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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. Excavations in the Downtown area have revealed a Canaanite site dating from 1900 BC, with an entrance gate of dressed stone, and, nearby, the remains of Phoenician canals.

The city’s name is probably a derivative of the Arabic for ‘well’ or ‘spring’ (modern Arabic still uses the word bir for well). The first historical reference to Beirut dates from the 14th century BC, when it is mentioned in cuneiform tablets discovered at Tell al-Amarna, Egypt, in the form of letters from the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.

In Phoenician times, Beirut appears to have been overshadowed by Sidon, Tyre and Byblos, but after Alexander the Great’s conquest it starts to be mentioned in Hellenistic sources, and excavations have revealed an extensive Hellenistic city upon which the later Roman grid was based. 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 centres of jurisprudence, which rivalled those of Athens, Alexandria and Caesarea. It was actually here 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 centre 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.

Beirut 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 Muslim Mamluks took possession.

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 semiautonomy 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 favourite 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, basing his trading empire around silk, and Beirut began to recover economically and regain some of its former prestige.

The 18th century, though, would present mixed fortunes for the city. Emir Bashir Shihab II (1788–1840) injected it with new vigour, 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, 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.

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’ Sq).

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.

During WWII Beirut was occupied by the Allies and, thanks to its port, became an important supply centre. In 1946 the French left the city and, following Lebanon’s first civil war in 1958, Beirut managed to reinvent itself as one of the main commercial and banking centres of the Middle East. 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. This 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 epicentre 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.

The post-war government faced a daunting task in repairing the country’s destroyed infrastructure, but did so with spirit and panache, the jewel in the crown being the reconstruction of the Beirut Central District, or Downtown.

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 centre 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) and the erection of a Hezbollah ‘tent city’ in the city centre, have led many Beirutis to believe that plenty of storms are still to be weathered.