The Syriac Digital Humanities: An Interview with George A. Kiraz, Part 3

This is the fourth post of a series by the Digital Orientalist’s Syriac Studies Editor, Ephrem Ishac, based on his interview with George A. KirazThe introduction to the series can be viewed here, the first part here and the second part here. To view Syriac characters used in this post you may need to download Syriac fonts. The Meltho Font can be downloaded here.

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. The second part focused on Dr. Kiraz’s interest in printing and the creation of Gorgias Press. Today’s part explores Beth Mardutho (The Syriac Institute) and ecumenical approaches to Syriac heritage.

A note by G. Kiraz in a book scanned by Beth Mardutho. It reads: “This book of Barhebraeus Grammar was [photo-]copied by deacon George Anton Kiraz, and it is his own [copy]. He had borrowed the original copy from the Syrian Monastery of St Mark in Jerusalem. The book is labeled with the number 220. Bethlehem Friday, 10, 12, 1982 AD George Anton Kiraz, a Suryoyo.”

Ephrem (Q5): May I ask you about Beth Mardutho (The Syriac Institute)? Could you tell us a little about it and its projects?

G. Kiraz: Beth Mardutho was a dream, and it is still a dream!…I wanted to create a place where people with a Syriac heritage, regardless of whether they are Syriac Orthodox, Chaldean, or Assyrian, could come together and build a community that works on their shared heritage. So that was the dream and still is the dream, since we have sadly not yet built a local community – things like this are not possible without some endowments. In any case, I started working on transforming what we used to call the Syriac Computing Institute into Beth Mardutho.

One time I was scanning a rare book and since scanning books can be a tedious task which causes your mind to drift all over the place, I started thinking: “Why not scan books and build a digital library? Beth Mardutho will probably never become a community of people working in one place, since people are spread out internationally, and no institute can operate without the library! We cannot buy all the books that we need, so why not digitize them from library collections and create an online library?” Keep in mind, at that time the idea of an online library wasn’t out there. So, I went and talked to some colleagues at Princeton Theological Seminary about it. I remember the librarians were very happy to hear of such an idea, because as I said there were no online libraries…They agreed to allow us to digitize their books. After that the Catholic University of America, which became our biggest partner, agreed to allow us to digitize their collection, and then Duke University.

Kiraz and Prof. Lucas van Rompay at Beth Mardutho, 2013.

We managed to digitize about 700 books in a project that we called: e-BethArké, but then we faced a problem – we had all these books and all these images, but we didn’t have a way to put them online. We needed a platform to put them online…There was only one system called: dSPACE, but it required a server which meant that we needed money, which of course we didn’t have. So, we didn’t put those books online until decades later when the Internet’s infrastructure became more suited to our task. Now we have e-BethArké as an open access library online and it includes many more books than the initial 700. Of course, now it’s easy because there’s and which we use as our portal. We are careful with permissions and copyright laws, but as human beings we also make mistakes. If there are any complaints we go and remove the relevant text.

Book scanning equipment, 2011.

Ephrem: If I’m not mistaken, I think that there are over 2000 titles available in the eBethArké Digital Collection and this is really a great help for scholars and students. Personally, I use it a lot alongside the digital library created by the Department of Syriac Studies at the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate (thanks to Fr. Roger Akhrass). They are really very helpful tools.

(Q6) Moreover, I was fascinated by your remark that you wanted to encourage people, regardless of their confessional backgrounds (Orthodox, Catholic, Reformed, and Church of the East), to work together on Syriac heritage. Such a vision reminded me of the Pro Oriente Forum Syriacum and its initiative Colloquium Syriacum¸ since they wanted to bring together the Syriac Churches from different ecclesiastic backgrounds by studying their Syriac heritage together. Did you also have such an ecumenical motive when creating Beth Mardutho? For example, when it was decided to adopt Syriac font “Estrangelo Edessa” as the default font for the Syriac language in computers; was there any ideological motive behind it?

G. Kiraz: Although there are no ecumenical motives for creating Beth Mardutho grounded in theology, there are maybe some ecumenical reasons in a non-theological sense. I wasn’t thinking of bringing people together because of their theological dogmas, but rather from the perspective of their shared Syriac heritage. In other words, the thing that is common to people from the Syriac Orthodox and Catholic traditions, or to people from the Assyrian and Chaldean traditions, or to the Maronites and to people from the various Indian Syriac communities. So, it was the common heritage that was the motivation to bring people together.

Kiraz in his role as a Shamosho (Deacon), 2013.

Now when it comes to language, of course we have the three scripts: the Estrangelo, Serto and the East Syriac. I was always adamant in all my projects that when it is not possible to give the user a choice to use the script of their own tradition, then Estrangelo must be the default because Estrangelo is the common denominator for all the communities. If a platform does not permit the user to choose, it is not fair to have Serto as the default because then Assyrians and Chaldeans will have difficulty reading it. Likewise, it is not fair to have East Syriac as the default because then the Serto users will have difficulties as well. That is why I always go for Estrangelo as the default. However, it is always nice when platforms allow users to choose their preferable script. For example, if you go to the SEDRA lexical database at Beth Mardutho or our other projects, you will notice that we’ve tried to implement a menu where users can choose what scripts or fonts they want to see. But if a platform like Windows requires a default font, then the default, I believe, must always be Estrangelo for reasons of unity and fairness.

Ephrem: Even if you do not call these motives “ecumenical” in a theological sense, I think your attitude has inspired other ongoing ecumenical projects and paves a way to show us how to bring these churches (who disagree with each other confessionally) together to cooperate on their Syriac heritage projects.

G. Kiraz: …Probably, another example is the Gorgias Press‘s Antioch Bible Series project, which is about translating the Peshitta Syriac Bible into English. Of course, the script of the Bible is not limited to one particular Syriac Church, because it’s the Bible of the Syriac tradition (for the Churches of the Syrian Orthodox, Assyrian, Chaldean, Maronite and the Syrian Catholic). I think these types of projects, where members of different traditions work together on Syriac heritage projects, can facilitate ecumenism. Syriac people can cooperate with each other and share the costs, even though it differs from the ecumenical meetings that are important from theological and ecclesiastical perspectives.

Prof. Sebastian P. Brock on a visit to Beth Mardutho, 2019.

Ephrem (Q7): May I ask, if this is the intention, why was it decided to print Gorgias Press’s Antioch Bible Series in the Serto script?

G. Kiraz: That’s only one edition. There will also be an edition in English without any Syriac and where the script issue is not involved at all. It’s a Bible for the Church use, so if it was printed in Estrangelo nobody would be able to use it…

Ephrem (Q8): So, could there possible be another project to publish it in East Syrian script?

Yes, if there is interest, we would be happy to do it!

Ephrem Ishac (author of this post) working at Beth Mardutho, 2011.

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