Lebanon Written by: The Prophet Edited by: The Metallian Lebanon, a nation that once proudly called itself the Switzerland of the Middle East, is today a country in name only. Its government controls little more than half of the nation’s capital, Beirut. Its once-vibrant economy is a shambles. And its society is fragmented – so fragmented, some believe, that it may be impossible to re-create a unified state responsive to the needs of all its varied peoples. Lebanon lies on the eastern shore of the Mediterranea n Sea, in that part of southwestern Asia known as the Middle East.
Because of its location – at the crossroads of Asia, Europe, and Africa – Lebanon has been the center of commerce and trade for thousands of years. It has also been on the route of numerous conquering armies. With an area of 4,015 square miles, Lebanon is one of the smallest countries in the Middle East. It is smaller than every state in the United States except Delaware, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Lebanon is sandwiched between Syria in the north and east and Israel in the south.
The maximum distance from the nation’s northern border to the southern one is only 130 miles. And the maximum distance from the Mediterranean Sea to the Lebanon-Syria border is 50 miles. In the south, along the border with Israel, Lebanon’s eastern border is only 20 miles from the sea. Although a tiny land, Lebanon boasts a great diversity in its landscape which makes it one of the most picturesque countries in the world. The coast line is br oken by many bays and inlets of varying size.
At some points, the mountains wade silently right into the sea – then climb suddenly tier on tier away from the Mediterranean to the sky. Because of the limitation of flat agricultural land, all but the steepest hillsides have been patiently and neatly terraced and planted with garlands of twisted grapevines. The mountains lend a great variety of hues – pale pink, rosy red, forest green or deep purple – to the landscape. Depending on the time of day, they never appear the same twice, and from time to time whipped white clouds hide all except their snow-capped peaks. Even on the darkest night, the lights of the villages perched on the mountains shine in small clusters as a reminder of their presence.
On c loser view, the mountains become a jumble of giant gorges, many of them over a thousand feet deep, with rocky cliffs, steep ravines and awesome valleys. These unassailable bastions have offered a secure hideaway, throughout history, for hermits and persecuted groups seeking refuge. Lebanon has four distinct geographical regions: a narrow – but fertile – coastal plain; two roughly parallel mountain ranges that run the full length of the country – the Lebanon, which rises in the west to an alpine hei ght of 11,000 feet while the eastern range, the anti-Lebanon, is crowned magestically by the snow-capped Mount Hermon at 9,232 feet. The two chains of mountains shelter between them a well-cultivated plateau extending seventy miles in length and fifteen miles in width. This tableland is called the Bekaa.
This is a fertile strip of land 110 miles long and six to ten miles wide. Zahle, the third largest city in the country, is in the valley. The country’s two most important rivers, the Litani and the Orontes, rise in the northern Bekaa near Baalbek, a city that dates to Roman times. The Litani flows southwest through the Bekaa Valley and then empties into the Mediterranean Sea north of Tyre. Its waters are used for irrigation, so it becomes a mere tr ickle by the time it gets to the sea. The Orontes rises not far from the Litani, but it flows northward between the two mountain ranges, wending its way into Syria.
Beyond the Bekaa and the anti-Lebanon mountains, the Syrian desert only stretches east f or about 800 miles to the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This geography has been a determining factor for millenia in keeping Lebanon turned toward the West. The landscape cannot be described without mentioning the most celebrated tree o f Lebanon, the cedar. Called by the Lebanese “Cedar of the Lord,” this famed tree retains somewhat of a sacred aura this day. It has become the symbol of Lebanon and appears in the center of the flag, on the coins, and often on postage stamps.
Since an cient times the cedar constituted a valuable export which provided King Solomon with timber for the construction of his Temple, the Phoenicians with wood for their seafaring galleys , the Egyptians with lumber for their palaces. Unhappily only a few grov es of these stately trees have survived the ax of the builder, the seeker of fuel, or the hunger of goats. Cedars generally grow on the highest mountain tops so it is not surprising to find an ancient grove of 450 trees nestled under the highest peak. Th is grove, the only remaining large one, may be seen as small dark specks on the bare face of the mountain side from a distance of many miles. A few of the existing trees may be 1,000 years old, and it is estimated that twenty of them have grown for more than 400 years.
The largest measure about twelve feet in circumference, eighty feet in height and their branches spread an unbelievable 100 feet. The olive, another tree closely associated with Lebanon, is extensively cultivated, and old gnarled oli ve groves cover many of the lower hills and valleys. For centuries olives have been a staple in the diet while their oil has taken the place of butter among the peasants who still firmly believe in the medicinal benefits of warm olive oil applied to stra ins, sprains and earaches. The diversity of soil and the elevation produce a great variety of other trees including oaks, pines, junipers, firs, cyprus, sycamore, fig, banana, acacia and date palm. Orange, lemon, apple and other fruit trees have been ra ised commercially in recent years.
Besides supplying the local market with a great variety of delicious fresh fruit, the harvest is exported to neighboring countries and provides Lebanon with a main source of income. The narrow plain along the Medit erranean coast is the most densely populated part of Lebanon. Here and there the Lebanon Mountains push down to the sea, and thus there is no coastal plain. In other spots the plain is so narrow that there is barely enough room for a road. However, in a number of places the coastal plain is wide enough to accommodate population centers, and it is here, between the foothills of the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, that two of Lebanon’s most important cities – Beirut and Tripoli- are located.
Be irut – Lebanon’s capital, largest city, and major port – is located at about the midpoint of the country’s coastline. Today, much of Beirut lies in ruins. It has been a battlefield on which the contending forces of have warred to see who could cause the greatest destruction. But before 1975, when the civil war erupted, Beirut was the nation’s cultural and commercial heart and on of the most beautiful and prosperous cities in the Middle East. Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli, is also on the c oast, some 40 miles north of Beirut.
Because most of the people in this city are Sunni Moslems, it had, until 1983, escaped the destruction brought to Beirut by the Moslem- Christian fighting. But in late 1983, warring factions of the Palestine Liberati on Organization fought their battles in and around Tripoli. Hundreds of Lebanese were killed, buildings were destroyed, and oil-storage tanks were set ablaze. A large part of Tripoli’s population fled the battle area, …