Syriac Identity of Lebanon part 20: The KAFNO Genocide Famine of World War I

Alert: article contains shocking images

By Dr Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union–Tur Levnon

Syriac language, Syriac culture, art and awareness were very much alive up till the beginning of the twentieth century. What happened next? During World War I, Lebanon witnessed a genocide, rarely ever spoken of. The events of 1914-1918 were a major Genocide that was planned, organized and meticulously carried out against the entire Christian East, from Diyarbakir to Cilicia, and from Tur Abdin to Tur Levnon (Mount Lebanon). The Genocide decimated all Christians: Armenians, Eastern Syriacs (Assyro-Chaldeans) and Western Syriacs (Syriac-Orthodox, Syriac-Maronites and Roum).

Armenian and Sayfo Genocide: geographical distribution over the Ottoman Empire.

While the Armenian part of the Genocide is internationally recognized as a crime against humanity, the Aramean-Assyro-Chaldean Genocide recognition is still in progress under the name of SAYFO or “[Year of the] Sword” in Syriac.

But what about the KAFNO (“Famine” in Syriac)? The KAFNO Genocide of Mount Lebanon is still totally denied and remains unrecognized. There are those who even still pretend that half of the Christian population of Mount Lebanon died because of an invasion of locusts swarms.

However, the evidences are glaring. Taking advantage of the divisions in Europe, it all began in 1914 with the abolition of the Capitulations between the Christian powers and the Ottoman Porte. These Capitulations, which guaranteed the security of Christians, had been signed in 1536 with François Ier of France to protect Christians in the Ottoman Empire. The abolition of the Capitulations was followed by the abolition of the autonomy of Mount Lebanon which was guaranteed by the organic regulations under the protection of 5 Christian powers: France, Great Britain, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Prussia. As soon as Minister of War Enver Pasha sent the orders to Djamal Pasha they established censorship and proceeded with the requisition of all monasteries belonging to European missionaries, the expulsion of all missionaries, and the Forced Exile of Maronite and non-Maronite bishops who had strong relations and contacts with Europe.

After the Ottoman-Turks had isolated Mount Lebanon, the extermination of its people could start. As soon as 1914, defying the Maronite Church, Djamal Pasha called on the Lebanese to resist the Enemy. Obviously, he defined the enemy the same way he defined identity – very similar to the way it is still taking place in Lebanon today. In 1916, the Ottomans requisitioned all wheat and kerosene, every pack animal and cattle, supposedly for the needs of its military on the front. They proceeded with a total deforestation of Lebanon. They burned all grain silos and requisitioned any construction material.

During the autonomy of the nineteenth century, Mount-Lebanon was prosperous. Its people lived in material wealth and intellectual prosperity. But then, the first disturbing signs started appearing. And it got worse. The Lebanese started first selling their furniture, then their cloths. Soon they would be selling their house’s wood, doors and windows, then the ceilings, their beams and red tiles, and finally the land itself, for very little food. They ended up on the roads in total distress. Some started collecting food and grain from the ground.

With hunger and malnutrition, diseases and epidemics came: Typhus, Cholera, and plague decimated the entire population.

The diseases. Children during KAFNO.

No food could reach any Christian district of Mount Lebanon. Death was everywhere. Every Christian had to die. This is exactly when the Ottomans came up with their Machiavellian idea of the requisition of pharmacies, medicines and even medical doctors. They were deported from all Lebanese villages and cities to practice on the military fronts. Lebanese Phoenician Poet Charles Corm was even jailed for distributing food to the hungry. Syriac Maronite bishops were court-martialed; some were hanged like bishop Hayek.

Ovhannes Kouyoumjian Pasha, the Governor of Mount-Lebanon, was replaced by a Turk. Parliament was dissolved, and the government was replaced by puppets; weak corrupt members of parliament ready to sign anything. This was the introduction of endemic corruption we still suffer from today in Lebanon. The new Governor, Ali Mounif, left Lebanon with 2 million Gold Francs, leaving behind two hundred thousand dead out of a population of 450 thousand Mount-Lebanese. Enver Pasha wanted to eradicate the Armenians by the sword, but the Lebanese by famine.

Lebanon was not Armenia, nor Mesopotamia. Lebanon was too close to Europe. The last Genocide, in 1860, was interrupted by a French intervention with the armies of Napoléon III and the (re-)establishment of autonomy. Now, the KAFNO Genocide through famine seemed the best solution to exterminate the people without risking another European intervention.

