Before its independence in 1946, Lebanon formed a part of Greater Syria.
The area of modern-day Lebanon lays claim to having one of the oldest civilisations in the world; its shores have likely been permanently settled since around 10,000 BC. The archaeological remains at Byblos, in particular, show several millennia of constructions.
By around 2500 BC, the coast was colonised into city-states by a Semitic group who came to be known as the Phoenicians. For more than 1500 years, they would watch the ebb and flow of great civilisations before the tide ebbed for them, too.
The emerging city-states were very much independent entities. They were first brought together under the rule of the Akkadians, who marched out of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) in search of conquest and natural resources. Under the rule of Sargon of Akkad (r 2334–2279 BC) the eastern Mediterranean area flourished, particularly ports such as Byblos. This grew wealthy on trade with the Egyptians, who needed plentiful supplies of timber (from Mt Lebanon), a resource lacking in their own country.
By about 1550 BC Egypt had removed itself from under the occupation of Asiatic Hyksos invaders, who had fought to control the country for more than a century. To completely banish the threat, the pharaohs pursued their former tormentors north, leading to a period of expansion of the Egyptian empire.
In 1480 BC, a revolt organised by more than 300 local rulers was easily crushed as Egypt was firmly established in what is now the Palestinian Territories and southern Syria. In the north, however, the various principalities coalesced to form the Mitanni empire. They held off all Egyptian attempts at control, helped in part by their invention of the horse-drawn chariot.
The Mitanni empire was subsumed by the encroachments of the Hittites (1365 BC) from a region corresponding with today’s central Turkey. By 1330 BC all of Lebanon was firmly under Hittite control. The region became a battleground for the Egyptian and Hittite superpowers. They clashed at the bloody Battle of Kadesh on the Nahr Al Aasi (Orontes River) in Syria around 1300 BC, the battle seeing the Egyptians retreat south. Finally, the two opposing forces signed a treaty of friendship in 1284 BC. It left the Egyptians with the south and the Hittites with what corresponds to modern-day Syria and Lebanon.
Still living in tandem with the Egyptians and Hittites were the Phoenicians, who occupied several towns along the Mediterranean coast and successfully traded with Egypt to the south, Mesopotamia to the east and Anatolia to the north. Having no military ambitions, they were not seen as a threat to the great powers of the region. Despite their innovations and skills as artisans and traders, the Phoenicians never became unified politically, and instead remained independent city-states along the Lebanese coast. Gebal (Byblos, later Jbail) and Tyre (also known as Sour) were the most important of these cities, followed by Sidon (Saida) and Berytus (Beirut).
A Spoil of War
By the 13th century BC, the Egyptian empire was in decline and was under threat on several fronts. In the eastern Mediterranean this threat came from the ‘Sea Peoples’, of whom little is known, except that one group was the Philistines, who settled on the coastal plain in an area that came to be known as the Plain of Philistia. These sea peoples – possibly from the Aegean or Crete – overthrew the Hittites.
Adding to the melange was a further influx of new people, the Aramaeans, a seminomadic race from the deserts to the south. These were unable to repel the attentions of the powerful Assyrian empire (1000–612 BC) to the east and by 732 BC all of Lebanon was under the command of Sargon II.
For the next 400 years, the region was little more than a spoil of war, ceded to the Babylonians after their king Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Assyrians and then to the Achaemenid Persians who captured Babylon in 539 BC.
Greeks & Romans
Alexander the Great defeated the forces of King Darius III at Issus (333 BC) in what is now southeast Turkey, opening the way for his armies to storm through Syria and Palestine on his way to Egypt. On his death, his nascent empire was divided among his bickering generals. Ptolemy I gained Egypt and southern Syria, while Seleucus I Nicator established a kingdom in Babylonia that spread to include the north Syrian centres of Antioch, Apamea, Lattakia and Cyrrhus.
