An Introduction to the History of Syriac Digital Humanities

Part 1 of 3 by the Digital Orientalist’s Syriac Studies Editor, Ephrem Ishac. This post acts as an introduction to Ishac’s interview with George A. Kiraz which will be serialized in later posts.

This article was originally published by The Digital Orientalist on 30 January 2020. The original can be found here.

By Ephrem Ishac

@DigiOrientalist – In 1993, Sebastian Brock, the most prominent scholar of Syriac studies, wrote the following words in the foreword of George Kiraz’s Computer-Generated Concordance to the Syriac New Testament: ‘it marks a very successful marriage of Syriac scholarship with the ‘Electronic Age’, especially in the field of Literary and Linguistic Computing.’[1]

In fact, Brock was right in his expectation about such a successful marriage between Syriac as an ancient world heritage and digital culture!

Syriac Unicode Block (Source: Wikiwand)

Since that time, the field of Syriac Studies has started to incorporate, rather than depend on the Digital World, reaching what is today called “Syriac Digital Humanities.” Kiraz and his colleagues successfully produced a Unicode Standard version of the Syriac Alphabet, reserving an independent Unicode block for the Syriac language, which contains characters for various fonts of Syriac scripts including the Estrangela, Serto, Eastern Syriac, and the Christian Palestinian Aramaic variants.

Initially, the main goal for this Syriac digital revolution was to focus primarily on Computational Linguistics especially digital lexicography, but later other scholars started to build various projects that broadened the field of Syriac Digital Humanities. Moreover, since the Syriac language is still a living heritage spoken and used liturgically by the followers of this Church tradition, Syriac Digital Culture could easily be introduced inside Churches.

Moses of Mardin’s scribal note.

Indeed, it is true that, if they had existed, digital tools could have helped to fulfill the dreams of many scribes and authors who wished to produce texts in a fast and accurate way. I think we can draw a similarity between the invention of printing and the production of digital texts.

One of the best examples is possibly the case of Moses of Mardin, a 16th Century scribe who produced many Syriac manuscripts. Having heard about the invention of printing in Europe, Moses travelled to Rome[2] where he could achieve his dream by printing the Syriac gospels in Vienna in 1555. This was the first time in history that a book in Syriac was printed, and since that time, the West has been able to know and learn about Syriac Christian literature.

The first Syriac Gospel printed in Vienna in 1555.

Another example can be given from late 1980s when Mor Julius Çiçek (2005†) was the Syriac Archbishop of Europe. Çiçek was the scribe of many Syriac manuscripts particularly liturgical texts, which he published as facsimiles to be distributed to the Churches for liturgical purposes. He also authored and published many Syriac books.

You can image how impressed Bishop Çiçek was by the new possibilities that the work of George Kiraz offered. By simply installing software on IBM computers one could type Syriac! For the bishop, it was an incredible achievement which could save a lot of time and effort for the Syriac scribe and author involved in in the production of Syriac texts. Moreover, it could minimize the possibility of scribal mistakes, and if such mistakes did creep into the text they could be easily corrected, saved and copies distributed everywhere.

Bishop Çiçek engaged in the scribal process.

Nowadays, the Syriac communities have benefitted from Syriac digital tools including some cell-phone applications which can be helpful to learn Syriac liturgical prayers. Syriac liturgical prayers were previously often only presented in manuscript form and only a limited number of experts knew how to chant them. A good example is the Beth Gazo App. (available from the App Store and Google Play) which links audio files and Syriac digital texts.

The Beth Gazo Portal (Source: Google Play)

In the next posts, I will share my interview with Dr. George Kiraz to learn more about the beginning of the Syriac Digital Humanities and its ongoing projects.

Ephrem Ishac studied Syriac theology and literature and works at Vestigia Manuscript Research Centre – University of Graz.

[1] Sebastian P. Brock, foreword to A Computer-Generated Concordance to the Syriac New Testament: According to the British and Foreign Bible Society’s Edition Based on the SEDRA Database, by George A. Kiraz (Leiden/New York: E.J. Brill, 1993), ix.

[2] For more details about Moses of Mardin, see: Pier Giorgio Borbone, “”Monsignore Vescovo di Soria”, also Known as Moses of Mardin, Scribe and Book Collector,” Христианский Восток 8 [14] (2017): 79–114.