‘Do not forget your bullet proof vest’ people said when we told them about our upcoming trip. This country is being associated with civil war and Hezbollah. That didn’t deter Francien and myself to go and we decided it would be nice to have the freedom to visit the places we wanted to on our own time, so we rented a car.
Indeed the most visible remains of the 15-year civil war which ended in 1990 is the omnipresent military, keeping the peace between the different religious groups. It seems in front of every hospital, school, post office and government buildings there are soldiers on guard. Army checkpoints, erected between contiguous areas, are another constant reminder of the fragile peace. Armed with automatic rifles soldiers stand between walls, crisscrossed metal beams, barbwire, concrete guardhouses or behind sand bags. At bigger checkpoints armored personnel carriers are stationed. Passing through in our car, the stops entailed us to roll down the window and lower the music before saying hello or nodding at a nonchalant soldier. But the soldiers were friendly and willing to help us when we asked them for directions.
At no time we felt unsafe or threatened by any means. From the Beirut airport we drove along the coastal road to Tyre. We could see the mountains of Israel only 20 Km to the South. However we could not mention that name among the locals and had to call it Palestine! This is a Shia area. We saw black banners with pictures of Hezbollah leaders at the city entrance. The main mosque was protected by concrete blocks and two-meter-high metal fencing. Most women wore black abaja’s. We stayed in a Christian enclave, with a Maronite church, a white 5-meter-high Maria statue dominating the harbor. We strolled through the souks which are few meters narrow alleyways lined with small shops, very much the same as we had seen in other Middle Eastern countries. The people were friendly, going out of their way to explaining to us how to find our way to the Roman Hippodrome. This is one of the five UNESCO World Heritage sites in the country. Francien and I strolled over Byzantine roads, through Roman arches past a necropolis with 400 sarcophagus’s and finally stood amid a 480-meter-long horseshoe shaped hippodrome. We climbed the stairs of the partly intact seating area and gazed at the obelisk in the middle of the arena as the sun set, giving this place a mystical feeling.
The next day Francien and I drove into the Chouf mountains on a narrow and winding road with many potholes. It is the stronghold of the Druze people. We stopped at the Beideddine summer palace of the president, built on a 900 meters elevation. The palace is made of ocher stones and has a big courtyard with fountains in the middle and surrounded by arcades. We walked into the parts of the building used for official gatherings and started to have a conversation with a Lebanese army sergeant who was on guard. He was happy to give us a 30-minute tour and proudly told us how important this place is for his country. For me the beautifully decorated hammams were the most impressive of the entire palace.
Separated by a steep valley, we then visited the 15th century Fakhredine Al Maani mosque in Deir el Qaram. Being a Christian town, the locals informed us that indeed no Muslims were living here. But many Syrian refugees had moved here in recent years and therefore this mosque was recently opened for them. There was no call for prayer, but we saw men entering for prayers. Impressed by the beautiful surroundings, we decided to stay one night in the Beit el Qamar hotel overlooking the Chouf mountains and donned our warm cloth as the temperatures at night dropped to 10 C.
We stayed two days in Achrafieh, one of the oldest and mainly Christian districts in Beirut. There are many exclusive apartment blocks, malls, restaurants, cafes, embassies and office towers. Francien and I visited the Al Amina mosque adjacent to the St George Maronite cathedral; the Rafic Hariri mausoleum; the Nejem square in front of parliament; the Yacht club on Zaitunay Beach; the Cornich and Pigeon Rock; the Roman ruins in the city center. All very well restored after the devastating civil war. We mingled with the locals sitting on terraces smoking shisha and watched the world go by. But we also saw a different side of Beirut. There are many dilapidated houses and apartment blocks, garbage on the streets, old cars, unfinished houses, small roadside shops and refugees hanging around at traffic intersections looking for work. I noticed many electrical generators built next to apartment complexes and inside residential areas. We learned these are required as back-up for the unreliable power supply. Indeed, we have experienced many power outages not only when we stayed in Beirut, but throughout the entire country. Privately owned taxi buses could be seen everywhere, provided transportation as there is no public transport available in the country. The tap water is undrinkable and the internet slow and unreliable. It is not recommended to swim in the sea in Beirut, because it is highly polluted with sewage. Brownish colored smog from a nearby power-plant covered the city skyline. People inside buildings and restaurants smoked freely (Lebanon has not adopted any smoking-free zones). The many maids from Ethiopia, Philippines, Bangladesh caught our attention. Unfortunately, we did not have a chance to enjoy the nightlife for which Beirut is so famous, but other than being a lively city, it is safe to say that there are more attractive cities in the Middle East, but nevertheless worthwhile to visit.