The Seleucids disputed the Ptolemiac dynasty’s claim to Lebanon and the Palestine and finally succeeding in ousting them in 198 BC, under the leadership of Antiochus III. A further aggressive campaign of expansion by the Seleucids brought them up against the new power of Rome. In the resulting clash, the Seleucids were defeated and in 188 BC Antiochus was forced to cede all his territories in Asia Minor. However, it wasn’t until 64 BC that the Roman legate Pompey finally abolished the Seleucid kingdom, making it a province of Rome with its capital at Antioch.
After emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in AD 313, the new religion, now legitimised, soon dominated the empire. This rosy state of affairs was abruptly shattered in the 7th century when the Persians once again descended from the north, taking Damascus and Jerusalem in 614 and eventually Egypt in 616, although Byzantine fortunes were revived when the emperor Heraclius invaded Persia and forced the Persians into a peace agreement. In the south, however, the borders of the empire were being attacked by Arab raiders. This was no new thing, but these Arabs were different. They were ambitious followers of the teachings of a prophet named Mohammed, and they called themselves Muslims.
The Advent of Islam
With the Byzantine empire severely weakened by the Persian invasion, the Muslims met with little resistance and in some cases were welcomed. In 636, the Muslim armies led by Khaled ibn Al Walid won a famous victory at Yarmouk, near the modern border between Jordan and Syria. The Byzantine forces could do little but fall back towards Anatolia. Jerusalem fell in 638 and soon all of Lebanon and Syria was in Muslim hands.
Because of its position on the pilgrims’ route to Mecca, Syria became the hub of the new Muslim empire that, by the early 8th century, stretched from Spain across northern Africa and the Middle East to Persia (modern Iran) and India. Muawiyah, the governor of Damascus, had himself declared the fifth caliph (successor to Mohammed) in 658 and then went on to found a dynasty, the Umayyads, which would last for nearly 100 years.
Umayyad rule was overthrown in 750, when the Abbasids seized power. This new and solemn religious dynasty moved the capital of the Arab world to Baghdad, relegating Syria to backwater status. By 980 Lebanon had fallen under the rule of the Fatimid dynasty, whose capital was Cairo.
A plea from Pope Urban II in November 1095 for the recapture of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem resulted in a Crusade of hundreds of thousands of people on the road to the Holy Land. All along their route, cities such as Antioch, Aleppo, Apamea, Damascus, Tripoli, Beirut and Jerusalem, weakened by their own rivalries and divisions, were exposed to the invaders’ untempered violence.
The atrocities inflicted on the population of Maarat Al Numan in December 1098 were perhaps the nadir of Crusading behaviour, but the same excesses of savagery also marked the taking of Jerusalem on 15 July 1099, when only a handful of Jewish and Muslim inhabitants escaped alive.
Following the capture of the Holy City, the Crusaders built or took over a string of castles. Nureddin (Nur ad Din), the son of a Turkish tribal ruler, was able to unite all of Syria not held by the Franks and defeat the Crusaders in Egypt. His campaign was continued by Saladin (Salah ad Din), who recaptured Palestine and most of the inland Crusader strongholds. Saladin’s compromise with the Assassins led to the Crusaders remaining on the coast.
Prosperity returned with the rule of Saladin’s dynasty, known as the Ayyubids, who parcelled up the empire on his death. They were succeeded by the Mamluks, the freed slave class of Turkish origin that had taken power in Cairo in 1250, just in time to repel the onslaught from the invading Mongol tribes from Central Asia in 1260. Led by the fourth of their sultans, Beybars – a great warrior hero of Islam – the Mamluks finally managed to rid the Levant of the Crusaders by capturing their last strongholds, taking Acre in 1291 and the fortified island of Ruad (Arwad) in 1302.
The Ottoman Turks
By 1516 the Ottoman Turks occupied the Levant and would remain there for the next four centuries. Up until the early 19th century, the region prospered under Turkish rule. By the 19th century, though, groups of Arab intellectuals in Syria and Palestine, many influenced by years of study in Europe, had set an Arab reawakening in train. The harsh policies of the Young Turk movement of 1908 further encouraged both opposition to Turkish rule and the growth of Arab nationalism.
