“How, then, did you try to rebel?”

by Charles Al-Hayek

19th century Mount Lebanon: Observation on Patterns of Political and Social Change The Kisrawan Rebellion as a Case Study


In his decree of September 15, 1821, Abdullah Pasha, Ottoman Beylerbeyi (governor) of the Sidon Eyalet (province), based in the port city of Acre, addressed both Christians and the Shi’as peasants who had rebelled against Emir Bashir II Shihab, multazim of Mount Lebanon. In this decree, the governor reprimand the rebels in a series of reprimands. One of the reprimands: “How then, did you try to rebel?” reflects the Ottoman position, and that of the local notables, in response to a rebellion they regarded as transgressing social order and hierarchy. There is a lot of literature on the popular mobilization, the end of the “muqata’ji” system, and the emergence of communal politics in the context of the Ottoman Tanzimat in the first half of the 19th century in Mount Lebanon. This paper aims to highlight the local, and Ottoman historical conditions which made one of the popular mobilizations possible: the 1858 Kisrawan rebellion. It aims at presenting notes and observations on the rebellion in light of concepts of continuity and change, moral economy and sectarianism, and examines why it failed to become a general peasant uprising and merged into the civil war of 1860. It also aims at offering the general political, social and economic context that witnessed shifts in patterns of cultural heritage in Mount-Lebanon and Beirut in the second half of the 19th century.


In the first half of the 19th century, Ottoman Mount Lebanon was the theatre of change that brought shifts in its political, social, and economic structure in the context of Ottoman restoration, the Tanzimat reforms, and local popular mobilizations. Popular insurrections in Mount Lebanon in that period can be observed in three successive waves. First, a peasant revolution in 1820-1821, that witnessed the first recorded well-organized village communes, mainly in the Christian districts of northern and central Mount Lebanon, demanding equality, fewer taxes, and political representation. Second, an uprising in 1840 that is characterized by the participation of the different communities of Mount Lebanon, in the face of Egyptian occupation, backed by Ottoman, British and Austrian troops, witnessing the drafting of covenants, calling for unity off the different communities of Mount Lebanon. Third, the events of 1858-1860, which starts a peasant uprising in the Kisrawan district, characterized by well-organized village communes, and the elections of village “wakils”, or representatives, with a general agent ‘wakil ‘am”, elected in the person of Tanyus Shahin. However, following a short period of “self-rule” and the expulsion of the Khazin sheikhs3, this last popular mobilization fails to become a general peasant uprising and merges into the 1860 civil war as one of its factors. In a longue durée perspective, the Mount Lebanon witnessed over a long period, stretching from the late 18th, to the mid 19th century, conjunctures and events that brought change in its political, social and economic structures. The longue durée factors are relevant to observe Mount Lebanon and the 1858 uprising in their Ottoman context.

Beirout_and_Mount_Lebanon_-John Carne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Part I: Longue durée factors, Mount Lebanon in Ottoman Context


Following the battle of Marj-Dabiq in 1516, the Ottoman Empire came to control, until 1918, Bilad al-Sham, and consequently Mount Lebanon. The Ottoman Empire integrated the different “Bilads” (Districts) of Mount Lebanon into the empire while keeping the internal social structure and local political customs. For most of Ottoman rule, Mount Lebanon, and the territories of present-day Lebanon, were organized into three Ottoman provinces. The northern part was administered from Tripoli, the southern from Sidon (from Acre after 1750), and the eastern from Damascus. Provincial leaders, known locally as “Muqata’jis”4, became Ottoman multazims, or tax farmers and administrators. The system worked around the muqata’a (fiscal unit), where quasi-hereditary “A’yans” (Notables), governed their muqata’as as quasi-hereditary lords, and were responsible for the collection of taxes, maintaining order, and the administration of first instance justice. The A’yans were intermediaries of the imperial center in peripheral areas, under the supervision of the Ottoman governors. The fiscal function that they were able to perform, was based on their social, economic, and political power and influence. As reflected in “Akhbar al-A’yan fi Jabal Lubnan”, written by a member of the paramount family of Mount Lebanon, Haydar al Shihabi, Mount Lebanon’s history was the history of the A’yan, their genealogy, their feuds, and their deeds. This genealogical identity of the districts is also reflected in the works of 19th-century chroniclers from Mount Lebanon, such as Nasif al-Yaziji in his “Historical Treatise on the Conditions of Mount Lebanon in its Feudal Age” where he describes the holders of the muqata’at as having full jurisdiction over their respective inhabitants. Peasants living on their lands were linked to the Muqata’jis, politically by bonds of ‘Assabiya, or ‘Uhdas, and economically, by a series of sharecropping agreements. Peasants were required to perform labor service, pay taxes, and extra levies imposed by the muqata’jis. The development of malikane8system in the 18th century, that worked like the iltizam, allowed local A’yan families like the Shihabs, to retain the function of multazim of their territory as a quasi-dynastic privilege. Between 1697 and 1841, the paramount muqata’ji of Mount Lebanon, known in local literature as al-Amir al-Hakim (the governing emir), belonged to the Shihabi dynasty. However, the Shihabi emirs were under the influence of the powerful Druzes Sheikhs and the ottoman governors of Acre. The system worked, more or less the same way, as any iltizam in the Ottoman empire, however, it tended to be dynastic, and the different Muqata’jis families, maintained their iltizam, at least from the early 18th century up to the end of the so-called Lebanese emirate in 1841. The emirs were at the head of a complex network of families which was preserved through strict social practices. This elite was a single non-sectarian group and until 1861, the most important social demarcation in Lebanon was not that of religion, but of social class. The muqata’jis, or A’yan community, dominated the political and social life of Ottoman Mount Lebanon, it “existed above, exploited, and defined itself against the second community, the ahali…”9. This understanding of the “old regime” was being gradually changed in the wake of the popular mobilizations in 1821, 1840, as the ahali, or commoners were entering the politics of Mount Lebanon.

Ahali or ‘Amma

The Ahali or ‘Amma (commoners) were seen to be a passive community, one undifferentiated category, supposedly made of apolitical tax-paying subjects. The Ahali were expected to place themselves in a logic of obedience to the A’yan and the Ottoman State. This was a key discourse “it implied the idea of a politically quiescent population, a passive community.” In this discourse of obedience and passiveness, the ahali were not part of the “history” of the mountain and were deprived of any form of political representation. However, they were not one undifferentiated community, but a rather diverse group made out of a majority of peasants, seasonal workers, wealthy farmers, merchants and artisans. The ahali were the driving force of the popular mobilizations in Mount Lebanon in 1821, 1841, and 1858. This marked a shift in their traditional assigned roles and their entry, for the first time, into the politics and history of Mount Lebanon. However, traditional discourse described this entry as a threat to social order: “They have placed themselves in the domain of insubordination, denounce the boldness of the commoners whose popular movement had threatened to break the social order”. The 1858 Kisrawan uprising exemplifies the ahali entering politics and history, gaining self-rule, for the first time in Mount Lebanon, and reflecting in their actions and ideas, own understating of the concepts of equality, freedom in the context of the Ottoman Tanzimat.

Maronites Dynamics

The 18th and 19th centuries witnessed the affirmation of the supremacy and influence of the Maronite community in Mount Lebanon. Maronite peasant movement towards the southern districts of Mount Lebanon, mainly Druze, began in the late 16th century. Maronite peasants became subjugated to the Druze muqata’jis and worked in silk production and agriculture. The Maronite population became more numerous than the Druze by the late 18thcentury. They benefited from the reforms conducted in the Maronite Church following the council of Luwayza in 1736, which expanded the network of monasteries, schools. As they began to be educated, consequently, they became a key element in the administration of the Muqata’a as “Muddabirs” or managers of the estates of the Muqata’jis, and custodians of their heirs. Another factor solidified Maronite influence in Mount Lebanon: the transformation of the monasteries into agricultural units. The Maronite monastic orders, mainly composed of monks of peasant extraction, expanded their lands all through the 18th, and early 19th centuries. Through cultivation contracts, the monasteries became dynamic centers of production of wealth and benefited from the protection and donations of the elites. Also, the different structural reforms of the Maronite Church in the 18th century made it into the most dynamic and wealthy institution in Mount Lebanon. The conversion of members of the leading notable dynasties to the Maronite church, such as the Druze Abi al-Lame emirs and the Sunni Shihab, emirs was an expression of the power of the Maronite church in Mount Lebanon. However, this shift in the delicate balance of power in Mount Lebanon was not without consequences. Under the emirate system, the functioning of the emirate depended on the cooperation between Druze muqata’jis and Maronites peasants. By the mid 19th century, this cooperation seized to exist. It is also important to observe that the mid 19th century the Maronite Church assumed an increasingly prominent role in local politics, it demanded Shihabi restoration, Christian subjects of Ottoman Lebanon would enjoy the tranquility, security, and prosperity of the Tanzimat. Druze elites maintained that most of their Christian tenants were content under the benevolent patriarchy of Druze notable administration, they understood the Tanzimat to mean full restoration of their rights to rule the land.

Land Patterns in Mount Lebanon

Muqata’jis and the Maronite Church were the largest landowners in 19th century Ottoman Mount Lebanon. Some peasants owned small plots called “Bustans”, however, they were too small to provide for a family. To increase productivity and income, peasants could enter into sharecropping arrangements (Musharaka, Mugharasa, or Musaqat) with monasteries or muqata’jis. In the course of the 18th century, peasants gained land through the use of cultivation contracts (mugharasa), and muqata’jis, when cash was needed, sold parcels of lands, especially to the emerging wealthy class of Maronite merchants. But most peasants were poor, and under the long reign of emir Bashir II, the pressure of increased demands for taxes resulted in peasants losing the lands they had acquired and “by the first half of the nineteenth century about 10 percent – a high proportion by local standards – of the peasantry owned no land at all and supported themselves by sharecropping or as agricultural day laborers.”However, to meet the growing needs of sericulture, most of the available land in Kisrawan was now devoted to mulberry plantations. This might have had an effect on the production of cereals and put pressure on the peasants in the context of increased taxation and economic crisis prior to the 1858 uprising.

The Long Reign: Bashir II Shihab (1788-1841)

The long reign of Bashir II Shihab witnessed a shift in the social, and political dynamics in Mount Lebanon. He succeeded in imposing himself as paramount emir of Mount Lebanon in 1788, weakened, and destroyed the power of the Druze muqata’jis, especially the Junblats sheikhs. He enriched himself by confiscating their lands, exiling the sheikhs and distributed some of it to his supporters. In doing so, he established a new version of the old system, though more centralized. The centralizing tendencies of Bashir II, disrupted the delicate balance of power in the mountain14. It was a reflection of the growing influence of the Maronite community, demographically, economically, and its translation of that into the political sphere. Under Bashir II, Maronites tended to replace the traditional Druzes sheikhs in the administration of the emirate in their traditional roles. This new social situation would be translated into tensions, and frictions, between the Druzes, and the Maronites, over the issue of who controls, govern, and owns both Mount Lebanon, and land in Mount Lebanon. What can also be observed is that, under Bashir II, the tribute of the mountain was increased to meet the rising demands of both, the Ottoman governors, and the emir himself. The disruption of the traditional system, and the heavy taxation, will have long term consequences on the minimal cooperation between Druzes and Maronites, which constituted one of the pillars of the emirate system, leading to its disintegration in bloody sectarian conflicts.

Ottoman Tanzimat

Ottoman restoration in Bilad el-Sham in 1841, and the end of the Egyptian interregnum were linked to the period of the Tanzimat reforms. The Tanzimat reforms were a series of edicts between 1839 and 1876 intended to preserve the weakening Ottoman empire. The beginning of the Tanzimat is associated with the promulgation of the Hatt-i Serif of Gulhane in 1839, the edict which announced the commitment of the Ottoman state to safeguard lives, honor, and property of all its subjects, regardless of religious affiliation. The 1856 Hatt-i Humayun asserted the equality of Muslims and non-Muslims Ottoman subjects. This marked a discursive shift in the notion of Ottoman subject-hood, on which a modern project of citizenship was elaborated based on the concept of equality. In Mount Lebanon, “…commoners viewed the Tanzimat as a mandate for social liberation, as well as religious emancipation.”, and “The commoners appropriated and subverted imperial knowledge generated at the center of the Ottoman Empire, to legitimize their entrance into the realm of politics in its periphery.” The concepts of equality and freedom, elaborated in the Tanzimat, are reflected in the demands and actions of the peasants in the 1858 Kisrawan uprising, albeit in a local understanding that seems to be drift away from the original purpose of the Tanzimat laws, and to be crafted into a concept of “Christian liberation”.

Emerging Towns

By the end of the 18th century, Zuq Mikayel had become, alongside the market towns of Dayr al-Qamar, Beit Shabeb, and Zahleh, an important center of trade and artisanal production in Mount Lebanon. In the 1790s the market towns of Mount Lebanon were selling their products in regional markets of Bilad al-Sham and Egypt. The growth of these towns was linked to the large economic process which developed during the Shihabi emirate, notably the expansion of circuits of trade during the 18th century, linking Syria to Egypt. Henry Guys, the French consul, noted that in 1835 Zuq Mikayel had 135 looms weaving cotton, silk, wool and gold thread. Economic activity in the towns was outside the control of the muqata’jis, and new merchant families, who had managed to accumulate wealth, to the extent that they were able to lend in turn to the Shihabs and Khazins, emerged as new key players in Mount Lebanon. The moneylenders became indispensable intermediaries by providing much needed capital to meet the tax demands of provincial governors, diminishing the economic and fiscal role of the muqata’jis. The growing importance of urban-rural relations, especially in the rural Kisrawan district had an impact on the peasants. Towns are seen as centers of “liberation”, places where the influence of “feudalism” is limited. To secure the extra taxes and feast day gifts imposed by the Khazins, the peasants of Kisrawan had to buy the rather expensive gifts (soap-sugar-coffee) from town markets, either in Zuq-Mikayel, Jouneih, or even Beirut. They also had to buy the silkworm eggs in the towns. This contact with the towns might be one of the secondary factors of the uprising, where peasants had contacts with a space where the sheikhs had no authority. However, this aspect is still to be studied by historians.

The Kaimakamate

The Kaimakamate system was established following the instauration of direct Ottoman rule, the first civil war in Mount Lebanon in 1841, and the end of the Shihabi emirate in 1842. This new administrative system was a political arrangement that representatives of the European powers and the Ottoman State had arrived at in Istanbul as a solution to sectarian conflict in Mount Lebanon. It was a bicephalous regime attributed to Metternich, that seemed a compromise between the local autonomy (the old Shihabi emirate) that Mount Lebanon enjoyed, and the Ottoman drive for centralization and direct rule in the period of the Tanzimat. The decision was taken to partition the mountain along religious lines into two administrative units on either side of the Beirut-Damascus road called Kaimakamate. The northern kaimakamate, supposed to be the Christian district, had a sizeable Druze population. And the southern kaimakamate, supposed to be the Druze district, had a more complex situation, Christian constituted a majority in all nahyes except the Shuf proper. The mixed areas were a source of tension, Ottomans insisted on territorial jurisdiction of the Kaimakam, while locals demanded communal authority. The system was modified twice, first in 1843, when Khalil Pasha introduced the function of wakils or representatives of their respective communities in the mixed areas. They were appointed by the Kaimakam of each district, responsible for tax collection and first instance justice, however, they were answerable to the kaymakam of their sect. This modification complicated things further and created friction between peasants, wakils, and between wakils and muqata’jis. Following the second civil war of 1845, Ottomans dispatched Shekib Effendi, the minister of foreign affairs, in the delicate mission of restoring order and fine-tuning the system. He called upon consuls to stop interfering with the affairs of the Mountain, asked them to recall all missionary personnel to Beirut. His modifications, known as the “Règlements of Shekib Effendi” introduced amendments to the system. It created a council (Majlis) in each Kaimakamate, made out of representatives of all communities living within each district. Each community had an advisor, and a judge, except the Shi’as. The members of the majlis were appointed for life and were salaried by the state. The function of the majlis consisted of assessing the tax burden in each district, distributing it in the different parts of the district, and hearing cases of first instance justice. In that perspective, it took more from the traditional functions and prerogatives of the muqata’jis. It transferred it to the Ahali, the commoners of Mount Lebanon, as wakils and majlis members, albeit the Kaimakam was still chosen from the leading muqata’jis families. The failure of the system to instore order and its cumbersome functioning would be a major factor of shift, change, and friction between 1842 and 1861. Conflicts between the office of Kaimakam and the old muqata’jis would also play a key role in igniting the popular mobilization of 1858. This was the time of a drive for the centralization as the center was aiming at re-imposing its sovereignty over its districts, and to carry out its reform project, in the context of European economic expansion. Against this setting must be observed the effects of the modifications of Shekib Effendi in 1845 which had created peasant wakils in the villages of mixed sectarian composition. The Kisrawan peasants “were unfortunate enough to have no sectarian problem (the district was almost solidly Maronite) and hence no wakils. In this respect, it had now become a privilege For Maronite peasants to live under a Druze rather than a Maronite feudal overlord.” The structure for popular representation was already available to use for the 1858 rebels.

