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MOR EPHREM AND THE SYRIAC IDENTITY

 

 

 

By: Malfono Amine Jules Alexander

Mor Ephrem was born in Nisibis in 306. This city was being fought over by the Byzantines and the Persians for decades. In his writings, Mor Ephrem used to defend his land and people with a clear knowledge of belonging to a certain group and culture. Mor Ephrem, like all the Syriacs, had to leave his land in Nisibis. He settled in Orhoy – Edessa where he became responsible of its famous school. In 363, Nisibis fell to the Persians. The Saint went on writing about his city and denouncing its occupation[1].

In Edessa as well, Mor Ephrem had to face the domination of the Hellenistic culture and a certain hegemony of the Greek language inside the Christian Semitic world. By developing his countless Mimré, he imposed a Christian Aramaic literature that will end up being adopted in all the other Christian traditions of the East and the West.

Even if this great Saint became a symbol of Syriac literature; even if he was called “the Prophet of the Syriacs” or “the Cithara of the Holy Spirit” (Kénoro drouh qoudsho); the messages of his texts had nothing to do with nationalism or Syriac identity. His defense of Nisibis against the Persians is an exception among his hundreds and thousands of Mimré about love, faith and Virginity. Moreover, let us not forget that, in his writings concerning Nisibis, he was defending mostly Christians against Pagans, not Syriacs against Persians. 

Mor Ephrem’s Mimré are all about Love, Nativity, Virginity, Mary, Joseph, Faith and God. The essence of all his thinking is about abandoning every thing for God. That is abandoning even ourselves for the love and grace of the Lord. In that, Mor Ephrem is typically and deeply Syriac.  His writings summarize the state of mind of the Syriacs and the austerity of their Church, as well as its attitude of abnegation and complete humility. The will to lead a life similar to that of the Savior, and to get closer to Him through our acts and our faith, seems to have dominated the behavior of the Syriac Churches since their early conception. This explains their determination to blend in the Western society[2] as they did in the Eastern society, even in Edessa, the motherland of Syriac language, in which they ended up adopting the Armenian language. 

Let us say that in general, contrary to their Armenian neighbors, the Syriacs are rarely held to conserve their linguistic particularity. Not withstanding their total integration in the West[3], we already notice a growing tendency in the East towards a systematic acceptance of the dominant language in the environment in which these Syriacs evolve.

In the regions that are dominated by the Kurds or the Turks, the Syriacs have adopted the languages of these people. Further to the South, the Syriacs are Arabic speaking people. This was the case in the region of Mardin, where Arabic is now fading being replaced by the Turkish language instead. In Lebanon, the Syriac Maronites have adopted Arabic as their every day language and integrated it even in their liturgy. The Edessians that inhabit Lebanon today, have continued to practice Armenian up till now and use Syriac only in the liturgy.

With Abgar VIII, king of Edessa from 179 to 212, who converted to Christianity in 206, the first Christian state in history was born. This first Christian kingdom which was created by the Syriacs in Edessa dwindled and relinquished its place to Armenia (proclaimed Christian circa 301-314) followed by the Roman Empire and Ethiopia (circa 325-330).

Armenia, Ethiopia and all the other Christian kingdoms that followed witnessed painful and glorious episodes throughout their history. Only the Syriacs were content with being a Church and with being identified with this Church rather than with a nation or even a language.

When Mor Ephrem speaks of pure hearts, he really means to talk about the Good in humanity. That is why he mentions Saint Matthew (Matt. 5: 8):

 

ܛܘܽܒܰܝܗܘܢ ܠܐܰܝܠܶܝܢ ܕܰܕܟܶܝܢ ܒܠܶܒܗܘܢ . ܕܗܶܢܘܢ ܢܶܚܙܘܢ ܠܐܰܠܳܗܐ.

Heureux les coeurs purs, car ils verront Dieu

« Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God »

This sentence has nothing to do with what the 15th century Syriac Maronite scholar, Gabriel Bar Qleius writes. When Bar Qleius talks about pure hearts, he means people who are Syriacs, and Catholics and Maronites and inhabiting the sacred mountains of Lebanon[4]. Therefore, he already reveals in the 15th century, a Syriac Maronite national aspiration, that is part of the larger scale Syriac identity. However, his greater master, Mor Ephrem, did not seem to see things that way in most of his work. After mentioning Saint Matthew in the Commentary on the Diatessaron, he goes on explaining that one is supposed to see through the eyes of his soul or those of his heart, not through his physical vision[5]. We are projected in a spiritual dimension, away of all kind of earthy interests. For Mor Ephrem, the “mirror” of the Gospel permits us to see our true self[6]. Therefore the principal aim in life is to purify the heart to be able to reflect the original beauty, that is the image (Salmo) of God in which he created man[7].

All this spirituality and abnegation as well as its continuous illustration with mirrors and all kind of every day’s objects, is typically Syriac and differs from the Greek and Latin traditions[8]. John of Dalyatha and many other Syriac writers used the image of the mirror to take us through there spiritual explorations.

 

The description about God dominates Ephrem’s literature to become an example for man to follow. All a Christian’s life should be is a continuous struggle to get closer to God’s image. On this subject, Mor Ephrem writes:

 

He clothed Himself in the likeness of man

In order to bring man to the likeness of Himself

Lord, You bent and put on humanity’s types

So that humanity might grow through Your self-abasement.

How wonderful is this abundance

That the Lord should be poured out in us continually,

For He has left the heavens and descended:

Let us make holy for Him the bridal chamber of our hearts.[9]

In respect to all these spiritual values, the Syriac Church and the Syriac people are continuously inclined towards ascetism and monastic life. Such a detachment from the world does not encourage conscience national aspirations. But it is necessary to point out here the fundamental difference between the Syriac Antiochian monastic tradition and that of the Antonian tradition that takes its sources in Upper Egypt[10].

Monastic life in respect to Saint Aphraate and Saint Ephrem is understood as isolation away from women. Where as, for Saint Anthony and Saint Pacôme, this includes isolation from the world. As Father Georges Rahmé says[11], the monastic value in Upper Egypt sees itself as a retreat in the desert, using therefore exterior boundaries to accomplish seclusion. In Upper Mesopotamia and Phoenicia – Mount – Lebanon, it seeks to develop in the heart of society, protecting itself only with interior boundaries. The seclusion is only interior.

This difference (between Antiochian and Antonian traditions) is fundamental for our commentary on Syriac identity. In fact, Mor Ephrem never isolated himself from his people. In his writings about Bishop Vologese, he likes to point out that monastic life does not oppose with apostolic and pastoral missions[12]. The Syriac monk is supposed to serve his people and guide them by living between them and with them. Hi influences his people. He is a Malpono[13] not a Hvisho (not a recluse solitary confined). He teaches and participates to the creation and formation of society. His values, aspirations, culture and identity become those of that society.

Mor Ephrem never thought of a Syriac nation or civilization. His aim was the kingdom of God. The kingdom of Heaven. The kingdom of Jesus Christ that is not of this world. But it is precisely this value that spread out on all his Syriac society and that became the characteristic of this society. In that manner, Mor Ephrem whose only aim was the kingdom of God, participated deeply in the elaboration of our Syriac identity.

We find it necessary here to precise that the notion of identity or even nation does not oppose in any way to Christian spirituality or to the Kingdom of Heaven. Freedom is a central concept in Christianity and its values. The nation is like the person. It has the same needs. It has its own personality. That is why the French philosopher Philippe Sers talks about the Nation-Person.

We need to point out, he says, that the idea of nation is important in respect to Christian thought. Each nation has its proper personnel vocation. Each nation relates to a person that accomplishes a mission. The idea of nation-person does not build itself on a materialistic project, but on a spiritual one.

 

Il faut rappeler, que l’idée de nation est importante dans la pensée chrétienne. Chaque nation a sa vocation personnelle propre. Chaque nation s’apparente à une personne qui accomplit une mission. L’idée d’une nation-personne ne se construit pas autour d’un projet matériel, mais spirituel.[14]

 

Spirituality is at the center of the formation of nation, nationality and identity. Mor Ephrem becomes thus, the symbol of all Syriacs. He is a saint and a Malpono for all of them. He is read and sung by all the Syriac Churches because he transcends all doctrinal discussions to focus on Christ savior, redemptor, king, eternal priest, unique son of god, incarnated through the Virgin for ever Virgin[15]. He is the culture of all Syriacs and therefore defines the main aspect of there identity. He unifies them transcending all borders and all separations between Churches. For this reason, Bar Hebraeus (+1286) calls him « the Sun of the Syriacs »[16].

 

What better description of our great Malpono Mor Ephrem, is there, than this beautiful Mimro[17] composed by Saint James of Sarug ? Expressing the intimate relation between Mor Ephrem and the Syriac identity, he writes a hundred years after the Malpono’s death :

 

ܗܳܢܐ ܕܰܗܘܐ ܟܠܝܠܐ ܠܟܽܠܳܗ ܐܳܪܡܳܝܘܬܐ

ܘ ܒܶܗ ܐܶܬܩܰܪܒܰܬ ܬܶܡܛܶܐ ܠܫܘܦܪ̈ܐ ܪ̈ܘܚܳܢܳܝܶܐ

ܗܳܢܐ ܕܰܗܘܐ ܪܗܝܛܪܐ ܪܰܒܐ ܒܶܝܬ ܣܘܪ̈ܝܳܝܶܐ

ܘܟܽܠ ܡܰܠܦܳܢ̈ܐ ܡܶܢܶܗ ܘܰܠܟܐ ܒܶܗ ܐܶܬܝܰܬܰܪܘ̱

ܢܶܒܥܐ ܚܰܠܝܐ ܕܡܰܝ̈ܳܐ ܒܪ̈ܝܟܶܐ ܐܰܪܕܝ ܒܐܰܪܥܰܢ

ܘܒܶܗ ܐܶܬܪܰܒܝ ܥܳܒܐ ܓܰܒܝܐ ܕܗܰܝܡܳܢܘܬܰܢ

ܚܰܡܪܐ ܚܰܕ̱ܬܐ ܕܓܰܘܢܶܗ ܘܪܝܚܶܗ ܡܶܢ ܓܳܓܘܠܬܰܐܗ̱ܘ

ܘܐܰܪܘܝ ܒܫܶܩܝܶܗ ܠܓܰܒܪ̈ܶܐ ܘܢܶܫ̈ܶܐ ܠܰܡܫܰܒܳܚܽܘ

 

He became a crown for the Aramaic nation.

Through him, the nation got closer to spiritual virtues.

He became a great rhetor between the Syriacs

And all the doctors that followed were influenced by him

He flowed through our land a source of fresh and holy water.

And through him, the elected forest of our faith found its growth,

The new wine which color and perfume are from the Golgotha

And irrigates watering men and women for (the Lord’s) glorification.

Amine Jules Alexander

Stockholm University

December 3rd 2006

PLEASE PRINT THE SYRIAC TEXTE IN ESTRANGELO MIDYAT FONT

 

AMINE     JULES     ISKANDAR

ARCHITECTE                    DPLG

Of. bldg. 35, 68 st. Mart-Takla, Beirut

Tel : 05 95 30 49 – 03 300 610

H. Villa 31, 7th street, Ain-Aar, Lebanon

Tel : 04 92 55 59

E-mail. amine@iskandar.com

Website. www.iskandar.com

PUBLICATIONS
La Nouvelle Cilicie

(the Armenian presence in Lebanon and its architectural testimony from the antiquity until today)

Edited by the Armenian Archbishopery, 1999, Lebanon. 144 p.

Temples en blanc

(Phoenician temples of the Roman period in Lebanon and the Bekaa)

Printed at Saint-Paul Institution, Jounié, 1999, Lebanon. 83 p.

