According to a 1993 estimate, the population of Lebanon was
3,552,369; the overall density was about 341 people per sq km (about 884 per sq mi). About
81 percent of the people lived in urban areas.
The Lebanese are descended from many ethnic strains, mainly Semitic,
and may be traced to the ancient Phoenicians, Philistines, Assyrians, and Arabs. Among
relative newcomers are an Armenian minority of about 6 percent and a number of Palestinian
Arabic is the official language of Lebanon. French and English have
wide official and commercial use, and Armenian is spoken by that minority group.
Primary education is free but not compulsory in Lebanon. The
literacy rate, higher than 85 percent, is among the highest in the Arab world. In 1991
about 345,700 pupils attended primary school and about 285,500 students were enrolled in
secondary school. The government operates a number of trade, agricultural, and other
Beirut is the location of five Lebanese universities: the
government-supported Lebanese University (1951), the American University of Beirut (1866),
the Lebanese American University (1955 formerly Beirut University College) the
Jesuit-affiliated Saint Joseph University (1881), Beirut Arab University (1960), and a
university operated by the Lebanese Maronite Order. Their total annual enrollment in the
early 1990s was about 87,600. The country also has a variety of specialized schools and
several teacher-training colleges.
Blending traditional Arabic and recent Western influences, mainly
French and U.S., Lebanon reached a high level of cultural achievement, exemplified in the
works of the poet-painter Khalil Gibran. The National Library, in Beirut, is a depository
for United Nations documents. The library of the Saint John monastery in Khinsharah dates
from 1696 and has on display one of the first printing presses (with Arabic and Greek
fonts) of the Middle East. The American University Museum and the National Museum, in
Beirut, house regional antiquities and artifacts.
Currency, Banking, Commerce and Foreign Trade
The unit of currency in Lebanon is the Lebanese pound, divided into
100 piasters (1580 pounds equal U.S.$1; 1996). The Bank of Lebanon (1964) functions as
central bank and sole bank of issue.
Commerce is of major importance to the economy. Before the mid-1970s,
many foreign firms had branches in Beirut. The climate, scenery, and historical remains
attracted tourists, with consequent benefits to the economy. Both commerce and the tourist
industry suffered from the civil warfare of the 1970s and 1980s. In the early 1990s,
annual imports were valued at about $4.1 billion and exports at some $925 million.
Lebanon's chief suppliers of imports are Italy, France, the United States, Turkey, and
Saudi Arabia; the main destinations for exports are Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Jordan,
Kuwait, and the United States. In January 1996 Bayrut's stock exchange reopened after
closing in 1983 because of the war.
Government, Executive and Legislature
Lebanon is a republic governed under a constitution promulgated in
1926, as amended. The constitution was substantially revised in 1990.
Under the 1990 constitution, the president of Lebanon, who must be a
Maronite Christian, was to be elected by the legislature for six years and was not allowed
to serve two successive terms. However, in October 1995 the Lebanese parliament amended
the constitution to allow the president, then at the end of his single six-year term, to
serve three more years without elections. Otherwise, the president's powers were weakened
by the constitutional amendments. Whereas before 1990 the president could appoint and
dismiss the prime minister and other ministers, he now may appoint the prime minister only
after consultation with the National Assembly. Furthermore, following a May 1995
agreement, the prime minister, rather than the president, appoints the cabinet ministers.
The prime minister, whose powers were strengthened by the amendments, must be a Sunni
Muslim. Nearly all executive decisions require the signature of both the president, who is
head of state, and the prime minister, who heads the government.
Under the revised constitution, the unicameral National Assembly has
128 members elected by universal suffrage. The speaker of the assembly is always a Shiite
Muslim and serves a four-year term. Legislative seats are divided equally between
Christians and Muslims. This system, strengthened by a tradition of rallying around strong
leaders rather than platforms, has inhibited development of Western-style political
parties. During August and September 1992, Lebanon held its first legislative elections in
The mountains that have given Lebanon its namesometimes
referred to as Mount Lebanon, or the Mountainhave also shaped its history. The
inaccessibility of its highlands has not only provided a refuge for dissident religious
groups over the centuries, but has also hampered unity among the region's distinctive
In 64 BC Pompey the Great conquered Phoenicia, which comprised the
territory of modern Lebanon; he annexed it to the Roman Empire and administered it as part
of the province of Syria. Aramaic, the dominant language of the East, began to replace
Phoenician, marking the cultural integration of the territory with its neighbors. From the
4th century AD on, the Christianization of the Roman Empire and the subsequent emergence
of a doctrinally intolerant orthodoxy in the Eastern, or Byzantine, part caused religious
tension in Syria as a whole. By the 7th century, Maronites, a sect espousing the belief
that Christ had both human and divine natures but only one will, sought refuge from
persecution in the northern districts of Mount Lebanon.
