The History of Lebanon  as Mirrored by its Confessional Communities[1]




                                              by Ahmad Beydoun




The Lebanese state was born in 1920 by a French decree. It surrounded the old Ottoman Mutasarrifiya of Mount Lebanon with a territorial belt made of several parts of the neibhouring two ex-vilayets of Beirut and of Damascus: to the west, a number of coastal cities and towns including the capital, Beirut; to the east, the ‘four cazas’ icluding the Bekaa valley and the west side of the arid mountains separating it from the outskirts of Damascus; to the south, the region called Jabal Amel expanding from Sayda to the Palestinian borders; and, to the North, the regions of Miniya, Dinniya and Akkar expanding from the outskirts of the city of Tripoli to the heights of the Northern Bekaa .


In accordance with divergent political choices, the old Lebanon (mainly christian) and the newly annexed cities and territories (predominantley muslim) adopted, grosso modo, vis-à-vis their historical identity,  two divergent strategies. Without giving up a certain idea of regional autonomy, the annexed regions adopted mainly a centirifugal attitude, tending to dilute their historical identity in the  framework of a claimed Arab Greater Syria. In faithfulness to pre-war claims for its territory enlargement, the Old Lebanon adopted a centripetal and ‘imperialistic’ attitude, tending to transmute in an historical whole the newly created political entity. Thus  the emergence of a commonly accepted concept of the new Lebanon among which the Lebanese could struggle and negotiate had to await some substantial changes in the terms of the initial confrontation between the afore mentioned strategies. These changes were imposed, along the  next decades, by a series of new regional conjunctures as well as by the evolving experience of the Lebanese state itself.


Furthermore, the research into the problems of identity as perceived by the contemporary Lebanese historians had to be postponed until its object was actualized.This object can be called, and rightly so, “the history of Lebanon”. I am referring to the history of Lebanon of today in its totality.


The writing of the Lebanese history – polemic and contradictory but yearning for completion and thoroughness – started accumulating, admittedly slowly and hesitantly, during the ten years prior to the Lebanese war, and took a coherent shape during the years of this war.


What should be underlined at first, in this regard, is the fact that the historical investigation which had been mainly concerned with old Mount Lebanon, has expanded to regions forgotten, for decades, by historians. Also, with this expansion came the introduction of university education to sectors of population which, until the sixties, had been deprived of this opportunity. This twofold process, however, is not sufficient enough an explanation to account for the new interest and orientation of this historical research. Notably, the region we presently call Southern Lebanon but historically known Jabal Amel (which dwelled in official and historical oblivion for decades) had had a major share of this newly developed interest of contemporary historians and the awakening of old established ones. This region witnessed the birth of new versions of its past history. These versions appeared within the course of a newly vitalized Shiite Movement, and were consecrated to preserve the rights and exclusivity of the Amelite past, while simultaneously forging a common unified concept with the perceived Lebanese past.


Other regions extending between Northern Bekaa and Akkar, and sharing with the South an undeniable priority in their demands for developmental and political attention, were less fortunate in exciting the newly developed interest of this historical research. Little effort in this regard is noted. Although the coastal towns, including the Capital, had a lesser share of official and historical neglect than other regions, they nevertheless had a considerable share in this new interest.


As for Mount Lebanon it is most striking that the amount of effort consecrated to recording and rewriting its history never waned. After the Battle of the Mountain in 1983, a profusion of newly written publications started to surface trying to portray a particular historical image of Mount Lebanon. This image was in close adherence with the Druze version of the history of this region. During a relatively short period of time, the number of publications by Druze authors, rewriting and documenting the history of their community, doubled in number. However, it is worth noting that prior to the battle of 1983, these publications were rare; most of them did not restrict themselves to the Lebanese historical frame, but went further and beyond  to renumerate and establish the histories of the Druze community in general within and beyond the scope of Lebanese history.


Eventhough some of these publications tended to be more quibbling than their Shiite counterparts, yet as a whole, they contributed to the establishment of one solid fact, namely that a unique version of the history of Mount Lebanon  began to face serious questioning of validation.


