The Maronite Patriarchs and the Syriac Language

"Why have the Maronites preserved their Syriac heritage? Was it preserved simply by coincidence? Does not Providence have a hand in this matter?" Charles Malik

This article was originally published in French by Ici Beyrouth on 21 May 2022. The original can be found here.

By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon

From their patriarchal seat of Ilige, to the one in Berké, and via Qannoubine, the Maronite patriarchs are known to have waged a lengthy struggle to preserve their freedom, their identity and Syriac language. This history of cultural resistance began with the fall of the County of Tripoli (1289), which had accompanied the advances of the Mamluks on the Qadisha Valley (1283) and on the Kesrouan (1305).

Syriac Maronite Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi.

Although Turkish-speaking, the Mamluks who occupied Lebanon from the end of the 13th century until 1516, established an Arabic-speaking administration over their entire empire. For the first time, patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi tells us, the Syriac Maronites began to give their children Arabic first names in order to protect them from abuses and killings. It should be noted that the Mamluk military campaigns against Lebanon spanned some twenty years and were accompanied by a prolonged genocide that deeply marked the population, causing a collective trauma that sometimes resonates to the present day. After the destruction, scorching and complete depopulation of the mountains, arose a kind of identity repression on an anthroponomic, and sometimes clothing and later linguistic level.

Maronite manuscript with the Syriac text in the right column and its Arabic translation in the left column. Arabic is written in the Syriac alphabet, as required by the synods.

Paradoxically, this process accelerated with the end of Mamluk rule and the beginning of the Ottoman Empire. However, the new rulers recognized and tolerated the different nations (millet) present in their imperial territory. With the signing of the Capitulations between Francois I of France (1515-1547) and the Ottomans, Christians benefited from a minimum of advantages which in Lebanon grew into a form of protection under the French king Louis XIV (1643-1715). The appointment of Khazen Maronites as French consuls accelerated the process of repopulating and rebuilding the southern Lebanese villages abandoned under the Mamluks. This movement of the population to the south was accompanied by increasing changes of the local idiom which, while preserving the Syriac syntax, led to a gradual Arabization of the vocabulary.

Lebanese textbook from 1913 for teaching the Syriac language.

For the Maronite patriarchs, their language meant the expression of their culture, their spirituality, their faith and their identity. Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi very clearly formulated this in the 17th century. He called his Syriac language a mystery, equal to the Mysteries of Christianity. For him, no translation could ever replace the Syriac original and express the notion of the text in its entirety. Because words have a second memory, while each culture establishes a unique relationship between the signifier and the signified to transfer meaning.

When the Syriac language began to be seriously endangered in the 18th century, the Maronite Council of 1736 in Louaizé stepped in to ban the translation of liturgical books into Arabic. Less than ten years later, in 1744, Maronite Patriarch Chémoun Awad convened a synod in which he ruled that it was strictly forbidden to translate Maronite books into Arabic without special permission from the ecclesiastical authorities. This permission was only granted under two conditions: the Arabic text had to be printed in Syriac letters (commonly called Garshuné), and for any Garshuné text it was mandatory to place the original text in Syriac script next to it. Any violation of these guidelines was punishable by excommunication, the synod stated.

The reason this matter was taken very seriously then was because the Melkites (Greek Catholics) at that time began to lose their Syriac culture and tradition due to their massive reliance on Arabic translations. Patriarch Chémoun Awad had to repeat the articles of 1744 at a new synod held in 1755.

Patriarch Tobias Khazen.

And again, only a year later, the new patriarch Tobias Khazen repeated all these clauses in his synod of 1756. More recently, the Syriac Maronite Church synod of 2005 ordered the preservation and revival of the Syriac language and culture in all its schools and universities. Clause number 10 states the following:

“The synod urges institutions attached to the Maronite Church to draw up an operational plan to revive this language… Universities should strive towards teaching the Syriac language and its intellectual and literary heritage. They will have to collect, publish, translate and integrate this heritage into academic programs.”

Maronite Synod of 2005 insisting on the teaching of Syriac.

The patriarch who fought hardest for the preservation of the Syriac language was Antonios Petros Arida (1932-1955). Faced with the challenges of the young state of Greater Lebanon which had just adopted Arabic as its national language, he demanded the preservation of the Syriac language in all Christian schools. His letter prepared by Father Raphael Bar Armalto confidently expressed his vision for modern Lebanon. The letter was dated June 25, 1946, three years after the country’s independence. Patriarch’s Antonios confrontation with head of state Béchara el-Khoury (whom he eventually excommunicated) caused the Patriarch to be banned domestically and isolated by the Vatican. Language and history teaching at schools was immediately replaced by a new official curriculum. With the retirement of the last Syriac teachers in the 1960s, mountain schools stopped teaching this language for good. Around the same period, the Maronite mass had to be translated into Arabic, because the parishioners could no longer read Syriac, although it was very similar to their spoken language.

Patriarch Antonios II Petros Arida, 1932-1955.

However, the last generations who received their schooling in Syriac continued to be imbued with this culture. This is reflected in artistic and literary works of art. Saliba Douayhi based the principles of his abstract painting on the Syriac script. Gebran Kahlil Gebran mentioned the Syriac language several times, as in his letter to Mary Haskel. He wrote to her that “the Bible is Syriac literature expressed in English words”.

Schoolbook dated 1913 (just before the Great War which ended the autonomy of Mount Lebanon)

It was not a Maronite, but a Greek Orthodox philosopher who was the last to raise awareness about the importance of the Syriac language for Lebanon and the danger of its disappearance. Charles Malik saw in the disappearance of the native language – in the same manner as philosophers Rémy de Gourmont, Johann Von Herder and Milan Kundera did – “the first stage in the liquidation of a people”. Between 1974 and 1980, in his “Two Letters to the Maronites”, he stated bluntly: “Who is more worthy than the Maronites to respect, honor, study and perpetuate the Syriac language?” He made the Syriac Maronites the primary people responsible for the language’s survival, before emphasizing that “it is living in their quintessence”.

Charles Malik even associated this linguistic heritage with Lebanon’s raison d’être and its humanistic mission in this part of the world. After putting language forward as “the main phenomenon of civilizations” that determines “roots and family lineage”, he reconnected with the German philosophers of the 19th century to find the meaning of existence in language. “Why have the Maronites preserved their Syriac heritage? Was it preserved simply by coincidence? Does not Providence have a hand in this matter?”

Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar is an architect and the former president of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur LevnonAmine Jules Iskandar has written several articles on the Syriac Maronites, their language, culture, and history. You can follow him @Amineiskandar2

For the article in Spanish see Maronitas.org