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Atlas Lebanon

Country (long form)
Lebanese Republic
Total Area
4,015.46 sq mi
10,400.00 sq km
3,578,036 (July 2000 est.)
Estimated Population in 2050
Arabic (official), French, English, Armenian widely understood
86.4% total, 90.8% male, 82.2% female (1997 est.)
Muslim 70% (5 legally recognized Islamic groups - Shi'a, Sunni, Druze, Isma'ilite, Alawite or Nusayri), Christian 30% (11 legally recognized Christian groups - 4 Orthodox Christian, 6 Catholic, 1 Protestant), Jewish (negligible)
Life Expectancy
68.87 male, 73.74 female (2000 est.)
Government Type
1 Lebanese pound = 100 piasters
GDP (per capita)
$4,500 (1999 est.)
Labor Force (by occupation)
services 62%, industry 31%, agriculture 7% (1997 est.)
banking; food processing; jewelry; cement; textiles; mineral and chemical products; wood and furniture products; oil refining; metal fabricating
citrus, grapes, tomatoes, apples, vegetables, potatoes, olives, tobacco; sheep, goats
Arable Land
foodstuffs and tobacco, textiles, chemicals, metal and metal products, electrical equipment and products, jewelry, paper and paper products
foodstuffs, machinery and transport equipment, consumer goods, chemicals, textiles, metals, fuels, agricultural foods
Natural Resources
limestone, iron ore, salt, water-surplus state in a water-deficit region, arable land
Current Environmental Issues
deforestation; soil erosion; desertification; air pollution in Beirut from vehicular traffic and the burning of industrial wastes; pollution of coastal waters from raw sewage and oil spills
Telephones (main lines in use)
330,000 (1995)
Telephones (mobile cellular)
120,000 (1995)
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
19 (1999)

Lebanon was the biblical 'land of milk and honey', and conquerors have always been attracted to its abundant natural resources, the safe anchorages on the coastline and the defensive possibilities of the high mountains. This has turned the country's history into a who's who of interlopers, pillagers and big-noters.

The shores of Lebanon attracted settlers from about 10,000 BC onwards, and by about 3000 BC their villages had evolved into prototype cities. By around 2500 BC the coast had been colonised by people who later became known as the Phoenicians, one of the Mediterranean's greatest early civilisations. The Phoenicians never unified politically: they dominated as a result of enterprise and intellectual endeavour emanating from a string of independent city states. They ruled the sea with their superior vessels and navigational skills, were exceptional craftspeople and created the first real alphabet.

In the 9th century BC, the Assyrians clomped in, breaking the Phoenician's monopoly on Mediterranean trade. They yielded to the Neo-Babylonians, who were in turn overcome by the Persians (whom the Phoenicians regarded as liberators). 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 Baalbek.

As the Roman empire crumbled, Christianity gained momentum and Lebanon became part of the eastern Byzantine Empire in the 4th century AD, with its capital at Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The imposition of orthodox Christianity didn't sit well, and when Muslims 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.

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 Mamluks, 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 practised 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. Following the Allied victory in 1918, Lebanon came under French rule.

During WWII Lebanon became fully independent and developed into a major trade centre. 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-plus years, insanely complicated civil and international wars, and high-profile hostage-taking, were pretty much standard fare.

An eye-glazing summary follows: the Syrians intervened at the request of the Lebanese president to force an uneasy peace between Muslims and Christians, the Israelis marched in and set up a surrogate militia to protect northern Israel from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the UN sent in peacekeepers to quell internal Christian-Muslim fighting. Israel laid siege to Beirut in 1982, with the stated aim of eradicating the PLO. Israel also supported Christian militias who massacred Palestinian civilians. The PLO was partially evacuated by the USA, and a Multinational Force (MNF) of US and Western European troops was deployed to protect Palestinian and Muslim civilians. When the Israelis withdrew, fighting broke out between Druze Muslim militias and Christian forces, and between Lebanese army units and Muslim militiamen. The MNF suffered heavy casualties and withdrew in early 1984.

The Syrians slowly brought the Muslim areas of Lebanon under their control, but in 1988 Lebanon's new military government sought to expel Syria. The attempt failed and fighting continued until Elias Hrawi, a moderate Maronite in good standing with Syria, seized the presidential reins. By 1992 all foreign hostages were released and Syrian troops began to withdraw. In August 1992 parliamentary elections were held for the first time in 20 years, and Muslim fundamentalists of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah party won the largest number of seats. Rafiq Hariri became the new prime minister. Prime minister Hariri was replaced in 1998 by Selim al-Hoss, and returned to power in 2000. Bickering between President Emile Lahoud and Hariri centres on issues of public spending and privatisation. This frosty relationship sets the scene for a showdown ahead of November 2004 elections.

Skirmishes between Hezbollah and Israeli soldiers continued through 1993, culminating in Operation Grapes of Wrath (1996) - an Israeli bombardment of 80 villages in southern Lebanon. Trouble flared up again in April 1996 when Israel launched more airstrikes on southern Lebanon and Beirut. International response condemned Israel, and the UN swiftly negotiated a cease-fire. The long war cost some 150,000 Lebanese lives and left the country in a ruinous state.

Lebanon's infrastructure and economy are recovering, but it remains at the mercy of greater, regional forces. Over the past decades, many of the players in Middle Eastern affairs have used Lebanon as their battleground, be it the PLO, the Syrians, the Iranians, the Israelis or the UN.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak promised in 1999 to withdraw from the 'security zone' in southern Lebanon, where Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas had been at each other's throats for years. He made good in May of 2000, despite Syria's concerns with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. As troops began evacuating, the Hezbollah moved in rapidly and forced Israeli soldiers into a chaotic retreat under heavy fire, with Lebanese civilians joining in. The withdrawal was celebrated within Lebanon. After the smoke cleared, Hezbollah engineers restored power and water to civilians who'd gone without during the occupation.