Gateway to the Syriac Saints: A Database Project
Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent, Marquette University
Syriaca.org has created an open-access digital research portal for the study of
Syriac saints and hagiographic texts. It is a two-volume database entitled The Gateway to
the Syriac Saints.
The first volume, Qadishe or “saints” in Syriac, is a digital catalogue of saints or
holy persons venerated in the Syriac tradition. Some saints are native to the Syriac-
speaking milieu, whereas other texts come from other linguistic or cultural traditions.
The second volume, the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Syriaca Electronica or BHSE
is a digital reference catalogue on Syriac hagiographic texts. The BHSE contains the
titles of over 1800 Syriac stories, hymns, and homilies on saints. It organized according
to text and includes authors’ or hagiographers’ names, the first and last lines of the texts,
bibliographic information, and the names of the manuscripts containing these
hagiographic works. We have also listed modern and ancient translations of these works.
All of the data in the Gateway to the Syriac Saints has been encoded in TEI, and it
is fully searchable, linkable, and open.
Introduction: Syriac Hagiography
Hagiography is the genre of the lives of the saints (Hinterberger in Efthymiadis,
2014; Harvey 2008). It emerged in the late antique period as a literary form to
commemorate Christians whose lives were seen and promoted as models of sanctity. The
study of Syriac hagiography offers scholars an important window into the cultural and
religious history of the Middle East, and it brings together a wide array of literary forms,
including prose and poetry (Insley and Saint-Laurent, forthcoming 2017). Broadly
defined, Syriac hagiographic literature includes 1) apocryphal Acts, 2) metrical homilies
and liturgical hymns on saints, 3) extended Lives or Vitae, 4) shorter episodic vignettes,
sayings’ material, or miracle stories contained in larger collections, and 5) martyr
romances or passions.
The production of saints’ lives blossomed in late antiquity alongside the growth of
the cult of the saints. Scholars have attended to hagiographic traditions in Greek and
Latin, but many scholars have yet to discover the richness of Syriac hagiographic
literature: the stories, homilies, and hymns on the saints that Christians of the Middle East
told and preserved. It is our hope that our database will give scholars and students
increased access to these traditions to generate new scholarship.
Over 1,200 works of hagiographic literature are extant in the Syriac language.
The corpus of Syriac hagiography comprises texts that were composed originally in
Syriac as well as translations from other languages of the late antique world like Greek
(Brock, 2008; Brakke, 1994; Draguet, 1980). Syriac hagiography developed in the
context of the liturgy and alongside cults to local saints: vignettes of holy persons would
be read on their feast days (Taylor, 2012).
Syrian monks produced and translated many of the texts that survive. An interest
in monasticism and asceticism is an outstanding feature of Syriac hagiography. Many
Syriac hagiographic texts honor monastic saints and connect theses heroes to the
foundations of particular monasteries (Debié, 2012). The monasteries of Tur Abdin (a
region in South-east Turkey and center of the Syrian Orthodox world) produced
important hagiographic cycles on their founders (Palmer, 1990), and later hagiography
that comes from this region also gives us important evidence about the encounters of
Christians and Muslims in the early days of Islam (Tannous, 2012).
Syriac hagiography has a rich manuscript tradition with major collections now in
Berlin, London, Paris, and the Vatican (Bingelli, 2012b). The oldest extant Christian
manuscript, BL Add. 12150, is dated to 411 CE and was produced in Edessa (Bingelli,
2012b; Wright, 1871, II). It contains a list of names and dates for the commemoration of
western martyrs, together with a list of Persian martyrs and their feast days.
The critical study of Syriac hagiography began when Assemani published the
Acta Sanctorum Martyrum orientalium et occidentalium in 1748, a collection of Syriac
hagiographic texts from the Vatican library (Bingelli, 2012a). Paul Bedjan (d. 1920), a
Chaldean Catholic from Iran, later published a seven-volume series of saints’ lives in the
Syriac language: the Acta Martyrum et sanctorum syriace (AMS). Through the efforts of
orientalists François Nau and E. W. Brooks, many Syriac saints’ lives were published in
Patrologia Orientalis and Revue de l’Orient chrétien. The Bollandist Paul Peeters
produced the Bibliotheca hagiographica orientalis (BHO), which contained an annotated
index of saints’ lives and manuscripts from the Oriental linguistic traditions.
