The martyrs of Lebanon: war memorials as sites of contestation and reconciliation

By Jacob Lindelöw Berntson

How come certain commemorations take place in particular sites? How come British politicians leave wreaths at the Cenotaph in Whitehall on Remembrance Sunday? Why do the French pay tribute to the ‘Unknown Soldier’ at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe? The answer may lie in the role that monuments, and in this case, war memorials, play in our understanding of the past. But even though war memorials commemorate the past, they can play an active role in shaping both the present and the future. In this post, we will look at how a memorial in Beirut constitutes a site of contemporary national debate and plays a role in Lebanon’s present and future

What’s in a war memorial, and why does it matter?

War memorials are not only monuments, they display and define values for which a war or a struggle was fought. This way, they can give meaning and even retroactively justify sending thousands of soldiers to their deaths. In many ways, they help us remember what happened. However, since the construction of memorials requires political and financial capital, they inevitably represent one side of the story. Consequently, they can promote ‘the noble cause’, for which the government sent its soldiers to die, as a popular narrative.[1] A memorial can also serve as a moral rejection of horrific acts, such as defending the nation against Nazism.[2]

But monuments themselves do not ‘remember’ what occurred. Instead, they are dependent on agency to display the memories of a group. This can be done either by political elites or by the public masses. This way, war memorials ‘permeate lives more than is realised’.[3] A war memorial could subsequently work as a lieu de mémoire, as defined by French historian Pierre Nora: a site which refers to a collective history and in which the public invests their affections and emotions.[4]

War memorials are consequently intimately connected to ‘collective memory’. French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, the first to coin the term, argued that all private memory occurs within a collective and shared context.[5] Scholars have since both agreed and disagreed with this notion. To sum up the competing views, one might say that all memories are individual, but that they undoubtedly take place in a collective setting, meaning that your national identity, for example, matters as to how you remember a certain historical event. Collective memory is thus a pivotal factor in establishing historical narratives. As stated by philosopher Paul Ricœur: ‘[c]ollective memory…constitutes the soil in which historiography is rooted.’[6]

Invariably, the events of the past are only real through their use of the present, and what is remembered is decided by today’s political actors and presented as an objective truth.[7] War memorials commemorating a founding event can thus, through the use of political actors, embody the stories of (and serve as a point of reference for) the origins of a certain community and establish their identity. In fact, political theorist Martin Heisler states that in order to be part of a certain peoplehood, one need to accept such a story, since it ‘simultaneously represents and rallies the collectivity’ and constitutes a vital part of one’s identity.[8] However, as stated above, these memorial narratives are not always mass-based but can be imposed on members of a group from above, creating what Ricœur calls an ‘instructed memory’, which works in service of the official and ‘authorised’ history aimed at enforcing a common identity.[9] This is why it might be important to remember Susan Sontag’s claim that collective memory is not remembering, but merely a stipulation of the unfolding and importance of certain events.[10]

A concept that might be useful in order to understand the memorial we will be looking at is Cambridge lecturer Duncan Bell’s concept of ‘mythscapes’. Bell argues that rather than speaking of one collective memory of a nation, we should speak of a ‘governing myth’. According to Bell, a nationalist myth simplifies, narrates and (re)constructs a nation’s past, effectively making sense of national history. The governing myth is the dominant narrative of a nation, but it co-exists with other, subaltern, myths. These subaltern myths are often oppositional in character and are concerned with past oppression from the hands of the agents of the governing myth. These subaltern myths can,therefore, challenge the governing myth of a nation.[11] This is what Bell calls a ‘mythscape’, and effectively constitutes a site where the narratives of a nation (governing and subaltern myths) are discussed and negotiated, and is shaped by a nation’s ever-evolving power-relations.[12] In other words, a mythscape could be seen as the place where the question of what constitutes a nation’s identity is answered.

The martyrs of Lebanon

In many ways, the Martyr’s Memorial in Beirut embodies many of the attributes in Bell’s concept. The memorial, placed in Martyr’s Square in central Beirut, honours those who were slain in the struggle for independence from the Ottomans in 1916. Several nationalists who were paraded in the streets before being executed by the local Ottoman chieftains chanted nationalist slogans, and therefore evoked an image of a Lebanese identity before the state of Lebanon was born. It was also of importance that many of the nationalists were of mixed religious backgrounds, as the Lebanese state has subsequently built an identity upon being a diverse, multi-religious and pluralistic nation.

The statue was unveiled in 1960 and depicts the martyrs of the 1916 events. As Lucia Volk[13] notes, the concept of martyrdom is important in Lebanon, as everyone from soldiers, innocent children, and former president Rafiq Hariri have been called martyrs after their deaths. Martyrdom often entails being seen as having given one’s life for Lebanon and the values that it represents, and this is very much the purpose of the Martyrs Memorial, as it is an attempt to teach the public important lessons about civic duty and solidarity.

However, Lebanon’s tolerant and pluralistic democratic project has failed several times, not least in the Lebanese Civil War between 1975 and 1990. The civil war was marked by sectarian warfare and foreign intervention (both Syria and Israel intervened throughout the course of the war, and Syria kept military forces in Lebanon until 2005), claimed more than 250,000 victims, and undoubtedly left the country more divided than before.

