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Lebanon is a small country (just over 10,400 square kilometers in size) situated along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. All regions are within easy reach of the capital Beirut: it will take a maximum of 4 hours to drive from one end of the country to the other. Beirut, Tripoli, Byblos, Sidon, Tyre and other major cities are situated on the narrow coastal plain, only 6 Km at its widest point. The country enjoys a Mediterranean climate with hot summers and mild winters.
Lebanon’s strategic location has, from the earliest times, made it the center of the Middle East’s tumultuous history. Lebanon is an Arab country, and Arabic is the official language. Besides Arabic, most Lebanese speak French and English. Lebanon is unique among Arab countries, however, as it has a laissez-faire capitalist economy and a democratic system of government with an active parliament. Elections are held for municipal councils and for the President of the Republic every six years, while members of Parliament are elected every four years.
The earliest inhabitants of coastal Lebanon were a Semitic people related to the Canaanites who came to coastal Lebanon from the Arabian Peninsula about 3500 BC. The Greeks named these seafaring people 'Phoenicians,' and they established city-states and spread their 22-letter alphabet throughout the Mediterranean region. After being successively ruled by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks, Lebanon came under Roman rule in 64 BC. It later became part of the Eastern Roman - or Byzantine -Empire. From 1515 to 1918, Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire. After WWI, Lebanon fell under the French Mandate. The Republic of Lebanon, established by the Constitution of 1926, won its independence from France in 1943.
Since Lebanon has, for many years, been a trading nation, its citizens have always had a very worldly and a strong proficiency in foreign languages, particularly French and English. Lebanese also have a deep belief in the importance of education. Thus, the literacy rate in Lebanon is among the highest in the region. Lebanon has one of the best educational systems in the Middle East and private sector involvement in high. Approximately half of the Lebanese students attend private schooling from elementary to secondary levels.
The population, last estimated to be around 4,000,000 citizens, is very diverse with 17 different religious communities.
The Lebanese unit of currency is the Pound (lira). The exchange rate hovers at around LL 1,500 to the Dollar. But a visitor to Lebanon generally would not have to worry about changing money as almost all shops and businesses freely accept U.S. Dollars for payment. Credit cards are also widely accepted. In some areas, Syrian lira is also accepted. Travelers checks can be converted at the offices of money changers and banks and cash advances can be made at ATM machines using a credit card.
The official language is Arabic but most people are also proficient in English and/or French.
Climate: Lebanon enjoys an essential four season Mediterranean climate with rainy winters, moderate springs, warm summers and regular autumns, with an average of 300 sunny days a year.
The winter is mild on the coast and snowy in the mountains and the summer is hot on the coast but cooler in the mountains. Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East that doesn’t have a desert.
Lebanon offers a range of shopping opportunities, from traditional handicrafts to the latest in European fashions. But, with the exception of a few items such as gold jewelry, prices can be expensive in comparison to other countries in the region. Lebanon is heavily reliant on imports but there are a few domestically produced goods that a visitor might want to bring home. The country is a major producer of jewelry, which can be purchased at reasonable prices. Lebanon also has a number of world-renowned vineyards including Chateau Ksara and Chateau Kefraya. Lebanese sweets are also famous and can be packaged for travel.
Points of interest in Lebanon include:
- The great Roman temple of Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley
- Beiteddine, the summer residence of the President located in the Chouf Mountains.
- The Cedars of Bcharre are in the north. Bcharre is also the birth and resting place of the famous Lebanese writer Gibran Khalil Gibran.
- The sleepy coastal villages of Byblos and Tyre.
- The country’s second largest city: Tripoli.
- The great grotto of Jeita, one of the largest natural caves in the world.
Lebanese cuisine: The cuisine of Lebanon is the epitome of the Mediterranean diet. It includes an abundance of fruits, vegetables, starches, fresh fish and seafood. The enduring tradition of the Lebanese is starters; Mezza also known as hors d'oeuvres. The Lebanese have spread their cuisine to all parts of the world. It has become well known in fine restaurants in London, Paris, New York and Sidney serve tabboule, kibbee, hummus and baba’gannouj.
Service taxies are the most common means of transportation around Beirut. There are a few bus companies that connect the major cities of Beirut, Tripoli, Saidon and Tyre. Cars can be rented but, if you are planning your visit in the high season of summer, you may want to make reservations well in advance.