Russian Linguistics

, Volume 36, Issue 3, pp 271–284 | Cite as

The oldest traces of Semitic (Hebrew and Syriac) in early Rus’: two inscriptions in the St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod

  • Alexey A. Gippius
  • Holger Gzella
  • Savva M. Mikheev
  • Jos Schaeken
Open Access


In the present article, we argue that two eleventh-century phrases inscribed many times on the walls of the St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod (коуни рони and парехъ мари) are of Semitic provenance. We will provide the linguistic arguments which support the claim of a Hebrew source for коуни рони and a Syriac one for парехъ мари. In addition, we offer a reconstruction of the historical pragmatic context in which the phrases can be situated. We will propose that the коуни рони inscriptions are a citation from the Book of Lamentations of the Hebrew Bible (verse 2:19) and that they can be connected with the seizure of Novgorod and the plundering of St. Sophia by Vseslav of Polotsk in the year 1066. They should be regarded as the oldest tangible proof of contact with Jews and Hebrew in Rus’. In the case of the парехъ мари inscriptions, we will put forward the hypothesis that the author was a certain Efrem, a local citizen, possibly a clergyman, who carried the nickname ‘the Syrian’, because he may have been a Syrian by descent.

Древнейшие следы семитских языков на Руси: древнееврейская и сирийская надписи из Новгородского Софийского собора


В статье обосновывается семитское происхождение двух надписей XI в., неоднократно встретившихся на стенах Новгородского Софийского собора: коуни рони и парехъ мари. Приводятся лингвистические аргументы, доказывающие древнееврейский характер первого граффито и сирийский—второго. Реконструируется также историко-прагматический контекст обеих надписей. Надписи коуни рони, атрибутируемые как цитата из ветхозаветного Плача Иеремии (2:19), связываются с захватом Новгорода и разграблением Софийского собора в 1066 г. Всеславом Полоцким. В них можно видеть древнейшее осязаемое свидетельство славяно-еврейских контактов в Древней Руси. Автором надписи парехъ мари мог быть новгородский клирик Ефрем, носивший прозвище Сирин и, возможно, имевший сирийские корни.

1 Introduction

In this paper we will present two eleventh-century phrases that are inscribed many times on the walls of the St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod: коуни рони and парехъ мари. The first one has been known since 1978, when two instances were published by A. A. Medynceva without any further interpretation.1 Since then, a plausible explanation for its provenance has not yet been provided, although the non-Slavic nature of the text seemed quite obvious.

In recent years, the epigraphic data in the St. Sophia Cathedral have been thoroughly reexamined by A. A. Gippius and S. M. Mikheev.2 In the course of this work more than forty other cases of коуни рони were discovered. Another puzzling graffito—парехъ мари—was identified by comparing its two fragmented attestations. In the summer of 2011, both inscriptions were brought to the attention of J. Schaeken who, together with H. Gzella, proposed a possible Semitic provenance and a religious nature of these expressions.

In Sect. 2 below, we will first provide the linguistic arguments which support the hypothesis of a Hebrew source for коуни рони and a Syriac one for парехъ мари. Then, in Sect. 3, we will discuss the possible historical pragmatic context of both exclamations. In the case of коуни рони, A. A. Gippius put forward a most plausible hypothesis that the many attestations of this phrase—which is, in fact, the oldest direct proof of contact with Hebrew in early Rus’—should be connected with the seizure of Novgorod and the plundering of the St. Sophia Cathedral in the year 1066. As for парехъ мари, S. M. Mikheev was able to identify the handwriting of the two instances of this phrase with another inscription in the Cathedral, which reads ‘Efrem the Syrian’.

2 The inscriptions

2.1 Коуни рони

The first inscription to be discussed is коуни рони. It is attested more than forty times on two adjacent compact surfaces, on the northern wall of the Diaconicon and on the western wall of the passageway from the altar to the Diaconicon (see walls A and B on the plan in Fig. 1). Paleographic research has shown that most of the instances of коуни рони are inscribed in different hands. In some cases, the word is accompanied by a personal name, like, for instance, коуни рони ХотOpen image in new windowнъ Носъ or коуни рони До{д}брата (Open image in new window).
Fig. 1

Plan of the south-eastern part of the St. Sophia Cathedral, indicating walls A and B where the inscriptions коуни рони and парехъ мари are located

Stratigraphically, the коуни рони inscriptions can be dated before the year 1109 (cf. Gippius and Mikheev 2011, 37f.). Thus, they belong to the oldest period of the St. Sophia Cathedral, which was built between 1045 and 1050. It should also be noted that in a number of cases the inscription was crossed out afterwards (see below, Sect. 3.1).

We propose that коуни рони is a Slavic adaptation of the Hebrew expression qūmī ronnī (Open image in new window) which occurs in the Hebrew Bible, verse 2:19 of the Book of Lamentations (Kniga Plač Ieremii). Hebrew qūmī ronnī consists of two verbal forms, both imperatives, feminine singular, of the unmarked stem. Its meaning is ‘Arise, cry out’: “Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches! Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord! Lift your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint for hunger at the head of every street”.3 As is well known, the Book of Lamentations relates to the Babylonian conquest and mourns the destruction of the city of Jerusalem in the sixth century BC. More particularly, Chap. 2 describes the horrors of the siege, the sins of the nations and the wrath of God.4

According to the extensive French patristic online database Biblindex,5 there are but very few references by Greek and Latin Church Fathers to verse 2:19 of Lamentations. The database provides us with only three names: Origen (Adamantius), Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and St. Ambrose of Milan. This may point to a rather limited social environment in which the exclamation qūmī ronnī  was known and used: among Jewish people, of course, and others who were in close contact with the Jewish community.6

The inscription коуни рони is written in three different ways: (a) Open image in new window (approximately ten times), (b) Open image in new window (at least four times), and (c) Open image in new window (more than fifteen times) (see Figs. 2a, 2b). In a number of cases the first vowel letter cannot be identified with certainty, including some of the instances where the inscription was crossed out. The variation in the spelling of the first syllable (Open image in new window) can be explained by the realization of etymological /ū/ as [i] or, less frequently, as [ü] in the customary pronunciation of Hebrew in Ashkenazi communities in the Ukraine, Poland, Western Hungary, and other places, just as in Southern Eastern Yiddish (cf. Morag 1972, 1135, and, more extensively, Katz 1993, 61–65). The Hebrew velar /q/, by contrast, which was originally pronounced as an unvoiced uvular plosive [q] (cf. Khan 1997, 89), was realized as [k] in Ashkenazi Hebrew (Morag 1972, 1133). In Slavic, qū-/kū- can be rendered either in an approximate way by means of the ‘foreign’ sequence Open image in new window or in the slavicized form Open image in new window. The third variant, Open image in new window, also reflects the foreign nature of the initial consonant-vowel combination by using the Slavic grapheme which was introduced to reflect Greek υ. In fact, the variation Open image in new window, Open image in new window, Open image in new window for Hebrew qū-/kū- (according to Ashkenazi pronunciation) finds a perfect parallel in the rendition of Greek κυ in Old Slavic (see Diels 1963, 27ff., for examples from Old Church Slavonic, who attributes the use of these coexisting spellings to a pronunciation of Greek υ that vacillated between [i], [u], and perhaps also [ü]; see also Krivko 2004).
Fig. 2a

Photograph of attestations of коуни рони on wall A

Fig. 2b

Drawings of attestations of коуни рони on wall A

Hebrew qūmī is consistently written with the consonant letter -н- in коуни рони; there are no attestations which show the expected consonant -м-. However, the spelling Open image in new window is well attested elsewhere in Slavic because of its occurrence in the New Testament, where in Mark 5:41 we read: “He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ ”. In Old Church Slavonic, in the Codices Zographensis and Marianus, the quote is translated as Open image in new window, and in the Codex Suprasliensis as Open image in new window (cf. Cejtlin et al. 1994, s.v., 689).7

Since the phonetic value of Hebrew m thus does not prevent in any way its rendition in Slavic (Cyrillic) by м, there must be some other reason for the consistent writing of н instead of м on the walls of the St. Sophia Cathedral. Perhaps the scribes only knew the Hebrew expression qūmī ronnī by heart, without actually being able to understand Hebrew. They may have heard it and misinterpreted it by assimilating the m of qūmī with the n of the following ronnī.8 This tentative, hearer-based explanation is understandable in view of the phonetic nature of the two nasal consonants involved as well as the parallel syllabic structure of the two words.

2.2 Парехъ мари

In addition to our explanation of коуни рони as a biblical quotation of Hebrew provenance, we will now address another Cyrillic inscription, which in our opinion has a similar Semitic background: парехъ мари. It is found twice in the near vicinity of the коуни рони inscriptions (once on the northern wall of the Diaconicon and once on the western wall of the passageway from the altar to the Diaconicon; see Fig. 1) and must also be dated before 1109. The two attestations of парехъ мари are most probably written in the same hand, which does not seem to coincide with the hands which inscribed коуни рони. Although in both cases the text is partially damaged, a paleographic comparison between them leaves no doubt concerning the sequence of letters (see Figs. 3a, 3b and 4a4b).
Fig. 3a

Photograph of парехъ мари on wall B

Fig. 3b

Drawing of парехъ мари on wall B

Fig. 4a

Photograph of парехъ мари on wall A

Fig. 4b

Drawing of парехъ мари on wall A

We propose that парехъ мари could be a Slavic adaptation of Classical Syriac /barrek mār/ ‘Bless (imperative, masculine singular, factitive stem), O Lord’. We are dealing with a very popular liturgical formula which is used before and during prayers.9 Other Semitic languages can confidently be excluded as a source for парехъ мари in view of the fact that mār ‘Lord’ is an Aramaic isogloss. Also, the liturgical expression /Open image in new window/ is widely spread in Syrian Christianity.10

As for the rendition of /Open image in new window/ by Cyrillic парехъ мари, we can observe that the Syriac expression was obviously perceived as two separate words. This explains the insertion of the jer-letter ъ at the end of the first word, which is in accordance with Slavic writing conventions in the period when this phrase was inscribed on the walls. The preceding velar is spirantized in Syriac after a vowel and pronounced as [x] (see, e.g., Daniels 1997, 135f.), hence spelled as x in the Cyrillic inscription.

