Maronite Christians and the Third Way

After more than a millennium, the Maronites of Lebanon are still here — along with all their contradictions

Maronite Christians and the Third Way
A cross near the Monastery of Qozhaya, Kadisha/Qadisha Holy Valley, Lebanon/Getty Images

Born in Christendom, nurtured under and alongside Islam, and living under states created by authorities they have both defied and defined themselves through, the Maronites of Lebanon have demonstrated dualism for more than a millennium: They have been ascetic monks and warrior patriarchs, aimless wanderers and obstinate settlers, unruly pastoralists and obedient peasants, arrogant merchants and compassionate statespersons, rabid militants and accommodating moderates, communitarians and nationalists, cosmopolitans and isolationists, and on and on. Every step down from their mountain abode rekindles a desire to climb back. Every step into broader society awakens isolationist impulses. Every retreat from others awakens a desire for association and accommodation. Every achievement or gift carries the seeds of catastrophe. And every such catastrophe, such as the catastrophe they and other Lebanese confronted this holiday season, is destined to fuel the flames of resurrection.

Maronites’ origins are a mystery, of sorts. St. Maron, their spiritual father, was a Syriac ascetic monk who lived in the fourth century of the Common Era. Spending most of his life in the northern Levant and southern Anatolia, Maron believed in the simplicity of spiritualism — and, among other things, in a holistic relationship between his God, Creation, and people. During Maron’s life, his followers spread throughout the broader Levant. At least two followers — including Abraham, the Apostle of Lebanon — prayed and proselytized among polytheists in Mount Lebanon.

Maron died sometime around 410. Almost immediately, followers fought over his corpse, clothes, and relics — and then buried him somewhere in what is now northern Syria. By around 450, Maron’s followers (not yet a coalesced community) had gathered in a “House of Maron,” which a Byzantine emperor had built or endowed. Monks of Maron acquired some influence, thrived, and suffered during those days. They debated doctrine, petitioned patriarchs, and rebuked others for having “fallen” into heresy — or for such grave sins as writing back too late. Attending different Christian councils, which emperors or clerics called to resolve Christian disputes, they struggled as Byzantine authorities enforced orthodoxies, patriarchs competed for influence, and factions fought each other. Indeed, monks of Maron sometimes paid a heavy price: In 517, for instance, other Christians massacred more than 300 monks in the House of Maron. Returning to the monastery, monks found that their fortunes still depended on men who ran empires, churches, and orders — and on a few acts of God.

And then, the Arabs changed everything.

When Prophet Mohammad died in 632, Arab armies under his successors raced out of the Arabian Peninsula, through the Levant, and toward Anatolia and Egypt. A year later, they had crushed Byzantine forces at Yarmouk. A decade later, they had conquered Damascus, Jerusalem, Egypt, and more. A century later, they were storming Spain, skirmishing in France, and fighting in Central Asia. Maronites were there. They saw invaders kill, destroy, and remake a world — and, in a sense, help make them a community. They heard riders use their magnification of God as a battle cry: “God is great!” They watched commanders accept oaths of allegiance, forswear crowns, and pray in shared holy places. With an ecumenical spirit that Maronites felt the Byzantines then lacked, Muawiya, an Arab Muslim commander, then caliph, rallied Christian tribesman, prayed at Golgotha’s churches, and knelt before the Tomb of Mary in Gethsemane. He even got Muslims and Maronites a little more acquainted: In 659, Muawiya ordered monks of “the House of Lord Maron” and Jacobite Christians to debate doctrine in his presence. (The Maronites won, according to the Maronites.)

Over centuries, Byzantine emperors, Muslim rulers, and others all conquered and reconquered the Levant. As different rulers came and went, Christians lived in the balance. They fought alongside and against, then lived among, different folks as they and their children changed sides or faiths. Some began to elect their own patriarchs amid disruptions, displacements, and good old-fashioned schisms. At some point, the people of Maron elected their own patriarch. They kept moving to Mount Lebanon, mingling with others — Christians from the Levantine coast, Arab tribespeople, Anatolian frontier folk, Abyssinians, Circassians, and more — over centuries. Settling on rocky crags, they made sanctuaries. Climbing up to caves, they made churches. The people of Maron had found Lebanon, which would in time make them a community of Maronites.

In 1099, Maronites met men from the West: Crusaders. Audacious, ambitious, and zealous, these Crusaders would control the Levantine coast for two centuries. The Maronites were still a mystery to those around them when the Latins began their long march in Europe: “the people of the mountain,” “country folk,” a “nation of brigands,” and men of “blood” were how they were known. As the Crusaders marched past Tripoli, Maronites descended from “high up in the lofty range of Lebanon,” offered “congratulations to the pilgrims,” and pointed them to Jerusalem. A “stalwart race” of “valiant fighters,” according to William of Tyre, Maronites sent the Latins scouts, guides, archers, and riders “of great service to the Christians in the difficult engagements which they so frequently had with the enemy.”

Over time, Latins and Maronites developed more complex relationships. Different Maronites fought with or against them, remained aloof, or betrayed them — or just bristled at the latest authority in their area. In the hills and towns such as Tripoli or Byblos, they integrated into society — acquiring a status below the Latins and, in some spheres, above other locals. Maronite clerics rubbed shoulders with Genoese merchants, who in turn interfered in their church’s affairs. Other Maronites high up in a remote land, however, looked warily at arriving Crusaders and their Latin successors. They skirmished with them and blasted other Maronites who worked to integrate their church with Rome.

Eventually, though, Latins and Maronites mingled in the mountains. Latin lords resided in the Maronite mountain towns, where Latin doctors terrorized the locals with primitive medicine. People built churches in the Latin style, then used brass church bells instead of wooden boards. They married and had children: Pullani, or kids of mixed heritage, sometimes mocked for being descendants of Latins who had gone native. All the while, Maronites and Latins went to war. From two posts in the peaks, they launched major campaigns in 1115 and 1175, raided in the plains for decades, and fended off Shiite riders who returned their kindnesses. They also found themselves warding off new Sunni rulers trying to take back holy lands they had lost. If there were Maronites and there were Maronites, even under Christian rule, they would all soon suffer. New conquerors were coming for the mountain.

Maronites were again living in an Islamic empire. And they felt it

The Crusaders eventually lost and left. Most Maronites stayed behind, in Mount Lebanon, inaccessible, intermittently relevant, and “honeycombed with schismatics,” as Albert Hourani put it. When the Mamluk Islamic armies came, they came for everyone, especially the schismatics. They killed and expelled Shiites, for instance, or clashed with Druze who had generally fought the Crusaders. And they killed Maronites. To punish Maronite sentinels and raiders, the commander Baibars, the sultan Qalawun, and other Mamluk commanders attacked Maronites at least 10 times from the 1260s to about 1310. They presented plunder and prisoners to their sultan, cut down trees, and destroyed churches — then later beheaded the prisoners. In another campaign, the Mamluks sacked five large Maronite towns, raided villages and hamlets, burned churches, and looted monasteries — killing thousands of people in the process. In the 1430s, Mamluk authorities burned a Maronite patriarch at the stake. At times, Muslim mobs ransacked Maronite churches, monasteries, and clergymen’s homes. Maronites were again living in an Islamic empire. And they felt it.

Over time, though, Maronites fared as differently under the Mamluks as they had under other empires. Sometimes, Maronites did well enough. They gave out the beatings they had been taking, benefited from imperial neglect, or even received imperial investitures. Teaming up with Shiites and Druze, for instance, they cut down Mamluk riders, ransomed off captives to sultans, and picked off Mamluks fleeing incoming Mongols. As the Mamluks consolidated control and stopped their reprisal raids, Maronite chieftains reasserted themselves in the crescent of villages around Qadisha Valley. After that, as Mamluk factions struggled in Cairo and Damascus, they even empowered or enabled Maronite chieftains to ignore administrators in town.

Finding freedom, Maronites promptly feuded with each other — victims of neither empire nor Islam, but of themselves. For centuries, chieftains fought chieftains — mixing personal pride, political ambition, and social entitlement — as factions fought factions. Widows avenged their dead husbands. They all schemed with people from across the way — Shiite nobles, Jacobite evangelists, Orthodox traders, and Maronites from other hills — to kill killers, then murder children to prevent them from seeking their own revenge.

Most of the time, Maronites hunted, herded goats, or drove mules. They began to farm and trade more. They lived in their mountain until others pulled them onto the world once again.

