The Syriac Galen Palimpsest: Galen On Simple Drugs and the Recovery of Lost Texts through Sophisticated Imaging Techniques

AH/M005704/1, Sep 2015-Feb 2020, £809,165

The Syriac Galen Palimpsest Project (SGP) is a unique large-scale project focusing on the study of one particular medieval manuscript containing a Syriac translation of Galen's main pharmacological treatise, 'On Simple Drugs', as a lower erased layer (an undertext) of approximately the ninth century. It is overwritten by another Syriac text of a different nature, Melkite liturgical hymns called canons, presumably of the 11th century.

The manuscript is of utmost importance as a substantial evidence to the role that the Syriac translations played in the process of universal transmission of the Classical knowledge in general and Galen's medical and pharmacological legacy in particular. 

The manuscript is kept in a private collection in the USA and has been fully digitised using multispectral technology. The resulting images have been made freely available online on the dedicated website currently hosted by the University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

Within the framework of the current project, Dr Bill Sellers (The University of Manchester) is applying further computational methods as a part of the post-processing of the existing multispectral images in order to enhance the readability of the undertext. Research associates Dr Naima Afif and Dr Natalia Smelova, supervised by Professor Peter E Pormann and Professor Siam Bhayro (University of Exeter), are working towards the identification and transcription of the undertext on each of 231 folios of the SGP.

The project aims to study the palimpsest as an object and the edition of the text based on the SGP taking into consideration the British Library manuscript Add. 14,661 (containing partially the Syriac text of the treatise, ie Books 6-8), the existing edition of the Greek text (ed. K G  Kühn, 1826) as well as selected Greek manuscripts.

In order to facilitate the identification, we are creating a bilingual Graeco-Syriac corpus for Books VI-VIII of the Galenic 'On Simple Drugs' using Sketch Engine, a query system that enables word searches of parallel texts and the assembling of concordances. The initial results are promising, and it is hoped that this tool will greatly facilitate both our future research on the SGP and the study of translation techniques.  


The project has a considerable scholarly value as it gradually brings to light the largest piece of Galen's work in Syriac, opening a new perspective on the reception and appropriation of the Greek medicine in the Semitic cultural traditions.

The tools and software developed as a part of the project under a Creative Commons license will be made available for individuals and institutions dealing with multi-layered texts. We hope to work out the methodology of codicological analysis in application specifically to palimpsests enabling scholars to reconstruct the structure of destroyed and reused original manuscripts.

Also, our sophisticated philological research, which includes deciphering and reconstruction of a translated text on the basis of an original work, will create the model which could be employed in future projects of a similar nature.

Find out more about the project on the Gateway to Research website.