From the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Dot-com crash, George Kiraz has consecrated his life to the promotion of the Syriac culture. With ecumenical repercussions

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:59:52



Interview by Martino Diez

Beth Mardutho, Piscataway (NJ)

July 2, 2019


Martino Diez - In the introduction to your New Syriac Primer you write that “Syriac can be a passion (or madness!), not just a language” (p. xx). Where does this passion come from?

George Kiraz - When I was a little child in Bethlehem, my father used to send my sisters and me to study Syriac with the local priest. And of course, kids don’t like to do extra-work in the summer… My father used to give us 2,5 qurūsh (piasters) as a weekly allowance for studying Syriac, with that sum you could just buy an ice cream! Later, however, my father told me that the priest had asked if I could join the gudo, the liturgical choir. This implied to learn more Syriac and that’s where the passion began. Of course everybody in the church was saying to me “good boy”, shātir, maybe this had also its weight at the beginning. Then the passion turned into madness.


MD - A madness which was to fully manifest itself in the US… 

GK - I finished high school in Beit Jala in 1983. Immediately after, I moved to Los Angeles with my mom, reaching my sister who was already living in the US. I attended college there: electrical engineering, so typical of Middle Eastern boys!

In 1984 I took my first computer programming course and I told my professor that I wanted to create a program to write Syriac. “It’s difficult,” he answered me, but two years later I eventually succeeded in developing a font with Multi-lingual scholar, a DOS-based program. We used to go to the Society of Biblical Literature to show the software and sell it to scholars, because it worked with Syriac, Arabic and Hebrew. And on one of these occasions I was invited to present the program to the Symposium Syriacum in Louvain, in Belgium. It was 1988 and I gave a talk at the conference. But more importantly, I met Sebastian Brock: I remember talking to him, explaining that I had been working on Syriac for the Church and the preservation of heritage, but I wanted to do it on an academic level. He invited me to apply to a program in Oxford and I got accepted. There was actually a misunderstanding about the timing, because I wanted to finish my bachelor first, but in the end I moved to Oxford in 1990 and I did the Master’s degree. My plan was to take just one year off, do my master’s degree, and then return back to the US and get a job as an engineer. But after a week I realized that I was going to stay, I liked it. And that was the point where everything flipped.


MD - A deep interest in heritage preservation was not new to your family. If I am not mistaken, the Dead Sea Scrolls were kept in your father’s house for some weeks shortly after their discover…

GK - Yes, my father was a friend of Bishop Samuel[1] in Jerusalem and in 1947, when the scrolls had just been discovered, Samuel bought them. At some point the Bishop got in need of some funds and he called my father telling him that there was a Jewish antiquarian who was ready to buy the scrolls. According to my father—but there is a dispute on this story, as with whatever relates to the Dead Sea Scrolls— he advised the Bishop not to sell them and figure out how much they were worth. My father provided the funds to Samuel, they became partners in the scrolls and he took them to our house.

Sometime before, my father had got to know Eleazar Sukenik, the famous Israeli archaeologist, while building a house in Jerusalem in the days of the British Mandate. Having found a cave with some remains in it, he had called the Palestinian antiquity department for inquiries. They had sent Sukenik and thus they had get to know each other. Therefore my father decided to take the Scrolls to Sukenik. Troubles had already began and they met in the no-man’s land at the YMCA. The scrolls remained in our house for some months, until Bishop Samuel decided to show them to John Trever, of the American Schools of Oriental Researches (ASOR). The rest of the story is in my father’s memoirs, which I have edited.


MD - It looks like you were predestinated to work on manuscripts … Was your family native of Bethlehem?

GK - No, my family comes from Harput in Southern Anatolia, a town between Diyarbakır and Malatya. After the 1915 genocide, many Syriac survivors fled to Adana, which was under French control, after the capitulation of the Ottoman Empire. The French opened orphanages and schools for the survivors, but they were defeated by the Kemalist troops and in 1922 they were forced to leave. Syriacs and Armenians, who had just endured the genocide, did not want to remain under Turkish rule and went South, to Lebanon. And in our case, to Bethlehem.


MD - Coming back to you: among your many achievements, you have founded a publishing house, Gorgias Press, which has made a name for itself for the quality of its publications. Was this project there from the start?

