A Brief History of the Maronites
- I -
In the first quarter of the fifth century, Maron, a Syriac-speaking hermit of Aramean origins, died in the region of Cyrrhus, between Aleppo and Antioch (north-west of present-day Syria). The region was administratively known back then in the Roman-Byzantine period under Syria Prima.
In his book A History of The Monks of Syria, Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus, wrote about Maron, the priest and hermit: “Far from being fulfilled by the usual works, he devised other tasks, heaping up the wealth of philosophy… In fact, we could see fever quenched by the dew of his blessings, shivering stopped, demons put to flight, and varied diseases –even the most diverse ones– cured by a single remedy.”
Saint Maron did not found a church or a monastic order, nor did he leave any theological or philosophical works. He was mainly devoted to Christ in a unique way, tutoring a lot of disciples: monks, worshipers and nuns... He established in one way or another, a spiritual monastic-hermitic school that is still thriving today, depicted by Theodoret as “the philosophy of an open-air life.”
We do not know exactly when Maron died. While the tradition states that he died in 410, all what we know about his death is that it had occurred before the appointment of Theodoret as Bishop of Cyrrhus in 423.
In 451, during the Council of Chalcedon, the church was divided into many local churches due to dogmatic, semantic and political conflicts. The Syriac church was divided into two branches: the anti-Chalcedonian branch (Jacobites) and the Chalcedonian one.
In 452, influenced by Theodoret and following the order of the Byzantine Emperor Marcian (450-457), the disciples of Saint Maron built a monastery on the Orontes River and named it after their patron. This monastery quickly became the stronghold of the Orthodox-Catholic doctrine according to the Chalcedonian dogmatic definition, in the Syria Secunda region (Hama – Homs). Even though the historical sources do not specify where the monastery was located on the Orontes River, one thing is sure: this monastery was not only a “house of prayer and work, but also a fortress of faith and the foundation of a message” as Abbot Boulos Naaman stated.
There is no doubt that the real Maronitism stemmed from the Monastery of Saint Maron. It was a spiritual monastic movement that boldly stamped its way of life and influenced its historical course.
In 517, following the ambush that led to the death of about 350 monks supporting the Council of Chalcedon, the superior of the Saint Maron monastery, along with other superiors in Syria Secunda, wrote a letter asking the Pope Hormisdas (514-523) for help.
Hence, the monastery of Saint Maron prospered and became the cornerstone of a series of monasteries that burgeoned in Syria Secunda. The community gathered around these monasteries was known as the Beit Maroun .
This new community soon expanded in different cities of Roman Syria, preaching the Chalcedonian faith. It also reached many places in Mount-Lebanon, where Ibrahim of Cyrrhus, one of the disciples of Maron, had previously converted many pagans to Christianity in the valley of the Adonis River, which was later named after him: Nahr Ibrahim.
Afterwards, when the patriarchal See of Antioch became vacant due to the Arab-Muslim conquest, the Maronite community led by the Monastery of Saint Maron, took the initiative in the late seventh or early eighth century to elect John Maron as the Patriarch of Antioch.
The community of Beit Maroun endured difficult historical circumstances, due to the religious, political and dogmatic oppression of the Arab-Muslim conqueror on the one hand, and their anti-Chalcedonian environment on the other. Also, in the middle of the political persecution by the Byzantines, this community was deprived of the bare means of subsistence and was denied religious and political freedom, as well as spiritual and material stability. After the destruction of the monastery of Saint Maron, the Maronites decided to distance themselves from the conflict between the great powers at that time -the Byzantines and the Arabs-. In order to preserve their freedom and their religious, cultural and political identity, they took the most difficult decision to move from fertile and cultivable plains and join their fellow-believers in the arid, rocky and barren regions of Mount-Lebanon.
The emigrants took the old route, following the flow of the Orontes River and reached its source in Hermel (Lebanon). From there, they reached Mount-Lebanon, from both sides -Jebbet-Bshareh and Jebbet al-Mnaitra- where they basically settled, and where they moved their patriarchal residence to the monastery of Saint George in Yanouh (Byblos).
