Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

From Antiquity to French Mandate

Ruins of Roman buildings in Baalbek in the Beqaa Valley
Ruins of Roman buildings in Baalbek in the Beqaa Valley

The coastal region of present-day Lebanon corresponds to an important part of ancient Canaan, which extended from Ugarit (now Ras Shamra) in northern Syria, along the coast and the valley of the river Orontes, down to southern Israel. Later, in the 1st millennium BCE, Tripoli, Byblos, Beryt (Beirut), Sidon (Saida), and Tyre were famous, independent Phoenician cities.

Phoenician travels

Phoenician fleets sailed out to North Africa, where they established colonies, often resembling trade factories. Their most important colony was Carthage (Carthago, meaning New City), near present Tunis (Tunisia). They even explored the Indian and Atlantic Oceans and the African coasts, starting from the Red Sea, sailing south around the Cape and from there, back to Carthage, following the African coastline. On other occasions, the Phoenicians reached West European shores and travelled as far as Normandy (in France).

Phoenician Independence

Phoenicia was part, successively, of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian Empire until 333-332 BCE. But its cities retained their independence, each ruled by its own king. The Persians especially, allowed the Phoenicians to conduct their own business and did not try to impose their Persian culture. The Phoenician cities each had their own army – although they supported one another when necessary. However, even their combined forces could not resist those of Alexander the Great from Macedonia. Tyre (Sur), that was built both on the mainland and on an island, offered the greatest resistance and was the last of the Phoenician cities in the Levant to fall, in 332 BCE, after a siege that lasted for seven months. Afterwards, the only Phoenician city to remain out of Greek hands, was Carthage. It would remain independent until 146 BCE, when it was finally taken by the Romans.

Hellenistic Rule

Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Phoenician cities in the 4th century BCE meant that the Levant came under Hellenistic rule. Alexander went on to conquer Egypt and the Persian Empire, but he died within a decade of his conquests. After his death (323 BCE), his empire was divided among his three generals. Antigonos was given Greece, Egypt went to Ptolemy, and Seleukos (or Seleucus) received the eastern part of the empire, from Asia Minor to the eastern border, more or less coinciding with present-day Iran’s border with Afghanistan. Seleukos built Antioch and made this the capital of the Seleucid Empire. For three centuries, Lebanon was part of the Seleucid Empire, after having belonged to the Ptolemaic Empire for some eighty years.

In Lebanon, philosophy flourished under the influence of the Greeks. Diodoros of Tyre, a member of the Peripatetic school, is a well known philosopher. The Greek were tolerant towards other religions; many of the gods worshipped in different religions were considered identical to the Greek gods, only with different names. Baal was the word for ‘Lord’ in the Aramaic-Syriac language spoken in the region. El was considered the equivalent of Ra in Egypt, and of the Greek god Zeus and the Roman Jupiter. Melkart, the Baal associated with Tyre, was viewed by the Greeks as an avatar of Heracles.

Roman Empire

In 64 BCE, the Greek rulers in Lebanon and surrounding countries were supplanted by the Romans, who would stay there until 636 CE. After their conquest of Carthage, the Romans extended their empire to the southern shores of the Mediterranean, which eventually became ‘a Roman lake’ in the words of the late Lebanese historian Boutros Dib. In many respects, Roman civilization was just a continuation of Greek culture. But where politics, law and administration were concerned, the transition from one empire to another did entail a break. Where the Greek insisted on local democracy and the independence of cities, the Romans endeavoured to install a centralized administration – in Rome. Moreover, many Roman emperors leant towards dictatorship. They even inclined towards deification – which was strongly resisted by the Christians in their empire. Still, the emperor’s power was not unlimited.

Roman Law

Another change for the newly conquered peoples was the introduction of Roman law, which was written in Latin, a language most people did not master. In the eastern region of the Roman Empire, the cultured language was Greek, and the vernacular language – at least around Mount Lebanon – Aramaic-Syriac. Whereas local customs and traditional law had essentially been respected under Persian and later Hellenistic rule, now the law of the land was Roman, and the institutions were imposed by Rome. The kings who had ruled the cities along the Lebanese coast since Phoenician times were replaced by governors – often chosen from the same families – and citizens were ‘classified’ in a hierarchical system. In later centuries, the differences between the social classes tended to diminish. In the third century, Emperor Caracalla (211-217) awarded Roman citizenship to all inhabitants in the provinces, including the peripheral provinces or colonies.

Periods of prosperity and peace alternated with periods of anarchy and (civil) war. The empire was regularly attacked by the Parthians and Sassanid (Persians) on its south-eastern flank, and by Germanic-speaking bands of warriors (Goths) and Vandals in the north and north-east. In addition to these attacks, the Roman Empire was at times weakened by internal power struggles.


From the first century CE on, the Christian religion spread along the Mediterranean Coast and beyond. Lebanon and Syria were among the very first countries to be Christianized. The Christians in the Roman Empire were at first ignored or tolerated, then persecuted, and eventually recognized. The persecutions were at their height during the reign of Diocletian (284-305). His successor, Constantine (305-337) converted to Christianity. With him came a new, more stable era.

Emperors Constantine and Justinian

Under his predecessor, the Roman Empire had been divided into a western and an eastern empire. Constantine, head of the eastern empire which was by far the more powerful and economically successful, moved its capital eastwards to Byzantium (Constantinople), which allowed him to be closer to its enemy, the Sassanid (Persians). Constantine thus laid the foundations of what would later be called the Byzantine Empire, which was consolidated by Justinian I (527-565). He temporarily reunited the two empires and subdued the Goths and Vandals in the provinces of Italy, Spain, and North Africa. On the eastern frontier, he waged war against the Persians – eventually with success, although only after an extended and costly campaign to force them to withdraw from (the north of) Syria.

Justinian I, who fought corruption in all governing bodies, also codified the Roman laws and jurisprudence. He greatly stimulated law studies (Beirut had a famous law school) and among his main legacy is the Corpus Juris Civilis, published in 529, containing all the laws promulgated in the Roman Empire since Hadrian (117-138). The later laws were collected in another volume, Novellae Constitutiones Post Codicem. Another compilation, the Digesta (533), contained the jurisprudence. Many of the texts compiled in this work were written by the Lebanese jurist Ulpian from Tyre, who lived in the 3rd century. In 533, a handbook for law students (Institutes) was also produced.

The Arab Conquest

In the 7th century, Islamic conquerors, arriving from the Arabian Peninsula, appeared in the region. There had been Arabs in Syria for many centuries – although the origins of the Arabs are unclear, the first reference to their existence is an Assyrian cuneiform mentioning a certain Gindibu, coming from the land of Aribi in 854. In 570, Muhammad ibn Abd Allah, who was to become the Prophet, was born in Mecca. In 613, Muhammad started to preach after he had had his first revelations. In 622, he and his followers went to Yathrib (later named Madinat al-Nabi – City of the Prophet – or Medina). This move, the Hegira or Hijra (emigration) and the year in which it took place, 622 CE, became the starting point of the Islamic calendar. The Hegira was also the starting point of the nation building that Muhammad undertook – with success, although it took him almost ten years. From Medina, he conquered the whole of the Arabian Peninsula and united the Arabs under the banner of Islam. Jews, Christians – Ahl al-Kitab or People of the Book – enjoyed freedom of religion.

Spread of Islam

After the Prophet’s death in 632, his followers continued his mission. Although there were tribal conflicts in the Arabian Peninsula, the conquest of the regions to the north was rather expeditious, for several reasons. Firstly, the Byzantine Empire had been weakened by wars and internal conflicts, and the population in Asia Minor was rather weary of its rulers. Secondly, the Arabs deployed friendly tribes – related to those already established in the region – to conquer these populations. Thirdly, the Christians in Lebanon and Syria considered the newcomers’ religion as a specific sect of Christianity. Moreover, the first dynasty of caliphs to govern these countries – the Umayyad, who ruled from the nearby city of Damascus (Muawiya, son of Abu Sufyan, was the first Umayyad caliph) – were quite tolerant towards ‘the People of the Book’. This encouraged the inhabitants to aid their new rulers in their struggle against the former rulers – who managed for a brief while to take back portions of the Lebanese coast – and to transform the coastal cities into citadels.