GK - No, it is a late development, and accidental. After finishing my PhD, I started to work at Bell Labs: they used to belong to AT&T and that’s where American research in technologies used to be carried out: at Bell Labs they discovered the laser, they created the UNIX operating system, the C: programming language… They used to license about 1.5 patents every day! It was a scientific powerhouse, controlling all telecommunications in the US, before the government split the company because it had grown too big. At any rate, I was in the research department there, which was really good because I was doing undirected research. You were allowed to do whatever you wanted, like at the Institute for Advanced Study. And you had a managerial level salary, which is really good too. Syriac was always on the side, but in the late 1990s I realized that I wanted it to become the main thing. At that point there was the Dot-com bubble, I don’t know if you have heard about it. I talked to Christine, my wife, and told her that I wanted to quit Bell Labs, join one of the new start-ups, work hard for three, four years, collect the millions and endow Beth Mardutho (‘The House of Knowledge’), the Institute for Syriac Studies which my wife and I have founded. At the time Beth Mardutho was already existing, but it was only on paper: we wanted to make it a real place.


Beth Mardutho.jpgThe logo of Beth Mardutho


Thus I quit Bell Labs and within a month I got five job offers, all trying to outcompete each other. Eventually I went to a speech technology company from the Silicon Valley. They wanted somebody to open a New York office. I got an office in Wall Street for them, which impressed them a lot. We hired staff and everything looked very promising. They were paying in stock options and the stocks started to go up and up. On paper, at least, we could see the six figures… I reckoned that in four years I would have a million aside to endow Beth Mardutho.

Nine months into it, in March 2000, there was the Dot-com crash. Most of the companies did not have any products, it was all about ideas and at some point the marked crashed. Stocks plummeted down from around 200 dollars each to 30 dollars, in one day. Among the five companies that had offered me a job, four went out of business in less than a week. Everything was lost, including my job. I decided that I did not want to work for another company. It was at this point that Christine and I thought of establishing Gorgias Press; and bit by bit it grew out. Later on, we took advantage of the 2008 housing crash to buy the property we are in now. Initially it was planned as an office for Gorgias Press, but when I saw the room where we are sitting now I realized that it was perfect for Beth Mardutho. We put poor Gorgias in the basement, reserving the best area for Beth Mardutho. We moved my private books here too, they make up the vast majority of what you see here. And that’s what we have now.


MD - By the way, where does the name Gorgias come from? From Gorgias the sophist? And why this choice?

GK - Well, we were convinced that if we open a press concentrating on Eastern Christianity alone, there will be no market for it. We thought we had to work in classics too. We poked for names and I came across Gorgias, which sounded like my name…


MD - Exactly!

GK - … and it sounded classic too. That’s why we picked up the name. But we utterly failed in classics, because it is not our field of expertise. We have become known for Eastern Christianity, Syriac, more recently Arabic, Islamic and Judaica… everything except classics!


MD - What are the achievements you are most proud of, in terms of books published by Gorgias?

GK - Again, everything started with an accident! When we opened Gorgias, I contacted some scholars at a Peshitta conference in Leiden in 2001 and  many of them accepted to write books for us. But I realized that it would take some years before the books were ready and we had to survive in the meanwhile. So I went through my library and picked twelve old out-of-copyright books which I knew people would like to have on their shelves. You must go back and think of a time when there was no, no Google Books. The reprints became a hit and we started to receive orders. And for the first five years, that was the business.

This experience gave me the idea of reprinting the 5-volume Bedjan edition of Jacob of Serugh. Later on, Sebastian Brock added a sixth volume. In my view, this is one of our biggest achievements, because nobody had the whole set of the five volumes. I had a volume, Sebastian Brock had two, nobody had the whole thing except the Princeton Theological Seminary. But the Seminary Library had rebound the volumes so tightly that it was impossible to scan them. At any rate, we finally managed to get copies of all the volumes from different people: it was a real co-operative effort.

The project I like most in Arabic was the reprint of al-Tabarī’s universal history, Tārīkh ar-rusul wa-l-mulūk, in the De Goeje’s edition, with the title on the spine, as it is customary in the Middle East. And now we are working on an ambitious project about the so-called Syriac Masora, the philological study of the Syriac Bible.


MD - And what about Michael the Syrian?

La Cronaca di Michele il Siro.jpgThe Chronicles of Michael the Syrian

GK - Oh yes, this too is an interesting story! We have one single Syriac manuscript preserving Michael’s historical masterwork: it is a 16th-century manuscript which was originally kept in Edessa and was brought to Aleppo after the genocide. The French Orientalist Jean-Baptiste Chabot, who first published Michael’s Chronicle between 1899 and 1910, had a copy made for him, but was never able to acquire the original. I wanted to publish in a single work Chabot’s translation,  the Armenian summary and the Garshuni [Arabic written in Syriac script] versions, but unfortunately the main plate, the Syriac text, would have to be a reproduction of Chabot’s copy, since the Aleppo Syriac community was not allowing to photograph their unique manuscript. They used to keep it in a safe with three different keys, one with the Bishop and the two other with two laymen: only if the three came together at the same time, the safe could be opened.

