Palestine’s Syriac Orthodox community and the Dead Sea scrolls

Sarah Irving

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In 1947, a shepherd in the hills north of the Dead Sea visited a contact in Bethlehem, a dealer of antiquities to foreign visitors, offering fragments of written material. The dealer, from the Syriac community, was unsure of the items’ value and began enquiries which followed Syriac Orthodox religious and intellectual networks. Despite initial scepticism, the fragments were the first of the now globally famous Dead Sea Scrolls, and ever since have been surrounded by rumours and controversy. Inextricably entwined in these has been the Palestinian Syriac Orthodox church, in a pattern of involvements which link this small Christian community with the creation of knowledge in and about Mandate Palestine, the fate of its members during the Nakba, and internal competition for ownership of valuable resources in a community fragmented by the 1947–1949 conflict. In this paper, I reconstruct the role of Syriac Orthodox community members in the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, examining how the parts they played were informed by their status in late Mandate Palestine. As a counterpoint to this, the case also highlights how the needs of the community–particularly in the wake of the Nakba–were tied to a kind of cultural diplomacy as the head of the church in Jerusalem, Mar Samuel, sought to frame his community as refugees, as Christian Palestinians, and as owners and valid beneficiaries of Palestinian archaeological heritage.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)110-124
Number of pages15
JournalContemporary Levant
Issue number1
Early online date24 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Bethlehem
  • Dead Sea Scrolls
  • Jerusalem
  • Palestine
  • Syriac Orthodox
  • Ta’amira Bedouin


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