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Preserving an Endangered World Culture

Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, flourished as the lingua franca of the Middle East and Asia from about A.D. 200 to 1200. Syriac texts are the 3rd largest surviving corpus of literature from the period, including over 20,000 manuscripts and fragments related to theology, philosophy, commerce, science, and medicine. From the 14th century to today, the Syriac-speaking communities of the Middle East have faced numerous threats to their survival. Indeed, these little known cultures are on the brink of extinction. This exhibit is part of research at Vanderbilt seeking to shed light on the rich and far-reaching role of Syriac culture in the world's history. Vanderbilt is joining with others around the world on a first-of-its-kind online reference hub for the study of Syriac history, literature, and culture, called We invite you to take a look around the artifacts exhibit and to explore! By learning about Syriac culture and history, you are helping to preserve it.

Linked Data from the Medieval Middle East

Alex Ayris discusses his role as a spring 2016 Dean’s Fellow in building a linked open data set for the study of the Middle East and to explore various means for visualizing and querying the data.

[Manuscript Ruling Frame]

[Manuscript Ruling Frame]

Circa 1980s
Artist: Elio Ostas
Beth Mardutho Research Library

Manuscript scribes need a system of ruled lines as a guide for their work, in order to make their writing uniform on the page. One common method of faintly marking such lines was a ruling frame. Thread or wires were woven in uniform lines through a wooden board. Before writing the scribe would place a blank leaf on the board and press it firmly to imprint the lines on the leaf. The ruling frame pictured here was made in the twentieth century as part of carrying on the Syriac scribal traditions.

[Name of Jesus in East Syriac Script]

[Name of Jesus in East Syriac Script]

Wood carving
Artist: Steve Stone, Jr.
Private Collection

This piece was created by Steve Stone, Jr., a student in Vanderbilt Divinity School’s program in Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture. The artist carved the name of Jesus as it is typically spelled in East Syriac script (Ishoʿ). The piece is constructed of padouk wood and clear acrylic dowels. Padouk is known for its natural crimson color and this particular variety originates from Africa. The artist chose to use this type of wood as it resembles the color of fire, a common symbol within the narrative of Christian scripture for God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

[Model of XML Encoding for Syriac Manuscripts]

[3D Model of XML Encoding for Syriac Manuscripts]

3D paper model
Artist: Stephanie Downing, Charlotte Lew, David Michelson
Vanderbilt University Libraries

Imagine you're a scholar studying the biblical book of Genesis. One important manuscript is the very early Syriac translation found in the British Library (manuscript add. 14425). In the past, studying this manuscript would have required a flight to the U.K. and hoping that what you need was in the 1872 printed catalogue. Today,'s Digital Catalogue allows access from anywhere in the world, with references to information about authors, locations, & events. A Vanderbilt research group led by Dr. David Michelson transformed the information from the manuscript page into a format for the world wide web. Each manuscript (bottom layer) is encoded in XML and then displayed as a webpage (top layer) on This project is an example of how digital humanities projects combine methods from the sciences and humanities in order to preserve the past for the future.

[Global Editorial Collaboration of]

[Global Editorial Collaboration of]
Map, reproduction
Creator: Stephanie Downing Website The Syriac Reference Portal is a collaborative research project publishing online reference works on the culture, history, and literature of Syriac communities from antiquity to the present. The portal includes: • Digital Catalogue of the Syriac Manuscripts in the British LibraryThe Syriac Gazetteer The Syriac Biographical DictionaryA New Handbook of Syriac LiteratureGateway to the Syriac SaintsSPEAR: Syriac Persons Events and Relations

Over 100 scholars and students in 12 countries have collaborated on the project. This map shows their locations.