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During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Latin states paved the way for a Syriac renaissance through the construction and design of many churches adorned with frescoes enriched with Syriac inscriptions. Inside the scriptoria (a section of a monastery where manuscripts were copied), illuminated Syriac books and monastic manuscripts were produced in abundance. Even before the Crusades era, Syriac scholars had already translated Greek sciences and philosophy from Syriac into Arabic. This knowledge would later be transmitted to Europe via the Franks.
In the Middle Ages, the Latin states of the Levant were inhabited by Franks, Armenians, Greeks (or Hellenized communities) and Syriacs. The latter included Nestorians (currently known as Assyro-Chaldeans), Jacobites (currently known as Syriac Orthodox) and Maronites.
Much more than the Byzantines’ documentation or even the Latins’, the Syriacs’ disclose a true permeability between these four components and a special affinity between Franks, Syriacs and Armenians. The ongoing exchanges are described by contemporary chroniclers of the Crusades, such as the Jacobites Michael the Great and Bar Hebraeus, as well as their successors, such as the Maronite, Barcleius.
The Syriac Renaissance
During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Latin states paved the way for a Syriac renaissance through the construction and design of many churches in Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, Beirut, Tyre, Acre and Jerusalem but also in the mountains of Lebanon, where humble chapels and countryside churches were adorned with frescoes enriched with Syriac inscriptions.
During this flourishing period, the Maronites developed their epic Syriac script in the form of a square estranguélo, as seen at Our Lady of Ilige, inspired by the aesthetic of deep-etched Latin inscriptions. Simultaneously, Eastern artisans were involved in the design of King Fulk of Anjou (1143) in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem (1169), where they inscribed their names in Syriac.
This period was prosperous. The scriptoria produced a considerable number of illuminated Syriac books and monastic manuscripts. The Syriac Jacobites were mainly responsible for the majority of literary works. These writers and chroniclers included their patriarch, Michael the Great, along with Gregory Bar Hebraeus, Dionysius Bar Salibi, and Jacob Bar Shakako. Their ancestors had already translated Greek sciences and philosophy from Syriac to Arabic before the Crusades’ era. This knowledge would later be transmitted to Europe through the Franks.
The works of Saint Ephraim, translated into Latin, had a significant influence on the Christian West. Claude Selis wrote that “the 13th century Latin exegesis was inspired by the Antiochian exegesis.” These tight exchanges will eventually lead to further contacts in the 15th century, including sending off young Maronites to Rome, including the celebrated Gabriel Barcleius (1450-1516). Later on, in 1584, the Maronite College of Rome was established.
Science and Humanity
The Jacobite physician Theodosius of Antioch, who was close to the court of Frederick II, would bequeath to the West the Aristotle’s treatise Secret of Secrets. Dionysius Bar Salibi, who passed away in 1171, wrote a publication about the structure of the human body, the Commentary on the Gospels and Commentaries on the Apocalypse, in addition to the Acts of the Apostles and the Catholic Epistles.
Michael the Great, also known as Mikhael Rabo in Syriac, was the Jacobite patriarch from 1166 until his death in 1199. In the Chronicle (J.B. Chabot), he drew from ancient Greek and Syriac authors and completed their work until 1195. Rabo’s Chronicle, comprised of 21 books, delves (in Book XV, starting chapter seven) into the history of the Crusades.
Yaacouv Bar Shakako, also known as ‘Séwérios’ (Severe), was a Jacobite monk. He died in 1241 and was the author of the Book of Dialogues and the Book of Treasures, which are valuable references on mathematical, physical, and physiological sciences.
From Bar Hebraeus to Barcleius
Just like his father, Gregorios (or Gregory) Bar Hebraeus (1225-1286) was a renowned physician. But he also strove in the fields of astronomy and mathematics, which he wrote about in his book Ascension of the Spirit.
During that era, Tripoli’s school was well-known, and according to Viscount Philippe de Tarazi, it was where Bar Hebraeus pursued part of his studies. Tripoli was prolific, as evidenced by the colophons of certain manuscripts, such as the one found in the British Museum (Brit. Mus. 14,695), which referred to the “Winter Penqito” with the “Greco-Syriac Canons” and was found in “the 1507 honorable Tripoli of Alexander” (1196).
In addition, Bar Hebraeus also addressed natural sciences in The Cream of Science and The Candelabrum of Sanctuaries. Furthermore, he authored the Secular Chronicle, the Ecclesiastical Chronicle, and The Book of the Dove. He composed the extensive grammar known as The Book of Splendors and, in 1279, he wrote The Book of Ethics. After his death in 1286, his chronology was completed by his brother Bar Sauma.
After the Crusaders left in the 15th century, the Maronite Gabriel Barcleius kept on writing about the history of that era, occasionally drawing from Bar Hebraeus. He notably reviewed the 1283 events concerning the conflicts that arose between Bohemond VII of Tripoli and Guy II of Gibelet.
The Latin States’ Society
The essence of ecumenism that continues to characterize today’s eastern Christian communities rapidly influenced the Franks. The Westerners despised everything that was not aligned with Rome. These crusaders, who ended up looting Constantinople, were integrated into Eastern society. A particularly illustrative example of this can be found in the actions of Joscelin II of Edessa, as recounted by Gregory Bar Hebraeus: while imprisoned in Aleppo in 1157, Joscelin II knelt before the Jacobite bishop Ignatius and “received the communion of the Holy Mysteries.”
Intercommunal marriages were also common, especially between Armenians and Franks. In 1149, King Thoros II of Cilicia married Isabelle de Courtenay, the daughter of Joscelin II of Edessa. Furthermore, exchanges with the Greeks were customary. As such, when Joscelin II was captured and deported to Aleppo by the Turkmen on May 4, 1150, his wife Beatrice of Saone (countess consort of Edessa from 1134 to 1150), who could no longer defend the ramparts, ended up selling Edessa to the Byzantines in August 1150.
During the minor age of Bohemond VII of Poitiers (the son of Bohemond VI of Antioch), his mother Sibylle of Armenia assumed the regency of the County of Tripoli. As the daughter of King Hethum I of Armenia, she led for a while a territory populated by Franks and Maronites.
The Franks integrated Armenians and Syriacs, whether Maronites or Jacobites, into their lands and into all aspects of social life. The Syriacs – especially Maronites – played a significant role in the defense system. Their soldiers bolstered the ranks of the Crusaders, and their interpreters held important administrative positions. The Latins recognized that the best physicians and pharmacists mainly belonged to the Jacobite intellectual groups.
Finally, each district governed by the Crusaders had a civil court consisting of six members, including four Syriacs and two Franks, as mentioned by Emmanuel-Guillaume Rey. When the Latin Orders had to leave the East, they handed over their monasteries to the native-born Christians. Thereby, the Cistercian Abbey of Belmont (Balamand) was bequeathed to the Jacobite Syriacs in 1287, who handed it over to the Greeks (Roum) in 1603.