SOR Web Site: The Spiritual Heritage of the
Syrian Orthodox Tradition at a Keystroke
Thomas Joseph, Ph.D.
Web Master, Syriac Orthodox Resources
This paper was presented at the Third Syriac Computing Forum held in conjunction with the Syriac Symposium at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, on June 18, 1999. Since the web site undergoes changes routinely, the information on the then current state of the web site is obviously dated.
The Syrian Orthodox Resources web site attempts to reveal
the rich spiritual heritage of the Syrian Orthodox Church to the modern
world. Syrian Orthodox Christians dispersed all over the world as well
as several others who have an interest in the spiritual heritage of the
Church have "surfed" to the site thanks to the reach of the
world wide web. The web site also reveals a living community of Christians,
who trace their spiritual heritage to Apostolic times, to a world which
has forgotten its existence and legacy.
 After about 25 years of existence in the elite world of academia and the science establishment, the internet became a wildly popular medium for communication and collaboration in 1994 with the creation of the world wide web browser and is rapidly becoming ubiquitous all over the world. The potential of the medium became immediately apparent to a world that was ripe to adopt this innovation. More than a mere medium of communication, the internet has evolved into a rich parallel universe where men and women engage in every day activities as in the real world with far fewer constraints on time and space. Web sites, home pages, and a whole slew of esoteric terms like URL, HTML, ISP, etc., have since become an integral part of our every day vocabulary.
 Web sites disseminating information on all that is known to man sprouted up in subsequent years. Web sites dedicated to religion were second to none in debuting on the web. Mainstream as well as fringe religions have discovered the reach of the medium in spreading their message. For the Syrian Orthodox Church, the medium provides an unparalleled opportunity to emerge from the near obscurity to which history had condemned it. In a world where its few adherents are scattered across the world due to the adverse circumstances of its history, the internet offers a medium that could bring together far flung communities and offer to the world a glimpse of the rich spiritual heritage of the Church.
A Brief History
 In September 1995, a web page that Thomas Joseph created for the St. Mary's Jacobite [sic] Syrian Orthodox Church, a Malankara parish in Los Angeles, was hosted voluntarily by a fledgling Internet Service Provider, netadventure.com, based in Fullerton, California. This was the first web page that had any reference to the Syrian Orthodox Church on the web. Subsequently, in January 1996, following a memorable visit to the monastery of Mor Ephrem at Losser in the Netherlands, Thomas created a web page with several photographs describing his visit. This seeded the Syrian Orthodox Resources (SOR) web site. In the few months that followed, pages were added on prominent churches and monasteries, brief biographies of selected saints, patristic literature on the web, etc. The SOR site was first hosted on the web on a server at the University of California, Los Angeles on May 16, 1996. Subsequently, netadventure.com graciously agreed to host the site free of cost in August 1996, which they continue to do to this day. In 1998, the Catholic University of America agreed to host the site permanently; SOR will migrate in the near future to its new home at CUA.
 SOR started out as a solo effort. After some content was added and a vision and structure developed for its growth, the web site caught the attention of Dr. George Kiraz, the organizer of this conference. Dr. Samir Anz was also enlisted and the Editorial Board of SOR was formed on October 25, 1996. With George as the subject matter expert and Samir providing the graphics support, the web site grew tremendously in subsequent years. The patronage and support of Syrian Orthodox Archbishops and other clergy in the US was also sought and they agreed to serve as advisors to the Editorial Board. The site was, however, established as an independent entity and not an official web site of the Church in order to maintain its objectivity and further its scholarly mission. The web site grew from a "vanity" homepage to a mature web site supported by a semi-formal organization. On August 9, 1997, the web site was blessed by the "visit" of H.H. Mor Ignatius Zakka I, the head of the Syrian Orthodox Church. There is significant work ahead; with the generous space offered by CUA, the web site will hopefully grow to become an encylopaedic reference to the spiritual heritage of the Syrian Orthodox Church in the coming years.
Shedding Light on a Glorious Past
 The Syrian Orthodox Church has a glorious past; scholarly fathers of the church have produced a rich legacy which unfortunately is unknown even to most adherents of the faith today. Over the past few centuries, adverse circumstances in the lands of origin of the faith have left the Syrian Orthodox communities weak in numbers, and in spirit. The goal of the web site, from the very beginning, was to become an objective source providing information about the diverse facets of the church's spiritual heritage to a generation of church members who were never exposed to the rich ancestry of the church. Our primary focus was to be on biblical and liturgical texts, works of the Syriac fathers, their biographies, musical traditions of the church, history of the church, churches and monasteries of antiquity, the hierarchical orders and organization of the church, etc. We would also publish lectionaries, liturgical calendars, bibliographies and other aids for Syrian Orthodox Christians to enrich their spiritual lives. Secondarily, we intended to provide current information of interest to Syrian Orthodox communities of both Middle Eastern and Indian origin, including news, culture, hosting pages for churches and church groups, etc. We took on this task only because there was no other web site catering to this need. The "spiritual" was always to take precedence over the "communal". Further, it was hoped that the web site would bring together far-flung Syrian Orthodox communities whether from Middle-East or from India and engender a sense of unity in the diversity.
