Uncertain Autonomy, Contested Sovereignty, and the Stakes of History in Late Ottoman Mount Lebanon

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 11:30 AM
Columbia Hall 9 (Washington Hilton)
Andrew Arsan, University of Cambridge
This paper examines late Ottoman contests over sovereignty through the writings of the literati Bulus Nujaym, a Paris-trained lawyer who served in the administration of the autonomous district of Mount Lebanon. Scholars have treated his 1908 doctoral dissertation, a long disquisition on the history and disputed legal status of his native province, as a secessionist statement, calling for a sovereign Lebanese state. But this was not so much a declaration of national independence as a work of ‘imperial political thought’, a meditation on the workings of an empire-state whose own sovereignty had been compromised by sustained European intervention. A composite work, it brought together evidence from legal treaties and treatises, local chronicles and European accounts to mount a case for the administrative autonomy of Mount Lebanon, and resolve lingering uncertainty about its sovereign status. Nujaym’s native province was, both literally and figuratively, an area of disagreement: its privileges were the cause of frequent dispute between Ottoman functionaries, European diplomats, and the mountain’s literati, who depicted themselves as ‘free’ men struggling simultaneously against local ‘feudalism’ and central despotism. Nujaym turned to history to defend the ‘liberal’ status of Lebanon. For him, Lebanon’s organic statute, while maintaining the ‘fiction’ of central writ, had created a distinctive mode of autonomous rule in which provincial sovereignty was shared by local institutions, imperial ministries, and the European chancelleries, which protected this regime through the principle of ‘collective intervention’ enshrined in the 1856 Treaty of Paris. This was an argument about legal texts and their disputed meanings, but also an attempt to make a persuasive claim about the historical distinctiveness of a particular territory. Only European intervention, Nujaym maintained, could preserve the longstanding freedoms of Mount Lebanon, that highland haven of liberty. Intervention, while compromising certain forms of sovereignty, helped in his eyes to safeguard others.
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