The birthplace of Khalil Gibran and Fayrouz – and the most liberal country in the Middle East, Lebanon not only confirmed the fact that it is a country of contrasts but even surpassed my expectations and so I have come to discover that it might be one of the most complex countries that I was to discover.
Often called ‘the Switzerland of the East’, it is one of the smallest countries in the Levant – and yet – even if you can do the tourist attractions in 10 days ( you can basically ski in the morning and swim in the evening), there is much more to it than that!
Now if you do not know much about Lebanon but have tasted the food – then you know it is true. Lebanese food is exquisite – a mix between the Middle Eastern and Western cuisine. My all-time favourite is hummus – a dip made from chickpeas with sesame paste, lemon juice, garlic, salt and olive oil. Then there is the falafel – a sesame sauce and veg, but more often in a rolled sandwich. You will definitely see manoushi fast food places quite often – a kind of pizza with different toppings. Last but not least, salads are quite popular here – also as part of meze – and tabboule – a parsley salad with mint, tomatoes, spring onions, bulghur (crushed wheat), olive oil and lemon juice as well as fattoush – a salad served with crunchy bread and pomegranate syrup.
Lebanese cuisine is not famous in vain – it is truly delicious – and while you are here, you must not keep away from the desserts and definitely not the ice cream ( as it is actually rivalling the Italian one!). Also, keep in mind that Lebanon is one of the oldest sites of wine production in the world so wine-tasting must be on your list. Lebanon’s diversity of people and religions should be traced back in time. Composed of different religious communities (18)- some Christian – mainly Maronite, Greek Orthodox, and Greek Catholic, others Islamic ( Sunnites, Shiites and Druze)- apart from the Armenians, all the Lebanese communities- Christian and Muslim – have historically spoken Arabic and shared an ‘Arab way of life’.
In antiquity, the Phoenicians established a number of flourishing city-states along the stretch of the eastern Mediterranean (mostly today’s Lebanese territory). Then there were the Persians, the Greeks and after the death of Alexander the Great, the territory of present-day Lebanon became part of the Hellenistic Seleucid Kingdom. The Roman conquest followed and they ruled until the seventh century. It was during this time that, Lebanon, along with the rest of Syria and much of Anatolia became a major centre of Christianity.
In the late 4th century, a hermit named Maron established a monastic tradition which focused on the importance of monotheism and asceticism at Mount Lebanon. The monks that followed spread his teachings and so they came to be known as Maronites. They were living in the mountains to avoid persecution by the Romans, and as we will see later – the Byzantines as well as the Ottomans. When – of course- the Arabs came – and until 1918, Syria, including today’s Lebanon formed part of the territory of a succession of Islamic empires ruled by caliphs or by sultans – except for the period when they were under the Crusader domination (1098 -1291).
With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the European victors proceeded to divide up much of the Levant between them, and France was given the mandate to rule over Lebanon; its linguistic and architectural influence can still be discerned in the city today. French rule continued until 1943 when Lebanon finally gained full independence from France. Discontent finally boiled over in 1975 and for the following 16 years, the country was under civil war, resulting in a massive loss of human life and property, while devastating the country’s economy. It is estimated that 150,000 people were killed and another 200,000 wounded.
Today, Lebanon is a confessional democracy – which means that every religious community is represented in the Government. Beirut has been rebuilt – seven times! and parts of it are as cosmopolitan as thirty years ago. There is a lot of healing and reconstruction that the country and its people are still going through – and despite this – it has managed to accommodate a million Syrian refugees (let alone the Palestinians beforehand). That is Lebanon, it works, even if you don’t quite understand how that is possible.
The country is blessed with magnificent mountain vistas, long stretches of pristine beaches and impressive ancient ruins that you mustn’t miss. Hence, apart from the coastal cities, the Lebanese territory consists mostly of mountain and hill country. Which cities? Coming down from the north, Tripoli (definitely the best city to go for authenticity, history and nightlife), Byblos, Jounieh, Beirut, Sidon and Tyre- are the main attractions of the country. Byblos was the first Phoenician city and now is still one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world (5000BC).
Then there is Baalbek which is a must for the ruins – one of the most well preserved Roman sites to this day. And for sure, the exquisite Qadisha Valley – home to the legendary Cedars of God, the most highly prized building materials of the ancient world. The valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it is the site of some of the earliest Christian monastic settlements in the world, and still represents an example of the early Christian faith.
But what about its people? Lebanese people are warm-hearted and welcoming. They are easy going, opened people that still have their smiles on their face even against financial difficulties or political issues. Besides, it must be mentioned that Lebanon is the country with most refugees per capita in the world! Currently, there are 4 million Lebanese living in Lebanon and 1.3 million Syrian refugees as well as approx. 260.000 Palestinians.
The next door conflict in Syria and the influx of refugees endangers the internal social balance in the country. The situation of the refugees though it is not that bright – there are many complaints that the system allows local governments to steal, divert or withhold aid. As long as they have minimal legal rights and live in such scarce conditions, it’s difficult to imagine these people living in camps and such conditions indefinitely, but at the moment there is no foreseeable solution.