Migratory flows (16th–19th century)

Competing faith communities and economic difficulties

Among Middle-Eastern populations, the Christian communities connected to Rome and to France, had enjoyed preferential contacts with Europe. Since the 16th century and the treaty known as the « Capitulations of the Ottoman Empire » signed in 1528 between Francis Ist[1] and Suleiman the Magnificent[2], the French monarchy has enjoyed a status of protector of minorities within the Ottoman Empire. Progressively, the training of part of the Maronite and Melkite clergies in Italy, the creation of schools on the European model, the involvement of Catholic religious congregations, Italian at first then French, in competition with Anglo-Saxon Protestant missions, the foundation of Masonic lodges[3], the reverberations of half a century of European revolutions and the ideas that motivated them were to accelerate a rift between the communities. Two phenomena compounded each other : one directly linked to faith groups' internal activity, the other to political and economical transformations within the Ottoman Empire.

The sparring between Muhammad Ali[4] and the Ottoman Sultan combined with the personal leadership of Emir Bashir II[5], keen to outweigh the power of Acre's pashas, Jezzar Pasha[6] 's in particular, lead to a period of emigration that would reach its peak in the second half of the century during the mutasarrifiyya[7] years (1861-1915). The Egyptians called the migrants “the Syrians” : Shawam[8]. They were, for the most part, Christians hailing from Mount Lebanon ; the faith dimension, though decisive, does not appear to have been an exclusive factor. The dissemination of European medical techniques and improvement in hygiene levels had levered a section of the population into a demographic transitional phase evidenced at first by a noticeable growth as the drop in death rate took hold much more quickly than the drop in birth rate. In mountainous regions this increased the pressure on land ownership for newly formed families : inheritance-driven land splits just cannot go on for ever. The government brought in measures aimed at modernising farming but its endeavours failed. Meanwhile, the taxes fixed by the pashas[9], the emirs[10] and the sheikhs[11] were augmented by the corvée and other duties exacted by feudal lords. Peasant indebtedness, deepened by high interest rates, was compounded by the low cost set on crops. It was next to impossible to buy seeds, animals, agricultural tools. Toiling a relatively low-grade soil, the poorest, whose situation was not far short of destitution chose to leave the land.

From a faith point of view, we have minorities who had over the centuries found refuge in those naturally defended regions – sometimes fighting each other in the process : the Druze[12] settled in the Chouf, Gharb, Matn and Wadi-al-Taym. The Shia[13] , in the Jabal Amel, north of the Bekaa valley and in a few Kesrouan villages. The Orthodox[14] and Melkite[15], a majority presence in the Koura made up with the Sunni[16] the bourgeoisie of cities such as Beirut and Tripoli in particular. The Maronite[17], first concentrated in the northern part of Mount Lebanon moved down towards the Byblos region and the Kesrouan, before settling in most regions of present-day Lebanon forming an archipelago of isolated communities, and thus fragile at times of crisis. Such sporadic tensions did come about as a result of the fight for influence engaged by the European powers           – France and Great Britain foremost among them but also Austria – all relying on patronage networks to back up their position in strategic catchment areas. Two faith groups readily played on their rivalry : the Druze, backed by London and the Maronites close to Paris.

The 1840 massacres occurred a few months after reforms were launched throughout the Ottoman Empire aimed, under European pressure, at setting up a juridico-political system fairer to all millets[18]. They would leave in all memories a lasting resentment stoked by the sense of group-belonging that grew ever keener over the twenty or so years of anarchy associated to the Kaimakamate[19]. The 1860 wave of massacres, which reached Damascus and invited in a French military presence in August signified an even more violent outbreak : it made more than 22,000 victims saw 320 villages destroyed along with hundreds of places of worship. The Maronites came out the most affected community, especially after the second onslaught. For this reason, for a few years, some French diplomats contemplated the settlement of Maronites in Algeria where French colonisation had started, echoed in this by some Maronite clergy. Those projects were not realised as the French government proved more anxious to keep its allies in the region than to provoke a mass exodus.

The Demographic Situation in Lebanon 1860 – 1914

















Boutros LABAKI, “L'émigration libanaise en fin de période ottomane [Lebanese Migration at the end of the Ottoman Period]" in Hannon. Revue libanaise de géographie, V.XIX, 1987, Université Libanaise, Faculté des lettres et sciences humaines, p. 8. Youssef COURBAGE and Philippe FARGUES, La situation démographique au Liban. Analyse des données [The Demographic Situation in Lebanon, data Analysis], Publication of the Institute of Social Sciences Research Centre, Université Libanaise, Beirut, 1974, t. I, p. 29.

The advent of the Mutasarrifiyya regime brought about a period of politico-religious peace : however, at the economic level, things got tougher. The protocol of 5 June 1861 deprived the region of the following cazas (districts) : Beirut, Tripoli, Aklar, Sidon and the Beqaa minus Zahle. It further forbade developing the ports of Jounieh and Byblos (Jbeil) even as the region slid into an ever greater dependence on Mediterranean trade. In half a century the production of food crops had dropped considerably compared to that of silk in yarn or cocoons : in 1913, 40% of Mount Lebanon's arable land was dedicated to mulberry bushes. Spinning was the most important activity for the Lebanese industry but the establishments were run by Europeans, essentially French, or local middlemen in cahoots with Lyons or Marseilles businessmen. Two factors would by and by restrict the markets for local production : first technical progress in Europe which led Italian and Swiss manufacturers to come and sell their products in the region ; next the opening of the Suez Canal which eased the promotion of Japanese and Chinese silk on European markets. Whether in period of growth or slump, the silk industry's benefits to the local populations had not been great. Thus, and for that reason too, emigration represented a lifeline, in that those who had left the country helped their kin survive. The sums sent by the migrants represented 40% of cash income at the turn of the century.

Local Sources of income for the Mutasarrifiyya population of Lebanon on the eve of World War I (In piastres)

Income from cocoon production


Income from silk spinning and by-products


Other farming income


Other trade, manufacturing and industrial income


Tourism and hospitality


Migrants' net remittance




Boutros LABAKI, « L'émigration libanaise en fin de période ottomane [Lebanese Migration at the end of the Ottoman Era]» in Hannon. Revue libanaise de géographie, V.XIX, 1987, Université Libanaise, Faculté des lettres et sciences humaines.

  1. Francis I (1494-1547)

    King of France (1515-1547). A Lover of arts and letters, this king drove the centralisation of his kingdom's administration. He advanced economic growth through sea voyages and waged numerous wars in Europe. His rivalry with Charles V Habsburg lead him to seek closer links with the Ottoman Sultan, bringing about an unforeseen diplomatic configuration. Through the 1528 Act, France obtained trading advantages in Alexandria, privileges that would later be extended to other places and to some subjects of the Empire, hence the principle according to which France saw itself as the protecting power for the Eastern Christians.

  2. Suleiman the Magnificent (cc 1491-1566)

    Sultan (1520-1566) known as “Kanuni” (“ the Lawgiver”) by the Ottomans. He pushed back the empire's borders having seized Belgrade (1521), Rhodes (1522), Budapest (1526) and extended Ottoman domination to the best part of the Hungarian territory before besieging Vienna (1529). He also conquered Azerbaijan, Tabriz et Bagdad. After several years of warfare against Ferdinand of Austria, a peace was signed in 1547, which left Western Hungary inside the Holy Roman Empire.

  3. Masonic lodges

    Free-Masonry had a formal foothold in Beirut and the region from 1861. Several lodges were created, one of which, “Le Liban” was affiliated to the Grand Orient de France. This growth of Free-Masonry, and its promotion of values founded in Philosophical liberalism was fought by the Catholic religious congregations, notably the Jesuits and – to some extent – by the Ulama and other Muslim jurists.

  4. Muhammad Ali or Mehmet Ali (1769-1849)

    Founder of the dynasty that would govern Egypt between 1805 and 1952. Born in Albania, he sought to introduce reforms in all the sectors of Egyptian activity. Allied to the Sultan to fight the Wahhabi and the Greek independentists, he became his enemy as he sought to assert his personal domination over the regions of Palestine and Syria between 1832 and 1840. He was driven out by an uprising and the co-signatories of the Convention of London (15 July 1840).

  5. Bashir II (1767-1851)

    Sovereign from the Shihab dynasty that ruled over Mount Lebanon between 1679 and 1840. His father, who had sought in vain to conquer the emirate, had converted to Christianity. He had Bashir baptised in the Maronite rite. Started in 1789, his reign, caught in the prodromes of the Eastern Question, was turbulent. He nevertheless succeeded in establishing a centralised government in his Palace of Beit ed-Dine to the detriment of local lords.

    The results of his policies were security, peace, prosperity and cultural flowering. His alliance with Muhammad Ali was, however, fatal to the emirate. Bashir was exiled to Malta in 1840, then to Constantinople where he died in 1851. His mortal remains were repatriated to Beit ed-Dine in 1964 in acknowledgment of his political achievements.

  6. Jezzar Pasha

    Ahmed al-Jazzar, a Bosnian born Mamluk, he quitted Egypt to rejoin the Ottoman camp. His nature and his numerous crimes earned him the nickname of “butcher” (Jazzar). In 1775 he was appointed Pasha of Sidon. Having occupied Beirut, he set up his capital in Acre. Under his governorship (1775-1804), the people were burdened with heavy taxation, and set at each other throat ; he had Emir Youssef Chehab killed (1790) and, later, Emir Bashir II deposed several times.

  7. Mutasarrifiyya

    “Governorship”. The 1860 massacres drove the Powers (France Great Britain, Austria-Hungary, Prussia, Russia) and the Ottoman Empire to devise a special administrative regulation establishing the autonomy of Mount Lebanon. This organic statute comprised of 16 articles was signed on 9 June 1861. The governor (Mutasarrif), a Christian but not a Lebanese was to be supported by a central administrative council made up with 12 members giving equal representation to the six main communities: Maronite, Druze, Greek-Catholic, Greek-Orthodox, Sunni and Shia.

