Lebanon Through the Ages Part II: Medieval Lebanon

 Skrevet av R. Scott Peoples - Publisert 08.11.2007 kl. 23:49 (Oppdatert 29.11.2007 kl. 15:04)

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Gone were the days of the mighty Phoenician city-states; by the end of the 600s CE, Lebanon lay shattered by natural disasters and neglected at the outer edges of the slowly-crumbling Byzantine Empire. In the subsequent centuries, the country was to cement its status as a military, economic, and – especially – religious crossroads of the world, as it was invaded and/or profoundly influenced by successive waves of Arabs, Crusaders, Mamlukes, Ottomans, and various and sundry European imperialistic powers.

It is a nation so permeated by deep, abiding, and often-opposing faiths that it once tried to form a legislative assembly with seats apportioned according to religious census.


This article is a sequel to "Lebanon Through the Ages Part I: Ancient Lebanon", which was published in Bits of News on 23 October 2007.


From the perspective of Some Guy in 2800 BCE, the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean must have looked like a cornucopia with a cherry on top. Under the waves, close to the shores of Tyre, the rocks for Acres (pun-groans permitted) around were covered with Dye-Murex snails. Rich soils along the coast and in the verdant Bequaa Valley were rife with olives, grapes, and grains, and the mountainous region between the two was covered with a forest of cedars so extensive that its trees must have seemed like grains of sand on a beach.

Some Guy back then must have been like some guys now: he got to thinking that if somebody caught and juiced those snails, and somebody else farmed and harvested those fields, and somebody else chopped down those cedars and turned them into boats, then everybody – and especially he – could live a little better by trading their stuff for stuff from other countries. His neighbors agreed (or were forced into agreeing), and so the chopping, harvesting, and exchanging began.
“Nature decays, but latium lasts forever”
- the 102nd Ferengi Rule of Acquisition

1800 years later, those occupations were no longer limited commercial ventures; they were the time-honored traditions of families and city-states. Ezekiel 27:5-27 gives a detailed account of all the trade deals to which Tyre was party before its destruction at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, and it reads like a who’s who of 1st millennium BCE power brokers. 1800 years after that, as Rome was splitting in two, the snails were growing awful scarce and the trees suddenly seemed a lot less plentiful.

Jared Diamond, in Collapse, muses at great length about how environmental degradation and mismanagement destroy civilizations. Though he doesn’t use the Phoenicians as an example, he could have: for them, the lure of the profit to be gained from trading in their country’s unique natural resources led the otherwise intelligent leaders of powerful city-states to, for centuries on end, exploit their own finite resources until…well, finality.

Surely somebody in their nearly 3000-year history recognized that the beds of snails were longer near the size the old stories indicated, or that the forests weren’t as big as grandpaw remembered, but it appears that the spirit of commerce outweighed the wisdom of any nascent “Save the Murex” movement that might have sprung up among Phoenicia’s flower children (if there were any). One can almost imagine a great orator – let’s call him Oxycontinus – bellowing from the city walls at the concerned citizens below, assuaging their fears of imminent cedarlessness with anecdotes from unconcerned tradesmen, reassurances from temple priests, and probably some good old-fashioned scapegoating, just to keep the slaves in line.

Lebanese cedars were fashioned into great fleets of ships, fine ornamental carvings, and even the timbers of the Temple of Solomon:
David also provided great stores of iron for nails for the doors of the gates and for clamps, as well as bronze in quantities beyond weighing, and cedar timbers without number, for the Sidonians and Tyrians brought great quantities of cedar to David.
1 Chronicles 22:2-4

But to be fair, not all the deforestation was entirely the fault of the Phoenicians. During his invasion, Nebuchadnezzar explains:

With the force of Nabu and Marduk, my lords, I armed my troops for an expedition in Lebanon. I drove out the enemy above and below, I brought happiness to the heart of the earth. The scattered population I gathered and brought back to their home. That which no king had done before, I did: I cleft high mountains, I cut blocks of stone from the mountains, I opened paths, prepared roads for the transport of the cedars. On the canal Avakhtu, as though they were reeds of the river, I floated large cedars, tall and strong, of great beauty, of imposing aspect, rich product of Lebanon, and brought them before Marduk, the king.

Source: cedarland.org

As for the snails: for nearly three millennia, people had been buying purple clothing faster than the little mollusks could breed. The law of supply and demand (the one so recently – and patronizingly – explained to us by oil company execs) had the purple-purchasers shelling out more and more cash over successive generations, until finally the stuff was so rare that the Emperor in Constantinople made it punishable by death for anyone but he and a few close associates to wear it.

Monophysite or Chalcedonian? Answer like your life depends on it

There is certainly an exploitative, avaricious side to societies based on trade and commerce, but they do have their redeeming qualities, too. In addition to being innovative – especially in the realms of travel, communication, and economics – the people of commerce-based societies tend to be relatively open-minded. Religious ideas, moving along trade routes in the hearts and minds of caravan merchants, are much more apt to find a tolerant population in the port at the end of their journey than they are in the provincial villages along their way, and the people of Phoenicia had been entertaining foreign visitors since before the Pyramids were ancient. From the gods of the Canaanites to those of the Romans, deities as diverse as Markduk and Yahweh counted worshippers in Lebanon, and when Peter and/or Paul established the first Christian church at nearby Antioch in/around 34 CE, people were willing to give a listen to the bearers of the Good News. (Acts 11:19-20)

Antioch (modern Antakya, in southeast Turkey) went on to become one of the four original patriarchates – the others being in Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Rome – and holds the distinction of being the first place where converts were first referred to as Christians (Acts 11:26). The city and its patriarch were enormously influential in early Christendom, and over a period of 600 years, Antioch gave rise to or profoundly influenced several distinct branches of Oriental Orthodox Christian faiths, in addition to being the scene of some really head-scratching acts of piety (see Weird Historical Sidenote). These churches, which include the still-extant Syriac Orthodox Church (approx. 5.5 million worshippers worldwide; 3.5 million in India) and the Maronites of Lebanon, remained in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, even as the Greek Orthodox Byzantines exercised suzerainty over their lands. The naïve (talkin’ to you, Condi) might be shocked to learn that this situation caused a few problems.

Weird Historical Sidenote:St. Simeon the Stylite lived near Antioch. More precisely, for 36 years, he lived on a 6’x6’ platform on top of a 50’ pole near Antioch - praying, standing on one leg, and fasting for whole Lents at a time. Who’s your daddy, David Blaine?

Early Christendom had a lot of stuff to sort out besides what was to be deemed a rational expression of faith. There was considerable conflict over what gospels, letters, and other writings ought to be canonized, arguments over which patriarch ought to be able to boss all the other patriarchs around, and, most importantly (from a heresy-hunting point of view), disputes over the very nature of Jesus. Essentially, one side – the Monophysites – said Christ was wholly divine, while the other – as decreed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE – held that he was half human. The Chalcedonians won the battle for liturgical supremacy, and Antioch began a slow decline with her Monophysite colors nailed to her mast.

St. Maroun and His Flock

If you really wanted to show your piety before God in the early 5th c. CE, you had to either sit on a pole or take up the rags of a hermit. If you did it well, and publicly suffered inhuman deprivations at your own choosing, you might attract a band of followers. Simeon’s choice of self-punishment precluded his gathering a large group about him, but nearer to Lebanon, the more terrestrially-based hermit Maroun found conditions for preaching and community-building more favorable.

After Maroun died (sometime between 407-423 CE), his followers moved into northern Phoenicia, constructed a monastery, and continued to follow his teachings. People who knew him said nice things about him, too:
'He increased the number of saints in heaven…(and) cured not only infirmities of the body, but applied suitable treatment to soul as well, healing this man's greed and that man's anger, to this man supplying teaching in self-control and to that providing lessons in justice, correcting this man's intemperance and shaking up another man's sloth'

Theoderet, Bishop of Cyr, via cedarland

As cedarland also points out, Christianity was nothing new to the land of Phoenicians. Check out this list of hard-core Christian History happenings that transpired in Lebanon:
Christianity has been linked with Lebanon from the earliest of time. News of the teachings and the healing powers of Jesus of Nazareth reached Lebanon early in his ministry, and prompted people from Lebanon to go and witness his works. He himself was to visit Lebanon and while there he famously turned water in wine at Cana, southeast of Tyre, and also healed the daughter of a Phoenicia woman (Matt. 15, 21-28; Mk. 7, 24-31). A couple of miles southeast of Sidon lies a grotto housing a Church dedicated to Sayyidat al Mantarah (Our Lady of the Watch) and is where Mary awaited her son's advent. Many of Christ's followers went to Lebanon and St. Paul visited and stayed in Lebanon on a number of occasions and by the close of the second century Tyre had become the seat of a Christian bishop. In 325 the bishop of Sidon attended the coucil of Niceia and in 335 a council was held in Tyre, at about the same time a missionary from Tyre introduced Christianity to Ethiopia. However at this time paganism had not yet died and was also practiced in Lebanon

Didn’t See That One Coming

In one particularly gruesome massacre, the Monophysites slaughtered 350 Maronite monks even at they sought refuge at the altar of a church, but by then the wrong-kind-of-Catholic ship had already sailed, and Antioch became one of the lesser threats facing the Maronites. The followers of Maroun were safely ensconced in difficult-to-attack mountains between the coast and the Beqaa Valley, and would use that stronghold to resist Antiochan, Byzantine, and Muslims attempts at conquest for 200 years. They gained papal recognition in 518 CE, but tensions remained (surprise, surprise) strained.

In far-off Constantinople, the Emperor (an Orthodox Christian, himself) had various Goths and Turks to worry about, and was blissfully unaware that God had revealed His Word to a Prophet in far-off Arabia. That was in 622 CE; by 634, the Emperor would know of the Muslims, as the Prophet’s followers were most eager to make his subjects aware of what God had to say.

The first battle between Christianity and Islam occurred south of the Dead Sea in 633 CE, at a place called Wadi al Arabah, but the Byzantines regarded the incursion as little more than a border skirmish. They would be forced into a Rumsfeldian re-evaluation the following year, however, when their army (including a large contingent of Phoenicians) engaged a much smaller Arab force at Yarmuk, in Syria. By all accounts, it was a long-running and vicious fight, marked by all those traits that tend to mark the Byzantines at pivotal battles: their allies turned on them, their generals made bad decisions, and the unwieldiness of their multinational coalition of troops led to slow communications and poor tactics. The zeal of the Muslims – including the women in their camp – cannot be discounted as a factor, either; according to Arab historioranter al-Baladhuri (d. ca. 892 CE) in his The Battle of Yarmuk and After:
In the battle of al-Yarmuk certain Moslem women took part and fought violently. Among them was Hind, daughter of 'Utbah and mother of Mu'awivah ibn-abi-Sufyan, who repeatedly exclaimed, "Cut the arms of these 'uncircumcised' , with your swords!"

Source: Medieval Sourcebook

You can look at the battle in a couple of different ways: (1) As a result of the disastrous defeat, the Byzantines were forced to withdraw from Syria, abandoning their Levantine holdings to their more vigorous foe; or (2) As a result of the great victory, the Muslim general Khalid ibn al-Walid was granted the title “Sword of Allah” and went on to conquer the cities of Tyre, Sidon, and the rest of coastal Phoenicia by 637 CE.

