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Map of Phoenicia.

Phoenicianism is a form of Lebanese nationalism. It promotes the view that Lebanese people, are not Arabs and that the Lebanese speak a distinct language and have their own culture, separate from that of the surrounding Middle Eastern countries. Supporters of this theory of Lebanese ethnogenesis maintain that the Lebanese are descended from Phoenicians and are not Arab. Some also maintain that Levantine Arabic is not an Arabic Variety, but has become a distinctly separate language.

Other theories of Maronite origin suggest ancient Assyrian ancestors, Arab bedouin origin or Mardaite origin.[1]

Phoenicianism parallels other Middle Eastern Christian ancient continuity theories, such as Nestorian Assyrian continuity and Coptic Pharaonism.[2]

Description of the Position[edit]

Proponents claim that the land of Lebanon has been inhabited uninterruptedly since Phoenician times, and that the current population descends from the original population, with some admixture due to immigration over the centuries. Historians have noted that the inhabitants of the Lebanese mountains continued to be called Phoenicians well into the first centuries AD, and that demographic continuity is known to have existed until the Islamic invasions.[3] It has also been noted that pan-Arabism first arose in the 20th Century, that the Lebanese delegation to the peace conference after World War I was unanimously opposed to including Lebanon in the Arab zone, and that such opposition was also present in Syria.[4]


The Arabic language is considered to exist in multiple forms: formal Arabic, commonly known as Modern Standard Arabic (a modern incarnation of Koranic or Classical Arabic,) which is used in written documents and formal contexts; and dialectal variants, numbering some thirty vernacular speech forms, used in day-to-day contexts, and varying widely from country to country. The point of controversy between Phoenicianists and their opponents lies in whether the differences between the dialects are sufficient to consider them separate languages. The former cite Pr. Wheeler Thackston of Harvard: "the languages the 'Arabs' grow up speaking at home, are as different from each other and from Arabic itself, as Latin is different from English."[5] They also cite the extensive Syriac component in the Lebanese dialect.[6]

Criticism of Phoenicianism[edit]

Phoenician sites in North Lebanon, Batroun.

Historian Kamal Salibi, a Lebanese Protestant Christian, says: "between ancient Phoenicia and the Lebanon of medieval and modern times, there is no demonstrable historical connection".[7] Phoenicianism embraces Phoenicia as an alternative cultural foundation by overlooking 850 years of Arabisation.

The earliest sense of a modern Lebanese identity is to be found in the writings of historians in the early nineteenth century, when, under the emirate of the Shihabs, a Lebanese identity emerged, "separate and distinct from the rest of Syria, bringing the Maronites and Druzes, along with its other Christian and Muslim sects, under one government."[8] The first coherent history of Mount Lebanon was written by Tannus al-Shidyaq (died 1861) who depicted the country as a feudal association of Maronites, Druzes, Melkites, Sunnis and Shi'ites under the leadership of the Shihab emirs. "Most Christian Lebanese, anxious to dissociate themselves from Arabism and its Islamic connections, were pleased to be told that their country was the legitimate heir to the Phoenician tradition," Kamal Salibi observes, instancing Christian writers like Charles Corm (died 1963), writing in French, and Said Aql, who urged the abandonment of literary Arabic, together with its script, and attempted to write in the Lebanese vernacular, using the Roman alphabet.

Phoenician origins have additional appeal for the Christian middle class, as it presents the Phoenicians as traders, and the Lebanese emigrant as a modern-day Phoenician adventurer, whereas for the Sunni it merely veiled French imperialist ambitions, intent on subverting pan-Arabism.[9]

Critics believe that Phoenicianism is an origin myth that disregards the Arab cultural and linguistic influence on the Lebanese. They ascribe Phoenicianism to sectarian influences on Lebanese culture and the attempt by Lebanese Maronites to distance themselves from Arab culture and traditions.

The counter position is summed by As'ad AbuKhalil, Historical Dictionary of Lebanon (London: Scarecrow Press), 1998:

Ethnically speaking, the Lebanese are indistinguishable from the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean. They are undoubtedly a mixed population, reflecting centuries of population movement and foreign occupation... While Arabness is not an ethnicity but a cultural identity, some ardent Arab nationalists, in Lebanon and elsewhere, talk about Arabness in racial and ethnic terms to elevate the descendants of Muhammad. Paradoxically, Lebanese nationalists also speak about the Lebanese people in racial terms, claiming that the Lebanese are "pure" descendants of the Phoenician peoples, whom they view as separate from the ancient residents of the region, including — ironically — the Canaanites.

The Dutch university professor Leonard C. Biegel, in his 1972 book Minorities in the Middle East: Their significance as political factor in the Arab World, coined the term Neo-Shu'ubiyya to name the modern attempts of alternative non-Arab nationalisms in the Middle East, e.g. Aramaeanism, Assyrianism, Greater Syrian nationalism, Kurdish nationalism, Berberism, Pharaonism, Phoenicianism.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kraidy, Marwan (2005), Hybridity, Or the Cultural Logic of Globalization, Temple University Press, p. 119, ISBN 978-1-59213-145-7, "Some scholars suggest that the Maronites are the descendants of "the worshippers of Adonis and Astarte," “Assyrians who emerged from Mesopotamia" (Melia, 1986, p. 154). Another theory claims that the Maronites are the descendants of an Arab Bedouin population, the Nabateans, who settled in the Levant during the pre-Christian era (Valognes, 1994, p. 369). A third theory, based on the work of the historian Theophanes, presents the Maronites as the heirs of an Anatolian or Iranian population, the Mardaites, who were allegedly militarily used by the Byzantines against the Arabs because of the Mardaites' outstanding fighting skills (Melia, 1986, p. 158; Nisan, 1992, p. 171; Valognes, 1994, p. 369). According to the fourth and last theory, the Maronites descend from the Phoenicians, a claim held by some Maronite (and other Christian Lebanese) intellectuals as a key building block of their identity, which some scholars dispute (Salibi, 1988; Tabar, 1994; Valognes, 1994), and others support (Gemayel, 1984a, b; Melia, 1986; Nisan, 1992). Chabry and Chabry (1987), among others (Melia, 1986; Nisan, 1992; Tabar, 1994; Valognes, 1994), argue that Maronite claims of a Phoenician heritage are not unfounded (p. 55), because the ethnic makeup of the Maronites is a mixture of Mardaite, Greco-Phoenician, Aramean, Franc, Armenian, and Arab dements (p. 305). In spite of this mixed origin, the Maronites are said to have maintained a presumably unchanging identity - fiercely autonomous from both Muslims and other Christians - remained "untamed in their ways of living and thinking" (Melia, 1986, p. 159; see also Nisan, 1992, p. 171)." 
  2. ^ Kraidy, Marwan (2005), Hybridity, Or the Cultural Logic of Globalization, Temple University Press, p. 119, ISBN 978-1-59213-145-7, "The Phoenician-roots theory parallels the belief among Copts in Egypt and Nestorians in Iraq, both Christian communities, that they have respectively Pharaonic and ancient Assyrian roots." 
  3. ^ "Si Beyrouth Parlait", Lina Murr Nehme
  4. ^ "La Palestine, l'Argent et le Petrole", Lina Murr Nehme
  5. ^ Salameh, Franck (Fall 2011). "Does Anyone Speak Arabic". Middle East Quarterly 18 (4): 50 Extra |pages= or |at= (help). Retrieved 2014-10-26. 
  6. ^ "The Influences of Syriac on the Lebanese and Syrian Dialects", Youssef Hobeica
  7. ^ Salibi, Salibi, A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered, 1988:177; Salibi is equally critical of an "Arabian" cultural origin.
  8. ^ Kamal S. Salibi, "The Lebanese Identity" Journal of Contemporary History 6.1, Nationalism and Separatism (1971:76-86).
  9. ^ Salibi 1971:84.
  10. ^ Dutch: Leonard C. Biegel, Minderheden in Het Midden-Oosten: Hun Betekenis Als Politieke Factor in De Arabische Wereld, Van Loghum Slaterus, Deventer, 1972, ISBN 978-90-6001-219-2

Further reading[edit]

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