Why the Levant Is Levantine
NORTH from Beirut, the Lebanon foothills leave only a crumpled ribbon of coastal plain; and after five or six miles even this is crushed out. The north-south road, which but for armistice lines would link Egypt and Israel with Turkey, creeps en corniche round the base of a spur, only a few feet above the sea, to cross the mouth of the Dog river, site of one of the world’s first stone bridges. River and spur together form what has throughout history been the major military obstacle on this vital route; and to mark their pleasure on overcoming it the commanders of more than a dozen armies-Pharaonic, Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, Mameluke, French, British, and others-have left inscriptions or commemorative plaques on the face of the rock. These inscriptions sum up the history of the region and highlight an important facet of the character of its peoples.
The coastlands of Lebanon and Israel, together with the Bekaa and Jordan valleys and the grainlands of southern Syria, form the western horn of a thousand-mile crescent of cultivation linking the Mediterranean with the Persian Gulf. This “Fertile Crescent” (the term is useful geographically, whatever one may think of its past political associations) and the valleys, desert tracts, and wedges of steppe abutting on it have made of the Near East’s Levantine heartland a unique intercontinental route-junction. Even the Syrian desert assists rather than resists travel: flat and relatively free from the drifting sand which hampers movement in the Arabian Nafud, 250 miles further south, it is passable even to light cars and is the scene of the nomadic wanderings of some of the largest pastoral tribes in the Near East.
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