The Bridge Between the Mediterranean and the Middle East

Why Lebanon? Some years ago the distinguished historian Jonathan Steinberg wrote a book entitled Why Switzerland? And a similar question can be posed for Lebanon which, like Switzerland, is host to several different communities. In the Lebanese case we need to go much further back in time than the thirteenth century AD which saw the birth of the Swiss cantons. Instead, we are looking at the thirteenth century BC. For the coast of Lebanon might appear to be a narrow strip hemmed in by mountains, an unlikely centre of trade and industry, but its original importance lay precisely in the extensive resources of wood. As far back as 1075 BC an Egyptian official named Wenamun set out from the Nile Delta on his way to Byblos (modern Jubayl in Lebanon) to obtain timber for the rebuilding of an Egyptian temple. His adventures, fictional or more probably true, are recorded on a papyrus scroll that has survived till today. The resources in wood of the Lebanese mountains were a vital resource for the Egyptians, who could obtain poor quantities of wood of poor quality in Egypt.

It is therefore no great surprise that the strip of coast that now constitutes Lebanon was the birthplace of trans-Mediterranean trade in antiquity. The Phoenician merchants were easily able to obtain the wood they required for building sturdy ships able to sail to and beyond the Strait of Gibraltar. The merchants of Tyre founded new settlements as far west as Carthage and Cádiz. They also looked eastwards towards the growing power of Assyria, providing luxury goods for the court of the Assyrian kings. They remained a significant presence in imperial Rome, bringing luxury goods from the east. Lebanon was therefore already the crossroads between the landmass of the Middle Est and the entire length of the Mediterranean, a role that it would preserve for most of its history.

In the Middle Ages this same stretch of coast was conquered first by Muslim armies, in the seventh century, and then by the crusaders at the end of the eleventh century. The crusaders held it for less than two centuries, but they eagerly exploited its resources. Near Tyre sugar plantations, many of them owned by Venetian merchants, supplied what was still a rare and costly delicacy to western Europe. The conquest of the coastline by the Mamluk rulers of Egypt in the late thirteenth century was accompanied by the destruction of many of the Levantine ports, but this only gave greater prominence to Beirut, which was preserved and built close business ties to the Genoese and Venetian merchants who operated out of Famagusta in Cyprus. Among the products these traders handled was cotton, exported to northern Italy and transformed into textiles including the famous fustians of Lombardy made out of a combination of cotton and wool.

This was also an area of great ethnic and religious diversity. A Spanish traveller, Benjamin of Tudela, passed through Lebanon in around 1170 and noted the presence in the mountainous interior of the Assassin sect of Shi’ite Islam and of the Druze warriors, members of a religious group that diverged from Shi’ite Islam in the eleventh century and preserves distinctive beliefs and practices; one is reincarnation but others are still kept secret. To these groups should be added the Maronite Christians in the interior, who venerated several local saints and from the sixth century onwards developed loose ties to the Roman Catholic Church as a result of their common theological position, a relationship that was confirmed during the late twelfth century and still holds. The religious map of modern Lebanon is further complicated by the very substantial Shi’ite population living between Tyre and the Israeli border, as well as a large population of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, who are predominantly Sunni Muslim, while the country’s Jewish population, once a significant element, has all but disappeared.

When Lebanon emerged from centuries of Ottoman domination (the Turks conquered the region in 1516) these religious divisions became crucial in determining its future. The Druze and Maronite leaders were already cooperating with one another in the local government of the region during the eighteenth century; but the French mandate in Syria following the First World War and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire at last offered a chance for the ambitions of the nationalists to become real. In establishing a republic of Lebanon within French Syria in 1926, France recognized the exceptional significance of its Christian inhabitants while trying to accommodate the interests of the other groups as well. French attitudes were moulded by a nostalgic affection for the era of the crusader states, which were seen by historians as an early expression of the mission civilisatrice of France in the Mediterranean (not a view held nowadays). An fully independent Lebanese republic came into being in 1943 amid the chaos of the Second World War; its constitution still insists that the president must be a Maronite and the Prime Minister must be Shi’ite.

Since 1948 one of the major issues in Lebanese politics has been the presence of Israel to the south. Lebanon sees itself as an Arab nation and is a member of the League of Arab States, even if it is the only member to contain such a high proportion of Christians, mostly of them descended from the pre-Islamic inhabitants of the Middle East. Although Lebanon joined the Arab attack on Israel that year it tried as far as possible to keep a low profile in the wars against Israel. However, the government has never been successful in limiting attacks on Israel first by the Palestine Liberation Organization (bearing in mind the large Palestinian population in southern Lebanon), and subsequently by the Iranian-funded Hizbollah organization. Following the Lebanese civil war that broke out in 1975 and lasted till 1990, Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, in support of Maronite allies, reaching the outskirts of Beirut, and later occupying a small strip of land across from its northern frontier until 2000. Syrian troops moved into the country – Syria never having recognized the independence of Lebanon – and were only dislodged in 2005.

All this has had a serious effect on the capital, Beirut, In its heyday it was one of the major business centres of the Middle East, and with wealth came a reputation for a hedonistic high life. Its hotels and clubs attracted hordes of visitors from more Puritan parts of the region. However, the destruction in civil war of parts of the city, followed by their rebuilding, followed by their renewed destruction, has helped destroy the economy as well. In 2022 it has been marked by steep inflation, power cuts, food shortages and – of course – renewed political crises. The political influence of Hizbollah seems to be impossible to break. One consolation, perhaps, is that the Bekaa valley still produces excellent wines including those of the prestigious Château Musar; but at the moment the economic and political future continues to look bleak. No longer the bridge between the Mediterranean and the Middle East, Lebanon risks becoming a failed state.