Abu Sufyan’s son Muawiya, the first governor of ‘Greater Syria’, became the first Umayyad caliph after Hasan ibn Ali and his brother Husayn, Muhammad’s descendants, retreated to Medina. The wars continued intermittently despite a treaty between Muawiya and Emperor Constantine IV. The war against the Byzantines flared up especially under the fifth Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan. In these wars, the (Christian) Mardaite (Jarajima in Arabic), a tribe in northern Syria, vacillated between serving as soldiers under the Byzantine emperor or as spies and scouts under the caliph. Eventually, like his forebear Muawiya, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan concluded a treaty with the Byzantine emperor, Justinian II, paying a heavy tribute. As a result, some of the Mardaite were relocated to Greece and Turkey; others settled in the Lebanese mountains and merged with the rest of the population.

More and more, the population of Lebanon was turning into the mosaic it is today. Descendants of the Phoenicians, Persians, Romans, Greek, Armenians, Syrians, Jews and others had settled there throughout the centuries. Now, Arabic was beginning to supplant Syriac dialect of the Aramaic language.

Diversity of Religion

Lebanon was also characterized by its diversity of religion: Jews, several Christian communities – of whom the Maronites formed the greatest majority – and Muslims. The first to convert to Islam were coastal cities, where Greek and Armenians also settled. Followers of Ali – the Shiites – generally settled in the south of the country and in the mountains. One of the Shia branches of Islam that spread out over Lebanon and Syria, especially in the 9th and 10th centuries, was that of the Ismailis, introduced by the rulers of the time, the Fatimid dynasty, who came from Egypt. The Druze, who were to become an essential part of the Lebanese mosaic, descended from a dissident branch of Ismaili which also originated in Egypt.

Crusades (1095-1302)

The First Crusade began in 1095 when pope Urban II called for a military expedition to the Byzantine Empire to help it fight the Seljuk (Turk) assailants and to take control of the Holy Land, which at that time was under the rule of the Egyptian Fatimid. This inaugurated a period of two centuries in which Christians and Muslims often fought one another – and sometimes their own co-religionists – across the region between Anatolia and Palestine and in Egypt. At times they did however also cooperate.

The first troubles arose when the Norman Bohemond finally took the city of Antioch, one of the patriarchal sees of Christianity, from the Seljuk. The crusaders had promised the Byzantine emperor to hand back to him the territories they conquered, but Bohemond did not comply. Shortly after his conquest, however, an army led by Kerbogha of Mosul retook the city. Eventually, the crusaders managed to reconquer Antioch, but then internal strife broke out. Some stayed, some went on to conquer Palestine, the Holy Land.

Godfrey of Bouillon’s army went south. In the beginning, the Fatimid did not seem overtly distressed by the crusaders’ passing through their territory, and even considered helping them against the Seljuk. This changed, however, when the Europeans approached Palestine – and Egypt. In 1099, Godfrey of Bouillon conquered Jerusalem. However, the Lebanese and Syrian territories proved more difficult to conquer – and even less easy to hold. The cities of Tyre (Sur), Sidon (Saida), Beirut, and Tripoli (Tarabulus al-Sharq) changed hands a few times, and although already fortresses before the crusades, were now strongly fortified. Toward the end of the 12th century, the European rulers – the Franks, as they were called, although not all of them came from France, the Frankish kingdom – claimed to be the masters of the Lebanese mountains.

Shifting alliances

However, the situation remained complicated. There were still Muslim princes who remained masters of their fiefs in the mountains. Secondly, the newcomers accommodated to the established communities in several ways. There were shifting alliances, with former enemies fighting alongside or transforming into opponents. Some territories – like those of the Bohtor, Sarahmour, Tirdalan, and Aramoun families, near Beirut – fell under both the Christian bishops and the legendary Saladin, who fought the Christians in the name of the jihad – following in that respect Nur al-Din, Saladin’s predecessor. Saladin, who won decisive battles – such as the Battle of Hattin in 1187 that led to the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the occupation of that region by the Franks – was famed not only for his strategic acumen, but also for his courageous and chivalrous feats as a warrior. His reputation was in that respect similar to that of his adversary Richard Lionheart, and witnesses have reported that both men respected, or even liked, one another.

Neither the Christians nor the Muslims always closed ranks. When the Franks undertook to conquer the Lebanese cities, they were sometimes stopped by Maronites. These later supported the crusaders, but ceased to do so toward the end of the 13th century, which also meant the end of the crusader era. At one point, the French count Raymond III of Tripoli was Saladin’s ally against Baldwin, King of Jerusalem – before switching sides. Afterwards, Raymond was defeated by Saladin. In the Muslim world, there was a patent hostility between Shiite Egypt and Sunnite Baghdad. The emirates located between the two powers – fearing the Turkish Seljuk – remained divided in their allegiance. Eventually, in 1292, it were the Mamluks, a new Egyptian dynasty – though of Turkish origin and Sunnite – who brought the final blow to the crusaders. By then, the eastern part of their territory had been invaded by the Mongols, who came as far as Damascus.

The Crusades (eight in total) cost many lives, and brought a lot of destruction, disease and disorder. But on the whole, the local inhabitants were allowed to remain true to their faith – except for slaves and prisoners of war. They also retained their local authorities and justice system. In many ways, the eastern and western cultures influenced one another. Trade thrived, especially in the coastal regions. Traders – whether they were Muslims, Christians or Jews – enjoyed special protection when crossing borders, even when they had to enter ‘enemy’ territory. Caravans travelled across the whole region, ships went from Egypt to Tyre to Constantinople and further.

After the last of the crusaders left the Lebanese coast, many Christian traders also left and settled in Cyprus. After a few years, however, their ships returned to the Lebanese ports.

The Mamluk Era (1250-1517)

In 1193, half a century after Saladin’s death, the Ayyubid dynasty to which Saladin belonged came to an end and the Mamluks took over in Egypt. At that time, the Europeans had lost important battles in the Levant, but they were not entirely defeated yet. Some historians say it was the Mongols who dealt the final blow to the Crusader states. Indeed, around 1250, Genghis Khan and his descendants had conquered all of Central and large parts of Western Asia, and even some parts of Eastern Europe. In the Middle East, the Mongols penetrated as far as Damascus and went on in the direction of Egypt. The Mamluks ran into them in the north of Palestine, where the famous battle of Ayn Jalut (1260) is said to have changed the course of history. The Mamluks defeated the Mongols, and went on to conquer Syria and Mount Lebanon.

As Sunnite Muslims, the Mamluks were wary of both the Christians – mainly Maronite – and the Shiites who were living there. However, the Mamluks enjoyed good relationships with Catholic Venice, and therefore generally let the Christian communities be. The Shiites, however, were considered not only as heterodox, but – worse – as friends of the Mongols, and were persecuted. Many were killed, those who survived hid in the mountains.

The Ottoman Empire: Years of Autonomy (1516-1788)

In 1516, the Ottoman Empire defeated the Mamluks and seized control of the region. This was the starting point of three centuries of relative calm, in which Mount Lebanon and Syria enjoyed a large degree of autonomy. Their society had a feudal structure, very much organized around the way this nation of farmers-soldiers had lived and fought for centuries. The emir commanded several sheikhs, who in turn had their vassals, each of whom had their own army of peasants who when necessary acted as soldiers. The Ottoman authority was represented by pashas in the main cities: Aleppo, Tripoli, Sidon, and later Beirut. The coastal cities were the domain of Sunni or Melkite (Greek Catholic) traders, whereas Druze, Shiites and Maronites lived in relative peace in the mountains. There was the odd revolt against the Sultan, there were attacks from Bedouin nomads against whom the mountain people had to defend themselves, there were family and neighbourhood feuds, conspiracies and power struggles – but overall, until the 19th century, Mount Lebanon was rather peaceful and prosperous. If there were clashes between communities, it was not on a religious basis. The mountains had become a refuge for different minorities, religious or other, that had fled persecution. These groups had to live together one way or another.

