Syriac Identity of Lebanon – Part 9: Architecture: The Lebanese Trifora

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

It is hard to imagine Lebanese architecture without the Trifora, the Triple bay or the triple arches. What is this Trifora? What is its meaning? On our journey of visits to Lebanese architectural sites we will be accompanied by four sources:

* The Codex Rabulensis or the Rabula Book of the Gospels (dated 586 AD);
* The manuscript of Maronite Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi who died in 1704;
* The Suguito of Edessa, meaning the Syriac Hymn of Edessa dated from the 6th century;
* The thesis of Volkmar Gantzhorn: Le tapis chrétien oriental or The Christian carpet, especially the carpet with Lily flower.

When people look at Lebanese architecture they always notice the triple arches or triple bay, the most prominent feature of this kind of architecture. It has been said that the Lebanese Prince Fakhredin II imported this model from Italy when he came back from his exile in 1618. The reason for this superficial explanation is that everything in Lebanon tends to be explained through Arabic culture. But if we search in our own Syriac heritage we find much deeper meaning in things.

Our Syriac heritage contains a great book of gospels known as the Codex Rabulensis. It was composed under the supervision of the monk Rabula in 586 AD. It shows us the triple arches of our Lebanese architecture with the exact same proportions and details. The thin slender columns are identical to those of the Lebanese triple arches and have nothing in common with the proportions of Greek, Roman, or Byzantine architecture.

During the reign of Prince Facadin II, the Syriac Maronite Church started a Renaissance initiated by the foundation in 1584 of the Maronite College in Rome. This Renaissance was boosted by the stability, security, and prosperity provided by the prince’s model of governance.

Scholar Assemani took the Codex Rabulensis from Lebanon to Florence and started studying it and analyzing it. Maronite Patriarch Georges Ameira wrote a book on architecture for Prince Facadin II. Through those scholars, the intellectual prosperity within the Syriac Maronite Church was combined with contemporary economic growth. This is how images from the past made their reappearance in the Lebanese landscape.


It is Syriac Maronite patriarch Estephanos Douayhi who, in the 17th century, gave us the meaning of these triple arches. He wrote: ‘they are the light of the Holy Trinity”. But many modern scholars are inclined to say that this is a later explanation and not necessarily objective. That is why we will call on other much earlier evidence, i.e. from the sixth century: The ‘Suguito of Edessa’ that describes the Hagia Sophia, the cathedral of Edessa. This Basilica is a contemporary cathedral of the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople and it dates from the same period as the Suguito of Edessa. A Suguito is a Syriac Hymn. The Suguito was translated by Dupont-Sommer. It uses the same description provided by Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi 10 centuries later. It says: ‘their light is the light of the Holy Trinity”.

We actually know that in the Byzantine Empire, it was customary to have 2 architects working on one monument. One of them was responsible for the technical approach whereas the other concentrated on the symbolism. In Edessa’s Basilica the architects were Assaf and Addai.

This symbolism made the monument a sort of microcosm representing Space, Time, and Spirituality. The cupola was the representation of the Orbis Romanus – Entire Universe. This represents the first factor: Space. The forty windows at its base symbolized the forty centuries: Integritas Seucularum, the Integrity of Time. This is our second factor. Under them, we always notice the triple arches or triple bay. They are the representation of the Holy Trinity as mentioned by the Suguito Syriac Hymn of Edessa in the sixth century and by the Syriac Maronite Patriarch in the 17th century. This is our third factor: Spirituality.

Trifora on churches, palaces, and houses

We find this triple bay on many Syriac Maronite churches, palaces or ordinary houses. In Lebanese architecture, there is very little ornamentation. The feature that is mostly used is the lily flower. It can appear on the central arch or on the columns’ capital. It can be on the arches, oriented upwards or downwards.

Often, there is no lily sculpted in the stones. But this important feature is still there. It is found in the woodwork of the triple bays. It is always incorporated in the rich Gothic design. What does this omnipresent feature mean? What is the intended message behind it?

The Gorzi Carpet, 1651, Hripsimé.

To answer this question, we go to our fourth source mentioned earlier: The Armenian Carpets analyzed by Volkmar Gantzhorn. This author was often told that the carpets he was mentioning were Turkish carpets for Muslim prayer. Yet, he was finally able to prove the Christian origin of that art thanks to the Gorzi Carpet of the Berlin Museum because this piece presented clearly an Armenian inscription mentioning Saint Hripsimé. It was also dated from the year 1651. Next to the inscription and to the date within the framing design, appears a second frame with the lily flowers.

Volkmar Gantzhorn tells us this is not, as people assumed, a Turkish tulip. It is a lily of the Lilium Candidum species. The White Lily, that has its origins in the Lebanese antiquity he says. For Phoenicians, it was as important as the Cedar. For Christians, it symbolizes the Grace of God. What is the Grace of God doing here?

Hadat serpent snake, lily and birds

In Hadat, North Lebanon, the Lily appears on the arch next to the snake of the capital. For Christian artistic tradition, the serpent made Adam fall, but the Grace of God brought him Salvation. Furthermore, if we look at the Gorzi carpet, we notice the duplication of the columns. Jules Leroy made the same observation while studying several Syriac Manuscripts. He says this duplication is the simplification of the perspective. It is a two dimensional image of the church’s nave that leads us to Jesus Christ and to His Kingdom.

So to summarize the entire message, the triple bay is the Light of the Holy Trinity that leads us to heaven, through the Church of Jesus Christ. And to be able to enter, we need the Grace of God symbolized here by the Lily Flower.

Amshit, syntheses

By doubling the columns, Armenian and Syriac artists created a two dimensional interpretation of the nave. But what is most amazing is to see Lebanese architects adopting this two dimensional representation in their three dimensional work. A palace in Amshit perfectly illustrates this phenomenon.

In this example, the architect was inspired by the two dimensional representations of the Christian nave. He doubled the columns as if he was composing in a manuscript. And most importantly, we can see all the elements defined by Volkmar Gantzhorn:

* The triple arches of the Holy Trinity
* The duplicated columns of the Church of Christ
* And of course, the Lilies for the Grace of God.

The concept of Salvation was not just an unconscious act for Lebanese artists or masons – see image below: Mayphouq ND 1891-1904. Soteriology, meaning the theology of Salvation, was at the center of Christian Maronite art as we can see in the monastery of Our Lady in Mayphouq.

Mayphouq ND 1891

If we take a closer view at its triple bay, we notice it contains Syriac inscriptions.

Mayphouq ND 1904

And when we get even closer, we can read under the cross:

* Lo purqono élo ba slivo – There is no salvation but by the cross

* W lo 7ayé élo béAnd no life but in it

The architect and mason made here a powerful statement and a clear evocation of the concept of salvation. The people were always influenced by their church, their faith, values, and spirituality that left its traces all over their art and architecture. But the influence of the Church was even more direct. The monastery was the school, the university, and the hospital. It organized agriculture, industry, and construction.

le XIX°

Above is a photograph showing the construction site of a house in Mount Lebanon in the late 19th century. If we have a closer look and analyze it in details, we notice the architect standing on the right side supervising the works. And this architect is a priest.

Amine Jules Iskandar is President of Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon. This article by malfono Amine Iskandar in the series Syriac Identity of Lebanon was taken from his book “La dimension syriaque dans l’art et l’architecture au Liban”, Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar, CEDLUSEK, Kaslik, 2001

For the article in Spanish. You can also watch episode 9 of the associated TV-series as broadcast by Nour Al-Sharq Tv.