Story and Photos by Libor Pospisil.
According to Elie’s plan, which I did not want to destroy, just expand, our first stop would be Anjar, followed by Baalbek. That made a lot of sense given that we were headed for a day tour of ancient ruins in Bekaa Valley along the eastern end of Lebanon. The citadel of Anjar and the temples of Baalbek are the most scenic sites in the valley (both on the UNESCO heritage list). But I was trying to utilize my five days in Lebanon as best as I could.
I turned to Elie, as he was concentrating on driving along a narrow road: “Later today, could we still cross the mountains to see the Cedar Forest?” Despite being fifteen years my junior, he had to play the reasonable one: “Well, then we would return kind of late. You can tell me later in the day if you still want to do it.”
In the beginning, everyone created Lebanon
Elie, my guide and driver for the day, picked me up at my hotel that morning. After seeing the first few towns along our route, I quickly began to appreciate the basic fact that everyone knows about Lebanon: the country of six million is composed of an incredible mosaic of communities, distinguished by various religions and cultures. Some communities are Christian (Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic), while others are Muslim (Sunni, Shia, Druze). Most communities speak Arabic, but there are linguistic minorities too—Armenians, Kurds and Assyrians.
For a culturally curious visitor, linking the dry demographic trivia of Lebanon to what one actually sees in the streets becomes an intriguing-yet-elusive quest. Sometimes, faces on political posters helped me identify what kind of neighborhood we were in. Other times, the attire of the people on the sidewalk or religious symbols gave a clue. After entering Anjar, for instance, we seemed to drive through a Sunni neighborhood (posters of a mufti with a trimmed beard, and a turban in the shape of an inverted cone), but when we turned, the scenery changed and I began noticing Armenian flags and churches.
We had the citadel of Anjar almost to ourselves. In its perfectly rectangular plan (1,227 x 1,011 feet, or 374 x 308 meters,) surrounded by walls and turrets, we found ruins of arches, slender columns with Corinthian-style capitals, hints of houses and a foundation of the baths. Sounds Roman? Well, to my European surprise, it was not—Anjar was built by an Umayyad Caliph in the 8th century. A neat illustration of how Roman civilization survived in the east but not the west.
Anjar’s task was to guard trading routes, the most important of which connected Beirut to Damascus. Speaking of Damascus, Elie pointed to the top of the hill above the citadel and matter-of-factly said: “The Syrian border is over there.” That’s right—Anjar sits at the foot of the Anti-Lebanon Mountain Range that separates the two countries. (Mercifully, the name Anti-Lebanon has a purely geographical meaning: the mountains stand on the opposite side of the Bekaa Valley from the Mount Lebanon Range).
Facts of Lebanese life
Finding oneself 3 miles (5 kilometers) away from the Syrian border may generate various feelings in unsuspecting foreign visitors. But in fact, the Syrian civil war happens to be only the latest episode in a long series of conflicts that have ravaged this part of the world. Lebanon suffered through its own fifteen-year-long civil war that ended in 1990.
Despite the history and the turmoil in the region, Lebanon can be a perfectly safe travel experience for visitors provided they read up about the latest developments beforehand and follow common sense rules (see If You Go section for useful links). Although… travelers must accept regular military check points and less-than-perfect adherence to traffic rules as the facts of life.
When we stepped outside of the Citadel of Anjar, I noticed a camel sitting on the ground. I asked Elie if he could negotiate with the owner to get me permission for a quick camel picture. Before I knew it, I was climbing the steps to get on the camel’s back, at the owner’s encouragement, and once I sat down, the creature began to rise. Having had zero camel-sitting practice, I was wobbling in all directions and felt like I was going to fall. I feverishly held onto the saddle stick and when the camel steadied, I found myself unexpectedly high above the ground. The owner did not understand—or did not want to—my complaint in English that we had a packed day and I had no intentions of becoming his tourist of the day. Instead, he began leading the camel around. I eventually calmed down and made the unusual effort to appreciate an unplanned activity.
Camel-riding was not my only Middle Eastern experience in Anjar. Before heading out, Elie took me for lunch in Al Shams, a traditional Lebanese restaurant. Its large, tent-like dining hall, surrounded by fountains and floral landscaping, hosted predominantly large families and to my delight, only few obvious tourists. The two of us therefore looked a bit out of place, as numerous members of the staff lavished attention on us. Having gone through several initial courses, from stuffed grape leaves and hummus to tabbouleh and fattoush salads, I worked my way to the greatest delight of Lebanese cuisine: taouk meat (chicken skewers) with tasty yoghurt sauce. To understand Lebanon better, Elie insisted that I try the local liquor “arak”, mixed with ice and water. I obliged and would safely recommend arak to anyone—provided their body processes alcohol very, very quickly after lunch.
But we had more ruins to see! After an hour-long drive along the Bekaa Valley, we made it to the temple complex of Baalbek—one of the most impressive Roman ruins you may have never heard of. At the entrance, we hired a specialized Baalbek guide for twenty dollars (generally prepare for Western-level prices in Lebanon, with dollars accepted almost everywhere). The gentleman walked us up a high ancient staircase, and through a row of columns into the first courtyard. Taken aback by how large the complex was, I began to take a picture at every corner, stone and column, making us constantly pause in the scorching heat. Our guide’s remarkable patience held up for the most part, at least on the surface. I was glad because I was eager to listen to his lectures on Baalbek’s history. The original settlement at this site, some four thousand years ago, was turned into a religious sanctuary by the Phoencians, the ancient civilization native to Lebanon (the one that gave us alphabetical style of writing). They dedicated the Baalbek site to the god Baal-Hadad, who had several supra-natural incarnations, one of them as the sun-god.
Over time, the Bekaa Valley, with its rich fields and a strategic location, became a prized territory for the surrounding empires. As a result, it was ruled by Egyptians, Persians, Alexander the Great, and later, by Romans. While the Greco-Roman cultures brought their own gods, interestingly, they preserved the “sun” dedication of Baalbek, which became known as Heliopolis (“The city of the sun”).
Romans decided to turn Heliopolis into one of their most stunning temple complexes, which they built on top of the old Phonecian site. The new colonnades, courtyards, and water fountains might have dazzled pilgrims, but they served only as props to the crown jewel of the site: the Temple of Jupiter. This grandest of temples was supported by 75 foot (23 meters) tall columns, which protected a golden statue of the god at the temple’s altar. The complex was never entirely completed within its almost three hundred years of operation. The guide showed us Roman reliefs containing only rough carvings of heads, which the artists did not have time to finish. With the advent of Christianity, the pagan temples began to be dismantled, and over the centuries, earthquakes left further scars.
The few columns that remain from the Temple of Jupiter, (hidden in a scaffolding during my visit), stood on a large podium, reached by a famously wide staircase (157 feet or 48 meters.) The guide pointed to layers of gigantic stone blocks on the side of the podium, weighing a thousand ton each—heavier than the usual Roman pieces. Speculations of how they could have been transported from a quarry to their resting places continue and, (after keeping us in suspense that he clearly enjoyed), the guide revealed the most likely version: Romans relied on the unusual help of African elephants.
The highlight of the tour came, however, toward the end as we approached the Temple of Bacchus. This supposedly minor temple comprises a site with dimensions 226 x 118 feet (69 x 36 meters), which makes it larger—as the Baalbek guidebook proudly states—than the Athenian Parthenon. But most importantly, even though the roof is gone, the perimeter walls still stand, with thirty-four columns remaining each of which is 59 feet (18 meters) tall.
Irrespective of whether the Temple of Bacchus is the best preserved Roman temple in the world, as some books claim, it brought the ancient world back to life, right there in front of me. Many details are preserved. The guide alerted me to surviving medallions depicting Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra. That puts Baalbek into the same group of prime archeological sites as Pompeii. One difference, however, makes Baalbek unique. While Pompeii showcases countless examples of everyday Roman life it does not exude the same sense of grandeur and masterly design that Baalbek does- and you will not bump into hordes of tourists in Baalbek.
Before we parted ways, our guide explained the rows of chairs at the Temple of Bacchus. Our visit coincided with the Baalbek International Music Festival, that takes place each July. In the evenings, the complex morphs into a venue for musical performances, within the most spectacular of backdrops – the walls of the Roman temples.
The country has everything
On the street, Elie translated to me what the vendors at the gate were shouting in my direction: one of them was offering a t-shirt with the Hezbollah symbol, which includes an assault rifle. (Baalbek lies in a Shia area with a strong Hezbollah presence, marked by posters of imams with long beards. The site is guarded, however, by the Lebanese army). I politely declined the t-shirt and focused on further Roman ruins that stood outside of the main complex.
We passed by the Temple of Venus, and after a short drive, we arrived at an inconspicuous Roman quarry. But once there, I immediately saw the reason for this stop: “Hajar al-Hubla”, a gigantic block of stone (69 x 14 feet or 21 x 4.2 meters), which is considered one of the largest stones cut for construction in the ancient world. For some reason, Romans did not end up using this piece. Instead, the stone had been lying here, gaining a name “the stone of the pregnant woman” (people apparently believed that touching it might increase one’s fertility).
Back in the car, I repeated the morning question to Elie: if he is not too tired from driving, could we still take the longer route and go to the forest? Elie responded: “I am OK, I thought you might be too tired.” I shook my head with a mischievous smile.
We were ascending along a winding road toward the top of the Mount Lebanon Range. The eastern inland slope was dry composed of reddish stones. What a contrast it was when I got briefly out of the car at the top, and saw the western, sea facing side, with its grassland and clouds below us. My short sleeves, which had been suitable for the valley, felt out of place there at the elevation of 8,530 feet (2,600 meters). The chilly wind punished me for underestimating how diverse the landscapes of this small country would be. Descending along the western side, Elie pointed to a settlement with gondola lifts—which turns into a ski resort in winter months. After several more curves, we arrived at the Cedar Forest. In ancient times, actually the entire range was covered with cedar trees, but Phoenicians and others needed the timber to build their ships. Their ship building transformed the Mediterranean into the prosperous commercial zone. The few remaining trees thus became protected in this Cedar Forest Nature Preserve.
Gods, tremors, and a cedar face
The preserve was just closing its gate for the day because it was late. Elie’s animated pleading with the guard that I came to visit all the way from America yielded results. The guard suggested we rent an ATV four-wheeler nearby and try to get in, at least briefly, through the back door. That door apparently might not have closed yet. In a few minutes, I found myself driving a four-wheeler, the second unusual transportation mode of the day, after the camel. In the end, we were lucky: the gentleman supervising the back door gave us ten minutes (yes, ten!) to see the forest.
Cedars, with their tall and robust stature, had always been the national trees of Lebanon (today, they feature on the country’s flag). Some of them are thousands of years old. It is therefore no wonder that cedars played a big role in the most ancient human imagination recorded in the Middle East: “So to keep safe the cedars, [god] Enlil made it his lot to terrify men; if you penetrate his forest [at Mount Lebanon] you are seized by the tremors” (Epic of Gilgamesh) or “Consider Assyria, once a cedar in Lebanon, with beautiful branches overshadowing the forest… The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it…” (Bible, Ezekiel 31). The preserve’s sacred nature inspired people to also refer to the place as the “Cedars of God.”
We had time to stop at only several trees. I could not help but take a few seconds to absorb the unexpectedly most spiritual scenery of the day. Behind the branches of cedars, down below us, the sun was just setting in its vivid red, toward the clouds on the Mediterranean horizon and at that moment the unique beauty of Lebanon began to fully sink in.
But we had to run back; before they locked the gate. Along the way, Elie became suddenly “seized by the tremor” himself. I heard him yell: “What the…”. I looked in the same direction and noticed a tortured face that was carved into the trunk of a cedar. The branches sticking upward were supposed to represent arms. While a great artistic piece, the carving created an unsettling feeling as the darkness was falling over the forest. The artist probably did not anticipate anyone running among the cedars at night, but there we were.
Even the last leg of our drive, to Beirut, was scenic. Elie looked at me and said with laughter: “If there were further ruins, you would want to do more touring!” I nodded, but it was already late to do more. We passed by Bsharri, a town spread on the mountain slopes. The silhouette of its church towers and a dome were visible even in the darkness. We made it through the vibrant resort towns along the coast. Eventually, we arrived at my hotel and I said goodbye to Elie. I felt exhausted for him—for what he had to endure with me.
I crashed into bed, thinking about what had just happened in the past fourteen hours: multiple religions, thousands of years of history, prime archeological sites, unique cuisine, a camel ride, bare mountains and cedar forests, ski lodges and coastal resorts. Lebanon certainly knows how to introduce itself to a new arrival.
IF YOU GO: I used Adventurous Kate’s blog post for general safety tips about Lebanon and for suggestions about what places to see. Though the post is primarily aimed at solo female travelers, it contains useful information for everyone. For safety, as Adventurous Kate recommends, it is worth checking both the U.S. State Department’s site about Lebanon, as well as the more detailed U.K. Foreign Office’s site before the trip. Given that the security situation in the region may change quickly, one must be up to date on the latest news, before and during the trip. The Lebanon section of the BBC News site is a good resource. Note the security incidents in August-September 2019. Most visitors to Lebanon stay in Beirut, from where they take day trips. I, on the other hand, opted for Deir El Qamar as my temporary residence—it is a charming, historical town. There, I stayed in the BEYt el Jabal Guesthouse, a historical property, with a terrace that offers the kind of views one wants to see the first thing in the morning. The service was superb. A taxi ride from the Beirut Airport to the guesthouse takes about forty minutes and costs 60 U.S. dollars. Places I visited (note that many tourist places do not have official websites): Citadel of Anjar; Temples of Baalbek. Baalbek International Music Festival; Cedar Forest Nature Preserve (Cedars of God); and Al Shams restaurant in Anjar, for traditional Lebanese cuisine.