The alternation between initial Syriac b- (i.e. a voiced bilabial stop; see Daniels 1997, 132) in /Open image in new window/ and Slavic p- in парехъ has, of course, many typological phonetic parallels elsewhere and does not prevent us from identifying the Syriac form as the source of the Slavic one.11 Word-initial devoicing of /b/ may be facilitated by a following voiceless obstruent, as is the case here.12 It is obvious that both п- (instead of б-) and -х- (instead of -к-) in Open image in new window do not reflect the Syriac model in its usual written form; the writer of the two inscriptions must have noted them down in the way they were perceived by ear. With all due caution, one could possibly imagine that the devoicing of initial /b/, trivial though it is, may have been caused by a vernacular pronunciation of the Syriac phrase (for examples of a shift /b/ > /p/ in Neo-Aramaic, albeit in distinct environments, see Nöldeke 1868, 51, and cf. p. 400). As the linguistic background of the scribe is unclear, however, this remains speculation, and other explanations should not be excluded.

The identification of Syriac /mār/ with мари, by contrast, is less easy to account for and needs two comments. Firstly, in /mār/ the long (stressed) vowel -ā- would point to an East Syriac reflex of etymological */ā/. In West Syriac, the vowel was pronounced as [ō] (see Daniels 1997, 134f.). The distinction may at face value suggest that the origin of Slavic мари can be narrowed down to the Eastern variety of Syriac, which is traditionally the language of the Nestorian Church. However, this cannot be substantiated within our specific context, because in the Old Novgorodian dialect the vowel letter -а- in мари can reflect both foreign [a] as well as [o]; cf., e.g., in the birchbark corpus the spelling of personal names of Greek origin such as Open image in new window, Open image in new window, Open image in new window, and Open image in new window (Zaliznjak 2004, 205).

Secondly, the final vowel letter -и in мари is unexpected. Although in Syriac /mār/ is written mry in the (usually unvocalized) consonantal text, the spelling of final -y for the first person singular possessive suffix /-ī/ is of a purely historical nature; in the eleventh century—the time of our inscription—it had not been pronounced for already many centuries (see Beyer 1984, 122–125). Against the background of our observations on /Open image in new window/ = парехъ (see above), -и in мари as a purely graphic analogy patterned after the historical spelling of /mār/ in Classical Syriac seems to be at odds with the evidence for an oral transmission of the phrase in question. Instead of мари we would expect a hearer-based rendition of /mār/ as Open image in new window or Open image in new window, including a final jer-letter in accordance with Slavic spelling conventions.

There are two possible explanations—admittedly, both of a speculative nature—for the occurrence of a final -и in мари. The first one is the simple assumption that the spelling -и was triggered by the final -и in the many occurrences of коуни рони in the near vicinity of парехъ мари. This hypothesis presupposes that коуни рони was inscribed first on the church walls, prior to the two instances of парехъ мари. The analogical spelling (Open image in new windowмари) may well have been prompted by the symmetrical structure of both expressions, each of them consisting of two words with two syllables.13

The second explanation is based on the assumption that мари reflects an unattested substandard pronunciation of the Syriac form, presumably influenced by a contemporary Aramaic vernacular, in which a phonetic distinction is made between forms written with a possessive suffix /-ī/ and without. Thus, for instance, /mār/ means ‘Lord’ and /mārī/ ‘Lord-poss’. Such a phonetic distinction is common for Neo-Aramaic languages, but for standard Syriac it is of a purely graphical nature. The possibility that мари reflects a ‘vulgar’ Syriac pronunciation [mārī] is not inconceivable in view of the coexistence of Classical Syriac as a liturgical language and the forerunners of Neo-Aramaic varieties as idioms that were actually spoken in daily life. Although the respective language situation requires much more in-depth research, it is quite feasible to assume that Classical Syriac was often used by speakers of Aramaic vernaculars as a kind of lingua franca or restricted to liturgical contexts. Hence, one can entertain the possibility of a hybrid Syriac / vernacular Aramaic form.

3 The historical pragmatic context

The possible identification of коуни рони as a Slavic adaptation of a Hebrew biblical quotation (‘Arise, cry out’) and парехъ мари as a Slavic adaptation of a Syriac liturgical formula (‘Bless, O Lord’) forms the basis for the following reconstruction of the historical pragmatic context of the inscriptions. In both cases, it is important to stress their specific location in the St. Sophia Cathedral, i.e. the Diaconicon and the passageway from the altar to the Diaconicon. This part of the church was usually only accessible for the clergy, not the average churchgoer.

3.1 Коуни рони

The phrase коуни рони is written in the Cyrillic alphabet and in a hearer-oriented spelling. More in particular, the consistent long-distance assimilation of the consonant letters -m- -n- > -n- -n- in this expression points to writers with little or no active command of Hebrew. We might therefore be dealing with Slavs, probably Novgorodian clergymen, who must have had a special reason for inscribing many times one and the same phrase on the walls of the Cathedral. The fact that all коуни рони inscriptions are compactly distributed over a relatively small surface areas suggests that they were all written within a short period of time. It is also reasonable to assume that those who wrote the phrase on the walls, though not being able to reproduce it correctly, were still aware of its meaning and reference to the conquest of Jerusalem.14

On what kind of special occasion might verse 2:19 of the Book of Lamentations have been of topical interest in the history of Novgorod? Within the timeframe 1045–1109 there is only one major event in the history of the city which parallels the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, namely the seizure of Novgorod by Vseslav Brjačislavič of Polotsk. This tragedy is vividly reported in the First Novgorod Chronicle in the passage that deals with the year 1066: “Приде ВсOpen image in new windowславъ и възя Новъгородъ, съ женами и съ дOpen image in new windowтми; и колоколы съима у святыя Софие. О, велика бяше бOpen image in new windowда въ час тыи; и понекадила съима” (Nasonov 1950, 17).15 The chronicler specifically mentions the plundering of the St. Sophia Cathedral, including the removal of its bells and chandeliers: ‘Oh great was the misery at that time!’ From the Hypatian Chronicle we learn that Vseslav took away more from the Cathedral than only its bells and chandeliers. In the year 1178, Mstislav Rostislavič (‘The Brave’) “поиде на Полтьскъ на зятя на своего на Всеслава, ходилъ бо бяше дOpen image in new windowдъ его на Новъгородъ и взялъ ер(у)с(а)л(и)мъ ц(е)рк(о)вныи и сосоуды слоужебныOpen image in new window … Мьстиславъ же все то хотя оправити Новгородьскоую волость и обиду” (Šaxmatov 2001[1908], 608).16 Thus, “more than a century later the Novgorod Prince still wants to avenge this robbery” (Jakobson and Szeftel 1966, 341, fn. 111) and the stealing of the ‘Church Jerusalem’ and the ‘liturgical vessels’ are recalled. With the former a Eucharistic vessel is meant which is also known as the Zion or church tabernacle. Both types of precious tabernacles (the ‘Small’ and the ‘Great’) from medieval Novgorod have been preserved and are commented on in detail by I. A. Sterligova in the preface of the 1996 catalogue Dekorativno-prikladnoe iskusstvo velikogo Novgoroda.17 Sterligova stresses the liturgical symbolism of these Zions as images of Holy Jerusalem and the extraordinary significance of the theme of Jerusalem for the St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod: “Для Новгoрода XI в., расположенного на краю православного мира, идея прямой, непосредственной связи с Иерусалимским храмом, была одной из важнейших” (1996, 36). Against this cultural-historical background it seems most plausible to connect the коуни рони inscriptions—originally referring to the Babylonian Siege of Jerusalem—with the dramatic events in Novgorod and, more particularly, in the St. Sophia Cathedral in the year 1066.

Of special interest for our discussion is the fact that, according to the Bible, Nebuchadnezzar II, after having captured Jerusalem for the first time (in 597 BC), took away the sacred vessels from Solomon’s Temple and put them in his temple in Babylon. This event is recalled several times in the Bible (see, e.g., 2 Kings 24:13; 2 Chron. 36:7; Daniel 1:2; Jeremiah 28:3). Vseslav acted in a very similar way in Novgorod and may have been perceived by the local clergymen as the ‘new Nebuchadnezzar’, which makes the reference to the Fall of Jerusalem highly relevant.

At first sight it seems rather enigmatic how this allusion could have taken the shape of a citation from the Book of Lamentations of the Hebrew Bible on the walls of the St. Sophia Cathedral. In the Eastern Christian Church the text of Lamentations did not have any liturgical function; the earliest attestations of the Slavonic version only appear in the fifteenth century (cf., e.g., Thomson 1998, 850–865). However, in medieval Jewish communities, at least from the seventh century onwards, reading from the Book of Lamentations was an essential part of synagogal worship on Tisha b’Ab, a major fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple. Descriptions of the pattern for this midnight service stress the specific liturgical role of verse 2:19 (“Arise, cry out in the night […]”) (see Brady 1999, 114f., 246; 2003, 110–114). Familiarity with this tradition thus seems to be the most plausible factor underlying the emergence of dozens of коуни рони inscriptions in the St. Sophia Cathedral.18

How was the knowledge of this tradition transmitted in Novgorod? From whom did the коуни рони writers—at least the first one—learn the expression? Was it a baptized Jew? Or a Jewish merchant dwelling in Novgorod at the time that Vseslav seized the city? It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the huge body of literature on the small and scattered pieces of evidence of the Jewish community in Rus’ and the use and knowledge of Hebrew in that area. As S. Franklin concludes, after a brief rehearsal of the limited amount of data:

The intensity of Jewish settlement is unknown, and there may be no direct links between the various identifiable groups—Khazars, Radhanites, and later traders—but the evidence for a Jewish presence over several centuries, whether sporadically or continuously, is adequate. Hebrew was, presumably, a feature of the graphic environment for those who cared to look.

But did anybody look? and if so, how intently? The Rus came into contact with Jews and Hebrew from two quite separate sources: the real, and the abstract. The real Jews bringing real Hebrew were the Khazars and Radhanites and other merchants. The abstract Jews and the abstract Hebrew are images from Church Slavonic Christian writings: Hebrew as a sacred language, one of the three inscribed on Christ’s Cross; Jews in sacred history. (Franklin 2002, 118)19

In the case of the коуни рони inscriptions, both the contact with the Jews and the contact with Hebrew seem to be involved. On the one hand, the association of the seizure of Novgorod by Vseslav in 1066 with the Fall of Jerusalem, which, according to our hypothesis, was the reason for writing the biblical expression on the walls of the St. Sophia Cathedral, may serve as an example of how ‘abstract’ knowledge of Jewish history participated in the formation of an early Rus’ identity. On the other hand, the inscriptions must be regarded as the oldest tangible proof of direct contacts with Jews and Hebrew, as early as the mid-eleventh century.

