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Founding Fathers’ Cultural Initiatives

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Milestones in the AUB Founding Fathers' Work in Syria

The founding of the Syrian Protestant College (SPC) was not the unique achievement of the American Missionaries, during the second half of the 19th century, but it was part of a series of cultural activities that the SPC’s founding fathers were major partners in. These ventures started as early as 1834 with the transfer of the American Press, American Mission Press,  from Malta to Beirut , to the founding of the Abeih Boy’s Seminary (1843), the establishment of the Syrian Society of Arts and Sciences (1847-1852), the translation of the Bible (1847-1865), the establishment of the Lee Observatory (1874-1979) and founding of the Syrian Protestant College  (SPC) (1866) which changed to the American University of Beirut in 1920. These activities highlight the endeavors, interaction, and cooperation between the AUB founding fathers with other missionaries, their students, natives, and local scholars. This academic, cultural, and social collaborations are portrayed through major milestones in AUB Founding Fathers’ work in Syria. All the above projects or initiatives closed or vanished except for the American University of Beirut which developed and flourished through the years.

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The American Press. 

Jessup, H. (1910). Fifty-three years in Syria. New York: Fleming H. Revell Co.

American Press, 1834-1965

After establishing the American Press (a.k.a. American Mission Press) in Malta in 1822, American missionaries transferred it to Beirut, in 1834. It stood out among other early printing presses in the region. The press published books in seven languages: Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Hebrew, Greek, Kurdish, and Spanish. At first, missionaries commissioned the press to print books of theology necessary for preaching purposes, but later published books covering different academic subjects to meet the needs of newly founded schools across Syria. The Press introduced printing Arabic letters with diacritical marks (al-ḥarf al-mashkūl), referred to as the American font (al-ḥarf al-amercāni). Prominent American missionaries like Eli Smith, Cornelius Van Dyck, William Thomson, and Henry Jessup managed the press operations. These administrators recruited local citizens as printers, binders, type compositors, copyists, translators, authors, and correctors. Among the local scholars and literary men associated with the Press were Faris al-Shidyaq, Sheikh Nassif al-Yaziji, Butrus al-Bustani, Tannus al-Haddad, Sheikh Yusuf al-Assir, Ibrahim Hourani, and Assaad Khairallah. The Press published around 2,960 books during its 142 years of service. Around the 1950s, the administration of the press became under the National Evangelical Synod in Syria and Lebanon and its name changed to the National Evangelical Press with Rizkallah Halabi, journalist, and educator from Zahlé, as its manager. The Press closed in 1965.

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Abeih Boys' Seminary Building, 1843-1871.

Jessup, H. (1910). Fifty-three years in Syria. New York: Fleming H. Revell Co.

Abeih Boys’ Seminary, 1843

In 1843, Dr. Cornelius Van Dyck founded and administered a free of charge Abeih Boys’ Seminary in Mount Lebanon. In 1849 Reverend Simeon Calhoun took over the administration after Van Dyck moved to Sidon. Local teachers and American missionaries formed the instruction team at this seminary like Nassif al Yaziji, Butros al Bustani, and Reverend Daniel Bliss, among others. The mission of the school was to train teachers, prepare boys for higher education, and teach English to theological candidates. Until 1858 instruction language was Arabic to train men in Arabic, the Bible, and sciences later these graduates became preachers in the Syrian villages. The seminary closed during the 1860s Mount Lebanon massacres to reopen after clashes were over and later close during the 

             Lebanese civil war.

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Syrian Society of Arts and Sciences, 1847-1851.

Syrian Society of Arts and Sciences, 1847-1851

The Syrian Society of Arts and Sciences was established in 1847 under the guidance of the American Mission of Beirut and the supervision of Cornelius Van Dyck, Eli Smith, and William Thomson. The society included local Syrian scholars and men of the pen like Nassif al-Yaziji, John Wortabet, and Butros al-Bustani, among others. The Society aimed to promote knowledge and expose Arab intellectuals to Western culture. Society members met twice per month and discussed their research and listened to and gave lectures on different contemporary topics. Bustani was the Society's Secretary, and Yazeji was its Librarian of the society’s library which had its own by-laws that detailed the rights of members to borrow, borrowing privileges, penalties for overdue and damaged books all recorded in adequate ledgers.

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The First and Last Pages of the Arabic Bible.

Jessup, Henry Harris. (1910). Fifty-three years in Syria. New York: Fleming H. Revell Co.

Translation of the Bible 1847-1865

In 1847, Reverend Eli Smith, aided by two of the best intellectuals in the Levant at the time, Boutros al Bustani, and Sheik Nasif al Yaziji, started translating the Bible to Arabic to replace an old inaccurate translation. While still on this mission Smith died in 1857 before finishing his task. The American Board of commissioners for foreign mission (ABCFM) chose Dr. Cornelius Van Dyck, an outstanding linguist, as the successor to Smith. He completed the translation in 1865 the result was version of the Arabic Bible highly regarded for its linguistic accuracy and cultural sensitivity. Van Dyck traveled to the United States to print his Arabic Bible.

This Bible is still used by Arabic-speaking Christian communities and scholars and will remain an important reference for those interested in the history of Arabic Bible translation.

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Lee Observatory, 1913.

Lee Observatory, 1874-1979

After founding the Syrian Protestant College in 1866, the original Lee Astro-Physical Observatory, first and oldest astronomical observatory in the modern Middle East, was built in 1874 by Dr. Cornelius Van Dyck, first professor of internal medicine and astronomy. An enthusiastic astronomer, Van Dyck received a donation of 150 English gold pounds from a British merchant, Henry Lee for this project. Professor Robert West reconstructed the entire building in the 1890s. The Observatory had a twin role, sky gazing and meteorological forecasting for the region. Its reputation reached Japan, Australia, Turkey, and Europe. In 1978, the observatory was closed, and the building was used by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences as a conference center. Briefly the home of the Art Center in 2000-2001, it later housed the Facilities Planning and Design Unit, currently it houses Farouk Jabre Center for Arabic and Islamic Science and Philosophy.