The Formative Years
Descended from a line of prominent 18th-century Syrian Catholics, the Chiha family enjoyed strong historical links with the Church’s hierarchy. This connection is embodied in the many handwritten letters exchanged over the years between members of the Chiha family and several bishops and patriarchs of the Antiochene rite and archived in the El Cherfe monastery in Lebanon.
The correspondence reveals the family’s influence within the hierarchy of the Church whilst also narrating the evolution and history of the clan. In a letter dated the January 12th, 1815, and addressed to members of the Chiha family, in particular to the patrilineal members like Nehme, Suleiman, Nicholas, and Mikhayel, the then Patriarch of Antioch bestowed the following blessing on them:
“May heaven bless you with its divine mercy and bless the earth with your precious fruit! May God multiply your number by the thousands! May your word always be heard! May God crush your enemies like clay and turn all others into friends!”
The letters mainly attest to the family’s standing in Lebanon from the beginning of the 19th century.
Michel Chiha was born on September 8, 1891, the long-awaited son after six daughters in succession. A further son and daughter would follow. Michel’s father Antoine passed away in 1903 having co-founded the Pharaon and Chiha Bank in 1876. In 1926 Michel married Marguerite Pharaon, the eldest daughter of Philippe Pharaon, Antoine’s partner in the bank. Three girls were born in this union, Micheline, Madeleine, and Marie-Claire.
“…I took the same old path, preceded by my father and grand-father, side-by-side, each embodying a lifetime of affective experience. Their shadows still run tall along these old walls. Dressed in black or grey, their linen starched stiff and their big hearts warmed in English tweed, they forged ahead, sure-footed and confident and traded with the world at large. They sold silk and bought coal. They took delivery of gold and letters of credit. One of them was said to be honest and fair, and the other quick-tempered. They traded unhindered by doubt and with a healthy contempt for mortality. Yet they ardently loved life and relished the bouquet of a fine wine or the aroma of a good cigar…”
Le vieux passage, M.C., Le Jour, December 25th, 1942, (à Gabriel Bounoure).
In 1906 Michel Chiha graduated from the Jesuit St. Joseph University in Beirut, having also managed to intersperse his studies with a great deal of traveling. Of a delicate disposition, his mother frequently went abroad for her health and often took young Michel with her, thus introducing him to Europe from a very young age. Indeed he often traveled to Europe, in particular to England where he spent some months at his uncle’s house in Manchester. As a result, in spite of a very strong French cultural background, he maintained a lifelong admiration for the English culture.
“…Forty years ago today we were sitting the University of Saint Joseph’s final exams. The memory dates us to a past era and yet in spite of the passing of time, it finds us true to form. Wasn’t it only yesterday and was that yesterday really forty years ago? There were only five of us ‘philosophers’, each one perfectly at home on their usual bench like a peaceful outing on an endless sea. In those halcyon days, the senior classes were never oversubscribed and our philosophising was more temperate than is expected of young students today. Do you agree Cardahi, fellow pupil and now Professor and eminent jurist? Is that not so fellow ‘philosopher’ Garelli, currently the solemn mainstay of the Ottoman Bank in Istanbul?”
A propos d’un sujet de concours, M.C., Le jour, June 14th, 1946.
In 1907, at sixteen, he made his debut in the family bank alongside his maternal uncles after gaining some business experience in an English commercial firm.