My hometowns' Souk El-Gharb and Bmakine by Salim Khalaf
This brief history is dedicated to the good people and descendents of my hometowns, Souk El-Gharb and Bmakine where ever you may be; and in loving memory to my parents, Lucy Hajjar and George Khalaf, my grandparents and my ancestors.
I am particularly indebted to Dr. Samir Saleeby and Dr. George Baroody for their invaluable reference materials. Their work is the corner stone on which I am able to write this article. Also, I am indebted to William Matar of Discover Lebanon who pushed, encouraged and prompted me to write the history, in the first place.
Souk El-Gharb and Bmakine are two villages that have been geographically intertwined for hundreds of years, but at the same time, they have been separated along family allegiances, invisible lines and sometimes merely paved roads. To cross from one village to the other sometimes requires just a single step, while elsewhere it requires crossing the road. They are sandwiched between several towns and villages that include: Ain Essayydé, Qmatiyyé, Bdaadoon, Aitaat, Shemlan, Kayfoon and Aley. The two villages have different roots, but both share a common recent past, and a future that becomes more and more uncertain as the years go by.
Across the ages, centers of authority both spiritual and temporal, as well as hubs of trade, transportation or education were the focus around which cities, towns and villages grew. Populations thrive around such centers for economic reasons, if not for safety and the availability of services. The two towns I am writing about are no exception. Some information in this article may seem unnecessary, too detailed, trivial, egocentric, personal, pompous, or boring, but please bear with me. Readers have various interests and may prefer some details to others, and I am writing for a wide audience from different perspectives. To inform and entertain as many of you as I can, I have tried to make this article inclusive from the sublime to the ridiculous. Further, I have tried to make it as personal and intimate as possible by including matters that relate to my own life, even though it is but a glimpse vis-à-vis the 2,000+ years history of these towns.
The origins of the people of the two towns lie across the eastern Mediterranean. Some people trace their origin to Sparta, others trace it to various locations in Lebanon such as Baskinta, Bhuwara, Zahlé, and other places. The earliest reference I was able to trace my surname to that of Patriarch Ignatius Khalaf who was a patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church between 1455 and 1483. This suggests to me that my ancestors must have been Syriacs.
The Market of the West (literal meaning of Souk El-Gharb)
The history of Souk El-Gharb is tied to the history of its main church, the Saint George Abbey Church and Monastery, founded in 1575, though some references indicate that it goes back to Crusader times in the 12th and 13th century, based on engravings of royal French insignia. Further, archaeological evidence speaks of even much earlier habitation to sometime B.C.
Saint George's Church
The town's community of early residents sent two representatives, Abdallah Hanna Ateyyé and his cousin, Jirgis Mahfouz to meet the Orthodox Bishop of Beirut, a Greek, and request permission to build a church in the town. The bishop provided them with a letter addressed to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul) recommending building the church. The two gentlemen traveled to Istanbul and met with the patriarch who issued a permit to build a church. They returned to Souk El-Gharb and the Orthodox Church of Saint George was started in 1570. The community grew around the church as the years went by.
The Market Place
Near the end of the 18th century, a spring near the church and a shaded cluster of oak trees became a focus point around which the small village grew to become a meeting place for farmers and traders from the whole region. There, people exchanged, bought and sold their produce. A lot of bartering took place in the form of crafted utensils, pottery items and the like. In many ways, the place was an old-fashioned farmers’ market. Trading around the spring gradually expanded to include larger varieties of commodities, larger amounts of produce and home industry items.
This expansion brought about a de facto center for seasonal transactions and bartering, so the area came to be called the Market of the Spring. Peddlers gave way to permanent fixtures, public stalls and tents, and then a large inn was eventually built to accommodate traveling traders and their animals for temporary or overnight rest. Small shops and two-story homes started to grow around this market; the lower floors were used for animals and the upper floors for residence. Roads followed, to facilitate travelers’ passage to and from the growing market, while buildings spread everywhere except for the pine forest that overlooked the area. At that time, the place became known as the Market of the West (literal meaning of Souk El-Gharb) on account of its unique marketing character in the Shahhar, western part of the Shoof mountain region of Lebanon.
Among the first families to settle in Souk El-Gharb were families of Ateyyé, Baroody, Hajjar, Saaba, Saleeby, Khalaf, Shouairy, Aoun, Ashouh, Canaan, Yazegy and Hitti, followed by Kallouseyya, Doumit, Germanos, Mijdlaané, Tayyard, Macdisi, Baghdassarian, Sadek, Khabbaz, Jannikians, Manoushagian, Sarafians, Bedirian, Bozoyan, Zatkhian, Kupelian, Baytarian, Khanjian, Torossian, Hagopian, Kraydiyyé, Shahwaan, Khoury, Harfoosh, Khateeb, Shtaklif, Adimm, Bayhom, Ghandoor, Takieddine and Zaher. Others like the Sursock, Traad and Tueni, and a prince of Egyptian Royal Family resided for a while then moved on. Western missionaries made the town their home in the 1850's.
In 1926, a Municipal Council was elected for the town headed by Dr. Shaheen Saleeby. This helped the town grow in population and building, specifically after the infrastructure for water supply and electric power was provided.
The Haunted Fortress -- Allit el-Huson
On an isolated hill about 325 yards (300 meters) from the church are the remains of a walled fortress, a property that was owned by a local man called Mrad Baroody. Folktales say it was the abode of fairies and leprechauns, or their equivalent in Middle Eastern mythology. The tales were rumors spread in an attempt to keep prying eyes away from the archaeological digs on the hill.
The modern buildings of my local high school, Souk El-Gharb Academic and Technical Institute (SATI), previously known as Souk El-Gharb High School, were within walking distance from the fortress and it remains vivid in my memory. It does not leave me with a good feeling. It used to bother me to see many open sarcophagi surrounding the fortress. It did not feel right for the dead who were buried there. I was unaware, at that time, that the open sarcophagi were empty or their remains had long disintegrated. There were no exposed human remains in any of them.
Beyond the school and deep down the valley are the remains of a deserted village called Ain Snoon. I am not sure if the fortress and Ain Snoon had anything in common. What is certain is the mystery that surrounds both the fortress and the deserted village with an eerie feeling.
Fairytales about the fortress, in truth, hid the archaeological excavations on the site. Evidence proves that it was occupied in Phoenician, Greek, Roman and Byzantine times. The archaeological record proves its occupation in artifacts from these ages unearthed inside and outside the fortress. The predominant number of artifacts found on the hill go back to Phoenician and Roman times more so than the others. It seems that the site was not continuously occupied with a consistent level of human occupation. In later years, the castle was occupied by the vessels of the dynasties of the Tannukhite Principalities in the 15th century and by the Maanite in the 16th century. They were followed by the vessels of the Shehabite Principality in the 17th century and Talhoukite Sheikhdom in the 18th century who restored it.
Town elders tell tales of fortunes made by many farmers from discoveries in their fields. Treasure troves of gold coins in terra cotta jars and decorated artifacts of valuable religious items were unearthed in area caves. I had owned a few less valuable artifacts in the form of perfume jars and first century Roman oil lamps but they were lost when my home was destroyed in the 1976-1992 war in Lebanon.
Souk El-Gharb and Its Abbey Church
The church building that was started in 1570 was served by revered line of priests of the Ateyyé family for almost 125 years. They were followed by others up till 1870 when Bishop Ghofraeel/ Gabriel Shateela was elected to the post of Archbishop of Beirut and its Dependencies. He replaced Archbishop Ierotheos, the last archbishop to have come originally from Greece. At that time, Shateela established a seminary in Souk El-Gharb were one of its instructors was the scholar Shaheen Ateyyé. The church thereafter became the Saint George Monastery (detailed history of the monastery in Arabic PDF 930 KB is available in this link recently produced by the Orthodox Youth Movement).
After Bishop Shateela passed away in 1901, the Diocese of Beirut and its Dependencies was split into two: the Archdiocese of Mount Lebanon and the Archdiocese of Beirut were Souk El-Gharb remained under the ecclesiastical jurisprudence of Beirut, being the summer resort of the Bishop. In 1902, Bishop Gerasimous Msarrá was elected bishop of this vacant seat. He endeavored to renovate the Saint George Monastery and it was fully restored in August 1904 when the first ceremonial re-inaugurational liturgy was celebrated. Bishop Msarrá sold his diamond-encrusted vestment, replacing them with glass, to feed the poor and starving during World War I's great devastation.
In 1912, Archimandrite Mikhael Seyoufé was appointed Superior Abbot of the monastery to replace a monk by the name of Fawwaz. In 1928, when the Holy Synod of Bishops of Antioch was convened in the monastery, Patriarch Gregarius Haddad (nicknamed Patriarch of the Arabs) died suddenly. He was a pious, saintly yet great man who loved the town and had been baptized in its church in 1860.
During the civil war in Lebanon the Saint George Greek Orthodox Abbey Church was severely damaged; however, it is being restored with donations. The church continues to need extensive funding for restoration. Easter 2010 was celebrated in the church. Below is a movie of the service of the Entombment of Christ or Funeral of Christ (Jinnaz el-Masee7). To help restore the church, please visit Alb Lebanon, Souk El-Gharb Church.
