The history of Lebanon

The mountains that have given Lebanon its name (Lubnan from laban: milk, after the snow-capped mountains) have also shaped its history. The inaccessibility of its highlands has not only provided a refuge for dissident religious groups over the centuries, but has also contributed to the independent-mindedness of the Lebanese.

When great civilisations were being formed in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, the land, which is now Lebanon, was an important link between the two areas. Later, Byblos, Sidon and Tyre became ports in the expanding commercial civilisation, created by the Phoenicians – Canaanites, a Semitic people – between the 10th and 8th Centuries B.C. The Phoenicians became the most notable traders and sailors of the ancient world. Their most important contribution to civilization was the alphabet and the invention of glass.

These dauntless mariners were called Sidonians in the Old Testament and Phoenicians by the Greek poet Homer because of the purple (phoinikies) dye they sold. These early inhabitants developed the art of navigation to such an extent they could sail by the stars at night; indeed, to more timorous folk, the North Star was long known as the Phoenicians’ Star. They founded many colonies in North Africa, Rhodes, Cyprus and southern Spain. A company of Phoenicians is believed to have circumnavigated Africa. They are renowned, too, throughout the ancient world, for their glass, the purple dye and metal industry. But their most lasting contribution was the completion and diffusion of an alphabet, devoid of all pictographic and syllabic characters.

As a crossroads of sea and land thoroughfares, Lebanon has always been coveted by outside powers and hence subjected to successive invasions. Thus, the Phoenicians succumbed to the domination of:

– The Hyksos (1680 B.C.), an Asiatic people who ruled over southern Syria, Phoenicia and Egypt until their defeat by Pharaoh Ahmoses I around 1550 B.C., which started an Egyptian conquest.

– Egypt: the conquest was not decisive until the reign of Thotmose III (1484-1450) in 1479. The Phoenicians kept their autonomy while recognizing the suzerainty of the Pharaoh and the pledge to put their fleets at his disposal in case of war. But this changed when the pharaohs started meddling in the affairs of the Phoenician city-states, which revolted as a consequence, encouraged by the Hittites. Seti I and Ramses II mounted campaigns to subdue the revolts (Ramses II erected a stele at Nahr-el-kalb, north of Beirut,  to commemorate his passage). The latter, unable to defeat the Hittites, agreed with them on dividing Syria among each other (1278 B.C.). From then on, Syria and Phoenicia became quasi-independent with only a symbolic Pharaonic sovereignty. This independence lasted for three centuries.

– Assyrian rule (875-608 B.C.), which deprived the Phoenician cities of their independence and prosperity and brought repeated, unsuccessful rebellions, and the destruction of. Sidon and the rebuilding of a new city on its ruins.

– Babylonia (685-36 B.C.), a new Mesopotamian power, which destroyed the Assyrian Empire. Nebuchadnezzar (587-74 B.C.) laid siege to a rebelled Tyre for thirteen years before its capitulation.

– Persia when Cyrus, founder of the Persian Empire, captured Babylon in 539-38 B.C. and Phoenicia and its neighbours passed into Persian hands.

– Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, who defeated the Persian troops in 333 B.C., conquered Asia Minor and destroyed the city of Tyre which revolted and resisted for six months. The Phoenicians, being a cosmopolitan people amenable to outside influences, adopted aspects of Greek civilization with ease.

– The Seleucid Empire, named after Seleucus I, one of Alexander’s Macedonian generals, (after the Empire had been divided upon Alexander’s death among his Macedonian generals) to whom fell the eastern part: Phoenicia, Asia Minor, northern Syria, and Mesopotamia.

– The Roman Empire in 64 B.C. when Pompey the Great, a Roman general, annexed the territory to the Roman Empire and administered it as part of the province of Syria. Aramaic, the dominant language of the East, began to replace Phoenician, marking the cultural integration of the territory with its neighbours. The cities were most prosperous, and several of them achieved Roman status. Beirut, “Colonia Julia Augusta Felix Berytus”, attained worldwide fame for its School of Law. It should be noted that many Syrians enrolled in the Roman Army leading some to become Emperors (211-235): the first was Caracalla from Homs, succeeded by Elagabal at the age of thirteen, himself succeeded by a first cousin Alexander Severus born at Arqua (Akkar) near Tripoli. The last was Philip the Arab (244-249).

