Christianity’s Roots In Lebanon, and The Maronites. By @HorLevnon

By @HorLevnon

Jesus’ disciples carried the promise of teaching the world what Jesus has taught them, to the peoples of the known world of the time. The Lebanese, were the first to receive the sacred message which originated in Jerusalem. There were three reasons for this:

1. Geographical: The historical kingdom is separated from Africa, Asia and Europe by deserts in the south and east and by the Mediterranean in the west. Only in the north it’s linked with southern Lebanon without natural obstacles.

2. Historical: Jesus grew up, preached, and performed most of his miracles in Galilee (What is today northern Israel and southern Lebanon). It is why he is called the “Galilean”. According to the Bible’s dictionary, Galilee is defined as the region Akka and Carmel in the south, Tyre and its regions in the north, Tiberias and Jordan in the east and the coastal plain in the west. This area was called the “Galilee of the Nations”. Evangelists mentioned that Jesus set foot on Lebanon’s land, visiting, preaching. Jesus even addressed the Lebanese directly, inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon, as he visited these two cities (Mark 7:31) and cured the daughter of a “woman of Canaan” (Mathew 15:21–28) and performed his first miracle in Cana of Galilee, 12 kilometres from Tyre (John 2:1 — 12).

3. Cultural: The cultural familiarity of Jesus’ disciples with the lands that surrounded them and their people.

Evangelization of the Lebanese Coastal Cities

As the disciples carried their mission immediate persecution began. Persecution of Christians in Jerusalem forced many followers to seek refuge in Lebanon around 34 A.D. St. Stephen, stoned to death in Jerusalem, was the first martyr of Christianity after Jesus (Acts of the Apostles 7:55–60). It is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles that St. Paul visited Tyre in 58 A.D., met with the disciples and stayed with them for 7 days. They pleaded with him not to go to Jerusalem due to Christian persecution there. (Acts of the Apostles 21:3–6).

Christianity also spread in Sidon as it had in Tyre (City of Melkart). In the Acts it is stated that St. Paul was allowed, on his way to Rome as a prisoner around 60 A.D., to meet his friends in Sidon (Acts of the Apostles 27:3). After Tyre and Sidon, Christianity spread throughout the coastal cities of Lebanon because the disciples had to pass through Lebanon on their way from Jerusalem to Antioch in the north and vice versa. St. Jude visited Beirut after Jesus’ ascension, preached there and built a church in Beirut. St. Peter, the first Pope, participated directly in converting Beirut’s inhabitants and helped spread Christianity among the area. His disciple, St. Euclimis, reported that St. Peter built the Church of Beirut in the middle of the first century (Chabot, J.B. — Chronicles of Michael the Syrian p.147).

In Byblos, the first Church was founded by St. John Mark, one of Jesus’ followers. St. Peter appointed him bishop of the city where he was later martyred (mentioned by the historian Dorothee of Tyre, Syriac, Maronite Martyrology and the Roman Calendar).

On his way to Antioch, St. Peter appointed St. Maron (Maronos) – not to be mistaken with St. Maron Patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church – as the first bishop of Tripoli, personally establishing it as an episcopal seat, and ordained 12 priests there.

The Lebanese offered many martyrs too during the first centuries of Christianity, among whom are St. Tlalaos of Lebanon, St Aquilina of Byblos, St Christian of Tyre, St Theodosia of Tyre, St Kyrilliuos of Baalbek, St Dorothee bishop of Tyre and many others. The disciples founded the first Church of Lebanon, and the bishops of the coastal Lebanese cities continued the task of their ancestors. They organized the affairs of parishioners, clarified dogmas, and had great influence in settling the affairs of the new faith.

Tyre’s bishop Casius participated in the Nicea Council in 197 A.D. which convened to determine the feast date of Easter. Marinus succeeded Casius and was described by the Church historian Eusebius as “the most brilliant of all the bishops of the East” (Eusebe de Cesaree — Histoire Ecclesiastique V. XXV).

Map of the Diocese of the East ca. 400 AD, showing the subordinate provinces and the major cities. Image: Wiki Commons

The Cathedral of Tyre — First Christian Cathedral

Following the publication of the Milano Decree in 313 A.D. which guaranteed religious freedom during the reign of Emperor Constantine, Paulinus the Bishop of Tyre who became head of the Antioch Church in 337 A.D., in 314 A.D. began to build the great Cathedral of Tyre – Christianity’s first Cathedral. It was built 10 years before the Church of Anastasis (Resurrection) and 16 years before the Nativity Church was founded by Empress Helen in 330 A.D. It is likely that the Cathedral was built over the ruins of the temple of Melkart and the huge stones of the temple were used for the Cathedral’s construction. The ceiling of the Cathedral, as was the ceiling of the Phoenician temple of Melkart, was made of the Cedars of Lebanon. The inaugural speech was delivered by Eusebius in front of the great ecclesiastical and political leaders of the region of the time. His description of Tyre’s Cathedral is the oldest description of a Christian church known. Origenius, the greatest Church ancient ecclesiastical writer, was buried behind the altar of the Cathedral of Tyre.

