Lebanon 2010

A quick flight from Cyprus landed me into the even more super-heated complexity of Beirut and Lebanon.

Lebanese flag in Beirut

My tourist impression of Lebanon was of consumptive contrasts and energetic entrepreneurial innovation.

Beirut

Beirut is narcissism 24-7: new cars, this is where Lamborghinis and Hummers actually sell; vertically stacked families in high-rise apartments with everyone wanting to own a car to enhance the chaotic traffic jam and cacophony of horns — it’s like Montreal traffic with a random generator on fast forward, and motor scooters and bikes apparently exempt from the few traffic rules that may apply to cars — scooters go up one way streets in both directions, through red lights, along sidewalks, across medians, anywhere, everywhere, anytime; the souk in now designer label shops, Tiffany’s a minor store; average Canadian city clothing is both shabby and conservative in comparison with the brief and slinky atop sky scraper stiletto heels.Beirut -- war damaged buildings

Beirut -- Designer labels in the new shopping souk

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Beirut cornishe

Beiteddine in the Chouf Mountains

After exploring the expansive city area on foot where the only, but ever present, danger is the crazy traffic, I used the mini bus system to explore the Chouf Mountains just east of Beirut.

Beiteddine Palace, 18th Century Lebanese-Turkish style

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Mosaic at the Beiteddine Palace

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Beiteddine Palace -- The Hamman (baths)

After being awed by the 18th Century Italian-Turkish palace that includes amazing huge mosaics wondrously displayed in the stable area that had housed 400 horses and their attendants, I took a taxi to a nearby village that contained historical buildings of all the various religious groups that occupy this crossroads of a country. I asked about a bus back to Beirut only to receive a waggling of a hand, several times. Hmmm. I had no Plan B, a taxi being prohibitively expensive. Ramshackle school buses passed me by, then one stopped and I joined the noisy kids for about 5 km. ‘Get out’ as the bus turned off to an even more remote village. Now I was in the middle of no-where, on the steep side of a dramatic valley with a fruit stall opposite. The gentleman fruit seller invited me to sit in the shade, enjoy his sweet apples and assured me that there would, eventually, be a bus. There was, and by sunset I reached the Beirut restaurant that I had discovered for some veg options, local bear and free Wi-Fi. A good day.

Next, I travelled on smoke-filled local mini buses from Beirut to Tripoli, stopping at Byblos to explore the archaeological site there.

Byblos Roman archeological site overlooking the Mediterranean Sea

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Lea at the Byblos Roman ruins

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As I was eating tabouli salad in a backstreet restaurant in the old city of Trablous or Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, I listened to a CBC ”Dispatches” interview about the renewed strength of Hezbollah in Lebanon. No problem as long as no-one provokes the Israelis. Tripoli has the same crazy traffic but here head scarves and long loose dresses flutter along streets lined with mosques and food stalls. Everywhere the army is present: soldiers with automatic rifles on the streets, in jeeps, in tanks, in buses, everywhere, all the time. Prior to my meal I had sat in the central square with Riyahd and Amed, two older gentlemen who meet there each evening to smoke and chat. They explained to me that the large posters behind us were of the Chief of Police, placed prominently “because the people love him.” Also that the army was voluntary “because Lebanon is a democracy.” Not good enough was my Arabic — none — or Riyahd’s English — learnt while working in Ghana — for me to pursue these ironies. Riyahd did assure me that Hezbollah was not present in Tripoli as the population was either Sunni Muslin or Maronite Christian. Oh, yes, there were the Palestinian refugee camps just north of the city but no Hezbollah. Huh? The misleading facades and paradoxes of Lebanon.
From Tripoli an old mini bus trundled me up the Qadisha Valley to Bcharre – ‘dramatic’ does not do justice to the steep hairpin bends of the narrow road that clings to the side of the vertiginous valley walls between villages that overhang the terraced olive trees.