Whatever the nature of these new publications, they  joined a long list of recently published and unpublished university theses of diverse quality and value. This veritable heap of historical research, despite its many shortcomings and discrepancies, dared to challenge the established published histories which were presented as the national history of the country.


This renewed emergence in the written history of regions and/or confessional communities which, so far, had been in the shadows of indifference, was accompanied by a corresponding adjustement of their perspective. Going back to 1948, we find that the goals of Arab nationalism were embraced by some intellectual groups and social classes who were denied their due participation by the governing alliance, self- proclaimed as the guardians of the Lebanese independence. These groups, disenchanted and frustrated in their own land, looked for a wider arena to which they can relate  and a latitude for self expression. The ideals of the Greater Syria or Arab Nationalism provided the horizons with which these groups could identify, which they did, with definite and intentional neglect for the histories of their own regions. As a matter of fact, if one looks for any written historical documentation of these regions during the fifties and the early sixties of the last century, one is apt to encounter difficulty in finding such records. However, by the year 1961, the Pan-Arab and Pan-Syrian ideals began loosing their appeal to be replaced after 1967 by an established interest in the Palestinian issue and the Palestinian ideal of an independent State. This ideal attracted the Palestinians, whose struggle for a statehood was at its peak, and provided a new framework for the relationship of the Palestinians with Arabism. Such a framework was emphatically colored by a definite Palestinian particularity. Consequently, this phenomenon, together with the decline of the gelateneous ideal of Arabism and the consequent ebb of the ideal of Arab unity, led the different Lebanese communities whose acceptance of their Lebanese identity was since the 1920’s conditional at best , to re-examine their position vis-à-vis the ideal of Lebanese Nationalism.


Naturally, history provided a wide domain for such re-examination. This re-examination reached an unprecedented level of collective awareness, and remains to be so. For example, the Shiite historians  went on describing the Lebanon of 1920 as an illigitimate child of the partition plan executed by the European colonialism. Yet, this Lebanon kept haunting their version of Amelite history like a ghost of a certain intangible conscience. Their versions of history portrayed Lebanon as a mythical land where the Metoualis were struggling, since the time of Fakhr-al-Dine II, to occupy their legitimate place under the sun. However, by the onset of the seventies, the Jabal Amel, which had become South Lebanon, started looking at its history with a strong and clear inclination to accept Lebanon as its final destination.


Yet, one matter should be made clear. This tendency to incorporate the particular histories of the different Lebanese regions into one common perspective was not effective except after a re-definition of the idea of Lebanon. We should not delude ourselves by thinking that the regions that were annexed to Lebanon in 1920, became automatically part of the pre-existing Lebanese ideal. On the contrary, the Lebanese ideal which the newcomers adopted was alien to the Lebanese traditional Nationalism. Therefore , the relationship between the old and new Lebanese ideals was coflictual and almost mutually exclusive. It may be that the effort to tie histories of Mount Lebanon and Jabal Amel as two basic components of a unified structure was of concern only to a handful of historians. But, in reality, the arena of written history was the stage of a very decisive battle, the battle of identities, the onset as well as the perpetuation of which was, and still is subject to economic and political circumstances. This historic battle provided the meaning and the justification of the economic competition and political struggle of these regions. The reaction of the traditional Lebanonism to this new development testifies to the important role of this confrontation. One could detect, on each front, a definite setback which was manifested in the re-surgence of accute confessional narcissism, thought to have been surpassed. This narcissism claimed among its victims the long established historians who had had spent the wealth of their experience and knowledge in laying the bedrock for the establishment of a nation.


Outside this framework which is outlined by ideological confrontation, no matter how little was the significance of the names involved,  we cannot rationalize how the Shiite movement “the Deprived”, the Sunni movement of “Participation” and the Maronite anti- Palestinian movement reached a quasi-consensus after 1976; It looked as if the “Lebanese Idea” had already been established as a limit to the struggle of the conflicting parties none of them was willing to question.


Thus, a new concept of Lebanon, incomplete, relative and contradictory as it is, was not formed in an atmosphere of reconciliation. As a matter of fact, this new concept if materialized, has done so through the incessant demands and the inflexible attitudes of the parties in conflict and through the violent confrontations of the combatants. Historical narratives were one of the stages on which this difficult birth took place. In fact, all the past stages and arenas on which this new concept of Lebanon has evolved were finally unified in one common space: the civil war.


Examples upon which an analysis of contemporary Lebanese historians writings is based, may be chosen in accordance with a variety of considerations. Among these considerations is the fact that the chosen historical periods or events are points of contention between our historians. It could be valid, for example, to choose Phoenicia or the Mardaite episode as a basis for dicussing the question of origin and history. Also it is quite acceptable, when trying to trace the cristallization of the nation, to substitute Bashir II for Fakhr al-Deen II, eventhough they are considered to be of opposite significance. It could be also possible to adopt examples of less prominence with outlines not so clearly defined ( the Mamluk period or the relationship between the Lebanese chiefs and al-Jazzar ), or address several different questions to the same example. Therefore, the researcher keeps some freedom to choose from the different samples of historical facts. But, what gives priority to a chosen sample is, first and foremost, its relevance to the problems addressed. In short, the sample of historical facts should provide the researcher with the means to build up a clear outline and even a clearer comparative analysis sufficiently endowed with evidence. For example, no Lebanese aware of the general Lebanese debate can recall the era of Fakhr al-Deen II without recalling the polemics over the genesis of the Lebanese State, insofar as it is an authority having unifying institutions and a guarantee to independence. Of course, a Lebanese can call Fakhr al-Deen the founder of this State or can deny him this role. It is sufficient for this kind of research to point out that this problem is the primary theme for reflection when discussing Fakhr al-Deen.


At first glance, one could not relate with certainty the story of the devastation of the Kisrawan in the late 13th and the early 14th century to the problems related, in collective imagination, to the geography of the Lebanese land with its mountainious outcorps, surface undulations, and the resulting distribution of its population groups. But an exercise in interpretation of the different histories of that devastation will reveal this relationship. Another example: the Mardaites who were a virtual image of a collective origin , are in fact the conceived origin of one community. Inspite of that, and using their histories or “narratives”, it is possible to build up reflected images of the origins and histories of other communities. This is due to the fact that each confessional community is willing to spare nothing so as to keep the opposite community from giving a priority or an overall significance to its supposed origin. This fact might give rise to positive reassurance since it indicates, at first glance, a tendency to overcome the barriers of divisions, and achieve some basic homogeneity among the different communities under the authority of a central entity. But a second glance is alarming since it reveals that this central authorative entity is not evolving from a unifying common historical need; it is simply an image previously  structured through the imagined eternity of one community or the other.


Furthermore no one unifier exists for the different portraits which form the history of Lebanon as written by the different historians. If a unifier does exist, then it will be so in a negative sense. Lebanon exists and so does its history  for the single purpose of being the object of the many conflicts of the different parties involved. Through the writings of Lebanese historians (with some exceptions), the different confessional communities are mostly depicted to be on a constant watch vis-à-vis each other. Moreover these communities will identify themselves with the different groups who had inhabited our land earlier to project this confrontation backward in time and establish its continuity. Even when a long period of time separates two eras on which opposite communitarian identifications are focused, the confrontation is still possible. It is then embodied in a competition for present significance and legitimicy, and each of the concerned eras is claimed to be source of.


Naturally, there will be times when the different communities will co-exist peacefully on one land, and others when they would probably be unified against a common danger. But the continuity of their existence as well as the subjectivity of the historians when dealing with a history of a community to which they belong, both manage to preserve the parallelism between the communities in their historical imagination. This parallelism gains a deep rooted meaning which is fixed in the framework of an almost stationary time. On one side, one could always find a party who is willing to preserve the country within its encompassing cultural milieu and will, in the process, fight its enemies whether from off-shore (Crusaders) or from beyond the desert (Moguls); While another party will embrace these invaders and meekly ride in their coat tails. On the opposite side, we find a party who is anxious to preserve the independence of the green mountain vis-à-vis the desert and call upon the fruits of overseas civilizations, and even plough these seas in defiance to the encircling nomad milieu; meanwhile, another party keeps trying to stiffle this open cultural diversification by expounding ideas of a futile unity with the wider milieu of sand and people who walked away from their tribal camps undeservedly or by sheer accident. Thus, nothing would happen in a thousand years to the everlasting conflict between those two imagined profiles except to wither for a while, be rekindled anew, or be kept in abeyance.


So, what we easily note in the works of most of our historians is their mad rush to accomplish the operation of “the reversal of time” described by Henry Corbin in his analysis of another culture. Actually, the main driving motive force in these works is to accumulate examples upon examples proving the worthlessness of time. For these historians the only time worthy of note is a time spanning for thousands of years constant and consistent, a time as close as possible to eternity. This tendency to diqualify the effectiveness of time is an expression of a real survival instinct which manifests itself by a fixation at the moment of origin. Time for our historians seems intrinsically corrupt and impure, since it distances them from the moment of birth of the group. That moment in their mind personifies all the intrisic virtues of the group which were attained at that first moment perceived as a moment of perfection. Consequently, all the times  which follow will retain a value proportional to how much they reveal or relate to the regained identity of the group’s first origin. Thus, the present moment dwells in the solid past which is repeated through it while it reveals it. As for the present by itself, it is a dark nothingness which would lead the group, should they surrender to it, to extinction.


We should point out, in this regard, that what we call “the origin” is not necessarilly an instant or an atom of time with geometric coordinates; for the formation of the origin is something told by raconteurs. Normally, it is a complex sequence of events which provides the group with the time element necessary for self expression through their diverse achievements. It is possible also that this time identity or self expression will cover the whole span of a golden era from the beginning to the end . In an effort to condense it, this golden era will be simplified into a synchronized image, thus eliminating its time dimension.


It is likely, also, that the origin will be manifested through a set of traditions which may be called a heritage that gives through its constant and everlasting presence, the semblance of being eternal.


This thought of the origin, hence, has many shapes. We are mostly inclined to state, by preponderence of evidence we have gathered, that the visions of the contemporary Lebanese historians are conform to the Islamic or traditional Arabic conception of time, whether these thoughts were expounded by Christian or by Moslem authors. We have developed this belief after comparing these visions with the ideas portrayed by specialists like Henry-Charles Puech on Christian matters and Louis Gardet and Henry Corbin on Moslem matters. Analyzing the discourse of the Lebanese historians, we come across cyclic course of time which reverts to its origin much rather than a rectilinear and progressive one, the begining of which can be traced back to the instant of Redemption.


It is necessary to study closely the particularities of the images which are developed by historians whose principal objective is to maintain the historical continuity of their community, people or country. Doing that, we detect the need for a myth of origin, in the general sense, which is commonly used by historians to enable them to form the historical time of their community. We know that this need was felt by Claude Levi-Strauss in the core of the Savage Thought. Francois Furet uses it as the basis for defining the status of the 1789 French Revolution in the minds of the contemporary French people. But in the case of the Lebanese historians, one can observe the proliferation of the many forms of identity presentation. This proliferation expresses three important matters. First, the basic need for self defense felt by some traditional groups, who view the modern forms of solidarity as an encroachment on their “space”. Second, the persistence of community cohesion to such an extent as to render the individual (in this case our historian) incapable or unwilling to adopt a personal stance, reducing him to the position of the spokesman/poet of his community. Third, the emergence of a unified authority (the State), subject to dispute among the different communities. As afore mentioned, this emergence permits a deeply modified form of the old intercommunal conflicts.


The second trait that should be stressed in this context is the social backwardness of the individuals. This condition must be stressed because it embodies the dialectic of the traditional groups and the modern State. Since the individuals we refer to, here, are the historians, the above mentionned condition explains the marginality of the so called scientific position in the writing of our History. In the final analysis, the individual in its abstract form, objective science and the universality of the State are all but different facets of one coherent reality. We prefer to give the Arab name Su’luk to these individuals whose individuality cannot master its proper concept. Each one of these individuals is a reject of a group, or a singular residue of the various clashes between forms of traditional solidarity and modern institutions. To this effect, these individuals maintain a concrete essence difficult to be categorized. The difference between the individual-citizen and the individual-su’luk is that the former is the product of advanced societies, while the latter is the reject of a disjointed society incapable of mastering its own image.


The idolization of collective identities, a condition mostly prevalent in the Lebanese case, forms an obstacle in the way of the blossoming of a consistent social history. The Lebanese produce, in this field, is still rare, even in the present generation of historians, including those who came to history from Marxist background or have some familiarity with the French school of the Annales or the German School of Frankfurt. Few have succeeded to avoid the essentialization of the traditional collectivities or have fully integrated the idea of social change as an original process and not mainly as a series of occasions for recurrent myths of origins to be reincarnated. For the assertation of an identity is nourished by the dream of its remaining in an unchanging state. This dream vacillates between hiding and declaring itself, thus obliterating what is social; since the underlying point of view of social history implies giving credit and worth to what is changing and contingent. On the contrary, as far as the logic of identity is concerned, the past or simply the point in time of origin formation is the source of every value. Not only does this logic undermine the possibility to take seriously into account the evolving realities of the past, it cannot support an objective and practical analysis of the present and keeps the future from being an object of valid evaluation. Instead, the social ideologies generated by the logic of identity inflate the group awareness with mythological ideals. Therefore, these ideologies prevent the development of creative thinking; instead they impel intellectuals to store and decorate.


However, this conservative attitude does not exclude considerable efforts to come to terms with the imperatives of the modern world. But these efforts are scarcely expended without reluctance. Deep inside, the adaptation process is felt as a tissue of necessary concessions and compromises rather than a free choice. In the Lebanese context, I designated, years ago, this ambiguous tendency to bend with the wind as “the shyness of the communities”. The results of the set of practices related to this tendency accumulated, through the decades, to form a fundamental dimension of the contemporary Lebanese society. The development of this dimension made possible the problematic, yet wide, integration of our society in the modern world.




The difficulty we point out in recovering an historical personality that could justify the present and situate it in an appropriate way demonstrates an aspect of the real ambivalence of Lebanon’s history. This history does not exclude either the tenet of internal unity nor that of conflict or breakdown into units; that of the necessary hegemony of one partner, nor of a balanced entente; that of enfeoffment nor of autonomy. Another difficulty arises from a perception of history that tends for the wrong reasons to confuse the successive layers of the past, making it difficult to distinguish at least four strata of the historical development of a Lebanese reality.


  • The history of a land begins with history itself. Throughout the whole of antiquity, the present Lebanese coastline formed the central, but scarcely individualized, part of a more vast whole which, seen from within, shows both disunity and homogeneity. From outside, it is the inevitable route of successive conquests which shook this region, from Spain to the borders of India, passing through Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia; it could not prevent conquerors from passing through; it suffered their repeated attacks and had to change masters after each tempest. The contours and the situation of our land came to serve as framework for its vocation. From these action-filled centuries the words of our contemporaries reconstruct, for our awareness as Lebanese living today, mixed images of commerce and craft, colonies and navigators, alphabets, deities and finally heroic resistance contrasting with long periods as vassals.
  • The history of communities is unclear untill the fifth century CE, when, in the mountains and distant regions of the Near East, different sects came into being, in opposition to Byzantine orthodoxy. It reached a watershed with the arrival of Islam, which soon formed its own schisms. For both Islam and Christianity, theological-political differences apparently follow the lines of ethnic and tribal splits. Another set of factors tends to isolate the sects in opposition to the authorities in the mountain regions, while the orthodox of both religions can continue to inhabit the coastal centres. The constitution of sects goes on through the centuries; it is punctuated with movements of populations often for political, but sometimes also economic and demographic reasons. The Crusades and their immediate consequences, and also the Mongol invasions, brought about big changes in the community map of present-day Lebanon. But while the number of Muslim communities has remained constant since the eleventh century, new Christian communities were still being formed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, under the influence of the missions, and even in the twentieth following movements of immigration. Nevertheless, it must be noted that the Sunni Muslim community, too, only reached a status similar to that of the others after the collapse of the Ottoman empire.
  • The history of a multi-confessional society was only inaugurated in the seventeenth century: in spite of many previous cases of local confessional mixtures, or of partial domination of one community by notables from another, until that date the sects in the mountains led parallel and separate lives. The immigration of Maronites into the Druze Shouf, from the seventeenth century on, prepared by their peopling of the Kisrawan during the sixteenth, marked a new phase and the formation of a new type of inter-communal relationships. One must, however, avoid hasty judgements. Until the early years of the nineteenth century, the Maronites were not yet completely integrated in the Druze mountain. The emir had been a Christian for several decades, but on the social level, the Druze notables always held the pride of place. The christian community of the south was far from feeling at ease in the homes held at the pleasure of these overlords. But the community became progressively richer and more numerous and better settled. And when, thanks to local political circumstances and new international economic conditions, the Christian definitely held the balance, this change had to initiate twenty years of civil strife before it could be translated into a new political system. The Mutasarrifiya enjoyed its relative civil peace in exchange for the visible influence of the “Great Powers” and the wide-ranging prerogatives of the foreign governor.

On the social level, the characteristics of the Mountain dwellers’new society were confirmed: this was a multi-confessional society whose unity was no longer situated at the apex, but where the Maronites’hegemony expressed the true equilibrium – or absence – of the new formula. Once again, the multilateral and henceforward organic accord could be applied only thanks to the clearly superior weight of one party.

  • The history of a State and a people in formation. In 1920, the Mutasarrifiya was clearly still the instigator and, for the distribution of power, the model. But the formula had just undergone a radical change at its very basis. The area of the new State became almost three times greater than  that of the former province, the population twice the size. The annexed regions (apart from a section of the coast) had had only sporadic historical contacts with the mountain. In fact for two regions to belong to one and the same Ottoman vilayet (province) generally presented only a week guarantee of social fusion. The Lebanese emirs’seizure of the Bekaa, Jabal Amel or Akkar had never been maintained for long, and had left few traces. Each of these regions had its denominatial character, its dynasties of Muqatiji, sometimes of several centuries duration; in short its own history. If one insisted on relating these to a historical whole (while admitting this whole scarecely constituted a ‘nation’), one had to think of the Syro-Palestinian whole. The annexation of these regions (and the predominantly Islamic cities of the coast) necessarily aroused defiance and resistance. That did not mean that other solutions could have achieved unanimity: to such an extent it is true that the very idea of ‘nation’ (and thus of ‘Nation-State’) was still uncertain. The need for the projected State to have ports and grain-producing land was only too well emphasized; the established populations in the coastal cities and the regions concerned were in practical terms disregarded. This state of affairs, which after all was in no way abnormal, imposed itself on the awareness of the victors all the more naturally because, at the beginning of the summer of 1920, the balance for power was definitely broken in favour of the Franco-Christian party. The treatment the Lebanese question then received was one case among many known to history, where the advantages obtained by a victory make it impractical and even inconceivable to give a forecast. Greater Lebanon was declared on September 1, 1920.




Many a time, Karl Marx used to utter the saying that “the Dead seizes the Living”. Perhaps we know more than he did that to have the Dead serve the Living is one of the most unreacheble dreams, but, at the same time, one of the most legitimate of them. How free would our relationship with history and with ourselves be if we put our Dead in our service or at least stand on equal footings with them? Is it possible for a Lebanese, historian or not, to daydream a more beautiful dream?


















[1] Conference on Lebanon, University of Sydney, Australia, July 2002.