A Relational Database of Syriac and Arabic Historical Registers and Archives
May 30, 2017
Submitted by Dr. Iskandar Bcheiry, ATLA Metadata Analyst
At the 2017 ATLA Annual Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, I will present a plan to create a database of historical registers and archives belonging to the Syriac community. These historical resources are found in various libraries in the world, and I will focus especially on the Library of the Forty Martyrs in Mardin/Turkey. The database would offer direct access to scholars and students of Syriac studies, Near East Christian studies, and Ottoman history to the registers and archives and the possibility to examine the copies of original documents as well as the possibility to search a word in the documents.
This plan combines historical studies, librarianship, the use of technology, scholarly communications, and programs that apply to religious studies bibliographers working in university settings. In short, the extracted social, cultural, religious, and geographic information in these archives will be stored in a database system and made of use to scholarly research by a schema program.
Historical and Geographical Background
The social ethnic fabric of the Near East contains, like other places in the world, various ethnic and religious groups whose historical roots are traced far back in history. The Syriacs or Sūryānī – referred to as Aramaeans or Assyrians – are the inhabitants of Syria and Mesopotamia who embraced Christianity in the first and second centuries. Because of the Christological conflict in relation to the nature of Christ, the Syriac world was divided into two major parts in the fifth century: Syriac Orthodox, also known in history as Jacobites, and the Church of the East, also known as the Nestorian Church. The Syriac Orthodox were those who rejected the resolutions of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 on the nature of Christ; thus they were subject to Byzantine persecutions. After the Arab Muslim conquest of the Byzantine and Persian territory in the Near East in the seventh century, the Christian Syriacs, as well as other Christian groups and Jews, found themselves as “the people of the Book,” or Dimmī, a legal term used to designate a protected non-Muslim under Muslim rule. After living under different Muslim states and dynasties such as Mamelukes, Turcomans, and Persians, the Syriac people were ruled by the Ottomans who occupied the eastern part of Anatolia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt at the beginning of the 16th century.
By the 19th century, we find the Syriac community had been greatly weakened and the greater part of them was found in southeast Anatolia, northern Iraq, and parts of western Syria. The 20th century brought with it radical events that enormously changed the life, culture, social, and religious aspects of the Syriacs. These events occurred when the Syriac community, as well as other Christian communities, lost a great number of its members during the First World War. In addition to that, the 20th century witnessed a massive Syriac immigration toward Europe and America. Many Syriacs lost contact with their relatives and members of the same family found themselves dispersed in distant places. However, more recently there has been greater interest in rediscovering some of the historical data on Syriac genealogy and communities, particularly from archives that date from Ottoman period.
Syriac Archives and Registers
In the Ottoman Empire, Syriacs kept their own baptismal, marriage, funeral, ecclesiastic ordinations, endowments, and other records. These records can be found in various libraries, churches, and monasteries in Europe, North America, and the East, with a large concentration in Mardin in South East Turkey, which was once the spiritual headquarters of the Syriac Christians and their patriarchate. The records followed a general norm which became a standard in registering the events.
Examples of Entries in Syriac Registers
Records of Ordinations
The records of ordinations were made of the following more or less occurring elements: Introduction (the Holy Spirit consecrated…) + name of the consecrated person + church for which he was consecrated + region of the church + liturgical event + Seleucid date and conclusion.
The Holy Spirit consecrated deacon Feṭrūs a priest for the altar of Morī Osyō in Manṣūriyyah […] in 1884 A.G.
The Holy Spirit consecrated ‛Abd Allāh deacon for the altar of Morī Ya‛qūb in the village of Banābīl on Sunday the beginning of Aylūl (September) 1884 A.G.
The Holy Spirit consecrated Ni‛mah a deacon for the church of Morī Isṭīfān in the blessed village of Klībīn in the middle of Aylūl (September) in 1884 A.G.
The Holy Spirit consecrated deacon Yūsef a priest for the holy church of Morī Gewargīs in Brahīmīyyah at the end of Tišrīn (October) in 1885 A.G.
Historical Notices and Colophons
Colophons contain brief descriptions of the date and place of copying, and the name of the copyist of a manuscript. Often in Syriac colophons, additional information would be recorded such as the name of the contemporary religious leaders: patriarch, mafrian, and bishop of the diocese. Or other relevant details might be added, such as special events that occurred in the life of the copyist or in the life of his community or country. The normal position for a colophon is at the end of the text. Historical notices, however, occur in marginalia: notes, scribbles, and comments made by readers.
These saints’ lives were copied and completed on the 13th of February in the year 1910 A.G., [1599 A.D] in the chamber of the holy church of Saint Mary the Mother of God, in the blessed village of Wānik, also known as Dayr Abū Ġālib. The copying of the book occurred during a difficult period: because of anarchy and unrests between the kingdoms of the earth; because of rebellion and the unjust rulers of the regions competing with one another. I, Gregory, the writer of these lives of saints, who by the grace of God is the bishop of Gargar I pray and appeal (to God)
Below, I would like to present a table that contains examples of types of information extracted from the historical registers and archives:
To learn more about this topic, consider attending my session at the 2017 ATLA Annual Conference, A Database of Syriac and Arabic Historical Registers and Archives, Saturday, June 17 8:00 am – 8:50 am.
 The historical background of the Syriac community and their archives is an adapted version of my previous publication. Cf. Iskandar Bcheiry, Collection of historical documents in relation with the Syriac Orthodox community in the late period of the Ottoman Empire, Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias press, 2010, pp.1-2.
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