George Kiraz

Visiting Lecturer in Near Eastern Studies
Phone: 
609-258-9562
Office Location: 
15 Dillon Court West

 

I first encountered Syriac when my father sent me, along with my sisters, to study the language with a local priest in my hometown of Bethlehem. Syriac churches often incorporate children into their liturgies, and I was soon asked to read Syriac and Syro-Arabic (garshunography) from the parish manuscripts. The colorful manuscripts and the beautiful chants aroused an interest in Syriac which has remained with me my entire life.

Shortly after immigrating to the US in 1983, I enrolled in a local college to study computing and continued to teach myself Syriac on the side. Of course, I never imagined that I would pursue Syriac professionally, but while I was still an undergraduate, something happened that would change the course of my career. I was walking in the mall when I saw a book with an unusual cover that immediately caught my attention: a background with an image of Egyptian hieroglyphics, paired with a binary sequence of 0s and 1s superimposed over one corner. The book was James Allen’s Natural Language Understanding (1987), which discusses how to program computers to process language like humans. Thanks to Allen’s book, I began to see a connection between my professional background in computer science and my passion for Syriac, and after completing my undergraduate studies I pursued an M.St in Syriac studies at Oxford and a doctorate in computational linguistics at Cambridge.

As it turned out, combining computational linguistics with Syriac was an excellent choice. While at Oxford and Cambridge, I began to put to practice what I have learned: I produced A Computer-Generated Concordance to the Syriac New Testament in six volumes (Brill, 1993) and Comparative Edition of the Syriac Gospels in four volumes (Brill, 1996). After graduating, I worked at Bell Labs as a research scientist from 1996 to 2000 and I revised my dissertation into a monograph title Computational Nonlinear Morphology with Emphasis on Semitic Languages (Cambridge University Press, 2001). After leaving Bell Labs, I received a one-year research position at Columbia University for the academic year 2004–2005.

My computer background allowed me to contribute to the new field of digital humanities. In 1997, I helped digitize over 700 audio recordings of Syriac sacred music that were recorded in 1960 in NJ, now hosted at The Catholic University of America [http://sor.cua.edu/bethgazo]. The following year, I founded one of the earliest peer-reviewed open-source online journals, Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, and help to found the Association of Peer-Reviewed Electronic Journals in Religion (1998–2003), an organization designed to promote the development of open-source online journals, a novel idea at the time. In 1999, I worked with The Catholic University of America, Brigham Young University, and Duke University to produce eBethArké, one of the earliest digitization projects of a Middle Eastern studies library, now hosted at Rutgers University [http://www.libraries.rutgers.edu/rul/projects/ebetharke]. Later, I headed a project to digitize 19th- and early 20th-century archival material from Mardin, Turkey, written in Syriac, Syro-Arabic, Arabic, Syro-Ottoman, and Ottoman, now preserved at Beth Mardutho in Piscataway.

I have written a few works on Syriac philology and pedagogy: The Syriac Dot: A Short History (Gorgias, 2015), Tūrāṣ Mamllā: A Grammar of the Syriac Language, Volume I: Syriac Orthography (Gorgias, 2012), and The Syriac Primer (Sheffield Academic Press, 1998). I co-edited with Sebastian Brock the Gorgias Concise Syriac-English, English-Syriac Dictionary (Gorgias, 2015), and with Sebastian Brock, Aaron Butts, and Lucas Van Rompay the Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage (Gorgias, 2011). My father, Anton Kiraz, was involved in the discovery story of the Dead Sea Scrolls; I edited his correspondence in Anton Kiraz’s Archive on the Dead Sea Scrolls (Gorgias, 2005). I wrote two books in Arabic: تفسير التركيخ والتقشية في اللغة السريانية / Introduction to Syriac Spirantization (Bar Hebraeus Verlag, 1995) and عقد الجمان في أخبار السريان [History of the Syriacs in the Holy Land] (Bar Hebraeus Verlag, 1988). Currently, I am the co-editor (with Andreas Juckel) of the Antioch Bible, a new bilingual edition of the Syriac Peshitta, and the Editor-in-Chief of the Syriac Electronic Data Research Archive (SEDRA).

I am pleased to be able to teach Syriac here at Princeton, particularly because it complements so many other Middle Eastern languages. While many people choose to study Syriac because of its ties to ancient Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Syriac is also valuable for Christian Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, and modern Middle Eastern studies. The Syriac community has been a vibrant part of the Middle East for over 2,000 years, and it is a great privilege to pass on its legacy to the students here.