But Lebanon is more than Beirut. In the city of Tyre we had walked past one of the twelve Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon (there are 450.000 registered Palestinian refugees in the country). This camp was built 70 years ago after the creation of the state of Israel for the Arabs who were displaced. All rundown brick and mortar houses, schools, mosques and shops. We saw Palestinian flags hanging on the fences. Soldiers armed with machine-guns guarded the camp entrances to control sporadic fighting between the different factions of the Palestinians. Common sense told us not to venture into this camp.
The civil war in Syrian made around 1.5 million Syrians seek refuge in Lebanon, stretching the country’s infrastructure to its limits. Like the Palestinians, they live in a legal vacuum, with no right to work, schooling and medical. But unofficially Syrian men are looking for work and with the help of the UN schooling is provided for about 50% of the kids. From Beirut we drove east on the Damascus Highway across the mountains over a 1400-meter pass into the Beqaa Valley. Francien and I were privileged to spend a day with a Dutch organisation helping the municipalities in the country to improve their services. There are problems with housing, garbage collection, power supply, drinking water and hygiene. Providing the refugee children with basic schooling and social activities is a big challenge.
Most Syrian refugees in Lebanon rent small housing in their hosting communities, but those not fortunate enough we saw living in tents and make-shift huts in the fields. Syrian men, women and children were living in cramped quarters in garages, unfinished houses and even shops. Men hung around street crossings and taxi stops, hoping to find a job.
We toured the Rachaya citadel, a 18th century palace where in 1943 the independence of Lebanon was proclaimed. It was recently restored with money from a wealthy Lebanese family. The Druze and minority Christian communities here shared their efforts to attract tourists to this part of the country. Tourism could generate badly needed income for the people and the municipalities in the area. We also visited a recycle plant in which all the plastic and paper waste of the surrounding villages was collected and processed with simple means. The aim of this project was to help improve the environmental pollution (we saw lots of garbage dumped along roadsides) as well as generate some money out of the sales of these materials. Not to forget, it created 10 jobs in a region where 30% of the men are unemployment. What we have seen here and in the rest of Lebanon of the Syrian refugee crisis was not as dramatic as is being shown in the media, because they are spread across the country and seemingly somewhat integrated. However, these people must be able to return to their home country as soon as possible, not only for humanitarian reasons, but also to avoid another looming crisis within Lebanon.
Never I have seen in one place history spanning 3000 years! In Jbeil (Byblos) we strolled through the ruins of temples, fortifications, ports, souks, churches, mosques, houses, cobblestone alleys, arches, stone steps, pillars and a citadel built by the Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Crusaders and Ottoman civilizations. Here we heard the calling of the muezzin across the old souks competing with Maronite church bells. People have been living in this town continuously since 7000 years. Another UNESCO World Heritage site, it has been beautifully restored. We could feel the sense of history in this place.
But there was more to come. We headed again from the coast into the Beqaa Valley, this time in the north of the country to visit the Temples of Baalbek. We drove through bare and denuded mountains, centuries ago still covered by Cedar Forests. We past signs of re-forestation projects sponsored by US Aid, trying to restore this old eco-system. We were caught by surprise by the first snow of the season at 1500 meters elevation. Some mountains looked like the limestone formations in Cyprus. The road dropped down into the Beqaa Valley when the temperature increased within a few kilometers from 4 C to a balmy 18 C. The main road cutting through the valley is lined with towns, villages, small settlements. We drove in the middle of fertile agricultural lands fringed on both sides with bare mountains. The military checkpoints were heavily fortified, checking all cars, but they did not stop us. Lebanese soldiers were patrolling on all major street crossings. The houses in the city of Baalbek are dilapidated. This is a Hezbollah stronghold and we saw yellow flags with green AK-47 logo’s, symbolizing the struggle against Israel, on many houses. Posters and banners of Hezbollah leaders and Iranian leaders hung on lampposts and banting hung across the streets. Indeed, I even saw one of the late Ayatollah Khomeini!
We checked into the Palmyra Hotel in the center of Baalbek, overlooking the ancient Temples.
Dare I say it: impressive! The main temple complex is 400-meter long and 150-meter wide, among the best preserved in the world. It has 22-meter-high and 2-meter in diameter still intact columns. Inside the Bacchus temple Francien and I felt tiny. All built by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans, spanning three millenniums of history.
