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Écrit et écriture dans la formation des identités en monde syriaque et arabe IIIe-VIIe siècle – SYRAB

Submission summary

Over the centuries which mark the end of Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages, two major learned traditions took shape and attained considerable prestige in the Near East : the Syriac tradition (Christian Aramaic), which is still the culture of learning and liturgy for Christians from the Mediterranean to India, and the Arabic tradition, which, though often assimilated to Islam, has in fact long been shared by all peoples living in the Near East. This project proposes a study of the formation of these 2 cultures, with the goal of sketching a comparative history emphasizing their centuries-long rivalry and highlighting their numerous shared characteristics and the profound cultural cross-pollination which they mutually experienced. Syriac studies, and notably in the branch dedicated to the West Syrian world, have been essentially concerned with the mere content of the texts; for the task of defining the West Syrian world as a culture in terms of its graphic manifestations, virtually no synthetic work has yet been attempted. Yet, Syriac culture played a decisive role in the great controversy within the Imperial Church in the 5th century. Did this division between the two Churches also trigger equally distinctive specificities in the written domain' What were the particular aspects of these Semitic language communities at once deeply rooted in Greek Christianity but also firmly opposed to Constantinople Christology' How was such a 'double culture' able to survive and flourish after the Arab conquests' In Arabia, parallel to the emergence of an Arab identity, a distinctly Arab culture also emerged beginning in the 3rd century. If the Syriac world provided the 'matrix' for this culture, it nevertheless quickly developed its own characteristics, culminating in the 7th century with the emergence of a new religion, with Arabic as its sacred language. This particular Arabic culture supplanted other rival antique Arabic cultures, which later Arabo-Islamic tradition would reject as the Age of 'Ignorance' (Jâhiliyya), but such a simplistic historical vision cannot do justice to the great variety, and the highly sophisticated character, of the various alphabetic written traditions attested throughout the Arabic peninsula in the centuries which preceded Islam. The project presented here studies the birth of these written traditions, though several complementary approaches: 'Writing in its geographical context, Syria and Arabia: Through the systematic survey and publication of the extant Syriac inscriptions, we propose to establish the geographical distribution of Syriac writing, and to confront the question of its relation with the geography of the Syrian Orthodox Church. For Arabia, a comparable 'geography of writing' will be undertaken for the North and South Arabian languages: a detailed survey of the geographical distribution and distinctive lexical characteristics will provide the basis for an improved definition of the dialects of the region. 'Writing in its material context: Studying of the social and cultural associations of the material remains of writing. It includes, of course, the study of the inscriptions in their archeological context, but also the attempt to define the cultural and social contexts in which the written cultures behind them developed: sedentarism and nomadism as subsistence strategies, the respective cultures of the town and of the countryside, possible links between the written remains and particular ethnic, social or religious groups, etc. 'Manuscripts as a manifestation of culture: For the Syriac communities, it is essentially through manuscripts that cultural identity is to be recognized. Yet, the description and scientific analysis of manuscripts as objects (as subjects of the methods of codicology) is still in its infancy for the field of Syriac studies, and still largely unpracticed by modern scholars. The development of this field is thus one of the priorities of this project. This approach is equally necessary for manuscripts of the Qur'an: this project will attempt to sketch the redaction history of the text, not on the basis of Tradition as has been done until now, but rather on the analysis of the material record, and especially through the edition of the oldest manuscript witnesses, which have remained largely unpublished until now. 'Writing and Script: The birth and development of the Syriac and Arabic scripts are still subjects of lively debate. The classic presentation of the birth of the Syriac scripts must be completely revised in light of the recent discovery of Edessene documents in cursive script, and the information contained in manuscript colophons. The analysis of the oldest documents, manuscript as well as epigraphic, promises to produce a new model. Similarly, a renewed synthesis of all of the available data for the Nabatean, Syriac and Old Arabian documentation must be taken into account in studying the appearance of the Arabic script.

Project coordination

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.

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