The Making of the Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage
The making of the Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage (GEDSH) was a long journey that began as a high school kid’s summer project, and ended up, twenty-eight years later, with the current volume containing contributions by seventy-six scholars from around the globe. In between, the language in which it was written changed once, its medium flip-flopped between print and electronic a few times, and its ‘operational center’ moved from continent to continent. Along the way, many individuals helped and contributed in making GEDSH what it is today. This brief story acknowledges their contributions.
The first incarnation of the project aimed at compiling, in Arabic, what we may call an encyclopedia of Syriac biographies, with an Arabic title1 more impressive than the content itself. A lemma list was compiled in the summer of 1983 in Bethlehem, drawing from the available Arabic resources. The list constituted 526 headings, each with a reference or two to the sources. Between 1984 and 1990, now in Los Angeles but still using Arabic, the list was transferred onto 3x5 index cards and was expanded to cover Syriac scholars (both Eastern and Western), modern writers, and a few place names. During this period, the late Anton A. Kiraz helped by adding lemma headings from Nuro’s Jawlatī 2 and Saka’s al-Suryān.3 By the end of this stage, the lemma list consisted of 1,300 headings, each with at least one reference giving the lemma’s primary source. Still, no articles were actually written. Later, the index cards would be used to add entries to GEDSH, especially for the first letter of the alphabet. A future encyclopedia covering biographies of minor personalities can make use of the index cards, which are now preserved in the Beth Mardutho Research Library, Piscataway, NJ.
The second incarnation of the project, code named the Syriac Hyper-text Project (SHT), began in 1993 in Cambridge, England, under the auspices of the Syriac Computing Institute, the forerunner of Beth Mardutho. As its title indicates, it had in mind a different objective (a hypertext) and hence a different medium (electronic). A hypertext is a text that includes references, or hyperlinks, to other text that can be easily accessible, say with a mouse click. While the term was coined in 1965 (by Ted Nelson) and implemented in earlier systems, hypertexts became ubiquitous when they were used in the World Wide Web (WWW), first implemented in 1992. It was this implementation of the WWW that gave rise to the idea of SHT. A team of volunteers worked on two tracks: a technical track for the implementation of the software necessary to deploy SHT and a second one for the gathering of content. As for the technical work, A. Bolton implemented a prototype system that permitted the tagging of texts with hyperlinks. One was able to import such tagged texts into a database, from which one could generate electronic and printable versions. A database backend permitted the management of bibliographical references within the encyclopedia. The technical aspects of this system have been described elsewhere.4 In terms of content, standard Syriac references were used to compile draft articles by a team of volunteers that included Andrew Criddle, Ken Moxham, and Daniel Ponsford. About 1,200 articles were compiled between 1993 and 1995 in ca. 150,000 words (compare with GEDSH which has 622 entries with ca. 350,000 words). A full list of the resources used to compile the content is provided in the project’s reports.5 SHT was closer in spirit to today’s Wikipedia in that it relied on anonymous volunteers. The length and quality of the articles were rather mixed, with some articles consisting of a sentence or two, while others were a few pages. Sebastian P. Brock reviewed the material to determine which articles, after an editorial process, could stay, and which needed to be re-written by a specialist.
