Lebanon (Arabic: لبنان Libnān or Lubnān), officially known as the Lebanese Republic (Arabic: الجمهورية اللبنانية Al-Jumhūrīyah Al-Libnānīyah) is a Western Asian country and one of the world's only two multiconfessional countries, with 18 official religions made up of various sects of the three monotheist faithsnote . However, it's unclear how many people follow what religion in the country; a full census has not been conducted since 1932. This is because the Lebanese Constitution divvies up power along religious lines to (barely) hold together the extremely sectarian nature of the population. The three highest posts in the country are reserved for each members of the religious: a Maronite Catholic President, a Sunni Muslim Prime Minister, and a Shia Muslim Speaker of Parliament. No exceptions.
One of the few nations (the other famous example being Ireland) in which the people who live outside the country far outnumber those who live inside it. Not counting residents, refugees, and the like, the total population of Lebanon is (as of 2018) slightly more than 4 million. The diaspora? 14 million. And this is all made very, very, recently, so you can bet that the country's population would be much higher if there were no wars.
Lebanon is where ancient Phoenicia, Canaan, and other ancient civilizations were based. Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabians, Ottomans, French, and others have ruled and made their mark over present-day Lebanon. The city of Tyre, among other cities, was very prominent in the ancient World, while the city of Baalbek has a Roman-era temple. For a very long time, Lebanon was a Christian country, and the only one in the Arab World. Because of all the commotion in the late 20th century, a great deal of the Christians, who are historically wealthier than their Muslim neighbors, emigrated and settled in various countries, particularly Brazil, the United States, Australia (where they are stereotypically hated) and other countries, creating the aforementioned humongous diaspora. Many have done very well for themselves indeed (for instance, Carlos Slim, a Mexican telecom magnate who trades places with Bill Gates for the title "richest man in the world", is of Lebanese descent; we would also be remiss in not mentioning Shakira, whose paternal grandparents emigrated from Lebanon to Colombia via New York). This has some benefits—whenever bad things go on in Lebanon, the diaspora sends back aid and often invests in rebuilding schemesnote . That's not to say that the Christians disappear altogether, though; estimates count that 40% of the population still identify as Christians.
Each confessional groups are segregated in different parts of the country, especially after the civil war. A rough breakdown for the larger ones are:
- Sunni Muslims live in the districts of Akkar, eastern Baalbek, West Beqaa, and northern Sidon, plus the cities of Tripoli and Sidon.
- Maronite Christians are the majority in the northern half of the Mount Lebanon and the southern half of the North Governorates, including the cities of Jounieh and Byblos, and some enclaves in the south (notably in Jezzine).
- Shia Muslims dominate the districts of Hermel, Nabatieh, Bent Jbeil, and Tyre, and has a plurality in Baalbek.
- Greek Orthodox have wildly scattered distribution, although they have a majority in Koura district.
- Druze are concentrated in Aley, Chouf, and Rachaya districts.
- Greek Catholics live in northeastern Baalbek district and Zahle city.
- Beirut is nowadays divided into a Sunni Muslim west, Christian east, and Shia Muslim south.
Other than the above, Lebanon also hosts an unusually diverse array of ethnic and religious minorities for such a small country, most of which are displayed in the 18 recognized confessionals (see above). The town of Bourj Hammound a few kilometers from the capital is heavily Armenian. Turks settled during colonial times and continue to live there today. Refugees from other Arab countries set up residences whenever their countries flare up in chaos, including Palestinians (from 1948), Iraqis (from 2003), and Syrians (from 2011). The last one has been a very contentious issue among civilians, the military, and politicians alike; with 920,000 people as of 2019, Lebanon is the world's second biggest host of Syrian refugees, making up 15% of the country's population. Other than putting more pressure into the already exhausted resources, non-Sunnis are especially worried that their arrivals would jolt the fragile confessional balance and bring it crashing down, like it did when the second wave of Palestinians arrived in the 1970s.
Despite all this division, there are a few things that most Lebanese will agree unite them. As so often happens, the diversity that creates tension also feeds a rich culture. Lebanon is disproportionately prominent in Arab culture, and Beirut is a much larger center of Arab mass media, music, and literature (particularly publishing—the old joke among Arab literati is that Egypt writes, Lebanon publishes, and Iraq reads) than its size would suggest. Lebanon is also a contender (with Yemen and Morocco) for best country for cuisine in the Arab world, and their common kitchen is one of the strongest day-to-day commonalities for Lebanese of all faiths. Lebanese of all sects have a reputation in the Arab world for business savvy, mostly because of the diaspora (which had to be entrepreneurial to survive), but Lebanese are rightly proud of their country's role as a commercial crossroads. The Lebanese also have a deserved reputation for enthusiastic celebration and living life to the fullest in the face of adversity; they say that Beirutis party hardest when the bombs are falling.
