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Map of Phoenicia.
Map of Phoenicia and its Mediterranean trade routes.

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 Arabs. Some also maintain that Levantine Arabic is not an Arabic variety, rather a variation of Neo-Aramaic, but has become a distinctly separate language.

Moreover, the cultural and linguistic heritage of the Lebanese people is a blend of both indigenous elements and the foreign cultures that have come to rule the land and its people over the course of thousands of years. In a 2013 interview the lead investigator, Pierre Zalloua, pointed out that genetic variation preceded religious variation and divisions: "Lebanon already had well-differentiated communities with their own genetic peculiarities, but not significant differences, and religions came as layers of paint on top. There is no distinct pattern that shows that one community carries significantly more Phoenician than another."[1]

Other theories of Maronite origin suggest Aramean origin, ancient Assyrian origin, Arab Bedouin origin or Mardaite origin.[2]

Phoenicianism parallels other Middle Eastern Christian ancient continuity theories, such as Nestorian Assyrian continuity and Coptic Pharaonism.[3] These are contrasted with Arabism and pan-Arabism.

Description of the Position

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. They argue that Arabization merely represented a shift to the Arabic language as the vernacular of the Lebanese people, and that, according to them, no actual shift of ethnic identity, much less ancestral origins, occurred. 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.[4] 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.[5] In light of this "old controversy about identity",[6] some Lebanese prefer to see Lebanon, Lebanese culture and themselves as part of "Mediterranean" and "canaanite" civilization, in a concession to Lebanon's various layers of heritage, both indigenous, foreign non-Arab, and Arab. Some consider addressing all Lebanese as Arabs somewhat insensitive, and prefer to call them Lebanese as a sign of respect of Lebanon's long non-Arabic past.



Geographical distribution of Arabic varieties.

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 one spoken in Lebanon is called "Lebanese Arabic" or simply "Lebanese", and it is a type of Levantine Arabic, which, together with Mesopotamian Arabic, is classed by matter of convenience as a type of Northern Arabic. The point of controversy between Phoenicianists and their opponents lies in whether the differences between the Arabic varieties are sufficient to consider them separate languages. The former cite Prof. 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."[7]

There is a lack of consensus on the distinction between lingual taxa such as languages and dialects. A neutral term in linguistics is "language variety" (a.k.a. "lect"), which can be anything from a language or a family of languages to a dialect or a continuum of dialects, and beyond. The most common, and most purely linguistic, criterion is that of mutual intelligibility: two varieties are said to be dialects of the same language if being a speaker of one variety confers sufficient knowledge to understand and be understood by a speaker of the other; otherwise, they are said to be different languages. By this criterion, the variety commonly known as the Arabic language is indeed considered by linguists to be not a single language but a family of several languages, each with its own dialects.[8] For political reasons, it is common in the Arabic-speaking world (a.k.a. the Arab world) for speakers of different Arabic varieties to assert that they all speak a single language, despite significant issues of mutual incomprehensibility among differing spoken versions.[9]

Aramaic language

For nearly a thousand years before the spread of the Arab-Muslim conquests in the 7th century AD, Aramaic was the lingua franca and main spoken language in the Fertile Crescent.[10] Among the Maronites, traditionally, neo-Aramaic had been the spoken language up to the 17th century, when Arabic took its place, while classical Syriac remained in use only for liturgical purposes, as a sacred language (also considered as such in Judaism, alongside Hebrew). Today the vast majority of people in Lebanon speak Lebanese Arabic as their first language. More recently, some effort has been put into revitalizing Aramaic as an everyday spoken language in some ethnic Lebanese communities.[11] Also, the modern type of Aramaic has an estimated 550,000 native speakers, mainly among Assyrians,[12] a Christian ethnoreligious group related to but distinct from the Maronites of Lebanon.

Ancient Phoenician language

Phoenician ship carved on the face of a sarcophagus from the 2nd century AD. The ancient Phoenicians are widely remembered as seafaring merchants.

The ancient Phoenician language, a Canaanite language most closely related to Hebrew, went extinct sometime in the common era, probably surviving in its Punic dialect in Carthage slightly longer, perhaps as late as the 7th century AD.

The Phoenician alphabet is the oldest verified consonantal alphabet, or abjad.[13] and this Phoenician phonetic alphabet is generally believed to be the ancestor of almost all modern alphabets, including, among others, the Arabic alphabet, the Aramaic alphabet, the Paleo-Hebrew script, the Greek script, the Cyrillic script, and the Latin script, which is the one used by, for example, the English and French languages.