Early Muslim Rule
In the 630s Arabs, inspired by a new religion, Islam, had conquered
most of Syria, and Mount Lebanon was integrated into the Arab military district of
Damascus. The conquerors allowed the indigenous Christian and Jewish populations to retain
their religionsubject, however, to discriminatory taxes and regulations. In 759 and
760 Christian peasants revolted, but the rebellion faltered, surviving only in local
legend. Enduring through the entire Islamic period, however, were the rivalries between
the different Arab tribal groupingsthe Qays (North) and Kalb, or Yemen
(South)who had settled in the area after the conquest.
The decline of the united caliphate and the rise of local dynasties
formed the unsettling background to the next stage in the region's history. Early in the
11th century the Druze, an extremist Shiite Muslim sect, established themselves in
southern Mount Lebanon, becoming sometimes partners and sometimes rivals of the heretofore
dominant Maronites. In 1099 Crusaders from Christian Europe occupied the country and
remained until the 13th century. Up until then the Maronites had been carrying on an
increasingly lonely resistance to the processes of Islamization and Arabization. The
Crusaders helped to ensure their religious and cultural survival by giving them ties to
their coreligionists in the West.
In 1516 the Ottoman Turks conquered the entire eastern
Mediterranean coast. Two local dynasties successively came to dominate the Mountain under
Ottoman rule: the Maans (1516-1697) and the Shihabs (1697-1842). The most ambitious of
these rulers was Fakhr al-Din II, who forged an alliance with the Italian duchy of
Tuscany. Although of Druze origin, he ruled tolerantly, attracting Maronite peasants to
his southern districts. With the end of the Maan line, local notables chose the Shihabs to
be emirs (princes). After 1711, because of the defeat and expulsion of one Druze faction,
the Maronites came to predominate. Reflecting this shift of power, members of the Shihab
family converted to Christianity. In 1770 a Maronite Shihab became the emir. His
successor, Bashir II, who reigned from 1788 to 1840, subdued the Druze and emerged as
master of Lebanon and a power in the Levant. Gaining support from the Ottomans, the
European powers, and discontented Maronite peasants, the Druze ended Shihab rule in 1842.
The turmoil of these years finished the Maronite-Druze cooperation upon
which Lebanon's autonomy rested. The Ottomans now played a more direct role, but their
administrative reforms proved unworkable. In 1858 the political, religious, social, and
economic tensions between Druze and Maronite, Muslim and Christian, and landlord and
peasant burst into a civil war that ended in 1860 after considerable bloodshed and an
apparent Druze triumph. The Ottomans and the European powers, however, sent forces to
restore order and to punish those Muslims they considered at fault in the war. In 1861
they established a new administration for Lebanon that lasted until World War I
(1914-1918). The new regulations provided that the country be governed by a non-Lebanese
Ottoman Christian, counseled by local notables but directly responsible to Istanbul. The
World War I years brought famine and devastation, increasing the flow of Christian
immigrants to the Americas.
Strictly speaking, the history of Lebanon within its current
borders and with its distinctive mix of Muslim and Christian populations begins only in
1920, when the French, who had gained control through secret wartime agreements, combined
the largely Muslim-inhabited coast and plain with the Christian-dominated Mountain to
create the state of Greater Lebanon under their mandate. For practically all of the
preceding two millennia this territory had been part of larger provinces within
continent-spanning empires. Although Lebanon had rarely formed a distinct political
entity, Maronites had developed a belief in Mount Lebanon as a country with a history and
a character of its own. Because the French fostered this belief, their rule was supported
by the Maronites, who gained economically and politically from it. In 1926 the French
established the Lebanese Republic, but complete independence was not achieved for Lebanon
until 1946, when the last French troops were evacuated.
The Lebanese Civil War
In 1975 fighting broke out between Lebanese Muslims and the
Maronite-dominated Phalange faction. In June the Arab League imposed a truce, creating a
Arab force to keep the peace. Violence continued nonetheless, and in 1978 Israel invaded
southern Lebanon. Israeli troops were replaced by a UN force. In June 1982 Israel invaded
again. Later that month, with Israeli troops surrounding Beirut, the Lebanese parliament
elected Bashir Gemayel as president; after Bashir was assassinated in September, his
brother Amin Gemayel was elected to replace him. Subsequently, the Israelis withdrew to
southern Lebanon, and an international peacekeeping force was stationed in Beirut. The
Western forces pulled out completely by February 1984.
When Gemayel's presidential term expired in September 1988, he named
the army commander General Michel Aoun to head an interim government. In October 1989,
Lebanese negotiators, meeting in Saudi Arabia, agreed on a new constitution providing
equal power for the Muslims and Christians. On November 5, legislators ratified the
charter and elected Rene Moawad as president. He was assassinated 17 days later, and the
Lebanese parliament chose another President, Elias Hrawi, to succeed him. Voting for a new
National Assembly in 1992 represented the nation's first legislative elections in 20
years. Rafik al-Hariri became prime minister and was elected to a second term in May 1995.
Historical sights in Lebanon