Our Lady of Ajaltoun Church: Two Garshouné Epigraphs

By Dr Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union — Tur Levnon

Our Lady of Ajaltoun Church (fig. 1) was built as a gift to the Syriac Maronite Church by the Khazen in 1647. It has around twenty inscriptions from the 18th to the 20th century which decorate its facades, including around fifteen on its southern facade. They are all in Arabic except for two which are in Garshouné.

Regarding the first epigraph (fig. 2) in the vaulted gallery outside the church, I have already elaborated and published it in Epigraphie Syriaque au Liban[i]. Since then the church has undergone a restoration which has revealed more clearly the materials of its numerous Arab and Garshouné inscriptions. The support of this epigraph turned out to be marble (fig. 3) and not brown limestone as mentioned in my earlier publication. This is the second Garshouné epigraph, unpublished, located inside the church. It is the subject of the second part of this new study[ii].

Our Lady of Ajaltoun still exhibits the ancient tradition of the so-called Tridentine Maronite altars which are backed by the apse. They contain a tabernacle surmounted by a canopy. On both sides, the lateral apses or “absidioles”, often replaced by niches as is the case here, contain representations of Christ on the left and of the Virgin Mary on the right. It is above this last niche that the original epigraph of 1766 is found.

Ajaltoun epigraph Our Lady 1748

Date: 1748
Church of Our Lady, Ajaltoun, Kesrouan region
Dimensions: height 28 cm; width 43.5 cm
Support: white Carrara marble[iii]
Location: in the exterior gallery wall
Writing: Serto
Engraving: protruding relief taken over in black
Text: Garshouné

Although I already published about the inscription in Epigraphie Syriaque au Liban[iv], we present the inscription of the exterior gallery here again for purposes of continuity and comparison with that of the interior. Indeed, we note important similarities between the two Garshouné epigraphs of this church. The two epigraphs use Garshouné instead of Syriac, which was still in use at the time, as shown by several other examples that I mentioned in my earlier publication[v]. These 18th century epigraphs in the Syriac language are those of: Saint-Dumit of Zouq-Mikhael (1728)[vi]; Our Lady of Ilige (1746)[vii]; Lady of Ain-Warqa (1757A)[viii]; Our Lady of Deliverance in Sharfé (1782)[ix]; Saint-Abda of Hérhréya (1788A)[x], and; Saint-Joseph of Ghosta (1793)[xi].

The two Ajaltoun inscriptions are engraved in the style of protruding relief letters. The similarities are as much in form as in content since their texts use a common terminology specific to epitaphs. Of course, there are clear differences, mostly artistic. They are due to the exceptional importance of the interior epigraph since it relates to a patriarch and presents an iconographic richness of circumstance.

We can note here a connection between the exterior epigraph (Our Lady of Ajaltoun 1748) (fig. 3) and another Garshouné epigraph from Lebanon: Our Lady of Tamish from 1670 (fig. 4)[xii]. Both are 43 cm wide and use the same protruding spelling in black. Both have crosses engraved along their text.

But it is mainly the content that interests us. Since it was Abou-Naufal Khazen who had bestowed Our Lady of Ajaltoun in 1647 to the Syriac Maronite Church. And it is still this benefactor name which is inscribed in the epigraph of Our Lady of Tamish (1670). Abou-Naufal Khazen is mentioned there together with his sons as benefactors. Abou-Naufal Khazen and Santo Khazen[xiii] are known as the main benefactors and founders of churches and monasteries in 17th century Lebanon.

1. Transcription:

1 ܐܢܬܩܠ ܒܐܠܘ ܦܐܗ ܐܠܝ ܪܚܡܗ

2 ܡܘ ܠܐܗ ܐܠܟܘܪܝ ܠܝܐܣ ܒܪܝܕܗ

3 ܟܐܕܡ ܟܢܝܣܗ ܥܓܠܬܘܢ ܦܝ ܝܗ

4 ܫܗܪ ܚܙܝܪܐܢ ܣܢܗ ܐܥܡܚ ܡܣ

2. Translation:

1 Passed by death toward the mercy of
2 his Lord, the priest Elias Bridi
3 servant of the church of Ajaltoun on the 15th
4 of the month of June, in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ 1748

3. Composition:

The epigraph of Our Lady of Ajaltoun (1748) presents a simple composition on a rectangular marble inserted in the wall near the side entrance of the nave. It has four lines of writing in hollow horizontal bands. These bands are coupled in pairs to form two superimposed frames. Each of its frames has ends in the shape of braced arcs.