An Island in a Sea of Enemies

Nomadic and not prone to building stuff or engaging in maritime trade, the Arabs pooh-pooh’d the strategic importance of Lebanon, and the earliest Umayyad caliphs settled on the oasis of Damascus as their new capitol. The Maronites remained in their mountainous stronghold; the Muslims had little interest in ginning up a costly campaign to eradicate them. Al-Baladhuri’s account, written two centuries after the fact, is very favorable to the Muslims: according to him, they were gratefully received by the peoples of the lands they had conquered. The simple poignancy of this Maronite prayer from the early 700s throws a slightly different light on things, however:
By the intercession of your Mother, O Lord, turn your wrath from the land and its inhabitants. Put an end to trouble and sedition, banish from it war, plunder, hunger and plague. Have pity on us in our misfortunes. Console those of us who are sick. Help us in our weakness. Deliver us from oppression and exile. Grant eternal rest to our dead. Allow us to live in peace in this world that we may glorify you.

The Maronites raided newly-Arab towns throughout the 600s, and were successful enough that Emperor Constantine IV took notice. Magnanimously setting aside the earlier liturgical disputes, he arranged for the importation of a large number of Jarajima mercenaries to aid the Maronites in their harassment of the Caliph. This they did, with such great effect that the Caliph was obligated to pay tribute to the Maronites to ensure their good behavior.

According to Gibbon, however, “The aged caliph was desirous of possessing his dominions, and ending his days in tranquility and repose: while the Moors and Indians trembled at his name, his palace and city of Damascus was insulted by the Mardaites, or Maronites, of Mount Libanus, the firmest barrier of the empire, till they were disarmed and transplanted by the suspicious policy of the Greeks,” and so it was that the Damascus cut a deal with Constantinople and 12,000 of the Jarajima mercs were withdrawn. Deprived of offensive capabilities, the Maronites elected their own Patriarch in 687 CE, and settled in for the long haul.

In 694, Emperor Justinian II sent an army after the Maronites, which destroyed their monastery at Orontes and put 500 monks to the sword. The Maronites exacted their revenge (and liberated themselves from subsequent Byzantine meddling) at Amioun, on Mount Lebanon, when the Patiarch personally led his people into battle against the Byzantine army, and won a crushing victory that cost Constantinople two of her better generals.

Pressure from the outside world never let up, however, and the Maronites were pushed into ever-less-accessible regions of Lebanon. The seat of the Patriarch moved several times (spending 500 years at Jbeil), and the fiercely independent followers of Maroun learned how to grow orchards in the fissures on the faces of cliffs to survive. For the next 300 years, they raided, revolted, and retreated, always true to their faith and in full (if forgotten) communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

Toss In A Wildcard

Christianity is not the only religion to have had trouble sorting out the finer points of its canon in its early days – Islam did, too. The most contemporarily-relevant disagreement of those days, of course, concerned whether the leadership of the Muslim community should fall to the descendents of Muhammad (Shiites) or those who lived by his sunna tradition (Sunnis), but other inter-Mullah spats from that era continue to reverberate, as well. The Sufis are one example; the Druze are another.

The Druzes take their name from al-Darazi - “the Tailor” - a Bukharan Turk who served the sixth Caliph/Imam of Fatamid Egypt (the early 11th century CE, silly). His name was al-Hakim, and he was one of the most polarizing figures in history – on the one hand, he presided over a golden age of intellectual and spiritual development at the height of Fatamid Cairo; on the other, he forbade Christians and Jews from riding horses and made them wear black turbans and robes for ease of persecution. Oh, and he was the guy who ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, throwing fuel on a long-smoldering pile of hate that would culminate a few decades later in the Crusades.

Some of al-Hakim’s subjects felt that he was specially blessed, and so declared him “Ruler in the Name of God.” Al-Darazi added to this title the idea that he was the Ruler’s sole messenger, for which he was executed – but not before picking up a community of adherents. Finding themselves persecuted in Egypt, the Druzes made their way to the mountains of Lebanon, where they quietly blended into the refugee population.

Druze theology was established as a blend of Islam, Greek philosophy, Christianity, and Gnosticism, and it has confounded attempts at religious pigeonholing ever since. They are officially recognized as Muslims, but most Muslims do not think of themselves as Druzes, just as Druzes draw a distinction between themselves and Muslims. According to Wikipedia:
In 1167 Benjamin Metudela wrote about the Druze in his diary, according to his book the Druze are "Mountain dwellers, monotheists, believe in soul transfigurations and are good friends with the Jews"

To this day, Druzes living in Israel live under a special set of laws that acknowledge their unique religion, though there are Druzes in the Golan Heights who have resisted Israeli citizenship in favor of Syria. In Lebanon, Druzes gathered in small mountain enclaves and quietly passed on their faith through the centuries, until they violently sprang onto the world stage during the Lebanese Civil War of the 1970s. Estimates of population seem to vary widely: I found figures ranging from 450,000 to 2.5 million. All sources agree that most of them live in Lebanon.

The Europeans Strike Back

When Pope Urban II screamed “Deus Vuelt!” at a bunch of knights in France in 1095, the Maronites didn’t realize that their long siege was about to finally be lifted. The Crusades were on, and the Christian cavalry was riding with dispatch towards lands that had been in Muslim hands for nearly five centuries – so imagine the Europeans’ surprise at finding a fully-formed Christian state stubbornly holding out amidst a veritable ocean of Greek, Turkic, and Arab enemies. The popes, having not heard from their erstwhile brethren in quite some time, had logically written off the Maronites as martyrs to the cause and the two sides greeted one another as long-lost kin.

That’s not to say it was all a bed of roses: Though Maronites accompanied the crusaders on the road to Jerusalem, there started around this time a persistent rumor that the Maronites were heretics of the Monothelite variety. This variation on the Monophysite theme held that Jesus had been of two creations – divine and human – but these were united by a single will. Even the thought of this was too damn close to that old Antioch crap for a few purists among the European Catholics, and they held to the rumor of Maronite heresy over the latter’s objections that they had always remained faithful to Rome’s pronouncements. History favors the Maronites on this one.

After capturing Jerusalem during the First Crusade, the Second did a little conquesting of its own, in part by rampaging up the Phoenician coast. The stories are predictably bloody and mind-blowing (see Historiorant), so I’ll spare you the grim details, but among the tales I found one particularly intriguing, in light of the things I’ve been hearing Anderson Cooper report recently. It’s from yet another siege of Tyre, this one in 1124:
"The fear inspired by these flying stones enabled the foe (the Tyrians) to become masters of that particular section, for none of the Christians dared to remain in the vicinity... From their stations in the high towers, the enemy, armed with bows and ballistae, poured forth showers of Javelins and arrows; and meanwhile a never ceasing torrent of huge rocks hurled from within the city pressed the Christians so hard that they scarcely dared to thrust forth a hand."

Historiorant: Something tells me we can learn a lot about some of the nature of strength of the faith of the people of this region by considering the following paragraph, which describes the fate of some Armenian Christians who tried to come to the aid of a captured King Baldwin II in 1111-1112:
"Some were flayed alive, others sawn asunder; and still others buried alive. Others Balak handed over to his men to serve as targets in archery practice. Yet, though they suffered torture in this world, these men had a sure hope of immortal life; though they were tried in a few things, yet, from another point of view, their reward was great."

The High Price of Your Friends Bailing

Well to the rear of the battlegrounds of the late 12th and 13th centuries, the Maronite Patriarchs were finally able to start building churches, even as the crusaders constructed huge castles to watch over strategic passes and roads. Lebanon was relatively peaceful (stress “relatively”) for a century or so, as Maronites and European Catholics worked side-by-side to create a vibrant and cosmopolitan economy in northern Outremer. Nevertheless, the tides slowly turned against the crusaders: Saladin put Islam’s handwriting on the walls of Beirut in 1187, and by 1291, the Latins were gone for good. They took some Maronites with them, too: there’s a community on Cyprus to this day.