Qadisha Valley

Kahlil Gibran came from here and moved to New York — same, same — the world in vertical tenacity. Okay, so I did look around the museum that celebrates his life and paintings, having walked there while listening to a Philosophy Bite podcast on “What is Art?” Some of his charcoal drawings are evocative but his paintings warranted only a passing glance. Sitting on the museum balcony as the sun warmed the cool mountain breeze reading Ondaatje, now, that was art. The held-together-with-duct-tape-and-a-prayer-bus did have breaks for the trip down. Better not to think about it.

After returning to Beirut, I went east into the Bekaa Valley to see Baalbek, then south to Sidon and Tyre — all strongly Hezbollah areas. Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley was marvellous. The Roman ruins are spectacular; the largest anywhere, including Italy.

Jupiter Temple at Baalbek

Jupiter Temple at Baalbek

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The huge Jupiter Temple and the almost complete Bacchus Temple were so evocative of the power and the glory of Rome, and their amazing design, art, architectural and building skills.

Bacchus Temple at Baalbed

Bacchus Temple at Baalbed

I wandered around for hours including the large area that is still being excavated. Those Romans really planned for the long term but they still had the same construction problems that besieges us today: over budget and behind schedule — the Jupiter Temple was never completed, and that was over 300 years of occupation.

The Palymra Hotel at Baalbek -- colonial decrepitude but quaint with a spectacular location

The temperature in the Bekaa Valley was lower than on the coast as it’s at 1000 metres in altitude; the nights were actually cool; no air-con required. Good thing as I chose to stay in the colonial era Palmyra Hotel that overlooks the Roman temples — it’s hapless manager and geriatric staff are right out of colonial incompetence, while its 20 foot high ceilings, water-stained walls, faded Oriental carpets, dusty chandeliers, many lights not working, hot water absent, intermittent plumbing and power, recall faded glory and ghosts.

View from the terrace of the Palmyra Hotel

It was actually eerie wandering the tall, deserted hallways in the dark searching for anybody – manager, staff, other guests, a stray cat? – the void was eventually filled with an attitude of  imposition. A huge injection of investment would transform it into a wondrously luxurious, gracious, historical, five star wonder that would never employ its current staff and that I could never afford. Both are too sad — its present inadequate incompetence and its possible future excessive luxury.

The huge block of stone in the Roman quarry in Baalbek

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The Jupiter Temple at Baalbek

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I spent a second day in this sleepy town that was, thankfully, much quieter than the other towns and cities I had visited in Lebanon — frenetic energy, traffic with horns, sirens and smog. In Baalbek, I found a quiet spot in the shade at the Roman quarry. The lovely attendant/souvenir shop owner brought me coffee as I spent hours reading — a lovely respite — followed by sunset over the ruins.

The Roman ruins at Baalbek

The Roman ruins at Baalbek at sunset

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In contrast, the next day was long: two hour bus ride to Beirut and by 9 am I was heading south to Tyre with my male seat companion trying to feel me up. A couple of quiet but firm words sorted out that little problem. As we passed the airport, the freeway and overpasses were lined with people and police, not to mention the army patrols and helicopters. No, it was not for yours truly; it was for Iran’s President, Mahoud Ahmudinejad. After arriving, he gave a speech at an enormous Hezbollah rally. The next day he went south, to annoy Israel, exactly where I had just visited.

In Tyre, I walked past a large Palestinian refugee camp (unemployed young men hanging about; evident poverty; huge concrete blocks obstructing all the roads into the area; numerous flags of the PLO and Hezbollah).

Palestinian and Hezbollah flags welcoming Iran's President Ahmudinejad in Tyre

More Roman ruins; those Roman Emporors were nothing if not prolific builders. This time it was paved roads lined with columns and the occasional arch, a huge necropolis/cemetery, a hippodrome/stadium with various spectator stands, a swimming pool with spectator seating and a large village of houses, each of which had running water.

Another bus to Sidon (I was pretty proficient in finding the appropriate bus by this stage, just in time to leave the country and join an organized tour). Sidon is a delightful town with a soap museum, a gracious Turkish house-museum, a caravanersarei and an old fashioned souk. Back to Beirut and onto Damascus.

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The arch over the Roman road in Tyre

 

The Roman Road to the Mediterranean Sea in Tyre




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