Fakhr al-Din II and Bashir II

Two names of emirs emerge during this period. The first was Fakhr al-Din II (1593-1635), the last and best remembered member of the Maan dynasty, the second was Bashir II (1788-1840), of the Chehab family. Both have the epithet ‘The Great’ attached to their name. Fakhr al-Din concluded an alliance with Ferdinand I de Medici, Duke of Tuscany, and this bond, which was to last for centuries, was profitable, first of all for the trade centres in the coastal cities, but also for the mountains, where Tuscan engineers built the now famous terraces which made agriculture much more efficient.

French Mandate

Emir Faysal at the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919 (with T.E. Lawrence to his right)
Emir Faysal at the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919 (with T.E. Lawrence to his right)

The outcome of World War I reshuffled the cards once again. Turkey lost all its territories, which were now held by the western allied forces, Great Britain and France. The latter had strongly hesitated about sending troops to the Levant, as it was fighting a war on its own western front. Yet French – and North African – troops fought in Lebanon and in Syria, which had been within its sphere of influence for at least a century, in particular because of the Jesuit missionaries in both countries. France’s ties with the Lebanese Maronites went back even further.

After the armistice on 30 October 1918, the former Turkish territories in the Levant were declared ‘occupied enemy territories’. Following the Sykes-Picot Agreement, concluded even before the war was ended (named after their negotiators, the British Mark Sykes and the Frenchman François Georges-Picot), the French occupied Lebanon, the coastal parts of Syria and Cilicia, the south-eastern Anatolian coast. The interior part of Syria, as well as Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan, were held by the British.

Before the French took over, Lebanon and Syria were held by Emir Faysal, son of Husayn, Sharif of Mecca, whose troops, alongside those of the British colonel T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), defeated the Turkish troops in the region. For a few days, Faysal – who had been promised the Kingdom of Greater Syria – had his flag hoisted in Damascus as well as in Beirut. In Beirut, it was taken down when the British general Edmund Allenby and the French colonel Philipin de Piepape set foot in Lebanon. Faysal was invited, albeit begrudgingly, to the peace conference that was afterwards held in Paris. France claimed the mandate over the whole of Syria as well as Lebanon, which it was accorded in the treaty signed in 1920. The mandate over Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq up to the Iranian border, went to the British. Cilicia was given back to Turkey, and as a consequence thousands of Turkish Christians and Armenians who had survived the massacres of 1915-1916 and had taken refuge in Cilicia, fled to Lebanon.

Emir Faysal

Faysal was made King of Iraq, while his brother Abdullah became first Emir of Transjordan, later King of Jordan. The latter’s descendants are still on the throne in Jordan. Faysal’s grandson, Faysal II, was murdered in 1958, during the coup that brought the Iraqi military to power.

Faysal’s influence was great. He revitalized the idea – already launched in the 17th century by Mount Lebanon’s Emir Fakhr al-Din – of an Arab state that would unite the whole region. Faysal’s ideas were met with distrust by the Christians in Lebanon and Syria; in their eyes, he did not make a clear distinction between the spiritual and worldly powers. There was confusion whether Faysal’s proposed state would be Arab or rather Muslim. On the other hand, many Levantine Christians certainly did adhere to the idea of pan-Arabism, which had started to spread in the late 19th century and which was met with widespread enthusiasm throughout the Arab world in the 1920s and 1930s.

