Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon: back to the source of the Syriac language (II)

We talk to Amine Jules Iskandar, founder of the Syriac Maronite Union -Tur Levnon – which works for the preservation of the Syriac language, in a series of weekly articles. He will elaborate the goals and workings of Tur Levnon, based in Lebanon, as well as the importance of the Syriac language which is born from the encounter between Greek and Canaanite-Aramaic, and its interconnection with identity, culture, and liturgy.

How is Syriac important for Lebanon? And how is it vital for Eastern Christianity?

Syriac is not an ethnic group. It is a collection of churches made up, roughly speaking, of three peoples from Eastern Antiquity: the Mesopotamians, the Arameans and the Canaaneans (Phoenicians). When some of them were Christianized, they adopted a new Christian language called Syriac. Together, they made up the Syriac people whose lands were later conquered by the Arabs, Turks and Kurds. Their villages were scattered on both sides of the Turkish-Iraqi border, the Turkish-Syrian border and in Lebanon. They suffered several genocides which almost entirely decimated them, especially during First World War together with their Armenian and Pontic Greek brothers. Only Lebanon, which lost three-quarters of its population, escaped total extermination thanks to France’s military intervention, first in 1860, then in 1918 with the allied powers.

Syriacs are still equated through their Church affiliation. Although the borders between these three peoples are not hermetic we can distinguish them, for simplicity’s sake, according to whether they are united with Rome or not. When applying this measure, the Mesopotamians today are roughly the Chaldeans (Catholics) and the Assyrians, the Arameans are the current Syriac Catholics and Syriac Orthodox, and the Canaaneans brought forth the Maronites (Catholics) and the Rum (Greek Orthodox; then Greek Catholics). Except for the Rums, all still use the Syriac language in their liturgy.

The Syriac language

At the time of Christ, the languages ​​of the Levant were dominated by a strong Aramaic influence. The populations of Canaan (Phoenicia and the Holy Land) as well as those of Syria-Mesopotamia used different versions of Aramaic. The vast majority of these dialects have disappeared today. Only one form survived as a language and created a rich and flourishing literature. It is the Aramaic of Edessa also called Christian Aramaic i.e. current Syriac. In its western version, it is a form of Aramaic which developed in the land of Canaan and took Phoenician forms notably in the pronunciation of the “Olaph” still in force in the north of Lebanon. But it is above all a dialect composed from a mixture of this Canaanized Aramaic with the Greek language of the region.

The people of the Levant have always practiced bilingualism and tri-lingualism. The mixture is such that a Lebanese man today does not realize that he uses as many French and English terms as Syriac and Arabic expressions within the same sentence. The same phenomenon took place at the beginning of the Christian era in this very strongly Hellenized region. The Levantines spoke a mixture of Greek and Aramaic.

Also read: Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon: back to the source of the Syriac language (I)

Phoenician and Aramaic, being pagan languages, could not meet the needs of the new Christian religion and its theology which required an adapted vocabulary. Greek philosophy brought all the literary tools and enrichment necessary. The dialect, once written, became a language composed of a lexicon of which 30% of Greek origin. A new language, a new identity and new designation arose. The region being the Roman Provincia Syria of the time, the Christians adopted this name for their language and their identity in order to differentiate themselves from the pagan populations around. The Hellenized Christian Aramaic thus became Syriac, a name that the Christian populations adopted from then on.

From there, their language only got richer especially in its contact with Greek philosophy and sciences which they translated and bequeathed to humanity. The vast majority of science practised by the Arabs was in fact the work of these Syriac Christians who first translated into Syriac, then from Syriac to Arabic. Because the latter language still had a very limited repertoire, it was necessary to compose at first in Syriac, to then create the necessary Arabic terms from Syriac Arabized words.

Syriac is therefore a Christian language and heir to Hellenized Eastern Antiquity. It is both the bearer of our Canaanean past and the expression of our Christian faith. As a living testimony of our past, it is the guarantor of our future. The Phoenician language crossed the Middle Ages under the name of Syriac, wrote Ernest Renan (1), and it is identified with the dialect of the peoples of Lebanon. It is, so to speak, the link between modern Lebanon and ancient origins. Renan contradicts the theory of a rupture as advocated by today’s official history frame.

Amine Jules Iskandar visiting His Holiness Bechara Petros Raï, the Syriac Maronite Patriarch

The establishment of the Syriac Maronite Union, Tur Levnon, was first announced in Bkerké to the Patriarch of the Maronites, Mar Bechara Petros Raï, and was then launched in New York in the presence of the Maronite diaspora and the Maronite bishop Gregory Mansour in May 2017. Since then Tur Levnon works diligently to spread the Syriac message in the Maronite masses and recitals in the Syriac language besides through conferences, television programs and other cultural activities.

Next week part III in the series “back to the source of the Syriac language” with Amine Iskandar of the Syriac Maronite Union -Tur Levnon.  Read part I Here


  1. Ernest Renan, Mémoire sur l’origine et le caractère véritable de l’histoire phénicienne qui porte le nom de Sanchoniathon (Essay on the Origin and True Character of the Phoenician History that Bears the Name Sanchuniathon, Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Paris, 1858, p. 243