In 1125 A.D., the Crusaders built St Mark’s Church over the ruins of the Tyre Cathedral. Zeinoun I succeeded Paulinus to the Church of Tyre. He participated in the Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. which discussed the question of equality of the Father and Son in essence.

Zeinoun II attended the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. which emphasized on the dogma of Nicean Faith and reaffirmed the Divinity of the Holy Spirit.

Beirut also played a key role in the history of Christianity. Where Tyre was famous for its first Christian Cathedral, Beirut was called the “Mother of all Laws” during the Roman era, because of its Roman Law School. And Beirut became one of the world’s most important centers for Christian theological studies. Church Fathers such as Pamphilus of Beirut, Gregory Thaumaturge, Bishop of Neo-Cesarea, St Gregory of Nazianze, Bishop of Constantinople, and Severius Bishop of Antioch all emerged from Beirut’s theological school. The bishops of Beirut, Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, Jiye, Sarba, Batroun and Arka participated in the first Church councils and contributed effectively in the laying of the foundation of Christianity and spreading its teachings throughout the world (Note 1).

Christianity’s roots in the Bekaa Valley

In Bekaa Valley, Christianity spread to Baalbek, ‘City of Baal’, known as Heliopolis, famous for its ancient temples. In 330 A.D. Emperor Constantine built a huge church over the Phoenician Temple of Baal. The ruins of this church still exist today (Jidejian, N.-Heliopolis, City of the Sun p.63).

Baalbek, Temple of Venus
St. Barbara

The Phoenician Temple of Astarte/Venus, was transformed in 4th century into the Church of St. Barbara. Excavations in northern Bekaa, especially in Ras-Baalbek, have uncovered many churches dating back to the first decades of Christianity. The spread of Christianity in the Lebanese coastal cities and in Bekaa continued despite persecution campaigns led by Roman emperors during the first 300 years of Christianity.

The Lebanese Mountain-Sanctuary for Paganism

When Constantine became emperor, he issued a decree in 313 A.D. known as the Milano Decree, in which he granted Christians freedom to practice their rites, and build churches openly without persecution. Though the freedom of belief was granted to Christian and Pagan faiths alike, the struggle between the two sustained itself until 391 A.D. when emperor Theodosius decreed Christianity as the official religion of state and prohibited Pagan rites. During the reign of Theodosius, paganism suffered a blow in the main cities but remained strong in mountainous villages. The Lebanese Mountain was the stronghold of the ancient Phoenician pagan religion. Phoenician Temples were built on almost every mountain top and in every Lebanese village, and all over the Lebanon Mountain. Lebanon, compared to other countries, had the largest number of these temples that commemorated the ancient Phoenician triad: El, Adon and Astarte which symbolized fertility and ever-renewing life.

The most famous Phoenician temples which still exist and can be easily visited, carry Syriac-Aramaic, and Phoenician names. Among them are those of Afqa, Hardine, Besheele, Sfiri, Ain Ikrine, Bziza, Akroum (Beit Jalouk), Yanouh, Aintoura, Meerab, Beit Meri, Faqra, Shehim, Bisri, Blat, Edde (Batroun), Amioun, Boqsmaya, Akoura, Ehden, Maifouq, Shamat, Maad, Amsheet, Shmar Jbeil, Mishmish, Hadsheet and several others.

The religion of the ancient Lebanese people, their creeds, rites and rituals, were the outcome of their environment and the nature of their land. But Christianity still had to reach the heartland of Lebanese values, well protected in the rugged Lebanese Mountain, which remained a sanctuary for Phoenician paganism. The task of bringing Christianity to the Lebanese Mountain was the undertaking of the followers of St. Maron – and not St Maron himself as many erroneously believe.

Saint Maron

“Historia Religiosa”, written by Theodore of Cyrus around 440 A.D. is the leading source on St. Maron’s biography. The author describes the life of hermits in Cyrus and its vicinity. In chapter 16 the author mentions that St. Maron was one of those hermits who had a tremendous influence on his disciples. Theodore mentioned that when St. Maron decided to lead a life of isolation, he went to a rugged mountain halfway between Cyrus and Aleppo. There was a huge pagan Temple there for the God Nabo, from which a neighboring town and mountain got their name Kfar Nabo (Nabo’s village). St. Maron christened the Temple for Christian worship. The pattern of St. Maron’s life had a great influence on his disciples who followed suit and wrote “as plants of wisdom in the region of Cyrus”. Theodore states, “Maron, embellished the divine chorus of saints. It is he, who had for Christ, planted the garden that now flowers in the region of Cyrus”.

St. John Chrysostom sent him a letter in 405 A.D. expressing his great love and respect and asked St. Maron to pray for him. St. Maron died in 410 A.D. Theodore’s description of St. Maron’s burial place point to the populous town of Barad in the proximity of Kfarnabo. A huge church was built in that town around the beginning of the 5th century.

Patriarch Doueihy states, “When Youhanna Maroun settled in Kfarhai, he built an altar and a monastery to heal the faithful of their illnesses. That’s why the Monastery is called “Rich Moran” Syriac for Maron’s skull”.