Qawmat ‘Ammiyat

In local Lebanese history, popular uprisings are known as “Qawmat ‘Ammiyat”. In the period that followed Ottoman restoration in Bilad al-Sham in 1841, after the Egyptian interregnum, and in the context of the Tanzimat, Mount Lebanon witnessed large scale popular mobilizations in 1821, 1841 and 1858. The 1821 started as a revolution against the fiscal policies of emir Bashir II Shihab, witnessed the participation of intellectuals in the organization of the rebellion, and was crushed by the emir24. The second started as a popular rebellion against both emir Bashir II and Egyptian rule, and merged into the allied intervention, in the context of the Oriental crisis of 1840. It witnessed rebels voicing their demands in covenants and declarations, some, like the 1840 Antelias covenant, voicing vague ideas of “unity” between the different communities who now seems to identify themselves as communities of “Mount Lebanon”. The third took place in 1858 in Kisrawan uprising happened largely within the Maronite community, as a reaction against the excesses of the muqata’ji system.

Beirut_Vilayet_and_Mount_Lebanon_jpeg\ Bekpashi Mehmed Nasrullah, Mehmed Rüşdi, Mehmed Eşref (بيكباشي محمد نصر الله وآخرون), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Part II-The 1858 Kisrawan Uprising

Kisrawan was a district situated in central Mount Lebanon that was placed under the rule of the Khazin muqata’ji family since the 17th century. Sericulture was the most important agrarian activity in Kisrawan. After enjoying a long period of prosperity and autonomy, the Khazins were on the decline, owing to economic and political factors. The Shihabi emir demands for more levy and the Khazin’s desire to take a larger part of silk production pushed them to turn to moneylenders in Beirut and Zuq-Mikayel. As a result, they accumulate debt and many of them became impoverished. They also gradually lost the control they had over the Maronite Church in matters of bishop appointments and elections of the Patriarch. This decline led them to spend more money to improve their political and social standing and to increase pressure on the peasants of their district. Kisrawani peasants were already working and living under harsh conditions, in the context of sharecropping contracts, that stipulated that they had to give half of their revenue, in addition to paying several dues in labor, cash, kind, and gifts to the Khazins. To meet their needs in cash, the peasants had to borrow, creating cycles of indebtedness. The immediate context of the uprising was created by the Khazin offensive against the peasants who voiced their discontent on Khazin oppression, and their struggle to bring down the Kaimakam.

Phases of the Uprising

Factionalism and Popular Mobilization

Emir Haydar Abi al-Lame’, the Christian Kaimakam, died in 1854. His nephew, Bashir Assaf, was appointed Kaimakam “on the recommendation of the European Consuls, to fill the office temporarily while a successor was sought”. He had been his uncle’s deputy on the majlis for the past three years, however, the Khazins, proposed “three alternatives”:

  • Haydar’s son Ismail be appointed with a Khazin as his administrative secretary

  • A Khazin is made kaimakam

  • The muqa’jis rule their districts directly under the Mushir27 without a Kaimakan.

This situation reflects also the bitter conflicts over political power in Mount Lebanon between the muqata’ji families, as the Khazins refused to submit to the authority of an “equal” muqata’ji, “betray the dissatisfaction of the khazins shaikhs with their position of subordination to the Abi el-Lame.”28 In the context of the Franco-British alliance during the Crimean War, the French and the British consuls recommended Emir Bashir Ahmad Abi al Lame’, and in August 1854, he was appointed as Kaimakam. This was also the period when Bulus Masaad, a commoner, was elected Maronite Patriarch, succeeding to a Khazin patriarch and a line of patriarchs that were all members of the muqata’jis families. The new patriarch was known for his dislike of the Khazins, and his election marked a shift in the composition of the upper Maronite clergy, reserved to members of the muqata’ji families. Also, the Maronite Church displayed antipathy towards the new kaymakam, reproaching him not to be born a Maronite but a Druze who converted. It is important to observe that the Khazin themselves were not unanimous on the question of the identity of the Kaimakam and gravitated into two antagonistic factions as Ahmadi, partisan of Bashir Ahmad, and Assafi, partisans of Bashir Assaf. The British consulate, despite their initial support of Bashir Ahmad, now encouraged Bashir Assaf’s faction. The conflict over the successor of Haydar Abi al-Lame’, who died in 1854, had split the Khazins into two factions, one supporting the candidacy of Bashir ‘Assaf, and the other that of Bashir Ahmad. The conflict intensity increased when the Khazin factions began enlisting the support of villagers for support of their candidates and began organizing general meetings in Kisrawan. One was held in Zuq al-Kharab, calling for the expulsion of the Kaimakam, and another in Bhannes, threatened and prompted the ruling kaimakam to flee to Beirut. As the movement expanded, Khazin sheikhs encouraged the peasants to elec “wakils” (representatives) that were given seals of office to stamp petitions against the Kaimakam. Furthermore, the different factions of the Khazins organized peasants in self-defense organization (Assafi faction). This escalation led to the temporary suspension of the Kaimakam. In doing so, the Khazins distributed arms to peasants. Kisrawan had now two armed factions, supporters of two candidates of the same family. The ease with which large groups of villagers joined the mobilization against the kaymakam suggests that it cannot be conceived as the result of elite manipulation, it must be observed that the peasants had already mobilized in the 1820’s against the fiscal policies of emir Bashir II and elected wakils.

In 1858, a popular mobilization took place in Zuq Mikayel and voiced complaints against some Khazins sheikhs. The crowd sent a delegation to Beirut to present a list of grievances to Khurshid Pasha, bypassing the Kaimakam. Another wave of popular mobilization took place at the same time in other villages of the Kisrawan, Ajaltoun and Mazra’at Kfar Debyan, where according to al-‘Aqiqi29, young men elected wakils and “Shuyukh Shabab” to represent them. By July 1858, the Kaimakam had lost effective control over his territory. However, the course of events took a different direction on Christmas 1858 as the armed peasants elected village delegates (woukala) to represent them, and a general delegate (Wakil ‘Am).

Wakil al-‘Amm

As mentioned in the Aqiqi manuscript, there was now a new situation in the Kisrawan district as “The people began holding meetings to find a way of protecting themselves from these oppressions by legitimate means.”. And, “When the people learned that the Khazins were petitioning the government and planning to ruin Kisrawan, they held a meeting and decided to expel the entire Khazin family, men, and women, from Kisrawan.

Fearing aggression from behalf of the Seikhs, villagers organized themselves and decided to expel the Khazins from the Kisrawan. The expulsion of the Khazins from Kisrawan in January 1859 and the confiscation of their property come as an escalation of the situation, drastic shift from the earlier popular mobilizations, as, for the first recorded time, the ahali, in transgression of the traditions of authority, deference and subjugation to the muqata’jis. This kind of violence “represented a fundamental shift like local violence. It emanated from the ahali, its occurrence indicated an intrusion into the community of knowledge by non-elites…. In this context, and probably for better organization, the villagers elected a “Wakil ‘Am”, or general representative in the person of Tanuys Shahin. According to the Aqiqi manuscript, Shahin was already at the forefront of the uprising: “In their forefront was Tanyus Shahin, whom they called “bey”.

Shahin was a muleteer from Rayfoun, with some connections with the Lazarist missionaries of Antoura35, operating as a French school since 1834, with a summer school in his village. He obtained from the French missionaries credentials from the French consulate that facilitated his passing through internal borders. It is important to observe muleteers in 19th century Mount Lebanon as they stand out from the rebels as an “important mobilizing force. Muleteers were “self-employed, mobile, in contact with large numbers of humble people, and independent from patrons, wealthy clients, and employers. This “larger” freedom of movement that the muleteers enjoyed, and their mobility implied a good knowledge of the main routes of trade and communications. They were strategically well placed to circulate ideas and perhaps even mobilize for action. This “condition”, proper to the muleteers, might have influenced the action of Shahin in his function as “Wakil ‘am” of the Kisrawan. For Shahin, the ahali were an active, unified, discerning, and mobilized population willing and able to legitimately represent itself. He signed documents as “general representative” (wakil ‘am), of the ahali of Kisrawan and replied in his letters that “we cannot accept anything until we consult with all the ahali and all the villages”, or that he was bound to “the interest of the masses”.

Another aspect of the transgression by the ahali of the old order was the delegation that was sent to meet with Khurshid Pasha, the Ottoman governor in Beirut, to voice the grievances with the Khazins, bypassing the kaymakam altogether. They also appealed to the moral authority of the Maronite patriarch, as attested in several letters in the Aqiqi manuscript. Unlike the 1821 primarily tax revolt, the 1858 peasant uprising was characterized by the ahali demanding popular representation, while asserting new rights of equality and freedom, based on the Tazimat. This is reflected in a memorandum submitted by the villagers of Kisrawan to Patriarch Mas’ad39, where emphasis is placed on their rights to be represented by elected functionaries, the have the sheikhs pay taxes, and to have the rank of the sheikhs “be the same as ours in all matter without any exception whatever.”, to refuse the sheikh as ma’mur. The demands formulated in the memorandum are a break with the past, a total refusal of the old muqata’jis order that gave the sheikhs administrative and fiscal functions, as well as privilege and prerogatives. The Kisirwani peasants were clearly formulating their demands on the backdrop of the Tanzimat, and within a framework of moral economy, as shall be explain further down. The demands of the peasants also reflect the particular oppressions practiced by the Khazins in Kisrawan. Peasants demanded equitable distribution of taxes, cessation of unjust measures and obligatory gifts on festival occasions, political representation, and the equality of all before the law and in social dignity. In another letter to the Maronite patriarch Bulus Mas’ad, dated to December 17, 1859, the demands of peasants of six Kisrawani villages are voiced in six items40. As the letter reflects, “Statement of the items requested by which peace may be secured for us and Their Excellencies the Shaikhs.”, the aim is to instore peace one again between “us”, i.e, the ahali and the muqata’jis.

  • Item one: a financial demand, that the miri and head tax shall be collected under principles, so that the sheikhs shall be obliged to pay what is apportioned to them, without the people having to bear an excessive head tax.

  • Item two: oppressions, wrongdoings, the exaction of extras, money transfers, taken by the sheikhs are contrary to the benevolent decrees “al-Tartibat al-Khayriya”, i.e the Tanzimat decrees.

  • Item three: presents giving imposed by the sheikhs must be removed.

  • Item four: the ma’mur must govern by justice and law so that there shall be no further disputes between the ahali and the muqata’jis. Also, for every village one or two wakils should be elected.

  • Item five: The Sublime Porte has “granted us universal equality and complete freedom” so that all the old principles should be changed, and new taxes will be levied on all.

  • Item six: The submission of the question of ma’mur to the decision of the Maronite church.

Again, the demands are formulated in a Tanzimat context of equality, freedom and of a discourse of loyalty to the Ottoman State and the Sultan. It is interesting to observe that locals identify the Tanzimat decrees as “benevolent decrees “al-Tartibat al-Khayriya”, and interpret them as being in their favor.\

However, from the start, the popular mobilization in Kisrawan did not transform into a general peasant uprising. Even in its nucleus in the Kisrawan, unanimity was far from attained. The Ftouh villages, under their Hubaysh and Dahdah sheikhs, refused to come under the leadership of Tanyus Shahin. In 1860, tensions extended from the Kisrawan to the mixed districts of the Southern Kaimakamate, where young male Christians organized themselves into militias (jahala) headed by self-proclaimed “shaykh al-shabab”. A Series of sectarian killings followed to inspire fear resulting in creating new sectarian landscapes, depending on the communal identities of the regions. The district, previously defined by geography and genealogy, emerged now as redefined communally. This allowed Shahin to position himself as the protector of all Christians of Mount Lebanon. The Beirut League, headed by Maronite bishop Tobya Aoun, was pressuring the Kisrawani peasants to join in the defense of Christian in the mixed districts. In response, Shahin gathered some followers and went to Antiluas and weapons were provided by organizers from Beirut: “since it is an undertaking of Christian zeal” (Aqiqi, Thawra wa fitna, 212, document 42). This phase reflected Shahin’s fiery Christian rhetoric, and his own understanding of Christain freedom as being freedom from “Drzue yoke.” This might have been inspired by missionary discourse, acting within a framework of reformation and calling for Christian liberation. His attacks on Shi’a in and around Kisrawan, his call for liberation of all Christians announced a popular sectarian vision. Maronite bishops sent letters to their patriarch warning him that they were losing control of Shahin’s populism and villagers in the Druze districts sent letters asking him for help in liberating them. These were indicators of a profound crisis in the traditional order, with a new slogan, “al-ghira al-Masihiyya”, Christian zeal, that the Christian ahali brandished as they prepared to defend themselves. The new sectarian geography enabled them to come to the aid of “brothers” in distress. Zeal intertwined with a vocabulary of rights and an understanding of the Tanzimat that legitimized the entrance of the general population (jumhur) into formal politics. The different dynamics in the two Kaimakamate would prove to be fatal for peace in Mount Lebaon. This was a matter of both class and sectarian differentiation. The relations between a Druze sheikh and a Maronite tenant were that of subjugation. Whereas the relation between a Druze sheikh and a Druze tenant was radically different, it was a relation of quasi tribal subordination. The Druze peasant was a natural element of the larger ‘Ashira, or clan of the Druze sheikh. Calling upon Christians to liberate from “Druze yok” would ultimately evolve into sectarian clashes. As the unrest of Kisrawan spread to the southern Kaimakamate, what started as a social struggle in a homogenous Maronite population, took a sectarian dimension in the south.

This particular discourse transformed the popular mobilization of Kisrawan into a dynamic that merged into a civil war. The 1860 civil war was brief, lasting only a month. After the violence, the uprising came to an end, and Shahin’s popularity diminished when he was unable to prevent the Druze massacres of Christians. His brief moment ended when Yusuf Bek Karam, backed by the combined authority of the Ottoman state, the Maronite Church, the European powers, defeated him and dispersed his followers.

Return of the Shaykhs

What the ahali understood as a Haraka (movement), the elites saw as Hayajan (tumult) and in July 29th, 1860, a document was signed outlining the conditions of return for the Khazin sheikh, by the wakils of 23 villages of Kisrawan. Villages absolved themselves from responsibility, claiming that “certain selfishly motivated persons induced us into rebellion”, using the old language of an ignorant mass and a knowledgeable elite. Even if the lower Maronite clergy supported the uprising, and even if the patriarch, a commoner himself, had some sympathies with the rebels, the Maronite Church was among the largest landowners in Mount Lebanon, and was committed to the inviolability of property. As an institution, it was bound to support social hierarchy, and was not able to bridge the contradiction of the old regime social order and the Tanzimat discourse of equality and freedom. It had to give its support to the efforts to end the uprising and to restore order in Mount Lebanon.


Traditional historiography around the Kisrawan uprising is mainly Eurocentric, presenting a narrative that reflects the 19th century as a period of “break” with an “older regime”. The uprising was understood as an event in a dynamic of modernization “…analyses of Middle Eastern religious mobilizations have long been, and remain, preoccupied with the alleged failure of the Middle East to modernize—with its failure, in other words, to replicate a secular Western path of development.” This historiography also depicts the uprising as a result of contact with European ideas, through catholic missionaries, making a break from traditional society to a new modern society. This is still the main narrative of the Lebanese traditional discourse and is widely thought of at schools as such. Other more recent studies have placed the uprising in its larger Ottoman context, taking into consideration the period of the Tanzimat that opened the realm of politics to the ahali, or commoners.

The first narrative is exemplified by the work of French historian Dominique Chevalier on Mount Lebanon, and his arguments that place Mount Lebanon in the context of the European Industrial Revolution and argue that newly introduced technological innovations, rendered the old instruments of production dispensable. Because of this process, the muqata’jis class was gradually impoverished and was indebted to the emerging wealthy class of merchants. To counter the process, they adopted increasingly oppressive fiscal measures towards the peasants. Conditions of the peasants worsened, and they began to organize themselves with the guidance of the lower Maronite clergy, inspired by French missionaries who circulated ideas of the French Revolution.

Other studies highlighted the theme of a “Lebanese exception”. Haim Gerber considers the Kisrawan uprising as the “exception” in the Middle East. In his “Social Origins of the Middle East”, he argues that it was “the only true agrarian revolt in the modern history of the Middle East”, and uses it to explain what he claims is a curious lack of peasant revolt in the Ottoman empire an exception in an otherwise stagnant the Middle East.

It is interesting to attempt an observation of the Kisrawan uprising according to how Edmund Burke III treats large-scale revolts in Mount Lebanon as being comparable to others in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. He argues that rural uprising can be grouped into three phases. Phase one starts with what he calls a distinct vector of change, which could be in the case of Mount Lebanon the period of the Tanzimat, and the different interpretations that were given to concepts of equality and freedom by the peasants of Kisrawan. Phase two is characterized by the incorporation of the region into the world economy. In the case of Kisrawan and Mount Lebanon, this can be explained through the new dynamics of trade between Europe and Mount Lebanon as a prime source of raw silk. The development of sericulture as the leading economic sector in Mount Lebanon led to profound shifts in the distribution of wealth. Muqata’jis wealth and fortune were based on agriculture, unable to compete with the rising merchant class of silk producers, they gradually lost their power, making them more vulnerable to popular movements. Phase three is characterized by a colonial experience that saw European hegemony challenge “basic cultural values” and sparking “deeply rooted responses throughout the region”. In the case of Kisrawan, missionary activity, given that Vincentian French missionaries were active in Kisrawan since 1783, with an operating French school in Antoura since 1834, can be seen as a factor in spreading the “new ideas”, inspired by the French Revolution, that challenged the traditional class structure.

Edmund Burke III moved beyond the Lebanese exceptionalism, however, he does not depart from the modernization narrative where it is still displayed as a response to the commercialization of agriculture in the Ottoman empire and the increasing integration of Mount Lebanon into the world economy. He argues that the Egyptian interregnum drastically changed the old system, intensified government control, reorganization of land tenure, closer integration in the world market. He claims that a revolution within a revolution happened, reflected by the radicalization of peasant demands, destroying the old agrarian system. This radicalization affected the base of the revolt, losing the support of urban groups, and leading to opposition by urban landowners, big merchants, and the Maronite upper clergy.

“In general terms, peasant emancipation in the Lebanon displayed some of the historic features found in similar movements in Europe: a weakened feudal aristocracy, a changing economy, and an awakening peasantry stirred by dimly understood new social ideas which promoted at once dissatisfaction and a sense of opportunity.” However, these interpretations account almost exclusively for the external factors to explain the rebellion and are silent on the internal factors.

The work of historian Marwan Buheiry, who re-examines the event in light of theories of internal conflicts, looks at the immediate factors which acted as triggers. The sudden interruption of economic improvement, followed by a sharp crisis between 1856 and 1858. He argues that due to increased access to regional and international markets there was an initial improvement in the living conditions of the peasants, which created rising expectations for the peasants. This situation made them more prone to revolt under worsening conditions. He also argues that, in the context of the conflict over the identity of the new kaymakam, peasants were armed by the competing Khazin faction. This shifted the balance of power in favor of the peasants by providing them with the logistical means of altering their social condition.

Other historians see the Kisrawan uprising in light of “Lebanese sectarianism”. The period between 1840 and 1860 is usually identified by historians as one of a “long civil war”, marked by confessional conflict, and the Kisrawan uprising is considered as a prelude to the 1860 civil war, an example of a “class conflict” degenerating into sectarian violence. Tendency to explain the uprising as a structural change is reflected in the work of Samir Khalaf. He argues “modernity” need not replace “tradition”, but can exist in a dialectical fashion. The Kisrawan uprising is used by him to explain an incomplete casting of tradition in a modernization process. He identifies the causes of failure as being a function of “persisting non-class loyalties which muted their grievances and eroded their solidarity”. The Kisrawan uprising becomes an example of the paradigm of Lebanon’s historical character, arguing that non-sectarian confrontations are always transformed into confessional hostilities. He also argues that the failures to develop a sufficient “class consciousness” common to peasants in Mount Lebanon, determined that any peasant movement in the Druze districts would be transformed into an “open confessional struggle”. Axel Havemann also builds on “the persistent feature of Lebanon’s society is the relative lack of secular and national loyalties and class ties, one the one hand, and the survival of sectarian, communal, and primordial sentiments, on the other.”

In his study of sectarianism in Lebanon and his article on the uprising, Makdisi claims that the religious factor has not been properly studied. He sheds light on a new narrative of religious difference and a discourse of liberation that emerged in Mount Lebanon inspired by European missionaries. He also explains the uprising in light of the Tanzimat reforms which proclaimed equality between religious communities. He argues that the Tanzimat was interpreted by Christian “commoners” as signifying equality within religious communities. This process changed religious subjectivity, as the “social, political and religious” were allowed to be “antagonistically fused”, creating new possibilities of communal interpretation, and producing a “culture of sectarianism”. In this situation, the old communal boundaries were re-conceptualized, and “religion was dethatched from its social environment, … neighbors suddenly became potential enemies”. He argues that although material factors related to taxes and control of land underlay the violence in mid-century mount Lebanon, Christian peasants rejected the Druze muqata’jis because they were Druze. By expanding to the mixed districts, the Kisrawan uprising was bound to take a sectarian dimension. In his approach, Makdisi does not differ from Khalaf, and offers a new approach as a question of “subaltern” understanding in which sectarian identity begins to emerge as a communal actor. The two sides of the agrarian uprising shared the same communal identity so that there the class conflict was clear. However, the material factors are absent from his analyses of the uprising.

A moral economy framework can offer a better reading of the Kisrawan uprising. The peasants of the Kisrawan district, as other peasants in the Ottoman empire, acted within a context of moral economy, and their moral context to a large extent determined their attitudes and actions. The concept of the moral economy was first coined by E.P. Thompson. He argued that food riots had a strong legitimizing notion that gave a clear purpose and a degree of coherence to what appeared to be spontaneous and chaotic crowd actions. Later, James C. Scott borrowed the concept and redefined it as the combination of subsistence ethics and the principle of reciprocity. He defines subsistence ethics as the ethics of those peasants who live very close to the margin of subsistence, and for whom a single bad harvest can be the cause of the crisis. The principle of reciprocity is the relations between peasants and those who control resources. In a moral economy context, peasants regard certain practices, most important meeting their basic needs, as the duty of the ruling class. Also, the moral economy can be understood as having three elements: subsistence ethics, a notion of justness, and valorizing labor.

In the case of the 1858 Kisrawan uprising, the role of subsistence ethics had much more to do with an attachment to land as the source of livelihood than with any expectation of reciprocity. The pressure of extra levies and taxes have been a feature of both the long reign of emir Bashir II Shihab, the Egyptian interregnum. In the case of Kisrawan, the distinct nature of the quasi-feudal rule of the Khazin should be taken into consideration. The Khazins owned the majority of the land in this district, and the majority of peasants worked as their tenants. Moreover, the Khazins imposed extra levies, carve labor, and gifts on festive occasions on the peasants. This particular material context put on peasant’s livelihood, and in the context of the economic crisis that accompanied the Crimean war (1853-1856), disrupted the amount of surplus the peasants had and made them more prone to rebellion.

The notion of justness, or a sense of what is just and what is not, of what is legal and illegal, could have also played a role in a moral economy framework for the Kisrawan uprising. This notion is linked to a range of practices, but primarily to taxation. In an agrarian world, farmers usually deplore extractions and react when certain boundaries, linked to a notion of justice, are not respected by the elites. As it is evident from the Aqiqi manuscript, the peasants of Kisrawan resented the Khazins who made them pay the miri tax and the extra levies and gifts. When peasants refused to pay, they rejected the claims of the muqata’jis and asserted their ownership of the land. The two tenets of peasant moral economy, attachment to the land and the notion of justness, were thereby interconnected.

The notion of valorization of peasant labor manifested itself in the refusal of corvee on the land of the muqata’jis. Having to pay the taxes imposed by the Khazins was one of the main complaints of the peasants, they believed that the burden of those levies on the land should be also supported by the landlords. As a result, peasants chose a radical solution and expelled the Khazins. The “peasant commonwealth” established did not tax the peasants, nor did the Ottoman authorities try to tax them.

It is also worth observing the organization of the rebellion, to better understand the nature of the popular mobilization. How did the peasant organize and coordinate their action; in a period when they, as the ahali, were excluded from all form of political representation of action. The Kisrawan peasants used a “template” that was already experimented in Mount Lebanon in the previous popular mobilizations of 1821 and 1840 and drew upon what was ottoman administrative structures and functions, such as the function of the ma’mur al-‘am (sub governor) of Kisrawan, and on the two modification phases of the Kaimakamate system, notably the function of wakils (agents, representative), and majlis (council). During the two years of self-rule in Kisrawan, peasants organized themselves, through elections, with wakils and a ma’mur al-‘am, in the person of Tanyus Shahin, and declared some sort of a ‘“commonwealth”, that issued the directives in the name of “al-jumhur”, especially following the expulsion of the Khazins. It is also important to observe that peasants did not loot, but confiscated Khazin property in an organized way.

The Ottoman Tanzimat provided an opportunity for the redefinition of the social order in Mout Lebanon. The traditional meaning of the ahali changed in the period of the Tanzimat, they opened the path for commoners to participate in government, and consequently, to “enter” history, and add their interpretation of this history. This shift is reflected and articulated by the three 19th century popular mobilizations in Mount Lebanon, the ‘ammiyat, reflecting the emergence of the ahali as a political force, in a dynamic of defiance to the muqata’jis. This was the first recorded instance of a collective conscience in Mount Lebanon, with demands to end the old regime. It is also important to observe, that in the context of the Tanzimat, referred to in the Aqiqi manuscript many times as the “Benevolent laws” (al-Tartibat al-Khayriya), that peasants resorted to the central authorities (the Ottoman governor in Beirut), bypassing the Khazin muqata’jis, the Kaimakam, and formulated their demands in a language of loyalty and allegiance to the Sultan and Ottoman empire. The “…commoners viewed the Tanzimat as a mandate for social liberation, as well as religious emancipation.” According to Deringil, the Tanzimat produced a “legitimacy crisis”, contradictory interpretation of the new ideology. This is reflected in the 1858 Kisrawan uprising.

However, the peasants’ understanding of the Tanzimat was more radical than what the texts originally intended. They understood the civic equality clauses, that were ambiguous, as providing full religious emancipation. Before the period of the ‘ammiyat, social rank and not religious affiliation was key in the social structure of Mount Lebanon. However, what started had as a class struggle in Kisrawan in 1858, calling for the liberation of the Christian ahali from the authority of the Khazins, was incorporated into a communal struggle in the southern mixed districts in 1860. When Christian ahali repudiated the Druze muqata’jis, sectarianism emerged as one of the different dynamics of the 1860 civil war, signaling the end of the peasant uprising, and its failure to become a general popular mobilization in Mount Lebanon. Unprotected Christian ahali, resorted to the “old regime” mechanisms of elite protection, and appealed to the traditional leadership, who emerged once again, as counterweights to the sectarian violence. In June 1860, a peace treaty signed in Beirut between Maronite and Druze A’yans, on the principle of “Let Bygones be Bygones”. The treaty allowed the Ottomans and the A’yans to regain control. It reinforced the Tanzimat notion of equality of citizens, highlighted the illegitimacy of popular mobilization, and consecrated the new sectarian geography.

By June 12, 1860, following the end of the sectarian clashes in the southern Kaimakamate, a declaration of the villages of Kisrawan was signed by Tanyus Shahin as general wakil, and the wakils of the villages of Kisrawan, declaring the “formal certification of the conditions for the return of the sheikhs of the Khazin family to the district of Kisrawan. It starts as follows: “Since everyone knows, there had been a disagreement between us, the people of the district of Kisrawan, and the Shaikhs of the Khazin family”. According to the declaration, the disagreement grew and spread “by the incitement of certain masters of corruption”, and that “certain selfishly motivated persons induced us into rebellion against the commands of the government. It continues rather remarkably, given that the uprising had been calling for the liberation of the authority of the muqata’jis: “thus we now declare ourselves submissive and obedient to the commands and laws of the gracious Sublime State.”, and last “As for the remaining claims resulting from this disagreement, it is left to a meeting with the aforesaid Sheikhs to make amends and to exchange forgiveness and absolution from them”.

However, the return of the sheikhs did not imply a return to the old regime. A new arrangement was reached in Istanbul, a compromise between the Ottoman State and the French Second Empire, that established the Mutasarrifiyya of Mount Lebanon by merging the two Kaimakamate in one district. The constitutional charter of the Mutasarrifiyya granted Mount Lebanon self-rule and declared the equality of all before the law and specifically mentioned the abolishment of the privileges of the muqata’jis class46. One can argue that even if the Kisrawan uprising and was a short interlude during which peasants experiment with self-rule, freedom from the sheikhs, and equality, and later merged into civil war, the Mutasarrifiyya finally exhausted their key demand: equality and the end of the muqata’jis system, ushering a new period that would be marked by the full entry of the ahali or commoners into the political life in the last decades of Ottoman rule in Mount Lebanon.


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