Lebanon - Jewel of the Middle East?
Created | Updated Dec 30, 2011
You have your Lebanon and I have mine - K Gibran
Lebanon is a tiny country at the far east of the Mediterranean blessed by spectacular scenery and an ancient history. Lebanon is bordered by Syria to the north and east, and Israel to the south.
What is Lebanon?
It is an Arab nation where the very identity of its people is in constant debate. It has a population of less than four million and an area just over 10,000km2 (about half the size of Wales) much of which is uninhabitable because the mountains are too sheer.
Lebanon hosts 17 recognised religious sects at last count: five Islamic1, 11 Christian2, and Judaism. There is a significant integrated Armenian population and Lebanon also hosts about half a million stateless Palestinians, 80% of them in refugee camps for over two generations now. This figure represents a huge eighth of Lebanon's indigenous population and is cause for great concern on many fronts: primarily humanitarian, but also political and economic.
Flag and Anthem
The Lebanese Flag is composed of two horizontal blood-red stripes on a white background denoting peace, and a holy cedar in the centre. The Lebanese Anthem was adopted in 1927, with lyrics by Rachid Nakhlé and music by Wadih Sabra.
The Lebanese government is based on an agreement made in the early 1900s. A long and complex history full of outside influences, major power decisions and other interventions brought the country to its current composition. There is a constant and perhaps healthy debate that has been ongoing, in the country and its diaspora, for decades about the true nature of Lebanon's politics and the jury is still out.
What was Lebanon?
Lebanon has a long and complicated history extending back to the Neolithic times. This was where the Phoenicians established their main city states. They were a Semitic people who were renowned for their trading and maritime skills (c2700-450BC). Mount Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon range are mountainous areas that (pre-aircraft and roads) were a perfect hideaway for persecuted people.
Later still, the Crusaders discovered this asset and built forts in Lebanon. The Greeks and Romans came and went as did the Byzantines, the Mameluks and countless others.
After nearly four hundred years of occupation, the Ottoman Empire's collapse post WWI meant that the five Ottoman mutasarrifat (provinces) making up Lebanon were mandated to France by the League of Nations.
Lebanon finally gained independence in 1943, with French troops leaving in 1946.
In the following years, Lebanon grew into a momentarily successful laissez faire economy where capitalism and minimal government intervention allowed it to flourish into a main banking and tourism hub for the Middle East. However, 1958 heralded the first civil war.
The famous war which began in April 1975 and continued to ravage the country and its occupants for the best part of two decades almost destroyed every aspect of Lebanon's assets: people, environment, infrastructure, reputation were all just about decimated.
However, the spirit of survival and endurance finally rallied and in the 1990s, things began to change for the better. This is in great part thanks to the vision and untiring work of the late Rafik Hariri, in honour of whom Beirut International airport has been renamed.
In 2005, massive demonstrations took place that prompted the exit of Syrian military control of almost 30 years.
Lebanon Has Five Main Towns
Beirut - Beirut has now undergone massive rebuilding programmes. A huge effort has been made to preserve its historic identity while bringing it in line with the best a modern city can offer. Downtown Beirut is where Hariri's Solidere concentrated its efforts. Tucked between restored souks, Ottoman pasha villas, high rise banks, luxury hotels, cathedrals and mosques you will find carefully protected ruins thousands of years old.
Trablus (Tripoli) - 85km north of Beirut, is Lebanon's second-largest city. Its historical wealth, relaxed lifestyle and thriving business climate allow modern and medieval to blend easily into a lively and hospitable metropolis. The souks have survived the last 500 years largely unscathed. Places to visit include the Great Mosque, built on the ruined 12th Century Crusader cathedral of St Mary of the Tower. The imposing Citadel of Tripoli known as Qal'at Sinjil (castle of Crusader Saint Gilles) has changed hands and uses many times during its history. The city has not been extensively excavated because the ancient site lies buried beneath the modern city of Al-Mina. However, a few accidental finds are now in museums.