50% of the Mount-Lebanese died, and 50% of the survivors emigrated, i.e. they survived because they emigrated. According to historians one-third of the population died. But there is sound evidence in hand showing half of the population, and not one-third, perished:

  • Hardin’s population was 1175, it became only 300 after the Kafno Genocide. 225 died, 650 emigrated.
  • Ebrin: its population was 1300, it became only 320 after the preconceived Kafno Genocide. 630 died (50%). 350 emigrated.
  • Chebtin: its population was 1035, it became 175. 650 died, that is 60%. And 210 emigrated.


The Ottomans tried to blame the origins of this disaster by pointing to the sea blockade imposed by the Allies France and Brittan. Only the French made it clear that the majority of grains and other foods had always reached Mount Lebanon from the Beqaa and the Haran. No military strategy could justify any blockade from this side. In 1916, despite the locust invasion, there was still an important number of wheat silos available. But they were destroyed and burned on the orders of Djemal Pasha.

The superior of the Aintoura College Father Sarloutte, wrote about the atrocities:

“Jémal Pacha n’organisa pas comme pour les Arméniens, des pillages par la violence, des massacres sanglants. L’instrument de supplice dont il se servit, était la hideuse famine …”

“Unlike with the Armenians, Djemal Pasha did not organize looting by violence and bloody massacres… instead the instrument of torture he used was a horrible famine… September 7, 1916”

1916 was the year the people really started to feel the famine. The Jesuits’ mail of 1916 explicitly mentioned an extermination in the wake of the Armenian Genocide. And what about diplomatic correspondence? It too is full of evidences about the genocide through famine. The KAFNO Genocide is first mentioned by French ambassador to Cairo Defrange in correspondence with his Minister of Foreign Affairs Brian. Indeed, the Maronite Diaspora in Cairo was extremely active. In 1916, Minister Brian wrote to Barrere, the French Ambassador in Rome, asking him to mobilize other European countries for the sake of Christian Mount Lebanon.

House in Mount Lebanon

Mount Lebanon was dying. On May 16, 1916, minister Brian asked Washington for help. The French also tried to mobilize the King of Spain as he was considered to be a devout Christian monarch. In all diplomatic correspondence, we read that it was necessary and vital to keep the aid ultra secret to avoid Ottoman opposition. The secret aid plan was initiated. The French base on Arwad island was used for that purpose. The commander of the island was Albert Trabaud. He organized the transfer of gold collected by the Lebanese Diaspora for Bkerké. The gold was carried by night on little boats close to the Lebanese shore where it was relayed by swimmers who handed it to monks who would then carry it to Bkerké.

Bkerké’s bread

There, the Patriarch organized the purchase of bread to be distributed upon the people. Anyone who would get caught taking part in this humanitarian aid campaign, would be directly court-martialed and executed. Charles Corm was arrested and jailed for feeding starving children.

It was not a natural disaster or a consequence of war, it was a planned Famine Genocide, KAFNO.

Children in Mount Lebanon

How can today’s Maronites build a Nation on amnesia? How could they renounce their Syriac language and its crucial importance for their identity? How could they compromise on their history and deny their Martyrs and their memory? The loss of identity is a complete annihilation on all levels.

Our history books only talk about the 40 martyrs of the Place des Canons, that today carries their name: Martyrs’ Square. They were used as a diversion or a bargaining to silence and erase the two hundred thousand Christian victims that didn’t satisfy the plans and the image of Greater Lebanon trying to build itself a new identity in 1943. But the truth refuses to be hidden forever. And the Righteous shall always grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Braving the threat of execution, very courageous initiatives were able to transmit the testimonies of the suffering of our people to our generation. The Jesuits as well as photographer Brahim Naoum Canaan, provided us with the photographs of the Mount Lebanon KAFNO Genocide.

Another witness of this horrific crime, was Gibran Kahlil Gibran. The famous Syriac Maronite writer and poet pointed his finger to the perpetrators when he wrote:

“My people died on the cross. They died while their hands stretched toward the East and West, while the remnants of their eyes stared at the blackness of the firmament. They died silently, for humanity had closed its ears to their cry. They died because they placed trust in all humanity. They died because they did not oppress the oppressors. They died because they were the crushed flowers, and not the crushing feet. They died because they were peace makers. They perished from hunger in a land rich with milk and honey. They died because monsters of Hell arose and destroyed all that their fields grew, and devoured the last provisions in their bins. They died because the vipers and sons of vipers spat out poison into the space where the Holy Cedars and the roses and the jasmine breathe their fragrance.”

Gibran insisted on describing Mount Lebanon as “a land rich with milk and honey” because he wanted to make it very clear: there was no natural food shortage, but what he called Vipers – or the enemy – planned, organized, and caused this hunger. The KAFNO Genocide was not a natural disaster. It was a Crime against Humanity, a Genocide. People died because they were Christians!

