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H - 71 : Why is there a Lebanon?

Updated: May 19

Cable Car from Jounieh to Harissa a good 10 kilometers north of Beirut

Many geographical terms used in the Middle East have ancient origins. Cilicia, Palestine, Judea, Syria or Egypt were names used by the Romans. Lebanon is one of them. It is also mentioned 71 times in the Bible. But it was used for a mountain range, not a country. So how did we get from a mountain to a state?

Ottoman Provinces by 1905 - there is no Lebanon on the this Map

The name came into use in the 19th century to describe the region where Maronite and Druze lived. The Ottoman Empire was mostly tolerant when it came to religion. When it conquered Constantinople (1453), half of the Ottoman citizens were Christians. When the Spanish Crown expelled the Jewish community in 1492, the Jews were welcomed with open arms. The Ottoman Empire made few attempts to convert its Christian subjects. The two exceptions, Albania and Bosnia (Turks loved them for their fighting prowess) proof the rule. High up in their mountain villages, the Christian Maronites and the Druze were left to alone.

There were many religious Groups in Syria and the Levant in 1935

In the 19th century though, a toxic blend of nationalism and religion started to influence politics. Russia justified its conquest of Turkish territory with propaganda of liberating the suppressed Christian Slavs. Some Turkish nationalists countered by blending Ottoman policy with Islam. Such a move rallied Muslims in Anatolia, Syria, Mesopotamia and North Africa but severely damaged the Ottoman's reputation in the Christian Balkan. The Greek War of Independence (1821 – 1832) was partially fought as a war of religion.

Anti-Maronite Progroms also spread to Damascus in 1860 where Abdelkader El Djezairi stopped them

The Druze and Maronite were not shielded from these developments. The increasing awareness of their religious identity made Maronites question the established feudal rule whereby a mostly Druse nobility ruled. The dispute resulted in violent clashes between these two communities in 1860. The better organized Druze were victorious. There were several dreadful massacres of Christians which made the European Great Powers intervene. France invoked the Ottoman – French treaty of 1523 which made it the “Protector of Christians”. In 1860, a French Force of 6’000 men landed in Beirut to enforce peace. The Sultan in Istanbul conceded the idea to create an autonomous Mutassarifate for Druze and Maronites.

The 6'000 French Troops landed in Beirut on 16 August 1860 and stayed for 9 months

The Maronites were early Christians, which never converted to Islam. Named after one of their early leaders, Saint Maron, their liturgy resembles the Syrian Church. They recognize the authority of the Pope in Rome though and stayed with the Pope in the Schism of 1054. This link always gave them direct access to Europe’s rulers.

A Maronite Church high above Lebanon's coastal Plane

The Druze are an entirely different story. They are an ethnoreligious group as there were many in the early days of Islam. Their Epistles of Wisdom is their fundamental text. Based on a branch of Shia Islam, their believe system also incorporates elements of Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. They are monotheist and believe in one good but also in the immortality of the soul and reincarnation. For the Druze believers, Abraham, Noah, Moses Jesus and Mohammed were only prophets. Historically, the Druze lived in Lebanon's secluded mountains (often next door to Maronites) and the Syrian desert west of Damascus.

Druze Religious Leaders in Lebanon

For the Ottoman, the establishment of a Mutassarifate was small fry – a concession of purely internal nature. You cannot find the name Lebanon on any major Turkish pre-World War I map.  Which does not imply that the Ottoman leaders did not know about it. That knowledge had dreadful consequences during the First World War (1914 – 1918). 

The Mutassarifate of Lebanon as established in 1860

After the war started in fall 1914, Royal Navy and the French Fleet established a blockade over Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. They intended to cut the supply lines of the Turkish armies in Mesopotamia and Palestine. With the Baghdad Bahn not completed yet, Ottoman supplies were reduced to a trickle. It severely restricted the operational capacity of the two Turkish armies who had to live from the land. When two consecutive harvests failed in the Levant, the brutal nature of this arrangement became all too obvious. The soldiers horded all the food they could - the population got almost nothing. One of the worst famines in history broke out. It is estimated that 200’000 Christians and Druze died. The famine only ended in 1918 when French gun ships brought emergency supplies – the very same ships that had blockaded the coast for four years. The civil population in the Lebanon paid a dreadful price.

The terrible Famine killed 200'000 People of all ethnic Groups in Lebanon in 1918

The famine had a big influence on France when they became the dominant power in the Levant. It tried to reconcile US President Wilson’s Declaration of People’s Right of Self-Determination with their colonial plans. In 1920, they thus created the Greater Lebanon to make sure this could never happen again. But France also added the Beeka Valley and the South below Tyre with its Shiite population to the old Mutassarifate. The political power was evenly distributed: Maronites got the Presidency, the Druse the Prime Minister and the Shiite the Speaker of the Parliament.

Proclamation of the Greater Lebanon in 1920

Divide et Impera was not only a British but also the French colonial rule. By adding another ethnic group to the new state, France hoped to easier control it. Instead, it planted the seeds for future conflicts as the demographic distribution changed over time. The Shiite, the Sunni and the Druze had larger families than the Maronites.


Lebanon won its independence in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. But already by 1958, US Marines had to land in Beirut to maintain the delicate balance between the three ethnic groups. When large numbers of Palestinian refugees arrived after the 6-Days-War in 1967, the power sharing arrangements eroded and finally collapsed. The Palestine Liberation Organisatin (PLO) with Yassir Arafat became a power factor which Lebanon could not absorb. By 1975 a devastating civil war broke out. Syrian, Israeli and America intervened militarily. Their actions are still felt today. But this is a story for another blog.


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