As Turmoil Displaces Middle Eastern Christians, Scholars Work to Preserve Syriac Culture

May 24, 2017

The continued depletion of religious diversity in the Middle East could be contributing to the death of one of the oldest living languages, known as Syriac.

The language holds both religious and historical significance, but as political turmoil wreaks havoc in the region, Syriac and its native speakers face an uncertain future. A group of scholars meeting this week at Marquette University is working to preserve both the language and the cultural traditions that accompany it.

“Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic so it’s related to what the ancient Syrians spoke and it’s related to the language Jesus would have spoken,” says Dan Schwartz, a professor in the history department at Texas A&M. “Today it is spoken by Christians living in Lebanon, Jerusalem, Iraq, parts of East Turkey, Iran and Syria,” he continues.

"Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic so it's related to what the ancient Syrians spoke and it's related to the language Jesus would have spoken."

Schwartz was in Milwaukee to take part in a two-day event called, Mapping Ancient Lives & Social Networks: A Digital Workshop. He was joined by experts Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent of Marquette University and Nathan Gibson of Vanderbilt University, who are also working to preserve the language.

Syriac communities tend to be Christian, but as the religious demography has changed in the Middle East, the language has declined. "What’s important to keep in mind is for many, many centuries, there were thriving Christian and Jewish communities throughout the Middle East, and in some regions that is becoming less and less the case," says Schwartz.

"What I think we see happening today is a constriction of options because of movements like ISIS and those sorts of extremist elements that the option of being Christian has become more difficult."

“What I think we see happening today is a constriction of options because of movements like ISIS and those sorts of extremist elements that the option of being Christian has become more difficult,” he continues.

As Syriac speaking communities are displaced, there is a growing need to preserve the language in an accessible format. This idea is what brought this group of experts together to lead a workshop on teaching scholars and librarians how to preserve the historic manuscripts in a digital archive.

“We’re creating the infrastructure for a variety of projects in the field to link up data,” Schwartz explains. “The reason this is so important is you can consider this ‘rescue code-acology,’ so going and collecting high-quality images, training the people who own those manuscripts to collect images of them and to preserve them digitally."

“This kind of digitization work on the ground in Middle Eastern monasteries allows somebody in Toronto or Chicago or England to access their own communal heritage,” says Gibson.