Origins of Syriac

Syriac is a form of Aramaic, a language whose many dialects have been in continuous use since the 11th century BC. Originally the language of the Aramean people, Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Near East by the 6th century BC. It was the native tongue of the ancient Chaldeans, a second language to the Assyro-Babylonians, an official language of the Persian Achaemenians, and a common language of the Jews replacing Hebrew. Jesus and the Apostles spoke and preached in Aramaic.

Women of Edessa

Syriac is the Aramaic dialect of Edessa (present-day Urfa in southeast Turkey), a center of early intellectual activity. It became an important literary language around the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The earliest dated Syriac inscription is from AD 6, and the earliest parchment, a deed of sale, is from 243. The earliest dated manuscript was produced in November 411, probably the earliest dated manuscript in any language.

The oldest of the Syriac scripts, known as Estrangelo 'rounded', was fully developed by the 5th century. Later, two geographic scripts would derive from it: West Syriac, whose proper name is Serto, and East Syriac. The Syriac writing system lent its vocalization system to Hebrew and Arabic in the 7th century, before which Semitic languages were written using consonants only. At the time of Genghis Khan (12th century), the Mongolian script was derived from Syriac. [Beth Mardutho produced fonts of the Syriac scripts!]

The spread of Syriac was due to at least two factors: the spread of Christianity in the Semitic-speaking world, and commerce on the Silk Road, both activities sometimes combined. A testimony of this rather remarkable expansion is the bilingual Chinese and Syriac text from Sian in China. Today, a few million Christians in India of various denominations follow the Syriac tradition. Within a few centuries from its origin, Syriac produced a wealth of literature in all sorts of fields, literary, philosophical, liturgical, scientific, historical, and linguistic, to name but a few.


Early Literature (From 1st - 4th Centuries)

Early Syriac literature was produced in Mesopotamia, especially in and around Edessa, by pagans, agnostics, Jews and Christians. Over sixty inscriptions, mostly pagan, and a few papyrus from the first three centuries have come down to us. The language of these is midway between Official Aramaic (i.e., the Aramaic that we received from official documents) and literary Syriac, and represent the early development of the Syriac language.

The literature of the first three centuries consists mostly of anonymous texts whose date and origin cannot be established. By the year 200, the books of the Old Testament were translated from Hebrew, probably by Syriac-speaking Jews and early Jewish converts. The earliest form of the New Testament, the Diatessaron, a harmony of the Gospels, appeared at the same time. A full translation of the Greek New Testament followed. To this period also belong the Odes of Solomon, 42 short lyrical poems; the story of the 'Aramean Sage' Ahikar, a narrative set in the time of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (740-681 BC); and the Acts of Judas Thomas, a narrative of the Apostle's mission to India.

The fourth century witnessed the first major writings that survived till this day. Of the writings of the 'Persian Sage' Aphrahat, twenty-three Demonstrations survive, twenty-two of which are alphabetic acrostics. Amongst the topics discussed are faith, love, prayer, war, humility, the Sabbath, and food. Another work of this period is the anonymous Book of Steps, dealing with spiritual direction.

The most celebrated writer of this period, however, is Ephrem the Syrian. He is the theologian-poet par excellence, and "perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante". Ephrem produced a wealth of theological works in prose and artistic poetry. His fame resulted in many writings of later centuries to be attributed to him. Of his genuine works, however, we have received many commentaries, expositions, refutations, letters, and above all poetry.


The Golden Age (From 5th - 9th Centuries)

This period was a major intellectual activity in the Syriac-speaking World. Over 70 important writers are known, not counting numerous anonymous works and the writings of lesser authors. Almost all of the writers wrote across many disciplines, though some names stand out in specific fields.

Amongst the many poets, we received the writings of Narsai (d. ca. 502) and Jacob of Serugh (d. 521). Of the Biblical commentators, Ishodad of Merv and John of Dara (both 9th cent.) stand out. The mathematicians and astronomers include Sergius of Resh Aina (d. 536), Severus Sebokht (d. 666/7), and George of the Arabs (d. 724). Those who wrote on grammar and rhetoric include Jacob of Edessa (d. 708), Anton of Takrit (9th cent.), and Isho Bar Nun (d. 828).

