Syriac Intellectual Culture in Late Antiquity

Between the third and tenth centuries of the present era, the Syriac language was spoken in a region extending from its heartland in modern Turkey, Syria, and Iraq to the Iranian plateau and even China and India in the east, and as far as Egypt and Ethiopia to the south and west. Not only did native Syriac speakers extend across this region, but the language also served as a lingua franca for trade and as the liturgical language for several Christian traditions. As a result, Syriac literature offers a valuable lens for viewing the development of Christianity in the (comparatively neglected) regions outside the Roman Empire. Bridging empires and cultures, Syriac played a key role in the intellectual world of Late Antiquity as it appropriated and engaged texts and traditions from both west and east, and then in turn served as a conduit for transmitting these onward.

Yet despite such promising areas for study and, indeed, a recent resurgence of interest in Syriac literature, scholars in the field enjoy surprisingly few opportunities to share their work, especially in the UK. The conference on ‘Syriac Intellectual Culture: Translation, Transmission, and Influence’, held at Ertegun House on 30–31 January 2015, sought to fill this lacuna by providing an opportunity for robust scholarly discussion among specialists in the field.

The conference brought together advanced graduate students and early career academics from nine countries and three continents for two days of interdisciplinary conversation. The fourteen conference papers offered careful studies of translation, transmission, and influence in Syriac literature, while also—especially through the keynote lecture of Jack Tannous (Princeton)—engaging the methodological challenges inherent in such an academic exercise. Given the state of the preserved evidence from the Late Antique world in which this literature was situated, can we indeed identify an ‘intellectual culture’ at any point in time, much less across several centuries and ten-thousands of square kilometres?

Drawing on the riches of both the Bodleian and the Ashmolean, the conference engaged questions of intellectual culture in the context of material culture—the physicality of both texts themselves and of the broader Syriac intellectual world. In addition to juxtaposing textual realia and diverse Syriaca from the Ashmolean with manuscripts from the Bodleian through viewing sessions, a number of papers within the conference sought to engage an ‘embodied’ text by drawing on the physical and historical realities of individual manuscripts and their texts, paratexts, and illuminations.

We are exceptionally grateful to Dr. César Merchán-Hamann and Prof. Sebastian Brock for facilitating our interaction with the manuscripts of the Bodleian Library and to Dr. Senta German for introducing us to the diversity and riches of the Ashmolean. We are likewise grateful to our keynote speakers, Prof. Alison Salvesen (Oxford) and Prof. Jack Tannous (Princeton), and to Prof. David Taylor (Oxford) for his invaluable advice and assistance in the organisation of the conference.

The peer-reviewed publication of selected conference papers is anticipated in the Spring 2016 issue of the journal Aramaic Studies.

Jeremiah Coogan