By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon
To speak to Lebanon, to really be able to listen to it, you would have to learn its language. The names of the places, regions, mountains, and valleys of Lebanon date back to late antiquity. They hardly changed, even when the people lost their language. They bear the identity of the land, its history and its mythology. Sometimes place designations are religious and spiritual in nature. In other cases, they are simply descriptive of the landscape or its inhabitants.
What has allowed these names to cross the millennia is the direct link between Canaanite – the geography’s ancient pagan language form – and its Christian version, i.e., the Syriac language. Was it not Ernest Renan who wrote that “Under the name of Syriac and identified with the dialect of the populations of Lebanon, Phoenician crossed the Middle Ages”? This linguistic continuity inspires; it anchors history in this territory and roots man and his spirituality here in full.
The sacredness of the territory
Lebanese toponymy illustrates the religious attachment of man to his mountain. He calls the deepest valley Qadisha, which means ‘the holy’ or ‘the sacred’ in Canaanite as well as in Syriac. As for the country’s highest peak, it was dedicated to the Christian martyrs who fell victim to the genocide perpetrated by the Mamluks at the end of the thirteenth century. It was called Qornet Sodé, the Martyr’s Horn or Martyr’s Summit. Later, with the transition to Arabic writing, the Syriac vowels, such as “o” and “é”, which did not exist in Arabic, were replaced by a “waw” and a “hamzah”, resulting in al-Qornah al-Sawdaa, the black corner. It is this same transliteration process of Syriac vowels into Arabic that has distorted the names of Lebanese families. For example, in the Syriac Curé (the priest) the “é” is replaced by an Arabic “y” and is now written khoury. In spoken language, however, the “é” ending continues to be used.
Slight adaptations due to grammatical needs and syntax requirements in the transliteration process to Arabic have sometimes changed the meaning of locality names. The Martyr’s Summit has thus become the black Summit. Elsewhere, the simple addition of an Arab “fatha” has transformed Beit Chbéb (the village of the neighbors) into Beit Chabéb (the house of the youth). The article “Al” is also confusing when for example Qornet Hamra (the wine hill) becomes Qornet Al-Hamra (the red corner). Bteddin (place of judgment or court) becomes Beit Al-Din (house of religion). It happens however that, due to the linguistic proximity, the designation does not change meaning. This is the case with Nahr Kelb, which has become Nahr Al-Kelb, which still means “dog river”, both in pagan Canaanite and Syriac or Arabic.
The descriptive power of the names with which localities are baptized is surprising in some cases. How could a region where the cave was not yet discovered be called G‘ota meaning “the cry from the belly”? The non-existent “Gomal” in Arabic, is replaced by a “Jym” creating the form “Je’ita”. Even more obvious and striking is the name of the village of Ras Kifa, derived from Rish Kifa (the stone’s summit). It perfectly illustrates this phenomenon of descriptive naming, from the top of its rocky cliff pierced with tombs and Phoenician presses.
If Kifa means stone, Kifaya gives the adjective meaning of stony or rocky. This is the grammatical role of the “Yod” at the end of the word as in Bekfaya. The B being a diminutive of Beit (village), gives us Beit-Kefaya (the stony village or the place of the stelae). This is also still the case with Kfar (village) and Kefraya (villager), as well as Firé (fruits) and Faraya (fruity or place of fruits).
In Canaanite and in the Syriac language, the term Beit has several meanings. It can mean village, house, locality, area, or place. It can appear in full as in Beit Meré (place of the lords, the plural of Mar), or in a diminutive form like in B-roumana (place of the Canaanite god Roumana). Beit also means house (manzel in Arabic), and family (Aal in Arabic), or publishing house (Beit prosso – Dar nasher in Arabic). Beit takes on different meanings depending on the particular case: Bteddin (place of judgment) therefore designates the court, while Bkerké (place of the scrolls) means archives or library. The occurrence of multiple meanings lies at the origin of the substantial number and variety of locality names in Beit or B.
Beit designates village, but there is another more exclusive term; Kfar. With Kfar-hay (village of life), Kfar noun (village of fish), Kfar Melké (village of kings), Kfar Zayna (village of weapons), Kfar Baal (village of the Phoenician god, or village of the spouse), Kfar Matta (village of Matthew), Kfar Dabesh (village of honey), and Béqa’ Kafra, from Péqa’ Kafra (village plain or plateau).
Since Lebanon is a mountain – Tur Levnon (Mount Lebanon) – the term Tur is often found in the names of villages: Tura (the mountain), ‘Ain-tura (the source of the mountain), ‘Ain-turin (the source of the mountains), Hay-tura (the life of the mountain) and Turza, from Tur-Arza (the cedar mountain).
Since Lebanon is dotted with springs, its liquid wealth is reflected in its toponymy. Mayfuq, from the verb fuq (to go out), refers here to water welling up or flowing out. Afqa refers to the exit point of the water. The word ‘Ain (spring, source) is often occurring: ‘Ain Baal (Baal’s well), ‘Ain Dara (spring of the combat), ‘Ain Kafra (village spring), ‘Ain Qéné (spring of the nest), ‘Ain ‘Ar (spring of laurel), ‘Ain ‘Arab (impure spring or sheep spring). Sometimes the term is less obvious, because it appears embedded in a compound form such as ‘Ainjar (fast flowing spring), or ‘Aqoura.
Previously, Anis Freiha proposed that ‘Aqoura could be an evolution of ‘Ain Qoura (the cold spring). We can now confirm this, thanks to the colophons of Syriac Maronite manuscripts and thanks to Syriac epigraphy. An inscription in the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist of Hrach mentions this village in 1647 as ‘Ain Qura.
The letter “J” does not exist in Canaanite and Syriac, which both use the same Phoenician alphabet. In the Middle Ages, Frankish terms were integrated into the Syriac idiom of Lebanon by substituting “Z” for “J”. Thus, the verb Jette became Zette. An opposite phenomenon occurred later in time with the encounter with spoken and written Arabic. The “G” of the Phoenician (and therefore Syriac) alphabet was replaced in some cases by a “J”, and sometimes by a “Gh”. This linguistic transcription does not seem to be directly bound by rules and seems to occur fortuitously. Thus Gosta (the shelter, or the Augustus) became Ghosta. Similarly, Gouma (bean) became Ghouma with the sound “Gh”. While Gounié (the bay) turned into Jounié, and G‘ota (the cry) into J‘eita, with the sound “J”. This demonstrates that the transition to Arabic writing was gradual, unconceived and unplanned.
This multiplicity of names evoking so much imagery, so many memories and feelings reveals a thousand-year-old dialogue between Man and his territory, between spirituality and the landscape. They shaped each other. One sculpted the other and impregnated it, building a sense of identity and genius loci (the spirit of the place). The cancellation of the teaching of the Syriac language in Lebanese schools, in 1943, and the uninterrupted destruction of the landscape caused a fatal fracture between Man and his long heritage. The harmony of the notion of identity as defined by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson is violated and lost. The dialogue is broken as well as the temporal continuity and the cultural dimension which form the surest witnesses of the projection towards the future.
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
Also read from the same author: