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  • Lebanon: A History, 600–2011 by William Harris
  • Peter Sluglett (bio)
Lebanon: A History, 600–2011, by William Harris. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 360 pages.

This book is a welcome addition to the historiography of the modern Middle East. It is based mostly on secondary sources, although the author has made intelligent use of 20th century editions of Arabic chronicles for all periods in Lebanese history (see pp. 323–34). The story is compelling, and for the most part he tells it well. It is an impressive achievement in a number of ways: in the first place, Harris seems as much at home in the medieval and early modern periods as he is in the more modern and contemporary period, about which he has written quite extensively. Secondly, what is quite a long book has been divided into two more or less exact halves, from 600–1842 and from 1842 to the present. This means that the premodern period is discussed in some detail, in, as it were, its own right, rather than as a quick or perfunctory prolegomenon to the modern period. Third, Harris has devised a wonderful collection of maps, which appear on pp. 41, 74, 97, 118, 152, 161, 241, and 273 (I list them here because for some reason neither the maps, nor the tables, nor the many telling illustrations are listed in the table of contents). Fourth, partly through the maps and partly through closely reasoned analysis of medieval chronicles, Ottoman censuses and other demographic material, Harris shows the changes and continuities in the numerical strength, location, and political-military power of the main communities (Druze, Maronites, Shi‘a, Sunnis) from medieval to modern times.

Almost inevitably, the book has defects, but they are not such as to detract from the book’s overall standing. Perhaps the most pervasive problem is the dense narrative style, which sometimes leads to the sacrifice of analysis for the sake of detail. For example, in the early part of the book there is quite a lot of information on the theological controversies of the early church, in particular about the orthodoxy of the Mardaites and the Maronites — that is, the extent that their beliefs did or did not conform to the definition of the nature of Christ’s “separate and equal divine and human natures” (p. 32) laid down at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the doctrine to which, incidentally, Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox adhere to this day. However, it seems that Mardaites/Jacobites/Monophysites “became the majority in the Levant by the early seventh century” (p. 32), which may have reflected some sort of anti-Byzantine localism. To try to corral the faithful, the advisors of the Emperor Heraclius came up with the compromise of Monothelitism, in which Christ has two natures but a single will, which “eventually” segued into Maronite doctrine, which itself had become fairly close to Catholicism at least by the 16th century: “By Ottoman times the Maronites were well cemented to the Roman church” (p. 93), although it seems that the long arm of Jacobitism still held influence (pp. 93–95).

As anyone who has grappled with these ideas (let alone tried to explain them to another person) will be aware, the complexity of these matters cannot just be wished away. But the story does raise interesting questions: after the Arab conquest, it clearly did not matter to which sect an individual belonged, since the Muslims were obviously not interested in the niceties of Christian doctrine. Equally, association with the Catholic Church in the 16th century would give the Maronites a useful external patron — but what were the factors encouraging these two fairly small groups of almost entirely illiterate people to stick to two “heretical sects” (Jacobitism and Monothelitism) for so many centuries? Did it have something to with social class? Location? Particular occupation?

Similarly, it is difficult for the reader to follow the splits among the various Maronite politicians in the late 20th century, between Camille Chamoun, on the one hand and Pierre Gemayel and the Phalangists, since the story (Chapters 5 and 6) is told largely in terms of personalities and x snubbing...


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