Published: September 5th 2011September 3rd 2011
[Warning: Mom and Dad, there are parts of this entry - a compilation of different experiences I had outside of Beirut - that you might want to skip. Just saying.]
I. Ancient Alphabet Soup
Byblos. The name should remind you of something.
This small city, just a half-hour drive north of Beirut, happens to be an extremely important archaeological site, as it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited spots on earth. In one small area, layer upon layer, are the physical remains of settlement that go all the way back to the Neolithic era and all the way up to the present. More visible are the remains of the Phoenician era and the later Roman period. But if you go to the National Museum back in Beirut, you will see that artifacts from every ruling state and empire in the region have been uncovered here.
But for me, perhaps the most important discovery of all was that of the oldest known inscription in Phoenician script – which happens to be one of the oldest known alphabets* - on a princely sarcophagus.
As a lover of writing and writing systems, visiting Byblos – its very name
meaning book in Greek** – was a pilgrimage (ok, I know I’ve talked about being on pilgrimages of other sorts in other entries!). I got to set foot in the ancient center of trade that brought the tool of the alphabet to the rest of the Mediterranean, influencing the emergence of the Greek and Latin alphabets in the centuries to come. What an honor!
*Technically, an abjad rather than an alphabet, as it was all consonants. The first known abjad/alphabet – and the direct precursor to Phoenician –was Proto-Sinaitic/Proto-Canaanite. But this was not widely used. The Phoenician script was much more widespread.
**The word “papyrus” comes from the city’s name, too, as Byblos was also a major center in the papyrus trade. The word “Bible”, then simply means (papyrus) book.
Our base for our northern Lebanese excursions was the lovely seaside town of Enfeh, well off the tourist grid (as if Lebanon had a major tourist grid!). We stayed in a bed and breakfast run by the incredibly hospitable Anjouli family, who, upon our arrival, promptly invited us to join them for lunch…
When we weren’t out exploring the surrounding territories (see
the next couple blurbs), we spent our time in Enfeh swimming in the little harbor area and wandering the narrow streets, admiring the Greek Orthodox churches.
III. Tripoli, the Other One
Our first mistake was visiting on Eid al-Fitr. But it was only a ten-minute drive from our little fishing village home in Enfeh; we couldn’t not go take a look, even if most of the city would be shut down.
The short geographic distance to Tripoli – the Lebanese one; not the one that has garnered so much attention of late! – belied the vast differences we were going to experience from tiny, idyllic Enfeh and its much larger neighbor. As soon as we entered Tripoli, we noticed its rougher edges. It clearly had seen its fair share of conflict, and it was clearly poorer than anywhere we had seen so far in Lebanon.
But we parked, and walked into the old center, excited to explore. This is one of the best places to see Mamluk* era architecture in Lebanon, with several famous mosques, hamams, souks, and other structures. However, it was hard to pay attention to the sights – because the streets were
a-swarm with boys playing with their new Eid toys. Which in this case meant toy guns. Big guns.
Vincent and I both found this image a little unnerving. While for the most part the guns were harmless, the sheer number of them, often in the hands of very young boys, juxtaposed with the recent history of conflict (one of the roughest of the Palestinian refugee camps is nearby; and the Syrian border is a short hop away) made us both uneasy.
Then things took a turn for the worse.
As we entered the souk area, a not very friendly looking teenage boy muttered something to Vincent (the gist of which neither of us caught). And the next thing we knew, a pack of pre-teen boys with pellet guns was attacking us. These were toys that were of the harmful variety! At short range, the pellets hurt. I got a welt on the lip; Vincent one behind his ears I angrily tried to call them off in Arabic, but it took the intervention of a local adult to get them to back off from their “fun”. Welcome to Tripoli.
Not surprisingly, neither of us was in the
mood to linger much after this nerve-rattling experience. Nothing like it has ever happened to me in my travels. And nothing like it happened again on our trip. But looking back on it, I could almost understand the pent up anger of these kids. All they have known is conflict and poverty. What hope do they have, really? (But then see my last blurb…)
* The Mamluks were a fascinating group. The term “mamluk” literally means “owned one”; these “owned ones” were slave soldiers, usually of Turkic origin, who were originally bought to serve as the elite military forces in parts of the Muslim world, going all the way back to the Abbasid caliphate era. Fascinatingly, one group of such slave soldiers in Egypt actually came to power and formed their own sultanate starting in 1250! The Egyptian Mamluks became a powerful regional power, eventually spreading their authority throughout the Levant (including present-day Lebanon and Syria). Alternating black-and-white stonework is one of the defining characteristics of their architectural style.
IV. Valley of Heaven and The Cedars
To counterbalance our not-so-positive experience in rough and tumble Tripoli, we decided to head for the hills. Literally.
is largely defined by the mountain range, known as Mount Lebanon, that stretches along the coast. There’s a narrow strip of flat-ish land by the sea, but the mountains rise up pretty quickly, offering a dramatic change of scenery and climate within a short drive. Although it took us a few attempts to figure out how to get out of Tripoli and on to the mountain road (including driving through a Palestinian camp that we were warned not to visit), once we were out of town our moods changed dramatically.
The big draw was the Qadisha Valley – though the word “valley” hardly does it justice. This is a plunging canyon that eats into the mountains, forming a narrow horseshoe around which a number of pretty, but precariously placed, villages and churches can be found. The bottom of the valley, for the most part lost in shadows, can only be reached on foot. I so wanted to climb in and start hiking! (But that will have to be saved for a future trip…)
We continued our drive up to one of the highest points in the country, and the site of great reverence for many Lebanese: The Cedars.
This area, a ski resort in the winter (yes, Lebanon has ski resorts!), is also home to the last real stand of the famous cedars that once put Lebanon on the map. Now, almost like a zoo exhibit for trees, you can only visit the cedar grove by paying an entrance fee.
V. Hizbullah and Romans
We once more steered towards the mountains, this time aiming not simply to go up but over them. Our destination: the legendary Baalbeck ruins, presiding over the Bekaa Valley.
Although Baalbeck is probably Lebanon’s preeminent tourist draw – it being the site of the monumental ruins of the Temple of Jupiter, one of the largest known Roman temples ever built – it’s now precariously placed in the heart of Hizbullah controlled territory. The main road from Beirut is fairly safe, although there were still Hizbullah – not Lebanese army – checkpoints as you approached the town of Baalbeck (thankfully, we were simply waved through by the green-hatted, gun slinging “security” forces).
However, being the adventurous sorts we are, we didn’t come by the Beirut road. We drove over Mount Lebanon (after a few wrong turns), into the high, barren –
and surprisingly cool – desert of the interior plateau, and down into the beaconing Bekaa Valley. The Lebanese military guys at the various checkpoints along the way gave us bemused looks – “Who are these crazy foreigners in a Budget rental car?” – but waved us through and even helped point us in the right direction (mostly). Once on the valley floor, though, we somehow lost the “main” road and ended up driving through a series of very narrow, very rutted country roads meandering through the valley’s famous fields and vineyards. And all I could think was: this is Hizbullah territory. This is Hizbullah territory. Estonian bikers were kidnapped here in March. Keep driving. Keep driving.
It was with serious relief when we finally connected to the Beirut-Baalbeck “highway”.
Any unease about driving through the Bekaa Valley, however, melted away as soon as we beheld the ruins.
There are places you expect to be impressed by, but which surpass all expectations when you see them in real life. I remember feeling that way when I visited the Taj Mahal. I knew I was going to like it; but when I caught my first glimpse of
its famous white dome I had an almost religious experience. Visiting Baalbeck – or “Heliopolis” – was an experience almost of that magnitude. It was awesome, in the original sense of the word.
I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the scale of the temple, even in its partially collapsed state. Even the side temple, known as the Temple of Bacchus (though it’s actual designation remains a mystery), miniscule in comparison to the main Temple of Jupiter, is larger than the Parthenon in Athens!
Perhaps due to it being Eid, perhaps due to it’s position in the Bekaa Valley, we shared our visit with few other tourists. It was a rare privilege to explore the evocative complex in almost complete silence. (Well, except for the celebratory shooting going off somewhere in the valley. Somewhere out there…)
It was difficult to pull ourselves away from Baalbeck, but we knew we had to get to Beirut before dark (for anything else, so I wouldn’t have to navigate its congested, narrow streets; I shuddered to think of finding parking…). The drive back was complicated, a bit, by the remarkable stream of vehicles – cars, trucks, buses – jammed
with passengers waving Hizbullah flags heading towards Baalbeck. Obviously, we were missing the party. But my fist concern was to muscle through what had become a two-lane road going in ONE direction, not the two-way thoroughfare that it was supposed to be.
Somewhere near the base of the mountain, just after a military diversion, we finally got away from the traffic madness and began the climb out of the Bekaa Valley. Our day in this space between the Lebanese mountains might not have been a “typical” holiday excursion, but neither of us would have wanted to miss it for anything.
VI. Out of Lebanon
Just past a row of mihmasahs, the delicious smell of roasting pistachios and cashews wafting out of the shops, you enter a narrow street overhung with dense bundles of electrical wire. Although the spot is not far from the Rafik Hariri Airport in Beirut, once you step into that street you have technically left Lebanon. You’ve entered the claustrophobic 1 sq km of Bourj al-Barjneh, one of three Palestinian refugee “camps” within the city limits of Beirut – but outside the jurisdiction of Lebanon. And I had the great privilege of
stepping into this non-state and meeting some of the remarkable people who live there.
Bourj al-Barjneh is home to 25,000-30,000 stateless individuals caught in one of the strangest political limbos of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. Not counted as refugees, officially, since they are refugees from something that on paper never existed and not allowed to integrate into Lebanese society (few jobs are open to them and they cannot apply for citizenship), the residents of the camp – still called such despite the fact that the tents have been replaced by concrete structures; an underscoring of the permanent sense of temporariness – have little hope of getting out of their rather confined world. There are now three generations*, just waiting… And waiting.
What struck me though, when I visited with a group from the American Community School in Beirut, is how much hopeful resolve these people have, despite essentially being trapped. Mariam, from the Women and Family Center, told us about all the programs that have been developed for the community and which are eagerly joined by her constituents. My favorite: An American teacher (male) teaching yoga to the women (mostly covered), his instructions translated by one of
his students (Egyptian). More substantively, they are also trying to get the kids out of the camp to meet their Lebanese peers – and vice versa. This is trickier than it may sound, as the dialectical difference is enough to intimidate the younger children; and often the Palestinian accent marks them as being from the camps, so they often suffer discrimination from Lebanese children who know no better. Often the children, and their mothers, don’t want to leave the camp for this reason; they prefer to stay in their 1 sq km where it is “safe”. But the efforts to bridge the gap are slowly showing signs of progress.
Our visit ended with a walk through the narrow streets, ducking the intimidating tangle of electrical lines sagging above our heads (apparently, several people die every year from electrocution). After just a few turns, I was utterly lost. But I trusted Mariam would lead us to where we needed to be. We passed little shops and restaurants, part of the micro-economy of this self-contained world that has been developed in this little, all but forgotten corner of Beirut since 1948. We were greeted with warmth at every turn.
left Bourj al-Barjneh with a sense of hope.
There are more photos below