Lebanon - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Lebanon: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Lebanon (country) (Arabic Lubnan), republic on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea in Southwest Asia. Lebanon’s coastal location, high mountain backbone, and climate have greatly influenced the country’s history, peoples, and economy. The coastal area of present-day Lebanon was settled more than 7,000 years ago and later evolved as the heart of seafaring Phoenicia. To help conduct their sea trade, the Phoenicians developed the first alphabet and colonized the western Mediterranean. In the early centuries AD, a largely Christian population and culture arose, which later blended with—though was not overwhelmed by—Islamic influences. Following centuries of Ottoman control, France ruled Lebanon under a League of Nations mandate after the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I (1914-1918). During World War II (1939-1945) Lebanon became an independent republic and for three decades prospered under a free-market economy. However, the country experienced increasing hostility among rival religious groups, especially between Christians and Muslims. These and other domestic tensions, intensified by foreign influences, erupted into the devastating Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Beirut is Lebanon’s capital, principal port, and largest city.


Lebanon is a small country of only 10,452 sq km (4,036 sq mi); from north to south it extends 217 km (135 mi) and from east to west it spans 80 km (50 mi) at its widest point. The country is bounded by Syria on both the north and east and by Israel on the south. Lebanon’s landforms fall into four parallel belts that run from northeast to southwest: a narrow coastal plain along the Mediterranean shore; the massive Lebanon Mountains (often referred to locally as Mount Lebanon) that rise steeply from the plain to dominate the entire country before dropping eastward; a fertile intermontane (between-mountain) basin called the Bekáa Valley (Al Biqā’); and the ridges of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, shared with Syria. Lebanon’s highest peaks are Qurnat as Sawdā’ (3,088 m/10,131 ft) in the country’s north, and volcanic Mount Hermon (2,814 m/9,232 ft) at the southern end of the Anti-Lebanons. The country’s name comes from the old Semitic word laban, meaning “white,” which refers to the heavy snow in the mountains.

Climate of Lebanon

Most of Lebanon has a Mediterranean climate, with warm, dry summers, and cool, wet winters, although the climate varies somewhat across the landform belts. The coastal plain is subtropical, with 900 mm (35 in) of annual rainfall and a mean temperature in Beirut of 27°C (80°F) in summer and 14°C (57°F) in winter. In the Lebanon Mountains, temperatures decrease and precipitation increases with elevation: Heavy winter snows linger well into summer, making the Lebanon Mountains more pleasant in the summer than the humid coast; higher altitudes receive as much as 1,300 mm (50 in) of annual precipitation. The Bekáa Valley and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains are situated in the rain shadow of the Lebanon Mountains and as a result have hot, dry summers and cold winters with occasional rain.

Rivers and Lakes of Lebanon

Although Lebanon has no navigable rivers or major natural lakes, springs in the Bekáa feed two small noteworthy rivers: the Līţānī flows south, where it is used for irrigation and hydroelectric-power generation, and then west through a gorge into the Mediterranean; the Orontes flows north and across Syria into Turkey. Many major springs can be found along the western slopes of the Lebanon Mountains. Throughout the country, many streams flow only during the winter rainy season. Combined with runoff from melting snow, these sources provide Lebanon with a plentiful supply of water, unique in the dry Middle East.

Plant and Animal Life of Lebanon

Lebanon’s forests of cedar trees were famed in antiquity, but intensive logging over the centuries has reduced the forests to a fraction of their former size. Hailed in the Bible and other works of ancient literature, the cedars of Lebanon remain a point of national pride—a cedar appears prominently on the national flag. The slopes of the Lebanon Mountains now carry widespread Mediterranean brush vegetation, as well as scattered patches of stone pine, Aleppo pine, and ornamental cypress. Colorful spring wildflowers are abundant. During migration season, thousands of birds pass through the Bekáa. Few other wild animals are left in Lebanon.

Natural Resources of Lebanon

Abundant water, productive soils, and extensively terraced slopes contribute to Lebanon’s varied agriculture. The fertile soils of the coastal plain are alluvial, while the soils at higher elevations are a more typical example of the Mediterranean terra rossa, or red earth. Terra rossa is also prominent in the Bekáa. Only 30.6 percent of Lebanon is agricultural land, and 13.1 percent is forested. Limestone is widespread and quarried extensively, but there are few other mineral resources.

Environmental Issues in Lebanon

Lebanon’s natural habitats were seriously damaged during the Lebanese Civil War. Following the war, most of the Lebanese government’s efforts were directed at restoring the country’s basic infrastructure, and conservation efforts were minimal. Untreated sewage and industrial wastes were discharged into waterways or pumped into deep holes, sometimes contaminating underground aquifers. Toxic solid wastes were deposited in municipal dumps without prior decontamination. By the start of the 21st century, however, Lebanon had increased its commitment to environmentally sound waste-disposal methods, environmental conservation, and cleanup.

The country’s electricity-generating plants pollute the atmosphere by burning fuel oil. In 1998 Lebanon announced a plan to eventually use cleaner-burning natural gas rather than fuel oil to generate electricity. In the early 21st century, Lebanon undertook measures to phase out the use of leaded gasoline, which also contributed to air pollution, especially in urban centers.

Urban development and agricultural practices contribute to the destruction of about 7.8 percent (1990-1996) of Lebanon’s forests each year—the highest rate of deforestation in Southwest Asia. Consequently, soil erosion and desertification have increased. In 1997 Lebanon established the Al-Shouf Cedar Reserve to protect some of the last stands of Lebanon’s famed cedar trees. The reserve occupies 5 percent of the total land area of the country. Although cedar trees cover only a small percentage of the reserve, conservation groups are attempting to increase the cedar population in other areas of the park.


Lebanon has not taken a census since 1932. The 1997 estimated population was 3,111,828, but this figure, provided by the Lebanese government, does not include Palestinian refugees and foreign workers, mainly Syrian. An independent 2008 estimate placed the population at 3,971,941, yielding a population density of 388 persons per sq km (1,006 per sq mi). Densities are highest along the coast and on the lower western slopes of the Lebanon Mountains. Some 88 percent of the population is urban. Emigration from Lebanon to other countries, especially among Christians, has been steady since the mid-19th century, and it increased sharply during the civil war. Within the country, thousands of Shia Muslim refugees fled fighting in southern Lebanon in the 1990s and moved into shantytowns in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Lebanon’s major cities were greatly affected by the civil war. Beirut has gradually regained most of its prewar population and remains the country’s largest city. Tripoli, the northern port, is the second largest city. Jūniyah, north of Beirut, was developed as a wartime port and subsequently had a population boom. Zaḩlah, overlooking the Bekáa, and the southern coastal towns of Şaydā (Sidon) and Şūr (ancient Tyre) all suffered from attacks in the 1980s and 1990s.

Ethnic Groups and Languages in Lebanon

About 93 percent of the population is within the Arab ethnolinguistic group. Like many such groups, Lebanese Arabs have a diverse ancestry—genetic testing indicates that many carry specific genes of the ancient Canaanites and Phoenicians. About 5 percent of the population is Armenian, and the remaining 2 percent of the population belongs to Kurdish, Assyrian, or other ethnicities. Among the Arab population are more than 350,000 Palestinian refugees. Palestinian refugees are considered stateless, and they face an uncertain future. Arabic is the official language, but French is commonly used, especially in government and among the upper class. English is also widely used, particularly as the language of business and education. Most Armenians speak Armenian.

Religion in Lebanon

The government policy of confessionalism, or the grouping of people by religion, plays a critical role in Lebanon’s political and social life and has given rise to Lebanon’s most persistent and bitter conflicts. At the time of Lebanon’s independence in the 1940s, there were more Christians than Muslims. In the following years, many Muslims immigrated to Lebanon and had a higher birthrate than the Christians; as a result, Muslims became the majority group in Lebanon. Today, an estimated 70 percent of Lebanese are Muslim, while most of the remaining 30 percent are Christian. Every person’s religion is encoded on a required, government-issued identification card. The government recognizes 17 distinct religious sects: 5 Muslim (Shia, Sunni, Druze, Ismailite, and Alawite), 11 Christian (4 Orthodox, 6 Catholic, and 1 Protestant), and Judaism.

Education in Lebanon

Lebanon has one of the most educated and technically prepared populations in the Middle East. In 2005, 88 percent of Lebanese aged 15 and older were literate. Primary education in Lebanon is free and compulsory for five years; school attendance is near universal for primary school-aged children. Beirut is home to six universities: the well-known American University of Beirut; the Jesuit-sponsored Saint Joseph University; the government-supported Lebanese University; the Egyptian-sponsored Beirut Arab University; the Lebanese American University; and the Armenian Hagazian College. Lebanon also has more than 100 technical, vocational, and other specialized schools.

Way of Life in Lebanon

The Lebanese value individualism, which contributes to their creativity and inventiveness. Close family relations, loyalty to family and friends, and honor are also important. People strive to gain influence and to accumulate and display wealth, which are signs of success that win respect. Men and women mix freely and attend schools in equal numbers. Christian women are similar to Western women in dress, attitude, and activities. Most Muslim women are more conservative in attitude and dress than their Christian counterparts. Men generally wear Western clothes, although some older Muslim men wear the Arab headdress, or kufiyah. In their leisure time, Lebanese people enjoy lively conversations over Turkish coffee, participating in outdoor activities, and eating good food. Traditional foods include kebbe, a dish of lamb and crushed wheat, and tabbouleh, a salad made of parsley, mint, tomatoes, and crushed wheat. People enjoy a variety of foods, however, and restaurants serve everything from French, Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Greek specialties to hamburgers and pizza.

Social Issues in Lebanon

Economic disparities, made worse by the civil war, have long created friction between Lebanon’s rich and poor. Better-educated Christians and elite Sunni Muslims tend to dominate the upper and middle classes. One-third of the population is considered poor; most of these are Shia Muslims, who resent the disparity in income, living conditions, and political power, and are increasingly determined to gain greater power. The stateless Palestinian refugees are also resentful; displaced from their homes by Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948-1949 and 1967, they remain confined to unsanitary camps, and many are frustrated by their lack of citizenship (see Palestine, Modern). Two more beleaguered groups, clustered mostly in the overcrowded suburbs of southern Beirut, are poor families who migrated from other parts of the country and people who were displaced by fighting in southern Lebanon. In general, the government has focused less attention on solving Lebanon’s social problems than on postwar reconstruction.


Lebanon’s rich history has been shaped by many cultural traditions, including Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Islamic (including Mamluk), Crusader, Ottoman Turkish, French, and recently American. The resulting culture is distinctively Lebanese, a combination of East and West, past and present. Folk music and dancing have a long tradition and are very popular. Influential Lebanese writers emerged in the early 20th century and greatly influenced the Arabic language. Painters, sculptors, and performers and producers in theater, film, and television have recently distinguished themselves.

Literature in Lebanon

In the mid-1800s Lebanese writer Nasif al-Yaziji pioneered the simplification of written Arabic. Jurji Zaydan, also a writer of the mid-1800s, is celebrated for historical novels that romanticized the Arab past. The most distinguished Lebanese or Lebanese-American writer is Kahlil Gibran, who in 1923 published The Prophet, in English. Gibran became known for his style of mystical poetry. Other prominent Lebanese writers include political writers Antun Saadeh, Michel Chiha, and Clovis Maksoud; novelists Layla Ba’labakki and Khalil Taki ed-Din; and poets Charles Corm, Hector Klat, Georges Shehadeh, and Adonis (Ali Ahmad Sa’id). These authors wrote variously in Arabic, French, and English.

Art and Architecture of Lebanon

Painting became significant in Lebanon in the late 20th century. Most Lebanese painting is experimental and vibrant. Among contemporary painters, Wajih Nahle uses sweeping Arab calligraphy; Samir Abi Rashed paints photographic surrealism; and Soulema Zod creates abstract landscapes. Other artists often exhibited are Hrair, George Akl, and Hassan Jouni. Alfred Basbous is among the country’s most outstanding sculptors. Traditional architecture is a blend of Mediterranean, Turkish, and Islamic styles. New high-rise apartment and office buildings are typically modeled after Western designs.

Music and Dance in Lebanon

Lebanese vocal and instrumental music is varied and extremely popular. It characteristically blends traditional Arabic classical and folk modes with European styles. French and American influences are especially strong in radio and popular music. Lebanese female vocalist Fairouz is a popular singer throughout the Arab world and is well known elsewhere. Folk dancing is widely practiced and is emphasized at an annual folk dance festival and the professionally performed Baalbek International Festival. The debkeh, a rural group dance from Lebanon, has influenced many European and American folk dances.

Theater and Film in Lebanon

Theater became important in Lebanon with increasing French influence after 1920. One of the most distinguished Lebanese playwrights is Georges Shehadeh, internationally renowned for his drama and poetry. Shehadeh writes in French. Plays in Lebanon are produced in Arabic, French, English, and Armenian. The civil war deeply influenced all performing arts in Lebanon.

Libraries and Museums in Lebanon

The National Museum in Beirut was badly damaged during the civil war. The museum’s famous Phoenician treasures were protected during the war, however, and many are again on display. During the reconstruction of central Beirut, many artifacts were found and added to the museum’s collection. The Archaeological Museum of the American University of Beirut attracts many visitors and scholars, and the well-known Sursock Museum of Art, housed in a mansion in Beirut, reopened after the war’s end.


Before the civil war, Lebanon developed as a free-market economy with minimal government regulations. Because the country had a stable and open economy and strict laws regarding secrecy in banking, Beirut became the banking and investment center of the Middle East. From 1975 to 1990, however, warfare severely dislocated most economic sectors and destroyed structures and infrastructures totaling an estimated $25 billion to $30 billion. As the war damaged Lebanon’s economy, most of the rest of the Middle East experienced an economic boom, and businesses moved from Beirut to other Middle East economic centers. Lebanon’s economy did not collapse completely during the war, however, largely because foreign aid to competing militias fueled the wartime economy.

Since 1991 Lebanon’s economy has revived. Annual inflation, about 500 percent in 1987, was manageable by the mid-1990s and low by the start of the 21st century. Gross domestic product (GDP) totaled $22.7 billion in 2006. Horizon 2000, a multibillion-dollar reconstruction program to rebuild Beirut’s central district, is the main focus of the government’s energies. In general, the government is low on funds and has increasingly privatized public functions, including some official monopolies, such as the postal service and the lucrative mobile phone service.

Labor in Lebanon

In 1997 Lebanon’s annual unemployment rate was 8.6 percent. Lebanese workers, who number about 1.6 million, must compete for jobs with an estimated 1 million foreign workers, mostly Syrian. An estimated 62 percent of the employment is in services, including tourism, trade, government, and finance. Approximately 31 percent of the labor force work in industry, including manufacturing, construction, and mining; and 7 percent in agriculture. Wages and buying power are low, and unions are encouraged. Periodically the unions strike, sometimes in a general action, often eliciting changes from the government.

Services in Lebanon

Services contribute 70 percent of Lebanon’s GDP. Domestic, foreign, and transit trade (the re-export of products manufactured outside Lebanon but distributed through it) stimulated prosperity before the civil war and has begun to recover since 1990. Similarly, financial services such as banking, investment, and insurance—significant before the war—have also revived. Tourists, who support an industry of hotels, restaurants, casinos, and nightclubs, are attracted to Lebanon’s scenery, climate, historical sites, and cultural activities. In 2006 about 1,063,000 tourists—most from Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas—visited Lebanon. Superior educational and medical facilities attract thousands of clients and also add an important service element.

Industry in Lebanon

Industry makes up 24 percent of the country’s GDP and is a major employer. Light industry is especially prominent and includes the production of cement, processed foods, printed material, textiles, clothing, chemicals (typically paints), and jewelry. Two cement plants near Tripoli are major installations. Oil refining was a major industry before the civil war, but the country’s main refineries, near Tripoli and Şaydā, were badly damaged during the civil war and have yet to be rebuilt. Most of the rest of Lebanon’s industry is in or near Beirut. Since the end of the war, construction has been a major source of income and employment. Commercial mining is limited to large-scale quarrying of Lebanon’s plentiful limestone and smaller-scale production of gypsum.

Agriculture of Lebanon

Historically, agriculture was a key element in Lebanon’s economy. In the 19th century, mountain clans built thousands of stone terraces to facilitate their farming of steep slopes. Agriculture, including forestry and fishing, employs only 7 percent of workers and contributes only 7 percent of GDP. Cultivated fields cover 17 percent of Lebanon, and 14 percent is in permanent crops (orchards and vineyards). Premium produce, especially oranges and peaches, are a valuable export. The intensively farmed coastal plain produces citrus, bananas, vegetables, melons, and strawberries, while the lower slopes of the mountainsides support vineyards and fruit orchards of olives, figs, peaches, cherries, and plums. Apples are grown at higher elevations. The Bekáa produces wheat, barley, sugar beets, tobacco, grapes, and fruits. Farm-raised animals include goats, sheep, cattle, pigs, and chickens.

Forestry and Fishing in Lebanon

The famous cedars of the Lebanon Mountains were depleted centuries ago and only a few protected stands remain. While commercial forestry is now limited, pines and other trees are logged for local production. Commercial fishing is also minor, but it is locally important as a major source of food.

Energy in Lebanon

A major goal of postwar reconstruction was to modernize and expand electric power facilities damaged during the war. Israeli air raids in the 1990s further disrupted the country’s electricity infrastructure. The Līţānī River hydroelectric project in the Bekáa is Lebanon’s largest power facility.