Later St. Maron’s skull was taken to Italy. In 1130 A.D. a Benedictine monk came to Lebanon, he was the rector of the Cross monastery near Foligno, Italy. During his visit, he heard about St. Maron’s skull and upon returning home to Italy he published St. Maron’s virtues and miracles in letters and books. A church was built by Italian Christians in Foligno in honor of St. Maron. The Bishop of Foligno carried St. Maron’s skull in procession in Foligno in 1194 A.D. and placed it in a place of honor in the diocese church there. Italians even made a statue of silver in honor of St. Maron for all the miracles and graces they had received when seeking his intercession, and placed his skull in it (Note 2).

From St Maron to the evangelization of the Lebanese-Phoenician Mountain

St. Maron’s mission was continued by his disciples, the most famous of whom was St. Abraham, known as the Apostle of Lebanon. St. Abraham preached Christianity to Mt Lebanon’s inhabitants, during the late 3rd century and died in the early 4th century (422). He’s probably the one who had the greatest impact upon the people of Mt Lebanon. He came from Cyrus on foot, walked down Bekaa Valley and crossed over the Lebanese mountain slopes arriving at the Phoenician mountain, town of Afqa which in Phoenician means “flowing water”. In Afqa, there was a great cave which the Phoenicians considered to be the seat of the Phoenician God, ‘El’. To them, the water that flowed from this river was considered sacred and they called it ‘Adon’ after their young God. Over the fountain which supplements the river, there was a Temple for Astarte, it was one of the most celebrated Phoenician religious sites in Mt Lebanon.

Afqa represents the Phoenician religious principle of Triad (Life, fertility and eternal youth) which the ancient Lebanese deeply believed in.

Every year, Phoenicians used to go to Afqa on religious pilgrimage via Adon valley to celebrate the death and resurrection of their youth-God Adon. These pilgrimages/festivals were known as the “Adonites” due to their rituals and rites which expressed fertility and renewed youth. The Phoenicians of this region, the first Maronites of Mt Lebanon. St. Abraham reached Afqa, and Akoura in particular, via the road between Yammoune (Bekaa Valley) and Akoura. He came as a walnut merchant. The river that flows from the Akoura-Tannourine mountain is called “Walnut River” (Nahr El-Jauz) today.

There St. Abraham rented a house where he and his followers prayed for 4 days. When inhabitants of the town discovered a stranger, and heard his strange prayers they insisted that St. Abraham should leave their town. It happened around this time that government tax collectors were in town to levy and collect taxes. They were harsh and abusive with the townsfolk. St. Abraham was disturbed by the flagrant abuse and harsh treatment of the local people by the tax collectors so he promised to pay the money that had been levied on the town. Amazed by this foreinger’s generosity towards them, the inhabitants turned their ears and hearts to St. Abraham’s words of the Maronite faith and asked him to be their spiritual leader, as they embraced the faith and built a Maronite church in their town. St. Abraham became their priest and spiritual leader and after 3 years St Abraham appointed one of his followers to take his place and returned to his hermitage. He was later appointed Bishop of Harran (Festugiere, A.J.-Antioch Paienne et Chetienne p 315).

When Christianity reached the Phoenician town of Afqa, Adon river’s name was changed to “Abraham’s river” (Nahr Ibrahim) in honor of St. Abraham.

Following the footsteps of St. Abraham, St Simon, another disciple of St. Maron also brought the Maronite faith to the people of Mt Lebanon. He instructed Maronites when they visited him to put up Crosses around the town for protection against wild beasts of the area. Assemani, recalls that the Maronites of Jibbet were still citing the miracle of the Crosses of St. Simon in his day. They would point to the Crosses and call upon St. Simon invoking his blessing. Assemani confirmed that he saw these Crosses of St. Simon in Bsharri, Hasroun, Ehden and Aitou (Debs, T.I.V. p 351; Simonius Assemani, J. — Biblioteca Orientalis, Roma 1719, T.I. p 246).

Many Maronite churches were built in honor of St Simon in northern Lebanon, and on St Simon’s Feast Day, Maronites hold town festivals. Maronite spirituality was embraced by the native Phoenicians of Afqa-Akoura and Jibbet regions, they then spread it to other areas of the Lebanese mountain, as is attested by countless Phoenician temples that were changed to Maronite churches by the native Phoenicians of the region.

Chalcedonian Dogma and “Bet Maron”

In 451 A.D., the 4th Ecumenical Council convened in Chalcedon. It professed the dual nature of Christ (human and divine). This Dogma led to a schism in the Church.

On the one hand, there were the Pope in Rome, the Western Church in general, the Patriarch in Constantinople and Byzantine Romans and the Melkites, known today as the Roman Catholics, and the Maronites at the time following the Diocese of Antioch. On the other hand, there were the Monophysites or ‘Jacobites’. This schism was not only ideological but also political underlying the struggle over power between Constantinople, the new capital of the aspiring Roman Empire and Alexandria which was considered as the second seat of Christianity after Rome.

The largest monastery among some 30 Chalcedonians centers was named in honor of St. Maron the Patriarch of the Maronite Faith, and was the most important among the rest of the Chalcedonian monasteries due to the favor the western Church had for it. Maronites, were strong defenders not only of the Chalcedonian Dogma, but also of the other Christian Churches that advocated the Chalcedonian Dogma in Lebanon, Syria, Jerusalem and Iraq. This type of outspoken and staunch commitment to the Chalcedonian Dogma led to antagonism between Maronites and Monophysites, who solicited the aid of the Byzantine Court, Supported by the Byzantine Emperor Anastase, Bishop Severe became Patriarch of Antioch in 512. He persecuted the followers of the Chalcedonian Dogma, namely the monks of St. Maron’s Monastery.