– In A.D. 395, the Roman Empire was divided in two: the eastern or Byzantine part with its capital at Constantinople, and the western part with its capital at Rome. Under the Byzantine Empire, intellectual and economic activities in Beirut, Tyre, and Sidon continued to flourish for more than a century. However, in the sixth century a series of earthquakes demolished the temples of Baalbeck and destroyed the city of Beirut, levelling its famous law school and killing nearly 30,000 inhabitants. From the 4th century A.D. on, the Christianisation of the Roman Empire and religious dissension produced disorder and confusion in Syria as a whole. By the 7th century, Maronites, a Christian sect, sought refuge in the northern districts of Mount Lebanon.

– Prior to Islam, many Arab chieftains had carved themselves principalities in Syria and Mesopotamia: Odenathus and his widow Zenobia in Palmyra, Ghassanids east of Houran, Lakhmids on the right bank of the Euphrates River (Iraq) and the kingdom of Petra (Jordan). The Arab conquest – inspired by a new religion, Islam, started in 632 after the death of Prophet Mohammad – submitted most of Syria, and Mount Lebanon was integrated into the Arab military district of Damascus. A power struggle took place after the assassination of the third Caliph Uthman (656) between Ali bin-Abi Taleb, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet and Muawiya, governor of Syria. Muawiya was proclaimed Caliph in 661, starting the period of the Umayyad Caliphates. The conquerors allowed the indigenous Christian and Jewish populations to retain their religion (Ibn Sarjoun, who administered the treasury and Ibn Uthal, who was Muawiya’s doctor, were both Christians and it was then that the Maronites, Christian followers of St Maroun, came in droves from the Orontes Valley to Lebanon fleeing Greek persecution). The Umayyad gave way to the Abbasid Caliphates in 750. Under the Abbasid Harun al-Rashid (786-809) and his son Al-Ma’mun (813-833), the Arabs reached the apogee of their prosperity. The decline of this Caliphate and the rise of local dynasties led to the growth of many Muslim sects. Where Lebanon is concerned, one of them, the Druze, established themselves early in the 11th century in southern Mount Lebanon.

– The Crusaders from Christian Europe who occupied the country in 1099 and remained until the 13th century. Many of the castles and fortresses built still stand: the Krak des Chevaliers “Husn al-Akrad”, the Castle of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, the Castle of Beaufort “Kala’at al-Shkif” in southern Lebanon, to name just a few.

– The Mameluke domination (1291-1516). A century of conflicts and wars engulfed Lebanon and Syria where Franks from the West, Mongols of Genkhis Khan and Hulagu from Central Asia, and Mamelukes from Egypt fought until the control of the region settled with the Mamelukes victory. This era saw Beirut becoming a centre of commercial activity in the region, due to its location and the destruction of the ports of Tyre, Sidon and Tripoli. Italians from Pisa, Genoa and Venice, Spaniards from Catalana, Frenchmen from Marseilles and Provence set up their warehouses in the city. Literary activity flourished. Many Lebano-Syrian scholars are renowned for their activities: the theologian Ibn Taymyia, the geographer Shams el-Din el-Dimashki, the archivist Abul Fida and the historians Saleh Ibn Yahaya and Al-Makrizi.

– The last conquest, that of the Ottoman Turks in 1516, was never total, partly because of the country’s mountains and the independent spirit of its mountain folks. Two local dynasties successively came to dominate the Mountain under Ottoman rule: the Maans (1516-1697) and the Chehabs (1697-1842) who fought to protect and extend the freedom of Lebanon’s mountain.  The most ambitious of these rulers was Fakhr al-Din II, who forged an alliance with the Italian Duchy of Tuscany. He ruled tolerantly. Bashir Chehab II, who reigned from 1788 to 1840, emerged as master of Lebanon and a power in the Levant. His alliance with the Ruler of Egypt, Mohammad Ali, against the Ottomans led in his latter years to an Egyptian occupation of Lebanon. After his death in 1840, the Ottomans pursued a policy of direct rule over the “Mountain”, resulting in bloody civil wars in 1860’s. These prompted several European powers to intervene in 1861, establish a new administration with the Ottomans, guarantee the autonomy of Mount Lebanon and keep it under their protection until 1914.

