Toward an Ecosystem of the Syriac Digital Humanities: An Interview with George A. Kiraz, 5th and Final Part

This is the sixth and final 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, the second part here, and the third part here.

The Digital Orientalist began to serialize this interview between Syriac Studies Editor, Ephrem Ishac, and Dr. George A. Kiraz in early 2020. Following an introduction to the Syriac Digital Humanities, the first part of the interview 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. The third part explored the Beth Mardutho (The Syriac Institute) and ecumenical approaches to Syriac heritage. The fourth part focused on early ideas for digitizing Syriac manuscripts. The final part explores ongoing projects in Beth Mardutho.

Meeting of Syriaca.org at Beth Mardutho.

Ephrem: Now we reach our last three questions! Could you tell us shortly and generally about the ongoing projects on the Syriac digital humanities that you are involved with, especially those projects that Beth Mardutho has been hosting?

G. Kiraz: Yes, so if you visit bethmardutho.org you will see the various projects that we are engaged in on the homepage, including the online encyclopedia e-GEDSH which is encoded in TEI, XML and eXist-db. We have also Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, which is one of the earliest open-source journals in the digital humanities. It is also encoded in TEI and XML and run by James E. Walters. We also have SEDRA – a lexicographical database that I mentioned previously. Finally, there is the project that we are currently very excited about – Qoruyo. Qoruyo seeks to create OCR and handwriting recognition models to turn printed books and manuscripts into searchable texts. Alongside there is Thesaurus: SIMTHO which is a small project, but currently contains over six million words and is growing. We now have over 50,000 pages of PDF files and we are starting our second phase of OCR-ing these documents. Of course, this is a project that will take many years complete, but the aim is to have a large Syriac linguistic corpus that people can use in their research. I use these tools myself on a weekly basis for various purposes.

The history of Syriac Computing.

Homepage for Thesaurus: SIMTHO.

Ephrem: I know that it’s difficult to ask if a father has a favorite child, but can you talk more about your oldest – and perhaps ‘favorite’ baby, SEDRA? Currently we have SEDRA IV. What is the future of SEDRA?

G. Kiraz: I think the future of SEDRA and the other projects at Beth Mardutho need to move in the direction of integration. The vision is to have the lexical and textual resources linked with the editions of texts, manuscripts, and manuscripts catalogs; to move toward having a digital ecosystem of Syriac studies. This is also the vision of syriaca.org, which is led by David A. Michelson and his colleagues. So, the vision is to have a network of portals that can communicate with each other through an API. That’s where we would like to go with all these things that we have been developing.

Developments in SEDRA announced at Syriaca.org‘s Workshop in 2017.

A floppy disc contained some of Brockelman’s Lexicon for SEDRA.

Ephrem: Do I understand that you think it would be much better if we work together with our different projects in Syriac studies? In other words, is it better that we harmonize our work on different projects in Syriac digital humanities to integrate all these projects at a certain point?

G. Kiraz: Sure! I very much encourage everyone to go with the platform that they prefer, but it would be beneficial if it was a platform that has an API which can communicate with other platforms. Let’s say, for example, that you have a catalogue of manuscripts and you’re writing the titles and the colophons and you can easily link it with SEDRA, then anybody who is on your catalog could click on a word and discover its meanings or click on a word and go find its occurrences in the SIMTHO database. So, if your catalogue has an API, then we can talk to your catalog in the future and everybody can talk to each other in the world of digital humanities.

Syriaca.org

Ephrem: That leads us to our last question – Do you think that our digital humanities projects should be based some principles such as sharing our databases for the sake of developing the Syriac digital humanities? Can you say some final words on projects which choose to close their databases rather than opening them to be shared with others?

G. Kiraz: Unless there are some motivations based on necessity, I don’t think it is a good idea to develop closed projects and I believe it will likely introduce limitations into the project. Of course, open projects can also face limitations. Most of our projects at Beth Mardutho are run by volunteers and are limited by funding possibilities.

If you have a project with limited funded, you need to think what will happen to the database once the period of funding has finished. We also need to consider what happens to our data both after a project and also during it – what happens to the data if the investigator is the victim of an accident or illness, for example. There are some possible resolutions such as the aforementioned linking of our portals through APIs, but it doesn’t stop there because there is also the raw data to think about.

Kiraz lecturing on digital humanities for the MA programme in Syriac Theology – Salzburg, 2017.

If you have a database, then it is implemented under some system, it could be PHP: MySQL. It could be Microsoft SQL. It could be some other open access database; but at some point it has some sort of a format. It’s not a file that I can print on a piece of paper and access the raw data of. So, it is crucially important that people export their data periodically, take snapshots of it, and transfer the raw materials into Unicode files, simple flat files, or XML files – readable files in an accessible format that can be printed. Have it in that format and put it somewhere periodically (like Github), so that if your project stops, if you cannot continue, then your work is not wasted. That’s my advice to people and is what we do with our projects.

The plan for SEDRA, which of course has an API, is to periodically output all of the data and put it online. That means somebody else can take it and create their own SEDRA if they want to, and they’re more than welcome to do so. The same thing goes for the source text of SIMTHO. Of course, when it comes to SIMTHO, there are some things that necessitate closure. For example, publishers would object to their text being released – there are the copyright laws and you cannot break the law, but when there are things that are in the public domain you can do it.

Ephrem: That’s very helpful and I hope that this can clarify the mission of ongoing and future projects in Syriac digital humanities. tawdi sagi Malphono!

G. Kiraz: Lo medem!

Syriac verb distribution visual.

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