Michel N. Laham, M.D.
Richard J. Karam, J.D.
vast majority of Arabic speaking immigrants to the United States
at the turn of the century were Syrians, most of them from that
part of the Syrian coast which was later to become Lebanon.
And the majority of these Syrian immigrants were Christian:
Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and Greek
Catholic. Between 1895 and 1940, Syrian Christians built 115
churches in this country, and in doing so introduced their Eastern
Christian faith to the new world. This article will delve into
the religious history and heritage of the Syrian and Lebanese
people as we explore the role of Syria and Phoenicia in the
early development and spread of Christianity, a source of pride
for all of us, regardless of our particular faith or sect. In
an upcoming issue of The Official Bulletin we will study the
religious history and heritage of the Islamic immigrants of
Syrian and Lebanese origin, most of whom immigrated to this
country after 1940.
We know that Jesus grew up in the town of Nazareth in lower
Galilee, an area which borders on the south of Syria and Lebanon.
Galilee, although having a significant Jewish population, was
largely Gentile and impregnated with Canaanite culture and tradition.
After meeting little success in the local synagogues, Jesus
spent much of His public life traveling and preaching in Galilee
and Phoenicia. He performed His first miracle at a wedding in
Cana in south Lebanon. The following year, He undertook a journey
to Tyre, during which He cured the daughter of a Canaanite (Phoenician)
woman, as described in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew.
The Sermon on the Mount took place along the shores of the Sea
of Galilee and the slopes of the Golan Heights. Thus the people
of Syria and Lebanon were the first gentiles to hear the word
and preaching of Jesus and to convert to Christianity.
Shortly following the death of Jesus, there existed a substantial
community of His followers in the city of Damascus. It was to
round up these people and to return them, bound and shackled
to Jerusalem, that Saul of Tarsus was dispatched to the Syrian
capital. Chapter nine of the Acts of the Apostles tells us how,
on the road to Damascus, Saul was knocked down by a blinding
light, and a voice from heaven commanded him to go into the
city. There, in a house on the Street called Straight, he met
Ananias who restored his eyesight and baptized him. And thereafter,
Saul of Tarsus became the apostle Paul, the greatest of all
evangelists. One can still stroll down the Street called Straight
toward the eastern gate of Damascus and find, nestled against
the old city wall, the house of Saint Ananias which has been
transformed into a shrine.
After the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 AD, Antioch
in Syria became the first capital of Christendom. It was there
that the followers of Jesus of Nazareth took on the name of
"Christians". It was there also that the cross was
adopted as the symbol of Christianity. Saint Luke, the Evangelist,
was from Antioch. So was Saint Ignatius, one of the first Fathers
of the Church, who coined the term "the Catholic Church".
And it was from Antioch that the Christian tidal wave burst
forth, eventually engulfing the entire Roman empire.
Syria was declared an imperial province of which the emperor
himself was the titular proconsul. Syrian influence within the
empire reached a peak when Septimius Severus, a North African
general of Carthaginian (Phoenician) extraction, became emperor
(193-211 AD). His wife was a beautiful and gifted Syrian lady
from Homs, named Julia Domna, who became a patroness of the
arts and sciences in Rome. Her salon included among others the
Greek physician Galen. At the death of Septimius Severus, her
son Caracalla became emperor (212-217 AD): he is best remembered
for the magnificent Baths of Caracalla in Rome.
When Caracalla was assassinated, Julia Domna committed suicide.
The imperial mantle was passed on to her sister's grandsons,
Elagabalus (218-222 AD) and Alexander Severus (222-235 AD).
Alexander was the last and the best of this Syrian dynasty of
Roman emperors. Under the influence of his mother, Julia Mammaea,
who secretly converted to Christianity, he forbade the worship
of his person, ended luxury at the imperial court, and halted
the persecution of the Christians while he reigned. It was he
who completed the construction of the temple complex at Baalbek.
After Alexander was killed in a mutiny in 235 AD, another Syrian
called Philip the Arab became emperor (244-249 AD). He was nicknamed
"the Arab" because he hailed from the city of Bosra
in Syria, which was then the capital of the Roman province of
"Arabia". It was Philip who, in 248 AD, presided over
the celebration of the thousandth anniversary of the founding
of Rome. Under his reign, Bosra became an important center,
and a magnificent amphitheater was built there which remains
intact to this day. According to the Church historian of the
third century, Eusebius, the father of church history, Philip
was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, but
he kept his conversion secret.
In 303 AD, a new round of persecution began against the Christians
under the Roman emperor Diocletian. This was the third and most
sweeping of the cycles of persecution. By the time of Diocletian's
reign, some 10% of the population of the empire was Christian,
with the highest concentration in the East where the religion
was born. In that year, the Syrian twin brothers, Cosmas and
Damian, who practiced medicine and pharmacy together and who
offered their services for free to the poor, were martyred in
the city of Egea in Asia Minor. They have been revered ever
since as the patron saints of Medicine and Pharmacy. The Basilica
of Saints Cosmas and Damian completed under Pope Felix IV (526-530),
was the first one to be erected on the Roman forum.
On May 11, 330, as the barbarian hordes threatened Rome from
the north, the emperor Constantine declared Constantinople the
new capital of the Roman empire and Christianity the official
religion of the state. In 476, Rome fell to the Germanic invaders,
but the empire inaugurated by Constantine was to endure for
a thousand years more as the "Byzantine empire". Byzantine
Syria was, on the whole, a Christian land, and the Church was
its greatest institution. Antioch ranked with Constantinople
and Alexandria as a patriarchal see.
The liturgy developed along two lines: Greek along the coast
and Syriac in the interior. The great religious controversies
and schisms centered on such topics as the nature of Christ
and the question of his divinity. Arianism emphasized the humanity
rather than the divinity of Jesus. Nestorianism held that Jesus
was both human and divine, while the Monophysites rejected the
doctrine of the dual nature of Christ and asserted his single
divine nature. The Monophysite Church of Syria was organized
by Jacob Baradeus, and his followers became known as Jacobites.
In the third Century, Monasticism with its ideals of celibacy,
poverty and obedience, became a favored way of life for the
religious. It seemed the ultimate response to Jesus' call, "go,
sell all that you own, give the money to the poor, and follow
Him". Monasteries sprang up all around the Syrian countryside.
The caves in which the early Christians had sought refuge from
their Roman persecutors became homes to a generation of ascetics
and hermits. Some, such as the ones of Maaloula and Sayednaya,
were transformed into places of worship and centers of pilgrimage.
Maaloula remains one of the few towns in the Levant where Aramaic,
the language of Christ, is still spoken. Sayednaya boasts an
icon of the Virgin Mary that is said to have been painted by
Saint Luke himself. An entire river valley in Lebanon, the Qadisha
Valley (the Holy Valley), evinces the remains of these ancient
monasteries carved from the sides of the mountains.
Perhaps the most famous of the Syrian hermits was Saint Simeon
Stylite, an ascetic monk who spent 36 years perched on top of
a column which, for the last 20 years of his life, was 45 feet
high. Pilgrims came from as far as France and Italy to pray
at the foot of his column and to be blessed by him. After his
death in 459, a church was built around the column. This was
the largest church in Christendom until it was destroyed by
an earthquake in 1157. Its majestic ruins and what remains of
Saint Simeon's column can still be seen today on a hilltop outside
Another ascetic monk who lived and died near Antioch was Saint
Maron. His followers came to be known as Maronites. Early in
the 6th century, the Maronites sought refuge in northern Lebanon
after clashing with their more numerous Jacobite neighbors,
eventually becoming the largest and most influential sect in
During the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries AD, maritime trade on
the Mediterranean was almost entirely dominated by the Syrians.
They were the great merchant mariners of the era, just as the
Phoenicians had been a thousand years earlier. Prompted by their
love of commerce and defying all dangers, Syriac speaking merchants
settled in Naples, Venice, Rome, Marseilles, Lyons and Paris.
It was in Syrian vessels that the purple dye from Tyre, the
sword blades and embroidered textiles from Damascus, the pistachios
from Aleppo, and the wine from Gaza were exported to Europe.
Raw silk, imported from China, was woven and dyed in Lebanon,
then exported throughout the Mediterranean. From Arabia and
India, the Syrians imported frankincense and spices which they
shipped to Venice and Genoa.
In Rome, their colony became numerous and influential. Of the
thirteen Popes who ruled over the Church between 678 and 752
AD, five were Syrians. Among the Syrian Popes were John V (685-686),
Sergius I (687-701), Sisinnius (708), Constantine I (708-715),
and Gregory III (731-741). Two of them, Sergius and Gregory,
were canonized after their death. It was Sergius I who entrusted
the English monk Willibrord with the task of evangelizing Germany,
a pagan county in the seventh Century. In 696, Willibrord was
given the name of Clement and was consecrated Bishop of Utrecht
by Saint Sergius.
In 634, when the Arab armies under Khalid Ibn-Walid defeated
the Byzantines and conquered Syria, the overwhelming majority
of Syrians were Christian. In 732, when the Omayyad empire with
its capital at Damascus stretched from the Pyrenees in Northern
Spain to the slopes of the Himalayas, the total number of Moslems
in Syria did not exceed 200,000 out of an estimated population
of 3,500,000. The theological conversion followed the military
conquest by about two centuries.
The Omayyads set new standards of enlightenment and tolerance.
The often repeated statement that the conquered peoples were
converted to Islam by the sword has no basis in fact. It may
be assumed that many conversions were of convenience rather
than conviction since conversion meant exemption from the poll
tax and effectively opened the door to social and political
influence. Whatever the motivation of the original converts
to Islam, their descendants embraced the new faith with undiminished
zeal and fervor.
Damascus under the enlightened rule of the Omayyads was the
glory of its age. Nestled in the heart of the oasis of the Ghouta,
the great white city stood "like an island of pearls and
opals gleaming out of a sea of emeralds". Dominating the
landscape was the magnificent blue dome of the Omayyad mosque,
one of the most sublime places of worship in the world. Erected
on the site of the church of Saint John, the mosque houses the
tomb of Saint John the Baptist, revered by Christians and Moslems
alike. Its great eastern minaret is named the Minaret of Jesus:
according to Moslem tradition, this is where Jesus Christ will
return to earth to fight the Antichrist before the Last Judgment.
Contrary to popularly held notions, Islam accepts Jesus Christ
as the Messiah promised by the prophets in the Old Testament.
Moslems believe in the virgin birth of Christ and revere the
Virgin Mary. But they reject the concept of the divinity of
Jesus and that of the Holy Trinity, and they object to the use
of icons. It was on these very points that one of Syria's greatest
theologians and polemicists, Saint John of Damascus (675-749
AD) engaged the Moslem scholars in theological debate. Considered
the last of the Fathers of the Church, Saint John stands out
as an ornament of the Church under the Omayyad caliphate.