Since I knew it would be close to his heart, I presented the project to H.E. Hanna Ibrahim, the Syriac Bishop of Aleppo, telling him how unfortunate it was to have to rely on Chabot’s copy. The way I presented the thing and perhaps the possibility of becoming an editor in the volume excited him and he said: “No, George, we will find a way!”. He talked to the people and managed to convince them. The thing required a huge amount of funding, which I was able to collect thanks to a benefactor. Initially we thought of hiring a local photographer, but then we chose to rely on the HMML people[2], who were already performing a digitalization project in Aleppo. Everything came together and eventually we organized a conference in Aleppo to celebrate the digitalization of the manuscript: it was just two years before Syria went into troubles.


MD - The name of Bishop Hanna Ibrahim leads immediately to a tragic present, since he is one of the three Bishops kidnapped by ISIS. From the outside, it might seem that Syriac studies are made for the sake of the past, but in reality there is a living community behind it. How do you see the present situation of the Christians and specifically the Syriac community in the Middle East? Is there any future for them there?

GK - The Syrian crisis was a big blow to the Syriac community. Time will tell, but it could be as devastating a blow as the 1915 genocide. Obviously, there is no comparison possible in terms of victims, but the scale of the blow might be similar. In 1915 the Syriac community in Anatolia was almost annihilated and the survivors moved South and settled in several Arab countries. Between 1915 and now, there has been the Arab-Israeli conflict, which emptied most of the Palestinian areas, then the Lebanese civil war. From 2003 onwards it was the turn of Iraq and a huge amount of people left from there too. The last stable country was Syria. I am not questioning the fact that it was under a regime and a dictatorship, but the Christian community there was flourishing. With the Syria war, many have left and now you probably have more people in the diaspora than in the Middle East.

The problem of the diaspora is that people cannot survive as culturally distinct from the mainstream for more than a few generations, that’s a matter of fact. Syriac immigrants began coming to the US in the 1880s and then after 1915 in much larger numbers. Only a few of their descendants are still members of our community, the others have merged in the mainstream American society. I am sure they are somewhere, but if they are not active in our parishes, they are no longer part of the Syriac community, they may not even know that they belong to it.

In the Middle East you do not have to go to church to be suryānī [Syriac]. If you do not get married, you may enter the church only twice, for your baptism and for your funeral! Still, you would still be a suryānī, everybody know you are suryānī, you know you are suryānī. That is not the case in the US or Europe. If you are not practicing, especially if there is no community around, you disappear. Because of the nature of Europe, and the fact that the melting pot there is slower than in the US, the communities may survive longer, maybe for 3 or 4 generations, but the end-result is the same. In the United States, our Church, since the 1880s and until today, has always been a church of immigrants. By now it should be a Church of Syriac Americans, but as new immigrants come, the older generations are pushed out, so to speak, and they disappear. Now, the spring from which the immigrants are coming is going to dry up very soon. What will happen? We are talking about a total disappearance of Syriac culture: It may take 50 years, 100 years, but this is the trend. And meanwhile the problems in the Middle East are far from being solved.


MD - This sad note leads me to the next question. Apart from your professional activity, you are a Deacon in the Syriac Orthodox Church. How do you see your mission in the US? Is it only about preserving the past? Is it addressed to an ethnic or linguistic community?

GK - My work has two sides: Syriac study in itself, in which case I am dealing mostly with non-Syriac heritage people. It’s a bit unfortunate, we would love to have more Syriac heritage people into Syriac studies, but you know, everybody has to become an engineer… This part of my work consumes more than half of my time. On the other hand, there are the activities within the community, trying to preserve the language and the culture. I try to do things that work for both aspects and sometimes they overlap, but not always.


MD - According to the French scholar Olivier Roy, many people today are looking for personalized forms of religiosity which are disconnected from a specific cultural heritage. This may also help explain, in his opinion, the success of Salafism in Islam, because it is a Scripture-based movement which does not pay attention to local traditions. The Syriac Church is, so to say, the opposite: it is inextricably bound to the culture which it has shaped down to the minutest details. Can this tradition, through appropriate initiatives, withstand the trend towards simplification or does it simply require too much study for the common people?

