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RU Libraries partner with Syriac Institute, to preserve and promote collections on Middle-East minorities

Farideh Tehrani and George Kiraz
Farideh Tehrani, Libraries' preservation librarian and collection development selector for Middle Eastern Studies, on the left, and George Kiraz look at illustrations in The Monuments of Nineveh by Austen Henry Layard. The book, reprinted by Gorgias Press in 2004, was initially printed in 1853 by John Murray in London, England.

Through the dedicated efforts of one man, a wealth of rare and valuable materials about minorities in the Middle East has been saved, collected, and brought together into one comprehensive collection. Through a recently developed partnership with the Rutgers University Libraries, that collection will be preserved digitally and made broadly available to the worldwide scholarly community.

George A. Kiraz comes from a family with a rich background of involvement in Middle East history. His great-great uncle Thomas and great uncle Giragos were skilled scribes of Syriac liturgical manuscripts (Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic that was commonly used throughout the Middle East, from the 5th through the 14th centuries). His father Anton, an immigrant from Southeast Turkey to Palestine in the 1920's, was a prominent businessman in Bethlehem who discovered the Talpiot ossuaries in Jerusalem in 1945 and helped acquire the first four Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.

While engaged in post-graduate study in computer science at the University of Cambridge in 1992 George Kiraz noted, with growing concern, that there was lack of any organized effort to preserve and collect publications that illuminate the proud history of Syriac culture as well as the history and culture of other Middle East minorities. Motivated both by pride in his heritage and a determination to assist in its preservation, he founded Beth Mardutho [Syriac for 'house of knowledge']: The Syriac Institute whose aim was to advance the field of Syriac academic studies through the use of computer technology.

Over the intervening two decades that followed Kiraz, with the financial support of friends and colleagues, has build a vast private collection of books and manuscripts, which forms the heart of the Beth Mardutho Research Library (BMRL). The BMRL has also acquired two other significant collections of private scholarly libraries, including a significant collection of rare materials from Abrohom Nuro and an extensive library devoted to Armenian studies from Edward G. Mathews. The collection of materials at BMRL, comprised of over 30,000 items dedicated solely to the study of Syriac and the broader Middle Eastern context, is rivaled only by the libraries of the world's finest research institutions.

The rare items in the Beth Mardutho Research Library include:

  • Kiāb al-dur al-farīd fi tafsīr al-‘ahd al-jadīd by Bar Salībī (an Arabic commentary on the Gospels).
  • A collection of ethnic newspapers published by immigrants in New Jersey in the early 20th century, in different languages that all used the Syriac script.
  • Taarikh suriyyah, by Yusuf al-Dibs (an eight-volume history of Syria from ancient times to the Ottoman Period, in Arabic).
  • Books on Peshitta, one of the earliest translations of the Old Testament into a language other than Hebrew (the translatin, into Syriac, was prepared by Syriac Jews).
  • Cassette recordings of the liturgies of the Oriental Orthodox Christians of the Middle East and South Asia, in their native languages.
  • Over 15,000 letters and telegrams from the Patriarchal Archive of Madin, Turkey from the mid 1850s to the 1930s.

The Beth Mardutho Research Library primarily holds texts in Syriac, Arabic, English, French, German, Greek, and Latin. The library also contains publications in less-common languages such as Aramaic, Armenian, Coptic, Malayalam, and Turkish.

In addition to the resources of the research library, Beth Mardutho: The Syriac Institute also publishes an online, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the scholarly study of Syriac called Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, featuring articles pertaining to Syriac literature, religion, history, and culture along with critical book reviews that pertain to Syriac studies. Moreover, Beth Mardutho sponsors the publication of other scholarly resources devoted to Syriac, such as the recently released Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage. This work, over a decade in the making, includes over 600 entries written by more than 70 scholars from around the world.

What Beth Mardutho: The Syriac Institute has lacked is both a connection to a respected institution of higher education and the means of conducting large-scale digital preservation of its rare materials. Both shortcomings have been removed through a partnership the institute formed this spring with the Rutgers University Libraries.

Through the agreement signed between the two parties, the Libraries will digitally archive, preserve, and make publically accessible all works in the Beth Mardutho: The Syriac Institute in the public domain (that have no copyright restrictions). The works will become part of RUcore, an open access institutional repository that makes the significant intellectual property of Rutgers University faculty and Rutgers University departments, centers, and institutes permanently and freely accessible for scholars and researchers around the globe.

The Libraries will also provide facilities for conferences and symposia organized or cosponsored by the Beth Mardutho: The Syriac Institute and will provide storage space for rare print materials of the institute.

The Rutgers University Libraries are delighted with this new partnership, in recognition that access to the materials of Beth Mardutho: The Syriac Institute will significantly enhance the resources available for scholarly study of ancient history, the Middle East, languages, and religion at Rutgers. Middle Eastern Studies faculty members at Rutgers have already praised the Beth Mardutho: The Syriac Institute, noting that: "The research library includes a number of rare works such as manuscripts, rare editions, and books printed by now defunct Middle East publishing houses. Because of this, many of the books in can not be found in any other library, including the libraries of Princeton and Harvard … The Beth Mardutho Research Library will directly address the academic interests and needs of Rutgers faculty and students across four departments and three programs, as well as students in a wide array of cultural and religious organizations. And with access to these materials, the university will be in a much stronger position to seek external funding for these areas in the future."

Janice T. Pilch, Copyright and Licensing Librarian at the Rutgers University Libraries, commented: "The Beth Mardutho Research Library holds a very interesting and valuable collection of material on Syriac heritage and language, and the languages, histories, cultures and traditions of the Middle East's minorities. To see the physical collection is to realize how much care and effort it took to amass this unique material. It is a great privilege for the Rutgers University Libraries to partner with the Syriac Institute in this project that will benefit scholars across the world."

For more information about Beth Mardutho: The Syriac Institute, please see: www.bethmardutho.org

For more information about RUcore, please see: rucore.libraries.rutgers.edu/

Posted June 21, 2012;