The Syriac Digital Humanities: An Interview with George A. Kiraz, Part 1

This is the 2nd part of a series of posts by the Digital Orientalist’s Syriac Studies Editor, Ephrem Ishac, based on his interview with George A. Kiraz.

This article was originally published by The Digital Orientalist on 23 April 2020. The original can be found here.

By Ephrem Ishac

@DigiOrientalist – This interview, which will be serialized in the Digital Orientalist over the coming months, seeks to introduce readers to the early attempts and current projects of the Syriac Digital Humanities conducted by Dr. George Kiraz. Dr. Kiraz is considered to be the main founder of this area of research. He has contributed many pioneering digital tools to the field, which have influenced Syriac studies since the 1980s until today.

Dr. Kiraz, who kindly answered our questions which aim to allow readers to learn more about Syriac Digital Humanities, was interviewed at Beth Mardutho (The Syriac Institute, Piscataway NJ). The first part of the interview focuses on Dr. Kiraz’s interest in computers.

George A. Kiraz (Courtesy of georgekiraz.com)

Ephrem (Q1): You have been interested in Syriac computational linguistics since its early days. Can you tell us about the motives behind your interest? Was it only for making new academic contributions or were there other reasons as well?

G. Kiraz: Let me tell a story from my childhood. When I was in Bethlehem, my parents sent me to Jerusalem to go to take a course to study for the TOFEL English exam. I remember that in Jerusalem we used to take the course on the second floor and at the top of the stairs there was a computer, which was usually turned off, but one time somebody turned it on! I was very puzzled by it!

During those days, I used to go to the Library of Tantur (a research institute outside of Bethlehem), because they had all the books of CSCO [Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium] and PO [Patrologia Orientalis]. Of course, photocopying was very expensive, so I used to copy what I read by hand. There was an old American Professor, who was possibly wondering “What is this teenager doing here?” One day, he came to chat with me and he asked me what I wanted to do. I answered him that I wanted to know more about this computer. So, when he went back to America, he sent me books to study programming. To be precise, they were on the Fortran programming language. I started studying from those books, but I did not have a computer, so I started doing exercises and writing programs on pieces of papers…I could not run the programs…but I could go line by line and use another piece of paper for the output. Of course, I would not know if the program was valid or not. So that was my first experience [with computing], by programming on paper basically.

In 1983, I immigrated to the USA and went to college. It was at that time, when the IBM personal computers with one floppy disk drive came out. Then I could do my programming exercises on computers and talk to my professor about programming. Afterwards, I had the idea for the Pre-Sedra database and the Syriac Fonts. Syriac was always in the back of my mind. So everything I did would have a Syriac component, which might indicate that I was a strange kid! The more that I did with Syriac, the more excited I became and the more computing I did.

I remember in those days, I wrote a program (I still have the printout of the code), which was a Syriac Music Program. Basically, it was a menu consisting of song titles, and if you clicked on one, then the computer would play the song. I encoded it from the notes of the Syriac composer Gabriel Assad ‘ܡܢ ܡܘܣܝܩܝ ܕܝܠܢ ܚܕܬܐ men musiqi dilan Hdatho’ [Aleppo, 1953], like: ‘ ܡܬܐ ܪܚܝܡܬܐ ܢܝܫܐ ܕܝܠܝ  motho rHimoto nisho dil[1]’ and ‘ܦܪܚܬܐ ܗܘܝܬ  forahto hwit’[2]. So that was the first Syriac Program that I wrote in around 1984-5. Later I have worked on the Syriac Fonts.


Syriac Unicode Block (Source: Wikiwand)

Ephrem: You mentioned the topic of “Syriac Fonts.” We know that you and your colleagues have successfully added the Syriac alphabet to the Unicode Standard, and that later you created various fonts for Syriac scripts which can be downloaded today as “Meltho Fonts.” But can you tell us about the reaction of the Syriac community to being able to type Syriac on computers?

G. Kiraz: Yes, I remember that in August of 1988, I was invited to the monastery of St. Ephrem in the Netherlands by the late Mor Julius Y. Çiçek (2005†), to bring the newly developed Syriac DOS fonts for printing their Syriac books at the monastery press: Bar Hebraeus Verlag.

I still remember how he was impressed when he saw that the Syriac words which I typed on the PC screen could be printed in a few seconds by the laser printer next to it. I cannot forget his words, ܬܗܪܐ ܘܕܘܡܪܐ, which in Syriac means “marvel & amazement.” He continued by saying; “If only Bishop Youhanna Dolabani was alive to see this!” [Of course, he was referring to the bishop of Mardin Mor Philoxinos Yuhanna Dolabani (1969†), who was a great scholar and who taught Bishop Çiçek himself. The two bishops, Dolabani and Çiçek, were publishers who knew well how difficult the task to print in Syriac was].

Kiraz introducing Bishop Çiçek to the Syriac DOS Fonts in 1988.

Ephrem: Let us go back to your teenage days in Jerusalem, can you tell us more about the books you wanted to copy from the Library of Tantur, and was that hard work of copying by hand, a hidden reason for finding an easier way to produce copies of Syriac books?

G Kiraz: Well, I never thought about such a link, but I remember that I had asked for advice from a Syriac monk at that time in the Monastery of St Mark in Jerusalem, about which books it would be better copy. His advice was; “Whenever you see the word fushoqo [commentary] in the title, then it is a good book!” So possibly you are right, since photocopying was expensive and we didn’t have the money to do that.

Ephrem (Q2): In 1993, Sebastian Brock wrote in the foreword of your book, Computer-Generated Concordance to the Syriac New Testament, that; “it marks a very successful marriage of Syriac scholarship with the ‘Electronic Age’, especially in the field of Literary and Linguistic Computing.”[3] Today after all these years, how would you comment on Brock’s words?

G. Kiraz: Well I think that it proved itself to be right. Of course, it took a long time until Syriac computing and humanities became the field that we know today, the “Digital Humanities.” That was not until the late 1990s and the beginning of the year 2000. So, when Brock wrote those words in 1993, it was only the domain of a few specialists that knew about both the humanities and computing. Basically, we had to be the computer scientists and we had to be the humanists at the same time. So that’s where the marriage came into being.

It became a bigger marriage of course in 2000, when the computer scientists began to work with humanists and they started collaborating and building all these tools that we have today. But before, in the 1990s, if you wanted something done if you did not program yourself then you were out of luck. So what Brock had written in 1993 came true.

Bishop Çiçek using the Syriac DOS Fonts in 1988.

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

The introduction to the series can be viewed here.

To view Syriac characters used in this post you may need to download Syriac fonts. The Meltho Font can be downloaded here.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iyh9QN95DRw

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEPw-HdR3v8

[3] 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.