Dr. Antoine Emile Khoury Harb: Lebanon, A Name Through 4000 Years

From the Daily Star, February 2004

Dr. Antoine Emile Khoury Harb, ph.D in history and archaeology, secretary general of the Fondation du Patrimoine Libanais, is an authority in the history of the Lebanese people and patrimony. In 2000 he published his doctoral thesis, a research aiming to verify that there is such an entity as Lebanon and to define it, in Arabic. Recently, thanks to the initiative of the AUB Alumni Association in the US, the book has been translated into an English edition: “Lebanon, A Name Through 4000 Years: Entity and Identity”. The Association had seen with desolation the US government questioning Lebanon’s identity and right to its territory, and saw in the book a highly important document to set things straight. Five hundred copies of the English edition were mailed to US congressmen this New Year as a proof that Lebanon is hardly the “geographic mistake” Kissinger claimed it to be.

Undaunted by the torrential rains, a handful of history lovers made it to the Convent of the Franciscaines in Badaro on February 16 to listen to Harb presenting an overview of the material of his book.

In 1920, Harb began, the Lebanese delegation to the Peace Conference demanded, in the name of the Lebanese people, the restoration of Lebanon in its “natural and historical borders”, a claim then granted by General Gouraud when he proclaimed the “Grand Liban”. To the question of the nature of these borders, history gives an unambiguous answer: the two mountain ranges extending, to quote the Bible alone, “from the mountain of Baal-Hermon to the Entrance of Hamat” (Judges III,3). Awed by its snowy peaks, the desert populations of the ancient Middle East unanimously bestowed upon this country a name derived from the root LBN, which meant “white” in all the languages of the region. The Lebanese are therefore among the few, if not the only, people who bear the name of their land and not the other way around (France was named after the Franks, Bolivia after President Bolivar, etc), and the country stands out among others whose frontiers were drawn artificially. Harb here emphasizes an underrated concept: Lebanon is not a historical entity, but a geographic one, and whereas history is a variable, geography is a constant.

Harb has gone through all the ancient texts of the ancient Orient, searching for references to Lebanon by name. The earliest mention of the name is as old as writing itself, so we can only guess at how much older it may be: It is found in 3 of the 12 tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating from 2900 BC. There it is written Laabnana, and preceded by a character that indicates the name refers to a “mountain”. The same mountain-country is also mentioned by all the other cultures of the period and those that came later: Egyptian, Accadian, Sumerian, Hittite, Hebrew, Arab, etc. We find it in the texts of the library of Ebla, 2400 BC, and of the Assyrian king Shamsi-Adad, who in the 18th century BC writes: “I have erected my name and my stela in the territory of Laban on the shores of the Great Sea.” It is mentioned again in Egyptian texts, especially in the account of the journey of Wen-Amon, an envoy of the Pharaoh who, finding himself stranded in Byblos and demanding help from the king, was brushed off by the latter: “I am not your servant nor the servant of the one who sent you.” When Nabuchadnazzar conquered the Levant in 605 BC, he left a little-known stela in Wadi Brisa, Hermel, claiming: “I made this country happy. I made it so that the inhabitants of Lebanon live together in safety and nobody bothers them.”

As for the Bible, the Old Testament contains no less than 75 instances of the name Lebanon, and almost as many of its cedars. Both land and tree were regarded by the Hebrews as no less than divine, and evoked for the highest forms of praise. On the other hand, the New Testament does not mention Lebanon once: instead, it speaks of Phoenicia, a Greek nickname that is all embryonic Europe ever used to designate the country, while the Semitic populations ignored it entirely. Evidence of the name Lebanon has been found in Europe however, attesting to the parallel existence of LBN and Phoenicia: for instance on a 7th century BC artefact in Cyprus, bearing the mention “Baal LBNN”. Nine Roman emperors struck coins mentioning “Libanon”. In the days of Byzantium, maps were drawn that name Phoenice Parhalus, or “Phoenicia of the shore”, and Phoenicie Libanensis, “Lebanese Phoenicia”, whose capital was Damascus (Syria being defined then as two states north of this entity).

Of the Arabic texts, too abundant to go through on the spot, Harb only mentions one by el Tabary, a historian of the 3rd century best known for his commentary on the life of the Prophet. Tabary states that stones from Mount Lebanon were used in the construction of the Kaaba, and that the Lebanon was venerated by the Arabs along with three other sacred mountains – the Sinai, the Mont of Olives, and Ararat.
To this survey of the geographic entity of Lebanon through the ages, Harb adds a word about the human element. Lebanon, he says, had a very populated prehistory. “People seem to think that some sort of cataclysm emptied the country of its original inhabitants. Why?” he asks. “The original, prehistorical stock was never driven away. We have, in Lebanon, an indigenous population that has been absorbing foreign elements for over 4000 years.” This is the Lebanese identity, he goes on to say: “Pure blood is a zoological term.”

Hopefully the book will achieve its educational objectives. It is not just the ignorance of foreign politicians that is worrisome, however. The lecturer deplores the problem of education in Lebanon itself. At the UL, USEK and military school where he teaches the subject of the name of Lebanon among other things, students haven’t the faintest idea of its history. “Students are not made aware of the country’s ancient identity, or made proud of it,” Harb says; “instead they are made to think of it as insignificant in the midst of much larger nations.” Yet of all the world’s current nations, Lebanon’s name is the oldest. Its borders were already acknowledged long before the rise of politics. How can we not embrace such a heritage with the respect it is due?


1 thought on “Dr. Antoine Emile Khoury Harb: Lebanon, A Name Through 4000 Years

  1. Good day.. this sounds like a fascinating book. Where would I be able to get a copy? My Lebanese wife and family would be over the moon with joy.


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