By Dr Amine Jules Iskandar President of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur Levnon
The churches of Our Lady of Ain Warqa and Saint Joseph of Gosta have revealed to us the affinities and national awareness of the Maronites in the eighteenth century, thanks in particular to the epitaph of Patriarch Joseph Estéphan from 1793. But let us go back even further in time, to the Middle Ages, to discover an even more surprising phenomenon, as it reveals the intrinsic relationship and complementarity between the Syriac Maronite Church and Lebanon.
Saints Sergius and Bacchus, Éhden
We visit the monastery of Saints Sergius and Bacchus which dominates the village of Éhden. This medieval monastery, restored and enlarged in 1739 by the Antonine monks, has two old churches, one built at its entrance and the other below the present building, which dates back to 1739. It is composed of three vaulted naves and leans onto the other more older buildings with which it forms the base of the monastery.
From its central nave, a staircase leads through the apse to the upper floor. As for the right nave, it leads to a small doorway that leads to the old church of Our Lady from 1128. But this date does not tell us the whole story of this church. Indeed, its foundation consists of a Phoenician temple on which rises the vault of the Frankish period. Here and there, we also find traces of ex-voto left by the monks in the stones.
Another door, similar to the one that allowed us to enter the vault of Our Lady, is behind the altar in the central nave. It leads to the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus from the year 730. Once inside, history calls again: the stones still bear the scars of the fire caused by the Mamelukes when they destroyed Éhden in 1286.
The age of the tablet
It was in this church that the future Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi was ordained a priest on March 15, 1656. And it is here that a Syriac inscription is found inserted above the apse. It was originally an altar tablet intended to receive the Eucharist. This type of portable altar, called “tablito” or “tabloyto” in the Syriac language, was very common among Syriac Maronite monks and priests who used it when traveling. For practical reasons, they are often small and made of light material such as wood. Some, however, are made of stone and their size is quite imposing. The “tablito” of the monastery of Saints Sergius and Bacchus is made of Carrara marble and is up to 50 cm long. These tablets are all quite similar in composition: their Syriac inscriptions unfold in the form of a cross or around a cross. Their texts often mention the author and the date.
The dating of the tablet of Saints Sergius and Bacchus remains uncertain. Its inscription ends with the letters YH which mean “Yéh” (God) when they are located at the beginning of the text like at Saint Joseph of Gosta. However, YH is engraved here towards the end, like a date. According to the Syriac cipher, the Y would stand for 10 or 1,000, and the H for 5 or 500. In this case, these letter-numbers would correspond to the year 1500 of the Greeks, because the Maronites did not use the Christian era until after the foundation of the Maronite College in Rome in 1584. The year 1500 of the Greeks thus brings us back to 1188 AD.
Let us note finally that the inscription on this tablet mentions one Patriarch Peter. However, if we assume the letter-numbers to refer to the Christian era it does not fit. Peter died in 1492 and it is a man named Simeon who occupied the seat in 1500 AD. So, if ‘YH’ designates time or date, it would more likely be the era of the Greeks. And the year 1188 AD would correspond perfectly to the patriarchate of Peter III (of Lehfed) from 1173 to 1199.
The composition of the tablet
According to tradition, the center of the composition of the tablet has an imposing cross. This is a processional cross between two starry crosses. It has flowery branches and a twisted handle. Still in accordance with the Syriac tradition, it is flanked by the Psalm of David 44:5: ” Through you we push back our enemies; through your name we trample our foes.” This biblical verse is found on the majority of Syriac crosses, often painted or engraved, in the different five Syriac Churches, from Lebanon to Upper Mesopotamia.
The spelling argues for a rather remote period as indicated by the choice of the Estrangélo, but also by the archaic form of the ‘Olaph’ with its horizontal extension on the line. This appendage would, however, reappear in the nineteenth century in Bkerké, and may be one of the characteristics of the Maronite Estrangélo.
The main text is written horizontally at the top and bottom of the composition. We read, “Sanctified are the Holy Trinity and this tablet, by the hands of Peter, Patriarch of Lebanon, YH (1500).”
Patriarch of Lebanon
Peter is here called “Petros patriarko of Lévnon” (Peter patriarch of Lebanon). The use of this title cannot but attract the attention of the connoisseur. In the Middle Ages, in order to differentiate between the heads of the Syriac Maronite and Jacobite (Syriac Orthodox) Churches, the former was sometimes called patriarch of Mount Lebanon and the latter patriarch of the East. Also, the use here, of the name “Lebanon” instead of “Tur Lévnon” (Mount Lebanon) calls to mind. The osmosis is thus total between Lebanon and the Syriac Maronite Church.
On this subject, one must refer to philology and in particular to the manuscript of the Jacobite priest (Syriac Orthodox), John of Hadshit, preserved in Bkerké under code 115. We read in its colophon:
“It was completed in the year 1812 of the Greeks (1501 AD), on the fourth of March, at the time of the patriarch of Mount Lebanon, Mor Peter, and of the patriarch of the East, the patriarch of the Syriacs, Mor Noah. It was written by the humble sinner… John… of Hadshit the blessed, in blessed Mount Lebanon… And this book is about Saint John in the land of Hadshit.”
For this author, as for many others among his contemporaries, there is not the slightest doubt: “patriarch of Mount Lebanon” means “patriarch of the Maronites”. Thus, the Syriac Maronites are fully identified with their mountain.