La dimension syriaque dans l’art et l’architecture au Liban

(three books in one volume)

Edited by Université Saint-Esprit - Kaslik, 2001, Lebanon. 295 p.

L’épigraphie syriaque au Liban

(Syriac and garshouné stone inscriptions in Lebanon)

Being printed now at Université Saint-Esprit – Kaslik, Lebanon.

Publication with the Committee for the Syriac culture, of the book Syriac without a teacher, 2006.

MAGAZINE ARTICLES

“Derme, épiderme ou urbanisme”

(development of Beirut’s urban fabric)

in Orient-Express, issue 7  (June 1996)

“Cap sur le Tell”

(safeguarding the archeological site of Enfé-Lebanon)

in Orient-Express, issue 8    (July 1996)

“Quand le faux était vérité”

(Remodeling the urban facades of Beirut)

in Orient-Express, issue 27   (February 1998)

“La Sagrada Famiglia, Cathédrale de l’an 2000 par Antonio Gaudi”

in Déco Magazine, n°0 (February 2000)

 

La maison à trois arcades

The triple arches in Lebanese architecture

In Byzance, n°10 (February-March 2005)

 

TEACHING

1995-1996                  Teacher at the Université du Saint Esprit, Kaslik, Lebanon.

1995-1998         Teacher of architecture and history of modern architecture, ALBA and Balamand, Beirut.

2000-2004                          Teacher of history of art at the Saint Joseph University, Mar-Roukoz, Lebanon.

Since 1995             Teacher of architecture at the Lebanese University, Beirut.   

Since 2001            Teacher of architecture at Notre-Dame-University, Louaisé, Lebanon. Since 2004           Teacher of syriac language at the Association of friends of the syriac language, Bauchrié, Beirut.

CONFERENCES AND INTERVIEWS

ARTICLES

Villa at Ain-Aar by Amine Jules Iskandar architect, in Femme Magazine, issue 66, October 1998.

Villa at Ain-Aar by Amine Jules Iskandar architect, in Femme Magazine - Hors Série Maison, issue 11, October 1999.

Sonia NIGOLIAN, La Nouvelle Cilicie, in La Revue du Liban, décembre 1999.

PIONEERS FROM LEBANON, Amine Iskandar, t. I, pp. 362 – 363, edited by ADPEC, Beirut, 2000.

Nazih KHATER, La Dimension Syriaque, in Al-Nahar, 13 décembre 2001, (in arabic).

Ivan KOUGAZ, Amine Iskandar, in Masculin, n° 48, juin 2002.

Zeina ZALZAL, Amine Iskandar, in L’Orient-Le Jour, 20 juillet 2002.

Joseph MOUFAREG, Le prix Said Akl à l’architecte A. Iskandar, in Sot-Al-Metn,

                                     n° 10, nov. 2002 (in arabic).

Lebaneese University, Amine Iskandar and three projects : Orange mécanique, Holiday Beach III and Villa Joseph Aoun, in Faculté des Beaux-Arts de l’Université Libanaise, n°9, april 2005.

PRIZES

Prize of the Syriac League, February 6, 2002.

Prize Said Akl by Ordre de la Presse Libanaise, october 16 2002.

RADIO

Voice of Van (armenien radio, interview in arabic), La Nouvelle Cilicie, october 18, 2002.

Voix du Liban Libre (interview in arabic), The teaching of syriac language, march 21, 2006.

CONFERENCES

The syriac dimension in art and architecture in Lebanon, conference given at Lundi des Franciscaines, Beirut, on may - 19 - 2003.

The triple arches in Lebanese architecture, IX° Symposium Syriacum, Kaslik, Lebanon, septembre -22 - 2004.

The triple arches in Lebanese architecture, conference given at Lundi des Franciscaines, Beirut, on February - 21 – 2005.

TELEVISION

 

ORBIT 3, in Bouyoutna: a lebanese house by architect Amine Iskandar, 1999.

ORBIT 3, in Ouyoun Beirut: La Dimension Syriaque, February 7, 2002.

LBC and LBCI, in Zawaya: restaurant Le 5 by architect Amine Iskandar, April 2002.

ORBIT 3, in Ouyoun Beirut: La Nouvelle Cilicie, Octobre 17, 2002.

ORBIT, in Saniou Al Hadath, adaptation of Capital of M6:  the conservation of the architectural heritage in Venise and Beirut, 2003.

 
PERSONAL STATUS

                     Born on January 1st 1967

DIPLOMAS

1985              French Baccalaureate, C Series - Académie de Grenoble.

1988-1989   Fellowship of the French government for a one-year exchange program at :  University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA.

1991                (Mars 91) Architecture diploma, School of Architecture and Urbanism of Versailles, France.

.2002            Maîtrise in Sacred Art, Université du Saint-Esprit-Kaslik, Lebanon.

.2003     Masters (DEA) in Sacred Art, Université du Saint-Esprit-Kaslik, Lebanon.

ARCHITECTURE

Amine Jules Iskandar’s architecture office is based in Lebanon. It has built many projects including:

TRAVEL AGENCIES, OFFICES, BOUTIQUES, VILLAS, BUILDINGS AND RESTAURANTS.

 

It has also decorated several projects including:

APARTMENTS, CLINICS, RESTAURANTS AND CLUB-HOUSES.


[1] Dans “Cantiques de Nisibe”, voir Mgr Behnam HINDO, Chant pour la Nativité - de Saint Ephrem le Syriaque, L’Harmattan, Paris, 1996, p. 8.

[2] By West we do not mean the West of the Fertile Crescent; what is meant here is Europe, the Americas and Australia.

[3] Europe, The Americas and Australia.

[4] Bar Qleius considers Lebanon as the sacred mountain of the Maronites and its cities like the wives of Saint Maroun, see Ray Jaber MOUAWAD, Lettres au Mont-Liban, Lebanon, Geuthner, Paris, 2001, pp. 86-87.

[5] Sébastien BROCK, « Comment les Cœurs Purs Verront Dieu – Saint Ephrem et Quelques Auteurs Syriaques », in Patrimoine Syriaque, Actes du Colloque VII – Le Visage de Dieu dans le Patrimoine Oriental, CERO, Antélias, Liban, 2001, p. 133.

[6] Saint EPHREM, “Letter to Publius”, Le Muséon 89, éd. Sébastien Brock, 1976, pp. 261-305.

[7] Sébastien BROCK, loc. cit., p. 139.

[8] Sébastien BROCK, loc. cit., p. 142.

[9] Sebastian BROCK, The Luminous Eye, pp. 33, 38, 104 ; Thomas KOONAMMAKKAL,  “Ephrem on the Imagery of divine love and revelation”, in Dieu Miséricorde – Dieu Amour – Patrimoine Syriaque – Actes du colloque VIII, CERO, Antélias, Lebanon, 2003, p. 165.

[10] Georges RAHMé, « Saint Ephrem et le Monachisme », in Le Monachisme Syriaque Aux premiers siècles de l’Eglise - Patrimoine Syriaque – Actes du colloque V, CERP, Antélias, Lebanon, 1998, p. 118.

[11] Georges RAHMé, “Saint Ephrem et le monachise”, loc. cit., p. 123.

[12] Georges RAHMé, “Saint Ephrem et le monachise”, loc. cit., p. 120.

[13] Georges RAHMé, “Saint Ephrem et le monachise”, loc. cit., p. 118.

[14] Philippe SERS, Icônes et Saintes Images / La représentation de la transcendance, Paris, 2002, pp. 207-208.

[15] Georges RAHMé, « Les écrivains syriaques », in Sources Syriaques, vol. I, CERO, Lebanon, 2005, p. 232.

[16] Georges RAHMé, “Saint Ephrem et le monachise”, loc. cit., p. 117.

[17] Georges RAHMé, “Saint Ephrem et le monachise”, loc. cit., p. 124; the Mimro is in French and Syriac (serto letters).