Illustration: John Spooner.
The National Museum of Beirut houses one of the great prehistoric collections in the world. It's here you'll find the earliest example we have of an alphabet in human history. You'll also find astonishing Egyptian-styled sarcophagi topped bizarrely with Graeco-Roman faces; a fusion of artistic traditions that demonstrates just what a cultural meeting point this part of the world has always been.
What you won't find is anything post-mediaeval. Modern Lebanon just doesn't exist in its national museum. It can't exist because the cultures that meet there these days could never agree on what story should be told. Indeed, the museum's only modern artefact is the bullet hole from the Lebanese civil war that punctures the bottom-left corner of perhaps its most impressive Byzantine mosaic.
So it is in Beirut, and indeed Lebanon as a whole. There are Sunni, Christian and Shiite areas, but there are no national areas. Nation-states typically go to great lengths to convey their propaganda to the public, to articulate a national mythology. But Lebanon doesn't even bother. Beirut has no monuments to independence, founding fathers or national heroes. It doesn't even have the oversized photos of presidents (or prime ministers) that are so compulsory throughout the Middle East.
In Lebanon, modern heroes are sectarian, and modern national symbols are tragic and embody unresolved conflict. Like the iconic Holiday Inn, left gutted and burnt from the civil war, sitting hauntingly among a clutch of shiny downtown high-rises. If there's a national identity in Lebanon, it's so heavily obscured by bullet holes that very few of its politicians can see it.
''Nations who don't find their national identities are doomed to be the prey of other nations.'' So declared Ataturk in 1923. He was, of course, speaking with post-Ottoman Turkey in mind, but it is hard to imagine a more penetrating description of Lebanon. After decades of watching its politicians play up sectarian divisions and seek support from foreign powers, Lebanon has become not so much a country as a theatre for regional geo-politics.
And so the Shiites - now most actively represented by Hezbollah - take their orders from Iran and the Assad regime in Syria, while Sunnis seek support from Saudi Arabia, and embrace Syria's increasingly radical rebels. No group can conceive of its own interests without their foreign patrons: even Lebanon's Christians who have floated back towards Assad as their protector against Sunni radicalism.
Just this past week Beirut has seen a former finance minister assassinated and a (Sunni) suicide bomber kill five civilians in a Shiite neighbourhood. And yet neither is a domestic Lebanese matter, because almost nothing is. The assassination is most likely an order from Syria, reasserting Assad's will in Lebanon. The suicide bombing is clear retaliation for Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian civil war, fighting for the Assad regime. It's an involvement that has merely encouraged the same international terrorist groups fighting Assad to start terrorising Lebanon, thereby exposing Hezbollah's claim to be ''resisting'' foreign aggression on behalf of Lebanon as a sham, and making clear that they are merely providing Lebanese muscle for Iran.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is offering $3 billion to strengthen the Lebanese army. Its aim seems obvious enough: to gain influence over the only viable military alternative to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Lebanese Sunnis are likely to welcome it, because they would love a Lebanese army sympathetic to their interests. The Shiites, however, are in a bind. Do they really want a strong Lebanese army, or would they prefer it to remain weak enough for Hezbollah to dominate?
It boils down to this: Lebanon is now a contest between the two real powers of the region - Saudi Arabia and Iran. And in this respect, Lebanon is a microcosm; a place that merely distils the real game of Middle Eastern politics.
It's visible in the Syrian civil war, which is far less civil than it seems since it has become a proxy confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is cheerfully funding rebel groups, hoping desperately for Assad to fall. It's visible in the outraged Saudi reaction to America's nuclear deal with Iran struck last November. It's even visible in Iraq, where Iran has profited handsomely from America's removal of Saddam Hussein and the emergence of a Shiite government, and where the Saudi government stands accused of funding Sunni terrorist groups who have now spectacularly gained control of Fallujah.
The Sunni-Shiite divide is now definitive. But it's more manufactured than it first appears: a convenient dividing line the Saudis and Iranians can use to mobilise support. Only recently has this sectarianism become so radioactive. Most deeply these divisions are political. This is an old story of competing nations - here acting as empires - dividing for conquest.
And here we return to Ataturk's dictum. This Saudi-Iran havoc is only possible because the Middle East is crammed with countries whose national identities have never truly been resolved; whose borders have been horrifically drawn to capture almost nothing coherent; who shook off colonisation only to discover they didn't quite know who they were in these new, often arbitrary political formations. And sometimes, if you don't know who you are, it's just easier to fight who you're not.
Waleed Aly is an Age columnist. He hosts Drive on ABC Radio National and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.