Lebanon 2010

My visit to Lebanon was something of an afterthought: a few days added on to an organised tour of the Middle East in an attempt to round out the itinerary and gain a little understanding of the elusive Phoenicians. Any expectations that I had of a place riven by danger and dilapidation were just proof of my ignorance. As soon as I crossed over the pass on my way from Damascus and saw the jewelled Mediterranean laid out in front of me I realised my mistake. Lebanon is beautiful.

The white land, named for its snow covered peaks, is home to several of the oldest cities in the world: Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, where layer upon layer of continuous habitation go back to before the days of recorded history. It was a busy place long before the rise of the great seafarers who left so much to our culture. If only I knew my Old Testament better I could tell you a lot more but at least, having visited during early September, I do have some magnificent pictures.

Actually, I only had five days there and that at the end of a long gruelling tour but luckily I hit upon the best possible combination of arrangements with which to enjoy more than I could have thought possible of this fascinating country. I lodged with Elisabeth’s charming friend, Setareh in Beirut and I travelled around courtesy of the Nakhal Travel Company, where the equally charming Nancy fitted me into three full day excursions.

Taking the organised trips was by far the best way to get around in the time available and since each bus load of visitors was made up of a great variety of friendly people from all over the world, it was also surprisingly enjoyable. The prices were very reasonable and the included lunches absolutely delicious, giving me the opportunity to sample the justifiably world renowned cuisine. This was an added treat for me as I seldom bother with restaurant meals when travelling alone. We also visited other places such as the Christian pilgrimage site of Harissa and the Pheonician temple of Echmoun which I might well not have seen if I had been making up my own itinerary. In short, should you ever find yourself with a few days to spare in Beirut, you just need remember the name Nakhal.

Beirut itself was probably the most surprising place I have ever found myself in. It is now about twenty years since the the last bout of cross border shelling and less than a fifth of the buildings bear mortar scars. Alongside the few bombed out hulks, fashionable shops, bars and restaurants vie for attention in this cosmopolitan city seasoned with just a hint of stylish danger from the omnipresent threat of a resumption of hostilities. To sum up, Beirut is cool. You could probably even find some washed up war correspondents propping up one or two of those bars if you looked hard enough: me, I was more more interested in the museums.

Exploring the town on my own I often had recourse to the ever reliable “Arab Sat Nav”. To employ it, just approach a friendly face, gesticulate hopelessly at your map and try a bit of broken French. I think it was the use of French as a second language that made me feel so at home, I just love the way in which speakers of Arabic French politely pretend that they have understood every word being said unlike the French French who frequently disdain the most simple request as unintelligible. One gentleman even drained his pavement coffee cup and offered to to drive me to my destination as he was going that way. It says a great deal for the friendliness of the city that I had no qualms in accepting.

If I carefully label the photographs, it will save me from having to list the amazing number of places that I visited in Lebanon but there were so many treasures that it is difficult to pick out the highlights. I suppose that the cedars would have to be number one, still worth visiting even if only a few remain where once great forests provided the economic engine that fuelled the ancient world. Even the Roman Emperor Hadrian attempted to quell the deforestation, realising that antiquity’s equivalent of today’s oil could not last forever. The cedar beams that make up the ancient Egyptian Sky Boat at Giza are said to be longer than the height of any such tree living today.

The Phoenicians were the nouveau riche of the classical world and whilst they have left us an amazing legacy in the areas of commerce, record keeping and navigation, when it came to art they were suckers for all the latest imported fads from around the Mediterranean. Thus their architecture and artefacts borrow from Egyptian, Persian and Ancient Greek, to name but a few. If someone had told them that Britain was the happening place at the time then we might even have seen mini Stonehenges in their back gardens. This eclectic collection of styles makes for quite an elusive culture visually speaking but at Echmoun at least I began to get their measure.

At this peaceful little temple set around a sacred spring were found a number of absolutely charming marble sculptures of tiny children. The source was dedicated to infant health and the statues offerings of thanks. How starkly this contrasts to the Roman account of widespread child sacrifice taking place in the Phoenician City of Carthage, but then, history has a tendency to be written by the victors. The National Museum of Beirut contains many of these lovely sculptures as well as some of the greatest treasures of the Ancient Levant. It is all magnificently conserved and presented despite extensive shelling that threatened its very existence during the hostilities of 1975.

The temple of Jupiter at Baalbeck was the largest in the Roman Empire and it is very difficult to find words to do justice to the splendour of its ruins, the six remaining columns standing more than seventy feet high. This is the “shock and awe” of the Roman Empire at its apogee but one of the most charming sites that I visited in Lebanon was on a far more approachable scale. Our Lady of Lebanon is barely 25 feet tall but she stands upon a high promontory overlooking the Bay of Jounieh and is visited by pilgrims from the world over. Families pose for photographs outside the 1970’s Maronite Cathedral built in the shape of a Phoenician ship. Alas, it has caught the same concrete disease that inflicts most monumental buildings of that period so, in common with the Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik, most of my photographs show the scaffolding erected for some much needed restoration. Well, sometimes these unforeseen additions make the pictures even more personal and it is a particularly welcoming and devout place, baring witness to the high proportion that Christians still make of the Lebanese population.

On my visit to Tyre I got my third glimpse of fortress Israel as the border is only a few kilometres down the coast. Yes, as I’d travelled all the way around it from Egypt and Jordan I’d seen this uninviting country from the Red, the Dead and the Med, up close and personal with some of the rather threatening border controls. If I ever revisit Israel I can see that nowadays it is going to have to be from a cruise ship, preferably one that ensures that they don’t stamp your passport.

Life in the settlements didn’t look as grim as I’d expected , I suppose that I hadn’t been expecting stone built habitations with their own power and water but their were plenty of extremist political posters to show how easily sentiments can be stirred up in this part of the world. Photography was forbidden anywhere except on the archaeological site but anyone looking carefully can see that I’ve taken that restriction with a certain amount of latitude. After all, the modern low orbit satellites that train their cameras on this region are capable of photographing a pimple on a pig’s arse these days so any attempts at secrecy are probably just posturing.

Lebanon is a lovely country and if politics would only leave it alone, it could easily reclaim its place as a popular Mediterranean destination. Culturally, it lies at the heart of our heritage and now that I have been properly introduced I will go back there whenever the wind takes me.

 

2 Comments

  • Chris says:

    On this trip did you find out any more about the Phoenicians considerable cultural exchange with Ancient Britain, as I would have thought your visit to the Margate Shell Grotto on American Independence Day 2008 would have told you all that you needed to know?!!

  • The National Museum of Lebanon in Beirut is strangely silent on the subject but I will certainly make enquiries next time I am at the BM

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