A trip through Lebanon is a journey through the annals of some of the world’s greatest civilizations. With over 5,000 years of recorded history, the country is a treasure trove of archaeological wonders, waiting to be discovered by visitors who want a glimpse into the ancient and modern past. Most of Lebanon’s historical sites have layers upon layers of ruins, with each layer uncovering the story of another civilization that inhabited this ancient land.
Prehistoric Times (5,000-3,500 B.C.)
A trip through Lebanon’s history begins in Jbail (Byblos), where archaeologists have discovered the earliest known settlements in Lebanon. Today, remnants of prehistoric huts with crushed limestone floors, primitive weapons, and burial jars are evidence of the Neolithic and Chalcolithic fishing communities who lived on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea over 7,000 years ago.
Phoenicians (3,500-334 B.C.)
Lebanon first appeared in recorded history around 3,000 BC, with the settlement of the area by the Canaanites. The Canaanites established great maritime, trade, and religious city-states in several of Lebanon’s coastal cities: Jbail (Byblos), Sour (Tyre), Saida (Sidon), and Beirut. The Greeks referred to these Semitic people as “Phoenicians,” after the Greek word for the expensive purple-dyed textiles that the Phoenicians exported.
Greeks (333-64 B.C.)
In 333 B.C., Alexander the Great conquered the Phoenician city-states, and ancient Phoenicia was absorbed into the Greek Empire (which covered Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East). Greek customs and the Greek language were adopted. Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C. (only 10 years after his conquest of the Middle East), and over 250 years of unrest and dynastic struggles followed. Greek rule in the region was finally overturned by the Roman General Pompey in 64 B.C.
While there are no significant ruins from the Hellenistic period in Lebanon, one notable Greek site for history-lovers is in Sour (Tyre). While most of the Phoenician cities submitted immediately to Alexander the Great’s conquest in 333 B.C., Sour (Tyre) resisted in a year-long siege that destroyed much of the city. Alexander used the debris from the abandoned mainland city to build a causeway to reach the fortified island city and eventually conquer the Tyrians. Today, this causeway has been enlarged with sand to form a peninsula that connects the ancient island city to the mainland. As you walk between the major archaeological sites in Sour (Tyre), you will cross this “Quarter of Sand” (Hay El-Ramel) that was once Alexander’s causeway.
Romans (64 B.C. - 399 A.D.)
Roman rule in Lebanon lasted over 300 years. During this period, the old Phoenician cities continued to grow and prosper as centers of industry and commerce. The coastal cities (Saida, Sour, Beirut) exported cedar, perfume, jewelry, wine, and fruit to Rome and served as trading centers for goods imported from Syria, Persia, and India. Local industries, including the production of silk, glass, purple-dyed textiles, and pottery, flourished under the Romans. Temples and palaces were built throughout the country, as well as paved roads that linked the cities. Christianity also spread to Lebanon during this era, and flourished as the Roman emperors officially adopted the religion.
For a modern-day visitor, it is difficult to travel more than a few kilometers in Lebanon without running into a Roman-era ruin. The country is home to some of the best-preserved and most impressive Roman sites in the world, most notably at Baalbek and Sour (Tyre).
Byzantines (399-636 A.D.)
The Byzantine era in Lebanon began with the split of the Roman Empire in 395 A.D. into the eastern/Byzantine part (with its capital at Constantinople) and the western part (with its capital at Rome). As the Western Roman Empire declined, the Byzantine Empire grew and commercial and intellectual growth in Lebanon’s cities continued.
However, around the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., ecumenical debates and corruption in the church led to increasing unrest. From this religious dissension, the Maronite Church was established and took refuge in the mountainous Qadisha Valley region of Lebanon, and the Valley has remained a place of spiritual refuge and pilgrimage to this day. There are many archaeological remains of Lebanon’s Byzantine era around the country, many built on top of and added to previous civilizations’ cities and sites.
Arabs (660-1258 A.D.)
Many clashes took place at this period between the Byzantine Empire and its opponents mainly the Muslims whose widespread reached the borders of the empire.
The Umayyad Dynasty, which flourished for 100 years (660-750 A.D.) in the first century after Muhammed, was the first of two dynasties of the Arab Islamic empire. The Umayyad caliphs were notable for establishing a large empire, which extended from Spain, through North Africa, to Central Asia. They established Arabic as the official language of the empire, and they are remembered for their excellent city administration and planning and their patronage of early Islamic art and architecture. Following a coup, the Umayyads were replaced by the Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258 A.D.), who shifted power eastward to Baghdad and imposed harsh control in Lebanon and Syria, leading to many local revolts.
Under Arab rule, the region of Lebanon became a refuge for many ethnic and religious groups. Splinter Christian groups, including the Maronites and the Melchites, settled in the Qadisha Valley and Zahlé. Islamic followers of an Egyptian caliph settled in southern Lebanon and established the Druze sect, still a major religious group in the Chouf and other areas of modern-day Lebanon. Shiite Muslims from Egypt also had increasing influence in the region during this era.
Lebanon’s cities continued to prosper as trading and industrial centers under Arab rule. However, there are few archaeological remnants of this period in Lebanon today.
Crusaders (1099-1291 A.D.)
As Arab leadership fragmented, and following Caliph Al-Hakim’s occupation of Christian holy places in Palestine and destruction of the Holy Sepulcher, the Christians of western Europe undertook a series of “Crusades” to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims. The European Crusaders joined with the Byzantine army to take Jerusalem and then marched along the Lebanese coast. Between 1109 and 1124, Lebanon’s key cities (Tripoli, Beirut, Saida, Sour) were all conquered by the Crusaders. Soon after, the Muslim reconquest began, led by Saladin, with the region returning to Muslim control by 1291.
One lasting influence of the Crusades in Lebanon was the creation of renewed linkages between the Maronites and the Roman Catholics. In 1180, the Maronite Church entered a formal union with the Roman Catholic Church, a union that still exists today. There are also numerous archaeological remnants (towers, castles, and churches) of the Crusades scattered along the Lebanese coast and throughout the countryside. Notable sites include:
Mamlukes (1250-1516 A.D.) & Ottomans (1516-1914 A.D.)
Following the Crusades, modern-day Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt came under the control of the Mamlukes. The Mamlukes were originally slave bodyguards (from the Caspian and Caucasus regions) for the Egyptian Ayoubid sultans. However, the Mamlukes overthrew their masters and formed the Mamluke Sultanate. Many Shiite Muslims migrated to Lebanon during this period, and there were increasing religious tensions. After a number of rebellions near Beirut were crushed, the Shiites moved to settle in Southern Lebanon.
The Mamlukes were defeated by the Turkish Ottomans in 1516, and the Ottomans dominated the region for the four centuries preceding World War I.
A tour in the Lebanese History:
At origins: Archeologists in Lebanon have discovered remnants around a million years old, and human traces from the Paleolithic era (around 8,500 B.C.) in grottos.
The Phoenician Era: The history of Lebanon as we know it starts with the Cannanean – Phoenician civilizations. Around 3,500 B.C., the Phoenicians put up their trading counters on the Lebanese coast. These trading city-states rapidly become small yet wealthy kingdoms, like Byblos, Tyre, Sidon, and Arados.
800 B.C.: The Phoenician’s long-lived prosperity starts to decline with the uprising of the Assyrian empire. The latter will be followed by the Babylonians, the Persians and the Greeks.
64 B.C.: The last of the Phoenician cities surrender to the Syrian province of the Roman Empire after their conquest of Pompée.
Up to the year 395 A.C: Commercial and cultural activities prosper and Christianity develops under the Roman domination. Then the Byzantine Empire takes over the control of the region.
637 A.C: Lebanon is conquered by the Arabs and becomes a state of the Omayyad califes before it becomes dominated by the Francs from 1099 to 1291 A.C..
1291 to 1516 A.C.: The crusaders are driven away by the Mamelouks who develop Beirut’s commercial port’s activities.
1516 to 1918 A.C.: The Ottomans reign over the country as masters, however leaving its management to the local emirs.
During the 19th century: Lebanons’ fate vacillates between the Ottoman power and an autonomy that was imposed by Europe. The latter supported the local development of religious communities. A portion of the country’s population, supported by the Europeans, demands its autonomy.
1841: The Mount Lebanon Province is divided into two districts: to the North, the maronites (Bikfaya and the Metn), and to the South the Druze (Beit ed-Dine and the Chouf).
1860: Following the massacre of thousands of Christians by the Druze and Ottomans, Napoleon the 3rd sends an expeditionary mission to Lebanon. This will lead to the autonomy of Lebanon in 1864.
1866: The American University in Beirut is founded.
1875: The St Joseph University is founded.
1916: France and Great Britain sign the Sykes-Picot treaties. Russia ratifies the treaties which separate the Ottoman Empire into influential zones. France awards itself the libanese-syrian coastal strip, among other territories.
1920: Marks the start of the French mandate following the signature of the Sèvres treaty. The state of Great Lebanon is proclaimed.
1943: The independence of the Lebanese Republic is effective on the 22nd of November. Bechara El-Khoury and Ryad Solh conclude a “national pact” which sets the rules of representation for each religious community.
1945: Lebanon participates to the foundation of the Arab League.
1946: French troops leave Lebanon from March to December. The first twenty years of independence are those of great economic prosperity in the Lebanese Republic.
1958: Lebanon is shaken by a civil war (May till September) that is motivated by a disagreement on Egypt and Syria’s joining into the United Arab Republic. President Camille Chamoun, who was opposed to Gamal A.Nasser, calls the United States to the rescue in an effort to save his regime. American troops are sent to Lebanon, however it is the election of President General Chehab that will resolve the crisis. The latter will conduct a policy centered on Arab solidarity.
1967: The 6 Days war drives around 450,000 Palestinians to find refuge in Lebanon.
1969: The first conflict between the Lebanese Government and the Palestinian movement leads to the Cairo agreements which authorized the presence of the Palestinian army in South Lebanon.
1973: Confrontations between the Lebanese army and the Palestinian PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) militia become more and more frequent. Moreover, a number of Palestinian leaders are assassinated by the Israeli commandos. Tension builds up and leads to the burst of the civil war in April 1975.
1975 – 1989: Lebanon endures the civil war.
1976: Syrian troops make an entry in Lebanon in June.
1978: The Syrian troops turn against the Lebanese “Phalangistes”, while Israel occupies the southern Lebanese territory up to the Litani river.
1982: Israel initiates operation “Peace in Galilee” and reaches Beyrouth. The siege of the capital forces the PLO and its leader to flee Beyrouth. The same year, the massacres of the Sabra and Chatila camps are perpetrated.
1984: The Multinational Peace Force leaves Lebanon as violence takes on new heights.
1985: Israel retrieves from the Lebanese Territory but retains the control of a “Security Zone” on the Southern border.
1989: The Taëf agreements are signed on the 22nd of October in Saudi Arabia, thus putting an end to the civil war. The agreements recommend an equitable redistribution of power and a revision of the Lebanese constitution. Following the assassination of President René Moawad, Elias Hraoui is elected to the Presidency of the Lebanese Republic.
1990: The 2nd Lebanese Republic is proclaimed.
1991: Lebanon and Syria sign a common treaty. The new national coalition government summons the break down of armed militias.
1992: Rafic Hariri is elected Prime Minister in October, and the reconstruction of the country and its capital begins.
1996: Israel launches an armed operation called “the Grapes of Wrath” against the Hezbollah positions in Southern Lebanon.
1998: General Emile Lahoud is elected President on the 24th of November.
2000: In May, Israel retrieves its troops from the south.
2005: On the 14th of February, Prime Minister Rafic Hariri is killed, along with 22 others, in a car bomb attack.
2005: In April, Syria retrieves all of its troops from Lebanon in accordance with an agreement signed with the UN.
2006: Israel carries a military offensive in Lebanon from the 12th until the 14th of August.
2008:(25 May) the election of General Michel Sleiman as President of the republic.