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A Geography of Contrasts
Jocelyne Gérard and Carole Nehmé
This article is a translation of:
Liban [fr]


In memory of M. Henri Chamussy, a geographer and great friend of Lebanon

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1Lebanon is a small territory of extraordinary complexity. It offers paradoxes, which are exciting to understand. Having a small dimension of 10.452 km², this country occupies a special strategic position. Lebanon is located at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and the Arab Orient and was the cradle of civilizations since the Paleolithic. This mountainous country has seen, throughout the history, successive periods of foreign occupation: the Egyptian civilization, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders and Ottomans. Because of its position, its history and landscape, Lebanon was always in the heart of a complex geopolitical situation in the Middle East.

2Lebanon reflects a geography of contrasts, not only beyond its borders but also within its small territory and the social behaviors of the population. First, the landscape is marked by a contrast between: i) the coastal area, the high mountain and the inner plain; ii) the sub-arid climate of the Bekaa Valley and the humid climate of Mount-Lebanon and iii) the rural and resort areas of the mountains and the urban pressure of the sprawling capital. In addition, Lebanon offers the paradox of being both open and closed at the same time. For centuries, Mount-Lebanon has been a refuge area for diverse cultural and religious groups that have preserved their traditions and culture. Both confirmation and retrenchment of religious communities such as Maronite Christians and Druze allowed to subsist for centuries against foreign domination (independence dates from 1943‑1944). Nevertheless, Lebanon has always been open to the world since the Phoenician time (very likely underlined by the Lebanese...) and considered a land of emigration. Looking always at the horizon is dictated by landscapes, the sea being always in sight either from deep valleys or higher plateaus.

3The heart of the Lebanese landscape, mostly composed by the high mountains of Mount-Lebanon, connects to the coast by successive deep valleys, with a dominant East-West orientation. This landscape architecture results in a division of the western slopes of Mount-Lebanon into elongated east-west cells, isolated from each other by deep canyons, with extremely steep slopes. In fact, the distance between the Mount-Lebanon ridge (exceeding 3000 m altitude) and the Mediterranean Sea is geometrically short, from 30 to 40 km long at most. However, the coastal plains are narrow and discontinuous. Consequently, the population concentrated mostly along the coastline and within these short valleys, is exposed to environmental risks (earthquakes, pollution) or to extreme climate events (heavy rains, frequent droughts, severe summer heats, snow cold above 1000 m altitude).

4The Lebanese territory offers a mosaic of landscapes: High limestone plateaus sparsely populated, steep slopes, deforested plains, anarchic urban areas. The urban areas are constantly expanding, nibbling the peripheral areas of the agglomeration. This growth of cities raises new challenges today related to environmental problems, resource management, and development policies... The environmental degradation through landfills and expansion of the coastline are the main and damaging consequences.

5With this short summary on the history and contrasting landscape, Lebanon reflects easily the political conflicts in the unstable Middle Eastern region. The consequence of such instability resulted in the 15-year civil war (1975‑1990), whose effects have deeply impacted both urban landscapes and populations. This inherited situation still produces a certain complexity in the present political, economic and social life. During the last thirty years, the Civil War period was the most important transition point in the Lebanese population displacement and landscape evolution. During the military operations in disputed cities (Beirut Damour, etc.), the population migrated to other surrounding areas, villages in mountains, other cities along the coastline and even occupied new cities located on steep slopes. This war has been a major factor in landscape transformation: i) abandonment of certain urban areas, ii) destruction of developed urban areas and iii) increase of polarization between communities. This territorial complexity and its evolution in the past and present time is the most interesting research topics motivating the collaboration of Lebanese researchers with French partners nowadays. Various studies, dealing with the complexity of population-environment interactions on landscape evolution, are published in this special issue.

6Thus, Harfouche and co-authors studied long-term human impacts on landscapes. This article highlights, through an integrated approach (archaeological investigations, soil studies, C14 dating and spatial analysis of Neolithic sites) the early history of human settlements in Mount Lebanon. This occupation dates back to the early Bronze Age. The authors emphasize on the exploitation of resources by early societies and their adaptation to the environmental changes from 6000 years BP up to the Byzantine period. The human settlements in Mont-Lebanon is far from being recent. The authors demonstrate the resilience of early societies in Mount Lebanon even during abrupt climate variabilities and highlight on the complexity of the socio-economic mutations during the neolithization with a more marked territorial anchorage.

