History of Niha
It is more than likely that Niha has been continuously inhabited since ancient times. The attractions are many: cedar trees for trade; the fertile land and natural springs; the comfortable climate in the non-winter months and, of course, the beauty of the area.
It is likely Phoenicians occupied the village since 3300 B.C. due to its abundant Lebanese cedar trees , which were a valuable resource and the backbone of their Maritime dominance in the Mediterranean. Phoenician ruins stand at a cliff top peak immediately above Niha. This Phoenician temple was converted to a pagan temple by the Roman Emperor Hadrian (137- 117 BC). Legend has it that many where employed and living in the area, including the Phoenicians, Jews and Arabs as oral history points to their graveyards. Cemeteries have been found during archaeological digs in Niha and Hardine dating back to the first century. In the Niha area, there is a ancient ruin called the Ruin of the Mitwalis (a term that denotes Shiite Muslims).
Niha may have been a lumber camp for the cedar tree trade for many centuries, as cedar was also a valuable building resource to civilizations. Lebanese Cedar wood, the best species of all cedar trees, was used for construction of many ancient buildings due to its strength and its natural ability to resist deterioration by weather and insect infestation, . Cedar was used by the Pharaohs of Egypt (who also used cedar oil resin to preserve their mummies); for Greek and Hebrew temples including King Solomon’s Temple; for boats and chariots etc. Transport would have been via two ports relatively close to Niha in the north of Lebanon : the main Phoenician port of Byblos, or the coastal city of Tripoli.
Ideal growth conditions and best specimens for cedar trees are at altitudes of 1300m to 1900m above sea level. Niha includes all of this range. The village with its abundance of springs and fertile land is well situated to feed workers for any trade.
The establishment of the neighbouring Tannourine National Park in 1999 has led to the protection of the cedar trees and abandoned agricultural fields above Niha; government environmental laws are in place for the protection and restoration of the forests. As the oaks, conifers and cedars experience regrowth, and expand into the abandoned lands there is a positive impact not only for the village but the for the natural environment of the wider area.
Different peoples and religions throughout its history have inhabited the village due to this valuable natural resource of cedar forest as well as its fertile land, excellent summer climate and its strategic position.
Some historical suggestions, not verified, state neighbouring Hardine was the first village in the Lebanese mountains to adopt Christianity as its religion in 270AD. Documentary accounts indicate some of the surrounding mountainous region was converted from Paganism to Christianity in the early to mid 5th century via a long stay from a visiting Syrian monk missionary St Abraham (Ibrahim) and about the same time the entire “Jibbe” mountain area (including Niha) were converted following visits from villagers of the area to the famous open air hermit St Simon (The Great) the Stylite near Aleppo in Syria.
The surrounding area of Niha has been known as a Maronite Catholic stronghold since first references to the word “Maronite” in the records around the 7th Century.
Between 1102 and 1289 Mount Lebanon, including Niha, fell within the confines of the County of Tripoli, which was one of the four fundamental city units of the Crusaders’ Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Oral histories, from the Tarabay family of the neighbouring village Tannourine and Dayr al-Ahmar state that in 1759 AD the then occupants of the village were evicted from Niha and the current ancestry from the Tarabay line took possession of the village. They suggest Antoun Tarabay (born 1691) from Tannourine and his forces took the village by force.
The legend also has it that prior to 1759 some of the mountain area surrounding Niha had a mixture of Christian and Muslim Shiite villages and in 1759 a war was organised by the Maronite Christians to expel the Muslim Shiites from some of the Northern Mountain Villages of Lebanon, including Niha.
The leader of the Niha Shiites during this period, Bou Hassan, was killed during fighting by Antoun Tarabay (born 1691) from Tannourine and his forces. After Bou Hassan’s death the Shiites in the village of Niha fled to the village of Al-Hermal – Bekaa. Antoun’s brother died in the fighting and left a infant son Karam, whom Antoun raised with his two other sons Tarabay and Swaid.
After regaining the village from the Shiites the Antoun Tarabay family along with his nephew Karam left Tannourine and settled in Niha to work the farms. This, legend has it, is the start of the original ancestry of the current families of Niha from 1759, which now form the families of Karam, Tarabay and Swaid, along with the basis for the three main Niha-family bloodlines of Karam, Tarabay and Swaid. Oral histories from Niha’s descendants seem to confirm these three bloodlines but others have disputed the legend concerning the previous occupation of the village by Shiite.
