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A little history…and lots of stories by Gérard Boulad

‘‘Our ancestors, the Phoenicians…’’ The modern young Lebanese is not nourished from his earliest school days with his relations to a historic past in other climes, is repeated almost like a nursery rhyme. He is not insular for a quite simple reason - so many civilizations have succeeded one another in his country that he comes to regard himself firstly as a Mediterranean, secondly as a citizen of the world, but as a Lebanese all the same. Lebanon always has been a hospitable country - some times willingly and some times unwillingly – from the most ancient times, while still retaining those special virtues which are still to be found today among its citizens without the necessity of looking far for them.

The oldest traces of civilization go back to the Neolithic and Aeneolithic era, as was established by the archaeologist Maurice Dunand at Byblos. But it is generally accepted that the ‘‘historical’’ period of Lebanon : dates back to the fourth millennium before Christ with the inhabitants of Cana - a group of people of different races who lived on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean and who produced the Phoenicians, the first well-defined ethnic entity known in history. The Phoenicians established along the coast a series of independent kingdoms and trading stations – oligarchic republics - which extended from Ruad (Arados) in the North to Askalon in the South and included Bothrys (Batrun), Byblos (Jbeil), Berytos (Beirut), Sidon (Saida), Tyre and sebaste (Caesarea).

Such a practical alphabet!

The Phoenicians, who were great traders and navigators, would appear to have been above all very practical people and peerless adaptors. Whether by instinct or geographical necessity or both, the Phoenician was industrious, with a good eye for business with neighboring countries (particularly Egypt, which bought from him cedar wood, the purple made from murex, spices and fabrics), ready to accept new ideas, to accept all sorts of beliefs and divinities – even to the extent of modifying and appropriating them - and in short with an open-minded attitude to the world which is still to be found in his contemporary descendants, even though the present race is the product of subsequent invasions. Although acting as a broker of neighboring countries and in spite of their openness to the civilized world, they succeed in maintaining a forceful individuality, which can be noted for the fact that each of their illustrious cities remains independent and even rivals. However, their situation is such that they already formed a confederation and occupied roughly the same territory as modern Lebanon, a fact which brings grist to the mill of those who claim that the Lebanese actually are the descendants of the ancient Phoenicians.

The best example of the Phoenicians’ creativity and practical sense is their invention of the alphabet. Should this be attributed to Cadmus or to other scribes of Byblos? It matter little. The fact is that the cuneiform system was considered to be too complicated for trading purposes, so they invented a script consisting of 22 letters which was subsequently adopted by the Greeks (Alpha, Beta,…), the Romans and finally by the whole western world!

The Phoenician hegemony over the east coast of the Mediterranean had its ups and downs. Invaded by the Hyksos, and liberated by the Pharaohs whose subjects they became, and then once more recovering their independence, the Phoenicians maintained economic sway over the area until the ninth century B.C., and even passed through the straits of Gibraltar (the columns of Hercules) to found colonies on the shores of the Atlantic, which soon became prosperous, under the driving force of the navigators of Tyre, who were the pioneers of this expansionist policy. When, later, the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians invaded the area, the Phoenician cities tried to retain their autonomy by either subjecting themselves to or allying themselves with the conqueror but this was already the beginning of their decadence. And yet, when Tyre, was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 B.C., it held out for thirteen years before finally submitting! Two hundred and fifty years later, having insulted Cyrus, it closed its gates against Alexander the Great, who besieged it for seven months. Assisted by the Sidonians, he finally managed to invest the town, massacred the inhabitants and completely destroyed it. The passing bell for the proud Phoenician cities sounded over the corpses of Tyre (332 B.C.)

Another ten centuries were to go by until Phoenicia, now a Roman province under the Pax Romana, regained a little of its prosperity. The ruins of Baalbek and the memory of the famous law school at Beirut (Justinian and Papinian), which had its golden age under the subsequent domination of Byzantium witness to this. The Phoenician cities (Tyre, Tripoli and Beirut) then experienced an unequalled economic and intellectual development, eclipsing the memories of decadent Hellenism and of the Syrian Kingdom of Seleucus, which was condemning them to slow death. However, this development was interrupted by internecine struggles and ideological and religious schisms, aggravated by natural disasters such as the earthquake of 555 A.D., which completely destroyed Beirut and its Law School and the one which shook the temples of Baalbek. Weakened from within by all this strife and with all-conquering Islam attacking its frontiers, the Byzantine Empire collapsed. Heraclius, defeated by Khaled Ebn el-Walid at the battle of Yarmuk (636), abandoned Syria to the Muslims.

