While there is evidence of a settlement in Tripoli as far back as 1400 BC, its past is likely to go back even further. By the 8th century BC, what had been a small Phoenician seaside trading post had grown with the arrival of traders from Sidon, Tyre and Arwad (Aradus, which became Tartus in Syria). Each community settled within its own walled area, giving rise to the Greek name Tripolis, meaning ‘three cities’.
During the rule of the Seleucids, and later the Romans, Tripoli prospered but a massive earthquake in AD 543 altered the geography of the port area completely and razed most of the town. It was quickly rebuilt but by AD 635 a general of Mu’awiyah, the governor of Syria and founder of the Umayyad dynasty (AD 661–750), besieged the city and attempted to starve it into submission. The inhabitants of Tripoli escaped by sea with Byzantine help and the town was resettled by a military garrison and a Jewish colony.
Between 685 and 705 the Byzantines captured and resettled the city. It was then recaptured by the Muslims and incorporated into the Umayyad and, later, Abbasid caliphates. By the end of the 10th century, as the Abbasids were losing their grip on the region, the Shiite Fatimids took control of Tripoli. They held onto it until 1069, when one of the city’s judges, from a family named Banu Ammar, declared Tripoli’s independence. Under Ammar rule, the growing city became a centre of learning renowned for its school, Dar al-Ilm (literally ‘Abode of Knowledge’), with a library containing some 100, 000 volumes.
When the Crusaders, led by Raymond de Saint-Gilles of Toulouse, first arrived in 1099, the Ammars persuaded them to bypass Tripoli, bribing them with lavish gifts. However, Tripoli’s agricultural wealth was too glittering a prize and Raymond returned some three years later. Tripoli’s rulers brought in reinforcements from Damascus and Homs, but Raymond defeated the three armies with only 300 men. He then built a fortress, the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, on a hill inland from the busy port area and controlled land trade coming into the city.
Tripoli’s leaders launched repeated raids on the fortress, eventually mortally wounding Raymond. Just before he died he signed a truce guaranteeing safe passage in and out of the city for its inhabitants and this lasted only until his successor, Guillaume Jourdain, took over and once again imposed the blockade with the assistance of the Genovese fleet, which blocked the city from the sea. After four increasingly desperate years under siege, the city finally fell to the Crusaders in June 1109. The victors sacked the city and set fire to the magnificent library at Dar al-Ilm.
Tripoli became the capital of the County of Tripoli and the Crusaders managed to hang on to the city for 180 years, during which time the economy, based on silk-weaving and glass-making, prospered. Academic traditions were revived too, although this time it was Christian schools, rather than Islamic ones, that led the way.
The Mamluk sultan, Qalaun, took the city of Tripoli in 1289, massacring most of the population and razing the port city. Qalaun built his new city around the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles and once again the area flourished: the souqs, mosques, madrassas (schools where Islamic law is taught) and khans that form the bulk of present-day Tripoli’s monuments are testament to the city’s economic and cultural prosperity in Mamluk times. The Turkish Ottomans, under the rule of sultan Selim I, took over the town in 1516. When the mutasarrifa (administrative district) of Mt Lebanon was created in 1860, Tripoli was still ruled by the Ottomans; however, it fell within the boundaries of the French Mandate of Greater Lebanon in 1920.
Since independence in 1946, Tripoli has been the administrative capital of northern Lebanon. Conservative and predominantly Sunni Muslim, it was perhaps natural that the pro-Arab nationalist forces, led by Rachid Karami, based themselves here in the civil war of 1958. The labyrinthine old city was almost impossible for outsiders to penetrate and Karami’s men held out for several weeks.
In the 1975–91 round of fighting, Tripoli suffered a lot of damage – especially during the inter-Palestinian battles of 1983 – but it still fared better than the south of the country. Both during and after the war, the city’s population grew rapidly, swelled by refugees, including large numbers of Palestinians, most of whom today reside in the UNRWA-administered Beddawi and now-infamous Nahr el-Bared refugee camps on the outskirts of the city.