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Lebanon's History, Culture and Diversity

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Keywords: lebanese culture, lebanese music, lebanese society

Some people migrate to the United States and just forget their home country. They find their way to assimilate in the American mainstream. However for me, even though I've been in the U.S. since birth but I would still be pleasured to write on most of the things that I really would feel interested about; Lebanon. Modern-day Lebanon is like a mosaic, characterized by a diversity of cultures, traditions, and religions. Because of its location at the crossroads of Asia, Europe, and Africa; Lebanon has been shaped by many civilizations throughout its long history. These diverse influences are evident in the extraordinary richness of the country's archaeological sites. From Stone Age settlements to Phoenician city-states, from Roman temples to rock-cut Christian hermitages, from Crusader Castles to Mamluk mosques and Ottoman "Hammams" (traditional clubs that include sauna, Jacuzzi, and steam rooms), the country's historical sites are a true encyclopedia of ancient and modern world history.

Modern Lebanese society is characterized by this same cultural and architectural diversity. As you walk the streets of downtown Beirut, you will pass domed mosques and steeple churches, French cafes and Arab "Souqs" (traditional markets). Cultural diversity is reflected in language, cuisine, the arts, and the country's religious heritages - Sunni, Shiia Muslims, and Druze; Maronite, Eastern Orthodox and other Christians; and many others (Helena 72). A visit to any of Lebanon's ancient archeological ruins, traditional villages, or religious sites will truly give you a taste of the cultural mosaic of this captivating country.

Lebanon is an ancient land that has embraced two of the world's major religions, Christianity and Islam. Lebanon's Christian heritage can be traced back to the Old Testament (Collelo 45). The Bible mentions the land of Lebanon on 70 occasions, and the famed Cedars of Lebanon are frequently cited as a symbol of beauty and strength. In addition to the many Biblical sites located in southern Lebanon, the Qadisha Valley, also known as the "Holy Valley," reveals a wealth of hidden, rock-cut monasteries, grottoes, and sacred sites from the earliest days of Christianity. On the other hand, Lebanon's Muslim heritage can be traced to the 7th century AD, when Islam was introduced by the Umayyad caliphate from the Arabian Peninsula. The Umayyad dynasty was the first of two major Muslim dynasties following the prophet Mohammed. The Umayyads and their successors, the Abbasids, ushered in a rich period of Islamic art, architecture, learning, and culture, and this tradition continues to flourish today. There are numerous mosques and spiritual places from the Sunni, Shiite Muslim traditions throughout the country.

An ancient land, Lebanon features prominently in writings from the Old Testament to the History of Herodotus (440 BC). Its cities were major Mediterranean outposts and seaports in Phoenician, Greek, Roman, and Umayyad times. Consequently, the Lebanese countryside is awash with majestic and historically fascinating ruins. Five of the most outstanding sites - Aanjar, Baalbeck, Byblos, Tyre, and the Qadisha Valley/Cedars Forest - are listed as UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage sites. To explore Lebanon is to discover archaeological wonders that are windows into the cradle of civilization. Believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, the picturesque seaside city of Byblos is built upon multiple layers of ruins, dating back to as early as the Stone Age (5,000 BC). The kings of Byblos from the Phoenician period are buried in nine underground tombs in the royal necropolis. Columns lining the main thoroughfare, a theater, and a public fountain are among the architectural contributions left by the Romans. The Crusaders built their castle and a moat upon large Roman stones. Later, the castle was renovated and reused by the Mamluks and then the Ottomans.

Lebanon's official language is Arabic, but French, Armenian, and English are also widely spoken. Many Lebanese in fact speak a patois of some combination of these four languages, most commonly an Arabic-French mixture. Virtually all Lebanese are bilingual. Spoken Arabic is one part of a grouping of dialects called Levantine Arabic, differing greatly from the literary Modern Standard Arabic. It is a fusion between Syriac and Arabic, as well as some Turkish and thus in this respect can be more correctly classified as a language from Arabic, albeit very similar due to its relationship on the tree of Semitic languages. Regional influences and occupations throughout the centuries could possibly explain the reason why Lebanese people speak so many languages, even incorporating them into their own. Due to the importance of the Lebanese Diaspora and business interests of Lebanese worldwide, it has always been important to master languages other than Arabic.

Lebanese music is known around the world for its soothing rhythms and wild beats. Traditional and folk music are extremely popular as are western rhythms. Perhaps the best-known and listened to Lebanese singer is Fairuz. Her songs are broadcast every morning on most radio stations and many TV channels, both in Lebanon and other countries in the Middle East and the Arab world in general. Other artists are also well known and loved like Majida El Roumi, Marcel Khalife who is also a composer, Oud player, and Julia Boutros.

Over the ages, skilled Lebanese artisans have perfected the art of creating beautiful blown glass, jewelry, inlaid and engraved wooden boxes and furniture, textiles, and linens. The colorful, blown-glass decanters, water carafes, and glasses particular to Lebanon date back to Phoenician times. Wood workers carve intricately designed boxes and furniture and inlay them with mother-of-pearl or small pieces of wood. Traditional olive oil soap, increasingly popular here in the west, comes from traditional small factories that make this soup from the olive trees of Lebanon to be entirely natural, pure, and moisturizing.

Lebanon's primary religious groups, very roughly, are Shia Muslim (the largest group), Sunni Muslim, Christian, and Druze. Muslims represent roughly 60% of the total population, while Christians make up the other 40%. Of the muslims, the predominant Shi'a make up 60%, while the Sunni make up most of the remainder. Druze and Alawis are minorities. The division of political power between the religious groups is an interesting problem. The Lebanese have solved this by making different high ranking government positions represented by the different religious groups. The President must be Catholic, the Prime Minister must be Sunni, and the Speaker of the Parliament must be Shi'a.

Some Lebanese nationals, particularly some Christians, tend to emphasize aspects of Lebanon's non-Arab history as a mark of respect to encompass all of Lebanon's historical makeup instead of only that which began during the Arab conquests, an attitude that prevails in the rest of the Arab world. In this respect, it would be wrong to dismiss Lebanon's mosaic culture as merely Arab when it is clear that it is a blend of indigenous and invading or foreign cultures that have given it the title of the crossroads between east and west for centuries. This picture is seen most clearly in Lebanon, a land of complete contrasts and a land that cannot be defined by one culture alone, except if one were to bring them altogether and classify them as 'Lebanese'. In a concession to Lebanon's Eastern and Western heritage, some Lebanese prefer to see Lebanon as part of "Mediterranean" or "Levantine" civilization, neither Arab nor European. Everyone born and raised in Lebanon communicates using Arabic in a Lebanese dialect. This applies to its Islamic, Christian, Druze, and other religious practices. Language, food, music, arts and various cultural facets are local Lebanese and performed practically all in Arabic. The youth today are quite westernized and "modernized" breaking away with traditions like most other larger cities in the world (dating, western music, food, etc.) Compared to other Arab cities, Lebanese cities (especially Beirut) are more westernized and tolerant, and overt towards men-women relations than most Arab cities, like Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad...

Like other areas of the Middle East, Lebanon has a heritage almost as old as the earliest evidence of mankind. Its geographic position as a crossroads linking the Mediterranean Basin with the great Asian hinterland has conferred on it a cosmopolitan character and a multicultural legacy. Lebanon has an Arab culture colored by Western influences. As some Lebanese proudly say about their tiny country, "Lebanon is small in size but huge in its influence."

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