The Arab conquest and the Crusades

For nearly four centuries, under the reign first of Omayyades and then of Abbassides, Islam was installed on the eastern basin of the Mediterranean and the interior, and even spread out over the seas thanks to the material (wood) and technical (navigation) assistance of the Christians of the coast – not yet Lebanese – who were tired of Byzantine domination. Thus it was that the Byzantine squadron commanded by Emperor Constant II was destroyed off coast of Lydia by Muslim naval forces in 655.

The assertion of Arab over lordship imparted a new kind of development to the coastal cities. Poetry and literature occupied an important place, as also did science and medicine, but henceforth they were expressed in Arabic. The development of the applied arts, the ceramics industry, glass, textiles and the crafts generally, were accompanied by a vast expansion throughout the Arab world of the period. However, the Abbasside Caliphs were to show themselves less tolerant than their predecessors, and this gave rise to a number of revolts such as that of the Mardaites, later joined by the Maronites (disciples of the pious Saint Maron, who from the chief nucleus of the present-day Christian community of Lebanon).

At this period there were a number of schisms within the Muslim world itself (Shiites, Druzes, Metuallis and Ismaelians). The Arab empire was divided between the Abbasside dynasty of Baghdad and Fatimide of Cairo, and all these rivalries, together with unceasing attacks by the Byzantians and assaults by the Seleucid Turks, prepared the ground for the Frankish invasion which took the from of Crusades (fall of Antioch in 1098). It is worth noting that it was from this period that dates the multiplicity of rites and beliefs making up present-day Lebanon, which bears witness to that same ardent monotheistic faith in its various aspects.

The following century was marked by series of victories and reversals on both Frankish and Arab side, the chief of which were the fall of Jerusalem in 1099, and those of St John of Acre in 1104, Tripoli in 1109, Beirut in 1110 (together with Sidon) and Tyre in 1124. The majority of these towns - except Tyre- were retaken later by the great Salah el-Dine El Ayyoubi (Saladin), who put an end to the second Crusade with his Victory at Hattin (1187). The subsequent Crusades were to end in failure and the general impoverishment of the Lebanese coast, unceasingly torn by warfare, and the majority of the cities were constantly being razed to the ground, built up again and then destroyed again. From this troubled epoch there remain remarkable architectural vestiges – ancient mosques and churches, Frankish castles and Arab fortresses all along the Lebanese coast, recalling images of chivalry and faith. But in spite of the brief periods of peace during which the East and West got to know each other better – chiefly to the advantage of the latter – it would be an exaggeration to state that Lebanon derived any advantages from the Crusades except the pisturesqueness of the present-day landscape.
The Ayyubites (descendants of Saladin) were succeeded by the Mameluks of Turkoman origin, and their domination over the region was to last for nearly three centuries, during which time they fought against both the Franks installed in Cyprus and Cilicia and repeated invasions by the Mongols. Taking advantages of this situation, the Shiites and Druzes of the Kesruan revolted against the Mameluks, but the revolt finished in a blood bath. Nevertheless, the coastal cities began to experience a new era of prosperity, for there was an increase of exchanges with the West at all levels. The age of the Barbery pirates was succeeded by that of the filibusters of trade, with Venice and Genoa attempting to take over the flourishing markets of the East so as to supply the western hinterland to their profit. The galleys of Jacques, the infamous money-lender of Charles VII, dropped anchor at Beirut in 1432, and this port was henceforth to develop progressively until the present day. Apart from the trading stations established in town by the majority of Mediterranean countries, various consular or semi-consular institutions were set up their and were at the origin of the privileges subsequently Known as ‘‘Capitulations’’. While a beginning was made with the distribution of land among the communities in mount Lebanon, the Christian minorities (particularly the Maronites) settled in the North, the Druzes in the southern part of the country and at the foot of Mount Hermon the Shiites to the North of Bekaa and in the Kesruan, while the Sunnites took over the coast and the immediate hinterland.

