Beirut was originally a Phoenician city and in ancient times was called Berytus. After 1500 BC it became known as a trade center. Beirut was prominent under the Seleucids but became more important under the Romans, when it was not only a commercial town—with a large trade in wine and linens—but also a colony with some territory. In the 3d cent. AD, Beirut had a famous school of Roman law. The city declined after an earthquake in 551. Beirut was captured by the Arabs in 635. The Crusaders under Baldwin I took the city in 1110, and it was part of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem until 1291, despite a siege by Saladin and the Egyptians in 1182. After 1517 the Druze controlled the city under the Ottoman Empire.
In the 19th cent. Beirut was one of the centers of the revolt of Muhammad Ali of Egypt against the Ottoman Turks. Ibrahim Pasha took it for the Egyptians (1830), but in 1840 the French and British bombarded and captured the city, reestablishing Ottoman rule. It was taken (1918) by French troops in World War I. Beirut became the capital of Lebanon in 1920 under the French mandate. The French rapidly developed the city, despite the domestic tensions that arose between the Muslim and Christian populations.
After World War II and the creation of Israel in 1948, thousands of Palestinian refugees entered Lebanon, many settling in Beirut. Violence erupted in 1958, and fierce fighting began again in 1975 and 1976 when the civil war broke out. Beirut was divided into territories run by many separate, religious-based militias. West Beirut was devastated in 1982 by Israeli forces fighting Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) units based there. A multinational peacekeeping force was established after some 1,000 Palestinians were massacred by Israel's Lebanese Christian allies. In Apr., 1983, a terrorist bombing partially destroyed the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 50 people. In October, 260 U.S. Marines and 60 French soldiers were killed in Beirut when a truck filled with explosives was driven into their military compound. U.S. and French forces were withdrawn in 1984. Throughout the 1980s the city was a base for a number of militant extremist groups.
In 1990 Christian and Muslim militias withdrew, ending the division of Beirut and returning it to the control of the national government. However, Beirut's economy and infrastructure had been destroyed by the years of fighting. In the early 1990s Lebanese billionaire Rafiq Hariri, who became Lebanon's prime minister, launched a multibillion dollar effort, through the company Solidere, to rebuild central Beirut as a symbol of the nation's postwar aspirations. Although there has been much rebuilding, Beirut has not fully recovered its prewar prosperity.
See L. Fawaz, Merchants and Migrants in Nineteenth Century Beirut (1983); F. Debbas, Beirut, Our Memory (1986); F. Ajami, Beirut: City of Regrets (1988).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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