Wherever Syriac Is spoken

Gazetteer provides lay of the land

HUMANITIES, November/December 2014, Volume 35, Number 6

The Syriac language, a dialect of Aramaic spoken today in the Mesopotamian Plateau between Syria and Iraq, was once used widely throughout the Middle East. The Gospels were translated into Syriac early on, and Syriac studies today help document the historical relationships among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. These days, most speakers of Syriac come from Syria and Iraq, two countries which are wracked by civil war and from which many Syriac speakers are fleeing.

An NEH-funded website devoted to the Syriac language is an international editorial collaboration led by experts at Vanderbilt and Princeton universities. Part of the website is a gazetteer containing descriptions of more than twenty-four hundred places relevant to the study of Syriac. Approximately ten thousand manuscripts or manuscript fragments written in Syriac survive worldwide.

Anne Marie Deer Owens writes in Research News, an online publication at Vanderbilt University, that the website’s “online tools serve a broad audience interested in the Syriac cultural heritage, including researchers and students in Middle Eastern studies, classics, medieval history, religious studies, biblical studies and linguistics.” Regarding the current political situation in Syria, Owens quotes David Michelson, editor of The Syriac Gazetteer, who notes, “With such disruption and migration, there is a real risk that minority communities will not be able to maintain their unique cultural identities.”

Scholars and general readers alike can browse the interactive map on the website, searching for specific sites, such as those of churches or particular aspects of togography, which may yield further information on previous settlements.