Beirut: Beirut Rising

- April 1, 2005

Beirut is a city with a long and checkered history. The capital of Lebanon is lapped by the Mediterranean Sea and nestled like a pearl in the foothills of Mount Lebanon. The advantages of its location are clear. Little wonder that there has been a city on this site for at least 4,000 years.

The Bible refers to Lebanon as “the land of milk and honey.” It was home to the Phoenicians, an ancient Semitic people known for their maritime expertise and vast trading network. The Phoenicians founded cities far and wide, including Carthage, in Tunisia. We trace our Roman alphabet to this enterprising people, whose culture flourished for more than 2,000 years.

The coastline may have changed over the millennia and the ancient natural harbor is long gone, but the port still hums with mercantile activity. In ancient times the Phoenicians shipped their famous purple cloth — colored with dye produced from tiny sea snails that was so expensive it was available to only the wealthiest people, eventually becoming the preferred color of royalty — to Rome and beyond. Today the flow of trade has reversed as Lebanon imports increasing quantities of goods from Italy. Recent figures also show record volumes of imports at the port of Beirut, a large percentage being destined for Iraq as that country begins a post-war rebuilding process.

Through the centuries, Beirut itself has experienced its share of rebuilding. The Roman city was destroyed by an earthquake and the ensuing tsunami in the sixth century A.D. Still, you can find traces of the Roman presence. Remnants of an ancient bathhouse complete with mosaic floors remain evident in downtown Beirut. Other monuments also bear testimony to the powers — the Byzantines, Crusaders, Mamlukes, Ottomans and French — who have left their mark on the country that has been an independent parliamentary republic since 1943.

Beirut experienced a heyday in the 1960s, when the international jet set arrived in droves to moor their yachts in the sparkling Mediterranean and party all night in the city’s bars and clubs. Back then, Beirut’s prosperity derived chiefly from the tourism and banking sectors — two areas that have seen resurgence in importance over recent years.

How sad, then, that the images most people call to mind when they hear the name “Beirut” are of burnt-out buildings pockmarked with sniper fire, and the general devastation wrought by years of full-scale civil war. From 1974 to 1990, Beirut was at the mercy of militias. Tens of thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands displaced, many leaving the country never to return.

Since the end of hostilities, a major rebuilding program — both restoration and new construction — has been taking place in downtown Beirut. The city has regained some of its former splendor, taking on the feel of a Mediterranean resort with its sidewalk cafes and eateries, chic shops and luxury hotels. The rebuilding has also exposed several ancient sites; plans are in place to link these to form an archaeological trail through the city.

Tourism is vital to Lebanon and to Beirut in particular, and the industry has shown marked growth in recent years. Lebanon may be a small country in terms of geography, but it appeals to a wide range of tourist markets. In addition to the draw of cultural tourism, which capitalizes on the impressive archaeological sites found throughout the country, Beirut’s vibrant nightlife has gained a following among younger visitors, particularly those from the United Kingdom, who fly in for long weekends. Myriad bars and nightclubs have opened in Beirut to cater to its young population, and the helpful and open attitude of the locals makes the city a fun destination. There are also ski resorts within easy reach. In fact, at certain times of the year it is possible to ski in the mountains and swim in the sea on the same day.

Beirut is a surprisingly friendly city for visiting foreigners. The new airport is easy to navigate and passport control is usually swift. Downtown Beirut is only a 10- to 15-minute taxi ride from the airport along a wellbuilt wide highway. Most official (Yellow) taxi drivers speak English. In fact, many urban Lebanese speak English or French (or both) as well as Arabic. Crime is low, and you can walk around in an atmosphere of tolerance. The cosmopolitan feel to the city is enhanced by the fact that for well over a century the Lebanese have been migrating and returning to their homeland. A valuable by-product of these migrations is that the Lebanese diaspora have access to commercial networks in many parts of the world, and the labor force of the country tends to be more highly skilled than in other Arab states.

For these and other reasons, Beirut is becoming a regional headquarters for many international businesses. With its openness and well-educated labor force, the capital compares well to many of its regional rivals. A number of U.S. companies set up shop in Beirut following the repeal of passport restrictions in 1997.

Beirut has a lot to offer, and is to be commended for its ambitious rebuilding program in the wake of the civil war. The city buzzes, by day and by night, and there is plenty to do and see. Whether you are a connoisseur of food and wine, an aficianado of archaeology or a party animal, Beirut will entertain you in style.


Visas

Visas are required. They may be arranged in advance, or citizens of the United States and Western Europe may obtain visas at the airport upon arrival. For information, contact the Embassy of Lebanon (2560 28th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008, tel 202 939 6300, fax 202 939 6324, www.lebanonembassyus.org).

More Information

The Embassy of the United States of America (P.O. Box 70-840, Antelias, Beruit, Lebanon, tel 961 4 542600, fax 961 4 544136, www.usembassy.gov.lb).

The U.S. Department of State (www.state.gov) posts up-to-date information about travel to Lebanon.

The U.S. Commercial Service in Lebanon (www.buyusa.gov/lebanon/en) is part of a global network of trade specialists dedicated to supporting U.S. commercial interests in the United States and abroad.

The Daily Star (www.dailystar.com.lb) is an English-language daily newspaper in Lebanon.