Beirut: History

Paris of the Middle East

Beirut History

The history of Beirut stretches back over 5,000 years. Historically, the Phoenicians were one of the first major settlers in Beirut, calling the city “BêrÅ«t”, meaning “The Wells”.

The Romans oversaw the next significant stage in Beirut’s history, leaving behind many important public buildings and areas. The Romans also established Beirut’s historic School of Law which founded the “Justinian Code”, upon which much of the Western legal system is based today.

The next stage of history saw Byzantine prosperity in Beirut. But, in 551 an earthquake and tidal wave struck the city: this was a devastating blow in the history of Beirut - almost destroying the city and marking a rapid decline which was to last for centuries.
The ensuing years historically saw control of Beirut pass back and forth from Muslim Arab conquerors to Christian Crusaders. The Crusaders were finally ousted in 1291 by the Muslim Mamluks, who were themselves historically removed from Beirut by the Ottoman army in 1516. Ottoman rule led to an economic resurgence in the history of Beirut, and Beirut’s prosperity continued, particularly during the late 19th and early 20th century – this period of Beirut’s history saw the city’s silk trade boom and the population double.
But, such prosperity has not lasted for Beirut in more recent years. During WWI the Allies blockaded Beirut and it suffered a series of natural disasters, leading to famine and plague and thousands of deaths. When a revolt broke out against the Turks, the rebel leaders were hanged in the city – in a place now known as the Place des Martyrs.
Since Lebanon’s first civil war in 1958, the modern history of Beirut has been overridden with strife: coming to a violent head in 1975 with another civil war, marked by massacres and hostage taking. During these dark days in its history, Beirut was literally torn in half by the infamous “Green Line” which separated Christians and Muslims in the city – and both its population and economy were shattered.
The war historically ended in Beirut in 1991, followed by vast reconstruction projects. But, the ending of the war has not meant complete peace for Beirut. The 2006 Israel-Hezbollah offensive devastated many southern areas, whilst the spate of recent murders of anti-Syrian MPs and the construction of a Hezbollah tent city in Beirut’s centre has left many fearing that the dark chapters in Beirut’s history may not be entirely over.