Lebanon (Arabic pronunciation: Libnan or Lubnan) is a small country located between Israel and Syria along the Mediterranean Sea. It has an area of approximately 10,452 square kilometers (4,036 square miles). Lebanon has a Mediterranean climate with mild, cool winters and hot, humid summers along the coast. Average annual temperatures range from 52 – 87°F in most of the country, although the Mount Lebanon range typically see temperatures between 25 – 40°F during the winter with snow at high altitudes. About 11.9% of the land in Lebanon is arable, a percentage much higher than that of other countries in the region. In addition, about 13.4% of land area in Lebanon is forested, also a much higher percentage than many other Middle Eastern countries.
Lebanon is currently facing many environmental issues, such as deforestation, soil erosion, desertification, air pollution and water pollution. Lebanon is making progress in combating some of these challenges. In 2010, the Lebanese government set a target for 20% forest coverage by the year 2020 to combat deforestation. The Lebanon Reforestation Initiative funded through USAID is expected to plant 2 million trees per year to meet the target, and seedlings have been planted at ten sites around the country. Additionally, a watershed management initiative to lessen water pollution has begun that would connect 80% of the Lebanese population to water treatment plants by 2020.
HISTORY & GOVERNMENT
Lebanon, like the other Levantine (Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Syria) states, is located in the heart of what is commonly referred to as the cradle of civilization. This is the area where the first non-nomadic communities emerged. Throughout history, Lebanon has been home to several significant cultures and has served as an important hub connecting the east and west. Phoenicia arose in what is now known as Lebanon around 1500 BCE. The Phoenicians made great contributions to art and culture, most notably the development of the first alphabet. By 539 BCE Phoenicia came under Persian rule and the Phoenicians began losing their influence in the region. With the arrival and spread of Islam in the 7th century CE, Lebanon came under rule of the Muslim empires. After centuries of competition by various empires, the Ottoman Empire gained control in 1516 CE.
During World War I, the Ottoman Empire aligned with the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria. The Allied Powers (France, Britain, Russia, and United States) supported Arab uprisings against the Ottomans throughout the empire that would ultimately lead to its weakening and complete dissolution. Throughout the war and after the victory by the Allied Powers, a series of private agreements resulted in the division of the area into sovereign states with mandate rulers.
In 1915, the High Commissioner of Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, engaged in secret correspondence with Hussein Bin Ali, the Sharif of Hejaz and Mecca. Sharif is a title meaning noble that is conferred upon descendants of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Hassan Ibn Ali. McMahon agreed to Great Britain’s eventual recognition and support of an Arab state whose boundaries would be determined by Hussein. These exchanges, now known as the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence (or, alternately, as the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence) lasted from July 14, 1915 to January 30, 1916. In exchange for Arab support of the war efforts through revolts against the Ottomans, the British would recognize Arab independence. This commitment, however, was not honored.
Meanwhile, also in 1915, British parliamentarian, Sir Mark Sykes, and a French diplomat, Francois Georges-Picot, looking toward a collapsed Ottoman Empire, carved up the Middle East into hypothetical spheres of influence under either British or French control. The Sykes-Picot agreement, drafted in secret unbeknownst to other politicians or world leaders, would give the northern part of the Middle East, consisting of Christian enclaves in Syria and Lebanon to France, while Great Britain would have authority over southern territory including Palestine and Iraq.
In 1917, however, British Foreign Minister Arthur James Balfour promised the Zionist Federation of Great Britain “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The Balfour Declaration of a homeland for the Jewish Diaspora in what was believed to be a preemptory concession to the United States’ President Woodrow Wilson whose support for Arab independence was at odds with the Sykes-Picot redesign of the Middle East.
History & Government Resources
INTERNATIONAL & REGIONAL ISSUES
Certain areas of the Lebanese-Syrian border are currently in dispute. This contention dates back to the French Mandate period; when the two countries declared independence, the borders were not clearly established. One such contested area is the Sheba’a Farms in the Golan Heights. Though the area is currently occupied by Israel, both Lebanon and Syria lay claim to it. From 2000 to 2006, Hezbollah engaged the Israeli Defense Forces in cross-border skirmishes in the hopes of reclaiming the territory. These skirmishes were unsuccessful and the area remains under Israeli administration.
Lebanon is also home to many refugees from conflicts in the area. Refugees from the Syrian conflict number over one million, constituting more than a quarter of the population, the largest of any refugee group in the country. The refugees are split into four main geographic areas: North Lebanon, South Lebanon, Beirut and Bekaa. The Lebanese government had wanted to remain uninvolved in the conflict and has been hesitant to provide aid. As a result, no official refugee camps had been formed, however, thousands have been integrated into Palestinian refugee camps, set up makeshift camps, and moved into urban slums throughout Lebanon.
There are around 450,000 Palestinian refugees officially registered (although that number is likely higher due to unregistered) in Lebanon because of the nation’s proximity to Israel. A little over half of that population lives in 12 refugee camps established by the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency). Discrimination against refugees has prevented Palestinians from attaining certain jobs. In 2010, the Lebanese parliament overturned the law restricting Palestinian refugees in the work force; however, non-Lebanese citizens are barred from working as engineers, lawyers and doctors.
The UNRWA runs 68 schools for Palestinian refugees, with 32,000 current students. They also run two vocational and technical training centers and 28 health care facilities that serve 54% of the Palestinian refugee population. The Syrian Civil War forced about 47,000 Palestinians to move to Lebanon from Syria, which put additional strain on the already overcrowded and impoverished camps. According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are about 6,100 Iraqi refugees present in Lebanon as well, though the exact number may be higher.
International and Regional Issues Resources
The civil war significantly damaged Lebanon’s economy, and it has been struggling to recover since. Following the civil war, Lebanon rebuilt much of its war-torn physical and financial infrastructure by borrowing heavily, mostly from domestic banks, which saddled the government with a huge debt burden. Pledges of economic and financial reforms made at separate international donor conferences during the 2000s have mostly gone unfulfilled. Currently, Lebanon’s debt-to-GDP ratio is the third highest in the world, which limits the government’s ability to invest in necessary infrastructure improvements, such as water, electricity, and transportation. The real growth rate of Lebanon’s GDP was 1% in 2016 and 2015.
The economic system is a free-market economy with a strong laissez-faire commercial tradition. The investment climate suffers from corruption, high taxes, tariffs and fees, and archaic legislation, although foreign investment is not restricted. Syrian refugees have increased the labor supply, but are blamed for pushing more Lebanese into unemployment. The youth unemployment in Lebanon is estimated to be 22%.
The population of Lebanon is approximately 6.2 million and has experienced some of the highest population growth rates in the world at 9.37%. The average life expectancy is 77.22 years (76 for men, 79 for women). Ninety-five percent of the population is Arab, 4% is Armenian, and the remaining 1% is classified as other. Eighty-nine percent of the population lives in urban areas, a number which is growing (.86% annual rate of change). Beirut, Tripoli, and Sidon are the most populous cities.
Population of Lebanon
Average Life Expectancy (Men)
Average Life Expectancy (Women)
There are three levels of education in Lebanon: primary, basic and secondary. Primary education is similar to kindergarten, for ages 5-6. Basic, divided into two levels, consists of elementary and intermediary. These two groups are for children grades 1-6. Secondary education is for grades 7-12. Primary and basic education is mandatory, but much fewer attend secondary school. On average, children stay in school for 14 years (14 for men, 15 for women).
There are 41 nationally accredited universities in Lebanon, including the American University of Beirut (AUB), which was the first English-language school to open in the country. About 50% of Lebanese students pursue some form of higher-level education. In addition to the larger universities, there are smaller technical and vocational schools. Women have equal representation in universities and careers in most specialties.
Healthcare in Lebanon is slowly improving after being decimated because of the civil war. Most of the public health infrastructure was destroyed during the conflict, and the Lebanese government has increasingly relied on private facilities to provide healthcare. The Lebanese government often transfers state hospital patients to private hospitals, which have better resources and technology. The government generally pays 85-95% of treatment costs.
Arabic is the official language of Lebanon, but many Lebanese citizens also speak French. English is also becoming increasingly more popular, especially among the young. Additionally, Armenian is sometimes spoken among Lebanon’s Armenian population, many of whom migrated to Lebanon during the events of the Armenian Genocide in 1915.
There are 18 officially recognized religious sects in Lebanon. The majority Muslim population (54%) is split equally between Sunni and Shia believers. There are distinct offshoots grouped within those numbers. Christians make up about 40.5% of the population with several denominations represented including Greek, Syrian and Armenian Orthodox; Protestants; Coptic Christians; and Roman, Maronite and Greek Catholics.
The prominent Maronite Christian sect in Lebanon can be traced back to the early 400s CE. A Christian monk named Maron began preaching his own interpretation of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, which emphasized the connection of all creation with God. Many subscribed to his teachings, and the Maronite church began to form. Following Maron’s death in 410, the Maronite Church expanded its membership quickly in Lebanon and Syria, and the Catholic Church recognized Maron as a saint. There are approximately 840,000 Lebanese Maronites according to estimates from 2010.
In addition, the Druze constitute 5.5% of the Lebanese population; Encyclopedia Brittanica states that, although “Druze religious beliefs developed out of Ismaili (a branch of Shia Islam) teachings, various Jewish, Christian, Gnostic, Neoplatonic, and Iranian elements are combined under a doctrine of strict monotheism”. In the 11th century, Muhammad bin Ismail Nashtakin ad-Darazi founded the Druze religion as an alternative interpretation of Shia Islam. This religious sect emphasizes strict adherence to the unity and transcendence of God and strips away all titles or descriptions of God. There are about 22,000 Druze in Lebanon; more than 130,000 have emigrated in the past several years.
Lebanese identity is more strongly linked to religious affiliation than to ethnicity. The government under the National Pact divides the three important leadership positions (President, Prime Minister, and Speaker of the National Assembly) among the largest religious groups. This all-encompassing representation has allowed disagreements between groups to be resolved through politic channels rather than through violence. Changing demographics, however—including decreasing numbers of Maronite Christians and increasing numbers of Shia Muslims—have raised questions about the fairness of the National Pact. Since no official census has taken place since 1932, it is difficult to know the precise numbers of each group’s population and whether the National Pact is still a fair representation of Lebanese citizens.
Lebanese food is massively popular because it is both healthful and delicious. Lebanese cuisine is generally synonymous with Levantine cuisine. For most of its past, Lebanon was ruled by foreign powers that left lasting influences on Lebanese cuisine. The Ottoman Turks introduced a variety of foods that have become staples in the Lebanese diet, including olive oil, fresh bread, baklava, laban (homemade yogurt), stuffed vegetables, and a variety of nuts.
Fruit, vegetables, rice, and bread outweigh the amount of meat eaten in the average Lebanese meal. However, the most commonly eaten meats, poultry and lamb, make up some of the country’s most popular dishes. The national dish, kibbeh (or kibbe ), consists of a ground meats, spices, and bulgur.
The Lebanese diet is centered around herbs, spices, and fresh ingredients. Mint, parsley, thyme, oregano, garlic, allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon are the most common seasonings. Rose water is another common flavor used in desserts.
Clothing in Lebanon is westernized, particularly in the cities. There is a wide range of national or folk clothing due to the diverse ethnic and religious makeup of Lebanon’s population.
Early art in Lebanon was influenced by the empire in control of the Levant at any given time, and the many cultures that traded in the area. Among the earliest people to settle Lebanon were the Phoenicians, who became renowned for their use of royal purple dye in pottery and textiles. Around 1000 BCE, Phoenician seal makers adopted the scarab from the Egyptians, for whom it was a symbol of regeneration. The seals were shaped like scarabs while the flat undersides featured carved images of Egyptian and Greek mythology. The Phoenicians were also known for their ivory carvings. Like the scarab seals, the carvings sometimes featured Egyptian themes with the addition of Phoenician elements.
One of the early forms of art indigenous to Lebanon was the creation of religious icons by the Maronite Christians. These icons usually depicted holy objects on a flat painting, but were also made from metal, carved in stone, and embroidered or incorporated into mosaics and frescoes. This form of religious art is still practiced today. One famous iconographer is Christine Habib El-Daye, who specializes in painting.
Many of the early contemporary artists in Lebanon went to European countries for training in classical painting, although this changed in 1937 with the establishment of the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts. One of the early artists was Omar Onsi, an impressionist who helped train later generations of Lebanese artists. Onsi went to France to train further in his art, and upon his return painted watercolors of the Lebanese landscape.
Chaouki Chamoun is another well-known Lebanese painter whose work has been featured in New York and Europe. He often paints large scenes featuring small people, and he leans toward the abstract in many of his works. Walid Raad, who sometimes produces works under the name “The Atlas Group,” is a photographer born in Lebanon and educated in the United States. Raad is known for weaving war narratives into his pictures and addressing the repercussions of civil war and sectarian conflict in Lebanon.
As is the case in many Middle Eastern countries, Lebanese music has been influenced by popular genres from around the world but has also retained aspects of traditional music. Dabke is a traditional style of music to which the national dance is performed. It is played using the oud (a pear-shaped, guitar-like instrument), a derbake (a hand drum) and the ney (a flute). A line dance, dabke literally means “stomping the ground” and is often performed at weddings or other celebratory occasions. The leader of the dance, who determines dance pattern variations for the rest of the line to follow, is called the raas (“head”). Dabke songs are often similar rhythmically, but feature different lyrics depending on the occasion and the dancers. This style remains popular throughout Lebanon, though dabke may vary greatly from community to community.
Hip hop and rap have gained popularity in Lebanon and are often used to voice opinion about situations in Lebanon and beyond; they sing and rap about government corruption, poor conditions in refugee camps, and many other topics. The Permanent Peace Movement has used hip hop to spread a message of peace and non-violence. The group M.O.B refrains from using obscene language in order to promote public awareness about civil rights, unemployment, politics, and other issues.
Hard rock and heavy metal began gaining popularity in Lebanon in the 1980s during the Lebanese Civil War. Though the appeal is widespread, both styles (metal in particular) have a certain stigma attached to them as the result of an anti-metal movement that arose in response to the initial surge of interest. Metal’s opponents linked the genre to illicit behavior like drug use and occult practices. The band Blaakyum claims the title of the oldest Lebanese metal band (formed in 1995) and is still playing today.
Some of the most famous Lebanese pop singers are Nancy Ajram, Sabah, and Fairuz. Group Mashrou’ Leila, active since 2008, has gained international attention for its edgy music, solid instrumental ability, and its openly gay lead vocalist, Hammad Sinno. The all-male band is also a sharp but refreshing departure from a music video tradition in Lebanon that often features over the top and exaggerated scenarios such as seen in Haifa Wehbe’s,”Bus Al Wawa” (“Kiss the Booboo”).
Lebanon is home to architecture from the Greek, Roman, and Ottoman Empires. Baalbek, in eastern Lebanon, is a veritable treasure-trove of ancient Roman buildings. One of these is the Temple of Bacchus, which was built around 150 CE and is one of the best-preserved Roman temples in the world. The city of Byblos was the coastal capital of the Phoenicians and there are still ruins of ancient Phoenician building found in Byblos today.
Another famous site is Anjar, an inland commercial and trading center established by the Umayyad dynasty under Caliph Walid Ibn Abd Al-Malak (705-715). Anjar is an example of early urban planning and at its peak could have hosted 600 shops. In the 20th century, Anjar was settled by Armenians who survived the 1915 genocide. The city lies at the crossroads of two important routes, one leading from Beirut to Damascus, and the other crossing the Bekaa and leading from Homs to Tiberiade.
The Arz al-Rab forest, also known as the Cedars of God, is in the northern part of Lebanon. These cedars are a national symbol (as seen on the Lebanese flag) and were famed throughout the ancient world for their quality as building material. It is thought that the plentiful supply of cedars with which to build ships was a major factor in the Phoenician rise to naval supremacy. The cedars are a part of a large valley, called Ouadi Qadisha (“Holy Valley”), which has housed Christian monasteries since the early years of the religion.
Basketball and football (U.S. soccer) are two of Lebanon’s most popular sports. Their football team, the Cedars, began playing in international competitions in 1940. They came in third in the 2009 King’s Cup football competition held in Thailand. The Lebanese basketball team is also named the Cedars and it too has enjoyed moderate success. In 2001, 2005 and 2007, it took second place in the Asian Championship; in 2009, it reached 4th place.
Lebanon’s location on the coast of the Mediterranean facilitates participation in various watersports, of which the most popular are diving and water skiing. There are many shipwrecks along the coast, such as the World War II submarine the Souffleur, which makes Lebanon a popular attraction for divers. In 1955, Lebanon began hosting an international water skiing championship in Saint George’s Bay (now named Zaitunay Bay) in Beirut, but it was discontinued in 1975 due to the Lebanese Civil War. Surfing is trending.
Snow skiing came to Lebanon in 1913 from Switzerland. The colder climate in the Mount Lebanon mountain range led to the opening of six different ski resorts. Mzaar Kfardebian, located one hour from Beirut, was built in the 1950s and is the largest ski resort in the Middle East. It features 42 slopes and 80 kilometers (49.7 miles) of tracks. The tallest peak is 2,465 meters (8,087 feet) tall and for only the most experienced skiers.
Lebanon began participating in the Olympics in the 1948 summer and winter games and have made it to almost every Olympic games with the exception of the boycotted 1956, 1994, and 1998 games. They have won four medals in wrestling (two bronze and one silver) and one in weightlifting (a silver).