Syriac Identity of Lebanon – part 3: Maronite Patriarchs and the Preservation of Syriac Identity

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

Because language is the most precious witness of the past and the most liable way to a valuable future; because language communicates the secrets and knowledge of society, its heritage and wisdom; because no society can survive without being able to express its own culture, values and aspirations in its own words, the Maronite Patriarchs were determined to protect their Syriac language. For them it was the expression of their culture, spirituality, faith and identity.

This importance was affirmed clearly by Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi in the 17th century. He called the Syriac language a Mystery as an equivalent to the Mysteries of Christian dogma. For Christian theology, Mystery does not mean that faith and truths are contrary to intelligence and reason, but that they are beyond its limits.

So what the patriarch meant is that no words can express the importance of what we lose when we abandon our Syriac language.

Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi

When Syriac started becoming seriously endangered in the 18th century, the Maronite Council of Louaizé in 1736 prohibited the translations of liturgy books to Arabic. Less then a decade later, Maronite Patriarch Simon Evodius (or Chémeoun Awad) called for a Synod in 1744.

The clauses of this Synod stipulated that it was strictly forbidden to translate the Maronite books to Arabic without a special permission from the Church authorities. And this permission could only be granted on strict conditions:

  • The Arabic text had to be printed in Syriac letters: what is commonly called Garshouné;
  • In front of each Garshouné text it was mandatory to place, on the same page, the Syriac original text;
  • Every failure to comply with these directives would be faced with excommunication.


Image 1: Syriac Garshouné text

We can see in the Garshouné manuscript (image 1), the Syriac text in the right column and its Arabic translation on the left side. And of course, Arabic is written in Garshouné script, meaning in Syriac alphabet, as required by the Council.

Things were to be taken very seriously at a time where the Melkites (or Greek Catholics) started losing their Syriac culture through a massive use of Arabic.

Maronite Patriarch Simon Evodius reiterated the 1744 Council-clauses in a new Council held in 1755. And again, a year later, the new patriarch Tobia Khazen, resumed all the clauses in his Council held in 1756. More recently, the Maronite Synod of 2005 ordered the preservation and revival of Syriac language and culture in all Maronite schools and universities.

Image 2: Maronite Synod of 2005, clause number 10

In clause number 10 (image 2) of the Synod of 2005, it stipulates:

“The synod urges the establishments attached to the Maronite Church to draw up a practical plan to revive this language.”

And it specifies:

“Universities must work to teach the Syriac language and its intellectual and literary heritage. … They will have to collect, publish, translate this heritage and integrate it into the academic programs.”


Image 3: Text by Raphael Bar Armalto

The Patriarch who had to fight the most to preserve the Syriac language and identity of Lebanon was Patriarch Antonios Petros Arida. He was facing the challenges of Grand Liban. His letter prepared by Father Raphael Bar Armalto expresses confidently his vision for Modern Lebanon. It was written in 1946, three years after the country’s independence.

It reads:

“In this letter, your Kindness showed and expressed his love and dear desire that Syriac language be taught in all monasteries and schools of our blessed Lebanon.”

“O! What a laudable and bright phrase! That all the inhabitants of our beloved Lebanon start resembling to their blessed fathers.”

“And that they go back to learning their ancestral language. And that they speak it like yesterday and like formerly. …”

And he adds:

U nalfounoy, law bdayroto u bmadershoto bal7ud!

Élo of bkulhun boté dkuléh u7dono d Lévnon

7ésno mrido da Kristioné

“And that they teach it, not only in monasteries and schools, … but as well in all the houses of the Lebanese Nation, … impregnable fortress of the Christians.”

by Raphael Bar-Armalto, Beirut 25th of Hziron (June) of the year 1946 of our Lord.

In his native village of Bsharré in North Lebanon, Gebran Kahlil Gebran studied Syriac at school. And he became attached to his language as much as to his Sacred Valley. In one of his letters to Mary Haskell, he writes:

« The Bible is Syriac literature in English words » 

This very brief definition shows us to what extent he worshiped his Syriac language. Syriac was everywhere. In our schools, villages and fields.

Image 4: School text book from 1913

Image 4 shows a school textbook dated 1913. It shows us that just before Kafno, the great Maronite Genocide of World War I, our children were still learning their language at school. Syriac teaching had to go on and on, no matter the circumstances, at school or under the oak tree. Because this was the guaranty of life, … of freedom … and of our Presence.


Oak school

One of our greatest lovers of Syriac was a ‘Malfono’, meaning a teacher. He was Saint Charbel’s Teacher. His name was Joseph Kassab, known today as Saint Nemtalla Hardini. Once, his students asked him:

“Do we always have to pray in Syriac?”

And his answer was:

“Not only while you are praying.”

“Always Speak Syriac, in your fields and in your houses, at work and at rest, this is our language.”

It is not possible to approach the subject of Syriac language and identity without mentioning the letters of philosopher Charles Malik. This Greek-Orthodox Christian wrote his Two Letters to the Maronites in which we read:

“The Maronites have been given an old Aramaic-Syriac heritage, which bonds them historically, culturally and religiously with the vestiges of the great Aramaic civilization of the East.”

“Who is more worthy then the Maronites to respect, honor, admire, study and perpetuate the Aramaic language? It has been given to them. It is living in their quintessence. They –not others- are primarily accountable for it, and not only to study it historically, theoretically, and with the same curiosity as Europeans and Westerners. They are accountable for it; thus, tying them both culturally and spiritually to remaining elements of the Eastern civilization and living Diaspora around the world.”

Then Charles Malik adds:

“Language is the most significant phenomenon of civilizations, because it is life in its deepest meanings; it determines the roots, origins, and heritage; it determines family lineages.”

“Why have the Maronites preserved their Aramaic heritage? Was it preserved simply by coincidence? Is it simply the nature of things we understand through reason that made them preserve it? Is it simply their seclusion in their impregnable mountain?”

“The believer is not satisfied with any of these explanations. He lives in the presence of something real beyond nature and the mind, something that rejects coincidences in principle and practice. At least the believer wonders: Does not Providence have a hand in this matter?”

“If God existed and His Providence concerning everything in existence, also existed, including beyond and above all Man and his destiny, is it not possible and even expected that the survival of the Maronites and their ancient Aramaic heritage has an eternal purpose especially in these special times and in this special region?”

French author Rémy de Gourmont continues in the same perspective:

“When a people no longer dares to defend their language, they are ripe and ready for slavery.”

This Language, this heritage, this culture, spirituality, philosophy and identity is our future. We are accountable for it. We will have no excuses. We have to hand our ancestors-heritage to the coming-generations.

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

For the article in Spanish and you can also watch episode 3 of the associated TV-series as broadcast by Nour Al-Sharq Tv.