The interstices between the two adjoining arches give way, on each side, to a cross in relief protruding like the writing.

Ajaltoun epigraph Our Lady of Ajaltoun 1766

Date: 1766
Church of Our Lady, Ajaltoun, Kesrouan region
Dimensions: total height 82 cm; width 40 cm
Support: gray Carrara marble
Location: above the right niche (apse, absidiole)
Writing: Serto
Engraving: protruding relief painted with gold leaf
Text: Garshouné

A Syriac Maronite church is historically characterized by its apse flanked by two absidioles[xiv]. The church is oriented as such, that is to say, etymologically, that the church places her Holy of Holies in the Orient (East). Our Lady of Ajaltoun respects this tradition[xv].

With time and with the lack of resources in the mountains of Lebanon, the absidioles (lateral apses) have given way to niches. Where Our Lady of Cannobin clearly presents the two apses in the shape of a half dome, we often meet elsewhere, more modest niches. This is particularly the case in our example of Ajaltoun. In some churches, it is the apse that looks like a niche or a flat wall.

“It is probable,” writes Henri Lammens, “that the niche that the Maronites continue to have behind the great altar is a vestige in miniature of these old apses which they would commemorate in this way. There is no doubt that the Maronites neglected the apse constructions the day they began to approach, in their spirituality and their liturgy, the Latin Church and to imitate it in many things.”[xvi]

This finding by Father Lammens also applies to the altar. After Vatican II, with the overturning of the altar to the people in several churches in Lebanon, the tabernacle was moved from the apse to the left niche where the image of Christ is located. As we noted above, the Ajaltoun church did not make this modification and kept its traditional altar leaning against the apse (fig. 5). It also retained its starry blue sky which adorns its entire vault, and which characterized so many ancient Syriac Maronite churches.

It is precisely there, at the start of the starry blue vault that the interior epigraph of the Our Lady of Ajaltoun church is located (fig. 6). It is above the apse niche which is to the right of the altar.

1. Transcription:

1 ܐܢܬܩܠ ܐܠܝ ܐܠܪܚܡܗ

2 ܐܠܕܐܝܡܗ ܐܠܒܛܪܝܪܟ

3 ܛܘܒܝܐ ܐ ܠܐܢܛܐܟܝ

4 ܐܠܟܐܙܢ ܘܟܐܢ ܕܠܟ

5 ܦܝ ܐܘܠ ܫܗܪ ܚܙܝܪܐܢ

6 ܣܢܗ ܐܥܣܘ ܡܣ

2. Translation:

1 Passed toward mercy
2 eternally the patriarch
3 Tobias the Antiochian
4 Khazen and it was
5 at the beginning of June
6 the year of our Lord Jesus Christ 1766

 3. Composition:

This epigraph is quite special since it consists of an arcade representation resting on two columns (fig. 7). The text occupies the rectangular part between the representations of columns while the tympanum, in the arch, stages the patriarchal Mitre flanked by the cross and the Crozier stick.

The whole is in salient bas-relief like the writing. Miter, Pallium, Crozier, cross, columns and arch are bordered with gold. The writing is entirely enhanced with gold leaf. It is however included in hollow horizontal bands of very simplified shapes and with arcuate ends. Sometimes, in other Syriac or Garshouné inscriptions, the composition is a little more complex, such as the gathering of writing tapes in pairs and with more worked ends. This more complex model appears in the exterior epigraph (Our Lady of Ajaltoun 1748).

The epigraph called Our Lady of Ajaltoun 1766 is especially reminiscent of that of Saint-Joseph of Ghosta 1793 (fig. 8)[xvii] which also offers the patriarchal Mitre, Pallium, and Crozier. We will find them later, around 1890, at Our Lady of Bkerké 1919 (fig. 9)[xviii]. They are indeed part of the coat of arms of the Syriac Maronite Patriarchate of Antioch.

Analysis of the two epigraphs

1. The Text:

The language used in the two epigraphs of Ajaltoun is Arabic written in Syriac letters, this is what we call Garshouné[xix]. The other inscriptions of this church are of later date and all pass to the Arabic script.

The 18th century to which our two epigraphs belong, constitutes (together with the 17th century) the pivotal moment when the transition from Syriac to Arabic took place. That is why at that time the Louaizé Maronite Council, held in 1736[xx], had promulgated rules for the protection of the Syriac language.

According to Ray J. Mouawad, it was a question of preserving its identity language[xxi] as stipulated by the later Maronite Councils of 1744, 1755 and 1756 by establishing fairly strict rules[xxii].

The 18th century thus represents a period characterized by Syriac-Arabic bilingualism. This wealth survives, although in an increasingly reduced way, until the end of the 19th century[xxiii] and during this period all prayers were said in Syriac by the laity[xxiv].

It is interesting to note that the council of 1756 was rightly chaired by the patriarch Tobie Khazen himself, quoted in the epigraph of Our Lady of Ajaltoun 1766. Like his predecessor patriarch Simon Awad, he insisted on the use of the Syriac script for the transcription of Arabic (Garshouné) by the Syriac Maronites.

2. The Spelling:

As is always the case in Lebanon, the Garshouné is noted in Serto (cursive) and not in Estrangelo (monumental). This writing is ancient[xxv] but seems to have spread especially after the 16th century both in Mount Lebanon, as shown by our study Epigraphie Syriaque au Liban[xxvi], and in Tur Abdin, as shown by Henri Pognon’s epigraphic campaign[xxvii] and some examples by Jacques Jarry[xxviii].

The Early Middle Ages and the Middle Ages are regarded as the golden age of the Estrangelo script, especially in the 11th century[xxix]. This monumental square script will remain dominant until the 13th century[xxx], or even until the 16th century[xxxi]. After that, its use will be reserved mostly for important monuments such as the patriarchate of Our Lady of Bkerké 1919[xxxii]. Without enduring to be decorated by artifices, it could itself serve as ornamentation to architecture[xxxiii].

The epigraphs in Garshouné, which spreads more and more after the 16th century, will always be accompanied by the Serto script. It is quite rare, writes Jacques Jarry, to find Garshouné in Estrangelo[xxxiv]. Father Lammens also confirms this by noting that it was at the time of Fra Gryphon that the Estrangelo’s recoil began in front of the Serto – which he calls the rounded Syriac characters[xxxv]. This is how Serto spread over Lebanon and Tur Abdin[xxxvi] by accompanying texts in Garshouné.

We are therefore witnessing at Our Lady of Ajaltoun, with its two epigraphs in Garshouné, the illustration of this period of the 17th-18th centuries, when the use of the Garshouné and the Serto script was widely spread in the Lebanon of Syriac Maronites.

3. The Cross:

The cross appears in the inner epitaph (Our Lady of Ajaltoun 1766) near the Mitre, Pallium and Crozier representing the patriarchal Maronite coat of arms. For the exterior epigraph (Our Lady of Ajaltoun 1748), of much more modest making, two crosses of reduced sizes decorate the composition.

It is a fairly widespread composition model, particularly for Serto writing, and which consists of hollow parallel bands housing the protruding raised letters. When the ends of the strips are triangular or arcuate, this creates free spaces in the interstices. This is where crosses, rosettes, and other oriental Eastern Christian symbols[xxxvii] come naturally to find their place. We find this phenomenon again in Saint-Anthony of Ehden 1774[xxxviii], in the castle of Saint-Gilles in Tripoli 1780[xxxix], in Saint-Dumit of Mazraat-Tefféh 1794[xxxx], and in Our Lady of Tamish 1807[xxxxi].

The cross is the most common element in the compositions of epigraphers. When all the others are lacking (birds, chalice, scrolls, paten), the cross keeps its dimension of both salvation and victory[xxxxii]. According to Piotr Skubiszewski, it is the resurrection and the glory of the Father. It is the Crucifixion and the Resurrection which are at the source of the doctrine of the Christian faith as defined by Saint Ignatius of Antioch[xxxviii].


