Mor Ephrem and the Syriac Identity

By Dr Amine-Jules Iskandar President Tur Levnon-Syriac Maronite Union

Mor Ephrem was born in Nisibis in 306. This city was being fought over by the Byzantines and the Persians for decades. In his writings, Mor Ephrem used to defend his land and people with a clear knowledge of belonging to a certain group and culture. Mor Ephrem, like all the Syriacs, had to leave his land in Nisibis. He settled in Orhoy – Edessa where he became responsible of its famous school. In 363, Nisibis fell to the Persians. The Saint went on writing about his city and denouncing its occupation [1].

In Edessa as well, Mor Ephrem had to face the domination of the Hellenistic culture and a certain hegemony of the Greek language inside the Christian Semitic world. By developing his countless Mimré, he imposed a Christian Aramaic literature that will end up being adopted in all the other Christian traditions of the East and the West.

Even if this great Saint became a symbol of Syriac literature, even if he was called “the Prophet of the Syriacs” or “the Cithara of the Holy Spirit” (Kénoro drouh qoudsho), the messages of his texts had nothing to do with nationalism or Syriac identity. His defense of Nisibis against the Persians is an exception among his hundreds and thousands of Mimré about love, faith and Virginity. Moreover, let us not forget that, in his writings concerning Nisibis, he was defending mostly Christians against Pagans, not Syriacs against Persians.

Mor Ephrem’s Mimré are all about Love, Nativity, Virginity, Mary, Joseph, Faith and God. The essence of all his thinking is about abandoning every thing for God. That is abandoning even ourselves for the love and grace of the Lord. In that, Mor Ephrem is typically and deeply Syriac.  His writings summarize the state of mind of the Syriacs and the austerity of their Church, as well as its attitude of abnegation and complete humility. The will to lead a life similar to that of the Savior, and to get closer to Him through our acts and our faith, seems to have dominated the behavior of the Syriac Churches since their early conception. This explains their determination to blend in the Western society as they did in the Eastern society [2], even in Edessa, the motherland of Syriac language, in which some of them ended up adopting the Armenian language.

Let us say that in general, contrary to their Armenian neighbors, the Syriacs are rarely held to conserve their linguistic particularity. Not withstanding their total integration in the West [3], we already notice a growing tendency in the East towards a systematic acceptance of the dominant language in the environment in which these Syriacs evolve.

In the regions that are dominated by the Kurds or the Turks, the Syriacs have adopted the languages of these people. Further to the South, the Syriacs are Arabic speaking people. This was the case in the region of Mardin, where Arabic is now fading being replaced by the Turkish language instead. In Lebanon, the Syriac Maronites have adopted Arabic as their every day language and integrated it even in their liturgy. The Edessians that inhabit Lebanon today, have continued to practice Armenian up till now and use Syriac only in their liturgy.

With Abgar VIII, king of Edessa from 179 to 212, who converted to Christianity in 206, the first Christian state in history was born. This first Christian kingdom which was created by the Syriacs in Edessa dwindled and relinquished its place to Armenia (proclaimed Christian circa 301-314) followed by the Roman Empire and Ethiopia (circa 325-330).

Armenia, Ethiopia and all the other Christian kingdoms that followed witnessed painful and glorious episodes throughout their history. Only the Syriacs were content with being a Church and with being identified with this Church rather than with a nation or even a language.

When Mor Ephrem speaks of pure hearts, he really means to talk about the Good in humanity. That is why he mentions Saint Matthew (Matt. 5: 8):

ܛܘܽܒܰܝܗܘܢ ܠܐܰܝܠܶܝܢ ܕܰܕܟܶܝܢ ܒܠܶܒܗܘܢ . ܕܗܶܢܘܢ ܢܶܚܙܘܢ ܠܐܰܠܳܗܐ.

« Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God »

This sentence has nothing to do with what the 15th century Syriac Maronite scholar, Gabriel Barcleius writes. When Barcleius talks about pure hearts, he means people who are Syriacs, and Catholics and Maronites and inhabiting the sacred mountains of Lebanon [4]. Therefore, he already reveals in the 15th century, a Syriac Maronite national aspiration, that is part of the larger scale Syriac identity. However, his greater master, Mor Ephrem, did not seem to see things that way in most of his work. After mentioning Saint Matthew in the Commentary on the Diatessaron, he goes on explaining that one is supposed to see through the eyes of his soul or those of his heart, not through his physical vision [5]. We are projected in a spiritual dimension, away of all kind of earthy interests. For Mor Ephrem, the “mirror” of the Gospel permits us to see our true self [6]. Therefore, the principal aim in life is to purify the heart to be able to reflect the original beauty, that is the image (Salmo) of God in which he created man [7].

