Understanding the Syriaca.org Model

Syriaca.org: The Syriac Reference Portal is a collaborative online research tool intended to serve a broad audience including Syriac specialists, scholars in all fields, cultural heritage communities, and the interested public. Its methodological approach is informed by the emerging field of digital humanities. As such, it differs in design from traditional print reference works. The primary purpose of Syriaca.org is to serve as an online hub which aids researchers by linking together print and online resources for the study of Syriac literature and culture. Syriaca.org does not intend to be an exhaustive reference document. Instead, the linked data structure of Syriaca.org is designed to facilitate the discovery of new connections between primary data and scholarship in the field.

Syriaca.org provides four basic services to its users:

  • an online search tool for discovering links between existing print and digital resources
  • new reference works for defining entities included in the Syriaca.org index of Syriac studies
  • common digital standards to enable scholars to publish their own Syriac scholarship online and link it to Syriaca.org

Because Syriaca.org relies on new ways to organize information, it differs in design from previous print reference works in the humanities. Namely the chief aim of Syriaca.org is to link together existing resources, rather than to be itself a comprehensive or canonical authority on factual data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are certain important facts included or missing?

The new reference works developed by Syriaca.org (such as The Syriac Gazetteer) are intended to facilitate the linking design of the project by providing information for disambiguation and definition of the subject of each entry. These reference works were designed with extensible frameworks which allow the user community to collaboratively enrich the variety and quantity of data in the database, but the primary purpose of the entries is not a comprehensive or balanced overview of their subject. Instead, the goal is for users to be able to identify each entry’s subject precisely and see its relationship with other entities, whether within the Syriaca.org reference tools or in other datasets.

The Syriac Gazetteer creates a framework to allow the progressive growth of geographic information about places relevant to Syriac Studies, and is not intended to be a comprehensive summary of all the information (or the most important information) about each of these places. In light of limited initial time and resources, we adopted a "breadth-first" rather than a "depth-first" approach, consulting reference works which listed large numbers of places for the purpose of creating placeholders for as many places as possible. This enables The Syriac Gazetteer to give search results for more obscure places than any previous Syriac geographical reference work. The names, descriptions, events, and bibliographic entries for the initial release were derived exclusively from the reference works we consulted for a large number of places and from whatever additional works the editors were consulting at that time, but they are not to be taken as the final word. Instead, their presence demonstrates the framework which enables future users to add additional data with citations. If there is a particular fact missing which you would like added, it can be.

Why are most of the places not on the map?

The map includes only those places for which latitude and longitude data have been entered into the database. Places without those coordinates, which are therefore not displayed on the map, fall into two categories. Some places do not have latitude and longitude because their precise locations are unknown. For example, Ḥarqel is a place for which we have a vague prose description of its location “in Palestine,” but until new evidence is discovered which allows us to identify the location of this village, it cannot be placed on a map. Nevertheless, it was a place and has links to other entities within Syriaca.org, notably the author Tumo of Ḥarqel, and therefore it is included in The Syriac Gazetteer. Places relevant to Syriac Studies may thus be included in the database even if their precise locations are unknown. Other place records do not have latitude and longitude because, although their precise location is known by someone, the initial development of this reference work prioritized creating a structure with as many placeholder records as possible, rather than inserting more information about fewer records. For these places, users are very welcome to submit coordinates, which will cause them to appear on the map and improve the reference work for everyone.

How can I submit additions, corrections, links to my own research?

Any page on which you see an error should have a “Corrections?” link at the bottom, which will enable you to email the editors regarding the issue. Additions to our data are also very welcome and may be submitted via email to the editors (an online form to submit additions is in development but not yet available at this time). You are also invited to embed Syriaca.org URIs (identifiers for each place, person, etc. that begin with http://syriaca.org/, displayed prominently at the top of the entry) within any dataset or publication you create, which will allow links between your project and our reference work.

