Maronite scholars and the birth of modern Lebanon

The cultural prosperity of the Syriac Maronite Church coincided with the reign of Prince Fakhreddin II the Great (1572-1635) who hastened to integrate this cultural wealth into the structure of his princedom. It is this dual temporal and cultural momentum that sparked the Lebanese Renaissance and the birth of modern Lebanon.

This article was originally published in French by Ici Beyrouth on 4 June 2022. The original can be found here.

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

It was not until the end of the 16th century, when the Renaissance in Italy was coming to its end, that modern Lebanon sprang up thanks to the founding of the Maronite College in Rome in 1584. Until then, Lebanon was still living to the rhythm of the Middle Ages, retaining throughout the two centuries of Mamluk occupation its customs, architecture and feudal regime, all inherited from the Frankish period.

The first contacts with the West

A few Catholic missionaries sent by Rome to Mount Lebanon enabled a minimum of cultural exchanges, but only at the level of the supervision of the liturgy and theology according to the guidelines and manner of the Inquisition. These Catholic missions, more generally, resulted in book burnings; hundreds of manuscripts from the Syriac religious treasure disappeared for good. These relations, however, did enable the first group of Lebanese students to be sent to Rome. The most acclaimed of whom was the Maronite Gabriel Barcleius (1450-1516). He became the first author of importance in Mount Lebanon since the Jacobite (Syriac Orthodox) scholar of the school of Tripoli, Gregory Bar Hebraeus (1226-1286). Almost two centuries separate these two men. Gabriel Barcleius was very much influenced by the model and teachings of the Catholic Inquisition. His literary body was primarily a diatribe against doctrines labeled heresies by Rome. His writings constituted above all an apology for ingenuous Lebanon and the unwavering Chalcedonian faith of the Maronites. Gabriel Barcleius wrote Zajal metric poetry, in the idiom of Mount Lebanon and in Syriac letters.

More sporadic contacts took place during this period. One of the most notable was the publication of the first printed edition of the Syriac Gospel in oriental letters in 1555 in Vienna, also known as the Widmanstadt Gospel. This publication was undertaken by Chancellor Johann Albrecht Widmanstadt on behalf of the Prince of Habsburg. This work would never have been accomplished without the close collaboration of three monks and priests from Mardin and Lebanon. The result produced a sublime complementarity between the Latin art of the Renaissance and the Syriac Estrangélo (monumental) script.

The Maronite College of Rome

The real Lebanese Renaissance, however, did not begin until the establishment of the Maronite College in Rome, in 1584. The purpose of this College was to educate young Maronites who, upon their return to Lebanon, would open schools. This was the case for Our Lady of Hawka, in 1624, and later for Our Lady of Ain Warqa, in 1789. This cultural bloom coincided with the reign of Prince Fakhreddin II the Great (1572-1635) who hastened to integrate this cultural wealth into the structure of his princedom. It is this dual temporal and cultural momentum that sparked the Lebanese Renaissance and the birth of modern Lebanon. Maronite scholars of the College of Rome, whose names have been Latinized, played a key role in building the princedom of Fakhreddin II.

Isaac Sciadrensis

Among these scholars of the Maronite College, Isaac Sciadrensis had become the prince’s ambassador to France. And it was Isaac who succeeded in obtaining the title of French consuls for the Khazen family, the first allies of Fakhreddin II. Later, in 1635, with the imminent downfall of the prince, Sciadrensis pleaded at length for his cause and that of the princedom of Mount Lebanon in Europe.

Isaac Sciadrensis, ambassador to France for Maan and Khazen.

Victorius Scialach Accurensis

Maronite scholar Victorius Scialach Accurensis served as Fakhreddin II’s ambassador to the Vatican.

Victorius Scialach Accurensis, Fakhreddin’s ambassador to the Vatican.