Beirut became a centre of renewed and intense intellectual activity: the American University was founded in 1866 and the Jesuite University in 1875. Lebanese monastic orders as well as some Moslem Uulema took an active part in education establishing secondary schools such as the “Ecole des Trois Docteurs” ‘thalathat akmar’ (1852), the National School of Boutros al-Boustani (1863), the Patriarchal College (1865), Ecole de la Sagesse (1872), Makassed College (1880), and Sheikh Ahmad Abbas College (1897) … contributing to the Arab Renaissance. Among the eminent intellectuals from that period are: the philologists and grammarians Nassif al-Yazigi and his son Ibrahim, Youssuf al-Asir, Mohammad al-Hout, Ahmad Fares al-Chidiac, Abdallah al-Boustani, Ahmad Abbas al-Ahdab, fathers Louis Cheikhu and Louis Malouf, the encyclopedists Boutros and Salim al-Boustani, the historians Patriarch Maximus Mazloum and Bishop Youssuf al-Dibs. Printing presses flourished with the Imprimerie Catholique founded in 1848 by the Jesuites. Daily newspapers and political, literary reviews were published: Hadikat al-Akhbar (1858) of Khalil al-Khoury, “Nafir Souria” (1860), and “al-Jinan” (1870) of Youssuf Chalfoun, “Thamarat al-Founoun’ of Abd el-Qader Kabbani, “al-Muktataf” (1876) of Fares Nimr and Yacoub Sarrouf, “Beirut” (1886) of Moumammad al-Dana, “Lissan ul-Hal” of Khalil Sarkis and “al-Mashrik” of the Jesuite Fathers. Turkish censorship led many to migrate to Egypt where they founded “al-Muktataf” of Fares Nimr and Yacoub Sarrouf, “al-Hilal” of Girgi Zaidan, “ad-Dia” of Ibrahim al-Yazigi and the most famous al-Ahram newspaper of Salim and Beshara Takla.

Arab Nationalism emerged and groups of Christians and Moslems were formed as clandestine political parties from 1880 with “al-Jamiyat al-Sirriyat” … The first Lebanese martyrs for the sake of freedom and independence were hanged on 6 May 1916 (celebrated as Martyrs day, after independence); among them are: Philip and Farid el-Khazen, Sheikh Ahmad Tabbara, Father Joseph Hayek, Omar Hamad, Abd el-Wahab al-Inglizi and the Mahmassani brothers. But World War I (1914-1918) years brought famine and devastation, increasing the flow of Lebanese immigrants to the Americas and Australia.

The literary movement continued with the Lebanese migrants, the most famous being: Gebran Khalil Gebran, Amin al-Rihani, Elyia Abou Madi, Khalil Moutran, Gergi Zaidan and Mikhail Nouaymi.

– French Rule: in 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement divided the Ottoman colonies in the Near East between France and Britain. In 1917 the notorious Balfour Declaration promised to transform Palestine into a Jewish home, then a State, which was achieved through massive immigration and systematic expropriation of Arab land and expulsion of native Palestinians, creating the saga of the Palestinian Refugees. Following the First World War, the League of Nations assigned through the Treaty of Versailles (28 June 1919) and the Allies through the San Remo Conference (19-26 April 1920) France as the mandate power for Lebanon. In 1926, Lebanon became a Republic, proclaimed its Constitution (23 May). On 26 November 1941, the government of “Free France” declared the independence of Lebanon but was subjected to conditions unacceptable to Lebanese nationalists. It was not until 22 November 1943 that Lebanon could finally achieve independence from France. The last French troops were withdrawn in 1946.

From its very first days, this young republic has consistently played an active role in Arab and world affairs: it became a founding member of both the Arab League and the United Nations in 1945. One of its leading citizens, Charles Malek, was for a time President of the UN General Assembly and worked closely with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt in drafting the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.