Classical Syriac I

Course Status: 
CEU code: 
SLTG 5003
CEU credits: 
ECTS credits: 
Academic year: 
Start and end dates: 
12 Sep 2016 - 9 Dec 2016
Non-degree Specialization: 
EMS—Advanced Certificate in Eastern Mediterranean Studies
Non-degree Specialization: 
ACRS—Advanced Certificate in Religious Studies
István Perczel

Classical Syriac I


Level: the course is open to MA and PhD-level students

CEU credits: 2

Academic year: 2016/2017

Semester: Fall

Unit: SLTG


CEU Instructor: István Perczel

Classical Syriac (Ktobonoyo: “the Bookish Language”) is an Aramaic dialect that served as the literary language of the Aramaic-speaking Christian communities. The golden age of Syriac literature extended from the third to the seventh century AD and has produced a great amount of important literature, partly as original works and partly as translations from the Greek. After the Arab conquest of the Middle East, besides producing original works, Syriac served as a bridge language and culture between Greek and Arabic; its influence extended as far as India and China, while the Syriac alphabet constituted the basis for the Sogdian and Uygur scripts, thus indirectly influencing Tibetan and Mongolian, too. Diverse Asian Christian communities have used Classical Syriac as a liturgical and literary language up to the present day. The present course is offered to those just beginning their Syriac studies and intermediate students. For the beginners the course, as the first part of a two-semester training, will be an intensive introduction to this language. It will teach Syriac partly as classical but partly as a living language. Intermediate students will participate in a reading seminar.

During the term, the students will write three tests on the material studied (30%). However, as the classes are based on the students' active involvement, participation in the classes will remain the most important basis for assessment (70%).

Learning outcome Beginners will learn the Syriac alphabet (Estranghelo, Serto, East Syriac), vocalisation, the use of the diacritic points and the basics of pronunciation. They will be more thoroughly acquainted with the Serto script and the West Syriac pronunciation. They will learn to read and understand simple Syriac texts and, by the end of the semester, will be capable to compose Syriac sentences orally and in writing. They will be acquainted with the basics of Syriac grammar, too. Those who wish to continue may follow the second-semester course for developing their proficiency.

Intermediate students will learn how to understand an unknown text written in Syriac. They will improve their skills of comprehension and of grammatical analysis.


Learning Outcomes:


Intermediate students will l learn to read and understand simple Syriac texts and, by the end of the semester, will be capable to compose Syriac sentences orally and in writing. They will be further acquainted with Syriac grammar, more precisely the verbal system and syntax. Also, they will receive grounding in morphology, the punctuation system, syntax, verbal forms. Advanced students will learn to be secure in understanding unvocalised texts. They will learn how to understand an unknown text written in Syriac and how to read manuscripts. They will improve their skills of comprehension and of grammatical analysis.




The methodologies of learning modern and classical languages differ in the sense that in the case of modern languages one strives to acquire an active knowledge allowing to conduct conversations and correspondence as well as writing composition, while in the case of classical languages one is satisfied with the passive capability of reading and understanding texts. However, a number of classical languages, such as Hebrew, Classical Arabic and Sanskrit, are also living languages being actively used. To this group belongs also Syriac. Accordingly, the teaching/learning method will be a blend of the classical European grammar-based approach and of the methodology followed in the transmission of the language in the communities themselves.  Thus, besides an introduction to grammar, there will be constant exercises in translating and composition.  


Beginner/Intermediate students will read lessons from Abd al-Masih Naaman Karabash’s, Hergē d-Keryono [Reading Lessons].

Advanced students will read the Mimro on the Divine Wisdom from MS no. 15. of the collection of the Major Archbishop's House of the Syro-Malankara Church in Trivandrum, entitled: “Mimro on the Divine Wisdom, uttered by one among the pyllypw (most probably φιλόλυποι [philolypoi] "those who love sorrow: ascetics”)” (ܡܐܡܪܐ ܕܥܠ ܚܟܡܬܐ ܐܠܗܝܬܐ ܐܡܝܪ ܠܚܕ ܡܢ ܦܝܠܠܝܦܘ).

 The poem was written by Gregory Bar Hebroyo. Latest edition:  Mušḥō d-Mōr Grigōrios Yuḥannōn bar Ebrōyō mafryōnō qadīšō d-madnḥō, ed. Yuhanna Dolabani, Jerusalem 1929 (reprint with the additional title: Bar Hebraeus's Mush'hotho Book, Glane-Losser: Bar Hebraeus Verlag, 1983), pp. 99-114. The poem was transmitted under different titles, the one given by Gabriel Sionita, its first European editor, resembles our (anonymous) title: “Mimro on the Divine Wisdom, uttered by one among the Syrian philosophers”.

The poem is a philosophical allegory and, at the same time, a hymnic erotic text in metric form, representing the Divine Wisdom as a beautiful woman with whom the author is in love. Most probably in our, anonymous, version the emphasis on the text having been composed by an ascetic is important to avoid misunderstandings concerning its daring expressions and erotic allusions.

Advanced students are required to send a vocalized transcription of the manuscript text to read before the class and to try their best to understand and translate the text. The vocalized transcription will be corrected by the instructor and sent back to the students before the class.



Manuals, literature, manuscript:

John F. Healey, Leshono Suryoyo: First Studies in Syriac (Piscataway NJ: Gorgias Press, 2005)

 Abd al-Masih Naaman Karabash, Hergē d-Keryono [Reading Lessons] (Hengelo NL: Mar Yuhanun Kilisesi, 1985)

Sebastian Brock, An Introduction to Syriac Studies (Piscataway NJ: Gorgias Press, 2006)

Gabriel Sionita, Mimro d’cal ḥek-mtō alōhoytō amīr l-ḥad mēn filōsūfē suryōyē - Veteris philosophi Syri de sapientia divina poëma aenigmaticum (Paris: Frédéric Gabriel, 1628)

Major Archbishop's House of the Syro-Malankara Church in Trivandrum, MS Syr 15, fol. 2r-12v





J. Payne Smith, A Compendious Syriac Dictionary (Oxford: The University Press, 1902; reprint: Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999)


Archpriest Zeki Zitoun, Burkho: English to Syriac Dictionary (Sydney: Archpr. ZekiZitoun, 2007)


The manuals and dictionaries are uploaded to the e-learning site:




The actual schedule will depend on the constitution of the group, the initial level of the students and the pace of progress of the group. So, it is impossible to break down the schedule to weeks etc.