World War I & the French Mandate
During WWI, the region was the scene of fierce fighting between the Turks, who had German backing, and the British based in Suez. The enigmatic British colonel TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, and other British officers involved with the Arab Revolt encouraged Arab forces to take control of Damascus, and urged Emir Faisal, the leader of the revolt, to set up a government in 1918.
When Arab nationalists proclaimed Faisal king of Greater Syria (an area that included Palestine and Lebanon) and his Hashemite brother, Abdullah, king of Iraq in March 1920, the French moved swiftly to force Faisal into exile. Later the French were formally awarded the mandate over Syria and Lebanon by the League of Nations.
Under pressure from the Lebanese Christian Maronites, the French employed what amounted to a divide-and-rule policy. They split their mandate into Lebanon (including Tyre, Beirut and Tripoli); a Syrian Republic, whose Muslim majority resented their presence; and the two districts, Lattakia and Jebel Druze.
The French attempt to create a Lebanese nation fell foul of growing Arab nationalist sentiment, which held that Arabs should live in a greater Arab homeland, rather than arbitrarily drawn nation states. For the Maronites, who looked towards Europe, Arab nationalism was a threat. Hostility to the French led to uprisings in 1925 and 1926.
Scant attention was paid to the opposition, and in 1926 the French and their Maronite allies drew up and passed a new constitution for Lebanon, sowing the seeds of the country’s troubled future. The document formalised a largely symbolic power-sharing formula, but Maronites still managed to secure a virtual monopoly on positions of power. Sunni Muslims boycotted the constitution, which was suspended in 1932. In 1936, the Franco-Lebanese treaty was signed, promising eventual independence for Lebanon; the following year a new constitution was drawn up but not ratified by the French.
World War II & Independence
When France fell to the Germans in 1940, Syria and Lebanon came under the control of the puppet Vichy government until July 1941, when British and Free French forces took over. The Free French promised independence – and delivered it five years later – but only after violent clashes (and French bombing) in Syria in 1945 had compelled Britain to intervene.
In Lebanon, the various religious and political factions came together in 1943 to draw up the Lebanese National Covenant, an unwritten agreement dividing power along sectarian lines on the basis of the 1932 census.The president was to be Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker of the house a Shiite. Parliamentary seats were divvied up between Christians and Muslims in the ratio of six to five. The Maronites were also given control of the army, with a Druze chief of staff. Dividing the country along sectarian lines from the very start was to be a major source of strife for years to come.
In November 1943, the fledgling Lebanese government of President Bishara Al Khouri went a step further and passed legislation removing all references to French Authority in the constitution. The French retaliated by arresting the president and members of his cabinet, and suspending the constitution. Britain, the US and the Arab states supported the Lebanese cause for independence, and in 1944 the French began the transfer of all public services to Lebanese control, followed by the withdrawal of French troops. Independence was declared in 1946.
Early Years of Independence
The early years of independence for the fledgling government weren’t easy. First came economic strife and next, on 14 May 1948, the declaration of Israeli independence in former Palestine. Immediately, Lebanese soldiers joined pan-Arab armies and Palestinian fighters in the struggle against Israel. During 1948 and 1949, while war raged, Palestinian refugees flooded north into Lebanon; Amnesty International claims that the tiny nation absorbed more Palestinians than any other country, more than 100,000 by the end of 1949 alone. Though initially welcomed into Lebanon, the Maronite majority soon became uneasy about the refugees, mostly Sunni Muslims, who threatened to tilt their precarious balance of power. In 1949 Lebanon accepted an armistice with Israel, but although 1948’s UN Resolution 194 stated that refugees should be allowed to return home if they wanted to, in most cases this didn't eventuate. The Palestinian refugees, largely against their own and locals’ will, were in Lebanon to stay.
