On August 5, 2020, an explosion at the Port of Beirut with the magnitude of a 3.5 earthquake literally shook half the city. While not as recognizable as the tourist spots that show up in every disaster movie, it has a deep and complex history dating back to 2500 BCE.
One glance at a map of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, will show you that it is a port city. Beirut is at the very edge of the country, facing the Mediterranean Sea. Behind and around it, the mountain ranges of Lebanon frame the city. From that port, by sea, you can reach Syria and Turkey on the right, Israel and Egypt on the left, and Greece and Italy across. All these nations are part of the history of the Port of Beirut.
2500 BCE: Canaanite Harbor and the beginning of trade
The Canaanite town of Biruta was small, beside a bay where ships could seek harbor. The Phoenician trading empire, which created coastal city-states from Syria to Northern Africa, was key to Biruta’s development. With Beirut now a key port, the residents built more harbors and joined the trading route.
This led to economic growth and, eventually, their conquest and colonization by the Romans when the Roman Empire defeated the greatest Phoenician city-state, Carthage.
1500 BCE: Egyptian Letters and the recognition of the Port of Beirut
As early as 1500 B.C.E., the Port of Beirut, specifically, was mentioned in the Amarna Letters, correspondence between leaders of Egypt and the Turkish regions. They were found in the ancient Egyptian city of Akhenaten, now called Tell el-Amarna, one of the Nile River cities.
The letters don’t tell us much, except that the Port of Beirut was already a known port to traders and diplomatic envoys. Because of their expansion during the prosperous Phoenician trade, the community grew.
14 BCE: Roman Colonization and the transformation into a city
One of the admitted challenges of being a thriving port community during the Roman Empire’s expansion is that there was a high risk of becoming colonized as a Roman town. Such was the history of Beirut, and the Port of Beirut. In 14 B.C.E., it was named Colonia Julia Augusta Felix Berytus.
Roman architects and engineers laid out the city and built its prominent buildings, including a hippodrome, or racing stadium. The forcible reconstruction of the entire city on Roman lines, which would have included a common central area, a suburban area, a center for trade, and so forth, transformed the look and feel of Beirut forever.
As a Roman colony, with Roman engineering, the port and harbor became even deeper and wider, with seawalls and extended harbors increasing its trading capacity. Under Rome, the Port of Beirut became a full-fledged city. However, in 476, Rome was defeated and the Byzantine Empire rose.
In 551 C.E., the port and city suffered a series of earthquakes as well as a tsunami. Full repairs were never carried out, and it remained mostly in ruins until the arrival of Muslims holding the jund of Damascus in Syria, in 635. Previously a prosperous trading town, Beirut and its port became no more than a garrison outpost for Damascus for the next few hundred years.
900 CE: The Fatimid Caliphate and the rise of trade
The Fatimid Caliphate was primarily a religious leadership. The rulers were said to be descended from the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, whose husband was the first Shi’ite imam. Their goal was to unite the Muslim nations under one caliphate, and eventually Syria (including Lebanon) and its capital, Damascus, fell under this caliphate.
With political relations increasing between nations, especially when the seat of the Fatimid Caliphate settled in Egypt, maritime trade resumed from Northern Africa to Syria through the Mediterranean. As one of the connecting ports, the Port of Beirut once again throve and helped the city grow. However, in the same way that they grabbed Roman notice by joining Phoenician trade, the Port of Beirut grabbed Crusader notice by taking part in the caliphate trade.
1095 CE: The First Crusade and life as a Crusader outpost
From 1071 CE onwards, the Christian population in the city of Jerusalem was harassed and endangered by the Seljuk Turks, who had taken control from the Egyptians. Afraid for his life, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comenus reached out to the Pope, Pope Urban II, for aid.
In 1095, the Pope called for a Crusade to take Jerusalem back as the Holy Land. In 1096, 29,000 mounted troops and artillery marched eastward. They started in Asia Minor, the Turkish region, and worked their way south. In 1098, they took the capital, Antioch. By 1099, Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders.
Lebanon, sandwiched between Turkey and Syria to the northwest and Israel and Egypt to the southwest, didn’t really have a say in the Crusader conquest. As an established port city, Beirut was taken over by the Crusaders and, as part of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, turned into an outpost and trading center. For the Port of Beirut, this was the beginning of its highly profitable European trade, especially with Genoa in Italy.
