A Relational Database for the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchal Archives of Dayr al-Zaʿfarān

Submitted by Iskandar Bcheiry, ATLA Metadata Analyst

In April 2002, I had the opportunity to examine a collection of Arabic and Syriac manuscripts in the Library of the Syriac Orthodox Church of the Forty Martyrs in Mardin, the Library of the Syriac Orthodox Church of St. Mary in Diyarbakir, and the Library of the monastery of al-Za’faran in southeast Turkey. This was all due to permission from the late Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas and a grant provided for my research by the Italian Institute for the Philosophical Studies, Naples, Italy.

Besides the subject of my intended study and examination, I had a glimpse of the archives that were stored in the library in the form of reports, letters, and communications. These materials were organized in batches and classified by numbers. A few years later in 2010, a team of scholars led by Archbishop Yuhanna Ibrahim of Aleppo examined and photographed nearly 18,000 documents. Most of this archival material consisted of letters written to the patriarch of the day from a variety of sources from within the church and community as well as from outside sources. This material also included telegrams, financial accounting data, draft letters, and internal reports, and internal correspondence. Some of the documents were now mere scraps of the original, having worsened as the result of age or poor storage.

Presenting the Significance and a Plan for a Relational Database at the ATLA Annual Conference

At this year ATLA’s Annual Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana, I am planning to illuminate the importance of this historical collection. Also, I would like to present a plan of a relational database for the historical records extracted from the materials of this collection. Most of the archive’s materials belong to the second half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. This period brought radical events that enormously changed the life, culture, social, and religious aspects of the Syriacs. These events occurred when the Syriac community, as well as other Christian communities, lost a great number of its members during this period due to political and security unrest and chaos. In addition, the twentieth century witnessed a massive Syriac immigration toward Europe and North America, and many Syriacs lost contact with their relatives and members of the same family found themselves dispersed in distant places. More recently there has been greater interest in rediscovering some of the historical data on the Syriac history, genealogy, and communities, particularly from archives that date from Ottoman period. The importance of the archives that I am planning to discuss is not only limited to the history of the monastery and the church with which they belong to, but also for Ottoman history.

The letters, reports, and communications found in the archives describe the relationship with neighboring Muslim communities, with other Christians communities, and with the Ottoman authority in Constantinople and in other places in the Ottoman Empire. Since the accounts in this archive were not written to be part of a written history, but to report about issues and incidents occurred during the people’s daily life, one might consider them free from intentional bias. The letters were addressed to the patriarch of the day from different sources such as bishops, abbots, heads of monasteries, priests, monks, deacons, secular leaders in the Syriac communities, and keepers responsible for collecting donations and patriarchal dues. There are different topics and issues discussed in these letters: social, financial, church administration, and others. These archives can be considered to represent the state of society from ordinary people as opposed to the elitist view.

In my presentation, I would like to shed light on:

  1. The importance of this collection of letters, telegrams, ecclesiastic decrees, legal verdicts, and other documents
  2. Digitizing the images of the collection with a preliminary description of the content
  3. Extracting valuable historical information from the documents
  4. Storing the historical information in a relational database by schematizing the data according to a framework of the relationship

I will be presenting on this topic at the 2018 ATLA Annual Conference on Saturday, June 16. I invite you to attend my session, read about it on SCHED, or read about it in a future ATLA Proceedings.


Khalid Dinno, Syrian Orthodox Christians in the Late Ottoman Period and Beyond: Crisis Then Revival (Gorgias Eastern Christian Studies) Gorgias Press, 2017

Dr. Iskandar Bcheiry is a Metadata Analyst for ATLA. He is also a historical researcher in the field of Syriac Studies and Christian-Muslim relationship.

Photo credit: Image by Turkey Cultural Tour, Mardin City and Deyruz-zafaran Monastery


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