In 517, Monophysites ambushed some of the Maronite monks and their followers in Kalaat Semaan while they were on their way to St. Simon’s Monastery, some 350 monks were killed.

The massacre led the friends of the deceased to send letters to Church authorities complaining of the atrocities committed. In a letter addressed to Pope Hormidaz dated February 517 A.D., Maronites confirmed their belief in the Chalcedonian Dogma, and their loyalty to the Pope of Rome. Pope Hormidaz answered this letter by encouraging them to be steadfast in the Chalcedonian Dogma (Dau, B. — History of the Maronites p.173)

With this letter from the Pope, monks of St. Maron’s monastery went on to rally support for their cause and in 553, a Council was convened in Constantinople during the reign of Justinian I (527–565), which condemned Patriarch Severe and other Monophysites. Later, Justinian II ordered the reconstruction and fortification of St. Maron’s monastery to potect it against the attacks.

The Byzantine Empire, the Persians and Arabs

During the first half of the 7th century, the Byzantine Empire faced 2 dangers. The Persian (Sassani) forces, conquered Syria, Lebanon and Jerusalem. They burned to the ground the Resurrection Church (Anastasis) in Jerusalem and tens of thousands of Christians through the Holy Land, mainly Chalcedonians. Hardly after the Byzantines managed to drive the Persians back, Arabs, bringing with them their new religion of Islam, invaded the region and took over Jerusalem, Syria, and Egypt. Arabs also attacked Persians and took over Mesopotamia.

Around 638, a new theological creed appeared in the East and it further compounded the dissensions among Christians. It was based on the principle of the “one will of Christ with His dual nature .”

In 680 a 6th Ecumenical Council was convened in Constantinople and decreed that Christ had 2 wills. The Maronite Church agreed with this 6th Council’s decision as they had previously agreed with the Chalcedonian Dogma. These religious and political strifes nourished the Maronite’s sense of independence. They opposed the intervention of the Byzantine Court in the affairs of the Church. Rome encouraged this trend and gradually, Maronites rebelled against the politics of the Byzantine regime, which had compromised their freedoms and independence. The Maronite Church was seeking to free itself from Byzantine rule, maintain faithfulness to the Pope, while respecting traditions and dogmas of the Church of Antioch.

The Mardaites and their resistance

Between 660–690, a militant movement appeared from Amanos and northern Syria down to the mountains of Galilee with Lebanon as its main stronghold. The Byzantines organized this movement to fight the Islamic Umayyads that had been set up as a result of the Arabo-Islamic invasion of the region. This militant movement organized groups of warriors known as ‘Jarajima’ (named after the city of Jarjouma near Antioch).

“The Marada” as Byzantine historians referred to “Jarajima”, merged with the natives of Syria and Lebanon to form a strong army against the Arab Umayyad regime. This merger was accelerated by the fact that both groups spoke Syriac and were Christian, interested in defending themselves from the expansionism of the recently arrived Arabo-Islamic regime. Maronite Marada caused tremendous damage to the Umayyad regime. Mo’awiya, the Umayyad Caliph, was forced to sign a peace treaty with the Marada and with the Byzantine King in which the Arab leader was forced to pay a huge ransom of 3,000 golden dinars annually, 50 Arabian horses and to set free 8,000 prisoners of war. When Abdul Malek Bin Marwan became Caliph In 685, the Maronite Maradas renewed their attacks against the Arabo-Islamic empire from the Lebanese mountains with an army of more than 30,000 strong.

The Umayyad Caliph and Justinian II signed a treaty in which the Byzantine Empire withheld his support to the Marada and agreed to exile 25,000 of them to Armenia in Asia Minor. In return, the Umayyad Caliph agreed to pay 1,000 gold dinars per week, half of the revenues of Cyprus and to offer a horse and a slave per day to the Byzantine Emperor (Dau, B. The History of the Maronites p.216).

This treachery dealt the Maronite resistance forces a great blow and deepened their resentment against the Byzantine Empire. At the same time, it deepened their sense of independence and desire to liberate the Antioch Church from Byzantine influence.

A piece written in 1830: The link between our Phoenician past & Syriac present is Mor Yohanon Morun, who started the Christian resistance in 6th century from the Phoenician fortress of Shmar Jbeil to stop Arab invasions.
Mor Yohanon Morun— The First Maronite Patriarch of Antioch 685 AD

In 685 the Patriarch of Antioch Theophanus died. The Chalcedonian branch of the Antioch Church elected Mor Yohanon Morun, one of the monks of St Maron’s Monastery, Patriarch of Antioch. The Chalcedonians did not consult with the Byzantine Court because of its former abuses of authority in nominating Patriarchs who, because of Persian and Arab invasions into the region, could never reside in Antioch.

Thus Yohanon Morun, Bishop of Batroun and Mount Lebanon in 676, became the First Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and the sixty-third Patriarch of Antioch in direct succession of. St Peter and the first Pope.

