Friday, August 30, 2019


Daniel King (ed.), The Syriac World. Routledge worlds. London; New York: Routledge, 2018. Pp. 842. ISBN 9781138899018. $176.00.

Reviewed by Yulia Furman, Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies, National Research University Higher School of Economics (

Version at BMCR home site


The present volume 'The Syriac World' has been published in the series of the Routledge publishing house 'Routledge Worlds', which offers comprehensive and magisterial overviews of principal historical epochs written by established experts. 'The Syriac World', edited by Daniel King, is dedicated to various aspects of Syriac culture, including history, literature, language and arts. It is intended primarily for scholars and students of Syriac studies and related fields. The book covers a vast variety of topics ranging from the birth of Syriac Christian culture and its pagan past to the modern descendants of the ancient Syriac churches spread all over the world. Thirty-nine contributions are divided between five major parts.

The first part, 'Backgrounds' (pp. 11-43), is concerned with the historical and political preconditions in which Syriac culture emerged and developed over the centuries: the socio-political situation in the eastern provinces of the Roman and later of the Byzantine Empire (Muriel Debié) and a brief outline of the history of Sasanian Iran (Touraj Daryaee).

The second part, 'The Syriac World in Late Antiquity' (pp. 47-201), deals with various topics on religion in the Syriac-speaking world. The reader can familiarize herself with pre-Christian beliefs (of both Aramaic and Greco-Roman provenance) in Edessa and North Syria, which are reconstructed mostly from inscriptions, theophoric elements in personal names, and images on coins (John F. Healy). Legendary accounts on the coming of Christianity to Mesopotamia (Teaching of Addai and Acts of Mar Mari) and a critical assessment of them can be found in the contribution by David G.K. Taylor. The author offers a fresh view on the role and function of the Teaching of Addai, which he argues was aimed at establishing the supremacy of Edessa and its elites (as opposed to Nisibis) in bringing the new religion into the region. A number of papers discuss the complex history of the Syriac Churches and the religious life of their adherents: the factors which influenced the establishment of the Churches and the history of these processes (Volker Menze); various forms of active religious practices in the Syriac-speaking community (daughters and sons of the covenant, stylites, solitaries, semi-coenobitism) (by Florence Jullien); an overview of numerous, both actual and already non-existent, denominations of the Syriac Churches (Dietmar W. Winkler); the history of the Church of the East under the Sasanian dominion (Geoffrey Herman) and during the 'Abbasid Caliphate (Geoffrey Herman); Syriac Orthodox Christians in the Roman Empire and the formation of their identity (Nathanael Andrade). Finally, two chapters contribute to the intriguing theme of interactions between the local forms of Christianity and the other religions of the region. The much-debated topic of the influence of Judaism and its ideas on Syriac literature and vice versa is covered in the contribution of Michal Bar-Asher Siegal. Of no less importance and interest are the early accounts of Christian Syriac writers on the Arab conquests and the rise of Islam (Michael Penn).

The Syriac language and related aspects are presented in the third part of the volume (pp. 205-289). The opening chapter by Holger Gzella describes the emergence of Syriac as a literary idiom in the first years of the common era (the so-called Old Syriac), its connection to literary Aramaic idioms of the preceding epoch and the establishment of Classical Syriac as a written standard language of Syriac Christianity. The contribution of Aaron Butts sets the Syriac language into the context of the Aramaic language family and outlines its four successive periods in the Syriac literature (Old Syriac, Early Syriac, Classical Syriac and Post-Classical Syriac). The modern representatives of the Aramaic subgroup, not being directly related to Syriac and mostly spoken by Christian and Jewish communities in parts of modern Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, are covered by Geoffrey Khan in the sixteenth chapter. Finally, Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet discusses material means of the transmission of the Syriac language (inscriptions and manuscripts) and the culture of writing.

The Syriac literature and the material culture of Late Antiquity are covered in the fourth, most extensive, part (pp. 293-580). The chapter by Jonathan Loopstra provides an introduction into the field of biblical translations into Syriac and traditions of biblical interpretation in West and East Syriac literature. Early Syriac literature, which includes anonymous writings (Odes of Solomon, Acts of Thomas), as well as The Laws of Countries by Bardaiṣan and his circle, and works of famous Ephrem the Syrian and Aphrahat, are presented in the contribution of Ute Possekel. Apart from this, the volume offers chapters on literature of various genres and content: Syriac hagiography (Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent) and historiography (Philip Wood), poetry (Sebastian P. Brock), the mystical movement in the Church of the East and its mystical literature (Adrian Pirtea), perception and further transmission of Greek philosophy in the Syriac world (John W. Watt), and translated and original works on medicine (Grigory Kessel). Material manifestations of the Syriac religious and secular life are discussed in contributions on the liturgical rites in the Syriac churches (Fr Baby Varghese), the architecture of Syriac churches (Widad Khoury), fine arts (Emma Loosley), and Syriac agriculture (Michael J. Decker). A very distinct chapter by Susan Ashbrook Harvey studies the role of women and children in Syriac Christianity. Syriac Christology and theological debates around it are outlined by Theresia Hainthaler.