Fakhreddine II and the Sublime Porte

The purely Arab period was followed by the Turkish period, marked by the fall of Constantinople before Mohammed the Conqueror (1453), while in 1516 Selim I crushed the Mameluks with Sultan Ghuri at their head before Marj Dabek near Aleppo. This was the beginning of the Ottoman epoch which was to last until the beginning of the First World War and which enabled Lebanon to constitute itself as a national entity thanks to the two Emirs who left a mark on their period – Fakhreddine II Maan (1572-1635) and Bechir II Chehab(1789-1840)

Without going into detail regarding the relations between the Sublime Porte and its Lebanese ‘‘province’’, often to the detriment of the latter, for a period of four centuries, it should be pointed out that the division of the country into three administrative ‘‘pashaliks’’ headed by the Maan Emirs in the Chuf, the Chaym Emirs in the Wadi Taym and the Al the Yamani Emirs in the Gharb was due to Selim I. As time went on, the Maan Emirs asserted their predominance, and the personality of Fakhreddine II bursts forth as the foremost political leader of Lebanon, who had the merit of devising and achieving national unity by means of a carefully studied plan of campaign, in spite of the opposition of the Court of Constantinople which was watching his growing power with a jaundiced eye. like a sort of eastern Louis XIV, he succeed in achieving national unity in spite of internecine strife, opened up his country to the West – particularly Italy, having been exiled in Tuscancy for five years as the result of an invasion by the Pasha of Damascus - and prepared the way for the complete rebirth of his country from the point of view of culture, trade and town planning. On his return from exile, he won an important victory over the troops of the pasha of Damascus at Anjar. However, this independence was a cause of misgivings at the Sublime Porte, which decided to get rid of this excessively dangerous Emir. Fakhreddine, defeated near Niha, surrendered to the Turks who took him to Constantinople and executed him with his three children.

Emir Fakhreddine, the great unifier of his country from his fortress at Deir al-Kamar, is a legendary figure renowned for his great religious tolerance; he is revered by his countrymen as the founder of modern Lebanon, who gave his country a sound administration and many historical monuments (the famous mosques of Saida and Beirut, the first printing works to be set up in the East, and even a zoological garden in the capital to say nothing of the Florentine and Tuscan influence which is evident today in Lebanese architecture). After his death, he was succeeded by other Maan emirs who were not so brilliant, and dynasty was die out some sixty years later, giving place to the Shehabs of Wadi Taym, whose hold over the country was confirmed by the victory of Emir Haidar at Ain Dara in 1711 over dissident, Turkophile factions.

Even so, the unification of Lebanon had not been completed. The eighteenth century was marked by a series of internal conflicts, fomented or maintained by various emirs and pashas (Damascus, Saida, etc.). There were also the effects of the Russo- Turkish war, which brought a squadron commanded by Admiral Alexis Orlof to Beirut. The city, having been bombarded by the Russians was occupied by the forces of the Sublime Porte commanded by a Bosniec by the name of Ahmed el- Jazzar (the butcher) who tried to live up to his name and was renowned for his cruelty, exactions and cupidity.

The half-century of the Prince of Beit ed-Dine

This was at the time when Bonaparte, attempting a diversion from his difficulties in Egypt, laid siege to St John d’Acre, strongly defended by the English with help of Jazzar. The future Emperor attempted, in vain, to obtain the help of the young Emir of Beirut – still under the sway of Jazzar- Bechir Kassem Omar, who was later to become Bechir II. Bonaparte had to abandon the campaign and go back to France, with his army decimated and a victim of the plague, while Bechir tried to consolidate his position in relation to the Sublime Porte, though unsuccessfully. In 1799, he was obliged to go into exile in Egypt where he was received by Mohamed Ali, the Victory.

On his return to Lebanon, the Emir Bechir progressively eliminated or became reconciled with the feudal chiefs in the interests of unification and the domestic peace which was so obviously necessary. He succeeded in this by a number of means – some of which were extremely cruel, for although like Fakhreddine he had very acute political, sense, he did not have his liberal outlook. However, the forty years of his reign were marked by the increasing development of national consciousness on the part of the various communities and the increasing significance of the country in international affairs. Domestic achievements were numerous, all of them dominated by the superb place at Beit ed-Dine, where the Emir held court like the princes of the Renaissance. The reign itself, bound up with the destinies of the Viceroy of Egypt, was fertile in events- the intervention in Syria, the war against the Sublime Porte and the Pasha of Acre, the Egyptian occupation of Lebanon, the fall of Damascus, the peace of Kutahia, the Druze revolt at Leja, the battle of Nizib (1839) during which the Sultan’s forces were utterly routed, and finally the Treaty of London followed by the landing of Anglo-Turkish troops at Jounieh and the Emir’s surrender to them after his own troops had revolted.

