Thursday, February 2, 2012

The lost descendants of Hellenism: The Antiochian Greeks

To many in the West the Middle East is simply known as the ‘Arab World’. From the Mediterranean Sea to the border of Iran, one language, one religion, one ethnicity divided into modern Nation-States. These states created by the Great Powers at the close of the First World War, however is this reality. Who are these people we know as ‘Arabs’? Just what makes a person an Arab? The truth is that the Arab world is made up of people from various different ancestral origins, religious backgrounds and historic identities lumped together as just simply Arabs. Once one realizes this the question arises to whether Arab Identity is actually more a linguistic, cultural or political identity, rather than an ethnic or racial one.

Arabic, the unifying language throughout the Middle East, is a Semitic language, which developed in the Arabian Peninsula. The dominating religion is Islam, although technically the Arab Identity is independent of any one religion, with Arab-Christian kingdoms existing before the rise of Islam. Most today attempt to identify people as Arabs based roughly on three different criteria, Genealogically, Linguistically, and/or Politically. Although as one searches deeper into the question of just who is an Arab, it begins to appear that the identity itself clearly is more of a Culturo-Linguistic identity than anything else.

In 1946, the Arab League defined an Arab as ‘a person whose language is Arabic, who lives in an Arabic speaking country, who is in sympathy with the aspirations of the Arabic speaking peoples’. However, inside Maronite Christian circles in Lebanon, the concept of Phoenicianism has risen as a rival to the Arab identity and Arabism. In the Historical Dictionary of Lebanon, published in1998 As’ad AbuKhalil touches on the subject stating:

‘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’. (As’ad AbuKhalil, 1998)

A country created from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire as an autonomous Maronite Christian piece of French Syria. In Lebanon, like all modern states craved out of the remnants of this Islamic Empire, the question of ethnic identity tends to revolve around religious affiliation. In fact, Lebanon does not even collect official census date on the ethnic background of its citizens, a result of the Millet System that divided Ottoman society by religious affiliation.

Although a multiethnic country, the National Charter of the Independence of Lebanon (1943) stated only one ethnicity for its citizens: “Lebanon has an Arabic face, Arabic language, and is part of the Arab world.” This paved the way for a bloody struggle to establish a national identity out of its various social, religious, and ethnic groups.

At the end, of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), the Taif Agreement was signed in Saudi Arabia, and definitively enforced the same Arab identity on all Lebanese: “Lebanon is Arab in belonging and identity. It is an active and founding member of the Arab League and is committed to the league's charter. [...] The state of Lebanon shall embody these principles in all areas and spheres, without exception.”

Overall the majority in Lebanon are to view themselves as Arabs, in the sense that Arabic is the national language, while the cultural backgrounds and ancestors of many in the country vary between Arab, Armenian, Aramaean, Phoenician and Greek. It is as a result of these different cultural backgrounds that within the Christian minorities of Lebanon feelings of ethnic identity have turned against Arabness.

Those who the original, autonomous region of Mount Lebanon was established for, the Maronites, view themselves as the descendants of the Phoenicians, while Melkite Catholics and Orthodox Christians tend to focus more on their Greek or Aramaic heritage. With the concept, of Arabness being denied by those within the Maronite community one begins to wonder how come those who align themselves to the Greek or Eastern Roman heritage of Lebanon do not follow suit and begin identifying themselves as ethnic Greeks. Ancient Greek colonies and kingdoms did existed in the region, and with the Christianization of the region the Greek culture only gained in influence until the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Just who are these two Christian sects, could they possibly make the backbone of a Greek identity in Lebanon?  For starters, there are the Greek Orthodox Lebanese, members of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch. Known as Antiochian Greeks, the majority are a combination of Macedonian, Roman and Eastern Roman Greek, as well as Aramaean heritage. Former members of the Roum millet inside the Ottoman Empire, today they are the second largest Christian denomination in Lebanon and consider themselves largely as Arabs of Orthodox faith.

The Greek Orthodox Community

In hopes of learning more about Antiochian Greeks, I came across three Greek Orthodox Lebanese who were willing to share their experiences and understanding of their community. Born in Tripoli Lebanon, Nadim Akkari, is one of these Orthodox Lebanese. Kind enough to lend his opinion, Nadim explains that there are two kinds of Greeks in Lebanon. Those who can trace their ancestry back to the Eastern Roman Empire and those who were refugees from Smyrna after the Greek Genocide. Greek-Lebanese Politician, artist and entrepreneur, Michel Elefteriades, is a perfect example of those who can trace their roots back to refugees from the Greek Genocide. Elefteriades’ father is the grandnephew of the famous Metropolitan of Smyrna, Saint Chrysostomos Kalafatis. Nadim, 29, traces his ancestry back to the days of the Eastern Roman Empire. “Greeks in Lebanon are just like the rest of the Christians here”, says Nadim, “but what you should know is that Greeks in Lebanon no longer Speak Greek”.

Officially the Greek Orthodox Church in Lebanon stays out of politics or talk of ethnic identity. The view of Church officials seems to be one of promoting an Arab identity within its community, a decision, which is a result of the Church’s desire to appeal to more of the Arab population. When asked how he felt about Melkite Christians, Nadim responded, ‘They are like us, only they converted to Catholicism’.

Nadim’s perception furthered my curiosity in the Greek Orthodox community, in Lebanon and the Church’s position on ethnic identity. This curiosity led me to Rodrigue Khoury, baptized Dimitrios, he is another member of the Orthodox Community. Born in Koura, Rodrigue views the Orthodox community in Lebanon as ethnic Greeks. “Arabs call us Roum, and Roum in Arabic means Greek’, explains Rodrigue, ‘before the Arab, Islamic invasion in 634, the two languages of Lebanon was Greek and Syriac…after the Arab occupation we became Arabophone, but not Arabs’. Rodrigue, just 25, represented a growing trend in community’s Orthodox youth. He explains that, ‘we are divided between the political parties led by other communities, who use our youth for their own causes. Because of this many fall victim to their influence on identity, so much that most Greek Orthodox that fall under islamic influence say that we are arabs and those that fall under maronite influence say that we are syriac…the truth is that we are Hellenes or romioi…this is why we need help from our Greek brothers to keep our real identity alive in the east’.

Rodrigue comes from the Facebook generation of young Orthodox Lebanese that are searching for their identity. A Member of several groups that express a Greek identity for Orthodox Lebanese, his opinions represent a growing change inside the Greek Orthodox Community in Lebanon. At a time, when Facebook is changing not only society, but country’s political establishments, like the recent demonstrations that have engulfed the Arab World, his opinion matters. ‘We don’t have any political organizations’, says Rodrigue, ‘and we desperately need one’. 'Each religious community inside Lebanon has their own political organizations, except the Greek Orthodox', explained Rodrigue. ‘Even the Armenian community, 1% of the population is more influential than us, the reason being they have political representation’.

In more detail, Rodrigue explained, ‘The Antiochian Church was once in place as the Church of Jerusalem and Alexandria are now. The Arabophone people began to feel that the Church was ‘under occupation from the Greek clergy’ and soon crafted their argument as a racial conflict between Arabs and Greeks, which gained support from the Arab, Muslim establishment. Since the beginning of the 20th century, our Patriarch must come from our land, which has helped accelerate Arab propaganda. Currently the Church has no official opinion on these types of questions, although our bishops all seem to be divided into three spheres of influence; Greek, Syriac, or Arab’.

Too some Rodrigue’s views might sound radical. Many believe that accepting a Greek identity rather than an Arab one for Greek Orthodox Christians would be an unwise decision. One that might cause resentment towards Orthodox Christians. However, to this Rodrigue says, ‘Just because we are not Arabs it doesn’t mean we are in conflict with them…We must all learn to live in a pluralistic society and I’m confident that they will accept us, as they accept the Armenians. They are obliged to because we are an indigenous people of this land’.

When asked about the Greek Melkite community, he stated ‘The Greek Melkite Catholics are Greeks like us of course, they were all Orthodox once, but because of internal Church politics some found support from Rome. Either way they are attached to the Byzantine Empire and its legacy, and, therefore, share a Greek identity with us’.

The last member of Lebanese-Greek Orthodox community I had the pleasure of speaking with was Ghassan El Karaan. Ghassan is 24, born during the Lebanese Civil War, his parents preferred not to give him a Greek name, ‘to spare my life from ethnic persecution’, as Ghassan says. Therefore, he was legally given an Arabic name and baptized ‘Hlias’, however, he insists on being called ‘Hlias’ instead of ‘Ghassan’. His family had their Greek surname forcibly changed during the Ottoman Empire. “In fact, during the Ottoman occupation, everything that is Greek was prohibited, and Greeks were discriminated and considered as second class citizens. As part of this discrimination, Turks used to refer to Greek individuals, not by their Greek family names but by their job titles, or sometimes for harsher intimidation by other physical or moral qualities. ‘El Karaan’ means, ‘the bald’, and truly baldness is a hereditary gene in my family’, he told me.

Hlias, like Rodrigue, believes that the Greek Orthodox community is ethnically Greek, ‘…we are direct descendants of the Romano-Hellenic Empire, the oldest still existing civilization in Lebanon’, he stated.  How is it possible that a young Orthodox Christian Lebanese soul is proudly identifying as an ethnic Greek rather than an Arab? To understand this better, Hlias elaborated further on the current situation of the Greek Orthodox community in Lebanon. His position is an intriguing one, which should raise many questions in the hearts and minds of ethnic Greeks. Hlias is of the opinion that the current state of the Orthodox in Lebanon is at a critical juncture, in which centuries of persecutions and forced Arabization has led the Greek Orthodox Church to accept the government’s authority to elect ‘a pro-Arab Patriarch and pro-Arab Bishops instead of a Greek Patriarch and Greek Bishops’, as he says. 

Going on further, Hlias noted that, “All events between 333BC till 700 AD have been omitted from history books…most Greek historical monuments haven’t been restored properly to conceal the truth…history has been forged to deceive the people. Today our social and cultural traditions, our food, our drink, our love for freedom and democracy are all still analog to those of Greece, and very alien to those of the Arab countries. The only common thing we have with Arabs is the language that was imposed on our ancestors by force. However, just because our language was changed, this doesn’t mean that our blood changed, our blood is still Greek! Our hearts are still Greek! I am Greek, and very proud of it!”


As a Greek-American, with Lebanese-American friends of Greek Orthodox faith, I’ve always been under the impression that the Orthodox community in Lebanon was just Christian Lebanese, and yet to my surprise I was being told differently from those living in Lebanon. In the end, Hlias informed me that, “the Greek Orthodox community in Lebanon has only 5 schools of their own compared to hundreds of Catholic and Islamic schools spread all over the country. The Greek language is almost a forgotten language, and the lack of ethnic spirit of identity amongst the Greek Orthodox is very dangerous…only the Greek Orthodox ignores that he is a Roum of Roman Greek descendant because he ignores the history of his fathers, and very few speak their native tongue, Greek”.

Which leads me back to my original question, if Maronites are able to start shedding their Arab identity for a Phoenician one, what was wrong about other Christian communities adopting a Greek identity? Since the Greek Government and the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch will not touch the subject, it falls to those of us in the Diaspora to consider the issue. Should we open our arms to our forgotten ethnic brethren, aid them in the journey towards an ethnic Greek identity? Or should we follow the examples of the Greek State and the Orthodox Church and let their words fall of deaf ears?

Hlias Ghassan Karaan, email interview, February 6, 2011
Nadim Akkari, email interview, January 22, 2011
Rodrigue Khoury, email interview, January 29, 2011