Contemporary and Social Issues

Beirut Tragedy – A Dark Cloud Looms Over a Diverse Nation

Beirut flag

Fazal Ahmad, UK

Declared a ‘disaster city’ by Lebanese authorities, Beirut has been rocked to its core. The shocking images of a terrible explosion in Beirut on Tuesday 4th August 2020 have not only left Beirut in a state of emergency, but have sent shockwaves around the world. As more images and videos leave the world in absolute horror, one can only imagine the absolute tragedy being faced by the citizens of Beirut. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those people affected in Lebanon. 

Reports suggest that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse near the Port area ignited, causing the huge mushroom cloud and mega-explosion that left the surrounding area flattened and was felt as far away as Cyprus. So far, 135 fatalities have been confirmed, but will almost certainly rise as rescue workers comb through the wreckage. Over 4,000 people are injured, many of them seriously.

The hospitals in the city have been at capacity and the vicinity is a scene of carnage. The scale of the suffering is huge, with potentially over 300,000 people made homeless, at a time when the Lebanese economy, which had been suffering for many years, had come to a breaking point amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The country is at a crossroads both politically in the Middle East, and historically as the link between Africa, Asia and Europe. Internal conflicts and spillover conflicts from neighbouring countries have contributed to its recent troubles. However, being at the crossroads has also enriched this nation’s heritage. 

Lebanon’s position in the Middle East – situated near Israel, Palestine, Syria, Turkey and Egypt – means it has a deep and rich religious history spanning Islam and Christianity. Indeed, Lebanon has always had a diverse religious landscape and still boasts many sects of Muslims and Christians, as well as smaller numbers of Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. Some sects, such as the Druze and Alawites, differ greatly from mainstream Islam and show the melding of religious thoughts across faiths and regions, given that the Lebanese (ancient Phoenician sailors) had contacts with Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and absorbed many of these influences.

In ancient times, the Romans built a massive temple in Baalbek for the worship of Jupiter on what had previously been a Phoenician temple. There are many ancient and well-known Phoenician coastal towns, such as Byblos, Tyre and Sidon, which became the launch pads of sea expeditions across the Mediterranean, and led to a cross-pollination of religious ideas, cults and idols across the region, from Spain, Tunisia, Egypt, Greece and Rome.

Byblos used to be known to the Pharaohs in Egypt as the ‘Land of the gods’ and temples here date back to 3200 BCE. Later in Greek times, Byblos took its name because of the brisk trade in papyrus scrolls. There was a flow of cults and idols across the region through Byblos including Baal, Isis, Osiris and Adonis. Alexander the Great and Salahuddin passed through this region on route to Egypt; so the region is steeped in history and cultural exchange, which ultimately resulted in the syncretism of religious ideas.

Roman Temple for the Worship of Jupiter

The main Christian denomination is the Maronites who take their name from Saint Maron, who lived in the 4th century CE. The sect that grew up around his shrine were Monothelite Christians that believed in both a human and divine nature of Jesus (as), as they grappled with their own conflicts at understanding the divine nature adopted by Rome through the Trinity. But the Monothelite doctrine was condemned as a heresy at a Church Council in 680 CE in Constantinople (Istanbul).

In terms of Islamic influence, al-Walid I from the Umayyad Dynasty founded and built a beautiful palace complex in Anjar in the 8th century.

There are many other religious sites and references in Lebanon with varying degrees of authenticity, such as the Shrine of Noah (as) in Karak, Christian miracle sites, such as Our Lady of Mantara, where Mary (as) is claimed to have waited while Jesus (as) preached nearby; the Shrine of Joshua (as) in El-Menyeh and the Maronite monasteries of Qadisha.

So with such an illustrious maritime heritage, it was shocking to see such a tragedy in a beautiful part of the world at the port of Beirut. We pray that the wounded in Lebanon recover quickly and that Lebanon is soon able to see a time of peace and prosperity.

About the Author: Fazal Ahmad is the Editor for the ‘World Religions’ section of The Review of Religions. He also serves as the Global Operations Director with Humanity First, and is responsible for poverty alleviation projects in 54 countries, mainly in Africa, South Asia and Central America.