Maronites began resurrecting themselves and their community five centuries ago. As popes, Ottomans, and patriarchs pushed and pulled, the Maronites rejoined a wider world they have since inhabited: mountain and sea, Mediterranean and Arab, Christian and Muslim, metropole and province, Eastern and Western.

But Maronites needed time — a lot of it. Despite having a “wonderful change of heart” during the Crusades, they feuded with each other over their relationship with Rome. A Maronite patriarch entered or reaffirmed union with Rome in 1180 and attended the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Returning with a papal bull, materials, and gifts, he began to integrate institutions earnestly. Maronites promptly split their own church. By the 1280s, they had two patriarchs: a unionist patriarch in the hills and an autonomist patriarch in the peaks. As ever, others sorted it out for them. Rampaging in the mountains, the Mamluks killed off the autonomist patriarch and massacred Maronites who had been rebelling against Rome. However, as the Mamluks also drove Maronites further into the high mountains and above authority, chieftains and clergy ended up holding themselves hostages to a solitude they saw as freedom. They thus remained unionists in principle and autonomists in practice.

But then, a pope wrote a letter. In 1510, Pope Leo X described Maronites — or, their church — as a “rose among thorns.” Struggling with others on the Italian peninsula, then through the European Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Thirty Years’ War, Vatican leaders repeatedly reached out to Maronites to protect their position in the east. They helped reorganize institutions. They heard pleas and offered advice. Writing to their “dear sons,” the “secular lords” of Maron, popes entreated Maronite chieftains to respect, love, and preserve their patriarchs — as they loved and respected Christ, the true Church, and the popes themselves, of course. Maronite monks, clergy, and scholars studied and worked in Rome and then Paris, where they connected with French kings and cardinals who also saw Maronites as partners in the east. Returning to Mount Lebanon, they established monastic orders, built libraries, started schools, and began to share their own discoveries and theories with partners in the west.

The Ottomans conquered the area in 1516. Garrisoning troops, granting allies land, and elevating or recognizing new imperial intermediaries, the Ottomans ended up constraining the Maronite chieftains. While Maronite patriarchs refused to apply for recognition, permission, or investiture from Islamic authorities for centuries, they nonetheless became influential as the community’s representatives within the empire — again demonstrating the dualism in Maronite relations with Islam, empire, authority, and especially Islamic imperial authority.

By the 1700s, the Maronite Church was controlling spiritual affairs, ecclesiastical issues, marriage, property, tax, inheritance, commerce, publication, and more. Once chieftains beholden to other chieftains, patriarchs now had a proper institution. Having once hopped from hill to hill, captives in their own mountain, clergymen began creating their own Mediterranean realm as others — in island raids, shore landings, and naval clashes cresting in Lepanto — tried to split the sea.

Leaving the community’s cradle over centuries, Maronites met others who straddled the mountain and Mediterranean, including a man who turned out to be one of the greatest builders of this new House of Maron. He was no pope or caliph. He was not a chieftain or cleric. He was not even a Maronite. The man was a prince — and, moreover — a Druze. His name was Fakhreddin.

Fakhreddin II found his family, and Mount Lebanon, in tatters. His father was dead. His relatives were humiliated, while factions within his Druze community — another, and indeed the other, “people of the mountain” — fought each other while taking on the Ottomans. And he was only a child.

After years in the care of a Maronite noble, who helped educate him at his mother’s request, Fakhreddin accepted an Ottoman appointment to administer part of the mountain, as his ancestors once did. He ended up remaking the Levant for four decades. From 1590 to 1633, Fakhreddin — an enlightened politician, talented warmaker, and brilliant renovator of buildings, towns, and communities alike — lived in and out of power, waged war and cut deals, and acquired and lost influence.

All the while, Fakhreddin empowered and relied on Maronites. They reciprocated. He appointed Maronites as advisers, administrators, and diplomats; they helped him manage the mountain and, through their clergy, build relationships throughout Europe. He invited Maronites to till the soil in southern mountains; they made those mountains into terraced, fertile fields. He put them to work in the silk trade; they made factories run, boosting everyone’s economy. He donated land to the Maronite Church and monastic orders; they established schools and enterprises, improving literacy and generating income. He filled his militia, modeled on those in Italian city-states, with Maronites; more than 20,000 of them joined his force. They went with him into exile, which the Ottomans imposed after discovering his secret deals with Florentine leaders.

