The Maronite Anarchist Tradition
Long before the proclamation of Greater Lebanon in 1920, a peculiar community called Mount Lebanon home. Despite all their contradictions and controversies, the Maronites have made Lebanon’s fabled mountain their own in one way or another for more than a millennium. This article tries to revisit 16 centuries of history and the aspects that defined the Maronites through the years.
While attempts to categorize ancient societies and economies according to modern, post-industrial classifications often result in a tendency towards explanatory reductionism, much can still be learned from the past. Maronites, for the greatest part of their 16-century history, have displayed a political philosophy that can best be described as anarchism by modern-day standards, as they lived under states created by authorities they have both defied and defined themselves through.
The Maronite Christian faith came to Lebanon in the late 4th century through St. Maron’s disciple, St. Abraham of Cyrrhus. St. Maron ܡܪܘܢ was a Syriac hermit monk, renowned for his ascetic lifestyle, who lived in the Taurus mountains in the middle of the 4th century, and after whom the Maronites are named. St. Abraham, also known as the apostle of Lebanon, set out to convert the local population of Mount Lebanon into Christianity. Legend has it that St. Abraham first reached the high village of Aqura (ܥܐܩܘܪܐ عاقورا) disguised as a walnut merchant to a hostile pagan community, that eventually opened up to him after he helped a man pay up some overdue taxes. The nearby Adonis River (present-day Jbeil district) was renamed Nahr Ibrahim (نهر ابراهيم) in hommage to the apostle. Those locals, in fact, were the Phoenician pagans who took to the high peaks seeking some form of autonomy following the Byzantine Christian expansion on the coast, after emperor Constantine gave Christianity legal status and a reprieve from persecution in the Edict of Milan (313 AD), and later the Edict of Thessalonica (380 AD) made Catholicism of Nicene Christians in the Great Church the state church of the Roman Empire.
A 2008 study led by Dr. Pierre Zalloua found the 6 subclades of haplogroup J2 were of a “Phoenician signature” and present amongst the male populations of Lebanon as well as the wider Levant (the “Phoenician Periphery”).
According to a 2017 study, present-day Lebanese derive most of their ancestry from a Canaanite population, which implies substantial genetic continuity in the Levant since at least the Bronze Age.
In a 2020 study, researchers have shown there is substantial genetic continuity in Lebanon since the Bronze Age interrupted by three significant admixture events during the Iron Age, Hellenistic, and Ottoman period.
The genetic continuity from the Phoenician civilization is confirmed (even if indirectly) by the chronicles of Raymond D’Aguilers from the First Crusade when the army was visited by some local Christians. Surians, Raymond D’Aguilers called them. They were in fact Maronites. He said that “Some sixty thousand Christian inhabitants have been in possession of the Lebanon mountains and its environs for many years. These Christians are addressed as Surians, since they are close to Tyre, now commonly called Sur.”
The identification with a city-state was one of the defining traits of the Phoenicians; and Maronites, through genetic and societal continuity, are an extension of that ancient civilization. The Phoenicians developed one of the most interesting civilizations, arguably in history, and the first thalassocracy in the world. Theirs was one of the very few non-statist merchant civilizations. Although archaeological records show that the palace (the monarch) was a very active agent in the economy and had its own monopolies at given periods in time, (the Byblian king Zakar-Baal 𐤆𐤊𐤓 𐤁𐤏𐤋, for instance, held a monopoly on the felling and export of cedarwood) private commerce blossomed in a system where both merchants and kings needed each other to profit: the palace required the services and expert market knowledge provided by private merchants, whilst traders relied on the palace for protection from piracy and privateering. At the time, the Phoenician city-states have provided the ideal landscape to promote risk-taking, low-time preference, and innovation. They moved from gift-giving to barter, before finally introducing monetarized market exchange [How the Phoenicians Adopted Hard Money]. The pacifist mercantile civilization dominated the Mediterranean, trading products and commodities in return for raw materials and foodstuff: cedar timber, wine, olive oil, glass, paper, potteries, purple dye, and the greatest export of all, the alphabet. In the eyes of their neighbors, the Phoenicians were pre-eminent merchants who did little else other than trade and so garnered both the admiration and resentment of their contemporaries. This Phoenician proclivity for commerce endured with the Maronites, but more on that later.
After conversions to Christianity began with St. Abraham in the peaks of Mount Lebanon in the ascetic and monastic tradition of St. Maron, Maronitism flourished. Mountains had a discernable impact on the Maronites ever since, as living in the mountains has interesting cultural and political implications. Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe points out that a difficult environment and climate foster the development of intelligence, hard work, and low time preference, a pattern easily observable in Lebanon.
The Maronites, with a sizable community on the Orontes River in Syria, and another comparable one in Mount Lebanon, participated in the Chalcedonian Council in 451 AD, rejecting monophysitism and declaring full communion with the then united Orthodox Catholic Church. The conflict between the Chalcedonian Maronites and the monophysite Jacobite Syriacs culminated in the massacre of 350 Maronite monks from the monastery of St. Maron on the Orontes in 517 AD. In a bid to reconcile between the 2 factions, Patriarch Sergius I of Constantinople and Byzantine Emperor Heraclius came up with a compromise in 638 AD: Monothelitism, that Jesus had 2 distinct natures, human and divine, but a single will. Monothelitism was shortly denounced by the Catholic Church as a heresy and the issue was settled in the Third Council of Constantinople (680–681 AD). Maronites may have accepted Monothelitism briefly, following the Byzantine imperial decree of 638 AD, but that creed was not adopted for long, as they remained loyal to the communion with Rome after the dispute had been resolved.
Meanwhile, conflict continued between the Maronites and the Jacobites, which prompted the Maronites to elect John Maron ܝܘܚܢܢ ܡܪܘܢ as their first Patriarch for the vacant seat of Antioch in 685 AD, to organize and defend his community as the commander of the army, taking the Rich Moran monastery (ܪܝܫ ܡܪܢ Syriac for ‘head of our lord’, in reference to the relic skull of St. Maron that was deposited into the altar of the church) in Kfarhay as his stronghold. To the Jacobites, John Maron was known as “the Patriarch enemy of God”. He was approved by pope Sergius I and served as Maronite Patriarch when invasions by Byzantine emperor Justinian II were repulsed. In fact, emperor Justinian II was growing weary of the autonomy demonstrated by the Maronites, which led him to strike a deal with the expanding Umayyad Caliphate in the Levant that saw the relocation of 12,000 mercenaries, known as al-Jarajima, that were previously deployed to Lebanon to fend off against the Arab invasions, in an attempt to weaken the Maronite position. Part of the fighters withdrew upon the order of the king, while the remaining fighters held up to their position, and came to be known as the Mardaites (ܡܪ̈ܕܝܐ, Syriac for ‘rebels’). Then in 694 AD, Emperor Justinian II sent an army to discipline the rebels and to go after the Maronites, accusing them of the Monothelite heresy. The imperial army razed the Maronite monastery at the Orontes River to the ground and put 800 monks to the sword. The Maronites exacted their revenge at Amioun, on Mount Lebanon, when the Patriarch John Maron personally led his people into battle against a contingent of the Byzantine army and won a crushing victory that cost Constantinople two of her better generals. The Maronites later returned to their mountainous sites, to stay in a state of isolation, which marked and stamped their history as dwellers of the mountains of Lebanon, by isolationism. For the next 300 years, they raided, revolted, and retreated, always true to their faith and in full (if forgotten) communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The battle of Amioun’s main consequence was that the Maronite people solidified their autonomy from the Byzantine and Arab empires, and gained a greater degree of political independence.
For centuries, Maronites lived in a semi-anarchist society and anointed kings and princes to lead them, though their kingdoms and principalities did not resemble those typical of Europe. The nomenclature of ‘king’ came from the Byzantine influence, and later ‘prince’ from the Crusaders. The Maronites preferred the title of Muqaddam, a Syriac word for bravery and forwardness, which was their signature title. Muqaddams were tasked with the temporal authority of keeping the peace, settling disputes, protecting the people, and upholding the Maronite Church and creed. Muqaddams, however, could not levy taxes and did not enjoy an eminent domain like the traditional monarchs of Europe. The Patriarch retained the spiritual authority, settling high-level disputes, and had the power to excommunicate Muqaddams and remove them from their post. In short, the Patriarch was the king of kings, the prince of princes, and the muqaddam of muqaddams. Maronites also enjoyed a wide administrative decentralization as they lived in autonomous and independent towns reminiscent of their Phoenician ancestors’ city-states, with the occasional union only to repel invaders. René Riestelhubert wrote: “As soon as Maronites bonded together in their mountains, they formed a highly autonomous and independent nation. In the shades of their disobedient mountain, they managed to repel the Arab invasion, turned Lebanon into a natural Christian citadel, organized themselves under the leadership of their clergy and large proprietors under a robust feudal system, and lived in the mountains in a state of isolation. The nature of the country and its countrymen did not favor the establishment of large cities; people were dispersed in villages, each belonging to a proprietor. Each town had its own lifestyle, a rich lifestyle that generated a strong national belonging that manifested in the attachment to the person of the Patriarch, and the unity in the face of hardships and invaders.” This social hierarchical arrangement stayed in place, with Maronite autonomy over the mountain until the arrival of the crusaders and beyond.
In 1099 AD, the mountain dwellers welcomed the European Crusader army that shared their beliefs and saw in it an opportunity to strengthen their grip on their mountainous domain. Maronites guided the Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem and later joined forces with them in the newly established Latin kingdoms in the Orient. A noticeable difference that set the Maronites apart from other Christian groups in that era was militarization. A more significant burden upon dhimmi groups under Islam was that they were demilitarized. By contrast, the Maronites had managed to retain their arms. Testament to this is the numerous Latin chroniclers who praised the Maronites’ martial prowess, which was often deployed alongside Frankish armies. William of Tyre observed that the Maronites regularly served the Latin Christians in military matters. James of Vitry noted the Maronites’ particular expertise as archers. Modern historians have regarded this Maronite military service as having contributed greatly to the county of Tripoli’s defense, which in turn elevated their standing in the eyes of the Franks.
Nevertheless, Maronite-Crusader relations saw sporadic tensions. In March 1137, Raymund, son of Pons the Count of Tripoli, accused Maronites from Jebbet l-Mnaytra of betrayal as they allowed the killers of his father Pons to pass through their village unobstructed, and had most of them tortured to death in revenge. William of Tyre the chronicler even went as far as to accuse the Maronites of Monothelitism, which was parroted by most historians who followed as fact, despite it being proven false. Additionally, Maronites were not very fond of Crusader intervention in their religious and private affairs; however, they enjoyed an overall good spell under the jurisdiction of the Latin states and became an effective constituent of their social fabric. In fact, in 1250 AD King Louis IX of France bestowed on the Maronites the royal protection of the throne of France in return for their Catholic devotion and the assistance they provided to the Franks.
Little did the Maronite know that their close ties with the Crusaders were going to cost them dearly as the Mamluks would soon seek revenge against them for collaborating with the Christian invaders. Jebbet Bcharre fell at the hands of the Mamluks in 1283 AD, and the County of Tripoli followed in 1289 AD. In 1302 AD, 30 Maronite muqaddams and some 30,000 men managed to hold the Mamluks at bay, even if temporarily, at the Madfoun and Fidar checkpoints. In 1303 AD, Byblians set fire to their now occupied city before fleeing to Cyprus, and Keserwen got razed to the ground as revenge by the Mamluks in 1305 AD which saw all its Maronite inhabitants either massacred or displaced. Not a monastery, church, or fort was saved from destruction. The Maronite domain was reduced to the area that extends from Nahr Ibrahim south to Bcharre and the outskirts of Tripoli north. Mamluks’ harassment never ceased, as Patriarch Gebra’el Hjoula جبرايل حجولا, having evaded all attempts to capture him, turned himself over so that 40 men from his village would be spared. He was dragged all the way from Mayfouq to Tripoli where he was burned at the stake in 1367 AD at the city gates. With the fall of the Crusader states and the emergence of the Mamluk rule, began the worst period in the history of the Maronites who lost their independence and sovereignty for the first time since Patriarch John Maron. It is worth noting that the downfall of the Maronite bastion in Mount Lebanon was facilitated (not to say directly caused) by the schisms in their own ranks following the infiltration of Jacobites into Jebbet Bcharre with Mamluk support, and the tensions that arose between it and Jebbet l-Mnaytra as a consequence.
With the collapse of the Mamluk Sultanate in 1517 AD at the hands of the rising Ottoman Empire, Maronites could breathe a sigh of relief. They began moving back south to lands they were forced to abandon a couple of centuries prior. Mount Lebanon, now an Emirate headed by the Druze Ma’n dynasty, saw great leaps forward, especially under Emir Fakhreddin II فخرالدين المعني الثاني. He established connections with the West, most notably the Duchy of Tuscany, and was a rare proponent of economic development in the region back then. The mountain enjoyed prosperous economic growth centered on silk during his reign, with the Maronites dominating many aspects of the silk economy, including production, financing, brokerage to the markets of Sidon and Beirut, and its export to Europe. Later, Patriarch Estephan al-Douaihy اسطفان الدويهي stated that the Emir’s religious tolerance endeared him to the Christians living under his rule, and after decades of persecution, Christians could raise their heads high again. They built churches, rode horses with saddles, and carried jeweled rifles. They enlisted in the army and were the stewards, attendants, counselors, and advisors of the Emir. It was during that time period that the Maronite college in Rome was established and missionaries from Europe came and established themselves in Mount Lebanon; the Maronites’ connection with the Catholic Church was at its highest.
In the 18th century, a French visitor observed that those people that he found in Mount Lebanon (the Maronites) were among the most hard-working people that he’s met in the Ottoman Empire. What impressed him was that, in order to cultivate the mountains, they had carved out terraces in the mountains. On one hillside he counted 120 steps from the valley bottom to the summit, and he was quite impressed by this amount of intergenerational work, which was an indicator of a very low time preference. However, hard work alone can’t explain that. Living in the mountains must have another advantage, and by looking around he found this advantage: it’s a relative safety from state intervention. Mountains have always been a refuge and are much harder to control than the plains which are in the open. So from early beginnings on, the people living in the regions were very independent-minded, heavily armed, and protecting their little fiefdoms in the mountains.
A hundred years later in 1832 AD, another Frenchman visited the area and he confirmed this observation. His name was Alphonse de Lamartine, the known French literate, and he found that the Maronite Christians that he visited were among the happiest people that he had ever met, and he was the first one to compare them to Switzerland. He said, ‘even Switzerland does not afford more of an image of liveliness, happiness, and peace than Mount Lebanon.’ As for the reasons for this relative happiness and peace, Lamartine gave 4:
- they are self-governed to an extent that they are not afraid of the state but the state is afraid of them.
- property is secure and inheritable.
- trade is vivid and lively, the commercial activity is very strong.
- the common laws that they follow are very simple and pure.
The Phoenician proclivity for commerce had survived despite all the hardships, as well as the quasi-anarchical structure of a freedom-loving society.
Despite the relatively good relationship with the Ottoman Sublime Porte, Maronites never shied away from confrontation with the state when the need arose:
In 1763, Maronite monks used their leather belts to climb over the city gate and opened it to the army of Prince Youssef Shihab يوسف شهاب, who liberated the city and the cathedral of St. John Mark, which had been turned into a horse stable by the Ottomans. Prince Youssef gave the Maronite Order eternal ownership of all churches and monastery ruins in Jbeil, including the cathedral of St. John Mark they helped liberate, for them to rebuild and conserve.
In 1877, the mutasarrif of Mount Lebanon Rustum Bacha رستم باشا plotted to harass the Maronite monks of Qozhaya for their resistance to Ottoman rule. When the governor visited the monastery, he was struck with a club by the monk Gebra’el Moussa جبرايل موسى who refused to be humiliated. Furious, the mutasarrif dispatched his troops to capture all monks from the monastery. They were later ambushed by the nearby monks in Batroun and Jbeil who freed their peers from captivity.
Through the link to Western culture, some pernicious ideas slowly started mushrooming among the Maronites at the beginning of the 19th century under the rule of Bashir Shihab II. Among those ideas were nationalism, democratism, and egalitarianism.
As part of an egalitarian approach to society, the Maronites helped Bashir Shihab to supplant the Druze feudal lords and later paid for it when sectarian tensions rose and the Druze took revenge with the 1840–1860 massacres where 10,000 Christians were killed.
In nationalism, the Maronites saw a way to protect their culture from the Turkic overlords as they conceived and championed Arab nationalism for a while. Yet, over time, this nationalism was exaggerated politically. When Muhammad Ali محمد علي the Wali of Egypt decided to carve out an Arab nation-state from the Ottoman Empire, he received the support of Emir Bashir Shihab II بشير شهاب الثاني and the Maronites as Egyptian troops occupied Lebanon with a French blessing. Muhammad Ali started the first project of modernizing and creating a modern nation-state. And once the Maronites realized what it means, they rebelled to get rid of the Egyptian occupation because nationalism, in contrast to cultural patriotism, meant:
- regular taxation
- government intervention in education
- and most importantly, disarming the local population.
That has always been the pattern of this ideological misunderstanding of nationalism, creating a homogenous centralized state against the population by changing, re-educating, and homogenizing the population.
The Maronites, one hundred and forty thousand strong, well-armed, were now determined never again to be found defenseless. When the news came to Beirut that Maronite students in Cairo had been drafted by Muhammed Ali and that orders had been sent to Lebanon to disarm the Christians, the Maronite leaders were in a quandary. Emir Bashir II Shehab, true to his Egyptian alliance, ordered Maronites and Druze alike to surrender their weapons, but the Maronite chieftains of Dair al-Kamar decided upon resistance and took a solemn oath to keep their rifles. The rebels issued the following demands:
- taxes are to be equal and fixed for everyone (in contrast to the proposed progressive tax) and tax hikes will never be accepted even in the eventuality of wars.
- forced labor in the mines is to stop immediately.
- the people are not to be disarmed under any circumstances.
The emir confronted them unsuccessfully, and in no time there was full-blown revolt upon the mountain. The British, with their agents in Lebanon, intervened and landed troops on the coast to assist the Maronites. Later Ottoman soldiers also arrived to help, and the combined armies were able to drive Egyptians from Lebanon.
Fortunately, efforts to create a modern democratic nation-state were thwarted. However, in the aftermath of World War I and at the request of the Maronite Patriarch Elias Hoayek, the French carved out an updated version which was called Greater Lebanon, and democratism went into overdrive ever since. Democratism, or rather its more accurate name Majoritarianism, means party lines, it means elections, and it means numbers. Whenever majoritarianism is introduced onto a heterogeneous population, 2 political winning strategies arise, and their incentives are terrible. Those 2 winning strategies are outbreeding and genocide; and 100 years after the proclamation of the Greater Lebanon, this land has witnessed the gruesome outcome of both strategies.
For centuries, Maronites have had their ups and downs, they enjoyed long spells of prosperity and went through grueling hardships. As the saying goes, ‘the followers of Maron learned how to grow orchards in the fissures on the faces of the cliffs to survive’.
If anything defined and set the Maronites apart from other Christians and other nations even, it’s their proclivity for commerce and their disdain for authority, it’s their radical decentralization and militarization, and above all, it’s their love of God and freedom.
- تاريخ الموارنة ومسيحيي الشرق عبر العصور — عبدالله ابي عبدالله
- The Phoenicians — Mark Woolmer
- The First Crusaders in Lebanon — Archeology & History in Lebanon, Issue Sixteen
- Will, Action and Freedom — Cyril Hovorun
- William of Tyre and the Maronites — Robert Crawford
- The Counts of Tripoli and Lebanon in the Twelfth Century — Kevin James Lewis
- Charte du Roi Louis IX aux Maronites — 1250
- Lebanon: A History 600–2011 — William Harris
- “The Lebanon: A Switzerland of the Near East” lecture — Rahim Taghizadegan
- Catholics and Sultans: The Church and the Ottoman Empire 1453–1923 — Charles Frazee