However, as the First Crusade was obviously not the last, the position and role of the Port of Beirut made it prone to exchanging hands between the Muslim and Christian forces throughout this era.
1291 CE: The Mamluk Occupation and the spice trade with Venice
The Great Crusades were officially ended by 1291 CE, and the Europeans marched back west. With their withdrawal, and the strong Muslim caliphates (despite infighting), the Christian Byzantine Empire in the area also began to weaken.
The Mamluk sultanate took control of part of Egypt and Syria, and as Beirut knew by experience, as a port city they were an important part of the package. In fact, their existing ties to trade with Italy in Europe allowed them to be one of the ports that connected the Mamluk region to Venice in Italy. Venetians craved the designs and glassware of the Mamluk artisans, and even adopted some of its architecture.
Until the Ottoman Empire’s expansion in the 1500s, the Port of Beirut enjoyed its status as a premiere trading port for the Mamluk sultanate.
1516 CE: The Ottoman Empire and Beirut’s rise to provincial capital
In 1299 CE, Osman I from Anatolia in modern-day Turkey claimed Byzantine Asia Minor for his own. Throughout the next 700 years, he and his descendants pushed the borders of what would become the Ottoman Empire down to North Africa, east into the Arabic peninsula, north as far as the Ukraine below Russia, and west as far as Austria-Hungary.
It took 200 years for the Ottomans to take over Syria, defeating the Mamluk caliphate. Beirut, as usual, was part of the package deal. However, their status as a wealthy and influential port protected them, and they continued their trade with Europe with the Ottomans.
The Ottoman Empire was a main actor in European politics and culture, and trading ports like the Port of the Beirut kept the lines of connection and communication open. The Industrial Revolution in Europe, which further diversified the trade goods being exchanged, helped maintain that relationship as well. Eventually, Beirut even became the provincial capital.
While the empire began to dwindle after 1683, it continued to survive against nationalists until World War I, the League of Nations, and the European Mandates.
1919 CE: The French Mandate and independence through World War II
World War I and the League of Nations
The League of Nations was developed as a way to lessen and prevent disputes from breaking out into open warfare. The great population losses of the first modern war, and its weaponry, changed a world that had previously been defined by empires.
As a result, at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 ending the Great War (later known as World War I), the Covenant of the League of Nations was also drawn up. The nation-states composing the League members took “Mandates,” or territories that had previously been under imperial rule. This included German territories, and the many territories of the Ottoman Empire.
Through this Mandate, Syria, which included modern-day Lebanon in a single territory, were made a French Mandate. Beirut was named the capital of what would become the Lebanese Republic in 1926. The benefit of the Mandates was that, besides reconstruction after the war, the territories could still conduct trade with one another and with Europe. They were seen, more or less, as de facto colonies.
The Mandates were ended by what would become World War II.
World War II and the United Nations
In World War II, France became one of the German-occupied nations in the first wave of the war. Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French and head of the exiled government, was managing the French Resistance and the Allied Invasion of Europe when Lebanon began to rally for its independence from the French Mandate.
In 1943, in the middle of the Second World War, Lebanese national leaders took the opportunity to appeal to France for independence, and to set up their own government. On November 22, 1943, they claimed their independence from the French Mandate and in 1945, they joined the United Nations as an independent nation-state.
The Port of Beirut, which had been given to a French company in 1925, was finally taken back by the Lebanese government and expansion and development rights were given to a Lebanese company in 1960. In 1990, after the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), the government appointed a committee to manage the Port of Beirut.
21st Century C.E.: The Port of Beirut today and the deadly explosion
In 2015, the Port of Beirut received the Gold Prize for the Information Technology Award for the best Port IT solution worldwide in 2015. Statistics show their revenues were increasing by at least 11% every year, and the growth in transshipment of containers was at least 8% every year. Despite a 15-year civil war, Lebanon ranked 6th in the region for connectivity to different ports and shipping lines. Historically and today, the Port has been a crucial part of Lebanese development and politics.
Shipping and tourism fell off in 2020, because of the hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This new disaster is only certain to place more pressure on a an important port that has only recently begun to grow again in significance and prestige.
- History – Port of Beirut by Compagnie de Gestion et d’Exploitation du Port de Beyrouth
- From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman (author of The World is Flat)
- “The Making of Ras Beirut: A Landscape of Memory for Narratives of Exceptionalism” by Maria B. Abunnasr