Beirut, 5000 Years in the Making

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Beirut is a city of baffling contradictions whose character blends the sophisticated and cosmopolitan with the provincial and parochial. Our city sits atop two hills, Al-Ashrafīyeh (East Beirut) and Al-Muṣayṭibeh (West Beirut), which protrude into the sea as a roughly triangular peninsula. In the immediate hinterland lies a narrow coastal plain (Al-Sāḥil) that extends from the mouth of the Nahr Al-Kalb (Dog River) in the north to that of the Nahr Al-Dāmūr (Damur River) in the south.

 The antiquity of Beirut is indicated by its name, derived from the Canaanite name of Beʾerōt (Wells), referring to the underground water table that is still tapped by the local inhabitants for general use.

For most outsiders, Beirut’s history begins and ends with its bloody civil war, waged for 15 years along the infamous Green Line that cut the city in two, with Muslims to the west and Christians to the east. But its story stretches back much further than its modern strife, and the city’s surface today conceals a fascinating, though often barely visible, ancient history.

The earliest traces of habitation in Beirut date from the Stone Age when the area now occupied by the city was in fact two islands in the delta of the Beirut River. Later, when the river silted up, the area became one land mass. It seems likely that the area has been continuously occupied throughout prehistory, thanks to its location favorable with fresh water and abundant fish from the sea.

Between Martyrs Square and the seaport, a Canaanite site has been uncovered dating back to 1900 BC. This Bronze Age city has an entrance gate of dressed stone. Nearby are the remains of Phoenician canals with sloping sides.

The first historical reference to Beirut dates from the 14th century BC, when it was mentioned in cuneiform tablets discovered at Tell al-Amarna, Egypt, in the form of letters from the Canaanite king of Beirut begging the pharaoh Amenhotep IV for assistance in repelling Hittite invaders.

The Phoenician port of Beirut was located between Rue Foch and Rue Allenby on the north coast. It now lies buried under the city. Although in Phoenician times, Beirut appeared to have been overshadowed by Sidon, Tyre and Byblos, but after Alexander the Great’s conquest it started to be mentioned in Hellenistic sources, and excavations have revealed an extensive Hellenistic city upon which the later Roman grid was based.

Agrippa conquered Beirut in 64 BC and the city was renamed in honor of the emperor’s daughter, Julia; its full name became Colonia Julia Augusta Felix Berytus. The veterans of two Roman legions were established in the city: the 5th Macedonian and the 3rd Gallic. The city quickly became ‘Romanized’; large public buildings and monuments were erected and Berytus enjoyed full status as a part of the empire.

It wasn’t until the Roman period, however, that the city really came into its own, both as a commercial port and military base, with large public buildings and monuments swiftly erected, along with a series of baths, a theatre and a number of markets. Evidence of both the baths and the main public square, the Cardo Maximus, are still visible today in modern Beirut.

By the 3rd century AD, the city had found particular fame and prestige through its School of Law, one of the main Roman centers of jurisprudence, which rivaled those of Athens, Alexandria and Caesarea. It was actually here, ironically, that the basis of the famous Justinian Code, upon which the Western legal system drew inspiration, was established. The city’s importance as a trading hub and center of learning continued as the Roman Empire gave way to the Byzantine; its commercial enterprises flourished around the silk trade, and Beirut became the seat of a bishopric. But then, in 551, a devastating earthquake, combined with a tidal wave, almost destroyed the city, killing a vast number of citizens. The School of Law was quickly evacuated and moved to Sidon, and the calamity marked a decline of the city that was to last for centuries.

In 635, the city fell to Muslim Arab conquerors, who seized it without much effort, and their rule went uninterrupted until 1110 when, after a long siege, the city fell into the Crusader hands of Baldwin I of Boulogne, and a Latin bishopric was established. It remained in Crusader hands for 77 years, during which time the Crusaders built the succinctly titled Church of St John the Baptist of the Knights Hospitallers, on the site of an ancient temple (now the Al-Omari Mosque).

In 1187 Saladin (Salah ad-Din) managed to wrest the city back into Muslim hands, but was only able to hold on to it for six years before Amoury, King of Cyprus, besieged the city and Muslim forces fled. Next, under the rule of Jean I of Ibelin, the city’s influence grew and spread throughout the Latin East, but the Crusaders lost the city again, this time for good, in July 1291, when the Mamluks took possession of it. Under Mamlūk rule, Beirut became the chief port of call in Syria for the spice merchants from Venice.