By the 1950s the National Assembly was once again struggling against economic crisis. In 1952 staunchly pro-Western president Camille Chamoun quickly garnered Muslim enemies by refusing all notions of pan-Arabism (the creation of a united Arab entity in the Middle East), and in 1958, when his term was about to end, the unpopular president tried to extend his presidency to a second term. Lebanon’s first civil war soon erupted, with pro-Western Maronites pitted against largely Muslim, pan-Arabist opponents. Chamoun panicked, turning to the US for help, and on 15 July 1958, 15,000 US troops landed in Beirut.
The presence of US troops quelled trouble, and Chamoun was finally persuaded to resign, to be replaced by a new president, Fouad Chehab. With Chehab’s talent for smoothing ruffled feathers, Lebanon soon prospered. Civil war, believed the optimistic Lebanese, was a thing of the past.
By the mid-1960s, Beirut, the newly crowned ‘Paris of the East’, was booming, but Palestinian refugees and the Shiites of the south remained in poverty. As Beirut basked in newfound riches, the less fortunate grew bitter and restive, and the good times were already numbered.
The outbreak of the 1967 Arab–Israeli Six Day War brought yet more Palestinian refugees into Lebanon. Refugee camps soon became centres of guerrilla resistance, and the government watched impotently as Palestinian attacks on Israel from Lebanese soil rapidly increased.
In May 1968, Israeli forces retaliated across the border. Meanwhile, with sectarian tensions growing, the Lebanese army clashed violently with Palestinian guerrillas. Palestinian forces proved too strong an opponent for the army, and in November 1969 Lebanon signed the Cairo Agreement with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), agreeing to large-scale autonomy of its refugee camps and refugees’ freedom ‘to participate in the Palestinian revolution’.
Maronite opposition to the agreement was immediate. Many Muslims, on the other hand, felt an innate sympathy for their fellow Palestinians. In response, a group of Christians known as Phalangists began to arm and train young men, and by March 1970 fighting between Phalangists and Palestinians had erupted on Beirut’s streets as southern Lebanon suffered under Israeli reprisals against relentless guerrilla attacks. Rapidly, the country factionalised and took up arms.
It’s widely agreed that Lebanon’s civil war began on 13 April 1975 when Phalangist gunmen attacked a Beirut bus, killing 27 Palestinian passengers. Soon, there was outright chaos. In December, Phalangists stopped Beirut traffic and killed Muslim travellers. Muslims retaliated, prompting ‘Black Saturday’ during which around 300 people died.
The slaughter rapidly reached horrific proportions. In January 1976, Phalangists led a massacre of some 1000 Palestinians in Karantina, a Beirut slum. Two days later, Palestinians attacked the southern coastal town of Damour and killed more than 500 Christians. In August, Phalangists set their sights on the Tel Al Zaatar refugee camp in northeast Beirut, killing between 2000 and 3000 Palestinian civilians.
Soon Beirut was divided along the infamous Green Line, which split the city in two, with Christian enclaves to the east and Muslims to the west. Though allegiances and alliances along its border would shift many times in the coming strife, the Green Line would remain in place for 15 years.
Syria & Israel Intervene
In 1976 the civil war gave Syria a reason to send tens of thousands of troops into Lebanon. Though initially sympathetic to the Palestinians and the pan-Arab cause, it wasn’t long before Syria switched allegiance to the Maronite side, occupying all but the far south and angering other Arab countries. Nevertheless, in October 1976 the Arab League brokered a deal with Syria, allowing it to keep 40,000 troops in Lebanon as part of a peacekeeping ‘Arab Deterrent Force’. Syria was left in primary control of Lebanon, and the first of the civil war’s 150 short-lived ceasefires was declared.