Georgius Ameira

The case of Georgius Ameira is one of the most interesting, as this prelate, who became Patriarch of the Maronites, had compiled an architectural book on the fortification of castles and towns at the Prince’s request. He played a leading role in the cultural rebirth of the princedom and in 1596 he authored the important Syriac Grammar. Other Maronite scholars wrote on botany, agriculture and irrigation.

Georgius Ameira.

Abraham Ecchelensis

It was Abraham Ecchelensis who composed the Syriac language manual for the students of the Maronite College in Rome. His name is related to the village of Haqel. He mentions it in his work of 1628 which he signs with the name Abraham, son of Abraham, son of David, from the blessed village of Haqel, beloved of Christ.

Abraham Ecchelensis.

Gabriel Sionita

Gabriel Sionita is reputed to have been, until his death in 1648, a professor at the Royal College (now College de France). It was he who translated the great medieval author Gregory Bar Hebraeus from Syriac.

Gabriel Sionita, translator of Bar Hebraeus.

Ioannes Qoriaqos Hesronita

Iohannes Qoriaqos Hesronita, a native of Hasroun, as his name suggests, collaborated with Gabriel Sionita in the year 1619 in education, as well as on several books.

Ioannes Qoriaqos Hesronita.

Joseph Simon Assemani

Joseph Simon Assemani (1687-1768), also a native of Hasroun, is the most renowned among the Assemani dynasty and among Maronite scholars in general. He is bestowed the title of the Great Assemani for having composed the greatest number of works, as well as producing the catalog of the Vatican Library. He catalogued and researched hundreds of Syriac manuscripts, some of which he took back to Europe himself. He was entrusted by the Pope with the Maronite Council of 1736 in Louaizé. This author has several volumes on his name; Catholic Authors in the Syriac Language, The Syriac Collections of Councils and Synods, The Greek Books translated into Syriac, The Five Volumes on the Sacred Images, and many others.

Joseph Simon Assemani.

Jacques Luna

Jacques Luna was the first Lebanese printer. He had worked for one of the most famous printing houses in Europe, that of the Medici in Florence, between 1584 and 1596. The Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence today still contains the Syriac Maronite manuscript of the Codex Rabulensis composed in the year 586.

Sergius Risius

Another famous Lebanese printer was Sergius Risius or Sarguis Rizzi. Before being elected Patriarch, he had established the first printing press in Mount Lebanon and in the Levant in 1585 in Qozhaya. He also printed the missal in Rome in 1596 with another Maronite scholar, Ioannes Leopardus.

Ioannes Leopardus.

The Syriac printing house in Qozhaya is believed to have printed its first edition in 1585 and the second in 1610. Although the only surviving copy today is that of the 1610 edition, Bassil Agoula proves the existence of the 1585 print based on the descriptions of Maronite scholars such as Étienne Evode Assemani and Simon Assemani. Both had mentioned significant differences between the two publications implicitly confirming the existence of the 1585 edition.

Sergius Risius.

Faustus Nairon

Faustus Nairon was a Maronite born in Rome in 1628. He was the author of Phoenicia Illustrated, worked on the printing of the New Testament in Syriac, and the Penqidto (“Volume”) of the Feasts according to the rite of the Syriac Maronite Church.

Estéphanos Douayhi

In the elaboration of the Lebanese imagery and ideal, the most important Syriac Maronite patriarch after Saint John Maron at the end of the 7th century, was Estéphanos Douayhi at the end of the 17th century, exactly one thousand years later. It was Saint John Maron who founded the Church in Lebanon, and it was Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi who fixed the Church’s history in writing.

This student of the Maronite College in Rome who became Patriarch, compiled the most complete collection on all aspects of the Syriac Maronite heritage, history, architecture, music, spirituality, liturgy, theology, iconography and literature. All current studies in their various fields are based on his work. It has become a treasure trove of information. The latest research in genetics, musicology, architecture and liturgy pertains to this essential reference collection. This awakening of the national culture that would end up establishing Lebanon, took place at the Maronite College in Rome.

Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi

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