Capital and largest city of Lebanon, located on the
Mediterranean Sea with a population of 1,500,000 (1988 estimate). Situated on a peninsula
that projects slightly westward into the Mediterranean, Beirut is contained by the Lebanon
Mountains that rise to the east. The Mediterranean climate of the city brings hot summers
and mild winters, with high humidity in the summer. The area of the city is roughly 67 sq
km (26 sq mi); some sites located outside the municipal boundary are commonly associated
with the city. Once a famous port, and as recently as the 1970s a banking and cultural
center for the Middle East, Beirut was devastated by civil war and occupation by Israel
between 1975 and 1991. Since 1991, the city has been under massive
Arabic name Beirut came from the Canaanite word for wells; the city was so
named because of the underground water supply in the area.
Beirut and Its Metropolitan Area
Beirut is a cosmopolitan city, with a mixture of European and Arab influences.
The city's organization is haphazard, with residential and commercial areas intermingled.
On the city's northern edge, the port area dominates East Beirut; in West Beirut,
important tourist facilities and institutions, including many of the city's hotels,
foreign embassies, and the American University of Beirut, are located along the shore on
the Avenue de Paris. The Avenue de Paris forms part of the Corniche, a wide boulevard that
continues south along the Mediterranean and encircles much of the city. Avenue de
l'Aéroport, a major thoroughfare, runs from the port area to the Beirut International
Airport, 8 km (5 mi) south of the city's center.
The city has other major north-south and east-west roads, although the east-west roads
were blocked by the creation of the Green Line. This line, so named because it is depicted
on maps in green, was the unofficial boundary dividing Beirut into Muslim and Christian
sides during the violent period from 1975 to 1990. In that fighting many of the structures
adjacent to the Green Line, including parts of Beirut's downtown area, were destroyed. The
Hamra district in West Beirut, south of the American University of Beirut, has replaced
the downtown area as the city's center.
With rapid growth since the 1950s, Beirut is now home to nearly half of
Lebanon's population; estimates exceed 1.5 million for the city. The primary religions
represented in Beirut include Islam, Christianity, and the Druze religion. Maronites make
up the largest Christian sect in the city, and the majority of Islamic residents are
Shiite Muslims or Sunni Muslims. The Druze, whose beliefs are based in Islam but
incorporate some elements of Judaism and Christianity, live in West Beirut.
Education and Culture
Starting in the 19th century, Beirut became both a center for Arab nationalist
thought and one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Middle East. Beirut was known as
the most liberal of the Arab capitals, and it provided a safe haven in the Middle East for
Arabs who wanted to experience Western cultures. Beirut was also a port of entry for the
rest of the world. Some outside powers sought to influence the region by promoting the
interests of local Christians. To this end, the Syrian Protestant University, later called
the American University of Beirut, was founded in 1866 by American missionaries. Fifteen
years later the Université Saint Joseph was established by French Jesuits. These
institutions served to bring the philosophies of Europe to the Middle East.
The residents of Beirut took pride in calling their town the Paris of the Middle
East. When violence erupted in 1975, much of the cultural life and economic activity
in Beirut came to a rapid end. Nevertheless, many educational institutions have survived.
In addition to the American University of Beirut and the Université Saint Joseph, the
city contains the Beirut Arab University (founded in 1960), the Université Libanaise
(founded in 1951), and the Lebanese American University (formerly Beirut University
College) (founded in 1955), among others.
Beirut is mentioned as far back as the 15th century BC; its name appears in the
Tall al'Amarinah tablets. Prominence came when it was given the status of a colony of Rome
in the year 14 BC, under the name Colonia Julia Augusta Felix Berytus. The original town
was located in the valley between the hills of Ashrafeyah and Musaytibah. Under the
Romans, Beirut was famous for its law school, which existed for more than 300 years. The
Roman city was destroyed by a series of earthquakes, culminating in the year 551 AD. Arab
invaders found little to suggest earlier development when they occupied the city in 635.
King Baldwin I of Jerusalem conquered the city in 1110 during the First Crusade, although
the city had little importance at that time. Primarily serving as a port for trade with
Europe, the town's orientation was to the sea, so it was vulnerable to attack from the
adjacent mountain area.
The city changed hands several more times, its fortunes rising and falling with
fluctuations in trade with Europe in spices and silk. In 1187 it was taken by Saladin,
sultan of Egypt and Syria. After 1516 the region became nominally part of the Ottoman
Empire, but the city was ruled by a variety of local powers. The town began to develop as
commerce increased, and by the middle of the 19th century Beirut's population of about
15,000 had expanded beyond the city's walls. During this period of expansion, missionaries
from the West and intellectuals of the Arab world began to shape the city.
On October 8, 1918, at the end of World War I, the city was captured from the Ottoman
Empire by Allied forces under the command of the British general Edmund Henry Hynman
Allenby. Beirut was then included in the mandate granted to France by the League of
Nations. In 1920 the city was designated by the French to be the capital of the State of
Greater Lebanon. The State of Greater Lebanon became the Lebanese Republic in 1926; it was
not established as an independent republic, however, until 1943, and the French withdrawal
was not completed until 1946. During this period Beirut absorbed many European elements,
including architecture, language, and outlook. The city continued to prosper after the
mandate ended, but urban growth was less controlled than during French rule. With the
rapid development of banking and tourism industries, the city acquired great wealth, and,
at the same time, a sizable underclass of urban poor. After the first Arab-Israeli war,
which lasted from 1947 to 1949, many Palestinians entered Lebanon and established a large
refugee community in Beirut.
The Lebanese civil war, which erupted in 1975, completely divided Beirut into East and
West Beirut. Many Lebanese fled the capital, and most services in the city collapsed. In
1982 Israel invaded Lebanon and attacked Beirut. After 1982, Israel withdrew to south
Lenbanon and was replced by a multinational force, including French, Italian, American,
and British troops. Fighting persisted in Beirut through 1990. In the early 1990s the
situation in Lebanon became more stable, and ambitious plans for the reconstruction of the
city were undertaken.
Sights from Beirut