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Volume 33, Number 5September/October 1982

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Paradise Lost

A History of Lebanon

Written by Paul Lunde

Fifteen kilometers north of Beirut the coast road to Tripoli crosses the Dog River - Nahr al-Kalb. To the left are the waters of the Mediterranean, to the right the summits of Mount Lebanon. Roman paving stones underlie the modern road. The remnants of a Roman bridge can still be seen, and further upstream, the arches of a 14th century Mamluk bridge.

On the sides of the gorge through which the river runs to the sea may be read the history of Lebanon. Here are carved, in Egyptian hieroglyphics, cuneiform, Greek, Latin, Arabic, French and English, the names of conquerors. Some are clear as the day they were carved, others almost effaced by time.

The earliest inscription is by Ramses II, builder of Abu Simbel (1304-1237 B.C.). A more recent inscription records the withdrawal of French troops from the Lebanese Republic in 1946.

As the centuries passed, new conquerors carved their names on the cliffs: Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who conquered Syria and Palestine - and whose dream was interpreted by Daniel; the tyrant Caracalla, whose inscription was set up in his honor by the Hid Legion of Gaul.

From the 14th century there is a monumental Arabic inscription by the Mamluk Sultan Barquq, who tried belatedly to fortify Syria against the hordes of Tamerlane, and from the 19th there is a record of the French expedition of 1860, the beginning of the French military presence in Lebanon.

As we approach our own time, the inscriptions jostle one another more closely. A plaque in English records the taking of Damascus, Horns and Aleppo by the British Army in 1918. Another stele, again in English, records the liberation of Lebanon and Syria from the Vichy French in 1941. Finally, there is the stele in French commemorating the evacuation of French troops from Lebanon in 1946.

There is more to history than war. Lebanon is also a land of myth and of the origins of civilization. At Byblos, a few miles up the coast, was the city classical authors thought the oldest in the world. It was here that Time (Kronos), child of Heaven (Uranos) and Earth (Gaia) were first worshipped. This is perhaps a way of telling us that here recorded history began.

Up the coast from Byblos there is another river running into the Mediterranean. This is the River of Adonis, now called the Nahr Ibrahim, the River of Abraham at whose source classical mythographers placed the grave of Adonis, lover of Aphrodite. Adonis was killed by a wild boar sent by a jealous Mars - the god of War. During the torrential rains of February, iron-bearing clays washed down from the surrounding hills, tinge the river red: the blood of Adonis.

If Time and Love both were born along this coast, so was the means of defeating the first and extolling the second. Here the Phoenicians invented the alphabet, that tremendous advance on the cumbersome hieroglyphic script of ancient Egypt and the baffling cuneiform syllabary, with its more than 500 signs. The first major step towards this most crucial of man's technological advances was taken a mere hour's drive north of the River of Adonis, over the border in Syria, near the town of Latakiya. In 1928 a peasant plowing his fields at Ras Shamra discovered the site later identified as ancient Ugarit, and in the palace archives were found tablets written in a modification of cuneiform, in which 30 signs were chosen from the repetoire of 500 and assigned alphabetic values. Cadmus the Phoenician, whose very name is derived from the Semitic root meaning 'ancient', then carried the gift to Thebes, which he founded, along with the Greek word for book.

The Phoenicians had overseas colonies in North Africa, Spain and Southern France; they were the first world power whose economy was based upon trade rather than agriculture. Able seafarers, they built their boats from the cedars of Lebanon, and established a thalassaocracy powerful enough to threaten Rome. The oldest monument of European literature, the Odyssey, has even been said to be structured around a periplus, a set of secret Phoenician sailing directions for the Mediterranean.

Alexander and his successors, the Seleucids, ruled Syria and Lebanon. The Romans followed, and built Baalbek, in the fertile valley between the ranges of the Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon mountains. Then came Christianity, and Lebanon and Syria were soon studded with churches and monastries. During early Byzantine times, when fierce theological controversies raged throughout the Near East, sectaries found safe refuge in Mt Lebanon; even today there are ten recognized Christian sects in these mountains.

Beirut itself has been occupied since prehistoric times; it is first mentioned by name in cuneiform texts dating from the 14th century B.C. It was also a Phoenician port, but first achieved prominence in the second century B.C. as a center of trade and learning. In 14 B.C. the Romans granted the city the coveted title of 'colony' calling it Colonia Julia Augusta Felix Berytus, after the wife of Augustus Caesar. Under Roman rule, Beirut became an important administrative center with a university specializing in law, and splendid public buildings. In A.D. 551, however, Beirut was destroyed by an earthquake and tidal wave and when the Muslims arrived - 84 years later, in A.D. 635, little remained of its former magnificence.

Muslim rule brought new prosperity to the city, and Beirut and other cities of the coast became known for their textiles - the silk for which was grown and woven in the hinterland. Trade flourished, particularly with Egypt, to which Lebanon sent wood, fruit, rice and silk. But then came the Crusaders, who, in between bouts of savage fighting, cultivated their own estates in much the same way as did their Muslim neighbors, gradually adopting local customs. For them, Lebanon was an earthly paradise, and they fought hard to retain it. It was at this time that the first attempts were made to unify the eastern and western churches, which had long since parted company, but the Maronites, who take their name from the fifth century Saint Maron, were the only community to accept the authority of the Pope.

Eventually Saladin drove the Crusaders from the Holy Land and in the 14th and 15th centuries, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine were controlled by the Mamluks, who granted large estates to their officers in return for military service and taxes. In time, these estates became almost hereditary in Lebanon.

In 1516 Syria and Lebanon were absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, when the Ottoman Sultan Selim the Grim defeated a Mamluk army at Marj Dabiq. The Ottomans preserved the social and economic system that had grown up in Lebanon over the years. Each religious community, or millet, preserved its autonomy, in return for a tax paid to the Ottoman governors; in a sense this was the foundation of the semi-feudal arrangements of modern political leaders.

It was at this time that the Druze first began to play an important part in the history of Lebanon and Syria. Although only about six percent of the population of Lebanon, their military achievements earned them a historical role out of proportion to their numbers. An extremist Shi'a obscurantist sect, originating in the 11th century, they have diverged so far from orthodox Islam, that some considered them a separate religious community.

The fortunes of the Druze in Lebanon were laid by Fakhr al-Din I who helped the Ottoman forces against the Mamluks at the battle of Marj Dabiq. In return, he was granted the overlordship of the area of Lebanon called the Chouf, between Beirut and Sidon. His grandson, Fakhr al-Din II, by a combination of political intrigue and military daring, succeeded in expanding the borders of this little area until it included most of what is today Lebanon - excluding Tripoli - and extending as far south as Nazareth in Palestine.

The basis of his power was his historic alliance with the Maronite Christians who sought his aid against a Kurdish ruler in Northern Lebanon - an enemy of Fakhr al-Din.

Fakhr al-Din in 1605, succeeded in defeating his rival near the lovely port of Jounieh, and most of the Maronite lands came under his hegemony.

In the late 16th century, the Maronites formally united with Rome; since a Maronite College had been founded in Rome in 1584 to train Maronites in western languages and ideas, Fakhr al-Din, in seeking to preserve his independence from the Ottomans, logically looked to Italy. In 1608 he signed a treaty with the Grand Duke of Tuscany to set up a Medici Kingdom in the Levant. Although this grandiose scheme came to nothing, the connection with Italy reinforced the link between Druze and Maronite in Lebanon, and a Maronite Bishop was even sentto Rome and Florence to represent Fakhr al-Din's interests. It is probably from this period that the legend of Druze descent from the Crusaders dates; it may well have been a story spread by Fakhr al-Din himself to win support in Europe.

The Ottoman Porte was very worried by these developments, and Fakhr al-Din was forced to flee to Tuscany in order to avoid the humiliation of a military defeat at Turkish hands. He returned to Lebanon in 1618 in fighting form and the Ottomans eventually recognized him as an independent ruler. He devoted himself to establishing order in his country, encouraging trade and improving silk production with a view to the insatiable Italian market.

Fakhr al-Din saw that Lebanon could only be ruled by striking a just balance between the religious communities that made it up. This realization of the need for interdenominational harmony was the keystone of his success, and indeed the success of Modern Lebanon.

The European powers had succeeded, in the 16th century, in obtaining permission from the Ottoman Porte to set up trading communities in the cities of the Levant. In the 17th century, Rome sponsored missions in these cities, and modern medical and intellectual advances, among them printing, were introduced. That, and the establishment of schools in Rome to educate members of the various eastern Christian communities, gave Lebanon a new class of western-educated men. As substantial numbers of eastern rite Christians joined the Roman Church, the number of religious communities in Lebanon also proliferated: Lebanon and Syria were thus bound, from the 17th century to the present, to Europe in a way that was not true of the Middle Eastern countries.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, European influence -and interference-Lebanon became pervasive. The French and British consuls in Beirut had great power, and used it to influence the selection of local officials. The 'modern' period of Middle Eastern history began with Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798; where Muhammad Ali took power in Egypt in the wake of Napoleon's invasion, he followed the example of Fakhr al-Din and graduall made himself independent of the Otto mans. Hisson Ibrahim, ruled Syria and Lebanon for 10 years, between 1832 and 1842.

Beirut, beginning to be a modern city, saw trade flourish and the first American Protestant missionaries arrive - to lay the foundations for what would eventually become the American University of Beirut.

The impact of trade with Europe was initially disastrous. With the European industrial revolution in full swing, the markets of the East were soon flooded with cheap textiles and other goods. In 1833, only one year after Ibrah im opened the area to trade with Britain and France, 10,000 Syrian textile workers were thrown out of work. The caravan trade came to a halt, destroying the livelihood of many. Small cottage industries, the mainstay of the Lebanese and Syrian economies, were wiped out overnight. By 1838 even the Fez, the mark of the oriental gentleman, was imported from France and the Bedouin of the hinterland was wearing akufiya made in the mills of Birmingham. The silk industry of Syria and Lebanon, so carefully nurtured by Fakhr al-Din, was at an end, as were all the various labor-intensive jobs associated with it. A way of life many centuries old had disappeared within a few short years.

It was also during this period that the European powers, became supporters of the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire. Hence, when war broke out between Muhammad Ali and the Ottomans in 1839, the European Powers intervened on behalf of Turkey. In 1840 a joint British, Austrian and Turkish force landed on the Syrian coast and brought Egyptian rule to an end. Once the traditional balance of power had been broken, civil war ensued.

The Maronites of Kisrawan, the area surrounding Jounie, revolted and set up a short-lived peasant commune. The breakdown of traditional landlord-peasant relationships culminated in the terrible massacres of 1860, in Syria and Lebanon. It is pleasant to note that the Amir 'Abd al-Qadr, the heroic enemy of French colonialism in Algeria, then in exile in Damascus, extended his protection to the Christians of that city, and succeeded in saving the lives of some 1500.

The French, historically the protectors of the Maronite community, landed a military force and quelled the rebellion. At their urging, Lebanon was made a separate administrative district from Syria. Although still theoretically a part of the Ottoman Empire, practically it was in the hands of the French, who quickly made their influence felt. In 1864, the position of Lebanon within the Ottoman Empire was formalized. It was to be autonomous, with a Christian governor chosen by the Sultan, but whose appointment was subject to the approval of the European Powers. Western influence accelerated. By the time World War I broke out, there were 300 foreign schools along the Levantine littoral, with a total enrollment of 25,000 students. At the same time, large numbers of Lebanese emigrated to North and South America.

When the Axis was defeated in World War I, Britain and France divided the former provinces of the Ottoman Empire between them. France was granted the Mandate for Syria (including Lebanon) in 1920, but she had to fight to impose her authority. In 1925, the Syrians revolted, defeating a French task force sent against them. In 1927 the French shelled Damascus, and finally brought the rebellion to manageable proportions. They had less trouble in Lebanon, where the Maronites regarded them as a protection against absorbtion into a Muslim controlled Syria. In 1926 Lebanon was made a republic. The constitution provided for the representation of all the various sectors of the population on a proportional basis, in both government and administration. This has been the rule ever since.

In 1943, Lebanon attained full independence. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, in 1937, the pattern had been established of having a Maronite Christian President and a Sunni Muslim Premier. In 1946, the last French troops left the country, and Lebanon was fully independent.

Subsequent events have shown how delicately balanced the Lebanese government had to be to survive. Demographic changes, such as the influx of refugees from Palestine, and political events, such as the rise of Nasser in Egypt, had profound repercussions on political life in Lebanon; the civil war of 1958, and the consequent American intervention, was a mild foretaste of what was to come. To the country's traditional religious mixture of Maronites and other Christian communities, Sunni Muslims, Shia and Druze, have been added inequalities of wealth and new ideological currents.

Lebanon, despite its social and religious complexity, has a very definite personality. Until the recent tragic events it would have been difficult to find a more open, tolerant and industrious nation. The philosophy of "live and let live" and the balancing of the aspiration of its many ethnic and religious groups was carried to a high art.

Salih ibn Yahya, the 15th century historian of Beirut, opens his history with a story of Saint George."The Christians say? says Salih, "that in ancient times a great dragon came to Beirut and demanded a young girl every year, to satisfy his evil desires, and that one year the choice fell upon the King's daughter. She went out at night to the appointed place and began to beseech God. Saint George appeared to her, and when the dragon came, killed it. In that place the King built a church, near the Beirut River. To this day, Christians and Muslims celebrate the festival of this saint together in a wondrous way." In this land where Time and Love were born, war has often raged; Salih ibn Yahya's story gives hope that perhaps some beauty and innocence may yet be snatched from the jaws of Death.

Paul Lunde, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, was a regular visitor to Lebanon as a writer for Aramco World, and as a student in 1965, at the Lebanese University.

This article appeared on pages 4-9 of the September/October 1982 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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