Condensed History of Lebanon

The area now known as Lebanon first appeared in recorded history around 3000 B.C. as a group of coastal cities colonised by the Phoenicians, seafaring people related to the Canaanite, and one of the Mediterranean's greatest early civilisations.

They created the first real alphabet, and became the most notable traders and sailors of the ancient world ruling the sea and became thriving mercantile centres under the cultural influence of Babylonia, worshipping the god Baal.

The fleets of the coast cities traveled throughout the Mediterranean and even into the Atlantic Ocean, and other nations competed to employ Phoenician ships and crews in their navies. In connection with their maritime trade the city-kingdoms founded many colonies, notably Utica and Carthage in north Africa, on the islands of Rhodes and Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea, and Tarshish in southern Spain.

Tyre was the leader of the Phoenician cities before they were subjugated, once again, by Assyria during the 8th century BC. When Assyria fell during the late 7th century BC, Phoenicia, except for Tyre, which succeeded in maintaining its independence until about 538 BC, was incorporated into the Chaldean Empire of Nebuchadnezzar II and, in 539 BC, became part of the Persian Empire. Under Persian rule Sidon became the leading city of Phoenicia.

The Phoenicians never unified politically: they dominated as a result of enterprise and intellectual endeavour emanating from a string of independent city states. Each of the coastal cities was an independent kingdom noted for the special activities of its inhabitants. Tyre and Sidon were important maritime and trade centers; Gubla (later known as Byblos and now as Jbeil) and Berytus (present-day Beirut) were trade and religious centers. Gubla was the first Phoenician city to trade actively with Egypt and the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 B.C.), exporting cedar, olive oil, and wine, while importing gold and other products from the Nile Valley.

The most important Phoenician contribution to civilization was the alphabet. Purple dye, called Tyrian purple, the manufacture of textile, and the invention of glass, are also ascribed to the Phoenicians. Phoenician cities were famous for their pantheistic religion. Each city had its special deity, usually known as its Baal, or lord, and in all cities the temple was the center of civil and social life. The most important Phoenician deity was Astarte.

In the 9th century BC, the Assyrians break the Phoenician's monopoly on Mediterranean trade, and they rule from 875 to 608 B.C. Assyrian rule (875-608 B.C.) deprived the Phoenician cities of their independence and prosperity and brought repeated, unsuccessful rebellions. Assyrian ruler, Tiglath-Pileser, subdued the rebels and imposed heavy tributes. Oppression continued unabated, and Tyre rebelled again, this time against Sargon II (722-05 B.C.), who successfully besieged the city in 721 B.C. and punished its population. During the seventh century B.C., Sidon rebelled and was completely destroyed by Esarhaddon (681-68 B.C.), and its inhabitants were enslaved. Esarhaddon built a new city on Sidon's ruins. By the end of the seventh century B.C., the Assyrian Empire, weakened by the successive revolts, had been destroyed by Babylonia, a new Mesopotamian power.

The Assyrians yielded to the Neo-Babylonians, who witnessed more frequent revolts in the Phoenician cities. Tyre rebelled again and for thirteen years resisted a siege by the troops of Nebuchadnezzar (587-74 B.C.). After this long siege, the city capitulated; its king was dethroned, and its citizens were enslaved. The Achaemenids ended Babylonian rule when Cyrus, founder of the Persian Empire, captured Babylon in 539-38 B.C. and Phoenicia and its neighbors passed into Persian hands. Cambyses (529 - 522 B.C.), Cyrus's son and successor, continued his father's policy of conquest and in 529 B.C. became suzerain of Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. The Phoenician navy supported Persia during the Greco-Persian War (490-49 B.C.). But when the Phoenicians were overburdened with heavy tributes imposed by the successors of Darius I (521-485 B.C.), revolts and rebellions resumed in the Lebanese coastal cities.

The Phoenicians finally declined when Alexander the Great swept through the Middle East in the 4th century BC and Phoenicia was gradually Hellenised. In 64 BC, Pompey the Great conquered Phoenicia and it became part of the Roman province of Syria. Beirut became an important centre under Herod the Great and splendid temples were built at Baalbeck.

Byzantine Empire
In the 4th century AD, as the Roman empire crumbled, Christianity gained momentum and Lebanon became part of the eastern Byzantine Empire, with its capital at Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The imposition of orthodox Christianity didn't sit well, and when the Mohammedans brought the word of Allah from the south, they faced little resistance in Lebanon. The Umayyuds, the first great Muslim dynasty, held sway in Lebanon for about a century, but faced opposition from indigenous Jews and Christians, especially the Syrian Maronite sect who took refuge around Mount Lebanon. After the Umayyuds fell to the Abbasids in 750, Lebanon became a backwater of the Persian-flavoured Abbasid Empire. This empire lasted until the 11th century before being tipped out by the Fatimid dynasty, who struggled on until the rise of the Crusaders. The Crusaders had their sights set on Jerusalem, but marched down the Syrian and Lebanese coast, linking up with the Maronites, before savaging the Holy City.

Ayyubids and Mamluks
The Muslim Ayyubids got their claws into Syria, Egypt, western Arabia and parts of Yemen until they were overthrown by the strange soldier-slave kings known as Mamlukes, who ruled Lebanon from the end of the 13th century for the best part of 300 years. The Mamluks faded with the rise of the Ottoman Empire and Lebanon's tribal leaders - the Tanukhid emirs (Druze) of central Lebanon and the Maronites - formed conflicting alliances with various local factions.

The Ottoman Sultan Selim I conquered Lebanon in 1516-17 but was temporarily undermined by Fakhreddine (Fakhr ad-Din II) (1586-1635). Fakhreddine was not only ambitious, he was also wily and politically smart, talents that allowed him to unite, for the first time, the area that became known as modern Lebanon. In fact he was a little too smart for his own good, and his paymasters executed him. Fakhreddine was followed by his nephew Ahmad Maan, who was not quite the talent his uncle was although he did play the game well enough to be 'awarded' an emirate by the Ottomans. When Ahmad Maan died, power passed to the Shihab family, who reigned until 1840, when internal power struggles brought the age of emirs to an end. In 1842, the Ottomans divided Mount Lebanon into two administrative regions, one Druze and the other Maronite. That they immediately set to squabbling was anticipated and encouraged by the Ottomans, who practiced a 'divide and rule' policy. By 1845, there was open war, not only between Druze and Maronite, but also between peasants and their supposed feudal leaders. The Ottomans, under pressure from Europe, created a single Lebanese administrative unit under an Ottoman Christian governor and the feudal system was abolished. The system worked, producing stability and economic prosperity until WWI, when Lebanon came under Turkish military rule and suffered a serious famine.

Modern Days
Following the Allied victory in 1918, Lebanon came under French rule. During World War II Lebanon became fully independent and developed into a major trade center. Lebanon's fatal flaw was that power rested with the right-wing Christian population while the Muslims (almost half the population) felt they were excluded from real government. Add large numbers of displaced Palestinians and there were all the ingredients for conflict. Civil war broke out in 1975 between a predominantly Muslim leftist coalition and Christian right-wing militias. Over the next 20 years, insanely complicated civil and international wars, and high profile hostage-taking, were pretty much standard fare.