Researching Your Lebanese or Syrian Ancestry

History (and a Little Geography)

The Principal Business Street in Beirut

Notwithstanding current political disputes, Lebanon and Syria share a narrow strip of land 400 miles long by 150 miles wide, extending from the Taurus range and the Euphrates in the north, to the Sinaitic peninsula in the south, hemmed in by the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the desert to the east.

According to Dr. Philip Hitti, an early Twentieth Century historian, occupants of this land are a mixed Semitic race, descended from ancient Phoenician-Canaanite and Aramaen Israelite tribes who arrived between 2500 and 1500 B.C., and Arabs who drifted in from the desert and gradually passed from a nomadic to an agricultural life. Arabic spoken today reflects this heritage. Modern-day inhabitants of Lebanon and Syria - and their Arab-American cousins - may be descended from Greek settlers of the Seleucid period, Crusaders, or Kurdish and Persian invaders and traders of more recent times.

From the early 16th Century until World War I, Syria and the Mount Lebanon region were part of the Ottoman Empire. For this reason, most Lebanese and Syrians immigrating before 1918 had Turkish passports, and were grouped in U. S. Census Abstracts under the heading "Turkish" or "Asian." After the First World War, Lebanon and Syria operated under French mandate, gaining independence in the 1940s.

The close relationship of these two countries from the earliest days of recorded history helps explain a present-day puzzle. Until the 1950s, most of the immigrants referred to themselves as "Syrian" whether they came from Syria or the Mount Lebanon region. One explanation is that at the time of their heaviest immigration, "Syria" was a familiar word in the United States, and "Lebanon" was not; to simplify things, they said "Syrian." Another may be the fact that many came from areas which were in Greater Syria when they immigrated, but which later became part of Lebanon because of the redrawing of national boundaries and the politics of governments. In any case, identification with their village and religion was more natural to them.

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