Lebanon's History

Phoenician Beginnings

| The Phoenicians |
| Assyrian Rule |
| Babylonian Rule and the Persian Empire |
| Summary |

The Phoenicians

The area now known as Lebanon first appeared in recorded history around 3000 B.C. as a group of coastal cities and a heavily forested hinterland. It was inhabited by the Canaanites, a Semitic people, whom the Greeks called "Phoenicians" because of the purple (phoinikies) dye they sold. These early inhabitants referred to themselves as "men of Sidon" or the like, according to their city of origin, and called the country "Lebanon." Because of the nature of the country and its location, the Phoenicians turned to the sea, where they engaged in trade and navigation.

Each of the coastal cities was an independent kingdom noted for the special activities of its inhabitants. Tyre and Sidon were important maritime and trade centers; Gubla (later known as Byblos and now as Jbail) and Berytus (present-day Beirut) were trade and religious centers. Gubla was the first Phoenician city to trade actively with Egypt and the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 B.C.), exporting cedar, olive oil, and wine, while importing gold and other products from the Nile Valley.

Before the end of the seventeenth century B.C., Lebanese Egyptian relations were interrupted when the Hyksos, a nomadic Semitic people, conquered Egypt. After about three decades of Hyksos rule (1600-1570 B.C.), Ahmose I (1570-45 B.C.), a Theban prince, launched the Egyptian liberation war. Opposition to the Hyksos increased, reaching a peak during the reign of the pharaoh Thutmose III (1490-36 B.C.), who invaded Syria, put an end to Hyksos domination, and incorporated Lebanon into the Egyptian Empire.

Toward the end of the fourteenth century B.C., the Egyptian Empire weakened, and Lebanon was able to regain its independence by the beginning of the twelfth century B.C. The subsequent three centuries were a period of prosperity and freedom from foreign control during which the earlier Phoenician invention of the alphabet facilitated communications and trade. The Phoenicians also excelled not only in producing textiles but also in carving ivory, in working with metal, and above all in making glass. Masters of the art of navigation, they founded colonies wherever they went in the Mediterranean Sea (specifically in Cyprus, Rhodes, Crete, and Carthage) and established trade routes to Europe and western Asia. Furthermore, their ships circumnavigated Africa a thousand years before those of the Portuguese. These colonies and trade routes flourished until the invasion of the coastal areas by the Assyrians.

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Assyrian Rule

Assyrian rule (875-608 B.C.) deprived the Phoenician cities of their independence and prosperity and brought repeated, unsuccessful rebellions. In the middle of the eighth century B.C., Tyre and Byblos rebelled, but the Assyrian ruler, Tiglath-Pileser, subdued the rebels and imposed heavy tributes. Oppression continued unabated, and Tyre rebelled again, this time against Sargon II (722-05 B.C.), who successfully besieged the city in 721 B.C. and punished its population. During the seventh century B.C., Sidon rebelled and was completely destroyed by Esarhaddon (681-68 B.C.), and its inhabitants were enslaved. Esarhaddon built a new city on Sidon's ruins. By the end of the seventh century B.C., the Assyrian Empire, weakened by the successive revolts, had been destroyed by Babylonia, a new Mesopotamian power.

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Babylonian Rule and the Persian Empire

Revolts in the Phoenician cities became more frequent under Babylonian rule (685-36 B.C.). Tyre rebelled again and for thirteen years resisted a siege by the troops of Nebuchadnezzar (587-74 B.C.). After this long siege, the city capitulated; its king was dethroned, and its citizens were enslaved.

The Achaemenids ended Babylonian rule when Cyrus, founder of the Persian Empire, captured Babylon in 539-38 B.C. and Phoenicia and its neighbors passed into Persian hands. Cambyses (529-22 B.C.), Cyrus's son and successor, continued his father's policy of conquest and in 529 B.C. became suzerain of Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. The Phoenician navy supported Persia during the Greco Persian War (490-49 B.C.). But when the Phoenicians were overburdened with heavy tributes imposed by the successors of Darius I (521-485 B.C.), revolts and rebellions resumed in the Lebanese coastal cities.

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Canaanites settled the coast of what is now called Lebanon and established independent trading cities around 3,000 B.C. Phoenicia is a Greek term applied to the coast of Lebanon.

Because the location at the intersection of land and sea routes linking the ancient world, Phoenicia became famous as a commercial center.

Phoenicians discovered and used the North Star (Polaris) to keep their bearings at sea. They were the first ones to sail around Africa. They colonized parts of Cyprus and Rhodes and crossed the Black Sea. They founded Tarshish on the coast of Spain and Carthage in North Africa.

Among the items they exported were cedar, pine, fine linen, embroideries, metalwork, glass, wine, salt and dried fish. The country imported papyrus for paper, ivory, ebony, silk, amber, ostrich eggs, spices, incense, horses, gold, silver, copper, iron, tin and jewels.

Cedar was very important in the ancient Middle East, which had little wood. The fragrant cedar was much prized. The Egyptian Pharoah Tutankhamen had furniture in his tomb made of Phoenician cedar.

Ancient Phoenicia also produced the rare purple dye that came from a special snail. Purple became the color or royalty.

Needing some way to keep track of their commerce, the Phoenicians developed an alphabet, which the Greeks later adapted for their language and which in some ways shaped the English alphabet.

The merchant city-states had a long history of trade with the great ancient empire of Egypt. In the 16th century B.C., the Hyksos invaded, using horse-and-chariot warfare, and conquered an area including Phoenicia and Egypt. Egypt overthrew the invaders and took over Phnoenicia.

Then the Hittites invaded. Egypt overthrew them. Then the fierce Assyrians came, and then the Persians. And then came a young Macedonian named Alexander the Great.

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Federal Research Division - Library of Congress (Edited by Thomas Collelo, December 1987)
"Lebanon in Pictures"

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1997-2001 by Ayman Ghazi
Last changes: September 30, 1997