Syriac Identity of Lebanon – Part 18: Syriac Maronite Literature

ܗܺܝܝܘܬܐ ܣܘܪܝܳܝܬܐ ܕܰܒܠܶܒܢܳܢ

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

Is there a distinct Lebanese literature, i.e. not Lebanese literature in Arabic or French? Is there a true Syriac Maronite literature?

We know a lot about the literature of the Syriacs in general. They were the greatest translators of Greek sciences and philosophy, to which they added their own very interesting commentaries and analysis. The Syriacs first translated the Greek sciences from Greek to Syriac, and then from Syriac to Arabic. They were the primary advocates and transmitters of astronomy, medicine, philosophy, mathematics, chemistry and physics which they passed on to the Arabs and to Christian Europe.

Syriac theology was predominantly poetic. Their greatest author, St Ephrem, living in the fourth century, wrote 24,000 mimré, meaning verses of poems. His writings and poems are still chanted today in all Syriac churches whether Orthodox or Maronite. But to talk more in-depth about Syriac Maronite literature, we have to go back, every time, to the Codex Rabulensis.

Codex Rabulensis

It is true that this Syriac manuscript was composed in 586, before the founding of the Syriac Maronite Church. But the Codex Rabulensis was continuously enriched throughout the centuries with inscriptions added by Syriac Maronite Patriarchs. For example, the text of an edition from 1280 AD, on one folio, says:

Bashnat olaph w hamesh mo w hamshin, éno Petros Patriarko d Morunoyé, hou d yotév ‘al koursyo d’Antiokia…”

“In the year 1550 (of the Greeks, meaning 1280 AD), I Peter, Patriarch of the Maronites on the see of Antioch…”

Another folio also contains a text dated 1278 AD. It says:

“Bashnat olaph w hamésh mo w tesh‘in yawnoyé, b tésh‘o yawmin mén yarho da shvot, étit éno mhilo Erémyo, ldayro d Mort Maryam, b nahlo d Ilige mén atro d Botroun, lwot Mor Pétros Patriarko d Morunoyé …”

“In the year 1590 of the Greeks (meaning 1278 AD), on the 9th day of the month of Shvot (February), I, the weak Jeremy, came to the monastery of St Mary, in the valley of Ilige, of the Land of Botroun, towards Mor Peter Patriarch of the Maronites…”

During the Middle Ages, the most famous author was not a Syriac Maronite but a Syriac Jacobite (meaning orthodox) from the school of Tripoli in Northern Lebanon. His name was Gregorios Bar Hebraeus. He wrote about the history of Lebanon during the Crusaders period. Then, from 1300 to almost 1500, the terrible period of rule of the Mamluks, didn’t leave us much literature nor any artistic heritage. Maronite literature had to wait until Gabriel Bar Qleius, or Barcleius, at the end of the fifteenth century to flourish again.

The first figure to be known before the Maronite Renaissance of the sixteenth century was the Syriac Maronite scholar Gabriel Barcleius (1450-1516). He is the first famous writer to appear two centuries after Gregorius Bar Hebraeus. He was to become the greatest writer of Lebanese Zajal based on Syriac Maronite poetry.

Manuscript of Gabriel Barcleius

It is in 1555, that the first book with Syriac letters was printed. It was a Gospel, printed in Vienna by John-Albert Widmenstad for the Prince of Habsburg. Widmenstad collaborated with three Lebanese monks and priests. The Gospel of Widmenstad shows a beautiful complementarity between Latin Renaissance art and Syriac Estranguélo script.

Syriac Gospel printed by John-Albert Widmenstad, Vienna.

In 1584, the Lebanese Renaissance started officially with the opening of the Maronite College in Rome. All the scholars of the College became prominent figures in Europe. They used all their knowledge and contacts in Europe to help Prince Facardin II of Lebanon in the founding of his nation.

One of those Syriac Maronite scholars was Isaac Sciadrensis. He became the ambassador of the Prince in France and it was him who obtained for the Maronite Khazen family, allied to the Prince, the title of ‘Consuls of France’. He pleaded in Europe for the cause of Mount Lebanon at the fall of Prince Facardin II in 1635. Another Maronite scholar, Victorius Scialach Accurensis, was the ambassador of the Prince in the Vatican. Also, Don Giorgio Maronio was ambassador-delegate of the Prince in Rome. He worked on strengthening the image of his Prince in Rome and in Europe.

Georgius Ameira became Patriarch of the Syriac Maronites under the name George Peter Ameira. He composed for the Lebanese Prince, an book on architecture on the fortification of castles and cities. He was also the author of the Syriac Grammar (1596). Abraham Ecchelensis, one of the most prominent Maronite scholars, composed the textbook of the Maronite college in Rome. We can read in Syriac above his name in Latin:

Bshém Aloho hayo, hotminan Grammatiqi Suryoyo da ‘vid bé posiqto la mhilo Avrohom bré d’Avrohom bré d’Dawid, men qrito mvarakhto wa rhimat la Mshiho, Haqél. Talmido d’madrashto d’Morunoyé dab Roumi.”

