Modern Lebanon History

What a day! I just spent WAY more time than expected trying to understand the history of Lebanon from 1915 to the present, and I kind of think that my brain might fall out of my head. I’m one of those people who really likes math because there’s always a clear answer. It’s straightforward. This, on the other hand, is not. There are too many details and too many people involved and too many things happening. My. Brain. Hurts.

I’m going to show some various war-damaged things, but some of them have longer stories that I’ll talk more about later. For now, I’ll just caption them briefly. This is a mosaic in the National Museum. The hole in the bottom left is from a sniper who shot at bystanders through the wall behind the mosaic.

You might be wondering why I’m spending so much time on history instead of just getting right to the fun, pretty things I saw. One thing that I’ve realized more and more over the last year is how much better you can understand the people and the situation of a country if you take the time to look at their history. I know, that’s another “DUH” statement, but it’s something that I didn’t used to do. Usually, when people travel internationally, they go to a country, they see the sights, they decide all the things that they like and don’t like about how the country works and how the people behave there, and they go home, usually with some feeling of superiority about their country and the way that they live. I know that’s not true for everyone, but from what I’ve seen, it’s not uncommon. I’ve heard people talking about experiences in other countries and ending with the basic statement of, “They just aren’t as civilized as we are.” That statement. Is horrible. People are different. Different cultures value different things. My idea of “civilized behavior” isn’t the same as that of someone born in India or someone born in Ghana. Does that make any of our ideas wrong? Yes, there are some universal morals that stand despite any cultural argument. More often than not, though, the things that we find so offensive in others are based on nothing more than personal preference and stereotypes.

Sorry for that rant. Mostly I’m not even talking about Lebanon anymore, but this is just something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. So, like I was saying, if you want to be able to identify WHY something is the way it is, something you may not like, you need to have some context… which leads us back to the history lesson. On that note, here is my attempt to explain the last century the best I can without making your brain hurt too.

Many of the large pieces in the National Museum that couldn’t be moved during the civil war, including this one, were encased in concrete for protection. Smaller artifacts were hidden in the basement behind fake walls so that no one would know they were there.

I left off my last post at the end of World War I when Lebanon and Syria were put under French control. During the Ottoman years, the size of Lebanon was greatly reduced. Much of the eastern and southern land was cut from Lebanon’s territory by the empire. In 1919, a Lebanese delegation presented their argument for an extension of Lebanon’s borders back to their previous locations. This was mostly driven by the Maronite Christian population who wanted a Lebanese nation. Interestingly, those territories were majority Muslim populated, so the addition of that land to Lebanon practically eliminated the Christian majority.

A constitution was written in 1926 that was supposedly meant to balance power between religious groups but was really favoring the Maronites. The President was a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of Parliament a Shiite Muslim. The Parliament seats were divided into a 6:5 Christian:Muslim ratio based on census information at the time. The President had a very strong and influential position, and this is still mostly true today, though some things have changed since the original constitution (and the Parliament ratio has changed to half and half of Christians and Muslims).

During World War II, Britain sent troops to Lebanon because Germany was moving weapons through the country. In 1941, the British recognized Lebanon’s independence. There were elections in 1943 that weren’t recognized by France, and the new leaders were thrown into prison. International pressure convinced the French to release the leaders and recognize the new, independent Lebanon!

From the time of independence until around 1958, Lebanon prospered. The economy was booming, and tourism, agriculture, and education were flourishing. Then, in 1958, Arab nationalism was on the rise in the Middle East, and Egypt and Syria joined together to create the United Arab Republic. They wanted to unite all Arab nations into one country which required eliminating any governments seen as “pro-West”. After Iraq’s government was toppled, the Lebanese president asked for help from the US to keep Lebanon independent. Some Lebanese, mostly Christians, wanted to remain aligned with the west, while others, mostly Muslims, wanted to join the new Arab nation. The US intervention successfully stabilized the country, though 2000-4000 people were still killed.

This is Martyrs’ Monument. After the war, it was restored, but some of the war damage was left as a reminder. You can see holes in all of the statues, and one of them is missing half an arm.

The beginning of the 1960s was relatively calm, and Lebanon continued to grow economically. Then, in 1967, more Palestinian refugees fled to Lebanon after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, joining the over 100,000 who had already settled there after the 1948 war. The Palestinian militant forces, previously operating out of Jordan, were kicked out and also moved to Lebanon. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) started using southern Lebanon to launch attacks on Israel. Israel retaliated, and the Lebanese people were split between pro- and anti-Palestinian groups (the former was mostly Muslim and the latter mostly Christian).

