Beirut has been one of Lebanon’s great melting pots for centuries, and the capital makes an ideal launch pad from which to get to know the country as a whole. The city boasts 5,000 years of recorded history; you’ll find Roman ruins next to Brutalist architecture, grand mosques tucked beside abandoned Ottoman-style buildings, as well as French and Arabic influences scattered across town. It’s these contrasts that have given the city its vibrant, lively reputation, and during its heydey after World War II – when artists, intellectuals, and just about anyone else flocked to Beirut – it was given the nickname the ‘Paris of the Middle East’.
During Lebanon’s Phoenician era the spotlight was focused further south, to the port cities of Tyre and Sidon, and through the centuries that followed Beirut was in left to tick over in the background. The city slowly made a name for itself through the Arab and Ottoman rules, and it wasn’t really until the 19th century that Beirut became a hotspot for trade. Lebanese silk was one of the first major products that brought people here, as well as being a centre for the printing and publishing industries. The attention this gained led to the opening of the American University of Beirut in 1866 (then known as the Syrian Protestant College), one of the major driving forces behind Beirut’s great renaissance.
This popularity continued to see the city flourish for decades, through the World Wars, French rule, and Lebanon’s eventual independence in 1943. Unfortunately when Lebanon’s civil war broke out in 1975 Beirut was an epicentre for destruction, and swathes of the grand architecture that the city had been accumulating was lost. Much of these scars are still visible today in countless buildings that remain empty, often alongside slick new apartment blocks, hotels, and business centres that cause controversy for locals that long for the more romantic Beirut of yesteryear.
All of this and much more make Beirut one of the most fascinating cities in the Middle East, and well worthy of a few days of exploration at the start or end of a more comprehensive Lebanon tour.