Transportation and Communications in Lebanon

Since the end of the war, Lebanon has sought to restore its essential transportation facilities. For a mountain country, Lebanon has a dense network of roads, and 85 percent of the roads are paved. In 1975 three rail lines served Lebanon, but these deteriorated and became inoperable during the war. Beirut International Airport underwent a major expansion, completed in 2001, that greatly increased its handling capacity. Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines (MEA), once a large and efficient private company, deteriorated during the 1980s and was turned over to the government.

The formerly bustling seaport of Beirut was isolated during the war and lost its role as the transit port for nearby Syria and Jordan. In the late 1990s the Lebanese government undertook two major port construction projects: the rehabilitation and expansion of Beirut’s port, and the construction of a new port at Şaydā. Tripoli is Lebanon’s second most important port. Jūniyah’s port expanded greatly during the 1980s.

In the mid-1990s the government closed down the many unregulated wartime radio and television stations that had emerged during the civil war, and then relicensed a smaller, more manageable, number. Lebanese press is comparatively free of government interference. Some 15 daily newspapers are published in Arabic, French, Armenian, and English, with a similar number of weeklies and monthlies.

Foreign Trade in Lebanon

In addition to the very important domestic and transit trade, foreign trade plays a major role in the Lebanese economy. Traditionally, Lebanon’s balance of trade has been overwhelmingly unfavorable; in 2003 exports totaled $1,524 million, while imports totaled $7.2 billion. Nonetheless, in the 1990s Lebanon maintained a total balance-of-payments surplus because it received large inflows of money in the form of remittances from family members who lived abroad, investments in postwar reconstruction, and deposits in savings accounts that took advantage of high interest rates. However, after 1999 the trade deficit grew faster than these various cash inflows, and Lebanon reported a balance-of-payments deficit of $1.15 billion in 2001. Exports go mainly to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Switzerland, the United States, and France. Imports come from Italy, France, Germany, the United States, and Switzerland. Lebanon’s chief exports are food and food products, paper products, chemicals, textiles, jewelry, and metal products. Imports include automobiles, trucks, heavy equipment, communications equipment, electronic goods, appliances, machinery, and petroleum and petroleum products.

Currency and Banking of Lebanon

The unit of currency is the Lebanese pound or lira, consisting of 100 piastres (1,508 Lebanese pounds equal U.S.$1; 2006 average). The Banque du Liban is the central bank and the sole bank of issue. All other banks are private. Lebanon’s financial laws require secrecy in banking, and there are few restrictions on the free flow of funds. These qualities attracted many foreign banks between 1956 and 1975, making Beirut the banking center of the Middle East. Beirut’s financial services industry collapsed during the civil war but has begun a gradual recovery. A stock exchange, closed in 1983 but reopened in 1996, is located in Beirut.


Lebanon is a parliamentary republic with a centralized, multireligious, and multiparty government. Because political power and the government bureaucracy are organized according to religious groups, a policy known as confessionalism, Lebanon’s government has been described as a confessional democracy. The 1926 constitution, amended by France in 1927, 1929, and 1943, was complemented by the National Pact of 1943, when Christians were a majority. The National Pact, an unwritten covenant, provided for a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister, and a Shia Muslim speaker of parliament. It also provided that the ratio of seats in parliament would be six Christian seats for every five Muslim seats, and other government posts would be allotted on similar sectarian criteria. When Muslims later became the majority, they sought greater power, but Christians refused to make significant changes. The first violent conflict occurred in a limited 1958 rebellion, and tensions later erupted into the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1990.

The 1989 National Reconciliation Charter (commonly known as the Ţā’if Agreement) brought an end to most of the fighting and required amendments to the Lebanese constitution, which were passed in 1990. The constitutional amendments preserved certain confessional allotments but gave Muslims increased power, for example, by dividing parliament’s seats equally between Christians and Muslims. The new constitution also made the Shia speaker a member of a troika (executive threesome) with the Maronite president and Sunni prime minister.

Voting lists (a form of political grouping in which a slate of candidates runs for office) are organized mainly along confessional lines, and each list is usually headed by a traditional zaim (semifeudal leader). Women aged 21 and older may vote if they have an elementary education, and all men at least aged 21 may vote. The Lebanese government was unable to function in most respects during the civil war. Since the war, it has lacked real sovereignty because of several conflicting forces: Israel and Syria have used Lebanon as a buffer state and battleground; stateless Palestinians are active in Lebanon; and Hezbollah guerrillas, who advocate creation of an Islamic state, operate in the south.

Executive of Lebanon

The head of state is the president, a Maronite Christian, elected by parliament for a single six-year term. The head of government is the prime minister, a Sunni Muslim, who is appointed by the president in consultation with the Shia Muslim speaker of parliament. The prime minister selects cabinet members in consultation with parliament.

Legislature of Lebanon

The National Assembly is Lebanon’s one-house parliament. Under the constitutional amendments of 1990, seats are allocated equally between Christians and Muslims, and the speaker of parliament must be a Shia Muslim. A 1992 amendment expanded membership from 108 to 128. Members of parliament are elected to four-year terms.

Judiciary in Lebanon

The judicial system is based on the French Napoleonic Code and uses no juries. The secular (nonreligious) court system has three levels: courts of first instance, courts of appeal, and the court of cassation (final appeal). The Ministry of Justice appoints judges according to confessional ratios. In addition to the secular courts, various religious tribunals have exclusive jurisdiction over some personal matters such as marriage and divorce.

Local Government of Lebanon

Patterned on the French system, Lebanon’s government is highly centralized. Provincial governments have only administrative power. The six provinces, or governorates (Arabic muhafazat), are Al Biqā‘, Al Janub, Ash Shamal, Bayrūt, Jabal Lubnan, and Nabaţīyah. Governorates are further subdivided into qadas (districts).