J.-M. Fiey wrote an important guide to the Syriac saints, Saints syriaques,
published posthumously in 2004. His book lists about 400 saints from the West and East
Syriac traditions, including modern saints. Saints syriaques is organized according to
holy person rather than hagiographic text. Fiey provides a brief description of each saint
along with pertinent primary and secondary material. It is a natural starting point for
scholars interested in Syriac hagiography. Sergey Minov of Oxford/Hebrew University
has also built an important on-line bibliography for Syriac studies, A Comprehensive
Bibliography on Syriac Christianity, (http://www.csc.huji.ac.il) (Minov, 2015).
Saints and their Lives in the Syriac Tradition
The majority of hagiographic materials are saints’ Lives and short episodic
vignettes contained within larger hagiographic collections. In 360, Athanasius of
Alexandria composed the first extended hagiographic narrative in Greek, The Life of
Antony of Egypt (βίος καὶ πολιτεἰα; PG 26: 835-936). This text became a ‘best-seller’ in
the late antique world, and its form was canonized as the literary exemplar for describing
the life of a saint. It was translated into several ancient languages including Syriac.
Subsequent late antique hagiographers imitated Athanasius’ narrative structure that
depicted 1) the saint’s childhood; 2) conversion; 3) asceticism; 4) miracles; 5)
extraordinary death; 6) communal commemoration (Insley and Saint-Laurent,
In the sixth century, Syriac-speaking Miaphysites (dissidents of the Council of
Chalcedon) composed hagiography on those who became leaders of the nascent Syrian
Orthodox church. One of the most important collections of Syriac hagiographic texts is
John of Ephesus’s Lives of the Eastern Saints (Brooks, 1923-25; Harvey, 1990; Saint-
Laurent, 2015). His stories commemorate ascetics who lived in northern Mesopotamia,
in monasteries near the city of Amida. John’s collection of hagiography is also an
important source for understanding the relationships between Chalcedonians and their
Syriac martyr passions comprise another important part of the corpus of Syriac
hagiography. These stories feature an account of the saint’s virtue, arrest, dialogue with a
judge, torture, death, burial and distribution or enshrining of relics. Examples of Syriac
martyr passions include the Life of Febronia of Nisibis and the stories of the Edessan
The Life of Febronia (AMS V, 573-615; Brock and Harvey, 1998; Saint-Laurent,
2012) is a hagiography that describes a monastic scholar, Febronia. She lives in
community with her fellow nuns in the city of Nisibis (modern-day Nusaybin, Turkey).
Her beauty attracts the attention of Roman guards, who have come to persecute
Christians and convince them to sacrifice to the Roman gods. Febronia refuses the sexual
advances of the Roman senators, and she is tortured and killed. A cult to Febronia
develops and spreads from Nisibis to Constantinople and even to Sicily. The city of
Edessa also promoted local martyr traditions around which cultic devotions grew. These
Edessan martyr stories include the Martyrdom of Shmona, Guria, and Habib and the Acts
of Sharbel, Babai, and Barsamya (Burkitt, 1913; rep., 2007). Syriac martyr passions
identified martyrdom as betrothal to Christ (Brock and Harvey, 9).
The Acts of the Persian martyrs is a vast body of largely understudied
hagiographic texts from the East Syriac tradition that flourished in modern-day Iran and
Iraq (Brock, 2009; Smith, 2014). These texts are important literary artifacts from
Christians living under Sasanian rule. The account of the martyrdom of Simeon bar
Shabba, for example, is one of the longest late antique Christian narratives in any
language (Smith, 2014). More than the 2/3 of the Persian martyr acts were set in the reign
of Shah Shapur II (d. 379), remembered as a time of great trial and conflict (Smith,
2014). Many of the Persian martyr texts, although set in the fourth century, were written
several centuries later. The story of the Martyrs of Mount Berʿain, for example, was
written in the seventh century, but situated 318/9, at the start of Shapur II’s reign (Smith,
2014; Brock and Dilley, 2015). Some stories, although vital to East Syrian Christian
memory, might have been purely fictive (Smith, 2012), as is true of hagiographical
literature from other linguistic traditions.
Syrians wrote not just prose but also verse to commemorate saints. There are two
main categories of verse in Syriac literature: metrical verse homilies called memre
(memra, sing.) and liturgical hymns known as madrashe (madrasha, sing.). Memre and
madrashe on saints show how stories about saints were retold in new literary forms for
liturgical purposes. They are important sources for the creation and diffusion of saints’
portraits in Syriac religious memory.
Sebastian Brock wrote an important article in which he expounded on the various
types of hagiographic memre in Syriac literature (Brock, 2012). He explains that the
genre of Syriac hagiographic memre comprises several forms, ranging from verse
homilies rich in narrative details to those that are largely panegyric. Often memre are
imaginative expansions (or exegeses) on earlier hagiographic texts (Brock, 2012). Jacob
of Serugh, for example, composed a verse homily on the forty martyrs of Sebaste (AMS
VI, 663-673), and it is clear that he used a Syriac translation of the Greek hagiography on
these saints to compose his verse (Brock, 2012). Jacob also wrote hagiographic memre
with the characteristics of panegyric, as exemplified in his memra on Sts. Sergius and
Bacchus (AMS VI, 650-661) (Brock, 2012). In these, the narrative element is not as
strong. Instead, the homily contains general praise for the virtues of the saint or saints.
Other panegyric memre in Syriac borrow rhetorical elements and schema from the Greek
encomium (Brock, 2012).
Madrashe, in contrast to memre, are poetic hymns sung antiphonally in the
context of the Syriac liturgy. Hagiographic madrashe are found in the West Syrian
(Syrian Orthodox or Maronite) Fenquitho, a collection hymns for Sundays and feast days
(Brock, 2012). Ephrem the Syrian perfected the Syriac madrashe. Many of Ephrem’s
madrashe commemorate saints, as demonstrated in his cycle of hymns known as the
Hymns on Nisibis. This collection contains madrashe on Sts. Abraham Qidunaya and
Julian Saba (Griffith, 1994; Brock, 2012).
Syriac poets also composed a type of madrasha called the dialogue poem or
sogita, which features disputes between characters, sometimes saints, who antiphonally
debate matters with each other. These debate poems show the intersection of hagiography
and exegesis. Sebastian Brock edited and translated a sogita that featured a debate
between Saint Marina - an ascetic who lived in a monastery disguised as a male monk -
and Satan (Brock 2008a). Many other such hagiographic dialogue poems have yet to be
Syriac-speaking Christians shaped their hagiographic tales according to the
models and ideals of holiness that were particular to their own anxieties, theological and
political values, and even geography. Scholars of late antiquity can discover features and
idioms particular to Syriac hagiography through comparing Syriac sacred stories to their
counterparts from the Greek- and Latin-speaking worlds. Much can be learned by
studying and contrasting different versions of a single saint’s life that circulated in
different eras. Often, later versions of a saint’s life will reflect the community’s higher
elevation of the saint described in the text (Saint-Laurent, 2015).
Literary similarities among hagiographic texts are apparent even to a casual
reader. Hagiographers imitated the motifs, themes, and narrative structure found in
biblical stories, other hagiographies, and even stories and myths from non-Christian
precedents (Greek, Latin, Mesopotamian, or Iranian). The literary similitudes in tales
about monks, martyrs, or missionaries are not coincidental. Rather, conventions for
depicting different types of saints and motifs for demonstrating their divine authority
were transmitted and canonized. Hagiographers took these patterns and reshaped them
according to their individual interests, impressing their stories with the marks of their
own culture, community, and ideological agendas. In this way, they crafted new stories
adorned with literary relics or spolia from earlier texts.