 As stated on the home page of the web site, the mission of SOR is as follows:
"The Syrian Orthodox Resources web site focuses on the unique spiritual experience in Christ that the Syrian Orthodox Church—one of the most ancient Christian churches—offers the faithful. It aims to provide objective information that helps Syrian Orthodox Christians learn about their glorious spiritual heritage and live a life in Christ guided by the scriptures, the teachings of the holy Fathers and the traditions of the Church. It also educates other Christians and non-Christians about this ancient Church and its contributions to spirituality and culture. The web site is maintained by the SOR Editorial Board which is a body independent of the Syrian Orthodox Church."
 The mission statement reflects the strong desire of the founders of the web site to be an objective and scholarly source of information on the heritage of the church. The core membership of the SOR Editorial Board is also actively involved in the Syriac Computing Institute—an academic web site devoted to Syriac Studies. The SOR web site is envisaged to be a bridge between the academic community of Syriac Studies scholars and the Syrian Orthodox laity, bringing the fruits of scholarship to the practicing Syrian Orthodox Christian. While representing the interests of the Syrian Orthodox Church, the web site is an independent entity which does not purport to be an official mouthpiece of the Church.
 While the mission of the web site is to be a source of information about the Church for all, today, practical limitations restrict access to the English speaking world. We hope to provide, in the future, original texts in Syriac, and translations in Arabic, Malayalam and other languages used in Syrian Orthodox communities. However, for the immediate future, English will continue to be the primary language on the web site.
 The web site can truly become "home" to the Syrian Orthodox diaspora only if it is able to attract active representation of the diverse communities. Due to practical limitations in gaining such active representation, we hope to collaborate with other sites in Europe, Australia, etc., in seeding a federation of Syrian Orthodox web sites which can better cater to the local needs of each community.
 A significant achievement, thus far, has been the active representation of the two large and diverse Syrian Orthodox communities—that in the Middle East and in Malankara, India. The relationship between the two communities, strongly cemented in the past by the pastoral work of bishops and monks from the Middle-East in Malankara, has weakened considerably in recent times. Today, the SOR web site is perhaps the only active collaboration between the two communities.
 The Syrian Orthodox Church traces its roots to Apostolic times. It's rich history thus spans two millenniums. During this time, the prolific fathers and scholars of the Church have produced six translations of the Bible into Syriac, innumerable commentaries on the Bible and other exegetical works, liturgies, metrical hymns and homilies, political and ecclesiastical histories, secular works on astronomy, mathematics and medicine, etc. The entire corpus of these works is immense. Much of it is authored in Syriac, the Edessan dialect of Aramaic, and the language of the Church since its origin. Due to its close affinity to the language spoken by Christ, Syriac has remained the "official" language of the Church to this day, despite the fact that it is a classical language. Only a small portion of these works have been translated into English. Among the translations, the liturgies have been translated and published by the Church and are available to SOR. Other works translated by Syriac Studies scholars have been published by commercial publishing houses who hold copyrights to these works. In short, there is limited content available in English and even that restricted further by copyright issues; currently, we are engaged in hosting the unrestricted content on the web site.
 As a web site catering to the spiritual needs of a living community, we also have to provide material addressing contemporary concerns and issues. Here, we face a different problem. Substantive articles are often published in rather obscure publications with limited circulation, such as diocesan journals, church souvenirs, local association publications, etc. The SOR Editorial Board has to rely on informal contacts to obtain information and copies of such articles. They do not have the benefit of peer review and often require translation and significant editing to meet the standards of publication for SOR. In the past, the church had a home-grown system that produced scholarly works and passed it down over generations. With the political misfortunes of the community and the onslaught of western modes of education and thinking, the church has lost its traditional systems of producing scholarship and have been unsuccessful, so far, in the feeble attempts to emulate the western system of scholarship. This leaves the SOR Editorial Board with the task of generating content—a task which requires much more competence, resources and authority than the Board commands today.
 The world wide web offers the capability to transmit rich multi-media content. This enables SOR to host the liturgical and musical legacy of the church, preserved over centuries as oral traditions. Many such traditions face corruption or extinction, today, due to the dispersion of communities across the world and the onslaught of contemporary secular music and visual media. The traditional mechanisms by which the oral traditions were transmitted have been weakened. Capturing these traditions in modern audio-visual media is critical in their preservation. The most significant of these is the liturgical music tradition of the Church. SOR web site has hosted the Beth Gazo—the Treasury of Chants, the source-book of the Syrian Orthodox musical tradition. Chants of one school of music—the Mardin school—have been hosted and an interface is being developed for easy access to over 800 melodies recorded. We hope to host, in the future, melodies in the tradition of other schools of music. In addition to music, we hope to host video clips of sacramental and other liturgical rites in major languages of the Syrian Orthodox communities.