The Mamluks remained in control of Beirut until they were ousted from the city by the Ottoman army in 1516. Once part of the powerful Ottoman Empire, the city was granted semi autonomy in return for taxes paid to the sultan. One of its emirs, Fakhreddine (Fakhr ad-Din al-Maan II), established what was in effect an independent kingdom for himself and made Beirut his favorite residence, becoming the first ruler to unite most of the territory encompassed by modern Lebanon under one authority. Fakhreddine’s keen business sense led him to trade with the European powers, most notably the Venetians and french, basing his trading empire around silk, and Beirut began to recover economically and regain some of its former prestige. The sultan, meanwhile, became alarmed over Beirut’s growing power and confronted Fakhr ad-Din’s army, defeating him at Safed. Fakhr ad-Din was captured and taken to Constantinople, where he was executed in 1635.

The 18th century, though, would present mixed fortunes for the city, depending on the whims and preferences of the local rulers, still ironically resonant today. Emir Bashir Shihab II (1788–1840) injected it with new vigor, renewing prosperity and stability, but in 1832 entered into an alliance with Ibrahim Pasha, son of the rebellious Mohammed Ali of Egypt. Mohammed Ali’s threat to the Ottoman Empire, and by extension to the balance of power with Europe, alarmed the British and in 1840 the city was bombarded and subsequently recaptured for the Ottomans by the combined Anglo-AustroTurkish fleet, and Emir Bashir was sent into exile.

The population of Beirut at that time was only 45,000, but a booming silk trade and the influx of Maronites fleeing massacres in the Chouf Mountains and Damascus led numbers to double during the following 20 years. This was the start of the commercial boom that transformed Beirut from a backwater into a commercial powerhouse, and also marked the beginning of European meddling in Lebanon. The massacres of the Maronites resulted in the arrival of French troops in Beirut, while ties with Europe steadily grew in the coming decades.

In 1866 Syrian and American missionaries founded the Syrian Protestant College, now known as the American University of Beirut (AUB), which soon became – and remains today – one of the most prestigious universities in the Middle East. In 1881 French Jesuit missionaries established St. Joseph University. Printing presses, introduced earlier by Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries, stimulated the growth of the city’s publishing industry, mainly in Arabic but also in French and English. By 1900 Beirut was in the vanguard of Arabic journalism. A class of intellectuals sought to revive the Arabic cultural heritage and eventually became the first spokesmen of a new Arab nationalism.

During WWI, Beirut suffered a blockade by the Allies, which was intended to starve out the Turks. This, combined with a series of natural disasters, resulted in widespread famine, followed by plague, which killed more than a quarter of the population. A revolt broke out against the Turks and resulted in the mass hanging of the rebel leaders in what became known as the Place des Martyrs (Martyrs’ Square). WWI ended Turkish rule and on 8 October 1918 the British army, including a French detachment, arrived in Beirut; on 25 April 1920 the League of Nations granted a French mandate over Lebanon and Syria and Beirut became the capital of the state of Greater Lebanon. ‘Greater Lebanon’ was created by attaching neighboring districts, which had been part of the former Ottoman provinces of Beirut and Damascus.  In 1926 the Lebanese Republic is formed and a constitution drawn up, much of which is still in force today.

During WWII Beirut was occupied by the Allies and, thanks to its port, became an important supply center. In 1943 Parliament reaffirmed the independence of the country, to which France responded by imprisoning President al-Khoury, Prime Minister Riad Solh and three cabinet ministers. A general strike and uprising took place. Under pressure from the British and American Governments, France backed down. A new flag with a green cedar tree in the middle replaced the French tricolour.