At the same time, Palestinian attacks on Israel continued, prompting Israel to launch ‘Operation Litani’ in 1978, swiftly occupying most of southern Lebanon. Immediately, the UN demanded Israel’s withdrawal and formed the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to ‘restore international peace’. Though Israel withdrew to a 19km ‘security zone’, it simultaneously installed a puppet South Lebanon Army (SLA) and proclaimed an 1800-sq-km region south of Nahr Al Litani (the Litani River) ‘Free Lebanon’. For the coming years, this area was mired in war.
In 1982 Israeli ‘Operation Peace for Galilee’ troops marched into Lebanon headed for Beirut, supported tacitly by Maronite and Phalangist leaders. By 15 June, Israeli forces had surrounded and besieged West Beirut, bombarding 16,000 PLO fighters entrenched there. Heavy fighting ensued, and in just two months the city was in ruins – 20,000 people, from both sides of the Green Line, were dead. The infamous Sabra and Shatila massacres, perpetrated by Phalangist forces in refugee camps under Israeli control, were particularly horrific. On 21 August the PLO left Beirut, guaranteed safe passage by multinational forces. By now, however, battle was also raging in the Chouf Mountains, the historic preserve of Druze and Christians, until then free from the ravages of war. The Lebanese army joined the Phalangists and Israelis against the Druze, who themselves were aided by the Shiite militia Amal, until the US intervened and another ceasefire was brokered.
By this time the US was becoming increasingly entrenched in the war, appearing to favour Israel and Lebanon’s beleaguered government. In 1983 came the reprisals. In April, an Islamic Jihad–organised suicide attack on the US embassy in Beirut left 63 dead. In October, suicide bombers hit the US and French military headquarters in Beirut, killing more than 300. In 1984 abductions and the torture of foreigners – whose involvement in Lebanese affairs the abductors deeply resented – began. The following year, international forces hastily left Lebanon.
Battle of the Camps
In early 1985 the last Israeli troops finally withdrew to their self-proclaimed ‘security zone’, leaving their interests in the hands of the SLA and Christian militias, who immediately clashed with Druze and Shiite opponents around Saida. In West Beirut fighting continued between Shiite, Sunni and Druze militias, all battling for the upper hand.
In the midst of the chaos, PLO forces began to return to Lebanon. Concerned, however, that this would lead to a renewed Israeli invasion of the south, the Shiite Amal fought to remove them. Heavy fighting battered the Palestinian refugee camps during 1986, causing many more thousands of casualties.
To add to the confusion, in 1987 the National Assembly government finally fell apart and split in two, with a Muslim government to the west of Beirut and a Christian administration to the east. Fighting along the Green Line continued to rage as Christian leaders attempted to drive Syria from Lebanon, angering Syria still more by accepting arms from Iraq, Syria’s gravest enemy. It wasn’t until 1989 that a road to peace finally seemed viable, with the drafting of the Taif Accord.
Road to Peace
The Taif Accord, the product of a committee consisting of the Saudi and Moroccan kings and the Algerian president, proposed a comprehensive ceasefire and a meeting of Lebanon’s fractured parliament to discuss a new government charter, which would redress the Christian–Muslim balance of power. The accord was formally ratified on 5 November 1989, and constitutional amendments included the expansion of the National Assembly from 99 to 128 seats, equally divided between Christians and Muslims.
Despite some resultant in-fighting, in August 1990 the National Assembly voted to accept the terms of the Taif Accord. With the exception of the still-occupied south, the country saw peace for the first time in 15 years, and the civil war officially ended on 13 October 1990.
Syria’s continued presence in Lebanon beyond the civil war was justified with reference to Lebanon’s weak national army and the government’s inability to carry out Taif Accord reforms, including dismantling militias, alone. In 1990 Syria formalised its dominance over Lebanon with the Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination, followed in 1992 by a defence pact. In May 1991, most militias – except Hezbollah – were officially dissolved. In line with Taif Accord conditions, Syria began its military pull-out in March 1992, taking another 13 years to complete the job. The last Westerners kidnapped by Hezbollah were released in 1992.
From 1993 onward, the Lebanese army and life were slowly rebuilt and Rafic Hariri, a Lebanese-born multimillionaire and entrepreneur, became prime minister.
Meanwhile, the south remained impoverished and was the base for Israeli-Hezbollah skirmishes. In 1993 Israel launched ‘Operation Accountability’ and in 1996 ‘Operation Grapes of Wrath’ in response to Hezbollah and Palestinian attacks; the latter was a land-sea-air offensive that devastated newly rebuilt structures, destroyed Beirut’s power station and killed around 106 civilians in the beleaguered southern village of Qana.
In 1999 Israel launched further attacks, targeting Beirut’s power stations, while Hezbollah continued its offensives. Sustained Israeli losses led to calls within that country for military withdrawal, and its army finally withdrew from southern Lebanon on 24 May 2000. However, Hezbollah stated that Israel would remain its target until Israeli troops were also withdrawn from Shebaa Farms, a 31 sq km area southeast of Lebanon that had been captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. In the years since the civil war, this bone of contention has frequently been the alleged reason for Hezbollah violence and Israeli retaliation.
In Lebanon, discontent rumbled on. Maronite groups opposed Syria’s refusal to withdraw from Lebanon while Shiites and Hezbollah continued to support its presence. On 2 September 2004, the UN issued Security Council Resolution 1559, which called ‘upon all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon’. Syria still did not comply, and on 20 October 2004, Prime Minister Hariri tendered his resignation, announcing that he would not be a candidate to head the next government.
Killing of Rafic Hariri
On 14 February 2005, a massive Beirut car bomb killed the former prime minister, Rafic Hariri, and 21 others. Many Lebanese placed the blame firmly on Syria and attended demonstrations calling for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, for an independent commission to investigate the murder of Hariri, and for the organisation of free parliamentary elections. Together, these events became known as the Cedar Revolution. On 14 March, Lebanon’s largest-ever public demonstration was held in Martyrs' Sq, Beirut, with between 800,000 and one million attendees spanning sectarian divisions. The result was the March 14 Alliance, an anti-Syrian governmental alliance led by Hariri's son, Saad; Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces Party; and Walid Jumblatt of the Druze-led Progressive Socialist Party (PSP).
With the UN, the USA, Russia and Germany all backing Lebanese calls for withdrawal, Syria finally bowed to pressure, withdrawing its 14,000 remaining troops from Lebanon on 27 April 2005 after almost 30 years of occupation. For the first time in more than two decades, Lebanon was completely free from military forces other than its own.
The 2005 parliamentary elections, the first after Syria’s withdrawal, saw a majority win for the March 14 Alliance led by Saad Hariri, with Fouad Siniora elected Lebanon’s new prime minister. The elections also saw Hezbollah become a legitimate governmental force, winning 14 seats in parliament, while in the south its fighters continued to launch attacks on Israeli troops and towns. Though Siniora publicly denounced the attacks, it seemed that once again Lebanese authorities were powerless to stop them.
In 2006 Israel again invaded southern Lebanon, aiming to reduce Hezbollah capacity. A ceasefire was brokered a month later after a military stalemate that inflicted significant civilian casualties.
The 2009 parliamentary election saw the March 14 Alliance winning 71 of the 128 available seats. The March 8 Alliance, made up of the Free Patriotic Movement, Amal, Hezbollah and five smaller parties, won 57 seats. Saad Hariri became prime minister.
Hariri's government collapsed in 2011 after March 8 Alliance ministers withdrew from the cabinet (PSP-aligned ministers had withdrawn even earlier in the picture) and a long period of factional wrangling ensued, with several interim administrations, a 2½ year stand-off without a president and events in Syria overshadowing everything.
There hasn't been an election since 2009. President Michel Aoun was appointed in late 2016 and swiftly moved to appoint Saad Hariri as prime minister for a second time. In 2017 reforms to the electoral system were finally passed, meaning that, at time of research, it was looking more likely that an election would take place in 2018.