The Byzantine Emperor considered this election a violation of his authority. He sent an army to capture Patriarch Yohanon and to put an end to the separatist movement. The army pillaged St Maron’s Monastery and killed 500 Maronite monks. Mar Yohanon Morun managed to escape to the castle in Shmar Jbeil in Lebanon, where he was staying. In his diocese in Batroun, he prepared to resist the Byzantine Emperor’s army.

According to Maronite chronicles, the Patriarch’s nephew Abraham, sent his uncle 12,000 men strong from northwestern Syria. They joined with the native Lebanese Maronites and what was left of the Marada army (Daou, P.B. — op. cit. p 368).

The two opposing armies met in 694 A.D. and the Byzantines were defeated by the Maronite forces. Their leader Maurikios and Markinios were killed and buried in Amioun and Shoueiti-Akkar respectively (Douaihi, P at. E., Al-Sharh al-Mouktasser ed. Fahd, Jounieh 1973 p 68–72).

Yohanon Morun transfered his Patriarchal Seat to Kfarhai, where he had a monastery built to house St Maron’s skull. The Maronites’ independence from the Byzantines led the Arab Umayyads to change their attitude to the Maronites as the Arab Umayyads were in conflict with the Byzantines. In his ‘History of Damascus’ , Ibn Asaker mentions that several Arab Muslim Caliphs lived and died in Maronite monasteries as they were fond of the Maronite monks’ high level of learning and education. Abdul Malek Bin Marwan used to spend his spring times in St Maron’s monastery. Omar Bin Abdulaziz used to stay in St Simon’s Maronite monastery and is buried there. In addition, weddings of some Umayyad princes were held in St Maron’s Monastery (Daou, P.B. — op. cit. p 265 -272).

The relations between the Maronites and the Byzantines improved during the reign of Tiberius. As a result, the Maronites joined the Byzantines and together defeated Arab forces in 669 (Daou, P.B. — op. cit. p 370).

In 702, following the death of the Antiochene Patriarch in Constantinople, the Byzantine Emperor was not keen on appointing another Patriarch. Mor Yohanon Morun, thus became the Patriarch of All of Antioch. The patriarch died in 707 and was buried in Kfarhai, Lebanon. The Maronite Church celebrates his feast day on March 2nd each year.

In 742 the Antioch Church was divided into two distinct Churches:

  • Antioch Chalcedonian Syriac Maronite Church
  • Antioch Chalcedonian Royal Byzantine Church


This division helped lead to the eventual 1054 A.D. succession of the Byzantine Church from Rome. Despite this 1054 A.D. succession from Rome the Maronite Church remained faithful to the Petrine Office and the Church of Rome.

In 938 A.D. following the destruction of St Maron’s Monastery near the Orontes river by the Arab Sultan and the renewed aggression of the Arab forces against the Maronites, the Maronite Patriarch went and lived in Lebanon and managed the affairs of the Maronites in Lebanon.

Troubling Centuries and Lebanon the Refuge

After the fall of the Islamic Umayyads and the rise of the Islamic Abassids in 750 A.D. and continuing into the time of the Crusades, Lebanon and the East in general suffered from instability and turmoil. The neighboring states of the Byzantines, Seljuk Turks and Fatamids fought over this land and exchanged control over it several times (Boulos, J. — History of Lebanon, Beirut 1972, p 273).

During this period the Maronites remained in the relative safety and protection of Lebanon the Mountain and managed to maintain relative autonomy.

“The owners of vast estates in Lebanon, gauded by a desire to become military leaders over their farmers, formed with the encouragement of the clergy, a Maronite nation with a feudal hierarchy. This nation had a strong patriotic feeling, which often manifested itself in times of distress and in support of their Patriarch” (Ristelhueber, R. — Les Traditions Francaises au Liban, Paris, p 19–20).

P. Raphael a historian on Lebanon said “The clergy worked hard to effect spiritual and cultural renovation…they founded a free village school next to each monastery, in the shadow of each church, in the shadow of each oak tree”.

Lammens an observer wrote, “The Maronites were a simplistic people woring, praying, living in peace and dying in grace…This is how they formed themselves. A people serene as their azure and yet hard and tough as the rocks of Lebanon…This is how they chiseled their Mountain and founded a nation.”

The Maronites tilled the land and turned the rugged terrain of Lebanon into a prosperous one. This prosperity was also spiritual in that countless hermits lived in Mount Lebanon as attested by many historians such as Ibn Kutaiba, Al-Makdassi and others (Hayek, P.M. — Dictionnaire de Spiritualite Asceticque et Mystique — Les Maronites Vol X p 631–644).

Moreover, Lebanon became a refuge not just for the Maronite but also for other Christian Churches of the region persecuted by Islamic powers. The persecutions of Christians of the Holy Land contributed to the launching of the Crusades by European Christians in order to retake the Holy Land back from the Islamic conquerors.

The Maronites and the European Crusades

The Crusaders invaded the MidEast under the pretense of protecting the Holy Land and securing the rights of Europeans to make pilgrimages. When the Crusaders reached Arka in 1099, the Maronites were there to welcome them. Jack DiVitri wrote at the time,

“Over the Lebanese hills in Phoenicia, near Byblos, there were multitudes of Christian people well trained in archery. They were called the Maronites, fellow members of the Catholic Church united to Rome.” (Mahfouz, P.J. — ”History of the Maronite Church” imp. pauliste, 1984,p87).