Late antique hagiography is also a fertile ground to study ancient translation
history and theory. For instance, the Syriac version of Athanasius’s Life of St. Antony
shares many features with the Greek account, but the symbols of holiness that the story
used to describe St. Antony are distinctly Syrian. Even if hagiographic tales contain little
historical data, they are nevertheless vital literary artifacts that speak of a semitic culture
at the crossroads between East and West, between Byzantium and Persia. The corpus of
Syriac hagiography, therefore, offers important insights into the literary and religious
history of Christianity in the Middle East.
New Digital Resources: Gateway to the Syriac Saints
At this juncture, it should be apparent that Syriac hagiography represents a dynamic
sub-field within late antique literature. In the past twenty years, scholars have shown a
greater interest in producing critical editions and translations of Syriac hagiographic
texts, but many remain unknown or unavailable to non-specialists. While print guides
and bibliographies provide a starting point for study, they do not reveal connections and
relationships among saints and their lives. It is our claim that digital tools can be an
immeasurable help in illuminating these links among texts, authors, and communities.
To meet this need, Syriaca.org has created a two-volume database entitled the
Gateway to the Syriac Saints on persons and hagiographic texts. Through linking data on
saints, hagiographers, and the locations and texts associated with them, our database can
generate new knowledge for scholars and show both the interconnected similarities as
well as the unique traits of these saints. Each volume is organized around a different
element, either persons (saints) or works (texts about them). Both volumes are also part
of larger databases within Syriaca.org on “Syriac Works” and “Syriac Persons,”
respectively. We have not created two data models for each of these volumes, but rather
we are using two existing data models. For works, we are using an adaptation by
LAWDI (Linked Ancient World Data Institute) of FRBR
(www.loc.gov/cds/downloads/FRBR.PDF). For persons, we are using our own
adaptation of TEI module 13 (Names, Dates, People, Places).
We have encoded our data in TEI-XML (Text Encoding Initiative):
http://www.tei-c.org/index.xml. The TEI is a consortium in the field of digital
humanities that has developed standards for encoding texts, and we have found that TEI
XML works well for translating our text-based data into machine-readable form that can
be accessed by other databases and institutions. We have used TEI for both our data and
metadata, and we have created our own schema for this data. One can find this here:
https://github.com/srophe/srophe-eXist-app/tree/master/srophe-app. We have released
our data under a Creative Commons license (CC-By), https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/. This articulates free access to the world’s
cultural heritage. It allows for the copying and redistributing of data, metadata, and
schemas in any format, and it also permits our users to adapt, reuse, and build upon our
material. That is especially important to us, since the reuse and development of our data
by other projects ensures that our work will have an afterlife beyond our individual
project. The only thing required of the user is to give appropriate credit to our work and
to specify if he or she makes changes to the data. CC-BY thus allows for the free use of
and access to our data, while requiring users to attribute our data citation back to us, since
citation and provenance are key foundations to good scholarship and the production of
We have created a linked social network of Syriac saints and their stories, joining
the persons commemorated in Syriac tradition with the lives that described them, the
communities and locations that venerated them, and the manuscript traditions that
preserved and transmitted them. Entries in the database have been issued Uniform
Resource Identifiers (URIs) so that other libraries or databases can interact with our data
and link their databases to ours. Such sharing and open-access is vital to our project.
We have created our own URIs based on the best practices developed by New York
University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in their Linked Ancient World
Data Institute (http://dlib.nyu.edu/awdl/isaw/isaw-papers/7/).
In order to solve the issue of search and display, syriaca.org has used
eXist-db. Members of the Syriaca.org research and editing team, Nathan Gibson,
Winona Salesky, and David Michelson, have recently expounded on the utility of
eXist-db at a symposium on Cultural Heritage Markup given by the Balisage
Series on Markup Technologies:
eXist-db provides a native XML database, for storing, processing and
searching our TEI files. eXist-db provides a number of configurable
indexing methods for searching XML documents, including a full text
search backed by the Apache Lucene search framework. An advantage to
using Lucene for full text searching is the level of control it can give to the
developer through a wide variety of available text analyzers. Lucene also
allows for the creation of custom analyzers as needed, as well as
customizable weighting of elements in the index. In eXist-db multiple
analyzers may be defined and used with different indexes.
