The Syriac World

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Daniel King
Routledge Worlds
  • New York, NY: 
    , December
     842 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Syriac World, edited by Daniel King, is a singular achievement, useful to interdisciplinary scholars, specialists, and students alike. I recommend it for inclusion in both private and institutional libraries. Edited for the Routledge Worlds series, which claims to provide “magisterial surveys . . . against which all future books on their subjects will be judged,” I suspect that this little bit of aspirational marketing might just be true, although it will be impossible to tell for some time as this book fills a significant lacuna in scholarship, so there is nothing to which to compare it.

There are thirty-nine essays by forty-two contributors (31% women) averaging 15 to 20 pages each with two in the forties and one over eighty (with over 100 figures!) covering the widest array of topics. These essays are divided into five sections: historical background, late antiquity, language, literature and material culture, and diaspora. This last brings the Syriac world into contact with modernity, while the others are largely confined to late antiquity. The editor deserves much credit for this considerable achievement, which is both scholarly in its up to date research while also being eminently accessible.

The essays include their own extensive bibliographies so interests can be pursued further. Non-Anglophone scholars abound, and this shows not in the quality of the English but in the many foreign language works in the bibliographies, which could be off-putting to students, but here I think will effectively entice students into the broader secondary literature, while deepening its appeal to interdisciplinary specialists.

Although I was initially dismayed at the lack of notes (a few essays contain modest endnotes) because I am a footnote junky, I came to appreciate the improved accessibility and reduced jargon. Lacking space to discuss individual essays, let me summarize by briefly highlighting three areas: its useful survey of subfields, a few noteworthy shortcomings, and its helpful apparatus.

For example, “Syriac philosophy” by John W. Watt catalogs who wrote what when, rather than treating developments in philosophic problems among the Syrians, which he has done elsewhere. The benefit of course is that a student or interdisciplinary specialist will immediately know what is available and then can make further inquiry through the bibliography. On the other hand, some essays provide a corrective by providing a new perspective, as that of Muriel Debié in “The eastern provinces of the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity,” a refreshing counter to Roman or Byzantine historians, who too often treat the West and East Syrians only in terms of their reactions to the church councils of Ephesus (431 CE) and Chalcedon (541 CE). In sum, this is an excellent handbook providing subfield surveys with excellent bibliographic jumping off points into targeted primary and international secondary literature.

There are, however, a few shortcomings. King has done a marvelous job of covering the widest array of topics, filling a void too often left unaddressed. However, although the editor successfully fills this gap, he has created another. It is well known that the bulk of Syriac literature is church-related and engages in theological discourse; yet while coverage of the Syriac churches is quite good, theological topics are disappointedly thin. Theresia Hainthaler provides the only focused study—a good survey of theological doctrines.

Missing, however, is any specific treatment of theologians like Jacob of Edessa or George, Bishop of the Arabs (or the reception of theologians, in the case of Severus of Antioch, who wrote in Greek but is preserved mostly in Syriac). This lacuna may be forgiven, however, as it represents a lamentable problem with Syriac studies in general, where the treatment of theology has largely been limited to its language, poetry, liturgy, and literary aspects.

In addition to the high-quality essays, there is good reason to look at the apparatus: maps with gazetteer, bishop lists, and internet resources. Scholars will return time and again to reference these tools, since they simply are not available elsewhere. Many essays include maps among the over 150 figures throughout, but overshadowing this bounty are fourteen high-quality maps of the Syriac world, complete with introduction and bibliography that are also available for reuse through a creative commons license. The nearly one thousand place names are identified in the index of maps and tied to The Syriac Gazetteer at to facilitate disambiguation.

Further, bishop lists are given for both the West and East Syrian churches; however, a notable lacuna is the lack of a Maronite bishop list. The East Syrian list appears to be the culmination of David Wilmhurst’s scholarship on the ecclesiastical history of the East Syrian church and may be, therefore, the best list currently available.

However, Wilmhurst has relied on the Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage, Sebastian Brock, et al., eds. (Gorgias, 2012) for the West Syrian bishop list, which indicates it relies only on secondary literature in the construction of its list, so it may not be of the same quality. Moreover, it is no doubt better for Wilmhurst’s corrections. Nevertheless, for example, my previous efforts started with the 1958 work of V. Grumel, La Chronologie (Presses Universitaires de France, 1958) and then supplemented extensively, so these resources are very welcome, even if they cannot be the end of the story. Finally, the internet resources (if thin) should point interested scholars and students alike to additional resources.

In conclusion, these thirty-nine essays and the array of helps, not least the superb maps and essay specific bibliographies, will surely provide targeted encouragement to students and interdisciplinary specialists venturing into the Syriac world. I am grateful to King for taking on such a large project in bringing together so many diverse subfields, such as language and agriculture, architecture and liturgy, and religion and the Syriac diaspora. I am adding this volume to my library as a permanent resource to be consulted often.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Scott Ables is Instructor, Oregon State University, in the School of History, Philosophy and Religion.

Date of Review: 
June 16, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel King is a Scholar of Syriac who specialises in the History of Syriac Philosophy and its contribution to the progress of knowledge.


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