A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

the devil is in the details: Bliss Street

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 5, 2007

What a horrible name for a street, the young woman with whom I was speaking said, shocked.

What? I asked, confused.

Iblis means “devil” in Arabic, she explained.

Oh, I said, the light dawning. Its not “Bleees” – its “Bliss”.

I was speaking with a group of young women from the Gulf, who were curious to hear more about my life in Beirut. AUB was the one place they all recognized, so our conversation revolved largely around Hamra. The problem began when one asked: Isn’t AUB on Hamra?

No, another answered, its on shari3a blees.

Of course, in Lebanon no one pronounces Bliss as blees – although Arabizing the name probably makes more sense. “Bliss” doesn’t sound like “iblis”, which is pronounced “iblees” – but “blees” sure does.

Bliss Street is named after Reverend Daniel Bliss, the man who founded AUB. He was a graduate of Amherst (rival to my sweet alma mater), and, as his title might suggest, he came to the Levant as a missionary.

A family biography page summarizes Bliss’ life as follows:

On Nov. 7, 1848, he arrived at Amherst College, Mass., in the middle of the fall term and was admitted upon examination to the freshman class. He was strong-minded, robust in physique, and a liberal in religion–testifying, however, years afterward that he “never opposed what he believed to be true Christianity.” What modest debts he accumulated in making his way through Amherst he cleared from the proceeds of a private school which he conducted in Shrewsbury, Mass., during the summer of 1852. He graduated from Amherst in the latter year and during 1852-55 attended Andover Seminary in preparation for the ministry and foreign missions.

On Oct. 17, he was ordained at Amherst, and in November was married to Abby Maria Wood, of Westminster, Mass. Receiving appointment by the American Board and being assigned to Syria, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss sailed from Boston on Dec. 12, 1855, for Malta, Smyrna, and Beirut. After a short stay in Beirut they left on Apr. 15 for Abeih, a Lebanon village 2,500 ft. above the sea, where they worked for two and one-half years among the few hundred Christian and Druse villagers.

This was Bliss’s apprenticeship, and under his hand the school which Dr. Van Dyck had opened in 1843 grew rapidly into an academy of importance. The Syrian work at the time was almost exclusively amongst non-Moslems, for while Turkey was tolerant of Christian missionaries, she did not guarantee immunity to Moslem converts to Christianity.

For four years from Oct. 16, 1858, the Blisses were in charge of the Girls’ Boarding School in Suq al-Gharb, five miles above Abeih. It was there he preached his first Arabic sermon on Dec. 12, 1858, and displayed further his fitness for educational work. When the Syrian Mission voted on Jan. 27, 1862, to recommend the founding of a “Literary Institution,” Bliss was assigned the task and privilege of organizing and presiding over it. He and Mrs. Bliss came at once to America, where he took the first steps in the new assignment. Syrian Protestant College was chartered in 1864 by New York State, and began an independent career under its own trustees with Bliss as president.

Enough endowment was raised to enable the institution to open in Beirut on Dec. 3, 1866, the aim being to serve “all conditions and classes of men without regard to colour, nationality, race, or religion.” Arabic was the medium of instruction for the first seventeen years; thereafter, English. After existence in various quarters until 1873 the present site was occupied, where the cornerstone of the main building had been laid on Dec. 7, 1871.

Bliss acted also as professor of Bible and ethics, and as treasurer. He was the active head of the College for thirty-six years and saw its enrolment grow from sixteen to over six hundred students. In 1902 he resigned, being succeeded by his second son, Dr. Howard Bliss, but after his retirement he still continued his daily classes, attended faculty meetings, and preached an occasional sermon. A hall of the Beirut institution bears his name, and his memory is preserved by Arabic textbooks of his own composition in moral and in natural philosophy.

In 1920, the Syrian Protestant College became the American University of Beirut, and sometime around then lost its religious affiliation. But the missionaries of Reverend Bliss’ generation saw education as merely the first step to their ultimate goal: conversion. And converting Eastern Christians was no less important than converting Muslims – American Protestants wrote in horror of the “smells and bells” of Orthodox, Catholic and Maronite services – not to mention their reverence for saints and the Virgin Mary.

I’m sure my acquaintance was not the first to make the “Bliss” – “iblis” connection. I imagine that there were a number of Lebanese in the late 1800s who considered this energetic missionary something of a devil!


3 Responses to “the devil is in the details: Bliss Street”

  1. intlxpatr said

    I love this article. I learn so much from your blog. Your Gulf students must love being able to talk with you and see through your eyes (and vice versa)

  2. Interesting read, thanks for writing it

  3. Legs Ortiz said

    How about Rev. Bliss’ son, Howard who succeeded him and worked hard at the Paris Peace Conference to get autonomy for the Palestinians and to make sure the Great Powers were fair to the middle east? Isn’t that worth something?

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