We hope that Syriaca.org’s databases will make contributions both to the study of
Christianity in Late Antiquity as well as Syriac Studies more broadly defined. There is at
present no digital or print tool that brings together so many different aspects of Syriac
saints and hagiography in one place, with free and open access. We anticipate that this
will be a helpful pedagogical tool for teachers to show students (through visualizations)
the networks among ancient peoples and places in the Syriac world, many of whom were
connected by real or imagined lineages delineated in hagiographic texts.
Following is a summary of the contents of Qadishe and BHSE:
Holy persons venerated in the Syriac tradition, their lives, dates,
friends, associates, and outstanding traits.
Syriac Hagiographic texts: apocryphal narratives, Lives, hagiographic
hymns and homilies, and shorter hagiographic vignettes.
Short excerpts from the saints’ lives or hymns and homilies on these
Bibliography on critical editions of texts when these have been
Ancient translations of hagiographic texts that were originally written
in other languages of antiquity, like Greek and Armenian.
Translations of these texts into modern languages.
Manuscript information linked to Syriaca.org’s Digital Catalogue of
Syriac Manuscripts in the British Library and A Union Catalogue of
Syriac Manuscripts and E-Ktobe, a French database of Syriac
manuscripts. The data model for the manuscripts is “msdescription”
module 10 of the TEI, (http://www.tei-c.org/release/doc/tei-p5-doc/en/html/MS.html) based on a modified version of a TEI
schema developed by Elena Pierazzo for Arabic manuscripts as part
of Fihrist: http://www.fihrist.org.uk/about with some changes to make
the schema conform to Syriac description.
Geographic data on the places associated with the saints or the
production of their lives – linked to Syriaca.org’s Syriac Gazetteer. In
later stages of our project, users will be able to visualize geographic
networks with the Gazetteer.
For sample entries from this database, please see our development
It has become a commonplace for scholars in Syriac studies to note how much
work in our field remains to be done. Research desiderata range from historical
investigations to raw philological and text critical work on unpublished or unedited texts.
Translations of these edited works into modern languages will help scholars to integrate
Syriac material into their research and courses. As syriacist Sebastian Brock noted in
2008, hagiographic material remains a ‘little tapped’ resource (Brock, 2008b).
Syriaca.org’s Gateway to the Syriac Saints will provide a research tool for scholars and
students to see at a glance what work remains to be done to advance our field. Indeed,
data in the BHSE suggests that approximately 500 hagiographic texts on saints have
never even been edited. Of those that have been edited, many have not been translated
into a modern language. Thus Syriac scholars interested in hagiography need not suffer
from a lack of new material to explore. Because our database will be “community-built,”
editors and users will be able to make suggestions, corrections, and updates pertaining to
our data on an on-going basis, ensuring “quality control.”
Finally, we would be remiss if we were not to mention the relevance of our
database for the preservation of the Syriac heritage, whose modern-day descendants,
churches, and artifacts face on-going risks of persecution or destruction on account of
wars in the Middle East and aggression against Christians. Groups like ISIS are harming
and driving people out of areas (like Northern Iraq) that are important centers for
Syriac–speaking Christianity. The artifacts of the modern Syriac churches, both literary
and architectural, are under tremendous threat of destruction. Syriaca.org, therefore, has
a further obligation, as we see it, to use the work, scholarship and technology behind our
database to preserve the endangered heritage of the Syriac Christians.
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629–30. Louvain: Peeters.
Assemani, Stephen. E., ed., 1748. Acta sanctorum martyrum orientalium et
occidentalium. Vol. I-II. Rome: J. Collini.
Athanasius, Saint. The Life of Antony.
The Life of Antony and the letter to Marcellinus, 1980. Robert Gregg, trans. New
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La vie primitive de S. Antoine conservée en Syriaque, 1980. René Draguet, ed.
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