Linking Syriac Geographic Data
Fate, free will, and ancient geography
The Book of the Laws of the Countries (BLC), ascribed to the 2nd-century Syriac author and philosopher Bardaisan, is the earliest non-translated Syriac text of substantial size. It contains a highly interesting philosophical dialogue on nature, fate and free will. In the argument for human free will against astrological determinism, some specimens of cosmology and philosophy are put forward that reflect influences from a variety of cultures and traditions in the Hellenistic world. The book is unique for its description of peoples and their customs, which are put forward to argue that human behaviour is determined by the laws of people living in a certain area, rather than by their horoscope. As such, this book is a unique source of ancient geography, with Syriac descriptions of various peoples and their customs, from the brīṭūnāyē ‘Britannic’ and the germanāyē ‘Germanic’, to the hendwāyē ‘Indian’ and the šrāyē / šīrāyē ‘Chinese’.
The argument that Bardaisan puts forward is: since people living in a certain country all have the same customs (e.g. “among the Indians, the Brahmans have a law forbidding to kill at all… to eat flesh, or to drink wine”) their behaviour cannot be determined by fate. Since fate is different for each individual, we would expect every person to behave according to their own individual customs rather than those of the country as a whole.
The literary and philosophical background of BLC is studied in a different project, the CLARIAH-funded pilot LinkSyr, which builds upon the linguistic analysis of this book by Dirk Bakker in his PhD dissertation Bardaisan’s Book of the Laws of the Countries: A Computer-Assisted Linguistic Analysis. The Pelagios Resource Development Grant will be used to bridge these textual source with geographical data. What did Bardaisan’s geography look like? Where can we locate the peoples that he mentions? What, from his 2nd-century Syriac perspective, were the “ends of the world”, in the West and in the East, in the North and in the South?
A transatlantic interdisciplinary cooperation
The project ‘Linking Syriac Geographic Data’ will bring the linguistically annotated Syriac text of BLC to the Pelagios community. In addition, it will introduce a dataset of over 2500 place entities from The Syriac Gazetteer. Thus it will bring together the computational textual analysis performed by the Eep Talstra Centre for Bible and Computer (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) and geographical data collected by Syriaca.org, a research collaborative based at Vanderbilt University whose mission is to curate authority files and URIs which enable the creation of Linked Open Data from Syriac sources. The geographic information included in the Gazetteer and that derived from the Book of the Laws of the Countries will be loaded into Pelagios. On the basis of a comparison of the NER done in the textual analysis and Pelagios’s Recogito annotation tool, the research team will document a workflow for future datasets with linked Syriac geographic data.
The Syriac heritage
We are extremely grateful for the Pelagios Resourcce Development grant that we received for this project. Not only because it enables up to set up a collaboration project between two research groups working at the nexus of Digital Humanities and Syriac studies at both sides of the Atlantic; and not only because we are convinced that as a case study of combined textual and geographical analysis, it can be beneficial as an example to scholars from various disciplines, but also because it broadens the scope of the highly valuable Pelagios resources by including more Syriac materials.
Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic once spoken by populations stretching across the Middle East and Central Asia. For much of the first millennium C.E., Syriac served as a lingua franca used in travel, trade, and religious culture from the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean to beyond the Iranian plateau. Syriac materials provide unparalleled sources for political and cultural history of late antiquity and the middle ages. These materials are of interest to scholars in a variety of humanities fields including classics, Middle Eastern studies, medieval history, religious studies, and linguistics.
Our aim is to produce the following four deliverables in this Pelagios Resource Development Project:
- Import into Pelagios of the Syriac Gazetteer, an authority file for Syriac geographic data with entries on over 2500 places. [Already done!]
- Import into Pelagios of a revised and manually corrected RDF data set of geographic information derived from the BLC text.
- Report on the comparison between the results of independent Syriac NER done by the LinkSyr team with the same workflow using Pelagios’ Recogito annotation tool.
- Documentation and workflow for future datasets with Syriac geographic data.