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News: Landmark Syriac Studies conference brings international research excellence to UK


29 April 2024


A landmark conference about Syriac Studies brought more than 70 researchers from 20 countries to Durham last month. The event was a hub for academic collaboration and knowledge sharing. It was also a formative experience for early-career scholars. Here, the organisers reflect on the key highlights of the conference and why there has recently been a major revival of academic interest in Syriac Studies.


Two Durham University departments collaborated to organise the Syriac Studies in the UK: Past, Present, Future conference. Since the emergence of Syriac as a subject of study in modern academia, British universities have produced fundamental research and shaped the field internationally. This event led to a new recognition of the far-reaching scholarly impact by men and women linked to British academia, but also the challenges that several of them had to overcome due to their sex or social background.


The Syriac language is a literary variety of Aramaic, and thus related to Hebrew and Arabic. Syriac emerged in northern Mesopotamia during the first century CE and soon became the vehicle of a vast and sophisticated literature that flourished for more than a millennium in its classical form. The study of Syriac has been subject of immense growth over the past decades and is now being integrated into several academic fields, including the history of the Roman Near East, Early Christianity, Late Antiquity, Medieval and Byzantine history and literature, and Islamic history, to name a few. The conference offered a unique venue to reflect on the history of the discipline, showcase ongoing research projects, and reflect on future directions and priorities.


Academic interest in Syriac is currently booming, but this is not an entirely new phenomenon. Syriac first attracted the attention of Renaissance scholars and Western explorers from the seventeenth century onwards; in the eyes of some of them, Syriac had the prestige of being akin to the language spoken by Jesus. Syriac literature comprised translations of Greek texts that had been lost in the original, some among the earliest Biblical translations, as well as poetry, historiography, Christian apostolic literature and theology, science and medicine, and so much else. Thousands of Syriac manuscripts began to be studied by Western scholars and became part of library collections across Europe and the UK.


Today, some of the largest and most important collections of Syriac manuscripts are in England. These include the British Library and the libraries of Birmingham, Cambridge, and Manchester Universities. Many of these manuscripts still require systematic study and research. As Dr Michael Erdman, Head of Middle Eastern and Central Asian Collections at the British Library, announced, about a hundred manuscripts from the British Library are currently being digitised and made available to readers and researchers from across the world.

Digital humanities projects are now opening up the field in unprecedented ways and facilitating new avenues of research. Prof David Michelson and his team (Vanderbilt University) presented their work on a new and freely available database based on the British Library manuscript catalogue, one of the most important collections in the world. Dr George Kiraz (IAS Princeton/Beth Mardutho) reflected on the fundamental development of Syriac computing from the 1990s onwards, which began as a grassroot enterprise by scholars based in the UK.


Thanks to these and other projects, a new widespread geography in Syriac Studies is emerging that is not confined to major institutions or library collections. It marks an important shift from the work by scholars in past centuries, whose research depended on physical access to specific manuscripts and their collections, as in the case of Alphonse Mingana (1878-1937): originally from northern Iraq and a member of the Chaldean Church, Mingana moved to England and put together an extraordinary collection of 662 manuscripts, as Dr Sebastian Brock (Oxford University) explained.


Pioneering and foundational contributions to Syriac studies came from remarkable men and women, such as Jessie Payne Smith (1856-1933). She is known as the author of a Syriac-English dictionary that remains the gateway to Syriac for English-speaking students today. As Dr David Taylor (Oxford University) showed, Payne Smith was also an active and committed suffragist, chairing the Oxford Women’s Suffrage Society in 1904-13. The role of women was not confined to modern scholarly efforts. Over the centuries, they were also involved in the production of manuscripts, as demonstrated by Dr Lucy Parker (Nottingham University). At the same time, this conference was a unique opportunity to reflect on the intellectual contributions by past scholars, such as Michael Weitzmann’s research on the Syriac Old Testament and a pivotal text in the emergence of Syriac literature, under the guidance of Prof Alison Salvesen (Oxford University).


Importantly, Durham played and continues to play a leading role in the field. Dr Dan Batovici (KU Leuven) outlined the influential work by J.B. Lightfoot (1828-1889), Bishop of Durham, on the earliest Christian apostolic writers, and brought to the fore his collaborations with Syriac scholars across Britain. Prof Francis Watson (Durham) presented a fresh re-evaluation of the research by F.C. Burkitt (1864-1935) on one of the earliest and foundational texts of Syriac literature, the Acts of Thomas. Prof John Healey, now Emeritus Professor at Manchester but previously at Durham, offered a closing reflection on the current status of Syriac in UK academia and future research directions.

Above all, this conference was a wonderful example of academic collaboration, knowledge sharing, and research excellence. It was also a formative experience for early-career scholars and a useful venue for reflection on the history of the discipline and its future directions. Its success was down to the hard work of so many participants and an organising committee from across departments and institutions. This built on an exemplary collaboration between the Department of Classics and Ancient History (via the Departmental Research Theme Scheme 2023/24) and the Department of Theology and Religion (via the Centre for Early Christianity). The organisers also wish to credit the British Academy and Oxford University.



  • Karl Dahm (Durham University, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow)
  • Andy Hilkens (Oxford University, British Academy Newton International Fellow)
  • Ted Kaizer (Durham University, Professor in Roman Culture and History)
  • Mara Nicosia (Durham University, British Academy Newton International Fellow(
  • Alberto Rigolio (Durham University, Associate Professor(
  • Francis Watson (Durham University, Chair in Early Christian Literature(

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