‘These civilizations always tried to impress the defeated populations with larger and more sophisticated temples,’ Kamil, our knowledgeable guide explained, squinting his eyes in the early morning sun.
‘to suppress the people and expand their power and wealth.’ he continued.
‘This continues till today by outside global powers, creating so much hatred in my country.’ he bitterly explained.
‘I just want peace, a good life for my family and many tourists like you coming here to give me a job and income!’
Life in this part of the world is not easy!
Some reconstruction work inside the temple complex was ongoing by German and Italian teams, but no new excavations took place due to the unstable political situation in the area. It is more impressive than the Acropolis in Athens, not only because of its larger size, but also due to much more details left. At the exit gate men sold Hezbollah T-shirts and antic coins to the few tourists visiting. (for most nationalities the embassies advice NOT to travel to the Beqaa Valley. The only thing that is possibly more impressive than the ruins themselves was the fact there we shared this UNESCO World Heritage site with only two other tourists, which meant we had this monumental, jaw-dropping piece of history all to ourselves. It is safe to say that Baalbek was a trip highlight.
We met and observed the locals during our trip. The Lebanese men have hawk shape noses, are very conscious and proud of their masculinity, using lots of hair gel, smoking many cigarettes and wearing sunglasses, eye catching bracelets and watches. The very feminine (non-Muslim) women dress fashionable and apply lots of make-up. We also met a few Lebanese diaspora living the USA and UK, visiting their home country (18 Million Lebanese live outside Lebanon!). When we strolled through Beit El Qamar, a woman in her sixties called us into her small home. The walls were decorated with crosses and pictures of saints and most prominently the picture of their grandfather. Antionette, her husband Abdu (a retired army sergeant) and their friend Haifa served Lebanese coffee, offered food and talked about their community.
‘Please do join me drinking some home-made Arak.’ Abdu kept insisting, but I had to decline as drinking hard liquor at 11:00 in the morning is not a good idea. Although they lived of a small army pension and the income of selling some home produce from their garden, they were jolly and made us strangers feel welcome.
And the 72-year old sheikh we met in Dahr El Ahmar, a village in the southern Beqaa Valley five kilometres from the Syrian border. He came from a time when the elderly were highly respected, women belonged at home, no one married across religious divides, marriages were arranged and their own tribal belonging was more important than their Lebanese citizenship. In that same village we saw Druze men standing with their hands propped on walking sticks, staring at us strangers. But again, these people welcomed us, smiling, friendly and curious.
We met Ahmad, working in the Palmyra Hotel in Baalbek. This hotel is 150 years old, fascinating if you are interested in history. When Beirut was still the Paris of the Middle East, it was here that Kings and Queens, presidents, writers and movie stars stayed. Ever since the hotel fell in decline. It has till this very day creaky beds, diesel stoves in the rooms (smelly), fraying rugs, cracked tiles, old mahogany furniture, no internet and only one telephone. But Ahmad brought our suitcase to our room.
‘I carried the luggage of Charles De Gaulle in 1952 to this same room.’ he proudly said. It gave us a glimpse of the grandeur of Lebanon back in the days, remembering nostalgically its golden glory days located on the pilgrim route to Jerusalem.
Lebanon is a country of contrasts. We saw veiled women walking alongside women in crop tops; mosques next to churches. At the Lady of Lebanon, a shrine honoring the Virgin Mary, north of Beirut, Christians and Muslims pray together! Never had we seen so many Mercedes cars built in the 70th, rusty, squeaking and smoke belching, but exclusive SUV’s were never far away. We saw luxurious villa’s and refugees eking a living in tented camps. Heavily armed soldiers amid families sitting peacefully drinking coffee on outdoor terraces. We walked in ancient souks and visited glitzy malls. Francien and I strolled on cobble stone roads built by the Phoenicians 3000 years ago, while our guide did check the weather forecast on his latest smartphone. We wondered why we saw so many Asian and African maids and workers in a country with a 25% unemployment rate!
I cannot help comparing Lebanon with other countries we have traveled. It is a less overwhelmingly Muslim country as most Arab and South East Asia countries. Alcohol is not restricted, there is no dress code, pork is readily available, mosques and churches can by side by side, the muezzin competing with the church bells. We drove past a casino and did wine tasting in the Beqaa Valley. It felt like the most open minded country we have visited in the Middle East.
Lebanon left us with a lot of food of thought, trying to understand this fragile and complicated country with such tremendous communal diversity.