Metropolitan Eleyya Saleeby
In 1926, Eleyya Saleeby, born in Souk El-Gharb in 1881, was elected Bishop in the Archdiocese of Beirut. He was made Metropolitan Archbishop of Beirut in 1936 after Bishop Gerasimous Msarrá passed away. Archbishop Eleyya was a cornerstone of the town and the region. He believed in Lebanon, in freedom and peaceful coexistence of sects and religions. He worked for the Palestinian cause and for Jerusalem. He dedicated his efforts on improving Greek Orthodox schools and in sending seminarians abroad for further theological education. They included Father Hazeem who is now Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch, as well as, the Bishops Elias Korban and Ghofraeel/ Gabriel Saleeby. Further, Archbishop Eleyya expanded the Orthodox Hospital of Saint George in Beirut, and, supported by the Patriarch of Moscow, built the new hospital which was inaugurated in the summer of 1966.
Archimandrite Dimitrius Shehadé
In 1935, Archimandrite Dimitrius Shehadé, from Kosba, Lebanon, was named Superior Abbot. He was a student of Patriarch Haddad and was consecrated Protosingulos in the Archdiocese of Beirut in 1950, by Archbishop Eleyya Saleeby. Father Dimitrius was a saintly man. Though he was diabetic he kept a complete fast during the last three days of Holy Week before Easter/Pascha while fully presiding over the long lasting services of the season primarily supported by Master Mitré Baroody, Protopsalt. It is well known that in the Orthodox tradition such services went on for many many hours. My mother said that when he passed away and she visited the church where he was laid for visitation on a dark rainy winter's day, the unlit inside of the church brightly shined, as if with an unearthly light.
Archbishop Ghofraeel/ Gabriel Saleeby
Another religious scholar of Souk El-Gharb is Ghofraeel/ Gabriel Saleeby who is known for his theological studies specifically his thesis "In Defense of Orthodoxy." He managed the affairs of the Archdiocese of Beirut after the passing away of Archbishop Eleyya Saleeby in 1977. Thereafter, he moved to Paris as an Accreditus Envoy or Patriarchal Vicar of the Patriarchate of Antioch in Western and Central Europe. In the fall of 2000, the Patriarchal Vicarage was made an Archdiocese and Bishop Ghofraeel/ Gabriel Saleeby was appointed its Metropolitan Archbishop of Antiochian Orthodox Diocese in Western and Central Europe.
Father Nicholas Khalaf
Although not a resident of Souk El-Gharb, there is another man of the cloth who was born there in 1875 and deserves a mention. Father Nicholas Khalaf joined the seminary and became an Orthodox Priest yet he was a married man. He served the Church in Greece and Cyprus. Between 1924 and 1953, he served as the pastor of Saint Mary's Orthodox Church of Dormition in Ras Beirut. He lived with his family of many children in the vicarage. Father Khalaf had a strong personality. He was a loving man who had a strong, musical voice that incited the believers to participate in the services. He always stressed on the importance of abiding by the customs and traditions of the church. He was my great-uncle (my paternal grandfather Fareed Khalaf's brother). He baptized me in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. A special dispensation was granted to allow me to be baptized by an Orthodox priest in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, specifically because he was my godfather and great-uncle. Herewith is an image (linked from the thumbnail) of his baptismal gift to me which I treasure most dearly. It is a gold coin of Byzantine emperor Anasthasius I (494 A.D.) After he passed away, I remember my father crying as he listened to a tape recording of the Holy Liturgy of Father Nicholas. I did not understand then why my father was emotional.
Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras Visit
In the 1960's, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople (First Among Equals, Head of Orthodoxy), of blessed memory, visited Souk El-Gharb. I had the good fortune of being among the large group of town residents who came out to welcome that saintly man to the town.
Bmakine, Syriac for the Low Place
Around a fertile plain, today called Sahl el Rihbaan (Monks' Plain), within walking distance from Souk El-Gharb, an ancient town called Bmakine existed since unknown antiquity. In the 16th and 17th century, it was inhabited by farmers, craftsmen, silkworm growers, tradesmen, intellectuals and professionals. Among the first families to settle in Bmakine were families of Ashouh, Nassar, Baroody, Hajjar, Khalaf, Haikal, Shayb, and Ayyash. They were followed by families of Kozmedis, Fallaha, Ghantous, Adabashé, Hannoush, Araman and Abyad. The word, Bmakine comes from Syriac and it means the low place, perhaps because the town is located on the lowlands surrounding the fertile plain. Archaeological evidence from the area proves its ancient origins. This evidence includes stone cut sarcophagi that were still in existence during my childhood.
Terra Cotta Sarcophagi and Giant People
My grandmother told me that when they were double digging* her parent's estate in the late 1800's, many terra cotta sarcophagi were discovered and some contained remains of very tall people or people who suffered from abnormal growth. Femur bones of some of the skeletons almost reached the shoulder level of workers from the ground. To my knowledge no archaeologist had a chance to examine the digs but the remains were re-interred. As a child, I remember playing with my friend, Adel Hajjar, in the immediate proximity of the estate. Some workers were digging the foundation of a house for Elie Ghantous, near the home of Toufiq Ashouh, suddenly, the diggers opened up an underground cave.
The cave was a grave that contained many skeletons. They were visible to the outside and one skeleton had a ring on its finger. My friend, Adel, removed the dark translucent stone-cut ring, like amber, and wore it. However, he was reprimanded by the foreman and made to give it back. The ring was put back with the skeleton and the tomb was covered up. A building was erected over the tomb and nothing came to light about the grave or its history thereafter. Looking back, I am almost certain the burials, though proper, were not Christian because the bodies were not laid east-west with the face towards the East. The burials may have not been Muslim either, because the bodies were not laid on their sides, facing Mecca. I am uncertain of the age or culture of the burials because they were laid in all directions. Consequently, with such limited information, the bodies may have come from one or many of the civilizations that occupied the area mentioned earlier.
To provide a background on how Bmakine grew next to Souk El-Gharb, a brief historical and religious note needs to be mentioned:
A schism in the Melkite Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch occurred when Patriarch Athanasius of Antioch died in 1724 and a double lineage of patriarchs came into existence, one Orthodox and the other Catholic. That year was a fateful year, because from then on there were two parallel hierarchies, two sister communities. They were driven apart under the complacent eye of the Ottoman Turks, who granted patriarchal and episcopal sees to those who offered them the most. Consequently, two Churches, Catholic and Orthodox, followed two divergent ways and two different destinies. What relates to Bmakine is the Melkite Greek Catholic Church’s drive forward with its own internal organization and its new monastic orders.
Monastery of Deir El-Sheer (of the cliff)
On a large acreage around Bmakine, the newly formed Melkite Greek Catholic Holy Order of the Brothers of Saint Basil of Aleppo built a monastery and the Abbey Church of Saint George in 1751, as well as a Seminary and a private school. The monastery later came to be called the Monastery of Deir El-Sheer (of the cliff) because it was situated on a cliff overlooking the fertile field of Bmakine. The town flourished as the tenant farmers and silkworm growers of Bmakine multiplied and worked the land, sharing their crops with the monks, while the others improved their standards of living through their own industry and education.
The Order developed the land and built estate homes, which were rented out to affluent holidaymakers from cities and countries around the Middle East, during the summer season. Furthermore, the Melkite Sisters of the Sacred Hearts established a small resort for the nuns and a school.
Though not original from Aleppo, Syria, the good monks of the monastery served the community more than 250 years. They served the spiritual, religious Catholics from the whole region, as well as the educational needs of generations from all sects especially Druze and Shiites. Further, their social services coupled with economic investment changed the face of the town. They constructed roads and provided municipal services before the establishment of the municipality of Bmakine.
For a full history of the establishment of the monastery, please refer to the small publication in Arabic that was published in March 1951 for the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the monastery (PDF 18 MB). The author of this site is indebted to Nakhle Hajjar for scanning the original 60 year old booklet and emailing it. A translation by the author in English of the said history should be forthcoming in the near future.
Among the most prominent monks that served in Deir El-Sheer was Archbishop Elias Najmé, Melkite Greek Catholic Metropolitan of Tripoli. Earlier, he served as Abbot of the Monastery. Also, it is noteworthy to mention titular Archbishop Hilarion Capucci of Jerusalem and Caesarea Philippi. Before rising to the become a spiritual lord, he served as Superior General of the Order of Saint Basil. However, he was imprisoned by the Israelis for smuggling arms to the Palestine Liberation Organization. Another noteworthy Superior General was Bartholomaus Sammaan who was one of the corner stones of the Lebanese Front, during the early years of the civil war in Lebanon in 1976. Other monks and novices who served in the monastery are the brothers Batteekha: Izidor Batteekha who is the Archbishop of Damascus and, my friend, Mgr. Elie Joseph Batteekha who serves the Melkite community in Marseille, France, after serving in Venezuela. Among the scholar monks is Father Ignace Abdallah Rahib who served the community and the Order as Abbot and Superior General. He masters eight languages. His doctoral thesis is among the most unique in its subject matter. It expands upon a "dual personality" point in the Melkite Orthodox Church of the East when, though split along allegiance to the Papacy and against it, was still united under Patriarch Athanasius of Antioch up till 1724.