“In the Name of the living God, we printed this Syriac [Suryoyo] Grammar with the decision of the weak Abraham son of Abraham son of David, from the blessed village of Haqel, beloved of Christ. Student of the Maronite College of Rome. Year 1628.”

Syriac Grammar by Abraham Ecchelensis

Gabriel Sionita (1577-1648) translated the great medieval Syriac author Gregorius Bar Hebraeus. He became very famous in France. He became a professor at the “Collège Royal” in France where he has a Memorial plaque in his name in Paris on the “Quais de Seine”. His statue is erected in Ehden on the church’s piazza.

Iohannes Qoriaqos Hesronita was also a scholar of the Maronite College in Rome and he used to work with Gabriel Sionita in 1619.

Statue of Gabriel Sionita (1577-1648)

Joseph Simon Assemani (1687-1768), also known as the Great Assemani, is the most prominent figure of the Syriac Maronites in Europe. His statue is erected on the church’s piazza in Hasroun. He is the one who worked on the Codex Rabulensis, and analyzed it along with hundreds of other Syriac manuscripts. He also wrote several books and essays like:

* The Catholic authors in Syriac language.
* The Syriac collections of the councils and Synods
* The Greek books translated to Syriac.
* And The 5 volumes on the Holy Images.

Joseph Simon Assemani (1687-1768)

Among the important printers in Europe at the time were the Medicis in Florence. Their Bibliotheca Medicea Laurenziana still contains the sixth century Maronite manuscript of Cannobin, the Codex Rabulensis. One of their printers was the Maronite Jack Luna, mainly between 1584 and 1596.

Another famous Lebanese printer, in Lebanon, was Sergius Risius (or Sarguis Rizzi). He founded the first printing house in Mount Lebanon and in the Levant in Qozhaya in 1585. Its oldest known book is the Psalter of 1610. Sergius Risius also printed the Missal in 1596 in Rome. Ioanes Leopardus also worked with him on the printing of this Missal.

Faustus Nairon was a Maronite born in Rome in 1628. He was the author of Phoenicia Illustrated. He also published the New Testament which contains the illustration of the Gospel of St Matthew. We read in Syriac:

Koruzuto dMor Mattay Shliho.”

“Gospel of St Matthew the Apostle.”

Faustus Nairon similarly published the Penqidto (or volume) of the Feasts according to the rite of the Syriac Maronite Church.

Faustus Nairon

It is impossible to talk about Syriac Literature without mentioning the printing press of Qozhaya. It is assumed to have printed its first edition in 1585 and the second in 1610. The only copy, however, remaining today is from the 1610 edition. Nevertheless, Dr. Bassil Agoula proves the existence of the 1585 edition based on the descriptions of Maronite scholars like Etienne Evode Assémani and Simon Assemani. Both have noted important differences between the two publications confirming the existence of the 1585 edition.

The most important Maronite patriarch after St John Morun (end of the seventh century) was Estéphanos Douayhi at the end of the seventeenth century, exactly a thousand years later. He wrote the entire history of the Syriac Maronite church, fixing its culture and identity. He associated the Maronite identity with Syriac language when he wrote that “Syriac is my Mystery” joining it to the Mysteries of Christianity. His work is a complete encyclopedia about Lebanon and the Maronites covering all fields from music to architecture, as well as history, spirituality, liturgy, iconography, theology, literature, and art.

A letter written by Patriarch Joseph Estéphan announces in 1758, the foundation of a school in Lebanon to continue the teachings of the Maronite College of Rome. This is how the school of Ain Warqa was founded in Gosta in 1789. It was thanks to the efforts of Patriarch Joseph Estéphan.

The influence of Rome and its Latin tradition are visible everywhere in the Syriac Maronite Church. Some eighteenth century mass books reveal this influence of Latin art next to the Syriac liturgy texts.

The effect is very interesting especially in the Maronite Peshitto. Its Syriac text, as well as the typically Syriac art on its left page, are paired with Latin art on the right page. This means that Latinization was always there, at least since the sixteenth century. Before that, Maronite icons and frescos were full of Greek inscriptions next to their Syriac language.

Therefore, we notice that the Syriac Maronites are constantly enriched by Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Arabic and English, but without ever losing the essence of their heritage, their Syriac language, and their sacred Syriac identity.

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

For the article in Spanish and French. You can also watch episode 18 of the associated TV-series as broadcast by Nour Al-Sharq Tv.