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Perceptions of Beirut are so deeply ingrained that to many people in the UK the city is synonymous with bombings, kidnappings, carjackings and bloody massacres. It's also a generic term used when arriving at a place less than perfect. It's like Beirut here
is a common phrase and one I'd used myself over and over. But surely times had changed? After all, the terrible civil war had been over for almost twenty years, and even taking into account the recent 2006 spat with Israel, the country had been largely peaceful. And who could forget that Beirut had once been described as the Paris of the Middle East, full of quaint boulevards and outdoor cafes. Angela and I arrived at Beirut's small international airport on a warm February evening wondering what the capital of Lebanon would have to offer.
“It's a bit grim,” said Angela as we headed away from our hotel in the Hamra district of Beirut. It was then next morning and the weather was decidedly overcast and hazy giving the buildings a dark and shadowy hue. I nodded at her observation knowing it had nothing to do with the weather. Virtually everywhere we looked was grubby and decrepit
looking. Beirut, at least so far, was a dump.
For a start, many of the buildings were crumbling and covered in bullet holes, a legacy from the civil war that had ended in 1991. Unshaven men sat outside shops and eyed us as we wandered past. Bangers beeped and swerved their way along the roads avoiding parked cars sticking out into the street. This was not even close to resembling the Paris of the Middle East, I thought. No, it was more like the Bulgaria or perhaps even the Kosovo of the Middle East. We consulted the map and headed west towards Pigeon Rocks, one of Beirut's prime tourist spots.
Beirut was surprisingly hilly. Along its western edge was the Mediterranean Sea but everywhere seemed flanked in high ground. In the distance we could just about make out the snow-capped mountains where skiing was popular. In fact day trips to the slopes could be arranged from the centre of Beirut. The hill we were walking up led us past an amusement arcade complete with a sorry-looking Ferris wheel, but we ignored it and headed to Pigeon Rocks.
The rocks comprised of a large chalk arch and a
slightly smaller stack next to it. They looked like a page from my old Geography textbook. Coastal Erosion
the heading would have read. After snapping off a few photos we headed down along the corniche passing pensioners doing stretching exercises or else sat in groups playing backgammon. The corniche was also a popular place for joggers and power walkers, usually young women wearing sweatpants. But as well as the keep fit brigade, there were quite a few ladies of leisure tottering about. “If I was to sum up the fashion of young Lebanese women,” Angela said as a trio of them sauntered into a nearby cafe, “it would be tight blue jeans and long black boots.”
Though the corniche looked nice enough we couldn't help but notice the buildings that overlooked it. The ones closest to the corniche looked decent enough, but those further back were an eyesore. At a rough guess, almost 75% of them were in dire need of repair. One of the worst offenders was the Holiday Inn.
When the hotel had first opened its doors in the early seventies, its designers had built it to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes, but what they hadn't banked
on was fifteen years of civil war. When the conflict broke out, snipers used the Holiday Inn as a base for their activities who in turn received hellish amounts of bombardment from below. It was these bullet holes and shell marks that Angela and I found ourselves staring at. The huge ex-hotel was now just a concrete shell.
The civil war lasted almost fifteen years. It made parts of the city a no-go area, turning the once peaceful city into an area of bloody lawlessness. Hostage taking and suicide bombings made world news during the seventies and eighties and the country became synonymous with terrorism. The basic root of the problem boiled down to religion, with Christians pitted against Muslins, of which there were roughly equal numbers.
Many atrocities were committed by both sides, but perhaps the worst were the Karantina and Damour massacres. Karantina was a Muslim slum located within the Christian part of town. In January1976, almost 1500 people were slaughtered by Christian militias. Two days later the Muslims took their revenge, attacking a Christian cemetery by digging up coffins and scattering bones across the graveyard. Additionally, according to one report, women and children were herded
into a church and locked inside before it was set alight.
The two warring factions were split by the infamous Green Line, named so because of the vegetation that grew in the no-man's land. This line was located not far from Martyrs' Square and so we headed towards it. It was now a busy road filled with honking traffic.
Martyrs' square was a popular place for demonstrations and was dominated by a large monument in the middle. The area was flanked by busy roads in all directions and as we crossed one of them to reach the monument we could see it depicted four people preserved in heroic poses. The statues were covered in bullet holes. Sunlight streamed through and it looked like one of the statues had part of its arm missing. “So what's it commemorating then? I asked Angela who was holding the guide book.
She explained that during World War 1, when Beirut was under Ottoman Rule, it was under siege by the allies. The city was starving and to top all of this off, plague broke out. Unsurprisingly a rebellion against the Turks broke out but was eventually put down and the ringleaders
captured. They were hanged and the monument was for the executed leaders.
Across the road from Martyrs' Square was the quite magnificent blue-domed Mohammed el Amine Mosque. It was built between 2002 and 2007 and based on Istanbul's famous Blue Mosque. It looked very impressive even there was a Virgin Megastore just next door.
Saifi Village had been completely destroyed in the civil war, but it had been rebuilt, complete with cobblestone streets and colourful French colonial-style buildings. It was a pocket of beauty among the ruins of Beirut. As well as cafes and boutique shops, art galleries were in attendance, and French-speaking posh people browsed along them. We stopped in a street cafe and I ordered an Almaza, the local beer and thought of something. “I reckon,” I said to Angela, “that eventually Beirut will be amazing. We've come at the wrong time, that's all. We're forty years too late and twenty years too early.”
Nejmeh Square was another pretty part of the city, filled with more outdoor cafes and bars and a grand-looking clock tower with a timepiece powered by Rolex. Not far from it was the Cardo Maximus Roman ruins. They were tall columns
rising from what appeared to be derelict ground. “They date from the 2nd Century,” I told Angela. “And used to be a North-South road.” We stared a while, also noticing the litter that had been thrown into the excavations. “It's amazing to think that in Roman times this street would've been lined with shops and merchants going about their Roman business.”