Sprawl and Move
What is certain about the geography of the village is the trend of building and expansion upwards. In the 1960's and 70's, village elders were still able to identify the foundations or locations of many homes of the village forefathers around the fertile field, at the lower edges of the village. In ancient times, the forefathers must have lived close to their crops in the field. When the village grew, newer homes were built higher up the slopes of village grounds. This left the lower part of the village mostly devoid of homes, as if they migrated their buildings up towards steeper edges of the mountain and the pine forest. One such home was mine when I lived in Bmakine and it dates to the 1800's.
Gratitude to the Druze Talhouqite for Saving the Monastery
It is with gratitude and sincere recognition that I mention the Druze Talhouqite Sheikdom of Aley. During the sectarian massacres between the Christians and the Druze in 1860, fueled by the Ottoman Turk policy of divide and rule, the Monastery of Deir El-Sheer came under immediate danger of complete destruction. A high-ranking Druze Sheikh vowed to level the monastery, but the Talhouqite Sheikhs interfered and persuaded him to change his mind. However, since the Sheikh had taken a solemn vow and could not break it, a compromise had to be reached. It was brokered by the kindness and wisdom of the Talhouqite Sheikhs -- most prominent among the Druze sect in the region. Instead of leveling the monastery, the Sheikh had a stone water drainage fixture broken off the roof of the Saint George Abbey. As the fixture was broken, the vow was honored and the monastery was spared. It remains a visible testament to a disaster that was averted thanks to the magnanimity and profundity of the Talhouqite Sheiks.
Growth and Patronage
While Bmakine grew around the Melkite Greek Catholic Monastery of Deir El-Sheer, Souk El-Gharb grew around the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint George and its marketing center. The Russian Imperial Family specifically favored the Orthodox Monastery. Its massive bells were a gift from the Tsar himself. Furthermore, paintings of the Tsar and his family continued to occupy the most revered places of honor in the church halls until the 1970’s, beside paintings of archbishops and patriarchs.
A small Melkite/Maronite Church was built in 1899 also in Souk El-Gharb to serve the small Catholic community, while a Presbyterian Church was built to serve the small community of converts and foreign residents, beginning in 1850, including orientalists and missionaries. These include Dr. Graham, Dr. George Post, Dr. Daniel Bliss, founder of the American University of Beirut (A.U.B.) and his son Howard Bliss, who was born in Souk El-Gharb in 1860, not to mention other scholars and their families who lived in nearby villages of Shemlan, Aiynab and Abay.
Hotels and Inns
In 1888, Beshara Hajjar, my great-grandfather, built the Bmakine Hotel (Lokandat Bmakine in Turkish) in Bmakine where dignitaries from Egypt, the Ottoman Turks, aristocratic families, and diplomats spent the summer months -- such as Yaawoob Karam, Ameen Karam's family. Later on, Beshara bought a new property, expanded and moved Bmakine Hotel, calling it the Hajjar Hotel (Lokandat Hajjar), to a location at the entrance of Souk El-Gharb, across the road from Bmakine. Other hotels and inns such as the Sursock Hotel, Grand Kaamel Hotel (owner Alfred Kaamel, previously Hotel Phare du Liban owner Shukri Kaamel), Farouk Hotel (owner Dawood Saleeba), Shiblé Hotel and Saleeby Inn were built in the two towns. Also, Hotel/Lokandat Nuzhat Lubnan and flourished around the turn of the century. These hotels and inns invigorated the economy of many villages and towns in the region, not to mention employing many in the various services.
Beshara's wife, Lucia Hajjar, my great-grandmother was instrumental in his acquiring the new property. She was a very able woman. She managed the hotel during her husband's travels to Egypt and Europe. When a property -- later to become the Hajjar Hotel mentioned above -- became available for sale by the Tueni* family they offered to sell it to Beshara. He is reported to have said that he did not have ready cash to buy it at that time. Lucia interrupted him and said, "Yes, we have the cash." She briefly went away and brought a bag full of 5 sovereigns (5 pound gold coins) that easily paid for the property in full. Obviously, through her good management skills running the hotel, she was able to make good money and save them. Mrs. Tueni, wife of the owner, was very impressed with her that she took a handful of gold coins and returned them to Lucia, as a beaux jest.
Beginning in 1956, my uncle, Charles Hajjar renovated and enlarged Hajjar Hotel to make it one of the most modern hotels in the region with elevator, private bar, suites, restaurant, café, deluxe dinning rooms and reception halls staffed by first class chefs. Uncle Edgar Hajjar expanded the entertainment facilities of the hotel to provide typical Lebanese meza and disco with live bands on summer night weekends. That kept the town throbbing with pop music till the early hours of the morning. It operated during the summer months like most hotels in the summer resorts.
Hajjar Hotel in the 1930's (or see postcard
Jamal Pasha's Terrorizing Visit
At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, the Ottoman Turkish government abolished Lebanon's semiautonomous status and dismissed its last leader, Mutasarrif (Governor) Ohannes Pasha, an Ottoman Christian. Consequently, the Ottomans rescinded an earlier agreement for Lebanese autonomy and rule brokered by the superpowers after the sectarian troubles of 1860 between Christians and Druze/Muslims. The Ottoman Pasha that replaced the Mutasarrif was soon dismissed in 1915 and the country was administered directly by Jamal Pasha, Minister of the Ottoman Navy and Chief of the Turkish forces in the region. He declared marshal law and laid a blockade on the region causing major devastation, starvation and suffering in the population. He was a cruel tyrant that earned him the nickname, the Butcher.
One summer afternoon, word reached my great-grandfather that Jamal Pasha was about to visit. The whole family and household were terrorized for this unwanted and much feared visit, since any contact with Jamal Pasha meant trouble and death. Later that afternoon a regiment of mounted soldiers and officers arrived at Hajjar Hotel and Jamal Pasha dismounted his carriage. Terrified, yet welcoming the whole family were there to meet him. When they dared to inquire for the reason of the visited they were told that the Pasha had heard of Salim Hajjar, my great uncle, and wanted to have tea with him. Obviously, the fear was unnecessary and the visit was a recreational, social call.
It should be mentioned that Salim Hajjar was well connected with the Ottomans, an unpopular yet politically sound relationship to have under the circumstances. The souvenir photograph and the note written by an Ottoman pasha on the back of his photograph testify to this effect in 1898.
Burning the Bible and Defection to Protestantism
In this article, I make derogatory remarks about Protestant Missionaries. Hence, I believes it is only fair that a very serious story that specifically relates to Salim Hajjar, Catholicism and Protestantism be mentioned.
Great-uncle Salim Hajjar was a boarding student with his brother, my grandfather Aziz Hajjar, at the Catholic Patriarchal School in Beirut. He was interested in reading the Bible while away at school and got hold of a Protestant version of the Bible or was given one by Protestant Missionaries. It was discovered by one of his teachers and turned over to the headmaster priest. In those days, reading an unauthorized version of the Bible was strictly forbidden to Catholics. Salim was summoned to a public reprimand and the Protestant Bible was burnt in front of all students. The consequence of this foolish act by the priest was the defection of Salim to the Presbyterian Sect.
It must be noted that the propaganda machine of Protestantism in the West promotes a huge lie; Bibles and translations of Bibles were not forbidden to Catholics or Orthodox of the Eastern Churches. I used the very ancient family Catholic Bible of my grandparent, Salim Hajjar's parents, to research and publish the Hajjar Family Tree that appears in this site.
Great-uncle Salim was a man of great virtue. Though I never knew him, I heard many stories about his Christlike compassion. I've been told that he never visited a sick, unemployed person without leaving him or her with a good sum of money. After his passing away, the merchants of the town told my family that he used to ask them in secret to send food supplies in huge quantities to the poor of all faiths in the neighboring towns and villages. He specified that his gifts must remain secret and so they stayed as such until his death. His immediate family did not know about any of this during his lifetime. I was named Salim after him, unworthy as I am to stand in his shoes.
American Missionaries and the Ottoman Fleet
An historical point of interest needs to be mentioned here to clarify why the Muslim Ottomans allowed a free hand to American Protestant Missionaries in the Near East. James A. Field, Jr has so aptly emphasized in his book America and the Mediterranean World 1776-1882, how the U.S. Navy and naval interests played a larger role in nineteenth century U.S. diplomacy than one might ordinarily imagine. After protracted negotiations, in 1830, the United States finally gained diplomatic privileges, most-favored nation concessions and a promise of access to the Black Sea from the Turks. What the Turks really wanted, in return, and indirectly received, were U.S. assistance in rebuilding their navy, which had been destroyed by an Anglo-French fleet at Navarino Bay on 20 October 1827. A secret clause of the treaty, promising naval assistance in rebuilding the Ottoman fleet, was struck down by Congress, but President Jackson proceeded to instruct his government to render all necessary assistance. Hence it was able to gain Turkish ratification of the Treaty and as Field aptly observed, "A treaty sought for reasons of commerce had been gained for reasons of state, and the disparate interests of figs and opium, the gospel mission, and the great powers had led to what amounted, in fact if not in form, to an American naval mission to Turkey."
Protestantism, "Religion of the Shilling" Failed Miserably in Proselytism
With hindsight, heretical Protestant Missionaries helped tremendously in educating the population, something for which credit should well be remembered with gratitude, but they failed miserably in their proselytism. Insignificant numbers of non-Eastern Christians were converted, while less than a handful of Muslim or Druze converts to Protestantism during two centuries of missionary work in the Middle East. The overwhelming numbers of “converts” were Eastern Christians who changed their ways -- cannibalized -- for monetary compensation, employment or economic gain. This is the basic reason why the Protestant religion was nicknamed the “Religion of the Shilling” (an old type of currency) in the Middle East. Many converts worked for the missions and when their work engagement ended, so did their "faith." Literature left behind by many such missionaries' documents with disdain the customs, traditions, religions and social conditions of the people in Lebanon and Syria in the 1800's. "Around the World Studies and Stories of Presbyterian Foreign Missions" by C. Bradit, W. King and H. Reherd, Witchita, 1912.
Schools and Colleges
In 1850, two teachers, Elias Saleeby and Slayman Saleeby moved to Souk El-Gharb, and with foreign missionaries established the Souk El-Gharb High School in 1855. By the standards of the day, it was a large school. This helped promote the community from a village to a town and, consequently, it gained fame and reputation in the country and the Middle East, as a center for education. The free Orthodox School was established and run by Sabaa and Labwa Saleeby and the Lebanon Boys School was funded by a British Mission. Further, graduates from the school became a generations of icons of education, medicine and knowledge.
Over the years, the school changed hands and in 1930, ownership of the Souk El-Gharb High School was transferred to Habeeb Hitti. He improved the school and strengthened its scholastic standards, as well as obtaining accreditation for it from the American University of Beirut (A.U.B.). During World War II, the school stopped operations but was reopened thereafter with Board of Governors headed by Dr. Shaheen Saleeby and membership of Emile Baroody, Emile Nassar and Simaan Khalaf. Toufiq Khabbaz was appointed principle of the school. It was re-named at that time Lebanese College of Souk El-Gharb (LCS). Many renowned scholars of Lebanon, the Middle East, the Arab World and America were graduates of the school. They went on to higher learning in the fields of politics, medicine, architecture, industries, sciences, literature and the corporate world. Names of some of these scholars are mentioned below. Follow the link, for a most interesting interview with Mr. Ramez Makarem on schooling at Souk El-Gharb School on YouTube. He mentions George Baroody who was my aunt Pierrette's husband.
Economical growth and education went hand in hand with religious affiliation. During that time, three major world powers competed for the affection of the population of Lebanon and the East. Catholic France sponsored the Maronites and other Catholics, Russia sponsored the Greek Orthodox and the British sponsored the Druze. Consequently, the three superpowers established schools and supported the local communities.
Souk El-Gharb and Bmakine were not spared the competition for gaining favor. Hence, alongside the Catholic schools in Bmakine, a Russian school was established in predominantly Orthodox Souk El-Gharb while Protestant Mission Schools loitered in the wings to catch anybody who became disenchanted with either camp. Consequently, the early 19th century was the time when many schools flourished in the region such as the Syrian Protestant College in nearby Abay, the High School and the Muscovite School in Souk El-Gharb, the Renaissance School in Bmakine and many others in the towns and villages.
The local population benefited tremendously from the squabble of the superpowers and missionaries in showing favors to the Lebanese. My maternal grandmother, Nazlé Baroody, went briefly to the Russian Muscovite School while my paternal grandmother, Salma Hajjar, went to the British Shemlan (town) School for Girls sponsored by Queen Victoria’s Privy Purse. In later years, my mother went to the Sante Famille French Nuns School and my father went to the British Mission run Souk El-Gharb High School. Luckily none of them converted to Protestantism. With this polyglot educational system competing for Lebanese students, American missionaries started their own schools devoted to proselytizing for the Protestant faith. The positive impact of these multifaceted educational systems cannot be over stressed, and the result was a renaissance that spread throughout that part of the country and to all religious communities in the region, despite Protestant missionary “cannibalism” of Eastern Christian.
Carols and Lessons
In the late 1960's, I had the pleasure of visiting the Anglican chapel of the British Shemlan School for Girls for a service of Carols and Lessons. The chapel was then lit with candles only, and a small choir accompanied the ancient crackling organ, interrupted periodically by readings from the Bible and the Apocrypha. On the walls, plaques were hung in remembrance of women long gone. They were grandmother Salma's Victorian teachers whom I had heard a lot about and even knew them by name: Miss Aidy (headmistress), Miss Effie, Miss Sturges, and Miss Lizzie Van Dyke (daughter of Cornelius Van Dyke). I even remember some of their faces having seen their photographs in my grandmother's photograph collection. The Caroling Service was a trip in time to a place I had never visited before and to people I had never known in person, yet, their names and their long gone shadows filled me with a warmth of remembrance. They invigorated my spirit of Christmas many years after they were long gone.
American University of Beirut (A.U.B.), Medical School
The Syrian Protestant College of Abay was later to become the American University of Beirut (A.U.B.). One of this university's earliest schools, the Medical School, had two distinguished graduates among its first graduating class of MD's. One was my great-great uncle from Bmakine, Dr. Yusef Moosa Hajjar, and the other from Souk El-Gharb, Dr. Salim Ateyyé. Both graduated in 1871. A copy of Dr. Hajjar's medical degree is linked from the thumbnail (right). It carries the signatures of well known scholars and pillars of knowledge of that age specifically, Dr. Daniel Bliss, Cornelius Van Dyke, translator of the Protestant Bible into Arabic, Dr. George Post and others.
Little Paris and Many Armies
Emperor Wilhelm II
Before writing about the transition of power from the Ottomans to the Allies after World War I, I need to mention the visit of German Emperor Wilhelm II in 1898. He visited Mount Lebanon, Syria and Palestine with his wife. My grandmother was taken, with one of her relatives, along with many folks from the two towns to see the Emperor as he traveled through the neighboring town of Aley. I am certain they must have had a glimpse of the emperor, if that; however, the Imperial Guards were what impressed everybody for their uniform and unusually tall statures.
Ottomans and Starvation
Upon the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the Allies divided its lands among themselves. However, during that war, the Allied Fleet imposed a naval blockage on Ottoman dominions. That, in turn, imposed a strangling hold on all supplies to countries like Lebanon, and thousands of people died of starvation. In addition to the major starvation, the air strike and sinking of two Turkish destroyers facing the Lebanese shore stuck in the minds of the folks who lived through that war. They were the SS Ankara and SS Aounalla. The Ottomans were defeated by 1918 and General Allenby liberated Lebanon going up north from Palestine. The advent of the Allies brought relief and jubilation after centuries of persecution under Ottoman rule.
Flight unto Egypt
My grandparents, Salma and Fareed had taken my father and fled to Egypt at the outbreak of the war in 1914, but she was among the first wave of returning Lebanese. On board a French destroyer called Pluviose (if my memory serves me right) she returned with her children, George and Bertha (now Bertha Tayyard). She was met and assisted on arrival, at the Beirut harbor, by a man called Saadiddeen Mazboodé. He was commissioned by her father Beshara so to do. Much had changed in her hometowns after the hard years of the war. What she said was evident was a remarkable decrease in the number of Persian carpets in her parents home. Obviously, they were selling prized possession to survive during the bad years of the war. However, the surprise was that my great-grandmother Lucia still had ample supplies of sugar, while the commodity had been completely vanished during the war. Lucia was a woman of great perception, good management and economy. She managed her household very well during the scarcity of the war years.
French Armed Forces Headquarters
Abundance of food supplies, economy and new age came with the Allies to Lebanon. The French established a mandate over Lebanon and Syria while the British did the same over Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. The French made Souk El-Gharb their headquarters and the French High Commissioner made one of the stately homes in the town as his summer resort. At the same time, the French Army occupied a hotel previously known as Lukandat Nuzhat Lubnan, facing Hajjar Hotel and converted it into a recuperatory military hospital for the troops.
Military personnel settled both Souk El-Gharb and Bmakine to staff and administer their establishments. Consequently, they made friends with the locals. I remember numerous stories told by older folks about the new comers to the towns. The political and military headquarters of the French Army brought high-ranking officials and generals to the town. As a young child, my mother presented a bouquet of flowers to General Goureau (I think) when he first visited the town. With French colonies spanning the globe, non-French troops and their allies also became frequent visitors to the towns. The ones most often mentioned were the Singhalese, Tunisians, and French Foreign Legion. Among the most remarkable were the Vietnamese. It is said that they put on dazzling festivals for the Asian New Year celebration, with paper dragons never seen before in the town. Almost all stories that have to do with the Royal Australian forces are funny. They were rowdy and fun loving. When they got drunk things and people got broken. Most shops closed down when the Australians hit the town. After a night of heavy drinking at the hotel, they are said to have used gramophone records to practice sharp shooting. After playing the 78 disks, they threw them out of the balcony and shot them in mid air. Further, they used to sell contraband army surplus to local merchants, delivering them in burlap bags late at night. One night they left a bag with a merchant, got paid and left; however, when he opened the bag there was an Australian solider inside instead of the goods. He jumped out and ran away. Obviously, they could not get their hands on any supplies that evening.
