Geography of Lebanon
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Lebanon is part of the Middle East, located at approximately 35˚N, 35˚E. Stretching along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, its length almost three times its width. As it stretches from north to south, the width of its terrain becomes narrower. Lebanon's mountainous terrain, economic, and religious movements that either originated in the region or crossed through to leave an imprint upon Lebanese society give form to that history.
The country's role in the region, as indeed in the world at large, was shaped by trade. Lebanon is named "the pearl of the middle east." It serves as a link between the Mediterranean world and India and East Asia. The merchants of the region exported oil, grain, textiles, metal work, and pottery through the port cities to Western markets.
The area of Lebanon is approximately 10,452 square kilometres (4,036 sq mi). The country is roughly rectangular in shape, becoming narrower toward the south and the farthest north. Its widest point is 88 kilometres (55 mi), and its narrowest is 32 kilometres (20 mi); the average width is about 56 kilometres (35 mi).
The physical geography of Lebanon is influenced by natural systems that extend outside the country. Thus, the Beqaa Valley is part of the Great Rift system, which stretches from southern Turkey to Mozambique in Africa. Like any mountainous country, Lebanon's physical geography is complex. Land forms, climate, soils, and vegetation differ markedly within short distances. There are also sharp changes in other elements of the environment, from good to poor soils, as one moves through the Lebanese mountains.
A major feature of Lebanese topography is the alternation of lowland and highland that runs generally parallel with a north-to-south orientation. There are four such longitudinal strips between the Mediterranean Sea and Syria: the coastal strip (or the maritime plain), western Lebanon, the central plateau, and eastern Lebanon (see fig. 3, Physical Features).
The extremely narrow coastal strip stretches along the shore of the eastern Mediterranean. Hemmed in between sea and mountain, the sahil, as it is called in Lebanon, is widest in the north near Tripoli, where it is only 6.5 kilometres (4.0 mi) wide. A few kilometers south at Juniyah the approximately 1.5-kilometer-wide plain is succeeded by foothills that rise steeply to 750 metres (2,460 ft) within 6.5 kilometres (4.0 mi) from the sea. For the most part, the coast is abrupt and rocky. The shoreline is regular with no deep estuary, gulf, or natural harbor. The maritime plain is especially productive of fruits and vegetables.
The western range, the second major region, is the Lebanon Mountains, sometimes called Mount Lebanon, or Lebanon proper before 1920. Since Roman days the term Mount Lebanon has encompassed this area. Antilibanos (Anti-Lebanon) was used to designate the eastern range. Geologists believe that the twin mountains once formed one range. The Lebanon Mountains are the highest, most rugged, and most imposing of the whole maritime range of mountains and plateaus that start with the Amanus or Nur Mountains in northern Syria and end with the towering massif of Sinai. The mountain structure forms the first barrier to communication between the Mediterranean and Lebanon's eastern hinterland. The mountain range is a clearly defined unit having natural boundaries on all four sides. On the north it is separated from the Nusayriyah Mountains of Syria by An Nahr al Kabir ("the great river"); on the south it is bounded by Al Qasimiyah River, giving it a length of 169 kilometers. Its width varies from about 56.5 kilometres (35.1 mi) near Tripoli to 9.5 kilometres (5.9 mi) on the southern end. It rises to alpine heights southeast of Tripoli, where Al Qurnat as Sawda ("the black nook") reaches 3,088 metres (10,131 ft). Of the other peaks that rise east of Beirut, Jabal Sannin (2,695 metres (8,842 ft)) is the highest. Ahl al Jabal ("people of the mountain"), or simply jabaliyyun, has referred traditionally to the inhabitants of western Lebanon. Near its southern end, the Lebanon Mountains branch off to the west to form the Shuf Mountains.
The third geographical region is the Biqa Valley. This central highland between the Lebanon Mountains and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains is about 177 kilometres (110 mi) in length and 9.6 to 16 kilometers wide and has an average elevation of 762 metres (2,500 ft). Its middle section spreads out more than its two extremities. Geologically, the Biqa is the medial part of a depression that extends north to the western bend of the Orontes River in Syria and south to Jordan through Al Arabah to Al Aqabah, the eastern arm of the Red Sea. The Biqa is the country's chief agricultural area and served as a granary of Roman Syria. Biqa is the Arabic plural of buqaah, meaning a place with stagnant water.
Emerging from a base south of Homs in Syria, the eastern mountain range, or Anti-Lebanon (Lubnan ash Sharqi), is almost equal in length and height to the Lebanon Mountains. This fourth geographical region falls swiftly from Mount Hermon to the Hawran Plateau, whence it continues through Jordan south to the Dead Sea. The Barada Gorge divides Anti-Lebanon. In the northern section, few villages are on the western slopes, but in the southern section, featuring Mount Hermon (2860 meters), the western slopes have many villages. Anti-Lebanon is more arid, especially in its northern parts, than Mount Lebanon and is consequently less productive and more thinly populated.
