Adapted from the National Library of Israel article by Amit Naor
Beirut was once known as the Paris of the Middle East, and there was a period of time when Jews regularly visited this jewel on the Mediterranean.
During the times of Mandatory Palestine, when Lebanon, together with Syria, was under a French mandate, ties between the mandates were quite cordial: merchandise was sent from one place to the other, the railways laid down by the Ottomans connected distant lands, and most importantly — people traveled freely across the region.
As a result, just as Jewish merchants moved between Jerusalem, Damascus, Aleppo and Beirut during the days of the Ottoman Empire, citizens of Mandatory Palestine — both Jews and Arabs — continued to visit their northern neighbors while living under British rule.
The local tourist industry in particular, flourished during this period. Lebanon was considered a fascinating and attractive destination: its southern shores, the vibrant metropolis of Beirut and the beautiful snow-capped mountains. The Hebrew press and bulletin boards were filled with advertisements appealing to the Jewish readers to come and relax in Lebanon.
Ads promoting the country’s many hotels emphasized the cool, almost European weather and the cedar trees viewable from one’s window. These tourist establishments were often given French names to increase their prestige in the eyes of the holiday goers.
What else attracted potential Hebrew tourists? Skiing! In the arid Land of Israel, there weren’t many snowy places to engage in this popular European hobby, but in Lebanon, winter sports flourished, even in springtime. Ski instructors were brought in from Europe, and the promise of enjoying snow so close to home attracted many.
So let’s say you decided to spend your summer vacation in Lebanon. How would you get there? You could take the train of course, but why settle for that? Tourists were invited to board one of the ships departing from the port of Haifa and stopping at various ports en route to Beirut, and beyond.
You could also choose to travel by bus. The Egged Museum still holds travel tickets to these exotic destinations. And for several hundred Palestine pounds (liras), you could even take a taxi from Haifa.
Of course, you could choose to spend your vacation on an organized trip. The travel company would take care of everything. That way, you could be sure not to miss any significant destination or attraction. Where did these tourists visit? It was unheard of to complete a trip to Lebanon without a tour of the coastal cities, driving up to the Lebanese mountains, and last but not least, visiting the ancient ruins of Baalbek.
In the 1930s, competition for tourists was so fierce that hotels even enticed Jewish holidaymakers with the promise of kosher food. Hebrew newspapers published advertisements for acquisitions or partnerships in these hotels, and lectures on the geography of Syria and Lebanon were often given by senior lecturers, educators, and geographers of the Hebrew community in Mandatory Palestine.
The tourist trade continued through the Great Arab Revolt (1936-1939) and even during WW II. The War of Independence and the establishment of the State of Israel brought an end to this popular practice. In the intervening years, Beirut has dramatically changed. Civil war, its transformation into a base for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, subsequent wars with Israel, and Hezbollah’s growing influence there have decimated the city. The days of Jewish visitors sunbathing on its beaches seem fantastical now.