Sense of humor took on "official" form sometimes between the French and the town folks. Great-uncle Salim Hajjar one time complained to one of the captains, Gandreau (his friend), about military bands playing every morning and waking him up at the crack of down. The morning after, Salim woke up to the very loud sound of bands playing immediately below his window. They made sure to have played a few extra marches than they usually that morning before leaving the scene of the "crime."
Not only the troops were fun but also older folks tell funny stories about themselves and each other. Funny stories associated with the changing world were often repeated when I was a kid. Among the most remarkable characters of the village was Elias Ameen Nassar, amicably called: 3ammo Elias. His stories, interactions with the armies and individuals (some real and other fictitiousl) of the town are unforgettable. He stands out as the most remembered and mentioned person more than 35 years after his death. Of the songs which I came to learn through him are French war songs. They are "La Madelon de la victoire" and "Quand Madelon." I attempted to write the music and reproduce the songs from memory, but I found an easier solution on the Internet. I found the original songs. I cleaned the audio files and are here presented with the full lyrics for your pleasure and in memoriam for 3ammo Elias.
With the armies of the 20's, 30's and 40's came "modern" technologies. One story was about the first movies folks saw for the first time. The movie included a clip of a truck coming towards the camera. The courage of a spectator, seated in the front row, left him when the truck got too close; he jumped off his chair and ran away. Other funny stories mention the first radio which some older folks could not believe was transmitting from distant stations. They thought that someone in the attic was speaking or singing. The only broadcasts available in those primitive years of the radio came from Budapest, Hungary, and a few other stations.
During World War II, Hajjar Hotel was made the headquarters of the French forces. The bomber-safe cellars of the hotel were made the command center. The command changed hands between the Vichy Government and the Free French Forces of de Gaulle when the former collapsed. Charles de Gaulle himself is said to have visited the command at some point.
Pharmacy of Dr. Salaamé and Young George Khalaf
During my childhood and youth, there were two pharmacies in Souk El-Gharb up till the late1970's. One was called Allaam's Pharmacy, run by Edward Baroody, and the other Dikran's Pharmacy, run by an Armenian gentleman called Dikran Manoushagian. He was succeeded by Haig Gourdikian and then by Bassilios Bessos. I don't know when the first pharmacy in the towns was established and who started it, though I believe that the early prescriptions were dispensed by the physicians themselves who treated the sick in the area. They include Dr. Salim Ateyyé, Dr. Yusef Moosa Hajjar, Dr. Iskandar Baroudy, Dr. Salaamé, Dr. Helena Baroody, Dr. George Post, Dr. Graham, Dr. Yousef Jiris Hajjar and others. To my knowledge one of the earliest pharmacies was established by Dr. Salaamé in Souk El-Gharb and employed my father, George Khalaf as his pharmacist. Such pharmacies used to serve many functions and were chemists in the real sense of the word. My father used to prepare compounded medications according to doctors' specifications. One day, a man came to the pharmacy and told my father that a leech is stuck to his throat threatening to chock him as it sucks blood and gets large. Obviously, the man had taken a drink of water from an unsafe water source. Though my father was not a physician and in the absence of most resident doctors, he had to act fast. He used one of the pharmacy apparatus, a long tweezers or tongs to hold the leech firmly and removed it. Consequently, he saved the man's life who went away without even saying "Thank You."
My father left this profession after working for the British Forces in World War II followed by Aramco up till he passed away. However, his precision apparatus were still in my home long after he passed away. There were scales that weighed fractions of grams and hygrometers, as well as other equipment which I have no idea what purpose they served. Also, there were dozens of compounds both solid and liquid, including a bottle of mercury which I foolishly played with its content one time. One compound was great fun. I think it may have been solid alcohol. Putting a piece of this compound on a lit cigarette tip produced thousands of flakes like snow. They went up with the hot air of cigarette smoke than fell like a snow flurries inside a room.
Halley's Comet Burning the Earth
In April 1910, Halley's comet made relatively close approach to Earth and was a spectacular sight. It transited the Sun's disk, and the Earth actually passed through its tail. In those days rumors spread that the tail contain poisonous gas. My grandmother, Nazlé told me that her mother used to gather her with her brothers and sisters every night to pray and watch in horror as the tail grew longer. The fear among most people was that when the tail touched the horizon, the earth will burn or explode in a puff of smoke. That prompted my great-great uncle Dr. Iskandar Baroody to write a flyer entitled "There is no fear for the Earth from Halley's Comet" to calm the fears.
Sevan (Seewan) Baghdassarian, the Town Photographer and the Armenian Community
Between 1915 and 1918. the Turks systemically massacred 1,500,000 Armenians in what is called today the Armenian Genocide. Those who were able to escape this Turkish bloodshed moved to Syria then Lebanon. His Holiness the Catholicos of Cilicia, Patriarch of the Armenian Orthodox established his seat in Antelias since Armenia fell under Soviet sphere and the church was persecuted in Turkey.
Many Armenians made Souk El-Gharb and Bmakine their homes. They include hard working, industrious, sharp craftsmen and highly educated professionals. One Armenian gentleman is remembered by almost everybody in the town by the name of Baghdassar Baghdassarian and his photo studio named Photo Sevan. He was nicknamed after his studio, Sevan or Seewan. He was a genocide survivor and died at 92 while still being haunted by the nightmares that he endured when he was 4 years old in Kharpoot, Turkey. He was the town photographer and was almost always found in graduations, church festivals, official visits, carnivals, balls, parties and all sorts of gatherings. His daughter, Marie Matosian alerted me to his definite and invaluable contribution to the towns' collective memory in his photographs. The photograph of my high school was taken by him and he is duly credited.
There were other members of the Armenian community in the town such as George the Armenian, nicknamed Baron, who had a small restaurant in Souk El-Gharb and one of the most delicious typical Armenian meza, specifically Sujuk, a hot garlicky sausage which has no less than seven or eight spices, white wine and pine nuts. There was also Jiris the Armenian, Mgrditch Kupelian and his wife, Dikranuhi, who had a shop that was the antiquarian shopper's dream. It contained everything a human can think of. There was also Garabet Baytarian, the shoemaker whom my baby brother, Serge used to urge him to sing Christmas Carols in English. Further, there was Eed the Armenian who took my teenage photograph. He taught me the techniques of developing photography and built me equipment to process films and prints in my darkroom at home. Regretfully, I don't know his real Armenian name but he was a family friend who had lived the massacres in Turkey and escaped to Lebanon. I heard him tell horror stories of the genocide as an eye witness. On the other hand there were rich Armenians with large villas. I remember Shake & Onnig Khanjian's grand home in the middle of the pine forest and her sons Berg and Hovac. There were also Armenian summer holiday makers whom I cannot name in this article due to limited space.
Climate, Buildings, Customs, Foods and Traditions of the Towns
Souk El-Gharb & Bmakine are in the Lebanese mountain overlooking Beirut. They are between 2,800 feet (850 meters) and 3,000 feet (900 meters) above sea level. The climate is cold but not harsh in winter, when heating is required, and pleasant in summer, when no air-conditioning is required. Heater in older homes used to be wood or coal stoves but most modern homes have central heating. Older style stone vaulted houses are perfect protection against temperature change. Such houses have about 3 feet (nearly 1 meter) deep walls. Traditional tiled roof houses have large brink red shingles in the Italian style. Most modern building are built of stone and cement. Wood is not used in building. All windows and secondary doors have Venetian shutters. They hold back light and sun rays but let cool air through. Traditional Lebanese homes, which are not built any more, have a large sitting/living room with large three arched glass windows and doors overlooking a balcony or veranda. Traditional windows had external flower-pot fixtures. Most mountain homes have one side facing up the mountain slope and the other side faced down the slope which allowed for lower floors to be open on one side facing down only. Such floors are used as cellars in many cases or as additional rooms.
Religious customs and traditions surpass all others. Christmas is celebrated with the same spirit as it is in the West, using the same decorations, music and foods, and many faithful celebrate midnight Mass, if they are sober. However, on the eve of December 4th, before Saint Barbara's day, children dress up in masks and disguise and go from house to house to chant the story of Saint Barbara (much like Halloween in the West). She became a Christian and her pagan father disapproved so she ran away. He eventually caught up with her and killed her. Children are given money or candy after they chant her story. A traditional dish of boiled wheat with anise seed, soaked almonds, raises, walnuts and pine nuts, sugar and orange blossom is served on that evening.
Lent and Easter
Easter is just as much a part of people's lives as Christmas. It surpasses western practices for this very important feast of the Christendom. It is prepared for with a 50 day lent period that starts on the Monk's Monday (Ash Monday), as it is called in the East, after Sunday of Marfaa (Fat Sunday). On that Monday in the old days, people used to take their strict-vegetarian lunch and go to mass that ends at noon. Thereafter, they had picnics. At such time of the year nature in the mountains is in full spring bloom with green grass and flowers everywhere. Catholic dispensation from strict observance of the great Lent is not adhered to, while the Orthodox do not have such a dispensation at all. Most people still observe austere lent when no meat products or dairy is consumed for the full 50 days. Many fast from midnight till noon. Some fast and lent on bread and water on Good Friday. Prayer services are frequent during lent (Wednesday morning Pre-Sanctified Mass of Saint Basil the Great called Progesmena) and on Friday evenings the Akatheston Service called Madayeh. Vegetarian dishes that are consumed during lent include a special vegetarian Pumpkin Kibbé (regular Kibbé is made of ground beef or lamb with onion, basil, mint, pine nuts and butter) on the Feast of the Forty Martyrs.
The Saturday before Holy Week is Lazarus Saturday. Children visit homes on that Saturday carrying a scroll that has the story of Christ raising Lazarus from death. They chant his story while a boy or girl lies under the scroll until the time comes for the time in the chant which says "Arise, faithful servant." Then one of the singers gently kicks the person sitting in for dead Lazarus. Thereafter the person rises and joins the chanters. On Palm Sunday children dressed in new clothes and are carried or walk in a procession carrying candles, symbolizing Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Strict-vegetarian cookies of carob molasses, anise seed and oil are prepared for this occasion. In the olden days they used to be carried in the Palm Sunday procession.
During Holy Week, Progesmena is celebrated every day just before noon and in the evening there is a service called Khatan. On Holy Thursday, the altars are washed ceremonially, and worshippers go to confession and communion, more so than any other time of the year. On that day, people take 5 loaves of Erbaan, Prosphora (Πρόσφορα in Greek, Erbaan in Lebanese) to church to be used for consecrating the Host. The bread is made of flour, mahlab/maxlab (meat of the stone of black cherry), sugar, & orange blossom water and is stamped with bread stamp that has an image of the cross and includs the text in Greek, IC XC NIKA ("Jesus Christ conquers"). The image is maintained during baking. Altar servers return on Erbaan loaf to people who present 5 loaves to the church. It is returned cut on the side, symbolizing Christ's pierced side with a spear. The same evening, the Service of the Twelve Gospels are read during which the capture of Christ is reenacted and He is proclaimed crucified. On Good Friday, Communion is not offered, the only day in the year when that happens, but a service of taking down the body of Christ from the cross takes place. On the same afternoon, the Service of Entombment of Christ is celebrated which is a major part of Holy Week services. On Saturday before Easter, a service of readings is held in the morning when Christ is called to rise. On Easter Sunday (Saturday midnight Liturgy with the Greek Orthodox and sunrise service with the Greek Catholics followed by Mass) the Resurrection is proclaimed with chanting the Χριστός Ανέστη -- Christos Anesthe -- Al Maseeh Qaam. Many church goers used to break colored eggs outside the church. This is called mfaa2asé where one person hold a boiled colored egg with one end pointing up and the other hits it with another egg. Whoever's egg gets broken looses it.
Breakfast of colored boiled eggs and Maamool and Urs be Tamir is served. Maamool and Urs be Tamir or Ajwé are rich cookies made of semolina, butter, mahlab/maxlab (meat of stone of black cherries) orange blossom and rose blossom water that are stuffed with walnuts and sugar or crushed dates. Easter dinner is a heavy meaty dish which is different according to families. Though some people eat whole lambs and such, our Easter dinner is centered on several whole prime filets of beef that are massaged with dry Coleman mustard and a blend of spices in softened butter and cooked rare.
May, in the Catholic Calendar, is the Month of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Many families have outdoor shrines for the Virgin and some have indoor table with flowers and incense burner called Samdé were they daily chant the office to the Holy Virgin throughout the month. My mother used to observe this office every evening in May.
Feast of the Elevation of the Cross and Hot Air Balloons
There are three high feasts in the summer months, the Feast of Transfiguration (Tjilly), the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (Essayydé) and the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross (Essaleeb). Other than going to Masses on these feasts, on the evening before the Transfiguration Feast people burn candles or other forms of light outside their homes -- in gardens or on balconies. For the Assumption, which is preceded by a 15-day lent, a special cookie of wheat, butter and almonds is served. A week or more before the Feast of the Cross, children collect pine needles, that are abundant in the mountains, for the evening before the Feast to burn bonfires that are followed by fireworks. The bonfire tradition goes back to the 4th century when Empress Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, was searching for the real Cross. Upon finding it, she sent a signal to her son about that from Jerusalem to Constantinople. The arrangement was that on hilltops all the way from Jerusalem to Constantinople people should start bonfires upon seeing one to their south. The signal relayed to Constantine that the cross was found and the news reached him in one night instead of waiting for word of mouth on horseback or by ship. So, for the last 1,600 years the tradition of building bonfires on the Eve of the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross continues to be observed to commemorate the occurrence.
My mother used to add to the festivities of this summer feast by building hot air balloons and flying them. She made them of kite paper according to a special procedure and standards which her father Aziz Hajjar taught her. The papers were glued with natural cornstarch glue and must remain very light. The hoop at the bottom is made of thin bamboo and hand-sawn to the paper balloon. The hoop is crisscrossed with a thin metal wire. To get the balloon to get air-borne, a small smoking fire is built and the balloon is held over it. When the air in it gets warm enough, it starts to pull up. At that point, a small bundle of cotton soaked in alcohol and wrapped in light cloth held together with wire is clamped at the center of the hoop bottom of the balloon and given flame. This small fire keeps the air warm inside the balloon and gets it to fly away until it becomes invisible to the naked eye. Such balloons were not a fire hazard because the balloon did not return to earth before the fire in the bundle of cloth went off. Right is a linked thumbnail of one of my mother's hot air balloons. She taught the technique to her cousin Raymond Hajjar.
I never knew my grandfather, Aziz but I heard that he was an artistic gentleman who was very gifted in carving, painting and amateur of many arts (see his amateur photograph). My sister still owns his hand carved frame for the icon of the Blessed Virgin. He used to write plays, produce and direct them, were family and friends played the parts. He used to paint the backdrop scenery for his plays that changed several times during each play.
In the olden days, people used to buy and store large supplies of various foods to last the winter. Such supplies were in huge quantities such as 250 lbs. (or more) of sugar, flour, cracked wheat, olives, olive oil, rice, lentils and other beans, not to mention canned foods. Some prepared for that all summer long by drying fruits, pickling vegetables and conserving fruits and jams. The most common varieties were fig jam (made of dried figs that are re-hydrated and cooked with anise seed, sesame seed, mastica -- resin of the Mastic Gum Tree, Pistacia lentiscus -- boiled aromatic geranium, and sugar), apricot jam, quince jam, and apple jam. Also, in the olden days, people used to prepare cured lamb meat that is cooked in its fat with spices and salt called Awwrama. I never cared for that fatty concoction. On the other hand, people who have large vineyards used to and continue to prepare Arak, a 100 proof (often much higher) distilled alcohol of grapes with anise seed. It is a dry drink that does not have any added sugar syrup. It is much stronger than Greek Ouzo and Westerners maybe better familiar with its sweet cousin Pastis. It is usually consumed with main Lebanese courses: grilled meats, salads and meza (selection of various small bite-size foods and pickles that run between 8 and 30 dishes [back up]). I attempted to make Arak and succeeded but my attempts to make sparkling wine went south. Though I used the Champaign Method, I made a serious mistake in bottling. I filled the bottles to the rim without allowing for second fermentation pressure. Consequently, my supply of sparkling wines went off like bombs as they exploded one after the other.
Those who were adults or children in the 50's, 60's and 70's do remember a kindly older gentleman called Abbood. He was nicknamed Abbood el Karabeej. He originally came from Aleppo and made a most delicious delicacy of a desert which people had after breakfast. He carried his supply in an immaculately clean glass box on his side, and walked around the town calling out "Karabeej Halaab, Karabeej Halaab" (meaning Aleppo's Karabeej). Much like the ice-cream van in the West, children used to run out to call him "Ammo Abbood, Ammo Abbood" (meaning uncle Abbood -- uncle is a term of respect and endearment in the East). His Karabeej are but a mini elongated version of Maamool (mentioned earlier) but are stuffed with pistachios or walnuts and served with Naatif -- a fluffy sweet white compound that is reminiscent of the brand Dream Whip without vanilla flavor.
Beware of Zankha
Since I wrote about food, I must mention something that the Lebanese are very particular about. It is hard to translate the word Zankha. It means something that relates to fishy and stinky eggy flavor and odor in all sorts of dishes and deserts, if they are not well prepared. To get rid of Zankha, cinnamon and other pungent spices are used in savory and meaty dishes while orange and rose water are used in pastries. It really has to be experienced by a Westerner to be fully understood that is why it is hard to explain in words.
The summer months are rather noise and full of activities in the mountains. With schools out and people working half days, the towns become full of life in the evenings. Receptions, dances, balls, parties and live band music are frequent. Fancy dress parties are also popular and prizes are given to the best dressed. Children also enjoyed the same bal masqué. However, though mountain people are down to earth, the two towns have their fair share of sophistication because of the holiday makers. At the end of summer vacationers leave the towns back to their quiet sane selves again.
During the day people make use of tennis courts, badminton courts, basketball courts, billiards, cafés or drive down to the beach 20 minutes away, beside garden parties or breakfast parties. At my aunt Pierrette Baroody's such breakfast parties were superior events. They had an outdoor wooden oven, a novelty, in which they made Mnaayyesh -- dried zaatar (Origanum syriacum) or oregano, sesame seed, sumak and olive oil mix that's spread on dough and baked. Suffice it to say that social life was great fun in both towns and people enjoyed life to the fullest, stayed up till dawn eating, drinking and dancing. The older generation enjoyed meeting in the main market during the day either at the café or at the mayor's store. Turkish coffee, hubble-bubble or tobacco pipe, and backgammon were the favorite pastime.
Among the favorite hangouts for young people and older folks as well was the outdoor ice-cream lounge near the restaurant & jukebox place called Casino Baroody (not a gambling casino) at the mountain top -- highest point in Souk El-Gharb. That ice-cream parlor served the most delicious varieties of fruit ice-creams drenched with grenadine, not to mention the Chocolat Mou (chocolate ice cream, chocolate sauce, nuts & cream). Ice-cream at Elias Hajjar's store (referred to as El Matné) was superior, as well. He imported Everest Ice-cream from the U.K. with mulberry, banana and other flavors.
From a paleobiological point of view, it is important to mention that this mountainous area is rich in fossils. Many monks, as well as others and myself, had collected numerous fossils from the area over the years. They include stunning prehistoric sea snail fossils of various sizes and varieties, fossils of fish, reptiles, plants and the skeletons of animals. Regretfully, I lost my collection when my home was destroyed -- the two towns were utterly ruined during the Lebanese civil war when they became battlefronts for the warring factions of Lebanese militias and armies – Palestinian, Syrian, Israeli and Lebanese, while the magnificent pine forest was almost completely burnt down.
Age of Destruction and Desolation
On March 16, 1956, a major earthquake, measured 7.4 (?) on the Richter scale, hit the whole of Lebanon. Its source was the village of Jeheem in the south or somewhere near Sidon. There was no serious damage to houses in the two towns though some villages in the south suffered. The population was terrified and slept outside their homes for several nights after that.
In 1976, Palestinian Yaser Arafat, PLO leader, in a secret meeting with his cohorts near Souk El-Gharb, decided to unilaterally open a battlefront against the Christian towns and villages in the valley facing Souk El-Gharb and Bmakine, while all the villages of the area were fully populated. I was living in my home in Bmakine when that happened, but none of the residents were aware that their town was made a battle front. Arafat was adamant about remaining in the Lebanese mountains and villages, claiming that the liberation of Palestine went through every Christian village. His forces, supported by Syrian forces and other militia, continued his war with the Lebanese Forces. I was stuck at home with grandmother Salma, my mother Lucy, my sister Mabel and her daughters, Sandra, Sabrina and Maria with our attendant, Nasta. Also hiding in my house were two friends, Raymond Hitti, for a while, followed by Faris Baroody. We were confined to the safer parts of the house while hell broke loose outside. Palestinian forces were using anti-aircraft machine guns immediately beside our homes. They fired at the Christian villages in the valley, not to mention launching all kinds of missiles and shells. Sleeping for most of us older people was impossible from the terror and the loud noises of battle, despite near half a bottle of Scotch each and more than 10mg of Valium. Finally, Angelle Ayyaash Baroody, the mother of Faris Baroody, and a priest from the Monastery of Deir El-Sheer, came to us under fire and told us that we should leave. The "devils" that were outside, included PLO forces, mercenaries from Libya and probably Somalia, were breaking into home and searching for Lebanese Forces sympathizers. Consequently, we packed a few of the precious and light (family photographs, jewelry, gold and few manuscripts) and escaped to the village of Shimlan, aided by Maroof Tymani. We were housed in Shimlan by our friend, Muneer Shiblé. PLO forces went in our pursuit because they knew of our departure. This made it imperative for us to leave the relative safety of Shimlan and drive down through the friendly Druze villages to West Beirut were we stayed for a while. Thereafter, we left the country temporarily to Kuwait.
For the record, yes; we all were sympathizers with the Lebanese militias, like most Lebanese, yet we did not belong to any political parties while the Lebanese government was completely paralyzed. At the same time, the PLO and dozens of Palestinian and Syrian armed terrorists were kidnapping Lebanese people (mostly Christians), taking them to their camps, torturing and killing them. They obliterated hundreds of Lebanese towns and villages and massacred their people. Western media pick and choose what to mention about the Palestinians of Lebanon in their reports specifically when they mention the massacres of Sabra and Shateela Camps. They fail miserably to mention Palestinian and Syrian atrocities in Lebanon for dozens of years. Finally, even today, in 2007, the Palestinian camps in Lebanon continue to remain outside Lebanese government sovereignty.
The two towns changed hands among the Palestinians and the Syrians until the Israeli Defense Force uprooted both when they occupied the towns in 1982. However, between 1983 and 1992, the two towns faced the worse battles of them all. They, "defended" by the Lebanese Army, were the axis though which Druze militias and the Syrian Army wanted to gain control to the Lebanese Presidential Palace.
The armies and militias that occupied or "protected" the towns looted or destroyed everything they could carry or lay their hands on. Most buildings were stripped down to the very stone walls because they stole the wooden frames of doors and windows, roofs, brick, metal, fixtures, electric equipment, roof tiles, furniture and even floor tiles. A video that was shot in what remained of my home showed nothing but some standing stone walls and a floor which is almost 2 feet (60 cm) deep in rotting books. Yes, that was my father's more than 7,000 book collection that included manuscripts and precious books dating back hundreds of years. Luckily I had the opportunity to save a few, like this Syriac manuscript, when I fled years earlier. The massive safe, which we had emptied before leaving the house in 1976, was blown open. I would have liked to have seen the look on the faces of the savages that dynamited it open and found it empty. In recent years, a cousin of my mother was visiting an acquaintance whose husband served in the Lebanese Army in Souk El-Gharb. She was offered coffee in cups and saucers looted from Hajjar Hotel and imprinted with its name. It is probably hard to believe by readers but looting went so far as to steal the very stones of my land terraces and its walls, not to mention stealing the very fertile soil from the land with bulldozers.
During the war years, the villages were utterly destroyed and the population massacred, displaced and dispersed. The population, unarmed and unprotected by the government or organized militias, were slaughtered like sheep. Some were murdered on the roads or in their homes, others died as a result of shrapnel wounds while others were kidnapped and tortured. My uncle Robert Khalaf, an instructor at the American University of Beirut, School of Engineering, was murdered in cold blood in his home. The despicable, savage of a coward, shot him through the window of his house, a day after killing his dog, in 1977. He was amongst his wife and sons. I am unsure as to the identity of the murderer, but rumor has it that he was the son of man who worked for my other uncles in their hotel most of his life. Even after peace returned, the villages continue to be thinly populated, while most of the destroyed homes have not been restored. The original inhabitants who did not die during the battles, such as myself, either emigrated, died out or else simply moved away and started a new life elsewhere.
Emigrants and Migrants
The origin of my family name, Khalaf is from the beautiful town of Baskinta, Lebanon (please see Baskinta.com and Baskinta Online in Facebook) and my research of the name traced it to Patriarch Ignatius Khalaf in 1455 of the Syriac Orthodox Church. My family migrated to Souk El-Gharb and Bmakine sometime in the 17th century and were Greek Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholic.
Over the years, generations upon generations of people from the two towns had emigrated to the Americas, Australia, Africa, Europe and elsewhere. I was able to locate numerous names in the U.S. Ellis Island Immigration Records who carry many of the surnames mentioned in this article and came from the towns. Many escaped persecution, others sought better economic, political or social conditions. As a child I often wondered what had happened to owners of some ruined homes. When I asked about them, I was told "They left to America." I could not believe this could have happened, yet, I found myself doing the same. People do pack up, leave and never look back.
It is sad that the two towns that were favored by tourists, summer holiday-makers, and the rich and famous are now mostly abandoned. Today, they lie still with a ghostly silence that does not seem to end.
Personages of the Two Towns
|Ateyyé, Shaheen, (teacher)
||He studied Arabic literature and language under the tutelage of Sheikh Naseef Yazegy; and studied jurisprudence under Sheikh Mihyiddeen Yafy.
He taught at Souk El-Gharb High School and instructed major writers and poets such as Jirgy Zaidan, founder of Al Hilaal, and Tanior Abdo founder of Al Raawy.
He taught Arabic at the Thalaath Aqmaar (Three Moons) School and among his students was Patriarch Haddad and Archbishop Eleyya Saleeby.
His works include:
Telemark Chronicles, Explanation of Dewan Abi Hani Andalusi,
Explanation of the Letters of Abi Alaa Maarry,
Circumstances of Bad Education.
His most important book "Contract Forms in Ex planning Witnesses of Summaries" (1877).
|Ateyyé, Jirgi Shaheen (teacher)
He studied under the tutelage of his father, Shaheen Ateyyé at Souk El-Gharb High School and mastered Arabic, English, French and Russian.
He started writing at 12 and published his first collection of poems "Breezes of Youth" before he was 20.
His book "The Right Tongue" was instrumental in teaching generations of students the rules of grammar and writing.
He published a dictionary called "Al Mootamad" in 1927.
