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Narsai (sometimes spelt Narsay, Narseh or Narses; Classical Syriac: ?‎, Narsai, name derived from Pahlavi Nars?h from Avestan Nairy?.sa?h?, meaning 'potent utterance', the name of a yazata; c. 399 - c. 502) was one of the foremost of Assyrian/Syriac poet-theologians, perhaps equal in stature to Jacob of Serugh, both second only to Mar Aprem of Nisibis. He is the most important writer of the East Syriac Christianity after Mar Aprem. Narsai is highly venerated in the Churches that descend from the Church of the East which are the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East and the Syro-Malabar Church, in which he is known as the 'Flute of the Holy Spirit'. Although many of his works are likely lost, around eighty of his mêmrê (), or verse homilies are extant.

Narsai of Nisibis
Bornc. 399
'Ain Dulba ( )
Diedc. 502
Nisibis, Sassanid Empire
Venerated inAssyrian Church of the East
Ancient Church of the East
Syro Malabar Church
Chaldean Catholic Church


Narsai was born at 'Ain Dulba ( ) in the district of Ma'alta () in the Sassanid Empire (today in Dahuk Governorate, Iraq). Being orphaned at an early age, he was raised by his uncle, who was head of the monastery of Kfar Mari (? ? ) near Beth Zabdai ( ?). Narsai spent ten years as a student at the School of Edessa, and later returned there to teach (c. 437), eventually becoming head of the school. Perhaps in 471, Narsai left Edessa after disagreeing with the city's bishop Cyrus (471-498). With the help of his friend Barsauma, who was bishop of Nisibis (although Narsai and Barsauma's wife do not seem to have seen eye-to-eye), Narsai re-established the School of Nisibis. When his former school was ordered closed by Zeno in 489, it seems that many of his faithful staff and students came to join Narsai in Nisibis. Evidence from the first Statutes of the School of Nisibis, drafted in 496, shows that Narsai was still alive, and he must have been a venerable old teacher in his nineties. Narsai died sometime early in the sixth century and was buried in Nisibis in a church that was later named after him. Joseph Huzaya was one of his pupils.

All of Narsai's extant works belong to the distinctive Syriac literary genre of the mêmrâ, or homily in verse. He employs two different metres -- one with couplets of seven syllables per line, the other with twelve. The mêmrê were designed to be recited in church or religious school, and each one being an exposition of a particular religious theme. The later Syriac writer Abdisho bar Berika of Nisibis suggests that Narsai wrote 360 mêmrê in twelve volumes along with prose commentaries on large sections of the Old Testament and a book entitled On the Corruption of Morals. However, only eighty mêmrê remain, and none of his prose works.


  • Major collection of Narsai's works, containing the full text of 47 memre and the incipits of 34 more -- Mingana, Alphonse (1905). Narsai Doctoris Syri Homiliæ et Carmina (in Syriac and Latin). Mosul.

Works in modern translation

Further reading

  • Becker, Adam H (2006). Fear of God and the Beginning of Wisdom: The School of Nisibis and Christian Scholastic Culture in Late Antique Mesopotamia. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA: University of Pennsylvania. ISBN 978-0-8122-3934-8.
  • Brock, Sebastian P. (1997). A Brief Outline of Syriac Literature. Kottayam: St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute.
  • Vööbus, Arthur (1965). History of the School of Nisibis. Corpus scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 266, subsidia 26. Louvain: Secrétariat du CSCO.
  • Wright, William (2001) [1894]. A Short History of Syriac Literature. Piscataway, New Jersey, USA: Gorgias. pp. 58-59. ISBN 0-9713097-5-2.

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