The decline of the Phoenicians in the 9th century BCE marked the end of the region's independence for a long time. In fact, Lebanon never became a sovereign state again until independence in 1943. Various foreigners vied for power over the next 2700 years, including the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, Crusaders, and the French. The Arab conquest of the 7th century CE brought about Arabization of the previously Aramean state (like most of the Levant, the Lebanese spoke Aramaic at the time), although most of the population remained Christians. Through contact with the Catholic Crusaders who occupied the land in The High Middle Ages, the Maronite Christians, who had been isolated from the Catholic Church since the Schism of 1054, affirmed their loyalty to The Pope. It was also around this time that the Druze faith emerged and communities pursuing the new religion began to pop up in the Mount Lebanon area.
During the Ottoman period of the 16th-20th centuries, Lebanon was governed through the Mount Lebanon Emirate vassal, which had a Druze ruling dynasty. Unrest in the 19th century led to a civil war between the Druze and the Maronites, the latter being supported by the French. This factored in to the French decision to carve Lebanon (then called Greater Lebanon), a separate state designated for the Maronite Christians, out of Ottoman Syria, when they were given the mandate to control the region after the Ottoman Empire imploded at the end of World War I. Lebanon's case was not unusual; the French in fact also gave the Druze and Alawites (another religious minority that live in the Levant and which the Assad family, who have been ruling Syria since the 1970s, come from) separate states, but they were eventually absorbed into Syria, while Lebanon stayed independent.
Despite lasting only 23 years, the French colonial rule left a deep impression in the country's language and culture - for the Lebanese mostly, but also for the French. If you ever see French people greet each other with kisses on the cheeks, that's a Lebanese tradition. On the other hand, even today, Lebanese Arabic contains strong traces of French, and French is a national language. Lebanese cooking is famous throughout the Middle East and beyond: hummus, falafel, tabbouleh, and pastries unrivaled in taste (although an Egyptian would dispute that for the falafel and some of the pastries and Greeks would make a similar point about the baklava; Food is Serious Business). An Egyptian restaurant opening abroad might call itself 'Lebanese' to get more customers.
Lebanon's history since independence in The '40s has been checkered at best. A major reason for this is that its independence was not really accepted by Syria, who held that Lebanon was more or less a(n autonomous at best) part of Syria proper. This even went as far as to show in the maps produced, showing the border between the two countries as being internal, like you would get between American states. Being a fairly small and weak country that had sizable ties with Israel and the West, it didn't contribute very much to the ArabIsraeli Conflict, even in the initial invasion of Israel in 1948. However, thousands of Palestinians fled to Lebanon, whose government refused to allow the Palestinians to integrate. They've been living in permanent refugee camps in the countryside ever since, a major problem that would come back to haunt the country in its times of trouble. Particularly since the camps soon became instruments of the Palestine Liberation Organization, serving and political and military strongholds that they would later use to pressure and eventually intervene in internal Lebanese politics.
Outside the camps, however, things seemed to run smoothly. A political crisis in 1958 (pitting mostly Christian pro-Westerners against mostly-Muslim pro-Syrians for reasons related to the Suez War two years earlier) that threatened to turn into a civil war was defused when Dwight Eisenhower, on the request of President Camille Chamoun, sent the U.S. Army and Marines to keep anything from happening. For a time, Lebanon was reasonably stable and prosperous; Beirut continued to live up to its reputation as the "Paris of the Middle East."
However, by 1975, the Palestinians had organized themselves into the PLO, which more or less became a "state within a state" in Lebanon. The Palestinians used southern Lebanon as a base for attacks on Israel, which screwed up everything most massively. Various groups within Lebanon took different positions on the issue (Christians generally frowning on it, Sunnis and Druze generally supportive, Shias generally too poor to be noticed). In retaliation for the PLO bombing the crap out of them from Lebanon, Israel started bombing the crap out of the Palestinians on Lebanese soil, driving the subject much closer to home and pushing things to get much nastier. By April of 1975, it had turned into an all-out civil war. Pro-PLO militias controlled the south of the country; anti-PLO controlled the center and west; and to top it off, the north and east were invaded by Syria. Beirut itself was divided in two: the PLO and its allied militias controlled West Beirut, their enemies controlled East Beirut, and various people whose religious background did not match the militias' generally fled to the other side before they were shot.
