FIRE, WIND & YESTERDAY
Besides housing thousands of hand-copied books and codices, the library of the small Orthodox monastery at Tursa, near Xánthi, holds thousands of individual pages lost from disintegrating books, other handwritten manuscripts, and mere fragments of pages. Among these un-bound pages are logs of missionary journeys and of spiritual journeys, records of transactions, especially of barter for livestock and raw materials, and lists of uncertain significance bearing names and places no longer remembered.
These loose sheets and fragments are all cataloged, bundled, and pretty much left untouched, many of them by several generations. One pile, simply marked “unidentified,” held the substance of this story. The present abbot of the monastery, Brother Thomas Naïas, speculates that no one recognized it as a single manuscript because some of it is laid down on parchment (genuine animal skin), some on square sheets of high quality rice paper, some on irregular sheets of crude paper-like card stock, and some, sadly, on thin plies of veneer, which have been saved, after a fashion, and apparently for eleven hundred years, only by being pressed between layers of the other material. What’s more, the script at times resembles the earliest Glagolithic, but at other times is nearly pure Greek transliteration of a form of Slavonic, and in still other places initially resembles no known set of characters.
Far from being a hodgepodge of hopelessly unintelligible miscellany, this bundle of fragile, faint scribbling, once it could be arranged chronologically and with only a few unrelated pages culled, tells the story before you now. That there was a continuity throughout the various media of parchment, paper, and wood and through the inconsistent alphabets was not too difficult to establish. The subject matter, locale, and time period were more difficult to assess. The manuscript’s brief mention of Mefhodi (Methodius) and Konstantin (who later called himself Kiril, frequently rendered in English as Constantine or Cyril), which reference I nearly overlooked even on my close original examination, suggested that it was composed contemporaneous with those two saints’ missions to the Slavs. With that question tentatively resolved the whole story tumbled neatly from the ancient pages. Those pages, once transcribed and photographed, have now been bundled in sequence, marked correctly, and restored to an honorable crevice in the library wall.
My chief concern has been for you, the reader. In spite of the explanation about languages that you’ll see in the next few paragraphs, I have taken great care to make the story readable. You won’t have to learn Greek, Hebrew, Latin, or Russian in order to enjoy it. You will pause over a few names until you decide on a suitable pronunciation for each and then you will carry on just fine.
A translator often debates whether to transliterate a name or anglicize it. Names from other languages are almost invariably corrupted when anglicized. The Italian city of Livorno, for example, inexcusably became Leghorn in English. For the most part, in the interest of purity, I go no further than the transliteration. The ruler of the Khazars is a kagan, which is a transliteration. To call him a king, even though he enjoyed that level of authority, is misleading for several reasons. The reader is enjoined to accept that this translation is not aimed at Americans or any other English-speaking nation. Nor is it adapted for any denomination of Christians. It is aimed at anyone, anywhere, whose language of choice is English. Period.
As a related issue, people and places often were, and still are, known by two or more names. Many an individual assumed a different name following a significant event in his life, as did the priest, Konstantin. Or an individual of great status, such as Nisi ben Menasseh, Kagan of the Khazars, might, at the same time, be known by a different name to people of different social strata. Whole populations were known by different names to different of their contemporaries, as the Magyars were also the Ugrians, Bulgars, and Hungars. Many a region was simultaneously known by various names, as Atelkuzu was a part of Ukraina (curiously, “the Ukraine” in American English), which itself was the frontier to the vastness of what in more ancient times was called Sarmatia. Along with all of this, the logical spelling for a transliterated name is subjective. The lost city of Etil (rediscovered in 2007-2008 near Samosdelka), has also been rendered as Itil and as Atel. The latter is a Gothic word meaning “father” or “little father” while Etil/Itil is from the Turanian for “river.” All of these phenomena challenge the translator.
Words that are foreign to English but have no English equivalent, and which have also not been absorbed into English, are rendered in italics, the parabolani, for instance.
I noticed, when well along in the narrative, that I may seem to follow an inscrutable rule for capitalizing a certain phrase, “my master.” Rather than capitulate to the purely English convention of referring to God as “Lord,” (for the English of Great Britain have a distinctive concept of their word, lord, founded on their anachronistic deference to their aristocrats), I translated it from the Slavonic back to its nearest equivalent in Greek, which in English is “master.” This conveys, more precisely, the concept that it is an individual’s choice to follow a leader and to learn from a master, rather than an Englishman’s duty to submit to a lord as subjects to a king. Therefore, purists of scriptural translation, especially those familiar only with the King James Bible and its derivatives, be not dismayed! Those originally writing the scriptures in Hebrew and in Greek did not have a word for the English “lord.” And, as we know, the King James Bible also inserts LORD, all capitalized, wherever the tetragrammaton יהוה (yhwh, for the name of God) was found in the original manuscripts. I have also refrained from capitalizing the pronouns “he” “his” and so on referring to God, whether as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. That is a recent affectation peculiar to American publishers and merely creates speed bumps in your reading.
In this story, when used to address someone directly in place of the person’s name, as when Esdras speaks to the angel, Uriel, it will be seen as “…yes, My Master,” not because Uriel is God but because My Master is a direct substitute for the angel’s name. The same is done when one addresses another as Brother Simonos. Or, outside the book, when I write to my sister and in one sentence I might refer to our mom but in another sentence I might say I took Mom’s advice, where Mom replaces her name. When Kolyek states: “Sadruk is my master,” neither word is capitalized. But when Kolyek says to him: “No, My Master,” My Master is spoken in place of his name. When Simonos might state: “Yeshua is my Master,” then the word representing the deity is capitalized. My master at the beginning of a sentence is capitalized in the first word only, according to the convention for beginning a sentence. The same principles apply according to whether a word or phrase is employed as a form of address, as a form or reverence, or as a common noun.
When quoting passages from the Bible and from early Bible scholars I have used several current translations rather than following the original manuscript. The original, however, clearly makes the distinction between heaven (the heavens) as the star-studded ceiling above us, and Paradise (Greek παράδεισος) as the spiritual dwelling-place of God. I have retained this distinction, as does the Orthodox church, although Americans are accustomed to using “heaven,” as in the King James version, to refer to both.
One prominent character in the story is the woman, Laïsha. The vowels in the name sound the same as the way they are pronounced in the word, naïve. Kolyek has a diminutive form, Kolyei, which could be uttered as ‘Coal-yay,’ with equal emphasis on both syllables. Other people’s names should present no problem if pronounced phonetically.
A special challenge in translating comes with the name of the Messiah, the Redeemer, the Christ. In the manuscript, he is Iesous, (transliterated from the manuscript’s Greek). Iesous is a Greek transliteration of the name in Aramaic, the Messiah’s native language. The Aramaic form of the name is a close representation of the old Hebrew name Yahushua or Yeshua, which itself was a common name in the Roman province of Judæa at the time. But Greek had no phonetic equivalent for the Semitic letter ש (shin), the ‘SH’ sound at the center of Yeshua. In Greek it became a σ (sigma), the ’S’ sound. A masculine singular ending, ς (sigma again), was added in Greek to facilitate declension of the noun in Greek grammar. Thus ‘-shua’ in Aramaic and Hebrew became ‘-sus’ in English.
In modern English Yeshua has become Jesus, but this corruption of the name came about between 500-800 years ago, long after the time of Kolyek’s story. The letter ‘J’ had to be invented first. Since a reader can easily mistake a lower-case ‘L’ for the first letter of Iesous, and can thereby be forced continually to stumble while reading, and since Jesus is neither contemporaneous with the story nor an accurate translation, I have translated Iesous in the manuscript to Yeshua in English, which form of the name is commonly recognized already and best transliterates his name as spoken in his time. That is as brief an explanation as I can offer.
Scholars of Russian history and geography and experts on eastern Orthodoxy may protest certain inaccuracies in the narrative. Any such dispute will be concerned with whether a monk’s garment was brown or black, or whether a certain distance could be covered in four days versus six. Biblical quotations have been verified and do match at least one published translation. The reader is reminded that this is not a scholarly text. It is a memoir. Any inaccuracies are utterly inconsequential and probably arise out of Kolyek’s (the narrator’s) naïveté about the church and the interval between the occurrence of events and his attempt to record them — an interval of as much as two years.
The Khazars, as a distinct people, truly existed, as did their cultural center of Etil on the Volga delta, even though by the end of the first millennium they could no longer be identified as a separate nation. Their high khan or kagan (capitalized when referring to the one immediately in office) was Nisi ben Menasseh and his son was Aaron ben Nisi. There is also an historical basis for the supposition that the kagan bek, the kagan’s military commander, assumed the kagan’s name in his official duties, since the kagan bek acted “in the name of” his ruler.
The narrator’s first-hand description of Nisi’s wife, Atye, gives credence to other historical records concerning her. There is historical support for the existence of Craizamon, a Khazar warlord mentioned briefly in this story, and likewise for the “prince” of the upper Dnepr, Askold. Most significantly, though, the Greek church’s mission to the Khazars in A.D. 862, led by Mefhodi and Konstantin, (and there is some debate whether they both took part), was an event of enormous significance. It planted the seed of Orthodox Christianity in the interior of the continent, where the population of Russia ultimately embraced the faith. (In A.D. 988 at Kiev it became the “official” religion.) It was an event of equal significance to Khazars, for the Greek mission in A.D. 862 failed to supplant the Judaism already supported by the kagan there. And the mission was of enormous significance to the church, because its failure there stopped the eastward advance of Christianity into Central Asia.
A reader need not be daunted by the names and places in this volume. An historical perspective followed by a glossary of place names and people’s names can be found at the end of the book. The memoir of Kolyek, which begins after this foreword, stands on its own as an engaging testimony. That this is an authentic and accurate account, I leave it to others to judge. Like the shroud of Turin — if it is not what it purports, by its very existence, to be, then someone has gone to great trouble to contrive an elegant tale.
David A. Woodbury
Ambajejus Lake, Maine
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