Come to experience the atmosphere as St Martin-in-the-Fields is gently lit by candles in a very rare opportunity to hear chants from the Aramaic/Syriac, Coptic and Byzantine traditions, harking back to the time of Queen Zanubia’s reign of Palmyra.

It was in the second century, during the reign of Queen Zanubia, that Christianity reached the ancient Syrian caravan city of Palmyra. Her rule witnessed the emergence of the first church melodies out of the secular Aramaic music of Syria and Iraq. The sound world of these chants is rich with quartertones and virtuosic ornamentation. Accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Jon Banks on qanun and santur, this concert illuminates the earliest roots of Christianity and celebrates the diverse musical traditions of the ancient Middle Eastern world.

Performed by Arabic song specialist Merit Ariane Stephanos with Lebanese priest and scholar Abouna Shafiq Abouzayd and multi-instrumentalist Jon Banks on qanun and santur.


Half-Coptic Egyptian, half-German singer and composer, Merit Ariane Stephanos draws on Arabic classical and Western contemporary influences in her music and is passionate about exploring a dialogue between both cultures. In 2012, supported by a Finzi Trust Scholarship, Merit went on a three month trip to Lebanon to research Arab Christian chants.

The senior Melkite Greek Catholic priest in Britain, Shafiq Abouzayd has been a priest at the Maronite Church since 1987. Of joint Lebanese and British nationality, Rev Dr Abouzayd studied Aramaic-Syriac and Arabic at the monastery of the Lebanese Maronite Missionaries in Jounieh and is currently the director for the Aram Centre for Syro Mespotoamian Studies at Oxford University.

A performer with an international profile, specialising in early and Oriental string instruments, Jon Banks has toured, broadcast and recorded with groups including The Dufay Collective, The Burning Bush, Joglaresa, the Jocelyn Pook Ensemble and Iranian ensembles with Fariborz Kiani and Davod Azad. He is a regular performer and musical director at the Globe and lectures on Middle Eastern music at Anglia Ruskin University.

Najib Coutya will perform liturgical Christmas chants from the Greek Orthodox tradition, in the style of Arabic maqam and improvisation. They will also sing non liturgical, religious Christmas hymns, accompanied by Oud. Singer and oud player Najib was born in Tripoli, Lebanon, where he lived until moving to London in 1991. He had a very musical upbringing as his father was a choirmaster and singer of Byzantine and Arabic Church music, renowned across the Middle East. From a young age Najib was involved in his father’s musical traditions and singing regularly, and by the age of 11 he was leading a choir.

The Byzantine/Arabic music that Najib and his father practise is an oral tradition, consisting of a system of about 20 complex modes, full of quarter-tones, drawing from the Arabic maqam and Greek Byzantine conventions. Najib continues this today, with his own choir based at the Antiochian Greek Orthodox church, St George Cathedral, who have sung together for 18 years. There are only 9 members, which he says allows them more artistic freedom and room for improvisation than the larger choirs. They sing in Arabic, and their repertoire includes pieces traceable to as early as the 3rd century CE, but their main source comes from music sung in the churches of Constantinople in the 18th and 19th centuries; at the time a melting-pot of Turkish, Arabic and Greek cultures.

Najib is the co-founder of Ichos Ensemble. This group has a Turkish violinist, a Greek singer, and Najib, who plays the oud and sings. They play a mixture of Turkish and Greek songs, Greek rebetiko music and Arabic and Ottoman classical music. He also collaborates with Egyptian classical musicians in the maqam tradition, often playing material by legendary #Egyptian singer Umm Kulthumm. Other music he performs includes muashshahat, Arabic formal poetry, and dor, colloquial Arabic poetry, both of which include extensive vocal and instrumental vocal improvisation, using the aforementioned modes.

Najib places equal importance on both continuing these traditions and innovating within them; by playing them correctly and authentically, but using new improvisations to keep them alive.

Laila Samy is an Egyptian, London-based multi-disciplinary artist working within the disciplines of performance making and cinematography.  She started singing professionally at the age of 12 in the Egyptian opera house, and she was a member of El Warsha theatre troupe between the age of 16 and 23 where she took several singing and acting roles. She acted several roles on the stage and in various films including “Yaqoubian Building”, “Aquarium”, “Those Days”, and “In The Last Days of the City”. She also worked as the D.O.P and camerawoman for a number of short fiction and documentaries, as well as a 35mm film project entitled “Solo” where she was both DOP and director.

Immersed in Coptic, Arabic and European music, and with a blossoming international career as a soloist playing oud (Arabic lute) and ney (Arabic flute) with the Alexandria Opera House Orchestra, Mina Mikhael Salama improbably found himself seeking asylum in the UK in 2012, and eventually settled in Doncaster. He is now emerging as a talented and in-demand musician on the UK world music scene and can be heard performing and recording with MIRO Manchester International Roots Orchestra, Rafiki Jazz and with Ethiopian singer Haymanot Tesfa