The third incarnation of the project took place in the fall of 1996 during an informal lunch meeting at Oxford. It was during this meeting that the decision to produce a printed edition, consisting of selections from SHT, was made, and Robert Kitchen kindly agreed to manage the lemma list. (It should be noted that the idea of a printed Syriac encyclopedia had been circulating for some time among Syriac scholars and was publicly suggested to the scholarly community by Witold Witakowski during the 1992 Symposium Syriacum in Cambridge, UK.) While the online goal was never abandoned, by the spring of 1998, the printed version took a life of its own and the project was renamed the Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage (EDSH). The following year, during the North American Syriac Symposium (SyrCOM-99 session) at Notre Dame, Robert Kitchen read a paper presenting the development of the project to the scholarly community,6 after which an editorial committee was formed consisting of Sebastian P. Brock, J. F. Coakley, George A. Kiraz, Robert Kitchen, Lucas Van Rompay, and Witold Witakowski. A set of guidelines was provided to the project by Everett Ferguson, editor of the Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, which was re-edited by J. F. Coakley on behalf of the committee to meet the requirements of EDSH. Scholars were invited to write articles. Soon it became clear to the group that the task was quite daunting. During the Third Peshitta Symposium in Leiden in 2001, it was decided to reduce the ambitious lemma list of 1,500 to a more manageable quantity between 300 and 500 entries. Sebastian P. Brock, George A. Kiraz, and Lucas Van Rompay became the editors of the now smaller EDSH. Robert Kitchen produced an initial lemma list of 300 or so items, which was then revised by the three-member editorial committee.
In a 2007 Hugoye paper on the status and challenges of Syriac studies, Lucas Van Rompay briefly discussed the project.7 In the same year, the editors increased their efforts, finalized the list of entries, and contacted a limited number of new contributors with the request to write missing entries. Editorial management assistance was provided by the staff of Gorgias Press which became the designated publisher; hence, GEDSH. As things progressed and more articles came in, the list of lemmata began to increase again, culminating in the 622 articles now included. The draft articles were made available online through WikiSyriaca, an online website that made use of MediaWiki, the same software used for Wikipedia, and was hosted by Beth Mardutho. During this period, Gareth Hughes acted as Wiki Editor. WikiSyriaca was short-lived as during the following year a cyber attack on the Gorgias network rendered it inoperable, but work continued ahead with the printed edition. In 2008, the management of the project was taken up by Lucas Van Rompay, and Aaron M. Butts was added to the editorial committee, first as editorial assistant and since 2009 as full member. Together, the four-member committee read and edited the entire draft. All seventy-six authors were given a last chance to make changes or additions to their entries in 2009, and a full manuscript was sent off for typesetting in early 2010. Maps, provided by the Ancient World Mapping Center (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), and illustrations were added in the fall of 2010. The coordination of the final editorial process was undertaken by Lucas Van Rompay, and the typesetting was done by Sr. Kassia Senina.
Beth Mardutho plans to continue the project aiming at a larger encyclopedia both in printed and electronic forms, hoping to resurrect some of the earlier content, from arīj al rayḥān and SHT, and in no doubt by further contributions from the scholarly community. For now, it is hoped that readers will find GEDSH a good gedsho!
1 Arabic title: Arīj al-rayḥān fī tarājim al-aʿyān wa-siyar mašāhīr al-suryān lil-afidyāqon George bin Anton āl Kiraz.
2 A. Nouro, My Tour in the Parishes of the Syrian Church in Syria & Lebanon / Krukhyo dil(y) / Jawlati (Beirut, 1967).
3 I. Saka, al-Suryān īmān wa-ḥaḍāra, vol. 1–5 (Aleppo, 1983–1986).
4 A. Bolton and G. Kiraz, ‘The Syriac Hyper-text Project: Report I’, in Proceedings of the 4th International Conference and Exhibition on Multi-lingual Computing, ed. A. Ubaydli (1994).
5 K. Moxham, ‘Syriac Hypertext Project: Report II’, in SyrCOM-95: Proceedings of the First International Forum on Syriac Computing, ed. G. A. Kiraz (1995), 65–69; R. A. Kitchen, ‘Syriac Hypertext Project: Report III’, in SyrCOM-96: Proceedings of the Second International Forum on Syriac Computing, ed. G. A. Kiraz (1996), 4–9.
6 R. A. Kitchen, ‘The soul of a new encyclopedia. The Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage’, in SyrCOM-99: Proceedings of the Third International Forum on Syriac Computing , ed. G. A. Kiraz (1999), 34–40.
7 L. Van Rompay, ‘Syriac studies: The challenges of the coming decade’, Hugoye 10 (2007).