Lebanon has a lively arts scene, both traditional and contemporary. The national dance, the dabke, is an energetic folk dance. Classical belly dancing still plays an important role at weddings, representing the transition from virgin bride to sensual woman, and is also popular in nightclubs. Traditional Arabic music is created using unharmonised melodies and complex rhythms, often accompanied by sophisticated, many-layered singing. Instruments used include the 'ud, a pear-shaped string instrument; the tablah, a clay, wood or metal and skin percussion instrument; the nay, a single reed, open-ended pipe with a lovely mellow tone; and the qanun, a flat trapezoid instrument with at least 81 pluckable strings. 'Caracalla' is an amazing oriental ballet blending dance and music from the east and west.

Literature and poetry have always had an important place in Lebanese culture. One very popular form of poetry is the zajal, in which a group of poets enter into a witty sung dialogue by improvising verses. The most famous Lebanese literary figure is Khalil Gibran, a 19th-century poet, writer and artist whose work explored Christian mysticism. Contemporary writers include Amin Maalouf, Emily Nasrallah and Hanan Al-Shaykh.

About 60% of Lebanon's population is Muslim and 40% is Christian. The largest Muslim group is the Shiite (Shia) sect, followed by the Sunni and the Druze. The Druze are one of the religious curiosities of the Middle East. Originally an offshoot of Islam, they have diversified so much from the mainstream that they are often considered to constitute a whole separate religion. The Druze believe that God incarnated himself in men at various times and that his last, and final, incarnation was Al-Hakim bi Amrillah, the sixth Fatimid caliph who died in 1021 AD. They believe in reincarnation and that there are a fixed number of souls in existence. Druze gather for prayer meetings on Thursday evenings in inconspicuous halls; outsiders are not permitted to attend and the rites remain highly secretive. The largest Christian group is the Maronite sect, followed by the Greek Orthodox, the Greek Catholic, the Syrian Catholic, the Chaldean, the Protestant and the Orthodox churches.

Arabic is the official language of Lebanon although French is widely spoken and English is becoming common in business circles. Arabs place great importance on civility and it's rare to see any interaction between people that doesn't begin with profuse greetings, enquiries into the other's health and myriad niceties. As an ajnabi (foreigner), you're not expected to know all the ins and outs, but if you make the effort to come up with the right expression at the appropriate moment, you'll be respected for it. In fact, any effort to communicate with the locals in their own language will be well rewarded. No matter how far off the mark your pronunciation or grammar might be, you'll often get the smiling response 'Ah, you speak Arabic very well!'

Lebanese cuisine is an inexpensive delight. Using fresh and flavoursome ingredients and refined spicing, the Lebanese have taken the best aspects of Turkish and Arabic cooking and given them a French spin. A typical meal consists of a few mezze dishes, such as spinach pies, dips, dried cheese, pizza and stuffed vine leaves. This is followed by a main dish of meat (usually mutton) or fish, often stuffed with rice and nuts, plus a salad such as tabouleh or fattoush. The national dish is kibbe, a finely minced paste of lamb and bulgur wheat, sometimes served raw, but more often fried or baked into a pie. Meals are rounded off with syrupy baklava pastries or other semolina and walnut based desserts.

Arabic coffee is very popular. Soft drinks include jellab, a delicious drink made from raisins and served with pine nuts, and ayran, a yoghurt drink. Alcohol is cheap and widely available; the most popular manifestation is arak, which is mixed with water and ice.


Lebanon was the biblical 'land of milk and honey', and conquerors have always been attracted to its abundant natural resources, the safe anchorages on the coastline and the defensive possibilities of the high mountains. This has turned the country's history into a who's who of interlopers, pillagers and big-noters.

The shores of Lebanon attracted settlers from about 10,000 BC onwards and by about 3000 BC, their villages had evolved into prototype cities. By around 2500 BC the coast had been colonised by people who later became known as the Phoenicians, one of the greatest early civilisations of the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians never unified politically: they dominated as a result of enterprise and intellectual endeavour emanating from a string of independent city states. They ruled the sea with their superior vessels and navigational skills, were exceptional craftspeople, and created the first real alphabet - a remarkable breakthrough which paved the way for the great works of literature of the early Greeks.

In the 9th century BC, the Assyrians clomped in, breaking the Phoenician's exclusive hold on Mediterranean trade. They yielded to the Neo-Babylonians, who were in turn overcome by the Persians (whom the Phoenicians regarded as liberators). The Phoenicians finally declined when Alexander the Great swept through the Middle East in the 4th century BC and Phoenicia was gradually Hellenised. In 64 BC, Pompey the Great conquered Phoenicia and it became part of the Roman province of Syria. Beirut became an important centre under Herod the Great and splendid temples were built at Baalbek.

As the Roman empire fell apart, Christianity gathered momentum and the Lebanon region became part of the eastern Byzantine Empire in the 4th century AD, with its capital at Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The imposition of orthodox Christianity didn't sit well with all, and when the Mohammedans brought the word of Allah from the south, they faced little resistance in Lebanon.

