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The earliest traces of habitation date from the Stone Age when the area, now known as Beirut, was in fact two islands in the delta of the Beirut River. Later, when the river silted up, the area became one landmass. It seems likely that the area has been continuously occupied throughout prehistory. Its location is favorable with fresh water and abundant fish from the sea.
According to tradition, the first city was founded by the people of Byblos. The first historical reference to Beirut dates from the 15th century BC, when it is mentioned in a tablet with cuneiform script discovered at Tell aI-Amama in Egypt, but the city is older than that. Between Martyrs Square and the sea port, a Canaanite site has been uncovered dating back to 1900 BC. This Bronze Age city has an entrance gate of dressed stone. Nearby are the remains of Phoenician canals with sloping sides. The Phoenicians had reused the Canaanite stones as well as smooth, round stones brought from the Beirut River. New light on the obscure origins of this city may be shed by the excavations now underway in the Downtown district - the site of the original city. Large areas have had to be bulldozed in order to redevelop the center of the city, giving archaeologists a unique opportunity to dig beneath the accumulated strata. From finds already uncovered, it is clear that the city was larger and more significant than had been previously thought, but deep excavations may be hampered by the time limit set for the rebuilding of the area. The original name of the city seems to have been variously Birut, Birrayyuna or Birrayat, which suggests that it was named after a well or wells (modern Arabic still uses the word Birut for well). On the other hand, according to Philo in his history, Birut was the first queen of the city. It remains, however, that all of Beirut's records of this time are buried deep and may never see the light of day.
Beirut was conquered by Agrippa in 64 BC and the city was renamed in honor of the emperor's daughter, Julia; its full name became Colonia Julia Augusta Felix Berytus. The veterans of two Roman legions were established in the city: the 5th Macedonian and the 3rd Gallic. The city quickly became 'Romanized'; large public buildings and monuments were erected and Berytus enjoyed full status as a part of the empire.
In the 3rd century AD the city entered a period of fame and prestige founded on its School of Law which rivaled those in Athens, Alexandria and Caesarea. This fame lasted about 200 years and, up until the end of the 4th century, it was still one of the most important cities in Phoenicia. In the middle of the 5th century, there was a series of devastating earthquakes and tidal waves, the last of which, in 551 AD, almost totally destroyed the city. The death toll was high: 30,000 people were killed in Berytus alone and, along the Phoenician coast, the total number of casualties was close to 250,000. The School of Law was evacuated and moved to Sidon in the south. This calamity marked the decline of the city for centuries to come.
When the Arabs came in 635 AD, they took over the city without much of a struggle. Their rule was uninterrupted until the Crusaders brought Beirut briefly back into the history books. In 1110 AD, after a siege, the city fell into the hands of Baldwin I of Boulogne and a Latin bishopric was established. It remained in the Crusader hands for 77 years during which time the Crusaders built the church of St. John the Baptist of the Knights Hospitallers on the site of an ancient temple. In 1187 Saladin managed to wrest the city back into Muslim hands. This state of affairs lasted only six years before Amoury, King of Cyprus, besieged the city once again and the Muslim forces fled. Under the rule of Jean I of Ibelin, the city's influence grew and spread throughout the Latin East, but the Crusaders lost the city again, this time for good, in July 1291 when the Muslim Mamelukes took possession.
There were periodic attempts to invade the city during the following centuries. In the 14th century, the Franks made a number of assaults but without result. In the 15th century the Franks returned, peacefully this time, as traders.
Beirut continued under the Mamelukes until they were ousted from the city by the Ottoman army in 1516. Now part of the powerful Ottoman Empire, the city was granted semi-autonomy in return for taxes paid to the sultan. The local emirs had free rein, so long as the money flowed into the coffers of the Sublime Porte. One of the emirs, Fakhr ad-Din, established what was in effect an independent kingdom for himself and made Beirut his favorite residence.
Fakhr ad-Din's keen business sense led him to trade with the European powers, most notably the Venetians. Beirut began to recover economically and regain some of its former prestige, although physically it remained a tiny city. The sultan, meanwhile, became alarmed over Beirut's growing power and confronted Fakhr ad-Din's army, defeating him at Safed. Fakhr ad-Din was captured and taken to Constantinople, where he was executed in 1635. The 18th century saw mixed fortunes for the city, depending on the whims and preferences of the local rulers. One, Bashir ll, injected new vigor into the city, renewing its prosperity and stability once again. These peaks and troughs formed the pattern of existence for Beirut until the mid-19th century brought about changes which led to dramatic growth. The civil war brought the whole growth process to a dramatic halt for a brief spell in the mid-19th century, Beirut came under the Egyptian domination of Mohamed Ali, but the city was bombarded and subsequently recaptured on October 10, 1840 by the combined Anglo-AustroTurkish fleet. The population of Beirut at that time was only 45,000, but it doubled during the following 20 years. In 1868 Syrian and American missionaries founded the Syrian Protestant College (Known as the American University of Beirut), which has become one of the most prestigious universities in the Middle East, adding to the importance of the city.
During WWI, Beirut suffered a blockade by the Allies, which was intended to starve the Turks out. The effect was a famine, followed by plague, which killed more than a quarter of the population. A revolt against the Turks broke out which resulted in mass hanging of the rebel leaders in the renamed Place des Martyrs.
WWI brought an end to Turkish rule and on October 8,1918, eight days after the capture of Damascus by the Allies, the British army (including a French detachment) arrived in Beirut. On April 25, 1920 the League of Nations granted a French mandate over Syria and Lebanon, and Beirut became the headquarters of the French High Commissioner as well as the capital of the state of Greater Lebanon. During WWII the city was occupied by the Allies and, thanks to its port, became an important supply center. In 1946 the French left the city, and subsequently Beirut became one of the main commercial and banking centers of the Middle East. The Arab-lsraeli War of 1948 saw huge numbers of Palestinian refugees settle in the south of Beirut, where they still live today.
During the civil war from 1975 to 1991, anarchy reigned in Beirut. The city was ruled, area by area, by militias loyal to one or other factions. With the continual inter-communal fighting and shelling from Israeli fighter planes, the city suffered significant damage. The human casualties were enormous and the effect on the economy catastrophic. Beirut is now in the process of recovery, but it will take many years to complete the rebuilding programs and fully restore the infrastructure of the city. Certainly the Beirut dubbed as "the Paris of the Middle East" is gone for the moment. What re-emerges in its place will remain to be seen.
Information from the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism