An article from University of Oslo

Martyrs of the 2006 war at the shrine of Benjamin Bin Yaakoub at Mhaibib. (Photo: Børre Ludvigsen)

Sacred sites in Southern Lebanon are losing their value

Several sacred sites in Southern Lebanon have been lost as a result of the country’s many conflicts. This has created sharper dividing lines between the various religious groups in the region.

University of Oslo

The University of Oslo is Norway's leading institution of research and higher education.

Since the 1970s, the situation in Southern Lebanon has been characterized by systematic violence and periodic warfare. Perhaps best known since the end of the civil war in 1990 as the heartland of Hizbollah, Southern Lebanon is now viewed as dangerous border territory. It is this state of affairs that Toufoul Abou-Hodeib, researcher at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages at the University of Oslo, believes has come to overshadow the history of Southern Lebanon as a meeting place for the three religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and as an important destination for several faiths with shared religious rituals.

She explains: “People get the impression that the Middle East is very much divided along the lines of the various religious groups that exist in the region, but that is not the whole picture. The different religious groups frequently live side by side and have a great deal in common, including their sacred sites.”

What Abou-Hodeib describes as sacred sites are places, often represented by religious shrines, signs or graves, where saints and other holy personages venerated by Christians, Muslims or Jews are said to be buried – in some cases in splendid mausolea. For Southern Lebanon, which has suffered many conflicts, these sacred sites have long been important meeting points for different religious groups: a place to mourn, to celebrate, to pray and make vows, and to talk about history and conflict.

A shared meeting point

Historically, the sacred sites were used by both Sunni and Shia Muslims, Druze, Jews and various Christian denominations – both individually and in many cases also communally. Up until the First World War, when state borders were introduced by the British and French authorities, a large part of the area was considered to be part of “The Holy Land”. Several of the sacred sites were also pilgrimage destinations for two or more faiths with shared religious rituals.

“In my research project,” Abou-Hodeib tells us, “I am looking at how the borders introduced by France and Great Britain, the establishment of the state of Israel, the occupation of Southern Lebanon and Hizbollah’s growing influence in the area, have created sharper dividing lines between religious groupings. In various ways, these historic events have cut the Jews off from their earlier links with Lebanon, reduced the number of Christians who live in the area, and created a political Shia identity that is now often marked and reinforced in the sacred sites.”

Limited access

Many of the sacred sites have now lost their value, either because they have been damaged or destroyed by war or because the site no longer functions as a shared meeting place where different religious groups can gather and practise their customs, Abou-Hodeib explains, and gives us an example:

“The occupation of Southern Lebanon resulted in many areas being caught behind demarcation lines and cut off from their surroundings. Many of the sacred sites in Southern Lebanon are on mountain tops and became military zones during the periods of occupation and war. The sacred site at Sujud was formerly a meeting place for Jews and Muslims, but after the occupation it was difficult to gain access to the site.”

Up until the Second World War, Sujud was an important pilgrimage destination for Jews from Palestine, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon, who came to celebrate the annual Jewish spring festival Lag baOmer – with a three-day long visit to the site.

“On the final day the pilgrims lit bonfires, at which Muslims also participated in order to sacrifice animals and make religious vows, side by side with the Jews. But after Israel occupied Southern Lebanon, Sujud became a militarily strategic area, and the site is now completely destroyed. It may possibly be reconstructed – but then as a holy site for Shia Muslims. There are still some Jews left in Lebanon, but they would be reluctant to show themselves there,” says Abou-Hodeib.

From popular meeting point to Shia site

The growing influence of Hizbollah in Southern Lebanon has also resulted in some sacred sites becoming purely Shia Muslim sites, Abou-Hodeib adds.

“Following the liberation from Israel in 2000, some Shia Muslim sites have been institutionalized. They have changed from being reserved for the local population, often with multiple religious affiliations, to something resembling mosques. At some of these sites, modern religious figures have emerged in the form of martyrs of war. Just by the border with Israel there is a sacred site dedicated to Benjamin, who according to the Old Testament was the last of Jacob’s sons. The site was refurbished and expanded with the aid of Iranian funds. At the entrance there is now a small mausoleum with the grave sites of four Hizbollah martyrs who were killed during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006. The place is perceived as being a Shia site, which makes it difficult for other religions to access and for various popular practices to take place.”

Religiopolitical game

Most political parties in Lebanon represent religious groups. When these political parties use the sacred sites to mark various events, the sites are frequently transformed and dominated by a political message.

“The sacred site then becomes more closely linked to its religiopolitical identity, and gradually loses the characteristics that made it a popular religious site as well as the rituals that took place there.”

The developments in Southern Lebanon can in many ways be related to what is happening today in Syria and Iraq, Abou-Hodeib believes – with the destruction of holy sites and the persecution of religious minorities.

“Despite the changes that have taken place in the past century, there is still room for a multiplicity of religions in Lebanon today. But in Syria and Iraq we are seeing an increasing number of shared religious and popular practices being threatened, because of the Islamic State’s extreme interpretations of Islam. For example, the tradition of tying votive strips of cloth to the branches of trees is no longer considered to be a Muslim tradition. When that sort of thing happens, it is not only traditions and sacred sites that are lost, but also history, understanding and acceptance of other religions,” says Abou-Hodeib in conclusion.

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