|Joined: 09 Mar 2007
Location: Jbeil Byblos
| Essence of Beirut by Another Travel Guide
|Essence, Beirut - Author: Anothertravelguide.com
If you find yourself heading for the airport in the early morning light, and you spot a local partygoer on his way home after a night out with friends, then you know that this is Beirut, the hedonistic capital of the Middle East. However, there are many other reasons besides Beirut's legendary nightlife and famed, gastronomic culture to visit this enigmatic city.
Beirut is a metropolis like no other - at least in terms of its insatiable joie de vivre and in the fantastic hospitality of its inhabitants. It is a city, where every day is lived out like a cup that must be emptied to the last drop. In the wake of a devastating civil war that lasted more than 15 years (1975-1991) and the most recent military conflict with Israel in 2006, Beirut is experiencing a dynamic period of rebirth and renewal. However, considering the city's tumultuous history, as well as continuing tensions in the region, nobody is ready to guess how long the current good times will last. That is why Beirutis are so resilient and ebullient, with a natural ability to take any situation in stride. "We don't delve too much into things and don't plan too far ahead. We just try to live out our lives to the fullest," is what most Lebanese will tell you.
Due to its strategic, geographical location on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, Beirut has always been at a crossroads between East and West, between three continents, religions and numerous cultures. As the locals like to say with a touch of irony, God has certainly spoiled Lebanon in some ways, particularly with its wonderfully mild, Mediterranean climate and an average of 300 sunny days per year. However, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and the "rental fee" for this privilege has come at great cost over the course of history.
Archaeological excavations reveal that the first, permanent settlements in Beirut date from the Stone Age. The first city walls were built in around 2100 BC. The Phoenicians who lived there were subject to subsequent invasions by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Armenians and Romans. During the 3rd century AD under Roman rule, Beirut was famous for its school of law, which was considered to be among the best in the empire.
In 551 the city was devastated by a massive earthquake and in 635 it was conquered by the Arabs, who introduced Islam as the state religion. Christian crusaders from Europe also controlled the city during the early Middle Ages (1110-1291), followed by the Egyptian Mamluks and Ottoman Turks.
After the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was forced to cede most of its territories, including present-day Lebanon, to other powers. In 1920, taking into account Lebanon's historical ties with Europe dating to the crusades and the fact that many Christians live there, Lebanon became a French protectorate.
Already during the 19th century, Lebanon's two main universities had been built in Beirut - Saint-Joseph University (1843) and the American University of Beirut (1866). The latter is still considered to be among the most prestigious in the region and is housed in one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. The university is surrounded by a huge park, making it all the more special, as sadly, imprudent city planning has seen much of Beirut's green space disappear during the past years, with dusty construction sites and towering cranes now dominating the city panorama.
In 1943, Lebanon gained its independence and the period that preceded Lebanon's civil war was Beirut's golden era. The city was the region's main arts and culture centre, a status that it is now once again retrieving. Although Beirut has a population of about two million, the city is quite compact and can even be navigated on foot.
Beirut is a city of contrasts, with old, stately villas, modern highrises, ruined building shells pockmarked with bullet holes, luxury stores and armoured personnel carriers stationed at street intersections, mosques and churches all sharing the landscape. While your efforts to say "hello," "please" and "thank you" in Arabic will certainly be appreciated, you hardly need bother, as most Beirutis freely speak three languages: Arabic, English and French. This applies not only to the capital city, but also to many parts of the Lebanese countryside.
Although Lebanese cuisine is appreciated the world over, Lebanon is one of the few countries, where a celebration day is officially devoted to a particular, national dish. Tabbouleh is a traditional Lebanese salad, which is made in the colours of the Lebanese national flag - green, red and white. National Tabbouleh Day was introduced as celebratory event fairly recently, in 2001, and became an officially sanctioned celebration day only in 2007, as a means to strengthen the country's national unity. If history has been unable to unite the Lebanese, then perhaps food will be more successful. National Tabbouleh Day is celebrated on the first Saturday in July by Lebanese and their friends all over the world.
If you have taken the trouble to travel to Beirut, then it is worth staying a bit longer to visit other interesting destinations in Lebanon, such as Byblos, which prides itself as being one of the oldest, continually inhabited settlements in the world. Baalbeck is famous for its legendary Phoenician and Roman ruins, as well as it annual city festival, which takes place in the summer. Day trips from Beirut can easily be taken to both destinations.