Lebanon - Background information


History
Natural history
People and culture

History

Abridged from the History section in Lebanon: the Bradt Travel Guide

Lebanon as an independent state is a recent creation, but its shores have been populated since the dawn of time, with the country’s history telling of wave after wave of mostly foreign conquest and occupation. Lebanon’s location within the Fertile Crescent also assures it of a place among the Cradles of Civilisation, for it was in this region that one of the oldest civilisations on earth has been recorded: the Sumerian people from Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq c5000bce. This early non- Semitic tribe is credited with the invention of the wheel, the measurement of time and its division into hours and minutes, as well as the oldest known form of writing, a wedge-like cuneiform script inscribed on clay tablets to aid business transactions. Furthermore, the origins of the world’s three monotheistic religions and civilisations – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – are inextricably linked to the history of the Middle East.

Lebanon’s history can be seen in the architectural and cultural achievements left by a succession of foreign invaders and rulers. More than 400 years of Turkish rule have left an indelible footprint of Ottoman-style architecture in Beirut and the Chouf Mountains. The ancient Phoenician ramparts are less conspicuous, but the Temple of Echmoun in Sidon and the Temple of Baalat Gebal in Byblos remain the most visible reminders of this once innovative civilisation. The relatively short-lived Roman occupation has bequeathed some of the most aweinspiring architecture to be seen in the Middle East, at Baalbek. The onset of Muslim rule in the 7th century has left a unique and delicate archaeological legacy at Aanjar in the Bekaa Valley in the form of an Umayyad trading town, courtesy of the first of the Arab dynasties. Two centuries of Crusader presence in Lebanon has left imposing monuments in Byblos, Sidon, Beaufort and Tripoli, whilst the French colonial era has left a range of Parisian-style architecture in the capital. With such a rich and varied history, Lebanon is an ideal destination for aficionados of archaeology and culture in one of the region’s smallest, yet most fascinatingly diverse, countries.

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural History section in Lebanon: the Bradt Travel Guide

Whilst Lebanon may lack the predominantly dry conditions of neighbouring states in the region, the country more than makes up for this by being the most heavily wooded country in the Middle East: the Mount Lebanon and North Lebanon regions have the highest concentration of forested areas. The marked variations in topography, varying between upland, lowland and plateau, together with equally diverse meteorological conditions and a large water resource in an otherwise severely depleted region have helped to ensure Lebanon’s rich biodiversity. Species range from sub-tropical to alpine. Combine this with a government and a variety of NGOs actively conserving the country’s natural beauty and promoting the importance of the environment and sustainability issues, and Lebanon has all the ingredients for those interested in an ecotourism adventure.

Beirut, Lebanon © Paul Doyle

Beirut boasts a dramatic coastline © Paul Doyle

Flora

The coastal areas of Lebanon are particularly lush and are an important agricultural region. Among the vegetation that grows and is cultivated here are orange, lemon, banana, palm and olive trees. In the mountains, pine, juniper, oak, fir, beech and cypress trees are abundant and comprise just a portion of Lebanon’s estimated 2,600 species of flora, of which 12% are endemic. Lebanon’s most famous flora, and the country’s national symbol, is the cedar tree (Cedrus libani), which are found in a number of areas, the most well known being in the environs of Bcharré in northern Lebanon and the Chouf Mountains southeast of Beirut.

Progressive deforestation since biblical times, which saw the ancient Egyptians use the resin from the tree to embalm their pharaohs and the Phoenicians use the wood to build their ships, has severely depleted the cedars’ numbers but many still remain and some are estimated to be around 2,000 years old. The much drier Bekaa Valley lacks any significant tree population and the flora here is mainly characterised by fields of vegetation and vineyards.

Springtime throughout the country sees smaller vegetative types such as poppies, anemones (a type of buttercup), narcissus, clematis, cyclamen, wild herbs, shrubs and the vibrant Lebanon violet carpeting the landscape.

Fauna

The mountain and rural landscapes of Lebanon provide a haven for a range of animal life such as deer, wild cats, porcupines, badgers, foxes, squirrels, hedgehogs, hares, wolves, wild boar, goats and gazelles. The country’s plentiful rivers are well stocked with eels, bass and mullet, and a variety of turtles such as the endangered green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) lay their eggs on the Palm Islands Nature Reserve off the coast of the northern city of Tripoli and in southern coastal regions such as Tyre and Naqoura.

A number of snake species have been identified which range from the nonvenomous large whip snake (Coluber jugularis), Lebanon’s biggest serpent, which can grow to more than 2m in length, to the much smaller, though venomous, Palestinian viper (Vipera palaestina), as well as many types of lizard including the vibrant Levant green lizard (Lacerta media) and the Mediterranean chameleon (Chamaeleo chameleon). Snakes are particularly prevalent during the warmer summer months, and to help avoid being bitten the usual advice about wearing shoes or boots in areas where they are known to reside, and not to poke around in crevices with your hand, obviously applies.

For ornithology enthusiasts, Lebanon’s varied geography and its location on the important north–south African–Eurasian migration route off er a wealth of bird habitats and sighting possibilities. At the time of writing, Lebanon has some 15 sites which BirdLife International has designated as Important Bird Areas (IBAs). In total, BirdLife International have identified 294 different bird species, including the Syrian serin (Serinus syriacus), Bonelli’s eagle (Aquila fasciata) and the chukar (Alectoris chukar), around the coastline and inland regions of Lebanon, with numerous other types observed at the Palm Islands Nature Reserve off the coast of Tripoli, such as finches, ospreys, broad-billed sandpipers, mistle thrush and tern, choosing to build their nests on the islands. Cuckoos, eagles, kites, falcons, quails, vultures and woodpeckers are present in the mountains and nature reserves such as those in the Chouf and Horsh Ehden. In the marshlands of the Bekaa Valley, ducks, flamingos, herons, storks, buzzards, hoopoes, kestrels and golden eagles all use the area as a stop-off point on their annual migratory routes, flying north in spring (early March–mid-April) and south in autumn (mid-September–mid-October), prime birdwatching seasons.

People and culture

Abridged from the People section in Lebanon: the Bradt Travel Guide

The people

In Lebanon, the issue of the sectarian balance of the population is also a highly political one in this confessional-based society. No formal headcount has been undertaken since the last census in 1932 during the French Mandate era, with little prospect of another any time soon. Christians remain sensitive about their diminishing numbers relative to other sects, whilst the Shi’ite and Sunni sects are in no hurry to see their relative numerical sizes known. According to the latest available data from 2016, however, the overall population stood at 6,237,738 with nearly 88% of people residing in urban areas and well over two million resident in the capital, Beirut. In 2014 Lebanon’s population growth rate was estimated at 9.37%, the highest in the world, owing to the continuing influx of Syrian refugees fleeing their country’s hostilities, a rate that has since slowed considerably to 0.85% since stringent border controls were introduced. An astonishing figure is the additional c10–15 million Lebanese, or those of Lebanese descent, living outside the country, the largest number living abroad of any Arab nation. Many of these have fled the country over the years – a mass migration which began in the 19th century, to escape wars, unemployment, and political and sectarian repression – and have settled in North and South America (an estimated seven million Lebanese or those of Lebanese descent reside in Brazil alone), Australia, New Zealand and Europe.

Arabs

Bekaa Valley, Lebanon © Paul Doyle

Ethnically, Arabs – an eclectic name for equally diverse religious and ethnic groups – comprise some 95% of Lebanon’s total population. Out of this total some 54% are Muslim, spread across the different denominations such as Sunni, Shi’ite, Druze and Alawite, with the remainder, around 40.5%, composed of myriad Christian sects such as Maronite (21%), Greek Orthodox (8%) and Greek Catholic (5%) plus around 6.5% of smaller Christians sects such as Armenians and Copts. Many Christians, however, often eschew the word ‘Arab’ in favour of being identified with their ancient Phoenician roots, while the Druze, an offshoot from Shi’ite Islam comprising some 5.6% of the population and concentrated mainly in the Chouf and Metn mountains and Wadi al-Taym further south, are considered by many to be so far removed from Islam’s basic tenets so as to constitute an entirely separate religion. There are also differences between the Sunni and Shi’ite sects and this variety adds to the cosmopolitan mix, rendering Lebanon a fascinating place for visitors, evident in its contrasting architectural styles (churches, mosques, temples) and costumes, together with a variety of celebrations and festivals.

Syrian Refugees

Lebanon’s population has swelled significantly over the past few years owing to the spillover effect from the ongoing hostilities in neighbouring Syria which began in March 2011, which has resulted in a refugee and humanitarian crisis unprecedented in the modern era. The country is at the time of writing hosting c1.6 million Syrians who have fled their country’s war zone and who are now housed in makeshift camps and other often substandard accommodation at c1,600 locations around Lebanon, mostly in the Bekaa Valley and northern Lebanon with smaller concentrations in Beirut and south Lebanon. It remains difficult to assess the long-term impact of the refugee situation and future resettlement issues, but it is certainly accentuating Lebanon’s pre-existing economic and social problems, and augmenting political and sectarian schisms within Lebanese society.

(Photo: Bekaa Valley © Paul Doyle)

The culture

Cultural life in Lebanon is infused with confusions and contradictions, making this small country a fascinating mosaic of cultural mores for visitors. For a country that has been to hell and back many times throughout its history, a perhaps surprising, yet salient, aspect of cultural life is the overwhelming sense of friendliness, hospitality and openness of its people – evidenced by the warm and smiling ‘Welcome to Lebanon’, or an offer of a drink or meal – traits you can find from Tripoli to Tyre and across the religious spectrum. Greetings, too, can maybe be more gregarious than you might expect in an Arab country, with three kisses on the cheek and a hug a common welcome to friends and family, though a normal handshake is customary for an initial welcome.

The family remains the bedrock of Lebanese society across all regions and religious groups, creating a sense of community within and outside the home; even in the capital people will often have an extended family living close by. Traditionally, sons and daughters generally live at home until they marry, with the expectation that they will do so within their own sect, though times are slowly changing on this point. The importance of family life is extended to visitors, too, as Lebanese adore children, and yours will be made a fuss of. Lebanese women espouse a beauty and a glamour that can seem to belie their Arab traditions and they are generally less constrained by religion than many of their Arab sisters.

Lebanon remains a male-dominated society, as are most Arab countries, and one area where this is most noticeable, or, more accurately, absent, is the issue of homosexuality. As it is deemed to be an act against nature according to Lebanese law and punishable by prison, you will be very unlikely to see any gay cruising on the streets of the capital or elsewhere in the country, but obviously it still occurs and Beirut has a handful of venues that are gay-friendly and increasingly there are organisations and information websites available offering advice and support. As a gay visitor, however, discretion is advised and public displays of affection should be avoided.

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