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Lebanon yesterday and today - A bird’s-eye view of the nation, and the special features that distinguish it from other countries.
- A condensed history
- The modern country

(by George Asseily and James Lawday)

Lebanon and the Lebanese

A land of milk and honey? A land of war and peace? A land of hard work and leisure? Yes indeed, Lebanon is all these and of course much more. Lebanon, sometimes described as the Riviera of the Middle East, is one of the jewels of the region and a Mediterranean playground, albeit now scarred by the conflicts of recent decades.

Situated at the extreme east of the Mediterranean, and sandwiched between Syria and Israel, Lebanon is a very small country – smaller than Wales. The east of the country is bordered by Syria and the range of mountains known as Anti Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, a valley with its own mystery of wine and drugs, of warlords and freedom fighters, of remains of ancient civilizations and famous music festivals. The capital of Lebanon, Beirut, is situated on a promontory of land protruding into the Mediterranean about midway along its coastline. The highest mountains of Lebanon remain snow covered for most of the year and make a dramatic backdrop for the city of Beirut.

The Lebanese International Community
Go to any corner of the world and there will always be a close-knit Lebanese community. These communities will inevitably include successful entrepreneurs and businessmen who in their brief time in their adopted country almost invariably left some mark. It is suggested that there are more Lebanese living overseas than actually live in their own country. However the majority of these will not forget their roots and hope one day to return to their homeland.


Why is Lebanon special, as indeed it is? Perhaps the combination of its people resourceful, hard working, hedonistic, perspicacious and aggressive, and the country’s geography; dramatic and yet gently interesting, make Lebanon what it is. Maybe its long history of culture, trade and conflict dating back to the beginning of time, have formed the country into the modern Lebanon of the second millennium.

Lebanon has had a disproportionate influence on regional and world affairs. It is situated at the start of the Silk Route, which led to the fabulous riches of the Far East. Today as the most eastern country on the Mediterranean it still offers an overland route from Europe and America to the Middle East.

The famous Cedars of Lebanon, immortalized on its national flag, have for thousands of years been the source of timber in the ancient world. In a region where few major sources of timber existed, Lebanon became an important exporter of this essential commodity and evidence of this durable timber remains to this day as far afield as the temples and palaces of the Pharaohs. Sadly, now only a handful of these magnificent trees are still standing.

Lebanon has had few other natural resources to support its population: neither oil nor gas, nor any of the other natural minerals which have provided the wealth of so many of its Arab neighbors. Indeed Lebanon is not a wealthy country. Its real resource has, however, been its people and their way of life. It is this entrepreneurial spirit that – coupled – with its outstanding East-West strategic location – made Beirut the logical location for international companies to establish a regional office in the 1950s and 1960s. Transport and communications were good and so was the quality of life. But the turbulence in the country in the 1970s and 1980s combined with the globalization of modern communications have led to the departure of most major international corporations.

Lebanon is very European in its outlook. For example, the business week is Monday to Friday, unlike the rest of the Middle East, and working hours tend to be similar to Europe. Most Lebanese, in addition to their very smart and classical Arabic, speak English and French. Western dress is the norm for both business and leisure.

Lebanon therefore relies on its human natural resources. Lebanon is about the Lebanese who are the main industry and export. Whether as bankers, as businessmen, as traders, importers and exporters, the Lebanese community around the world will ensure its survival. Services are what Lebanon offers to the world and any visitor can soon experience such services within minutes of arriving at Beirut Airport. Industry in Lebanon consists of small and medium sized institutions involved mostly in textiles, leather, ceramics, building materials, pharmaceuticals and jewellery – as well as food industries. The most noteworthy exports are the excellent wines that are made locally. The industry with the greatest potential for growth is tourism.

A Brief History of Lebanon

The first significant settlers established settlements along the coast of Lebanon, with Byblos and Tyre being the most important, and Beirut and Sidon. These city-states became the hubs of the Canaanite civilization. The Egyptian Pharaohs swept through and invaded around 1500 BC and with their gradual demise the Canaanites reformed as a merchant trading civilization. By 1,000 BC their influence had spread widely and they came to be known as the Phoenicians.