Lebanon is divided into five ribbonlike topographical areas stretching mainly in a north-south direction:
- the 210 km (130.49 mi) long shoreline, rocky in the north and sandy in the south, including several bays and islands
- the narrow coastal plain, approximately 3 km (1.86 mi) wide
- the western Mount Lebanon range
- the Beqaa Valley
- the eastern Anti-Lebanon mountains
Lebanon has a Mediterranean climate characterized by a long, hot, and dry summer, and cool, rainy winter. Fall is a transitional season with a gradual lowering of temperature and little rain; spring occurs when the winter rains cause the vegetation to revive. Topographical variation creates local modifications of the basic climatic pattern. Along the coast, summers are hot and humid, with little or no rain. Heavy dews form, which are beneficial to agriculture. The daily range of temperature is not wide. A west wind provides relief during the afternoon and evening; at night the wind direction is reversed, blowing from the land out to sea.
Winter is the rainy season, with major precipitation falling after December. Rainfall is generous but is concentrated during only a few days of the rainy season, falling in heavy cloudbursts. The amount of rainfall varies greatly from one year to another. Occasionally, there are frosts during the winter, and about once every fifteen years a light powdering of snow falls as far south as Beirut. A hot wind blowing from the Egyptian desert called the khamsin (Arabic for "fifty"), may provide a warming trend during the fall, but more often occurs during the spring. Bitterly cold winds may have come from Europe. Along the coast the proximity to the sea provides a moderating influence on the climate, making the range of temperatures narrower than it is inland, but the temperatures are cooler in the northern parts of the coast where there is also more rain.
In the Lebanon Mountains the gradual increase in altitude produces colder winters with more precipitation and snow. The summers have a wider daily range of temperatures and less humidity. In the winter, frosts are frequent and snows heavy; in fact, snow covers the highest peaks for much of the year. In the summer, temperatures may rise as high during the daytime as they do along the coast, but they fall far lower at night. Inhabitants of the coastal cities, as well as visitors, seek refuge from the oppressive humidity of the coast by spending much of the summer in the mountains, where numerous summer resorts are located. Both the khamsin and the north winter wind are felt in the Lebanon Mountains. The influence of the Mediterranean Sea is abated by the altitude and, although the precipitation is even higher than it is along the coast, the range of temperatures is wider and the winters are more severe.
The Biqa Valley and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains are shielded from the influence of the sea by the Lebanon Mountains. The result is considerably less precipitation and humidity and a wider variation in daily and yearly temperatures. The khamsin does not occur in the Biqa Valley, but the north winter wind is so severe that the inhabitants say it can "break nails." Despite the relatively low altitude of the Biqa Valley (the highest point of which, near Baalbek, is only 1,100 meters or 3,609 feet) more snow falls there than at comparable altitudes west of the Lebanon Mountains.
Because of their altitudes, the Anti-Lebanon Mountains receive more precipitation than the Biqa Valley, despite their remoteness from maritime influences. Much of this precipitation appears as snow, and the peaks of the Anti-Lebanon, like those of the Lebanon Mountains, are snow-covered for much of the year. Temperatures are cooler than in the Biqa Valley.
The Biqa Valley is watered by two rivers that rise in the watershed near Baalbek: the Orontes flowing north (in Arabic it is called Nahr al Asi, "the Rebel River", because this direction is unusual), and the Litani flowing south into the hill region of the southern Biqa Valley, where it makes an abrupt turn to the west in southern Lebanon and is thereafter called the Al Qasmiyah River. The Orontes continues to flow north into Syria and eventually reaches the Mediterranean in Turkey. Its waters, for much of its course, flow through a channel considerably lower than the surface of the ground. The Nahr Barada, which waters Damascus, has as its source a spring in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains.
Smaller springs and streams serve as tributaries to the principal rivers. Because the rivers and streams have such steep gradients and are so fast moving, they are erosive instead of depository in nature. This process is aided by the soft character of the limestone that composes much of the mountains, the steep slopes of the mountains, and the heavy rainstorms. The only permanent lake is Buhayrat al Qirawn, about ten kilometers east of Jezzine. There is one seasonal lake, fed by springs, on the eastern slopes of the Lebanon Mountains near Yammunah, about 40 kilometres (25 mi) southeast of Tripoli.
Snow-covered karstic formations in the Danniyeh mountains.
Area and boundaries
total: 10,452 km2 (4,036 sq mi)
land: 10,230 km2 (3,950 sq mi)
water: 170 km2 (66 sq mi)
total: 454 km (282 mi)
border countries: Israel 79 km (49.1 mi), Syria 375 km (233 mi)
Coastline: 225 km (140 mi)
Maritime claims: territorial sea: 12 nmi (22.2 km; 13.8 mi)
Resources and land use
Land use: arable land: 10.72%
permanent crops: 12.06%
other: 77.22% (2011)
Irrigated land: 1,040 km2 (401.55 sq mi) (2011)
Total renewable water resources: 4.5 km3 (1.1 cu mi) (2011)
Current environmental degradation concerns include deforestation, soil erosion, desertification, air pollution in Beirut from vehicular traffic and the burning of industrial wastes, and pollution of coastal waters from raw sewage and oil spills.
Lebanon's rugged terrain historically helped isolate, protect, and develop numerous factional groups based on religion, clan, and ethnicity.
- This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies.