publisher colophon

Byzantium

177. Seal of Theudatos Kurkutes(?)

Summary of obverse: Theudatos Kurkutes Silversmith Has Sealed.

Summary of Reverse: May God Bless the Work of His Hand.

Dimensions: 18 mm. Matrix.

Location: Collection of Werner Seibt, Vienna.

Bibliography: Seibt and Dexinger, 1977.

An intriguing article by Werner Seibt and Ferdinand Dexinger appeared in the Yearbook of Austrian Byzantine Studies dealing with a lead seal of Byzantine background. The subtitle to the article—and the emphasis should be placed on the final questionmark—was “Works of the Khazar Silversmith Theudatos Kurkutes at the Georgian Court?” The lead seal was originally in the possession of G. Zacos, purported to have the largest known private collection of Byzantine seals. No provenance is stated. The owner presented it to Werner Seibt, one of the authors of this article and a specialist in Byzantine seals.

Inscriptions appear on both sides of the seal, four rows of Hebrew letters, with beaded lines circling the edges. Some of the lines of Hebrew begin or end with upended triangles formed by three heavy dots. Although certain Hebrew letters are clear and the last two words on the reverse side of the seal seem relatively distinct, there is much damage to the letters. The translation proposed by the authors and reproduced here thus is a reconstruction based on a mixture of logic and supposition; and this is even more true for their interpretation of it.

Attempting to date the seal through the form of the letters, the authors found two examples of Hebrew writing from the area of Asia Minor, one dated 1022 and the other 1267. The letters are closer to those shown on the later document. More scientifically, they note that the size and thickness of the body of the seal, the size of the letters, and the use of a motif of three heavy dots all point to the period of the 1100s. From this, the authors decided that Theudatos Kurkutes must have been a Khazar, that is, a descendant of the Turkish people living between the Black and Caspian seas whose chiefs converted to Judaism before 800: “In the case of the Khazar origin of our man, neither the first name nor the family name nor the Greek ending of both would pose a problem” (p. 115).

No. 177, greatly enlarged. Left: obverse; right: reverse.

No. 177, attempted reconstruction. Left: obverse; right: reverse. From Seibt and Dexinger, 1977.

They point out that a Greek legend would be expected if Theudatos had lived and worked as a subject of the Byzantine emperor, as for example, in Constantinople or western Anatolia; an Arabic legend would be expected in the Moslem sphere of influence (the lead seals produced by the Crusaders are fundamentally different). There is one explanation for the Hebrew legend: “With a certain justification we may therefore surmise that Theudatos lived in Georgia …. Nothing is known of lead seals with Georgian writing. Because of the great influence of Byzantine culture in this country, it can be assumed that at least a portion of the seals were used according to the Byzantine style.… If our suppositions are correct, that would mean that Theudatos Kurkutes was a Khazar who had his place of business in the court of the Georgian kings and was probably numbered among the most important craftsmen and perhaps also art dealers” (pp. 116, 118).

This writer has attempted to follow carefully the reasoning of Seibt and Dexinger and believes that these wide-ranging conclusions on the basis of a small seal with defective Hebrew letters seem unjustified. Only one letter of the first line on the obverse is clear; all the letters on the second line are dubious except possibly the last two; only four of the seven Hebrew letters postulated on the third line are reasonably clear; (and indeed the initial letter on which the whole hypothesis rests, supposed to be a kof, is more a fancy than reality); and the last line is a reconstruction based on a single letter. On the reverse, the first line does not exist;* only four of the six letters of the second line can be guessed at; and two of the four Hebrew letters on the fourth line are not beyond question. The interpretation offered by the authors is logical, but their conclusions cannot be supported by this evidence. Seibt and Dexinger do precede their reading with the words, “if our guess is correct,” and this is appropriate, though the word should probably be “guesses.” That the seal does show Hebrew letters is undeniable, and the writer will accept on superior authority that the style of the seal is Byzantine. Beyond these statements, aside from some scattered Hebrew letters and two relatively clear words, we are on shaky ground. (It may be noted in passing that Nikos Hannan-Stavroulakis, director of the Jewish Museum in Athens, told this writer that the name Kurkutes was definitely not a Greek Jewish name.)

In Andrew Sharf’s Byzantine Jewry from Justinian to the Fourth Crusade, a general study of this culture, we find that the sole significant area of Jewish learning—and emphasis on Talmudic study and Hebrew usage—in the Byzantine world was southern Italy. The reconquest of south Italy by Basil I in the late ninth century created a Byzantine Italy that lasted until the second half of the eleventh century, some two hundred years. By the tenth century tombstones in this area had inscriptions in Hebrew, and not in Latin or Greek as formerly. There were great centers of Talmudic study at Oria, Bari, and Otranto. Opinions of important rabbis from these towns were quoted by French and German Talmudists: R. Jacob ben Meir of Troyes (1100–1171), a grandson of Rashi, called Rabbenu Tam, the outstanding rabbinical authority of his age in northern France, wrote, “For out of Bari shall go forth the Law and the word of the Lord from Otranto.” The Yosippon (largely derived from the Antiquities of Josephus but even more popular than the original among many Jews and Christian Hebraists) originated in Byzantine Italy, and liturgical poetry also had an important center there. According to Sharf, though Jewish culture flourished to some extent in other areas of Byzantine Jewry, specifically in Constantinople and Thessalonica, it was limited in comparison to southern Italy: “The non-Italian references to Byzantine Jewish learning are relatively few” (p. 173).

If logic were to be our sole guide in placing this seal, which lacks all provenance, then, we should consider it a product of Byzantine Italy. Werner Seibt, the owner of the seal, told the writer that it could not derive from the thirteenth century but might be late eleventh, strengthening this view. It should also be noted that Greek names were not uncommon among the Jews of south Italy; a Theophilus is specifically mentioned in the late ninth century. Thus, rather than straining to make the somewhat hypothetical Theudatos Kurkutes a Georgian silversmith,* we might more likely state that this seal came from an area of Byzantium where Hebrew culture and language flourished, which also corresponds with the time period from which the seal, by iconographic evidence, derives.


*In a review of this inscription, Norman Golb states there never had been Hebrew letters on the first line if this were the expression, and that it should more accurately be translated as “May the work of his hand bless him.”

The writer has discussed the matter with Dr. Seibt. In a subsequent article published by these collaborators they modify their position, stating, “It appeared possible to offer only hypothetic readings” (Revue des études juives 140 [1981]: 303–17).

*Curiously, the sole remnant of a synagogue in Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70 is a Greek inscription which records the building of the structure by a leading Jew whose name, likewise in Greek, is Theudatos (Elie Kedourie, ed., The Jewish World, New York, 1979, p. 105).

*In a review of this inscription, Norman Golb states there never had been Hebrew letters on the first line if this were the expression, and that it should more accurately be translated as “May the work of his hand bless him.”

The writer has discussed the matter with Dr. Seibt. In a subsequent article published by these collaborators they modify their position, stating, “It appeared possible to offer only hypothetic readings” (Revue des études juives 140 [1981]: 303–17).

*Curiously, the sole remnant of a synagogue in Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70 is a Greek inscription which records the building of the structure by a leading Jew whose name, likewise in Greek, is Theudatos (Elie Kedourie, ed., The Jewish World, New York, 1979, p. 105).

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Islamic Seals

Additional Information

ISBN
9780814344859
MARC Record
OCLC
1055142843
Pages
369-372
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-02
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-SA
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