I love reading and writing. I came to writing late in life and discovered a world where I feel like a fish in the water.
The sound of a ping on her computer brought Lola back from her reverie. It was an email from her sister Maren.
“Hi Lola, I’m sending you this email in a hurry. I thought of you the moment I saw the writing in the attached image. Can you look into your book on symbols and tell me what this is about?”
Maren was Lola’s youngest sister. “My name is Maren. Maren means star of the sea. I can find my way out of any storm.” This is how her sister used to introduce herself to anyone who wanted to listen to her when she was much younger.
Always in search of the next adventure, Maren’s favorite book as a child was Journey by Aaron Becker. Journey was the story of a girl who wanted friends, but her family members were not available for her. In a spurt of creativity, she drew a red door on the wall of her bedroom and stepped through it into a dazzling forest filled with glowing lanterns. She loved the themes of curiosity, friendship, problem-solving, and freedom.
Maren was a free spirit and an independent woman. She never bothered telling her parents and siblings where she was or what she was doing. They had stopped asking her and were simply happy to know that she was alive and well.
Lola clicked on the attachment in Maren’s email and found a two-page document. The first page was an image that she recognized as the Phoenician alphabet. The second page looked like an unsophisticated treasure map with writing in small letters spread across the sheet.
The Phoenician alphabet is known in modern times from the Canaanite and Aramaic inscriptions found across the Mediterranean region[i]. It is called the Early Linear script because it developed from the graphic Old Canaanite script into a linear, alphabetic script. This writing system changed from going in several directions at the same time, or being multi-directional, to a structured horizontal, right-to-left script.
The Phoenician alphabet is now considered the ancestor of the Greek alphabet and of all Western alphabets.
Lola was not skilled at reading the Phoenician alphabet even though she recognized the letters. Her library had an old reference book inherited from her grandfather who was a history buff. She scanned the index and found the page where the letters of the Phoenician alphabet were represented with English letters. From what she could decode, the current location on the map was in a touristic area in southwest Turkey that was an area bordering Syria.
The letters scribbled on the map looked like the old alphabet of the West Syriac church. The handwritten text and the X mark on the top right corner of the map pointed to a location. There was also the word Aydin written at the back of the map. Aydin meant enlightened or bright, and in older times, it was a family name found in Antioch or Antakya as it is now known in Turkey.
After some time of focused concentration, Lola was able to decipher the message. It said, “The second page is a map that points to the location where a copy of an ancient manuscript is kept. This copy belongs to the early Maronite Catholic church in Antioch. It was stolen during the visit of Father Jean-Baptiste Eliano of the Society of Jesus. The manuscript must be returned to the Head of the Maronite Church.”
There was no way for Lola to know when the map was drawn, or when the message was written. At this point, and until she knew more, she did not want to include anyone in her research.
History books talked about the controversy created by the report that J.B. Eliano presented to Pope Gregory the thirteenth in the year 1579. He claimed that his report was a direct account describing the situation of the Maronites as understood by an eyewitness. The Maronites of that period reacted negatively to his report, noting that, in part, it did not truly express the complete truth about their spiritual status[ii].
It was said that J.B. Eliano attributed to Patriarch Michel Rizzi who lived from the year 1567 to the year 1581, words that the patriarch did not say. Eliano’s report included liturgical and theological blunders that he claimed were taken out of books he found in certain parishes, although the Maronites had long before then taken those books out of circulation.[iii]
Lola continued reading about Antioch. It was called “the cradle of Christianity[iv]” because it lasted a long time and due to the crucial role it played in the emergence of Hellenistic Judaism and early Christianity.
Research of world maps, and comparing the year 1578 with the current year, showed that the Greeks founded the City of Antioch in what is currently southwest Turkey. There was a time in history where Antioch was the most important Roman colony of the eastern empire.
Most of Turkey had become safe but visitors were still advised against all travel within ten kilometers of the border with Syria. The markings on the map pointed to the city of Diyarbakir located 75 kilometers from the Syrian borders.
Lola narrowed her research even more and consulted an encyclopedia.
There were mythical ruins in southwest Turkey. The southwest Turkish coast could be explored by car. Touristic brochures invited tourists to view the spectacular ruins atop the hillside village of Behramkale or Behram. Behram city, with its rich history, was founded in the tenth century before the common era in the Ayvacik district of the Canakkale province.
Lola replied to her sister’s email saying, “Are you crazy Maren? The Turkish area bordering Syria is one of the most dangerous places on earth. Are you there now? If yes, what are you doing there?”
A few minutes later she sent another email asking her, “How did you get into this?”
Maren immediately connected with Lola using the FaceTime app. This kind of conversation needed a face-to-face communication instead of emails.
Maren looked her energetic self, with no care in the world. No one would have suspected that she was deep into an adventure that could endanger her safety.
She explained that she found the two documents tucked into an old bible on one of the shelves in the public reference library. Someone was doing some research and forgot them there.
That someone must have known that the documents were in her possession because two days later, a priest called Simon contacted her. Simon asked her to meet him and another priest at a park close to where she lived, a mere ten minutes on the bus.
Maren agreed to meet them. On the day of their meeting and while getting dressed, she mentally rehearsed the summary of her research.
The Two Priests
The moment she stepped out of the bus she saw the two men standing in the bus shelter waiting for her. What would people who know me think if they saw me with two handsome men dressed in gray pants and white shirts with a collar? she thought.
The two men greeted her and the three of them walked to the adjoining park and sat on a bench under a large tree. They were the only people in the park and felt free to talk openly.
She handed them the two documents before they even asked her.
Simon took the documents from her and said, “Maren, can you tell us what you think this document is about and what you find out in the reference section?”
Eager to share what she learned, she said, “The map points to the location where a copy of an ancient manuscript is kept. This manuscript belongs to the early Maronite Catholic church in the Middle East. From what I was able to decipher, the current location is in a touristic area in southwest Turkey, an area bordering Syria.” She did not mention that she asked Lola to help her to decode the message. At this point, she wanted to learn more about what was going on before she involved her sister.
The two priests looked surprised. “How did you figure that out?” Simon said.
“The letters are the old alphabet of the West Syriac church. The handwritten text and the X mark on the top right corner of the document points to that location. There is also a name, a family name for sure, written on the back of the map. In older times, that family name could be found in Antioch or what is now known as Antakya in Turkey.” Maren said.
She saw the hint of a smile on Simon’s face that made her heart flutter. Be careful! He is a Catholic priest. Be mindful of your thoughts. She shook her head to stop an emerging thought of how physically attractive she found him.
The look of fear on the face of the other priest, Elie, took her by surprise. What is he afraid of?
[ii] Maronite Society at the End of the XVI Century. [https://www.reddit.com/r/Maronite/comments/jpsxle/maronite_society_at_the_end_of_the_xvi_century]
[iii] “Maronite Society at the End of the XVI Century” by Abbot Paul Naaman.
Vice President for International Relations, professor of history at the Holy Spirit University-Kaslik, Lebanon.
- Short Fiction: The Standard Version (2 of 5)
A work of fiction. Two sisters helping a community locate an ancient manuscript. Will one of them find her soul mate?
© 2020 Liliane Najm