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History of Lebanon

WARNING: Terrorist threats and violence exist in Lebanon, please read this travel warning before going!

Although people have been living in what is today known as Lebanon for over a million years, the first organized society to have developed in the region was by the Canaanites in the 1000s BC. By the 700s BC, with some outside introductions, these people became the Phoenicians. These groups are credited with developing the world's first sound-based alphabet (for their Semitic language), which is where the world phonetics derives from.

The Phoenicians became accomplished seafarers and soon colonized much of the Mediterranean Sea with settlements as far as Spain and their most famous stronghold, Carthage, in modern day Tunisia. However the Phoenicians were struggling to hold their lands in modern day Lebanon as the Achaemenid Dynasty of Persia was pushing west and shortly after Alexander the Great and the Greeks took over the land in the 300s BC from the west (although numerous Phoenician colonies lived on, most notably Carthage).

The region remained under Greek control, specifically the Seleucid Dynasty, until 63 BC when the Romans took the land and incorporated it with the region of Judea (modern day Israel). The region remained under Judea rule until 135 AD when it was incorporated into Syria-Palaestina (Palaestina the new name for the region that is now Israel).

It was during this time that Christianity was introduced in Israel and it quickly spread to the region of Lebanon, more particularly due to the Jewish revolts and the fleeing of the Christians during those times. This began the Christian population in the country, a population that substantial grew after the region was incorporated into Byzantium rule in the 300s AD.

In the 600s Islam was introduced by the Prophet Muhammad and soon spread north to the region of today's Lebanon. The religion was adopted by many people in the region, but the conversion was a slow process and most people remained Christian for some time.

In the 1100s the European Crusaders decided to take the Holy Land (Jerusalem) and the region of Lebanon happened to be in their way. This led to great armies traveling through the region, eventually dividing the land into two kingdoms: the north became the country of Tripoli and the south became a part of Jerusalem. This occupation by Christian European forces led to great strongholds and forts in the region, but also solidified the country's Christian base, which was still significant at the time.

In the 1200s the Muslims took the region back under the Mamluks of Egypt. The following century though the Ottoman Turks began pushing its boundaries and in the 1500s they defeated the Mamluks and took the region of Lebanon. At Ottoman victory the Lebanese gained some autonomy from Syria, to which it was linked under Mamluk rule.

In the 1500s and 1600s the Lebanese rulers promoted religious tolerance and a single Lebanese identity to unite the people. They also developed better infrastructure along with a series of forts. These improvements worked to a great degree as the people worked together under Fakhr ad-Din II's rule. The country also built a large army with the goal of full independence from Syria, something that took time to build and accomplish without threats from Syria. In 1623 the Syrians attacked, but the Lebanese won the decisive battle, giving Lebanon full control over its border, answering directly to the Ottoman rulers.

In 1697 the Shihab family came to power in Lebanon and converted to Christianity. This family controlled the region until the 1800s. It was under these rulers that the Ottomans from Damascus (in modern day Syria) went to war with the city of Acre, a war that resulted in the death of thousands of Christians. This led to wars based on religion as the Christians, Druze, and Muslims all fought in the 1820s. The Christian leader at the time sought help so allied with the Egyptian Pasha, Muhammad Ali, then sought French assistance. These acts led to the defeat and increasing poverty of the Druze and the expanding wealth and power of the Christians.

This new power balance only lasted about a decade when the Ottomans took the region back over and thrust the region back into violence. This violence began as small battles, but by 1860 had turned into full scale war. The Christians at this point had outright demands to remove the Ottomans from power. They did this with French backing, but then the Druze turned to France's enemy, the British for backing and received it. These wars ended in Druze victory, at which point the French stepped in, with Europe's backing to end the violence; the Christians were confined to the region of Mt. Lebanon.

The rest of the 1800s were relatively stable and remained so until the Ottoman Empire was overthrown by the "Young Turks" who sought a more liberal country after World War I. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to the League of Nations putting modern day Lebanon fully under French control. This agreement also expanded Lebanon's territory at the expense of Syria, creating some tension, but more importantly a new Lebanon, in which Christianity was now the minority, a change from the past, when Christians made up the majority.

During World War II, in 1943 Lebanon was granted independence. This was done at this time, partially due to the fact that Syria was importing weapons for Germany to fight the British in Iraq and Lebanon threatened to do the same; granting them independence prevented them from siding with Nazi Germany.

After WWII, Israel was formed and in 1948 the Arab-Israeli war broke out. This led to a massive flooding of the country with Arab refuges, many of whom remain in Lebanon to this day.

Through the 1950s the country fought instability, but was relatively calm on the military front. This calm continued into the 1960s as politics stabilized. During this time the country, most particularly Beirut, became a center of economics and tourism as many of the oil-rich nations in the Middle East placed their money in the stable Lebanese banks. However this ended in 1966 with the collapse of one of the country's largest banks.

Times worsened in 1967 when another Arab-Israeli war broke out and many more people settled in Lebanon, including Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). From this point on many attacks on Israel were launched from Lebanon, as the government either couldn't control these people or simply chose not to. This led to counter-attacks by the Israelis as they struck the Beirut airport. This led to the government finally stepping in to end the violence, but only divided the people between Muslims and Christians as many Muslims supported the actions of the Israeli invaders.

Tensions continued to rise as the people were divided on how to handle Lebanon and its attackers until 1975 when civil war broke out. From this point until 1990 civil war occurred as Muslims sought greater power and representation in the government and people both domestically and abroad argued over the role of the PLO. This essentially escalated everything as this group tended to divide the country. The PLO eventually took a region in the south of the country, ruling it like an independent country. When the Christian-led government took action against them the Muslim population and other Arab countries fought the government, when the government did nothing violence escalated, attacks by Israel rose, and the Christian population sought an end to the PLO's dominance in the south.

The time period of the civil war led to treaty after treaty, but no real solution as the people simply disagreed on what was an acceptable solution. In 1990 the country came to an uneasy truce as the government's seats were divided between the Muslims and Christians.

By 1990 nearly every armed resistance group fighting Israel was disarmed except Hezbollah, while Syrian military units also gained a presence in the country to maintain stability. Since this time the country has, with some success, been trying to rebuild their war torn nation. In the 2000s much of the world asked the government to remove their armed movements, including Hezbollah and Syrian troops, an act which the government had somewhat fulfilled by 2005 due to international pressure. However, these issues still linger in the country and through the process numerous political leaders were assassinated.

Since 2005 relations with Israel have improved as Israel returned most of the land they took from Lebanon in the wars. Meanwhile relations with Syria have declined due to Syrian involvement in Lebanese politics, their military's resistance to leave, and other factors. These issues have not yet disappeared though and in 2006 Hezbollah again attacked Israel as the Lebanese government continues to try to remove them from the country, or at least demilitarize them.

This page was last updated: March, 2013