And, with him, they returned to power. After five years abroad, Fakhreddin came back, consolidated control in the mountains, and brought Druze nobles and Maronite chieftains to heel. Then, he really went to work. He eventually reigned from Antioch to Jerusalem, held sway from Aleppo to Acre, and paraded through the ruins of Baalbek, Aanjar, and Palmyra.

As the Ottomans resolved struggles elsewhere, they turned to deal with this imperial intermediary — or mere tax-collecting administrator — masquerading as lord of the Levant. Overrunning his principality, they went hunting for him in the mountains. Eventually, the Ottomans captured, imprisoned, and killed him. Learning and teaching a dark lesson, the Ottomans also killed his sons.

Back on the mountain, Fakhreddin lived in imprints beyond mere memories and myths through his choices and achievements that shaped people’s lives for four centuries. He was not the maker of the Maronites, but he helped put them on a path — through migration, farming, trade, and bittersweet brotherhood with other peoples of the mountain — to the Lebanon they now call home.

By the mid-19th century, Maronites were radically remaking the old order — sometimes agitating, sometimes defending themselves. While they were a majority throughout the mountain, they did not live there alone. The Druze, for instance, still lived throughout the mountain’s southern ranges. Not only did Druze peasants have their own ambitions and fears in diverse areas, but Druze lords were the most powerful leaders in Mount Lebanon.

For decades, Maronites, Druze, and others collided in conflicts shaped by imperial instability, elite intransigence, and socioeconomic tensions. In the 1840s, Maronite fighters held their own in a complicated conflict. In 1860, the Druze just won what had become a sectarian struggle. They consolidated command, targeted town after town, and beat their opponents in pitched battles, sieges, and skirmishes. And they massacred more people: In a summer full of crimes and sins, with fighters on each side tearing up the false poetry of war and ripping Lebanon back into history, most of the victims were Maronites.

Ultimately, around 20,000 Christians perished in the Levant in the summer of 1860. Alarmed, Europeans compelled the Ottomans to designate Mount Lebanon an autonomous area under an imperial, non-Maronite Christian governor and intercommunal council.

Everyone soon went back to life, in Levantine fashion. People who’d murdered each other’s families went back to farming each other’s lands, trading in each other’s markets, and attending each other’s festivals. From 1861 to 1914, they settled down for a “long peace.” People prospered, while those in the mountain and Beirut continued to interact more intimately — again, making money by day while brawling by night. Maronites continued their collective ascent. If they had long been a community, they were now becoming a nation. And they wanted a state.

But they would have an empire for a little while longer — and with a vicious end. As the long peace at home and the concert of states abroad collapsed in World War I, people in Mount Lebanon suffered through war, slaughter, disease, and hunger all at once. They endured their Great Famine (as Allies blockaded the coast and Ottomans seized food supplies), the influenza virus, and a brief return of thuggish Ottoman rule in Mount Lebanon and Beirut. All in all, more than a third of Mount Lebanon’s people died. Everyone else was scarred, forever. United in their tragedies, Maronites and those they had met could now, and perhaps only now, turn their land into a home.

While helping to create, consecrate, and then fight over today’s Lebanon, where they have just commemorated a centennial of Christmases, Maronites have continued to demonstrate their dualism — defying their own imaginations and others’ characterizations, merely by living.

They have been the modernizers, teachers, and poets of Arabic, helping spark the Arab Renaissance in the 19th century, drafting dictionaries, forming the Mahjar literary movement of Arab diaspora, and writing great stanzas for Arab capitals. At the same time, they have revived old and invented new alphabets for languages they don’t speak or hear; rejected an Arab ethnic identity for excluding them, either in reality or in their perception; and quested for identities to set themselves apart — thereby, again, animating desires for broader belonging and for isolation. They have helped create Lebanese nationalism, pan-Syrianism, pan-Arabism, and neo-Ottomanism, favoring a confederal empire littered with autonomous areas for its peoples. They have been opponents and victims of all these ideas — often adopted, attacked, or distorted by people who blast others for simply believing that some ideas better reflect their reality than other ideas do.

