexander the Great) in Tadjikistan, With two tribes claiming to come from Alexander. The Iskanderkuli and the Iskanderpamir…many many other places and people bears the name of the king.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    February 14, 2024 @ 7:12 pm



    The name comes from Sogdian samar "stone, rock" and kand "fort, town." In this respect, Samarqand shares the same meaning as the name of the Uzbek capital Tashkent, with tash- being the Turkic term for "stone" and -kent the Turkic analogue of kand.

    According to 11th-century scholar Mahmud al-Kashghari, the city was known in Karakhanid as Sämizkänd (سَمِزْکَنْدْ‎), meaning "fat city." 16th-century Mughal emperor Babur also mentioned the city under this name, and 15th-century Castillian traveler Ruy González de Clavijo stated that Samarqand was simply a distorted form of it.


  14. Philip Taylor said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 6:45 am

    As someone completely unfamiliar with this field, I find it difficult to understand why a place might be known as "fat city" — what would "fat" imply, in this context ?

  15. Victor Mair said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 7:42 pm

    cf. The Years that Were Fat: Peking, 1933-1940, George N. Kates (1895-1990)

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    February 16, 2024 @ 4:53 am

    Ah, so "fat" as in "the fat years and the lean". I see. Thank you, Victor.

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