The Two Inscriptions of Gosta

In the first line of the inscription at Gosta, the patriarch is depicted very commonly as "crown of our parish". However, in the next line, he is called "glorious pillar of our nation". While the reference phrase is ecclesiastical everywhere else, here in Mount Lebanon it is national. The Syriac Maronite Church has distinguished itself from the rest of the Syriac Churches by this early consciousness and a will to build a political entity.

This article was originally published in French by Ici Beyrouth on January 28, 2023. The original can be found here.

By Dr Amine Jules Iskandar President of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur Levnon

A walk through the village of Gosta, overlooking Jounié Bay, makes us discover part of our history, the history that ushered in Lebanese national consciousness. It is in these inscriptions, carved here and there in our mountains, that the notion of Lebanon was born. Below, we discuss two epigraphs that speak of our deepest aspirations, which define our choices and our affinities. One is located below Gosta, in the Monastery of Saint Anthony of Ain-Warqa, and the other higher up, in the Saint Joseph Church.

Monastery of Saint Anthony of Ain-Warqa. ©Amine Jules Iskandar

Saint Anthony the Great

The Monastery of St. Anthony of Ain-Warqa was founded in 1680 by the monk Estéphan from the nearby Mar Shalita Monastery. In 1690 Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi (1670-1704) consecrated the place in the name of St. Anthony the Great, as attested by the Syriac epigraph of that year. It was Patriarch Joseph Estéphan (1766-1793) who finally converted this monastery into a seminary in 1789, based on recommendations of the Lebanese Synod of 1736.

Ignoring the rather short-lived previous experiences, we can consider Ain-Warqa as a revolution in the field of education in Lebanon. After the Society of Jesus got suppressed from 1773 onwards, the Syriac Maronite clergy had to adopt a Western-style educational system of their own. Thus, in this establishment in Ain-Warqa, modern methods of education were applied for the first time in Lebanon and in the East, modelled on those of the Maronite College in Rome.

The Monastery of St. Anthony of Ain-Warqa contains two Garshouné inscriptions (Arabic written in Syriac letters) and a third in Syriac. They are all carved in yellow limestone. One of the Garshouné epigraphs is located in the corridor leading to the Church of Our Lady. It announces the renovation of the “blessed convent of Saint Mar Antonios in the year 1690 of Christ”.

The second Garshouné inscription is near the window of a more recent chapel overlooking the corridor. It tells us that “this blessed sanctuary was erected in the name of the Virgin Mary, mother of God in 1757… during the patriarchate of Tobias Khazen”.

The inscription of the apse at Ain-Warqa ©Amine Jules Iskandar

Our Lady of Ain-Warqa

But it is the epigraph of the big church, at the top of the arch of the apse, that particularly draws our attention. It is in Syriac and its writing develops on a smooth surface surrounded by an imposing frame and caught between a hexagonal carved rose above and a spherical rose below. Its content is fundamental to understand the mentality of the Christians of the Syriac rite. We read a verse from the Gospel of St. Matthew (19:21): “Én sové at gmiro lméhwo, zél, zavén qényonokh, w hav lméskiné, w téhwé lokh simto ba shmayo; w to botar.” (If you want to be perfect, go, sell what your possessions and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.)

This recommendation explains the attitude of the Syriac people from Upper Mesopotamia to Mount Lebanon. They looked to the kingdom of heaven. They considered themselves as ecclesiastical communities, not seeking to establish a temporal structure. As churches, these people did not seek to build political structures. However, another church, St. Joseph, in the same village of Gosta, brings us face to face with a more nuanced reality that was emerging in Mount Lebanon.

Coat of arms of Louis XV at the church of St. Joseph in Gosta ©Amine Jules Iskandar

Saint Joseph of Gosta

St. Joseph was built with the help of Louis XV, King of France and Navarre (1715-1774). A painting from 1769, showing the crown with the crucifix of the “very Christian kings”, as well as the three lily flowers on a blue background, bears witness to this. Louis XV wanted to confirm the interest of his predecessor in the Christians of Lebanon, a tradition that goes back to Saint Louis.

The patriarchs of the Syriac Maronites have always maintained strong relations with the kings of France. Joseph Estéphan, under whose patriarchate this church was built, had called on Louis XVI in order to obtain his support during a great controversy which had put him at odds with the Vatican. He was elected in 1766, partly due to the strong influence of the nun Anne Ojaimé, called Hendié (the Indian) because of her skin color. This hallucinated woman had won the patriarch by her delusions, and even the prince of Lebanon, Melhem Chehab (1732-1758). But she ended up clashing with his successor Youssef Chéhab (1770-1790) who took a more favorable position to the Vatican. The Pope finally condemned her on June 27, 1779. Following this incident, Patriarch Estéphan remained isolated until his death, the same year as Louis XVI, in 1793.

The four convents founded by Sister Anne were either confiscated or razed. St. Joseph of Gosta is none other than the former Sacred Heart Church which belonged to one of these monasteries. It was built in 1769 with donations from king Louis XV, as is still attested today by the painting representing his royal coat of arms and the Latin inscription: “Ex Lodouvigi XV Galliarium Regisi Munifigentia edifidlum hoc eretum est. Anno 1769.”

The epitaph of Patriarch Joseph Estephan in Gosta ©Amine Jules Iskandar

The epitaph of Joseph Estéphan

It is also in the Sacred Heart Church that patriarch Joseph Estéphan (1729-1793) is buried. Behind his cast-iron bust is his Syriac epitaph composed according to the melody known as “Lveit Anidé” (the domain of the dead). This text is therefore not simply read, it is sung, as indicated by the expression: “According to the qolo Lveit-Anidé” which means: “Read according to the rhythm (or melody) Lveit-Anidé.”

This text marks a crucial difference with that of Our Lady of Ain-Warqa. Here, in the first line, the patriarch is depicted very commonly as “crown of our parish.” However, in the next line, he is called “glorious pillar of our nation”, and the text ends with “Joseph, who (for) twenty-seven years was the leader of Antioch, died on the 22nd of June (April) in the year 1793 of Christ”.

Thus, this epigraph, engraved in 1793 between foliage, a bird, a miter, a crozier and a cross, clearly mentions the concept of nation. While everywhere else the reference is ecclesiastical, here in Mount Lebanon it is national. The Syriac Maronite Church distinguished itself from the rest of the Syriac Churches by this early national awareness. It possessed a desire to establish a political entity tied to its relations with Western powers.

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