A force of American, British, French, and Italian peacekeepers were deployed to the country in the early 1980s to try and bring a stop to the civil war or at least to restrain the warring sides. However, they soon got sucked into the frenzied fighting and soon became a target of Syrian and Iranian intelligence, as well as their Shia Muslim paramilitary proxies. As a result, one enterprising group picked two volunteers with the know how to drive, loaded trucks up with high explosives, and on October 23rd of 1983 sent it careening into the Peacekeeping compounds. By far the more infamous and deadly attack was that on the USMC barracks, which killed 241 American servicemen and a Lebanese civilian and was basically the Trope Codifier for modern suicide bombing; less well known is that there was another attack on the French Para barracks not far, which killed an additional 58 Frenchmen and a Lebanese janitor's wife and four children. All in all, the death total wracked up to 299 peacekeepers, 305 total including civilians, and the two perpetrators. The event was one of the most devastating attacks any of the countries had suffered, and led to the decision to remove the Peacekeepers and leave Lebanon to the paramilitaries.
The war continued until 1990 and killed up to 150,000 people. When an uneasy peace deal was reached in The '90s that ended the civil war. The early 2000s saw Israel leaving the southern part of the country without any conditions. During these years, much of the country was rebuilt (although bullet holes remained an expected part of any building). However, the Syrian elephant in the room stayed on for years in an effort to thoroughly subordinate Lebanon to its control, though generally preferring to act through quislings, sympathetic locals, and well-timed and deniable "accidents" than directly. One of these was the assassination of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which turned out to be a massive miscalculation as it spurred major protests that forced Syria to withdrawal.
You think it's over yet? Nope. While Syria moved back to the other side of the border, it was determined to keep its influence in-country. It had backed the Shia militia/political party Hezbollah (originally founded by followers of the first Ayatollah of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini) in the 1980s, and continued to do so after the civil war was over. Hezbollah decided that now that its Syrian protectors were gone, it would focus its attention on making Israel miserable. As a result, in July-August 2006 after Hezbollah kidnapped 2 Israeli soldiers and returned to rocketing Israel from Lebanon. In turn, Israel returned bombing the crap out of Lebanon in an attempt to destroy Hezbollah, but did not go beyond that because of internal politics and the hope that it would work enough. All of this contributed to Beirut getting torn up again just after the Lebanese had finished rebuilding it. It was never quite as intense as the civil war (a veritable bloodbath), but it was enough to give people nightmares until it more or less died down in 2009, though the country still remained divided. Hezbollah remains largely dominant in the country to the point where the country's politics have mostly boiled down to pro- and anti-Hezbollah factions, irrespective of religion (Hezbollah have just as many Christian, Druze, and Sunni allies as they have opponents).
The Arab Spring sucked Lebanon into its vortex in 2012. Like before, Lebanon would again face major shock waves because of events and decisions in Syria. This time, however, the event in question was not the expansion of Syrian power but the explosion of the Syrian Civil War against the Assad government. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians entered Lebanon as refugees, sparking protests from Hezbollah. Meanwhile, the Hezbollah have been a consistent supporter of the Bashar al-Assad regime and have been sending up militias to help him win back his ailing country from the Sunni rebels. Nevertheless, the country never really succumbed to the chaos of the Arab Spring politically.
Economically, on the other hand, Lebanon has been suffering big time. Since The New '10s the country has been experiencing from another kind of war: a financial crisis. There are many factors to this, the biggest being decades of state corruption and waste but also the impact of the Syrian Civil War. Syria is among Lebanon's important trade partners, so for a long time trade with Syria was off-limits as Syria was blockaded for most of the civil war (it's only until 2018 that Jordan finally reopened its borders, followed by Iraq in 2019. Turkey, meanwhile, remains Assad's archenemy), while Lebanon has no diplomatic or economic relations with Israel since the end of the Lebanese Civil War. The increasing influence of the Iran-allied Hezbollah, which has been designated a terrorist group by the Arab League, the US, and the UK, also made the Gulf Arab nations, long aid donors for Lebanon, largely stay away, as do the West (albeit to a much lesser extent). Foreign reserves and donor money rapidly dried up, causing a currency crisis that saw the Lebanese pound being depreciated as much as 3 times to the dollar in the black market. This eventually triggered a protest movement in the late 2019 that continues to this day. However, the protests have yet to see tangible results (Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri decided to step down, but only because he is a critic of Hezbollah) and in fact seem to grow worse every day. Lebanon declared a debt default in March 2020, when it announced that it could not meet payments to foreign bondholders.
Lebanon in fiction/literature
- Malaak: Angel of Peace is the one Lebanese comic series to date, set in a warring Lebanon that criss-crosses with a mythological one.
- Most of the works of Khalil Gibran, including The Prophet, are set in or at least inspired by his native rural Lebanon.
- The Insult, a 2017 film in which a minor confrontation between a Christian car mechanic and a Palestinian construction worker in Lebanon blows up into a major incident and a trial. First Lebanese film to get an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
- Waves '98 is an animated short film in which a young student in Beirut gets aboard a gigantic golden elephant (really!) and takes a strange and mystical journey.
The Lebanese flag