Syriac Identity of Lebanon – Part 1: Who are the Syriacs?

By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar President of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur Levnon

Do we, Lebanese, have an identity? What is this identity? And where is it? In our series of 20 articles we will discover together the different manifestations of our culture and specificities, through art, history, literature, iconography, philology, liturgy, music, architecture and theology. Let us first try to understand who the Syriacs are, who we are and to where we belong.

Below is a map of the region of the Levant and Middle East. The Northern part was entirely Aramaic speaking. But the Syriac area, is only in the extreme North, highlighted here by a red line.

Map 1: Topography of the Levant and the Middle East

This region is actually the Hellenized part. Ancient Semitic languages here where merged with Greek. Then they where Christianized, causing even more Greek vocabulary to enrich the local tongue, because the new Christian culture needed new terminology for its own theology. And this was provided by Greek.

Since this region was called Provincia Syria by the Romans, local Christians adopted this name for their new language and for their Christian identity. They became the Syriacs.

Map 2: Modern borders

The second map shows the region with the modern borders. Inside the red area we can see from left to right:

  • Lebanon.
  • Then going up is Antioch, the spiritual capital of the Syriac Churches.
  • Then, to the East: Aleppo in modern Syria and Edessa in modern Turkey. Edessa was the capital of the Syriac language.
  • More to the East, is Mardin and then Tur Abdin, both in modern Turkey. Tur Abdin is a mountain like Lebanon. Its name means: The Worshipers of God.
  • And finally, to the extreme East, we go down to the Ninawa plain in modern Iraq.


The western part of the red zone indicated in Map 2, is Canaan, or land of the Cananeans or Phoenicians. The Eastern part is Upper Mesopotamia.

Diagram 1: The diagram of the Syriac peoples

So again, who are the inhabitants? There were actually three origins that made together today’s Syriac people:

  • The Cananeans (here in blue).
  • The Arameans (in red).
  • And the Mesopotamians, (in green).


Diagram 2 shows that when they where Hellenized and Christianized, they became Syriacs. But it also shows us how they never lost their origins until nowadays. Hence, the Cananeans, in blue, became today’s Maronites, and Roum. The Maronites being the catholic branch. The Arameans, in red, as well as Mesopotamians, became today’s Syriac Orthodox, with a catholic branch known as the Syriac Catholics. And the Mesopotamians, in green, became today’s Assyrians, with a Catholic branch: the Chaldeans.

Diagram 2: Syriac churches

Why did they split into so many churches? The Mesopotamians, also called Eastern Syriacs, separated from the Western Syriacs after the Council of Ephesus in 431. They became The Eastern Church that split later into Assyrians and Chaldeans (the Chaldeans being the catholic part). Later in 451, the council of Chalcedon caused a second split. In this council emperor Marcianus condemned Monophysism. Only, next to this will to unify the Church and its dogma, the Emperor tried to introduce a cultural unification by imposing his Greek language. This led to a new split causing the creation of 3 Western Syriac Churches:  

1 – The first group rejected Chalcedon entirely in dogma and culture. They will be called Monophysits, then Jacobites, and today Syriac Orthodox, from which come the Syriac Catholics.

2 – The second group accepted the Chalcedonian dogma and with it the Greek liturgy and language. They were called Roum, and later Greek Orthodox, from which come afterwards, the Greek Catholics.

3- The Third group accepted the Chalcedonian dogma and the unity of the Church, but insisted on preserving their Syriac liturgy, identity and language. They will be called the Syriacs of Beit Morun, today’s Maronites.

Those Western Syriacs are the ones we are mainly interested in because our approach aims to concentrate on Lebanon. And to visit Lebanon, what is more convenient than to go through the writings of the Orientalists, the European travelers who described Lebanon, its people, its spirit and its language? Let us start in the 17th century with Eugène Roger:

“In Mount Lebanon where I have noticed 3 villages, close to the Great Cedars, where current spoken language is Syriac, which they deeply respect and esteem so much, they refuse to make use of Arabic even though they are able to speak it…”

Again in the 17th Century: Jean de la Roque in his biography of the Maronite scholar, Faustus Nairon, wrote:

He was originally from Ban, an important village of Mount Lebanon, facing Cannobin, and which inhabitants still speak today the Syriac language.”

Now in the 19th century, Constantin François Chasseboeuf, known as Volney, said:

“They celebrate mass in Syriac, in which most of them can not understand a single word.”

And the analysis of this weird phenomenon is given to us by Alphonse de Lamartine when he writes:

“In every village there is a Chapel where liturgy is celebrated in Syriac language. At the Gospel, the priest turns to the people and reads the Gospel in Arabic.”

Because Lamartine says, and here is his interesting input:

“Religions that last longer than human races, maintain their sacred tongs while the people have lost theirs.”

There is no such beautiful description of the Syriac language, culture and identity, then the following one given by Ernest Renan in his “Mission de Phénicie” in 1861:

“Under the name of Syriac and identified with the dialect of the populations of Lebanon, … Phoenician crossed the middle Ages…”

And in 1917, René Ristelhueber describes the languages used in Lebanon saying:

“Arabic has gradually replaced Syriac. Syriac was commonly used up till the 16th century, but only survives now as a liturgical language.”

The Dominican Jean-Maurice Fiey takes us deep into our mountains, valleys and caves, searching for the spiritual and historical identity:

“History has only kept the memory of the great convents that must have existed near the coastal cities, hellenized than byzantinized, during the first centuries of Christianity. But as we penetrate inside the Syriac depth of the country, we find the rocks of the hills full of caves and monastic sanctuaries.”

Our series of 20 articles will take us on a Journey to discover these valleys, these rocks and these caves full of artistic and historical treasures to witness the presence of Christianity and of Syriac spirituality.

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

For the article in Spanish

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