Magazine article New Internationalist

Simply: A History of Beirut and Lebanon

Magazine article New Internationalist

Simply: A History of Beirut and Lebanon

Article excerpt


Flourishing Phoenician city-states along the Eastern Mediterranean coast dominate the trade of the ancient world before 1000 BC. In the centuries that follow the area is conquered by the Persians, by Alexander the Great and by the Romans. Ancient ruins throughout the area attest to all these different periods. During these times different religious, political and ethnic groups live side by side, sometimes peaceably, sometimes not. The area is still under Roman rule when the Prophet Mohammed begins teaching Islam in 610 AD. From 634 AD various Khalifs rule, culminating in the Ottoman state. By the 11th century AD most of the communities that live there today have already settled in the area.


In 1516 the Ottomans take over. They are to rule for four centuries until 1918. Ottoman rule is based on economics; Christians and Jews -- 'People of the Book' -- have to recognize Islamic rule but are allowed to practice their own religions. They are freed from conscription but have to pay poll tax. Rulers are more interested in tax revenues than converts.

The local tax-farmers become the powerful families of their area. Many of these families still dominate politics today. Beirut becomes increasingly important, growing from 6,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the century to 46,000 by 1861.

From 1860 onwards there are repeated clashes between feudal landlords and peasants and between the different groups. In 1860 Druze Muslims massacre Christians.


The Western Powers gain influence from 1840 onwards. Following the defeat of Turkey in the 1914 - 1918 war and the break - up of the Ottoman Empire, the French occupy Lebanon and Syria and obtain a League of Nations mandate to govern them (as does Britain in Palestine). 'Greater Lebanon' is created by attaching neighbouring districts which had been part of the former Ottoman provinces of Beirut and Damascus. Many Muslims at first refuse to accept the designation 'Lebanese', wanting to remain attached to the Syrian hinterland and seeing the new country as Western - and Christian - orientated. In 1926 the Lebanese Republic is formed and a constitution drawn up - much of which is still in force today. It expressly forbids any of the new country's territory from being relinquished. Co - existence between the different groups is built into the constitution.


In 1943 Parliament reaffirms the independence of the country. France responds by imprisoning President al-Khoury, Prime Minister Riad Solh and three cabinet ministers. There is a general strike and an uprising. Under pressure from the British and American Governments, France backs down. A new flag with a green cedar tree in the middle replaces the French tricolour.

Amid rejoicing from all groups the Lebanese National Pact is formed. It is a compromise. The Christians renounce the protection of Western powers and the Muslims renounce union with Syria or other Arab states. In intra-Arab conflicts Lebanon will remain neutral.

In 1948 the State of Israel is created, causing an influx of Palestinians into southern Lebanon.


The first outbreak of war in Lebanon begins in 1958. The Lebanese people respond to the pan- Arab call of Nasser, the Egyptian President. The US intervenes for the first time, replacing Camille Chamoun by General Chehab as President. In 1975 the second civil war breaks out between the Christian - Maronite Lebanese Forces and the National Movement backed by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). …

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