After his final exile in Malta, Bechir II abdicated in favour of Bechir III, who had been proclaimed by the Anglo-Ottoman forces. However, owing to the unpopularity of the new Emir, there was further domestic conflict. Conflicts of clan and religious interest broke out more violently than before, secretly incited by the Turks, who finally resorted to direct rule. This deplorable policy made things even worse, and internal disorder deteriorated into utter anarchy and civil war. At the request of foreign powers, a French expeditionary force landed at Beirut in September 1860, and an international commission was set up under Sultan Fuad Pasha’s special envoy to restore order and peace. Then began the regime of ‘‘Mutassarifats’’ (prefectures), the first prefect, Daud pasha, being designated at the time of the signature of the 1861 Protocol.

The Ottomans leave

He was succeeded by a number of other ‘‘Mutassarifins’’, none of whom had his authority and competence, for Daud Pasha knew how to restore order in this enfeebled Lebanon and reorganize its government. This was the great public works period but also that of a serious economic crisis which was to cause thousands of Lebanese to immigrate to more or less distant countries, where they established colonies which are known throughout the world.

It was also from this period that dates the renaissance of Arab literature, the creation of important universities, the emergence of the Lebanese press and the awakening of Arab nationalism – elements which play an important part in contemporary affairs.

When the 1914 war broke out, Turkey fought against the Allies, and Lebanon was occupied by the troops of Jemal Pasha. The first defeats he suffered at the Suez Canal made him turn against the Arab nationalists and the populations of Lebanon and Syria. This was the beginning of a period of bloodthirsty repression and a terrible famine, which began with the hanging of Lebanese patriots in the market square of Beirut now known as the place of Martyrs. At the same period there was signed in London the Sykes-Picot Convention dividing the Middle East into five Zones, Lebanon being included in the zone placed under French mandate. This Convention was ratified by the Versailles Treaty, and Clemenceau appointed General Gouraud the first High Commissioner of France in the Levant. This, however, was accompanied by troubles, particularly on the part of Syria (Battle of Mayssalun Against Faisal). However, the Decree of 31 August 1920 signed by Gouraud proclaimed the formation of the state of Grand Lebanon – an independent country with its capital at Beirut.

General Gouraud was subsequently replaced by Weygand and then by Sarrail who had to deal with a revolt by the Druzes in 1925. He was succeeded by Senator Henri de Jouvenel, who proclaimed the Lebanese Constitution and appointed Charles Debbas as first President of the Republic (1926). He was followed by Habib el-Saad, who was in turn succeeded by Emile Eddé, who signed the Franco-Lebanese Treaty of 1936 with High Commissioner de Martel.

Independence and reconstruction

However, it was necessary to wait for the Second World War and the occupation of Lebanon by Anglo-French forces for the proclamation of Lebanese independence to become effective. Following the elections of 1943, which made Bechara el-Khury President of the Republic and Riad el-Solh Prime Minister, French rule was rejected and a ‘‘resistance government’’ formed. It was then that the famous National Pact, which is the basis of existing Lebanese institutions, was proclaimed. General de Gaulle sent General Catroux to restore order and finally recognize the independence of Lebanon (having begun by removing Alfred Naccache, its first president) the results were confirmed; by the election of 22 November 1943, a date which has now become the national holiday. The French mandate, under which many errors had been committed but a great deal achieved to the advantage of the new state, came to an end.

There followed a period of stabilization and reconstruction under such pioneers of independence as Bechara el-Khury and Riad el-Solh, whose work was pursued by presidents Camille Chamoun, Fuad Shehab, Charles Hélou and Soleiman Frangié, the present Head of State who is intent on pursuing the road pointed out by his predecessors. In spite of the 1958 troubles and the difficulties arising from the Israeli-Arab conflict, Lebanon, which has belonged to the Arab League since 1945, is confident of its historic destiny as part of the great Arab nation, while remaining fully open to the Western world, the third world and the developing countries of the entire planet.

Lebanese institutions

We cannot give here an exhaustive list of the Lebanese characteristics which contribute to the charm of the country and, sometimes, to the surprise of visitors. But it is essential to mention some of these which will enable you to understand and therefore like the country better.

