Once considered the Paris of the East, Lebanon fell off the tourist map when it disintegrated into civil war in 1975. The word is slowly getting out that travel to Lebanon is now not only possible but surprisingly free of hassles. Lebanon packs a lot into its modest borders: ancient cities, Roman ruins, luxurious ski resorts, bucolic charm and Islamic architecture are just the start. Culturally, too, Lebanon is crammed full of complexity, with the kind of full-on religious and social diversity that has mono-culturalists in other countries claiming it can only lead to social breakdown – sadly, in this instance, Lebanon did not prove them wrong.

The handful of foreign visitors now finding their way to Lebanon are mostly well-heeled package tourists. Independent travelers are a bit of a rarity, but are made to feel welcome. The Lebanese are genuinely hospitable towards strangers and are not shy of inviting travelers into their homes. If you’re interested in the history of the region and want to see how Lebanon is striving to rebuild itself, now is a good time to visit.

Lebanon was the biblical ‘land of milk and honey’, and conquerors have always been attracted to its abundant natural resources, the safe anchorages on the coastline and the defensive possibilities of the high mountains. This has turned the country’s history into a who’s who of interlopers, pillagers and big-noters.

The shores of Lebanon attracted settlers from about 10,000 BC onwards and by about 3000 BC, their villages had evolved into prototype cities. By around 2500 BC the coast had been colonised by people who later became known as the Phoenicians, one of the Mediterranean’s greatest early civilisations. The Phoenicians never unified politically: they dominated as a result of enterprise and intellectual endeavour emanating from a string of independent city states. They ruled the sea with their superior vessels and navigational skills, were exceptional craftspeople, and created the first real alphabet.

In the 9th century BC, the Assyrians clomped in, breaking the Phoenician’s monopoly on Mediterranean trade. They yielded to the Neo-Babylonians, who were in turn overcome by the Persians (whom the Phoenicians regarded as liberators).

The Phoenicians finally declined when Alexander the Great swept through the Middle East in the 4th century BC and Phoenicia was gradually Hellenised. In 64 BC, Pompey the Great conquered Phoenicia and it became part of the Roman province of Syria. Beirut became an important center under Herod the Great and splendid temples were built at Baalbek.

As the Roman empire crumbled, Christianity gained momentum and Lebanon became part of the eastern Byzantine Empire in the 4th century AD, with its capital at Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The imposition of orthodox Christianity didn’t sit well, and when the Mohammedans brought the word of Allah from the south, they faced little resistance in Lebanon.

The Umayyuds, the first great Muslim dynasty, held sway in Lebanon for about a century, but faced opposition from indigenous Jews and Christians, especially the Syrian Maronite sect who took refuge around Mount Lebanon. After the Umayyuds fell to the Abbasids in 750, Lebanon became a backwater of the Persian-flavoured Abbasid Empire.

This empire lasted until the 11th century before being tipped out by the Fatimid dynasty, who struggled on until the rise of the Crusaders. The Crusaders had their sights set on Jerusalem, but marched down the Syrian and Lebanese coast, linking up with the Maronites, before savaging the Holy City.

The Muslim Ayyubids got their claws into Syria, Egypt, western Arabia and parts of Yemen until they were overthrown by the strange soldier-slave kings known as Mamlukes, who ruled Lebanon from the end of the 13th century for the best part of 300 years. The Mamlukes faded with the rise of the Ottoman Empire and Lebanon’s tribal leaders – the Tanukhid emirs (Druze) of central Lebanon and the Maronites – formed conflicting alliances with various local factions.

The Ottoman Sultan Selim I conquered Lebanon in 1516-17 but was temporarily undermined by Fakhreddine (Fakhr ad-Din II) (1586-1635). Fakhreddine was not only ambitious, he was also wily and politically smart, talents that allowed him to unite, for the first time, the area that became known as modern Lebanon. In fact he was a little too smart for his own good, and his paymasters executed him.

