Lebanon | Facts and History

The Port of Tyre. Jessica Antolavia/Getty Images

Capital and Major Cities:

Capital: Beirut, population 2.1 million

Major cities:

Tripoli, 193,000

Sidon, 80,000


Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy. It has a peculiar system called confessionalism, intended to prevent politicians from any particular religious group from dominating the country.  Under this system, the President has to be Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of the Parliament, Shi'a Muslim, the Deputy Prime Minister Eastern Orthodox Christian, etc.

  Seats in the Cabinet also are distributed among the religious groups.

The unicameral Parliament of Lebanon is also carefully designed in hopes of preventing sectarian conflict.  The legislature's 128 seats are designated as 50% for Muslims and 50% for Christians.  This is complicated by proportional designation of the Christian and Muslim seats according to the 17 recognized sects, and also proportional distribution of seats in across the country's 26 regions.

Lebanon's judicial branch likewise is divided by religion.  For criminal and commercial matters, Lebanese law is a form of civil law adapted from the French system.  However, each sectarian community maintains courts to deal with matters of personal status - marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody, etc.


The population of Lebanon is about 4.13 million people. (2013 est.)  A maritime center for millennia, the region has a genetic mosaic of people, as well as a variety of ethno-religious affiliations.

  Thus, although some sources say that 95% of Lebanese are Arabs, many Christian Lebanese object to that description and prefer to be called Phoenicians.  Christians make up almost 40% of the population.  Armenians are the largest minority, and make up about 4% of the population.

Lebanon also plays host to massive numbers of refugees.

  At present, there are about 4,500 Sudanese refugees, 50,000 Iraqis, 405,000 Palestinians, and around 600,000 Syrians in the country, as well.


The official language of Lebanon is Lebanese Arabic. However, both French and English are widely used. Lebanese high schools teach in Arabic plus one foreign language, with 70% of schools using French as the second language, and 30% using English.


Lebanon is incredibly religiously diverse.  The population is approximately 59.7% Muslim and 39% Christian, according to the CIA World Factbook, and tiny populations of other religions.  Within each religion, there are multiple different sects; the government officially recognizes 17 of them.  Among Muslims, there are divisions between Shi'a, Sunni, Druze, Ismaili, Alawites, and Nusayri.  Lebanese Christians include Maronite Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Melkite Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Catholics, Armenian Catholics, Greek Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Chaldeans, Assryians, Copts, and a small number of Protestants.


Lebanon borders the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, between Syria and Israel.  It's a small country, only 10,400 square kilometers (4,015 square miles) in area.

  Lebanon has a narrow coastal plain, and then rises to the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges. 

The highest point, Qornet es Saouda, is 3,088 meters (10,131 feet) above sea level.  The lowest point is sea level.


Unsurprisingly, Lebanon has a Mediterranean climate.  Summers are hot and dry, while winters are cool and wet with heavy mountain snowfall. 

The coldest temperature ever recorded in Lebanon was -22.7 degrees Celsius (-8.9 Fahrenheit) at Yammoune.  The hottest was 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) at Hermel.


Lebanon has a free-market economy that relies strongly on the service industry, including banking and tourism.  The economy grew at a very healthy average of 8% per year between 2007 and 2010, but that rate dropped to one or two percent due to the collapse of the Lebanese government  and the outbreak of civil war in neighboring Syria in 2011.

The currency is called the Lebanese pound.  As of November 2013, it traded at $1 US = 1,507.5 LBP.


Since Lebanon is part of the logical pathway that early humans would have followed out of Africa, it's likely that humanity has been present there for more than 100,000 years.  Cave habitations and other archaeological evidence show clearly that people have lived permanently in what is now Lebanon for at least 45,000 years.

Written history begins with the Canaanites, who first emerged some time before 1800 BCE, and are mentioned in the Bible and early Mesopotamian records.  The Canaanites created one of the first true alphabets, consisting of 24 letters.  Around the 1200s BCE, the northern branch of the Canaanites evolved into the seafaring Phoenicians, while southern branches were absorbed by the Philistines, Arameans, and Israelites.

