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Preparation of a Catalogue of the Christian Oriental Seals in the Dumbarton Oaks Collections

Stefan Heidemann and Claudia Sode, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, Summer Fellows 2004

The borderlands between Byzantium and the Islamic Empire, namely Syria, northern Mesopotamia, and Armenia, fostered diverse religions, languages, and cultures. Their mutual interaction is not well understood. Literary sources of one language tend to exclude others, and new primary documents are needed. Lead seals in Syriac, Arabic, and Armenian languages, but in Byzantine style, emerged as a result of political, ecclesiastical, and cultural expansion of the Byzantine Empire into Syria, northern Mesopotamia, and Armenia in the tenth–twelfth centuries. As documents, they contribute to prosopography, art history, philology, and even political and economic history. They provide information about political and cultural life at the fringes of the empire, which is relatively scarce in Byzantine sources. Islamic studies focus on the political and economic renaissance of the cities during the late twelfth–thirteenth century in Syria and northern Mesopotamia. We have almost no primary documents, only a rich, self-referential historical literature, written after events. But half of the population was still Christian, Jewish, or even pagan.

Dumbarton Oaks holds the largest collection of these seals, with about 100 specimens. The publication of these documents requires expertise in two different disciplines: Byzantine (C. Sode) as well as in Islamic and Syriac studies (S. Heidemann). Besides extracting new information about formulas, abbreviations, stylistic groups, etc., we have made some quite unexpected discoveries. A Syriac seal, depicting an intricate image of St. Nicholas, introduces the owner Yosef bar ‘Isa as money changer (katallaktis) in Greek script. For the first time, someone outside the political and ecclesiastical hierarchy is found on Oriental seals with the indication of his profession. This may well reflect that during the eleventh century huge numbers of Byzantine gold and copper coins were traded as a commodity into the Islamic Empire, in order to circulate there for a further hundred years.

We note that one seal belonged to the amir al-Hasan ibn Ghafras (Gabras), a descendant of Byzantine nobility, who usurped the Seljuq throne in 1192. This latter fact is documented only by this unique seal. Thus, it can be seen that, like coins, the seals provide hitherto untapped contemporary information. The last monograph on the subject, a booklet in Ottoman Turkish, was published in 1904.

Every day we made new, exciting discoveries. The library was very helpful for immediately following up on new ideas. Certain iconographic types could be checked on the spot with the numismatic collection and visually explored with the photographic resources.