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

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

Friday, January 2nd, 2015


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

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.

From: A. Papazian

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