Lebanese art begins with the achievements of ancient Phoenicia. Many artistic remains, some dating back to 3000 BC, are collected in the National Museum in Beirut. Influenced by the Egyptians, the Phoenicians created jewellery, pottery and elaborate sarcophagi (decorated stone coffins). One of the museum's finest objects is a sarcophagus for a king of Byblos; bearing a Phoenician inscription, the sarcophagus is one of the world's oldest examples of writing. Elsewhere in Lebanon, ancient temples, mosques and castles attest to the richness of the country's heritage.

Though interrupted by the civil war, Lebanon has long had a flourishing arts scene that attracts international performers and audiences. Lebanese theatres offer contemporary and classical dramas, musicals and political satires. The ruins of the Roman temples at Baalbeck in the Bekaa Valley provide the dramatic backdrop for the annual Baalbeck International Festival, which began in 1956. Besides commissioning original works from Lebanese artists, the summer festival showcases dancers, singers and actors of high stature. Over the years, performers have included Rudolf Nureyev and the Royal Ballet, the New York and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras and Egyptian singer Oum Koulsoum.

Lebanon has a strong literary tradition and many of its writers' works have been translated into other languages. Internationally, the 19th century essayist, poet and prose writer Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) is probably the best known author, particularly for a very influential book of poetic essays, The Prophet. Well-known contemporary writers are Hanan Al Shaykh, whose acclaimed novel Hikayat Zahra (The Story of Zahra) depicts the effects of the civil war; and Amin Maalouf, a much-lauded journalist and writer. Many authors write in French and English as well as Arabic.

Lebanon's national folk dance is the lively dabke, which originated in the Bekaa Valley. Dancers line up beside each other, holding hands. The steps vary according to the song; most are love songs or songs of national pride. Traditional instruments include the nay, a flute-like instrument common to Middle Eastern countries and North Africa, and the oud, an ancient, stringed instrument played with a plectrum. The daff and the riq are percussive instruments. Contemporary Lebanese music combines traditional and Western influences. Marcel Khalifé is a well-known oud player and songwriter whose works comment on Lebanese politics. The singer Fayrouz is a star in the Middle East and has performed internationally.

  Did you know?
In 1993, Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf, who has lived in France since 1976, won France's most prestigious literary prize, the Priz Goncourt, for his novel Le rocker de Tanios (The Rock of Tanios), a love story set in 19th century Lebanon.

  Did you know?
Lebanon has four film schools and is a major centre of film production. The Lebanese director Maroun Bagdadi won a prize at the 1991 Cannes Festival for Hors de Vie (Out of Life).