History of ancient Lebanon
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The earliest known settlements in Lebanon date back to earlier than 5000 BCE. In Byblos, which is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, archaeologists have discovered remnants of prehistoric huts with crushed limestone floors, primitive weapons, and burial jars which are evidence of the Neolithic and Chalcolithic fishing communities who lived on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea over 8,000 years ago.
The area now known as Lebanon first appeared in recorded history around 4000 BCE as a group of coastal cities and a heavily forested hinterland. It was inhabited by the Canaanites, a Semitic people, whom the Greeks called "Phoenicians" because of the purple (phoinikies) dye they sold. These early inhabitants referred to themselves as "men of Sidon" or the like, according to their city of origin, and called the country "Lebanon." Because of the nature of the country and its location, the Phoenicians turned to the sea, where they engaged in trade and navigation.
Each of the coastal cities was an independent kingdom noted for the special activities of its inhabitants. Tyre and Sidon were important maritime and trade centers; Gubla (later known as Byblos and now as Jubayl) and Berytus (present-day Beirut) were trade and religious centers. Gubla was the first Phoenician city to trade actively with Egypt and the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BCE), exporting cedar, olive oil, and wine, while importing gold and other products from the Nile Valley.
Before the end of the 17th century BCE, Lebanese-Egyptian relations were interrupted when the Hyksos, a nomadic Semitic people, conquered Egypt. After about three decades of Hyksos rule (1600-1570 BCE), Ahmose I (1570-1545 BCE), Theban prince, launched the Egyptian liberation war. Opposition to the Hyksos increased, reaching a peak during the reign of the pharaoh Thutmose III (1490-1436 BCE), who invaded Syria, put an end to Hyksos domination, and incorporated Lebanon into the Egyptian Empire.
Toward the end of the 14th century BCE, the Egyptian Empire weakened, and Lebanon was able to regain its independence by the beginning of the 12th century BCE. The subsequent three centuries were a period of prosperity and freedom from foreign control during which the earlier Phoenician invention of the alphabet facilitated communications and trade. The Phoenicians also excelled not only in producing textiles but also in carving ivory, in working with metal, and above all in making glass. Masters of the art of navigation, they founded colonies wherever they went in the Mediterranean Sea (specifically in Cyprus, Rhodes, Crete, and Carthage) and established trade routes to Europe and western Asia. These colonies and trade routes flourished until the invasion of the coastal areas by the Assyrians.
Assyrian rule (875-608 BCE) deprived the Phoenician cities of their independence and prosperity and brought repeated, unsuccessful rebellions. In the middle of the 8th century BCE, Tyre and Byblos rebelled, but the Assyrian ruler, Tiglath-Pileser III, subdued the rebels and imposed heavy tributes. Oppression continued unabated, and Tyre rebelled again, this time against Sargon II (722-705 BCE), who successfully besieged the city in 721 BCE and punished its population. During the 7th century BCE, Sidon rebelled and was completely destroyed by Esarhaddon (681-668 BCE); its inhabitants were enslaved. Esarhaddon built a new city on Sidon's ruins. By the end of the 7th century BCE, the Assyrian Empire, weakened by the successive revolts, had been destroyed by the Median Empire.
Babylonian rule and the Persian Empire
As the Babylonians finally defeated the Assyrians at Carchemish, much of Lebanon was already in their hands, since much of it was seized from the collapsing Assyrian kingdom. In that time two Babylonian kings succeeded the throne, Nabopolassar who focused on ending Assyrian influence in the region, and his son Nebuchadnezzar II whose reign witnessed several regional rebellions, especially in Jerusalem. Revolts in Phoenician cities became more frequent during that period (685-636 BCE, Tyre rebelled again and for thirteen years resisted a siege by the troops of Nebuchadnezzar 587-574 BCE. After this long siege, the city capitulated; its king was dethroned, and its citizens were enslaved.
The Achaemenids ended Babylonian rule when Cyrus, founder of the Persian Empire, captured Babylon in 539-538 BCE and Phoenicia and its neighbors passed into Persian hands. Cambyses 529-522 BCE, Cyrus's son and successor, continued his father's policy of conquest and in 529 BCE became suzerain of Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. The Phoenician navy supported Persia during the Greco-Persian War 490-449 BCE. But when the Phoenicians were overburdened with heavy tributes imposed by the successors of Darius I 521-485 BCE, revolts and rebellions resumed in the Lebanese coastal cities.
The Persian Empire eventually fell to Alexander the Great, king of Macedon. He attacked Asia Minor, defeated the Persian troops in 333 BCE, and advanced toward the Lebanese coast. Initially the Phoenician cities made no attempt to resist, and they recognized his suzerainty. However, when Alexander tried to offer a sacrifice to Melqart, Tyre's god, the city resisted. Alexander besieged Tyre in retaliation in early 332 BCE. After six months of resistance, the city fell, and its people were sold into slavery. Despite his early death in 323 BCE, Alexander's conquest of the eastern Mediterranean Basin left a Greek imprint on the area. The Phoenicians, being a cosmopolitan people amenable to outside influences, adopted aspects of Greek civilization with ease.
The Seleucid Dynasty
After Alexander's death, his empire was divided among his Macedonian generals. The eastern part—Phoenicia, Asia Minor, northern Syria, and Mesopotamia fell to Seleucus I, founder of the Seleucid dynasty. The southern part of Syria and Egypt fell to Ptolemy, and the European part, including Macedonia, to Antigonus I. This settlement, however, failed to bring peace because Seleucus I and Ptolemy clashed repeatedly in the course of their ambitious efforts to share in Phoenician prosperity. A final victory of the Seleucids ended a forty-year period of conflict.
The last century of Seleucid rule was marked by disorder and dynastic struggles. These ended in 64 BCE, when the Roman general Pompey added Syria and Lebanon to the Roman Empire. Economic and intellectual activities flourished in Lebanon during the Pax Romana. The inhabitants of the principal Phoenician cities of Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre were granted Roman citizenship. These cities were centers of the pottery, glass, and purple dye industries; their harbors also served as warehouses for products imported from Syria, Persia, and India. They exported cedar, perfume, jewelry, wine, and fruit to Rome. Economic prosperity led to a revival in construction and urban development; temples and palaces were built throughout the country, as well as paved roads that linked the cities.
Upon the death of Theodosius I in 395 CE, the empire was divided in two: the eastern or Byzantine part with its capital at Constantinople, and the western part with its capital at Rome. Under the Byzantine Empire, intellectual and economic activities in Beirut, Tyre, and Sidon continued to flourish for more than a century. However, in the 6th century a series of earthquakes demolished the temples of Baalbek and destroyed the city of Beirut, leveling its famous law school and killing nearly 30,000 inhabitants. To these natural disasters were added the abuses and corruptions prevailing at that time in the empire. Heavy tributes and religious dissension produced disorder and confusion. Furthermore, the ecumenical councils of the 5th and 6th centuries were unsuccessful in settling religious disagreements. This turbulent period weakened the empire and made it easy prey to the newly converted Muslim Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula.
This article is based on public-domain text from the Lebanon Country Study (1987) of the Library of Congress Country Studies project; specifically from Chapter 1: Historical Setting, by Afaf Sabeh McGowen.