7The article by Rola Chidiac on "territories", monopolization and spatial recomposition in the Middle mountain around Beirut (Lebanon): "refuge" concept to the challenge of globalization, presents the Lebanese mountain as the bastion of religious communities and political leaders. For more than four decades, this area has undergone deep transformations following various processes: Creation of recreational resorts, displacement of population during the War, expansion of urban areas, and investments of Gulf nationals and emigrants. The evolution of the greater Beirut area before the Civil War begins with a large urban nucleus separated from the surrounding mountain cities and villages by a green-forested belt, and evolved towards more developed urban centers in the mountains facing the division and destruction of Beirut during and after the Civil War. The analysis of the evolution of the surrounding mountain areas as a new multimodal peri-urban space of the capital highlights the contrasts between clan behaviors in marking/conserving the territory and the liberal economic system adopted in Lebanon. This situation remains linked so far to the identity acclamation presented here as inherited and related to the "autonomy" status of various communities in the Lebanese mountain areas.

8The article by Zaarour and Voiron proposes a novel study on the urban morphology of Beirut and its evolution over time. The study of urban data over 60 years allowed a fine-scale reconstruction of spatial‑morphological data (buildings, roads, wastelands) for the municipality of Beirut. The image analysis of aerial photographs from 1956, 1972 and 1999, on the one hand, and the data collected recently by field surveys, on the other hand, reveal a saturation trend in the urban fabric, but also a verticalization and a greater heterogeneity of buildings with an increasing vulnerability to environmental risks (earthquakes, public health). The expansion of built-up areas and the increased building height, coupled with an inefficient risk management policy, exacerbate the vulnerability of Beirut to seismic hazard. The changes that have shaped the urban fabric of the Lebanese capital, as we know it today, started earlier, in the 1950s. The Civil War period (1975‑1999) has only accelerated these trends, in the absence of an effective urban management policy. Within a context of significant environmental risks, a better knowledge of the vulnerability of the urban fabric of Beirut at the intra-urban scale provides useful information to public authorities. It helps identify vulnerable areas and implement a better risk management policy in times of disasters.

9Hindi's article discusses the evolution of public spaces in Beirut city from the 19th century to present time. The author uses maps to illustrate and reconstruct the location, accessibility and connectivity of public spaces with each other and with other cities. The article stresses on the evolution of their structure in a broader geographical and political context and the significance attributed under the prism of each urban policy adopted by the Ottoman authorities before and after the independence of the city from the province of Damas in 1888 and during the French mandate era. A first modernization of the city of Beirut took place by the end of the 19th century. The second modernization under the French mandate propelled Beirut in the modern era as a westernized city close to the European model in the Levant. By framing the intersection of various visions of Westernization, intra- and extramural public spaces reveal the transformations of the urban fabric, highlighting the major shift in urban pattern from a medieval city with a port to a major port city.

The last part of this issue focuses on the inner Beqaa plain and the drought-related issues affecting the agricultural sector in the current context of climate change and water stress. Two articles provide new data, one on irrigation practices adopted by the farmers, and the second on the evolution of the estimated intensity of droughts in central Beqaa since 2001.

The article by Trottier and Antonius focuses on the adaptive methods of irrigation practices in relation to land use, through an ethnographic survey conducted on farmers from central Beqaa. The study also focuses on the methods of appropriation and water consumption according to its origin and the means of its distribution. Beyond the classic observation that points towards economic and geostrategic factors behind the various means of water and land accessibility adopted by farmers, four identified behavior types in this study show the interaction of various factors that shape different irrigation practices in order to adapt to climatic and socio-economic hazards. The results of the survey are compared to different case studies around the world.

The paper of Nasser et al. focuses on the drought as a major climatic hazard affecting the agricultural sector in the Beqaa plain. The authors study the evolution of the droughts’ intensity in central Beqaa plain by combining indicators derived from the analysis of satellite images and precipitation data over 15 years. The combination of both approaches proposes a variation pattern of drought in time and space with a sharp peak of drought in 2008. The drought hazard in the Beqaa plain seems to increase slightly in intensity with a recurring pattern.

13Lebanon, a country of complexity and paradox, is an interesting research topic. The different questions raised in this special issue address landscape evolution at different spatial and temporal scales (past and present time) and shed a new light on the society-environment interactions as well as on the impact of environmental and human crises on the landscape evolution.

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Electronic reference

Jocelyne Gérard and Carole Nehmé, « Lebanon », Méditerranée [Online], 131 | 2020, Online since 03 February 2020, connection on 19 February 2020. URL :

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