The Makings of History / Myths and Facts

Kamal Salibi was Lebanon's foremost historian, who contended that conventional readings of biblical stories were founded on a chain of errors.

Kamal Salibi was Lebanon's foremost historian. He described Lebanese society as a mosaic of myths, and he scrutinized each myth critically. Many praised not only his analytic powers, but also his courage.

Salibi was born in 1929 to a Greek Orthodox family which later joined the Anglican Church. He studied and lectured at the American University of Beirut. He completed his doctorate in London, under the prominent Near Eastern Studies expert Bernard Lewis. Now associated with conservative Zionism, Lewis is probably not so proud of his student any more: In 1982, as the Israel Defense Forces was invading Beirut, Salibi was working on the galley proofs of a book titled "The Bible Came from Arabia."

Emil Salman

It apparently all began when Salibi perused a gazetteer's description of the Arabian Peninsula and noticed that local settlements had names resembling biblical place names. Following linguistic, archaeological and geographic research, including field surveys, Salibi concluded that the biblical Land of Israel is actually located in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula - and not south of Lebanon, as people now believe. Nor is ancient Lebanon the same place as modern Lebanon; it, too, was in the southern Arabian Peninsula, as was David's Kingdom and Jerusalem. The biblical Jordan River is not actually a river, but rather a mountain slope located in the Asir belt of Saudi Arabia, Salibi concluded.

Salibi's book was originally published in Germany, and in 1985 it was distributed by a prestigious London publisher, Jonathan Cape. Naturally, the theory provoked a number of media headlines, and several scientific journals published academic articles refuting it. Now, the theory is discussed mainly online.

Salibi did not repudiate biblical stories themselves; instead, he contended that conventional readings of them were founded on a chain of errors. He believed that the Hebrews came from the Arabian Peninsula. They migrated to what is now known as Eretz Israel, and they established the Hasmonean kingdom here. When they left Arabia, they took their legends with them, written in Hebrew. In their new land, the immigrants stopped using Hebrew and took up Aramaic. The language switch distorted their stories, creating a mistaken version which held that the events had occured in the land now known as Eretz Israel.

Few fields of study are more political than the archaeology of the Land of Israel. Starting in the 19th century, Christian archaeologists from Europe and the United States came here to find evidence of biblical stories. And as modern Zionism took hold, it too made efforts to authenticate the Old Testament. Naturally, Arab archaeologists tried to do the opposite. The Lebanese historian's attempt to remove the people of Israel from the Land of Israel is not essentially different from efforts by the State of Israel to dig up parchments, clay fragments or stone inscriptions to try and prove that the Jewish people are indeed originally from Eretz Israel.

This competition represents an integral part of the Israeli-Arab conflict. For this reason, it would appear that archaeologists' jobs are guaranteed for the time being, even though after decades of searching, not a single biblical story has been verified - not Genesis, not the story of Abraham or Moses, not the Exodus from Egypt, not the tales of King David.

Salibi stressed that his own theory warrants consideration so long as no proof is found contradicting it, especially since there are contradictions in the Bible itself, and Israeli archaeologists have a wont for arguing about where biblical places are located. On this note, Salibi ridiculed the conventional reading of the inscription of Mesha.

Mesha was a Moabite king, and the memorial he built to commemorate his victory over the Kingdom of Israel was found in 1868, east of the Dead Sea. This was interpreted as verification of one of the Bible's stories. The inscription is incomplete, and its language necessitates interpretation and supplements. For instance, the words "south of Rabin," were conventionally taken to mean "many days." Salibi disputed this interpretation, arguing that the word in question, yemen, meant to the south, and that the word rabin referred to a village not far from Mecca where, he believed, the biblical Moab was located. Under this interpretation, Mesha fled the Arabian village and then established a new kingdom.

Salibi recently passed away. His website suggests he had many admirers.