The Black Madonna of Tripoli (Lebanon)

In the city of Tripoli there is humble and almost unknown Black Madonna. She has lain dormant for many years now, but quite suddenly, and rather unexpectedly, she is starting to emerge from the fecund, dark loam of the collective unconscious like a fragile shoot appearing out of frozen soil. The power of the Black Madonna as an agent of change and transformation cannot be overlooked, and nowhere today is this more true than in Tripoli, the second city of Lebanon. So, what does this particular Black Madonna represent, and what is her message to us at this time?

Black Madonna of Tripoli (author’s photo)

She hangs on the wall of the Greek Orthodox Church of St George near the old souk in the heart of Tripoli. She feels slightly incongruous in this poor and very conservative Sunni city close to the Syrian border, where women frequently wear the veil. Dubbed the ‘City of Division,’ Tripoli has gained negative publicity over the past few decades as a place of unpredictable sectarian violence and frequent clashes between Sunni and Alawite rebels or anti/pro Assad factions. It has also historically supported Prime Minister Hariri’s Future Movement. Yet over the past few months the people of this conservative place have been at the heart of the Lebanese anti-government protests.

Ancient Phoenician city of Tyre (author’s photo)

Possible reasons for this unexpected behaviour can be found by looking back into the city’s long and illustrious past of dynamism and change. Tripoli was first established as a trading port by the entrepreneurs of the ancient world, the Phoenicians. For hundreds of years, these merchants dominated the seas of the Mediterranean and traded in silver, wood, glass, textiles and of course their hallmark purple dye made from a secretion of the murex sea snail. They invented the alphabet that we use today and ducked and dived at a time when many great civilisations were going into decline. They also witnessed the arrival of new and aggressive players such as Alexander, the Ptolomies, Seleucids, Persians and Romans, and even managed to stay independent to some extent, some of the time. Parallels with today maybe? The Lebanese may be part of the Arab world, indeed at the heart of it, but they also have a different quality and pride themselves as being the entrepreneurs – the ‘middle-men’ of the Middle East.

Mamluk era mosque (author’s photo)

Then in 551 AD, it all changed. A devastating earthquake and ensuing tidal wave swept away all that remained of the ancient world like it had never existed. Nature abhors a vacuum and into this one stepped the next set of invaders, this time from the Muslim world, who in the shape of the Omayyads, Fatimids, Druze, Ottomans then Lebanese, were to dominate the city until today – aside from a period of Western and Mamluk domination, both of which have left physical legacies. The citadel of Raymond of St-Gilles built by the Crusaders still dominates the city, and the Mamluk era mosques, khans and souks make the architecture of Tripoli unique in the Middle East.

Citadel of Raymond of St-Gilles (Qala’at Sanjil)

Though Tripoli’s past has been rich and colourful, the twentieth century has brought with it a fair degree of misery. Sectarian violence had already become a theme at the close of the 19th century with frequent conflict between the Druze and Maronite Christians. When the Maronites began to oppose the then ruling Ottoman Empire, the Western Powers seized the opportunity and intervened, a precdent that was to continue after WW1 when the League of Nations, and Sykes-Picot carved up Lebanon, thereby altering the demographics and sowing the seeds for the devastating civil war of the 1975 – 1990.

To return to the Black Madonna and her message, it is important to understand that the full name of the church in which she stands is the ‘Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in Lebanon.’ Though obscure today, this church has an ancient pedigree which can be traced back to the very earliest days of Christianity when both Peter and Paul visited Antioch. The church founded at this time became so important that it became part of the Pentrachy – one of the five major episcopal sees of the Roman Empire, which included Rome, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Constantinople. In time, Rome claimed supremacy over all the other churches with the great schism of 1054 splitting Rome and the Eastern Churches for good, and the rest is literally history.

Hammam in Tripoli, the oldest in the country (author’s photo)

Somehow, the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch has managed to survive the upheavals of the last two millenia and today its members count for around 8% of the Lebanese population. It has also managed to exist in small numbers in other parts of the Arab world where its’ highly educated and financially adept people have managed, in Phoenician style, to blend into a rigidly conservative and at times fractious religious environment. Most notably, during the Lebanese civil war , the terrible and prolonged sectarian conflict in which over 120,000 people lost their lives, 1 million went into exile and over 76,000 were displaced, the Greek Orthodox community were able to act as negotiators to build bridges between the Maronite Christians and the Arab community at the heart of the conflict.

So, the essence of this Black Madonna is about the preservation of something pure and almost lost, of blending in chameleon-style in hostile environments, and of thriving not just surviving. Of knowing when to lie low and when to step forward and having the courage to do so even when threatened. Of seeking heartfelt, inclusive change that benefits all, not just a minority.

Tripoli protests in October 2019

Over the past few months, the people of Tripoli have been reclaiming their city, resurrecting it from the fragments of division and renaming it a ‘City of Peace.’ Shia, Sunni, Alawite and Maronite are putting aside religious differences to protest against and demand the resignation of a corrupt and ineffectual government. In the words of one protestor, ‘It was always minority causing all the trouble, most people were trying to live their lives…. I always thought people would come together, they just needed a reason.’ [1]

Though this Black Madonna arises from a Christian/Orthodox background, her message transcends religion and draws on a wisdom that resonates with us all at a deep, core level. The protests may have faded in Tripoli for now, but the sentiment behind them has not. People want change and once the nature of this change is formulated coherently, there will be nothing than can get in their way.

[1] Richard Hall, Independent Newspaper, 25.10.2019.

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