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Illuminating Faith: Art and Culture form the Middle East

Personalities: Alphonse Mingana 1878-1937

Alphonse Mingana portaitMingana was born near Mosul, Iraq, and was educated at the Seminaire St Jean, Mosul, where he trained for the Chaldean priesthood, studying Turkish, Persian, Kurdish, Latin, French, Arabic, Syriac, and Hebrew. He was ordained in 1902 and spent the next ten years studying and teaching at the Seminary. In 1913, on the invitation of James Rendel Harris (the first Principal of Woodbrooke and Orientalist and Biblical Scholar), Mingana came to England, and spent two years at Woodbrooke, Selly Oak, where he met and in 1915 married his wife, Emma Sophie Floor, a Norwegian student in Woodbrooke at the time. They had two children. In the same year, Mingana moved to the John Rylands Library, Manchester to work as a curator of Oriental manuscripts; his catalogue of this collection was published in 1934. He made several journeys to the Middle East in the 1920s in search of manuscripts, financed by Edward Cadbury. In 1932, he returned to Birmingham to work as Curator of these manuscripts named after him, the Mingana Collection. Though his interest was mainly in Eastern Christianity, his considerable knowledge of Islam enabled him to lecture on Islamic history and literature as well. His wide scholarly output included many editions of hitherto unknown Syriac and Arabic texts. He died suddenly in 1937, just before the third volume of his catalogue was published. A full biographical description of Alphonse Mingana and his contribution to early Christian-Muslim studies is found in the Samir Khalil Samir SJ lecture. [Download the biography as a .pdf document].

Mingana’s Travels

Mingana PassportMingana’s first travel outside the countries of the Middle East was his travel to England. Through AN Andrus, an American missionary and head of the Relief Committee in Mardin, Rendel Harris helped Mingana travel to England by boat, leaving from Beirut in 1913. The fare was £18. The scholarly activities of Harris and Mingana caught the attention of Dr. Edward Cadbury, on whose behalf in 1924 and 1925 Mingana travelled through regions of Iraq, Syria and Palestine, and in 1929 went to Sinai and Upper Egypt.

Unfortunately he did not keep a journal, leaving only anecdotal information about his travels, especially of one incident when he was mistaken for a medical doctor and exhausted his first aid supplies tending to the sick. He did however take some photographs.


Mingana left behind a considerable correspondence with eminent scholars of the day. His contacts began as professional associations, soon changing into friendships, so that in each letter, once the professional matters were dealt with, personal matters, including health and family information would be exchanged. Concluding a letter to Prof. Canney he asks: “Is everything in a state that one would envy? You might perhaps let us know something more on this subject.” In spite of the evident friendships, the letters are always addressed using surnames: Dear Dr Cadbury, My Dear Canney, Dear Dr Jeffrey, etc. and in return similar deference is given: Dear Dr Mingana.

Patriarch of AntiochOne of his regular correspondents was Bp Barsaum, later Patriarch of Antioch. Written in a beautiful hand, there are letters in the archive from the Patriarch to Mingana in both Arabic and Syriac, and later a letter of condolence in English to Mrs Mingana after Mingana’s death. Patriarch Barsaum was the most important Patriarch of the Syrian Church in the 20th c.

Matti PaulusAnother correspondent was a scribe, Matti Paulus who would painstakingly copy manuscripts from monasteries and libraries of Iraq as Mingana asked for them.

There is correspondence with many antiquarian booksellers, many of whom not only sent him information about manuscripts, but sometimes sent the manuscripts as well, on a sale or return basis. He would vigorously negotiate the proposed prices offering less than the asking price, and usually getting his way. Once the manuscripts were satisfactorily received, another letter with the invoice would be sent to Edward Cadbury for payment.

With a generous grant from the Edward Cadbury Charitable Trust, Mingana’s archive was recently catalogued. Information about it can be accessed through the University’s Special Collections Department and going to the ‘Online Archive Catalogue’.


Mingana died unexpectedly on 5 December 1937, while preparing the third volume of the catalogue of his collection for the press. His archive includes several obituaries printed both in newspapers of the day and in scholarly journals. The Birmingham Gazette of 9 December 1937 reports on his memorial service, listing all the prominent people who were present. Among them were a large contingent of the Cadbury family, many colleagues and friends, including Mr Wilfred Southall.

Woodbrooke-Mingana Symposia

As of 1990 a series of conferences have been taking place in Woodbrooke, organised by The Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian Muslim Relations, which also hosts the Mingana Conversation group.

The Symposia:

1. 1990. Christian Arabic apologetics during the ‘Abbasid period (750-1258 CE). Conference proceedings edited by Samir Khalil Samir and Jorgen S. Nielsen. Leiden: Brill, 1994.

2. 1994. Coptic Arabic Christianity before the Ottomans. Conference proceedings published in Medieval Encounters 2, 1996.

3. 1998. Arab Christianity in Bilad al-Sham in the pre-Ottoman period conference proceeding edited by David Thomas as Syrian Christians under islam, the first thousand years. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

4. 2001. Arab Christianity in Iraq in the `Abbasid Period (750-1258). | Conference proceedings edited by David Thomas as Christians at the heart of Islamic rule; Church life and scholarship in ‘Abbasid Iraq. Leiden: Brill, 2003

Exhibition and Events

Exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
12 February - 02 October 2005

Displays included manuscripts from the University's Mingana Collection, textiles, ceramics and metalwork.

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Chamberlain Square, Birmingham B3 3DH

Events from December 2004 - August 2005

Events included calligraphy, music, drama, talks and workshops for all ages.

More information

For more information about this project please contact:
Meline Nielsen or Zelina Garland