According to a 2010 study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature, the Lebanese genetic population clusters most closely with its geographically proximate populations—such as the Syrians, Samaritans, Jordanians, etc.—rather than with Saudi Arabians.[14]


File:Lebanon religious groups distribution.jpg
Distribution of different Lebanese religious groups according to municipal election in 2009.

Followers of any religion can be Phoenicianists, including Lebanese Muslims (Shia and Sunni), and, what is more, genetic studies have indicated that "The genetic marker which identifies descendants of the ancient canaanites is found among members of all of Lebanon's religious communities".[15] However, because of how closely religious and ethnic identities are intertwined in Lebanon, Phoenicianism is especially common among those Lebanese people who adhere to Christianity and Druze, the main religions of most of the Lebanese before the expansion of the Arab-Muslim conquests from the Arabian Peninsula. Most Christians in Lebanon are Maronite Catholics, while there are also Greek Orthodox Christians, Greek Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians.

Representation in the government

Among political parties professing Phoenicianism is the Kataeb Party,[16] a Lebanese nationalist party in the March 14 Alliance. It is officially secular, but its electorate is primarily Christian.

Differing views and criticism of Phoenicianism

Phoenician sites in North Lebanon, Batroun.

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.[17]

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".[18] 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."[19] 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.[20]

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.

Proponents of Phoenician continuity among Maronite Christians point out that a Phoenician identity, including the worship of pre-Christian Phoenician gods such as Baal, El, Astarte and Adon was still in evidence until the mid 4th century AD, and was only gradually replaced by Christianity during the 4th and 5th centuries AD. Furthermore, that all this happened centuries before the Arab-Islamic Conquest.[21]

See also


  1. Maroon, Habib (31 March 2013). "A geneticist with a unifying message". Nature. Retrieved 3 October 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 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).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Si Beyrouth Parlait", Lina Murr Nehme
  5. "La Palestine, l'Argent et le Petrole", Lina Murr Nehme
  6. In Lebanon DNA may yet heal rifts
  7. Salameh, Franck (Fall 2011). "Does Anyone Speak Arabic". Middle East Quarterly. 18 (4): 50. Retrieved 2014-10-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Walter J. Ong, Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture, pg. 32. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012. ISBN 9780801466304
  9. Nizar Y. Habash,Introduction to Arabic Natural Language Processing, pgs. 1-2. San Rafael: Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2010. ISBN 9781598297959
  10. Richard, Suzanne (2003). Near Eastern Archaeology: A Reader (Illustrated ed.). EISENBRAUNS. p. 69. ISBN 978-1-57506-083-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Aramaic Maronite Center". Retrieved 2012-11-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Perlin, Ross (August 14, 2014). "Is the Islamic State Exterminating the Language of Jesus?". Foreign Policy. Graham Holdings Company.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Fischer, Steven Roger (2004). A history of writing. Reaktion Books. p. 90.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  15. Perry, Tom (2007-09-10). "In Lebanon DNA may yet heal rifts". Reuters. Retrieved 2011-07-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Rola L. Husseini (2012). Pax Syriana: Elite Politics in Postwar Lebanon. Syracuse University Press. p. 42.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. 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
  18. Salibi, Salibi, A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered, 1988:177; Salibi is equally critical of an "Arabian" cultural origin.
  19. Kamal S. Salibi, "The Lebanese Identity" Journal of Contemporary History 6.1, Nationalism and Separatism (1971:76-86).
  20. Salibi 1971:84.

Further reading

  • Kaufman, Asher, "Phoenicianism: The Formation of an Identity in Lebanon in 1920" Middle Eastern Studies, (January, 2001)
  • Kaufman, Asher (2004). Reviving Phoenicia: In Search of Identity in Lebanon. I.B.Tauris. ISBN 1-86064-982-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  • Plonka Arkadiusz, L’idée de langue libanaise d’après Sa‘īd ‘Aql, Paris, Geuthner, 2004 (French) ISBN 2-7053-3739-3
  • Plonka Arkadiusz, "Le nationalisme linguistique au Liban autour de Sa‘īd ‘Aql et l’idée de langue libanaise dans la revue «Lebnaan» en nouvel alphabet", Arabica, 53 (4), 2006, pp. 423–471. (French)
  • Salameh, Franck, Language Memory and Identity in the MIddle East; The Case for Lebanon, Lanham, MD, Lexington Books, 2010, ISBN 0739137395

External links