By Dr Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union–Tur Levnon
What is the difference between the Phoenician alphabet and the Syriac alphabet? Actually, there isn’t any. Syriacs use the Phoenician alphabet of 22 letters called Olaph-bet. Only the shapes of the letters have been modified with the evolution over time. The names of the letters, their pronunciation, and their grammatical rules, however, have remained the same.
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The Syriac Olaph-bet, or Alphabet, has 3 scripts: Estranguélo or Monumental script; Serto or Syriac cursive script; and Madenkhaya, an intermediate script between the first two scripts.
In the first line in the below image, we can see the Phoenician script. The second line has the Estranguélo script, it is the equivalent of capital letters. Then the intermediate script called Madenkhaya meaning ‘Eastern’ because it is used by the Eastern Syriacs, i.e. the Chaldeans and Assyrians. The last line shows the cursive script called Serto. It simply means ‘script’.
One script is not necessarily older or preceding the other. These characters probably appeared simultaneously with the need for cursive and monumental expressions.
Estranguélo, from Sert Ewanguelioun, meaning ‘Script of the Gospels’, was the monumental script. Its prominence was proportional and followed the extension of the territories of the Syriac Churches from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia. With the many Arab and then Turkish invasions, the Syriacs lost the vast fertile territories. The invasions reduced their land to the mountainous areas of Nineveh for the Assyro-Chaldeans, Tur Abdin for the Syriac Orthodox, and Mount Lebanon for the Syriac Maronites.
They became three groups, geographically separated from each other. The isolation of the Christian Syriacs in these three separated mountainous regions limited the use of the Estranguélo monumental script to sporadic occasions, making the Madenkhaya and Serto look like identity scripts. However, Estranguélo remained the principal script for all Syriacs.
Serto is not the expression of a Maronite identity. This is testified in Our Lady of Ilige (Image 1) and in Our Lady of Bkerké (Image 2), and most probably during the entire Medieval period. Some epigraphists have even called the Ilige inscription ‘The Maronite script’. Its specifics are the squarish or geometrical letters with perfect closed circles for the Syriac letter ‘waw‘.
The Maronite Estranguélo script appears again in the Church of Our Lady of Ilige on a peace of wood (Image above). The geometrical forms are very obvious – especially with the circle of the letter waw. On the wooden fragment we read a piece of the Pater: “néhwé sévyonokh” / May your will be done.
Bkerké is also a perfect example of the Maronite squarish script. Its inscription (Image 2) is on the pediment of the patriarchal monastery: Iqoro d’Lévnon métihév léh / The Glory of Lebanon will come unto thee.
This biblical verse from Isaiah 60:13 is written in Syriac, Latin, and Arabic. The sharp squarish letters of the Syriac Maronite script are in full contrast with the curvilinear movements of the Arabic calligraphy. This same sharpness of the Syriac Maronite script appears once again in the metal version of the biblical verse on Bkerké’s doors.
The sculpture of Saint Morun in Bkerké (Image 3) shows the same script even though it is very recent. Next to the saint is a declaration of the Chalcedonian Christological dogma that defines the specificity of the Syriac Maronite Church compared to the rest of the Syriac Churches. The inscription says: Trein kyonin / 7ad Aloho / Kad lo Plig / of lo msha7laf / Two natures, one God, indivisible, unchangeable. This modern monument shows the continuous use of Estranguélo in the Syriac Maronite Church.
The sharpness of the squarish Maronite script appears once more in St John’s church in Zgorta (Image 4) painted by artist Saliba Douayhi. All the names of the apostles appear in beautiful squarish Estranguélo. On the right side: Mor Mattay, Toumo, Yaacouv and Mor Youhanon. And on the left side: Mor Petros, Mor Andraos, Yaacouv bar Halphai and Shémeoun.
As we mentioned, the etymology of Estranguélo is from Sert Evanguélioun or ‘Script of the Gospel’. This is obvious in all Syriac Gospels, starting with the Codex Rabulensis (Image 5). The Codex is entirely written in Estranguélo, from the illustration pages to text pages. It is shown in many other Gospel manuscripts (Images 7 and 8). The regularity and monumental aspect of the Estranguélo script is in itself an aesthetical effect.
Other Gospels show the use of the Estranguélo monumental script on their illustrations and titles, and Serto for their text. Like in the example of Koruzuto d Mattay / the Preaching of St Matthew (Image 6). In most Syriac books, we see the cursive Serto script in the text paragraphs, and the monumental Estranguélo around the cross. The inscription on the cross usually says: Bokh ndaqar la b3eldvovayn / by you we strike our enemy.
In some examples, next to this inscription, we can also find: Hour lwotéh w savar béh / look at him and hope in him.
Estranguélo is the script that unifies all Syriacs. For example, a book belonging to the Assyro-Chaldean tradition (Image 7) uses Estranguélo for the title and Madenkhaya (Eastern script) for the text. Here the title mentions the Feast of the Cross.
Another book, a Chhimto (Image 8) of the Syriac Maronites also uses Estranguélo for the title but Serto for the text. So the Estranguélo appears like the common denominator for all Syriacs.
With the isolation of Syriac communities because of persecutions, famines, and genocides, the monumental mentality regressed leaving more space for the cursive script. This is why we tend to find so many manuscripts using only Serto. This phenomenon went as far as considering Serto an identity script. It was even used on monuments like the statue of Saint Morun in Rome.
On this statue, we read in Serto, Psalm 92:12: “Zadiqo akh déqlo népraa wakh arzo d’Lévnon néshwah. Mor Morun Avo d3ito Morunoyto” / “The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. St Morun father of the Maronite Church.”
But Serto should not be considered as an identity script. Bkerké’s pediment proves exactly the opposite.
Another interpretation error often made concerns the vertical script. Some people believe the epigraph at Our Lady of Ilige was installed vertically by mistake. But if we carefully observe the design of the cross, we see, it is definitely not twisted. Syriac script can be written horizontally as well as vertically.
And the greatest evidence are the frescoes’ inscriptions. In Eddé’s church for instance, Dionisios and Yaacouv are written in vertical Estranguélo. And we know a fresco can not be twisted. The same goes for the Church of Saint Theodoros in Behdidet where the names of all the apostles are written in vertical script.
Stone inscriptions can also be a clear proof of the many orientations of the Syriac scripts. Some of them display the Serto script in four different directions all at once on the same stone. This is the case in an inscription dated 1628 in the Church of Mar Shalita of Gosta (Image below), and another one dated 1656, in Saint Anthony-the-Great of Daraoun.
Above we have described the three Syriac scripts Estranguélo, Serto, and Madenkhaya. All three Syriac scripts are derived from the Phoenician alphabet. All three can be written vertically as well as horizontally.
Estranguélo is the capital or monumental script common to all Eastern and Western Syriacs. It is used in architecture. For example for important entrances like the Syriac Maronite Patriarchates in Ilige and Bkerké. And in manuscripts, Estranguélo is mainly used for the titles and around the crosses. The cursive script Serto is not the same for all Syriacs. The Eastern Syriac tradition uses Madenkhaya whereas Western Syriacs like the Maronites make use of Serto.
Dr Amine Jules Iskandar is an architect and the former president of the Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon. Amine Jules Iskandar has written several articles on the Syriac Maronites, their language, culture, and history. You can follow him @Amineiskandar2.