Political Parties of Lebanon

The nearly 50 voting groups (or “lists”) have traditionally been organized along sectarian lines. Typically, an acknowledged zaim or other distinguished leader heads each list. Established parties, which correspond to varying sets of lists, include the National Bloc (Maronite), Kataib (militant Maronite), Progressive Socialist Party (Druze), and Syrian Nationalist Party. Hezbollah operates both as a political party and as an armed guerrilla group. Starting in the 1996 parliamentary elections, many voters supported candidates on lists they had not traditionally voted for. Instead, they voted for blocs headed by strong government leaders, which has contributed to the weakening of the old zaim system.

Social Services in Lebanon

Severely disrupted during the civil war, government-provided social services have been generally restored. About half of all Lebanese are covered by some form of public insurance, which is managed by the National Fund for Social Security and the Cooperative of Public-Sector Employees. The rest of the population receives service from the ministries of Health, Social Affairs, and the Displaced. The quality of health care in Lebanon is high, and its facilities attract patients from neighboring countries.

Defense of Lebanon

Because most Lebanese are more loyal to their confessional group or clan than their country, Lebanon’s armed forces have often fragmented during crises, as happened during the escalation of fighting in 1984. In 2004 the army consisted of 70,000 troops; the navy, 1,100; and the air force, 1,000. There is also an internal security force under the Ministry of Interior. Hezbollah’s guerrilla force is considered formidable.


Lebanon’s coastal plain is divided into several isolated sections by gorges, which are cut by streams that pour down the mountains in winter and spring. In ancient times, north-south movement along the plain was nearly impossible. Villages developed on larger sections of the plain, and those with good harbors and better agricultural areas evolved into the city-states of Phoenicia. These cities then used the Mediterranean Sea to communicate and trade with one another and beyond the coastal plain. Due to geographical and other barriers, however, Phoenicia never unified politically. Later, mountainous areas provided protection for groups seeking refuge, but these groups, too, were isolated and did not form a unified nation. The modern nation of Lebanon was formed after World War I (1914-1918), when the defeated Ottoman Empire, which had controlled the area, was divided. When France received a mandate from the League of Nations to rule Lebanon after the war, the region’s people were aligned along religious and cultural lines, but felt little unity based on a Lebanese nationality. Lebanon still lacks unity today, which has led both to a diverse culture and extreme conflicts.

Prehistory and Ancient History

Early peoples occupied the coastal plain and the Bekáa Valley during the Old Stone Age, or Paleolithic. Much later, numerous villages thrived in both areas during the New Stone Age, or Neolithic, roughly 7,000 to 9,000 years ago. Still later, several waves of people, mostly Semites, surged into the region from the interior, likely the Arabian Peninsula. Ancient records show that by 2800 BC, cedar timber from Byblos was being traded for metals and ivory from Egypt. About 2200 BC, Semitic Amorites arrived from Arabia and Syria, and from the western Amorites the Canaanites evolved along the full length of the Levant, the region along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. During succeeding centuries the Canaanites developed the most favored coastal villages into celebrated city-states: Tripoli, Byblos, Beirut, Sidon, and Tyre. By about 1100 BC the northern Canaanites became known as Phoenicians (from the Greek word phoinos, meaning “red,” a reference to the unique purple dye the Phoenicians produced from murex seashells). The Phoenicians developed the first alphabet and mastered the art of navigation, and they dominated the Mediterranean Sea trade for 400 to 450 years. Phoenicians adjusted easily to successive conquerors: Assyrians in 867 BC; Babylonians in the 590s BC; Persians in 538 BC; and Greeks under Alexander the Great in 333 BC. However, Phoenician trade declined with Greek competition after the 5th century BC.

Romans and Byzantines

In 64 BC the Romans began an imperial rule over the area that continued under the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) for 573 years. Under Rome, Phoenicians prospered again as they rebuilt fleets and made great cultural progress. The Sidonians grew wealthy with their invention of blown glass. The Romans greatly influenced the regional culture, as evidenced by the majestic ruins of Roman temples in Lebanon, particularly in Baalbek. The school of law in Beirut became famous while the region was under Roman rule, and the Semitic Phoenician language yielded to the regionally spoken Semitic Aramaic, introducing new elements to Phoenician culture. Under the Orthodox Byzantines, Christianity became deeply rooted. In the 6th century AD monks introduced silkworms from China, and a silk industry developed that brought wealth for centuries. Around the same time, earthquakes destroyed Beirut and its law school and badly damaged the great temples in Baalbek.

Islamic Caliphates and Crusader Kingdoms

Arab conquests in the 7th century brought political and cultural upheavals to the entire Middle East, and in 636 Islam pushed into Lebanon. In the late 7th century, Maronite Christians, seeking refuge from Byzantine oppression, migrated from the interior of Syria into the northern Lebanon Mountains. Gradually, the area named Phoenicia gave way to Mount Lebanon or simply Lebanon. In 661 a new Muslim empire under the Umayyad caliphate arose with its capital in Damascus, in present-day Syria. The Umayyads incorporated the Fertile Crescent, including Lebanon, into their empire. In 750 the Umayyads were overthrown by the Abbasid caliphate, which ruled from Baghdād, in present-day Iraq.

Early in the 11th century a new heretical group emerged from the Ismailite Shias; called Druze after one of their leaders, they evolved in the Mount Hermon area, in the southeast of present-day Lebanon. Later, some Druze filtered north into the southern Lebanon Mountains. The decline of the Abbasids after the 11th century opened the Levant to several contending powers, among them the Seljuks. Their territorial advances, especially into Palestine, aroused Christian fears in Western Europe and provoked the invasion of the Crusaders between 1095 and 1291. Crusader influence was strong in Lebanon, which was divided between the kingdoms of Tripoli and Jerusalem. During Crusader occupation, Maronites cooperated with their fellow Christians and enjoyed expanded group identity, but their collaboration increased the suspicions of Muslims. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, Shia Muslim groups from several areas peacefully migrated into Lebanon’s northern Bekáa and also later to the south. Lebanon was now shared by Maronites, Druze, Sunnis, and Shias, the same groups who would clash in the civil war of 1975 to 1991. As the 13th century closed, Egyptian Mamluks led the expulsion of the Crusaders and occupied the Lebanon area. For more than 200 years under the Mamluks, Lebanon’s coastal cities prospered from revived trade.