Zahle - The 'Bride of the Bekaa', Zahle has many attractions, one of the main ones being the oasis of vine-covered restaurants situated beside the cool Bardouni river. A picturesque town known for its comfortable climate and easygoing lifestyle.
Saida (Sidon) – With a name that means 'fishing', this little southern city nestles in an oasis of ancient citrus orchards and the scent of their blossoms reach you before you reach the city. In true Phoenician style, Saida is built on a promontory facing an island. The major attraction is the Crusader Castle, connected to the placid harbour by a causeway. Visitors come here to see the picturesque vaulted souqs of the old city and Khan Al Frange, a typical inn in the 19th Century. Pilgrims come on 8 September, the Feast of the Virgin Nativity, to Maghdoucheh, just above Saida, to visit the rock-hewn sanctuary of Saydet el Mantara (Our Lady of Care). This is reputedly where Mary waited for Jesus while he was preaching. Nearby is Joun, a village of olive plantations harbouring the monastery of St Saviour, the home in which Lady Hester Stanhope lived in the 18th Century.
Soor (Tyre) - In existence since 3000BC, it bore witness to much early history. Cadmus of Tyre is said to have developed the first true alphabet and his sister, Europa, to have bequeathed her name to the continent. Elissa left this city to found Carthage in the 9th Century BC. In the 6th Century BC Nebuchadnezzar lay siege to the city for 13 years. Later Alexander the Great stormed it in vain until he built a causeway to reach the islands with his war machines to attack the fortress. Famous for maritime trade, it was the purple dye industries that earned this city wealth and renown. The Roman levels of Soor have had every effort made to preserve them.
Other Towns and Sites of Interest
Jbeil (Byblos) - According to Phoenician tradition, this city was founded by the god El. Thus Byblos was considered by the Phoenicians to be a city of great antiquity. It is now believed that Byblos was inhabited even earlier and may be the earliest constantly inhabited city in the world. About 7000 years ago a small fishing community settled there. Several monocellular huts with crushed limestone floors can be seen today on the site. One of the earliest attempts at city planning was conceived at Byblos as evidenced by ruins found from 2800BC. Excavations over the past fifty years have elevated Byblos (along with four other sites in Lebanon) to the UNESCO World Heritage List. The four main places of interest to visit are the Castle (built by the Crusaders in the 12th and 13th Centuries), the Egyptian temples (the earliest of which dates back to the 4th Millennium BC), the Phoenician royal necropolis, and the Roman amphitheatre.
Beiteddine – The 'House Of Faith' is a palace built by Emir Bechir II Chehab, a reformist leader. The palace reflects the typical oriental architecture of the 19th Century. It took thirty years to build. It is remarkable for its glamorous arcades, multicoloured mosaic floors, reception rooms, harems, hammams and its guest house, or Diyafa, where honoured guests lodged. The palace museum holds exhibitions of Canaanite Phoenician works of art, a wide collection of Middle Ages arms, traditional costumes and jewellery. A fabulous festival is also hosted in the grounds each year and can frustrate the historical tourist.
Wadi Qadisha - The Holy Valley is a massive hidden gorge, a significant testimonial to Christian monastic settlements that still continue from the days of Jesus. Its monasteries, many of them centuries old, stand in dangerous and precarious positions, safely hidden in this rugged landscape. The monasteries of the Qadisha Valley are the most significant surviving examples of this fundamental demonstration of Christian faith.
Baalbek – To be visited for many reasons, this is where you will find the largest megalith known to man (estimated to weigh nearly 1200 tons). This megalith was hewn from red granite, and is still attached to the bedrock. Many fabulous Roman ruins, including the Temple of Bacchus (god of wine) still stand, but the site is far older than the Roman Empire. Even the Sumerians referred to Baalbek as ancient. Today, we have no idea who built it, nor do we know how, when or why it was built.
Jounieh - sits in the dramatic bay formed by the Kesrouan mountain. Overseen and protected by Harissa (our Lady of Lebanon), Jounieh purports to be the 'hub of cultures and civilization'. Once a sleepy fishing village, Jounieh manages to hold on to some of the charm of yesterday in its beautiful souk. Most of Jounieh has been refurbished and modernised almost out of existence and into a Middle Eastern Las Vegas chock full of cafés, restaurants, boutiques, artisan shops, banks, supermarkets and a huge variety of hotels. However, this rather garish display comes into its own when the sun sets, revealing its night-time glitz. Scores of restaurants, pubs and night clubs line the old coastal road from Jounieh northward to Maameltein offering fabulous food, belly dancers, shows and loads more.
Nahr el Kalb - On the coastal highway between Beirut and Jounieh, you will cross Nahr el Kalb (Dog River or Lycos of the ancients). Here on the rock face are a series of carved reliefs recording the passage of numerous ancient armies and rulers, among them Ramses 2 of Egypt, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and the Roman emperor Caracalla.
Jeita Grotto - for hundreds of thousands of years, trickling water has created a magical kingdom under the limestone mountains towering above Jounieh. The caves were first found in 1863. This is a wonderland of spectacular and sometimes macabre contortions of huge limestone stalactite and stalagmite formations, curtains and falls. There are two caves. The higher cave can be walked through but the lower cave has an underground river flowing through it so you need a boat. This place is to be avoided in spring when the river is swollen by the melted snow.
Aanjar - While other sites show evidence of many civilisations piled over each other, this one is unique in that it is exclusively of one period, the Umayyad. Aanjar was built in the early 8th Century AD and flourished for only a few decades. Its other claim to fame is that it is the only example of an inland commercial centre, due to its strategic position on intersecting trade routes. It is a short distance from gushing springs and one of the important sources of the Litani River. The city's slender columns and fragile arches stand in contrast to the massive bulk of the nearby Anti-Lebanon mountains - an eerie background for Aanjar's extensive ruins and the memories of its short but energetic moment in history.
Arabic is the national language. Classical Arabic is used throughout the Arab world for official and government business. It is also the language of the Holy Qur'an and therefore also used throughout the Muslim world. It is thanks to the fatwa3 forbidding this holy book to be translated that the language has survived intact for so long. This Arabic is not generally used for speaking. It is a written language. Each country has its own spoken version of 'Arabic' and spoken Lebanese differs greatly from Saudi or Omani, for example. Due to the isolation, over centuries, of many Lebanese communities from each other 4, the Lebanese language also comprises widely variable dialects within Lebanon itself so that people are very easily pinpointed down to their village by their speech. French, English and Armenian are also widely spoken.
The Daily Star is the local English-language newspaper and is linked to the International Herald Tribune. The Lebanese lira has been pegged to the US dollar (at LL1500:USD1) and the two currencies are equally accepted tender throughout the country.
Food - Simple Yet Complex
Lebanese cuisine is a very special aspect of the country. Food to a Lebanese is not just fuel to ingest. Food is nourishment of the soul. It is the vehicle for hospitality. Making food for someone is a labour of love. Food ingredients are lovingly prepared and stored carefully: tomato purée in the cupboard, dried mint and herbal teas, wild pine nuts and sumac powder, dried garlic and frozen coriander garlic pestos for inclusion in a pot of mouloukhiyyeh for guests on a special feast day. Most families own some land in their village and will plant it with great reverence, producing the fruits, vegetables and herbs as great prizes on a Sunday in summer.
Lebanese food has two main personalities. On one hand you have the elaborate and complicated dishes served at great and holy occasions to guests and extended family. On the other hand you have the simple and yet varied everyday dishes which are made from fresh wholesome ingredients to nourish and keep your family healthy. These recipes are relatively easy to learn with the right guidance.
Agriculture and Wine - Drink of the Gods
Lebanon is a narrow, steep, coastal strip of land. If you imagine flying in from Cyprus, you first see the humid coastline, fly up to avoid fiercely sheer cliffs of the Lebanon Mountains in places, then dip down into the dry, cool Bekaa plateau which is about 1,000m above sea level. Soon, though, you come face-to-face with the anti-Lebanon range which heralds the Syrian border. This means that Lebanon has two sources for water: the clouds speeding in from the Mediterranean hit the cool air of the high mountains and release their load, and in spring the snow melts, together feeding hundreds of underground rivers. All this water makes for an environment that is ideal for agriculture. Lebanon has an ancient history of cultivating mulberries for silk, olives for oil and soap, fruits and nuts, and of course, wine. During the war of 1975 - 1992, Lebanon also became famous for a high-quality cannabis resin, the sale of which went to finance various militias.
The Bekaa, home to the Temple of Bacchus, has now been re-established in its ancient role and is producing many millions of bottles of wine every year for export and home consumption. It is said that the Chardonnay grape originated here. The wine labels themselves are award-winning and of a superior quality. The wineries all welcome visitors with a variety of tours and facilities. A good place to start would be at the oldest wineries in Ksara, combined with a visit to Baalbek and the temple of Bacchus.
Tourism and Leisure
Sports and leisure activities form a large part of Lebanese life. Given the wide variety in elevation and its coastal position, Lebanon boasts that you can ski in the morning then swim in the sea in the afternoon. There are six winter resorts packed with facilities from December to April: the Cedars at an altitude of 2,300m, Faraya/Ouyoun-Es-Siman at 1,890m, Laqlouq at 1,740m, Faqra at 1,750m, Qanat Bakiche at 1,990m, Zaarour at 1,990m, and Jabal-El-Chaik at 2,860m. Most resorts also have skidoos which you can hire with a guide. This is by far the most rewarding way to experience the mountains cross country.
Off-roading has a great presence, as do camping and potholing with groups and societies dedicated to these activities. Abseiling and water skiing are two more sports with a zing of excitement to them. For the more sedate, there are luxury yacht clubs, marinas and many beaches all along the long coast 5 and most regions have a 'country club' in the mountains. As a reaction to the consequences of the war and subsequent over-development of many regions, ecotourism is also increasingly prominent in Lebanon. The Palm Islands off Trablus are protected wetlands, but there are also the two Holy Cedars reserves (in the Chouf and Mount Lebanon) and several other places of interest.
Night Life and Shopping
Nightlife and generally having a good time are almost the raison d'être of the Lebanese, in the summer months especially. The Casino du Liban in Adma stages many theatrical productions through the year. Aley in the Chouf and Broummana in the Metn are towns popular with foodies wanting to be somewhere less developed. Jounieh is renowned for its nightclubs and restaurants. Beirut is now a veritable metropolis boasting many fine hotels, theatres, clubs and restaurants. Shopping is a national pastime also. There are many fine shopping centres throughout the country but the best designer boutiques are to be found in Ashrafieh, Beirut, Hamra and Kaslik.
There are regular public buses running on most routes along the coast and some up the mountains. These cost 500LL per trip (about 30¢). Another cheap option is the service, or shared taxi. These cost 1,000LL. There are many reliable taxis in Lebanon but do negotiate your prices before embarking on a trip, as these can vary wildly. All the tour operators run trips on comfortable Pullman or coaches. These are best booked through your hotel concierge. Walking is definitely an option as Lebanon is very safe in terms of petty crime, despite other dangers. Do be aware that pavements were not built into the design of old Beirut nor many of the villages.
Be aware that in many areas modest dress is the courteous option and in Muslim areas a scarf is advisable for women. Churches require heads, shoulders and knees to be covered and you must never walk into a mosque with your shoes on. In general, women are not often seen on their own and it is best to wear a contingency wedding ring to avert undesired attention. It may be useful to know that eye contact between a man and woman is generally seen to be permission to approach and speak to you. The Lebanese are friendly and hospitable, so don't be surprised if the old man at the corner shop invites you for Sunday lunch with his children and grandchildren. When you become familiar with the culture, you will learn how to say no to food, but this takes a lot of practice and expertise.
Festival season usually kicks off in June for 12 weeks. There are over 38 festivals but the best are at Beiteddine, Jbeil (Byblos) and Baalbek. You can see acts as diverse as Marcel Khalife, Ravi Shankar, UB40, Dizzy Gillespie, Gregorian, Placebo, Phil Collins, Paco de Lucia, Sting. The one exception has to be the Al Bustan festival which usually runs from mid February to mid March – a truly eclectic mix of outstanding classical productions in music, dance and poetry.
Is it a Jewel, Though?
This is a country that elicits great emotion in people. Its exiled diaspora (emigrants) adore it. In the summer of 2004, it was reported that over a million visitors had landed at the airport in a four-month period. The joke was that the country was in danger of sinking with the temporary increase in weight of 25 percent of its population. Visitors from the middle of last century seem to remember Lebanon with great fondness and some awe. Current visitors obsess about it. Its neighbours view it with some disdain. In the current climate of world politics, many feel fear or indifference, both spawned by lack of information about the true nature of this country.
Who remembers the day when Beirut was invoked as the 'Paris of the East'? Although there is something to the moniker, the use of a western city is inappropriate as it does not reflect the eastern essence of the city. Many people today grew up with the image of a devastated Beirut in the 1970s and 80s. Older generations grew up with the image of a glorious and adventurous Lebanon which they heard about from their parents and grandparents - a sort of frontier between the Arab world and the West.
Lebanon has a gorgeous landscape, a fabulous (if tortuous) history and its people are outstanding in many, many ways. However just as its history, its topography and its people are so wonderful, there are many ugly truths about the country. Its politics are inequitable and it is cursed by its physical position in the globe - right at the centre of turmoil and unrest for centuries. Yet despite this, it could be argued that Lebanon is a jewel nonetheless...
Some facts about Lebanon
- Lebanon was a founding member of the United Nations and the Arab League of Nations.
- Lebanese women were the first Arab women granted suffrage.
- Lebanon is one of a very small number of countries that does not permit its citizens to vote except in their home village. This means that travellers, expatriates, refugees and emigrants must all return home to vote.
- Not only is Lebanon the only Arab nation without a desert, it is also the only net exporter of water in the region.
- Lebanon has three bona fide proper canonised saints: Charbel, Hardini and Rafqa. However, St Maron, patron saint of the largest and most politically influential Roman Catholic sect - the Maronites of Lebanon - is excluded from that list.
- Jesus performed his first miracle turning water into wine at a wedding at Cana, near Tyre in South Lebanon.
- Cana, or Qana, is also the site of a long-established UN camp manned by a Fijian regiment since the late 70s. The camp was full of children sheltering for safety when it was attacked in 1996 by the Israelis.
- King Solomon got wood to build his temple from the Holy Cedars in the mountains of Lebanon.
- Lebanon is mentioned 76 times in the Bible. See for yourself...
Contributions to the world by Lebanon's sons and daughters
- One of her sons co-wrote The Universal Declaration of Human Rights with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Rene Cassin. His name was Charles Malek.
- Khalil Gibran, of 'The Prophet' fame, was born and is buried in Bcharre.
- Ralph Nader, US consumer activist and presidential candidate.
- Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan, businessman of the year 2000, known as 'the cost-killer'. The first non-Japanese person to ever be at the head of a Japanese society.
- Nicolas Hayek, creator of Swatch and saviour of the Swiss watch industry.
- Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, Khrystyne Haje, Selma Hayek, Tiffany, Kathy Najimy, Paula Abdul and Shakira are among many prominent Americans of Lebanese descent, to name but a few... oh, and of course... Frank Zappa.
- Peter Medawar: Nobel laureate
- Dr Michael DeBakey, inventor of the heart pump.
- Christa McAuliffe, Challenger astronaut and martyr of the American space program. Daughter of Edward and Grace Corrigan (née George) and the niece of historian Philip Hitti.
- Khalil Ghanem, author of the Ottoman Constitution - a particularly ironic fact considering Lebanon laboured under Ottoman occupation for nigh on four hundred years.