 In building content, the SOR Editorial Board is committed to upholding scholarly standards. Members of the Editorial Board rarely have an opportunity for face-to-face communication. Hence, collaborative work and review are carried out over the internet using email and the web site. The members of the Board have developed informal conventions in facilitating such collaborative work. The Board solicits volunteers in building content. The typical volunteer, thus far, is a young internet-literate male of the Syrian Orthodox faith who helps with digitizing and formatting text from hard copy for hosting on the web site. A challenge ahead for the web site is to get the elder clergymen and lay members to contribute while providing a less daunting environment for authoring content. To ensure quality content, a community of contributors is essential; the SOR Editorial Board has significant work ahead in seeding and nurturing a network of content providers who contribute to the web site. The task is daunting given that the typical contributor with the appropriate credentials is not technically adept and requires considerable hand-holding to appreciate the reach and the benefits of the medium. The web site content authoring standards ensure that efforts of all contributors irrespective of the nature of contribution are duly acknowledged.
 Different classes of users visit the SOR web site and have different expectations from the web site. Some dichotomous groups include Syrian Orthodox faithful who are familiar with the traditions of the Church versus others whose first introduction to the ancient Christian tradition may be on the web site, those who seek out the spiritual versus those who seek out the cultural and ethnic, those from the Middle East and its diaspora versus those from Malankara and its diaspora, etc. The web site has to cater to the needs of these dichotomous groups. Content on the web site has been categorized and labeled to facilitate access to content by the different user classes. A terminology model for the domain with a hierarchy of terms has to be developed for clear labeling of content.
 The SOR web site can never be the one-stop source of spiritual, social and cultural information for diverse Syrian Orthodox communities scattered across the globe. Locally tailored content in local languages is best provided by locally focused web sites be it at the parish, diocesan or national levels. The SOR web site will focus primarily on the spiritual legacy of the Church common to all its communities. However, it can temporarily host pages to seed autonomous web sites focused on local communities or associations. In the future, the SOR web site will hopefully be able to build a network of federated web sites affiliated with it; SOR will offer technical assistance and publication standards for these web sites.
 As it builds content, SOR will have to consider means to ensure protection of intellectual property rights. Clearly, there are no commercial motivations in doing so. Our interest is to prevent content that we build from being manipulated and distorted especially by fringe religious groups who often resort to eclectic "borrowing" from different traditions for their own purposes; the Syrian Orthodox tradition, being an ancient Christian tradition rich in literary content, is often borrowed from and rarely reproduced faithfully.
Technology and Design
 The interactivity and richness of the world wide web has indeed made it a virtual space where human beings across the world engage in everyday activity much as they do in the real world. This virtual space has been created to emulate the physical world using visual and aural signals. However, the interface between the physical and the virtual worlds is the computer. Imagery that conjures a visual representation of the physical world is displayed on the computer screen; aural reality is recreated using audio equipment on the computer. Whether a denizen of the net takes a virtual safari in the African forests or engages in a securities transaction at a discount brokerage or indulges in the lascivious imagery at the Playboy web site or looks up a passage in the Bible for spiritual nourishment, the interface remains the same. Different virtual worlds whether profane or sacred, scholarly or mundane, are all created on the same interface. Much as a flip of a TV channel switches a viewer from a rock music channel celebrating a New Year to the Pope's midnight mass on the same TV screen, different virtual worlds are just a mouse-click away. In the physical world, different physical structures evoke in human beings different emotive responses. A shopping mall or promenade is designed to evoke the desire to buy. Restaurants are designed to produce an atmosphere that evokes an appetite. Recreational parks induce relaxation. A cathedral evokes feelings of awe for the divine. We, thus associate different emotions with different spaces in the physical world. We do not expect profanity where we are accustomed to experiencing the divine. In the virtual world, where both the profane and the sacred are represented on the same interface and transfer from one to the other is instantaneous, web sites have to strive to produce a virtual space that evokes emotive responses appropriate to the intent of the site. For SOR, the design challenge is to create a "sacred space" appropriate to the spiritual focus of the web site. At the same time, current bandwidth constraints and download delays for a vast number of internet users across the world constrain the use of extensive graphics, and other aids in achieving the desired effect.