The fifth century witnessed the division of the Christian Church into many factions. It is worth noting that the Syriac tradition is the only tradition that represents the rich diversity resulting from this division, and preserved it till this day. The Christological controversies produced many theological debates. Amongst the most prominent apologists were Philoxenos of Mabbug (d. 523) and Babi the Great (d. 628). Theologians of the period also include Dadisho (7ty cent.), Isaac of Nineveh (d. 7th c.), Timothy I (d. 823), Moshe Bar Kepha (d. 903), and Theodore Bar Koni (8th cent.).

One can go on naming famous authors whose works came down to us. Suffice it to say that the Golden Age covered all the fields of study under the sun: philosophy, logic, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, history, theology, linguistics and literature.

A great deal of the scholarly activities were centered in schools and monasteries throughout Syria and Mesopotamia. Of the schools we cannot but mention the School of Edessa and the School of Nisibin, both of which produced many of the best known scholars. It is remarkable that a few of the monastic schools of this period are still in use today, most notably St. Gabriel's in southeast Turkey, and St. Moses the Ethiopian in Syria.

Part of the History of Civilization (From 9th - 14th Centuries)

World civilization passes from one region to another, and from one language to another, by contact. If we are to trace the history of any field of science, we begin with the ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians, moving to the Greeks and Romans, then to the Arabs, ending up in Western Europe (not to underestimate the civilizations of Asia and South America). One stop in this journey is almost always forgotten: the Syriac contribution!

From the 4th century onward, the Greek sciences were translated into Syriac, including philosophy, logic, medicine, mathematics, astronomy and alchemy. When the Arabs desired to transmit the Greek sciences into Arabic during the 8th and 9th centuries, they turned to their Syriac subjects to do the task. In most cases, these Syriac scholars translated the works first into their native language then into Arabic. As a result, many of the Arabic scientific terminology, including the names of plants, are rooted in Syriac. Scientific works and terminology from other cultures, such as Persian and Indian, passed to Arabic via Syriac; a noted example is the name of the chemical element Zirconium (via Syriaczargono 'color of gold').

The most celebrated translator of the period is Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (d. 873 or 877), the son of a druggist. In addition to translating and revising the translations of others, many translators graduated at his hands. Another translator is Thabit Ibn Qurra (d. 901). He wrote 15 scientific works in Syriac and 150 in Arabic, translated and revised Archimedes, Euclid, Ptolemy and others. Thabit is also credited with introducing the mathematical theory of "amicable numbers".

Along this translation movement, native Syriac authors continued to flourish. Of this period, Eliah of Anbar (10th cent.) produced an extensive gnomic work, and his namesake Elijah of Nisibin (d. 1046) wrote a chronography and an Arabic-Syriac glossary. Bar Salibi (d. 1171) produced many encyclopedic-type works on various topics, while Michael the Great (d. 1199) composed a world history from the creation till his time.

While Ephrem witnessed the beginning of the greatest period of Syriac literature, Bar Ebroyo marked its end. Along with Ephrem, Bar Ebroyo is the most famous of Syriac writers. A true polymath, he wrote on every subject under the sun. He produced over 20 books in theology, history, liturgy, medicine, philosophy, logic, mathematics, grammar, poetry, and a book of jokes!

Decline of Syriac Literature (From 14th - 19th Centuries)

Traditional historians of Syriac literature mark the 13th century as the end of Syriac literature. While there was indeed a general decline in intellectual activity in the Middle East after the 13th century, Syriac writers continued to produce a considerable amount of works, most of which have not been studied nor published. Writers of this period include Isaiah of Bet Sbirina who produced a contemporary account, in poetic form, of the devastation of Timur Leng (d. 1407). Among the other poets are Nuh the Lebanese (d. 1509) and David the Phoenician.

In the 16th century, the Syriac mathematician Patriarch Ignatius Ni'matallah, who abdicated his office in fear of execution and left to Rome, was invited by Pope Gregory to join the Commission on Calendar Reform. Shortly after, he wrote an extensive criticism of the reform propsal which helped in shaping the Gregorian calendar.

