Sitting on the Mediterranean Sea and bordering Israel and Syria, Lebanon has an incredibly rich, but volatile history. The town of Byblos, just north of Beirut is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and it said to be the birthplace of the alphabet. The country was ruled by the Ottomans for 400 years up until the outbreak of World War One, after which it came under French control. Even after gaining independence in 1943, the French influence remained, and to this day remains, very evident in language, architecture and culture. Upon independence, the unwritten National Pact of 1943 also stipulated and divided up political powers to the different, prominent sects within the country. These have remained the same to this day. The president should be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of the parliament a Shiite Muslim, the deputy prime minister a member of the Greek Orthodox church and the Chief of the General Staff a Druze. This is what is known as a unitary parliamentary multi-confessionalist republic. Take a breath. Mixing religion and politics in any state is never simple, nor easy. And having five conflicting and competing sects all official accorded positions of power has proved an interesting experiment.
In 1975, a violent civil war erupted because of these sectarian tensions, Christians against a coalition of Druze, Muslim and PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) militias. Why the PLO though? And why in Lebanon? After the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, that saw Israel occupy the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, the PLO, along with many Palestinian refugees, had entered into Lebanon. Their increasing presence was exacerbated after King Hussein of Jordan expelled the group from Jordan in 1970. It was here, in Lebanon then, that the PLO expanded and built up their organisation and networks with an aim of continuing their violent combat against Israel. And in 1982, during the civil war, PLO attacks on the Lebanese-Israeli border led to an Israeli invasion.
During the civil war, Beirut was split by the Green Line: the Muslims in the west of the city and the Christian in the east. The war finally ended in 1990, after almost 16 years. 150,000 were killed and over 200,000 were wounded. The old buildings in the capital still carry holes left by bullets and shells during these years.
It was this border with Israel though, that would again prove costly to Lebanon. Like many Arab nations, Lebanon has within her many militant groups, the most famous of which is Hezbollah, a Shi’a Islamist group. It is considered a terrorist organisation by the US, Israel and the Arab League (all countries in the Arab world), with its military wing considered one by the UK and EU. I visited their current headquarters in the village of Baalbek in the west of Lebanon with my twin brother whilst there.
Baalbek itself has an incredible history dating back to 4000 BC. It is home to some of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the world, within which is the Temple of Jupiter, which was one of the biggest in the entire Roman empire. We stayed in the Palmyra Hotel, sadly built upon the ancient roman amphitheatre, but that itself has a history that would rival any hotel in the world. It has remained open everyday for more than 140 years, through world wars and civil wars. It has hosted Kaiser Wilhelm II, Charles De Gaulle, Kemal Ataturk, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw as well as Ella Fitzgerald, to name but a few. We stayed in Charles De Gaulle’s room, which did not look to have changed one bit since his stay, such was the charm of the place. That evening, as we drank red wine overlooking the sun setting on the ruins, a group of three young Lebanese men started chatting to us. It unfolded that they had been studying in the UK, but were in Baalbek doing research work for Masters projects on the famous Cedars region in the central northern part of the country. Our night continued in the small bar, vinyl player crackling away in the corner, as we exchanged stories and listened to their version of how the 2006 Lebanon War unfolded.
In July 2006, Hezbollah launched a series of attacks into Israel. Israel responded with airstrikes throughout Lebanon and a ground invasion at the border. That is the narrative. This is the experience. Our new friends had described how they had been clubbing in the Achrafieh area of Beirut (more on nightlife to come), a normal night out in their opinion. They woke up the next morning to airstrike sirens, immediately got in their car and drove straight across the border, to Syria, and stayed there for months. Hezbollah has continued its violent activity throughout Lebanon since.
Security remains extremely tight throughout the country, with checkpoints in and around every major town. My brother and I were stopped walking down the street by two plain clothed men. At first, I thought it was some sort of scam and so shouted in Arabic for the men to go away. It turned out they were the Lebanese secret police, who had been alerted to our presence by the soldiers at the barbed-wire, tetrapod blockade at the top of the road (these types of road blocks are common). The reason? We had just walked past the Lebanese security headquarters and I had my camera out. They were pleasant yes, but it was intimidating. They stopped us for 15 minutes, taking our passports, calling their seniors, asking us questions and forcing me to delete all of the day’s photos.
Travelling with my brother, which in itself provided some repose from the harassment I usually received travelling with a group of girls, we made sure to experience as much of Lebanon’s culture as possible. We went clubbing: Lebanese night-life, due to the French influence, is renowned for being lively, and it was. We spent two days skiing in the mountains, with the Mediterranean Sea as our back-drop; and spent the next one scuba-diving in the Med itself. The mix of religions and cultures also lends itself to food and, marching around the various neighbourhoods of Beirut, we ate Armenian food in the Armenian quarter of Bourj Hammoud; mezze in the Muslim quarter of Hamra and pizza in Mark Mikhael, no, not an Italian quarter, but the French one.
Lebanon is a country that has it all: the nightlife, the food, the beach, the mountains and the bountiful history to go with it. Out of all the countries that I have visited in the Arab World, it is Lebanon that I would want to live in upon graduating. To this day Hezbollah’s activities, intensified recently because of their alliance with Iran, may threaten the safety of the country, but despite bullet holes in the French looking buildings of Beirut, Lebanon is an exciting place to be.