As far as we know, there is only one other example from pre-Mongol times which seems to come close to the коуни рони case, i.e. a Hebrew word in Cyrillic which may point to a hearer-based orientation of the writer: the word машиаакъ for the Jewish messiah. It is attested twice in an early-thirteenth century manuscript from Novgorod (GPB Q.p.I.18; see the edition by Wątróbska 1986, 194), which includes a dialogue between a Christian and a Jew called “Addresses to a Jew on the Incarnation of the Son of God”.20 The use of the consonant letter ш in машиаакъ is difficult to explain as part of a transcription from Greek (which had no /š/) Open image in new window. It rather suggests a direct rendering of the corresponding sound in the underlying Hebrew word Open image in new window. In addition, the /a/ in the first syllable is distinctively Hebrew, the /e/ in Greek Open image in new window clearly resulting from Aramaic (Beyer 1984, 115f.). Pereswetoff-Morath rightfully concludes: “This is proof enough that the translator or a later editor / copyist knew (some) Hebrew or had had (some) live contact with Jews conversant in Hebrew” (2002, 140). Alekseev already pointed out that the attestation машиаакъ must be regarded as a “факт прямого контакта между еврейской и славянской средою в древнюю эпоху” (1993a, 71; see also 1993b, 241). The коуни рони inscriptions, which can be dated some 150 years earlier than the instance of машиаакъ, provide new evidence for Alekseev’s statement.

Finally, it should be noted that quite a few instances of коуни рони have been crossed out. This gives rise to the assumption that a direct citation from the Hebrew Bible might have been considered by others to be inappropriate in an Orthodox church.21 It may be no coincidence that nearby the коуни рони inscriptions on the northern wall of the Diaconicon another inscription is carved which reads: Open image in new window “O Lord, have mercy on the Christians and curse the heretics”.22

3.2 Парехъ мари

Like in the case of коуни рони, the Cyrillic hearer-oriented spelling of парехъ мари also presupposes that the scribe used a Slavic idiom as his pragmatically dominant language; a Novgorodian citizen or at least someone who was integrated in local society. In fact, the Syriac provenance of парехъ мари can be directly related to another inscription in the St. Sophia Cathedral, namely Open image in new window, consisting of the monogram Ефремъ and the word сиринъ.23 The handwriting of this inscription is most probably the same as the two instances of парехъ мари (see Fig. 5).
Fig. 5

Paleographic comparison between Open image in new windowOpen image in new window

Since all other monograms discovered so far in the Cathedral are autographs of the bearers of inscribed names,24 it is unlikely that Ефремъ сиринъ refers to the famous theologian and liturgical poet St. Ephrem the Syrian. It is more plausible to assume that Efrem was a local citizen, probably a clergyman, who carried the epithet ‘the Syrian’, either as a nickname or because he was a Syrian by descent.25 As for the first possibility, a parallel can be drawn with the Novgorodian church painter Olisej Grečin, who was of local provenance; he was called ‘the Greek’ merely because of his biographical ties with Byzantium (see Gippius 2005). The second possibility is also conceivable since the presence of Syrians in pre-Mongol Rus’ is well established; the most famous Syrian we know was Petr, the physician of Prince Svjatoslav Davydovič of Černigov, whose story is told in the Kievan Cave Patericon (see Ol’ševskaja and Travnikov 1999, 29ff., 132–134). This does not necessarily entail that Efrem was a native speaker of (Classical) Syriac, since various languages (including Aramaic vernaculars, Greek, and, after the spread of Islam, also Arabic) were spoken in the area that was frequently, though often imprecisely, referred to as ‘Syria’ in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, cf. Nöldeke (1871).


  1. 1.

    Medynceva (1978, 71, No. 69–70): “Не ясно, что они означают. Возможно, разгадку их следует искать в карельском языке” ‘It is unclear what they mean. Possibly, the solution has to be sought in the Karelian language’ (see also the photographs and drawings on p. 236).

  2. 2.

    For previous reports on the epigraphic research project in the St. Sophia Cathedral, which started in 2009, see Mikheev (2010a, 2010b); Gippius and Mikheev (2011). In the near vicinity of the two expressions under discussion, many other inscriptions appear. This broader archaeological and philological context will be discussed on another occasion.

  3. 3.

    Biblical quotations in English are given in the New Revised Standard Version of 1989.

  4. 4.

    For a modern historical-critical commentary, see, e.g., Salters (2010).

  5. 5. Accessed 17 January 2012.

  6. 6.

    Nowadays, the exclamation is very popular in Chassidic circles and has been put many times on music (see ‘Kumi Roni’ on YouTube).

  7. 7.

    Note that Open image in new window renders Greek Open image in new window, which is the expected form in Aramaic during the time of the New Testament; Open image in new window corresponds with Greek Open image in new window, which is found in a number of manuscripts and which would, in all likelihood, be a correction in light of the corresponding Hebrew form (see Beyer 1984, 123).

  8. 8.

    Cf. the spelling of the personal name Open image in new window in Hellenistic Greek instead of Open image in new window (Schwyzer 1953, 257). Typologically, nasal consonant harmony seems particularly common (Walker 2011, 1854–1861).

  9. 9.

    For some references, see Payne Smith (1999[1879], s.v., col. 611).

  10. 10.

    The corresponding Hebrew expression for ‘Bless, O Lord’ would be Open image in new window. Note that, on the other hand, коуни рони can hardly be of Syriac origin, mainly because the Syriac version of the Book of Lamentations interprets verse 2:19 as an exclamation of joy and uses the Aramaic root šbḥ instead of the Hebrew one rnn, i.e. it has the normal Syriac verb for ‘to praise’.

  11. 11.

    To give one typological parallel from Slavic: a similar interchange occurs in the Old Slovene Freising Fragments, in particular in part II, which must have been written down by a German speaking scribe. In this part, we find Open image in new window for približaše as well as several instances of b instead of p, e.g., Open image in new window for potomu; Open image in new window for ispovědati; Open image in new window for gospod (see Kolarič 1968, 28f.). Interchanges between /b/ and /p/ are quite frequent in various Semitic languages as well, including, e.g., Ugaritic (many examples are discussed by Garr 1986) and early Aramaic (esp. the alternation between etymological /napš/ ‘living power’ and secondary /nabš/ in a number of inscriptions). Cf. also Bauer (1935) for related phenomena.

  12. 12.

    Interestingly, all the evidence for devoicing in Ugaritic, an older sister-branch of Aramaic within the Northwest Semitic subgroup, involves by-forms that exhibit the shift /b/ > /p/ before (albeit immediately before) a voiceless obstruent (e.g., /nabku/ ‘fountain’ > /napku/, /tabkiyu/ ‘she weeps’ > /tapkiyu/, or /libš/ ‘cloak’ > /lipš/; see Garr 1986, 51f.).

  13. 13.

    Words or expressions perceived as similar or contextually related tend to assimilate in many languages, e.g. French grammaire, patterned after vocabulaire (for scores of examples from Semitic and Indo-European, see Brockelmann 1927).

  14. 14.

    Alternative interpretations which have been suggested in discussions with colleagues on the pragmatic context of коуни рони, like for instance its use as a magical expression initially placed on a Greek amulet, are of a speculative nature and require considerable more special pleading than the interpretation we propose in this section.

  15. 15.

    ‘Vseslav came and took Novgorod, with the women and children; and he took down the bells from St. Sophia—Oh great was the misery at that time!—and he took down the chandeliers’. In the Povest’ vremennyx let, Vseslav’s seizure of Novgorod is mentioned at the beginning of the entry 6575, i.e. the year 1067 (Šaxmatov 2001[1908], 155). It is most probable that the seizure took place in the winter of 1066/1067.

  16. 16.

    ‘… went out against Polotsk, against his son-in-law Vseslav [Vasil’kovič], because his forefather had gone against Novgorod and taken the Church Jerusalem and the liturgical vessels … Mstislav still wanted to set right the Novgorodian power and insult’.

  17. 17.

    See also Medynceva (2000, 151–155, and photographs No. 79–85).

  18. 18.

    In this context, it is noteworthy to recall a passage from the Galicio-Volhynian Chronicle which relates the death of Prince Vladimir Vasil’kovič in the year 1289. Among various categories of city population mourning the deceased prince, the chronicler also mentions Jews: “и тако плакавшеся над нимь все множество Володимерчевъ, моужи и жены и дOpen image in new windowти, [съ] НOpen image in new windowмци, и СоурожьцOpen image in new window, и Новгородци, и Жидове плак[ах]уся яки и во взятье Иер(у)с(а)л(и)моу, егда ведяхуть я во полонъ Вавилоньскии” (Šaxmatov 2001[1908], 920): ‘and thus he was mourned by the entire population of Volodimer’, men and women and children, with the Germans and Surozhians and the Novgorodians, and the Jews were weeping as during the Fall of Jerusalem, when they were being led into Babylonian captivity’. Although this description should not be taken literally, the chronicler’s application of knowledge of Jewish history to a major event in the history of Rus’ deserves attention. Of course, the seizure of Novgorod and the plundering of the Cathedral was a far more salient and appropriate occasion for recalling the Fall of Jerusalem than the death of a prince.

  19. 19.

    For a survey of historical evidence of Jewish presence in early Rus’, see also, e.g., Birnbaum (1973), Čekin (1994), Pereswetoff-Morath (2002), Kulik (2008a, 2008b).

  20. 20.

    The word also occurs (in the same context) in fifteenth-century manuscripts of the Paleja tolkovaja (Palaea interpretata) (see Griščenko 2012). We would like to thank Alexander I. Grischenko for drawing our attention to this source.

  21. 21.

    In this context, the story from the Kievan Cave Patericon about the monk Nikita should be borne in mind. Nikita fell into spiritual deception because of his preference for the Books of the Old Testament, which are called книгы жидовьскыя (see Ol’ševskaja and Travnikov 1999, 36–38). Subsequently, Nikita was ordained Bishop of Novgorod and died in 1108 (First Novgorod Chronicle; see Nasonov 1950, 19).

  22. 22.

    See Medynceva (1978, 72–77, No. 73; photograph and drawing on p. 238).

  23. 23.

    The inscription, of which the location in the St. Sophia Cathedral is presently unknown, was published by Ščepkin (1902, 33, Table III: 15, No. XXXVIII; see also Medynceva 1978, 92, No. 138).

  24. 24.

    This type of graffiti is unparalleled in early Rus’ epigraphy and without doubt of Byzantine origin. The category has been considerably expanded by the recent finds in the Cathedral and now consists of ten inscriptions, six of which are located on the same surfaces as коуни рони and парехъ мари.

  25. 25.

    Such a profile would fit the Novgorodian Efrem, who wrote birchbark letter no. 605, dated stratigraphically between the late eleventh and the first decades of the twelfth century (see Zaliznjak 2004, 271–272). This Efrem must have been a monk considering the contents and language of the letter. Although the handwriting of birchbark letter no. 605 seems to resemble the one of the inscriptions парехъ мари and Ефремъ сири[н](ъ), a paleographic verification—complicated by the fact that we are dealing with different writing surfaces—is too inconclusive to confidently identify both hands.


Open Access

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and the source are credited.


  1. Alekseev, A. A. (1993a). Russko-evrejskie literaturnye svjazi do 15 veka. In W. Moskovich, S. Shvarzband, & A. Alekseev (Eds.), Jews & Slavs. Vol. 1 (pp. 44–75). Jerusalem, St. Petersburg. Google Scholar
  2. Alekseev, A. A. (1993b). Molitva Iudy. Trudy otdelenija drevnerusskoj literatury, 48, 238–241. Accessed 17 July 2012. Google Scholar
  3. Bauer, H. (1935). Wechsel von p, m, b mit Open image in new window im Aramäischen und Arabischen. Zeitschrift für Semitistik und verwandte Gebiete, 10, 11–13. Google Scholar
  4. Beyer, K. (1984). Die aramäischen Texte vom Toten Meer. Vol. 1. Göttingen. Google Scholar
  5. Birnbaum, H. (1973). On some evidence of Jewish life and anti-Jewish sentiments in Medieval Russia. Viator, 4, 225–256. doi:10.1484/J.VIATOR.2.301649. Google Scholar
  6. Brady, Ch. M. M. (1999). Targum Lamentations’ reading of the Book of Lamentations. Doctoral thesis. Oxford. Accessed 17 July 2012.
  7. Brady, Ch. M. M. (2003). The rabbinic Targum of Lamentations. Vindicating God (Studies in the Aramaic Interpretation of Scripture, 3). Leiden, Boston. Google Scholar
  8. Brockelmann, C. (1927). Semitische Reimwortbildungen. Zeitschrift für Semitistik und verwandte Gebiete, 5, 6–38. Google Scholar
  9. Cejtlin, R. M., et al. (Eds.) (1994). Staroslavjanskij slovar’ (po rukopisjam X–XI vekov). Moskva. Google Scholar
  10. Čekin, L. S. (1994). K analizu upominanij o evrejax v drevnerusskoj literature XI–XIII vekov. Slavjanovedenie, 3, 34–42. Google Scholar
  11. Daniels, P. T. (1997). Classical Syriac phonology. In A. S. Kaye (Ed.), Phonologies of Africa and Asia (including the Caucasus). Vol. 1 (pp. 127–140). Winona Lake. Google Scholar
  12. Diels, P. (1963). Altkirchenslavische Grammatik. Mit einer Auswahl von Texten und einem Wörterbuch. I. Teil: Grammatik. Heidelberg. Google Scholar
  13. Franklin, S. (2002). Writing, society and culture in Early Rus, c. 950–1300. Cambridge. Google Scholar
  14. Garr, W. R. (1986). On voicing and devoicing in Ugaritic. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 45(1), 45–52. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gippius, A. A. (2005). K biografii Oliseja Grečina. In O. E. Ėtingof (Ed.), Cerkov’ Spasa na Neredice: ot Vizantii k Rusi. K 800-letiju pamjatnika (pp. 99–115). Moskva. Google Scholar
  16. Gippius, A. A., & Mikheev, S. M. (2011). Zametki o nadpisjax-graffiti novgorodskogo Sofijskogo sobora. Čast’ III. Drevnjaja Rus’. Voprosy medievistiki, 44(2), 37–57. Google Scholar
  17. Griščenko, A. I. (2012). O gebraizme Mašljaxъ ‘Messias’ v Palee Tolkovoj. Vestnik literaturnogo instituta im. A. M. Gor’kogo, 1 (Hermeneumata: Sbornik naučnyx trudov k 60-letiju d. filol. n., prof. A. M. Kamčatnova), 15–22. Google Scholar
  18. Jakobson, R., & Szeftel, M. (1966). The Vseslav epos. In R. Jakobson, Selected writings. Vol. IV: Slavic epic studies (pp. 301–368). The Hague, Paris. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Katz, D. (1993). The phonology of Ashkenazic. In L. Glinert (Ed.), Hebrew in Ashkenaz. A language in exile (pp. 46–87). New York, Oxford. Google Scholar
  20. Khan, G. (1997). Tiberian Hebrew phonology. In A. S. Kaye (Ed.), Phonologies of Africa and Asia (including the Caucasus). Vol. 1 (pp. 85–102). Winona Lake. Google Scholar