All this spirituality and abnegation as well as its continuous illustration with mirrors and all kind of every day’s objects, is typically Syriac and differs from the Greek and Latin traditions [8]. John of Dalyatha and many other Syriac writers used the image of the mirror to take us through there spiritual explorations.

The description about God dominates Ephrem’s literature to become an example for man to follow. All a Christian’s life should be is a continuous struggle to get closer to God’s image. On this subject, Mor Ephrem writes:

He clothed Himself in the likeness of man
In order to bring man to the likeness of Himself
Lord, You bent and put on humanity’s types
So that humanity might grow through Your self-abasement.
How wonderful is this abundance
That the Lord should be poured out in us continually,
For He has left the heavens and descended:
Let us make holy for Him the bridal chamber of our hearts

In respect to all these spiritual values, the Syriac Church and the Syriac people are continuously inclined towards ascetism and monastic life. Such a detachment from the world does not encourage conscience national aspirations. However, it is necessary to point out here the fundamental difference between the Syriac Antiochian monastic tradition and that of the Antonian tradition that takes its sources in Upper Egypt [10].

Monastic life in respect to Saint Aphraate and Saint Ephrem is understood as isolation away from women. Where as, for Saint Anthony and Saint Pacôme, this includes isolation from the world. As Father Georges Rahmé says [11], the monastic value in Upper Egypt sees itself as a retreat in the desert, using therefore exterior boundaries to accomplish seclusion. In Upper Mesopotamia and Phoenicia-Mount-Lebanon, it seeks to develop in the heart of society, protecting itself only with interior boundaries. The seclusion is only interior.

This difference (between Antiochian and Antonian traditions) is fundamental for our commentary on Syriac identity. In fact, Mor Ephrem never isolated himself from his people. In his writings about Bishop Vologese, he likes to point out that monastic life does not oppose with apostolic and pastoral missions [12]. The Syriac monk is supposed to serve his people and guide them by living between them and with them. Hi influences his people. He is a Malpono [13] not a Hvisho (not a recluse solitary confined). He teaches and participates to the creation and formation of society. His values, aspirations, culture and identity become those of that society.

Mor Ephrem never thought of a Syriac nation or civilization. His aim was the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Heaven, the kingdom of Jesus Christ that is not of this world. Nevertheless, it is precisely this value that spread out on all his Syriac society and that became the characteristic of this society. In that manner, Mor Ephrem whose only aim was the kingdom of God, participated deeply in the elaboration of our Syriac identity.

We find it necessary here to precise that the notion of identity or even nation does not oppose in any way to Christian spirituality or to the Kingdom of Heaven. Freedom is a central concept in Christianity and its values. The nation is like the person. It has the same needs. It has its own personality. That is why the French philosopher Philippe Sers talks about the Nation-Person.

We need to point out, he says, that the idea of nation is important in respect to Christian thought. Each nation has its proper personnel vocation. Each nation relates to a person that accomplishes a mission. The idea of nation-person does not build itself on a materialistic project, but on a spiritual one [14].

Spirituality is at the center of the formation of nation, nationality and identity. Mor Ephrem becomes thus, the symbol of all Syriacs. He is a saint and a Malpono for all of them. He is read and sung by all the Syriac Churches because he transcends all doctrinal discussions to focus on Christ savior, redemptor, king, eternal priest, unique son of god, incarnated through the Virgin for ever Virgin [15]. He is the culture of all Syriacs and therefore defines the main aspect of there identity. He unifies them transcending all borders and all separations between Churches. For this reason, Bar Hebraeus (+1286) calls him « the Sun of the Syriacs » [16].

What better description of our great Malpono Mor Ephrem, is there, than this beautiful Mimro [17] composed by Saint James of Sarug ? Expressing the intimate relation between Mor Ephrem and the Syriac identity, he writes a hundred years after the Malpono’s death :