Under the French Mandate

Under the French mandate, Lebanon, so far restricted to the mountainous regions and – except for the previous half century – the Beqaa Valley, became Greater Lebanon, and was united with the coastal region. This meant a fundamental change in the composition of Lebanon’s population, the coastal cities being inhabited mainly by Sunni Muslims and Greek Orthodox. The Druze became a very small minority in the country, making up a mere 6.8 percent, according to the 1932 census. The Maronites, still the largest group (28.8 percent) and by far the majority among the Christians (Greek Orthodox 9.7, Greek Catholic 5.9, other Christian denominations – mainly Armenian – 6.8 percent), did not dominate the social landscape as they had previously. Together, the Christians remained in the majority: 51.2 percent. The Sunni at the time represented 22.4 percent of the population, the Shiites 20.3. Together with the Druze (6.8 percent), the Muslim community as a whole formed 49.7 percent of the population.

The new borders also meant that the country was formally independent in its relationship to Damascus. The mandate that the French received from the League of Nations was clear: Lebanon should eventually become an independent country, and France should help the Lebanese to realize this.

In the following years, the Lebanese started working on their Constitution, which was completed in 1926. It was this Constitution that stipulated that the President of the Republic was to be a Maronite Christian, while the Speaker of Parliament should be a Shiite and the Prime Minister a Sunni, while the Druze provided the Minister of Defence. The parliamentary seats – and the constituencies – had to be divided among most of the eighteen recognized religious denominations. Within these restrictions the Members of Parliament were elected on a political platform, and as members of political parties or coalitions. The political spectrum stretched from the communist party on the left, to the Phalange on the right.

Political ideas were largely discussed in the newspapers and the newspaper industry was thriving. Even in the early days of the French mandate, the Lebanese press enjoyed exceptional freedom in the Arab world, although it was not entirely free, as the French military were in power until 1926. Newspapers were distributed and read on a large scale, not only in the capital, but also in regional towns, which often had their own local newspaper.

The Road to Independence

Independence was to be obtained step by step. It was finally achieved in 1943, in the midst of World War II. As soon as France was at war with Germany, in September 1939, the Lebanese Constitution was suspended and Parliament dissolved. The President, Émile Eddé, and the government had hardly any powers. Late 1940, the then French High Commissioner, general Henri Dentz, representing the collaborating Vichy government of France, appointed Alfred Naccache as ‘Head of Government’. President Eddé abdicated shortly afterwards, when food shortages caused by the British blockade resulted in serious protests by the population.

In July 1941, Lebanon was liberated by British and Free French forces of general Charles De Gaulle, and the representatives of the Vichy government left for France. But although independence had been promised both by the French and the British as soon as they entered Lebanon and Syria in June 1941, it took six months for the French in power to acknowledge this promise and to recognize Naccache as President of the Republic. It took almost two more years – and the victory of the Allied forces in the region – before the French allowed free elections and, in preparation thereof, the constitution of a provisional government.

In view of these elections the decision was made to distribute the parliamentary seats along the lines of the different religious communities, according to their share of the population, based on the census of 1932. Moreover, President Bechara al-Khoury (Maronite) and Prime Minister Riad al-Solh (Sunnite) drew up a (non-written) National Pact in which Muslims and Christians committed themselves to live peacefully together.

French President Charles de Gaulle visits the Druze community in Syria at the end of World War II Photo HH
French President Charles de Gaulle visits the Druze community in Syria at the end of World War II Photo HH

General Fouad Chehab presents the Lebanese flag to President Bechara al-Khoury in 1945
General Fouad Chehab presents the Lebanese flag to President Bechara al-Khoury in 1945

Muslims were to renounce a possible attachment of Lebanon to any pan-Arab nation, Christians to renounce the protection of western powers – mainly France or Great Britain at the time. This National Pact proved fundamental on Lebanon’s road to independence, as the western powers, France in particular, feared the rise of pan-Arabism in the region and its possible implications, such as calls for creating a Greater Syria. Though often criticized as carrying the seeds of later conflicts amongst the country’s communities, the Lebanese were loyal to this National Pact, which was to remain in place until the Taif Agreement of 1989.