Lebanon Through the Ages Part III: Early Modern Lebanon

 Skrevet av R. Scott Peoples - Publisert 29.11.2007 kl. 14:54

Culture Historyemail email email email email email email divider translate email email email

In the first two chapters of the history of Lebanon, we saw that the Canaanites and Phoenicians were the same people, and that the Maronite Christians were, for centuries, an island of Roman Catholicism in a sea of swirling faiths. In the early modern era, the tiny country had to deal with the Ottomans, Europeans, and Syrians in rapid succession.


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, and "Lebanon Through the Ages Part II: Medieval Lebanon", which was published on 08 November 2007.


10,230 square kilometers (approx. 6140 sq. miles) is not a very large area, in a global sense; it's roughly equivalent to 70% of Connecticut.  That means that if you took the Nutmeg State and lopped off everything west of Route 8 - ironically, this would include the town of Canaan - you'd be left with an area about the size of contemporary Lebanon.  Just goes to show, I guess, that it really isn't size that matters when it comes to impacting world history: I can trace everything from the coins in my pocket to the very alphabet in which I'm communicating to the ancient peoples of this land.

But past glories are no guarantor of kindness at the hands of history: for the thousand or so years since folks started listening to St. Maroun, the descendents of the Canaanites and Phoenicians had been driven into ever more inaccessible mountain strongholds by invading Byzantines and Arabs.  Only the Crusades had provided a brief respite, with the reunion of the cut-off-from-Rome-since-the-7th-century Maronite Christians with their brothers of the faith from Europe.  The Egyptian Mamlukes moved into the vacuum created by retreating knights in the late 13th century, but when they were in turn defeated by the Ottoman Turks in 1516 (3 years before Cortez landed in Mexico), the Lebanese found themselves in a position to take a more active role in their own affairs.

Enter the Rebels

The Ottomans, like the Arabs and Byzantines before them, found the land difficult to control.  Over the long centuries of Maronite isolation and Druze secrecy, a couple of traits had developed among the people of Lebanon, the most pronounced of which were a fierce streak of independence, and the patience of saints (literally).  These, combined with an increasing interest from European powers seeking to thwart the designs of Ottomans, meant that the period of Turkish rule (1516-1840) is one marked by rebellion on the part of the Lebanese and a policy of "divide and conquer" emanating from Constantinople.

Lebanon was ruled by local emirs, who ostensibly owed their tribute and allegiance to an Ottoman overlord based in Damascus.  As is often the case when absentee landlords expect loyalty from independence-minded local leaders in semi-autonomous regions (think Washalamabad vs. tribal chiefs in northern Pakistan), the imposition of rule proved exceedingly difficult for the Turks.  Under a series of generally adept emirs, the Lebanese took important steps toward unification, and for the first time, a sense of Lebanese national identity began to grow among the people of the mountains.

Fakhr ad-Din II: Renaissance Man

Fakhr ad-Din II was one of the greatest of these fighting emirs.  He is also emblematic of the religious tapestry against which the history of Lebanon seems destined to be played:  Fakhr was a scion of the Maan family, Druze who had originally been dispatched to Lebanon in 1120 by the governor of Damascus, so as to defend the country from the invading Crusaders.  As the generations passed, the family's power accumulated to the point that Fakhr ad-Din's father had been permitted by the Ottomans to raise an army.

After his father's assassination (some say at the hands of those same Ottomans), the 12-year-old Fakhr was raised by a prominent Maronite family, the al-Kazins.  That he was long suspected of being Christian is perhaps a testimony to the man's religious tolerance - he did not seek to impose one faith over another; Fakhr ad-Din II simply wanted a united and independent Greater Lebanon.  For 50 years, from 1585-1635, he used every trick in the book (including armed resistance, bribery, and regular ole' intrigue) to try to unite his country.