Lebanon, of course, has been known for a long time as ‘‘the Switzerland of the Middle East’’. This description applies not only to its shape, situation and relief, but also to its economic liberalism which has made Beirut one the most important banking and commercial centers of the world - and not only of the Arab world. What ever may be the mysteries of Lebanese economics and statistics, one thing is certain. A great deal of important international business is handled - or even initiated - in Beirut, and the importance of the city as a market has been increased owing to the new Arab wealth accruing from oil. It is in this field of activities that the fantastic flexibility of the Lebanese and his business sense resembling that of the ancient Phoenicians manifest themselves.

While agriculture is still the chief traditional resource of the country, we should not ignore the development of industry which, in 1974, accounted for exports totaling more than 800 million Lebanese Pounds (the Lebanese Pound is equal to about two Francs).

So far as parliamentary institutions are concerned, the most important feature is the distribution of parliamentary power according to religious confessions. The 99 seats are shared as follows – 30 Maronites, 20 Sunnites, 19 Shiites, 11 Greek Orthodox, 6 Greek Catholics, 6 Druzes, 4 Armenian Orthodox, 1 Armenian Catholics, 1 Protestant and one representative of the other minorities. This inter-confessional balance is also maintained in the public services and government departments, with the obvious purpose of maintaining a balance, which is also a guarantee of unity.

The Head of state, who is traditionally a Maronite is elected for six years by an absolute majority vote of deputies, while the Prime Minister, who is appointed by him, is traditionally a Sunnite. As is evident, tradition plays a very important part in Lebanese life, and not only in the political field. Striking examples may by found in every day life where both public and private ceremonies, such as marriages and burials are concerned. Such ceremonies are often accompanied by shots fired in the air as a sign of joy or mourning (a feature incidentally to be found among other Mediterranean societies).

University and cultural life

However, it would be quite wrong to suppose that the whole of Lebanon devotes itself to nothing but business. Another tradition – the one dating back to the famous Law School of Beirut – should also be remembered. What with universities proper and university institutions, there are no less than seven establishments in Beirut and its suburbs with a total of nearly sixteen thousand students in a wide variety of faculties. The Lebanese University alone has of 6.000 and has, in addition to the traditional faculties, an advanced teachers’ training school, an institute of social science and a school of fine arts. The Arab University, affiliated to that of Alexandria, also has a civil engineering institute and a total of nearly 1.500 students. Nearly as many attend the courses of the Ecole Superieure des letters attached to the French cultural mission (this includes a centre of mathematical studies), while the American University crowds 2.500 students into its various faculties installed in an American-style campus - an oasis of verdure in the concrete desert of Beirut. The Jesuit University of saint Joseph, which provides teaching in all subjects including Engineering, Law and Medicine, prepares 3.000 students to face the future of Lebanese life. Lastly, the Kaslik University Center includes a faculty of theology and philosophy to which has just been added an institute devoted to architecture and the fine arts, while the Haigazian College (650 students) has an institute of Armenology - which, incidentally, is not the only one of its kind - in addition to the conventional faculties. It should be noted that all these figures have increased by 200% since 1965 or thereabouts.

We shall not go into details regarding primary and secondary education. This country which invented the alphabet has the highest percentage of school attendance in the East – a tribute to its past! Foreign schools flourish in complete freedom, and the Press, in accordance with the complexity of the rest of Lebanese life, consists of more than forty two newspapers appearing in four languages! This should suffice to indicate the cultural level and the quality of writers, poets, historians and essayists, many of whom enjoy international reputations.

A few days passed in Lebanese society would be sufficient to convince you - eloquently - of this!

Continue the article: How to feel at your ease in the Beirut of social life and pleasure

Decree N. 2385 of 17/1/1924 as amended by law N. 76 of 3/4/1999 ( articles 2, 5, 15, 49 and 85 ) lays down as follows: The author of a literary or artistic work, by the very fact of authorship, has absolute right of ownership over the work, without obligation of recourse to formal procedures . The author will himself enjoy the benefit of exploitation of his work, and he possesses exclusive rights of publication and of the reproduction under any form whatsoever. Whether the work in question comes under the public domain or not those persons will be liable to imprisonment for a period of one to three years and to fine of between five and fifty million Lebanese pounds, or to either one of these penalties, who 1-will have appended or caused to be appended a usurped name on a literary or artistic work; 2-will have fraudulently imitated the signature or trademark adopted by an author, with a view to deceiving the buyer; 3-will have counterfeited a literary or artistic work; 4-or will have knowingly sold, received, or put on sale or into circulation a work which is counterfeit or signed with a forged signature. The punishment will be increased in the event of repetition.



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