Ottoman Empire

In 1516 the Ottomans, centered in Constantinople, extended their conquests to include Lebanon, but gave the region considerable autonomy. Under Ottoman overlords, amirs (princes) of two local dynasties ruled successively: the Maans (1516-1697) and the Shihabs (1697-1842), both Druze families. Maan amir Fakhr al-Din II (1586-1635), a tolerant Europeanized Druze, introduced Western-style development. The later amirs of the Shihabs became Maronites and, under Bashir II (1788-1840), turned against their Druze neighbors. This turmoil in the Lebanon Mountains prompted tighter Ottoman control, though it did not put an end to Maronite-Druze hostility. In battles in 1860 the Druze massacred more than 10,000 Christians, mostly Maronites. European powers landed forces to quell the fighting and encourage better and more open administration. A relative freedom emerged as a result, attracting Arab intellectuals and foreign missionaries. In 1866 the Syrian Protestant College was founded in Beirut and in 1920 was renamed the American University of Beirut. The American Press was established in Beirut in 1834, followed by the Catholic Press in 1874. In 1875 Saint Joseph University was established by French Jesuit priests. Lebanon rapidly became the most literate and best-educated country in the Arab world. World War I (1914-1918) interrupted prosperity with chaos and famine in the Lebanon Mountains, but the Allied defeat of the Ottoman Empire ended Ottoman control over the Levant.

French Mandate

With the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the war, the League of Nations awarded Lebanon to France as a mandate in 1920. The mandate combined the mainly Christian Lebanon Mountains with the mainly Muslim coastal plain (formerly Phoenicia) and the Muslim Bekáa (including some of the Anti-Lebanon mountain ridges) to form “Greater Lebanon,” marking the creation of Lebanon as it is known today. The combination made the new country far more viable, but conflict between the ethnic and religious groups would later develop. In 1926 France forged a dependent Republic of Lebanon, which emerged as an independent state in 1943.

Independence to 1975

With independence in 1943, practical Lebanese political leaders forged an unwritten National Pact (see Government) designed to promote cooperation and conciliation among the rival confessional (religious) groups. The concept of a confessional democracy was unique. The National Pact was partly grounded in the 1932 census, which ranked the major sects in order of population as Maronites, Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Greek Orthodox, Druze, and Greek Catholics. Among the pact’s provisions, Maronites and Sunni Muslims were assured dominant political roles in proportion to their 1932 populations. The agreement faced early stresses in 1948 and 1958. In 1948 the stresses were external: The first Arab-Israeli war broke out, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes as Israeli troops advanced on them (see Palestine, Modern). About 150,000 Palestinians became refugees in Lebanon. Embittered and predominantly Muslim, they threatened the fragile confessional balance. In May 1958 internal tensions were high when President Camille Chamoun provoked political foes, especially Druze and Sunni Muslims, by challenging the constitution in an attempt to gain a second term. A short civil war erupted. Outside interference by several neighbors, along with general tensions in the Middle East, again greatly escalated the stresses. The United States, fearing the war’s effect on the wider region, landed 14,000 Marines on beaches south of Beirut on July 15. The Marines’ presence helped stabilize the country, and by early August the fighting was finished. In three months of warfare, an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 people were killed.

Chamoun’s successor, Fouad Chehab (Shihab), restored confidence and advanced Lebanon’s economic boom. Chehab attempted to reform feudal values and bridge sectarian rifts—for example, by increasing membership in parliament from 66 to 99, thereby providing more seats to more sects. His successor in 1964, Charles Helou, continued Chehab’s programs but was thwarted by the severe aftereffects of the 1967 Six-Day War between Arabs and Israel. The war sent another wave of Palestinian refugees to Lebanon. Although Helou kept his country neutral during the war, the fighting and other Middle East tensions triggered complex domestic conflicts which neither Helou nor his successor after 1970, Sulayman Franjiyah, could stop. In most of the conflicts, overlapping groups of Muslims, Arab nationalists, Palestinians, and various leftists were aligned on one side. On the other side were Christians, supporters of the West, wealthy rightists, and supporters of the status quo. Cross-alliances permeated several factions. The most militant Palestinians, including growing numbers of the heavily armed Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) militia, soon developed a state within a state. Since most of the Lebanese army sympathized with the Palestinians, the government could not easily challenge the PLO. In the Cairo Agreement of 1969, Lebanon’s neighbors forced the government to let the PLO use its territory to mount raids on northern Israel. The situation worsened after the PLO was expelled from Jordan in 1970. Most of the refugees from Jordan, including more armed militiamen, regrouped in Lebanon. By this time, the Lebanese government was too weak and vulnerable to impose any significant controls on the Palestinians.

In 1972 the PLO opened its headquarters in Beirut. From southern Lebanon, PLO Fatah fedayeen (commandos) periodically launched hit-and-run attacks on northern Israel. Israel responded with raids on the PLO in Lebanon. The Israeli attacks were often more severe and on a larger scale than PLO attacks on Israel and often impacted civilian areas. The feeble, divided Lebanese government was unable to restrain attacks by either side and watched helplessly as the destruction and death among its citizens mounted. In May 1973 Palestinians and Lebanese soldiers had a brief, sharp clash in Beirut, a foretaste of the civil war to come.