The Phoenicians were a major Mediterranean trading power, capitalizing on their skills with the galley and the bireme, timber from Lebanon's famous cedar trees, and royal purple dye from the Murex snail.  They also established colonies around the Mediterranean basin, including Carthage, in what is now Tunisia, and Cadiz, Spain.  Phoenician traders and colonists brought the idea of the alphabet with them, leading to the development of the Latin script and other writing systems.

In 539 BCE, the Achaemenid Empire of Persia under Cyrus the Great conquered the Phoenicians.  Trade continued to flourish under Persian rule, but Phoenician cultural influence began to decline.

  In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the city of Tyre and executed many of its citizens.  The other major Phoenician ports opted to surrender rather than face similar massacres; the only remaining base of Phoenician power was Carthage, in North Africa, which never fell to the Greeks.  However, it was not so lucky with the Romans, who fought the Carthaginians in the Punic Wars, and destroyed the city in 146.

Rome conquered what is now Lebanon in 63 BCE, and combined the Phoenician homelands with Judea.  In the fourth century CE, the region was taken by the Christian Byzantine Empire; Byzantine officials attempted to crack down on followers of a hermit monk named Maron, but the Maronites moved into the mountains and maintained their own version of the faith. 

This tactic continued after the Muslim Arabs conquered Lebanon in 634-36, in the immediate aftermath of the Prophet Muhammad's death.  Some Lebanese converted to Islam, and some Arab tribes moved to the area, but many Christians clung to their beliefs - particularly the Maronites.  In the 11th century, a splinter group of Shi'a Muslims called the Druze emerged in the area, further complicating the religious landscape. 

When Europeans invaded the Middle East in the First Crusade (1095 - 1100), they established Crusader kingdoms in Lebanon.  Saladin drove the Crusaders out of Jerusalem in 1190, but they held on in Lebanon, establishing strong ties with the local Maronite Christians.  The Egyptian Mamluks finally took back Lebanon in the 1250s, and staved off a Mongol invasion with a victory at Ayn Jalut.


In 1516, Sultan Selim I of the Ottoman Empire defeated the Mamluks and took power over Lebanon and Syria.  He allowed the Lebanese to keep their existing ruler from the Maan family; this arrangement continued until the Maan ruler led an uprising and was executed in 1635.  The Shihab family became the local rulers in 1697, ruling under the Ottoman aegis until 1842.

During the nineteenth century, the French and the British Empires began to meddle in Lebanon in order to harass the Ottomans.  The Europeans initially supported Maronite rebels who sought independence from the Turks; the great powers also stoked religious and economic strife between the French-backed Maronites and the Druze, who had British support.  In 1860, the tension broke into a full-scale sectarian war.  The Concert of Europe recognized Druze control of Lebanon in 1861, still nominally under the Ottomans, and confined the Maronites to a mountainous enclave.

The remainder of the nineteenth century passed peacefully for Lebanon, but the outbreak of World War I in 1914 would shift power there once more.  The Ottoman Empire collapsed after its defeat in the Great War, and a 1921 League of Nations mandate placed Lebanon under French control. 

In 1943, in the midst of World War II, the Vichy French government granted Lebanon and Syria independence, after allowing the Nazis to move supplies through the area to attack the British in Iraq.  The British feared a German take-over of the region, so the British army occupied Syria and Lebanon for the remainder of the war.  When World War II ended, the Free French government reluctantly recognized Lebanon and Syria as independent nations.

Lebanon enjoyed relative peace and prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s, although it began to receive waves of refugees following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.  In 1975, the Lebanese Civil War broke out, pitting more than 20 different armed groups and militias against one another in a complex ethno-religious free-for-all.  The war would go on until 1990, killing between 120,000 and 150,000 people.  Syria intervened in October of 1990, bringing the war to a close.  It remained in occupation of Lebanon until 2005, when it was forced out by popular political pressure after the assassination of Rafik Hariri.  Turmoil continues, however, particularly since the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, sending another massive wave of refugees in to Lebanon.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Lebanon | Facts and History." ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2016, thoughtco.com/lebanon-facts-and-history-195065. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2016, August 9). Lebanon | Facts and History. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/lebanon-facts-and-history-195065 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Lebanon | Facts and History." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/lebanon-facts-and-history-195065 (accessed November 22, 2017).