Saturday, October 1, 2011
Lebanon History and Civilizations
A trip through Lebanon's history begins in Jbail (Byblos), where archaeologists have discovered the earliest known settlements in Lebanon. Today, remnants of prehistoric huts with crushed limestone floors, primitive weapons, and burial jars are evidence of the Neolithic and Chalcolithic fishing communities who lived on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea over 7,000 years ago.
Phoenicians (3,500-334 B.C.)
Lebanon first appeared in recorded history around 3,000 BC, with the settlement of the area by the Canaanites. The Canaanites established great maritime, trade, and religious city-states in several of Lebanon's coastal cities: Jbail (Byblos), Sour (Tyre), Saida (Sidon), and Beirut. The Greeks referred to these Semitic people as �Phoenicians,� after the Greek word for the expensive purple-dyed textiles that the Phoenicians exported.
Jbail (Byblos) was a significant Phoenician religious center and also an important trading center with close links to the Egyptian Pharaohs. The city is also recognized as the birthplace of the modern Roman alphabet, which evolved from Phoenician phonetic script. Phoenician ruins include the remnants of fortified city walls and gates, several temples, and the underground tombs of the Byblos kings.
Saida (Sidon) became a dominant commercial center for the region during the 12th-10th centuries B.C. Close to Saida (Sidon), visitors can view the ruins of the Phoenician Temple of Echmoun, a complex honoring the principal god of the city of Saida (Sidon). This is the best-preserved Phoenician site in Lebanon today.
The Phoenician island city of Sour (Tyre) surpassed Saida to become the dominant trading center under its most famous ruler, King Hiram I (10th century B.C.). Allied with King Solomon, King Hiram I led the Phoenician expansion into Sicily and North Africa. During this time, the Mediterranean Sea became known as the �Tyrian Sea.� King Hiram is also remembered for supporting the
Greeks (333-64 B.C.)
In 333 B.C., Alexander the Great conquered the Phoenician city-states, and ancient Phoenicia was absorbed into the Greek Empire (which covered Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East). Greek customs and the Greek language were adopted. Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C. (only 10 years after his conquest of the Middle East), and over 250 years of unrest and dynastic struggles followed. Greek rule in the region was finally overturned by the Roman General Pompey in 64 B.C.
While there are no significant ruins from the Hellenistic period in Lebanon, one notable Greek site for history-lovers is in Sour (Tyre). While most of the Phoenician cities submitted immediately to Alexander the Great�s conquest in 333 B.C., Sour (Tyre) resisted in a year-long siege that destroyed much of the city. Alexander used the debris from the abandoned mainland city to build a causeway to reach the fortified island city and eventually conquer the Tyrians. Today, this causeway has been enlarged with sand to form a peninsula that connects the ancient island city to the mainland. As you walk between the major archaeological sites in Sour (Tyre), you will cross this "Quarter of Sand" (Hay El-Ramel) that was once Alexander�s causeway.
Romans (64 B.C. - 399 A.D.)
Roman rule in Lebanon lasted over 300 years. During this period, the old Phoenician cities continued to grow and prosper as centers of industry and commerce. The coastal cities (Saida, Sour, Beirut) exported cedar, perfume, jewelry, wine, and fruit to Rome and served as trading centers for goods imported from Syria, Persia, and India. Local industries, including the production of silk, glass, purple-dyed textiles, and pottery, flourished under the Romans. Temples and palaces were built throughout the country, as well as paved roads that linked the cities. Christianity also spread to Lebanon during this era, and flourished as the Roman emperors officially adopted the religion.
For a modern-day visitor, it is difficult to travel more than a few kilometers in Lebanon without running into a Roman-era ruin. The country is home to some of the best-preserved and most impressive Roman sites in the world, most notably at Baalbek and Sour (Tyre).
Baalbek's impressive complex of temples and city ruins includes the Temple of Bacchus (the best-preserved temple in the Middle East) and the columns of the Temple of Jupiter (the largest Roman temple ever constructed). Under the Romans, Baalbek, or the "City of the Sun," was a major religious center that served as a testament to the power and wealth of the Roman Empire.
The city of Sour (Tyre) became the capital of the Roman province of Syria-Phoenicia. Roman-era highlights include the world's largest Roman hippodrome (where chariot races were held), an enormous triumphal arch, an extensive necropolis, and the remains of Roman aqueducts.
Byzantines (399-636 A.D.)
The Byzantine era in Lebanon began with the split of the Roman Empire in 395 A.D. into the eastern/Byzantine part (with its capital at Constantinople) and the western part (with its capital at Rome). As the Western Roman Empire declined, the Byzantine Empire grew and commercial and intellectual growth in Lebanon's cities continued.
However, around the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., ecumenical debates and corruption in the church led to increasing unrest. From this religious dissension, the Maronite Church was established and took refuge in the mountainous Qadisha Valley region of Lebanon, and the Valley has remained a place of spiritual refuge and pilgrimage to this day. There are many archaeological remains of Lebanon's Byzantine era around the country, many built on top of and added to previous civilizations' cities and sites.
In Baalbek, Byzantine Emperor Theodosius tore down the altars of the Temple of Jupiter and built a basilica using the temple's stones and architectural elements. The remnants of this basilica can still be seen near the stairway of the Temple.
In Sour (Tyre), the city entered a golden era during this time period. Today, Byzantine stone mosaics line the ancient colonnaded street at the Al-Mina archaeological site (�City Site�). The Al-Bass Site contains the remains of a Byzantine church, as well as a necropolis containing hundreds of ornate stone and marble sarcophagi from the Roman and Byzantine periods.
Arabs (660-1258 A.D.)
The increasing unrest in the Byzantine Empire opened the region to raids and conquests by Muslim Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula. Following the death of the Prophet Muhammed, his successors built a large army that pushed back the Byzantine forces and undertook a series of successful invasions throughout the region.
The Umayyad Dynasty, which flourished for 100 years (660-750 A.D.) in the first century after Muhammed, was the first of two dynasties of the Arab Islamic empire. The Umayyad caliphs were notable for establishing a large empire, which extended from Spain, through North Africa, to Central Asia. They established Arabic as the official language of the empire, and they are remembered for their excellent city administration and planning and their patronage of early Islamic art and architecture. Following a coup, the Umayyads were replaced by the Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258 A.D.), who shifted power eastward to Baghdad and imposed harsh control in Lebanon and Syria, leading to many local revolts.
Under Arab rule, the region of Lebanon became a refuge for many ethnic and religious groups. Splinter Christian groups, including the Maronites and the Melchites, settled in the Qadisha Valley and Zahl�. Islamic followers of an Egyptian caliph settled in southern Lebanon and established the Druze sect, still a major religious group in the Chouf and other areas of modern-day Lebanon. Shiite Muslims from Egypt also had increasing influence in the region during this era.
Crusaders (1099-1291 A.D.)
As Arab leadership fragmented, and following Caliph Al-Hakim's occupation of Christian holy places in Palestine and destruction of the Holy Sepulcher, the Christians of western Europe undertook a series of "Crusades" to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims. The European Crusaders joined with the Byzantine army to take Jerusalem and then marched along the Lebanese coast. Between 1109 and 1124, Lebanon's key cities (Tripoli, Beirut, Saida, Sour) were all conquered by the Crusaders. Soon after, the Muslim reconquest began, led by Saladin, with the region returning to Muslim control by 1291.
One lasting influence of the Crusades in Lebanon was the creation of renewed linkages between the Maronites and the Roman Catholics. In 1180, the Maronite Church entered a formal union with the Roman Catholic Church, a union that still exists today. There are also numerous archaeological remnants (towers, castles, and churches) of the Crusades scattered along the Lebanese coast and throughout the countryside. Notable sites include:
The Saida Sea Castle, which sits on a small island in the harbor, connected by a stone bridge to mainland Saida (Sidon).
The Citadel of Saint-Gilles, a large fortress on a hill in the center of Tripoli.
The ruins of the stone walls and moats of a Crusader castle can be seen in the town of Enf�, south of Tripoli.
The ruins of the Holy Cross Cathedral, an important Crusader church in Tyre.
Mamlukes (1250-1516 A.D.) & Ottomans (1516-1914 A.D.)
Following the Crusades, modern-day Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt came under the control of the Mamlukes. The Mamlukes were originally slave bodyguards (from the Caspian and Caucasus regions) for the Egyptian Ayoubid sultans. However, the Mamlukes overthrew their masters and formed the Mamluke Sultanate. Many Shiite Muslims migrated to Lebanon during this period, and there were increasing religious tensions. After a number of rebellions near Beirut were crushed, the Shiites moved to settle in Southern Lebanon.
The Mamlukes were defeated by the Turkish Ottomans in 1516, and the Ottomans dominated the region for the four centuries preceding World War I.
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