The Umayyuds, the first great Muslim dynasty, held sway in Lebanon for about a century, but faced opposition from indigenous Jews and Christians, especially the Syrian Maronite sect who took refuge around Mount Lebanon. After the Umayyuds fell to the Abbasids in 750, Lebanon became a backwater of the Persian-flavoured Abbasid Empire. This empire lasted until the 11th century before being tipped out by the Fatimid dynasty, who struggled on until the rise of the Crusaders. The Crusaders had their sights set on Jerusalem, but marched down the Syrian and Lebanese coast, linking up with the Maronites, before savaging the Holy City.

The Muslim Ayyubids got their claws into Syria, Egypt, western Arabia and parts of Yemen until they were overthrown by the strange soldier-slave kings known as Mamelukes, who ruled Lebanon from the end of the 13th century for the best part of 300 years. They expended much of their energy and resources during this period locking horns with rapacious Mongol armies. The Mamelukes faded with the rise of the Ottoman Empire and Lebanon's tribal leaders - the Tanukhid emirs of central Lebanon, the Maronites and the unfortunate Druze - formed conflicting alliances with the various empires.

The Ottoman Sultan Selim I conquered Lebanon in 1516-17, was temporarily undermined by Fakhr ad-Din II (1586-1635), and then by Fakhr's nephew, Ahmad Ma'an. The latter established an emirate in 1667, forming the nucleus of modern Lebanon. When Ahmad Ma'an died, power passed to the Shihab family, who held onto power until 1840, when internal power struggles and religious differences brought the age of emirs to an end.

In 1842, the Ottomans divided Mount Lebanon into two administrative regions, one Druze and the other Maronite. That they immediately set to squabbling was anticipated and encouraged by the Ottomans, who practiced a 'divide and rule' policy. By 1845, there was open war, not only between Druze and Maronite, but also between peasants and their supposed feudal leaders. The Ottomans, under pressure from Europe, created a single Lebanese administrative unit under an Ottoman Christian governor and the feudal system was abolished. The system worked, producing stability and economic prosperity until WWI, when Lebanon came under Turkish military rule and suffered a serious famine. Following the Allied victory in 1918, Lebanon came under French rule.

During WWII Lebanon became fully independent and developed into a major trade and banking centre. Lebanon's fatal flaw was that power rested with the right-wing Christian population while the Muslims (almost half the population) felt they were excluded from real government. Add large numbers of displaced Palestinians and there were all the ingredients for conflict. Civil war broke out in 1975 between a predominantly Muslim leftist coalition and Christian right-wing militias. Over the next 20 years, insanely complicated civil and international wars, and some high profile hostage-taking, were pretty much standard fare.

An eye-glazing summary follows: the Syrians intervened at the request of the Lebanese president to force an uneasy peace between Muslims and Christians, the Israelis marched in and set up a surrogate militia to protect northern Israel from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the UN sent in peacekeepers to quell the eruptions of internal Christian-Muslim fighting. Israel laid siege to Beirut in 1982, with the stated aim of eradicating the PLO. Israel also supported Christian militias who massacred Palestinian civilians. The PLO was partially evacuated by the US, and a Multinational Force (MNF) of US and Western European troops was deployed to protect Palestinian and Muslim civilians. When the Israelis withdrew after a year or so, fighting broke out between Druze Muslim militias and Christian forces, and between Lebanese army units and Muslim militiamen. The MNF suffered heavy casualties and withdrew in early 1984.

The Syrians slowly brought the Muslim areas of Lebanon under their control but in 1988, Lebanon's new military government sought to expel Syria. The attempt failed and fighting continued until a new president, Elias Hrawi, a moderate Maronite in good standing with Syria, took the reins. By 1992 all surviving foreign hostages had been released, and Syrian troops began withdrawing. In August 1992 parliamentary elections were held for the first time in 20 years, and Muslim fundamentalists of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah party won the largest number of seats. Rafiq Hariri became the new prime minister.

Skirmishes between Hezbollah and Israeli soldiers continued through 1993, culminating in Operation Grapes of Wrath - a week-long air, sea and land bombardment by Israel on some 80 villages in southern Lebanon. Trouble flared up again in April 1996 when Israel again launched airstrikes on southern Lebanon and Beirut. International response condemned Israel and the UN swiftly negotiated a cease-fire.

The long war has cost some 150,000 Lebanese lives and left the country in a ruinous state; the infrastructure damage bill is reputed to be in the tens of billions of US dollars. Today, internally, Lebanon is on a rapid ride to recovery; building is widespread, institutions are being reopened and the economy is slowly recovering. Lebanon's problem is that it remains at the mercy of larger forces being played out in the rest of the Middle East. Over the past decades, many of the conflicting players in Middle Eastern affairs have used Lebanon as the turf on which to fight their battles and push their cause - be it the PLO, the Syrians, the Iranians, the Israelis - or, indeed - the UN. Shells are still occasionally being fired in both directions across the Israel-Lebanon border, though the main political conflict of interests in Lebanon has currently reached a stand-off.