In the process, he strengthened Lebanon's ties with non-Turkish Europe.  After concluding a mutual assistance pact with the Duke of Tuscany in the early 1600s, the uppity Lebanese were put in their place by the Governor of Syria, and Fakhr was sent into exile in Italy from 1613-1618.  Upon his return (an old buddy of his had become Governor in Damascus), he modernized Lebanon's army, and by 1623, he was able to win a decisive victory over yet another Governor of Syria at Anjar in the Bekaa Valley.  Forced to give a few more inches in neverending struggle for dominance, the Ottoman ruler bestowed upon Fakhr the title "Sultan al-Barr" (Sultan of the Mountain), and Lebanon enjoyed a brief period during which Fakhr imported European engineers and architects, and expanded his country's rule to include Palestine and forts as far away as Palmyra in Syria.

This kind of expansionist behavior was unacceptable in an ostensibly conquered land, and so in 1635, at the behest of Sultan Murad IV, Fakhr ad-Din II was attacked by still another Governor of Syria.  This time he was defeated, and publicly lost his head in Constantinople later that same year.  In Lebanon, the people quietly, patiently endured the occupation, always nuturing in their hearts a spirit of freedom and ideas of religious tolerance that opened doors to the outside world.

Of Monks & Scholars

Lebanese interaction with the West began in earnest in 1584, with the founding of the Maronite College in Rome.  Through this portal many Maronite scholars would pass back and forth, and many would go on to play roles in the affairs of Renaissance- and Enlightenment Age Europe:

  •     Gabriel Sionite, professor of Syriac and Arabic; interpreter for King Louis XIII; Chair of Semitic languages at what is now the College of Paris; bibliographer

  •     Joseph Assemani, director of Vatican Library; wrote Bibliotheca Orientalis, a definitive series on languages; did such great work in historioranting about Naples that he was made a citizen; served as Papal represtative to 1738 synod at which remaining Maronite/Roman kinks were ironed out

  •     Patriarch Douaihy, father of Maronite history; prolific writer and active shepherd of his flock

  • The exchange worked in the other direction, too.  The Capuchins arrived in Lebanon in 1626, then the Carmelites in 1635, and the Jesuits in 1656.  All brought schools and education to Maronite communities, and the resultant advances in learning came to fruition a generation or two down the line, as Lebanon enjoyed a cultural renaissance and the higher quality of life that being smart can bring a people.  The monastic exchange came full circle when Patriarch Douaihy granted his permission in 1694 for the founding of the Maronite Order under the patronage of St. Andrew, father of hermits.

    The Crusaders at Acre (Reprise)

    In 1799, Napoleon was besieging Acre (about 40 km south of Tyre), and both he and al-Jazzar, the governor of the city, requested Lebanese assistance.  Emir Bashir II, who descended from another old noble family that had come to power a little over 100 years before, played his cards close to his chest and remained neutral.  This turned out to be the right move: Napoleon returned to France, and al-Jazzar died only five years later, which removed Bashir's principal local rival from the scene.

    Bashir II was another of those peculiar amalgamations of faith one finds in Lebanon; sources I accessed contradicted one another even on the religious persuasion of his family - Wikipedia says the Shihabs were Sunni Muslims, while Cedarland.org claims they were Druze.  The Library of Congress countrystudies entry, which appears to be the source of some of the material on the cedarland site, is silent on this particular matter.  Cedarland does, however, provide an interesting description of the man himself:
    Bashir was an ultra-liberal; his palace contained a mosque and a chapel, he himself was a Maronite Christian by baptism, Muslim by matrimony, and Druze by convenience rather than by conviction.

    Bashir's strong reign of over 50 years interrupted by self imposed or enforced exile was marked by a steady move towards expanding Lebanon, developing it and making it autonomous in defiance of the Porte (the Ottoman ruler). Bashir centralized his authority and consolidated his realm, he executed his rivals and destroyed his foes, criminals were dealt with without mercy. He also established firm contacts with the outside world and the West in particular. Bashir's Lebanon became the safest region in the Ottoman empire and its reputation spread attracting new settlers from neighboring lands.

