Syriac Identity of Lebanon – Part 15: Syriac Maronite squarish and cross epigraphs

ܗܺܝܝܘܬܐ ܣܘܪܝܳܝܬܐ ܕܰܒܠܶܒܢܳܢ

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

What are the traces the Syriac Maronites have left throughout all of Lebanon when they carved their Syriac letters, on churches, on monasteries and in the native rock?

In our epigraphical campaign across Lebanon, we have gathered a set of 100 inscriptions that we categorized in four groups. In our previous article we presented two of them: the historical epigraphs and the Glilo or circular epigraphs. In this article we will present the two others: The Tetragonos or squarish epigraphs and the Slivo or cross epigraphs.

Group 3: The Tetragonos or squarish epigraphs

This group assembles epigraphs called Tetragonos in Syriac, meaning squares. In these epigraphs the inscription turns according to four successive directions, generating a square.

St George Monastery in Néemé (Image 1) has several inscriptions in Syriac letters. One of them is above the sacristy’s entrance. It is a rose window inscribed in a square. And this square is generated by the inscription that covers all four sides.

But the square designed by the inscription of Mar Shalita in Gosta (Image 2) is even more interesting. If we look carefully at this epigraph, dated 1628, we notice the following:

* The first part of the text occupies the entire length at the top.
* The second part on the left, occupies vertically only two thirds of the height.
* The third part at the bottom also covers two thirds of the length.
* This leaves the fourth part with only half the height of the right side.

Why didn’t the sculptor provide exactly two thirds for each side making them all equal? Why is the first part longer and the last part shorter than the others? Is it simply negligence? Is it simply coincidence?

To answer that, here is a similar case from 1656 in St Anthony of Daraoun (Image 3). We observe the same singularity.

* Full length on the top.
* Two thirds on the left side
* Two thirds on the bottom
* Half height on the right side.

It is not possible to call this negligence anymore, nor coincidence.

Tetraskelion / Swastika

It was possible to have all four sides equal by making use of the Tetraskelion, meaning the swastika shape. This swastika was very common since antiquity in Greek, Roman and Byzantine mosaics. This simple design allows us to obtain four equal sides. It was wide-spread all across Lebanon and seen in the mosaics in the numerous ruins of byzantine basilicas.

Tetragonos, Chair of Bennaoui, by Chabot.

What if we leave Lebanon to reach another Syriac area? And let us leave the 17th century to go back to the Middle Ages. Above is the Chair of Bennaoui presented by epigraphist Chabot. Again, it shows a Tetragonos, meaning a square. It also shows a cross in the center just like in Gosta and Daraoun. And once more, the text on the top uses the entire length, whereas the text to the right occupies only half the height.
We are witnessing two different eras and two different areas. And yet the same design! If there is no coincidence, if this is intentional, what would be the purpose? Probably the Tetraskelion or Swastika design makes it difficult to designate the beginning of the text because all sides are equal. But by managing different dimensions for each side, the sculptor defines clearly the beginning and the end of the text.

Group 4: The Slivo or cross epigraphs

The fourth and last group of epigraphs is the Slivoyo. It is called this way because it is composed around a Slivo, a cross. Slivo is Syriac for cross.

One of the oldest Slivoyo examples is from the Middle Ages in the monastery of St Sergius and St Bacchus in Ehden (Image 4). Its text is on the upper and lower part of a marble slab. But more to the center, an inscription is directly related to the Cross. It is the Psalm 44:5 of King David. It says:

Bokh ndaqar la b‘eldvovayn.”

“Through you we push back our enemies.”

This psalm is completely part of the Slivo, the Cross, that generates the entire composition and gives it its name, Slivoyo.

The same phenomenon is repeated in 1276, in Our Lady of Ilige (Image 5). Its text is suddenly interrupted by Psalm 44:5 that became inseparable from the Cross. So the two vertical phrases in the center are totally independent from the text. We read in them:

Bokh ndaqar lab‘eldvovayn – wmétoul shmokh ndoush lsonayn”.

“Through you, we push back our enemies – and through your name we trample our foes”.

The rest of the text is about the restoration of the monastery.

In the 18th century, in Mor Doumit church in Zouq (Image 6), the Psalm 44:5 of King David is on the lintel, on both sides of the cross.

Still in the 18th century, in St Elias of Geita (Image 7), we find a very interesting use of the Psalm 44:5. Because on one side of the entrance’s lintel, a cross is surrounded by the inscription in its Syriac version while to the other end of the lintel, appears the same cross, the same Serto script, and the same Psalm 44:5, but in Garshouné this time. It is the Arabic translation of King David’s Psalm, written in Syriac letters.

Mor recently, in the 19th century, Our Lady of Sharfé (Image 8) provides another interesting display of the Psalm 44:5 of King David. On its South entrance, the cross of the lintel shows the first half of the Psalm:

Bokh ndaqar lab3eldvovayn.”

“Through you we push back our enemies.”

And on the North entrance (Image 9), another cross gives the second half of the Psalm:

Wmétoul shmokh ndoush lsonayn.”

“And through your name we trample our foes.”

As usual, architecture, art, sculpture and inscriptions in Lebanon are always related to Syriac manuscripts.  Whether on parchment, or in the stone, whether in Mount Lebanon or in Tur Abdin, the crosses (Image 10) present Psalm 44:5 of King David, sometimes vertically, sometimes diagonally. There is a total correlation between the sign of the Cross and the verse of the Psalm.

What we have seen are the four groups showing the types of epigraphs:

* The Historical group;
* The Gliloyo or Circular epigraph;
* The Tetragonos or squarish epigraph;
* And the Slivoyo or Cross type epigraphs.

In each group, the composition, the design and the content show a continuous tradition that covers different areas and several eras. This consistency informs us about the existence of a tradition that we can not ignore any longer. There is a treasure of forms, of signs, of expressions and messages that defines an artistic and theological culture.

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.

For the article in Spanish and French. You can also watch episode 15 of the associated TV-series as broadcast by Nour Al-Sharq Tv.