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Granddad Jacob, that’s an amazing spiritual journey….
My extensive research into the murky past, which was partly buried in the Aramaic language and ancient names, reveals how much I didn’t know about my paternal grandfather, Jacob Habib El Khouri Eleishah Fahkrey. Nevertheless, my limited personal contact with Jacob left a significant impact. I deeply mourn that he died before I ever had the chance to talk with him about our extremely rich genetic and cultural heritage. If only I’d known as a child that he was such a valuable resource for our Lebanese family history. But then, what child can really comprehend such a thing? That, beyond their narrow sphere of existence, a family history has been woven as intricately as any tapestry, replete with human drama, personal tragedy and war, set in countries at opposite ends of the world. As a child my whole world stretched no further than a few urban blocks in Dunedin – The Catholic orphanage at one end and the Coory family home at the other.
Jacob and my grandmother, Eva, both spoke a Semitic language, an ancient form of Aramaic. Jacob’s forebears most likely descended from an ancient tribe of Israelites originating in the ancient Canaan, now known as Israel and Jordan. From there, some Canaanite clans including, I believe, those of Jacob’s distant ancestors, migrated to the rich and ancient area in the plains of Mesopotamia, close to the life-giving Euphrates River. There is linguistic evidence the Semitic tribes first arrived in Mesopotamia around 4000 BCE. The Aramaeans (speakers of Aramaic) were a nomadic tribe when they first encountered Mesopotamia. Over the centuries they gradually moved in a westerly direction then south down the Euphrates River, eventually settling in to form kingdoms. The consolidation of the Aramaeans into settled kingdoms allowed the re-establishment of the trade routes through Palestine (Philistine) and Syria, and allowed the temporary Israelite expansion. Some of the Aramaean tribes continued to migrate west across Mesopotamia, their fortunes greatly improved due to the relative stability of the settlements in the area.
The Bible mentions the Aramaeans and links the Israelite Patriarchs with them. The ancient Israelites had to profess their faith by pronouncing ‘my father was a wandering Aramaean’. It was probably during their settlement in Mesopotamia that the clans mixed with the seafaring Phoenicians, recorded there as early as 2300 BCE. The first key port of the Phoenicians was at Sidon in Lebanon. For the remainder of the pre-Christian period, around 300 BCE, Mesopotamia was safely in the hands of the Seleucids (Greeks) while the two-millennia-old Babylonian civilisation was dying. Since the turn of the millennium, both socially and linguistically, Aramaeans had been penetrating Babylonia; their tribal systems overtook the cities, and their language eventually superceded the ancient Akkadian.
Some of the native Syriac dialects, as well as ancient Hebrew, merged with Aramaic, one of the Semitic languages which has been known since almost the beginning of human history. The Semitic languages, which include Hebrew, Arabic, Akkadian, Aramaic and Ethiope, were first glimpsed in ancient royal inscriptions around 900-700 BCE. The Aramaeans introduced their language to Syria when they settled there during the second millennia BCE. The Persians gave Aramaic official status, and throughout the Greek and Roman eras it remained the principal vernacular language. Babylonian and Persian Empires ruled from India to Ethiopia, and Assyrians employed Aramaic as their official language from 700-320 BCE, as did the Mesopotamians. The Aramaic script in turn derived from the Phoenicians, who most likely extracted it from the Canaanites. Writing derived from Phoenician, began to appear in Palestine around the tenth century BCE.
There is general agreement among scholars that the linear alphabet had its beginnings somewhere in the Levant during the second millennium BCE. The Etruscans were the first among Italic Peoples to adopt the linear alphabet script and it spread rapidly throughout the Italian peninsula. The Phoenicians and the Etruscans had close trading and religious ritual links. These days, Aramaic is only spoken by small Christian communities in and around Lebanon, and in a small Christian village in Syria. The word Aramaic derives from the word Aram, fifth son of Shem, from which the word shemaya (semitic for ‘high up’ or ‘mountain’) is derived. Around 721-500 BCE, the ancient Hebrew language of the people of Palestine was overtaken by Aramaic, and much later the message of Christianity spread throughout Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia via this Semitic vernacular. Aramaic survived the fall of Babylon in 539 BCE and continued to be the predominant language. But Arabic spread and gradually took over as the lingua franca in the Middle East, around the thirteenth century CE. It seems reasonable to assume that, as speakers of this ancient language and in conjunction with their familial names, the Fahkrey forebears were originally members of a Judaic tribe, the Canaanites, who, over the centuries, mixed with other ethnic groups such as Hittites, Phoenicians, Akkadians, Greeks, and Macedonians to name a few. The word Fahkrey probably derives from the Aramaic word fagary, which means ‘the solid one’. There is plenty of evidence to support this, as Jacob and his descendants are of short, stocky build with strong arms and legs.
Many Canaanite menhirs (religious rock emblems) have been found in Lebanon and Syria. It’s interesting to note that at Baalbek, in the mountains of Lebanon, there is evidence of sacred ritual prostitution (male and female); a long-established Phoenician institution, associated with the cult of Astarte, the Goddess, also called Ishtar (Esther). Within the Phoenician realm, the great mother goddess Ishtar/Astarte was venerated in caves and grottos. A number of these sacred caves later evolved into sanctuaries dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Adoration grew into a cult, elevating Mary to the status of ‘Protectress of Lebanon’. My paternal family’s stocky build, soft round features and fairer complexion add a little mystery to their ancestry in a region where many inhabitants have dark features.
We have very little archaeological or written evidence, and so much of this history is conjecture. What we do know is that the Greeks overran and were prominent in the Levant from at least 1200 BCE. The Romans invaded in the first century BCE and Roman rule strengthened after this time. Judea later became a Roman province. And there were other ethnic groups which invaded the area from time to time in between. Ancient Damascus played an important role in the destiny of the Fahkrey tribe. Around the ninth century BCE, Damascus’s political and economic strength enticed both Palestinian Kingdoms , Israel and subsequently Judea, to seek alliance with it. At the time there was a direct and vital communication route between Tyre in Lebanon and Damascus via the Beqa (Bekka) Valley. In 64 BCE Damascus had become part of the Roman Empire and thrived as a city-state, converting to Christianity very early on in the Christian era. The leaders of the Roman Empire would later see the infrastructure of the Catholic Church as a beneficial conduit of power for their vast empire and name it as their official religion…
During the 630s CE, Jacob’s distant ancestors were on the move again towards Damascus, ahead of the Muslim armies rampaging across the Arabian peninsula. Muslim armies attacked and eventually occupied Damascus in 635 CE, then converted Syria to Islam. Those tribes living in and around Damascus would have been familiar with the safe haven of Bcharre in the hills of Lebanon. Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and was once a central sphere of influence and prosperity. Around the fourteenth century our Fahkrey ancestors moved on from Damascus and up into Lebanon’s protective mountains…
The Roman Catholic Church aligns itself with the Maronites (the religion of my grandparents) in the mountains of Lebanon:…