GK - It’s a big challenge. As we said, in the Middle East you are suryānī culturally. You don’t have to go to church.


MD - But the other side of the coin is that in the Middle East, if you are not born a suryānī, you cannot become it, especially if you are not a Christian.

GK - Correct. And even if you do change, you are suryānī by extension. The problem at any rate is the trend to individualism and the big question for us is how to keep the youth in the community. People think there is a magic formula, but there isn’t any. It is a very complex issue, because if you try to provide what most people want, there is no point in having a Syriac church, they might as well go to the next Evangelical church.

Our heritage is a triangle with three vertices: Bible, Church Fathers and Tradition. Bible by itself doesn’t work; nor do Church Fathers or Tradition. To make a Syriac church, you need the three. We already see in our American communities a concentration on Bible and Bible only: it has now become munzal (‘revealed without human intervention’), a notion alien to our history. We see more sermons and less liturgy, because the latter is too long and in Syriac. If this is the trend, then just go to the next-door Evangelical church, they do a better job. The question at the end is simple: Do you want Syriac heritage or not? Most people among us do not understand or appreciate the heritage. And even if you try to explain it to them, it is difficult to grasp it, if you have not grown up with it. Mine is not an ethical judgement: the dude entering the next-door Evangelical church may be a better Christian than me, and I am a deacon. But Syriac Christianity is a religion of culture. Take the culture away, there is no Syriac Christianity.


MD - This leads me to the last point. The Syriac Church is, as you say, a tradition-based Church. In the world there are other tradition-based Churches, especially the Catholic and the Byzantine Orthodox. The split notoriously originated in Calcedonia in 451 CE and 1500 years later, I think it is fair to acknowledge that those who were against Calcedonia were not believing that Christ’s divinity had absorbed his humanity and those who were in favor of Calcedonia were not splitting up Jesus in two different realities. This growing awareness has paved the way to some common Christological declarations and a slow ecumenical path. Do you think that this path could lead somewhere in the near future? And could it answer the question about how to keep the youth within the Syriac tradition?

GK - The path is very slow, and annoyingly slow. There are pros and cons to everything. The pros to unity is that we will exist in the future, because otherwise there is too much fragmentation. The disadvantage in unions, for the minority, is that it could easily end up being swallowed up. Imagine a complete union between the Roman Catholic Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church: the sizes are so incomparable that there will be no future for us: whatever is left of the Syriac heritage will be consumed and assimilated. Maybe a better avenue, which is mostly, although not totally, achieved with the Roman Catholic Church, is to have agreements that allow for inter-sacramentality, but keeping the identity, liturgy and practices of the minority church.

padre nostro in siriaco.jpgThe "Our Father" prayer in Syriac

In my case, I drive one hour on the highway every Sunday to go to church, in Northern Jersey. Next year my daughter is going to college in Southern Jersey and she is going to ask the university if she can have a car, because sometimes she would like to go to church and the closest churches for her are Philadelphia and Northern Jersey. If we have a total union, people would say: “The Catholic church is next to me, why should I drive one hour?”. That is what would kill the minority church. It is all about how to make a union with the preservation of the culture of the minority church. Again, the whole matter revolves around religion as a culture. When religion becomes an individualist thing, you can go everywhere, it doesn’t matter.

To me, what is extremely annoying is the attitude of Byzantine Orthodox. With the Catholic Church there are those agreements, but if I enter a Greek church, I will be called a monophysite, most likely.


MD - And yet a full union would be desirable, wouldn’t it?

GK - If the two Churches were of the same size and the same power, then union would make absolutely sense. But I give you a nice anecdote about my daughter and how not having a full union can preserve the minority’s identity. My daughter and my son went both to Catholic schools. When the time came for Communion, they were put aside, simply because the priest or the nun did not know that there were agreements for inter-sacramentality. I looked into the matter and discovered that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has instructions for Catholic schools about how to behave with the other denominations. Since my daughter was upset of having been put aside, I talked to her and told her that we could go and talk to the priest and show him the document. But she replied: “No, I don’t want it that way”. She was very young at the time, she was attending elementary school, but her experience of being set aside gave her a deeper sense of Suryoyutho, of Syriac-ness. Having a different language, different rites, gives us a sense of identity. I always say: minorities need a bit of persecution sometimes to be preserved. The problem in America is that there is zero persecution.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] The Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of Jerusalem Athanasius Yeshue Samuel (1909-1995), a central figure in the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls (Ed.).

[2] HMML are the initials of Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, a Benedictine initiative to preserve endangered manuscripts all around the world: (Ed.)