Further oral accounts of the origins of the Tarabay family are as follows. In 500A.D. the Tarabay family left Iraq and traveled to Lebanon then first settled in Zahle then Dayr al-Ahmar then Al Yammunah then Tannourine to Niha, and indeed you will find descendants in all of these villages.
The main reason for variations in family names was to avoid many people with the same family name. It was also tradition that the son would take on the father’s Christian name as identification so it is not uncommon for brothers in the same family to have different surnames.
Over recent years donations from expats, personal individuals and community organisations have contributed to assist Niha’s growth including rebuilding of the church which was shelled during the war; restoring and upgrading of the church and piazza; construction of community hall; laying of water pipes from springs to the village; street tree planting; building of retaining walls; relocation of the cemetery; access path to Saydit al-Qalaa and also helping individuals including the elderly and sick with assistance in daily expenses and medical.
Families outside the three main bloodlines have migrated to the village including from the Barhallioun and Akourah regions. Some oral accounts reveal families emigrating away from Niha well before emigration overseas e.g. the Wakim family moving to Baakafra (the birth village of St Charbel) and the Khalil family moving to Bazoun.
Karam family bloodline variations in Name: Karam, El Khouri,Rizk, Francis, Gerges.
Tarabay/Torbay bloodline family variations in Name: Tarabay, Torbay,Tarbey, Haykel, Nasif, Roumanous, El Badawi.
Tabet and Assaf brothers moved to Dayr al-Ahmar.
Swaid family bloodline variation in Names: Daoud, Salim, Asaard, Saoud, Chaben, Abraham, Khalil, Azar, Gerges, Michel, Mutran, Antoun,Daaybis, Davis,Tannous,
Other family’s variations in name
Fahd family from Barhallioun variations in name Nohra,Issa.
Simon family possibly originally from Akourah region variation in family name: Simon, Constantine,Yacoub,Hanna,Khouri,Kalil.
Deeb family from Baklik village next to Marrzaat Bani Saab.
“In spite of their faith being tested like gold in a fire, the Maronites remained constant in the faith of their fathers, a faith which has now been passed on to you.”
(POPE BENEDICT XVI-June 06, 2010)
Key dates in History for Niha and Surrounding Area
The history of Lebanon is almost as old as the earliest evidence of humankind. Its geographic position as a crossroads linking the Mediterranean Basin with the great Asian hinterland.
At different periods of its history, Lebanon has come under the domination of foreign rulers, including Assyrians, Babylonians, Armenians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, and French. Although often conquered, the Lebanese take pride in their rebellions against despotic and repressive rulers. Moreover, despite foreign domination, Lebanon’s mountainous terrain has provided it with a certain protective isolation, enabling it to survive with an identity all its own.
Surrounding area inhabited by primitive man in the adjoining villages in caves at Kfarsheefa and Kfarhilda villages overlooking the Jawz River with discoveries of stone tools and engravings, the region has a large number of flint tools from the Stone Age such as arrow heads. Two chains of caves were discovered along the path of Al Jawz River and it is believed that they were settlements of the early Man. One of the chains and the most famous exist at about a kilometre from the outlet of Al Jawz River below Tannourine. Plenty of axes, knives, drills, perforates in addition to a large set of granite pieces were retrieved from these caves which verifies the history of the early Man that dates back to thousands of years B.C.
Lebanon is a country where the oldest, continuously populated city in the world is located. Byblos or Jbeil, as it is known today, is at least 7000 years old.
3300 B.C. – 64 B.C
Canaanites later called Phoenicians lived in the area and in 1500 BC The Phoenician alphabetic script of 22 letters was used at Byblos. This method of writing, later adopted by the Greeks who in turn passed on the alphabet to the Romans. It was the Phoenicians most remarkable and distinctive contribution to civilization.
King Solomon of Israel sent thousands of Hebrew soldiers and citizens to the Lebanon mountain range for the logging and shipping of Cedar trees to build his Temple. The remote possibility exists that Niha’s cedars were used. In any event, the area then or later would have become part of the leading lumber timber camps in the most important cedar trade during ancient times, as Hebrew graves have been found in Niha.
117 – 138 BC
Adjacent to Niha village at an altitude of 1500 meters above sea level stood a Phoenician temple. During this period it was converted by the Romans to a temple dedicated to the god Mercury (Roman god of trade). It was built as a pagan temple by the Roman Emperor Hadrian (117-137 BC) consisting of 30 ionic-style pillars. An expansive courtyard with a coastal view of North Lebanon as far as the ancient Syrian ancient port city of Tartous surrounded it. It was destroyed in the 6th century AD with only a few columns remaining. Water to service the Temple was obtained through terra cotta pipes from the natural springs of Niha.
(Legend has it, the temple was also the summer castle of the King’s Daughter, the ruins of its courtyard later became home to the Saint Risha church and monastery, which now lies in ruins. Between 1384 and 1598 AD some accounts suggest the seat of the Syrian Jacobite Christian Archdiocese was also located on the site. The area was apparently also the scene of a collective sacrifice; thirteen nuns who refused to renounce their Christian faith threw themselves from the top of this 700m high cliff.
It is commented that the neighbouring village Hardine, has over 50 tombs engraved with Latin writings mentioning Emperor Hadrian Augustus who visited the area.
64B.C. to approx 636 A.D.
The Roman-Byzantine Period.
Some suggestions, although not verified by us, state that the neighbouring village of Hardine was the first village in the Lebanese mountains to adopt Christianity as its religion.
Documentary accounts indicate the surrounding mountainous region (including Niha) were converted to Christianity en masse from Paganism in the early to mid 5th century via a long stay from a visiting Syrian monk St Abraham (Ibrahim) and via en masse visit from villagers of the area to the hermit St Simon (The Great) the Stylite near Aleppo in Syria. The area has been known as a Maronite Catholic stronghold and has had a Maronite majority since.
The monastery of St Sarkis al-Karim located in the crest of the mountain below the Temple of the God Mercury overlooking Niha, below Saydit al-Qalaa is the oldest ruins we have in existence of a Maronite monastery in the immediate area dating back to the 9th century AD. (Documentary evidence shows this was for a brief period a Maronite Patriarchal Residence around this time). Part of the monastery grounds led to a monk’s solitary hermitage of size 4m x 2.7m which overlooks the surrounding area. Some accounts suggest this was later known as the “Presidential Monastery” and Sara, the Hardinian Hermit, one of the earliest hermit nuns who died in 1199, lived in this well-hidden monastery.
The Crusader Period
By the mid-eighth century, the majority of Maronites resided in Lebanon (they were also in Cyprus, Syria, modern day Turkey and Iraq, and established a tightly knit Christian society presided over even in temporal affairs by the Patriarch. The Crusades brought the Maronites into direct contact with Rome in 1215 and from this time on, ties have been very strong between the Maronites and Rome.
The legend of Saint George, who later became the patron saint of England, may have lived in Lebanon . He fought the famous sea-dragon at the mouth of a river near Beirut. Most likely, the Christian Crusaders took Saint George’s tale back with them to the West.
First and only mummy of the Maronite people discovered in the adjoining village of Hadath al -Jibbeh in post 2000 AD.
Towards the end of the 13th century the Mamelukes of Egypt began to gain the upper hand in the eastern Mediterranean and the Crusaders retreated to othe areas such as Cyprus and Rhodes along with many Maronites.
Maronite Patriachal headquarters located in the adjoining village Hardine.
Joseph Kassab was born in Hardine adjoining Niha and has now become Saint Nimatallah al-Hardini. Because of close contacts with adjoining villages Saint Nimatallah may well have visited Niha. He was mentor to Saint Charbel.
1845 – 1918
Between 1845 and 1860, hatred was incited by the Ottomans who ruled Lebanon. They worked hard to break the Maronites’ spirit of independence. Dozens of villages, churches, and monasteries were destroyed. Up to 10,000 were martyred and many more displaced, with thousands emigrating to the Americas and to a less extent Australia. The persecution returned between 1914 and 1918, when the Ottomans blocked the roads to the mountains of Lebanon causing a human disaster. Tens of thousands of people died of famine and diseases, and thousands emigrated. After the First World War, Lebanon was liberated from the Ottomans by France
The Lebanese gained its Independence form France on 22 November 1943, political leaders from Christian and Muslim leaders forged an unwritten National Pact post .The pact states that Lebanon is an independent country with Arabic and European cultures.
The Major administrative positions were distributed among major sects with: the President a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of the parliament a Shiite Muslim.Lebanon is the only country in the middle East, with a Christian leader as head of state.
1860’s-1925 Ancestry of current descents of Niha began to migrate to the Americas and Cuba.
Access to and from the village was by foot and donkey. There was no car road access, electricity, TV or telephone until about 1960s. When emigrating to overseas countries many tell the story of how they left the village by foot or donkey some walking in hip-deep snow with a bag on their back as there was no road access. The transport mode to the new country would be by boat usually taking up to 5 weeks.
Local residents of Niha tell stories of various discoveries in ancient treasures of gold and jewellery, including in the 1960 at the Phoenician temple above the village
The government first surveyed the village, in order to register the land to the official owners in the village.
Most houses in the village were constructed of stone with flat mud roofs consisting of two rooms for sleeping and living.
Most persons of the village lived from agricultural production with the main commercial crop being Silk, which was profitable
The children attended the local school in the village while some whose parents had coastal homes attending other schools.
A postal service from Douma brought mail twice a week.
1975 – 1990
The period of Civil War - Niha became one of the front lines in the mountain area of North Lebanon and the stronghold for the immediate surrounding area. A Christian militia with a majority of the village men from Niha occupied the village and its strategic surrounds become a famous military battle and turning point in the Civil War that stopped the advancing Syrian Army. In 1979, Niha was shelled for several days by the Syrian Army, trying to capture the village due to its strategic mountain top location. The main church and several houses were damaged. While the men stayed on to fight and protect the village the women and children fled in knee deep snow and took refuge in Sadit al Qalaa, a chapel cave in the mountain.
The Syrian army occupied most of the Christian villages in Northern Lebanon but this particular battle stopped any further advancement on Christian villages and established Niha at the front line and free from occupation.
During further periods of the fighting in Lebanese coastal towns against Syrian Army, Muslim and Palestinian Militia, many Christian families from the coast fled to Northern Lebanese mountain villages for safety and refuge and Niha was one of these villages.
The perimeters of the village were heavily mined during this period by the Christian Militia. Despite recent government efforts to remove them, sadly many areas of the perimeter of the village still have anti-personal mines buried randomly to this day. Today, the mined areas are generally fenced off or sign posted. The Christian Militia and the village men remained in the village until the war was declared over in 1990.
The only access road to Niha was also blocked by land mines from Marrzaat Bani Saab, an established Syrian army checkpoint zone. With this road access blocked, the Christain Militia built a new access road from Kfour al Arbi to Niha reopening a new supply line and access to the village.
Further military roads in the alpine and cedar forest areas above the village were built for access during this time by the Christian Militia for protection and strategic look out bases. Land mines were also placed in some of these areas to stop access points from adjoining Christian villages occupied by the Syrian army. Roads were constructed in steep and rugged terrain to Hadath-a-Jibbih and through the Cedar forest to Arz Niha peak. These roads are now in disrepair for car access and parts still land mined.
When the civil war ended the road to Marrzaat Bani Saab was reopened and the Kfour al Arbi road become run down and not maintained, as it was not an official government road and built on privately owned land. The Lebanese government currently are taking steps to officially resume land and reopen this road. Once this road is reopened this will allow closer access points to the adjoining historic Christian villages of Kfar Helda, Douma and Tannourine.
During the war the school located above the Church near the oak tree was closed and has not reopened since. This oak tree is a famous landmark in the village where many elder persons relate stories and adventures pertaining to the village and its life.
The Tannourine cedar forest nature reserve was created under Lebanese law and is one of the largest and densest cedar forests in Lebanon covering 12 square km with over 70,000 trees. The cedar forest also extends to neighbouring Niha and Haddit al-Jibbeh.
The Lebanese government is currently installing town water service in Niha. Plans are also underway to construct town sewerage discharge lines for Niha to be sent to a treatment plant several kilometers away.
Many residents have started to replant orchards after being abandoned during the recent Civil War. With this has come a growth in rebuilding and restoring new houses in the village, including the return of agriculture for income or as hobby farms for expatriates.
FURTHER WEB SITES
General Web Sites Information on Lebanon
2. Websites of History of the Lebanese in Australia