Water The Willow Tree: Memoirs of a Bethlehem Boyhood

George Anton Kiraz

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In this engaging first memoir, George A. Kiraz tells the story of a young Palestinian boy growing up in Bethlehem, fascinated with understanding his Syriac roots even as he drew steadily nearer to the day when he would inevitably be transplanted to the United States.

George first traces his ancestors’ migration from Upper Mesopotamia—present-day Turkey—to Palestine in the aftermath of the horrific Sayfo genocide of 1915 (known more popularly as the Armenian genocide); in doing so, he provides a personal history of the Syriac presence in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

He then describes the realities of that presence through memories from his own boyhood, offering an intimate look at myriad aspects of Syriac life in Palestine in the 1970s and ’80s: church community and religious identity, brushes with ancient history and artifacts, conflicts with the Israeli occupation, fraught custodianship of Christian holy places in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Readers will meet many of the community members who influenced and encouraged George in his nascent academic interests, and they will even learn about his father’s role in the legendary discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

George is known for his contributions to Syriac studies and to the preservation of the Syriac language and heritage. These tasks, though, are not just the sum of his professional CV; they are the story of his life, his ancestry, his family’s survival. This memoir chronicles his lifelong investment in the Syriac world and the childhood experiences that would later shape so much of his later academic life.

Water the Willow Tree offers an illuminating account of a Bethlehem boyhood to readers with a range of interests; anyone interested in modern Syriac heritage and diaspora, the Sayfo genocide, Palestinian history, or religious pluralism and minority communities will be alternately informed, entertained, and moved by George’s story.


To read George Kiraz’s Water the Willow Tree is a deeply moving experience. A distinguished scholar and publisher, Kiraz takes us back to the tangled roots of his own family and of the Syrian Orthodox community which he has done so much to make known to the wider world. This account of a Christian childhood and teenage years in mid-twentieth century Bethlehem brings together chilling family memories of massacres, electrifying archaeological discoveries, high-handed acts of oppression and the unremitting jockeying for position of religious groups in the Holy Land. All these are recounted with rare lucidity and charity. It is the book of a deeply civilized and humane person, nurtured by the love and loyalty of family and friends and ennobled by unfeigned pride in the ancient and majestic religious tradition of  Syriac Christianity, of which Kiraz has been a leading spokesman in our times.
– Peter Brown
Rollins Professor of History Emeritus, Princeton University
Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters of France

What a wonderful read—the personal story of a Syriac Orthodox boyhood in Bethlehem amidst the difficulties of being a refugee from Upper Mesopotamia among the settled Christian and Muslim populations of the city and the increasing strains of the Israeli occupation. Well-rooted in the personal, Kiraz’s story provides us with a fine-grained and highly readable description of the daily life of the Syriac Orthodox community of Bethlehem, Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Holy Land, touching on the ramifications of the Status Quo arrangements for the various churches, the importance of the regular liturgies at the Holy places, the rivalries between Armenians and Syriac Orthodox, and the role of Western missionaries—especially the German Lutheran Brüder who, alongside the family and clergy among which he grew up, contributed to such a large extent to the ‘making of a scholar’—which would have provided an equally fitting subtitle.
– Heleen Murre-van den Berg
Professor of Global Christianity, Radboud University, Netherlands
Knight in the Order of the Netherlands Lion

From a Christian community in Bethlehem to a successful publishing business in America, George Kiraz has achieved an international reputation that simultaneously reflects his scholarship, his technological skills, and his business acumen. His autobiography is beguiling in its conversational tone and breathtaking in its vast range of learning and entrepreneurial talent. Throughout, Kiraz displays a gentle but always perceptive disposition that has enhanced everything he has touched. This candid and unprepossessing memoir displays, across an uncommonly international background, the rich fruits of humanistic scholarship combined with technological expertise. George Kiraz is unique, and so is his memoir.
– Glen Bowersock
  Professor Emeritus, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
Foreign Member of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in Italy

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