Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon: back to the source of the Syriac language (I)

"We strive for our Syriac Maronite Culture, Identity and Language, for our Mediterranean Mountain of Lebanon, for our Phoenician Heritage and our Christian Faith", Syriac Maronite Mission statement.

We talk to Amine Jules Iskandar, founder of the Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon, an organization committed to the preservation of the Syriac language, in a series of 3 articles. He will elaborate the goals and workings of Tur Levnon, based in Lebanon, as well as the importance of the Syriac language which is born from the encounter between Greek and Canaanite-Aramaic, and its interconnection with identity, culture, and liturgy.

Tell us about yourself?

I am an architect and graduated from the Versailles School of Architecture. I went to school and university outside of Lebanon, but decided to emigrate in the reverse direction of most of Lebanese, that is to say towards Lebanon. I am the father of three daughters and teach at the Faculty of Fine Arts and Architecture of the Lebanese University. I also run my own architecture bureau in Beirut.

Malphono Amine Jules Iskandar visiting Mor Béchara Boutros Raï, Syriac Maronite Patriarch of Antioch.

As a first-year student of architecture at university, I started my research on the origin and identity of Lebanese architecture because I wanted to learn about art an expression of identity and aspirations of a given people. Surprisingly, there were no sources and no bibliography on the subject for Lebanon. While everything seemed clear for Chinese, Arab, Indian, French, Austrian, Spanish architecture and art… nothing on Lebanon but two works by Camille Aboussouan (1). Basically, nothing about its culture and identity. Having not studied in Lebanon, I was not subject to the official version of the country’s history. I had to search on my own and find out on my own.

Travelling through Lebanon during the summer holidays, I visited the country’s architects and schools of architecture. Their explanations on our architecture were always in accordance with the official version: “as an Arab country, we are Arab and of Arab culture.” Our architecture is therefore a variation of Arab architecture but adapted to the climate of the mountains of Lebanon.

However, there were many forms of architecture which seemed to me very foreign to the Arab world and could not fit the ideology imposed since the establishment of the state in 1943. But under the umbrella of an ideology, everything has an explanation. In this case, the explanation was that architectural expressions and designs foreign to the Arab world would simply have been imported from Italy by Prince Faccardin II the Great.

I could not accept these simplistic explanations and I decided to continue my research. Until the day when I came across a history book (2) which evoked the language spoken in Lebanon until the Middle Ages: Syriac. I reasoned that if there is a language, there is necessarily an identity… and a mystery so well concealed since 1943. This mystery lay at the end of the path that I had to follow to go back to the source.

Also Read: Syriac Identity of Lebanon – part 1: Who are the Syriacs? by Amine Jules Iskandar

My great find was the Codex Rabulensis, or Gospel of Rabula, composed in the year 586. It is a Syriac manuscript belonging to the Maronite Church – today in the property of the Medicea Laurenziana Library in Florence. In the Codex Rabulensis we find the three arcades typical of all the houses and monasteries of Lebanon. They are drawn and painted there with the same details and exactly similar proportions. Here the Syriac language fuses with architectural forms and artistic expressions in exaltation of beauty and a particular spirituality.

From that moment on, I felt compelled to share this treasure with my fellow citizens and all lovers of culture and truth. I then started to work on my first book “La Dimension Syriaque dans l’art et l’architecture au Liban” (The Syriac Dimension in Art and Architecture in Lebanon) which was then accompanied by five others [see below].

In 2004 together with a group of activists I founded the Syriac Culture Committee and we taught the language voluntarily at the association Friends of the Syriac Language. We never managed to gather more than a dozen people or so to teach Syriac to. It was not possible to make people appreciate this language as long as it was unknown and buried alive. In 2017, we launched the Syriac Maronite Union under the name of Tur Levnon. Bringing together several disparate groups in Lebanon and in the diaspora, taking advantage of the new phenomenon of social networks. Working with a continuous presence in mass media, we have started a new front. It is no longer a question of teaching the language and history of the country to a few dozen yourself, but a question of working to introduce them into the school curriculum of Catholic schools in Lebanon which bring together the vast majority of Christian students in the country.

It is only in the reconstruction of safe and solid foundations, based on knowledge of the language and on historical truth, that it is possible to perceive some glimpses of hope in the safeguarding of our country.

What does Tur Levnon mean? And how was your association born?

When we started brainstorming for a name for our Syriac Maronite Union, we considered two things: the historical Lebanon which used to be called Mount Lebanon and which was the mountain of the Syriac Chalcedonian Maronites. And the Mesopotamian mountain of Tur Abdin in today’s Turkey, and home to the Syriac Orthodox.

We wanted to pay tribute to both of them at the same time. Turo means Mountain, and Tur means Mount. Tur Abdin is therefore the Mount of the Adorers (of Christ). We re-used this form which was also the name of our Lebanese mountain (Turo) in the time of our ancestors. Tur Levnon is therefore Mont-Liban which means Mont-Blanc (White Mountain) or also Mountain of Incense. It is written Tur Lebnon, but the “b” after a vowel, is pronounced “v” according to the grammatical rules of the Phoenician alphabet which is used to write Syriac.