Some of students include Mikhael Naiymé, Constantine Zraiyq, Issa Saba, Elias Zakharia, Gibran Tueni, and Bishop Boulos Khoury.
|Ateyyé, Salim (MD)
||He was born in Souk El-Gharb and studied medicine at the American University of Beirut. His class was the first to graduate from the School of Medicine at the university in 1871.
|Baroody, Helena (MD)
||The first female physician in the Middle East, Helena Baroody graduated in the late1800's. She was the great-great aunt of the author (his paternal grandfather, Fareed Khalaf's aunt) and sister of Father Nicholas Baroody. She traveled to England and studied medicine. She returned to Lebanon while the Ottoman Turks were still ruling that part of the world. She had to take a license to practice medicine test in Istanbul, Turkey. She sat for the certification exam, and because her being a woman, offended many male physicians who were taking the same, . She passed the test with flying colors and returned to Lebanon where she practiced medicine for many years.
|Baroody, Jameel Mrad
||He was born in Souk El-Gharb in 1905 and studied at the American University of Beirut. He continued his studies in France and the U.K. where he specialized in Middle Eastern Studies. He befriended King Faiysal Ibn Abdelaziz Saoud -- he became later on King Faiysal.
He was appoint Secretary General of the Lebanese Republic at the New York World Fair and became later Emeritus Secretary.
He joined Princeton University as Professor of Arabic and befriended Dr. Philip Hitti, Professor of History.
After the end of World War II, in 1945, he joined the Royal Saudi Mission in San Francisco when the United Nations was established. He further signed the Declaration of Human Rights along with another famous Lebanese, Dr. Charles Malek who headed the Lebanese delegation.
He served as the Saudi Ambassador at the U.N. until his death in 1979, when the U.N. flag was lowered for the first time in mourning.
|Baroody, Nicholas (missionary priest)
||He studied under the Jesuits and became a priest in the late 1800's. He was the great-great uncle of the author (his paternal grandfather, Fareed Khalaf's uncle) and brother of Dr. Helena Baroody. He was sent to as a missionary to China. He established a hostel in one of the provinces of China. He took care of the poor and destitute. During a great famine he saved thousands from death to famine through his contacts with the outside world. He baptized thousands into the Catholic faith and was recognized by the Vatican. He declined the honors and continued to serve in China where he died.
|Baroody, Samia Korm (beauty queen)
||She's the daughter of Mrad Baroody who was elected Miss Souk El-Gharb in 1935 at Sursock Hotel. Soon after she was elected Miss Lebanon and Syria at Grand Sawfar Hotel. She participated in the world beauty contest in Belgium and was elected a second Maid of Honor.
|Hajjar, Yusef Moosa (MD)
||He was born in Bmakine and studied medicine at the American University of Beirut. His class was the first to graduate from the School of Medicine at the university in 1871. A copy of his degree is linked on this page.
|Khalaf, Nicholas (priest)
||He was born in Souk El-Gharb in 1875. He joined the seminary and became an Orthodox Priest after getting married. He served the Church in Greece and Cyprus. Between 1924 and 1953, he was the pastor of Saint Mary's Orthodox Church of Dormition in Ras Beirut. He lived with his family in the vicarage. Father Khalaf had a strong personality. .He was a loving man who had a strong, musical voice that incited the believers to participate in the services. He always stressed on the importance of abiding the customs and traditions of the church.
|Saleeby, Eleyya (archbishop)
|| He was born in Souk El-Gharb in 1881, and was elected Bishop in 1926 for the Archdiocese of Beirut. He was made Metropolitan Archbishop of Beirut in 1936 after the passing of Bishop Gerasimous Msarrá. Archbishop Eleyya was a cornerstone of the town and the region. He believed in Lebanon, in freedom and peaceful coexistence of sects and religions. He worked for the Palestinian cause and for Jerusalem. He dedicated his efforts on improving Greek Orthodox schools and in sending seminarians for further theological education abroad.
|Saleeby, Ghofraeel/ Gabriel (archbishop)
||He was born in Souk El-Gharb and is known for his theological studies specifically his thesis "In Defense of Orthodoxy." He managed the affairs of the Archdiocese of Beirut after the passing of Archbishop Eleyya Saleeby in 1977. In the fall of 2000, he was appointed its Metropolitan Archbishop of Antiochian Orthodox Diocese in Western and Central Europe.
|Saleeby, Kalib/ Ghalib (MD)
||He was born in Souk El-Gharb in 1876 and studied in its school. He left to Scotland where he completed his medical studies. He pioneered and excelled in the study of Eugenics -- improvement of human development and evolution.
He participated in the establishment of the world renowned Lancet Medical Journal in London.
He published dozens of volumes in English such as:
Improve Human Reproduction,
Health Strength and Happiness,
Success of Modern Surgery,
He established theories in nutrition, later to be known as the study of vitamins.
He is considered one of the greatest scientific writers and reformers by British Scientific circles.
|Saleeby, Shaheen (MD, OD)
||He was born in Souk El-Gharb in 1893 and studied at the High School. Thereafter he continued his studies at the American University of Beirut and graduated as M.D. He joined the medical corps of the Arab Army of Prince Faiysal. He traveled to Paris, Berlin and London where he specialized in eye diseases. He returned to Beirut and founded the first Eye Hospital in Lebanon and the East in 1922. He published literary works such as "Pictures from Life" and in 1983 his book "Christianity and Islam: Their Common Denominator."
|Others (MDs, ODs)
||Iskandar Baroody, Yousef Jiris Hajjar, Najeeb Saleeby, Ameen Saleeby, Wihbé Saleeby, Bahnaan Saleeby, Eleyya Saleeby, Maurice Nassar, Michael Beshara Hajjar, Elias Sabaa Saleeby, Toufeek Hajjar, Fadlallah Hajjar, Ibrahim Hajjar, Richard Saleeby, George Wihbé Saleeby, William Saleeby, Ayyoub Saleeby, Jameel Nassar, Jean Jack Hajjar (Professor of Physiology), Maurice Saleeby, Elie Toufeek Hajjar, Raja Elias Haddad, Namaan Saleeby, Albert Baroody, Naseeb Baroody, Wadee Baroody, Sam Baroody, Shafeek Ateyyé, Samir Saleeby, Gaby Sadiq, Kameel Sadiq, Beshara Ateyyé, Peter Ashouh, Shady Saleeby, Serge Saleeby, Hisham Kashou.
|Others (architects, engineers)
||Milaad Nassar, George Canaan, Anees Nassar, Pierre Canaan, Richard Hitti, Charles Saba, Elias Nassar, Joseph Aoun, Rabee Khalil Atallah, Raymond Elias Nassar, Nicola Elias Nassar, Shafeeq Raymond Hitti, Carol George Saleeby, Serge Aziz Khalaf, Farid Robert Khalaf, Michael Hajjar, Yousef Macdisi, Fayez Macdisi, Samir Hannoush, Carol Tayyard.
||Elie Saleeby, Maggie Fouad Qazh, George Adeeb Saleeby, Elie Kamaal Adabashé (TV producer)
|Others (PhDs, MAs)
||Nuhad Elias Saleeby (Chemistry), Michael Fouad Nassar (Physiology), George Mitré Baroody (Glands), Kameel Fouad Nassar (Physiology, Dean of Medicine of Balamand), Baheej Mrad Baroody (Organic Chemistry), Sami Emile Baroody (Political Science), Lina Shahwan Akl (Nursing), Patrick Haikal (Virology), Michael Khalaf (Corporate).
||Elie Slayman Saleeby, Michael Elias Sadek, Giselle Sadek, Jimmy Haikal.
||Jean Abbas Khalaf (Commander of the Lebanese Cavalry), Alfred Fouad Hajjar (Captain Fighter Pilot, Lebanese Air Force), Tony Khalaf (Captain, Lebanese Army), Slaymaan Ayyash (Captain, Lebanese Army -- of Ain Essayydé).
|Others (public servants)
||Abbas Michael Khalaf, George Sabee Saleeby, Raymond Hitti, George Elias Namaan Saleeby, Mayers: Elias Namaan Saleeby, Jirgi Slaymaan Saleeby, Emil Naseeb Saleeby.
||Sheikhs: Iskandar Baroody, Nasr Baroody, Elias Baroody; Teachers: Sabaa Saleeby, Labwa Saleeby, Mariam Mansoor Baroody (Headmistress), Mitré Baroody, Gibraan Baroody, Robert Khalaf (School of Engineering A.U.B.). Specifically, I remember my teachers (not necessarily from either towns): Ludmilla Baroody, Saeed Makarem, Sheikh Nassib Makarem -- Calligrapher, Ahmad Khateeb, Joseph Khoury, Dr. Kenneth Vine, Leslie Morris and Nancy Bull.
The list of nicknames of people from both hometowns demonstrates the locals love for fun, caricature and levity in referring to specific personalities in the towns. Eccentricities of some persons and those who gave the nicknames are part of the fun of country life. I am grateful to those who invented the names in the first place and the rest of the folks who kept them alive over the years. Special credit is due to Nakhle Hajjar for helping me compile this list. I hope that no living persons who find their nicknames here or their relative of those who passed away would find offence in them. They are available by special request only by email.
Google Earth and Aerial View
If you have Google Earth application installed in your computer, you can see an aerial view of my ancestral home in my old hometown. Click download map location of home bookmark. It is zipped to be downloadable. Once the bookmark is downloaded, please unzip it then click it to automatically launch Google Earth that takes to hover about less than one mile (1.50 km) over my original home and hometowns.
Note: If you know of any persons that are not mentioned here and who deserve to be mentioned among the outstanding personages from the two towns or families whom I failed to mention in the names of families of the two towns, please let me know by email. Thanks.