Interview with Dr. Nathan P. Gibson about Syriaca.org, Part 1

This is the first part of a series of posts by the Digital Orientalist’s Syriac Studies Editor, Ephrem Ishac, based on an interview with Dr. Nathan P. Gibson about Syriaca.org. Later posts on the topic of Syriaca.org will also feature interviews with others involved in the project.

Dr. Nathan P. Gibson

Q1: For any project related to Syriac Digital humanities, it goes without saying that it is almost impossible to overlook the Syriaca.org database. This site continues to offer excellent infrastructure contributing to the first comprehensive collection of the most necessary tools in Syriac studies. Can you tell us about the initial conception of creating this project? 

Although I wasn’t involved in the conception of Syriaca.org, I remember first hearing about it from David Michelson at the North American Syriac Symposium (Duke, 2011). He was also the person I first learned about “digital humanities”. Then, I started working for the project as a graduate research assistant the following year. 

Prof. David Michelson in one of the early workshops about Syriaca.org project.

Dr. Michelson first described Syriaca.org to me as a “reference portal”. I’ve always understood this to mean the first point along a research journey for all things Syriac. Prof. Peter Brown at Princeton University had taken a particular interest in Syriac through his work on late Antiquity, so when he received the Balzan Prize for Ancient History in 2011, he tasked a team of his graduate students (including David Michelson, Daniel Schwartz, and Thomas Carlson) with creating such a reference work for Syriac culture (see https://www.balzan.org/it/premio-balzan/the-syriac-world-rediscovered-an-interview or https://www.balzan.org/it/news/il-mondo-siriaco-ritrovato—intervista-eng). 


A growing number of Internet resources were coming online for Syriac (including those you’ve featured from George Kiraz and others). From the start, the idea was for Syriaca.org to not just link to these resources, but to draw them together through a common infrastructure, as you’ve said. The motivating vision was that of the “semantic web,” in the spirit of Tim Berners-Lee’s 5-star linked-open data concept (https://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/LinkedData.html). In that vision, information is put on the web in a way that allows not just humans but also machines to contextualize and interpret it. Already we saw this being done for the ancient world by Pelagios (now see the snazzy beta interface at https://peripleo.pelagios.org/) and papyri.info

Syriaca.org meeting at Beth Mardutho 2014.

Imagine doing a Google search for “Ephrem the Syrian” and your first results might be a Wikipedia article about him, a publisher’s page for a recent study on him, a church for which he’s the patron saint, and so on. A linked, open-data infrastructure approach instead provides certain structured information that a computer can do more with, such as, “Ephrem the Syrian is a person, who died in Edessa in 373, wrote such and such texts, and is described in the following resources …” On that basis, you can see him on a timeline or a map with other people, find digital editions or manuscripts of his texts, build a bibliography based on WorldCat results, and so much more. 

Mor Ephrem the Syrian in Syriaca.org

For Syriac studies this has been both a challenge and an opportunity. It is a challenge because so much of the foundational work has to be done by specialists. Existing library infrastructures had duplicate and conflated entries, and general reference information was outdated. It takes someone with some knowledge of Syriac studies to say, “Barhebraeus and Gregorius Bar ʿEbroyo and Abu al-Faraj are all the same person,” let alone to wade through Syriac, Arabic, and Latin sources to figure out the more obscure cases.

Works and places of Mor Ephrem the Syrian in Syriaca.org

So a lot of this work was done not only by faculty members involved in the project but also by graduate students learning Syriac. But the opportunity comes in the fact that these foundations are being laid with a view to linked-open data and new technologies, while at the same time there’s a burgeoning interest in the Syriac world and an increasing number of research projects coming online. We’re not bogged down as much as some of the more established fields with decades-old legacy data locked up with mid-twentieth-century copyrights.

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