Lebanon stands on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, bordered by Syria to the north and east, and Israel to the south. It is a country with a rich history and culture and religious and ethnic diversity. Civilization can be traced back 7,000 years in Lebanon. It was the home of the Phoenicians, the ancient mariners that thrived from 3000 to 539 BC.
In the Middle Ages the country was dominated by four groups: the Maronites, Eastern Christians with links to Christians in Europe; Greek Orthodox Christians; Shia Muslims, who went to Lebanon to escape persecution from the Sunni majority elsewhere in the Islamic world; and the Druze, a heretical Muslim sect founded in the 10th century. In the 16thcentury, the Turks moved in and made Lebanon part of the Ottoman Empire. But the Turks, and the French who occupied the country after World War I, left the main religious sects to themselves, and let the cultural diversity and richness of the country thrive.
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed during World War I, five of its provinces that were later to become Lebanon were placed under the control of the French. Lebanon became independent in 1943. For the next three decades, the country experienced peace and prosperity, with an economy driven by tourism, banking and agriculture. Beirut became known as the Paris of the Middle East, and attracted large numbers of tourists. Money poured into the country for rebuilding after World War II and the country and its tourism industry thrived. But in 2006 after Hezbollah, the Islamic paramilitary group based in Southern Lebanon, shot rockets over the border into Israel, Israel retaliated by aerial bombing of Beirut that lasted a month, causing widespread destruction of the infrastructure and many civilian deaths, giving the country a big setback.
However, because of a tightly regulated banking industry, Lebanon largely sidestepped the global financial collapse of 2008, and in 2009, when most of the world’s economies were suffering, Lebanon chalked up a 9 percent annual growth rate and brought in 1.85 million visitors, the largest number in its history. Beirut is set to regain its title as Paris of the Middle East.
There are plenty of hotels in a variety of styles and a wide price range. Two new luxury hotels are scheduled to open in 2010, the Four Seasons Hotel Beirut and Le Gray, a sister property to One Aldwych in London. Lebanon’s restaurant scene is lively, with traditional Lebanese cuisine at such restaurants as the Al Ajami restaurant and Mawwal, Western cuisine at El Rancho, fusion at Riviera Prive and Dinner in the Sky, which will be opening soon, is a restaurant on the sea. Serious foodies will have to visit Souk el-Tayeb, Beirut’s first farmers’ market.