William the Latin Catholic Bishop of Tyre wrote,

“The Maronites were a great and valiant force against the enemies of Christendom.”

Furthermore in 1250 A.D. Maronites assisted Louis IX with 25,000 men strong. King Louis wrote to the Maronite Prince his gratitude, love and admiration for the Maronites’ fidelity to the Popes of Rome, he also stated France’s unwavering support for them (Moubarak, Ab, Y. “Pentalogie Maronite — De S. Louis a Gen. DeGaulle” p771). St Louis had an official regal chartre drawn concerning France’s protection and favor upon the Maronites of Lebanon. It read:

“Chartre of King Louis, King of France, Given to the Maronites, at St Jean D’Acre on May 24 1250 A.D. From Louis the King of France to the Prince of the Maronites of Lebanon and to the Patriarch and Bishops of the Maronite nation. Our hearts were filled with great joy when we saw Simon, your son, coming to us leading 25,000 men strong showing us your feelings of fraternity, friendship and bearing great gifts to us. The bond we first felt with the Maronites in Cyprus is now doubly reinforced here in Lebanon. And we have come to feel as though the Maronite nation, under the guidance of St. Maron, has come to be one in spirit with the French nation because the love and fraternity shown by your people to our people is as strong as the bond that the French feel among each other. Subsequently, it is only just that you be favored with the same rights, privileges and protection that we provide to our own nation. That is why we exhort you, most noble Prince of the Maronites, to do your utmost in serving the welfare of your people and that you seek out only the most noble of men to rule amongst the Maronite people as is done in France. As to you oh kind Patriarch, Bishops, leaders and Maronite people, our hearts rejoice in contemplating the great faith and fervor with which you uphold the Catholic faith and remain in allegiance with the Roman Vicar of Christ, the Pope, the successor of St Peter. We exhort you to maintian this unshakable faith and allegiance. As for us and our successors to the French Throne, we promise to give you and the Maronite nation our special protection just as we provide it to our own French people. And we shall do everything in our power to add to your well-being and prosperity in all circumstances. Stated May 24th, 1250 in the 24th year of our reign in St Jean D’Acre.”

During the European Crusades, relations between Lebanon and Europe were restored after five centuries of suspension and cultural isolation. Once again the Lebanese were ready to ascertain their four-thousand year old cultural vigor and active transaction with the rest of the Mediterranean world. The Crusaders lived in tens of fortresses in Lebanon like that of Sidon, Beaufort, Messeilha. Their back up fort was the “Christian Fort” in Mount Lebanon.

In 1137 the Maronites of Jibbet Bcharre, led the Turkish Prince of Aleppo and his army through their rugged terrain to Tripoli which permitted him to conquer the Crusaders there and capture their prince. The Crusaders’ retaliation precipitated grave animosities. In 1145 the Patriarch, Luke Bnahrini, residing in Yanouh and leading the Maronites of Jibbet Bishareh, Jbeil and Batroun, refused to receive the Papal envoy (Carali, P.B. — ” Les Guerres des Mokadams” — p. 160).

This rift eventually ended in 1182 and later on, the Maronite Patriarch Jeremiah al-Amishiti participated in the Council of Latran in 1215. During the Council of Latran the 4th Crusade was launched to free the Holy Land from its occupiers. Their enemies capitalized on the temporary dissension between the 2 groups. Prince of Aleppo NourEdine Zinki conquered Mouneitra Fort in the Jbeil region in 1165 and Salah Eddine el Ayoubi reached Mouneitra in 1186.

In 1215, the Maronite Patriarch Jermiah Al-Amshiti who had his Seat in Our Lady of Ilije Monastery, recieved a letter of confirmation from Pope Innocent III, that sealed again the ties between the Holy See of Rome and the Maronite Patirarchy after the Maronite revolt of Jibbet Bishareh.

Crusader SeaCastle — Sidon. Built in 1228 on top of a Phoenician temple, the Sea Castle was constructed by the Crusaders to defend Saida’s harbor. The castle was largely destroyed by the Mamluks in 1291 to prevent the Crusaders from re-establishing and was restored by Fakhr el-Dine Maan II in the early 17th century.
Beaufort Castle (Qalaa al-Shaqif) — Arnoun. Situated 800 meters above sea level and one kilometer southeast of the village of Arnoun, Before 1139, the site was a military stronghold of the King of Jerusalem to defend the extreme north of his kingdom.
Citadel de Saint-Gilles. With its main entrance on the north, the huge 12th-century Crusader fortress of Raymond de Saint-Gilles was constructed in 1102 on Mount Pilgrim with the purpose of controlling land trade by blocking the city from the sea.

The Maronites and the Mamluks (1292-1516 A.D.)