How is Syriaca.org different from Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is an excellent collaborative reference to general knowledge for the general public, while Syriaca.org aims to be an excellent collaborative reference work for the specific domain of Syriac Studies, with the dual goals of enabling the research of a specialist audience while remaining comprehensible to a general audience. While both reference works are collaborative, Syriaca.org is both narrower and deeper in scope, and because it describes topics of specialist knowledge, it uses a board of scholar-editors to vet submissions, in order to maintain the verifiability of its data for academic use. All users are encouraged to submit information about the persons, places, works, and other topics described by Syriaca.org with proper citation of academically trustworthy sources, but scholars with a specialist knowledge in the topic will review all submissions before approving them for publication. Nevertheless, Syriaca.org will never be able to compete with the volunteer workforce developing Wikipedia, and so we link to the relevant Wikipedia articles as a service to our users who wish to read a more developed article of general knowledge.

Is the term "settlement" too vague, or perhaps too small, to describe major cities as well as tiny villages?

There are two reasons The Syriac Gazetteer has adopted the place type "settlement" as a catch-all rather than distinguishing between various sizes of settlements, large and small. First, "settlement" already has a substantial usage among digital geography projects (for examples, Pleiades and Dbpedia.org). The Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations uses the category "Cities and Settlements" without distinguishing between subcategories, which is effectively the same solution. By adopting the category of "settlement" The Syriac Gazetteer is more easily interoperable with those other projects. Second, and particularly important when dealing with historical geography, population centers change over time, and what was once a small village may now be a major city and vice versa. Because place types are exclusive, were The Syriac Gazetteer to adopt size-differentiated types of settlement (e.g. metropolis, city, town, village, hamlet), then it would need to create distinct place records for the same place whenever it grew into a larger category or shrunk into a smaller category. Creating non-controversial ways to differentiate among these place types over two millennia would be a challenge matched only by our inability in almost every case to adduce evidence for precisely when a settlement crossed over the boundaries of these size-differentiated place types. It has been deemed sufficient and preferable, therefore, to retain a larger category of "settlement" without attempting to subdivide it.

Why don’t you have more historical maps like the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World or the Historical Atlas of Islam? What is a “gazetteer”?

In contrast to an atlas as a collection of maps, a gazetteer is a geographical dictionary or database of places. The distinction is significant in the status accorded to places which cannot be placed on a map. Some historical places certainly existed, but their location is presently unknown. Other places were thought to exist, and were cultural objects to which most of the properties of places applied, but they never existed in the sense that one might arrive there, and thus they too cannot be placed on a map. An atlas, if it refers to places of these two categories at all, does so only as an afterthought, since it is not able to place them on the maps, and in consequence such places are usually ignored by atlas users as well. A gazetteer, by contrast, can treat them as it treats all other places, collecting references to these places and the information (such as variant names, event information, and prose descriptions of location) which can be gleaned from those references. The Syriac Gazetteer recognizes the power of spatial reasoning and the “spatial turn” in several disciplines, and thus it provides maps as ways to browse and search for the place records which have latitude and longitude, as well as contexts in which to situate such places. But because it is a work of historical and cultural geography, an atlas model was felt to be too restrictive for the range of places, some unmappable, which are relevant to Syriac Studies.

How important are diacritics, the dots or lines above or below letters?

Diacritics are used in Syriaca.org to distinguish words spelled differently in the original script but otherwise spelled the same. There is at present no scholarly consensus on the transliteration of Syriac into English, so we accept a range of transliteration styles at Syriaca.org, though we prefer the style specified in the preface of GEDSH. Searching on Syriaca.org should ignore diacritics and return all results with the same Latin letters. For example, searching for "Hwita" will return place Ḥwīṯā. The Arabic prefix "al-" may also be omitted from a search term; for example, the search string "Qaryatayn" matches the name of al-Qaryatayn. The one exception to omitting diacritics is that the raised half-ring characters representing ʾOlaf and ʿE (U+0x02BE and U+0x02BF, respectively) must be included in a search term if it is present in the desired name. Instead of the left open half-ring U+0x02BF, typically representing ʿE, the reader may type U+0060 (the grave accent character `) instead. Thus searching for either "Reshʿayna" or "Resh`ayna" will return the city Reshʿayna, but searching for "Reshayna" or "Resh'ayna" will not.