For about four centuries the Phoenicians developed their trading, exploration and colonization throughout the Mediterranean Sea, spreading their culture and goods. Their skills of navigation and seamanship became legendary and their influence spread, from Carthage and Utica in North Africa to Cadiz in Spain. There are even suggestions that they may have reached as far west as Cornwall in the UK and as far east as India, possibly circumnavigating the African continent. Perhaps as a result of this trading and travelling they developed an alphabet to replace the complicated cuneiform and hieroglyphic scripts they had inherited. This new simplified form of recording events became the basis for the Greek script and subsequently, via Latin, for all European written languages.

The Phoenicians were also significant manufacturers. Metalwork, textile and glass products became major exports for the country as well as for home consumption, with products from Sidon being particularly famous. However it was the Phoenicians’ discovery of a purple dye, which they extracted from a seashell, that really made their fortunes. We will all recall the pictures of the purple robes, which were worn by royalty and senior figures in Rome and Athens.

Sadly, there are few traces of this civilization left today. A few artifacts and remains (of temple and jetty) have been found at Byblos and Tyre and there have been some significant finds – Phoenician walls – during the reconstruction of the new city centre of Beirut. However, the bulk of our knowledge of the Phoenicians comes from writers at that time, Home and Herodotus, with further insights from the Bible.

The advent of the Assyrians in the 8th century BC, taking control of some of the city states, including Byblos and Tyre, saw the Phoenician regional dominance of trade come to an end. For about three hundred years this decline continued with the Assyrians being replaced by Babylonians. A revival of their fortunes occurred when the Persians arrived around 6th century BC, with Phoenicia becoming the most prosperous region in the Persian Empire. This lasted for another two hundred years until Alexander the Great swept through the region in 333 BC.

Alexander’s army conquered the city-states of Phoenicia. All of them, except Tyre submitted immediately to the Greeks. After a siege lasting several months Tyre also submitted, but not without massive damage to the city and loss of life of its population. The Greeks rebuilt the city as a Macedonian fortress. The culture of Phoenicia now declined, being replaced by Greek laws, customs and its religion. On the death of Alexander in 323 BC, the Greek’s conquests were divided up amongst three generals, with Palestine, Egypt and Phoenicia coming under the rule of Ptolemy I. Much fighting amongst the generals and their followers ensued for the next hundred years until in 200 BC the Seleucids ousted the followers of Ptolemy from Phoenicia. Greek civilization remained dominant in the region for many years, but was no match for the military might of the Roman Empire.

In 64 BC the Roman armies conquered Phoenicia following a three-year campaign. The country, together with Palestine, became part of the regional province of Syria. Beirut became an important capital and the Romans extended and rebuilt the local temple in the religious centre of Baalbek. Roman Gods replaced the Greek and Phoenician pantheon. The Phoenician developed closer ties with Syria and adopted their language.

In AD 329 the Emperor Constantine established Christianity as the new religion of the Roman Empire and the capital re-named was moved from Rome to Byzantium, Constantinople.

The form Christianity should take was a subject which occupied much thought during this time. In AD 451 the Council of Chalcedon tried to define the future from of Christianity, which was generally adopted. Controversy continued until in the 7th century a group of Syrian Christians broke away from generally adopted Church and formed the Maronites, the dominant Christian sect in Lebanon today.

The first seven centuries after Christ were fairly quiet in the region. However turmoil arrived in the 7th century, when the followers of the Prophet Mohammed started to conquer the region, driving out the Romans/Byzantines and converting the people to Islam. Shortly afterwards, the Umayyad Caliphate made their capital in Damascus and in the 8th century the Abbasids switched the seat of the Islamic Caliphate to Baghdad. By the end of the 10th century the Fatimid, Shiite Muslims, swept across from Egypt to take control of Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. In 1016 the Fatimid Caliph, Al Hakim, declared himself to be the earthly reincarnation of God, which received little support except from small band of followers in the Syria who broke away from the main religious beliefs to follow Al Hakim. This group based themselves in the Mount Lebanon region, south of Beirut, and subsequently became known as the Druze, another significant religious force in Lebanon today.

