Patronyms of Mount Lebanon

Ancient manuscripts hold the concise or detailed stories of Lebanese families. But because they were written in Syriac characters, they became indecipherable to the Lebanese of the twentieth century. With time and acculturation, theories on the origins of surnames have developed without any scientific basis.

This article was originally published in French by Ici Beyrouth on November 19, 2022. The original can be found here.

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

In our previous article, we listed the different groups of anthroponyms common to Mount Lebanon. The first group concerned names ending with “El,” meaning God in Phoenician, such as Mikhael, Gabriel, Charbel, and Daniel. The second group was that of Syriac names of Greek origin and ending in “os,” such as Andraos, Kiryllos, Marcos, and Ignatios. A third group is that of names without particular suffixes, but whose Syriac identity is revealed by their meaning, such as Yammine (the righteous), Ferzlé (ironworker), Chalhoub (flame), Qordahi (metalworker) or Keyrouz (preacher).

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.

Syriac Maronite Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi.

Arabic names

During the Mamluk period, which embodies the first genocide in Lebanon, Arabic first names made their entry into society and then transformed into surnames during the separation of families into different branches. Patriarch Estéphanos Douaihy recounted in this regard that Christians, traumatized by the massacres perpetrated by the Mamluks, had begun to give Arabic first names to their children in the hope of keeping them out of danger.

The writer Amin Maalouf noted in his novel The Rock of Tanios, that this custom developed mainly in elite circles, while the peasantry remained faithful to the names of the twelve Apostles, saints, and prophets of the Old Testament. Qoriaqos, Kiryllos, Antonios, but also Daniel, Elychaa (Elysium) or Achaaya (Isaiah), became characteristic names for ordinary people, while the nobility increasingly turned to Arabic first names. This social phenomenon accelerated in the nineteenth century when the Chéhab princes, by converting to Christianity, chose to maintain their previous family name. The Arabic first name thus became synonymous with nobility.

The title of sheikh

With the end of Mamluk oppression and the beginning of the Ottoman period in 1516 AD, Christians could return to the southern regions and rebuild their devastated villages. Because, the Ottomans did not seek direct rule, but employed local families to act as intermediaries for the collection of taxes. These families received the title of sheikh, also if they were Christian.

Over time, this new nobility sought to legitimize its titles, in this case that of sheikh, by trying to draw on Arabian sources. This is how several families including the Khazen, Gemayel, Hashem, Dahdah, Assaf, etc. invented origins of lineage sometimes going back to the tribe of the prophet of Islam. To get a more concrete idea of this curious phenomenon of falsification, we take as an example the case of the Hashem family of Aqoura.

Handwritten Garshouné text by Patriarch Estéphanos Douaihy.

The falsification of history

Some unfounded explanations want to trace the name Hashem back to the tribe of the prophet, or to Hashem al-Ajamy to whom the Turkish emir Mansour Assaf had entrusted the administration of the Jbeil region. But the Syriac Maronite patriarchs tell us something completely different in their chronicles. Patriarch Paul Massad mentions the deacon Thomas from Mount Lebanon as the ancestor of this family.

Fearing the Mamluks, patriarch Estéphanos Douaihy tells us, that the deacon Thomas had chosen Arabic first names for his sons. He had called them Ayoub and Fadoul. The patriarch himself informs us that in 1534 these two brothers settled in the Mar Adna Monastery, the episcopal seat of ‘Ain-Qoura (Aqoura). Because they had handled the administration of the village well, the deputy of the governor of Damascus awarded them the title of sheikh. Ayoub then had three sons whom he named Hashem, Daher, and Raad. Hashem took over as the head of the family that eventually would bear his name along with the title of sheikh. The members of this family are thus direct descendants of the deacon Thomas and had never borne the Hashem family name before the sixteenth century.

Resident of Mount Lebanon.

Modest ancestry stories

Another example is that of the Abillama family who, according to Fouad Ephrem Boustany, were in no way new to Lebanon. He thinks it to be a local Syriac family of the Jacobite (today’s Syriac Orthodox) confession who would have converted to the Druze religion, then back again to Syriac Christianity, but in its Maronite version this time, because, in the meantime, the Jacobite Church had ceased to be present in Lebanon.

The ancestry stories attested in the Syriac or Garshouné manuscripts are thus all alike. They constantly bring back the legendary epics of the supposedly glorious riders of the desert, to a much more rudimentary, modest, and humble truth. The chronicles of the patriarchs, bishops, and monks inevitably refer us to the simple reality of ordinary mountain dwellers who, for several reasons, found themselves endowed with titles of nobility.


With time and acculturation, historical and linguistic theories have formed without having any scientific basis. The true stories of these families are mentioned succinctly or in detail in our old manuscripts. But, being written in Syriac or in Garshouné, they became linguistically indecipherable for the Lebanese of the twentieth century. It was also precisely during this period that the Arabist ideology made its entry and took shape. This Arabist ideology was brought into vogue by certain circles, including circles at the American University of Beirut and, in particular, by the historian Kamal Salibi. Ignorance of the language of the ancestors has made historical sources inaccessible, giving free rein to all sorts of great theories and producing a clean slate effect likely to accommodate all sorts of ideologies.

It was Joseph Stalin who understood the extent of the political possibilities that the phenomenon of acculturation could provide him. And since this process always begins with the suppression of the language, in 1936 he undertook a reform of the languages spoken in the Soviet Union, imposing the Cyrillic alphabet on the languages. Then on March 13, 1938, he moved up a gear by decreeing the compulsory learning of the Russian language in all the federated states. These reforms were accompanied by the physical suppression of intellectuals.

Before turning to language, Stalin thought the imposition of the Cyrillic alphabet as the most essential and fatal step in the process of cultural erasure, and thus of the elimination of identity consciousness. He realized that local languages would never disappear from people’s homes. But what use would mastery of the word be to them if they could no longer decipher the writing? Thus, the subject populations, ignorant of their alphabet, would no longer have access to their own history.

The Garshouné in which our history is preserved is none other than Arabic or even Lebanese written in Syriac characters that our schools no longer teach. This Garshouné therefore drags history, literature and culture into its deep amnesiac abyss. What was thought and planned in the USSR happened unconsciously, but surely and inevitably in Lebanon.

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