By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar President of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur Levnon
Why is epigraphy important for our Lebanese culture and history? And what is it exactly about?
Epigraphy is the study of inscriptions in hard material, mainly stones and rocks. The Syriac Maronites have left their traces all over Lebanon, carving their Syriac letters on churches, on monasteries and in the native rock. In our campaign to discover Syriac epigraphy across Lebanon, we have gathered a set of 100 Syriac inscriptions that we have classified into 4 groups.
In this article we present 2 of them, and in the next article we will present the 2 others.
Group 1: Epigraphs without a particular shape
The first group consists of epigraphs without particular shape, but which do provide us with historical information. Between these epigraphs are the inscriptions of the Phoenician cave of Aqoura, which became the church of St Peter and St Paul (Image 1).
One of its inscriptions has been illustrated in “Mission de Phénicie” written by Ernest Renan, before it disappeared. It says: Mor Estépanos Qsantine, meaning “St Stephan Constantine”. It is a vertical Estranguélo script.
Mar Méma’s church in Ehden, built in 749, contains an epigraph dated 790. It shows the same kind of irregular Estranguélo that could help us date back the inscription at the St Peter and St Paul church to the same period. These epigraphs inform us a lot about the age of the church and about the one preceding it.
Other Syriac inscriptions are more recent like in the monastery of St Morun in Annéya. Inside its church we find a baptismal font with a cross of light and the name of Jesus written in Serto (Image 2).
The church of St George in Aqoura, for instance, has been demolished and entirely rebuilt in the 19th century Syriac Maronite style. The old epigraph has been inserted in the wall of the new architecture. It is dated 1730, meaning this church had already been rebuilt in the 18th century.
In Gosta, lays the monastery of Ain Warqa. Its church dedicated to St Anthony has an epigraph on top of its apse. Its inscription (Image 3) is very significant of the Syriac mentality of the Maronites, detached from the materialistic world. They used to disregard earthly matters and to seek for the kingdom of heaven. It is a biblical verse from Matthew 19:21. It says:
* én sové at gmiro lméhwo, zél, zavén qényonokh w hav lméskiné, w téhwé lokh simto bashmayo, w to botar.
* If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven, then come, follow me.
Here and there, all over Lebanon, we find Syriac Maronite inscriptions engraved in the stones. The castle of St-Gilles in Tripoli for instance, is full of Syriac inscriptions, mainly epitaphs brought in from a Christian cemetery nearby and used by the Ottomans as simple masonry. Most of them are installed upside down. One of these however, could be a signature instead of an epitaph, because it is nicely installed as a lintel. It is dated 1737 and gives the name of a certain George son of Fayez. Other examples of the St-Gilles castle are representative of the epitaphs imported as a re-use material. One of them carries the name of the priest Moussa. Like all the others in this castle, it is from the 18th century. It is dated 1754.
In Byblos, St-John-Marc was also built by the Crusaders. Its epigraph is on the lateral entrance that was restored in the 18th century. It mentions the restoration event and the names of Pope Pius 6 and Syriac Maronite Patriarch Joseph Estéphan. It is dated 1776.
We notice its letters are getting increasingly smaller in the lower lines as if the sculptor didn’t manage correctly the space on the stone. Nevertheless, if we refer to a Syriac Maronite school book dated 1913, we observe this phenomenon repeating itself on paper support, as if it was a tradition for the Syriac Maronites.
If we leave the coast and head up to the mountains to the Monastery of Our Lady of Mayphouq we find two beautiful epigraphs on a Trifora, or triple bay. To the left, the inscription dated 1891, provides the names of the monks who worked on the monastery’s restoration. To the right, the inscription is under a cross, dated 1904. It says:
*Lo purqono élo ba slivo
*Wlo hayé élo bé
*There is no salvation but by the Cross
*And no life outside of it
Group 2: Circular Epigraphs
The second group to discover is the one with circular epigraphs. They are called Glilo in Syriac, meaning Circle. Their importance is fundamental for the theological message conveyed by the art of inscriptions through their shapes and symbols. This will be elaborated and developed in a later article.
Our first example of Glilo or circular inscription is in Mar Shalita’s Monastery in Gosta, dated 1670. We read:
* Téshbouhto l’Aloho
* Etnih bqavro hono
* Guewarguis Petros
* Patriarko d’Antiokia Morounoyé
* Mén bsébeel bashnay Moran Olaph w shét mo w shav‘in
* Glory to God
* Rests in this tomb
* George Peter
* Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites
* From Bsébeel in the year of the Lord 1670
Another Glilo, or circular epigraph, is from the same year (1670) but in Our Lady of Tamish (Image 4). It shows the same little cross on the top. The Glilo, of Maad’s Monastery (Image 5) is dated 1813. This one is the only example where calligraphy curves itself to define the circle. Another Glilo is at the monastery of St Simon in Aytou (Image 6). It is dated 1868. It looks like a Host and contains a crucifix with the date and the name of the convent. Two characters personify the sun and the moon, Jesus’ divinity and humanity.
Our Lady of the Prairie in Qornet Hamra (Image 7) has its epigraph in osmosis with the rose window. Inside one circle, we find the opening, the cross, the inscription, and the two stars: the sun and the moon, representing again the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. Our Lady of Mashmoushé (Image 8) shows the same effect. The inscription is mixed with the rose window and the cross. The text is also the same as in Qornet Hamra. It says:
“Who choses to be a servant to Mary, will never taste death”.
We find the same phenomenon once more, in St Morun in Mazraat Yeshoua (Image 9). The Glilo assembles together the rose window, the cross, the sun and the moon, as well as the same Syriac inscription dedicated to Mary. The Divinity and Humanity of Christ are on the sides of the cross.
All of these repetitions inform us about the existence of a tradition that we can not ignore any longer. There is a treasure of forms, signs, expressions, and messages that define an artistic and theological culture. We will complete this knowledge in our next article with two more groups concerning the squarish inscriptions and the crosses.
Amine Jules Iskandar is President of Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon
From the book: “Epigraphie Syriaque au Liban – vol 1”, Amine Jules Iskandar, NDU Press, Louayzé, Lebanon, 2008