  21. Kolarič, R. (1968). Sprachliche Analyse. In J. Pogačnik (Ed.), Freisinger Denkmäler (Geschichte, Kultur und Geisteswelt der Slowenen, 2) (pp. 18–120). München. Google Scholar
  22. Krivko, R. N. (2004). Funkcii bukvy Open image in new window v drevnix slavjanskix rukopisjax (preimuščestvenno na materiale Byčkovsko-Sinajskoj psaltiri). Russian Linguistics, 28, 317–359. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Kulik, A. (2008a). Judeo-Greek legacy in medieval Rus’. Viator, 39(1), 51–64. doi:10.1484/J.VIATOR.1.100113. Google Scholar
  24. Kulik, A. (2008b). Evrei Drevnej Rusi: istočniki i istoričeskaja rekonstrukcija. Ruthenica, 7, 52–70. Google Scholar
  25. Medynceva, A. A. (1978). Drevnerusskie nadpisi novgorodskogo Sofijskogo sobora XI–XIV veka. Moskva. Google Scholar
  26. Medynceva, A. A. (2000). Gramotnost’ v Drevnej Rusi. Po pamjatnikam ėpigrafiki X–pervoj poloviny XIII veka. Moskva. Google Scholar
  27. Mikheev, S. M. (2010a). Zametki o nadpisjax-graffiti novgorodskogo Sofijskogo sobora. Čast’ I. Drevnjaja Rus’. Voprosy medievistiki, 40(2), 91–102. Google Scholar
  28. Mikheev, S. M. (2010b). Zametki o nadpisjax-graffiti novgorodskogo Sofijskogo sobora. Čast’ II. Drevnjaja Rus’. Voprosy medievistiki, 41(3), 74–84. Google Scholar
  29. Morag, S. (1972). Pronunciations of Hebrew. In Encyclopaedia Judaica. Vol. 13 (coll. 1120–1145). Jerusalem, New York. Google Scholar
  30. Nasonov, A. N. (Ed.) (1950). Novgorodskaja pervaja letopis’ staršego i mladšego izvodov. Moskva, Leningrad. Google Scholar
  31. Nöldeke, Th. (1868). Grammatik der neusyrischen Sprache am Urmia-See und in Kurdistan. Leipzig. Google Scholar
  32. Nöldeke, Th. (1871). Assyrios Syrios Syros. Hermes, 5, 443–468. Google Scholar
  33. Ol’ševskaja, L. A., & Travnikov, S. N. (Eds.) (1999). Drevnerusskie pateriki. Kievo-Pečerskij Paterik. Volokolamskij Paterik. Moskva. Google Scholar
  34. Payne Smith, R. (Ed.) (1999[1879]). Thesaurus Syriacus. Vol. 1. Hildesheim. Google Scholar
  35. Pereswetoff-Morath, A. (2002). A grin without a cat. Vol. 2: Jews and Christians in medieval Russia—assessing the sources (Lund Slavonic Monographs, 5). Lund. Google Scholar
  36. Salters, R. B. (2010). A critical and exegetical commentary on Lamentations. London, New York. Google Scholar
  37. Šaxmatov, A. A. (Ed.) (2001[1908]). Polnoe sobranie russkix lětopisej. Tom II: Ipat’evskaja lětopis’. Moskva. Google Scholar
  38. Ščepkin, V. N. (1902). Novgorodskie nadpisi Graffiti. Drevnosti: Trudy Imperatorskogo moskovskogo arxeologičeskogo obščestva, XIX(3), 26–46. Google Scholar
  39. Schwyzer, E. (1953). Griechische Grammatik. Auf der Grundlage von Karl Brugmanns Griechischer Grammatik. Erster Band: Allgemeiner Teil. Lautlehre. Wortbildung. Flexion. München. Google Scholar
  40. Sterligova, I. A. (1996). Pamjatniki serebrjanogo i zolotogo dela v Novgorode XI–XII vv. In I. A. Sterligova (Ed.), Dekorativno-prikladnoe iskusstvo Velikogo Novgoroda. Xudožestvennyj metall XI–XV veka (pp. 26–68). Moskva. Google Scholar
  41. Thomson, F. J. (1998). The Slavonic translation of the Old Testament. In J. Krašovec (Ed.), Interpretation of the Bible (pp. 605–920). Sheffield. Google Scholar
  42. Walker, R. (2011). Nasal harmony. In M. van Oostendorp, C. J. Ewen, E. Hume & K. Rice (Eds.), The Blackwell companion to phonology. Vol. III: Phonological processes (pp. 1838–1865). Oxford. Google Scholar
  43. Wątróbska, H. (1986). The Izbornik of the XIIIth century (Cod. Leningrad, Q.p.I.18). Text in transcription (Polata knigopisnaja, 19–20). Nijmegen. Accessed 17 July 2012.
  44. Zaliznjak, A. A. (2004). Drevne-novgorodskij dialekt. Vtoroe izdanie, pererabotannoe s učetom materiala naxodok 1995–2003 gg. Moskva. Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alexey A. Gippius
    • 1
  • Holger Gzella
    • 2
  • Savva M. Mikheev
    • 3
  • Jos Schaeken
    • 4
  1. 1.Vysšaja škola ėkonomikiMoscowRussia
  2. 2.Department of Hebrew and AramaicLeiden UniversityLeidenThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Institut slavjanovedenija RANMoscowRussia
  4. 4.Department of Russian StudiesLeiden UniversityLeidenThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations