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THE PLANETS  &   LONGITUDE  –  Book Reviews

I think these two great little books by Dava Sobel go together:

THE PLANETS

Dava Sobel writes about science in a way that young readers and adults alike can enjoy without constantly referring  to a dictionary or a science magazine, although I did find having a simple map of our solar system at hand, very helpful.   “If reading these pages has helped someone befriend the planets, recognising in them the stalwarts of centuries of popular culture and the inspiration for much high-minded human endeavour , then I have accomplished what I set out to do” A quote from Dava Sobel in  The Planets. She could also add: and the inspiration for much romantic poetry.

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Although I love reading the results of  research and discovery the world of  science brings us, I am not a science buff and too much science jargon can be confusing. I recommend these books to young readers with enquiring minds and adults who don’t read science publications,  because they are enthralling to read and the author takes readers through hundreds of years of brief history with such easy to read, beautiful prose.

I have to admit to being  a little blasé about planets and space travel; I have enough going on here on planet Earth without stressing about what’s happening on Mars and Mercury.  Until I read Dava Sobel’s The Planets, that is!

This is not quite a whodunnit, but I couldn’t put the book down once I read the first couple of pages. I learned in those  first pages the names of the nine planets and their order of distance from  the sun: My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pies: Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto  …I’m almost ashamed to admit that I didn’t know any of this before reading The Planets.

Readers will learn how planets were discovered, how they’re named and in recent years, through remarkable discoveries via  satellites, spaceships  and research stations, we have gained intricate information about the makeup of planets, and even when and how they were formed. We now know how long they take to orbit the sun, how often a planet  rotates on its own axis.  The author ventures into mythology and astrology, which adds to the fascinating stories surrounding   each planet.

Now ‘morning star’, now ‘evening star’, the bright ornament of the planet Venus plays a prelude to the rising sun, or post script to the sunset. –  Dava Sobel waxes lyrical about Venus.

Sobel tells us that Ishtar metamorphosed into Aphrodite, the Greek incarnation of love and beauty. She became the Venus of the Romans, revered by the historian Pliny for spreading a vital dew to excite the sexuality of earthly creatures…Only the Mayans and the Aztecs of Central America seem to have seen Venus as consistently male. The rhythmic  association between Venus and the Sun inspired meticulous astronomical observations and complex calendar reckoning in those cultures, as well as blood rituals to recognise the planet’s descent into the underworld and subsequent resurrection. [Obvious inspirations for gods and divine resurrections in so many religions]

But Sobel also brings us back to Earth so to speak, with the reality that is planet Venus: …some of her volcanoes may well be active. Right now, sulphurous gases hissing from Venusian fumaroles could be making their way up to the clouds above the planet, to augment them and sustain them, and thereby ensure the enduring brightness of Venus to our eyes. That fair appearance of unassailable purity once made Venus the darling of poets, whose words  still best express her effect on the night’s blue velvet – ‘a joy forever’, as Keats said , ‘ a cheering light / unto our souls’.

You’ve probably guessed that my favourite planet is Venus, and that’s because she was once thought by ancients to be Ishtar returning to the heavens. Poets wrote beautiful poetry in honour of  Venus:

Thou fair-haired angel of the evening,

Now, whilst the sun rests on the mountains, light

Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown

Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!

Smile on our loves, and, while thou drawest the

Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew

On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes

In  timely  sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on

The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,

And wash the dusk with silver.

-William Blake  To The Evening Star

A reviewer for the Independent,  John Gribbin  wrote: ‘If you like your science lyrical, Sobel is the author for you.’  I can assure you though, Sobel knows her science. She is a former science journalist for the New York Times. Sobel informs us that we are very much in a golden age of spacecraft and they are on their way to Mercury, Pluto, and Mars. During  her extensive research for The Planets, the  thing  that was most surprising to Sobel, was the size discrepancy  between the Sun and the rest of the planets and she believes  that ‘really the Solar System is the Sun’. To be honest, there were many wonderful things that surprised and overawed me while  I was reading The Planets!

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 LONGITUDE

Dava Sobel writes:

Here lies the real hard core difference  between latitude and longitude – beyond the superficial difference in  line direction that any child can see: The zero-degree of parallel of latitude is fixed by the laws of nature, while the zero-degree meridian of longitude shifts like the sands of time.  The difference makes finding latitude child’s play, and turns the determination of longitude, especially at sea, into an adult dilemma – one that stumped the wisest minds of the world for the better part of human history. Any sailor worth his salt could  gauge  his latitude well enough by the length of the day, or by the height of the sun or known guide stars above the horizon…the measurement of longitude meridians, in comparison, is tempered by time. To learn one’s longitude at sea, one needs to know what time it is aboard ship and also the time at the home port or another place of known longitude –at that very same moment. The two clock times enable the navigator to convert the hour difference into a geographical  separation…

Precise knowledge of the hour in two different places at once-a longitude prerequisite so easily accessible today from any pair of cheap wristwatches-was utterly unattainable up to and including the era of pendulum clocks. On the deck of a rolling ship, such clocks would slow down, or speed up, or stop running altogether. Normal changes in temperature en route from a cold country of origin to a tropical trade zone thinned or thickened a clock’s lubricating oil and made its metal parts expand or contract with equally disastrous results. A rise or fall in barometric pressure , or the subtle variations in the Earth’s gravity from one latitude to another, could also cause a clock to gain or lose time.

In Longitude, the author  takes us on an historical voyage through time, whipping up a storm of an exciting and intriguing brief history  of astronomy, navigation and clock making  at the centre of which, is the fascinating story of John Harrison the Yorkshire clock maker and his forty year battle to build the perfect time-keeper, changing sea navigation forever. She allows the ghosts of ancient seafarers  to walk through the pages…

Reading THE PLANETS  and LONGITUDE has increased my knowledge of the world around me;  the sea, the land and our solar system.  Thank you, Dava Sobel

-Anne Frandi-Coory 17 April 2016

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While doing research into my Italian ancestry for my book, Whatever happened To Ishtar? I read somewhere that if you wanted to know what it was like living in 19th Century Italy, you might wish to read Village Commune by Maria Louise Ramé, otherwise known by her pseudonym, Ouida. It turned out to be very good advice. I searched for the book online and found it  in a tiny obscure USA second hand book shop. When I received what is now a prized possession, I discovered it was a First Edition published 1881!

The Commune 2

Published in 1881

My great grandparents, Aristodemo and Annunziata Frandi experienced similar hardships to those described by Ouida in Village Commune. Many young men from poor families were conscripted into the regular army to fight against the Austrians, as was Aristodemo, who came from a family of farmers. The Frandi family, by then including three young children, emigrated to New Zealand in 1876 and I now fully understand why.  Although Aristodemo talked to family about life in Italy, both of his hated time barracked with the regular army  in the far north of Italy, and his time fighting in the south of Italy with Garibaldi, I had no real understanding of just how difficult life was at that time.

I had always thought of Italy as a wonderful country, full of poetry, art, fabulous food and generous citizens. I have visited the country often and I have never been disappointed. But of course there was, and is, another side to Italy altogether.

Ouida’s eloquently written and absorbing stories of life in northern Italy are heart-rending. Farmers and agriculturists, whose families had lived on the land for generations, had their land taken at the whim of wealthy, corrupt government officials and were left homeless and hungry. The burgeoning Industrial Revolution needed land for factories, and dwellings for workers moving onto the countryside. Land was also needed to build mansions for wealthy officials, and for railways.

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The Commune

Note the prices listed for Ouida’s publications. The handwritten name and date came with the book.

 

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The author connects on an emotional level with the reader, as she relates beautifully crafted, albeit harrowing, life stories.  One such story is of a young Florentine farming peasant :

He was a peasant who had been taken by conscription just as a young bullock is picked out for the shambles, and he had never understood why very well. His heart has always been with his fields, his homestead, his vines, his sweetheart. He had hated the barrack life, the dusty aimless marches, the drilling and the bullying, the weight of the knapsack and the roar of the guns; he had been a youth, ere the government had made him a machine…If the enemy had come into his country he would have held his own hamlet against them to the last gasp; but to be drafted off to Milan to wear a fool’s jacket and to eat black bread while the fields were half tilled, and the old people sore driven…no, he was not a patriot, if to be one, he must have been a contented conscript. 

 Ouida gives a vivid portrayal of the numerous Roman Catholic and other festivals:

Italian merry-making is never pretty. The sense of colour and of harmony is gone out of our people, whose forefathers were models of Leonardo and Raffaelle, and whose own limbs too, have still so often the mould of the Faun and the Discobolus. Italian merry-making has nothing of the grace and brightness of the French fairs, nor even of the picturesqueness and colour of the German feasts and frolics; even in Carnival, although there are gayety [sic] and grotesqueness, there is little grace and little good colouring. But the people enjoy themselves; enjoy themselves for the most part very harmlessly and very merrily when they forget their tax-papers, their empty stomachs, and their bankrupt shops.

Ouida writes extensively and in detail about the corruption and cronyism of government officials, and the cruelty they meted out to hapless villagers. If citizens had wealth, and were well connected, they had plenty of food and their sons escaped conscription! But peasants lived frugally off the land, and life for them was harsh and often brutal.

One of  Ouida’s famous quotes “petty laws breed great crimes” highlights her intimate knowledge and understanding of what life was like for the peasant landowner (agrario).

The commune of Vezzaja and Ghiralda, whose centre is the village of Santa Rosalia, is, like all Italian communes, supposed to enjoy an independence that is practically a legislative autonomy. So long as it contributes its quota to the Imperial taxes, the Imperial government is supposed to have nothing to do with it, and it is considered to be as free as air to govern itself. So everybody will tell you; and so inviolate is its freedom that even the prefect of its province dare not infringe upon it – or says so when he wants to get out of any trouble.

Anybody who pays five francs’ worth of taxes has a communal vote in this free government and helps to elect a body of thirty persons who in turn elect a council of seven persons, who in turn elect a a single person called a syndic, or as you would call him in English, a mayor. This distilling and condensing process sounds quite admirable in theory. Whoever has the patience to read the pages of this book will see how this system works in practice.

Now, in Vezzaja and Ghiralda the thirty persons do nothing but elect the seven persons, the seven do nothing but elect the one person, and the one person does nothing but elect his secretary; and the secretary, with two assistants dignified respectively by the titles of chancellor and conciliator, does everything in the way of worry to the public that the ingenuity of the official mind can conceive. The secretary’s duties ought to be the duties of a secretary everywhere, but by a clever individual can be brought to mean almost anything you please in the shape of local tyranny and extortion; the chancellor (cancelliere) has the task of executing every sort of unpleasantness against the public in general, and sends out his fidus Achates, the usher, all kinds of summons and warrants at his will and discretion; as for the conciliator (giudice conciliatore) his office as his name indicates, is supposed to consist in conciliation of all local feuds, disputes and debts, but as he is generally chiefly remarkable for an absolute ignorance of law and human nature, and for a general tendency to accumulate fees anywhere and anyhow, he is not usually of the use intended, [my emphasis] and rather is famous for doing what a homely phrase calls setting everybody together by the ears…Power is sweet and when you are a little clerk you love its sweetness quite as much as if you were an emperor, and maybe you love it  a good deal more.   

She elaborates further: Tyranny is a very safe amusement in this liberated country. Italian law is based on that blessing to mankind, the Code Napoleon, and the Code Napoleon is perhaps the most ingenious mechanism for human torture that the human mind has ever constructed. In the cities, its use for torment is not quite so easy, because where there are crowds there is always the fear of a riot and besides there are horrid things called newspapers , and citizens wicked enough and daring enough to write in them. But away in the country, the embellished and filtered Code Napoleon can work like a steam plough; there is nobody to appeal and nobody to appeal to. The people are timid and perplexed; they are as defenceless as the sheep in the hand of the shearer; they are frightened at the sight of the printed papers and the carabinier’s [sic} sword. There is nobody to tell them they have rights , and besides, rights are very expensive luxuries anywhere and cost as much to take care of as a carriage horse.

In Village Commune Ouida dissects the family lives of unfortunate peasants in 19th Century Italy. I believe that many of these soul destroying Italian tragedies are on a par with the famous Greek plays left to us by Aeschylus or Sophocles. There is much irony within the pages of Village Commune

There are far too many long sentences, semi-colons and commas in this book, but they take nothing away from the wit, sarcasm and  beautiful prose flowing from Ouida’s pen. I highly recommend this wonderful little book… if you can find a copy.

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Ouida's headstone.jpg

OUIDA’S HEADSTONE

Ouida Tomb

OUIDA’S TOMB

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-Copyright To Anne Frandi-Coory – All Rights Reserved  14 April 2016

 

Please visit Anne Frandi-Coory’s facebook page here: 

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Every Five Minutes

 

Every Five Minutes

This is a beautifully crafted story about love, but it never-the-less cleverly leaves so much unsaid. Words like ‘I love you’ are unnecessary and time isn’t always about yesterday, tomorrow or next week …time is a touch, a smile, a smell, each  transporting  a lover to memories  they may want to sink into.  By these visceral descriptions the reader gains a clear insight into the thoughts and reactions of the two main characters, Gina and Mark.

Mark seems to know intuitively what is on Gina’s mind. Although he lives a very ordered life, and wears an “anti-wedding ring to repel predators”, he is gentle, extremely patient and he loves his dog, Electra.  Electra is an  intermediary  between two people skirting around a  love affair that wants so much to happen. It falters and stumbles because of the protective wall Gina has built around herself against the risks of intimacy. We never learn the detail of what has happened to Gina in her past, but you get the gist by her gestures and actions. Mark always seems to understand, lets Gina lead the way, well mostly. His minutely planned inventiveness in getting Gina to say ‘yes’ is surprising, when all she wants to do is to think about ‘it’ for two or three weeks.

The style of writing is refreshing, the format quirky. New Zealand author Bronwyn Elsmore  puts it all together in a way that allows the reader, from the first few sentences, to know Gina and her foibles well. We come to empathise with her deepest fears, respect why she needs her comfort zones that border on the neurotic. At the same time, her persistent suitor, Mark, manages to steal our hearts.

This is a relatively small book of 187 pages. The author could easily have written the same story with double the number of pages, and words, but it would have been a completely different work.  It may then have been thrown into the genres of either  Chick Lit or Romance. Instead, we have a powerful novel about a once-in-a-lifetime-love, which would sit comfortly on shelves dedicated to ‘Behavioural Psychology’ or perhaps even ‘The Philosophy of Relationships’ in a library

Such a bitter sweet story;  funny, heart-breaking, whimsical  and  endearing. You will find yourself alternatively smiling, tearing up, or sighing, as you turn the pages.

Available here: AMAZON 

Bronwyn Elsmore

 

More about Bronwyn Elsmore: http://www.flaxroots.com/

 

– Anne Frandi-Coory  9 March 2016

 

Please visit Anne Frandi-Coory’s facebook page here: 

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j matthew waters faceCongratulations to my friend J Matthew Waters –

my favourite contemporary American poet.

Three books of poems published and that is no mean feat:

 

in-the-middle-of-somewhere-book-cover-clsJ Matthew Watersjdub poems

 

John’s beautiful poems cover the whole spectrum… love, hate, war, fantasy, the spiritual and every day life. If you love poetry, you will enjoy these wonderful books of poems

One of John’s latest poems:

four seasons poetry

in the unpredictable spring
the poet writes of rain and birth
welcoming freshness
unfolding everywhere

in the hot summer sun the poet
writes of sweat and stifling heat
lemonade and iced tea
and the faraway sounds
of the ice cream van

when autumn approaches and
death is sure to follow
the poet writes of impending doom
and desperate days to come

but when winter arrives
and sub-zero temperatures set in
the poet remains silent
except when northern winds
or black bird wings
bring back to life
backyard metal chimes

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january two thousand sixteen
copyright j matthew waters
all rights reserved

View J Matthew Waters’ Biography and his Books of Poetry on  AMAZON: http://www.amazon.com/J-Matthew-Waters/e/B00BGST7XG

  • Anne Frandi-Coory 22 January 2016

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When The Roller Coaster Stops

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WHEN THE ROLLER COASTER STOPS  by Susan Tarr

Susan Tarr

Susan Tarr

I normally shy away from books with a storyline around terminal illness; the emotional trauma, the suffering the illness causes and the despair of friends and family.  However, Susan Tarr, with her exquisite writing skills, manages to make ‘When The Roller Coaster Stops’ into an adventure full of life, hope and quirkiness.

The two main characters, Bethany and Kate, although from very different backgrounds, manage to bring the very best out in each other. Well maybe not in the early stages of their relationship, but certainly towards the end. Frumpy Kate meets stylish, perfectly coiffured Bethany when she is employed by Bethany to clean her luxury apartment.  There are so many ‘truths’ here, about personal interactions, ulterior motives, and co-dependency that I marvelled at how expertly the author managed to stay on track to keep the reader transfixed right to the last few words written.

Weaving in and out of the two women’s lives, are gay friends, Bethany’s ex husband, and other friends who are not always welcome. There are plenty of tranquil days when the two friends can relax at a beachfront holiday house or lie together in bed talking and sleeping. Contrasted with these days, are the never ending bitchy tiffs between Bethany and Kate, and gay friends, Simon and George.  During the different stages of her illness Bethany suffers episodes of depression and self pity which she takes out on soft targets Kate and George. Bethany could be manipulative and positively cruel to those who genuinely cared about her.

Even allowing for the subject matter, I thoroughly enjoyed this book from beginning to end. It is essentially a book about the brutal honesty of shared intimacy, human failings, and the untimely interruption of fate. Then again it could very well be interpreted as a story of loyalties in which sacrifices are made for another’s well being, or not.   But you know, I think it’s more about a vibrant, once selfish young woman’s terminal illness slowly shrinking her privileged, dazzling world into the confines of her apartment with a handful of people who she finally realises mean everything to her. Like all Susan Tarr’s books, you never know what to expect from one chapter to the next.

Anne Frandi-Coory  8 October 2015

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The Hospital By The River

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THE HOSPITAL BY THE RIVER exceeded all my expectations. I have always admired Dr Catherine Hamlin as an Australian heroine. What she has achieved in her lifetime, is a superhuman feat. She believes it was God’s Will.

In her book, Dr Catherine Hamlin begins by writing about the family histories and medical backgrounds of both her and her husband, Dr Reg Hamlin, in Australia, New Zealand, and later in the UK. Both came from privileged backgrounds. Intertwined with the Hamlins’ wonderful work saving the lives of hundreds of mothers and their babies in Ethiopia, are expressions of their deep Christian faith, and the comfort it brings them. Even though I am not a religious person, I can fully understand how their faith kept them going through some very difficult and challenging times, not least of all, a dangerous war. The couple sacrificed a great deal in order to build their hospital and bring healing to hundreds of poor Ethiopian mothers and their babies. However, I felt that in following their God’s mission, their only son Richard, also paid a heavy price.

Dr Hamlin goes on to detail the travelling and begging the couple had to engage in to bring in funds to keep their dream, and the hospital they had built, afloat. She documents the perfection of surgical techniques used in the repair of fistulae to restore quality of life to their frail, and sometimes, dying patients. Many babies were born dead, sometimes jammed in the birth canal for days, because of protracted labours. Cultural practices mean mothers are made to squat for days during labour causing terrible injuries to their bladders, bowels, and vaginas. Some mothers’ uteri burst with devastating consequences. These injuries leave afflicted mothers with a life lived in misery, unable to control their bladders or bowels. They are abandoned by their husbands and families, left to fend for themselves in filth, and near starvation.

The hospital the Hamlins built in Ethiopia, with the help of worldwide financial donations, and the support of powerful Ethiopians, has given hope to thousands of women; more than 90% are fully cured. Those who cannot be cured, perhaps left with minor wounds, are able to live in adjacent hostels within the hospital compound.  Some of those who are cured, stay on to be trained as nurses and midwives. Others progress to operating assistants and surgeons.

The compelling stories of the lives of long suffering patients are truly heart rending, and yet uplifting, due to the vibrant spirit of Ethiopian women. These brave, often under-nourished women, walk for days, months or years, to get to the Hamlin hospital of hope, where they can have life saving surgery.  Be that as it may, I could not but help see the great irony within the pages of this book: The Hamlins, as Anglican Missionaries, worked tirelessly, operating on these poor, rejected mothers with horrific rectovaginal fistulae, mostly caused by giving birth too young, or by being raped. The majority of women they performed surgery on, were of a Christian Orthodox religion which culturally supports child marriages, often girls as young as eight. As an Orthodox priest remarked: “otherwise they will fall into sin like Western women who don’t have children until they are 30”!!  So here we have Christian missionary surgeons repairing horrific injuries which another Christian sect, in essence, fully condones!  No blame whatsoever attached to husbands or rapists.

At the end of the book, I couldn’t help but wonder, in an ideal world, would it not have been wiser and more efficacious for the Christian World to unite, and spend those millions travelling around Ethiopia, educating the men and empowering the women? But then the hallmark of religion has always been more about tradition than visionary reform.

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Read more here about rectovaginal fistulae and the suffering of girls giving birth too young 

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© To Anne Frandi-Coory All Rights Reserved 14 May 2015

 

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The Maronites in History

by Matti Moosa

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The Maronites in History

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I bought this very expensive book because I have always been interested in the Maronite religion of my Lebanese Grandparents, Jacob and Eva Coory. They were born and raised in the small village of Bcharre where the Maronite religion appears to have gained a strong footing around the 6th Century. There are very few books written about Lebanon’s  Maronites but I believe I have found a well written and well researched one in Moosa’s original Syracuse University Press publication The Maronites in History. Various essays on this subject can be found on many websites, but I found them to be emotive and with little basis in fact. Certainly no source documents were quoted, and most were based on hearsay passed down through generations. Still more were so badly written, it was difficult to follow the writer’s line of thought.

Matti Moosa opens the Preface of his book The Maronites in History with a question: Who are the Maronites and what is their importance to the existence of the Lebanese Republic?  This is a very good question, because so much folklore has been added to fact that it’s very difficult to know for certain. However, the author has embarked on a marathon investigation after being awarded a scholarship. He has extensively studied source documents housed in the Vatican Library as well as written testimonies from writers who lived in Lebanon from the 5th Century onwards.

The author states: In essence this book is a study and analysis of the origin of the Maronites , indeed of their whole historical heritage, an examination based on ancient and modern sources written in many languages, many of which are still in manuscript form.

Moosa goes on to explain in the preface: This book attempts to place the history of the Maronites in historical perspective. Maronites today suffer from a serious identity problem. They haven’t been able to decide whether or not they are descendants of an ancient people called the Marada  (Mardaites) or Arabs or of Syriac-Aramaic stock. Unless the Maronites solve this identity problem their conflicts with other minority religious groups in Lebanon will never be remedied. 

 Essentially, historical documents show that the Maronites originally professed the faith of Monophysitism, and later through edicts and threats of death or exile by various religious and state rulers, changed their beliefs to Monothelitism, both considered heretical by the Roman Catholic Church. Monothelitism though, is close to Catholic doctrine, so it appears the Church in Rome turned a blind eye to this heresy by Maronites for various strategic reasons which Moosa discusses at length in The Maronites. [My emphasis]

There are even disputes among Maronites and scholars over the origin of the name Maronite. The Maronite’s beloved monk St Marun and a later patriarch John Marun, have question marks over their actual existence. There is nothing in available ancient sources to indicate the name and location of the place where the ascetic Marun lived. However, the author concedes, one might be tempted, upon reading Theodoret of Cyrus, to conclude that a certain Marun lived in the vicinity of Cyrus in what was then known as Syria Prima, many miles to the north-east of Antioch. The failure to positively identify this place has caused much speculation by Maronites  as to its whereabouts. The Maronite Bishop Pierre Dib states that Marun lived on top of a mountain near Apamea  in Syria Secunda, an area far distant from Cyrus. Others claim that Marun lived in a cave near the source of the river Orontes (al-Asi) close to the Hirmil in Lebanon; they cite as evidence the name of the cave known until this day as the cave of Marun.  Other Bishops and writers state with the same certainty various other places in which the cave of Marun may have been situated.  Maronites and others cannot even agree on where or when a monastery of Marun was built but we may conclude that in Syria toward the end of the 6th or early 7th Century there existed more than one monastery bearing the name of Marun. One of them was located in or near Hama and Shayzar. It gained some notoriety in the early 7th Century when it adopted Monothelitism. The abbot of this monastery was named Yuhanna (John) and he became a Monothelite with many followers in Syria leading to the slow spread of Monothelitism into Lebanon. Those who followed him were called Maronites. Whether this monastery had any connection with the fifth century ascetic Marun is doubtful.

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Mar-maroun-4

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Efforts to date the Monastery of Marun from the 5th Century are sheer speculation. However, we have three documents which refer to a Monastery of Marun in Syria Secunda and all three documents attest that the monastery of Marun related to the doctrine of Monothelitism.

Commemorated on July 31st each year by the Maronite Church is the mythical massacre of 350 monks, ‘martyrs and disciples’ of the ascetic Marun. They were believed to have been slaughtered but this atrocity lacks strong historical substantiation. In fact there is no evidence that these were monks from the monastery of Marun.  Indeed, there is no mention of this in any pope’s correspondence of the times, nor is it mentioned in any Vatican or Church official documents.

There is no evidence that the Maronite Church ever commemorated these ‘martyrs’ before the year 1744. Even the Maronite Council assembled in Lebanon in 1736, which among other matters instituted the festivals and commemoration days for Maronite saints, did not list a commemoration day for these ‘martyrs’.

It is the author’s judgment following extensive research that the Maronites were and are closely linked to Syrian Orthodoxy. Probably for largely political reasons and the Roman Catholic Church’s need to gain a foothold in the Middle East, it overlooked the Maronite’s heretical interpretation of the Council of Chalcedon’s strict canons. [My emphasis]

In the Vatican’s push to gain a foothold in the Middle East, it allowed the Maronites to maintain their traditional patriarchs as head of their Church in Lebanon as they had done since the middle of the 8th Century. But in reality Rome considered them less than a Catholic bishop in status. It appears that only in the 8th Century did ancient church writers refer to the Maronites as a distinct Christian sect. [My emphasis]

Fortified for many generations in their mountain of Lebanon, the Maronites could claim more independence in their ecclesiastical affairs and therefore were and still are in a much more favourable position to revive their Syriac tradition and language. But instead of encouraging the Maronites to retain and cherish their Syriac heritage and revive the Syriac language  in order to become once more the lingua franca of the Maronite people the Latin missionaries (sent by Rome) discouraged the use of this language and denigrated the Syriac heritage and added more woe to the state of the already Arabised Maronites by Latinisng their Church and eventually their prayer books. The Maronites thus almost completely lost their Syriac identity. Since the 16th Century instead of taking pride in their Syriac legacy, the Maronites,in their desperation to find a legitimate origin of their Church and people have claimed that they were the descendants of  Marada (Mardaites) which is historically groundless.

Like the Nestorians the Rum (Byzantine) Orthodox, and the Syrian Orthodox People, the Maronites are of Syriac-Aramaic origin. The Lebanese Council of 1736 emphasised the use of the Syriac language first and Arabic second in the Maronite Church services. But this emphasis was not intended nor did it contribute to the revival of the Syriac language as the national symbol of the Church. Perhaps if the Lebanese Council’s recommendations had been followed, Lebanon may not be suffering the loss of identity it’s suffering from today. The least one can say for certainty is that the names of the villages and towns of Lebanon, especially Bcharre and three neighbouring villages, used the Syriac-Aramaic language as their lingua franca.

At the end of the 16th Century Maronite Patriarchs have often interfered in Lebanon’s political affairs in the belief that they were more than just the head of their Church. This has often exacerbated sectarian rivalries.

Many Maronites maintain vigorously that they have always adhered to the faith of Chalcedon and that their Church has never deviated therefrom; they were always united with the Church of Rome.

Moosa’s  research uncovers documents that clearly refute this argument. It indicates that until the 16th century the Maronites did not separate clearly and decisively from the mother Syrian Orthodox church in its beliefs, rituals and traditions. In fact, according to the calendar of festivals of the Maronite Church, whether in manuscript form or published in Rome since the 16th Century, it shares certain commemorative dates with the Syrian Orthodox Church.

Monophysitism: One incarnate nature of the divine logos – a doctrine which the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch has maintained to the present day and which ancient Maronite Syriac-Aramaic ritual and prayer books prove was also the doctrine held by the early Maronites.

Monthelitism: The Incarnation of two natures of Christ, the divine and the human, were united in one will and one energy – Until the late 16th Century Maronite ritual books contained this doctrine, at which time they were ‘purged’ by missionaries from the Roman Catholic Church to restore the Maronites to its fold. 

Catholicism (Chalcedonian): The Incarnation of the two natures of  Christ, the divine and the human, were united in one person yet  remained distinct after the union

Orthodox liturgies, prayer books and prayers themselves also caused friction between the Church of Rome and the Syrian Orthodox Church, which Moosa writes about in detail.

 Moosa sums up:

Several conclusions may be deduced from the foregoing opinions and speculations. The evidence addressed by Maronites and those who support their claims that there existed in the 5th Century in Syria Secunda a Monastery of Marun whose monks were Chalcedonians [followers of Catholicism] is untenable. Maronites (and others) cannot even agree who built the monastery of Marun or its exact location. Most of the evidence they do produce has no historical foundation. Historical fact does indicate , however, that there were several monasteries named Marun in Syria, but not that they were named after the particular ascetic Marun. More important, available evidence does not support that there was a Maronite community in Syria before the 7th or even 8th Century. While historical evidence does support the thesis that the pious anchorite named Marun lived, died, and was buried in the district of Cyrus in northern Syria, there is nothing to indicate that this Marun ever founded a religious community or inspired the name Maronite. Further, there is no evidence that he or his followers ever built a monastery in his name. Those Maronites who describe their ascetic Marun as ‘the Father of the Maronite Nation’ do so from the totally sentimental predisposition rather than assert it as a claim derived from objective fact.

Doctrines found in ancient books reveal that Maronites were of the Syrian Orthodox faith who believed in the Monophysite doctrine before they became a distinct community:

From the time of the Council of the Chalcedon in 451 to the first half of the 7th Century the first Maronites –the monks of the Monastery of Marun – became Monothelites by imposition of Emperor Heraclius. The statement is clear and positive on the point that these Maronite monks had been Monophysites (Syrian Orthodox), and though the heated controversy over the mode of the union of the two natures of Christ was finally thought to have been resolved by the Council of Chalcedon, the monks of the Monastery of Marun were recalcitrant in accepting the Council’s transactions. This recalcitrance was exhibited in anger and defiance on the part of these Monophysite monks who, like the majority of the Church in Syria, renounced the Council of Chalcedon and the definition of the faith. They remained Monophysites until the beginning of the 7th Century when they became Monothelites under the Chalcedonian formula of faith imposed on them by Emperor Heraclius in the interests of religious harmony. Though appearing to accept this faith through coercion the monks remained faithful to their Monophysite faith, which they kept intact in their ritual books. Subsequently the new creed of Monothelitism did not separate them drastically from the bulk of the Syrian Orthodox Monophysites. The point of separation was their apparent acceptance of the Council of Chalcedon under imposition of imperial power. It is through this acceptance of Chalcedon and of Monothelitism  as a doctrine that they became a distinct religious group in the middle of the 8th Century and not before.

This is a mammoth scholarly work by Matti Moosa with full bibliography and notes.

Arab, Byzantine, Ottoman and French states all played their part in the formation and divisions of Lebanon as we know it today. You will have to read this impressive work to fully comprehend 21st Century Lebanon. I can assure you, it is riveting reading. Moosa separates Maronite historical fact from fiction in a format and style that is very easy to read and follow, even allowing for the few minor grammatical and typographical errors.

© To Anne Frandi-Coory All Rights Reserved 24 April 2015

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