The 1948 Arab-Israeli War and then the 1967 Six Day War saw huge numbers of Palestinian refugees settle in refugee camps south of Beirut, where, despite massacres and intense poverty, they remain today. Nevertheless, the 1960s were truly swinging in Beirut, with international superstars arriving to putter on its waters on private yachts and party the night away in its seafront hotels. Between 1952 and 1975 Beirut was the hub of economic, social, intellectual, and cultural life in the Arab Middle East. In an area dominated by authoritarian or militarist regimes, the Lebanese capital was generally regarded as a haven of liberalism, though a precarious one. With its seaport and airport, coupled with Lebanon’s free economic and foreign exchange system, solid gold-backed currency, banking, secrecy law, and favorable interest rates, Beirut became an established banking centre for Arab wealth, much of which was invested in construction, commercial enterprise, and industry (mostly the manufacture of textiles and shoes, food processing, and printing). Foreign banking and business firms found in Beirut an ideal base for their operations in the Arab Middle East. The “free zone” of Beirut port was a leading entrepôt for the region. A skilled professional class provided varied sophisticated services for a pan-Arab clientele. Beirut was also a centre for tourism. The large number of daily and weekly newspapers, journals, and other periodicals, which were normally uncensored, kept the Arab world informed about regional and world developments and provided a full array of editorial opinion. An underlying lack of consistency and organization, however, and an undercurrent of social and political unrest and inter sectarian conflict never escaped notice. This prosperity would be short-lived, though, and all hopes of a glorious Beiruti ‘Paris of the East’ effectively died with the coming of the civil war in 1975.

The civil war saw Beirut transformed into a bloody, terrifying epicenter of anarchy. The city was ruled, area by area, by militias loyal to one of various factions; the infamous Green Line tore the city into Christian and Muslim halves, while massacres, hostage-takings and suicide bombings soon became commonplace. Continual intercommunal fighting between militias, combined with shelling from Israeli fighter planes, soon devastated the city, leaving tens of thousands of human casualties and a shattered economy. By 1991, the end of the civil war saw the Green Line dismantled and the arduous task of rebuilding began, but the scars are still evident in the old bullet holes that pockmark many buildings. Even in those bad years, however, economic activity in Beirut never ceased entirely. Industry, reverting in many cases from the factories to home production, continued to supply domestic and Arab markets, where Lebanese goods remained in high demand. With press censorship still the rule in many Arab countries, Lebanese printing, catering to the Arab world at large, actually expanded during the war years to become one of the country’s major industries, a true testament to the Lebanese spirit.

In 1989 all parties agreed to a peace negotiated at a meeting of leaders in Taif, Saudi Arabia. The Taif agreement reasserts the belief in a state where the different confessions will co-exist. It gave increased powers to the Prime Minister and fewer powers to the President. The results of the conference had broad international approval but encounter domestic opposition. The first President, Rene Mowad, was assassinated after only a short time in office and was replaced by Elias Hrawi.

The post-war government faced a daunting task in repairing the country’s destroyed infrastructure. Recent events have cast a dark shadow over the city’s troubled modern history. The Israel–Hezbollah offensive of 2006, though causing little damage to the center of Beirut, devastated some southern suburbs, and deflated the hopes of many Beirutis for a prosperous, forward-looking future. Meanwhile, the resulting economic downturn, combined with a spate of killings of anti-Syrian MPs (most notably former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005) had led many Beirutis to believe that plenty of storms are still to be weathered.

As we approach another critical time of Beirut’s life, remember we are just a glitch in its history, and somehow over the last 5000 years Beirut has taught itself to survive somehow unaided. It has taught itself to walk through fire, until the flames no longer burned but its skin became scarred and it couldn’t see itself underneath it. From the ashes it will rise. Let dust fall from its aching limbs, unmoved by ghosts of yesterday.

We left it to burn, but did we ever thought or truly believed that it could rise from the ashes? She fights on, believing… Do we?

To my Beirut and the beauty of its strength in withholding the tides of time… to another episode of its life this Sunday…

today’s post is a special one. It’s the longest post I have written so far and it’s in light of the elections on Sunday. Today’s post is on the history of Beirut dating 5000 years… Somehow we forget that this city has outlived centuries of heart ache… Today’s post is dedicated to my Beirut, who will outlive us all and yet is so dependent on our decisions and actions…
To my Beirut… vote… vote… vote… ‪#‎beirutmadinati‬

3 thoughts on “Beirut, 5000 Years in the Making

  1. Thank you very much for setting up this blog. It’s so informative for people like me who came to Beirut recently to discover this country and the whole Middle East.


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