“From Dead-ends into Gateways”: Interview with Dr. Nathan P. Gibson about Syriaca.org, 2nd and Final Part

This is the second 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. Part one is available here.

Dr. Nathan P. Gibson (right) with some of Syriaca.org editors: Prof. David A. Michelson, Prof. Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent, and Prof. Daniel L. Schwartz (Photo taken by Tiffany Gibson in 2016, posted on Balzan Prize Foundation website).

Q2. In previous posts, the DO has presented the wonderful projects of Syriac Digital Humanities to our readers (see my interview with G. Kiraz on the projects of Beth Mardutho and with J. Walters of the Syriac Digital Corpus). Can you present the different projects of Syriaca.org and their current state of the art to our readers? 

You can think of Syriaca.org as organized around several different “entities,” that is, places, persons, works, manuscripts, and works cited. In addition, there is also a prosopographic resource. Some of these have multiple sub-collections, which we refer to as “volumes” by analogy with printed resources. As a general rule, these provide a reference entry and URI for the entity, with names and other disambiguating information, citations, and links to related resources.

Places: The Syriac Gazetteer (ed. Thomas A. Carlson and David A. Michelson, https://syriaca.org/geo) provides reference entries for over 2000 places with names (typically English, Syriac, and Arabic), location coordinates (where available), relations to other places, and links to Pleiades and Wikipedia.

Persons: The Syriac Biographical Dictionary (ed. David A. Michelson [gen. ed.], Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent, Nathan P. Gibson, Daniel L. Schwartz [assoc. eds.], https://syriaca.org/persons) has over 2500 entries for persons, with names (typically English, Syriac, French, and Arabic), dates (where available), links to associated places, and citations. These entries appear in two different volumes:

  • Volume 1, Qadishe: Guide to the Syriac Saints (ed. Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent and David A. Michelson, https://syriaca.org/q) has over 1000 entries for Syriac saints, links to the texts they are commemorated in (see BHSE), and commemoration days (where available). The starting point for this resource was the 470 entries from J. M. Fiey’s Saints syriaques.
  • Volume 2, A Guide to Syriac Authors (ed. David A. Michelson and Nathan P. Gibson, https://syriaca.org/authors) has more than 900 entries for authors of or related to Syriac literature. It incorporates basic information from a number of biographical dictionaries and handbooks, including those of ʿAbdisho bar Brikha, Ignatius Barsoum, William Wright, Anton Baumstark, and the Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage (https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org). It also includes identifiers for the standard library resource worldwide, the Virtual International Authority File. 

Works: The New Handbook of Syriac Literature (ed. Nathan P. Gibson, David A. Michelson, and Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent, https://syriaca.org/nhsl) serves as a clavis identifying Syriac works accompanied by information about editions, ancient and modern translations, and manuscript witnesses (not necessarily comprehensive). It’s important to note that entries include short works within larger works (such as the vitae of individual saints within a larger hagiography) as well as significantly different versions of works that may carry the same title. (NHSL does not provide digitized texts, though it sometimes links to them; for digital transcriptions check out the independent Digital Syriac Corpus, https://syriaccorpus.org.)

  • Volume 1, Bibliotheca Hagiographica Syriaca Electronica (ed. Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent, David A. Michelson, Ugo Zanetti, and Claude Detienne, https://syriaca.org/bhse) covers over 1800 Syriac stories, hymns, and homilies on saints. It grew out of a database originally created by Ugo Zanetti and Claude Detienne in the Bollandist tradition of hagiographic study. Entries typically include incipits, explicits, and a fairly complete listing of editions, modern translations, ancient versions, and manuscript witnesses.
  • Other volumes planned or in development include thematic collections for Syriac scientific and philosophical literature, biblical works, and homilies. Some of the entries for these are already available online in a preliminary form.

Works Cited: There is also a work cited section (https://syriaca.org/bibl), which at this point functions as a bibliography to support citations within the other resources. Perhaps the most useful aspect there is being able to see all the entries across Syriaca.org that cite a particular book or article, in a true linked-open data fashion.

A few other major Syriaca.org resources are still in development, so maybe the editors of those will have something to say when those come out!

On a different type of note for those who are setting up or contemplating their own digital projects, I should mention that the web application Srophé (lead developer Winona Salesky, https://srophe.app/), which runs the Syriaca.org website, is available as open-source code. It powers at least ten different websites and is constantly being expanded by a number of projects.

Q3. We have learned from the part of G. Kiraz’ interview about his dream of reaching one day toward a digital Ecosystem for Syriac digital projects. How do you see the horizon of Syriaca.org in such a vision, and what do you think about the future of Syriaca.org?

The things George Kiraz mentioned regarding open data and APIs are absolutely crucial. As only one of several editors and not a project leader, I can’t speak for Syriaca.org in general. But I do remember coming across many cases where the Syriaca.org entry on a person, for example, is (or was at the time of creation) almost the only resource on the web for that subject and where the information even in print handbooks is thin. With the burgeoning of Syriac research, including in the form of digital projects, I envision those entries being transformed from dead-ends into gateways for research conducted around the globe. Linking research topics to stable URIs such as those provided by Syriaca.org will make it possible to “see” those connections and exponentially raise the visibility of each contribution to Syriac studies. 

From Dr. Nathan P. Gibson’s presentation in 2017: “Toward a Cyberinfrastructure for Syriac Literature: Mapping a Text Corpus using TEI and RDF”.

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