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The book burning ceremonies conducted by the Inquisition in the 16th century undeniably shook the Maronite society, its clergy and its intellectuals. The Renaissance, initiated in 1584 by the College of Rome, contributed to a significant revival, modernization and undeniable development sustained throughout the four Ottoman centuries by France and the Vatican. Nevertheless, these events were accompanied by an inadvertent process of acculturation.

The expulsion of the Jacobites* from Lebanon to Upper Mesopotamia in the 16th century triggered a cultural upheaval. Most of the Syriac scribes and copyists during the Middle Ages were Jacobites, and they even supplied literature to Maronite churches and monasteries. However, the mere decision of their deportation cannot fully explain the cultural decline that took place during the utmost prolific period of the Maronite Church, which saw an increase in its literary production that was launched from its College in Rome (1584). The root of this sudden cultural impoverishment that resulted in a loss of identity, was the smokes that emerged from the book burnings that consumed the majority of the Maronite Syriac literary heritage.

The Roman Missions

The arrival of the Ottomans in 1516 ended the isolation of Mount Lebanon imposed by the Mamelukes for two centuries. Rome was able to reestablish contact with the Maronites and began organizing missions in Mount Lebanon. However, these missions occasionally shifted and turned into inquisitions. The fiercest ones were led by Fathers Eliano, Bruno, and Dandini, culminating in the book burnings of 1578 and 1580. It was an immeasurable loss, both for the Syriac cultural and linguistic heritage and for Lebanese history. The burned manuscripts were rich in fringe notes recounting chronicles and events independent of theological content. Many of these notes were likely similar to those of the patriarchs found in the Codex Rabulensis.

Even today, the few historical data available to researchers in the Syriac Maronite field mainly consist of the works of Gabriel Barcleius, a few medieval poems and the fringe notes that have survived the ravages of the Inquisition. Ancient scholars like Estephanos Doueihi, Faustus Nairon, Joseph Simon Assemani, as well as contemporary authors, relied on these data.

Book Burnings    

In 1578, Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585) delegated Jesuit John Eliano to Lebanon, along with two Maronites: Bishop George of Basloukit and Priest Euclimos of Ehden. Eliano’s mission started at the Maronite Patriarchal Monastery of Qanubin, from where it expanded to all nearby and distant villages. The texts were sorted and separated into two groups: those to be corrected and those to be destroyed. Consequently, vast collections of Syriac manuscripts were amassed in public squares and publicly burned in front of the people and religious dignitaries.

In 1580, Father Eliano returned to Lebanon for a second mission. After participating in the Council of Qanubin in 1580, in the presence of the Jacobite bishop of Hardin, he resumed his journey to the monasteries in response to the influx of “heretical” writings.

In 1596, Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) delegated Jesuit Father Dandini to Lebanon, along with Father Bruno, alongside the two Maronites, Moses Anaysé and Joseph Elian. They attended the Council of Qanubin in 1596 before embarking on their mission in the mountains’ villages and monasteries.

Syriac manuscript in estranguélo characters.

A Decimated Heritage

By the end of the 17th century, despite the extensive damage, Patriarch Estephanos Doueihi succeeded in gathering a significant number of manuscripts in which he noted the names of no less than 110 copyists, as relayed by Viscount Philip de Tarazi. Could this possibly be the elusive secret library of the Maronite Patriarchate, established under the explicit directives of Father Dandini? Its access was solely restricted to Maronites who had studied in Rome and were therefore able to differentiate between “authentic and counterfeit,” as stated in his travel notes.

Subsequently, the most valuable manuscripts were moved by Maronite scholars to libraries in Europe. Thus, Gabriel Sionita, Abraham Ecchelensis, Isaac Schiadrensis and Mikhael Hesronita were responsible for endowing the Paris library, while John Eliano, along with Faustus Nairon, Estephan Evode, and the Assemani family were tasked with the Vatican library. Additional manuscripts ended up in the libraries of Oxford, Cambridge, Vienna, Dublin, Milan, Turin, Florence (home to the Rabulensis), Berlin and elsewhere, including a substantial collection conserved at the British Museum in London.

Ultimately, what was left in Lebanon had to endure massacres and vandalism. One notable example is Saint Ephrem Ragm’s library in Shbenieh, which held a collection of 446 manuscripts and was consumed by fire during the events of 1840-1841. The salvaged manuscripts were divided between the Syriac Catholic Patriarchate of Our Lady in Sharfeh and the Jesuits’ Bibliothèque Orientale in Beirut.

To this day, as noted by Viscount Tarazi, one can see at the National Library of Paris, in the manuscript Par. Syr. 225, the following handwritten note by Father Eliano: “This book contains several mistakes, which justifies its destruction.” However, this book dates back to the year 1476 and is invaluable for philology and Lebanese history since it was written in Lebanon by a Lebanese Jacobite.

The College of Rome

The founding of the Pontifical Maronite College in 1584 — as a result of close ties with Rome — served as a catalyst for the Lebanese Renaissance that unfolded during the reign of Lebanese prince Fakhreddin II. The Maronite Church emerged significantly enriched, and as a result, Lebanon was able to prosper culturally. This resurgence was driven by a proliferation of scholars from the College of Rome.

The Maronite Church would therefore experience a dual dominance, both intellectually and demographically, in comparison to its Syriac counterparts in Upper Mesopotamia. In 1662, it reversed the course of proselytism by consecrating a Jacobite bishop, Andrew Akhijan, thereby establishing a Uniate Church known as the Syriac Catholic Church. This prosperity and this openness to the West paradoxically led to the acculturation of the Maronites and ultimately, the decline of their language.

Bilingual book of the Maronite Mass printed in 2005. ©Amine Jules Iskandar

Cultural Integration

The Maronites’ Syriac heritage, consumed by the flames, were replaced by new books printed in Rome, devoid of any historical, cultural or sentimental ties to the past. Additionally, Rome gradually printed more in Arabic language than in Syriac. In essence, even the most faithful translation ends up betraying the core of the message.

Even today, the Maronite Mass books, printed in both Syriac and Arabic, reveal the inconsistency of the translation. The bilingual title showcased says in Syriac, “Ktovo de qurbono akh ‘iodo de ‘ito d’Antioqia de Suryoyé morunoyé,” which translates into “Book of the Mass according to the rite of the Church of Antioch of the Syriac Maronites.”

The Arabic version figuring on the same cover is “Kitab al quddas bi hasab taqs al kanissah al antaqiah al suryaniyyah al maruniyyah,” which translates into “Book of the Mass according to the rite of the Syriac Maronite Antiochian Church.”

All the terms are present. However, in the original version, the Church is defined as “Antiochian” and ascribing to a population whose identity is “Syriac Maronite.” In the Arabic translation, this identity is conferred on the Church, while leaving a population devoid of its own distinctive identity markers.

The book burnings of the 16th-century Inquisition undoubtedly shook the Maronite society, its clergy and its intellectuals. The Renaissance, initiated in 1584 by the College of Rome, allowed a notable revival, modernization and an unquestionable development that was sustained over the course of the four Ottoman centuries, with support from both France and the Vatican.

The book burnings of the 16th century inquisition undoubtedly shook the Maronite society, its clergy and its intellectuals. The Renaissance initiated in 1584 by the College of Rome, allowed a notable recovery, a modernization and an undeniable development sustained throughout the four Ottoman centuries, by France and the Vatican. Nevertheless, during the course of their revival orchestrated in Rome, the Maronites found themselves stripped of their roots, their origins and their collective memory. The acculturation they encountered heralded the state of confusion that would define their response to the challenges of the 20th century.

*The Jacobites are Western Syriacs just like the Maronites. However, the Maronites are Chalcedonians while the Jacobites are miaphysites. In the present day, they are referred to as Syriac Orthodox.