The two Garshouné epigraphs of Our Lady of Ajaltoun bear witness to the cultural, linguistic, and historical situation of the Maronites in the 18th century. They provide us with information on the state of the Garshouné at that time and on its progress within the churches and in particular in Kesrouan.

Their inscriptions support the information provided by philology and history. The Khazen and their importance, the patriarchs and the history of this church are revealed to us by the names and dates mentioned.

Just as these two epigraphs confirm the use of the Garshouné, they consolidate our opinion on the use of the Serto and the protruding relief engraving, both very widespread at the time.

Certain artistic traditions are also typical of this period of the 18th century, whether for the modest epigraph from the outside or for the monumental epigraph from the inside. One confirms the tradition of horizontal bands in a fairly austere style, while the other recalls the patriarchal epigraphs of Saint Joseph of Ghosta 1793 (fig. 8) and of Our Lady of Bkerké 1919 (fig. 9).

The interior epigraph, Our Lady of Ajaltoun 1766, completes the corpus of a hundred epigraphs already published in Epigraphy Syriaque au Libans[xxxxiv]. We hope that we will always be able to bring new discoveries in this area of ​​the Syriac Maronite epigraphy of Lebanon. Some of these new examples would support our conclusions and analyses already published in the said book, while others would bring new findings and enriching discoveries for the heritage of the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch.

Dr Amine Jules Iskandar is President of the Syriac Maronite Union -Tur Levnon in Lebanon


[i] Amine-Jules ISKANDAR, Epigraphie Syriaque au Liban, Vol. 1, Catalogue des Epigraphes syriaques au Liban du Haut Moyen Age à 1925, NDU Press, Louaizé (Lebanon), 2008, pp. 186-189.

[ii] Ibidem.

[iii] Noted beige stone in Amine-Jules ISKANDAR, Epigraphie Syriaque au Liban, op. cit., p. 187, because of the dilapidated state of the yellowed marble at the time (in 2008).

[iv] Amine-Jules ISKANDAR, Epigraphie Syriaque au Liban, op. cit., pp. 186-189.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid, p. 147.

[vii] Ibid, p. 183.

[viii] Ibid, p. 217.

[ix] Ibid, p. 281.

[x] Ibid, p. 311.

[xi] Ibid, p. 315.

[xii] This epigraph was also published in Amine-Jules ISKANDAR, Epigraphie Syriaque au Liban, op. cit., pp. 106-109.

[xiii] Michel CHEBLI, Une Histoire du Liban à l’époque des Émirs, Publications de l’Université Libanaise, Beirut, 1984, pp. 48-51; see also the Khazen website consulted on April 5, 2019: https://www.khazen.org/index.php/overview-31990/17-blank-93165843; see also Pierre DIB, Histoire des Maronites, Librairie Oriental, Beirut, 2001, t. 3, p. 83 ; and Nasser GEMAYEL, La Récolte, published by the author, Beirut, 2004, p. 136.

[xiv] Charbel ABDALLAH, L’architecture des églises Maronites – Le traité liturgique et artistique du Patriarche Douaihy, PUSEK, Lebanon, 2007, Vol. II, pp. 446-449; see on the Maronite churches, Estéphanos DOUAYHI, Le Candélabre des Saints Mystères, Chartouni, Beirut, 1895.

[xv] Charbel ABDALLAH, L’architecture des églises Maronites, Vol. II, pp. 441-442.

[xvi] Henri LAMMENS, Taçrih al-abçar fi ma yahtawih Lubnan min al-atar, t.I, p. 81, French translation in Youakim MOUBARAC, Pentalogie Antiochienne / Domaine Maronite, Cénacle Libanais, Beirut, 1984, t. V, p. 6.

[xvii] Amine-Jules ISKANDAR, Epigraphie Syriaque au Liban, op. cit., pp. 314-315.

[xviii] Ibid, pp. 418-419; the code of 1919 is the one assigned to this epigraph in Epigraphie Syriaque au Liban.

[xix] Boutros GÉMAYEL « Avant-messe maronite », in Orientalia Christiana Analecta, 174, 1965, p. 49; also, in Louis WEHBÉ, « Le témoignage monastique de l’Église maronite », in Collectanea Cisterciensia, 28, 1966, p. 91.

[xx] Youakim MOUBARAC, Pentalogie Antiochienne / Domaine Maronite, Cénacle Libanais, Beirut, 1984, t. I, v. 1, p. 521.

[xxi] Ray J. MOUAWAD, « Une approche différente de la langue arabe par les Melkites et les Maronites du Liban d’après un poème d’Ibn Al-Qala’i (XV°S.) », in PDO, 34, 2009, p. 350.

[xxii] Ibid, p. 351; see also Ray J. MOUAWAD, « Maronites and the Garshûnì Script », in PDO, 37, 2012, pp. 239.

[xxiii] Henri LAMMENS, Revue de l’Orient Chrétien, 4, 1899, p. 603-604.

[xxiv] Alphonse de LAMARTINE, Voyage en Orient, Gosselin, Paris, 1903, t. II, p. 539.

[xxv] Françoise BRIQUEL CHATONNET, « De l’écriture édessenienne à l’estrangela et au serto », in Semitica, 50, 2000, pp. 81-90.

[xxvi] Amine-Jules ISKANDAR, Epigraphie Syriaque au Liban, op. cit.

[xxvii] Henri POGNON, Inscriptions sémitiques de la Syrie, de la Mésopotamie et de la région de Mossoul, Imprimerie Nationale, Paris, 1907.

[xxviii] Jacques JARRY, « Inscriptions syriaques et arabes inédites du Tur ‘Abdin », in Annales Islamologiques, 10, 1979, p. 210; it is the inscription n° 9.

[xxix] Andrew PALMER, « The Syriac Letter-Forms of Tur ‘Abdin and environs», in OC, 73, 1989, p. 87.

[xxx] Ibid, p. 78.

[xxxi] Ibid, p. 81.

[xxxii] Amine-Jules ISKANDAR, Epigraphie Syriaque au Liban, op. cit., pp. 418-419; the code of 1919 is the one assigned to this epigraph in this work.

[xxxiii] Claude SELIS, Les Syriens orthodoxes et catholiques, coll. Fils d’Abraham, Brepols, Belgium, 1988, pp. 145-146.

[xxxiv] Jacques JARRY,« Inscriptions syriaques et arabes inédites du Tur ‘Abdin », in Annales Islamologiques, 10, 1979, p. 217; it is the inscription n ° 20 in Syriac and Garshouné.

[xxxv] Henri LAMMENS, Revue de l’Orient Chrétien, 4, 1899; in Youakim MOUBARAC, Pentalogie Antiochienne, op. cit., t. I, v. 1, p. 617.

[xxxvi] See on this subject: Andrew PALMER, « A corpus of inscriptions from Tur ‘Abdin and environs », in OC, 71, 1987, pp. 53-139; and Andrew PALMER, « The epigraphic diction of Tur ‘Abdin and environs », in OC, 72, 1988, pp. 114-123; and Andrew PALMER, « The Syriac Letter-Forms of Tur ‘Abdin and environs », in OC, 73, 1989, pp. 68-89.

[xxxvii] See on this subject the many symbols presented in Jean SADER, Croix et Symboles dans l’Art Maronite Antique, Dar Sader, Beirut, 1989; also Romualdo FERNANDEZ, « Symboles chrétiens dans les monastères syriens », in Patrimoine Syriaque, Actes du Colloque V, Antélias (Lebanon), 1998, pp. 151-164.

[xxxviii] Amine-Jules ISKANDAR, Epigraphie Syriaque au Liban, op. cit. p. 236

[xxxix] Ibid, p. 272.

[xxxx] Ibid, p. 318.

[xxxxi] Ibid, p. 326.

[xxxxii] Ac, I, 9-11; 2, 22-36 et He, 12, 2, cités in Piotr SKUBISZEWSKI, La croix dans le premier art chrétien, Geuthner, Paris, 2002, p. 9.

[xxxxiii] Ignace D’ANTIOCHE, POLYCARPE DE SMYRNE, « Lettres, Martyre de Polycarpe », in Sources Chrétiennes, 10, 1969, p. 128-129 (Aux Philadelphiens, 8, 2).

[xxxxiv] Amine-Jules ISKANDAR, Epigraphie Syriaque au Liban, op. cit.