Lebanese Antiquities: A Nation Divided

The Lebanese flag

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It’s a cliché, but Lebanon is indeed a country of minorities. There have been no censuses since 1932, but it is estimated that about ninety percent of the four million inhabitants are Lebanese Arabs. The remainder consists mainly of Palestinians, who settled in camps like Sabra and Shatila (southern Beirut) after 1948, and Armenians, who fled from the Ottoman Empire during the First World War and live mainly in eastern Beirut.

Tomb of the assassinated prime minister Hariri

Other divisions are religious. Generally speaking, the people of the coast and center are Christians, with the northern part of the country following the Sunnite Islam, and the eastern part (the Bekaa Valley) and the south being Shi’ite. This division is, however, misleading on three points.

In the first place, because these religious groups are divided into smaller groups: the Shi’ites in the deep south are ‘twelvers’ who are waiting for the return of the twelfth imam (among these Shi’ites, Hezbollah finds its supporters), while the Druzes in the central south are an unusual type of ‘seveners’. The Alawis are another offshoot of the sevener Shia. Christians can be subdivided into Maronites and Greek Orthodox, although we also saw a Melkite church.

Tyre; memorial for the Unifil soldiers who gave the last full measure of devotion

In the second place, the geographical division is not as smooth as it seems. For example, although the Bekaa Valley is mainly Shi’ite, the cities of Zahle and Chtaura are Christian. In the third place, some people are pious and orthodox and really define themselves in religious terms, while others are more secular.

So, there’s no denying that Lebanon is a divided country. And it still matters. A man we met in Beirut, presumably Christian, was surprised we had gone to Tyre (Shi’ite), where he had never been. He believed tourists could go there without fear, but he was clearly not interested in going there personally.

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