An agreement signed in 1969 gave the PLO control over the refugee camps and access to northern Israel, and it had to recognize the sovereignty of the Lebanese government. The Lebanese army then had to leave the PLO alone, and Maronite militias took their place. Before this, Lebanon had managed to stay out of all conflicts with Israel. The PLO ended that neutrality when it set up what was effectively a mini-state in southern Lebanon and stepped up its attacks. Israel retaliated by bombing Lebanon. The Lebanese government was weak and divided and couldn’t really do anything to defend its people.

The Lebanese Civil War started in 1975. The fighting between the Maronite militia and PLO spread to Beirut. It started with a few minor clashes and then erupted into an all-out war. More and more militias started to emerge, each generally tied to a religious group. Practically everyone had their own militias – the Maronites, the PLO, random secular groups, the Druze, the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Armenians. Everyone had their agendas, supported different sides for different reasons, and were funded by different outside sources. The Armenians mostly tried to remain neutral and only fought when they needed to defend Armenian areas. The western part of Beirut turned into the “Muslim side” of the city and the eastern part the “Christian side”, and they were separated by a road that became known as the “green line”. People fled to the appropriate sides for safety.

These are some objects in the National Museum that were damaged during the civil war. The storage room where they were located was shelled, and the resulting fire fused together all of these different materials.

The part of the city with a bunch of nice hotels became a battleground with militias fighting each other from building to building. This one, the old Holiday Inn, had only been operating for a couple years before the war started. It is the only hotel in the area that’s still left in its post-war condition due to disagreements about its future between the owners.

Meanwhile, the leader of Syria declared that “Lebanon is part of Syria, and Syria will take it back”. Syrian troops entered the country and started fighting for control of the land and the Palestinians. The Maronite militias, the PLO and pro-Palestinian Lebanese National Movement (LNM), and the Syrian army fought each other and also massacred innocent civilians during random attacks on villages, camps, and neighborhoods. A ceasefire was negotiated near the end of 1976, but the PLO continued to attack Israel, and Israel continued to retaliate.

In 1982, after Israel invaded Lebanon all the way to Beirut, there was an international attempt to move the PLO and Syrian forces out of Lebanon. Israel was told to withdraw from Lebanon as well as stop its attacks. Foreign troops landed to supervise the PLO evacuations. Fighting continued with Maronite militias attacking Palestinian refugee camps and killing innocent people. The Syrian army refused to leave, and suicide bombers attacked the US and French troops who were there for peacekeeping, eventually forcing them out of the country.

The fighting didn’t stop, but it was a little more sporadic after that. A new extremist group, Hezbollah, entered the mix in the early 1980s, backed by Iran and Syria, and worked with Palestinian forces to attack Israel. Raids on towns continued by all of the various groups, and civilians continued to be killed. There were bombings and shellings and assassinations.

This building, the Barakat house, had tenants before the war who all moved out because it’s located right near the green line that divided the city. Thanks to its open architecture, it was the perfect place for snipers to hide and be well protected. It was a big strategic location during the war.

Finally, in 1989, an agreement was signed to try to end the war. It called for the Syrian army to withdraw within two years, which they rejected. The war ended in 1990 when the Syrian Air Force bombed the presidential palace, driving the interim prime minister, General Michel Aoun (Lebanon’s current President) into exile. The government was restructured to give equal representation to Muslims and Christians. The militias were disarmed, except for Hezbollah because it was a “resistance force” fighting Israel (and had Western hostages to use as leverage). Over the next few years, Syria did all it could to keep the Lebanese government dependent on it to run the country.

This is a random alleyway I wandered down, and I was thrown off by the fact that there are all of these rebuilt and refinished buildings except for this one little swiss-cheese wall that still shows war damage.

General elections were held again in 1992 and were boycotted by the vast majority of citizens because they were organized by Syria. Despite the civil war being “over”, there were still ongoing incidents. Hezbollah and Israel continued to actively fight, even after Israel withdrew the rest of its forces in 2000. In 2005, there was a series of assassinations of government leaders. The same year, the remainder of the Syrian troops finally withdrew. In 2006, another war broke out between Hezbollah and Israel. The infrastructure of Lebanon took a hard hit with Israel’s bombing of many of the bridges throughout the country.

