This recent find about the last bell founder in Lebanon piqued my interest in bells in the middle east. I was intrigued by the explanation that the casting of big bells didn’t arrive in Lebanon until the Crusaders came through in the twelfth century.*
Hadn’t they been making bells already for a long time? Yes, the people in the ancient middle eastern civilizations (Persian, Egyptian, Byzantine) made bells—but only smaller ones, no larger than hand bells. These bells were used for religious ceremonies, among other uses. The early Christians adopted the use of bells from the local pagan rituals, and early Christian missionaries from Egypt spread the use of hand bells to Ireland and then to continental Europe.
At first, small bells were used during Masses similar to those used in pagan rituals. The first evidence we have that bells were used to summon the faithful to Mass comes from the sixth century. A cleric from Carthage (modern-day Libya) sends a bell to an abbot near Naples, Italy, with the instruction to ring it to gather together the people for worship. The tradition of ringing bells before Christian services, then, dates back at least 1500 years and likely originates from Africa.
Western churches spread the use of bells until by the eleventh and twelfth centuries, even small country churches had tower bells to signal to the congregation. In Lebanon and most of the middle east, the Arab invasion of the seventh century brought a halt to bell ringing. The new dominant regime of Islam forced the cessation of bells; Christianity had to go further underground. Despite the hostile rulers, the Maronites, a branch of Christianity, survived in the mountains of Lebanon. When the first wave of Crusaders came through the region on their way to Jerusalem in the twelfth century, the Maronites welcomed them. The Crusaders, in turn, introduced them to bell casting. The casting of large tower bells in the middle east was born. With the departure of the Crusaders in the thirteenth century, most middle eastern bells fell silent. Because of their isolation, however, the Maronites maintained their bell-ringing tradition.
Beit Chabab’s bell founding could date back as far as the twelfth century when the Crusaders marched through. Naffah Naffah, the last of the town’s bell founders, traces his metallurgical roots back to the eighteenth century, when Russians taught his ancestor how to cast bells, a craft that has been handed down through the family ever since.
*Information from this post taken from Percival Price, Bells & Man (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 84-98.