War in Lebanon

The Lebanese Civil War began on April 13, 1975, with a strike and counterstrike: Gunmen attacked Christian Phalangists (members of the Kataib faction) at a Beirut church, killing several, and hours later, Phalangists ambushed a busload of Palestinians, killing 27. Months of brutal battles followed, prompting military intervention by Syria. The fighting began to calm and a ceasefire in November 1976 yielded a lull. However, PLO attacks on northern Israel continued, bringing Israeli reprisals in Lebanon. A heavy strike by PLO fedayeen produced an Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon in March 1978. During the invasion, Israel created a self-proclaimed security zone on the southern border of Lebanon, which was manned by the South Lebanon Army (SLA), a Lebanese militia sympathetic to Israel. After three months, most of the Israeli troops withdrew. To help reduce attacks in the area, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was deployed in the southern part of the country. Between 1980 and 1982, fighting became rampant in Beirut again, with vicious militia wars, car bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations. Aiming to pacify the Palestinians and punish Lebanon for hosting them, Israel launched “Operation Peace for Galilee,” a full-scale invasion of Lebanon, in June 1982. Israel pushed north to Beirut forcing a PLO retreat. Through international mediation, thousands of PLO troops and Syrians were evacuated from Beirut and Tripoli by sea in August, and a multinational force made up of U.S., French, British, and Italian troops tried to stabilize the situation. Nearly 18,000 Lebanese, in addition to many Palestinians and Syrians, were killed in the Israeli invasion.

In September 1982 the president-elect, Kataib leader Bashir Gemayel (Jumayyil), was assassinated and replaced by his brother, Amin Gemayel. Two days after the assassination, an assault by mainly Kataib forces, with indirect Israeli agreement and direct logistical aid, led to the massacre of more than 800 civilians in the Sabra-Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut. Fighting continued sporadically, and in October 1983 more than 300 U.S. and French troops were killed by a truck bomb in Beirut. The bombing prompted the multinational force to withdraw. Violence continued from 1983 to 1985, and a second multinational force returned for six months. In June 1985 Israel withdrew most of its 1983 invasion forces, again leaving a small occupying force in the south. Palestinians making commando raids on northern Israel were joined and later replaced by a new extremist group, Hezbollah (Party of God), which enjoyed Iranian support and Syrian approval.

Although violent fighting generally eased between 1986 and 1988, hostage-taking amid near-anarchy became commonplace. In 1989 the most brutal infighting of the war pitted former allies, Kataib commander Samir Geagea (Jaja) and army general Michel Aoun, in savage artillery duels in Beirut. Aoun then brought further destruction and death in a “war of liberation” to eject Syrian forces from Lebanon. The beginning of the end of the war came when Lebanon’s parliamentarians met in Aţ Ţā’if, Saudi Arabia, from September 30 through October 22, 1989. There they reached the Ţā’if Agreement for a National Reconciliation Charter, which was formally approved on November 4. They also elected a new president, René Moawad, who was assassinated 17 days later and replaced by Elias Hrawi. Aoun resumed last-ditch fighting against Geagea and the Syrians until October 13, 1990, when he was ousted. The fighting was over. The new Government of National Reconciliation began the delicate task of disarming the militias and restoring stability. In a decade and a half of war, an estimated 130,000 to 150,000 people were killed, at least that many were wounded, and the country suffered an estimated $25 billion to $30 billion in damage and lost revenues.

Recovery and Reconstruction

Although fighting ended, the Lebanese were not left to their own devices. Thousands of Syrian troops occupied Lebanon, and Syria exerted indirect political control over the country. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians remained in Lebanon, and Hezbollah guerrillas operated in the south, periodically engaging Israeli occupation forces. All of these factors hampered Lebanon’s postwar recovery. Nevertheless, political progress continued, although under Syrian hegemony. In August and September 1990 the rump parliament (a legislature with only part of its former membership left) formally approved the constitutional changes called for in the Ţā’if Agreement. Parliamentary seats were divided equally between Muslims and Christians, and the Second Republic emerged. Under pressure, the government accepted a “Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination” with Syria in May 1991.

In August and September 1992 the first parliamentary elections in 20 years were held but were boycotted by many Maronites, who objected to their reduced power under the new constitution. In October 1995 parliament reluctantly extended the term of President Hrawi for three years, believing the troika of Hrawi, Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Birri was essential to the national recovery. The second postwar parliamentary elections, in August and September 1996, confirmed support of the ruling troika, but the openness of the elections was questioned. Some Christians again boycotted the elections. In October 1998 parliament elected pro-Syrian army commander Emile Lahoud to succeed Hrawi as president. In accordance with the constitution Lahoud consulted parliament to determine who would be the next prime minister. Al-Hariri, the choice of most members of parliament, withdrew his name from the running, citing a constitutional irregularity in the selection process. In December Lahoud named economist and veteran politician Salim al-Hoss as prime minister.

In the mid-1990s most domestic factions appeared to be living peacefully with each other, but Hezbollah continued attacks on Israeli troops in the self-declared Israeli security zone and occasionally in Israel proper. Israeli reprisal raids, usually by air, were especially severe in 1993 and 1995. In April 1996 Israel began two weeks of the heaviest bombing in Lebanon since 1982. After 103 civilians were killed in a refugee camp, Israel suffered heavy international criticism and ended the operation. Attacks and reprisals continued in the following years. In 1998 Israel offered to withdraw from the security zone if Lebanon would guarantee that the area would not be used for attacks on Israel. The Lebanese government rejected the offer, calling instead for an unconditional withdrawal and maintaining that no security guarantee would be provided without a comprehensive peace treaty between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. Exasperated by a breakdown in peace talks with Syria, the Israeli government withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in June 2000 despite the fact that it received no security guarantees from Lebanon. Within Lebanon, Hezbollah received much of the credit for the Israeli withdrawal, boosting the group’s stature.

In Beirut, reconstruction proceeded at a pace unmatched since European cities were rebuilt after World War II (1939-1945). Dramatic archaeological ruins and artifacts, once covered by Beirut’s central district, were excavated and displayed.

In 2000 parliamentary elections, party lists allied with al-Hoss fared poorly, reflecting voters’ dissatisfaction with al-Hoss’s leadership and with Syria’s influence on Lebanese affairs. Once again, many Christians boycotted the elections. After consulting with the new parliament, Lahoud appointed Rafik al-Hariri to be prime minister once again. In June 2001 Syria withdrew its troops from Beirut and the surrounding area. Nevertheless, about 15,000 Syrian troops remained in Lebanon, and tension between the Syrians and Christian Lebanese remained high.