    Source: Cedarland.org

    Between 1821 and 1825, a particularly widespread and violent rebellion took place, with the Druze and Maronites contesting and massacring one another over control of territory.  This conflict, which Bashir II was eventually successful in putting down, resulted in the Druze gaining control of significant areas in the Bekaa Valley, while the Maronites entrenched themselves once again on the slopes of Mount Lebanon.  A less than forgiving soul, Bashir set about repressing the Druze - an act which would (surprise, surprise) have ramifications down the road.

    An Enduring Tradition of Odd Bedfellows

    Bashir made his move toward complete independence by arranging an alliance with Mohammad Ali, founder of modern Egypt, and his son, Ibrahim Pasha.  Together, the Egyptians and Lebanese laid a 7-month siege upon Acre, and the city fell in May, 1832.  The combined army went on to attack and conquer Damascus in June of the same year, leaving Ibrahim Pasha and Bashir II in control of former Ottoman lands throughout Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt.

    {ad align='left' size='250'}Together, Bashir and Ibrahim Pasha turned out to be harsh rulers with an over-fondness for high taxation.  This did not play well in the homeland, where things were getting increasingly sectarian, or in the far-off capitals of Europe, where the best political minds of the era were fixated on playing balance-of-power games.  The Druze, Ottomans, Britain, and Austria all felt their interests threatened, setting off a complex string of interventions and rebellions that came to a dramatic climax in 1840.

    Bashir had tried to keep the Druze and Maronites from uniting their forces against the Egyptians, but his efforts eventually failed as a result of his methods (he was forced to relocate his capitol in the face of riots resulting from public executions, among other things).  In July, 1840, a cabal of European powers, scheming to thwart pro-Egyptian French policies, signed the London Treaty, which demanded that Ibrahim Pasha withdraw his personage from Damascus.  When he failed to do so, the British and Ottomans first bombarded Beirut, then landed troops on September 10, 1840.

    In the face of the forces advancing against him, Ibrahim Pasha decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and so vacated Damascus.  This left his erstwhile ally, Bashir II, in the lurch, and the British accepted his surrender on October 14, 1840.  Bashir was sent into exile in Malta and Constantinople, where he died ten years later.

    Two Decades of Massacres

    Ottoman suzerainty had been restored at the point of British and Turkish bayonets, and in Constantinople, the sultan sought out a willing collaborator (an Achmed Chalabi, if you will) to do his bidding.  He found such a man in Bashir Shihab III, but the guy was so inflammatory that the Ottoman ruler replaced him after less than two years of what he described as "incompetent" vassalage.  The guy who replaced him, Umar Pasha, was hardly any better at resolving the sectarian problems than his predecessor, which led a group of European powers to approach the sultan with the brilliant idea of separating the country into two co-equal homelands based on religion.

    Wanting to find some sort of solution to the ongoing problems on his borderlands, the sultan agreed to a partition of Lebanon.  The Beirut-Damascus highway served as the line in the sand, with the Druze on the southern reaches of Mount Lebanon, and the Maronites in the north.  It didn't take long for the great powers to line up behind the different factions: the French supported the Christians, who generally opposed the Turks; the British, in turn, helped the Druze, for whom the Turkish army often functioned as a de-facto reserve.

    Things exploded in April, 1845, with a series of Maronite attacks that were turned back regular Turkish troops.  Reprisals followed, and though a system of majlis (councils) were created to assist the governor by providing input from the different religious communities, the next 15 years saw increasing pressure on the Christians at the hands of the Turk- and Muslim-backed Druze.

    It all came to a head in 1860, with a series of coordinated Druze attacks against Maronite towns.  The butchery was horrific:
    1 June 1860 'The battle raged till sunset, the Christians gallantly keeping their enemies at bay, and inflicting on them a considerable loss; upwards of one hundred were killed besides large numbers of wounded. They themselves only lost twelve. Several Turkish soldiers belonging to the garrison fought in the Druze ranks.'

    British army officer, via Cedarland.org

    3 June 1860  The majority of  population of the town made a rapid panic stricken run towards the nearest ravine with the Druze chasing them with sword in hand, Jezzine in flames behind them. Over 1200 Maronites were massacred over a space of two miles. A large body of women and children took the road to Sidon and were pursued to the very gates by Kassim Amadi. The Sunni Muslims of Sidon would not let them in and some joined the Druze in the slaughter that followed. Upwards of 300 bodies littered the beach and the gardens, many had been raped.


    Early August, 1860  It is not known exactly how many Christians were slaughtered in Lebanon but must sources put the figure between 7,000 to 11,000 and some well over 20,000. A letter in the English daily news in July 1860 states that between 7,000 and 8,000 had been muredered, 5,000 widowed and 16,000 orphaned. Mr Farley, in a letter, speaks of 326 villages, 560 churches, 28 colleges, 42 convents, and 9 other religious establishments, had been totally destroyed. Churchill puts the figures as 11,000 murdered, 100,000 refugees, 20,000 widows and orphans, 3,000 habitations burnt to the ground, and 4,000 perished of destitution.


    Historiorant:  The anatomy of a sectarian civil war, complete with outside interference, is laid bare by this conflict; it's a shame our Preznit has never heard of it.  For a more exhaustive treatment of the 1840-1860s massacres on Mount Lebanon, see Cedarland.org's page, with the caveat that the site is unabashedly pro-Lebanon and more favorably disposed toward the Maronite side of the stories than the Druze.

    You Were Wondering When the French Would Show Up?

    In October, 1860, even as the United States was lurching toward the election that would put Abraham Lincoln in office, the Europeans were forming commissions to look into the violence going on in Lebanon.  The French had dispatched 7000 troops in July, and things calmed considerably after their arrival in August.  By June, 1861, the commission had come to a few conclusions (ie., the partition of 1842 had been a bad idea) and had a few recommendations.

    Lebanon would be removed from Syrian administration, and would be governed by a non-Lebanese Christian mushariff.  This mushariff would be selected by the Ottomans, but was subject to blackballing by the Europeans, and was to be assisted in his leadership by a council of 12 religious elders.  That he - a person not of Lebanese descent - would rule over a country still beholden to outside forces was a problem for most Maronites; they continued to call for an independent state.

    They were somewhat successful: By September 6, 1864, they were creating enough of a stir that the sultan pretty much wanted to wash his hands of them.  Lebanon was granted its autonomy, but the sultan was probably chortling up his sleeve at the gerrymandering he'd done to their map: the new state was to consist of mountainous land only, with no ports or plains to sustain an economy.  In this episode, however, the last laugh was to be Lebanese, as their land grew fruitful while a string of mostly incompetent and corrupt mushariffs mismanaged areas of traditional economic bounty.

    Spirits That Just Won't Die

    That the Maronites were better able to run their affairs than the Turks did not mean that they had given up on the idea of independence, and among their leaders of the time, one nationalist is especially prominent: Youssef Bey Karam.  Born in 1823, he was only 17 when he fought alongside his father against the Egyptians; by 1846, he had inherited his father's title as leader.  Exiled to Turkey in 1861, he returned in 1864 and spent the next year organizing resistance.

    The Ottomans decided on a preemptive attack in early January, 1866.  Karam effectively repelled this attack, and fought his way out of a trap laid under a flag of truce later that month.  With momentum on his side, Karam went on to lead a string of successful assaults over the next year, with the offensive culminating in a march on Beirut, to which the mushariff had fled, in January, 1867.  There, the scared Turk was calling in every favor he knew, and it was just then - with the dream of a fully-realized independent nation never closer - that the Europeans intervened on behalf of the Ottomans.  Karam was reminded that, as a signatory to a document that permitted Turkish rule over Lebanon, the French would be obligated to back their authority.  The nationalist hero, seeing the writing on the wall, went into exile aboard a French ship on January 28, 1867.  He died near Naples in 1889; his body was later brought to St. George Church in Ehden.

