Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Ghosts of History at Nahr al-Kalb

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things… they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.
--Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon
Lebanon is a country where the famous opening of Karl Marx’s 18th Brumaire comes easily to mind. 

It’s not necessarily the bit about history repeating itself “the second time as farce”  – although there is plenty of that here too:  Arabic-speaking rightwing Christians of Lebanon, for example, are likely to tell you that they are really Phoenicians, not Arabs.

Rather, I mean the passage immediately following in Marx’s work, which is quoted above.  If there is any place on earth where “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” it is modern Lebanon.  There is even a place in Lebanon which singularly embodies that reality, and it is literally set in stone.

If you drive north from Beirut on the coastal “autrostrade” toward Jbail (ancient Byblos) and you happen to look to your right, just after emerging from a highway tunnel about 10k from the city, you might catch a glimpse of a modest historic marker by the side of the road. It says “Archaeological Valley of Nahr el Kalb” in Arabic and French. Few of the motorists speeding north along the freeway take notice, and even fewer are likely stop at the place to take a look. But that is a loss for them.

Nahr al-Kalb (“Dog River”) flows into the Mediterranean through a steep rocky defile just below modern town of Jounieh which leaves only a narrow passage between the cliffs and the sea for travelers moving along the coast.  There was once an old railway line passing here, and a coastal road, now superseded by a modern freeway.  But Nahr al-Kalb has also been a place traversed by armies, ancient and modern, for thousands of years.
Nahr al-Kalb, old arched Mamluk bridge in background
The Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II passed by here on his way north to subdue the coastal cities of Syria in1269 B.C.E. and was apparently the first conqueror who thought to advertize his exploit with a an inscribed stele cut into the cliff overlooking the mouth of the Nahr al-Kalb.  In the centuries that followed, various other rulers campaigning along the same coast took up the practice. One of them, an Assyrian King who was marching southward to conquer Egypt in 671 BCE had his own inscription boldly carved right next to the older one of the Pharaoh.
Ramses (1269 BCE) on the right,barely visible; Assyrian King Esarhaddon (671 BCE) at left
After that it became the custom for local rulers, invaders and emperors to order their own inscriptions at Nahr al-Kalb.  There is a monument for Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, others for a Greek ruler in the third century BCE, the Emperor Caracalla, a Roman imperial governor in the 4th century CE and the Mamluk Sultan who built the beautiful 14th century arched bridge that spans the river a little way inland from the modern road.

Then there was a hiatus of 500 years until the somewhat farcical Louis Napoleon ordered an inscription to boast as “Napoleon III Empereur des Francais” of  his military campaign to protect the Maronite Catholics on Mount Lebanon from attacks by the Druze in 1860-61.

French and British imperial armies followed suit during the First and Second World Wars with a succession of inscriptions advertizing their various “liberations” of Syria and Lebanon: 

“The Desert Mounted Corps” of Australian, New Zealand and Indian cavalry, together with two French regiments and “the Arab Forces of King Hussein” captured Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, October 1918”

“The XXI British Army Corps with Le Detachement Francais… Occupied Beirut and Tripoli October 1918 A.D.”

[In French] “On the 25th of July, with General Gouraud Commander in Chief of the Army of the Levant, French Troops under the Command of General Goybet Entered Victoriously into Damascus”

“June-July 1941 First Australian Corps Captured Damour While British Indian Australian and Free French Troops Captured Damascus, Bringing Freedom to Syria and The Lebanon”

It was not surprising, then, after Lebanon had finally achieved its long-awaited independence and the exit of French troops that they would choose to commemorate the event with an inscription at the same spot.   
1946, from a historical placard at the site

The monument deliberately imitated the look of the Ramses inscription from 3000 years earlier, but is decorated with a carved cedar tree, the national symbol of the new country.  It reads, in Arabic:

“On December 31, 1946, the Withdrawal of All Foreign Troops was Completed During the Office of His Excellency President Bishara al-Khoury”

(Some years later, the original stone pillar set up in to honor “The Glory of the French Army of the Levant” was quietly removed from Beirut to the hillside at Nahr al-Kalb, where it stands today.)
French military monument moved from Beirut above Inscription by the Roman Emperor Caracalla

The most recent inscription at Nahr al-Kalb is also in Arabic

“On May 24, 2000, Emerged the Dawn of Liberation During the Office of His Excellency President General Emile Lahoud”
This was to celebrate the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon, under pressure from Hezbollah fighters, after an 18-year occupation. The details are discretely omitted from the wording of the monument.

However, this is probably not the end of the story at Nahr al-Kalb. In recent years there has been agitation for an inscription to commemorate the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country in 2005.  So far this has been refused in the name of national unity, for in Lebanon governments must tread carefully to avoid open conflict between pro- and ante-Syrian factions. But given the current unstable condition of the country, the civil war next door and the looming threat of renewed sectarian violence at home, we have most likely not yet seen the last monument on this cliff-side.
In Lebanon, history – and possibly the future too -- is still a “nightmare” and its rulers will continue to “conjure up the spirits of the past to their service.”

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