Gradually the Fatimid in Egypt began to loose control, until at the end of the 11th century tribal leaders from Persia who were supporters of the Caliph in Baghdad restored Sunni Islam. They ruled first from Aleppo and then divided the region into two with centers in Aleppo and Damascus. This fragment region was ill equipped to defend itself so that by end of the 11th century the Crusaders swept through the country from the North on their way to liberate Jerusalem. The Maronites gratefully welcomed the Christian armies, even recognizing Rome as the head of their church, and saw them as saviors who would return Christian rule to the area. The Muslims - Druze, Shiite and Sunni - threw in their lot with the remnants of the Islamic forces from Aleppo and Damascus.

By the middle of the 12th century the Muslim forces had once again taken of the region. Ruling from the Fatimid court of Egypt, Salah ud-Din (Saladin) went on to regain the land lost to the Crusaders, so that by the end of the 13th century the last of the Crusaders were finally driven away. His slave soldiers, who ruled the region for another three hundred years and became known as the Mamelukes, overthrew Salah ud-Din’s Ayyubid dynasty in the mid 13th century.

Ottoman conquerors from Constantinople arrived in the Mount Lebanon region in the early 16th century. One of their local governors, Fakhreddine, (Fakhr ud-Din) an ambitious and talented man, unified the area known as Lebanon. He over-extended himself with attempts to rule the surrounding countries so that his Ottoman superiors finally captured and executed him, replacing him with another local leader. The Shihab family, who retained the land under an agreement with the Ottomans, then ruled the central area of the country. A Sunni Muslim family, they cultivated the Druze in the Chouf mountains and looked also for support from the Maronites. By the end of 18th century the Christian Maronites had persuaded the Shihab family to convert to Christianity, whilst maintaining good relationships with the Ottoman masters in Constantinople and the governors of coastal towns of Lebanon.

The demise of the Shihabs towards the middle of the 19th century was followed by a brief period of instability until the Ottomans decided to divide the area between the Druze and the Maronites. In the 1850s and 1860s hostility between the two groups grew, with fighting and massacres, so that the French, defenders of Christianity, finally intervened, restoring order and introducing a new system of government by the Ottomans. A period of stability followed with country becoming the academic and cultural centre of the Ottoman world .In 1920 the League of Nations awarded France control of Syria and the Mount Lebanon region. Under pressure from the Maronites the French extended control of the area to include all the coastal cities and the Bekaa valley to the East, to from Greater Lebanon. However, growing Arab nationalism and the increase of the Sunni population caused difficulties for the French and their allies until in 1932, the constitution witch had been drawn up in 1926 was suspended, with a promise of independence. Following a period of unrest in the 1940s, Lebanon was finally guaranteed independence from France in 1943, with an unwritten agreement that the country would be ruled by a Maronite president, a Sunni prime minister and the speaker of the parliament a Shiite Muslim. This system of government continues of this day.

The division of Palestine in 1948 was to be the start of a long-lasting dispute with its southern neighbor. The first Palestinian refugees crossed the border soon after the division as enthusiastic Israelis occupied more land. In the 1950s ties with Syria were finally broken, increasing the financial difficulties in Lebanon. Arab nationalism in the region, with Nasser in Egypt forming a United Arab republic with Syria on one hand together with a pro-western Maronite president Chamoun, increase the plight of Lebanese people. In 1958 Chamoun requested military help from the United States of America who sent 15,000 marines to quell the disturbances between Maronites and Sunnis. Two subsequent presidents tried to reform the country and in some way succeeded, although their efforts and reforms concentrated on the wealthy coastal inhabitants, ignoring the plight of people in the mountains. This was the 1960s when Lebanon became famous as an international playground.

Memorials
A unique site in Lebanon is located on the road from Beirut to Tripoli at Jounieh. At some point the road goes through a tunnel under a bluff of rock, which extends to the sea. On the North side of this tunnel is a small river called the Dog River or Nahr al Kalb. This steep rock face has always presented a natural barrier to forces making their way south to Beirut. Whilst waiting to cross armies have left memorials to their adventures carved in stone – military graffiti?

These memorials are located in the cliff face and date back to Ramses II of Egypt. They are in various scripts including Greek, Latin, Arabic, French and English apart from earlier inscriptions. Modern records of British and French armies can be seen and also the more recent forces in the civil war.

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