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HomeFeaturesProject Seeks to Preserve Syriac

Project Seeks to Preserve Syriac

Reyes Ramirez explains how efforts to preserve Syriac have revealed “a much more nuanced religious landscape to the Middle East”

Texas A&M University historian Dr. Daniel Schwartz and likeminded colleagues from around the world have been working to help preserve Syriac and its 2,000 years of cultural heritage, creating Syriaca.org, a cyberinfrastructure to link Syriac literature to persons, places, manuscripts, and key concepts.

Last year, they received assistance from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)—a three-year, $350,000 humanities collections and reference resources grant to “preserve and provide access to collections essential to scholarship, education, and public programming in the humanities.” The grant marks the team’s third from NEH since 2012.

Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic with origins in the first century of the common era that flourished in the Middle East and into Central Asia from the third to ninth centuries before Arabic became the most common language, even in these regions’ Christian communities. In fact, Syriac provides the third-largest collection of source material on the ancient Mediterranean world after Greek and Latin. However, UNESCO once deemed Syriac an endangered minority language due to conflict and persecution displacing indigenous Christian populations in the Middle East.

Though Syriaca.org is mainly a research project interested in furthering knowledge of the ancient and medieval Middle East, it also “serves the expat communities because there’s sizeable Syriac heritage communities in New Jersey, Sweden, and the Netherlands,” said Schwartz, an associate professor in the Department of History within the College of Arts and Sciences. “The numbers of indigenous Christians in the Middle East are dwindling rapidly… To lose that heritage that’s been in the Middle East for 2,000 years is heartbreaking. There’s a real urgent sense to the work that we do to preserve this cultural heritage to make sure it is not forgotten.”

Methods
The team’s NEH grant is supporting three deliverables designed to grow Syriaca. org’s functionality and access. The first is a streamlined and graphically oriented user interface to allow people to use the site and its data more easily. The second is, with assistance from the Center of Digital Humanities Research, to take images and use optical character recognition to render their text into machine-readable text formats, allowing for word searches. The third deliverable is a corpus of Syriac texts in English translation to incorporate hyperlinks and keyword tagging to link texts to other data points within Syriaca.org. This will also facilitate the study and teaching of Syriac in classrooms, with English translations side by side with original texts.

“The work can be incredibly tedious,” Schwartz said. “What keeps me going is hearing from members of the heritage communities who are tremendously appreciative that somebody is doing this work. People in the heritage communities notice and care that somebody is willing to put this work in—to put up Syriac texts online and their English translation—that these expats that are part of the Syriac heritage community have access to their own cultural heritage.”

Revealing Historical Nuances
Syriaca.org shows that sources in Syriac “hold immense value for increasing our historical understanding of the Middle East and Asia” and are “useful in documenting key moments in the development of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions of late antiquity.”

“If you go back a couple of generations of late Roman/early Byzantine historians, Syriac wasn’t very much on the radar screen,” Schwartz said. “Syriac was a latecomer to using digital technology in the study of the field… And what doesn’t make the jump across the digital divide kind of doesn’t exist to the next generation and the next generation after that.”

Scholars, as well as anyone interested, can see sources dating back more than 1,500 years, as the project is free and open under Creative Commons licenses. As such, Syriaca.org boasts several entry points into its vast compendium of knowledge and resources. Users can begin their journey into the Syriac language through a geographical index of relevant places, a biographical dictionary of related persons, a catalog of saints venerated in the Syriac tradition, a handbook of Syriac authors, or a database of hagiographic literature. The online portal has been used by researchers to close gaps in their research and by educators to teach students about Middle Eastern civilizations.

“You dig into this material and see a much more nuanced religious landscape to the Middle East,” Schwartz said. “To bring this to students here and help them understand the way religion plays out in the public sphere in America a little bit better by putting it in dialogue with fifth-century Syria or in seventh-century Byzantium— that’s where I think this is a real value, to better understand the world we live in today.” In 2023, the project was awarded a $15,000 Texas A&M Arts and Humanities Fellows Program grant to expand Syriaca. org with a module that will serve as a controlled vocabulary of keyword concepts tailored to Syriac studies. Partners in the project in addition to Texas A&M include Vanderbilt University, Princeton University, Marquette University, New York University, and the Beth Mardutho Research Library, with affiliations to various institutions. Syriaca.org has received funding support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the University of Alabama, and the International Balzan Prize Foundation.

Reyes Ramirez is at Texas A&M University College of Arts and Sciences. This article was adapted from that appearing in Texas A&M Today (https://today.tamu.edu/2023/09/21/texas-am-led-humanities-project-seeks-to-preserve-an-endangered-language).

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