ܗܳܢܐ ܕܰܗܘܐ ܟܠܝܠܐ ܠܟܽܠܳܗ
ܐܳܪܡܳܝܘܬܐܘ ܒܶܗ ܐܶܬܩܰܪܒܰܬ ܬܶܡܛܶܐܠܫܘܦܪ̈ܐ ܪ̈ܘܚܳܢܳܝܶܐ
ܗܳܢܐ ܕܰܗܘܐ ܪܗܝܛܪܐ ܪܰܒܐ ܒܶܝܬ ܣܘܪ̈ܝܳܝܶܐ
ܘܟܽܠ ܡܰܠܦܳܢ̈ܐ ܡܶܢܶܗ ܘܰܠܟܐ ܒܶܗ ܐܶܬܝܰܬܰܪܘ̱
ܢܶܒܥܐ ܚܰܠܝܐ ܕܡܰܝ̈ܳܐ ܒܪ̈ܝܟܶܐ ܐܰܪܕܝ ܒܐܰܪܥܰܢ
ܘܒܶܗ ܐܶܬܪܰܒܝ ܥܳܒܐ ܓܰܒܝܐ ܕܗܰܝܡܳܢܘܬܰܢ
ܚܰܡܪܐ ܚܰܕ̱ܬܐ ܕܓܰܘܢܶܗ ܘܪܝܚܶܗ ܡܶܢ ܓܳܓܘܠܬܰܐܗ̱ܘ
ܘܐܰܪܘܝ ܒܫܶܩܝܶܗ ܠܓܰܒܪ̈ܶܐ ܘܢܶܫ̈ܶܐ ܠܰܡܫܰܒܳܚܽܘ

He became a crown for the Aramaic nation.
Through him, the nation got closer to spiritual virtues.
He became a great rhetor between the Syriacs
And all the doctors that followed were influenced by him
He flowed through our land a source of fresh and holy water.
And through him, the elected forest of our faith found its growth,
The new wine which color and perfume are from the Golgotha
And irrigates watering men and women for (the Lord’s) glorification.

Dr Amine-Jules Iskandar is President of Tur Levnon-Syriac Maronite Union. The association Tur Levnon-Syriac Maronite Union is based in Zalka, in the northern suburb of Beirut, and aims to preserve, teach and spread the Syriac language, culture and identity. Syriac is the language and hence the identity of the Christians of the Levant and Mesopotamia (from Lebanon to Northern Syria, Southern Turkey and Northern Iraq). This region was a Syriac land before the creation of these modern states. Today Lebanon contains the largest concentration of Christians in the Middle East. Unfortunately, due to political reasons, Syriac language, culture and  history are erased and untaught in schools (even in Christian schools).


1. Dans “Cantiques de Nisibe”, voir Mgr Behnam HINDO, Chant pour la Nativité – de Saint Éphrem le Syriaque, L’Harmattan, Paris, 1996, p. 8.
2. By West we do not mean the West of the Fertile Crescent; what is meant here is Europe, the Americas and Australia.
3. Europe, The Americas and Australia.
4.   Barcleius considers Lebanon as the sacred mountain of the Maronites and its cities like the wives of Saint Maroun, see Ray Jaber MOUAWAD, Lettres au Mont-Liban, Lebanon, Geuthner, Paris, 2001, pp. 86-87.
5.   Sébastien BROCK, « Comment les Cœurs Purs Verront Dieu – Saint Ephrem et Quelques Auteurs Syriaques », in Le Visage de Dieu dans le Patrimoine Oriental – Patrimoine Syriaque, Actes du Colloque VII, CERO, Antélias, Liban, 2001, p. 133.
6. Saint EPHREM, “Letter to Publius”, Le Muséon 89, éd. Sébastien Brock, 1976, pp. 261-305.
7. Sébastien BROCK, loc. cit., p. 139.
8. Sébastien BROCK, loc. cit., p. 142.
9. Sébastian BROCK, The Luminous Eye, pp. 33, 38, 104 ; Thomas KOONAMMAKKAL,  “Ephrem on the Imagery of divine love and revelation”, in Dieu Miséricorde – Dieu Amour – Patrimoine Syriaque – Actes du colloque VIII, CERO, Antélias, Lebanon, 2003, p. 165.
10.   Georges RAHMÉ, « Saint Éphrem et le Monachisme », in Le Monachisme Syriaque Aux premiers siècles de l’Eglise – Patrimoine Syriaque – Actes du colloque V, CERP, Antélias, Lebanon, 1998, p. 118.
11. Georges RAHMÉ, “Saint Éphrem et le monachise”, loc. cit., p. 123.
12. Georges RAHMÉ, “Saint Éphrem et le monachise”, loc. cit., p. 120.
13. Georges RAHMÉ, “Saint Éphrem et le monachise”, loc. cit., p. 118.
14. Philippe SERS, Icônes et Saintes Images / La représentation de la transcendance, Paris, 2002, pp. 207-208.
15. Georges RAHMÉ, « Les écrivains syriaques », in Sources Syriaques, vol. I, CERO, Lebanon, 2005, p. 232.
16. Georges RAHMÉ, “Saint Éphrem et le monachise”, loc. cit., p. 117.
17. Georges RAHMÉ, “Saint Éphrem et le monachise”, loc. cit., p. 124; the Mimro is in French and Syriac (serto letters).