The 17th century witnessed the beginning of writings in the Neo-Aramaic vernacular dialects of Alqosh, an activity that became more popular in the 19th century under the influence of the American Missionary press at Urmiah. Another new phenomenon appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries: the translations of western spiritual works into Syriac.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Maronite Assemani family produced a number of excellent scholars, most notably Joseph Simon Assemani (1687-1768). They played a magnificent role in introducing the Syriac heritage to the West. Joseph produced Bibliotheca Orientalis, the first and best (till this day) encyclopedia of Syriac works. Along with his nephew Stephen, they introduces the works of Ephrem in 6 volumes to the European reader. The Maronite College in Italy continued this tradition.

In addition to the general decline in literature productivity in the Middle East during this period, the Syriac-speaking communities went through many hardships. Persecutions and massacres under Ottoman Turkey left the Syriac people in continuous fear. The persecutions culminated in 1915, what the Syriac people call 'The Year of the Sword' when hundreds of thousands were collectively massacred. The result was the migration the Syriac people to other countries of the Middle East, as well as the Diaspora in the west.

The Modern Syriac Renaissance (20th Century)

The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed a revival of Syriac literature, both secular and religious. The end of World War I, and as a result the turbulent history that ensued, a spirit of ethnic identity swept across some of the Syriac-speaking communities of the Middle East which played a role in shaping Modern Literary Syriac.

Toma Audo, Chaldean metropolitan of Urmia (1853-1917), composed a valuable large-size Syriac-Syriac dictionary. The Syriac Catholic Patriarch Afram Rahmani (1848-1929) and his namesake and Orthodox counterpart Patriarch Afram Barsoum (1887-1969) were among the most distinguished Syriac scholars of the 20th century, each producing a large number of scholarly studies.

Journalism was a new genre of this century. Naoum Faiq (1868-1930) founded the earliest Syriac periodical, Star of the East in 1908. Two years earlier, the Neo-Aramaic periodical Kokhwa 'Star' appeared in Urmia. Today, a few dozen periodicals publish in Syriac and Neo-Aramaic.

A few translations from western books into Syriac also appeared, most notably Bernardin de Saint Pierre's romantic novel Paul et Virginie, translated by Paulos Gabriel (d. 1971) and Ghattas Maqdasi Elyas; and Racine's play Athalie, translated by Abrohom Isu.

During this century, most of the liturgical Syriac works, of the various denominations, were translated from Syriac into Malayalam, the language of the St. Thomas Christians, for purposes of worship. Among the most celebrated translators is Matta Konat.

Along the revival of Syriac literature, the 20th century witnessed an increased interest in the study of the Syriac heritage by western scholars. Today, there is an international conference on Syriac studies almost every year. Beth Mardutho sees itself as part of this Renaissance, bringing Syriac scholarship of western scholars and the Syriac-speaking communities together in order to preserve the Syriac heritage and maintain the Syriac language.



Syriac Today

Syriac today is the liturgical language of a few Christian communities, belonging to various churches. The churches of the Syriac tradition are: The Syriac Orthodox Church, The Assyrian Church of the East, The Maronite Syriac Church, The Chaldean Catholic Church, The Syriac Catholic Church, and the various churches of the St. Thomas Christians in India.

Syriac is witnessing an expansion in western universities. In the late 1980s, Oxford University began to offer a Master Degree in Syriac studies. The University of Birmingham is following suit. In most of the major universities, Syriac is taught either in Semitic departments, religious studies, or both. Mhatma Ghandi University in Kerala has recently started a Ph.D. program in Syriac.

During the past few decades, four periodic international conferences dedicated to the Syriac tradition emerged. The international Symposium Syriacum has been convening every four years since 1972. The North America-based Syriac Symposium also meets every four years. In India, SEERI holds an international conference every four years, so do the Maronite institutions in Lebanon.

At the community level, Syriac is being taught to children in a few private community schools in the Middle East, and sometimes in the Diaspora. Magazines are being published in Syriac and Neo-Aramaic, and a few publishing houses have emerged. In 2001, Beth Mardutho established the Beth Mardutho ePress.

As we enter the Third Millennium, we feel that there is a need for a center dedicated entirely to the study of the Syriac heritage, one that would serve all the communities of the Syriac heritage in an ecumenical spirit. Beth Mardutho's ultimate goal is to fulfill this need.