The Syriac Digital Humanities: An Interview with George A. Kiraz, Part 2

This article was originally published by The Digital Orientalist on 11 September 2020. The original can be found here.

By Ephrem Ishac

@DigiOrientalist – The Digital Orientalist began to serialize this interview between Syriac Studies Editor, Ephrem Ishac, and Dr. George A. Kiraz in early 2020. The first part focused on Dr. Kiraz’s interest in computers and the beginnings of his journey in the Digital Humanities. Today’s part focuses on Dr. Kiraz’s interest in printing and Gorgias Press.

Ephrem (Q3): Can you tell us how you became interested in printing Syriac?

G. Kiraz: Since I was a child I have been fascinated by printing presses. When I was a teenager, my father had a friend in Bethlehem from the Habesch family. Mr. Habesch had a printing press and his business produced business cards, calendars and journals (such as the Proche Orient Chrétien).

I asked my father if he could talk to Mr. Habesch about working at his business during the summer. My parents were not fond of the idea of letting me work, but I was one of those persistent children, so eventually my parents approved the idea. I went there, and I was fascinated by the setting of the letters; one after another…I used to watch Mr. Habesch carefully during the typesetting and printing work…It was fascinated.

Unfortunately, an accident took place! One day, Mr. Habesch was cutting papers on a big machine-cutter and because I wanted to watch him, I was leaning on the machine. My fingers got trapped between the press and I lost three finger-tips on my left hand.

Ephrem: This reminds me of Moses of Mardin who found copying manuscripts a difficult process because he had lost one of his fingers in his early childhood. When he heard about the invention of printing in Europe, he got very excited and travelled there to print the first Syriac gospels in 1555.

G. Kiraz: Interesting! In any case, I continued to be fascinated by printing. When I immigrated with my family to the US in 1983, I became very interested in desktop publishing such as making flyers and booklets. At that time, I was already into writing; I had already written my book about the Syrian Orthodox in the Holy Land “عقد الجمان في اخبار السريان”[1]. So, I wanted to provide the typesetting for my own books. I got a program called Ventura Publisher, which was a very nice piece of software, a kind of a predecessor to the likes of Microsoft Publisher and InDesign. But I wanted to learn about the aesthetics of printing, of typesetting, and of layouts. So I went and I bought some books to read about it and I learned that you don’t just type!

Today many publications are done on computers, but unfortunately this often causes us to forget about aesthetics. I remember learning so many things. I learnt about the importance of the ratio between the width and the height of a page, about line spacing, and that there must be a proportion between black and white on the paper. I used to read about these things and then I would try to implement them.

Dr. Kiraz and Ephrem reading together (2016).

I also remember doing some colour printing. Colour laser printers were simply unaffordable in those days, so the laser printers that I used were only capable of printing in black and white. I think a black and white laser printer was about $2,000, so imagine a color one was much more expensive. I would print all the text in black and white, and in order to print in colour I would use coloured foils. If I wanted the title to be in red, I would put the red foil on top of it, put the page back in the printer, and print it once more as an empty page. The heat of the laser printer would make that foil stick to the black ink and then you would have coloured text. It took time, but it worked!

As you can probably tell, I was always fascinated with the topic of printing and I was very excited when I was able to start printing Syriac and add it to what I had learnt previously.

Emphrem (Q4): So that might encourage me to ask you a question about idea behind Gorgias Press. Was the idea always in your mind and then somehow came true later on? Can you tell us a little bit about Gorgias Press and how you started? And of course, how it became the major press for Syriac Studies?

G. Kiraz: I was always a bibliophile; I have been collecting books since I was a teenager. I started by getting some books from my father’s collection and then I would collect books especially about Syriac, priests and monks. I remember asking Bishop Mor Dioscoros Luke Shaya [♰2006], who was at that time the abbot of St. Mark’s Monastery in Jerusalem, if I could go to the storage of the old St. Mark’s Press and take books from there. I remember finding many issues from the old Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate magazine [which were printed in Jerusalem]. The abbot told me that as long as there was more than one copy of a book that I could take one. So that is how I started collecting some books from there as well.

But the idea of having our own press came much later, after I got married. Actually, it was Christine [my wife]’s idea. She is an avid reader of literature, especially English literature, and she always wanted us to have a bookshop rather than a printing press, but they’re kind of tied together. So the idea of printing came with the idea of opening a bookshop, but I always thought: “You would need huge capital to run a project like that; you would need hundreds of thousands of dollars just to start it.”

A Gorgias Press stall at a conference.

After few years, when there was a necessity our brains started working in new directions. I was working in Wall Street for a dot-com company. In 2001 the dot-com crash came, and the company closed its offices, which meant that I was out of job. Afterwards, Christine’s idea about the bookshop and publishing came to my mind. Then the question about how to do it without a huge amount of capital resurfaced, and as a result I discovered what is called: “printing on demand.”

Then, I went to Christine and I said: “I think we can do it: There is this thing called print-on-demand and we don’t have to have a print-run. We can do it ourselves!” This is how we began Gorgias Press. It was through necessity, but the idea was originally Christine’s. We began by publishing reprinted books from my own collection. Of course, in those days neither Google Books nor archive.org existed, so people needed access to these reprinted books. It was a successful idea, so afterwards we moved to publishing newly authored books.

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


[1] George A. Kiraz, عقد الجمان في اخبار السريان: بحث تاريخي اجتماعي حول السريان في الديار المقدسة, Bar-Hebraeus Verlag: 1988. Access online: https://archive.org/details/unset0000geor_w8k4/page/n142/mode/2up