Phoenician Legacy

The Phoenicians occupied modern day Lebanon from about 1550 BC to 300 BC.  They were a trading and seafaring people who left an incredible legacy throughout the Mediterranean basin that persists to this day.

Their greatest contribution to humanity was undoubtedly their alphabet.  The Phoenician alphabet is considered to be the ancestor of almost all modern alphabets. The Phoenicians were the first state-level society to widely implement a phonetic alphabet, which in turn, extended literacy beyond a narrow caste of priests.  It lead to a more democratic and flatter social structure throughout the Mediterranean.  This democratization of knowledge in turn inspired the renowned Greek constitutional government and fomented a spectacular leap in literacy and literary production.  The oral traditions of Greek mythology began to be transcribed onto Egyptian papyrus, which had an enormous influence on later cultures, namely the Etruscans and Romans.  The Phoenicians were in fact the first shipping pioneers to explore beyond the Strait of Gibralter.  Their commercial network spanned the Mediterranean, where they colonized many outposts, including Carthage.

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In Carthage, they spoke Punic, a variety of Phoenician language, and became the Roman Empire’s main rival.  Rome and Carthage would fight three major battles, known as the Punic Wars, which would eventually determine the course of Western civilization.  Hannibal, a Carthaginan commander, lead a successful attack on Rome by crossing the Alps on war elephants.  Rome eventually vanquished Carthage and subsumed its territory.

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The Phoenician influence persisted, both through the Roman Empire, and through successive Middle Eastern civilizations.  Hebrew and Arabic languages both stem from Phoenician, and Lebanon has inherited Phoenicia’s rich literary tradition.  Lebanon, in fact, boasts some of the highest education rates in the region, many of its citizens are trilingual, and Beirut has long been a regional book publishing capital.

It is interesting to me how highly valued Greek and Roman cultural output is, while the  underlying Phoenician influence is little known.  Without the innovative Phoenician alphabet, we might not have Greek and Roman mythology in the canon of Western literature.

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Lebanese Architecture

Lebanese architecture has one of the longest histories in the world, dating over 7,000 years, to the Phoenician period.  The Phoenicians were a seafaring people, based in Lebanon.  Due to their advanced construction techniques, they were able to build boats that allowed them to trade throughout the Mediterranean.  They also developed ingenious architectural techniques that are still evident in Lebanon today.

In fact, there are a variety of styles of architecture in Lebanon, resulting from the many different types of people who have resided there throughout history.  The beautiful old mansions in Beirut are my favorite.  They feature traditional Lebanese elements and borrow from Ottoman, Damascene, and Venetian styles.  These houses are characterized by mandaluns, or  triple arcade windows, a style brought to Lebanon from Italy in the 17th century.

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Many of them also have musharrabiehs, windows that allowed inhabitants (usually women) to view people outside without being noticed themselves.  One of my favorite activities in Beirut was to walk around the city, going a different route each time, to discover and admire hidden architectural gems.

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If you want to learn more about Lebanese houses or a variety of other aspects of Lebanese culture, I highly recommend these books: Lebanese Heritage Books.  They are created by a mother-daughter team, and published in 3 languages (English, French, Arabic).  I had the pleasure of meeting them at the farmer’s market in downtown Beirut.  They are really nice people and their books are awesome (I have 3 of them).

Skiing in Lebanon

Did you know that you can ski in the Middle East?  You may have heard of Ski Dubai, an artificial ski resort inside the Mall of Emirates.  However, in Lebanon, you can find the real deal.  Lebanon is a mountainous country, with peaks reaching over 10,000 feet.  Often called “The Switzerland of the Middle East,” Lebanon has 6 different ski resorts on the Mount Lebanon range.

Skiing was introduced to Lebanon in 1913 by a Lebanese engineer who had studied abroad in Switzerland.  The French Army established the country’s first ski school in 1935, and the sport continued to develop, with cross country skiing gaining popularity in the 1990s.

Lebanon has much to offer in terms of natural beauty, and due to its small size, traveling between sites is relatively easy.  It is possible to ski amongst the country’s famous cedars in the morning, and then take a swim in the Mediterranean in the afternoon.  Lebanon is a country that truly has something for everyone.

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Olive Oil Soap

Olive oil soap, made from olive oil and lye, is a Middle Eastern handicraft that dates back over a thousand years.  It is traditionally made in the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Israel, Jordan) from 100% natural materials.  Essential oils and traditional herbs are often added to remedy skin ailments such as dandruff, rosacea, eczema, and acme, as well as to heal wounds and sooth insect bites.  Olive oil has long been known to serve as a deep moisturizer, regenerating and softening skin cells.  Olive oil soap can be found today in suqqs and in apothecary shops, and is still commonly made at home.

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Check out Canaan Fair Trade to find out more info on olive oil soap, as well as other goods produced in Palestine.

Buy olive oil soap and support local artisans here.

Fairouz

Habbeytak Bessayf – (I Loved You in the Summer)

Fairouz is one of the best known and most beloved voices in the Arab World. With a career spanning over 60 years, there are many Fairouz songs to enjoy.  Her music is part of the soundtrack of the Middle East, often playing in the background, in taxis or cafes, slowing the modern day hustle and bustle down just a little bit.  I love Fairouz, and this song is one of my favorites.

English Lyrics:

In the cold days, in the days of winter
When the sidewalk has become a lake and the street full of water
This girl has come from her old house to await him.
He told her to wait but he has gone away
And he forgot about her and she goes away in winter.
I loved you in the summer, I loved you in the winter
I waited for you in the summer, I waited for you in the winter
Your eyes are summer, My eyes are winter
My love full is beyond summer and beyond winter
The stranger passed by and gave me a message
My lover had written with his tears
I opened the message whose letters are lost
And days passed, years made us strangers
While winter had erased the letters of the message
I loved you in the summer, I loved you in the winter
I waited for you in the summer, I waited for you in the winter
Your eyes are summer, My eyes are winter
My love full is beyond summer and beyond winter
Is beyond summer and beyond winter.

Mint Lemonade and Mint Tea

Mint, an herb long cultivated across the Middle East and North Africa, is renowned for its cooling and healing properties.  Its modern name came from an ancient Greek myth.  Persephone, the jealous wife of Pluto, transformed the object of her husband’s lust, the lovely young nymph, Minthe into a plant so all could trample her.  Unable to reverse the spell, Pluto instead gave Minthe a pleasant scent that intensified when she was tread on.  The name Minthe eventually evolved into Mint.  The versatile plant was used by the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans in aromatic baths, as a salve for sports injuries, and as an appetite stimulant.  In Rome, Pliny the Elder advised his students to wear wreaths of mint to sharpen their minds, and senators wore mint sprigs in the hope of enhancing their oratory skills and suppressing their tempers.  It has long been known to serve as a digestive aid, as an antiemetic, and as a cough suppressant.  It is refreshing when served cold and soothing when served warm.

Historically, mint is a symbol of hospitality.  The Greeks and Romans would rub mint on banquet tables to greet their guests,  and today, Moroccans are quick to offer a glass of mint tea as a gesture of friendship.

Both mint lemonade and mint tea are widely drunk throughout the Middle East and North Africa.  They are both easy to make, healthy (as long as you are much more conservative with the sugar than they are in the Middle East), and de-licious!

Moroccan Mint Tea:

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Mint Lemonade:

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