Dumbarton Oaks/HMML Summer school – Syriac

На бългаски – тук.

This year, I had the opportunity to take part in a summer school organised by Hills Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML), St John’s University, MN and sponsored by one of the largest organisations supporting Byzantine research – Dumbarton Oaks (see the official announcement here). 

In this school, two classes – one of Classical Syriac for beginners and another for Intermediate Classical Armenian (see here), took place. For each of them, ca 10 participants had been selected – mostly PhD students and postdocs from fields like Early Christian Studies, Oriental Patristics, and Byzantine studies. HMML started with these programs in 2017, when the first summer school of Syriac and Armenian was organised. In the following years, the Armenian course take turns with the Coptic. These endeavours are part of HMML’s program and year-long efforts in saving and transmitting the written cultural heritage of areas where it is threatened. This was initiated in the 70s when the museum started microfilming the content of various manuscript collections. Currently, those microfilms, together with the new collections added, are being digitalised and published online for free, or are available for work at HMML. The impressive collection counts over 250k items (since 2013), covering different regions, such as Syria, Iraq, Mali, south India, Nigeria, Uand kraine (Lviv’s Stefanik library). Part of the collection is accessible through the online reading room in this link. You can read more about this initiative, mostly led by Fr Columba Stuart, the director of HMML and part of the Benedictine community where the University is located, in this link; more media and podcasts are available here.

Robert Kitchen (Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada) and Armando Elkhoury (Maronite Seminary Our Lady of Lebanon, Washington D.C.) were the instructors for the Beginners’ Syriac class; Abraham Terian (St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, Armonk, New York) and Jesse Arlen (Fordham University and Zohrab Information Center, New York) taught Intermediate Armenian. Classes were held from 8.30 am to 3.30 pm (or 3 pm depending on the other planned activities, such as presentations of guest lectures, guided tours, etc.) with a midday break between 12 and 1 pm. The Syriac course was based on Robinson and Coakley’s classical manual. Many other reading materials of original texts were also provided for the workflow of the class. Each day, the morning session was dedicated to introducing new grammar units and discussing the Syriac-to-English translations from Coakley’s book that students prepared beforehand.

I particularly enjoyed the systematic approach of instruction where the language system is presented in an almost algorithmic way with its inner rules and codependencies. This was additionally strengthened by the use of a compact presentation of Syriac grammatical foundations created by A. Elkhoury. What was both helpful and inspiring for me was also the way students were encouraged by their first meeting of Syriac original texts, emphasising what could already be recognised based on the level of knowledge already achieved.

Afternoon sessions were dedicated to working on original texts in smaller groups with the instructors where the participants could practice the already learned grammatical material and also to have a glimpse of constructions and forms that were ahead in the course. Gospel of Mark was started on the 3rd day of the Summer school, followed by Jacob of Serough, On the Upright and the Perfect Ones by The Books of Steps (Liber Graduum) and St Ephrem’s Hymn 31. Syriac’s essential grammar was covered within the first three weeks, and the fourth one was entirely filled with discussing translations both of Coackley’s book and those of the original texts read in the afternoons. Apart from that, each week different scholars were giving guest lectures or presentations covering various aspects of Syriac studies, and Byzantine heritage.

Two specific guided tours – to the Pottery Studio and to St John’s Bible (see here), should definitely be mentioned, though they would require and are worthy of particular attention in separate posts.

Below, you can see a gallery of images from the afternoon with manuscripts from HMML’s collection – mostly Syriac and Armenian, but also Coptic, Ethiopic and Arabic.

Apart from the intensive classes, language immersion was fostered by individual work continuing more often than not in the evenings. School’s organisers were kind enough to respond to our request and provide us (among many other things) with a spacious conference room, where participants of both classes could meet and share their experience or know-how in preparing for the next day’s lesson.

Out of the studying mood, the campus provided various opportunities for relaxation and unwinding – a fitness studio, climbing wall, bikes and canoes for hire, fishing rods, etc. Probably the most beloved spot was the beach of Lake Sagatagan. In the gallery below, I’ve gathered some pictures from nature’s surroundings on the campus, as well as some moments from the school’s non-academic activities.


The Summer School took place at St John’s University Campus, Collegeville, MN founded in 1857 by Benedictine monks emigrating from Bavaria. The campus is nicely separated from its surrounding towns, the few possible ways of reaching, aside from by car, being with van-like transportation services (e.g., that can take you from the airport in Minneapolis/St Paul), or busses to and from the nearest larger town, St Cloud. The nearest small town, St Joseph can be reached in ca 10 min by car or 30 min by bike.

One of the most interesting things about the campus is the unique mixture of modern (50-60s of the 20th century) and more classical (second half of 19th century) elements. The university was built around the monastic Benedictine community in the second half of the 19th c., the expected outlook of the buildings and inner landscape is quite well preserved – red-brick-walled façades, elongated windows and greenery floating from the meadows to the walls create certain atmosphere where past is palpable and aesthetically enjoyable. On the other hand, the modernised Bauhaus elements create a dynamic contrast which does not intervene in the coherence of the visual landscape.

This Bauhaus influence in the campus space was introduced when the brotherhood of the Benedictine community decided on a new chapel in the mid-20th c. An open call was sent to contemporary architectures with the idea of discussing possible solutions that could enhance both the Benedictine views and values of the community and the spirit of modern times. Marcel Breuer was the one who won the trust with his project of a monumental, slightly brutalist St John’s Abbey Church.

Just in front of the church is the Alcuin Library (named after the 9th century’s famous Anglo-Saxon theologian, influencing greatly on the Carolingian Renaissance in Western Europe). In this building, a masterpiece of Marcel Brauer again, HMML is situated and the classes of the Summer school took place. The central part of the main hall gravitates around the enormous tree-like construction, which creates a forest-temple-like sensation of the space which otherwise is undivided by walls and other carrying constructions. The underground floor contains (more books of course, but aside from that) the HMML offices and the conference rooms where classes were held, together with the box-office working places for visiting researchers through HMML’s various fellowships (see here). You can explore the exterior and interiors of the library through the gallery below.

University’s campus itself, as already briefly mentioned, is an interesting interplay between classical and modern architectural solutions. Modernity and past are intervened in the concept of the whole campus space, the museum, library, and church – a dialogic harmony rather than opposing contrasts. The straight lines of the modern buildings are introducing a geometric perspective to the lushing greenery, thus creating a sense of coordination, but also enforcing the value of the uneven line of nature. Concrete building cooler hues foster the contrast of the green-plant spots and intensify the visual dynamics, making the space vivid and welcoming. It is probably exactly the green spots that work as the link connecting the red brick façades of the 19th-century buildings and the contemporary straight-surfaced concrete solutions. This coherence of so different styles is perfectly homogenous with the whole idea of the place – of acceptance between past and presence. You can explore some views from the campus below.


Dumbarton Oaks/ HMML Summer School of Syriac and Armenian was a great opportunity to immerse into the language and learn the basics needed to start the journey of working alone with the text. Its most valuable side, though, was the people that took part – the instructors, participants and organisers (thanks to Tim Ternes and his adjuncts – Catie, Hannah and Claire) that contributed to the inspiring and fortifying atmosphere of the event. Meeting with another language and its world together with other fellows from similar fields and with similar, often complementary interests is for sure one of the best things one can do in summer.

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