Historiorant: There’s a lot more to it than this, of course. For all the nitty-gritty on the infighting among the Crusaders and their zany palace intrigues, a much more detailed city-by-city breakdown is available at the recommended (with the caveat that it’s unabashedly pro-Lebanon) site, cedarland.org

With the Crusaders out of the way, it was the Mamlukes – self-liberated slave soldiers – of Egypt whose shadow now fell over Lebanon. Having rid themselves of the hated Franj (“Franks”), the Mamlukes now found the only Christians handy for persecution were the Maronites, who suffered horrible deprivations as result. There was a brief ray of hope for the Lebanese Christians and the handful of military order knights who remained in 1299, when a Mongol army defeated the Egyptians at Homs and a coalition of Druzes and Maronites harassed the Mamluke retreat, but the chances for a Pope-Khan dream team were dashed when the Mongols were defeated near Damascus in 1303.

The Mamlukes then turned to persecute the nascent alliance of Druzes, Shiites, and Maronites that clung to the rocky precipices of Lebanon, and did so with devastating effect. In 1307, a decisive battle at Kerousan left the countryside of the Shiites (there since the Fatamid days) open to pillage, and of the inhabitants of Lebanon, only the Maronites managed to cling, however barely, to independence. Some sources indicate Lebanon lost upwards of two-thirds of her population in the 250 years of Mamluke rule, and the Maronites were driven as far up into the mountains as they had ever been.

Resistance in Paradise

Beginning in 1440, Patriarchs were enthroned in the remote, narrow, dramatic, and highly inaccessible Valley of Kadesha, or Wadi Qadasha. From there, a succession of 24 patriarchs guided their flock through centuries (until 1823) of foreign occupation of the valleys to the east and the coastlines to the west. And make no mistake about it: Conditions down there were brutal, as witnessed by a traveler in 1475:
The Maronite nation has lived under occupation enduring continuous oppression and tyranny. All over Lebanon one finds ruin, tears, and terror. Under the pretext of gathering a certain tax called the Gezia, the authorities strip the peasants of all their belongings and beat them with sticks, and torture them in order to extract from them all that they possess. Many would have perished had not their aged patriarch, Peter son of Hassan, come to their rescue. Terrified by the perils that threatened his people, the Patriarch gave away all the revenues of the Church to satisfy the rapacity of the tyrants. The door of the patriarchal monastery was sealed, and the Patriarch sometimes had to hide in caves as did Popes Urban and Sylvester.

(Marcellin de Civezza, Histoire universelle des missions franciscaines, Paris 1858, vol. 3, p. 209)

Despite (or because of) the brutality of their rule, the Mamlukes were not particularly inventive, technologically speaking, and so in time grew vulnerable to those civilizations that were. This has happened before and since (the Aztecs come to mind) but in the case of the blade-wielding Egyptian Arabs, it was the Ottoman Turks – with their fancy-schmancy disciplined infantry, heavy artillery, and long-range muskets – that closed their chapter in history.

Those Strategic Ottomans

Selim I the Great put an end to Safavid Persia in the early days of the 16th century, then occupied Mesopotamia. North of Aleppo, on a plain called Marj Dabiq, the Mamlukes challenged Ottoman dominance for the final time on August 24, 1516. They were defeated as decisively and (relatively) easily as the Safavids had been, and Selim turned his attention to holding and administering his new prizes.

He had little time for attempting to crack the tough nut of Lebanese independence enthusiasts, so he did what a smart politician does and cut a deal with them: to Fakhr al-din al-Maani, a leader from an old Druze family, and his fief-holding buddies, Selim conferred autonomous privileges, and demanded of the Lebanese only a rather modest tribute. Later Ottoman rulers would think the better of this arrangement, and the next three centuries are a history filled with attempts by the various Lebanese factions to unite against the Turks, even as those same Turks are doing everything in their power to drive wedges into every little alliance-crack they see.


Go to Part I or Part III of this article series.


R. Scott Peoples
 is perhaps better known as the resident historian at the liberal American web site Daily Kos, writing under the nom de plume "Unitary Moonbat." For about a year and a half his "History for Kossacks" series has been appearing most every Sunday.

His articles can be found at Daily Kos, Bits of News, Progressive Historians, and Never In Our Names

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