 The SOR web site has been designed to evoke this sense of sacred space; at the same time, it is functional and simple. Motifs common in the Syrian Orthodox world are employed. The pages have a consistent layout and style. The web site logo is displayed on each page. Navigation links are provided on each page to navigate along the directory tree. Page design takes a lowest common denominator approach and assumes the typical user to have a low resolution monitor and connecting over a slow speed dial-up connection. A plain white background has been used for simple elegance even on low resolution monitors. The lowest resolution that faithfully represents an image is used for graphics to reduce download times on slow dial-up links. Frames have been avoided so far since its implementation in pure HTML has the potential to confuse navigation. The major categories of content are linked on the home page of the web site. The home page is designed for fast download and kept short to prevent the need for scrolling. Simple keyword search facilities are provided. For repeat visitors, the "What's New?" page helps track additions and changes to the web site since their last visit.
Building a Community Around the Web Site
 The SOR Editorial Board had recognized early on that in order for the web site to be effective in its mission, it could not merely provide content. For a person seeking spiritual direction, access to biblical literature, the works of the fathers, the liturgies, etc., is a starting point. However, he or she seeks much more—a nourishing community which can provide spiritual guidance. The interactivity of the medium facilitates the building of such a community around the web site. Yet, the web site has had a chequered history in its attempts to build such a community.
 The SOR Forum was the first attempt towards facilitating interaction on the web site. It was intended to be a forum where anyone could post messages and initiate a thread of discussion. Several topics of discussion around the spiritual heritage of the Syrian Orthodox Church came up on the Forum. Some sought counseling, others sought advise on the canonical laws of the Church especially in conducting marriages between members of the faith and others; some of these requests clearly were beyond the competence of the Editorial Board or other participants on the discussion forum. However, it was evident that a need existed for counseling services. Those who sought help on the web site were motivated by the anonymity that the interaction offered.
 Given the experience of several discussion boards and newsgroups on the internet, clear guidelines were published to regulate the tone and content of the discussions on the Forum. While many appropriate topics came up for discussion, a majority of the topics began to lean toward the ethnic identity issue that troubles the Syrian Orthodox community in the Middle East. Being a politically charged issue which had little to do with the spiritual focus of the web site, our attempt was to avoid the topic on the forum. A small group of vocal communal activists who did not profess the Syrian Orthodox faith managed to gain the upper hand and forced the Editorial Board to shut down the Forum, a year after it was initiated. The discussion forum will hopefully be re-started with better technical capabilities to moderate discussions. Our reluctance in a second attempt stems from our prior experience; moderation of the Forum and fostering of appropriate discussions on the Forum requires a significant commitment of time and effort from the Editorial Board. The Board can successfully build an interactive community only with the participation of mature and competent contributors.
 Even so, the web site can never replace the traditional means of providing spiritual counsel such as the parish clergy and community. However, it can rejuvenate and augment these traditional channels.
 Currently, the guest book of the web site is the only area where visitors can leave their thoughts and impressions. The guest book is strictly intended for providing feedback on the site. Yet, in the absence of the Forum, visitors often pose questions, vent their frustrations, etc., on the guest book. Everyone who leaves a message on the guest book is contacted by the web master by email. This email typically solicits participation of the visitor in the activities of the web site. We also welcome and receive email directly from the visitors. Those of the Syrian Orthodox faith are urged to join SORNet, the electronic directory of Syrian Orthodox Christians on the net hosted by the web site. Unlike typical directories, SORNet page has a brief biographical sketch of each of those who enlist. This provides a profile of the community and demonstrates its diversity. The electronic directory is used to broadcast information on events of importance to all Syrian Orthodox Christians, typically reported in SOCNews—the news page of the web site.
 In due course of time, the SOR web site will hopefully grow into an encyclopaedic reference on the Syrian Orthodox tradition. This, as mentioned earlier, can be realized only by creating and nurturing a community of active contributors whose work is subject to peer review. The task is daunting but the rapid spread of the internet across the world offers the infrastructure to make this feasible.
 In addition to being a source of information, the SOR web site will hopefully seed the notion of an eChurch in a world where email, eMeetings, eCommerce, etc., have become common place. In catering to the spiritual needs of a widely dispersed community, the Church should leverage modern technologies with prudence while maintaining its sacred and ancient traditions. This calls for a deliberation on the role of the Church in the virtual world by the Church hierarchy and the laity. Many issues are worthy for consideration. Can a member of the faith in a far corner of the world participate in the sacramental life of the Church, at least to some extent, electronically? Is an electronic broadcast of the divine liturgy over the net to the spiritual benefit of those who are deprived of the opportunity to attend in person? Can one hope to confess and seek redemption electronically? These are, of course, issues that are difficult for a Church steeped in tradition to consider. Before grappling with the more controversial issues, the Church can begin to establish its presence in the virtual world through offering Sunday School classes for children and adults, devotional lectures, study of scripture and works of the fathers, broadcast of events, etc., over the internet. With its experience, the Syrian Orthodox Resources will be in a position to assist the Church in assuming its role in the virtual world on the world wide web.
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|Last Update: June 3, 2000|