A HISTORY OF MOUNT LEBANON
Lebanon as we know it today was put together in 1920 by the French in the aftermath of the first world war and the collapse of the Ottoman empire. To the mountainous heartland of the country, Mount Lebanon, with its Druze and Maronite “nations” were added the coastal cities of Sidon, Tripoli and Beirut and the hinterlands in the south and the Beka valley. It was from the Maronite village of Biskinta in this mountainous heartland, the true Lebanon, that Halim, Naim, Halima and Careem came.
This brief history of the mountains of Lebanon is taken from Fouad Ajami’s book Beirut, City of Regrets.
” There were two sets of tales that defined the character and the vocation of Lebanon:tales of the mountain and tales of the sea. The tales of the mountain spoke of the “fastness” of Mount Lebanon – the coastal mountain range that extended from the city of Tripoli in the north to the city of Sidon in the south – of the proud and free villages hanging at the edges of precipices, of the men who squeezed a living out of a harsh soil, of the religious and political freedom of the mountain. In the plains below, in the world of Greater Syria of which Lebanon had long been a fragment, tyranny and uniformity reigned. The rebels, the dissidents, the religious minorities, the men and women with strong wills sought refuge in Lebanon’s impenetrable mountain range. And there in a world that successive Muslim states could not subdue, free men of diverse faiths, Christian and Muslim dissenters alike, constructed a world of their own.
The tale of the sea evoked ancestors that the Lebanese identified with: the Phoenician seafarers and their once prosperous kingdoms on the Mediterranean seaboard. Brilliant men, these Phoenicians were, their history said. On Lebanon’s coast, in cities like Tyre, and Sidon and Byblos – cities glamoured by historical romance but long since diminished – the Phonecians [Phoenicians] built thriving realms. They were adventurers and merchants. The Phoenicians had taken the alphabet to remote places: they had taken the first olive tree to Greece. Homer supposedly said of them they were men skilled in all things; they were a people of practical bent, the Phoenicians. And their genius for commerce, their wanderlust had been bequeathed to their modern day inheritors, the Lebanese.”
The world of the mountain had been a world unto itself. Over the course of the four centuries when the Ottoman Empire dominated most of the world of Islam (from the early years of the sixteenth century until the collapse of the Empire in World War I), there developed in the mountain a tradition of political autonomy, an economy of peasant freeholders, a princely state, the Imarah, which administered the mountain and which, during periods of power even extended into other parts of Ottoman controlled Syria.
The history of the mountain was, above all the history of its dominant communities, the Druze and the Christian Maronites. Both religious faiths were faiths of obsession, of purity: both were religions of secluded places and impenetrable mountains.
The origins of the Druze faith are relatively obscure. It began as an offshoot of an offshoot of Islam beginning in Egypt. The Druze faith made it to Lebanon after it had been extinguished elsewhere. Soon after the arrival of the sect in Lebanon, the “door of salvation” and conversion was closed. The Druze faith became a hereditary privilege. The teachings and mysteries of the Druze faith were not to be revealed to outsiders. The Druze were governed by a warrior aristocracy, held together by bonds of loyalty and obligations.