The Settlement of Musa Dagh Armenians in Anjar, Lebanon, 1939-1941


BY VAHRAM L. SHEMMASSIAN

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Anjar, home to Musa Dagh Armenians situated in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley at an altitude of 950 m. along the Beirut-Damascus highway, near the Syrian border. What was the genesis of this unique Armenian rural town? What challenges did it face during its infancy (1939-1941)? These are the two main questions that this article addresses.

It all started in the Sanjak of Alexandretta/Iskenderun, an autonomous province within Syria between the two World Wars. Its inhabitants included a significant number of Armenian natives and refugees, among them the indigenous population of Musa Dagh. A political crisis beginning in 1936 shook Sanjak society to its core, as winds of change from the French mandate to Turkish suzerainty increasingly caused panic. The turmoil grew to alarming proportions for the Arabs, Alawites, and Christians when a farcical election in 1938 installed a Turkish majority in the Sanjak’s legislature. A year later Turkey annexed the area. This was the final straw that compelled the overwhelming majority of Armenians, among other groups, to seek refuge in other parts of Syria as well as in Lebanon, apprehensive of Turkish rule. The exodus from Musa Dagh took place before the 23 July 1939 annexation. The refugees temporarily settled in the open at Ras al-Basit, between Kesab and Latakia, until a permanent home could be found for them.

The Turkish Government asked the French not to install the Armenian refugees near the Syrian-Turkish border. The French obliged, and considered several options including, but not limited to, four possible settlement sites in Lebanon: 1) in the mountains overlooking Tripoli, especially around the villages of Sir and Bakhune; 2) in the district of Hermel, along the Orontes River; 3) in the west of Baalbek, around the villages of Shemestar, Hadith, and Budaye; 4) in south Lebanon, in the foothills of Hermon, between the cities of Marjaayun and Rashaya. Among those places Hermel was regarded as the most suitable one not only because of the available land, but also because the Armenians “would constitute a moderating element and a factor of appeasement, in a corner which troubles, permanently, the dissentions between Christians and non-Christians.” But for various reasons, none of these places was selected.

The French High Commission of Syria and Lebanon ultimately negotiated with a retired Turkish military officer named Rushdi Hoja Tuma, who owned a 1,540 hectare domain at a place called Anjar in the Bekaa Valley. Although Rushdi Bey demanded a prohibitively-high price for his property, he was willing to accept, out of “patriotic sentiments,” an “important reduction” if the Turkish government asked him to. The land was purchased at a reduced price.

The relocation from Ras al-Basit to Anjar took place from 3-16 September. The refugees were shipped to Tripoli and thence entrained to Riyaq, where a local Armenian reception team offered food, fruit, and refreshments. From Riyaq they were transported aboard trucks to their final destination of Anjar. This was an inhospitable terrain—rocky, swampy, and thorny, with scorching summers and freezing winters. But having no other choice under the circumstances, the Musa Daghians had to reconstruct their new community here.

The newcomers in early 1940 numbered 1,060 families or 4,521 persons originating from the following six main villages of Musa Dagh: Kheder Beg, 1,050 persons; Bitias, 915; Haji Habibli, 904; Kabusiye, 754; Yoghunoluk, 601; Vakef, 295. They huddled together within the contours of the ruins of an ancient city, a 250 m. by 200 m. rectangular area on the periphery of the future village site. The Armenian National Union in Beirut and the French High Commission provided them with tents, which sheltered as many as ten-twelve persons each.

The French High Commission’s Public Works Service drafted the future village plan: an eagle-shaped layout with six distinct segments mirroring the ancestral villages mentioned above. The principal roads of Anjar would be 56 meters wide; the secondary streets 12 meters wide with 4-meter sidewalks; and the tertiary arteries 6 meters wide with 2-meter sidewalks. A central water reservoir would distribute water to springs (qastul) enclosed within octagonal walls and erected in the main squares. The location chosen for habitation spread across the last slopes of Jabal Anjar, a mountain separating Lebanon from Syria. The Public Works Service also sought an additional 50-60 hectares of land adjoining the Anjar domain upon which to extend part of the village. The area put aside for the village proper included separate spaces for the churches, schools, and auxiliary buildings of the three denominations (Apostolic, Catholic, Evangelical). An auction held on 19 September awarded the construction of houses to a French development company called Sainrapt & Brice.

The original plan was to build two rooms, a kitchen, and a restroom per house. Given the start of World War II, however, the French were compelled to cut their expenses. Consequently, the scheme was reduced to one chamber with an outdoor restroom situated on a 400 m² lot per family. In all, 1,250 dwellings had to be built by 15 December 1939. This proved an impossible task, for the following reason. Internally, the refugee community was to be governed by a committee chaired by Kevork Kalusdian and consisting of one representative from the six Armenian villages of Musa Dagh each. But since this committee did not muster enough muscle and prestige to impose its will, it was able to recruit only half of the 1,000 workers needed. The lack of the necessary manpower and discipline thus hampered the construction work. So that only fifteen houses were built by 15 November. The situation began to improve when the French asked Movses Der Kalusdian, then a lieutenant in the French Foreign Legion stationed at Baalbek, to put a chaotic house in order among his compatriots at Anjar.

The slow progress of the construction work in the face of the approaching winter and the spread of contagious diseases compelled the French authorities to relocate about half of the refugees – especially the women, children, and the elderly – to other villages in the Bekaa Valley. Although the lodgings were requisitioned without indemnity to their owners, no incidents occurred. The Armenians were distributed among sixteen localities, as follows: Mreijat, 215 persons; Majdal-Anjar, 400; Taalabaya, 169; Kab Elias, 180; Karak, 79; Ablah, 26; Forzol, 53; Jdita, 300; Zahle, 340; Istable, 70; Marje, 70; Chtaura, 50; Saadnayel, 30; Bar Elias, 60; Maallaqa, 80; and Haouche, 10; for a total of 2,192 persons. They returned to Anjar in the spring of 1940, that is, when the weather improved.

The remaining refugees stayed in Anjar under very adverse conditions to work on the construction sites. By 11 May 1940 a total of 259 houses were “regularly occupied” by the workers and their families as follows: Vakef, 26; Haji Habibli, 57; Kheder Beg, 49; Kabusiye, 25; Yoghunoluk, 45; Bitias, 57. Another 159 houses were finished but not yet occupied. But the development company was reluctant to relinquish the houses before the completion of the entire project. It accordingly asked the French authorities to order the evacuation of at least those houses whose wooden support beams had not yet been removed and the freshly-poured concrete to cover the roofs had not yet dried. The problem dragged on to some extent until the beginning of March 1941, when the refugees finally entered their “homes.” By then, 1,065 houses were built instead of the 1,250 originally planned.

Serious health concerns ran parallel to the housing crisis. A certain Dr. Boyajian managed the sanitary service until 15 October 1939, when he was discharged for “grave professional negligence” and replaced by Dr. Prudian from Riyaq. The latter as of 1 November functioned under a French military doctor. The number of sick people was very high. One could hardly find a tent without several anguishing souls. More than 300 grave cases underwent examination daily. As many as fifty-six persons died from 8 September to 31 October alone. Typhoid, malaria, gastrointestinal diseases, and trachoma constituted the main culprits. The lack of hygiene coupled with the refugees’ exhaustion and feebleness after a long, arduous journey from Musa Dagh to Anjar contributed to the spread of those maladies. The most urgent need was to tackle typhoid fever caused by ubiquitous mosquitos; it was largely checked within fifteen days after the vaccination of the population by three Armenian doctors from the American University of Beirut (AUB). Some of the measures that could eradicate malaria and gastrointestinal complications included the sweeping of filth; the keeping of animals outside the encampment, or their selling; the controlling of butcheries; the checking of edibles sold by peddlers; the disinfecting of potable water; the drying up of swamps, and so on.

A tent-infirmary established on the spot was too small to be effective; it was replaced by a more spacious Bedouin tent. Other health facilities were needed. Accordingly, a former café and a nearby garage at Deir Zanoun situated in the Anjar domains were transformed into a health facility with capacity for thirty-five beds. Attending the sick sheltered in the surrounding Arab communities posed another difficulty. Hence new medical centers were opened in some of them. This arrangement also lessened the burden on certain hospitals in Beirut, where the more acute cases were transferred. Unfortunately, despite all the efforts, the lack of sufficient funds failed to fully achieve the desired outcome. Health thus remained a major problem in subsequent years as well.

In farming, the total area set aside for cereals for 1940 amounted to 500 hectares—400 hectares for wheat and 100 hectares for barley. The remaining cultivable land of 800 hectares would be distributed to the settlers in 1941. Each family would receive an irrigable plot of equal size. Families with four-six members would additionally get a non-irrigable plot, whereas families with seven members or more would obtain a third plot, also non-irrigable. Title deeds would be issued only after five years to ensure the good use of the allocated farmlands with hard work.

As the refugees during 1939-1940 were not yet in a position to engage in sowing and harvesting, Lieut. Malod on 13 June 1940 reached an agreement with Samuel Ibrahim, a threshing entrepreneur from nearby Chtaura, concerning the first year’s wheat crops of Anjar. The contract included thirteen articles. Articles I and II referred to the types of tractors and crushers that had to be utilized. Article III specified 25 June 1940 as the starting date. Article IV allowed for six Armenians from the camp to work on the project, and indicated the need for the “necessary SACKS” for collection. Article V allowed for a maximum of 10 percent margin for wheat damage. Articles VI and VII stipulated that the French High Commission had to pay Ibrahim 90 piasters per harvested quintal and that those installments had to be made per each 1,000 harvested quintal. Article VIII gave Ibrahim the right to opt out in case of a “force majeure” such as the “total absence of fuel in the local market” and the impossibility to replace damaged machine parts. Articles IX-XIII dealt with arbitration should the need arise, and other details. The wheat and barley ultimately reaped (no amount mentioned) were distributed evenly among the populace.

During the period under study some initial measures respecting the planting of fruit and other sorts of trees were also taken. Lieut. Riaucou, who had replaced Lieut. Malod as the Special Services Officer in charge of Anjar, on 16 November asked the Director of Agriculture Service of Lebanon whether he could provide 3,000 fruit trees and 1,500 ornamental trees and at what price. The answer came from the Director of the Lebanese National Economy: his Department was “disposed” to provide 3,000 fruit plants of “2nd choice” from the government nurseries of Hammana and Chtaura for the flat rate of 30 Lebanese piasters per tree. Those fruits included apples, pears, prunes, cherries, and peaches. Ornamental trees, however, were not readily available “at the moment.” Thus began the greening of Anjar.

The French also distributed small amounts of money for the refugees to purchase food and other sundries. Food and other necessities were additionally donated by various Armenian and non-Armenian organizations and entities. The Association of French Women, the Lebanese Armenian Relief Cross, the Armenian General Benevolent Union, the Catholicosate of Cilicia at Antelias, Jacob “Papa” Künzler and his Swiss missionary organization, the Armenian National Union, the US-based Howard Karageuzian Foundation, the Harach newspaper of Paris with its fund drive, special committees formed in Zahle, Beirut, Damascus, and Aleppo, and the Musa Dagh Compatriotic Association in the United States, all made important contributions. These included clothing, bedding, kitchenware, powder milk, corn, sowing seeds, etc., in addition to pecuniary gifts.

Despite the enormous difficulties experienced by the refugees in their new, inhospitable milieu, the churches and schools resumed their activity in tents until the actual sanctuaries and classrooms were built by the second half of 1940. But communal life was far from being tranquil. Political conflicts besetting Musa Dagh society during the interwar years were now transposed to Anjar. For example, unwilling to live under the domination of Armenian Revolutionary Federation/Tashnagtsutiun, some 35-40 families from mainly the rival Social Democrat Hnchakian camp left Anjar by April 1940 and relocated to Ras al-Ayn, near the southern Lebanese city of Sur/Tyr, where another camp for the Sanjak refugees existed. Similarly, the French authorities as of October 1939 crushed “latent” communist propaganda at Anjar by expelling the ringleaders. Last but not least, gambling must have become quite worrisome to warrant the issuance of a stern warning by the local Armenian committee for those who engaged in it.

To conclude, the tribulations for Anjar did not come to an end with the close of 1940; they continued in various forms and intensity. All along the settlers entertained the hope of returning to Musa Dagh should Turkey lose in World War II. But that dream did not materialize, forcing the former highlanders to fashion a permanent life for themselves in the present verdant, vibrant, and symbolic rural Lebanese Armenian town of Anjar.

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6 Comments

  1. A Mussadaghtsi said:

    A well researched and documented first, albeit a very concise one. Well done

    • Vahram Shemmassian said:

      The expanded version will be published as a chapter in a book on the Armenian of Lebanon.

  2. M.Y. said:

    Thank you sir for this wonderful work – I for one, learned more about the history and background of the Anjar Armenian population.

  3. bedros kabrielian said:

    Very detailed and authentic story about musa dagh and ainjar.

  4. Movses Aintabian said:

    Հակառակ որոշ բաներ գիտնալուս՝ այս մանրամասնութիւնները զիս հիացուցին եւ հարստացուցին… Գրիչդ դալա՜՜ր, Շէմմէսեան Վահրամ… Ութ տարեկան հասակիս ես ալ առաջին տառապողներէն մէկը եղած եմ… Թրիփոլիէն Ռայագ՝ շոգեկառքին մէջ թիֆոյիտ հիւանդութենէն վարակուեցայ եւ կրցայ առողջանալ միայն 62 օր յետոյ, շնորհիւ Պէյրութի ֆրանսական հիւանդանոցի -Օթէլ Տիէօ- խնամքին…

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