The newcomers faced many challenges throughout their settlement in Mount-Lebanon, however, their biggest and most daring one was not their subsistence throughout all empires; it was rather their survival in a rough wild nature. If nature could speak, it would recount what went on between this community and the land. At first, it was a relation of enmity that turned later on into a friendship, and then into a love story and a unique way of life, tying the fate of the Maronites to their new land. No one can deeply understand the history of the Maronites, unless they read the stories about olives, vines, trails and rocks. Every piece of land from the villages has a long story and has descendants inheriting it and passing it on. In brief, the land has always been the Maronite genealogical family tree. (Father Michel Hayek)
During the reign of the Crusaders (1095-1291), the Maronites seized the opportunity to get out of their isolation, cooperated with the Franks, witnessed a religious freedom and renewed their relationship with the Church of Rome.
However, with the defeat of the Franks in the late thirteenth century, the Maronites endured difficult circumstances under the rule of the Ayyubids and later the Mamluks (1291-1516), who started persecuting all those who collaborated and sympathized with the Crusaders, among which were the Maronites.
Many military campaigns, razed to the ground (destroyed and swept completely away) the “Maronite land”, namely the region of Ehden and Jebbet-Bsharreh in 1268 and in 1283, when Patriarch Daniel from Hadshit, leader of the resistance was captured and executed. The campaign on Kesserwan in 1305 eradicated all Maronites; it was so intense that no tree was left standing.
As a result of these campaigns, a lot of Maronites fled to the island of Cyprus, where there are several Maronite villages up until today.
The successive Mamluks campaigns against the Maronites, who were left without refuge or shelter, were exhausting. The Maronites’ fate had almost reached a dead end. Their number decreased in the cities and they were no longer well prepared. The Maronites who survived, stayed in Jebbet-Bsharreh, Zawya, Batroun, Jebbet al-Mnaitra and its surroundings. They suffered from poverty and misery, in addition to the exacerbating calamities of nature, deprivation and alienation from the outside world and axes of economic exchange. Their cultural heritage faded and the successive crises made them an easy prey for everyone.
In 1367, the Mamluks captured the Maronite Patriarch Gabriel of Hjoula and burned him alive on the outskirts of Tripoli. In 1440, following the Mamluks campaign against the residence of the Maronite Patriarchs in Ilige (Byblos), Patriarch John from Jaj (1404-1445) moved to Wadi Qannoubine and lived at the Monastery of Our Lady, which became the residence of the Maronite Patriarchs until the nineteenth century. From Qannoubine, the Maronite Patriarchs resisted, survived and prayed for their people to maintain their religious and political freedom. As Patriarch Sfeir said: “this is the freedom, without which, we have no life.”
Despite all persecutions, the Maronites remained, during all the Mamluk era, united under the leadership of their patriarchs and their local chiefs Muqaddamin.
- IV -
During the Ottoman rule (1516-1918), the Maronites faced new challenges. On the political, demographical and economic level, their stability was keenly linked to their relation with local governors. For instance, the oppression of the Seyfa and Hamadeh, governors in the north and the districts of Batroun and Jbeil, forced many Maronites to leave these regions. Conversely, the Assafites, governors of Kesserwan and then, the Maanis and Chehabis, governors of the Chouf, encouraged those who fled the North to settle in the regions of Kesserwan, Metn, Chouf and Jezzine. The case of Fakhreddine II (1585 – 1635) is worth mentioning: With the help of the Maronites, he established good ties with the western Christians, asking for their support in order to gain independence.
On the educational level, the Maronites were the first in the Levant to open up to the western cultures, owing to their relations with the Popes. In fact, in 1584, (the) Pope Gregory XIII, established the Maronite College in Rome, where many young Maronites pursued their studies. Some of them returned to Mount Lebanon and held many ecclesiastical positions, while others stayed in Europe and excelled in the “Republic of Letters”; they played the role of mediators between eastern and western cultures, translating books from Arabic into Latin and vice-versa, establishing oriental collections in western libraries and teaching oriental languages. These facts granted the Maronites their reputation, depicted by the saying: “Erudite like a Maronite”.
In a related context, the monastery of Saint Anthony (Mar Antonios) in Kozhaya saw the first printing press in the eastern part of the Ottoman Sultanate, where the Book of Psalms was printed in 1610 in Syriac and Garshuni letters. The Lebanese Maronite Order reintroduced this printing press in 1805, but its activity was limited to printing liturgical books, which the monks needed for their daily prayers, such as the missal and other service books.
- V -
The reform of the monastic life took place in the late seventeenth century onwards: four young Maronite men from Aleppo: Gabriel Hawwa, Abdullah Qaraali, Youssef al-Betn and Germanus Farhat, were received by Patriarch Estefan el-Doueihy (1670 – 1704) who gave them the monastic habit in Qannoubine on 10/11/1695. This date marked the official beginning of the monastic reform in the Maronite history. The new congregation was divided into two branches in 1770: The Lebanese Maronite Order (the Baladites) and the Aleppian Maronite Order which was called in 1969 the Mariamite Maronite Order.
In 1700, Bishop Gabriel of Blouza founded the Antonine Maronite Order at the monastery of Saint Isaiah (Mar Chaaya) in Broumana, Metn. In parallel, the religious life for women was organized at the convents of Saint John (Mar Youhanna) in Hrash and then in Saint Elijah (Mar Elias) in Ras near Jeita. Later on, many other convents flourished inside and outside of Mount-Lebanon.
In the eighteenth century, the Maronite community experienced a significant demographic and geographic expansion from Mount Lebanon to the north of Chouf, Jezzine, and the region of Sidon... At the end of this century, there was a transformation in the highest ruling authority in the emirate when the Emir Youssef Chehab, was baptized as Maronite and became the first Christian governor to rule Mount Lebanon, under Ottomans.
The “Lebanese Synod”, held at the monastery of Our Lady of Louaize in Kesserwan, in September 1736, laid the foundations for modern Maronite Canon Law and had a major impact on the course of the Maronite history. Among this Synod’s decisions, was the establishing of the geographical limits of eparchies and the nomination of episcopal sees. The Synod also enforced compulsory education for youth.
During the eighteenth century, the catholic missionaries established several schools in Mount Lebanon. After the Lebanese Synod, the Maronites were more involved in inaugurating schools in the villages, one of which was the college of “Ayn Warqa” founded in 1789 in Ghosta, which soon became an important pillar in the modern higher educational system.
- VII -
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the political situation in Mount Lebanon experienced many major transformations. The interference of the Ottoman governor of Acre, Jazzar Pasha (1777-1804) in the internal Lebanese politics, the fluctuation of the politics of Emir Bashir II (1788 – 1840), the conquest of the Egyptians (1831-1840), all destabilized the relations between Mount-Lebanon components, especially Maronites and Druze and led to several religious clashes between 1840 and 1845. The heterogeneous political system, called Qaim Maqamiyatayn, did not succeed in solving the problems and resulted in many peasants’ revolts, namely in 1858 against feudalism and ended with the 1860 massacres, resulting in the death of more than 12000 Maronites in Mount-Lebanon and Damascus.
Then came to light, the Mutasarrifate system in 1861, undertaken by the European powers in agreement with the Ottomans. This system appointed for the first time a Christian Catholic but non-Lebanese governor to rule Mount-Lebanon. This system ensured stability until World War I.
The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the flourishing of higher education in Beirut, especially with the foundation of the American and Jesuit universities that received the Maronite elites, who were later on involved in political, economic and intellectual life. This era witnessed the flourishing of journals, periodicals and printing presses in all regions.
In fact, the Maronites participated in the Arab enlightenment movement which led to the rise of Arabic language and literature. This movement led to re-establishing Arab nationalism to counter the Ottoman’s Turkification movement.
The Christians, namely the Maronites, adhering to Arab Nationalism associations adopted what the French Revolution called for: freedom, justice, and equality, as they were deeply influenced by the philosophers of Europe’s Age of Enlightenment.