We had been told that the traffic in Beirut was bad, and this was no lie. Virtually every single lane of road was two abreast and full of beeping and hand gestures. Some of the drivers held beads out of their windows but we couldn't fathom out why. At some intersections, policeman would control the madness, but more often than not, drivers were left to fend for themselves. Cars ignored pedestrian crossings with glee and would only stop if a person actually stepped in front of them. And as well as the cars there were a few armoured vehicles about, parked at intersections with a soldier mounted on top. The army presence in Beirut was quite noticeable. Armed guards stood around on most streets and at one point in our wanderings we were stopped by a guard who
gestured that he wanted to search my backpack. “No! I yelled. “You'll not take me alive!” Except of course I didn't, and after only a cursory rifle through the contents of my bag we were allowed us to pass.
“Look at that sign,” I said to Angela, pointing at a large advertising board that featured a young woman posing provocatively in some skimpy red underwear. It was advertising a club called Aphrodisiac, a place I liked the look of judging from the evidence I could see. There were also advertisements for alcohol, all in direct contrast to the more conservative countries of the Middle East. In fact it surprised us to discover how easily alcohol was available in Lebanon. Every bar and cafe sold it freely and it could even be bought in supermarkets.
“So what do you think of Beirut?” I asked Angela as we sat down having our evening meal. We'd seen most of the sights that day and our legs were weary with all the walking we'd done. Angela thought for a moment before answering. “It's not as nice as I thought it would be. But parts are okay. It's certainly not the Paris of
the Middle East though.”
* * *
The next morning we decided to visit Byblos, a town located 35 kilometres north of Beirut. Our guide book described it as a picturesque fishing harbour filled with Roman remains, a must-see sight for anyone visiting Lebanon. Instead of taking an expensive taxi we opted to catch a bus.
Our walk to the bus station took us through the central part of the city and our opinion of Beirut changed. Here the streets were clean and well kept, fussed over by a team of road cleaners. Along the edge, most of the buildings looked new and well kept and it was here that the young and trendy of Beirut did their shopping.
The bus station, when we eventually found it (it was hidden below an underpass) was another grotty part of the city, this one located near the port area. As we approached the multitude of parked buses, we passed plenty of beefy, moustached men, who were beckoning us towards their taxis. “You go Damascus? Come!” We waved them off and soon found ourselves sitting on the express bus to Byblos. The ticket had cost a mere 3000 lira
each (£1.20) far cheaper than the 50000 lira the taxi drivers had wanted. We settled down on the old minibus with our fellow passengers and just under an hour later we were dropped off along the side of the road. Wondering where the hell we were we watched as the bus pulled away with a belch of black smoke.
The Lonely Planet stated that it should take new arrivals to Byblos only a few minutes to get their bearings. It took Angela and me one and a half hours. Foolishly we'd set off along the wrong road, walking four kilometres before admitting defeat. We traipsed over to a couple of men working at a petrol pump. After looking at the photo of Byblos harbour in our guide book, one man pointed one way and the second man pointed in the opposite direction. I looked at each of them in turn until one of them took my book and knocked on a window hatch. Evidently there was a third person in there because after some discussion I was handed the book back and told that Byblos was back in the direction we had just walked. Thanking the men, we lumbered
off, once more passing the car repair shops that made up most of the back road we were travelling along.
Like the photo had suggested, Byblos turned out to be a real highlight of Lebanon. It had a beautiful little harbour overlooked by a collection of bars and restaurants and it was in one of them that we read that Byblos had actually been mentioned in the Bible, where it was known as Gebel. It also laid claim (with a fair few other places) to being the world's oldest continuously inhabited town.
Whether this was true we didn't know, but it certainly was old. It had an impressive collection of Roman ruins which lay scattered (and in some cases piled up like rubble) at the southern end of the small town. The biggest building in these ruins was the Crusader Castle, built in the 12th century from stone swiped from the Roman constructions. It had a good view from the top and so we climbed up. “I love Byblos!” announced Angela as we surveyed the town and its surroundings. “This is why people should come to Lebanon. Not Beirut!”
The restored souq area contained a large range
of souvenir shops and cafes, but also housed the renowned Memoire Du Temps fossil shop. It was a store and museum built into one and was full of fossilized sea creatures dating from 100 million years ago. Most of the fossils in the small museum were small fish, but there were some impressively bigger specimens and also some turtles, plants and even an octopus. “This fossil is unique,” explained our guide. “Octopus have no bones and therefore don't normally produce fossils. But we have one here as you can see!” The young woman led us to the adjoining shop with fossils for sale.
They could be bought for as little as $10 but they were tiny, imprinted (or whatever the correct term is for a fossil) on bits of limestone measuring perhaps 5cm by 3cm. I could tell Angela wanted one but was after bigger game. $45 dollars later we came out with our very own piece of history which came complete with a certificate of authentication.
The next morning it was time to leave Lebanon. Our short time in the small country had been a happy one despite the sorry state of most of Beirut. But then
again the city was rebuilding itself, and we had to remember that twenty years ago we would never have even dared set foot in the place. “I like Lebanon,” I said as we headed to the airport. “And I like it because it's a bit on the rough side. It makes it more real. More character.” Strengths:
-By the sea
-Regenerated parts of the city centre
-Alcohol freely available
-Cheap by Middle Eastern standards Weaknesses:
-Mental traffic and maniac drivers
-dusty and smoggy due to traffic fumes
-Ugly, crumbling and bullet-ridden high rise buildings
-Shabby streets everywhere
-Lack of effective pedestrian crossings
-Lack of street signs
-Customs officials searching for an Israeli stamp in your passport
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