  8. Shawam

    A collective word to refer to the Syro Lebanese folk who settled in Egypt under Ottoman rule. They had inhabitted Bilad al-Sham, the Syrian provinces of the Ottoman Empire, including present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and a portion of Southern Turkey.

  9. Pasha

    Honorary title added after the name of those high ranking Ottoman dignitaries to whom it was granted. This title was not hereditary and became the apanage of provincial governors and central government's viziers

  10. Emir or amir (commander/prince)

    In tribal systems this title is given to the group's leader who has the power to rule. In the region of the Ottoman Empire that corresponds to present-day Lebanon, the term denotes the very top of the political hierarchy : the emir ensured law and order, ran the administration, managed finances and, as his vassal, paid the sultan an annual tribute raised on the population without discrimination of creed or clan.

  11. Sheikh (sheik, sheikh)

    In this context, a tribe leader, it was broadly used to mark a rank inferior to that emir.

  12. Druze

    Followers of a shia doctrine derived from Ismailism; it appeared under the rule of the Fatimid dynasty, in Egypt at the beginning of the 11th century, promoted by al-Darazi.

    The doctrine is taught only to a chosen few, the “knowledgeable initiate” and worship takes place in prayer houses that are not mosques. In the Ottoman era, the Lebanon Druze were lead by the Ma'ans, a Druze family, then by a Sunni family, the Shehab. However in the 18th century some members of these families converted to Catholicism. The rivalries between Druze and Maronites, the Ottoman domination, the rise of a European style national sentiment and the economic plight gave rise to massacres the most important of which, in 1860 affected mostly the Christians.

  13. Shia

    The branch of Islam arising from the hardening of the movement known as the “party of Ali” (In Arabic Shīatu ‘Alī), a Caliph considered as an imam by his follower. After Ali's son Husayn, considered the third imam and his partisans were slaughtered by Yazid, son of the governor of Syria, the split between Shia and other Muslims grew deeper. The divergence was politico-religious as the issues bear both on leadership of the Muslim community and the interpretation of the Quran. The Shia have split into several branches according to their adhesion to five (Zaidi), seven (Ismaili) or twelve (twelvers) imams. The Shia in contemporary Lebanon are Twelvers.

  14. Orthodox

    Eastern Christians faithful to the Creed as formulated at the council of Chalcedon and acknowledging the authority of the Byzantine emperor hence the epithet “Melkite” (Imperial) that would be applied to them when they distanced themselves from the Monophysists. Their church counted three self-governing (autocephalous) patriarchates (Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem) acknowledging the honorary primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Byzantine rite is conducted in Arabic and in Greek.

  15. Melkite

    Eastern Orthodox Christians who, in 1724, have broken rank with the Orhtodox church and, in the wake of their Patriarch Cyril VI, joined the Roman Catholic Church. The Ottoman refused to acknowledge this specific community while Eastern Orthodox saw them as dissenters they must fight off.

    This situation explains the necessity the Melkites found themselves in to find if not places of safety, at least environments where they would be free from pressure.

  16. Sunni

    Muslims “of the tradition” (the Sunna). The majority Muslim group, the Sunni have – baring exception – held the religious and political key positions since the foundation of the Omeyad dynasty upon the death of Caliph Ali (661). Until the 9th century, there was a great deal of open debate; thereafter a major normalisation operation was undertaken (language, grammar, theological outlook, literary corpus..) in this framework four schools (Hanifi, Malaki, Shafi'i, Hanbali) stand out in particular for the weigh they give to “consensus”, reasoning by analogy, as against the literal approach to the Quran.

  17. Maronite

    Eastern Christians attached to the tradition of Maron considered as the founding saint and leader of a acetic community settled around Apamea in the Orontes valley (in current-day Syria). At the beginning of the 5th century, followers lived there and kept up his memory and teaching. In the first half of the 8th century, their descendants took the initiative of electing as their own patriarch to the see of Antioch, the monk John Maroun, the founder of the Maronite church. This was opposed by Byzantine Christians (Chalcedonians) and Syriac Christians (Monophysites). To escape persecutions, the Maronites sought elsewhere a refuge, notably in the mountain valleys of Northern Lebanon. In the 12th century, this church stated its communion with the Roman Catholic church and its Patriarch took part in the Lateran Council of 1215.

  18. Millet

    Turkish modelled on the Arabic milla, meaning religion, community, nation. In our context it refers to the faith communities.

  19. Kaymakamate

    The regime brought in 1842 as a result of the confessional confrontations between Druze and Maronites. Two regions were established, each run by its Kaymakam (vice-governor), a Maronite for one, a Druze for the other. An Austrian proposal, it was accepted by the Ottoman Empire, France and Great Britain. Russia had also agreed to it in the hope of advancing the creation of a third region for Orthodox Christians. The regime collapsed after the 1860 massacres.

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