In September 2004 the Lebanese parliament amended the constitution to extend Lahoud’s term as president by three years. Seeing the hand of Syria behind this move, Prime Minister al-Hariri resigned in protest the following month. Al-Hariri was killed in February 2005 when a massive bomb destroyed his motorcade. His assassination plunged Lebanon into a political crisis, with tensions running high between the anti-Syrian opposition and the Syrian-backed government over the issue of who was responsible. A United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution authorized an international investigation into the assassination.

In response to international political pressure and growing Lebanese domestic unrest that had existed prior to the assassination, Syria had agreed to comply with a September 2004 UNSC resolution calling for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. The withdrawal was scheduled to be completed before Lebanon’s parliamentary elections. In mid-April 2005 a moderate pro-Syrian member of the Lebanese parliament, Najib Mikati, was named caretaker prime minister. He quickly formed a new cabinet to help prepare the country for the elections, easing a political standoff between pro-Syrians and the opposition that had left Lebanon without a firm government since February. In late April Syria said that it had completed its troop withdrawal in compliance with the UNSC resolution, and the UN confirmed the withdrawal in late May.

In late June 2005 the final round of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, which were held over successive weeks, appeared to confirm that a majority of Lebanese voters preferred a country free of Syrian influence. An anti-Syrian alliance, led by Hariri’s son, Saad Hariri, captured 72 of 128 seats in the National Assembly. In July 2005 Lahoud, who continued to resist calls for his resignation, appointed an anti-Syria prime minister, Fuad Saniora, a longtime aide of Rafik Hariri and a former finance minister.

Military Crisis

In July 2006 Hezbollah militia fighters from southern Lebanon took two Israeli soldiers prisoner in a cross-border raid. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert declared the raid “an act of war,” and Israeli forces launched a military offensive on targets in Lebanon. Warplanes bombed Hezbollah strongholds in the south of the country, destroying the organization’s headquarters. Israeli air raids attacked Beirut’s airport and major routes while a naval blockade prevented shipping from entering or leaving the port. In Beirut there was heavy loss of life and widespread destruction of the city’s buildings and infrastructure. As an international crisis developed, thousands of foreign nationals were evacuated from the war zone.

The attacks soon spread to other Lebanese cities, including Tripoli, Baalbek, Tyre, and Sidon. Meanwhile, Hezbollah responded with rocket attacks on northern Israeli cities, including Haifa. Israel called up reservists, and a military incursion led to the taking of towns in southern Lebanon.

UN secretary general Kofi Annan called for a ceasefire. U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice visited the region for talks with both Lebanese prime minister Saniora and Olmert to negotiate a settlement. But Rice drew criticism from Arab and other international leaders for depicting the conflict as “the birth pangs of a new Middle East” and for failing to demand a halt to continued Israeli bombing by calling for an immediate ceasefire. A UN Security Council resolution led to a ceasefire in August after 34 days of fighting. An international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon took up positions in southern Lebanon to monitor the ceasefire.

By the time the fighting ended more than 1,200 Lebanese and about 160 Israelis had been killed, with thousands more wounded. The UN estimated that a million Lebanese and more than 300,000 Israelis had been displaced by the fighting. Four UN human rights investigators said both Hezbollah and Israel had violated international humanitarian law and called for the UN to conduct war crimes investigations. The UN’s emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, described Israel’s use of cluster bombs as “completely immoral.” Other international observers condemned the “disproportionate” use of force employed by the Israeli military as its attacks killed many civilians. UN human rights monitors also condemned the Hezbollah rocket attacks, which struck mainly civilian targets, as violations of humanitarian law.

Following the conflict, Lebanon continued to suffer a humanitarian crisis as it dealt with about 1 million unexploded cluster bombs dropped by Israeli forces at about 745 different locations in southern Lebanon. UN officials estimated that for a period of time more than three people a day were being killed or wounded by the bombs in the aftermath of the fighting. Cluster bombs are tiny bomblets about the size of a flashlight battery that can be detonated on contact. Because of their size and because they resemble toys, children are often attracted to them. International law permits the use of cluster bombs on military targets, but human rights organizations say it is difficult for military forces to prevent cluster bombs from falling on civilian areas.

A Renewed Political Crisis

In November 2007 Lahoud’s term as president expired, but the pro-Syrian opposition in parliament refused to allow a quorum so that a new president could be selected. In early December parliament speaker Nabih Berri announced that a deal had been brokered to select General Michel Suleiman as president. Under the agreement a constitutional amendment was required so that Suleiman, a senior military commander, could assume the post. Suleiman, who reportedly enjoyed good relations with Hezbollah, was supported by the pro-Syrian, Hezbollah-led opposition, but the opposition held out for the power to veto cabinet decisions before approving the deal. The governing anti-Syrian and Western-leaning majority in parliament lacked the two-thirds majority necessary to select the president on its own. The political crisis over the president’s selection set off the worst internal strife in Lebanon since the country’s civil war ended in 1990. It erupted into political violence in early May 2008 after the governing majority attempted to undercut some facets of Hezbollah’s power. About 80 people were killed and more than 200 wounded in the fighting that followed.

In late May 2008, however, a new agreement was reached enabling Suleiman to become president while giving the Hezbollah-led opposition veto power over cabinet decisions. Political observers generally agreed that the accord, which was mediated by the Arab League in Doha, Qatar, resulted in a significant shift of power to Hezbollah, led by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. Under the agreement the governing majority was given 16 cabinet positions and the opposition 11, with 3 cabinet seats to be appointed by Suleiman. As a result, the opposition, which also included Christian leader Michel Aoun, had effective veto power over cabinet decisions. The talks in Doha included representatives of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, signaling that the agreement had the support of some of the leading Muslim nations in the Middle East, representing both Shia and Sunni Muslims. As one of his first acts as president, Suleiman asked Saniora to stay on as prime minister and form the new cabinet, despite his unpopularity with the opposition.

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