Fakhreddine was followed by his nephew Ahmad Maan, who was not quite the talent his uncle was although he did play the game well enough to be ‘awarded’ an emirate by the Ottomans. When Ahmad Maan died, power passed to the Shihab family, who reigned until 1840, when internal power struggles brought the age of emirs to an end.

In 1842, the Ottomans divided Mount Lebanon into two administrative regions, one Druze and the other Maronite. That they immediately set to squabbling was anticipated and encouraged by the Ottomans, who practiced a ‘divide and rule’ policy. By 1845, there was open war, not only between Druze and Maronite, but also between peasants and their supposed feudal leaders.

The Ottomans, under pressure from Europe, created a single Lebanese administrative unit under an Ottoman Christian governor and the feudal system was abolished. The system worked, producing stability and economic prosperity until WWI, when Lebanon came under Turkish military rule and suffered a serious famine. Following the Allied victory in 1918, Lebanon came under French rule.

During WWII Lebanon became fully independent and developed into a major trade center. Lebanon’s fatal flaw was that power rested with the right-wing Christian population while the Muslims (almost half the population) felt they were excluded from real government. Add large numbers of displaced Palestinians and there were all the ingredients for conflict. Civil war broke out in 1975 between a predominantly Muslim leftist coalition and Christian right-wing militias. Over the next 20 years, insanely complicated civil and international wars, and high profile hostage-taking, were pretty much standard fare.

An eye-glazing summary follows: the Syrians intervened at the request of the Lebanese president to force an uneasy peace between Muslims and Christians, the Israelis marched in and set up a surrogate militia to protect northern Israel from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the UN sent in peacekeepers to quell internal Christian-Muslim fighting. Israel laid siege to Beirut in 1982, with the stated aim of eradicating the PLO.

Israel also supported Christian militias who massacred Palestinian civilians. The PLO was partially evacuated by the US, and a Multinational Force (MNF) of US and Western European troops was deployed to protect Palestinian and Muslim civilians. When the Israelis withdrew, fighting broke out between Druze Muslim militias and Christian forces, and between Lebanese army units and Muslim militiamen. The MNF suffered heavy casualties and withdrew in early 1984.

The Syrians slowly brought the Muslim areas of Lebanon under their control, but in 1988 Lebanon’s new military government sought to expel Syria. The attempt failed and fighting continued until Elias Hrawi, a moderate Maronite in good standing with Syria, seized the presidential reins. By 1992 all foreign hostages were released and Syrian troops began to withdraw. In August 1992 parliamentary elections were held for the first time in 20 years, and Muslim fundamentalists of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah party won the largest number of seats.

Rafiq Hariri became the new prime minister. Skirmishes between Hezbollah and Israeli soldiers continued through 1993, culminating in Operation Grapes of Wrath – an Israeli bombardment of 80 villages in southern Lebanon. Trouble flared up again in April 1996 when Israel launched more air strikes on southern Lebanon and Beirut. International response condemned Israel and the UN swiftly negotiated a cease-fire.

The long war has cost some 150,000 Lebanese lives and left the country in a ruinous state. Today, internally, Lebanon’s infrastructure is on a rapid ride to recovery and the economy is slowly recovering. Lebanon’s problem is that it remains at the mercy of larger forces being played out in the rest of the Middle East. Over the past decades, many of the conflicting players in Middle Eastern affairs have used Lebanon as the turf on which to fight their battles and push their cause, be it the PLO, the Syrians, the Iranians, the Israelis or the UN.

Newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak promised in 1999 to withdraw from the ‘security zone’ in southern Lebanon, where Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas had been lobbing artillery at one another for years. He made good in May of 2000, despite Syria’s concerns with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

As troops began evacuating, the Hezbollah moved in rapidly and forced Israeli soldiers into a chaotic retreat under heavy fire, with Lebanese civilians tossing a few bottles and stones into the mix just for good measure. After the smoke cleared, Hezbollah engineers began working to restore electricity and running water to Lebanese civilians who had gone without for much of the occupation. Tensions between Lebanon and Israel are expected to cool down, but the situation along the border zone will likely remain volitile for some time.