Facts and information about Lebanon
Lebanon Lebanon is a small country equal in size to the Lazio region of Italy, and not quite as big as Corsica and has a 225 km long coastline along the Eastern Mediterranean. In 1995 the country's population was 3,700,000, mostly Arabs with a small, but significant presence of ethnic minorities, the largest of which is Armenian (4% of the total population). A double ridge of mountains runs parallel to generally jagged coastline: the Mount Lebanon Mountains to the west, reaching over 3,000 metres and the arid Anti-Lebanon range on the east, culminating in the 2,814 meters of Mount Hermon (Jebel ash-Sheikh). In between lies the fertile Beqaa Valley, an enclave that is climatically, morphologically as well as historically and culturally isolated and distinct from the narrow coastal region where the Phoenicians flourished several millennia before the Christian era. It was the Phoenicians who founded what today are Lebanon’s main cities: Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon and Tyre. Their fortune came from the ideal position, protected from the rear by the mountain chains and with sure, sheltered harbors on the Mediterranean. The division into regions with definite and distinct morphological features gives Lebanon three clearly different climatic areas in spite of its small size: the coastal region with cold, rainy winters followed by hot, humid summers; the alpine region with peaks that are covered with snow during winter and up to the threshold of summer, that is cool and breezy; and the unusual Beqaa region, with hot, dry summers and just as dry but cold and often frosty, snowy winters. Even the flora is obviously influenced by the climatic differences: while the mountains — with the richest forests in the entire Middle East – abound with cedars, pines, shrubs and wildflowers, the coastal area is known for vast, flourishing orchards, with a prevalence of oranges, lemons, bananas, medlars and olives. Nearly the entire Beqaa Valley is dedicated to vineyards, and here it is still possible to see camels along with the more common sheep and goats. In Lebanon, however, it is unusual to see wild animals, while there is a great bird population that nests in peace in the mountains from imperial eagles to kites, to buzzards and even sea-birds that are common along the coasts. It is precisely with a view to protecting such a significant natural wealth that parks and reserves have recently been created more or less throughout the country.
Country and People
Although the history of Lebanon, where we can find some of the oldest cities on our planet, began more or less concurrently with the history of mankind, it has mainly been identified with the story and splendors of the Phoenicians. This fertile land with its abundant resources and safe harbors on the Mediterranean, that was the center of the ancient world, managed to attract entire communities that settled along the coast and on the impenetrable mountains which provided safety and protection. If the first prehistoric settlements can be dated around 10000 BC, it was between 4000 and 3000 BC that they began to assume the features of urban agglomerates, and their inhabitants already revealed a certain amount of skill in working with copper and making pottery. Notwithstanding a continuous influx of warlike peoples with ambitions to conquer, who overran these lands (from the Akkadians to the Amorites), by the middle of the third millennium BC the Phoenicians had already occupied a good portion of the coastal strip. They began rich and profitable trade, mainly in wood – cedar – and this, in a short time, led to the rapid development of their cities. The first half of the second millennium was greatly influenced by the Egyptians. This influence, however, was definitively compromised in the XIV century BC, by the arrival of the Hittites. In the meantime, the Phoenician cities continued to flourish, trade strengthened and century and after century the entire area increased its prosperity. Good merchants that they were, the Phoenicians did not let themselves get overly involved in historical events, rather they did their utmost to gain advantages from the vicissitudes of others. The era of the Phoenicians, of Sidon, Beirut, Tyre, Byblos and Baalbek lasted through the middle of the IV century BC even though in the meantime several events did have a dramatic impact on the lives of the people. In the IX century all the land that comprises the Lebanon of today was overrun by the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II who levied heavy taxes on the people, although he did grant relative autonomy to Byblos and Tyre. The Assyrian domination that had inevitable – and economic – repercussions on the entire region was succeeded in 612 BC by the neo-Babylonians. However, it took until the Persian conquest in 539 BC to bring about a true and positive change in the Phoenicians’ destiny. This period was viewed as an authentic liberation and brought with it long years of tranquil prosperity marked, however, by sporadic attempts at rebellion to regain independence. Around 333 BC the triumphant arrival of Alexander the Great marked the end of the Persian hegemony. Only Tyre opposed the new conqueror, but after long months of siege and clashes, the city was forced to surrender. Now a new era began for Lebanon that marked the complete domination of the Phoenician way of life by Hellenistic culture, which with its customs, traditions and laws radically imposed itself over the entire area. After Alexander's death his empire was divided among his generals. Phoenicia, along with Egypt and part of Palestine went to Ptolemy, the first of the Ptolemaic dynasty devoted to constant wars against the Seleucids, descendants of another of Alexander's generals — who finally won out in 198 BC under Antioch III. He, however, came up against an insurmountable enemy that thwarted his desire for conquest in the West: the Romans who defeated him in 188 BC. It was the Romans, who in 64 BC under Pompey conquered Phoenicia and annexed it to the province of Syria. Thus began a long period of Romanization that brought the cities splendors untold, while the population intermingled with the nearby Syrians and adopted Aramaic as their lingua franca, leaving Latin as the official language. As Roman hegemony broke up, ancient Phoenicia became part of the Eastern Roman Empire and drew new vigor from the decline of the Eternal City and the consequent shift of the political and economic baricenters from west to east. Even the religious issues, with the imposition of Orthodox Christianity in Lebanon and Syria shook the lives of these people, creating a latent reason for conflict with the Byzantine hierarchies. A radical change came about with the Arab conquests of the VII and VIII centuries and the subsequent introduction of Islam. The Muslim domination, tolerant of Christians and Jews, but at the price of high taxes and severe discrimination, comprised several dynasties, from the Umayyads to the Abbasids to the Fatimids. Over time the struggles that afflicted the Arab rulers ended by profoundly undermining the stability of their hegemony, aiding the Crusaders who, as of 1095 were committed to reconquering the Holy Land. In just a few years all of Lebanon was conquered, and while the northern portion became part of the County of Tripoli, the southern portion was annexed to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Crusaders fortified the coastal cities, and built mighty fortresses, but this still did not prevent the Muslims from reconquering the area starting in 1144 and ending only at the end of the XIII century with the fall of Acre. The new reigning dynasty was that of the Ayyubids who took over Syria, Egypt and Arabia. However, they were forced to cede Lebanon to the Mamluk Turks, descendants of freed slaves with a rigid military hierarchy, who for over two hundred years imposed a real dictatorship on ancient Phoenicia. They were able to withstand even the onslaughts of the Mongol hordes that overran the entire Middle East at the beginning of the fifteenth century. But the enormous task took its toll and irremediably weakened the Mamluks who were increasingly incapable of halting the autonomistic tendencies of the individual Lebanese emirs. The coup de grace came from the emerging Ottoman Empire that extended its influence over all the lands that had belonged to the Byzantines and even conquered Lebanon in 1516-1517. They, however, were still governed by the emirs, first among all, Fakhr ad-Din who, at the beginning of the seventeenth century restored past splendors to his dominions. However, with the enormous power he had attained he aroused the fear and mistrust of the sultan. It was Fakhr ad-Din who, through his close friendship with the grand duke of Tuscany and founder of an economic policy based on cooperation and trade, laid the foundations for the future fortunes of Lebanon. He strengthened silk and olive oil production, with the help of Italian experts. And when, finally, in 1635 the emir was executed by the Ottomans who simply could not trust him, his family with the prestige that he had brought it, continued to maintain relative control over southern and central Lebanon. But in 1711 Fakhr ad-Din’s grandson, Ahmad Ma’an, died without heirs, his possessions went to the powerful Shihab dynasty of feudal lords that ruled Lebanon until 1840. The main figures in this line were Yusuf and Bashir II, but the event that distinguished their reigns was, without a doubt, the conversion to Maronite Christianity, a fact that made relationships with the pashas of Tripoli even more difficult. Starting in 1842 Lebanon, for the first time was subjected to direct rule by the Ottomans who created two districts, Druze and Maronite, that juridically belonged to the pashas of Beirut and Sidon. The two districts, however, quickly became factions that were in open rivalry with each other and the Ottomans, incapable of controlling the situation were forced to reunite them and put them under the rule of a single governor. The reacquired tranquility, favored a period of economic development that soon aroused the interests of the great European powers. With the outbreak of World War I Lebanon was allied with Turkey, Austria and Germany, that is the side that was destined to lose. Exhausted by hunger and war, after 1918 the country was put under Anglo-French rule. Then Beirut, the coastal cities, Beqaa and Mount Lebanon were placed under the French High Commissioner for Beirut who governed the areas and united them under the name of the State of Greater Lebanon. Only in 1926, with the new constitution would it be possible to speak of a Lebanese Republic. The decline of the French domination began in 1943 and ended in 1946 when, with the approval of Great Britain, the United States and the Arab countries Lebanon officially proclaimed its independence. The rest is recent history, or current events, with a period of great economic and cultural prosperity between the decades of the fifties and seventies, and the terrible civil was that broke out in 1975 and lasted until the early nineties. Today, with a real peace, and a desire for normality shared by the entire population, the country is enjoying a rebirth. It is making ready for the third millennium with that enchanting and joyful image that a few decades ago had earned it the nickname of the “Switzerland of the Middle East”.