Since then, things have settled down, and the country is in a weird limbo of simultaneously rebuilding and still having a bunch of unresolved issues. The Syrian war has put extra strain on the country in the form of an estimated 2 million refugees. For a country of only about 4.5 million people, that’s significant. Plus, there are still about half a million Palestinian refugees in the country. That is a huge economic challenge, and it’s expecting A LOT from the country’s infrastructure.

“The Egg” was part of an unfinished construction project when the war started. It was meant to be a movie theater. Now, it just looks like a weird, concrete bunker.

Lebanon has so much potential in so many ways. It’s beautiful, for one. It used to be a hopping tourist destination, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be able to get there again. There have been so many conflicts in the country’s history, and after many of them, it was able to enter a period of peace and prosperity. Maybe I’m just optimistic, but I hope that’s something that can happen again. Let me try to help out with the tourism revival… you should visit Lebanon! I never felt unsafe, and it was so interesting to visit a place with such a complex history.

Now that you’ve read more historic details than you probably ever wanted, my next post will get into the fun stuff!

The rebuilding had the unexpected side effect of revealing hidden ruins, and the unique circumstances gave archaeologists a chance to investigate things that had previously been inaccessible. Their findings led to the conclusion that the city of Beirut may date back as far as 3000BC!

Lebanon History Lesson

Remember when I said that Lebanon is super old? As you might expect from a very old place, there are a lot of museums in Lebanon displaying very old things. I went to two of them, the National Museum of Beirut and the American University of Beirut’s Archaeology Museum. Beyond just museums, there are ruins all over the city (and under the city) and the country. It would be impossible to give you a thorough history of Lebanon, mostly because you would be bored to tears reading it, and I would react similarly to writing it. Instead, I’m going to give you the highlights deemed most interesting by me.

(Disclaimer: as usual, I’m at like 90% confident that what follows is accurate, but I’m not a scholar of ancient history which means that looking at this stuff for too long makes my head hurt. I did my best.)

View of the main hall in the National Museum of Beirut.

Ancient molar! It’s dated to 200000-50000 BP.

To talk about the first humans in Lebanon, we have to go back… waaaaaay back in history to AT LEAST 48000 BC. Oh yes, that’s right. The National Museum has a molar that has been radiocarbon dated to 250000 – 50000 BP (BP means the number of years before 1950). That, yes, seems like quite the range of dates. I know this is complicated stuff, but you’d think they could come up with a gap of less than 200,000 years. Anyway, that’s beside the point. The point is, even if it’s only from 50000 years before 1950, it’s still ridiculous.

The first permanent settlements are estimated to have emerged by 5000BC. By 4000BC, the land was inhabited by the Canaanites, or Phoenicians. They lived in coastal cities, and the inland was covered in forests. Those cities are still in existence today: Tyre and Sidon were big maritime and trade centers, and Gubla (Byblos) and Berytus (Beirut) were trade and religious centers. The Phoenicians thrived because of their location and many tradable resources. They established a trading relationship with Egypt, bringing in wealth and foreign goods.

These bones from a woman are dated to 15000 BP. They’re laid out exactly as they were found.

In the 1400s BC, Lebanon became part of the Egyptian empire for a couple of centuries. Egypt was just the first in a long line of powerful outsiders to come in and rule over the land. Post-Egyptians, the Phoenicians enjoyed a few centuries of independence, thriving again and mastering the arts of textiles, ivory work, metalwork, and glassmaking. The Phoenician alphabet spread, making it possible for common people to learn to read. Many modern alphabets can be traced back to the Phoenician alphabet. It was during this period that Sidon and Tyre first entered the story in the Bible, when cedar trees and craftsmen were provided to Israel’s King David to build his palace. Later, Jezebel, the queen of Israel who led the Israelites astray by worshipping the Phoenician god Baal, was the daughter of the king of Sidon.

Thirty-one anthropoid sarcophagi were found near Sidon. They’re from about the 5th century BC and show both Egyptian (the sarcophagi) and Greek (the style of the carved faces) influences.

Ancient braces! This is dated back to the 5th century BC, during Phoenician times. It’s the earliest known example of “retentive dentistry”.

When the Assyrians conquered the Phoenicians in the 9th century BC, they ruled oppressively. Any uprisings were squashed, and the people were punished for their rebellion. The Babylonians were similarly harsh rulers. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar sieged Tyre, an island city, for 13 years before gaining control. This siege is described by the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Next came Persian rule and a period of peace until they started imposing high taxes, and the people rebelled.

When Alexander the Great and the Macedonians came onto the scene in the 300s BC, most cities didn’t resist and instead welcomed them in. Tyre, on the other hand, refused to allow entry into the city. The Macedonians sieged the island for seven months and ended up victorious after constructing a causeway from stones, timber, and dirt that linked the island to the mainland. Without its water defenses, the city fell, and its inhabitants were harshly punished for their resistance. Over time, the causeway widened as more and more sand and debris washed up, and today, Tyre is a peninsula. The fall of Tyre and its failure to ever recover its previous status as a world-wide trading center was described by the prophet Ezekiel.

After Alexander died, his great kingdom fell apart under the conflict-filled rule of his successors. The Romans took over, and Pompey added Lebanon as a Roman province. The inhabitants of its major cities were given Roman citizenship. The language switched from Phoenician to Aramaic. It was a time of economic prosperity.

This is a model of a 2nd century AD temple. It was made to guide the builders… architectural drawings, classical style! Imagine being an architecture student in those days and having to make your models out of limestone… I thought cardboard was bad enough!

This was also the time period in which Jesus performed his first miracle in Qana, in the south of Lebanon, turning water into wine at a wedding. He visited Tyre and Sidon as part of his ministry. Later, Paul also briefly visited both cities and met with disciples in each. Christianity spread quickly, leading to a Christian majority in the area. The Maronite church emerged at the end of the 4th century from the followers of Saint Maron, a monk.

Natural disaster in the form of earthquakes struck in the 4th and 6th centuries AD. The 4th century earthquakes were accompanied by tidal waves that destroyed the coastal cities. The 6th century’s destroyed Baalbeck (originally a big pilgrimage location for the Phoenician god Baal and later the location of Roman temples) and Beirut, killing thousands. Between these disasters and internal conflicts in the empire, Roman control of the area weakened.

These ruins are guessed to be the remains of the famous Roman law school in Beirut. They haven’t found any decisive evidence of this, so really it’s just a guess because they don’t know what else it might be.

Islam was introduced by the prophet Muhammad at the beginning of the 7th century, and the Muslim Arabs took control from the Romans in the same century. Islam began to spread, and Arabic was introduced as the new language. The Maronite community clung to Christianity and was treated with varying levels of tolerance depending on the ruler at the time. The Druze faith also emerged around the end of the 10th century.

This is some Roman goddess… maybe Venus? I can’t remember, but I thought the fact that she’s wearing a necklace and earrings is pretty cool.

The Crusaders swept in during the 11th century, organized by Western European Christians who were trying to reclaim the Eastern Mediterranean. Lebanon became part of the Crusader states, split between two of them. The Maronites formed a connection with the French and pledged their allegiance to the pope in Rome, rather than to a more local patriarch, bringing them support from both France and Italy.

Muslim control resumed in the late 13th century. The Ottoman Turks were growing their empire, and Lebanon became a semi-autonomous part of it. Fakhr-ad-Din II was a Druze leader who ruled in the 16th century and worked to unify Lebanon. He resolved religious conflicts and enforced tolerance, enlarged the emirate, and is considered the founder of modern Lebanon. His rule led to economic and cultural prosperity, and he wanted Lebanon to gain its independence from the Ottoman Empire. They obviously didn’t like that very much, and his execution was eventually ordered by the sultan.

The AUB museum. It’s very pretty.

Fakhr-ad-Din II’s rule was a high point, and after that, things went downhill. Conflicts between the Maronites and Druze got increasingly violent in the 1800s. The Ottomans helped the Druze conduct massacres of the Maronite population. The Maronites grew more and more discontented with Ottoman rule and were fighting with the support of the French. The British backed the Druze. The Ottomans wanted to maintain the conflict to maintain control. Eventually, foreign powers threatened to intervene, and the Ottomans worked to end the conflict to avoid foreign meddling.

The latter half of the 1800s was more peaceful. The next big disaster struck during World War I when food shortages led to the deaths of almost half of the population. At the end of the war, with Ottoman assets being divided up, control of Lebanon and Syria was given to the French who were meant to prepare the countries for independence.

That’s where I’m going to leave off for now because I’m exhausted, and I assume that if you’ve managed to make it this far with me, you’re also exhausted. Sorry to anyone who fell off somewhere in the middle. I tried to stick to the most interesting and important parts, but we just went through about 7000 years of history so really there’s only so much you can do.

To be continued… HERE

More of the AUB museum.