The origin of the Saint-Joseph University of Beirut, or USJ, dates back to the Seminar of Ghazir founded by the Jesuit Fathers in 1843. The College of Ghazir, established with the intention of training the local Maronite clergy, was transferred to Beirut in 1875. This centre for higher studies was named Saint-Joseph University. In his audience of 25 February 1881, Pope Leo XIII conferred the title of Pontifical University on the USJ.
This article deals with the history of the USJ, the first great French-speaking Jesuit institution in the area which, at the time, bore the name of “Syria”. (The term Syria is used henceforth to represent the geographical entity of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which includes Syria and Lebanon of the present.) The underlying reasons for the creation of Saint-Joseph University of Beirut have to do with its being located in a province of the Ottoman Empire coveted by the future mandatory power, France. By the 1870s, the Ottoman Empire was being preserved chiefly by the competition between the European powers, all of whom wanted chunks of it. The Ottoman territory, like the territory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, encompassed a great many ethnic groups whose own nationalism was also stirring. Under Ottoman rule, the region of the Levant developed economic and religious ties with Europe. Open to the West, it became a hotbed of political strife between various foreign nations including France, Russia and Britain. These powerful countries assumed the protection of certain ethnic and religious groups, with France supporting the Christian Maronites and Britain supporting the Druzes.