In this same Era, the region saw the growth of sericulture and silk craftsmanship. This has ensured economic autonomy in Mount Lebanon and enriched commercial exchanges. Thus, Mount-Lebanon’s reputation for sericulture grew, reaching the other side of the Mediterranean, namely Marseille and Lyon. This sericulture and silk industry was a real social revolution in this region. It is also important to mention that the exportation of silk from Beirut’s port to Marseille, laid the foundations for maritime transport agencies in Lebanon.
After the 1860 massacres, many Christians, including Maronites, fled to Egypt. However, Antonios Bachaalany, a Maronite from Salima (Baabda district) was the first emigrant to the New World, where he reached the United States in 1854 and died there two years later.
In fact, the emigration increased as a result of the reduction of the mountain’s lands and depriving it of sea ports and agricultural plains, which together gave the Lebanese youth a reason to migrate, in addition to the dream of wealth in transatlantic countries. Soon, a torrent of people who dreamt of starting a life in the new world, were fast to leave their misery. (Dr. Abdullah Mallah)
The emigrants left on the ships anchored at the port of Beirut. These ships had several stops—especially in Egypt—before they reached the port of Marseilles in France. There, the emigrants sometimes had to wait for weeks, until another big ship was ready to carry them to both Americas.
In addition to facing the hardship of the journey, during which the immigrants suffered inhumane treatment, many of them were also victims of theft, looting, and getting lost, upon their arrival to their destinations, especially during the first stage. Some had also been deceived and exploited by brokers and smugglers. Moreover, the immigrants did not know any English, Spanish, or Portuguese, the languages spoken in the countries they reached, and, thus, were incapable of communicating with the locals. Very few of them knew where they were really heading and what awaited them. (Dr. Abdullah Mallah)
Most immigrants during this stage worked in trade, especially as peddlers with purpose-built back-packs. They were known for their boldness, determination, risk-taking, and perseverance. They were, in general, strong minded people who soon were fully integrated into Western societies.
Later on, the emigration reached Africa, Australia, Canada, and Europe.
- VIII –
World War I (1914 – 1918) brought with it scourge, injustice, famine, and darkness. At the end of WWI and despite the misery it was experiencing, Mount Lebanon welcomed tens of thousands of oppressed immigrants from neighboring regions, such as the Armenian and Syriac people, who had fled the massacres and genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire against them.
The state of Greater Lebanon was declared in early September 1920 under the French mandate. The constitution of 1926 gave all citizens equal rights and the freedom of faith and ex
After the independence of Lebanon in 1943, the Lebanese regime, which was the outcome of the National Pact of 1943, enjoyed political stability and economic growth, especially during the presidency of Camille Chamoun (1952 – 1958) and Fouad Chehab (1958-1964). Despite its faults, “political Maronitisim” has offered an advanced and modern liberal, pluralistic, and democratic political experience in this small part of the Levant.
With the signing of the Cairo Agreement in 1969 and after it, the eruption of the civil war in Beirut in 1975—followed by the collapse of the state and the division of the Lebanese army, Christian parties took up arms in an attempt to protect themselves, their existence and survival.
The Taif agreement in 1989 put an end to the civil war, but subjugated Lebanon to Syrian occupation. This situation lasted till 2005, the year that witnessed the assassination of PM Rafic Hariri, followed by the withdrawal of the Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2006. The situation is still politically unstable but all the Lebanese components, including the Maronites, are still trying their best to find the way forward for a better future for Lebanon.
On the ecclesiastical level, between 2003 and 2006, the Maronite Church experienced an exceptional event: The Maronite Patriarchal Synod, which was the largest Maronite synod since 1736 in terms of participation, topics and decisions. One of the most influential decisions taken by this Synod, (is) was to revitalize the relations between the Maronite communities and institutions abroad. This led (the) Patriarch Sfeir to establish (in 2006), under his auspices, the Maronite Foundation in the World in 2006. This foundation aims to urge Lebanese communities to stay connected to their Lebanese and ecclesiastical heritage and roots, and to seek the reclamation of the Lebanese nationality. As a result, the Parliament of Lebanon approved in 2016 a law that allows immigrants of Lebanese origin to reclaim their Lebanese citizenship.
Father Jad Kossaify