    That old love of openness and learning flowered again during the late 19th century, and Beirut, especially, renewed its status as a jewel of the Middle East:
    Foreign missionaries established schools throughout the country, with Beirut as the center of this renaissance. The American University of Beirut was founded in 1866, followed by the French St. Joseph's University in 1875. An intellectual guild that was formed at the same time gave new life to Arabic literature, which had stagnated under the Ottoman Empire. This new intellectual era was also marked by the appearance of numerous publications and by a highly prolific press.

    Source: Library of Congress countrystudies

    ...but the politics of the era continued to be confused, and rife with religious overtones and undercurrents:

    The harsh rule of Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909) prompted the Arab nationalists, both Christians and Muslims, in Beirut and Damascus to organize into clandestine political groups and parties. The Lebanese, however, had difficulties in deciding the best political course to advocate. Many Lebanese Christians were apprehensive of Turkish pan-Islamic policies, fearing a repetition of the 1860 massacres. Some, especially the Maronites, began to contemplate secession rather than the reform of the Ottoman Empire. Others, particularly the Greek Orthodox, advocated an independent Syria with Lebanon as a separate province within it, so as to avoid Maronite rule. A number of Lebanese Muslims, on the other hand, sought not to liberalize the Ottoman regime but to maintain it, as Sunni Muslims particularly liked to be identified with the caliphate. The Shias and Druzes, however, fearing minority status in a Turkish state, tended to favor an independent Lebanon or a continuation of the status quo.


    What It's Like to be a Colony of an Empire that's Losing a World War

    All promises regarding autonomy were swept off the table in 1914, when the Ottoman Empire cast its lot with Germany and Austria-Hungary.  The sultan appointed his secretary of the navy, Jamal Pasha, as military governor of the region, and he lost no time in militarily occupying Lebanon and brutally repressing nationalism, which was again on the upswing both there and in Armenia.  Jamal Pasha was also not above venting his frustration at Turkey's failed attack on the Suez and subsequent blockade by British and French warships upon his subjects.

    In August, 1915, Jamal Pasha set up a military court system and began trying suspected Maronite dissidents, often on spurious charges.  On May 6, 1916, this persecution culminated with the public execution of 16 Lebanese in a square in Beirut now named for the martyrs.  On an even wider scale, the Turkish war effort placed huge requisition demands upon the foodstuffs and beasts of burden in Lebanon, while up to 60% of the great cedar forests were cut down for use on Turkish railroads.

    An American living in Beirut stood as an eyewitness to the depredations brought on by the Great War.  On September 15, 1916, The Times included a letter which read in part:
    'women and children lying by the roadside with closed eyes and ghastly, pale faces. It was a common thing to find people searching the garbage heaps for orange peel, old bones or other refuse, eating them greedily when found. Everywhere women could be seen seeking eatable weeds among the grass along the roads.'

    Source: Cedarland.org

    And in 1917, another American wrote:

    'the scenes were indescribable, whole families writhing in agony on the bare floor of their miserable huts. Every piece of their household effects had been sold to buy bread, and in many cases the tiles of the roof had shared the same fate. It is conservatively estimated that not less than 120,000  persons have died of actual starvation during the last two years in Lebanon'.


    The Maronites did what they could for the people of Lebanon - some estimates hold that up to a third of the population perished during the war - even going so far as to secure a loan of 1,000,000 gold francs from the French.  The French eventually forgave the entire amount, reckoning that it would be a bit heartless to demand repayment from an absolutely shattered country.  Nevertheless, the actions of the Maronite Patriarch earned him the special enmity of Jamal Pasha, and only the intercession of the Pope (via the Emperor of Austria-Hungary and the rulers in Constantinople) saved the Patriarch from "special treatment" at the hands of the occupiers.

    For Lebanon, the First World War ended a couple of months earlier than on the Western Front: In September, 1918, the forces of British General Edward Allenby (he of bridge fame) and Faisal I, son of Sheikh Husayn of Mecca, entered Lebanon and began the task of liberating it and Syria permanently from Turkish domination.  A new era of mandates and further religious division would now dawn on the ancient stomping grounds of the Phoenicians.


    Go to Part I or Part II 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

  • Culture Historyemail email email email email email email divider translate email email email