Mount Lebanon is the historic Lebanon to which the French added peripheral Arab territories in 1920 in order to create a Greater Lebanon. Mount Lebanon could have offered all; its culture, its schools and universities, its rich history, its experience, its Greco-Roman and Byzantine heritage, its attachment to the West and its openness to the world, to create this Greater Lebanon and propel it into the emerging twentieth century. But instead, the peculiarities of Mount Lebanon were considered as obstacles to the construction of Greater Lebanon. The differences were not seen as an opportunity and enrichment but as characteristics which needed to be deleted after being denied in their existence.

Christians were asked to disregard their Syriac language and merge into the common national identity. And to delete a language you have to erase the story that tells it. So, everything was disguised and rewritten according to the official version which confused national unity between humans, with fusion like that of metals between them. Little by little we came to deny the sacrifices of our martyrs. We were not supposed to talk about Genocide if the crime was committed by Muslims because it could offend the sensitivities of our fellow citizens. So, if the Ottomans kill half of the Christian population of Lebanon by starvation, the textbooks explain “KAFNO“, the Great Famine, by an unfortunate invasion of locusts, because the Ottomans were Muslims.

At a time when the peoples of the dying Ottoman Empire formed modern language versions of Greek, Armenian, Hebrew and Serbian, at a time when they erected monuments for their martyrs of the Great Genocides of the two World Wars, the Lebanese indulged in their total obliteration and the removal of their historical roots which linked them to their mountain.

It is not possible for a Christian to remain inert in the face of the death of his people and the denial of the blood of his martyrs. It amounts to sin. At a time when we face an existential threat, there is no longer room whatsoever for distress and despair. For that reason, we adopted the Christian philosopher Charles Malik as spiritual father and we gathered to create Tur Levnon, which is the Syriac Maronite Union. Syriac, because it is our identity and our language for all. Maronite, because the Greek Orthodox Charles Malik made the Maronites responsible for Lebanon. They are the nucleus on which the other components must be grafted. This is how Tur Levnon brings together many Maronite supporters and activists as well as Greeks-Orthodox and Catholics, and even Syriac-Orthodox and Catholics.

The establishment of the Syriac Maronite Union, Tur Levnon, was first announced in Bkerké to the Patriarch of the Maronites, Mar Bechara Petros Raï, and was then launched in New York in the presence of the Maronite diaspora and the Maronite bishop Gregory Mansour in May 2017. Since then Tur Levnon works diligently to spread the message in the Maronite masses and recitals in the Syriac language that she organizes, conferences, television programs and other cultural activities.

Books by malfono Amine Jules Iskandar

  • La dimension syriaque dans l’art et l’architecture au Liban – Published by Université Saint-Esprit, Kaslik, 2001, Lebanon. 295 pages (23X32cm).
  • La Nouvelle Cilicie – “The Armenian presence in Lebanon and its interaction with the Syriac-Maronites as well as its architectural testimony from antiquity to the present day”; Published by the Armenian Catholicossat, 1999, Antelias, Lebanon. 144 pages.
  • Temples en blancs (Temples in white) (4) – “The Phoenician temples of Roman times in Lebanon and the Beqaa”. Printed at the Saint-Paul Institute, 1999, Jounié, Lebanon. 83 pages.
  • Epigraphie syriaque. Volume 1; L’épigraphie syriaque au Liban. – Syriac and garshouné stone inscriptions in Lebanon”. Published by Notre Dame University – Louaisé, 2008, Lebanon, 480 pages (23X32cm).
  • Epigraphie syriaque. Volume 2; L’épigraphie Syriaque dans l’architecture libanaise – Syriac inscriptions in Lebanese architecture”. Published by Notre Dame University – Louaisé, 2014, Lebanon, 470 pages. (23X32cm).
  • The Book of Syriac without a teacher – by Knushto d’Marduto Suryoyto (the Syriac Culture Committee), Lebanon, 2006, 120 pages.



1 – Camille Aboussouan, Lebanese Architecture from the 15th to the 19th Century, Les Cahiers de l’Est, Beirut, 1985

2 – Walid Phares, Le Peuple Chrétien du Liban / 13 Centuries of Struggle, 1985

3 – Book edited by the Armenian Catholicossat of Antelias, 1999, Lebanon. 144p.

4 – Book printed at the Saint-Paul Institute in Jounié, 1999, Lebanon. 83 p.

5 – Book published by the Université Saint-Esprit – Kaslik, 2001, Libanot. 295 p.

6 – Book edited by Notre Dame University, Louaizé, 2008, Lebanon, 480 p.

7 – Book edited by Notre Dame University, Louaizé, 2014, Lebanon, 480 p.[/quotes]