However, this has also meant that the Martyrs Memorial has been given a new meaning, as it now also serves as a reminder and a memorial for those who died in the brutal internecine fighting of the civil war. The bullet holes piercing the statues are a reminder of past tragedies, but also symbolises the resilience of the Lebanese people and the country as a whole. Lebanon is a country that seems to endure a constant endemic crisis, is surrounded by hostile countries, but is still standing despite its many scars, just like the Martyrs Memorial. Moreover, in the marred and sectarian cityscape of Beirut, where few sites are truly free of sectarian bias due to the sectarian divisions partly brought about by the civil war, the Martyrs Memorial has provided a neutral space. It is one of the few sites in its capital that does not seem to have any affiliation to one of Lebanon’s many religious groups but is one that everyone can adopt and embrace.

The Martyrs Memorial during the Lebanese Civil War in 1982. (Attribution:  James Case from Philadelphia, Mississippi, U.S.A. (Peace) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Different martyrs, same ideals?

However, that is not to say that the statues of the memorial have not been politicised. Rafiq Hariri had the statues restored and re-installed in 2004 after a long hiatus from the Beirut cityscape, only to see them removed by then President Émile Lahoud. This was, at the time, seen as a gesture by a Lebanese nationalist and independence fighter (Hariri) that was then destroyed by a pro-Syrian president (Lahoud), and was to some extent a signal of the influence Syria wielded over Lebanon.

The memorial’s neutrality was apparent during the so-called Cedar Revolution of 2005, a series of protests calling for an end of Syrian military presence in Lebanon. After Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated on 14 February 2005, a crime many suspected had Syrian involvement due to his hostility towards Syrian influence, anti-Syrian protests started to take place around the Martyrs Memorial in central Beirut. Previously, many anti-Syrian protests had been heavily influenced by Lebanese Christian groups, who traditionally have sought to move away from the Ba’athism of both Hafez and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. However, this time the protests were increasingly non-sectarian. Perhaps most importantly was that several counter demonstrations occurred on the same site, most famously on 8 March when Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah defended the Syrian presence in the country. A few days later, on 14 March, protesters gathered for the one month memorial of Hariri’s death, once again demonstrating against the Syrian presence in the country. These two movements, the ‘pro-Syrian’ and ‘anti-Syrian’, were later to form two blocs that still dominate Lebanese politics, named after the aforementioned dates, 8 March and 14 March.


People protesting by the Martyrs Memorial in Beirut in 2006. The bullet holes from the civil war are still visible. (Attribution: Av craigfinlay (Place des Martyrs) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Embodying the mythscape?

What this demonstrates was that the Martyrs Memorial provided a space where several actors within Lebanese politics met and set out their respective cases for the future of the country, all whilst simultaneously referring back to the original meaning of the monument, that of being a martyr for Lebanon. This way, one might say that the Lebanese have, following Heisler’s line of thought, accepted a story of peoplehood, in this case, one that is heavily influenced by martyrdom. For example, the 14 March movement believed that that martyrdom had been obtained by Hariri as he was assassinated, presumably for posing an obstacle for continued Syrian dominance over Lebanon, whereas the 8 March movement saw martyrdom in the continued resistance against Israel, for which they deemed Syrian support necessary. The Martyrs Memorial thus also to some extent embodies Bell’s aforementioned concept of a ‘mythscape’, as it constituted a site where Lebanese people debated the past, present, and future of their country.

Although the Cedar Revolution did not, in the end, necessarily change Lebanese politics for the better (today’s Lebanese politics is still marked by inefficiency), it was a demonstration of nationalism in a country that could actually use more of it. However, one should also not pretend that it was solely a display of unity on all fronts, as several politicians and intellectuals were murdered during the protests and Christian areas were targeted by bombs. But for a country coming from a civil war 15 years before to having uninterrupted public demonstrations on such a large scale was a big step forward. This was partly due to the neutrality and universal appeal of the Martyrs Memorial monument, as it was a site free of sectarian affiliation where several groups could place their aspirations. This might also be one reason to why the square surrounding the statues was used for demonstrations during the peak of the ‘You Stink’ campaign last year, which were probably the biggest public protests after the Cedar Revolution to have taken place in the 2000s.

The Martyrs Memorial demonstrates that war memorials can play an active and passive role in present events, and can contribute to a national discussion and debate over identity and peoplehood. This is why we should perhaps not get surprised or when historical sites or events are presented at the forefront of our national identity. Moreover, we should not get offended when people question the legitimacy of those events or sites being placed there. Instead, we should embrace the debate that these memorials encourage about our past, present, and futures.


Note: This is a shortened a reworked version of longer text. For the full version, see here.

Attribution top photo:  Elias zaghrini (own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


[1] James M. Mayo, “War Memorials as Political Memory”, in Geographical Review 78, No. 1 (January 1988): 63-5.

[2] Bill Niven, “War Memorials at the Intersection of Politics, Culture and Memory”, in Journal of War and Culture Studies 1, No. 1 (2008): 42.

[3] Mayo, “War Memorials”, 69.

[4] See Pierre Nora, Les Lieux de Mémoire (Paris: Gallimard, 1997).

[5] See Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

[6] Paul Ricœur, Memory, History, Forgetting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 69.

[7] Ziya Meral, “A Duty to Remember? Politics and Morality of Remembering Past Atrocities”, in International Political Anthropology 5, No. 1 (2012): 30, 32.

[8] Martin Heisler, “Challenged Histories and Collective Self-concepts: Politics in History, Memory, and Time”, in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 617 (May 2008): 203-4.

[9] Ricœur, “Memory”, 85.

[10] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 76.

[11] Bell, “Mythscapes”, 65-6, 74-5.

[12] Ibid., 75-6.

[13] See Lucia Volk, Memorials and Martyrs in Modern Lebanon (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010)


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