The fifth and final part, with a somewhat misleading title 'Syriac Christianity Beyond the Ancient World' (pp. 583-796), deals with the history of the churches which came to exist as the result of the missionary activity of the Syriac churches in Central Asia (Mark Dickens), China (Hidemi Takahashi) and India (István Perczel) as well as with the history of Maronite Church (Shafiq Abouzayd). Beside that, the final part includes the contributions on a fruitful period of the Syriac literature, the so-called 'Syriac Renaissance' (12-13th centuries), by Dorothea Weltecke and Helen Younansardaroud, the history of Syriac communities and literature under the Mongols and the Ottoman Empire (Thomas A. Carlson), Syriac Christian minorities in the modern era (Heleen Murre-van den Berg) and the contemporary history of Christians in Iraq (Erica C. D. Hunter). The first editions of the Syriac Bible and the early centers of Syriac studies in Europe are covered in the chapter by Robert J. Wilkinson.

The volume is supplemented with three appendices (the list of the patriarchs of the Church of the East, the list of West Syrian patriarchs and maphrians; online resources on Syriac studies), index of maps and subject index.

'The Syriac World' is without a doubt a valuable and welcome contribution, which provides a summary of the current state of Syriac studies. The contributions are written by the scholars who specialize precisely in the subjects in question. The volume fills a gap in modern scholarship, since there are no comparable surveys. Le Monde syriaque (2017) by Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet and Muriel Debié 1 is considerably smaller than the present volume and covers a smaller range of topics. Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage (2011) 2 provides concise entries on key persons and phenomena of the Syriac world and, thus, is more of a reference book for Syriac studies rather than a comprehensive survey.

The present volume includes chapters not only on relatively well-known and studied subjects such as biblical translations, exegesis, early Syriac literature or historiography, but also makes such underrepresented topics as Syriac mystical literature or medicine accessible for non-specialists.

The diachronic maps developed by David A. Michelson and Ian Mladjov deserve a special mention. Each place marked on the maps has its own identification number, which is provided in the index of maps on pp. 824-834. With this number, the reader can find further information on a particular place through the online resource The Syriac Gazetteer. Moreover, the maps are issued under an open license and can be freely used and re-published.

The collection of academic online resources dedicated to Syriac studies and related fields in Appendix III promises to be very useful: not all of them are widely known among specialists, not to mention general readers.

However, it is perhaps not entirely honest to label the volume as "the complete survey of the Syriac culture". The selection of topics looks a bit random, and the content is distributed unevenly. Thus, certain subjects are addressed in several chapters, while other are treated only in passing or altogether neglected. For example, the history of the Church of the East is discussed in two chapters (8 and 12), but no contribution deals with the history of the Syriac Orthodox Church (Chapter 10 is concerned with another problem). Only one small section in Chapter 34 (pp. 700-701) mentions Syriac grammatical tradition. Syriac scientific and astrological writings are also almost completely ignored. Although the bibliography in some chapters is quite enough to satisfy the readers' curiosity, other chapters list but a few entries (e.g. Chapter 12 refers to ten works, half of which are primary sources).

There is no standard transcription of Syriac and Arabic words applied consistently throughout the book, which can be confusing for the untrained reader. Thus, we have an accurate scientific transcription as in kāṯoḇā (p. 223), a reduced one without denoting long vowels and/or spirants as in makkika (p. 91), gmīrūtā (p. 356) or suryaye (p. 157), a non-standard one as in maphryânâ (p. 124) or even a transliteration as in ḥbysh' (p. 92). Occasionally, a wrong transcription also occurs: malkā zkāyā wenasīhā (p. 37) should be malkā zakkāyā w naṣṣīḥā; qatolīqā demadnhā (p.37) should be qatolīqā d maḏnḥā.

The lack of standardization can also be observed in renderings of geographical and personal names. Cf. Jundishapur (p. 191) vs. Gundeshapur (p. 570) vs. Gondēshāpūr (p. 449); Ja'qub (p. 93) vs. Jacob (elsewhere) etc.

A book of 842 pages cannot be entirely devoid of typos and layout errors. I list some of them here. The name of the famous East Syriac monastery Beth 'Abe is mistakenly written as Beth 'Ebe on p. 197. Diatessaron, the Syriac gospel harmony, is placed under Old Testament translations on p. 296, which must be a layout issue. The proper title of an apologetic treatise of Eliya of Nisibis named on p. 703 as Kitāb Kitāb al-Mağālis should be Kitāb al-burhān 'alā ṣaḥīḥ al-̓īmān. This looks like a copy-paste issue.

Despite the critical remarks made above, 'The Syriac World' is a very significant and valuable work, which is certainly recommended to students of Syriac studies, to specialists in related fields, and to all who have genuine interest in this fascinating subject.

Authors and titles

Diachronic maps of Syriac cultures and their geographic contexts
Introduction (Daniel King)
Part I: Backgrounds
1. The eastern provinces of the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity (Muriel Debié)
2. The Sasanian Empire (Touraj Daryaee)
Part II: The Syriac world in Late Antiquity
3. The pre-Christian religions of the Syriac-speaking regions (John F. Healey)
4. The coming of Christianity to Mesopotamia (David G. K. Taylor)
5. Forms of the religious life and Syriac monasticism (Florence Jullien)
6. The establishment of the Syriac Churches (Volker Menze)
7. The Syriac Church denominations: an overview (Dietmar W. Winkler)
8. The Syriac world in the Persian Empire (Geoffrey Herman)
9. Judaism and Syriac Christianity (Michal Bar-Asher Siegal)
10. Syriac and Syrians in the later Roman Empire: questions of identity (Nathanael Andrade)
11. Early Syriac reactions to the rise of Islam (Michael Penn)
12. The Church of the East in the ʿAbassid Era (David Wilmshurst)
Part III: The Syriac language
13. The Syriac language in the context of the Semitic languages (Holger Gzella)
14. The Classical Syriac language (Aaron Michael Butts)
15. Writing Syriac: manuscripts and inscriptions (Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet)
16. The Neo-Aramaic dialects and their historical background (Gefforey Khan)
Part IV: Syriac literary, artistic, and material culture in Late Antiquity
17. The Syriac Bible and its interpretation (Jonathan Loopstra)
18. The emergence of Syriac literature to AD 400 (Ute Possekel)
19. Later Syriac poetry (Sebastian P. Brock)
20. Syriac hagiographic literature (Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent)
21. The mysticism of the Church of the East (Adrian Pirtea)
22. Theological doctrines and debates within Syriac Christianity (Theresia Hainthaler)
23. The liturgies of the Syriac Churches (Fr. Baby Varghese)
24. Historiography in the Syriac-speaking world, 300-1000 (Philip Wood)
25. Syriac philosophy (John W. Watt)
26. Syriac medicine (Grigory Kessel)
27. The material culture of the Syrian peoples in Late Antiquity and the evidence for Syrian wall paintings (Emma Loosley)
28. Churches in Syriac space: architectural and liturgical context and development (Widad Khoury)
29. Women and children in Syriac Christianity: sounding voices (Susan Ashbrook Harvey)
30. Syriac agriculture 350-1250 (Michael J. Decker)
Part V: Syriac Christianity beyond the ancient world
31. Syriac Christianity in Central Asia (Mark Dickens)
32. Syriac Christianity in China (Hidemi Takahashi)
33.Syriac Christianity in India (Istvan Perczel)
34.The renaissance of Syriac literature in the twelfth-thirteenth centuries (Dorothea Weltecke and Helen Younansardaroud)
35. Syriac in a diverse Middle East: from the Mongol Ilkhanate to Ottoman dominance, 1286-1517 (Thomas A. Carlson)
36. The Maronite Church (Shafiq Abouzayd)
37. The early study of Syriac in Europe (Robert J. Wilkinson)
38. Syriac identity in the modern era (Heleen Murre-van den Berg)
39. Changing demography: Christians in Iraq since 1991 (Erica C. D. Hunter)
I The patriarchs of the Church of the East
II West Syrian patriarchs and maphrians
III Online resources for the study of the Syriac world


1.   F. Briquel-Chatonnet, M. Debié. Le monde syriaque: sur les routes d'un christianisme ignoré. Les Belles Lettres, 2017.
2.   The Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage. Ed. Sebastian P. Brock et al. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2011.

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