The Maronites have been fathers of today’s Lebanon: Maronite patriarch Elias Howayek attended the Versailles peace conference and helped usher in the Lebanese state. They have also been arch-advocates against Lebanon: The patriarch’s own brother, a prominent priest, toured the Levant preaching to people in favor of some sort of greater Syria.

They have celebrated a young Camille Chamoun, a prince of the Arabs, founder of the republic, crusader against corruption, dynamic reformer, statesman of the world, and early president of Lebanon once it became a republic. They have also celebrated an older Camille Chamoun — a very different man, as a communal nationalist, obstinate troublemaker, myopic operator, and hostage to fellow Maronite friends who eventually destroyed him. Indeed, they have fought for and against every manifestation of Camille Chamoun — the quintessential Maronite, who in his longevity, complexity, achievements, and failures allowed members of his community to face him like children choosing to dance or fight with their own shadows.

They have had Patriarchs of the East, Patriarchs of the Arabs, Patriarchs of the Muslims — such as the famed “Patriarch Mohammad” — the Maronite patriarch seemingly never, to his or any people, just a Patriarch of the Maronites. Once in a while, they have had true Patriarchs of Lebanon — men who, for instance, understood and declared what their Maronites and all Lebanese have yet to truly appreciate: Lebanon can never be theirs, but they can all be for Lebanon.

They have danced with devils, plunging themselves and others into darkness. They have suffered through the stations of war, being dragged from humiliation to humiliation by others — outside and within their community — who thrived in the distorted meritocracy of glorified crime. They have summoned angels, keeping the flame of hope and light of liberty when others had neither the inclination nor will to do so. And, after all of that, they’re right back with their chieftains today: “Geagea or Aoun?” Maronites and other Lebanese — of course, never more united than in misery — now animate a dualism made deeper and more painful because of where, how, and with whom they all live; irrelevance and significance.

In a sense, they’re irrelevant. What’s worse, they — new secular lords of Maron, and indeed other leaders of Lebanon — mistake their own irrelevance for invincibility and their fiefdoms’ insignificance for inviolability. Standing astride their mountain, they tell superpowers, occupiers, the state, and other Lebanese where the world ends and where each little slice of heaven begins, once again holding themselves and their people as hostages to a solitude they paint as freedom.

They do not find themselves fretting over pharaohs and caliphs, as each oppressor in a suit, uniform, or cloak breeds the next — all running roughshod over minorities they purport to protect, either as peoples of the crown or as peoples of the book

In another sense, they’re significant — as a community, but also as a symbol of something greater that survives in the Abrahamic East. Of all the Christians still living in the Abrahamic East after centuries of conversion, contraction, persecution, or emigration, members of only one community — a small minority within the minority, no less — live in a balance of sorts. They do not feel compelled to live under, or choose to hide behind, dictators slaughtering others they deem subhuman for being Muslim and/or for forming a majority. They do not find themselves fretting over pharaohs and caliphs, as each oppressor in a suit, uniform, or cloak breeds the next — all running roughshod over minorities they purport to protect, either as peoples of the crown or as peoples of the book. They do not sit as living relics for others to brandish, admire, demolish, fetishize, or forget.

Those people are Maronites, and other Christians of the East living alongside them. In turn, these people — not ideally, not inevitably, and hopefully not always — live in only one place where they’re not totems, hostages, imprints, memories, or ghosts. They live in only one place where they’re not the Other People — Christians in the Islamic sphere or Easterners in the Western sphere. They live in the one place where they still squabble with any meaning, asserting themselves and accommodating others who in turn do the same, their leaders all as impactful and as idiotic as those of their fellows in society. That place is Lebanon — neither a heaven nor hell, neither a polity based on citizenship nor an entity based on eradication of others.

And, so, they are the Maronites of Lebanon. Imagining themselves to be a step away from exodus or a campaign away from annihilation, they have nonetheless lived in Lebanon for more than a millennium — just like, and alongside, others who came to see themselves as Lebanese. Suffering through hardships, be they self-inflicted or imposed, they have made it through another year — commemorating, though not necessarily celebrating, a century of Christmases in the state they still call home.
They bear their crosses; they wield their spears. They are Lebanese. And they are all still here.

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