POPULATION: 1.2 million
LANGUAGE: Arabic; French; English
RELIGION: Maronite (Uniate Catholicism)
The Maronites believe that their heritage dates back to the time of Jesus. They were one of the Christian sects in the Middle East to remain intact after the Islamic revolution of the seventh century AD . At first the Maronites welcomed the Muslims as saviors from the hated Byzantine rulers. However, when the European Crusaders attacked Alexandria, the Maronites supported them. This caused the Muslims to question Maronite loyalty and punish them along with the rest of the Christians. The Maronites eventually fled to the hills of Mount Lebanon to escape persecution by the Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth century. They stubbornly survived there for centuries. Taking refuge in small, isolated communities, the Maronites became clannish and fiercely self-protective.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the Ottomans divided Lebanon into two states, one Christian and one Druze (a Muslim sect). The French supported the Maronites in their war with the British-supported Druze. The French again allied themselves with the Maronites from 1920 to 1943. This cemented the Maronite identification with the West, particularly France. This "Western" identity has led to a sense of separateness from other Arabs, and resentment on the part of their neighbors. Recently, however, Maronites have become more comfortable with their Lebanese identity.
The Maronites have campaigned for an independent homeland since the seventh century AD . However, they are no longer attempting to convert Lebanon into a Maronite state.
After surviving in the high mountains of northern Lebanon for many centuries, the Maronites spread southward during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Maronite Church owned one-fourth to one-third of all the land in Mount Lebanon. During the twentieth century, some Maronites began to move out of the mountains to the cities and coastal plains, especially to Beirut.
During the recent Lebanese civil war, more than 600,000 Maronites were driven out of their homes and off their lands. The Maronite population is about 1.2 million people. Maronites are concentrated in East Beirut, while Muslim Shi'ites live primarily in West Beirut.
Although Arabic is the official language of Lebanon, many Maronites also speak French. Syriac is used for the church liturgy, but Maronites have used Arabic for church records since their beginnings.
The door of the Maronite church in the town of Bayt Meri near Beirut is never locked because it is believed that the hand of any thief there would be miraculously paralyzed.
The Maronites are Uniate Catholics. They recognize the authority of the Roman Catholic pope, but they have their own form of worship. Their priests can marry, and monks and nuns are housed in the same building. The Maronites have continued to use the Syriac language for their liturgy instead of Latin. The Maronites hold the orthodox view that Christ has two natures, one human and one divine, that are inseparable yet distinct. Christ is at one with God in his divine nature, and at one with humanity in his human nature. The Qadisha (Holy) Valley is the Maronites' spiritual center.
The Maronites celebrate the usual Christian holidays, such as Christmas (December 25), Easter (in March or April), the Feast of the Ascension (May 15), and the Feast of the Assumption (August 15). On the Festival of the Cross (September 14), Maronites set fires on high places all over Mount Lebanon and light candles at home and in churches. A special Maronite holy day is St. Maroun's Day (February 9), the feast of the Maronites' patron saint, St. John Maroun, who lived in the fifth century AD .
The Maronites mark major life events, such as birth, marriage, and death, within the traditions of Christianity.
Living for centuries in isolated mountain communities has led the Maronites to develop both clan loyalties and fierce feuding.
Maronite homes are small and simple, yet elegant, often with a balcony overlooking the mountains or the Mediterranean Sea. During the recent Lebanese civil war, many Maronites fled from the cities (especially Beirut) back to their ancestral homes in Mount Lebanon. As a result, business there boomed, housing construction soared, and the area became quite prosperous.
The Maronites, like other Arabs in Lebanon, still have a strong sense of extended family. Men spend quite a bit of time at home with the women and children. There is some intermarriage between Maronites and members of other religious groups. Divorce is forbidden by Maronite law.
Maronites wear Western-style clothing, as do other cultural groups in Lebanon. The more-devout Maronites tend to wear conservative clothing.
Maronites eat typical Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food. For example, breakfast might consist of either Lebanese flatbread or French croissants with cheese and coffee or tea. Lunches and dinners usually consist of meat with onion, spices, and rice. Mutton (lamb meat) is often ground and served as meatballs or in stews. It is also mixed with rice and vegetables and rolled in grape leaves. Maronites like to eat mezze (small portions of a wide variety of foods). Also popular is arak, the anise-flavored alcohol produced in the region.
Most Maronites today still receive their primary and secondary schooling in French-language schools. Then they generally go to the University of St. Joseph in Beirut, founded by French Jesuits in 1875.
Today all Lebanese students must know Arabic in order to graduate from secondary school. Many older Maronites, however, speak only French.
The Maronites have strong cultural ties to the West. In 1585 a religious school for Maronite men was established in Rome. A short time later, European Catholic missionaries settled in Lebanon and began schools there.
Maronites have long held powerful positions in Lebanese government, business, and education. Many are wealthy. With the aid of the French, the Maronites developed Mount Lebanon's greatest moneymaking venture of the past—the silk industry. The mountainsides are dotted with old silk-reeling factories.
Soccer, basketball, and volleyball are popular. Cross-country running, particularly in the mountains, and the martial arts are widely practiced. Skiing, rock climbing, and cave exploration are also enjoyed in the mountains. Maronites enjoy swimming and fishing in the lakes, rivers, or Mediterranean Sea.
Lebanon has over fifty television stations, all of them commercial. One station shows all Christian programming, another all Muslim. Lebanese cinemas show American and European films. Lebanon itself also has an active filmmaking industry. Like other Lebanese, Maronites enjoy going to the theater. They particularly like comedies that poke fun at government leaders and Lebanese society.
Maronites play board games (especially Monopoly), chess, checkers, card games, and backgammon, which is called tawleh (literally, "table").
Traditional crafts include basketry, carpet-weaving, ceramics and pottery, copper-and metalworking, embroidery, glass blowing, and gold-and silversmithing. Lebanon is also known for its finely crafted church bells.
Within the Maronite community, centuries of clannish mountain life have led to perpetual feuding, continuing today among the different Maronite militias.
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Marston, Elsa. Lebanon: New Light in an Ancient Land . New York: Dillon Press, 1994.