Antoine Boustani, author of “Histoire de la Grande Famine”, asks the following questions:

“What happened to the Christians of Mount Lebanon that made them adopt this absurd action conduct?” and, “Where are the tribunals for war crimes? Where are the compensations for the two hundred thousand innocent victims?”

The two hundred thousand Martyrs were erased as well as their cause, their memory and their memorial. Their memorial was the highest peak in the entire region: Qornet Sodé in Syriac, “The Martyrs Summit”. It had been dedicated to the victims of the Genocide during the Mamluk invasions of the end of the thirteenth century. Even here, their memory was erased, along with the victims of the Mamluks: Qornet Sodé was Arabized to Qornet al-Sawda. The Martyrs Summit became the Black Summit, as dark as the future of a people without memory and without identity.

“Where could this cowardice, this hypocrisy come from?”, adds Professor Antoine Boustani. Not holding the criminals responsible is a crime in itself. We know from many witnesses, that the Lebanese dignitaries crawled at the feet of Djemal Pasha instead of resisting. Why does history repeat itself? Boustani asks. What happened after 1920? What happened after we collected and buried our hundreds of thousands of bodies? What path did we choose more specifically in 1943?

To build Grand Liban, was it honestly necessary to sacrifice historical Lebanon? Instead of being considered as an obstacle, historical Lebanon could have been at the heart and the spirit of the new nation. It wasn’t necessary to abandon our Syriac mother tongue, nor to hide our Christian history shaped by the blood of our Martyrs. We cannot build our identity or evolve as a people, nor can we erect a nation on the denigration of the essential, the existential. Elements of identity cannot be part of concessions, bargaining or compromises. It is the essence of who we are. You don’t build a nation on lies; certainly not on amnesia. 50% of our people died, and half the survivals are those who fled the dying country. We are the descendants of half of the half. We are the heirs of those who were dying and crawling in the mud when the French arrived.

Children during KAFNO

French Marshal Ferdinand Foch said:

“Parce qu’un homme sans mémoire est un homme sans vie, un peuple sans mémoire, est un peuple sans avenir.”

“Because a man without memory is a man without life, people without memory are people without future.”

In the same sense Rémy de Gourmont wrote:

“Quand un peuple n’ose plus défendre sa langue, il est mûr pour l’esclavage.”

“When a people no longer dares to defend their language, they are ripe for slavery.”

And what about Eli Wiesel, a Romanian survivor from Auschwitz? He says:

To forget a Holocaust is to kill twice”.

To build Greater Lebanon, we sold everything: Our language and identity, our history and martyrs.

And what about the people? What about the great risks taken by photographer Brahim Naoum Canaan, by the Jesuits and the Syriac Maronite priests and bishops who were court-martialed and executed? All these sacrifices were made to provide us with the data in order to sustain our duty of remembrance. Do we have the right to remain in our attitude of cowards and hypocrites by hiding behind the concept of living together in harmony?


The Genocide of the Christians of the Orient, called Tseghaspanoutioun by the Christian Armenians, Sayfo (Sword) by the Christian Syriacs of Upper Mesopotamia, and Kafno (Famine) by the Christian Syriac Maronites of Mount Lebanon, this Genocide is a duty of remembrance. You cannot massacre a people twice; first by death and then by silencing and forgetting. It is a national duty to be considered at all levels: by the Lebanese state and religious and cultural institutions. Our Martyrs, our language and our identity are all one. “Because a man without memory is a man without life, people without memory are people without future”

When will we dedicate a public square and a memorial?

When will we consecrate a national day for KAFNO?

When will the Syriac Maronite Church commit a day for KAFNO in its liturgical calendar?

Dr Amine Jules Iskandar is an architect and the former president of the Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon. Amine Jules Iskandar has written several articles on the Syriac Maronites, their language, culture, and history. You can follow him @Amineiskandar2.

Article available in Spanish. This is the last part of our series “Syriac Identity of Lebanon” by Amine Jules Iskandar. Also read in the series:

Syriac Identity of Lebanon – part 1: Who are the Syriacs?

Syriac Identity of Lebanon – part 2: Syriac Language and Alphabet

Syriac Identity of Lebanon – part 3: Maronite Patriarchs and the Preservation of Syriac Identity

Syriac Identity of Lebanon – part 4: Why is Spoken Lebanese a Syriac Dialect?

Syriac Identity of Lebanon – part 5: Typical Lebanese Phrases

Syriac Identity of Lebanon – part 6: Syriac Lebanese vocabulary

Syriac Identity of Lebanon – Part 7: Syriac Lebanese Anthroponyms

Syriac Identity of Lebanon – Part 8: Syriac Lebanese Toponyms


You can also watch episode 20 of the associated TV-series as broadcast by Nour Al-Sharq Tv.