Listen: ‘Syriac Gazetteer’ preserves endangered Middle East culturesby Ann Marie Deer Owens Apr. 23, 2014, 1:33 PM
Key moments in the development and interaction of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other religions are being preserved through Syriaca.org, an international collaboration edited by scholars at Vanderbilt and Princeton universities.
The Syriac Gazetteer, an online geographical dictionary, is the first in a series of reference works launched by Syriaca.org to document and save ancient and medieval Middle Eastern cultural heritage now threatened by civil war and political instability.
The Syriac language is a dialect of Aramaic once used widely throughout the Middle East and Asia. Syriac was an important language in the spread of Christianity, according to David A. Michelson, assistant professor of the history of Christianity at Vanderbilt and general editor of Syriaca.org. Jesus and many early Christians spoke a related dialect of Aramaic, and the Gospels were translated into Syriac at a very early moment in the history of Christianity. In the Middle Ages, Syriac-speaking communities could be found in what today would be Cyprus, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Iran, India, Central Asia, Mongolia and China.
The Syriac Gazetteer contains descriptions of more than 2,400 places relevant to the study of Syriac. These entries, written in English, Arabic and Syriac, range from ancient centers of Syriac culture such as Edessa, located in what is modern-day Turkey, to Piscataway, N.J., where Syriac scholarship is still being produced by heritage communities.
Michelson uses the term “Syriac heritage communities” to refer to a number of different contemporary Aramaic minority populations who have connections to the historical Syriac cultures of the Middle East. These communities include ethnic and religious populations who identify variously as Syriac, Assyrian, Aramean, Maronite, St. Thomas Christians, Chaldean Catholic, Antiochian Orthodox, Syro-Malabar Catholic, the Church of the East, and a number of other groups.
“Although Syriac heritage communities have survived through the years as minority enclaves in the Middle East and Asia, these communities and their religious and cultural heritage remain relatively unknown in the West,” Michelson said. “The study of Syriac has received little attention until now, but scholars are beginning to realize these sources hold immense value for increasing our understanding of the historical relationships among Jews, Christians and Muslims.”
Researchers estimate that more than 10,000 manuscripts or manuscript fragments written in Syriac survive today around the globe. For much of the 20th century, Syria and Iraq were home to some of the largest Syriac communities in the region, but they have experienced significant displacement and destruction of their cultural heritage during the past decade.
“The current civil war in Syria has had a devastating toll on all segments of the Syrian population,” Michelson said. “Many in Syria’s minority communities have been forced to evacuate their homes in fear for their lives.”Michelson described the situation as also perilous in Iraq. “Minority communities have become particularly easy targets for violence,” he said. “These communities have increasingly turned to emigration in the face of these threats. With such disruption and migration, there is a real risk that minority communities will not be able to maintain their unique cultural identities.”
Syriaca.org’s online tools serve a broad audience interested in the Syriac cultural heritage, including researchers and students in Middle Eastern studies, classics, medieval history, religious studies, biblical studies and linguistics. In addition, the online portal is available for use by Syriac heritage communities and the public. All resources of Syriaca.org are published in a free and open format using Creative Commons licenses.
Thomas A. Carlson, a postdoctoral research associate in medieval Middle East history at Princeton University, co-edits The Syriac Gazetteer with Michelson. Peter R. L. Brown, the Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History, Emeritus at Princeton chairs the editorial committee for Syriaca.org. Technical design of the project was completed by Winona Salesky, independent consultant, and Thomas Elliott, senior research scholar, New York University.
Vanderbilt Divinity students who have worked on Syriaca.org include Anthony Davis, Dan Greeson and Tucker Hannah, all second-year students pursuing a master of theological studies. Other participating students are Erin Minta Johnson, in her first year in the same master’s programs, while Justin Arnwine is a first-year master’s student in the Graduate Department of Religion.
The Syriac Gazetteer is funded as part of the International Balzan Prize awarded to Peter Brown by the Fondazione Internazionale Balzan. Michelson was selected as a junior scholar to co-direct the project as a part of the award terms. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded a grant to Brown at Princeton that has contributed to the support of Syriaca.org. In addition, the National Endowment for the Humanities has provided funding for Syriaca.org.