After the Mamluks took over Egypt, Jerusalem and Syria (1250–1260), they began preparing to conquer Lebanon and expel the Crusaders. During the siege of Tripoli in 1264, Maronite forces attacked the army of Sultan Az-Zaher and forced the Sultan to retreat and leave the area (Al-Chidiaq, T. — Akhbar el-Aiyan p. 206). The Mamluks then realized that they had to break the Maronite military forces in order to break the Crusaders in Lebanon since it was Mt Lebanon, “the Christian mountain fortress” that was the refuge and protection of the Crusader forces. In 1282 the Mamluks attacked Jibbet but were stopped for 40 days by the defenders led by Patriarch Daniel el-Hadchiti. They later were able to capture the Maronite Patriarch and take over the Jibbet region (Dagher, Y. — Les Patriarches Maronites — Beyrouth 1957 p. 34). The Crusaders withdrew from the East in 1292. The Mamluks tried to conquer the heartland of the Maronites in 1302. This time the Maronite forces were ready for them, With 34,00 combatants and 30 military leaders they lured the Mamluk army into their land near Byblos and crushed them (Douaihi, E — Tarikh el-Azminat — p. 160).

The great Maronite victory did not discourage the Mamluks from attempting to take control of Lebanon again. After the retreat of the Crusaders, Mamluks blocked the Lebanese coast by observation towers like those built at Maamaltein, Ras Nhash, Fidar etc,. in order to stop the Maronites to respond to the call of the sea. In Tripoli the Mamluks converted the Church of St Mary of the Tower into a Muslim mosque. In 1305, the Mamluks attacked Kesserwen, massacred the people and exiled what was left of them.

Some Maronites had accompanied the Crusaders during their retreat from Lebanon to Cyprus. The Crusaders used to attack Egypt and the Lebanese coast in hopes of recapturing the East. Following the attack by the Crusaders against Alexandria, accompanied by Maronite forces, Mamluks raided, in 1365, the mountainous regions of the Maronites and captured the Maronite Patriarch Jibrail of Halouja and burned him alive in front of the Mosque of Tilan in Tripoli. During the Mamluks’ reign, the Maronites eventually through strong resistance became autonomous in managing their internal affairs without any objection by the Mamluks (Boulos, J. — Les Peuples et les Civilisations du Proche Orient -p.89).

Maronites appointed local civilians called Moukadams to run their affairs. The Moukadams of Bsharre were prominent and their authority was hereditary. The Patriarchs were the supreme authority over the people as well as the Moukadams. Due to the relative prevalence of peace, Lebanon prospered. Patriarch Douaihi, the historian of the Maronite nation, described the situation during the reign of the Moukadams:

“Reports of this age point out that the just rule of the Moukadams led to prosperity and to the building of numerous churches and schools despite Mamluk objection.” (Boulos, J — Les peuples et Civilisations du Proche Orient — p. 89)

The rule of Maronite Moukadams of the North lasted until the 17th century when the Khazen family succeeded them during the reign of Prince Fakhreddine II. Relations of the Maronites with the West continued even after the Crusades. The contacts between the Maronite Patriarchy and Rome were accelerated through the appointed bishops by the Pope to run the affairs of Europeans living in Lebanon.

In 1440, Pope Eugenius IV sent a letter of confirmation (Pallium), a mitre and a chasuble to the Maronite Patriarch Youhanna Al-Jaji (Dau, B — history of the Maronites — p 376).

Patriarch Al-Jaji resided in Our Lady’s Monastery in Meyfouk, Ilije. In the same year, the Patriarch moved to Qanoubine Monastery in Qadisha Valley where he expected the protection of the Maronite Moukadams against the threats of the Mamluk governor of Tripoli. Since then, the Papal Pallium became traditional and this meant that the Maronite Church was the only one that remained loyal to Rome in the East following the East-West schism of 1054. The prelates in Rome began to use the term ‘Patriarcha Maronitarum’ referring to the Maronite Patriarch. Patriarch Boulos el-Hadithi was to the first to benefit from the new title in 1469.

Western monarchs often took it upon themselves to send gift of confirmation and good bearing to the Maronite Church and its Patriarchs. These presents are still on display today in the monastery of Kozhaya in Lebanon. Among others to be seen there is a golden and platin ostensory from the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III who had a great appreciation for the Maronite Church and its connection to the Holy Land.

The Maronites and the Ottoman Empire

The Mamluk regime ended when the Ottoman Sultan Selim I defeated the Mamluks in the battle of Marj Dabeq in 1516. In 1517 Sultan Selim I conquered Egypt thus bringing the entire East under his control and beginning the Ottoman era that lasted for 4 centuries (1516–1918). Sultan Selim acknowledged the the role of local authorities and “did not bother to liquidate them because he did not have enough force to do so” (Lammens, P.H. — p. 65–69).

The Maronite Patriarch was the only Christian Patriarch of the entire East exempted from requesting the Sultanic confirmation of authority as the Sultans did not desire to stir up the Maronites’ military ire and rebellion nor that of their European allies.

Moreover, in 1550 the Maronite Patriarch Moussa Al-Akkari (1524–1567) received from Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent the right for the Maronites to enjoy internal autonomy and to not be the target of the Sultan’s oppression. The Sultan’s favored reply was also rooted in the terms of a pact signed in 1535 between Suleiman the Magnificent and the French King Francois I. According to this pact, France was granted certain privileges [capitulations] among which was the protection of any and all the Catholics in the Ottoman Empire (Boulos,J. — Les Peuples et les Cilizations du Proche Orient — p 74). During the reign of Louis XIV(1638–1715) the protection went on to cite the Maronites in particular.

King Louis XIV of France sent a letter on April 28, 1649 to the ambassador in Istanbul confirming the French protection and favor of the Maronites. He ordered his ambassador to demand the Ottoman Sultan’s intervention in favor of the Maronites against the oppression of local Turkish rulers in Lebanon (Moubarac, Y. -Tome II p 229–235).

Title: Letter of Protection delivered by Louis XIV, King of France on April 28, 1649.

This Letter constitutes the Status Charter of the Maronites in relationship to France.

“I, Louis, by the Grace of God, who am the King of France and Navarre, salute all those who shall be the audience of this decree and letter. Let it be known that with the agreement of her highness the Queen, our honored and reigning lady, we both sign, agree and vow to favor and protect the Most Reverend Maronite Patriarch, the Maronite bishops, clergy and people in Lebanon. We would like for the Maronites to feel the full effect of favor and protection of France. For this end we send to the Maronites, our brethern in Christ, Lord Haye Ventalet who is our Chief-Counselor and Ambassador to the Levant and Holy Land. We charge him and all those that will succeed him in his position and duty to be certain that the Maronites are protected and favored in all their needs and circumstances as they are our brthern, the faithful of Our Lord and Friend Jesus Christ, and as such that are to be free to practice their Christian Faith openly and without any inhibition. We also charge the present and future Council and Vice-Council of the French Nation and any present and future French power that bears the French Emblem in the Levant and Holy Land to favor with all their efforts the Maronite Patriarch the Maronite people of Lebanon. We also command these French officials in the Levant and Holy Land to have any Maronite, or any Christian for that matter, from Lebanon, embark openly on French ships that sail to France or anywhere else in Christendom, whether their reasons to come to France or Christendom are to study or other affairs. They are to be treated with kindness and charity. We also ask that the great and magnificent Lords, Dukes and Officers of her Highness. favor and assist the Archbishop of Tripoli, (Lebanon) and all the Maronite prelates and Maronite people, always offering them to do whatever we can to fulfill their requests and needs. Given in St Germain in Loie on April 28, 1649 in the 16th year of our reign.”

During most of the Ottoman Empire’s occupation of Lebanon, the Maronites flourished on all levels, whether academic, commercial, social, politcal and religious, because of their strong ties to the European world that was guaranteed by both the Maronites resistance in Lebanon and European powers abroad. During this period also Europe’s advancements would trickle and then explode to the entire Middle East via the Maronites of Lebanon who served as go-betweens, between the West and the East just as the ancient Lebanese, the Phoenicians, did millenia before in Lebanon.

The Maronite School in Rome (1584)

In order to have direct contacts with the Maronites and foment, intellectual and academic exchange between the Eastern and Western worlds, Pope Gregorius XIII founded the Maronite Clerical School in Rome in 1584. Sarkis Ben Youhanna Al-Razzi was then the Patriarch.

Since the end of the 16th century, many Maronites arrived in Europe’s prominent intellectual and academic circles as teachers of Syriac and Arabic and writers of famous books of grammar and dictionaries for the two languages. Most arrived in Europe via the Maronite School of Rome. The Pope appointed Cardinal Antonio Caraffa trustee of the Maronite Clerical School in Rome (Gemayel, P.N. — ” Les Maronites et l’Education au Liban Du College Maronite de Rome au College de Ayn Warka “ Vol II).

The graduates of this school significantly contributed to the foundation of the Near Eastern Renaissance. Many of them held important posts. European universities such as those of Paris, Rome and Florence. Gabriel Assayhouni (1577–1648) was Professor of Western languages at the College Royal de France. Ibrahim el-Haklani (1594–1664) was chief Custodian of the Library of Eastern Languages in France. Youssef El-Semaani (1687–1718) was the head Translator and Custodian of the Vatican Library.

Moreover some 40 Maronite bishops were among the graduates, 12 of whom became Patriarchs eventually. Patriarch Estephan Douaihi (1630–1704), a graduate of the Maronite School of Rome, is the first historian of the Maronite Nation and the founder of primary schools in the entire MidEast. The first type-set and printing press was introduced to the MidEast in 1610 by a graduate of the same school. The typeset was in Syriac and its first books published in Syriac. Its books were used for Maronite schools and ecclesiastic purposes. The printing press is still on display in the museum of St Antonios Kozhaya Maronite Monastery in Lebanon.

The Maronite School of Rome served as a bridge of social, religious and academic exchange between the East and the West whose fruits flowered in Rome and Europe, Lebanon and the entire East.

@HorLevnon If you’re interested to know more information that go into details: Book Suggestions: The Roots of Christianity in Lebanon. You can find a link here


    1. See Eusebe de Cesaree – cit. X,IV, 37 — 46; Chabot, J.B. — Liv. VII p.249; Tarazi, PH. DE — Histoire du Liban p.17 — 18; Kugener, M.A. PAtrologia Orientalist Vol II p. 1 — 115.
    2. See Theodore of Cyrus — p. 33); Theodore De Cyr et le Monastère de St. Maron p. 29; P. Dau — Histoire des Maronites p 30 — 31.