Decorative Arch, Resafa, Syria. Copyright, Daniel Schwartz.

About Syriac

What is Syriac?

Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic that originally developed in the kingdom of Edessa (modern Urfa in Turkey), beginning approximately in the first century of the common era. A Semitic language with its own script, Syriac flourished as a literary language in both the Sassanian (Persian) and Roman Empires. Texts in Syriac comprise the third largest surviving corpus of literature (after Greek and Latin) from the period of Late Antiquity (circa fourth through seventh centuries C.E.). As one of several dialects of Aramaic, Syriac also served as a lingua franca enabling both commerce and religious missionary activity across political boundaries.

Why study it?

Precisely because the study of Syriac has received little attention until now, sources in Syriac hold immense value for increasing our historical understanding of the Middle East and Asia. Perhaps more than ten thousand manuscripts or manuscript fragments written in Syriac survive today. These manuscripts are firsthand evidence for documenting history over a wide geographic range. The oldest of these manuscripts are over 1500 years old; many are unique sources for Middle Eastern and Asian history covering a diverse range of topics.

Historians of religion have perhaps had the most interest in Syriac sources, particularly for their usefulness in documenting key moments in the development of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions of Late Antiquity. In addition to religious history, sources in Syriac are valuable for research on a broad range of questions in intellectual and cultural history. Beyond cultural or intellectual history, further historical evidence in Syriac includes unique sources for political history over the entire history of the Middle East.

Because of the unexploited riches of these source materials, scholarly interest in Syriac has risen dramatically in the last two decades. Based on the fruits of this recent growth of scholarship, it is certain that further research on the history of Syriac communities, their cultures, and their literature will be a source of significant new discoveries and advancement in the study of the Middle East and central Asia.

Further introduction to Syriac studies can be found through the following online resources: