Anthroponyms from Mount Lebanon

"El" means God in Canaanite. Names ending in "El" are of Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic origin. This is the case for e.g., Daniel, Mikhael, Emmanuel, and Gabriel. Names with the suffix "os" are Syriac names with a Greek origin, e.g., Antonios, Andraos, Thédros, Marcos, and Estéphanos. They are wrongly considered to have been imported from the West, but they belong to the Syriac language which has its deep roots in our region.

This article was originally published in French by Ici Beyrouth on November 12, 2022. The original can be found here.

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

The Syriac language is a mixture of Aramaic and Greek in a region which was already Hellenized during Antiquity, and then enriched by Greek philosophical vocabulary during the development of its Christian theology. If the Syriac vocabulary has reference in these two cultures, then so do its anthroponyms.

Two groups immediately present themselves. Names ending in “El,” meaning God in Canaanite, are of Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic origin. Those with the suffix “os” represent Syriac first and last names with a Greek origin.

Phoenician figurines

Suffixes in “El”

With regards to this first group, some examples have become so widespread in the West that they are perceived as European. This is not true, and we must return to the local idiom of Lebanon to be able to grasp their original meaning. In the Syriac language, Gabriel means ‘the man (gabr) of God,’ and Daniel means ‘the judgment (din) of God.’ Immanuel is composed of ‘Ammanu (with us)’ and ‘El.’ Mikhael goes back to a more Canaanite form in its Hebrew version, Mi ka El, which means “the one who is like El”, or “in the image of God”. ‘Rophé’ in Hebrew means doctor, and therefore Raphael is ‘the healing God.’

If these first names are mistakenly considered as having their origin in Europe, other names that have not made their way to the West should be more clearly identifiable as Lebanese. This is the case of Charbel which in Syriac means “the (his)story of God”. Other names are less common in Lebanon such as Samuel or Chmael which means ‘to listen (chmaa) to God.’

The “os” suffix

The (sur)names in this second group are also wrongly considered foreign. They are typically Syriac but relating to the Greek dimension of this culture. These names often appear in ancient Syriac and Garshouné manuscripts as well as in the frescoes and epigraphs of Lebanon. We thus read Andraos (‘man’ in Greek), Marcos (‘Mars’ in Latin), Estéphanos (‘crowned’ in Greek), Antonios (or Tanios), Philippos, as well as Petros and Paolos which are often Arabized to respectively Botros and Boulos. The first names Bakhos (Bacchus), Qoryaqos (Cyriac), Qouprianos (Cyprian), Garios, Fenianos, Germanos, Georgios, Grégorios, Théodoros or Thédros, and Nicolaos are also often seen.

Yulios and Yulianos have survived to our days, but in a Frenchified form: Jules and Julien. The same goes for Martinos (Martin) and Qyrillos (Cyril). Others became obsolete like Makarios (Macarius), Yustinianos (Justinian) and Marinos (male form of Marina). Some names are gradually being replaced by their Arabic or French forms. This is the case for Chamoun (from the Syriac Chémoun) who gave way to Sémaan and Simon. Others are becoming increasingly rare, such as Athanasios and Anasthasios or Anasthas. Some names seem to have disappeared among the Maronites but remained in use among the Jacobites (Syriac Orthodox), such as Dionysios (Dionysius), Theophilos and Séwérios (Severus). Some names are no longer being used at all, e.g., Yeshua (Jesus), Chalita (Alexi), and Hawchéb.

Girls in front of the church

Feminine names

All these male first names have their female counterparts. These too are wrongly considered to be imported from Europe. This goes for Gabrielle, Michelle, Danielle, Marcelle, Emmanuelle, etc. And for Patricia, found on very old Syriac inscriptions, or even Yulia and Yuliana which go back to Antiquity and appear as well in Byzantine and Syriac epigraphs. Héléni relating to the Empress Hélène, was widely used. Brigitta was the mother of Saint Charbel Makhlouf.

These names were never imported. They were common to the Christian Mediterranean. Often, their meaning pleads for a local origin. Thus, as much in Syriac as in current Lebanese, Marta means ‘the wife,’ Emma ‘the mother,’ and Marana “our Lord” (Mar), hence Marina and Marine. Raphqa (Rapqa) is sometimes replaced by its Western form Rebecca, while Chmoné and Moura have disappeared.

Philology and epigraphy

It is the inscriptions in manuscripts and in epigraphs that reveal the most commonly used names in the mountains of Lebanon. Sometimes even the place names, like Kfar-Mattaï (village of Matthew). In the Codex Rabulensis manuscript, we find in 1283, Jeremiah (Érémia), Ezekiel (Hazqiel), Daniel, Isaiah (Ashaaya), Elio, and David (Dawid). The epigraph of Our Lady of Machmouché mentions Euclimos in 1762, and we read Climis (Clément) in Rachaya in 1903. Among the two epigraphs of Ilige, the one from 1276 states David, Petros and Jean (Yohanon), while that of 1746 evokes Yaacouv, Amon, and Mikhael.

At the Saint Anton chapel of the Frangié chapel in Ehden, mention is made in 1783 of a certain Gnatios (Ignatius), and in 1788 at Mar-Abda Herhréya, a certain Yustos (Righteous) is mentioned. The 1853 inscription at Mar-Chalita of Qotara, speaks of Father Laurencios of Beit-Chbéb, and more recently at Our Lady of Mayfouq, in 1891, the name of Martinos appears.

Population of a village in Mount Lebanon

Names without suffix in “El” or “os”

Many nouns are not detectable in origin because they do not have an ending in “El” or “os”. However, they reveal their origin by the meaning they carry in the Syriac language. Thus Saliba (from Sliba) means the cross, Richa is the head or principal, Ferzlé the ironworker, Qordahi the metalworker, Abdo means the worshiper (of God), Zakhia the victorious, Saba the senior, Jabre (from Gabro) means the man, Maroun the little lord, Lahd, Lahdo, or Lahoud are relative to the unique “Son”. Yammine means people of the right, therefore the righteous, Chalhoub evokes the flame, Sawma the Lent, Nohra the light, and Keyrouz (from Korouzo) the preacher.

Truncated names

Several Syriac names of Greek or Semitic origin have undergone alterations which sometimes make them unrecognizable. For example, If Sarguis (Serge) keeps being associated with its variant Sarkis, Couré (the priest) transformed into Khoury, loses the evidence of its relationship to the priest.

But the most common reason lies in the incomprehensible habit of truncating the first part of names, first when speaking, then surprisingly when writing. We thus obtain new forms such as Gnatios for Ignatios, Gostinos for Agostinos, and Climos for Euclimos. But also, Chaaya for Achaaya (Isaiah), Lyshaa for Elyshaa (Elysée), Wakim for Yoakim, Skandar for Iskandar (Alexander), Mitri for Dimitri, Hanna for Yohanna (John), etc.

It is by immersing ourselves in the old Syriac manuscripts, the epitaphs of the sarcophagi and funerary steles of Beryte, the frescoes and the epigraphs, that we find all these first names spread over two millennia. Far from being the product of foreign influence, they embody the expression of Lebanese culture and history.

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