Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Lebanon: The Mamluk Era and the Ottoman Empire


In 1193, half a century after Saladin’s death, the Ayyubid dynasty to which Saladin belonged came to an end and the Mamluks took over in Egypt. At that time, the Europeans had lost important battles in the Levant, but they were not entirely defeated yet. Some historians say it was the Mongols who dealt the final blow to the Crusader states.

Indeed, around 1250, Genghis Khan and his descendants had conquered all of Central and large parts of Western Asia, and even some parts of Eastern Europe.

Mamluk empire

In the Middle East, the Mongols penetrated as far as Damascus and went on in the direction of Egypt. The Mamluks ran into them in the north of Palestine, where the famous battle of Ayn Jalut (1260) is said to have changed the course of history. The Mamluks defeated the Mongols and went on to conquer Syria and Mount Lebanon.

As Sunnite Muslims, the Mamluks were wary of both the Christians – mainly Maronite – and the Shiites who were living there. However, the Mamluks enjoyed good relationships with Catholic Venice, and therefore generally let the Christian communities be. The Shiites, however, were considered not only as heterodox, but – worse – as friends of the Mongols, and were persecuted. Many were killed, those who survived hid in the mountains.

The Ottoman Empire (1516-1788)

In 1516, the Ottoman Empire defeated the Mamluks and seized control of the region. This was the starting point of three centuries of relative calm, in which Mount Lebanon and Syria enjoyed a large degree of autonomy. Their society had a feudal structure, very much organized around the way this nation of farmers-soldiers had lived and fought for centuries.

Ottoman empire

The emir commanded several sheikhs, who in turn had their vassals, each of whom had their own army of peasants who when necessary acted as soldiers. The Ottoman authority was represented by pashas in the main cities: Aleppo, Tripoli, Sidon, and later Beirut. The coastal cities were the domain of Sunni or Melkite (Greek Catholic) traders, whereas Druze, Shiites, and Maronites lived in relative peace in the mountains.

There was the odd revolt against the Sultan, there were attacks from Bedouin nomads against whom the mountain people had to defend themselves, there were family and neighborhood feuds, conspiracies, and power struggles – but overall, until the 19th century, Mount Lebanon was rather peaceful and prosperous.

If there were clashes between communities, it was not on a religious basis. The mountains had become a refuge for different minorities, religious or other, that had fled persecution. These groups had to live together in one way or another.

Fakhr al-Din II and Bashir II

Two names of emirs emerge during this period. The first was Fakhr al-Din II (1593-1635), the last and best-remembered member of the Maan dynasty, the second was Bashir II (1788-1840), of the Chehab family. Both have the epithet ‘The Great’ attached to their name.

Fakhr al-Din concluded an alliance with Ferdinand I de Medici, Duke of Tuscany, and this bond, which was to last for centuries, was profitable, first of all for the trade centers in the coastal cities, but also for the mountains, where Tuscan engineers built the now-famous terraces which made agriculture much more efficient.

Fanack Water Palestine