Syriac is the most important later dialect of
Aramaic. It originated in the city-state of Edessa in Northern Syria. It is first recorded in inscriptions written in the monumental Estrangelo script in the 2nd century BC. All extant literature is Christian. The earliest material
dates from the 2nd century AD. Syriac spread widely throughout the Near-East, and into Persia. It was at its widest extent during the 7th century AD. The Arab conquest during that time meant that thereafter it declined and was replaced by Arabic in
popular use. The literary period ends in the 13th century, when Syria was devastated by the Mongols. However oral use has continued to our own day. The Syriac dialect of Turoyo is spoken today in the plain of Tur Abdin in South-Eastern Turkey.
During the 6th century the language began to diverge into Eastern and Western dialects. This was related to the ecclesiastical splits of the period following the Council of Ephesus in 433 (which condemned the Nestorians) and the Council of Chalcedon in
450 (which condemned the monophysites).
The East Syriac dialect and script is used by the
Nestorians, based in Persia, who spread the gospel along the Silk Route as far as China in the 7th century. A stele in Chinese and Syriac dated 781 AD was found in Xi'an.^
^ Modern Mongolian is still written in Syriac letters. East Syriac script represents vowels by clouds of dots above and below the letters, when vowels are written at all.
The West Syriac dialect is used by the
Monophysites. This uses the Serto script. One innovation by Jacob of Edessa was the use of tiny Greek vowels written above and below the line to represent vowels. He also sought to get vowels written on the line like consonants,
but in vain. West Syriac contains the richest collection of material translated from Greek.
Neo-Syriac began to be printed when an American mission to Urmiah in the 1840's installed a printing press.
As knowledge of Syriac declined, and as pressure from Islam grew, Garshuni came into existence. This is Arabic, but written using Syriac script, in order to conceal the contents from possible Moslem persecutors.
A Bird's Eye View of the Syriac Language and Literature from